Human Dignity and the New Values Voter
This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
The “values voter” of the political right has, in recent years, become a meaningless term, if not one of ridicule. A generation that came of age watching the Clinton impeachment and listening to conservative leaders proclaiming that “character counts” witnessed many of these same leaders go on to defend womanizers like Donald Trump and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore — simply because the political ends justified the means. Herein lies the danger of pinning our values to fallible political heroes to fight culture wars for us.
What is needed today is an enduring moral foundation for our values, for a new generation of “values voters.” The values that we look to government to defend should be rooted in something unchanging and universal, such as the natural law and the Imago Dei, or image of God.
According to the natural law tradition, there are unchanging moral truths, grounded in our human nature and knowable through the light of reason. This tradition has roots in classical antiquity and flowered in the religious thought of the Middle Ages. The Imago Dei is a biblical notion, found in the very first chapter of Jewish and Christian scripture, that says human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. It underwrites the belief that every person is equal in dignity and worth. Together, the natural law tradition and the Imago Dei gave rise to the modern concept of universal human rights — according to which every human being is born with intrinsic value and inherent rights.
These values are not abstract. They became real to me when I gave birth to one of this world’s newest image bearers — my son — and subsequently became disabled within the same month.
I heard my son’s heartbeat for the first time when he was just seven weeks old inside my womb. And my husband and I watched his miraculous growth over the coming months of ultrasounds. At around 10 weeks into a pregnancy, the obstetrician usually asks if you would like to test for any genetic defects. The implication is that you still have the option to abort the baby. But the Imago Dei teaches that all children, no matter their genetic abnormalities, are of equal and inherent worth. When my baby emerged as a living, breathing eight-pound, twelve-ounce boy and was placed on my chest, the weight of human life struck me with the awe that all new mothers experience.
Then one morning, three weeks after I delivered my son, I woke up mysteriously paralyzed. After numerous scans at the emergency room, the doctors found an extremely rare tumor in my spinal cord. I quickly found the best neurosurgeon I could, and he performed a risky eight-hour surgery to remove the tumor from inside my spine. The surgery was successful, but I was left in a wheelchair. And so, having just joined the community of new mothers, I joined another community, that of the disabled.
That was almost two years ago. My journey since has put me in contact with many of the social services and protections for the vulnerable in our society — vocational rehab offices, public transportation, accessible buildings, and insurance or Medicaid coverage for tools we need to thrive, such as wheelchairs, shower equipment, and medical devices.
It wasn’t all that long ago in American life when the default was to hide disabled people away. The disabled were not expected to work or be visible out in the community. But disabled persons are of equal and inherent worth. Their basic rights deserve protection, too, just like those of children in the womb. But how can an individual with a disability be an equal member of society if they cannot access a building, find transportation, or have the medical equipment that allows them to work and live in basic comfort? These all require policy reforms that take these barriers into consideration.
One recent example is the “ABLE to Work Act” authored by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose son has Down syndrome. Before ABLE legislation was passed, individuals who relied upon welfare programs like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income could not save more than $2,000 without losing their relied-upon benefits. This obviously held people back from working and saving for an independent future. Now, people with disabilities can open tax-advantaged 529 savings accounts and build assets just like anyone else.
Advocating for unborn and disability rights are personal to me. But there are many other issues that a new generation of values voters should champion. Perhaps the highest priority, after rights for the unborn and the disabled, are immigration and refugee resettlement policies, criminal justice reform, and social safety net reform. There is no coherent human dignity agenda for these policies in either of our political parties right now. Immigration is a particularly urgent case in point.
Like the Trump administration, the Biden administration faces a humanitarian crisis at the southern border, with undocumented children being trafficked, separated from their families, or even dying at the crossing. In response, new Congresswoman Maria Salazar, the daughter of Cuban exiles representing a Congressional district in Miami, introduced the aptly named “Dignity Plan” that provides some solutions to the border crisis. As a rule, however, our public debate about immigration has been emblematic of a dangerous values deficit.
To uncover the root of the problem, we must first take a hard look at our history. Many people do not realize how prevalent the pseudoscience of eugenics was in our country at the beginning of the twentieth century. The eugenics movement was animated by the morally repugnant belief that we could breed out certain “undesirable” qualities prominent in “inferior” races.
Eugenics laid the foundation for anti-immigrant, homophobic, racist, and pro-abortion policies that especially harmed the poor and the disabled. Progressive activists led this movement, including infamous adherents such as Woodrow Wilson and H.G. Wells. Margaret Sanger, who popularized birth control and opened what would become the first Planned Parenthood in 1923, espoused the believed that certain classes and races were unfit to have families.
The same rotten beliefs lay at the foundation of that era’s immigration policy. A lesser-known leader of the eugenics movement in the United States was Harry Hamilton Laughlin. He was a proponent of the forced sterilization laws that Adolf Hitler would later adopt for individuals with disabilities in Nazi Germany. This idea led to laws in many states throughout our country that resulted in over 70,000 people, mostly black and disabled individuals, being sterilized against their will. These laws were even upheld by the Supreme Court in 1927. In “Buck vs. Bell,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. infamously wrote that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Laughlin was appointed by the committee chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization’s as its “Expert Eugenics Agent.” And the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 had Laughlin’s fingerprints all over it. The bill restricted total immigration into the US to about 20 percent of previous levels — targeting a reduction of the unseemly immigrants of the day: Jews and Italians.
Today, we’ve fortunately moved past many of the tragedies of eugenicist ideology. But the lingering effects remain, and have even reemerged in our own time, fueled by familiar Malthusian fears of population growth. We can see this with certain modern immigration advocacy groups that have dominated the conversation on the political right in recent years, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR was formed 40 years ago by John Tanton, who also founded a Planned Parenthood in his home state of Michigan. He was also active in the Sierra Club and was the national president of the group Zero Population Growth.
The very idea that there are undesirable qualities that should be eliminated from the human race is antithetical to the doctrine of the Imago Dei. If we really believe that all humans are image-bearers of God, then we must also believe that everyone — regardless of their abilities or skin color or age or genetic makeup — adds value to our society. The new values voter should unabashedly defend the rights of the unborn and the disabled while celebrating diverse and plentiful additions to our country, our economy, and our culture.
In a 1988 speech given two years after he passed a sweeping amnesty bill, President Ronald Reagan said this about immigration, “If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.” I cannot say it better than Reagan. The future of American greatness lies in valuing each and every human being. The new values voter may not have a natural political party or grassroots movement ready for them right now. But they do have the enduring principles of natural law and the Imago Dei on their side.
Rachel Kopec Barkley is president of RK Barkley Consulting.