Sunday, January 04, 2004

Here is a new letter that appeared in the Jewish Press in response to a piece by "Brooklyn Joe" Lieberman, a conservative writer who has made something of a career out of casting himself as the conservative version of his namesake, Senator Joe Lieberman. I think it is one of my better ones.

The Problem With Brooklyn Joe’s Views

I grant Joseph and Hadassah Lieberman of Brooklyn their socially conservative viewpoints (“Brooklyn’s Joe Lieberman Answers a Skeptic,” Letters, Nov. 14), but I must say that I believe there is a difference between how a person votes in the Congress and his personal social outlook. There are those of us like myself who do not believe government should be in the business of legislating morality.

Abortion offers a good example of why legislating morality is a problem. I don`t believe abortion is the right or moral option but neither do I believe that the government should make that decision for others. There are, in fact, significant differences between Christian and Jewish views on abortion, and Christian conservatives would, as they have with the new partial-birth abortion ban, likely not make an exception for instances in which the life of the mother is in danger, at odds with most rabbinical authorities.

The point is not to make a case for abortion but simply to say that because there is not, in fact, a common view on the issue, it is better left to individual choice, just like religion itself. Joseph and Hadassah can still promote their views on abortion in any way they want, by picketing abortion clinics, publishing books, or speaking to expectant mothers about adoption (probably the best option). Much the same argument applies to those who would outlaw all pornography; can Joseph draw a universal distinction between what is pornography and what is art? Perhaps in his own mind he can. But why should everyone else be forced to conclude exactly as he does?

Where exactly does the legislation of morality end? Would Joseph favor restriction on free speech as an attempt to stamp out lashon hara? Do those of us who would oppose such restriction help to promote lashon hara?

Social conservatives often mistake principled opposition by conflating those who oppose legislating morality with those who favor committing the perceived immoral acts. Being pro-choice is equated with being pro-abortion. A vote against outlawing pornography is cast as evidence that a legislator promotes pornography, an especially bizarre charge to throw at Senator Lieberman, since he has been at the forefront of the movement against movies with graphic sex and violence and obscene music lyrics.

A vote against public display of the Ten Commandments (an issue on which many conservatives agree with liberals) is cast as a vote for atheism. And when it is cast in terms of party politics, it is hypocritical, because there are certainly many immoral practices conservative Republicans would not legislate against when it is clear that legislation could make a difference. One need look no further than the links between Republicans and companies like Enron, who used the tax loopholes and corporate welfare favored by most Republicans to cheat their employees out of billions.

History is replete with attempts to legislate morality that have often been abject failures. Prohibition was the most infamous example. Many drug laws are also failures, which, rather than setting a moral tone, simply clog up the judicial system or encourage teenagers to rebel. The effect of morality legislation is often to make certain immoral behavior more desirable among those resentful of being forced to act in a certain way when they would, perhaps, be less resentful and more amenable to moral action if they were the ones making the choice.

The founding fathers who wrote the First Amendment were certainly not promoters of vice, but they understood that the freedoms of expression, speech and religion were intrinsic to free and open society. No one is keeping Joseph and Hadassah of Brooklyn from living their lives, speaking their minds, or raising their children as they see fit. But if they insist on forcing their social views on others through legislation, there may well come a day when their ability to make those choic- es is inhibited.

Michael L. Brenner New York, NY


  • You can find Joseph Lieberman's letter at:



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