Moral authority. Hmm. Who shoe-horned that notion into the national conversation?
According to former Vice President Joe Biden moral authority is the property that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam forfeited when a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page came to light and he couldnt clearly say whether or not it depicted him in blackface or Klan costume -- though he conceded he once blackened his face for a Michael Jackson costume. Calls for his resignation resounded. Biden chipped in with gusto.
How the governor on Bidens showing forfeited his moral authority isnt 100 percent clear. Maybe his willingness 35 years ago to kid or mock African-Americans showed his essential worthlessness.
Or maybe -- a trifle likelier -- the vitality of the Democrats alliance with African-Americans required Northams leperization to which deed Biden applied himself by appealing to the moral norms as defined by ... well Biden.
As the former VP and prospective president raises the question we might want to gaze over Northams anguished head and ask: What after all is moral authority these days? And who has the right to talk about it?
I hazard a guess: Moral authority is anything that political expediency obliges politicians to say it is. This is because politicians mostly run our lives these days having wrested through the ballot box and sheer presumption the power of defining right and wrong. Biden for example -- once famous for plagiarizing the speeches of a British Labor Party leader -- has ruled Northam an embarrassment needing to be dumped on an outgoing load of political rubbish. Not a lot of nuance here Joe not a lot of charity -- least of all having to do with how Northam thinks and acts today versus 35 years ago. But so we talk these days.
We really dont care for other peoples views. We mostly care for our own. As David Brooks has observed: (W)e have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encourages people to see themselves as the center of the universe.
To put it another way weve become authorities on whats authoritative: on what to believe and what not to believe. We like and listen to the authorities we have picked out on account of the congruence of their views and our own. We choose Fox News over CNN Kimmel over Rush -- such being our First Amendment right.
We reduce moral understanding to the level of what I want what I need. We readjust the ancient norms of the human race -- proceeding from natural law religion and experience -- to options as distinguished from truths once generally seen as embodying ideas about human good and therefore worthy of propagation.
The irony of Bidens moral rebuke of Northam isnt Bidens personally compromised record on moral authority. The true and abiding irony is the text Biden chose to take on Northams unfitness for office. He criticized a 35-year-old photo. He ignored the governors tut-tut never mind about a bill in the Virginia Assembly that would loosen present safeguards against infanticide of a baby born alive during a late-term abortion. The governor a pediatric neurologist by trade scarcely blinked when interviewed about procedures already standard in such relatively rare cases. The infant -- he was clear anyway about that descriptive -- would be delivered and resuscitated if thats what the mother and the family desired and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother. And maybe the kid would live. And maybe again he wouldnt be allowed to.
We dont use the term moral authority here. We call it moral relativism -- maybe life maybe death. Whatever. No hint of moral horror escaped the governors lips even as he recounted the facts. Moral horror we leave for other life situations such as the prospect of alienating a key voting bloc and possibly in consequence losing an election and then -- horror of horrors -- losing political power.
One thing we must admit about Joe Biden in contrast with a mere Virginia governor: He knows what makes the modern world go round. And its not morality.
William Murchison is writing a book on American moral restoration in the 21st century. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.