Talking ethically about Virginia

The Northam controversy

On February 1, Democratic governor Ralph Northam of Virginia apologized for a photo included on his page of his 1984 medical school yearbook that showed one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. The following day, Northam denied being in the photo but admitted to a separate instance where he wore blackface as part of a costume. The public outcry in Virginia and beyond was swift, and many political, civic and religious leaders called for his resignation. These calls came from both parties, including leading Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and most of the elected Democrats in Virginia. Others, such as journalist Zaid Jilani and political commentator Kmele Foster, have argued that Northam should stay in office, many of them noting that his misdeeds took place 35 years ago and don’t reflect the nature of Northam’s character today.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, told CBS that he had thought about resigning in the immediate aftermath of the picture’s discovery but ultimately decided against it, saying, “Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor. Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”

Some moral and ethical considerations

The vastly different responses to this controversy could be written off as simply another example of the deep divisions in our country, but they also reveal the ethical complexity of the situation. The 24/7 news cycle and opinion writers with deadlines to meet often shape our understanding of events, but they’re often not set up well to deal with moral complexity.

Bill Fletcher Jr., a racial justice and labor activist and former president of TransAfrica Forum, recognizes this complexity in his own argument for why Northam should stay in office. He writes that while Northam’s actions in medical school were “stupid and racist” and clearly unacceptable, “there has been little discussion of whether Northam’s record since 1984 has been consistent or inconsistent with the behavior represented by those pictures and his acknowledgement of having done ‘blackface.’ ” Fletcher continues, “What should have been the central question is less a matter of what Northam did 35 years ago than what he has done since.” Fletcher points out that Northam “has consistently voted for minimumwage increases . . . [and] against voter suppression.” He argues that Northam’s policy decisions aren’t connected to his behavior as a young adult.

The deeper issue, according to Fletcher, is “whether we believe that people can change. At what point do we say that someone who has done or said something objectionable, something that is not criminal by nature, has changed?” When racist, sexist, or just plain stupid behavior from so many years ago is brought to the surface and used against a person who has grown and changed, Fletcher asks, “Who stands to gain?”

Conor Friedersdorf, a commentator who comes to the opposite conclusion about Northam’s resignation, also takes the ethical complexity seriously. He writes, “I am loathe to judge people today for behavior of 35 years ago, especially when there is evidence that their bygone transgressions are at odds with their current outlook.” Yet he still thinks Northam should resign because as a politician, he has “a job that has always warranted more scrutiny than what ought to be imposed on a typical citizen.” Friedersdorf expands this thought saying, “His job effectiveness depends in part on formally representing everyone in a multiethnic polity; he is called on to discharge symbolic duties as a figurehead and leader; and he is obligated to do what best serves the public, even in instances when it may be unfair to him personally.”

A further moral complexity arises from the unintended consequences that might stem from Northam’s resignation. The current lieutenant governor is facing accusations of sexual assault, and the attorney general, who would be third in the line of succession, has also admitted to appearing in blackface. The question facing Democrats in Virginia is a difficult one: Is it more important to have a governor who agrees with their values and vision or who meets their standards of ethical and moral purity?

Insight from the Christian tradition

Two months before the 2016 election, when the stark political divisions that we continue to experience were already in sharp relief, Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, wrote an article in Time entitled “How to Heal the Spiritual Pain of America.” She pointed out that few commentaries about these divisions included “wide-ranging spiritual or theological accounts” of what was happening.

As a theologian and a spiritual leader, she saw the divisiveness as “a profound spiritual crisis in our nation, one grounded in a deeply distorted view of ourselves, and our past and future.” She claimed that the “theological” national story we tell ourselves, one of “constant progress that good people have made since the start,” has failed to incorporate “a serious account of our wrongs,” especially the genocide of Native Americans and the history of slavery.

Jones explained that this is a spiritual problem because “there is no religious or spiritual tradition, at least any worth their salt, that does not begin with a serious account of both the good and bad that people can do.” Failure to recognize our wrongdoing means that “we are living a spiritual lie.”

Jones believes we can choose a “different spiritual path” in which we acknowledge that as human beings, “we are deeply flawed yet deeply good. We who live in the United States are part of a community known for its honesty and its openness, its ability to wonder and our willingness to take responsibility for our harms and seek redress.”

Jesus taught us to love our neighbors without judging whether they deserve love, to forgive those who harm us and to quit looking for the speck in someone else’s eye while remaining blind to the plank in our own. This is what we Christians bring to the moral and ethical considerations in matters such as the Northam controversy.

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