The Future of Moral Values
Steven Waldman is the author of Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty. He is the founder and former editor of Beliefnet and now heads Daily Bridge Media.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Future of Moral Values”. After all the dust had settled, the phrase “moral values” was largely debunked as the defining concern of the 2004 electorate. But the passion it sparked and its divisive effects remain. This hour, we’ll probe uncomfortable truths about our public conversation on morality, and we’ll explore important challenges this may pose for both liberals and conservatives, politicians, journalists and citizens.
STEVEN WALDMAN: Even though we have more media and more sophisticated ways of exchanging information, we seem to be less able to really see other people around us accurately. It’s just getting easier and easier to surround ourselves with people who not only agree with us but help caricature the folks across town.
MS. TIPPETT: My guest, Steven Waldman, began his career as a reporter and editor for Newsweek and US News & World Report. In the late 1990s, he pioneered and founded Beliefnet, which is now an eminent Internet site for religious news, ideas and resourcing used by millions. He also analyzes the intersection of religion and politics for other media, from Salon.com to The New York Times. As George W. Bush officially enters his second term as president, I wanted to hear Steven Waldman’s perspective on the real meaning of moral values in American life. We won’t take apart the limitations of the data that put that phrase on everyone’s lips for a few weeks in November, but we will touch briefly on the morning after Election 2004.
MS. TIPPETT: As I’m preparing my notes, I’ve been hanging on to articles and articles about moral values and what it meant and what it didn’t mean and then what it seemed to mean later, and so I wrote at the top of my document, I wrote “dizzying,” because that’s how I felt, especially about all the poll numbers. And so the document got named, by default, Dizzying doc. And I thought that was appropriate.
MR. WALDMAN: That’s appropriate, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And I didn’t change it. So here are two headlines from the day after the election, and one is Christianity Today, the conservative Christian intellectual publication. I know you know it well. “In a time of economic uncertainty and international instability, moral values is the most important issue in the minds of American voters.” And The New York Times, almost using the same words. “Even in a time of war and economic hardship, Americans said they were motivated to vote for President Bush on Tuesday by moral values as much as anything else.”
MR. WALDMAN: Well, first thing to understand about where this idea came from is that it came from a single question in the exit poll where they asked which issue mattered to you most, and 22 percent of people cited moral values. So the first thing to remember is the obvious point, that if 22 percent said that moral values were the most important issue in their minds, that means 78 percent didn’t. That 78 percent of the electorate decided that factors other than moral values were the most important factors in the election.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, just stating that obvious fact is interesting because again, it’s not reflected in either of these headlines I just read, which if you didn’t know it’s 22 percent vs. 78 percent, you would think it was 78 percent said moral values, right, from those leads?
MR. WALDMAN: Yeah. I think what happened is an unusual, perhaps never-to-be-repeated case of religious conservatives and liberals conspiring to push a story line for very different reasons. I don’t mean a conspiracy that was conscious, but basically religious conservatives had an incentive to hype the impact of conservative values issues because they felt like they delivered the election for Bush and they wanted everyone to know it, and they wanted to maximize their power. They wanted to go into the new term with President Bush and the rest of Congress and the media thinking that they were the ones who gave Bush the election. And by the way, that is not unusual. Every group tries to take credit for the electoral victory. It’s no different than happens in any election. These religious conservatives were out front aggressively and quickly claiming credit for the victory. Liberals, meantime, actually found that story line to be sort of comforting because if you think that that’s really what happened, you can sort of say, `Well, it was just that these religious conservatives really came out in droves and they just kind of outhustled us.’ And it’s actually, from a liberal’s point of view, it’s less scary than the reality, which is that Bush won a very broad-based victory, and he won among Catholics, and he won among Jews and he won among people who didn’t go to church as often. It was comforting to think that it was just the case of those wacky conservative Christians coming out and outvoting us. And then, of course, what happened is as we looked at the data more carefully, as time went on, it turned out that it really wasn’t that simple.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. There was a Pew poll which changed the dynamics a little bit by posing the question differently, right, in November?
MR. WALDMAN: Yeah. Well, there are a few things that I would point to. First, it is still true that religious conservatives were an important voting bloc. It’s — we don’t want to be overly contrarian here. They were important. However, our analysis at Beliefnet was that just as important electorally was the fact that Bush did so well among moderate Catholics. I’ll give you one interesting statistic that puts this in high relief. If John Kerry, who of course was Catholic, had done as well among Catholics as Al Gore did, the Southern Baptist Al Gore, he would have won the state of Ohio and be president today. That would have represented a shift of 172,000 votes in Ohio, which would have been enough to give that state to Senator Kerry and make him the president. So I think that, in religious terms, just as significant was how Kerry lost the Catholic vote. Now, the other question that came up in Pew polls, but also were embedded in the initial exit polls, was, OK, what do you mean by moral values? Or what did the people who said moral values mean by moral values? And here’s a couple more confounding numbers. You would have the impression that the electorate was overwhelmingly very, very conservative on the key social issues like abortion and gay rights. Well, let’s look a little more closely at the numbers. Actually, 55 percent of the electorate, according to the same set of exit polls, said abortion should be legal in most or all cases. And maybe even more amazing, 60 percent said that gays should have either the right to marry or have formalized legal civil unions. Sixty percent, at the same election that elected President Bush, and where moral value…
MS. TIPPETT: Of the entire electorate?
MR. WALDMAN: Yeah. Just to make it even more dizzying.
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and Beliefnet editor in chief Steven Waldman. As pollsters and analysts parsed the phrase “moral values” in recent months, they found that different kinds of voters meant different things. Definitions ranged widely among individuals and between the so-called “blue states” that swung for John Kerry, and the “red states” that helped re-elect President Bush. For conservative religious voters, for example, the phrase “moral values” does translate mainly into issues of sexuality, especially abortion and gay marriage. But Steven Waldman says that is still too simple.
MR. WALDMAN: It is partially about gay marriage and abortion, but it’s also something much broader than that. A large number of people in the country think that the country has lost the ability to call things right and wrong. They’ve kicked God out of the schools, they have allowed for sex and violence on TV, they’ve allowed for a general moral relativism to creep everywhere. And abortion and gay rights are issues number one and two for that, but it’s part of a larger fear that a lot of religious conservatives have that they’re being overwhelmed by this general wave of moral relativism. There’s just no drawing lines anymore. There’s no saying some things are right and some things are wrong. And so I think these issues tend to operate on two levels. One is the issue themselves, the specific issue as a single issue. But then there are also proxies for this broader world view. The other thing that I think is an important take-away from this is that if the Democratic Party is going to compete on a national level, it is going to have to reassure people that they are culturally in tune with them.
MS. TIPPETT: You know what? What I am interested in driving at, even when we’re talking politics or organized religion, is sort of the human dimension, you know, what’s really going on inside human beings that has given rise to what we see on the surface as movements and often strident language. And, you know, just a minute ago, you talked about fear that’s at the heart of people’s sense of moral relativism and the world sort of spinning out of control. And I’m wondering if what I’m hearing you saying, when you’re talking about what the Democrats needed to be more responsive to, is that that fear maybe is more pronounced, maybe has become more politicized on the conservative side of things. But that’s in our culture as a whole?
MR. WALDMAN: Yes. I think Kerry should have understood that the fear that people have that American culture is getting debased and that it’s harder and harder to raise kids and that there is a sense we’ve forgotten right from wrong, that that is not a fear that is just limited to religious evangelical Christians. It’s much broader than that. Obviously, people have a lot of different ways at what that means.
MS. TIPPETT: Or what the solutions might be, right?
MR. WALDMAN: Or what the solutions might be, that’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, some of the other kinds of often sarcastically-toned editorials that have been written since the election have pointed out that in the red states, they have the highest rates of divorce. And I’ve seen liberal commentators pointing at that as a sign of hypocrisy. But, you know, again, if you’re thinking about how human beings react to the world around them, it seems to me logical that in these places where basic structures seem to be disintegrating, for whatever reason, that the fear would be stronger and that perhaps the political backlash would mirror that. I’m just sort of thinking out loud with you.
MR. WALDMAN: I think you completely nailed it. There was this kind of wave of color-coded maps that everyone was sending back and forth to each other showing that red states had higher divorce rates. But then the conservatives sent around one that said, `Well, blue states give to charity less’ and things like that. I think you said it perfectly — I couldn’t agree more — that the liberals saw this chart that had the divorce rate higher in the red states and said, `Oh, look at that. That proves the hypocrisy of the red states.’ And it may, in fact, do that. But it also shows something else, which is that families are breaking down faster in the red states, so it would make sense that voters in the red states would be more freaked out about the disintegration of society. And you can certainly argue that, you know, they may have chosen the wrong way of fixing the problem or not, but it makes total sense that voters in red states would be more sensitive to social decline and family breakdown and divorce and all of those sorts of things. The other reason that the blue states had a better divorce rate is that they actually had more religious people. They tended to have more Catholics, and Catholics have lower divorce rates. So it was kind of odd or ironic for the blue state liberals to say, `Hey, we’re — see, we have a better divorce rate, better than those places with all the religious people in them,’ when actually probably one of the main reasons that the blue states had a better divorce rate is they had more practicing Catholics. The other one that got sent around a lot was the charity one. Did you see that?
MS. TIPPETT: No, I didn’t see that one.
MR. WALDMAN: This was making the rounds a lot in the conservative websites and blogs, and it was basically saying that if you put the map on the least generous states, they were all the blue states. And the most generous in terms of giving to charity were the red states. And it’s true. It’s quite amazing. It was just as neat an overlap as the divorce statistics. But when you look at that, it turns out that one of the main reasons that the red states tended to have a higher charitable contribution rate was that they also had a higher percentage of African-Americans in their population, and African-Americans tend to give to charity more than whites do. So the real reason that the red states were more charitable is they had more black voters in them, which tended to be the Democratic voters.
MS. TIPPETT: Who voted Democratic, right. OK. This is great, because I think what we’re getting at is the true irony and not the caricature that is so easy to turn into political satire. Reading through a lot of what’s been written, I’m mean I have to say, it’s quite entertaining. Zell Miller saying of Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, “You can seen horns just sprouting up through that technicolor hair.” Newt Gingrich saying, “This is about Michael Moore vs. Mel Gibson.” Jon Stewart saying that the election was the red states’ revenge on “Will & Grace,” you know, and it goes on and on. It does also seem to be interwoven with moral themes, with religious imagery. And somehow I think maybe it gets some of the passion, also, and the potential emotionalism of that aspect of life. I wonder what you think this is doing to us.
MR. WALDMAN: Well, I think part of the polarization is the idea that the other guy is immoral. They’re not just wrong, they’re immoral. And I think when you’re viewing an issue in moral terms, it cuts deeper. And you’re talking not only about whether something makes sense but whether it’s right or wrong and whether the other person, whether the opponent, is not just a wrong person but a bad person.
MS. TIPPETT: Political analyst Steven Waldman. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Future of Moral Values”.
Moral values was not, as an early exit poll suggested, the factor in George Bush’s re-election. Nevertheless, Steven Waldman believes that this phrase points at new dynamics that challenge the religious values of all kinds of Americans and the health of our common life. In the wake of the election, during the early media frenzy, Waldman wrote a provocative article. “Why can’t liberals and conservatives get along?” he asked. “Because they fundamentally misunderstand each other.” “Moreover, each side,” he wrote, “always ascribes the worst motives to the other.” He gave his essay the ironic title, “Perverted, God-Hating Frenchies vs. Inbred, Sex-Obsessed Yokels.”
MS. TIPPETT: I think what you’ve done in your work and in your writing is also to try to turn that around and actually diffuse some of this and actually point at some of the truths that get covered up in all this emotion and in this political bantering. And I’d like to go into that a little bit, some of the observations you’ve made. In November, you wrote you this piece. You gave five truths that are not understood by the other side, truths about liberals, truths about conservatives. And I think I’d like to just focus in on a couple of them. The truth about liberals, number one, is they’re just as moral as conservatives.
MR. WALDMAN: Conservatives really viewed this as an election in which they were the ones who were thinking in moral terms and liberals weren’t. And that was just a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasoning that many liberals were going through. For most liberals, the really strong dislike or hatred of Bush tended to revolve around the war. And for them, it was largely a moral issue of the sense of an unjust war gone into for false pretenses. Those are moral issues. And conservatives never really understood that about the liberal response, or if they did, they intentionally chose to ignore it to debase the liberal approach.
MS. TIPPETT: And your truth number one about conservatives that you felt liberals needed to take seriously was that they’re just as smart as liberals.
MR. WALDMAN: I heard this all the time from liberal friends, that the reason that conservatives voted for Bush is they’re stupid. And if they really just had, you know, more evidence and more education, they couldn’t possibly take this approach. And there was real condescension and contempt. Now, that’s not for everyone and we’re making generalizations here a little bit…
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALDMAN: …which is exactly what I said no one should do.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. WALDMAN: But there’s no question that liberals tended to have an intellectual smugness about conservative voters. And the fact is that the data doesn’t bear that out. The least educated voters in society actually voted for Kerry, and conversely, you know, many of the highest educated people in our country are very religious. So it just doesn’t follow and it’s basically, you know, it’s kind of a babyish thing that you come up with when you’re losing. You’re sort of saying, `Well, those people are winning because they’re dumb.’ And it’s insulting and liberals sometimes wonder why religious conservatives distrust them so much. And who wants to be treated that way? You know, who wants to be held in contempt or viewed as unintelligent or not sophisticated? So I think part of the conservative religious sense that they’re being persecuted comes from a sense that liberals and elites hold them in contempt.
MS. TIPPETT: And that is another truth about conservatives that you thought liberals needed to take seriously, that they feel that they are under assault, right?
MR. WALDMAN: This is the one that’s the hardest for liberals to really understand, because it is counterintuitive in some ways. I mean, conservatives…
MS. TIPPETT: They won the election.
MR. WALDMAN: They won the election, you know. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the population is Christian. Why would they feel under assault? They’re the majority. But they feel like there are these huge waves of social change and despite the fact that they have all these numbers, they don’t seem to be able to do anything to stop the world from changing around them. And they have these judges who they didn’t elect who are making these decisions that have this profound effect that they just think is wrong, wrong, wrong, and there’s nothing they can do about it. It is just the sense that these forces are bowling them over and they are powerless to do anything about it.
MS. TIPPETT: And actually, there was a very interesting column by Frank Rich of The New York Times which was very full of irony and again, quite amusing to read, but actually about very serious things, right? He said, “Kerry voters who’ve been flagellating themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worth of `The Passion of the Christ’ should wake up and smell the Chardonnay.” And then he goes on to make the point that even if conservatives and conservative Christians, conservative moral people in particular, won this election, they’re losing the culture war. And he points at Fox, which was, you could argue, a mouthpiece of conservative politics, but is producing sexually explicit programming and violent programming, exactly the kind of images that many people, not just conservative people, feel are debasing our culture.
MR. WALDMAN: There’s one issue that I think is fluid, where neither party actually has a lock on gaining the trust of the American voter, one culture war issue, and that is sex and violence on TV. Because conservatives have been the ones to talk about it more but on the other hand, Fox TV, the conservative network, is the one that has kind of led the charge in allowing more and more sex and violence. But Democrats, probably because they get a lot of money from Hollywood and because they tend to be sort of libertarian on free speech issues anyway, have been reluctant to go after that. And you may remember when Joe Lieberman and Tipper Gore were criticizing Hollywood for kind of cultural pollution, they were really slapped around by the liberal wing of the party…
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. WALDMAN: …and viewed as overly conservative. So that issue’s still in play. I would say the Republicans have a leg up on it, but it’s the one where Democratic pundits and elected office holders really ought to think through how they can come up with a position to take the sides of parents in the United States who are upset about what’s on the TV.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And one of the other truths about liberals that you have on your list is that they have family values, that parents are parents are parents. And yes, there may be differences in child rearing, but that core concern for one’s children is shared.
MR. WALDMAN: When someone says that you don’t have family values, you don’t just hear that as a political critique. Implicitly, they’re saying you’re a bad parent, that you don’t care about the world or your own lives in a way that is going to take care of your kids best. So is it any surprise that that makes liberal parents very angry and makes them really distrust religious conservatives?
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and Beliefnet.com founder, Steven Waldman. After a short break, more of his insights into how the media have polarized religious and moral dynamics. And why it might be patriotic for conservatives and liberals to peer across the moral divide.
MR. WALDMAN: I think it is patriotic to try to really understand the views of your opponent because that’s the only way democracy ultimately really works well.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. On our website at speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find in-depth background and reading recommendations. This week, read Steve Waldman’s analyses and commentaries and look at some of the maps and polls we’ve been discussing. You’ll find information there about how to purchase a copy of this program. And while you’re there, you can also sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter, which includes interview transcripts and my reflections on each week’s program. That’s speakingoffaith.org. I’m
Krista Tippett. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Future of Moral Values”. As the second Bush administration commences, we’re deconstructing the catch phrase “moral values.” We’re exploring what those words do and do not mean for liberal and conservative Americans, and what is at stake when both sides fail to understand the moral convictions of the other. My guest, Steven Waldman, is a political analyst, a former editor of Newsweekand US News & World Report and the founder and editor in chief of Beliefnet, the multifaith Internet religious site. We’ve been discussing an article in which he described how our culture increasingly favors caricature and demonization. He gave the article a provocative title, “Perverted, God-Hating Frenchies vs. Inbred, Sex-Obsessed Yokels.” At the conclusion of the article, Waldman writes that both liberal and conservative camps, quote, “have polemicists who win popularity, ratings and book sales by devising ever more clever ways of ripping the eyelids off their opponents.” He continues, “We all know the visceral satisfaction of hanging out with our home team blogs and watching the TV or radio stations that fit our world view. Our politicians and pundits happily supply us with the voodoo dolls and the pins. But we’d be smarter not to use them. I’m not saying that conflicting values aren’t profound and important, but I am saying that if we choose to find the legitimate underpinnings of our ideological opponent’s arguments, we can. It may not be as much fun, but it is more patriotic.” End quote. And in that spirit, here’s a segment from “Meet the Press,” in a program meant to illuminate the convergence of politics, religion and moral values in the lives of Americans. The program producers chose religious guests, known as much for the heat as the light they shed on the issues. They included fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell, former presidential candidate Al Sharpton, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and progressive evangelical social activist Jim Wallis. Most of the time, they talked past each other to their own constituencies.
[Excerpt from “Meet the Press”]
JIM WALLIS: War and peace is a life issue, too. Social justice is a moral issue, too.
JERRY FALWELL: Anyone who takes the Bible seriously believes that family…
REV. WALLIS: If we could define these issues more broadly…
REV. FALWELL: …is one man married to one woman. Anyone who takes the Bible seriously. Anyone who takes the Bible seriously believes that life is sacred from conception on.
AL SHARPTON: And anyone that takes the Bible seriously gives people the right to disagree even with their beliefs. This country was founded with freedom of religion.
REV. FALWELL: Well, then that’s where we want to…
REV. SHARPTON: It is unpatriotic to impose…
REV. FALWELL: Why were you against slavery? Why were you against slavery?
REV. SHARPTON: I was against slavery because slavery imposed the will of some on others, and there’s no…
RICHARD LAND: Well, if there’s no demand, it’s the same thing.
REV. SHARPTON: That’s the answer to your question, Reverend.
MS. TIPPETT: From the television program “Meet the Press” on November 28th, 2004.
MS. TIPPETT: So “Meet the Press” gets Jerry Falwell, Al Sharpton, Jim Wallis and Richard Land to try to tackle the religious dimension of what’s going on in America, which of course is just setting up a big spectacle. And The New York Times, as it’s describing this, makes this sort of editorial statement in the middle of the article. It surprised me, but here’s the statement. And I think this is where a lot of people are coming on what this all means. And the sentence is: “At the heart of this debate is the separation of church and state in America.” Is that at the heart of this debate, in your mind?
MR. WALDMAN: I think for religious conservatives, it’s a big issue. They view the excessive separation of church and state as a big part of the problem. I think we have a long ways to go before we have to worry about a theocracy. But you could see it in the way things played out in December. This is after the election, and the polarization continued. But this time, instead of being about Bush vs. Kerry, it was about Christmas vs. Hanukkah, or Christians vs. Jews, or crèches vs. menorahs. The battleground shifted to the town square and what kind of religious symbols we’re going to have up there and whether we’re going to sing “Silent Night” in the school or whether or not an atheist kid has to say a moment of silence, or whether or not we say `Merry Christmas’ or `happy holidays.’ The same fervor and anger and fury that we saw on everything from the swift boat ads to gay rights during the campaign just moved right on into December into the debates over the December dilemma, over how we were going to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and these other things. In a way, what happened in December was more depressing than what had happened in the previous 10 months because you kind of think, well, elections are elections, you know. They always get nasty. I always love going back and reading like about the election of 1800 with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who ripped each other’s heads off. You know, we think of them as gentle, gentile men. I mean, they were more vicious than Bush and Kerry were. So you sort of think, well, this is what happens with elections. But it’s deeper than that. The country is very divided over some of these issues. And the problem is that the media and the Internet and the kind of fund-raising apparatus of politics tends to find the issues where people are most polarized and emphasize them most. I mean, that’s a classic example of on “Meet the Press,” that in order to have the discussion about the role of religion, they had Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALDMAN: Jerry Falwell doesn’t really represent religious conservatives and Al Sharpton, who really doesn’t represent religious liberals, debating over the role of religion in public life. That says it all. So why is our political and media system set up to make us avoid national consensus and instead foment the division?
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a great question and this is a very interesting place we’ve come to. The question of the December dilemma, the crèche in the town square, these issues and controversies have been with us for a long time. But I think you’re saying that there’s an intensity that’s been heightened. And also maybe what you’re saying is that it’s not so much that separation of church and state is changing or that that may not be quite as dramatic as the way, what do you call them, political and media systems, polarize the debate differently or add a lot of intensity to the extremes.
MR. WALDMAN: Take gay rights as an issue. You can look at gay rights and say, `Well, this was the polarizing issue of the electorate.’ There was fear-mongering, perhaps on one side, there was judicial overreaching on another side. And the battle was joined over this fundamental clash and it’s just an irreconcilable conflict. You just had these two strong views and they were just at odds. Well, actually step back from it and if you look at the polling data, there’s actually kind of a national consensus on this. The national consensus on this is no marriage, but yes, civil unions, yes, legal rights for gays. Sixty percent of the people who voted in the election said that. Would you have gotten that sense from watching the election?
MS. TIPPETT: From the headlines? No.
MR. WALDMAN: Same thing on abortion. Abortion we look at as this utterly polarizing issue. It’s like slavery. It’s these two forces that just fundamentally disagree. There’s really nothing you can do to make one move the other one. Well, that’s not true either. It’s true among the professional activists, but the reality is there’s a broad national consensus in the United States to keep abortion legal but to restrict it. That’s what the national consensus is. That’s what the largest number of people believe. And yet there again, because of the nature of the political campaign and the way that TV shows book their guests and the way that Internet websites get their traffic, we cast it as an issue that is fundamentally polarizing.
MS. TIPPETT: So how can we change this? How can that consensus assert itself, make itself more visible?
MR. WALDMAN: You know, I realize, to some extent, what we’re saying here is a very sentimental view of a kind of why can’t we all get along?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, but that’s an central human question.
MR. WALDMAN: But it’s OK to periodically say that, right?
MS. TIPPETT: That’s right.
MR. WALDMAN: And you know, the headline on the home page version of that story that we’ve been talking about was, “Why can’t we all get along?” You know, it’s basically — we wonder why we can’t get along after we’ve just turned the other guy into a ghoulish monster through our words and then we say, `Come on. Let’s go get a beer.’ Well, you can’t really demonize someone that way and expect them not to be a little bit hurt by it and a little bit angry and a little bit desirous to get revenge next time they have the chance. And that’s the cycle that we’re in, where the Democrats are going to want to get revenge and how do we deal with this?
MS. TIPPETT: Did you get much of a response to this article, to this piece?
MR. WALDMAN: I’ve never gotten more response than for this piece. This piece that I wrote got more response than anything I’ve written since Beliefnet was created in 1999, which told me that there was a bit of a thirst for at least making a little bit of an effort to understand each other rather than gouge each other’s eyes out. It’s just too tiring and life’s too short. As fun as it is sometimes to mock your opponent, and it is fun, ultimately, it wears you down and it’s not good for you, it’s not good for your soul and it’s not good for the country.
MS. TIPPETT: Political analyst and Beliefnet editor in chief Steven Waldman. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we’re exploring the myth, the meaning and “The Future of Moral Values” in America. Steven Waldman believes that a great deal is at stake in our public life if we don’t find ways to understand moral and religious passions across the current political divide.
MR. WALDMAN: It’s a rare person who actually listens to information and decides what they think. Most people listen to information and they say, `OK, I’m on this team. What does my team think of this? How does this advance my team?’ And that idea, `Oh, that’s the idea being advanced by the other team.’
MS. TIPPETT: But do most of us really listen that way? I’m not sure.
MR. WALDMAN: Well, that’s an optimistic way of looking at it, and you might be right. And maybe, maybe we get too pessimistic a sense of the world because we’re media people and we’re steeped in what we read and see. Except I just keep hearing story after story of people going home for Thanksgiving dinner and practically, you know, throwing the turkey drum bone across the table at Uncle so-and-so who had just fundamentally insulted the views of the person near the cranberry sauce. I just kept hearing story after story of the culture wars that we see on “Crossfire” being played out over Thanksgiving dinner or the water cooler at work. People who actually had friendships with people at their office that were disintegrated as a result of the political campaign. So I think that the polarization is pretty deep. And I think part of what you’re seeing in a religious context is that churches and houses of worship used to actually be places where people of different views would come together. And they’re increasingly kind of going through a sorting process where conservatives who are in a congregation with a liberal minster, are leaving and going to the conservative church. And the liberals who are in a congregation with a conservative minister are leaving also and going across town to the liberal church. So the liberals can sit with other liberals and listen to a liberal pastor and the conservatives can go and sit with other conservatives and listen to a conservative pastor. And they can all be much more comfortable with the idea that they’re right and everyone agrees with them and there’s no need to even really have to be challenged with the other view. And liberals can listen to their talk radio network and conservatives can watch their TV network and it’s just getting easier and easier to surround ourselves with people who not only agree with us but to help caricature the folks across town.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So you’re not going to let me have a happy ending to this show.
MR. WALDMAN: Well, it’s a thought-provoking question. I think it’s quite possible that rank and file American voters are less polarized and less extreme than the people on “Crossfire.” But then again, that’s not saying that much. I can pick on “Crossfire” now that they’re canceled.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, they’re canceled. You have a very interesting conclusion, I think, I want to ask you about. This is again, your article, where you talk about the truths about liberals and conservatives that each side doesn’t understand about the other. You write, “I’m not saying that conflicting values aren’t profound and important. What I am saying is that if we choose to find the legitimate underpinnings of our ideological opponent’s arguments, we can. It may not be as much fun but it is patriotic.”
MR. WALDMAN: I think it is patriotic to try to really understand the views of your opponent because that’s the only way democracy ultimately really works well. If your view is that the opponent is illegitimate and that their views are just not only wrong but just don’t even pass the bar of legitimacy, democracy becomes more and more poisoned, becomes harder and harder to actually come up with common solutions to problems. You know, the founding fathers actually supported having a religious society, having religion in people’s lives, because they felt that it would increase the sense of morality and increase the odds that people would talk to each other and work together. Kind of ironic. They thought that the role that religion was going to play was to help people work together towards a common good. It’s not that way anymore. We always have this debate over whether or not, you know, is it unpatriotic to criticize the president during time of war? And the argument is, well, you really need a united country, and that’s patriotic to have a united country. And yet we tolerate, in our political discourse, kind of a rules of engagement that leads to deep, deep divisions, and much deeper than they have to be. And yet — and we think that’s not unpatriotic. We as a country are not going to be able to solve our problems if we lose the ability to work together and see the valid in the other person’s argument.
MS. TIPPETT: Let me ask you, in terms of Beliefnet, which is so enormous and there’s so much variety within Beliefnet, I don’t even know if you can monitor something like this or observe it, but this whole idea of moral values and religious passions being more alive, more virulent, or maybe more divisive in our society, do you see that turning up on the website in any way?
MR. WALDMAN: Yeah. Basically all the stuff we talked about played out on the message boards of Beliefnet of people feeling misunderstood by each other. I think that’s really where I started to see this is not just that one person would, say, attack the other one, but they would also say, `You’re not understanding what I’m saying at all.’ I mean, that could have just been a preface to just about any post. `You’re not understanding what I’m saying at all. You are putting words in my mouth and you’re mischaracterizing my views.’ You know, it’s not to say that if you accurately characterized my views that we would agree, we would still disagree, but there’s a difference between characterizing someone else’s views accurately and then disagreeing and fighting them by turning them into a cartoon character.
MS. TIPPETT: So as you pointed out a minute ago, this question, `What can’t we all get along?’ It’s not really a very sexy, appealing question. It doesn’t make for exciting headlines, it doesn’t fit into entertainment or even media. I don’t know. Have you thought about how these positive questions that are aimed at maybe illuminating this non-polarized middle, how that can be made more attractive or exciting? I don’t even know how to ask the question in a way that doesn’t sound fuzzy, you know?
MR. WALDMAN: No, I know. It’s just, I don’t have an answer. I don’t have an answer. I mean, I really, I am thinking about a lot because I think it’s, you know, it’s one of the things that I want to work on personally most in the next year. Ultimately, you need to have a kind of a reward for trying to reach common ground rather than division. The reward does not seem to be electoral success.
MS. TIPPETT: What about for journalists? I mean, what about for a website or a radio show?
MR. WALDMAN: Well, I think, you know, there again, the websites and the blogs that tended to have the biggest traffic were the ones that appealed to the diehard supporters. They were the ones where if you were a liberal, you could go and find stuff that would give you ammunition. Or if you were a conservative, they would find stuff that would give you ammunition. Those are the ones that tended to do best. There are a few people who have done more of an eclectic mix, like Andrew Sullivan, and he’s done reasonably well. So I think editors and producers, when they’re casting, should try to do not just left and right but you know, some kind of eclectic question mark person. I don’t even mean middle because, you know, it’s a person who sometimes might be left or sometimes might be right.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, we’ll keep working on it.
MR. WALDMAN: I don’t know. Yeah, we get to keep working on it. It’s just — also, it’s not like, I don’t want to sound naive that this is like a brand new problem. I mean, this is — the reality is it’s harder to make things interesting when you’re not polarizing. It’s much easier to have Al Sharpton and Jerry Falwell on. You book Al Sharpton and Jerry Falwell and you are guaranteed to have some good entertainment.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re going to have fireworks, yeah.
MR. WALDMAN: You’re going to have some fun.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALDMAN: And the fact that, you know, probably the country is worse off for it, that’s not really your problem. At least that’s, you know, the way I think most producers or editors think about it. Someone once told me, you know, `Journalism is not a healing art.’ And I guess that’s sort of true, but I would like to at least think that journalism isn’t a destructive art. There must be something in between those two.
MS. TIPPETT: Steven Waldman is editor in chief of Beliefnet. Steven Waldman navigates through poll results and political rhetoric as cannily as any pundit. I value how he pays attention to details, nuances in the facts that don’t lend themselves to inflammatory headlines but reveal messy and helpful human implications. Maybe there could be such a thing as journalism as a healing art. This much is clear: The phrase “moral values” has entered our political vocabulary for better or worse. It may not have meant what headlines said it meant on November 3rd, but it did have meaning. The deepest divisions in our culture at large and in our political as well as our religious institutions, have come to hinge on differing moral convictions. As Waldman helps us hear, the tone of our debates has itself become infused with a righteous indignation on both sides. This is the force of religious passion taken out of context and turned politically and culturally destructive. Here’s a pressing question that remains with me after this conversation. As Waldman phrased it, `Why is our political and media system set up to make us avoid national consensus and instead foment the division?’ Obviously, I hear this question as a journalist and I hear it 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, constituents, fans, critics and all-important consumers. In a democracy, the strident surface can sometimes change by pressure from below, perhaps pressure from that astonishingly overlooked national consensus that Waldman identifies on the most polarizing issues before us, such as abortion and homosexuality. Can we find ways to further understanding and national consensus with the same with, creativity and passion that is now going into caricature on both sides of the red/blue divide?
I’d love to hear how you come at these questions, how you think about “The Future of Moral Values”. Please write to us through our website at speakingoffaith.org. There you’ll find in-depth background and links to all the ideas cited in today’s program, including maps, polls and analysis by Steven Waldman and others. You can also sign up for our e-mail newsletter and get my weekly reflections, program transcripts and a preview of next week’s show. That’s speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.