Should Virginia voters care about the views expressed by gubernatorial candidate Robert McDonnell in his graduate school thesis 20 years ago? Today's headline in the Washington Post implies that voters should ignore McDonnell's thesis, and that ideologically, he is a changed man; the thesis is merely a record of his "past views." Despite his disapproval of wage earning women, his view of feminism as an "enemy" of the family, and his condemnation of homosexuals (he equates homosexuality with other "evils" -- drug abuse and pornography -- that the government should "punish and deter"), McDonnell claims that he now opposes workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and has revised his views of gender roles.
I have some sympathy for anyone confronted with an inflammatory paper written by his younger self. I don't always agree with articles I wrote last year, much less 20 years ago; sometimes an article or column is simply an argument with myself. And I tire of efforts to characterize (or smear) political candidates and nominees with ideas expressed or merely explored in papers or speeches years ago. (Intellectually exploration has become absurdly perilous politically, as Cass Sunstein might attest.)
But reading McDonnell's thesis, I am not convinced of its irrelevance. Maybe he is more tolerant or even supportive of at least some civil rights for women and gay people, as the Post suggests. The views of thinking people, and politicians, on particular social issues do evolve. What's perhaps most troubling are not the micro questions but his macro-vision of civil government as divinely ordained. "The civil ruler is a minister of God to execute judgment and encourage good," McDonnell explained.
It is this belief in the propriety, even the necessity of a government guided by particular religious ideals that appears to underlie his approach to social and economic issues, from gay rights to tax preferences and the legality or availability of contraception. Viewing fornication as sinful, for example, McDonnell lamented the Supreme Court decision extending a right to use contraception to unmarried couples, "at a time when every state in the union made sexual intercourse between unmarried persons a crime." Maybe McDonnell would now oppose criminalizing consensual intercourse between unmarried adults. The question is does he still believe that, in general, particular religious (in other words sectarian) notions of sin should shape the criminal law?
These are the questions I'd pose to McDonnell: is he still convinced that "Man" can only do good in an environment shaped by "faith" not "atheism"? Does he still agree that "a people that reject the importance of the family in its God ordained covenantal form must assuredly reap the consequences," and how might government promote the "God ordained covenantal form" of family life? Does he still oppose "a public school system in which textbooks and courses of instructions are increasingly oriented to humanist values and a secular philosophy"? And, if so, which non-secular philosophies and non-humanist values should public schools seek to inculcate in their students?
Reading McDonnell's thesis, which relies on slogans, political talking points, and declarations of faith more than argument, I also wonder if he's developed his capacity for nuanced, rational thought. Twenty years ago, he described the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v Connecticut (affirming the right of married couples to use contraception) as an attempt "to create a view of liberty based on radical individualism, while facilitating statist control of select family issues." Whatever did he mean by that? Can he elaborate on his previously stated view that "the giftedness of the Republican philosophy is that it embraces the talents and worth of all peoples, while Democrats seek to Shepard a nation of powerless incompetents." How did McDonnell then reconcile his tribute to "the worth of all people" with his opposition to extending "special rights for homosexuals or single parent unwed mothers" and his view of atheism as inimical to goodness? What is his view of non-theism (and non-theists) and the role of sectarian religious beliefs in government today?
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/9313013@N04/1510078088