After all the dust had settled in November, the phrase "moral values" was largely debunked as the deciding factor in election 2004. But the passion it sparked — and its divisive effects — remain. In this week's program, we look deeply into the connotations of "moral values" in our public life, for those who cited it on election day as well as those who vehemently rejected it in the weeks that followed. We ask about the real and enduring issues that lie just beneath the moral values debate, and why they matter for our future.
The truth is, the deepest and most threatening divisions in our culture at large — and in our political as well as our religious institutions — have come to center around moral issues. Moreover, the very tone of our debates has become infused with a righteous indignation. This is the force of religious passion taken out of context and turned politically and culturally destructive.
I find Steven Waldman to be an unusually constructive and compassionate observer. He navigates through poll results and political rhetoric as cannily as any pundit. But he pays attention to details — nuances in the facts that don't lend themselves to inflammatory headlines but reveal messy and helpful human implications.
In the book of Genesis, the first act of near-divine responsibility given to humanity by God is the act of "naming." There's some good, hard, uncomfortable naming in this hour of radio. Steven Waldman spells out a number of "truths" that are not just ignored, but frontally attacked, in our current societal climate — truths about liberals that conservatives refuse to take seriously, truths about conservatives that liberals refuse to take seriously. Both sides are choosing caricature and demonization over understanding, he says, to the detriment of our common life. Moreover, media and political formats encourage such misleading, divisive, and inaccurate approaches.
Steven Waldman's analysis of the problems is provocative, and he does not claim to have answers. He does, however, articulate a number of challenging questions. Why, he asks, are our political and media systems set up "to help us avoid national consensus and instead foment the divisions?" Near the end of our conversation, Waldman recounts some advice he once received: that journalism is not a healing art. But is journalism meant, he asks, to be a destructive art? Is there a middle way?
Obviously, I hear these questions as a journalist. And I hear all them as well as a citizen, and one who cares about the content of religious voices in our public life. We are all complicit in our country's "political and media systems" — as voters, constituencies, fans, critics, and consumers. In a democracy, the strident surface can sometimes change by pressure from below — perhaps pressure from an astonishingly overlooked national consensus that Waldman identifies on the most polarizing issues before us, such as abortion and homosexuality.
Here's the question I want to pose at the end of my conversation with Steven Waldman: Can we find ways to further understanding and national consensus with the same wit, creativity, and righteous passion that is now being spent on caricature on both sides of the red-blue divide?