The inevitable hypocrisy of the political morality police

There is a lot of talk about “morality” in politics these days.  Roy Moore, a senate candidate from Alabama who has been accused of sexual improprieties, is roundly condemned.  And of course President Trump is accused of various moral outrages on an hourly basis.

I am struck by how many of my friends seem to be outraged by Republicans Roy Moore and President Trump but did not care at all about President Clinton, Sen. Ted Kennedy, former presidential candidate John Edwards and Anthony Weiner.  In fact, when I mentioned the scandals regarding these people, who happen to be Democrats, some of my Democratic friends did not know anything about them until I gave them some links.  And in the same way, I see a lot of people defending Roy Moore and President Trump who were quick to criticize all of the Democrats.

So, there is hypocrisy all around when it comes to sexual issues.  But morality does not only have to do with sexuality of course.  What about the immorality of stealing other peoples’ property and encouraging people to covet the property of others?  I wrote about the forgotten eight and 10th commandments, which are often ignored when looking at politics.  But how about the morality of a U.S. foreign policy that, according to one source, has resulted in millions of deaths since World War II?   As Americans, we may see many of the conflicts promoted by the United States as noble causes, and certainly some were, but if our father or mother were killed by a U.S. bomb in Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam, perhaps we would feel very differently about the issue.   Finding morality in war is a very difficult thing, as the Book of Mormon reminds us again and again.

Or how about the morality of supporting laws that have resulted in tens of millions of babies being killed in the Unites States alone since 1973?  Abortion kills 2900 babies a day right now in the United States.  Abortion is a complex issue, and I don’t want to minimize that, but I find the moral preening about guns supposedly being the problem insufferable when the same people have no problem with 2900 abortions a day.

One of the reasons I oppose capital punishment is that there are credible studies showing that one in 25 of the people killed were innocent of the charges.  The fact that my tax money is helping kill innocent people in the U.S. is very bothersome to me.  I have a moral problem with it.

My young socialist vegetarian daughter, who thinks the solution to every problem is more government, discovered just the other day that her tax money is helping fund the meat and dairy industry.  Indeed, we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars every year in subsidies.  So perhaps the truth is that when the government gets bigger it ends up using your money to fund more and more things that you find morally objectionable.  And that is, in my opinion, immoral.

Even Mitt Romney, one of the more moral men in recent politics, supported raising the minimum wage, which mostly hurts the poor.   He said illegal immigrants should “self-deport”  and seemed to show very little sympathy about the fact that his immigration policies would cause families to be separated.  And of course former Gov. Romney also supports capital punishment and a militaristic foreign policy that I personally find immoral.

I have a lot of friends, all of them smart people, who are outraged at the often immoral behavior of President Trump but apparently have amnesia about the rampant immorality of past presidents.  Woodrow Wilson was a virulent racist and supporter of eugenics who unnecessarily caused millions of additional casualties by forcing the United States into a war that had little to do with the United States.  FDR was an adulterer who threw 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps.  Eisenhower: adulterer.  JFK:  serial womanizer.   LBJ:  a mountain of immorality who helped cause millions of unnecessary deaths in the Vietnam War.  Should we go on to President Nixon?

I am sure there are readers who want to pick nits with points of this post.  I have managed to sully the reputations of all kinds of politicians, both Democrats and Republicans.  Many readers may feel a need to stick up for one of your favorite politicians or one of your favorite causes.  But if you feel this way, you are missing the point of this post.

The point is that politics is necessarily a dirty business.   It inevitably involves getting in the pig pen with the pigs.  And the problem is that the pigs like getting dirty, whereas most readers of this post do not.  This is one of the reasons most readers of this post are not politicians.

I am not sure what the solution is.  The Church says we should vote for moral people, but many moral people are still immoral when it comes to one issue or another.  There is a part of me that wants to become like a Mormon Amish person and withdraw from the world and not have anything to do with the dirtiness.  But we are also encouraged by the Church to be engaged with the world, rather than to completely retreat.

If there is one main point I would like to drive home, it is this:  your current outrage about one immoral act by one politician or another is inevitably hypocritical because other politicians you support have done immoral things themselves.  If you have voted anytime in  your lifetime, you have voted for at least one immoral politician, and it is likely you have voted for many immoral politicians.  So spare me the lectures on morality about whoever you hate right now.  That person is immoral, sure, but so are many of the people you think are paragons of virtue.  Consistency is a very difficult thing in this fallen world.


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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

20 thoughts on “The inevitable hypocrisy of the political morality police

  1. The feckless murder of President Garfield by a wannabe political appointee led to the rise of the US system of civil service. While politicians may sell their souls on a routine basis, US civil servants are held to a rather strict moral code, at least when it comes to the public trust.

    Government of large groups of people inevitable leads to directing actions that some portion of the populace finds abhorrent.

    I don’t like to equate consequences of governance with commission of personal sin. Person sin speaks to me of the lack of “potty training” an individual has accepted, to use the phrase my Humanities teacher liked to repeat. When an individual running for an office of responsibility is found to lack basic “potty training” with respect to mores, I think it is a legitimate cause for concern.

    But I have less patience with those who, lacking potty training themselves, act self-righteous. Senator Boies Penrose was a womanizer and hedonist himself, but was able to skewer those criticizing Senator Smoot by quipping, “I’d rather… a polygamist that doesn’t polyg than a monogamist that doesn’t monog…”

    We all must engage, lest the public consensus lack our voice, to society’s detriment. Those who recuse themselves from the fray become wholly responsible for what occurs in their absence.

  2. I like the overall message. I always love to read Elder Verlan Andersen’s work ‘Many are Called but Few are Chosen’. This should be compulsory reading for all.

    As a immigrant to the US I can attest to the role of the US Government in bringing about communist regimes in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa and abhor US intervention in the internal politics of other nations as mostly they are ignorant of foreign cultures and the facts on the ground. I do have an issue with this statement… “he said illegal immigrants should “self-deport” and seemed to show very little sympathy about the fact that his immigration policies would cause families to be separated. ” You seem to forget that it was the parents who willfully broke the law and put the unity of the family at risk. When someone is sent to jail for a crime we don’t question the impact on their family so why the concern when a foreigner is in breach of the laws of our land? You forget to speak to the cost to the taxpayer for education, health, welfare etc. for illegal immigrants. Is that not theft from the taxpayer? Appears to me you make liberal use of situational morality.

  3. Clinton was impeached, disbarred, and probably in the long term continues to be punished by the party faithful (Millennials, much less forgiving on things like this than boomers, flocked to Bernie due to lingering disgust with the Clintons on this and other issues). Should have had more punishment but hardly came out unscathed.

    Weiner was immediately shunned by the party and is now in jail.

    John Edwards was immediately shunned by the party.

    Ted Kennedy is dead and his crimes were committed before half of democrats were born.

    I think you need better examples?

  4. I have a problem with October surprises when
    a candidate of any party is accused of misbehavior from so long ago that there is virtually no record and it often comes down to sensation seekers making accusations.
    In the case of Moore, he ran as high morality conservative. This means that rumors from the past will have more traction, even when an opponent who makes no particular claim to either morality or even decency gets a free pass. I regard anyone who advocates abortion to the extent most liberals do as essentially lacking basic morality. I suspect most of us have things in our past of which we are ashamed, likely a reason many steer clear of seeking political office. I have never known a perfect man or woman, but I have known many who repented of serious sins and got on track. We laugh at Weiner, wink at George Bush and Joe Biden, but we demonize Roy Moore. I’m really happy that I don’t live in Alabama but in the recent Utah election, at least one of the major winners was a person I despise. (Not hate, just feel really disappointed by their election)

  5. Really, isn’t everything immoral to someone? Your daughter thinks supporting meat production is immoral, and someone else thinks it would be immoral not to help make meat available to poor and hungry people. To some, it is immoral to go to war; to others, it is immoral not to go help other people fight evil.

  6. Generally, we should not invoke words like immoral when discussing policy issues in the public square. In our pluralistic society, using words like immoral don’t work well, as we don’t all have the same point of reference.

  7. Roy Moore was a democrat when the alleged harassments/assaults took place, up to 1992. He was never opposed/denounced back then. His opposition started when he started to get into higher state offices as a Republican.

    This doesn’t prove the recent accusations are false, but it sure illustrates Geoff’s point of hyprocrisy.

  8. I think there is much to commend in your post Geoff even if as you suggest I may disagree with you on specific issues or leaders.

    I think we an draw a distinction between personal moral character and positions on specific contested questions of morality. The first has to do with the politicians basic integrity and trustworthiness. A man who serially lies or cheats on his wife is likely to serially lie or act in a wholly inappropriate fashion when given the levers of power. On the other hand, if a person of integrity is in power then there’s reason to trust that even if you disagree on specific issues, that person will act according to a personal and deeply held moral code and conviction.

    You will likely strongly disagree with my example, but I always felt that President Obama was a person of integrity and conviction. I trusted that he would approach each issue with integrity and would reach a decision based on his deeply held values. That was reassuring even when I strongly disagreed with him. I don’t feel that reassurance with President Trump, even though I agree with him on more issues.

    I don’t want to delve too deeply into Trump v Obama. My point is that we can disagree about deeply held moral beliefs and still respect each other and recognize kindness, decentness, and basic integrity. It is not hypocritical to want such men of character even if we know that we will disagree deeply on certain issues at times.

  9. Ji wrote:

    “Generally, we should not invoke words like immoral when discussing policy issues in the public square. In our pluralistic society, using words like immoral don’t work well, as we don’t all have the same point of reference.”

    Ji, all political decisions are based on your individual morality. Left-wingers generally support policies that involve government money for the poor because they feel economic inequality is immoral. They support abortion rights because they feel the government should not control women’s bodies. Those are *moral* decisions. In contrast, I feel forcibly taking money from people to give to others is immoral. I feel a society that allows 2900 abortions a day is immoral. Again, these are also *moral* decisions.

    I feel as a society we should talk about morality a lot more than we do. I think considerations of morality should openly be discussed in all of our policy decisions. We will still have disagreements, but in my opinion they will be more honest disagreements.

    Here is a moral discussion we might want to consider: politician A’s personal conduct with his family is admirable but he pursues policies that result in the impoverishment of millions. He has no problem robbing from “rich people” to help other fellow politicians of his party get reelected. Politician A also orders US troops all around the world and sends bombs that kill thousands of innocents. He supports the killing of millions of Americans through abortion, and promotes judges who will specifically support such a policy. Politician B has a history of sketchy personal conduct, but he pursues economic policies that improve the lives of millions. He wants to give people more of their tax money back. He will not promote judges who support abortion. Politician B wants a less active US foreign policy. Here is the question I think we should consider: which approach really is more moral? Personal conduct is important but is does not represent the totality of morality when it comes to politicians. (To be clear, there are many politician As out there but not many politician Bs, and I am not thinking about any specific politician in this example — it is a hypothetical.)

  10. Daniel wrote:

    “A man who serially lies or cheats on his wife is likely to serially lie or act in a wholly inappropriate fashion when given the levers of power. On the other hand, if a person of integrity is in power then there’s reason to trust that even if you disagree on specific issues, that person will act according to a personal and deeply held moral code and conviction.”

    I think all people reading this can agree that this serial cheater is acting in an immoral fashion in his personal life. This issue is: should this consideration be the only one when picking politicians? Should it be even the most important issue?

    I guess I would say sometimes yes, sometimes no. I voted for Mitt Romney primarily because I believe his is a moral person in his personal conduct. I am not sure now if that was the correct choice given that Mitt Romney supports many policies I find extremely immoral. If I could go back in time and vote again in 2012, I don’t know if I could morally vote for Mitt again. (I really am unsure about this. I really don’t know what I would do). In 2016, the two primary choices were candidates that I find repugnant and immoral. I could not vote for either of them, and I am happy to say that I voted for a third party candidate whose morality I could support. It turns out that President Trump, still a repugnant man in many ways, has promoted *some* policies I find very moral, whereas I am certain Hillary Clinton would not have promoted those policies. Just to cite one example, President Trump’s picks for federal judges have been excellent and extremely moral in my opinion.

    I think the issue is much more complex than many people make it out to be. If we look at the arc of history, there are plenty of racist politicians, some of whom even owned slaves, who were pretty good on many policy decisions. And there were perfectly moral politicians in their personal lives who supported many immoral policies. I have come to believe the situation is much more complex than “pick the person who has integrity in his personal life.”

  11. To better understand where I am coming from, let’s look at this comment from a friend of mine on Facebook:

    “Ivanka Trump says there’s a place in hell for people who abuse children. Does she know what her father is doing to the children of Yemen?”

    Here is some background about the Trump administration’s immoral policies in Yemen:

    So, here is my question: what is worse, tweeting and saying mean and offensive things or promoting policies that starve millions of people, including children? I think we as a society spend WAY too much time worrying about the former and WAY too little time thinking about the latter.

  12. In case this issue comes up, here is the Church’s guidance on politics:

    “As citizens we have the privilege and duty of electing office holders and influencing public policy. Participation in the political process affects our communities and nation today and in the future. We urge Latter-day Saints to be active citizens by registering and then regularly exercising their right to vote.
    We also urge you to spend the time needed to become informed about the issues and candidates you will be considering as you vote. Along with the options available to you through the Internet, debates, and other sources, the Church occasionally posts information about particular moral issues on which it has taken a position at
    Latter-day Saints as citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest. Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties and candidates.
    While the Church affirms its institutional neutrality regarding political parties and candidates, members should fully participate in the political process. The Church also affirms its constitutional right of expression on political and social issues.”

    The Church 1)promotes people being informed about candidates’ position and encourages people to consider moral issues and 2)encourages people to vote for candidates “who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest.” A lot of people in my opinion seem to look at point 2 and not look at point 1. I cannot do this. Point 1 is just as important as point 2 in my opinion.

  13. Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.

    D&C 98:10

  14. Geoff,

    I know that personal morality affects individual decisions, including individual decisions in the public square. That’s as it should be. My point was that in our pluralistic society, it is not productive for anyone to demonize his or her neighbor’s viewpoint on a public policy matter as immoral. You say my position is immoral, and I say your position is immoral — how has the public understanding and readiness to vote been advanced?

  15. What I like about this post is the recognition that people are not just wholly perfect or wholly imperfect, but along a continuum with good and bad points/positions.

    What works for me is to look at the values I hold most dear and prioritize them. Essentially asking myself if I could only work for a very small number of things what would they be? Then I look at *party* platforms to determine which seems to represent a commitment to work towards the values I hold most dear (I’ve yet to find any party that matches up very well with what my personal views right and wrong would suggest be done across the board). I tend to support the candidates of that party unless a real problem presents itself. I do this because past experience has shown me that regardless of the person involved when a preponderance of politicians from one given party are elected they tend to work towards the goals of their party regardless of what personal virtues or shortcomings any given member of the delegation may have.

    As Geoff points out any of us who have voted in our lives have assuredly voted for people who support things we find morally disgusting/abhorrent (unless we wrote ourselves in for every office every time), that’s why I focus on what is likely to get done in terms of law, policy, and implementation.

  16. JSH, thank you so much for reading my post carefully and finding some things you like about it. I am sure there are things you could have found that you didn’t like, but you chose to concentrate on the areas of agreement, and that is very, very, VERY rare, and as a writer I really appreciate it.

    Yes, I think most people, despite what they say, really do look at values and morals when choosing who to support in politics. And very often that means supporting somebody they may disagree with and find immoral 30 percent of the time. The other 70 percent may be the clincher. For me, the single most important issue in a politician is: do they support and try to uphold the Constitution? And in almost all cases, the answer is no, so that creates a problem. Then I must go down the list of values and morals that are important to me. I listed some of them in this post. The single most important is: does the politician support economic policies that will help the economy grow? But that is closely followed by: does the politician support a change in the U.S.’s currently immoral foreign policy? So, yes, we all have our own moral issues that inevitable should be considered.

  17. I’m concerned by the idea that because every politician is immoral, having any kind of moral outrage about some politicians (while supporting others) is therefore inherently hypocritical.

    It’s not a waste of effort or indignation to vote for Candidate A because Candidate B is a sex offender, even if Candidate A has also done immoral things. That vote isn’t an act of hypocrisy. That vote, rather, is a statement asserting that, at the end of the day, Candidate A’s misdeeds are overshadowed by the sex offenses of Candidate B.

    In other words: taking a moral stance (even while supporting immoral people) isn’t an act of absurdity or hypocrisy. It’s an act of prioritization.

  18. Chris Wei wrote:

    “It’s an act of prioritization.”


    My point is that the priorities of many people are screwed up. They appear very concerned about the politician who may have said extremely rude things, but appear unconcerned about another politician who is polite in public and ordered the military to kill thousands of innocent people in distant lands. And I will say it is hypocritical to think that one politician is *unusually* immoral while ignoring the immorality of past politicians, many of whom were much worse in other areas.

    But if you don’t like the word “hypocritical” and prefer another word to describe messed up priorities, that is OK with me. What I am truly asking for is 1)historical perspective and 2)reasonable outrage about things that matter, looking at the big picture.

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