CHICAGO - Across the political spectrum, experts agree that the election of 2004 represents a sharp swing toward old-fashioned Christian values, which conservatives cheer and liberals lament.
"I have long advocated a stronger tie between politics and the virtues," announced veteran conservative moralist Bill Bennett the day after the election. "Last night it was evident that the American people agree." James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said that because of the prayers of Christians, "God has given us a reprieve" - but a brief one that the president must use to implement a moral agenda.
Liberal Northwestern University Professor Garry Wills is afraid they're right in thinking we want a crusade to clean up our morals. Americans, he writes, have come to resemble our extremist Muslim enemies, with our "fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity."
Oh, please. Americans don't want the government policing individual morality any more than they want the NFL to switch to touch football. America is a "live and let live" country, and it's only growing more so.
Commentators made much of the fact that "moral values" ranked first on the list of concerns that voters cited as most important to them, surpassing the economy, terrorism and the war in Iraq. Four out of five of these people voted for President Bush.
But "moral values" is a vague concept that may not mean the same thing in Minneapolis as it does in Dallas or Baltimore.
Even if you assume that the people worried about moral values want Mr. Dobson's brand of morality, the fact is only 22 percent of the electorate rank it as their chief priority. No less than 78 percent disagree, which is a landslide margin.
Religious conservatives think it's no coincidence that in all 11 states where gay marriage was on the ballot, including the pivotal state of Ohio, voters approved bans. What is overlooked here is that while voters don't support gay marriage, they don't necessarily support a federal constitutional amendment outlawing it. Polls indicate that most prefer letting the states handle the issue.
Not only that, but most Americans think gays should indeed have access to the benefits of marriage, just as long as it's not called marriage. A Washington Post-ABC poll this year found that 54 percent support civil unions, with just 42 percent opposed. A couple of years ago, civil unions were a radical concept.
The gay marriage debate is not about the morality of what gays do in their bedrooms. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against sodomy are unconstitutional. You don't see anyone pushing a constitutional amendment overturning that decision, do you?
Gay rights are just one of the many ways in which Americans are inclined to support individual freedom over government control. Mr. Bennett crowed that Alaskans rejected a ballot measure decriminalizing marijuana. Actually, what they rejected was legalization. Marijuana has already been decriminalized in Alaska - meaning possession of small amounts typically carries only a fine. It's one of 12 states that no longer treat pot smoking as a crime, including such red states as Ohio, Colorado, Nebraska and North Carolina.
What all this suggests is something many religious conservatives know but resent: As a general rule, Americans think morality is a matter best left to personal choice, not government policy.
Gambling, once illegal almost everywhere, is now allowed in one form or another in 48 states. Pornography, which used to be prosecuted, is abundantly available, even on TV sets in major hotel chains. Abortion remains legal and widely accepted - even though most Americans say they regard it as "an act of murder."
Americans are a religious people, and religion does affect their political views. But we also have a long tradition of keeping church and state in their separate spheres, while respecting the right of every person to find his or her own way to heaven, or hell. This year's election only demonstrates once again that for most of us, the highest moral value is tolerance.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.