Moral Inferiority

S.F. Democrats have talked "values" for years, but it's all been empty talk. To make a national comeback, Demos need to concentrate on moral works.

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, I pulled off the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building and sat silently with my mother, listening to election returns on the radio.

About a quarter of exit poll respondents said their most pressing concern was "moral values," a National Public Radio commentator explained, and these people voted mostly for George Bush. This poll question was drafted to capture the right-wing evangelical preoccupation with abortion, homosexuality, and racy images on television. My mom, a Tehama County Methodist pastor visiting the city for the day, leaned her chin into her hands as we listened, scowled, and said, "Those aren't moral values."

Editorialists chimed in during the next few days, announcing a crisis of public relations in which left-friendly concepts such as mercy, tolerance, and concern for the poor had somehow slipped from the public's conception of morality.

Though the relevancy of the "moral values" poll question was debunked in a subsequent Pew Research poll, pundits and politicos cranked the fretting up a notch nonetheless: "Democrats need to find a better way to talk about the moral underpinnings of their policies," said a syndicated Knight Ridder editorial typical of the tens of thousands of hits the terms "Democrats" and "Moral Values" produced on the Nexis news database in the days following the Nov. 2 election.

San Francisco Rabbi Michael Lerner, reputedly a "moral values" adviser to Hillary Clinton, joined the chorus in a widely distributed column that claimed "liberals, trapped in a longstanding disdain for religion and tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that underlie the move to the right, have been unable to engage these voters in a serious dialogue relevant to their yearnings for meaning."

Bless the liberal prophets' fretful hearts, but this is bunk, and not because pollsters' "moral values" numbers may have been misleading. Rather, the left wing of the Democratic Party -- a wing epitomized in the minds of American heartlanders by San Francisco -- has long talked a blue streak about moral values. Yet in this city, a symbol of progressive politics, it's been empty talk.

Liberal values of the Christian kind rely heavily on Isaiah 58, which invokes truly moral people to "share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house." Yet San Francisco is a city that shuns outsiders -- listen to neighborhood debates protesting the construction of new apartments if you have any doubt about this. This same, widespread anti-housing attitude has made it so expensive to live here that people earning less than an upper-class income are either driven away or pushed into poverty. For all San Francisco's vaunted liberal social programs and talk of more to come, the steady opposition by neighborhood groups and others to new apartment projects puts the lie to liberal moral values here, religious or otherwise.

"We've become a city that's turned on itself," says Adam Kruggel, organizer for the San Francisco Organizing Project, an Excelsior District group that unites 40 of the city's religious congregations around scripturally guided social issues such as housing. "Each sector of the city is turned on each other because of the lack of housing."

Politicos, particularly progressive ones, already wear their concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, on their sleeves. But the talk has, for decades now, rung hollow in a city with the most shameful homelessness problem in the country and a refusal to solve a housing shortage that indirectly, but viciously, preys on the poor, the downtrodden, and the working class.

In such a context, "moral values" talk becomes the sort of hot air known in places such as Ohio as elitist hectoring, which is pretty much the last thing anybody needs more of.

I spent last Wednesday morning with Kruggel, sipping coffee and reflecting on moral values in San Francisco. Among the religious liberals (and many secular humanists), the most important moral issues are included in what Catholics call "works of mercy," which Christians undertake to comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry, harbor the harborless, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, bear wrongs patiently, and forgive offenses willingly. There isn't a political speech in San Francisco that doesn't touch on most of these concepts.

Yet the San Francisco that Kruggel describes is not kind to the least of God's children. Families with children can't afford apartments here, so they move elsewhere. The elderly can't afford to live here, so they, too, find rooms where they can. And then there are those who fail to find a roof and make do without one.

"San Francisco has the lowest amount of children and families of other cities in California. It has half the average of the Bay Area. We have one of the biggest crises in homelessness anywhere, which is one of the challenges to being a city for all, and having any kind of social justice in the city," Kruggel said. Thanks to the city's housing shortage, which Kruggel sees as the most important issue facing San Francisco Christians, "we literally have examples of grandchildren evicting their grandparents, or brothers allowing their sisters to live in basements and garages. It's a function of a larger scarcity. It's important that congregations provide leadership on this issue.

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