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Opinion | How Democrats Can Win the Morality Wars

First, will Democrats allow people to practice their faith even if some tenets of that faith conflict with progressive principles? For example, two bills in Congress demonstrate that clash. They both would amend federal civil rights law to require fair treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. people in housing, employment and other realms of life. One, the Fairness for All Act, would allow for substantial exceptions for religious institutions. A Catholic hospital, say, wouldn’t be compelled to offer gender transition surgeries. The other, the Equality Act, would override existing law that prevents the federal government from substantially burdening individuals’ exercise of religion without a compelling government interest.

Right now, Democrats generally support the latter bill and oppose the former. But supporting the Fairness for All Act, which seeks to fight discrimination while leaving space for religious freedom, would send a strong signal to millions of wavering believers, and it would be good for America.

Second, will Democrats stand up to the more radical cultural elements in their own coalition? Jonathan Rauch was an early champion of gay and lesbian rights. In an article in American Purpose, he notes that one wing of the movement saw gay rights as not a left-wing issue but a matter of human dignity. A more radical wing celebrated cultural transgression and disdained bourgeois morality. Ultimately, the gay rights movement triumphed in the court of public opinion when the nonradicals won and it became attached to the two essential bourgeois institutions — marriage and the military.

Rauch argues that, similarly, the transgender rights movement has become entangled with ideas that are extraneous to the cause of transgender rights. Ideas like: Both gender and sex are chosen identities and denying or disputing that belief amounts is violence. Democrats would make great strides if they could champion transgender rights while not insisting upon these extraneous moral assertions that many people reject.

The third question is, will Democrats realize that both moral traditions need each other? As usual, politics is a competition between partial truths. The moral freedom ethos, like liberalism generally, is wonderful in many respects, but liberal societies need nonliberal institutions if they are to thrive.

America needs institutions built on the “you are not your own” ethos to create social bonds that are more permanent than individual choice. It needs that ethos to counter the me-centric, narcissistic tendencies in our culture. It needs that ethos to preserve a sense of the sacred, the idea that there are some truths so transcendentally right that they are absolutely true in all circumstances. It needs that ethos in order to pass along the sort of moral sensibilities that one finds in, say, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address — that people and nations have to pay for the wages of sin, that charity toward all is the right posture, that firmness in keeping with the right always has to be accompanied by humility about how much we can ever see of the right.

Finally, we need this ethos, because morality is not only an individual thing; it’s something between people that binds us together. Even individualistic progressives say it takes a village to raise a child, but the village needs to have a shared moral sense of how to raise it.

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