'Moral values' aren't just Christian

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Is the US in the process of being transformed into a Christian theocracy? The "moral values" that will inform President Bush's second term are said to be sectarian Christian values - which, if true, would explain why 78 percent of Jewish citizens voted for John Kerry. Yet a lot of Orthodox Jews, including me, and other non-Christians feel very comfortable with the future under our evangelical president. Is this a paradox? No, because Mr. Bush's mandate is based not on Christian morality per se, but on a nonsectarian answer to the question of where morals come from in the first place.

When voters were asked Nov. 2 what issue mattered most to them, the top choice was "moral values." But plenty of Kerry voters are also concerned with what might be called traditional morality - initiatives defining marriage on heterosexual lines got substantially more votes than Bush in most of the states considering the question.

Where, then, does the difference lie between those who look forward to the next four years and those who dread them? It has to do with a philosophical question: not of what is right or wrong, but why certain things are right or wrong.

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There are two possibilities. Either we know what's right because God or his earthly agents inform us through objective revelation or tradition - or, we know because that's just what the better-informed human beings appear to have decided, through a subjective process of moral democracy. Bush is the country's most prominent believer in objective morality.

By contrast, the idea that humans determine what's right animated Mr. Kerry's campaign. When he said he'd subject US policy in Iraq to UN guidance, he was saying that even a nation with a moral tradition arising historically from its Christian heritage still must seek permission for war from a world community, including many non-Christian countries. In a grave matter, the majority rules.

Kerry's allegiance to moral democracy was clearer in his reaction to the Catholic bishops who opposed him on abortion. A believer in objective morality accepts the right of established religious tradition - as revealed in a book (the Bible, the Talmud, or the Koran, for example) or in the decision of an ordained religious hierarchy - to define right and wrong.

Not Kerry.

His moral subjectivist credo was: "I love my church, I respect the bishops, but I respectfully disagree."

So yes, many of the citizens who dislike the president's stance on values, including some churchgoers, respect the morality of, let's say, the Ten Commandments. But they leave open the possibility of subjecting moral truth to the criterion of their own opinion. When the president's admirers - Jews, Christians, and others - say they care about "moral values," they mean the objectivity of values in principle.

Actually, there's one commandment that moral subjectivists don't respect - Commandment No. 1: "I am the Lord your God." It is a preamble explaining why we need to abide by the remaining nine: because it's "the Lord your God" who sanctions them. Most Americans - call them the First Commandment Alliance - affirm God's role in establishing right and wrong.

That alliance includes those Jews, Christians, and members of other faiths who see the question of morality and its source as the president does. It even includes nonreligious folk who, if unsure about God, still think that morality has an objective basis, perhaps in nature.

This coalition of like-minded individuals forms a majority of Americans, but not necessarily a permanent one. The minority of moral subjectivists will have their opportunity to take back primacy four years from now.

David Klinghoffer is a columnist for the Jewish Forward. © Los Angeles Times.

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