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The Religious Right's Crusade for 'Decency'

The Christian right has done its best to keep America obsessed with clean, friendly family values. But what constitutes 'decency' -- and where does the Foley scandal fit in?
The growing strength of the Religious Right can seem, at times, like an overnight phenomenon. After all, when in recent history has a president's vocal and avid disdain for secular politics become such an everyday reality ... in the United States?

Culturally, the hysterical reaction Janet Jackson's 2004 Superbowl "wardrobe malfunction" received would make one think that such an incident never happened before. It has, even during the conservative 1950s. But the breast-baring accidents of Hollywood actors such as Faye Emerson and Jayne Mansfield did not result in any mass campaigns for "family values." They didn't even cause a stir.

First-amendment specialist Frederick S. Lane explains all of this -- which he dubs the "decency wars" -- in his latest book, The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture. This highly comprehensive history book chronicles the advancement of the Religious Right and evangelicals' moralistic influence on American public policy.

I talked with Lane shortly after the unveiling of the Foley-pages sex scandal.

Celina De Leon: Would it be correct to say that the Religious Right has always been a part of the U.S., but in varying degrees and guises?

Frederick S. Lane: There has always been a portion of society that has been worried about American decency and American morality. I think that that has been fluid over the years. And obviously, in the last 30 years, it's gotten a good deal stronger.

Would you say that "decency wars" are a reality for many countries around the world? For example, the uprising of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East.

Absolutely. These are the kinds of issues that get debated in almost every country to one degree or another. I think that what you end up seeing is just a lot of different national flavors if you will. The French are much more worried about violence and much less concerned about nudity and sexuality than we are. In the Middle East you've got some really strict definitions of sexual conduct and gender roles. I think that's actually what makes all of this so fascinating; we're all the same species but we have such different approaches to this.

You cite the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake Superbowl fiasco, which occurred in the middle of the 2004 primaries, as being one of the major reasons why "moral values" became the driving force of the presidential election amidst the election's very close race. Can you talk more about how amidst statistics the majority of the American public bought the idea that President Bush was elected for a second term because of his "decent" evangelical Christian values?

I think partly because the year got off to such a huge decency start with the Superbowl halftime show. The idea of the decency wars, or the idea of moral values, took on a much larger-than-life perspective than it otherwise would have. And obviously, I think that the Republicans played that up. I think that Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake became a symbol for a culture that was out of control. And then when you combine it with the fact that the state of Vermont had just passed the right to civil unions a couple of years before, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had just said that gay couples could actually marry in the state of Massachusetts, it really helped to create an environment where moral values had this big perspective.

I think the Republicans were very successful in taking advantage of that. But when you look at the actual exit polling data, moral values were really only a predominant concern for maybe 20 or 22 percent of the electorate. Far more people were actually concerned about the economy, what was happening in the Middle East, the energy crisis --all the usual things that we worry about.

As I've argued it in many different places, the decency wars have just become the shorthand that the Republicans use. I think they really use it for its distractive capability. Which frankly, we've been doing with sex forever to distract from more important things. [Laughs] Whether it's relationshipwise. Whether it's policywise. It's just one of the ways in which we handle things in this country. Which is really unfortunate when you start to look at all of the serious things that we do have to deal with as a country.

Would you say the recent scandal involving former Republican U.S. Representative Mark Foley of Florida is a form of decency war?

I don't think it's really the decency wars, per se. I think what it is more precisely, is without even intending to, the Republicans have really made Mark Foley into a decency wars' casualty. That's one of the things that the Religious Right and the Republicans have done, is made us hypersensitive to these issues, particularly anything involving the internet. And along comes this Republican, who God knows was in charge of keeping kids safe on the internet, and he gets caught up in this stuff. I'm not saying people would not have reacted as strongly without what the Religious Right has done, but there's no question we're much more sensitive about these issues now.

The other thing is, honestly, if you are the Holier Than Thou Party, and then you come along and blow it like this, the problem is the wrath of the fooled. I think what's really happening with Mark Foley is that people are jumping up and down as much about hypocrisy as they are about anything else.

Do you think Republican House leader Dennis Hastert is guilty of covering up Foley's pedophilia to preserve the "decency" of the Republican party?

I obviously don't have all of the facts, and there's an investigation going on, but it does seem or suggest that not just Dennis Hastert, but the Republican leadership in general, tried to brush this under the rug. Not so much to protect Foley's decency as to protect the majority in Congress. What this makes me think is that the Republicans have polling numbers that are much, much worse than anything we've seen so far. And I think that they are really, really desperate to keep the House Republican.

My presumption is that most of the people who serve [in government] are -- believe it or not -- good, decent people. They care about kids; they care about the country. And my sense is they just lost sight of those things because those things look really grim. Of course, now they look much, much worse, which is ultimately the moral of the story. [Laughs] That's really what I have taken away from this right now.

As the days unfold, do you think evangelical, moralistic decency will win over the lack of credibility and accountability demonstrated by Foley and Hastert?

I think there is no way that they can get away with this, at least if they want to ... People sort of start forgetting about it [but] I think this thing has already taken on a life of its own. It's too outrageous. It's too juicy a story. [Laughs]

I read a great editorial in the Washington Post by Joe Califano Jr., in which he talked about the 1983 page scandals. When the news broke, the House launched a special investigation to figure out what was going on. And they turned up all kinds of stuff. When this can of worms gets opened, it has almost limitless potential.

For the Republicans, obviously it's a complete disaster from the perspective that it involves underage kids, the internet, Republicans, and people in some position of authority. But even worse than that, it is a simply understood scandal. It is not complex like health care or tax structure or anything like that. The worst part of this whole thing is everybody understands it. Do I want my kids protected, or not? But the question really is, how are the voters going to react to this whole thing? I think they're going to be pretty irked.

Is the "war on terrorism" and the war in Iraq enmeshed in the decency wars? And what "decency" is the Bush administration advocating for through these wars?

If you listen to their PR, obviously the spread of freedom and democracy and American values are the decency wars that they're fighting in this term. But I have two thoughts. For starters, the decency wars are typically presented in terms of sexuality and so forth to distract attention as much as possible from these other things. And frankly, the Republicans don't want to talk about the billion dollars per week spent in Iraq. They don't want to talk about the number of kids who are dying over there. They certainly don't want to talk about the domestic problems that we have that we're not addressing properly. So, really, the primary purpose of the decency wars are their distractive capability, No. 1.

No. 2, I think they are arguing for a very narrow version of decency when they talk about foreign policy. In the sense of, they want to be a spreader of democracy, a spreader of American values. What I'm really hoping is that at some point we could start talking about decency in its broader sense. Are we being a decent world player? Are we being decent about the environment? Are we being decent in terms of health care? Hurricane recovery? The list really does go on and on. What really frustrates me about the decency wars as the Republicans do it is that [their decency] is such a narrow, really Christian definition of decency. There's much more to it than that. And frankly, even within Christianity, there's much more to it than that. I think that we, somehow, as a culture, have been arm-twisted into looking at decency basically just as a function of what people say and what body parts they show. There's a lot more to it than that. [laughs]

You conclude the book by discussing how you believe one of the key strategies to combating the Religious Right's version of decency is by bringing out the core meaning of decency, which is inclusion and acceptance. Do you think the promotion of this social decency is the key to winning the country back from exclusive evangelical Christianity in '06 and '08? For example, is it time for the Democrats to accept same-sex marriage as one of the issues to fight for in the next election?

Absolutely. I realize it's going to sound a little bit silly, but I think you can also talk about being accepting of evangelicals, too. I think there's no downside to the Democrats talking positively about religion and respecting people's attitudes towards religion. I think it's just that there ought to be some way to do that without endorsing the use of religion as a public policy tool. I think that's the real flaw. Religion should not be a factor in terms of what policies we adopt because it's not really consistent with the idea of a pluralistic nation. Frankly, there are just too many religions in this country, too many different points of view, too many cultures, so let's try to govern from a nonreligious point of view.

Do you think Americans now, after the Moral Majority uprising, are ready for a more socially inclusive concept of decency? Do you think socially inclusive decency is still at the heart of what this country is about?

I think so. I definitely think that's a possibility. I think that Americans do have this vision of themselves as inclusive still. But I do worry that the Republicans have been doing so much to try to deaden that impulse in them. With all the stuff about immigration, the trashing of Mexicans, and the whole Homeland Security fence, I think that's been really sad to watch in a lot of ways. It really isn't the kind of country I think we are or should be. But I remain hopeful, I really do.

I think that what we need is some kind of political leadership that will stand up and say that so much of what is good about this country has resulted from diversity and pluralism. That is what has made this country as strong as it is. And those are the kinds of voices we should be hearing. The thing about the Democratic leadership sometimes is that it doesn't feel like they say that enough. And I would love to hear them say it. [Laughs] Something consonant, something bold and exciting, that's congratulatory about this country. That's a form of patriotism I don't think we see enough.

In a lot of ways, I was trying to write what I thought was an optimistic book. A book that describes how a particular group got more influence than it should have gotten. It wasn't designed to make people think that the country was irretrievably damaged. It's just that we need to stop listening to these people quite so much.

I'm definitely a big believer of the pendulum of politics. Nobody stays on top forever. It's just the way politics works in this country. And I think, certainly, it's happening a lot faster, thanks to Mark Foley. But I think you would have seen that reaction happening anyway. I think overall, people were really starting to question just how well this administration and this ideology were doing. And most people are coming to the conclusion that it wasn't working really well.

It's been reported that within the past two years, President Bush has gone from having a 78 percent approval rating from white evangelicals to a 42 percent disapproval rating.

That's really impressive. Believe me, if President Bush, who is clearly the most religious president we have had any time recently, is getting that kind of reaction from the evangelicals, then everything I said about what shape they're in is totally true.
Celina R. De Leon is a contributing writer for WireTap magazine, and Interviews editor at Feministing.com. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.