At this point in the arc of history, most folks would acknowledge that slavery, including sex trafficking and child selling, is immoral. Moral precepts may exist independently of religion, while religion may inform moral dialogue. Morality is the distinction between right and wrong, while ethics is the conduct or behavior involved in moral choices.
Often, slavery in the US was justified by denying the humanity of the slaves even to the extent of declaring them 3/5 persons in the Constitution. In this way, slave owners and traders could maintain their practice of any religion that deemed slavery immoral. For this reason, there exist many tales of the owner or trader who was not cruel practicing a type of ethical kindness without moral content. As cultures and governments mature, certain principles of morality evolve into civic norms and are many times expressed in law. Such secular morality has been codified or pronounced even in international forums and organizations.
The contemporary outcry regarding the separation of immigrant or refugee families at the southern border of the US has raised issues of morality and ethics. On one hand, the President of the United States has tweeted that his hard-line policies were necessary to prevent immigrants or refugees from entering our country only to “infest” it. This dehumanization offered supporters of these policies the same cover as that adopted by the slave traders and owners from the nation’s plantation days.
Most political observers determined that the hard-line policies were a bargaining chip to leverage funding for the border wall so prominently featured during the 2016 presidential campaign. Yet other pundits see the policies as designed to advance a full-throated anti-immigration stance, which comports with the President’s populist and white nationalist supporters. In either scenario or both, questions of morality and ethics arise.
The family separation policy was first formally announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and justified by him in a quotation from the bible, whose words were also used to justify slavery in the US. One may only assume the biblical rationale was meant to enhance the moral and ethical viability of the policy. In this instance, the criticism from religious quarters—even his own denomination—was swift and pointed. Ironically, however, the sect most complicit by its silence is the evangelicals.
On June 18, 2018, the United Methodist Church lodged a formal complaint by 640 congregants against Sessions. The allegations include child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, and misuse of a biblical citation. The object of the complaint was declared to
…help this long-time member…step back from his harmful actions and work to repair the damage he is currently causing to immigrants, particularly families and children.
At least two of these allegations—child abuse and racial discrimination—are also secular precepts and fit the definition of immorality. How the political process addresses this issue remains to be seen. The continued silence of elected GOP officials is not encouraging. Whether the current brouhaha affects the 2018 midterms also remains an open question. Thus far, morality and ethics have not fared well as criteria in selecting or judging political candidates or officials, including appointees to federal positions.