Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed August 9, 1996
Contact: Linda Mahdesian

A 300-year-old political discussion

Scholar says family-values rhetoric is old news and bad news to progress

James Morone, professor of political science at Brown, says the morality rhetoric in politics is nothing new in America and works against social progress.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The current political rhetoric of declining morality and a call for a return to family values is nothing new in American politics, says James Morone, professor of political science at Brown University. Not only is it old news, Morone believes the family-values rhetoric is bad news for significant social progress against poverty and toward equal justice for all citizens.

"Contemporary moralizing stands in a long, unhappy American political tradition," Morone wrote in the May/June issue of The American Prospect. "When economic and social problems are transformed into declining moral standards, the hunt is on for the immoral people who threaten the public good. There are always plenty of suspects (though the current list is particularly skewed toward single moms and drug abusers). In the tumult of their witch-hunts, Americans ignore an alternative moral tradition that aspires, with Abraham Lincoln, `to touch - the better angels of our nature.' "

Morone cited a 1679 Boston conference of influential leaders from throughout the colonies: "The nation, they agreed, faced a terrible moral crisis: rampant substance abuse, sex, ... illegitimacy. Public schools were languishing, the pursuit of profit was appalling, the explosion of lawsuits completely out of hand. Worst of all, parents were doing a terrible job raising their kids - not enough discipline. `Most of the evils' that afflict our society, reported the conference, stem from `defects as to family government.' "

The result of the morality rhetoric, Morone said, is a polarization of Americans into a "righteous `us' and a malevolent `them.' Once those lines are drawn, you can forget about social justice, progressive thinking, or universal programs. Instead, the overarching policy question becomes `How do we protect ourselves and our children?' Never mind health care or welfare - build more jails."