In 1980, I covered the Republican National Convention for a New Jersey newspaper. Ronald Reagan won the presidential nomination. What I remember vividly is something else: The emergence of the Moral Majority.
And Detroit. I remember how decrepit the once-great city of Detroit looked as we rode in from the hotel where the New Jersey delegates were housed.
At the hotel, Republican candidates for governor in '81 vied to throw the most lavish party. I literally had never seen shrimp that big, and in unending supply.
This was my convention week: wrenching poverty by day, wretched excess by night. And in the convention hall, the same conservatives who were so unblinking about Detroit but agog at the shrimp were told, by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his followers, that they were saving America from godless liberalism.
This came to mind recently when a college student interviewed me for a paper she's writing on political activism, religious faith and Moral Mondays in North Carolina. I said something about my Catholic upbringing, and that I retain its lessons about loving thy neighbor and caring for the poor.
If there's meaning to our existence, I said, I hope it's about sharing with one another, not gorging on the buffet.
To my chagrin, however, since 1980 conservatives have succeeded in claiming the mantle of political morality while liberals all but conceded it. Only recently has liberalism tried to turn that story around.
Then suddenly, in the span of two weeks, everything did turn around. Conservative professions of moral superiority are dropping like the Confederate battle flag in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston, a pair of landmark Supreme Court decisions, and a visionary encyclical from Pope Francis.
This July 4, there's a new Moral Majority emerging in America—a liberal one.
The platform of the old Moral Majority had three planks. It was pro-family values, pro-life and pro-America—with a heaping helping of white supremacy on top.
It came to the '80 convention via the Rev. Falwell and Reagan himself, who began his acceptance speech with a call to crusade and a silent prayer. But really, it was nothing new. In earlier campaigns, Republicans worked it in the negative, labeling the liberal agenda "acid, amnesty and abortion."
Either way, conservatives were cast as the defenders of traditional families, including fidelity in marriage and celibacy outside—no need for abortions. Patriots, they defended America's wars, including Vietnam, and cheered Reagan when he said it was God's divine plan that the United States be "the last best hope of man on earth."
Meanwhile, liberalism was equated with hedonism, including sexual promiscuity, illegal drugs and a general lawlessness that spawned—conservatives said—the likes of the Weather Underground.
The problem with liberals, conservatives agreed, was their propensity to indulge individual pleasures, even if in doing so they weakened the foundations of society and our ability to stamp out communism. The common good was the important thing.
And, of course, liberals sympathized with Malcolm X, who claimed a Second Amendment right to carry guns and accused whites of unspeakable crimes against African-Americans. How dare they.
So let's look at the Moral Majority's platform today.
Family values are the new province of the LGBT community, which fought hard for the right to marry and raise children in traditional households. Liberals agreed. Conservatives shrieked. The Supreme Court last week took the liberal side.
As for the common good, last week the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act for the second time, angering conservatives who think it's every individual's right to go untreated if he's sick and has no insurance. Obamacare doesn't cover everyone, but it's a big step toward the liberal ideal of establishing health care as a collective—moral—responsibility.
The Charleston killings flipped arguments about life, and race, on their heads. Conservatives were moved to strike their Confederate colors when family members of the black victims forgave the white killer. But symbolic gestures weren't enough, as President Obama said while eulogizing slain pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney: "Our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words. ... To feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity, but the imperative of a just society."
At the same time, I believe a majority of Americans now get that our role as leader of the free world requires more than wars, more than bombs. Communism was never the enemy that poverty is and will be. We've exported capitalism, backed by our military, with its goal of short-term profits. Its uncontrolled spread now enriches the few while threatening, due to climate change, the very survival of the planet.
Thus Pope Francis, in his encyclical, denounced the immorality of those who put individual pleasure above the good of humanity.
"Ecological sin is due to human greed," he said, "which blinds men and women to the point of ignoring and disregarding the basic truth that the happiness of individuals depends on its relationship with the rest of human beings."
Who are the hedonists now, undermining society's foundations? You'll find them in the corporate suites.
The new Moral Majority? Liberals, Obama and the pope.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The new moral majority."