One big happy family

The election was a referendum on morality, after all, but Americans voted for tolerance, not vengeance.

By Alan Wolfe
Published November 25, 1998 7:09PM (EST)

Four years after a new class of self-proclaimed Republican "revolutionaries" was swept into Congress promising a new morality in America, exit polls showed that 40 percent of voters on Nov. 3 who called themselves religious conservatives actually supported Democrats. Of all the surprises contained in the 1998 election results, this may be the most significant. For it puts to rest the idea that lurking out there in America is a lumbering beast of political and religious reaction just waiting for the trumpets to summon it to battle against the forces of secular humanism and moral relativism.

Fed up with what they understood to be widespread moral decline in America, organizations like Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition -- the politically astute successor to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority -- raised funds, rallied voters, recruited candidates and provided the ideological zeal for a moral crusade. At its roots was a belief that America had lost its traditional moorings in Judeo-Christianity, and that loss had led to increased rates of divorce, abortion, crime, alienation, homosexuality and a lack of national purpose. Only through committed political action, the Christian right held -- opposition to abortion, a return of prayer to schools and the teaching of firm standards of right and wrong -- could America once again be made morally whole.

Leaders of the religious right never doubted that the majority of good Christians throughout the land shared this outlook on the world. I did, because over the past four years I interviewed 200 middle-class Americans, including people in such heartland places as Tulsa, Okla., San Diego and Cobb County, Ga., as part of my book "One Nation, After All." Many of my respondents were deeply religious; Christianity was for them at the center of their lives and the source for their understanding of good and evil. But with a few exceptions -- roughly six of the 200 -- most of them viewed religion as a private, not a public, matter. God tells me what to do, they often said, but my God cannot tell another what to do; only his or her God can do that.

America's distrust of highly politicized forms of religious expression takes many forms. One, almost unnoticed by the polls, is the fact that African-Americans are among those most attracted to the religious messages associated with conservative Christianity, but at the same time they vote Democratic because they distrust conservative political positions. A similar tension can be found among devoutly Catholic Latinos, many of whom would love to vote Republican but are turned off by the party's stance on immigration.

Furthermore, Americans of all races tend, when faced with a conflict between commitment to a principle and the lessons of personal experience, to opt for the latter rather than the former. In theory, many Christians believe, you have to accept Jesus in order to be saved, but they also know (and like) enough people who might be Jewish, Muslim or agnostic not to take that dictum too literally. The truth is that most Americans simply want to be nice. The trouble with hell-and-damnation style preachers like Pat Robertson, one of them told me, is that they all too often are mean.

I was at first taken aback by the widespread rejection of religious absolutism I discovered. After all, I reasoned, groups like the Christian Coalition can afford to pay for high-priced research, and no doubt they must have discovered that the old-time religion was still alive in America. But the more I listened, the more I gained confidence in my findings. After all, we know that Americans love God and hate politics. So why, I asked myself, would they want the one confused with the other? I knew that many leftist intellectuals had ignored public sentiment on such touchy issues as crime or welfare. Surely it was possible that right-wing intellectuals could make the same mistake in reverse, assuming, almost as a matter of course, that what they believe has to be what everyone believes -- or at least ought to believe. Many Americans consider themselves conservative and many more consider themselves Christian, but none of that translates into automatic support for organizations promoting a program they describe as conservative Christian.

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Four years ago the religious right was poised to take over one of America's political parties -- not an insignificant feat considering that we only have two. Now, thanks to its misreading of the public mood, including the mood of large numbers of its own followers, it may have lost its chance for good. Politically mobilized conservative Christians have been looking for an issue that would win them popular support. For a time they thought they had one: "partial-birth abortion," a particularly gruesome way of terminating the life of a fetus and one they hoped would open the door to greater restrictions on a woman's right to choose. But the Republicans' proposed ban on partial birth abortion never garnered enough votes in Congress to prevent a presidential veto.

Faced with an impasse on this moral issue, the religious right started to look for another one. And, not completely to its surprise, one fell right into its lap. The president of the United States turned out to be a nefarious Lothario, one who shamelessly practiced weird sex in the Oval Office with a woman not his wife -- and then, to top it off, brazenly lied to the American people when questioned about his behavior. Here was America's moral decline proclaimed in billboard-size capital letters. Everything that agitated the Christian right -- loose morality, the collapse of absolute standards of right and wrong, the insouciance of youth -- became the stuff of daily headlines. With Professor Romeo in power, who needed partial birth abortion? The president's conduct gave the religious right just want it wanted: a symbolic crusade around morality that they could ride right into national power.

And so conservative Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, transformed the 1998 election into a referendum on morality. Helping them in their cause was supposedly nonpartisan special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who, with impeccable timing, released to the American public documents and videotapes demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt how deeply immorality had seeped into the highest rungs of power in America. True, there was something a little odd in the fact that moral conservatives were ensuring that the eyes of the American people were never taken off the pornographic material that was filling the airwaves, but it has always been the case that those who most strenuously denounce sex are also obsessed by it.

As recently as mid-September, Republican conservatives could barely contain their glee. Despite polls showing that Americans had had enough of the whole business, the Republican Party never retreated from its bet that Clinton's troubles could give them a way of promoting their interpretation of America's moral decline. As far as they were concerned, the only question to be answered in the elections of November 1998 were how large their gains would be.

Those gains, it turned out, were small -- and they went to their opponents. For the first time since the Civil War, the political party of a sitting president gained seats in Congress in the sixth year of his presidency. And the election is just the tip of the iceberg, for we have yet to grasp fully how significant is the transformed moral atmosphere in the United States. It is not that Americans are prepared to elect Barney Frank as their president -- although his savaging of Starr on the witness stand last week seemed a measure of the nation's recent political turnaround and the right's declining fortunes. But at the same time the results have buried for the time being what once was a very effective political tactic associated with the right: efforts to focus attention away from its economic program, which tends to favor the wealthy, by concentrating on symbolic moral issues that seemingly had great popular appeal.

Some have suggested the election results were merely due to the booming economy. But that's hard to believe, if for no other reason than in the month before the election, the stock market was careening wildly and financial analysts were worrying publicly that Asia's economic crisis might be coming to our shores. Nor can it be true that the public was thrilling to Democratic messages on education or Social Security, for whatever was being said on those subjects could barely be heard in the Tripp-Goldberg-Lewinsky din.

It seems far more reasonable to believe that the 1998 election was a referendum on morality after all. Americans were presented with two sharply contrasting theories about the role morality should play in politics. One held fast to the idea that private morality is public business, and that government has a role to play in ensuring that we live by agreed-upon moral standards. According to this view, people who violate what is considered proper morality should be held up to public exposure, ridiculed and, in extreme cases, punished. The other theory argued both that private conduct is beyond the reach of the state and that scrutiny by intrusive public officials armed with potentially coercive power into private conduct is itself immoral.

In all likelihood, most Americans would rather not choose between these theories, finding some element of truth in both of them. But the Republicans would not let them avoid a choice, insisting, as they did, that the future of the republic hinged on which path Americans wanted to follow. That was surely their biggest political mistake. For, it turned out, there is no single group of Americans out there so convinced that we are going to moral hell in a handbasket that we had better turn over our affairs to Newt Gingrich. People who tend to be laissez-faire in their economic views are also generally laissez-faire in their moral views.

Others with serious reservations about the state of morality in America do not believe that we can find the cure for sick souls by attacking the president for his adulteries. Still others feel that no one, however sinful his acts, should be exposed to demeaning rituals of a prying special prosecutor, especially after he confesses his sins. The America we live in, as opposed to the America of the Christian Coalition, believes in forgiveness and tolerance just as strongly as it believes in God, country and family.

Where will the religious right go next? Already Ralph Reed, who is now a Republican political consultant, has been saying that he warned the party to avoid the issue of the president's conduct. But if Christian conservatives cannot illustrate their views of moral decline by pointing to someone as visible as the president, they may not be able to illustrate them all. If they drop the theme, however, they drop their raison d'être. Since no organization can do that, one assumes that the Christian right will persevere much the way many on the left persevered under Ronald Reagan: marginalized, shrill, but patiently hoping that their day will come again.

President Clinton will clearly survive his troubles, as Republicans will look for a safe way to escape from the impeachment process they launched. Starr's appearance last week didn't change the minds of House Judiciary Committee members. But the reaction from the viewing public -- and the wider Congress -- seems to be: Enough.

But the far more important consequence of this election has little to do with the last two years of Clinton's presidency, and even less to do with the prospects for his successor. 1998 will be remembered as a watershed election. For what Americans said in the course of voting was that morality was something deeper than "inappropriate" sex. True morality lies in our efforts to find the right way to balance agreement on common values with respect for individual freedom.

Convinced that privacy and individual freedom are antagonistic to, rather than crucial ingredients of, morality in the modern world, Republican conservatives violated the sanctity of America's implicit moral rules by politicizing morality on the one hand and trivializing it on the other. As a consequence of 1998, we are unlikely to be witnessing anytime soon a return to the conservative Christian agenda that seemed so promising to its advocates, and so ominous to its opponents, just four years ago.

Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. The author and editor of more than twenty books, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Atlantic. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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