Deans for religious life question meaning of 'moral values'

L.A. Cicero moral

From left, panel moderator Elaine Ray, Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, the Rev. Joanne Sanders and the Rev. William “Scotty” McLennan discussed the notion of “moral values” and its role in the recent election.

Following a presidential race during which many voters contended that Republicans hijacked the language of morality to further their political agenda, the university's deans for religious life gathered Nov. 22 to question whether "moral values" can be defined as conservative or liberal, and to discuss where the country is heading.

"No president nor other leader should ever think he or she has been given divine sanction—been blessed by God—no matter what he or she does, bad or good, as [conservative evangelist] Pat Robertson claimed earlier this year for George Bush," said the Rev. William "Scotty" McLennan, dean for religious life. "Religion should never be a trump card or a voting block."

Borrowing from the words of writer Sue Halpern, the Rev. Joanne Sanders, associate dean, warned that President Bush and his adviser Karl Rove have "made a Faustian bargain with the religious right. … They may have a dragon by the tail." And quoting from Michael Feingold of the Village Voice, Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean, said the religious right has achieved its might at the expense of its soul. "Make no mistake, this is the election in which American Christianity destroyed itself," Feingold wrote. "Today the church is no longer a religion but a tacky political lobby."

Discussion moderator Elaine Ray, director of the university's News Service, said that during the election she bristled at the characterization of many Bush voters as "value voters" and the notion that somehow Republicans had a lock on "moral issues" and that the rest of the electorate, by implication, was not concerned with them. "In reality, 'values' and 'morals' are not red or blue," Ray said, referring to the color-coded maps that depicted states President Bush won as red and those his Democratic challenger won as blue. "They are gray, because in many cases they are personal and in all cases they are complicated."

During the 90-minute discussion in Memorial Church, the three deans talked about the steady, decades-long ascendance of the religious right in this country. Karlin-Neumann said 15 years ago a rabbinic colleague in Shreveport, La., who was fighting against the teaching of creationism and a religiously based sexual abstinence curriculum in public school, warned, "They're in my town; they're coming to your town." His town has become our country, the rabbi said.

In response, the deans—all self-described religious progressives—suggested that liberals reach out to their conservative brethren to better understand how a climate of fear lingering since Sept. 11, 2001, helped re-elect Bush. "Our country has been gripped by grief and fear, by test and terror, by alarm and apprehension," Karlin-Neumann said. "Neither left nor right has a monopoly on fear. The rhetoric [of the election] may be of hope and power—of freedom on the march—but the reaction is one of circling the wagons and contraction."

Karlin-Neumann quoted Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who wrote Nov. 7 that reinforcing this atmosphere of fear is a deep anxiety many Americans share that their country is losing its moral compass, which they believe is derived from God. "When we fail to acknowledge God—removing 'under God' from the Pledge, banning the Ten Commandments from public buildings—we fall away from God's grace and protection," Townsend wrote. "[After] Sept. 11 … a residue of quiet fear lingers for most Americans, not just Christian conservatives. … This is what Bush was able to tap into. … The twin specters of domestic moral collapse and terrorism came together to haunt the Christian psyche."

Although Sanders said she is not interested in pandering to the Christian right to win elections, she does believe that what has been called the "Americanization of Jesus' message" must be countered by people of faith and intellect. In addition, she said, progressive Christians must challenge how the definition of morality and moral issues could become so narrow as to focus almost exclusively on opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

"What is deeply disturbing to me is that in this country, many of its Christian citizens have melded their faith in Jesus Christ with a faith in the righteousness of the nation in which they live," Sanders said, quoting from writer Joseph Wakelee-Lynch. "On these shores, a long-standing belief in American's exceptionalism endures; it has been our national hubris. And I am of the opinion that it leaves us floating aimlessly alone, far from the shores of humility."

Unlike other nations that are held together by an ethnic identity, Americans are united by a common idea about human hope and human potential, McLennan said: "The idea of America includes not only liberty but also a deep commitment to equality and justice, starting with equality of opportunity." He said that although the United States has fallen far short of its dream, most Americans want to make it a better country. "I suggest that America has important moral values that bind us together—which we abuse at our peril," he added.