The Politics of Sanctimony


George W. Bush and God Himself are on notice: "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time," Gore operative Elaine Kamarck announced a few months ago as the vice president made his play for the Almighty. He declared his disdain for "hollow secularism," his support for state funding of sectarian social service programs, and his conviction that "the purpose of life is to glorify God." "I don't wear it on my sleeve," Gore said of his religious faith, but "faith is the center of my life."

Faith is surely at the center of the 2000 campaign, as many commentators have observed, although it is probably a lack of faith in the intelligence of the American people that inspires educated candidates like Gore, Bush, Steve Forbes, and Elizabeth Dole to waffle on evolution. (Fearful of offending the ignorant, all responded sympathetically to recent efforts by the Kansas Board of Education to purge the science curriculum of evolution.) Meanwhile, a lack of faith in the morality of the American people has inspired a crusade in Congress against popular culture. Intent on eliminating presumed vices- like atheism or violent, sexually explicit entertainments- congressional moralists want to leave us no choice but virtue.

What do they mean by virtue? Godliness in the form of allegiance to an established, mainstream religion (New Age won't do) is generally considered an essential source of virtue; in the popular political view, we cannot be good without God- a Judeo-Christian God, or maybe an Islamic one. The virtue supposedly attendant on respectable religions is then demonstrated ideologically by the conviction that America is in a period of moral decline- grounded in the 1960s and evidenced largely by sexual permissiveness- in real life and the media. (Violence in the media has only lately become a focus for conservatives.)

This is, however, one rather narrow notion of virtue. You could argue that America began making significant moral progress in the '60s; the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and the Supreme Court's willingness to impose constitutional restrictions on the prosecutorial power of the state challenged us to turn ideals of freedom and equality into realities for all Americans. Conversely you could share Pat Buchanan's antipathy for feminism and his nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow, when "'Negroes' had their public schools, restaurants, bars- and we had ours." Or you could harbor sympathy for equality and still consider it less important than the reinstatement of official school prayer or traditional sexual mores. This emphasis on the losses associated with the '60s, such as chastity and traditional religiosity- instead of the gains- dominates antivice campaigns today.


The drive to sanctify public life (by imposing new restrictions on speech and lifting old restrictions on state sponsoring of religions) has been evident throughout the 1990s and would have dominated the 2000 campaign even if it hadn't gained obvious political momentum from recent mass shootings. The shootings provided social-issue conservatives with unexpected opportunities for culture control, which Clinton Democrats seem fearful of opposing.

The repressive juvenile-justice bill pending in Congress includes several amendments aimed at introducing sectarianism into the public schools (along with modest restrictions on gun and ammunition sales). In addition to mandating the posting of the Ten Commandments in the schools, the House bill would deny attorneys' fees to people who successfully sue a school that has violated rules against establishing religion by conducting sectarian services, for example, or erecting sectarian memorials. Not content to impose religion on children alone, a majority of House members also voted in favor of a resolution exhorting all Americans to engage in "prayer, fasting, and humiliation before God." (The vote on the resolution was 275 in favor to 140 opposed; it failed because it needed a two-thirds majority to pass.)

While the House championed prayer power, the Senate proposed some self-help. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback recently introduced a resolution calling for the establishment of a Special Committee on American Culture. Co-sponsored by some moderate Democrats, its proposed purpose is "to study the causes and reasons for social and cultural regression," to determine the impact of unspecified "negative cultural trends" on "the broader society" and on "child well-being," and to "explore means of cultural renewal."

Different people have different notions of "negative cultural trends" (as Hugh Hefner and Andrea Dworkin might attest). But you don't have to be psychic to identify the agenda of this proposed culture committee. It represents one of the periodic campaigns against popular entertainments and the people who enjoy them. Stunned by the power of the media and convinced- on the basis of highly questionable evidence- that the media consistently cause antisocial behavior among minors, Congress has been tenacious in its efforts to censor images of sex and violence it doesn't like.

In 1996 Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), prohibiting "indecency" on the Inter net; when the CDA was invalidated by the Supreme Court, Congress enacted the Children Online Protec tion Act (COPA), prohibiting speech that a federal prosecutor might consider "harmful to minors." (COPA is being challenged in federal court.) In 1996 Congress also passed a law requiring cable operators either to scramble fully or consign to limited late-night hours sexually explicit programs, in order to prevent the "signal bleed" that accompanies partial scrambling and exposes fleeting images and sounds of sex to undoubtedly delighted children. (Perhaps Congress will soon prohibit parents from having sex when their children are home.) A challenge to the signal bleed prohibition, brought by the Playboy Entertainment Group, will be argued before the Supreme Court.


All these laws treat as an article of faith the proposition that children are harmed by any exposure to virtual sex. Like God's love, it needn't be proven empirically. The Playboy Entertainment Group case is instructive. The government's Supreme Court brief simply asserts as a moral, not an empirical, truth that children require protection from sexual explicitness (with no reference to context or content). It disparages those parents who do not object to signal bleed as "inert, indifferent, or distracted." Even when the federal district court in the Playboy Entertainment Group case held an evidentiary hearing on the supposed harm of signal bleed, the government presented no anecdotal, clinical, or empirical evidence of it, relying instead on the mere opinion of a witness who acknowledged her own lack of expertise on the effects of erotica or television. Playboy Entertainment Group's experts testified that there is no empirical evidence that sexually explicit videos harm minors psychologically- a point the government's witness did not dispute.

Never mind. Congress simply knows the media are "toxic," like tobacco, and another proposal currently before the Senate would classify violent "audio and visual media products" with cigarettes and subject them to federal labeling requirements. The labeling system is called voluntary, but it includes civil penalties for noncompliance. If this law is enacted, will film adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies or movies like The Thin Red Line or Bonnie and Clyde be treated like toxic wastes, which must be labeled to the satisfaction of federal bureaucrats? No one can say.

Not that restrictions on speech are merely impractical. The tendency of civil libertarians to focus on the danger that "good" speech will be prohibited along with the "bad" obscures the inherent immorality of censorship. Like the freedom to practice a minority religion or no religion at all, the freedom to harbor ideas or consume images that many consider depraved is a fundamental moral right.

Liberals repelled and frightened by hate speech or anxious to restore ill-defined spiritual values to society, as well as centrists and conservatives, need to be reminded of the moral illegitimacy of censorship. Liberals troubled by congressional visions of culture control need to address its political implications unapologetically. Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has declared that restrictions on violent media raise questions of citizenship, not censorship, and he's partly right. Censorship, like state-sponsored religion, erodes the basis of citizenship in a democratic society- the individual's right to entertain moral preferences. Restrict it, and you substitute the state for the individual conscience.

This is not a prescription for the anarchy of unremitting moral relativism. Of course individuals should not simply be free to engage in violent, predatory behavior or invidious discrimination. But there's an obvious difference between preferences and behaviors, which censorship campaigns always deny; it's the difference between watching a violent movie and engaging in a violent act, the difference between disapproving of homosexuals and refusing to hire them.

As mass shootings become more common than hurricanes, it's hard to deny the prevalence of cultural malignancies. But Congress is neither equipped nor authorized to identify and address them directly. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that we're free to fantasize about the sacred or profane; it means freedom of desire. Laws can regulate or even prohibit the sale of guns (if the Second Amendment means nothing), but not the wish to use them. You don't have to defend American culture to oppose congressional efforts to purify it.

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