(The Charleston Gazette, June 17, 2008)


The great morality transformation


By James A. Haught


Americans in their 70s, like me, can look back and see that morality has evolved enormously in our lifetime.

When we were young in the 1950s, in various locales, you could be jailed for buying a cocktail or lottery ticket -- or for looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or a sexy R-rated movie. Even writing about sex was censored.

In those days, it was a crime in some states to sell birth-control devices. Elsewhere, buying a condom was hush-hush.

It was a felony to be gay. Homosexuals were imprisoned under archaic "sodomy" laws. One I remember jumped off the Dunbar bridge, rather than face trial.

Blacks were consigned to segregation, like Indians on a reservation. They weren't allowed into white schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, pools or neighborhoods. Mixed-race marriage was a crime.

Unmarried couples could be collared by cops for sharing a bedroom. No proper hotelier would rent to a suspicious-looking pair.

An unwed girl who became pregnant was disgraced, along with her family.

Abortion was a prison offense, and desperate young women died of illicit termination attempts.

It was illegal for stores to open on the Sabbath.

Pregnant students were banned from Kanawha County high school classrooms, and sex education was denounced frequently.

Jews were excluded from "Christian-only" clubs.

Women were excluded from a majority of occupations.

Divorce was unmentionable.

Of course, in the hodgepodge of life, there were exceptions to all those '50s strictures, and rebels against them.  Bootleggers, hookers, bookies, free spirits and bawdy cynics existed. But law and officialdom were on the side of taboos. Does anyone remember when Mayor "Jumping John" Copenhaver sent police to bust Charleston bookstores for selling "Peyton Place," drawing applause from clergy?

Today, a half-century later, morality has flipflopped. Unwed couples now live together openly with the blessing of their families. Children of single moms are welcomed like other kids. Blacks are guaranteed legal equality. Women's job rights are assured by law. Gay sex no longer is a crime. Gambling isn't merely legal -- it's run by the state. Sexual movies and magazines are so commonplace they're boring. Liquor clubs are everywhere. Sunday is a whopper shopper day.

How could morality change so much in a single lifetime? Why do most of us hardly notice the amazing transformation that occurred? Sometimes, when I recall the societal proscriptions of our youth, they seem unreal, lost in the mist of the past.

Come to think of it, morality obviously has been evolving constantly for millennia. There was a time when white Americans owned black Americans as human slaves -- possessions like livestock -- and it was deemed proper, legal and respectable. Today, the idea is monstrous, unthinkable.

In ancient Greece and elsewhere, unwanted girl babies were discarded in rubbish heaps to die. In the Old Testament, rules required stoning of non-virgin brides and execution of people who worked on the Sabbath. Clearly, values changed in the eras that followed.

As for the past half-century, some evangelists and "virtues" crusader William Bennett clamor for a return to the "moral" 1950s. But I think it's arguable that today's values are considerably more honorable.

Here's a tantalizing question: Since morality turned upside-down during the lifetime of today's seniors, where is it heading right now, quietly unnoticed? What behavior and lifestyles will be casually accepted a half-century from now?

Will plural marriage be common? Will hard drugs be legal? Will public nudity be ordinary? Will children be raised communally? Or will a backlash occur, with values swinging back toward the prim 1950s?

I really can't guess.

<I>Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by telephone at 348-5199 or e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com.<P>