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How They Stole Morality
September 24, 2002
By Diane E. Dees

The so-called moral outrage of the Christian Right and the Bill Bennett Brigade has become so much a part of the American culture that the very words "moral" and "morality" have become associated with right-wing politics and religion. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, once considered a buffoon, is now an established talking head, chatting away on cable news networks about everything from Presidential behavior to Middle East politics.

How did this happen? In 1979, Falwell founded his Moral Majority and recruited hundreds of thousands of conservative Christians, who gave money to the organization and who voted according to the organization's guidelines. The Moral Majority opposed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the passage of gay rights legislation, and all abortion rights. It supported prayer in schools and the teaching of creationism, and generally espoused a variety of Christian Right messages: Hollywood is responsible for the collapse of the nation's morals, feminism is part of a plot to bring about a New World Order, gays are out to "recruit" heterosexuals, and public education is evil.

In 1980, the Moral Majority played a major role in electing Reagan and many other conservatives throughout the nation. Then, at the end of the decade, the televangelist scandals of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart brought about the demise of Falwell's organization, which he said had accomplished its mission: "The religious right is solidly in place," was his final pronouncement.

Falwell knew what he was talking about, and though his own organization faded, it was rapidly replaced by a movement that had its beginnings in the rhetoric of then-Vice President Dan Quayle. Quayle coined the term "family values," and though no one could define exactly what he was talking about, politicians and commentators soon began rhapsodizing about the concept as though it had real meaning. Quayle's most famous campaign was an attack on the sitcom "Murphy Brown," but he had other things to say, too.

"We're not going to redefine the family. Everybody knows the definition of the family. A child. A mother. A father. There are other arrangements of the family, but that is a family and family values."

Quayle said this in 1989, yet the 1990 census showed that during the preceding decade, 64% of American families were not composed of a child or children, and a married mother and father. By 2000, 76.5% of American families did not fall into this category. According to Quayle and the thousands of Family Values believers, this means that over three-quarters of the nation's families weren't really families at all, and they did not possess "family values." This probably came as a shock to the thousands upon thousands of households in which the principles of teamwork, mutual respect, hard work, and goal direction were practiced, but which did not contain a mother, a father, a child, or some combination of these three.

Though the phrase "family values" has mercifully gone out of vogue, the concept hasn't. Euphemisms abound: "Good Christian families," "hard-working Americans," "God-fearing Americans." These are all catch phrases for "Christian, heterosexual families that are not on welfare," and the uttering of them does nothing to promote a better society.

It is an interesting exercise to turn the "family values" and post-"family values" belief system into the unspoken syllogism that it is intended to be: The Christian right has certain values. These values represent morality. Therefore, anyone with opposing values is immoral.

This may not be pretty, but with one-third of Americans claiming to be born-again Christians, and many more claiming to hold born-again values, it is a schema that reflects the current meaning of the word "morality" in the United States. Morality, in other words, has been hijacked by an influential group of citizens, and the rest of us are reluctant to step forward and take it back.

Consider some of the beliefs of the Christian Right/family values/born-again institution:

Women are not equal to men and should submit to men in matters of importance in the home and the community.

Gay people should be restricted in their abilities to hold jobs, acquire housing, raise families, and participate in their communities.

Parents should be able to hit their children without interference.

Other religions are inferior to Christianity.

Schools should be forced to teach material that runs counter to scientific knowledge.

Book-banning should be practiced by schools and communities, and art should be subject to censorship.

Women do not have the right to control their reproductive lives.

Church and State separation should be eliminated from American culture.

For those of us who believe that it is reprehensible to discriminate against women and gays, to discourage children from thinking, to curtail free speech, and to promote a state religion -we are left to face the word "morality" and its ramifications. Why do we believe that these things are wrong? Because they promote bigotry, repress human expression and curtail freedom. In other words, because-according to our values - they are immoral.

Not long ago, I received a solicitation phone call from the March of Dimes, an organization whose enthusiastic funding of animal testing has earned it the nickname "March of Crimes" in animal rights circles. I told the woman that my husband and I could not contribute to the March of Dimes because of our moral opposition to the organization.

There was a moment of total silence, then she said, "You're morally opposed to the March of Dimes? She sounded so shocked, I might as well have said that we had already given all of our money to Columbian drug lords. I went on to explain our opposition, then ended the call. I doubted seriously that I had changed her mind about the March of Dimes, but I knew I had shaken her a bit by using the word "moral."

I propose that those of us who hold what are called liberal values take back the concept of morality, as well as its language. It was the morality of the dreaded left that institutionalized the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the consumer protection system, environmental awareness, worksite safety, and prison reform. It's time we took the credit, and it's time we used the "m" word.

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