A Common Moral Inheritance?

In my über-links post yesterday, I noted how the holiday that honors Martin Luther King, Jr. became an occasion for several writers to invoke King in support of their own positions on a variety of issues.

George Clooney
Licensed by Creative Commons (csztova)

One version of the phenomenon that I didn’t mention came from actor-director George Clooney, speaking about same-sex marriage during his recent appearance at the Critics’ Choice Awards:

I think the world is changing and it’s becoming less and less of an issue and I think it shouldn’t be long now… I think younger people are looking at this like, “Who cares?”

I do believe it’s generational, much like the civil rights movement… Young people started taking to the streets and things changed. This really is the final leg of the civil rights movement.

While Clooney didn’t mention King by name, his linking of the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement drew the attention of First Thoughts blogger Matthew Schmitz, in a post entitled, “Who Gets to Use MLK’s Legacy?

Rick Santorum
Licensed by Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

Not surprisingly, Schmitz (on record as opposing gay marriage) rejected Clooney’s logic. But he then moved straight into a critique of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who last January struggled to explain his comments implying that Barack Obama, as an African-American, ought to oppose abortion. (Here’s the transcript of his interview with an unimpressed Greta Van Susteren.) Whether drafted to support marriage equality or the pro-life movement, Schmitz admonished those on the left and the right “to let King be King, and to connect his cause to any other only with the greatest care.”

Beyond his contention that the analogy between civil rights and gay rights was “spurious” and that the anti-abortion argument was strong enough on its own, Schmitz also suspected that such analogies “tend to be used as (not especially persuasive) emotional bludgeons to induce minority Americans to support one cause or another. They diminish the raw, ongoing struggle for racial justice by making it a mere preparation for the next leg of the long progressive march.” He noted that his friends of color “tend to be uneasy when the sufferings of Selma and of Montgomery are used to ready the altar for gay weddings, or to underline the wrong of Roe.”

A similar argument was made this past fall by Frank Bruni in the New York Times. Noting that opposition to gay marriage is considerably stronger among African-Americans than in the general population, Bruni warned “that people lobbying for gay rights have at times given African-Americans pause by appropriating ‘civil rights’ language and arguments in too broad a manner.”

What most struck me about Schmitz’s article, however, was its conclusion:

However much we disagree on issues like abortion and gay marriage, I am encouraged by the fact that we do indeed share a common, substantive moral inheritance. This day is as good a day as any to be grateful that when we argue over our political settlement, we tug on the same rope, invoke the same heroes.  There is a culture war, yes, but it is over a shared culture rather than two separate ones.

I wonder if you all agree with him here:

Do Americans (I assume that’s the group implied by Schmitz’s “we”) actually “share a common, substantive moral inheritance”? Is there a center that’s held in the face of growing political polarization?

If so, what is this common inheritance? Who are the “same heroes” invoked on all sides?

Thomas Jefferson
Library of Congress

Looking back over recent presidential inaugural addresses, a few figures show up repeatedly: Thomas Jefferson (invoked in G.W. Bush’s 1st inaugural and in both of Clinton’s); George Washington (by Obama and Clinton); and Franklin Roosevelt (mentioned by name by Clinton in 1993, and indirectly by Bush in 2005 in praising landmark legislation passed under FDR). New presidents frequently invoke the “Founding Fathers” or “Founders” and quote the Bible.

But what if we look at slightly more partisan rhetoric? Not from the primary season, which is scarcely set up to produce national consensus. But when candidates accept their parties’ nominations, do they appeal to the examples or quote the words of individuals that might have also proved compelling to members of the opposing partisan camp?

Again, the Founding Fathers and FDR retained some universal appeal (the latter invoked by both Barack Obama, in 2008, and George W. Bush, in 2000 — those two speeches also made the most explicit mention of the civil rights movement, incidentally). But only two other individuals were mentioned at least once by a candidate of each party: Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan (most every Republican speech, but also by John Kerry in 2004). Then Harry Truman was mentioned by name three times, each by a Republican named George Bush (2004, 2000, 1992). Beyond presidents… Most candidates, regardless of party, held up those who fought World War II as being examples for contemporary Americans.

Any others?


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