2006-02-10 / Columnists

The Progressive

Moral Responsibility
By John Paul Culotta


“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

(Isaiah 1:17)

With the increasing influence of the religious right, it has become difficult to discuss the influence of religion in our political discourse without listening to intolerant and divisive rhetoric. This is regrettable. On the international scene, the continual violence of Islamic terrorists and reprisals by the Western powers has been seen by some as a religious or cultural war. Many evangelical Christians feel an obligation to confirm their view of Christianity by using their clout to mold legislation and influence judicial appointees. In our multicultural society, it is dangerous to assume religious beliefs regarding sexuality, family structure, and medical practices, have social consensus.

Our shared American history has many examples when religious fervor has demonstrated its effectiveness in shaping civic and social policy. It is true many movements that were led by clergymen were repressive and divisive in nature. Prohibition, the noble experiment of the Twenties, is just one example. There were many Presidential candidates and a political party in American history that was rabidly anti-catholic. James Blaine, a Republican Party candidate for the Presidency in 1884, was defeated when a Protestant clergyman at a political dinner called the Democrats the party of “Rum, Rebellion, and Romanism.” Candidate Blaine was present at the dinner and did not address the insulting nature of the clergyman’s remark. Many Irish Americans knew that Blaine had proposed a constitutional amendment in 1875 that would prohibit public funds to be used by any religious sect in educating children in our public schools. Many Catholics felt this was a direct response to their increasing political clout in American urban areas. Religious influence in our political life has resulted in campaigns against vice and restrictions against contraception. Many of these campaigns were puritanical and oppressive.

Despite the negative qualities, there are many examples in our shared history when moral zeal shaped a better society. Abolition of slavery, the civil rights campaign of the 1950s and 1960s, the labor movement, and the many anti-war campaigns have all had moral components to their success. Many religious organizations recently are campaigning for a living wage for all American workers. It is essential that moral issues and movements exist in order for democracy to flourish. At the same time, there needs to be tolerance and respect for all beliefs. American society needs to understand that peaceful activity can be a catalyst for change. When we study history, the role of military leaders, the causes for war, and the battle strategies used, and the turning point of a war are generally studied. It is regrettable that diplomatic successes are not also given the prominence they rightly deserve. We tend to overlook the potency of peaceful protest. Boycotts helped end the slave trade in Great Britain and secure civil rights for African Americans. Strikes have secured for workers decent working conditions and wages. Civil Disobedience forced Great Britain to give India its independence. Public protests forced many nations to change public policy. The January 21 to 27 issue of the Economist newspaper spoke of a new book entitled “A Force More Powerful” by Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall. It chronicles popular moral campaigns that changed the status quo. Here are a few according to the Economist: the popular uprising in Russia in 1905; Mohandas Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence; the Danes’ resistance to the Nazis; Martin Luther King’s civil-rights campaign in America; Solidarity’s triumph in Poland; the noisy clattering of pots and pans in Chile in 1983 that sounded the end of Augusto Pinochet; the demonstrations that eventually drove Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines from office in 1986; the first Palestinian intifada; and the Tiananmen protests in 1989. Our schools should include these types of peaceful change to their social studies curriculum.

When this nation was observing the federal holiday on January 16, commemorating the birthday of Doctor Martin Luther King, I went with my daughter and wife to the cinema to view the Hollywood blockbuster King Kong. It would appear for many Americans that the holiday is used as a day to shop or to go the cinema. Later that day, I heard on the radio that there was a rally that day to help home health aides secure a living wage. Many religious leaders, including Cardinal Egan, attended. It would have been more appropriate if my family had attended that rally on the holiday. We should all strive not to allow the holiday in memory of Doctor King to become a day to consume.

Last year, when Pope John Paul II died, the media coverage was one that concentrated on his charisma and popularity worldwide. As with Doctor King, the Pope became a man whose triumphs were remembered, but whose message of peace among all people and the challenges to the status quo and powerful forces of hate and destruction that these two men posed, was ignored.

Both men worked for peace and brotherhood. Both were controversial. Pope John Paul II, during a visit to St. Louis, Missouri asked for the end of the death penalty, because it is both cruel and unnecessary. He was opposed to the present war in Iraq. Dr. King was involved in a labor struggle when he died. He was helping sanitation men and their union secure a living wage when he was murdered. Their use of moral leadership is needed today. Our moral campaigns should strive to “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

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