The moral obligation of legislators

By Representative Tom Coburn*

February 1998 – In Washington, legislators often disagree about what’s right for the country, but most agree that doing the right thing for the country is our moral obligation. Unfortunately, most Americans believe we are doing a terrible job following through with this most basic obligation.

Thirty years ago, three out of every four Americans trusted the federal government and other institutions. Today, the number has fallen to one in four. The public consensus is clear: Politicians are more concerned about preserving their position than the long-term consequences of their policies. Some politicians are more successful than others at appearing to be true servants, the public believes, but few are motivated by a genuine desire to do the right thing for the country.

We can blame the spread of this acidic cynicism on a variety of familiar culprits: the liberal media, a debased entertainment industry, voter apathy, and presidential scandal. But we are wise to first seek improvement among the group we can most directly affect – ourselves. The Congress has lost the confidence of the public, and it is our duty to do what we can to win it back.

As a physician, my job is to treat and prevent illness. When patients come into my office, I analyze their symptoms and use objective findings to prescribe a treatment for the disease. But for congressmen, the opposite is often true. Instead of treating the ailment itself, politicians tend to address only the outward symptoms.

In medicine and politics, suppressing the symptoms of a disease can create the illusion of curing the affliction. However, attacking the symptoms, some of which are untreatable, can lead to the unintended consequence of making the problem worse, because the disease itself is left untreated.

Federal policies about teenage pregnancy and HIV are two of many examples of how the government treats the symptoms of a disease rather than the cause. “Safe sex” programs, for instance have exacerbated the problems they were designed to combat.

The number of pregnancies among unmarried teenagers has doubled in the last two decades. Of those pregnancies, 40% end in abortion. Of the 3,200 babies I’ve delivered in my life, roughly half have been to teenage girls.

If you put any group of physicians in a room and ask them what’s the absolute best medical advice you can give a young person about sexual activity, 99.9 percent will say do not have intercourse until you are in a married monogamous relationship. Why is our national policy something less than the best medical advice? HIV and unwanted pregnancies are 100% preventable by abstinence, with the rare exceptions of a blood transfusion or a pregnancy from a rape.

Condoms and clean needles are instead presented as solid defenses against HIV and unintended pregnancy, which is as sensible as preventing drunk driving with lite beer and anti-lock brakes. The fact of the matter is that most teenage boys and girls don’t even remember to brush their teeth at night. Why would they remember to wear a condom or take a birth control pill? The case of convict Nushawn Williams, who intentionally infected 13 teenage girls with HIV in Chautauqua, New York, proves this very point.

Congress has a history of masking symptoms in many other areas of public policy, especially with respect to the federal budget and welfare policy. This Congress has done much to celebrate budget successes when everyone knows that, in reality, small steps have been taken toward reducing our national debt that could consume the earnings of the next generation of Americans. Congress has done a much better job of combating the root problems of the welfare state.

If a doctor masked symptoms as often as Congress, he or she would be sued for malpractice. But a politician who does the same will likely win reelection. Attacking a problem at its source is often too risky for politicians who desire a long-term career.

Symptoms are always symbolic of a deeper conflict. Doctors must understand the nature of a disease to fight it effectively. The same is true for elected officials.

The problems afflicting America are more moral and spiritual in nature than economic. Our nation is increasingly rejecting a belief in objective moral values in favor of a mushy relativistic world view, which holds that truth is nothing more than one person’s opinion, and that there is no moral authority higher than the individual. In a relativistic world view there is no objective “right thing for the country.” Instead, every person defines the right thing for himself.

Tolerance is replacing the Judeo-Christian ideal of love of God and neighbor as the national ethic. Tolerance, however, has less to do with unconditional love of the person and more to do with unconditional acceptance of the person’s behavior, regardless of how deviant that behavior might be. Words like deviance, of course, have no resonance in a relative world because what’s deviant for me may be desirable to you. Practices like genocide and pedophilia are not wrong in the relativistic world view. Yet, this world view persists in our culture despite its logical absurdity.

The loss of values in the culture is the greatest cause of the breakdown of the family, which has given birth to many other social pathologies that have captured the attention of the nation. Children from single parent families are more likely to commit crimes, do drugs and drop out of school, according to numerous studies. This wounded generation has done much to contribute to the 300 percent increase in crime and teenage suicide we have seen in the last 30 years.

Congress should be asking itself what we can do to fight this disease. We can’t pass a law that compels husbands to love their families, or children to obey their parents. We will never achieve trickle down morality from Washington because the government is a reflection of the heart of the people. However, we can and should raise the level of debate about the true nature of disease afflicting America. We can participate in a sustained campaign of public persuasion that uses our position as public figures to engage in the battle of ideas. For instance, we can do more to educate the public about the values and principles that made the country great. The Founding Fathers understood that freedom does not flow from individual rights alone. “Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle,” George Washington said in his farewell address. 

The threats to America are grave, but there is reason for optimism. Nations that departed from their original visions have been restored in the past. The heroic leadership of Abraham Lincoln is the best example in the history of our nation.

During Lincoln’s train ride to Washington in 1861 the press labeled him a disgrace to the nation. He had received only 40% of the popular vote and had little administrative experience. This backwoods boy from Illinois lacked the necessary intelligence and education to lead the nation through its crisis.

Lincoln, however, was motivated by an unshakable conviction that the Union must be preserved at all costs because God had a magnificent work for America to perform in the world. His resolve was evident early in his administration when he wrote, “I expect to maintain this contest until successful or until I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me.”

Lincoln faced a difficult reelection bid in 1864. The Union army had suffered astronomical casualties, averaging 10,000 per month for four years. His opponent, General George B. McClellan, favored a negotiated peace, even if it meant the breakup of the Union and the continuation of slavery, notes Alonzo L. McDonald in his forward to Abraham Lincoln: The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man.

Lincoln refused to mirror the position of his opponent, won reelection and led the Union to victory. Lincoln faced enormous political pressure throughout his presidency, but he never wavered in his mission. Had he caved in to the pressure the results would have been catastrophic for the United States and the world. In the next century, it is doubtful that the U.S. would have been in a position to defeat the Nazi regime and the Soviet’s evil empire had our nation been split by the Civil War.

Another equally stunning act of political courage was the campaign to abolish slavery by 19th century British parliamentarian William Wilberforce.

It is difficult to appreciate the audaciousness of Wilberforce’s challenge in our time. The typical citizen of the British Empire considered slaves to be nothing more than property, and therefore didn’t object to the practice by English ship captains of throwing slaves overboard to reduce cargo weight. Wilberforce’s challenge also went directly against the economic interest of his own country. Slavery was as entrenched in the economy of the British Empire as the defense industry is in our economy. The tentacles of the trade reached into every part of British society.

Wilberforce experienced vicious criticism, two physical assaults and the temptation of personal political ambition in his crusade. One historian noted that the enormously talented Wilberforce could have been prime minister had he “preferred party to mankind.” On July 26, 1833, 46 years after his crusade began and only three days before his death, the House of Commons passed an Emancipation bill that freed all slaves in the British empire.

Neither Lincoln nor Wilberforce ever considered attacking the diseases afflicting their times at anything but their source. They were single-minded in their determination to do the right thing for their countries and were never distracted by political status or position. The moral obligation of legislators in this Congress is to do the same.

Today, the greatest temptation facing legislators in our [Republican] party is to postpone doing the right thing for the country until our position as the majority party is more secure. If we make this our practice, with every compromise we will drain the lifeblood from the movement that propelled us into the majority. Our souls will depart from us and we will become the hollow politicians the public expects us to be yet sent us here to replace.

Most legislators come to Congress with the best intentions of doing the right thing for the country, but are too often distracted by the trappings of Washington. The perks of public office invigorate personal ambition, then desire to preserve position leaves a politician vulnerable to the ever-present fear of losing position. Colleagues with brilliant minds and courageous visions have been paralyzed with the fear of being labeled an extremist. We need more legislators who will rise each morning prepared to make a decision that could end their career.

We can learn from the life of Mother Teresa that power grows when it is given away, not consumed upon one’s self. She started her ministry with nothing but her hands, her time, and her heart. She gave away what she had and built a life that was recently celebrated with an unprecedented state funeral for a Christian in a Hindu nation.

As legislators in the U.S. Congress, we have access to enormous resources. On all occasions, we should work to ensure that those resources are used to serve the best interests of the people. With firm convictions, a vision for our future, and the courage to weather the storms or criticism, the desire to do the right thing for the country will become a habit, and doing anything less will seem odd and improper – as it should.  undefined

* Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a practicing physician, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994.