By Brad A. Greenberg
Morality in 2004 moved from a bit part to a leading role at least in the public consciousness.
Moral values were a drum constantly beat by pundits and politicians. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction' at the Super Bowl kicked off the discussion that continued through the November election, in which, many say, moral values helped give President Bush four more years.
Political observers argue how significant an impact moral values, a vast and vague category of issues that range from profanity to abortion, had on the Nov. 2 election. Some see it as a simplified explanation for his re-election amid a controversial war, a questionable economy and a soaring budget deficit.
But values clearly were constant fodder for dinner conversations, campaign speeches, newspaper columns and 24-hour news channels.
"Janet Jackson had a hugely disproportionate impact on people, and it became a token for cleaning up culture,' said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside professor of political science.
Moral values, he said, have been hyped "by people who have a vested interest in doing that.'
Experts said Republicans and Christian advocacy groups were brilliant at focusing the presidential campaign on a trifecta of political trouble for candidates: stem-cell research, gay marriage and abortion.
Conservative groups framed Bush, who opposed all three, as "pro-family' and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, his Democratic challenger, as "anti-morals' because he supported stem-cell research and a woman's right to choose.
Conservatives mobilized in early February when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay couples deserved the same rights as straight, married couples. A week later, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom violated California law, the state Supreme Court later ruled, by telling the city clerk to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Several cities and counties across the country followed suit.
The president and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared Newsom's activism a sign that liberal judges and city officials needed to be reigned in.
Moral values became a political hot button "because advocates of the more liberal stance on these issues overreached,' said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political science professor.
Eleven states responded in November by passing constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.
"This year, the kinds of conversations that have been happening in America finally spilled out into the open,' said Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the Arlington, Va.,-based conservative gro Values.
It is important to discuss whether Bush has a plan to get the American military out of Iraq, she said, "but when you ask people concerning them, and what is keeping them up at night, it is first and foremost the country and the environment in which their children are being raised.'
"I've got four kids,' she continued. "I care about what's on TV. It bothers me if Janet Jackson does a peep show.'
America's fascination with its own morality is nothing new, said Pitney, a former staffer for the Republican National Committee.
"People have always been concerned about moral values,' he said, "but it was a subject of a good deal of discussion because of President Bush's use of moral language and his outward religious fervor, and also by Sen. Kerry's attempt to recapture some of the moral issues for Democrats.'
Kerry struck a moral chord with people who felt Bush had lied about why the United States invaded Iraq.
Kerry voters who felt moral values were "very important' were more likely to mention honesty and integrity than Bush supporters who also lauded moral values, a Harris Poll released last week shows.
But voters who backed Bush were nearly twice as likely to say moral values were "very important' 59percent of Bush voters compared with 30percent of Kerry supporters.
"There was a stronger tendency in this election for many people to believe that the candidates they supported were more moral than the other candidate,' said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris But that's not unusual in elections, he said.
People voted based on moral values more than any other issue the economy, education, taxes, Social Security, health care in 1996 and 2000, Los Angeles Times exit polls show.
Many observers said moral values have been perceived as more decisive in 2004 because of how they were portrayed, likening it to the "scary world' Americans perceived during the 1990s.
Violent crime fell throughout the country, but newspapers and television stations carried regular stories about murder and rape. Studies have shown that most people thought violent crimes had increased.
"In a year when the war is such a big problem and the economy is such a big problem, moral values are important,' said Diane Winston media and religion professor at USC. "But the media blew it out of proportion.
"It's sensational and it is easy to make headlines out of it. It is tremendously over-hyped.'
There was also the hoopla that followed the exposure of Janet Jackson's breast at the Super Bowl halftime show. In a case against shock jock Howard Stern, Viacom settled with the Federal Communi Commission for $3.5million. Later, a number of ABC affiliates refused to air the 1998 Academy Award-nominated World War II film, " Ryan,' because they feared the previously broadcast movie's gore and profanity would draw FCC fines.
The outspoken were split between those who believed civil liberties were being stolen and those who thought popular culture and American morals had swirled down the drain. Most Americans didn't think the situation was so dire, media scholars said.
"I see these pop cultural debates as being between people who thought the '50s were the greatest of times and the people who th weiler, chairman of the Department of Mass Communications at the Christian-affiliated Biola University in La Mirada.
"To (the younger) generation, they view Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl ... as a yawn,' said Detweiler, author of "The Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture.' "It is really much ado about nothing.'
At the same time, he said, studies have shown "that we are looking at one of the best-behaved generations ever.'
For example: The number of teenagers who are sexually active dropped from 55 percent in 1995 to 46 percent in 2002, according to the National Survey for Family Growth released last month.
"On one side, we hear people warning about a decline in moral values,' said Ptiney. "On the other side, we see people warning about theocracy.
"Issues of moral conduct have always been a part of American life and will continue to be.'