The Devaluation of Values

By David Klinghoffer

Published July 23, 2004, issue of July 23, 2004.
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The current theme of John Kerry’s campaign can be summarized by a single word: “values.” In his speeches, he deploys it compulsively, nonstop, ad infinitum. We’re supposed to be reassured by this. In fact, his use of the term opens a window to a worrisome modern way of thinking about the things that matter most.

Why am I worried?

Kerry would have us know: “My parents, like yours, taught me values,” “values that are rooted in the heartland,” “the values and spirit of our country,” “our American values.” He has a “plan to restore American values to the White House.” “I’m optimistic about how Americans could live up to our values,” “our values as a country built by immigrants.” The election is “a values choice.” “In the end, it’s all about values.”

He stands for the “American value of fairness,” “the oldest and greatest of American values,” “the values that built America: strong families, deep faith and closely knit communities.”

What’s interesting about the concept of “values” is that it’s so totally subjective. If I “value” something, all that means is that I personally like it. You may not like it all, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

Now, this is a long way from the classically religious way of thinking favored by President Bush, who believes that certain things have an objective goodness; a preciousness that is a matter of fact, not opinion. Nation, family, the rules of civilized behavior, life itself — the worth of these doesn’t depend on whether you or I “value” them.

In Kerry’s articulations, by contrast, there is a notable slipperiness. For instance, his “values” permit an exceptionally flexible approach to the worth of the unborn child. Despite “deep faith” being one of his advertised “values” — he is a self-identified Roman Catholic — and despite his recent assertion that life begins at conception, he overrules the teachings of his faith, advocating a pro-abortion stance so radical, it earned him a 100% rating with NARAL Pro-Choice America. In the Senate, he even votes against restricting partial-birth abortion.

Which makes sense, if, as Kerry’s language implies, faith is just something I “value.” In that case, it has no right to dictate how anyone might choose to act — in, for example, aborting a child who already has partially exited the birth canal.

As for Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, his way of thinking became evident when he excused the obscene tirade that Whoopi Goldberg delivered against Bush at a July 9 Kerry-Edwards fund raiser at Radio City Music Hall. It was “a great honor” to be present, Edwards said. “This campaign will be a celebration of real American values.”

So making grotesque sexual puns on the surname of the president of the United States, as Whoopi Goldberg did, is an example of “real American values”? Well, undoubtedly there are some American citizens who value seeing a comedienne get up onstage with a wine bottle in her hand to berate the president in the most vulgar terms. So that’s a “real American value,” from a certain perspective.

Don’t get me wrong. Kerry and Edwards seem to be upstanding citizens in their private behavior. This is a philosophical question, not a personal one — but it’s also a question with practical societal ramifications. When Kerry says the upcoming election is “a values choice,” in a way he’s right. The choice has to do with whether you think there is such a thing as moral truths.

In the mind of Bush, authentic ideas of right and wrong are by definition grounded in a transcendent source: God. “Values,” on the other hand, are grounded in sentiment, personal preference — not truth, which means that in the end they count for little. A “values” culture will in the end find that it can justify anything.

Sociologists point out how comprehensively religious ideas shape the way a culture develops. So it is, too, with the belief structures, such as “values,” that substitute for religion.

Judaism recognized this long ago when it showed the interrelationship between the first five and second five of the Ten Commandments. The first five deal with how society does, or doesn’t, relate to the ultimate truth — God. The second five deal with how people relate to each other.

According to Jewish interpreters going back almost 2,000 years, the two groupings of commandments together make a prediction: When society has faulty ideas about ultimate truths, or no ideas at all, its members will tend not to treat each other with the appropriate dignity.

Would such a society countenance killing partially born children, while at the same time touting its commitment to “deep faith”? Sure, why not? And that would just be for starters.

If John Kerry is elected, it will mean the moral outlook he assumes in his pronouncements has firmed its grasp on the culture. That’s why I’d be worried — possibly, terrified.

David Klinghoffer is the author of “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday, 2003).

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