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Jewish World Review /Feb. 18, 1999 / 2 Adar, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin

Morality Play: Mixing Politics and Values Is a Tricky Business

ONE OF THE AXIOMS OF AMERICAN POLITICS is that you can't legislate morality. In the aftermath of the impeachment debacle, that lesson has been reinforced with an exclamation point.

But what do we really mean when we say that we don't wish to impose our morals on others?

As a religious minority, American Jews understand this question more as a matter of defense than offense. We're a lot more worried about someone else's religious values being foisted upon ourselves than anything else.

Yet the line that runs between unfairly imposing a subjective version of morality and merely standing up for right against wrong isn't always so clear. Americans -- and Jews -- seem to have widely divergent opinions about what kinds of public and private behavior we can't abide these days.

The outcome of Monica-gate seems to have clearly established a precedent that sexual misconduct (and related perjury and coverup charges) is not a hanging offense in late 20th-century America. And if the Clinton case finally puts an end to the institution of the Office of the Special Prosecutor, I will cheer.

But looking around the political landscape, I would conclude that though our moral standards have changed, moral crusading isn't limited to the likes of Kenneth Starr and the House Republicans.

Earlier in this century, the great national experiment with banning alcohol -- another attempt to enforce a code of moral conduct -- was an even greater disaster than an impeachment trial. Prohibition established hypocrisy as our national religion and gave organized crime increased power and wealth.

No serious person would ever think of trying to ban liquor, wine or beer again.

But how then do we account for the almost religious fervor with which other legal substances are regarded? Some of the anti-smoking rhetoric heard nowadays bears a strange resemblance to the sort of things the Women's Christian Temperance Union said about drinking 100 years ago in its crusade to ban demon rum.

And just as the temperance movement could not resist bringing government into its plans, anti-smoking crusaders are on the same track. The Clinton administration has taken a strong stand against tobacco. The federal government and many states are suing cigarette makers for the cost of health care for people who have diseases caused by smoking.

These suits continue to proliferate even though the gruesome effect of smoking-induced diseases probably saves the government money in the long run, since the victims don't collect Social Security and pensions. And let's not forget that the government is already making a profit off addicted smokers via the large tax revenues that pour in from sales of tobacco products.

Personally, I despise smoking as a vile, anti-social habit and am allergic to smoke, but at times it seems as if anti-smoking moralizing has replaced prudery as the moral crusade of our time.

But at the same time that we are marching in lockstep as a society against tobacco, another issue has popped up to prove just what hypocrites many of us are.

Gambling, an addiction that causes as much devastation to individuals and families, isn't merely socially acceptable in a way that smoking is not. It has become a panacea for every city and state government in the land. Our legislators have come to depend on state lotteries -- a device that is the most regressive tax on the poor and the middle class imaginable -- to balance the budget.

Pennsylvania is just the latest state to seriously consider legalizing riverboat gambling. Planners hope the casinos will bring prosperity to Philadelphia. That may or may not be true (I doubt it), but what is certain is that the state will profit from the suffering of families of addicted gamblers.

My libertarian instincts tell me that if people want to gamble as a form of entertainment, I shouldn't stand in their way. But I'm also not comfortable with our government acting as a corner bookie. And why aren't we considering the social costs of gambling in the same way we do for smoking? Will we allow bankrupt gamblers to sue Indian casinos or the state lottery authority in the same way we have applauded lawsuits by chain smokers against the tobacco companies?

Has moral relativism become such a powerful force in the United States that we have come to believe that it is okay to have sex with an intern and to promote gambling, but it's immoral to smoke?

I think all smokers -- especially my friends -- should quit. But what does it say about us as a country that we seem more concerned with whether teens are smoking (as if anything Clinton says would persuade them not to try it) than about teen pregnancy?

What do we as a faith-based community have to say about this crazy quilt of beliefs? Maybe I'm not listening closely enough, but I'm not hearing a coherent answer to that question.

Despite the public's understandable revulsion against prudery, which may have driven the pro-Clinton poll numbers, I believe that morality and religious values can still have a powerful and positive influence on our nation's politics and policy.

Dangerous buffoons such as Rev. Jerry Falwell do not and should not carry the standard of religious morality into the world of politics. Sen. Joseph Lieberman's speech about the president's conduct last summer was a defining moment. Reaction to the speech showed that Americans were prepared to listen to talk about values from a specifically Jewish point of view.

Lest we forget, religious values were in the forefront during the struggle for civil rights in this country. Religious leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were not shy about putting forth a moral vision for the nation, nor should they have been. Jews like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were there besides King, using the same sort of imagery.

Faith-based values drove our campaign to free Soviet Jewry and could do the same for the fight against religious persecution around the globe today. They also ought to inform our stands on social issues like gambling as well as poverty.

Speaking up for religious and moral values is nothing for Jews to be ashamed of.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin