U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Morality, Politics, and Policy in Historical Perspective


Today I write to you from scorching HOT Tempe, Arizona—it’s forecasted to be 99 degrees today—where I will be participating in a two-day workshop on “Morality, Politics, and Policy in Historical Perspective.” I was invited by David Courtwright and Donald Critchlow, along with five other historians and political scientists, to write and then pre-circulate a paper that will be the topic of one of six one-hour sessions here on the Arizona State University campus. Our six papers will then be converted into journal articles that will form the basis of a special issue of the Journal of Policy History, edited by Courtwright.

Courtwright’s thinking, on display in his new book, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, seems to ground the workshop and special journal issue theme. As I blurbed: “Courtwright convincingly argues that American political culture since the ‘sixties’ is nothing if not perplexing. He demonstrates that, although the ‘moral right’ entered the political arena with a vengeance, it failed to reshape the national culture due to the pervasiveness of countercultural values, which had been sopped up by the unstoppable forces of consumer capitalism. Yet, Courtwright also shows that where the moral right failed, the economic right succeeded—that contemporary American life is dominated by both cultural and economic libertarianism, the twin legacies of the boomer generation.”

We were asked to write on six policy issues that delve into this tricky history of moral conservatism in an era of cultural libertarianism: drugs, gays in the military, euthanasia, gambling, abortion, and school curriculum. I’ll give a quick summary of each.

Carolyn Acker, in a paper titled, “Addiction, Morality, and Disease: Recurring Tensions in American History,” argues that drug policy is one of the many ways that we mark off American identity (I found this argument really compelling given my recent thinking on the issue—here.) In other words, criminalizing someone for a certain behavior, such as drug use, makes that person not fully part of the social fabric. She puts this in the context of policy debates over drugs, which have pitted conservatives, who wish to hold people personally responsible for bad behavior by criminalizing it, against liberals, who wish to place individual actions in larger social contexts and approach drugs from a public health perspective.

Beth Bailey’s paper, “The Politics of Dancing: ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Public Policy and Moral Claims,” is a really smart history of how policies about gays in the military have evolved, and about how arguments were framed so as to appeal to a wider public. For instance, though conservatives and many military leaders believed that homosexuality was immoral, they increasingly contended that the open presence of gays would undermine troop morale. On the flip side, though liberals and gay rights activists believed the issue a matter of civil and human rights, they similarly argued that anti-gay policies drove highly qualified people out of the military and was, thus, bad policy. Bailey concludes with a really interesting point: the argument about troop morale backfired for conservatives because military effectiveness could be subjected to data analysis of the type that eventually paved the way for the recent overturning of DADT.

Ian Dowbiggin, in a paper titled, “From Sander to Schiavo: Morality, Partisan Politics, and America’s Cultural War over Euthanasia,” places the last sixty years of debate over euthanasia squarely in James Davison Hunter’s framework for understanding the culture wars: progressive versus orthodox. Following Hunter, Dowbiggin makes a good case that conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews came together in opposition to euthanasia and that, in mot cases, alignment on euthanasia tracked alignment on abortion. He convincingly shows that the politicization of euthanasia happened a good fifty years before the notorious Terry Schiavo controversy, which, though it might seem obvious, is important to note given the historical amnesia of the punditry.

Michael Nelson’s paper, “Morality, Public Policy, and State Politics: A Comparative Case Study of Gambling Legalization in Mississippi and Tennessee,” is exactly as the title suggests. Nelson gives a close reading at how the policy debates over lottery and casinos played out in those two southern states—how Mississippi became the first southern state to legalize casinos, and how Tennessee legalized a state-run lottery after a long struggle. Interestingly (especially in relation to the debate David and I had over race and conservatism, where David mentioned the issue of the HOPE program in Georgia, which uses lottery money to pay for state residents to attend state universities), the coalition in Tennessee against the lottery was a strange marriage of convenience that included most white evangelical churches and many black churches as well, the former concerned that a lottery would promote vice, the latter concerned that it would prey on the poor and minorities.

Daniel Williams will give a paper titled, “Abortion Law Liberalization and the Emergence of the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life Movements, 1959-1973.” In it, Williams argues that a majority of Americans have long held relativistic views on the life of the fetus. In other words, though most Americans have considered a fetus a life, most have also thought that the fetal right to life should be balanced against other social considerations, such as the health of the women and even poverty and population control. In short, most Americans have never held absolute views on this issue, whether as absolute privacy rights or absolute fetal right to life. Williams demonstrates that this included most Protestant ministers prior to Roe v. Wade, as Catholics were seemingly the only religious group with absolute views in opposition to abortion. Though the majority opinion made by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade was rooted in the right to privacy, it also took a relativistic view of fetal life, since abortion is legal in all cases in the first trimester, but can be outlawed at the state level in the final trimester.

Finally, my paper, titled, “‘A Trojan Horse for Social Engineering’: The Curriculum Wars in Recent American History,” narrates conservative struggles against liberal curriculum trends, such as evolution, sex education, cultural relativism, and non-patriotic history. (I delved into some of this in an earlier post—here.) I contend that these curriculum battles allowed conservatives to articulate their discontent with the liberalized moral landscape, thus serving as a primary front in the larger culture wars. Whereas most liberal curricular trends pointed towards relativism and away from American exceptionalism, conservatives, in stark contrast, supported a curriculum rooted in moral absolutes, one that taught children the goodness of God and Country. Beyond outlining conservative resistance to moral liberalization in school curriculum, I also seek to delineate different conservative approaches. For instance, though neoconservatives aligned with Christian conservatives against liberal curriculum reform, conservatives in general were far from monolithic in their approaches to instituting a conservative curriculum. Neoconservatives pushed for a set of centralized, federal educational reforms. Christian conservatives, on the other hand, sought to break all ties with a federal educational establishment that they deemed hopelessly secular.

So now that I’ve given you a basic run-down of the issues that will be discussed here in Tempe over the next two days, I’m curious what you think about the overarching conference theme. As Beth Bailey points out in her paper, all policy issues are formed from moral considerations. So then why do some, such as these up discussion here in Tempe, take on an explicitly moral cast? In his paper, Michael Nelson makes the point that moral politics invites wider participation because moral issues arise from first principles—“values”—about which anyone can claim to be informed. So we can all have an informed opinion on the morality of abortion in ways that we can’t about tax policy?

And then there’s the issue of how historians should write about morality. Carolyn Acker writes that, unlike philosophers, who tend to think in ethical ideals, historians are confronted with the messiness of reality, and thus are more prone to think about contingencies of historical context and about causation in terms of a multiple possibilities. So how then do we write about morality? Do we take moral positions? Are such positions always already implied? On this we should probably turn to George Cotkin’s Morality’s Muddy Waters. (Check out Tim’s excellent review essay here—and for an informed conversation, scroll down to the comments section, where Bill Fine offers up plenty to chew on.)

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, I’d be interested to know what incidents/examples you looked at with regard to the debate over evolution in the curriculum. When and where do you see that debate emerging as a major battlefront in the culture wars?

  2. Ahhhh, 99 degrees in April. And people wonder why I was glad to leave Arizona.

    Just started Morality’s Muddy Waters this morning. It is such an entirely different premise for a history book (and yet in many ways the kind of history we teach our undergrads–moral/political relevance as a justification to be a history major). I’m very intrigued by the preface I read over breakfast.

  3. Andrew,

    You ask: “So we can all have an informed opinion on the morality of abortion in ways that we can’t about tax policy?”

    I’m with Nelson in that debates about moral principles ~invite~ wider participation. The problem is anti-intellectualism in that “first,” for many, seems to imply “simplicity.” When the case and the particulars do not seem to match up with principles, then the default of some folks seems to be the principles. I have no problem, per se, with being principled—except that many apply their ethical beliefs without exception and without firm links to the situation at hand. And this, in turn, goes against conservatism in that conservatism, historically speaking, values reality and practicality. In some ways, this explains the split between ideological conservatives and fiscal/economic conservatives. But that is complicated by slavish devotion to “the market” as an article of faith among some economic conservatives.

    Returning to the question, then, I am forced to deny Nelson (in the end). The potential for faith-based, anti-intellectualism (i.e. uninformed conversation) is just as probable in debates about religion as tax policy.

    – TL

  4. LD: Actually, evolution was not a hot-button issue for conservative educational vigilantes until the 1980s (putting aside Scopes!) I think this is because it wasn’t taught very widely until the 1970s. I look at some of legal battles in southern states such as Alabama, where conservative legislative attempts to mandate inclusion of creationism were shot down by courts. I also look at efforts by grassroots conservatives to get elected to local school boards to enact creationist curriculums, such as in Vista, California in the early 1990s. Eventually I want to take this story up through Kansas in the early aughts.

    Tim: Nelson’s point isn’t that people come to moral political positions better informed, rather, they think they’re better informed on such issues.

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