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
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
Church and State separation should be eliminated from
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
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.