The evangelicals are coming. Not since Genghis Khan rode west, we are informed, has anything so ominous been in prospect. These are said to be the values-police, the would-be enforcers of rigid, outmoded morality, an unenlightened, vengeful, churchy crew that has worked its will on the Republican's platform and is now propelling Ronald Reagan into office.
What's the truth of it? Certainly there is a component of the growing right-wing reaction on social issues -- don't know how big -- that fits this description. But there are also vast numbers of people sympathizing with the trend who are merely reacting in predictable, normal and valid ways to various terrible features of modern life. And what interests me most is that, in a way, we ask for it. By "we" I mean that mild, moderate, liberalish majority that has been roosting near the center of the nation's politics for years. Our first contribution to the phenomenon was the promiscuity and the mindlesssness with which we have made private-values questions federal-government business. The second was our flight from moral judgment in the face of some of our most gross handiwork.
It is true that some private-values questions can only be resolved in the federal-government context. Once the Supreme Court had ruled against formal prayer in schools, for instance, or once it had in effect "decriminalized" abortion, it was inevitable that the consequences of these court rulings would be fought out in the national political arena -- and that is as it should be. But relatively few of the private-values issues that have got entangled in our national politics have comparable constitutional connections.
In the horror now being expressed over the Republican intrusion into the web of delicate private and personal concerns that these values-issues represent, it is useful to rmember that federal-government support and sustenance of the family was pronounced a principal issue by the Carter-Mondale campaign last time. This was going to be a very big deal in their administration, both men promised, and so it has been. There has been terrible warefare among the administration organizers of the White House Conference on Families and practically everyone else: pro and anti-gay groups, pro- and anti-abortion groups, innerable other organized lobbies and even administration staff named to serve the conference.
It figured, and that is the point. Do-good governmental meddling at the national level can be in its own way as destructive an influence as do-bad efforts to use government to enforce social and moral conformity. Both engage the state where it has no business and in what it does worst. Still, it seems as though every group in the country has by now come to believe that its interests can only be served and its worth affirmed by some kind of national -- i.e. federal government -- involvement.
I was going to say that I don't know how the state -- the central authority, the guys with the jails and the guns -- got to be so well beloved of liberaldom and its middle-right, middle-left constituency, but I do. Past struggles over eradicating brutal racial repression in particular and a variety of crimes of indifference to public welfare in general in the states led a lot of people to assume, automatically, that you needed the Feds to get anything rasonable, fair, humane or generous done. It is a concept that has demonstrably outlived its usefulness, at least as a generally applicable rule. But it has gotten bigger, not smaller, as a shared nation assumption.
What is wrong with it is obvious. Here is a recommendation of the White House family conference: "Delegates . . . agreed on the vital need for family-life education, and that government at all levels should assist the public and private sectors by providing appropriate courses for children and parents." Who needs government courses in famly affairs? Why should this be?I don't think we're just talking about something harmless or anodyne here. All that high-class palaver about how presidents are helping us to find our values has got it absolutely backward: they should be expressing our better values; we should not be buying the ones they work out in committee.
Govenment-grown values are by definition and necessity spiritually deformed.
They tend to be lowest-common-denominator generalities or pressure-group-cooked outrages. Whoever lays it on them, whatever qualifies as "a problem" and has a few lobbyists (maybe only people who profit from curing the "problem") prevails. I haven't yet heard of a White House conference on kinky sex or an International Year of the Transvestite. But then I haven't turned on the 6 o'clock news yet.
How could those of us who have been pushing this stuff for years ever have thought that in a national context, a referendum of sorts, anything but what is now happening would? Fundamental, stabilizing personal and family values represent the real majority and when ridiculed or grossly affronted, they will compel revenge. And that raises the second way in which the antagonists of the new conservative wave have asked for it. We have refused to view practically any indecendy, outrage or pathological assault on our sense of rightness in any way except as a civil-liberties problem -- protecting the abstract right of the sickos to come to dinner.
I don't mean this concern should be forgotten or abandoned. But it has become an instead-of, a dodge. It relieves us, we think, of saying what our feelings are about much of what we are defending in dissent and First Amendment terms. We are even afraid sometimes to render negative judgments, knowing the illogical leap will at once be made by our listeners who suppose we are recommending repression of the deviates, illiberality and -- it is always mentioned next -- genocide.
If those of us in the complaisant liberal middle don't want to be known (justly) in time as the wonderful folks who brought you President Jerry Fallwell, then we will have to stop in the Feds into people's every personal decision and we will have to assert a moral sensibility of our own.