Morality important, whatever it means

by Tibor Machan

Many commentators have said the main reason for President Bush’s victory is that voters in the red states opted to support moral values above all else, and Bush was identified with these more closely than Sen. John Kerry.

Judging by the campaign, “moral values” refer to the championing of the causes of the Christian Right — banning of gay marriage, insisting that abortion is always murder, taking a tough stand against Islamic terrorists, having faith in the Christian God, insisting on various absolutes about right and wrong conduct, taking the Bible literally and so forth.

In short, “moral values” is used to mean convictions about what is important as upheld by those on the American Christian Right. And Bush made these convictions more of a center of his campaign than did Kerry.

Of course, this way of looking at the matter may be too simple. What is assumed here to be marginal — for example, advocating the partial privatization of Social Security, tax cuts for everyone, nomination of conservative jurists for the court system (who would oppose judicial activism), standing up to world opinion on various topics like the Iraqi war and the Middle East in general — may also have played an important role for voters this time. These may even have made the crucial difference. After all, Kerry tried to make himself out to be a faithful Christian.

Also, one shouldn’t forget that Kerry wanted to have it both ways on abortion — to oppose it “personally” but to tolerate it “publicly” — which is really impossible if one holds abortion to be murder! Nor should we forget that a good many voters probably took umbrage at the Michael Moore movie about Bush — a pretty nasty business considering it contained virtually nothing but personal attacks and innuendoes about Bush’s motives, with hardly any rational discussion of the policies at issue. This could well have outweighed the resentment created by the folks who indicted Kerry for his stance on the Vietnam War.
Still, let us assume now that the moral values account is correct. What is any rational person to make of that?

Most important is that if indeed the moral values issue was decisive, then most Americans do not grasp what moral values are really all about. Indeed, ironically, they share something with radical Islamists on that topic: They believe that what is moral or ethical must be enforced by government. And this is out-and-out anti-American.

Of course, Kerry & Co. fully share this view, but they tend to be more successfully duplicitous about it. Modern American liberals have pretended to be supporters of tolerance. They have claimed they hold various beliefs seriously but don’t believe these should be forced on others — say, about homosexuality or pornography or even abortion.

Leaving aside the above-mentioned confusion about this where abortion is concerned, the problem is that modern American liberals are not at all tolerant.

They do not tolerate racists, sexists, politically incorrect thinking and talking (joking!); they do not tolerate when the rich refuse to dole out their wealth to the poor; they do not tolerate tax dodging (although they used to tolerate draft dodging); they are incredibly intolerant toward anyone who doesn’t share their environmentalist views (e.g., about SUVs, endangered species), and they are intolerant toward the views of those who preferred Bush (actually they virtually hated them and defended this hatred openly in sophisticated publications like The New Republic).

So then what’s with this moral values thing anyway — both sides embrace their preferred set of moral absolutes, and neither is at all tolerant of the views of the other. Where is there, then, some serious difference?

One area is the relationship between faith and morality. The Kerry crowd, despite its emphatic proclamations to the contrary, is really far more secular and pays far less attention to religion and God than do those who go with Bush. Furthermore, and not unrelated to this, the people associated with Kerry — those at the prestigious universities and the pundits with the prominent news media and the bulk of the Hollywood entourage — tend to wish to embrace the idea that one can have morality and also be completely irreligious about human affairs.

While it may well be misguided, personal moral responsibility is closely linked in America with the idea of religion. Most folks believe that one needs to accept the story about heaven and hell, the supernatural realm, God and Jesus, prayer, sin and the Ten Commandments, and everlasting damnation in order to make sense of moral values. And only President Bush projected an image of himself as someone who does indeed embrace these ideas.

The Kerry crowd just isn’t convincing about moral values because they disassociate it from religion. I am betting most Americans just don’t buy this, not at the gut level from where their political loyalties arise.

In order for there to emerge a serious alternative about moral values to the Bush faction in American culture it would be necessary to demonstrate that even without religion it is possible to make sense of personal moral responsibility, of moral standards that aren’t relative or subjective, of right and wrong.

But none has made this case for the bulk of Americans. So they will go with God and with whoever convinces them that he or she is with God, too.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: