Saturday, June 24, 2006

Americans are fleeing the morality police

One of the main points of the Religious Right has been that government needs to be actively promoting moral values. Now very few people actually oppose moral values. And while the fundamentalists believe that they alone possess morals the fact is that most Americans are fairly decent people. And morality often requires leaving other people alone -- something the Religious Right has not figured out.

During the recent dark days of the Bush administration, an era that could almost make one fondly remember FDR and which has done more to resurrect Clinton's reputation than any other factor, government has been actively pushing moral values. They may not balance the budget but thank God they can bash gays. They may engage in torture but they promote chastity in the schools. And now that Bush is well down in the polls it appears the only crowd that is still clinging to his mantel for respectability are the fundamentalists. And even they are getting weary of the man.

One problem that the Religious Right can not understand is that government often discredits the very things it is meant to support. State control of education has turned schools into prisons where the inmates don't learn. Teachers hate teaching, students hate learning, and the parents can't stand the place. So more and more they flee to private education. Now the one group that most complained about that was the Religious Right. They saw that government botched education so badly they rushed out and started their own private schools by the thousands. And then they turned around and demanded that government take on promoting morality. So Christian friends, put on the Dunce cap and go sit in the corner.

Can government actually give moral values a bad name? Apparently so. The most recent Gallup poll looks into that matter. First, they find that most Americans still think that the morality of the nation is getting worse. I sure hope they are not confusing the morality of the White House with the morality of the nation. But what is interesting is that the idea that government can promote morality is declining. In 1996 the Gallup people found that 60% of Americans believed that government should promote moral values and 38% said it shouldn't. In the most recent poll it was evenly split 48% to 48%. In other words the number of Americans who thought government should promote morality dropped 12 points.

The Gallup people say: "That change appears to be a fairly recent phenomenon. ...Last September, 50% of Americans said government should promote traditional values and 47% said it should not favour any values. That was the closest the gap has been in the 13-year trend on this question. Prior to that, there had been roughly a 10 percentage point margin in favour of promoting traditional values." You can see from the chart that the gap on this issue really only closed in the last two to three years.

Yes, George seems responsible. The Christian Right got what they wanted for the first time in history --- one of their own in the White House pushing their agenda. And what are the results? A decline in the number of people supporting their agenda. The fastest way to discredit a good idea is to get government run it. Conservatives, who pretend to be wary of big government, are the one group that still believes that government ought to be promoting traditional values. But even there the margin is not as big as one would expect. Only 58% of conservatives want government in the morality business and 39% think morality ought to be privatised.

When you tweak the numbers and study the results it appears that really only evangelicals think government should be involved in promoting traditional values. The very people horrified at the idea of state schools seem enamoured with state morality. State control of religion didn't do religion any good. As one who has lived in countries like the US and nations with state churches I can see the difference. Europe today is mainly secular and most Europeans couldn't tell you the members of the Trinity. But they still have state churches across Europe. America separated church and state and religion thrives (for good or for bad depending on your point of view). Getting government officials in the front of the morality parade is the fastest way to discredit morality that I can think of. And the louder the White House has become about the morality the more obvious that they have been using it to divert attention from the numerous scandals that plague them and the problems which they are too incompetent to address adequately.

Yes, my born-again friends, you have done your own agenda a great disservice. And if you ever get your wish of reinstating "a Christian America" you will create more atheists and agnostics than the Robert Ingersolls of the world could ever do. Think about it.