Sudden focus on ‘moral values’

In America’s unending argument with itself, the phrase “moral values” has become the rhetorical equivalent of the groundhog.

Its regular appearances may be an ambiguous harbinger of things to come, but crowds nonetheless gather -- some out of simple credulity, some out of cockeyed enthusiasm and some, more cynical or self-interested, to profit from the other two.

Last week’s reelection of President Bush was widely -- and, perhaps, too quickly -- attributed to an upsurge in participation by voters motivated by concern for “moral values.” This, in turn, has set off a near panic among some media executives, who, like other people, understandably fear what they do not understand -- like morality.


Much that is foolish and some things that are dangerous are being unleashed as a consequence of that fear.

It probably is unsurprising, therefore, that the first spasm of reaction occurred this week among a group of local television stations affiliated with ABC. The network chose to mark Veterans Day by broadcasting the film “Saving Private Ryan,” Steven Spielberg’s classic story of the Normandy landing and its aftermath. The film is a genuine and deeply patriotic work of art, one worthy to stand in that distinguished line of realistic evocations of men at war that includes Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage,” and runs through Frederic Manning’s “The Middle Parts of Fortune,” Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead.”

All that notwithstanding, more than 20 local stations owned by the Citadel, Sinclair and Cox companies declined to air the film because they believed federal regulators might find it “indecent.”


Have the people who have turned local television into a post-wasteland sinkhole, alternately offensive and banal, who have tirelessly evaded their responsibility to provide even minimally responsible local news coverage, suddenly discovered their souls?

Not exactly.

What they have discovered is a deep aversion to paying the fines the FCC theoretically might impose -- though ABC offered to cover any of those, which shows how remote the possibility was -- and a deep irrational anxiety over what they suspect this election may mean. As Ray Cole, president of Citadel Broadcasting, which has ABC affiliates in Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa, and Lincoln, Neb., told the Washington Post, “We’re just coming off an election where moral values were cited by people voting one way or another.”

Knee-jerk conclusions

What people actually meant by that citation is only now coming into some sort of realistic focus. This week, for example, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released the findings of its comprehensive quadrennial post-election poll. According to the survey’s director, Andrew Kohut, the significance to be teased from the phrase “moral values” depended entirely on how the question was asked.

Pew found that 27% of voters asked to rank a list of seven items, including moral values, made that their most important issue. By contrast, voters who were asked an open-ended question about how they ranked the issues cited the war in Iraq as their top concern. “Notably,” according to Pew, “just 9% [of the voters asked the open-ended question] used the terms ‘moral values’ ‘morals’ or ‘values.’ Specific social issues -- including abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research -- were volunteered by 3%.”

Moral values, Kohut said Friday, turns out to be an elastic, “catchall phrase, and when you compare our findings to what people say they really believe about these specific issues, it’s pretty clear that there has been no change in what the electorate is like -- and that includes the electorate that returned George Bush to office. Attitudes on abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, to cite just three examples, actually are remarkably stable.”

So what, beyond panic-as-usual among media commentators and executives -- accounts for this sudden turbulence? In part, there’s the media’s chronic inability to distinguish between morality and moralizing. In part, it’s that some concepts with a religious origin seem to penetrate our collective psyche to the point they trigger nearly autonomic emotional reflexes. One of these is Manichaeism, the 3rd century Persian prophet Mani’s notion that the world is utterly divided between good and evil and dominated by strife between the children of light and the children of darkness.

How else to explain the virtually instantaneous willingness of both liberal and conservative Americans to accept the red state-blue state division on the most facile terms imaginable?

Here we confront the difference between actual religious ideas and popular attitudes or inclinations rooted in religion. The former are open to argument and discussion; the latter are, well, pretty much like any other attitude -- sporadically active, but always unexamined.

Attitudes are energized not by resolve, but by dramatic stimuli -- Janet Jackson’s bare breast, Steven Spielberg’s realistic re-creation of men in combat for their country. It’s likewise no accident that the 11 state propositions banning gay marriage that passed on election day came to the fore after the city of San Francisco mounted what was, for all intents and purposes, an interlude of internationally televised guerrilla theater with its thousands of patently illegal gay weddings.

That event, more than any other, made same-sex marriage a campaign issue. “It’s a bit of life imitating art,” Kohut said. In fact, before the election, his survey -- like most other reputable polls -- found that 60% of Americans favor either gay marriage or legally sanctioned civil unions. Today, that total is unchanged.

Similarly, attitudes on that other hot button, abortion, have been remarkably stable since 1973, when the case of Roe vs. Wade was decided. Slightly more than half of all Americans believe that abortion should be legal under some circumstances. Just over a quarter think it should be legal under all circumstances. Just over a fifth believe that abortion never should be legal, even to save a woman’s life.

That was true the day before last week’s election and it was just as true the day after. It also is true no matter what meaning people choose to assign to the role of moral values in last week’s election.

So, our passage through this latest rediscovery of moral values is likely to be less a pilgrim’s progress than a series of dramas, many of which -- like the flap surrounding “Saving Private Ryan” -- charitably can be described as farce.