Last year, so-called religious and political conservatives shaped the presidential election campaign with their rhetoric about “moral values.” They focused on same-sex marriages, although the federal government has no say about who can be married (marriage being regulated solely by each state). Neither the apostles of last year’s “moral values” rhetoric nor President Bush, their favorite, had much to say about the duty government owes to protect and aid poor, weak, and vulnerable people in our society.
As Americans respond to the death, devastation, and despair of our fellow citizens from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, we should conduct a different “moral values” assessment. What “moral values” convinced us to allow our leaders to take money from the federal treasury and spend it on tax cuts and pre-emptive war in Iraq while knowing Americans were exposed to harm from hurricanes? What “moral values” shaped political decisions last year to cut funds for strengthening levees and flood control improvements for the New Orleans area by almost two-thirds?
When President Bush made his first visit to New Orleans after Katrina, he actually joked about partying. The “moral values” apostles who championed Mr. Bush in 2000 and 2004 are suspiciously silent about the unrighteous cronyism, delay, and incompetence that characterize much of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
Poverty, infirmity, and racism make people especially vulnerable to the perils of life. That is why religion imposes upon government, and those who claim the power to govern, a special duty toward the poor, weak, elderly, and other persons perceived as different. In my (Christian) faith, the New Testament lessons about the Good Samaritan, the unnamed rich man and the pauper named Lazarus and the solemn words Jesus spoke at Matthew 25:31-46 seem especially relevant. The victims of Hurricane Katrina are 21st century American versions of the wounded man, the poor man, and “the least of these.” But they did not become the “least of these” after Hurricane Katrina happened. They were “the least of these” when wetlands preservation became secondary to “economic development” policies. They were “the least of these” when President Bush cut funds last year that could have strengthened the New Orleans levee system. They were “the least of these” when evacuation plans were designed that made no provision for rapid removal of sick, poor, and disabled people from the most flood-vulnerable city in our nation. They are “the least of these” because they are predominantly poor, black (in New Orleans), and without well-funded political lobbies to champion their cause.
For the most part, Mr. Bush and his “moral values” apostles have ignored the plight of people of color, the poor, elderly, and otherwise vulnerable in our society. Recall that the Bush administration seized power by suppressing votes by poor, black, and elderly people. Now President Bush and Vice President Cheney are hustling to be photographed hugging black New Orleans hurricane victims.
Hurricane Katrina has now exposed the hypocrisy behind the “moral values” rhetoric Americans heard last year. Divine justice will not wink at, ignore, or forget that hypocrisy in the face of the tragic scenes and sounds we have witnessed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Neither should we.
Wendell Griffen is a Baptist minister in Little Rock and a member of the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Max Brantley took the week off.