Culture matters. So do character and integrity.

All three should be essential considerations when making political choices.

A spirited debate erupted online Tuesday when Federalist columnist D.C. McAllister wrote, against the backdrop of the controversy about Alabama’s now-famous Judge Roy Moore, a thoughtful column whose headline accurately captured its gist: “Why It’s Justified To Vote For A Morally Questionable Politician.”

Within hours, conservative columnists Ben Shapiro and Erick Erickson weighed in against McAllister with their own full columns, and right-leaning New York Times columnist Ross Douthat responded in much the same fashion with a series of tweets.

Without rehashing their various viewpoints (which you can read for yourself via the links above), suffice it to say these writers disagree about the long-vexing questions of if, and under what circumstances, citizens should refuse to vote for candidates with significant moral failings.

For example, I might be able to support an otherwise talented, principled conservative even if he committed adultery a full decade before, but then came clean, apologized, and salvaged what is now an apparently now-stable, loving marriage. But if (repeat: if) a fully adult man in any way sexually abused a 14-year-old, I would consider it irretrievably disqualifying from office, even 40 years later.

But what if the levels of misdeeds and repentance are somewhere in between?

Where I live in Alabama, most voters are struggling with such questions. More broadly, the issue of how much character should count has perplexed Americans for years, and presented themselves full-force during last year’s presidential election. Some conservatives (myself included) argued that Donald Trump’s outlandish character flaws were a bridge too far to ever earn our vote; others argued the raw, utilitarian viewpoint (quoting a 2016 column that a friend sent me last week) that because “we tried statesmanship” and it didn’t work, all that now matters is that we fight and win.

Often, this viewpoint is combined with a Manichean, near-apocalyptic outlook positing that society has reached a breaking point and that our only hope of survival is to crush the opposition, no matter how flawed our (Trumpian) vessel is.

One problem with this worldview is that it effectively argues that the culture must be debased in order to be saved. (Echoes of destroying the town to save it.) In the column cited above, for example, the author writes that in order to fight against Leftist tactics from a Saul Alinsky book that is “pure evil,” it is somehow admirable that Trump “is doing exactly what Alinsky suggested his followers do.”

Sorry: If it takes pure evil to defeat pure evil, then count me out.

Some means are unjustifiable for almost any end.

A lot of conservatives these days like to cite the aphorism of the late Andrew Breitbart that “politics is downstream from culture,” meaning (in part) that cultural changes are necessary in order to beget political changes. I think the equation is more complicated. To try to stick with the “stream” analogy – bear with me, please – I think the situation more akin to what would happen if water molecules were somewhat unstable, frequently breaking down into their constituent oxygen and hydrogen atoms as the water flows over sharp-edged rocks, only for the jumble of newly disassociated atoms to recombine seconds later, and then breaking up and recombining again and again en route downstream.

The hydrogen and oxygen in this analogy are politics and culture, repeatedly influencing each other, rather than having the influence working only one way, in ever-new combinations. If you poison the culture, then yes, you poison the politics. But the converse is true, too: If you poison the politics, you poison the culture.

In the end, it is culture, not politics, whose ultimate health is the most important. Culture is the oxygen, its one atom four times weightier than the two hydrogen atoms combined, and (unlike hydrogen) essential on its own for us to breathe.

Politics alone can’t fix cultural defects, but bad politics and deeply-flawed political actors can be nearly lethal to an already-struggling culture.

To close on a happier note, sometimes cultural leaders speak up to say culture matters. Witness, for example, the near-universally admired actor Denzel Washington, who last week took the occasion of his new movie release to insist that fixing hopelessness in the black community “starts in the home,” and requires fathers to be in the home to model proper behavior for their children. (It’s good advice for any community, not just blacks, by the way.)

What’s true in the house is true in the White House: If the father figure models destructive behavior, destructive behavior gets normalized. When that happens, the result is pure poison.

Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner, and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.

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