THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE  -  11/11/2004

(reprinted in Los Angeles Jewish Journal)

 

TRACING THE EVOLUTION OF MORAL VALUES

 

By JAMES HAUGHT

 

AFTER evangelical voters citing "moral values" tipped last week's election to President Bush, many observers noted that America has two different sets of moral values.

There are the humane ones espoused by Jesus: compassion for the poor and underdogs, support for peace, care for the sick, opposition to the death penalty, a desire to keep religion private and personal, etc.

And there are the puritanical ones of so-called social conservatives: hostility to gays, antipathy to Hollywood, opposition to stem cell research, a desire to jail doctors and women for abortion, support for government-backed religion, and the like.

The latter values carried the day for Bush.

How did social conservatives rise to political power in America? It's a long story, involving the nation's remarkable social transformation:

Back in the 1950s, when I was young, moral values were oppressive: You could be jailed for looking at the equivalent of today's R-rated movies or Playboy magazine - and gays were sent to prison for "sodomy" - and it was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket in West Virginia - and blacks were forbidden to enter white schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, pools, etc. - and it was a crime for interracial couples to marry - and Jews were banned from some clubs - and birth control was still a crime in some states - and "blue laws" made it illegal for stores to open on Sunday - and divorce or unwed pregnancy was hush-hush - and police might jail an unmarried couple for sharing a bedroom - and a doctor who performed an abortion faced prison - and schoolchildren were led in government-mandated prayers every morning - etc., etc.

Of course, there was "sin" in the '50s. Charleston bootleggers furtively supplied illegal booze, and pornography circulated illicitly, and some unwed couples hid away, and so forth. But it was generally an era of moral taboos.

Then came the historic civil rights movement and the youth rebellion, mostly in the 1960s, America's liberal heyday. Young protesters fought the Vietnam draft, blacks marched for equality, courts struck down censorship, and human rights laws were passed. The sexual revolution snowballed. Bigotry became unlawful. Despite the adolescent excesses of the 1960s, it was a time of moral improvement, in my view. Many old prejudices were swept aside.

Then a backlash occurred in the 1970s and '80s. Fundamentalists, who previously had seemed a mere fringe, began mobilizing against the wave of "wickedness" that had arrived. Historic U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1962 and '63 against government-led school prayer, plus the 1974 opinion legalizing women's right to choose abortion, along with the easing of social stigmas against gays, etc., all convinced them that Satan was gaining control of America.

Evangelist Jerry Falwell coalesced this group by forming the Moral Majority. He demanded restoration of school prayer, crackdowns on porn, recriminalization of abortion, ostracism of gays, etc. This group yearned for a return to the "moral" 1950s - seemingly unaware that it had been a time of harsh prejudice.

In olden days, most fundamentalists, being largely blue-collar folks, had tended to be Democrats. But they began finding an ally in the Republican Party. In 1980, they were instrumental in electing Ronald Reagan president. When the Moral Majority faded, it was replaced by evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, again solidly Republican.

Gradually, white evangelicals and fundamentalists became a wing of the GOP - anchoring the "base" that Karl Rove milks for Republican votes. The group is especially devoted to George W. Bush because he underwent an emotional conversion after years of heavy drinking - which makes him their hero, "one of us." Conservative Catholics joined this base.

Meanwhile, liberal mainline churches - which advocate the humanitarian values Jesus stood for - have shrunk in America, losing millions of members. The tide has flowed toward fundamentalism and narrow morality. Some in the latter camp even say born-again President Jimmy Carter isn't a real Christian because he doesn't embrace the "religious right" political agenda. Carter quit the Southern Baptist Church in protest of its hidebound outlook.

So, today, white evangelicals are a mighty political force. Over the past decade, many researchers have found that Americans who attend church more than once a week are the most ardent Republican voters - while those who don't worship generally vote Democratic. This gives the GOP a huge power base, because America is more religious than other advanced nations.

Is this lineup permanent? Nobody knows, because the future is unforeseeable. Maybe America gradually will follow Europe, Australia and other societies where churchgoing has faded. There are hints of rising U.S. secularism. In 1993, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that only 9 percent of U.S. respondents said they have no religion, but this group rose to 14 percent by 2002. During the same period, the ratio of Americans identifying themselves as Protestants fell from 63 to 52 percent. If this trend continues, it could weaken the GOP core.

Right now, however, America must live with an odd reality: a political powerhouse of evangelicals driven by moral values contradicting those of Jesus.

(Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by phone at 348-5199 or e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com.)