Christians and Karl Rove hold no monopoly on values
Christians and Karl Rove hold no monopoly on valuesBy Floyd J. McKay Special to The Times
Americans have been voting their moral values since George Washington.
So why the furor among the chattering classes about "moral values" in the 2004 election? Two things, in my opinion:
First, when a candidate stresses moral values in every speech, every television commercial, every day for a year, it should be no surprise that when voters are asked why they voted for him, they will reply "moral values." If George W. Bush had put as much effort into "eat your spinach," some people would have given that reason for supporting the president.
Second, Republican strategists began in 2000 and continued in 2004 a skillful effort to equate moral values to Christian values, and within that category to mean conservative Christianity, largely of the evangelical brand.
The Republican Party captured the Cross in 2000 and the Flag on 9/11, two of the three classic American values — the third, Mom's Apple Pie, is now available at Wal-Mart. It's a miracle that Democrats got 48 percent and basically held the territory they won in 2000.
My fellow pundits, not to mention Democratic strategists, are recommending a "come to Jesus" campaign on the part of the outflanked Democrats.
But moral values and Christianity are not necessarily the same thing. Surely, other religions believe they have moral values, and surely the unchurched in this country have moral values. History tells us that man's inhumanity to man has frequently flown the banner of God. Ancestors of those who kill today in the name of Islam were several centuries ago killed in the name of Christianity.
Christianity has seen times of intolerance: the Inquisition and the Crusades, among others. Islam has been a religion of violence for much of its history, and today is endangered by its zealots. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have turned a tolerant and much-admired Israel into a military bastion that answers to no international force or pressure. Hindu extremists have slaughtered Muslims in India.
All of these movements proceeded in the name of God. All gained power because clever politicians found "the base," and ultimately the base passed into the wrong hands.
In our nation, "the base" is the property of Karl Rove and associates, who understand the passions, prejudices and needs of millions of Americans who feel left out of and offended by the social revolutions of the past 30 years.
In Bush, they found a perfect messenger, a man without a past who had a life-changing Christian conversion and turned from a failed businessman and drinker into a career politician with remarkable gifts.
Detractors scorned Bush's malapropisms, but he connected with people in the manner of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Bush combined the strengths of his party's two seminal politicians, Reagan and Richard Nixon. He had Reagan's common touch and Nixon's ruthlessness.
The common touch was available for all to see, thanks to television.
The ruthlessness was employed by Rove and others, as they demonized opponents for lacking "moral values." Morality, a quality found in Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, became synonymous with conservative Christianity and, by extension, Republicans.
Democrats cannot attempt to out-evangelize Republicans, playing Billy Sunday to the GOP's Elmer Gantry. It won't work and it shouldn't work.
The problem with equating "moral values" and Christianity — or any other religion — is that movements based on one set of religious tenets will inevitably drive toward the extreme. That is, those who have felt the faith will attempt to expel apostates or convert those outside the fold. The faith test becomes ever more strict, expelling moderates and rewarding zealots.
Morality is found within the heart and soul of each human being, and is not equated with any one religious faith. Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. were of different faiths, but their moral vision changed the world. Great good and great evil have proceeded in the names of popes and ayatollahs.
The task for Democrats is to do well by doing good, particularly at the state and local levels, and to prevent the irresponsible exercise of power by a national establishment now in the hands of one party. It is not to conduct a revival meeting.
Republicans who seek to succeed Bush must now pass a litmus test of religious faith or risk losing "the base." Bush was unique in his ability and willingness to place his personal faith on public display. Would-be imitators of either party do so at considerable risk.
The race to be most pious ultimately moves a nation to extremism, a path all of us should hope to avoid.