Reading Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent Sunday column detailing the unpunished or lightly-punished failings of our so-called “elite” I was reminded of the extent that the Left has redefined ideology as virtue. Possess the right ideology, and failings from tax evasion to plagiarism to résumé fraud (and many more!) can not only be forgiven, but the perpetrators can quickly resume the onward march of glittering careers. As Professor Hanson points out, our own president is guilty of Greg Mortensen and James Frey–level memoir fabrication, substantially spicing up the story of his life to spin a fundamentally false, racially charged yarn that helped lift him from obscurity. (And that doesn’t even approach the egregiousness of associating with known domestic terrorists in an effort to jump-start his political career.) Our vice president committed acts of plagiarism so blatant that they would have utterly destroyed the public career of even the most marginal conservative politicians.
The elite moral equation, however, is quite simple: The correct ideology covers a multitude of sins, but incorrect ideology trumps every other virtue. For example, as the recent — and more vicious — turns in the gay-marriage debate illustrate, if one has the “wrong” idea about gay marriage, then he or she is a moral monster, regardless of any other virtue. In my religious-liberty work, I’ve represented a number of clients whose good deeds and kindness were extraordinary, yet they faced nothing but an avalanche of scorn, hate, and even threats because they weren’t on board with the sexual revolution.
I’ll never forget when the scales fell from my eyes, and I was able to see through the empty ideological preening. In my first weeks as a young student at Harvard Law School, I watched — amazed — as the same people who booed and hissed (literally) at expressions of free-market ideology would immediately scamper off to interview at large law firms and top-line investment banks. Were our law firms truly filling their ranks with frustrated Marxists? In three years their lives would be indistinguishable from the business-minded conservatives they loathed (except the self-righteous leftists would give less money to charity and volunteer less time for the poor), yet nothing could penetrate their sense of moral superiority.
There were exceptions, of course — those folks who would reject the lure of law-firm dollars, move to Appalachia, and fight tirelessly against, say, mountaintop removal mining. While I disagreed with their beliefs, I respected their commitment.
Let me end, however, on a cautionary note. In recent years I’ve seen a bit of the “ideology-first” mindset seeping into the conservative movement. Ideology matters, but we don’t build a nation on ideologies but on deeds — deeds like laying down one’s life in defense of our country, risking everything to start a business, patiently molding and raising children, and staying faithful to a spouse until death separates you. Our ideology (and, more importantly, our theology) should encourage these deeds, foster these deeds, and discourage failure. In other words, unless our ideology requires that we “walk the talk,” replacing the liberal elite with a conservative elite would create a distinction without a difference.