Matthews: The role of moral values in public life

Updated

Let me finish tonight with this.

I just got back last night from Paris, having spent three great days walking the Left Bank with Kathy. The city is as wonderful as ever, even, as Woody Allen noticed, in the rain. 

Back home this morning, I read in the New York Times about the interview Cardinal Dolan of New York gave on Easter Sunday about the role that our moral values should play in public life. He was talking about what Jack Kennedy said fifty years ago about the separation of Church and State, and Rick Santorum’s over-the-top criticism of it.

Cardinal Dolan said he would have “cheered” at what Kennedy said to those Houston ministers about a person’s right to lead this country regardless of their religion. But he said, too, that a separation of Church and State doesn’t mean “a wall between one’s faith and one’s political decisions.”

I want to say something about that.

We have civil rights today because of leaders like Martin Luther King who led the Southern Christian Leadership campaign. The values of Christianity had a lot to do with fighting against Jim Crow and the horrors of segregation. So did the values of Judaism.

Belief in the dignity of the human being, no matter how powerless, is a deeply moral position, often, not always, grounded in religious teaching. 

President Kennedy said as much in his presidential television address in June 1963, in the midst of the fight to integrate the University of Alabama, when he called civil rights “a moral issue … as old as the Scriptures.”  

The same could be said of Kennedy’s hard work for a ban on nuclear arms testing which led to an historic agreement with the Soviet Union in August of his last year. As he said in his Inaugural Address, “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” 

Preventing the word from being blown up is clearly God’s work. We can agree on that. 

The tricky question is where sectarianism ends and deep morality abides, and, of course, where to use the force of law to mandate a moral judgment. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that in this pluralistic society we write laws affecting dietary rules like not eating meat on Friday during Lent. Have you? 

But even when we argue about abortion, a matter deeply troubling to so many, it is the rare zealot–I can’t think of one–who would punish the woman who makes the difficult choice to have one. Again, have you? 

Why? Because we know, most of us, even if we do not admit them openly, the limits of what a society, especially one like ours dedicated as it is to individual freedom, can do to enforce even deeply held moral commitments.  

So we go on. Our history shows that religion, and the powerful moral beliefs it teaches, can be a propelling force for good. We also know how it can be a deep and powerful divider. Oh yes, it can, Mr. Santorum.    

I agree with the Cardinal of New York. Let’s hold high the separation of Church and State, but let’s not forget the role of faith-based morality in how we treat each other. This Trayvon Martin case is a good example.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” remains one of the great guides to human behavior any of us will ever know. 

Hardball Let Me Finish

Matthews: The role of moral values in public life

Updated