When moral principles meet secular needs

William Lawrence, dean of Perkins School of Theology, and Matthew Wilson, a political science professor, talk about the struggles voters face when they find a candidate's economic positions appealing but are put off by his stands on social or moral values.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, dean, SMU Perkins School of Theology:

William LawrenceFor at least the past hundred years of Methodism, the denomination has included in its official Book of Discipline a statement of the church's "Social Principles." As one would expect, the specified principles have changed and grown over the years. For instance, it was not until the second half of the 20th century that anyone thought it necessary to include statements on abortion or homosexuality in the "Principles."

However, statements on economic issues--from slavery, to the rights of workers to collective bargaining, to sanitary working conditions, to the abolition of child labor--have been part of the church's social creed for a much longer time. Therefore, people linked to the Methodist tradition would not find it possible to separate "economic policies" from "social policies."

It is entirely plausible to imagine that one voter might cast a ballot for a candidate based on a judgment that collective bargaining rights for workers are a higher priority than parental controls over which books a public library can lend. It is entirely plausible to imagine that another voter might cast a ballot for a candidate who insists on limiting the civil rights of homosexual persons, seeing it as a higher priority than regulating child labor.

But it is entirely implausible for a Methodist to imagine calling one issue a "moral" matter and another one an "economic" matter. For Methodist Christians, at least, social issues and economic issues are faith issues.

There may be some political commentators who think that banning pornography is a moral concern while raising the minimum wage is an economic question. But the truth is that both opposing pornography and advocating economic equity are moral concerns for serious values voters. The fact that political commentators do not understand this is troublesome evidence that people who professionally talk about politics do not really understand those of us who take our values seriously.

MATTHEW WILSON, assistant professor of political science, Southern Methodist Univ.:

Matthew WilsonWe need to begin here by avoiding a false dichotomy between economic issues and moral issues. If and when a candidate advocates economic policies whose clear result would be to deprive many people of the basic elements of survival and human dignity (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), those policies become a moral issue. Advocating a complete dismantling of the welfare state would fall into this category; likewise, many would argue that debates over healthcare and retirement security have important moral dimensions. Most of the time, however, our economic debates boil down to much smaller differences: Should the top marginal tax rate be 33% or 38%? Should the upper income limit for some government assistance program be $35,000 or $45,000? Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to justify putting aside fundamental and basic differences over moral questions to vote on the economic marginalia.

Take the obvious example of abortion. If one is pro-life, one presumably believes that the child in the womb is a human being, and that over a million such human beings are legally killed in this country every year. Obama and McCain differ fundamentally on whether the legal regime that permits this should stand; just how big a drop in the stock market should excuse ignoring this basic difference? Essentially, if one would ever vote based on one's pro-life convictions, one should always vote based on those convictions, as long as the candidates differ meaningfully on the issue. Put historically, could one justify voting in 1860 against Abraham Lincoln and his free-soil platform because one preferred Stephen Douglas's position on tariffs and internal improvements? When the parties and candidates differ on questions of basic moral principle, this must trump economic issues. Some things are of more fundamental and enduring importance than marginal shifts in material prosperity--for oneself or for others.

Read the full exchange.

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