Scrooge's nightmare

Despite Bush's election, the cranky old conservatives' days are numbered. The future belongs to middle-aged boomers and their kids, who embrace the tolerant values of the '60s.

Published November 25, 2004 5:17PM (EST)

Cowed by exit polls showing that "moral values" motivated one in five American voters on Election Day, chastened journalists have begun to spin a new narrative about our national political culture: that "ordinary Americans" can be found only in socially conservative red-state pews. "Ordinary people, the people in the red states" is how conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg puts it, and many in the press seem to be saying amen.

But once again the media have it wrong. Missing in this discussion is that most Americans -- even many Bush supporters -- would recoil and rebel if the evangelical right ever got its way and began to limit the personal freedoms most of us now take for granted.

All the claims about mandates and values notwithstanding, the very fact that one-fifth of voters cited moral values means that four-fifths didn't. In fact, we heard much the same talk about the rise of conservative social values in the Reagan '80s, yet scholars who have studied attitudes in that period have found little evidence to suggest any reversal of the social liberalism that began in the '60s, particularly on issues involving family, women, morality, sexuality and overall tolerance. We must be careful not to confuse election results with cultural trends.

As survey after survey of contemporary social attitudes demonstrates, social conservatives no more represent the mainstream or the future than Prohibitionists did in the 1920s. If anything, it's the baby-boom sensibility spawned in the 1960s that has become mainstream in America today. As conservative columnist George Will lamented a few years back, politics "seems peripheral to, and largely impotent against, cultural forces and institutions permeated with what conservatives consider the sixties sensibility."

How little the "moral values" voter represents the future is evident in surveys of today's youth, who may be the most inclusive, tolerant and socially liberal generation in our nation's history. From the media we hear all about the controversies of the so-called culture war, such as the occasional school superintendent who shuts down all school clubs to keep gay and straight high school students from forming "gay-straight" clubs. But what we don't hear is that these clubs have quietly formed in about 2,800 schools nationwide. In fact, research on young people confirms that they have little patience for intolerance, that they have no problem accepting homosexuality, that most even support the right of gay people to marry.

Indeed, today's youth reject many of the social rigidities, prejudices and orthodoxies of old. As many as half of all teens say they've dated across racial or ethnic lines, including more than a third of white teens, and most of these are "serious" relationships. On race, homosexuality, premarital sex, gender roles, the environment and issues involving personal choice and freedom, younger Americans consistently fall on the liberal and more tolerant side of the spectrum.

If younger voters were the only ones with these attitudes, social conservatives might be able to lay claim to a "moral values" mandate for a very long time. But younger voters represent the mainstream much more than the initial exit polling would indicate. The illusion of a predominant "moral values" voting bloc has much to do with the fact that the most traditional and socially conservative Americans, pre-baby boomers, are living much longer lives and voting in very large numbers -- skewing exit polls and thus our image of the mainstream. Once younger voters begin to replace them, the socially conservative vote will return to the margins of American life.

There's a good reason why young people feel the way they do, and that's because their baby boomer parents overwhelmingly agree with them. So forget any talk of a generation gap between boomers and their children. On a wide range of social and cultural issues, they are united in their attitudes of tolerance and inclusiveness. The only generation gap that remains is the same one that began in the '60s, between pre-boomers and the rest of us. What we have today is a pre-baby boom cohort that's steadfastly conservative, with the vast majority of everyone younger leaning the opposite way.

Take race, for example. Young whites who date across racial lines feel comfortable doing so because their boomer parents say they have no problem with it. Yet for older white Americans, who in surveys continue to oppose the idea of a close relative marrying a black, interracial dating remains a taboo. Should blacks push themselves where they're not wanted? Two-thirds of pre-boomers in one survey said no, a view rejected by a vast majority of everyone younger.

It's the same with the hot-button issue of gay and lesbian rights. Pre-boomers are the only group that believes society should not recognize homosexuality as an acceptable way of life, according to a 2002 poll by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Those who still oppose the idea of gay teachers may recall the glory days when Anita Bryant's antigay crusade to "Save Our Children" seemed to represent a broad national consensus, but today they are a minority.

So powerful is the new norm of tolerance and inclusiveness that more than 200 cities and counties now have laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination, and among Fortune 500 companies, 227 now offer domestic-partner benefits. Straight job seekers have been known to ask whether companies offer same-sex-partner benefits not because they're secretly gay but because they prefer a company that promotes diversity and tolerance. Even in this supposedly conservative political year, exit polls found three in five voters supporting marriage or civil unions for gays.

Nor is it any different in the way we view the family: The socially conservative attitudes held by many evangelicals and older Americans are simply out of step with what most Americans believe.

According to my cohort analysis of surveys conducted by the University of Chicago's highly regarded National Opinion Research Center, large majorities of Americans born from 1943 onward strongly reject the traditional view that families and children suffer if Mom works full time or if Mom works and Dad takes care of the kids. When asked during the 1990s whether it was better for men to work and women to tend to the home, 60 percent of those born before 1943 said yes, while nearly three-fourths of those born afterward said no. Young and old are united in support of families, but from boomers on down it's equality in a family that is believed to make it strong.

Many conservatives, of course, continue to resist the realities of the modern family, arguing that working mothers don't really want to work but have been hoodwinked by liberal elites who want to impose their feminist views. But when women are asked if they would continue working even if they didn't need the money, as many as two-thirds say yes. And when NORC asked in 2002 whether "both the husband and wife should contribute to the household income," fewer than 10 percent said no. The egalitarian model -- not the Donna Reed stereotype of 1950s sitcoms -- represents mainstream America today.

This mainstream liberalism also reaches into the most intimate of decisions. On cohabitation and sex before marriage, few in the older group call it acceptable, while most in the younger cohorts seem unfazed. The younger groups tend to be more pro-choice than their elders. And while no one wants teenagers engaging in sexual activity, only the pre-boomer group would deny birth control to sexually active teens. Two-thirds of the younger cohort would support it.

Does all this mean that boomers and younger Americans reject the traditional family and all restraints on personal behavior? Of course not. They simply accept that people are different and have a right to make their own choices and lead their own lives, and that the moral imperative is not to condemn those who are different but to include and support them. Diversity is not just a slogan -- it's a moral value for these generations.

Much has been made of the Roman Catholic hierarchy's opposition to John Kerry's pro-choice stance, and by inference the press has bought the stereotype of the socially conservative Catholic. But again the stereotype misleads. Among boomer and younger Catholics, NORC finds, only 27 percent label themselves traditional, compared with 44 percent among pre-boomers. And religious liberals now exceed traditionalists in this younger cohort. Most Catholics now reject, if not resent, church dogma restricting social tolerance and personal freedom. Recent surveys by the New York Times and Newsweek show large majorities favoring married priests, female priests, gay adoptions and birth control. And barely a third want abortion outlawed, no different from the proportion in the rest of America.

Nor are these mere attitudes. Most estimates suggest that Catholics obtain abortions at the same rate as other Americans, and despite the church's ban on divorce, the percentage of Catholics separated or divorced is right at the national average. Growing numbers of boomer and younger Catholics also believe you can marry outside the church and still be a good Catholic, and about a third of younger Catholics do just that. If the church required adherence to its traditional teachings, one Jesuit writer observed, "I'm afraid we're going to have nobody taking Communion."

What we see among Catholics is happening with Americans of all faiths. Indeed, the traditionally religious American -- what the press has anointed the faith or moral values voter -- may well be in decline. According to NORC's 2000 General Social Survey, only two in 10 Americans born from 1943 onward attend religious services once a week or more, while six in 10 attend infrequently -- at most a few times a year -- if at all. That's almost the opposite of older Americans, 55 percent of whom attend once a month or more and 36 percent of whom attend once a week or more.

In fact, the fastest-growing group of religious Americans are those who claim no religious identity at all; their number now almost equals the number of people who call themselves Baptists, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. These numbers track with findings by Independent Sector, a group that studies nonprofit trends, which show that the share of Americans giving their time to religious organizations declined from 28.6 percent in 1989 to 22.8 percent in 1998.

It's not that Americans aren't seeking spiritual guidance -- they are, and in large numbers. But they're finding it in nontraditional ways. Much has been written about the number of baby boomers who have returned to the religious fold after the turbulence of the '60s and '70s, but as religious scholar Wade Clark Roof has reported in his various books on boomers and religion, many of them are "re-traditionalizing" their faith, elevating individual worship over deference to authority and embracing modern values over outmoded rules.

This yearning for spirituality over religiosity can be seen in the estimated 20 percent of Americans who show interest in New Age ideas, and in the 20 million who take yoga classes, which approaches the number of boomers and younger adults who attend church at least once a week. A generation ago, most Americans believed in moral absolutes, biblical truth and the authority of their religious leaders, but today, the vast majority say that religious morality is a personal matter. And the trend is increasingly in that direction; only the social conservatives think otherwise.

Nervous Democrats who counsel their party to offer a me-too religious moralism fail to grasp that mainstream morality has changed over the last generation. What's different is that most Americans no longer feel comfortable imposing their personal morality on another's private behavior. But that doesn't mean this new majority is any less moral.

For baby boomers and younger people, there's nothing equivocal about their views of right and wrong. These Americans condemn bigotry, intolerance and discrimination. They reject constraints on personal freedom and don't like it when women are not treated as equals. They find pollution objectionable and see nothing moral in imposing religious beliefs on others. They believe a moral upbringing is teaching kids to think for themselves, not to follow another's rules. What they embrace are pluralism, privacy, freedom of choice, diversity and respect for people with different traditions. Perhaps the only thing missing from this new morality is a politician capable of articulating it.

Why isn't this new mainstream more vocal in our politics today? To borrow a phrase from Richard Nixon, they've become a new "silent majority" -- not the socially conservative silent majority of old, but a silent majority that's fairly content with the new morality and unwilling to believe that America will turn back the clock on their rights and freedoms.

Yet if anyone crosses this silent majority, by passing laws to restrict personal freedoms, they will be silent no more. When the trustees at James Madison University in rural Virginia voted to ban the morning-after pill from the student health center in 2003, the largely conservative student body rose up within 36 hours and demanded change. Consider that a microcosm of what would happen nationwide.

And why do social conservatives loom so large in our politics today? The best historical parallel for them may be the Luddites who terrorized Britain two centuries ago, the workers who traveled around the country smashing machines for fear that the Industrial Revolution would destroy their jobs and way of life. They were loud, and their tenacity gave the impression that they represented more Britons than they actually did, when in fact they were merely acting out their despair and outrage at a world that was passing them by. Today's social conservatives are our cultural Luddites.

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, religious and social conservatives have begun to demand their spoils and due. Evangelical leader Bob Jones III, head of the eponymous Bob Jones University in South Carolina that until 2000 banned interracial dating, has called upon President Bush to appoint conservative judges and pass legislation "defined by biblical norm." Pro-choice Republicans like Sen. Arlen Specter have been threatened with loss of power if they refuse to rubber-stamp anti-Roe judges. The president himself has said he's ready to spend his "political capital" to enact his moral values.

It was a gleeful Karl Rove who let the evangelical genie out of the bottle to win this election, but what worked this year may come back to haunt the GOP in the decades to come. For as much as Rove needed these religious voters to get his guy over the top, let us not forget that the primary reason President Bush won is that he quite successfully turned the election into a referendum on leadership qualities for the war on terror, and in the process subsumed all other issues.

Perhaps Rove should have sat in on my undergraduate course on this year's presidential campaign, which I've been teaching this fall at American University in Washington. About two weeks before the election, I asked the students, "Would you be more or less likely to support George W. Bush if you knew he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would erode the right to an abortion, the right to sexual privacy, gay rights, church-state separation, federal environmental regulation, family leave laws, and both affirmative action and diversity programs?" And before I let them answer, I added that these were not mere abstractions, that Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas had both voted or vowed to erode these rights and protections, and that these were the two justices Bush has cited as his model nominees.

Predictably, the Kerry partisans shuddered at the idea of a Supreme Court stacked with Bush appointees. But more interesting was the reaction from the Bush supporters. With clear discomfort, most wanted to wish the question away, saying they don't vote on hypotheticals, and anyway, they couldn't imagine the Court reversing such settled law. But when I pressed them and asked them to take the president and his favorite justices at their word, one finally conceded that his perspective was based on "wishful thinking."

The "wishful thinking" student intrigued me most because he was a hard-nosed thinker, a strong Bush supporter from the heartland, and he spent much of the semester critiquing the Kerry supporters for "wishful thinking" about terrorism, saying that we needed to stand tough against Islamic fascists regardless of what the rest of the world says. So after the election I asked him about his "wishful thinking" on the Supreme Court, and after a few moments of cognitive dissonance, he admitted that a rightward Court that overruled Roe vs. Wade and other rights might eventually force him to rethink his political loyalties.

So be careful what you wish for, Mr. Rove. The moment the courts start reversing our personal freedoms -- or the religious right overreaches and tries to impose its will -- millions of Americans who voted for President Bush might regret their decision to let wishful thinking guide their choice back in 2004.

The new silent majority will rise again.

By Leonard Steinhorn

Leonard Steinhorn teaches politics and media at American University and is the author of the forthcoming book "The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy," to be published by St. Martin's Press in 2005.

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