Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was correct when he told people gathered at the Conservative Principles Conference, held this week in Iowa, that “If you don’t start with values, if you don’t start by saying who we are as Americans, the rest of it doesn’t matter.” The problem is that like many on both the right and the left, and certainly in the world of religion, Mr. Gingrich cannot distinguish between values and policies.
Consider some of the questions which continue to divide people religiously and politically. Whether and when a woman may have an abortion is not a values question. Neither is gay marriage, or immigration, or the decision to maintain a no-fly zone in Libya. Those are all policies. Hopefully such policy making is made within the context of a real system of values, but the same set of values can lead to radically different policies.
The entire abortion debate is actually between two camps, each of which cherishes life. Some take more notice of the life of the mother and some of the fetus/child, but each is motivated, when functioning at their best, by a profound concern for the life of another. That’s the value proposition. That each of them understand how to realize that proposition is not surprising. That is how it is with all serious debates about values.
I don’t believe that either those who support the president’s policy on Libya or those who most strenuously oppose him have contempt for the lives of either the Libyan people or the U.S. service personnel who are now in harm’s way in yet another country far from home. Values are big ideas which must be translated into real life. Like most acts of translation, the process is messy and there is often disagreement about who is getting it done properly.
The disagreement about who is doing better at implementation however does not mean that those who disagree do not also share a commitment to the same values. And even when they do, it does not mean that one side is values-driven and the other is not.
Mr. Gingrich should be congratulated for insisting that America and American politics be guided by values, He should be chided however for failing to acknowledge the difference between values and policies, and the fact that no one group or approach fully realizes the values we most cherish.
Gingrich assumes that “who Americans are” can be contained by any one political movement or ideology. Historically that has never been the case, and it is certainly not the case today. The same is true for the various traditions which make up the global religious landscape.
By failing to acknowledge the real difference between values and policies, and by further failing to acknowledge the diversity of opinion about how to realize what are often truly shared values, the former speaker’s sage advice threatens to become one more polarizing talking point in a chorus which drowns out real consideration of values in favor of political posturing for one particular set of policies.