November 11, 2004
Patrick J. Nugent
My exposure to American media is a bit limited these days. Living in rural Kenya, I have no television. I listen to National Public Radio by satellite and the BBC on the FM. I also read the Nation, the major national newspaper of Kenya. But even from this distance, I am sighting aspects of the media's treatment of religion that I find disturbing.
Alex Chadwick of NPR's Day to Day exemplified a growing trend in his coverage of President Bush's post-election press conference. He asked guest William Bennett, conservative activist and cultural watchdog, whether Bush's re-election indicates that Americans are now more concerned about "moral values" or "ethics," equating such concern with support for Bush. Bennett took his cue and played along.
The media's increasing use of "ethics" and "moral values" to refer specifically to "conservative moral values" and "conservative ethics" is troubling. This turn of speech suggests that those who do not hold conservative opinions on issues such as homosexuality, abortion, or the war in Iraq are not interested in morality, that conservative positions are the only moral ones, or that those who do not share conservative values have no values at all.
Quite to the contrary, the beliefs that gays should marry, the Iraq war is wrong, or women's reproductive choices should be protected are moral positions. By this I do not mean that these are necessarily morally right, but that they are positions that individuals hold on ethical grounds, and upon which they may legitimately disagree.
Those who opposed the president's re-election employed their own ethical arguments, based on clearly articulated values, about which conservatives were silent or in opposition. For instance, accusations that the president misled the American people about the causes for invading Iraq were based on moral concerns about truthfulness and the human costs of war.
My intention in this column is not to argue that liberal viewpoints on the issues debated in this election are more moral, but that they are, indeed, moral positions. (I am speaking as an evangelical Christian, a missionary training pastors in a burgeoning Pentecostal environment -- and a voting Democrat.) My point, rather, is to raise an alarm that the currency of language about ethics is being dangerously devalued. The Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches expresses the stakes: "We need to work really hard at reclaiming some language. The religious right has successfully gotten out there shaping personal piety issues -- civil unions, abortion -- as almost the total content of 'moral values."
Indeed, when Americans take opposing positions on marriage, warfare, presidential truth-telling, campaign finance, the politicizing of the judiciary, or options in healthcare policy, we are reflecting and propounding opposing values, ethics, and moral positions -- whether they be conservative, liberal, radical, or flaky. The term "values" is not a synonym for "my values" or "conservative values."
If the careless diction of an increasingly inarticulate media abets political and religious conservatives to monopolize the vocabulary of ethics, then we risk losing our moral tongues entirely.
Patrick J. Nugent, a recorded minister in the Society of Friends (Quakers), is principal of Friends Theological College, Kaimosi, Kenya. He holds a doctorate in the History of Christianity from the University of Chicago.