Morality. It’s a word whose definition is elusive, shifting significantly with time, place, culture and context. When 28 percent of voters in November said in a widely cited CBS exit poll that “moral values” were the dominant factor in their choice of a presidential candidate, there was little discussion of what they meant.
Despite this lack of clarity, media pundits went wild. Stories about “values voters” and the supposedly superior morals of “red state” voters saturated morning talk shows, newspaper articles and talk radio. Analysts concluded Democrats would have to earnestly address moral issues and religion if they hoped to turn their party around.
The pollsters and those who analyzed their results ignored important questions. What do we mean when we utter the term “morality,” especially in a political context? Haven’t we always allowed morals to guide our votes? Or was the phenomenon unique to last year’s election?
On Dec. 14, five Columbia residents gathered at the Missourian to probe these questions and discover some answers. In that discussion with voters, and in interviews with political scientists, pastors and philosophers, Columbians had a lot to say about morality, how it factored into voters’ re-election of President Bush and how it has influenced America’s political history.
The word “morality” conjures a host of images, phrases, issues and ideologies. It stirs a different set of emotions in nearly every individual. Ask any number of people for their definition of “morality” or “moral values,” and you’re likely to get as many different answers.
In the small group that gathered to discuss the matter for this report, every member had his or her own definition of the word, especially as it relates to political issues.
Although the issue of sexual morality surfaced with the mention of abortion, for example, other issues such as corporate wealth, underemployment, social justice, the needs of the next generation, the role of religion in society and the exportation of American culture were more prominent.
Although morality can encompass different, and even opposite, ideas, one notion that most can agree with is that any discussion of moral values must be broadened.
“When do we have a national dialogue about morality in the larger sense?” asked Columbia resident Jo Sapp, 60. “What do we value? What do we think is good? And what do we think is right in our society? We’re a complex society; we don’t have one answer for a lot of those things. But, there probably is a baseline that we can draw and set aside our differences if we could just have that discussion, and I don’t think we’re having it.”
Al Tacker, 59, said an overemphasis on sexual morality has narrowed the discussion.
“A lot of people equate morality with sex issues and nothing else. … I see morality as so much more than that,” said Tacker, a former City Council member and director of the Family Counseling Center. “It involves the Golden Rule and basically how to treat others. The problem is that is has been defined so narrowly.”
John Baker, pastor at First Baptist Church, agreed in an interview separate from the focus group.
“There has been a narrowing of the moral discussion by the powers that be,” he said.
Diane Oerly, an MU business technology consultant, said social justice — “equity and fairness that spans socioeconomic classes” — is a large part of morality in her view. She cited “the shrinking of, or pretty much extinction of the middle class.”
“A small class of people are getting rich, richer and superrich,’’ she said. “There is a burgeoning bunch of Americans who are struggling because they have service jobs that don’t pay them enough money. … I definitely see a moral dimension to that.
“The superrich have a different set of morals, and they just screw the rest of us. You have CEOs and sports figures that … are just basically raping our social fabric. You have these people that are working at Wal-Mart that are being told to rat on each other. So, yeah, there is a definite moral chasm between those two.”
Sapp, a leader of the League of Women Voters of Columbia, said that divide reflects our social values.
“How we structure our society says a lot about what we value,” she said. “If we structure our society in such a way that the rich people have arranged everything to suit themselves, then we are saying we don’t care about those who don’t have the power or the education or the wherewithal to have an input on how society has been structured. We have basically given up on those. That’s definitely a moral issue.”
Baker, married to Judy Baker, a Democrat and the new 25th District State Representative, feels the narrowing discussion of morality has also been applied to Christianity.
“(Conservative Christians) have craftily used the media, and that gave them a strong voice,” Baker said. “I would love if there was a progressive Christian voice out there, because Christianity is much broader and richer than it is popularly presented and perceived.”
Peter Vallentyne, an MU philosophy professor, suggested a more academic and objective view of the term.
“It should be able to accommodate all of the moral views,” Vallentyne said. “People may disagree about substance, but we should be able to agree on what we are talking about. Roughly speaking, morality is the set of basic norms concerned with impartially protecting or promoting peoples’ basic interests.”
Vallentyne said that sort of definition fits with secular and religious views.
“If you think morality comes from God, it’s compatible with that,” he said. “It’s also compatible with secular views, such as maximizing happiness and the idea of leaving people free as long as they are not harming anyone.”
After the Election Day exit polls, headlines and newscasts proclaimed that “morals” and “values” gave Bush the necessary boost to emerge victorious in a neck-and-neck campaign against John Kerry.
People can be interpret, manipulate or apply these vague terms differently in assorted contexts.
“Words really have usages, not definitions,” Baker said. “Because of the media, ‘morality’ has come to mean the classic three of abortion, homosexuality and stem-cell research. Morality means more than that.”
Retired teacher and guidance counselor Carolee Wood, 71, agreed that vague phrases and slogans only confuse the issues.
“I think one of the problems here is that we have some sort of exaggerated words,” Wood said. “We use ‘family values.’ Well I don’t know what that means, because everyone has family values.”
Baker said there are a wide-ranging number of political topics with moral ramifications.
“The environment is a moral issue. If we do not take care of this world, we soon will have no healthy world in which to debate these issues. Race continues to be a moral issue. If you look at what’s going on with Alabama and their constitution, you clearly see that some people still do not accept people of different colors,” Baker said, referring to a failed Nov. 2 ballot measure that sought to remove school segregation from Alabama’s constitution. “Income and opportunity for everyone is a moral issue.”
Pastor Ed Phillips of Evangelical Free Church said no particular issue comes to mind when he thinks of morality.
“When I think of moral issues, I think of what is true,” Phillips said. “There is a reality defined by God; there are issues that are right and true according to him. Morality is about your word being true, being trustworthy, being firm in the commitments you make. … Even in the political realm, I think of truth, faithfulness … and trustworthiness as moral issues.
“I think mainly of what God says is right and true, and then under that (are issues such as) abortion and homosexuality.”
Phillips agreed, however, that there are societal issues that should be associated with morality, even though they often aren’t perceived that way. He cited poor working conditions as an example.
“We are obligated to treat our fellow man fairly and kindly,” Phillips said.
Although Phillips makes a distinction between issues such as labor conditions and wedge issues such as homosexuality and abortion, Vallentyne said he hopes to include a wide range of topics in the moral dialogue.
“Some of these issues just have to do with the pace of life and social change,” he said. “Things are changing far faster than any other time in human history. No one likes his or her life being shaken up. … If you like the traditional way of life, and now someone is saying gays should be able to marry, it doesn’t feel good.”
History is rife with examples of issues that used to carry strong moral connotations but now do not. Vallentyne alluded to the early 20th century opposition to women’s suffrage and integration as examples. Although decades ago, many opponents cited their moral convictions in arguing against civil rights and women’s right to vote, the weight of those arguments diminished with time.
“People used to have terrible views about those things,” Vallentyne said. “It may just take a couple of generations for some of these things.”
Having an open mind is one solution for soothing the raw nerves touchy subjects create.
“The bottom line is that we need to be humble,” Vallentyne said. “We need to talk and to have an open mind and to understand others. That’s not to say that we should be wishy-washy. It’s about understanding. The better you understand people’s views, the more you realize that they are not as crazy as you think.”
Moral values and the presidential election
Whether narrowly or broadly defined, morality plays important roles in campaigns and elections. Political parties highlight certain values in an attempt to appeal to voters, and the electorate brings its religious and social background to the voting booth.
For some, weighing religious values while making political decisions is an outgrowth of incorporating those values into daily life.
“My personal morality, which is probably similar to the cultural morality, is centered on the New Testament: Do unto others, care for the least among you, … tolerance,” Sapp said. “All of those come into play. That’s what I expect of people around me, those are the things I want my kids to be. So, if it’s good enough for my kids, it’s good enough for elected officials.”
Connie McClellan, a 54-year-old insurance agent, said Christianity is a big influence in her life, and she wants leaders who share that influence.
“As a Christian, I achieve the peace that surpasses all understanding from my God …” she said. “I have a peace about everything, about everything. I don’t worry about anything.”
Said Sapp, “Well I think that’s wonderful, but why does that have to translate into forcing that? Not you personally, but why does that have to translate into a set of rules the rest of the world has to live by? If you are at peace and happy, why do you have to take over the government?”
McClellen answered: “Well, I want to vote for someone like me, someone who has that connection.”
Wood said she also takes moral issues into account when she goes to the polling place.
“I think of honesty,” she said. “I think of hard work. I do appreciate intellect because I think very often that’s a product of hard work. I just appreciate integrity and character. ... I want welfare for the individual, but not just one individual’s welfare. I want a global welfare.”
Although voters bring diverse sets of moral values to the polling place, Tacker said the candidates’ campaigns in the most recent election framed morals to suit their agendas.
“In a campaign context, we’re talking about 1½ commandments: Thou shall not kill the unborn and thou shall not commit adultery,” he said.
“And I think that Republicans are clearly better than Democrats in those situations. They make a real effort to focus their discussion of morality on one of those issues and not open up to some of the others. I think that Democrats have equally valid causes to support. … I think that Republicans have found it as a good tool for organizing people who have strong feelings in that area. Many would probably, if the discussion were broader, would consider a broader range of values.”
Morality’s political history
The late-autumn buzz about morality and politics has faded and will be tucked away into history as new issues arise and dominate the headlines. It will surface, again, if history is any guide. In the past 40 years, morality has taken many forms and seeped into politics in many ways.
The American media and public over the past few decades have given increasing weight to presidential candidates’ morals, values and personal qualities. Although it became more obvious in the post-Watergate era and in the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, who openly discussed his Christian convictions during his campaign and presidency, there was little public debate about whether the trend was appropriate.
That changed with Democrat Gary Hart, a leading contender for the Democrats’ 1988 nomination until he was buried by revelations of an extramarital affair.
The inherent nature of the presidential office and the personal relationship candidates have created with the public are explanations for the increasing focus on a candidates’ values, said Marvin Overby, an MU professor of political science and moderator of the Missourian discussion.
“If you think about the president in this country, he is both the head of government and the symbolic head of state,” Overby said.
“In other countries, like England for example, you have the queen and the prime minister. The queen is the traditional symbol of a time when kings and queens really had power, hundreds of years ago. The prime minister is the head of the government and policy-making.”
The United States lacks this division of leadership, and that favors Republicans, Overby said.
“Republicans are better at understanding that elections are not just about policy,” he said. “They are largely about symbols and motifs. … When people look for a symbol, they look for a symbol of what our country once was, not what we are. We want what we were at our best. Reagan adopted that. He was a cowboy. What better symbol could you want than the glory days of the Old West?”
Reagan’s campaign reoriented the Republican Party to the South and converted Southern whites. His election in 1980 and 1984 was largely because of the mobilization of
Christian conservatives in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Overby said.
The Moral Majority, founded in 1979, encouraged Christians to register and support candidates who conformed to conservative social values.
“It’s ironic because (Reagan) was not the kind of leader that they would really want,” Overby said. “He was an actor in Hollywood, he was divorced, he did not practice the religious right’s tenets. He was able to mobilize them in 1980, though.”
The effect lingers and arguably is growing. Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004 benefited from the Republican base built in the 1980s, but he – more than either his father or Reagan – made faith a central theme of his campaign and his policies: on stem-cell research, on abortion, on gay marriage and on making faith-based organizations eligible for federal grants.
Overby said Bush’s religious views were particularly important in his 2000 campaign. “George W. Bush wasn’t doing well in the primaries. Once the South got their votes in, it helped boost him up. This was in large part due to his affiliation with Bob Jones and Bob Jones’ University.”
That’s the university that, according to its Web site, “stands without apology for the old-time religion and absolute authority of the Bible.”
Presidents and candidates over the past 40 years have also begun to invite the public into their private lives, which adds to the interest in a candidate’s morals, religion and family.
“It began with Kennedy in the 1960s,” Overby said. “He used his charisma to his advantage. He invited people into the White House. He showed people his life and his family.”
That trend continues. Cameras follow candidates on vacation and to church. Family members take larger roles in candidates’ campaigns. Wives and children of the presidential and vice presidential candidates in 2004 hit the trail to give speeches and attend forums.
This might explain why many voters said they cast ballots for the candidate they felt they could have a beer or go bowling with.
Once elected, presidents face unending scrutiny. We watch them cut wood, play golf, go fishing or jog. We also watch them pray.
It’s not so much that political parties have changed in the past 50 years, Phillips said. The country and society have seen a transformation. Although voters might give more weight than before to values when making their choices, those values today differ greatly.
“What has changed is that we’ve lost our moral compass,” Phillips said. “Back in the ’50s and before, there was more of a belief in God in this culture. … Back then, the culture just had more morals. Just look at the divorce rate in the 1950s. It was not 50 percent like it is now.”
The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting public schools from requiring participation in classroom religious exercises marked the beginning of an attack on Christian culture, Phillips said.
“From the ’60s on, everything has been challenged,” he said. “The ‘moral’ people have felt a greater need to step up because of that.”
More recent campaigns to remove crosses, nativities and religious phrases from courthouses and public schools trouble Phillips.
“All of these symbols and words and statements are being questioned,” he said. “The problem is this: You inadvertently establish a religion of the nonexistence of God. … There is no recognition of the religious influence that formed this nation.”
Phillips said the focus on equality of religions paints a false picture.
“To say that we cannot present one religion as stronger or more prevalent than another, well, in order to paint a picture like that, you have to diminish Christianity,” he said.
Baker, however, said he believes the shift from liberal to conservative Christianity has had a large impact on American politics.
“During the time of FDR and the early 1950s, the more liberal Christians were involved with addressing social problems,” he said. “There was a focus in lifting up the downtrodden with government programs that local churches just didn’t have the scope or the money to carry out.”
The late 1970s and early 1980s marked a turning point for American Christianity.
“You had the rise of the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell,” Baker said.
Their focus on hot-button issues such as abortion took attention away from other matters with subtler moral or religious implications.
“How big can companies be? That is a moral question.” Baker said. “There is the moral issue of power. How does our country exercise its power? That is a moral concern.”
It’s clear that morality plays a part in all life decisions, whether in politics, church or day-to-day choices. Also clear, however, is that no candidate, campaign manager or political strategist can define morality for us. Our nation’s diversity of views and lifestyles ensures no one definition can emerge. But by talking with others and remaining truly open to their views, we can build a better country.