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There's More to Morality Than the Politics of Sex

By Daniel Henninger

Tales from the Enron trial got you down? Like Andrew Fastow's testimony of how he laundered $10,000 as a tax-free gift to his own sons? So after work you stumble home, seeking refuge from the workaday sludge in the stark competitive world of Sports Illustrated, which this week is awash in the details of the doping case against Barry Bonds, an Icarus, legend has it, who flew toward baseball heaven on wax wings made from human growth hormone.

For perspective on the Bonds myth, I called Gary Wadler, a physician who has seen it all as a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "Bonds and Fastow were both into cooking," Dr. Wadler offered. "Bonds cooked the record books and Fastow cooked the financial books."

The thing about gallows humor is that after the laughing, the floor falls away and something dies. What's dying here may be a nation's common understanding of what's right and what's wrong. Business, sports, politics, publishing--they all seem to have something cooking. The Adelphi fraud and Tyco gross-out were yesterday. Today we've got Jack Abramoff's Washington, James Frey's falsified memoir and last week an economist in the news who swears he's proved widespread point-shaving in Division I men's basketball.

There was a time when an internal yellow flag would slow down most people heading into an ethical hairpin curve. Now lots of people seem to roar through the yellow flags, and mass media being what it is, we all get to participate in every scurvy detail of these bouts of moral collapse.

Secular society attempts to protect itself by deploying various bilge pumps. Sports has drug-testing; business and politics have heartless prosecutors. Entertainment has Oprah imposing a Maoist public shaming on publishing titan Nan Talese. None of these solutions is the answer. The possibility of doing things unprecedentedly new now in technology, science and finance arrives so fast that it's tough for the grinding wheels of law and procedure to keep pace. Dr. Wadler notes that in the future it's likely that implanting genes will enable a pill or a cream to turn various growth factors on or off, avoiding injections. "While the technology will help patients," says Dr. Wadler, "unquestionably it will fall into the hands of people determined to cheat."

Some cite the almighty dollar. But there is nothing fundamentally wrong with reward for performance. Cheating is cheating, at the local playground or a packed ballpark.

The problem, it is no revelation to say, is a generalized weakening of the codes used at least since Moses to keep societies intact, to suppress the virus of rampant lying, cheating and chiseling. People used to learn this stuff; now many don't. Where'd it go? How about this answer: Politics killed ethical formation.

A New York Times reporter assigned to visit the nation's conservative tribes said recently that when a pastor asks about his own religious practice, he demurs: "I don't think I should say what kind of church I go to, because these days that is political. It would be like saying what party I belonged to." Sounds whacko, but he's right. Today even the Ten Commandments are "political."

The efficient path to an ethical revival would be to call upon religious institutions and the schools to teach morality. Uh-oh. Morality? Entire presidential campaigns and Supreme Court nominations are fought now over someone's idea of morality. What's right and wrong has become as red and blue as our politics.

But look a little closer. These religious wars are about one thing: sex.

After the 2004 "moral values" presidential election, Pew Research surveyed public attitudes. But the only explicitly identified determinants of moral belief named in their questionnaires are abortion, gay marriage and gay rights (and belief in God).

Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, ignited a 33-year war over sex, bowdlerized for political discourse as "privacy." Pew collapses all moral life in America down to abortion and gay rights because the political class believes those issues move votes. And the result is that anything else important, like what Messrs. Bonds or Fastow represent, is ignored.

Obviously other forces were loosed the past four decades, but in the public square, morality is merely a matter of "privacy." With nothing but sex on the mind, our politics makes abortion an endless frenzy. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a serious person, feels politically obliged to challenge Supreme Court nominee John Roberts about his Catholicism. If that single issue requires its advocates to render suspect the whole religion that formed John Roberts, then we have a problem.

Our political culture's preoccupation with sexual boundaries has smothered the more important ability of religious or ethical formation to function in the U.S. Currently the most rigorous whole-person moral system resides among evangelical right--at least in terms of keeping one's earthly life in perspective. But because the religious right has "positions" on abortion and homosexuality, politics seeks to undermine its entire function in the life of the nation.

Inner-city parents desperate to use vouchers to send their children to values-forming parochial schools can't, because the reigning political calculus holds this would somehow "advantage" an abortion-resistant Catholic Church. Meanwhile the only values taught now in public schools are diversity, tolerance and respect for the environment. I'll bet Andrew Fastow and Barry Bonds believe in all that to the bottom of their souls.

Let's admit the bitter irony of the unending sex wars. They've obliterated the ability to talk rationally in public about anything that smacks of "religion." Too political.

Thus a modest proposal:

Maybe it's time for the sex obsessives on the left and right to take their fights over abortion and gay rights into a corner somewhere and give the rest of society space to restore some ethical rootedness in an endlessly variable world. Because letting the vacuum persist long enough on values useful to everyday life will breed too many little Bonds and little Fastows. And because the constant public magnification of these ethical breakdowns makes everyone feel like scuzz by association. It has a corrosive affect on the rest of us, on our sense of who we are.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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