In this new era of tolerance in America, sin is in

November 21, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - It's been a good week for tolerance.

California inaugurated a governor who once appeared in a documentary film smoking marijuana - and he's a Republican. A ban on same-sex marriage was struck down by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, a state founded by Puritans. And the Victoria's Secret models exhibited skimpy lingerie and much more on prime-time broadcast TV, in front of God and everybody.

America is one of the most religious countries in the industrialized world. But in recent years, we've established that faith and sin can coexist quite comfortably. It used to be said that Oklahomans would vote against alcohol as long as they could stagger to the polls. Today, in most places, it's just the reverse: Even the sober and straitlaced generally prefer to live and let live.

In almost every sphere, Americans have decided that vice is nice, or at least a long way from evil. In the 1960s, nearly every state treated possession of marijuana as a felony. Today, none does, and a dozen states have decriminalized small amounts of cannabis, punishing users roughly the way they punish traffic violators. No fewer than 36 have passed measures endorsing its use for medical purposes.

Californians apparently don't care that Arnold Schwarzenegger smoked pot in his younger days, even after they got to see clips of him puffing away. The indifference extends to higher offices. Recently, during a Democratic presidential debate, three of the candidates admitted having smoked the stuff, and no one even noticed.

Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, however, made a newsworthy confession. "I have a reputation for giving unpopular answers at Democratic debates," he said. "I never used marijuana. Sorry." But why should Democrats mind a little pot when Republicans have a president who refused to deny that he ever used cocaine?

When John Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution, which historian David McCullough says is "the oldest functioning written constitution in the world," he couldn't have dreamed it would someday be interpreted to sanction homosexual partnerships. At the time, Massachusetts made sodomy punishable by death. These days, however, not much is banned in Boston, or most other venues.

As of 1960, all 50 states prohibited sodomy. Illinois was the first to repeal its ban, and by 1986, only 24 states still had such laws. By this past summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional, the number was down to 13.

When the court announced its verdict, Justice Antonin Scalia issued a blistering dissent, predicting that it would bring on "a massive disruption of the social order." In fact, it reflected the massive changes that have already taken place.

Justice Scalia feared the decision would lead to gay marriage, but the Massachusetts decision was in the works even before, and it was based on the state constitution, not any federal guarantees. The idea of gay marriage has gained a measure of popular acceptance because gays have gained so much popular acceptance.

Something has changed when every Democrat running for president endorses legal recognition for same-sex couples - an idea that would have been seen as insanely radical a decade ago.

Americans have come to regard sexual matters as beyond the rightful reach of government control. There is a now a billboard of half-naked porn star Jenna Jameson in Times Square - not the old, disreputable Times Square, but the modern, family-oriented one. How scandalous is that?

Baring flesh just doesn't get you noticed the way it used to. The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, which virtually erases the line between lingerie ads and soft-core porn, was something of a disappointment last year for attracting only 10.5 million TV viewers. Teen-age boys may have trouble believing that until 1987, the networks didn't allow live models on commercials for undergarments. Bras had to be displayed on mannequins.

The proliferation of racy fare on mainstream television must shock moralistic conservatives such as William J. Bennett, now that he's not distracted by his gambling habit. He was able to enjoy it thanks to the growing spirit of tolerance, which extends to casino gambling. Once an exotic activity allowed only in Nevada, it's now available in 11 states.

On this and other activities once stigmatized as sinful, Americans are generally inclined to let freedom ring, even if they don't always like the results. John Adams and his fellow founders would be surprised, but when you decide to protect the pursuit of happiness, there's just no telling where it will lead.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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