Morality: A Lesson in Values

(Charleston Gazette, Nov. 4, 1996)

By James A. Haught

Friday night at the University of Charleston, a throng of West Virginians heard a remarkable lecture on morality.

Ira Glasser, national director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the yearly Bill of Rights assembly of the state chapter that "the forces of intolerance" have partly captured the Republican Party, and swayed the Democratic Party.

He said these forces include the Christian Coalition of TV evangelist Pat Robertson, the Moral Majority of TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, "religious right" politicians such as Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., rigid moralizers like former presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan, "virtues" crusader William Bennett, rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, etc.

All these people focus on an alleged "moral decline" in America, Glasser said.

"They don't like sex -- or don't want to admit they do," he said. They feel threatened by Playboy on every newsstand, by MTV's racy lyrics, by Sharon Stone movies -- and they're especially horrified that homosexuals publicly admit their condition.

When Buchanan urges Americans to "take back our country," he's seeking a reversal of the sexual revolution, Glasser said. Such people have a "medieval mentality," hoping to force their strictures on everyone, he said.

Although America is more religious than any other advanced nation, with more churchgoing, the ultraconservatives "want it done in a showy way," with government-required prayers in schools and the like, Glasser said.

They want to "go back to the 1950s," a time they consider more moral, the ACLU chief said. But, from a different perspective, the 1950s had much worse morality than today, he said. Glasser explained:

-- In the 1950s, "Jim Crow" segregation laws forced black Americans to live in ghettos and banned them from "white" restaurants, theaters, hotels, beaches, restrooms and water fountains. In the Deep South, some blacks were lynched for attempting to vote. (But the South had America's most conspicuous school prayer, Glasser noted ironically.)

-- In the 1950s, birth control was a crime in some puritanical states. Historic Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s and 1970s finally gave all couples the right to use contraceptives.

-- In the 1950s, government censors still tried to jail publishers for selling candid books like Peyton Place and the like.

-- In the 1950s, witch-hunting congressional committees branded some Americans "subversives" because they held unpopular political views.

-- In the 1950s, "gays and lesbians lived in terror, like Jews during the Inquisition." They were sent to prison for their condition.

-- In the 1950s, women who ended pregnancies, and doctors who helped them, risked being thrown in prison.

-- In the 1950s, "white male Pat Buchanan was king, while blacks and women stayed in their place, and gays hid."

Many conservatives consider the radical 1960s a time of wanton immorality -- but Glasser said the 1960s actually were an era of moral reform, when the harsh taboos and prejudices of the past were struck down.

I think the ACLU director has keen insight. He outlined a different way to look at morality in America. While Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms see "moral decline," human rights supporters see moral improvement.

It all depends on your viewpoint. I leave it to you to decide which view is more valid.