274. "The Politics of Morality" The Wall Street Journal (November 13, 1995) p. A14.


Colin Powell, during his brief weighing of a presidential bid, showed a great deal of personal integrity, moral fortitude, and a capacity to speak in moral-religious terms without offending most anyone's sensibilities. What is missing now in the wide array of declared presidential candidates is a leader who will address our nation's gnawing social and moral concerns in terms that speak not only to the right wing but also to the sizable center. This is not a plea for a particular person or political party. Rather, it is for this country's moral crisis to receive the attention that is its due.

The electorate could not be clearer that it wants these issues to be joined. A poll conducted by the liberal People for the American Way found that a majority of Americans believe a decline in moral values "is the root cause of many of our nation's problems." A study of voters by the Wirthlin Group shows that 60% of voters feel that the problems facing the country are "primarily moral and social in nature," as opposed to "primarily economic in nature." Three out of four Americans believe that the country is in a state of moral decay; 84% wish that government policies would be more directed by moral values.

The reasons the public is preoccupied with moral issues are equally evident. The economy is doing relatively well. Interest rates, inflation and unemployment are rather low; the deficit is trending down; the dollar has stabilized; growth is firm and seems sustainable. Surely there are weak spots -- downsizing has increased job insecurity and, in some parts of the country, people have a hard time selling their houses without a loss. But there is no deep recession, runaway inflation, oil embargo, or some other economic crisis from which the country is expecting a GOP president to rescue it.

At the same time, the waning of the moral order is all too evident. From 1960 to 1990 the rates of illegitimacy rose by 94%, divorce by 125%, and violent crime by 358%. True, all these statistics are subject to arguments among experts, but the daily barrage of news in the local media leaves little doubt in the minds of most Americans that crime is rampant, drug abuse is high, and so on down the well-known list of social ills.

Most important, large segments of the public are less preoccupied with specifics than consumed by a general deep sense of unease. Many traditional values have been challenged and few new ones have evolved.

Men and women no longer know what they can legitimately demand, expect, or even ask of one another. Employers are unsure about how they are supposed to deal with employees from other races. Parents feel defenseless against the smut that engulfs their children, and the teachings their kids are exposed to in school. The often repeated refrain that "one cannot tell right from wrong any more" should be read as suggesting that many Americans feel others no longer follow a moral course of action.

Sen. Robert Dole is about as tone deaf to these issues as a candidate for president can be. When, in May, I was part of a small group that visited his office, he showed a quick grasp and sure hand in dealing with several minor and rather technical suggestions for new legislation. But when the topic of the moral crisis and what might be done about it was raised, his eyes glazed over. Sen. Phil Gramm, the darling of some social conservatives, has been curiously inept at leading on this issue, focusing instead on the laissez-faire conservative agenda of cutting taxes, regulations, and deficits. When asked about his position on moral issues, he summed it all up in a rather memorable one-liner: "I am not a social preacher."

The country is yearning for a Reagan-like figure who will eloquently speak about social virtues even when there is little that the government can and should do about them. The president can help set the moral agenda and foster concern for its contents -- from a sense of personal and social responsibility to a commitment to family. It is particularly important that Americans will feel encouraged to live up to their moral obligations rather than have the values of others shoved down their throats; that they will feel called to nobler behavior rather than have their arms twisted. All you need to do is say "Prohibition" and most everyone notes the ill effects of legislating morality when the public does not support the change in conduct.

Thinking about the Reagan presidency also calls attention to the fact that a call to restore virtues can be achieved only so long as the national father figure is not a divisive and abrasive one. Here lies a point that deserves more attention: The great mass of Americans who are deeply troubled by the moral deficit are not of one flock. They are not all or even mainly of the Christian Right. (The Christian Coalition has 1.5 million members, though it sometimes claims to speak for 40 million.) The great majority of Americans who sense a moral crisis includes millions who are moderate, centrist people; millions who are sometimes religious, but not strongly so; and millions who fear divisiveness and polarization.

An exhaustive study of Americans' religious conduct by Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that only 26% of Americans define their religious orientation as conservative, while 44% define it as moderate. (The rest defined it as liberal or refused to be categorized.) Sixty-five percent attend religious services a few times a year -- or less.

Moreover, differences between regular churchgoers and those who are not were found to be much smaller than the similarities. For instance, while 97% of churchgoers ranked moral standards as very important to them, so did 93% of all those in the labor force. Even when it came to "your relations to God," 94% of the first group ranked them as very important, compared with 69% of the second one.

Pat Buchanan, with his angry voice and hellfire-and-damnation style, appeals to only a minority of the GOP voters and a still smaller proportion of the large number of centrist, independent voters. That is, he leaves most Americans who care about moral and social issues rather cold, if not troubled.

Furthermore, it is gravely mistaken to believe that all or even most of the 40 million or so Americans who are considered on the Christian Right follow the same basic line. A recent New York Times poll has shown that more than a third of likely voters in Republican primaries are pro-choice; two thirds indicated that conservative Christian leaders' endorsements of a presidential candidate will have no effect on their vote; and eight out of 10 do not see themselves as members of the Christian Right. Taking into account the moderate nature of many in the Christian Right and in the public at large, the Christian Coalition, under Executive Director Ralph Reed, had to tone down its message recently.

All of this suggests that the many millions who seek a moral reconstitution of America are also in search of a leader who will champion moral values without waving a fist or too vociferously waggling a finger. I can practically see the ad: Wanted, a leader who has the moral conviction and inviting style of a Bill Bennett, the editor of "The Book of Virtues."

Mr. Bennett is far from Reagan reincarnate. But he seems to have learned to leave behind the other Bill Bennett -- the scrappy, excessively partisan pitbull. He speaks to moral issues with a compelling, but not damning, voice. And he has shown considerable moral courage by addressing, as strong moral leaders do, failings in his own crowd. He railed against signs of jingoism in the debate about immigration (especially when it started to lump legal with illegal immigrants, calling for punitive measures against both) and warned against the obsession with homosexuals to the neglect of an issue closer to home: divorce. Family life and religious devotion for him are not an election eve conversion.

This is not a plea for Mr. Bennett to be drafted or to rescind his decision not to enter the race. Rather, it is to get Republicans to realize that unless one of their presidential candidates addresses moral issues, and does so in a way that reaches out and is inclusive rather than being condemning and divisive, another presidential election may pass without these issues being properly joined on a nationwide level, or the field will be left to Bill Clinton.

Mr. Etzioni is the author of The Spirit of Community (Simon & Schuster) and director of The George Washington University Center for Communitarian Policy Studies.

(Copyright (c) 1995, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052
202.994.6118
comnet@gwu.edu