The confessions of Harry Stein

Life was simpler back when journalist Harry Stein knew his place.

If asked to define "politically correct," he could quickly answer: "A term used by the right to smear decent people working hard for social change." The religious right? "A bunch of crazed zealots out to impose their repressive, intolerant theocratic values on the rest of us."

That was the old Harry Stein, a hipper-than-thou child of the 1960s and '70s. Everyone he knew believed the world's problems could be solved with liberal doses of compassion, tax dollars and sex, although not always in that order.

Then Stein got married, became a father and discovered that his wife wanted to stay home with the baby. Soon, strange words started coming out of his mouth. Today, the new Stein defines "politically correct" as a "term properly describing a 'progressive' worldview of litmus tests for right thinking." The religious right is "a bunch of crazed zealots who pretty much kept to themselves until 'progressive' zealots started imposing THEIR values on them and theirs via popular culture and the schools."

Life grew more complex. Friends and family didn't know what to think, especially when Stein came out of the closet with a riotous memoir called "How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace)." And to tell the truth, Stein isn't always sure what he thinks, these days.

Take the God question. Please. Stein is a conservative and a Jew, but that doesn't mean he is a conservative Jew. He's worried that Americans are befuddled on moral issues, but he isn't sure what he thinks about "sin," "repentance" and "atonement." He didn't know what he would be doing during the High Holy Days, which end with Yom Kippur on Monday.

"It would be incorrect to say that I am religious," said Stein, after a recent speech to the Independent Women's Forum. "After all, I grew up as an agnostic and my parents were Communists. But I am more spiritual now than I used to be, it's safe to say. ... And to the extent that I was totally skeptical before, I'm not anymore."

Stein said he realized that his moral and cultural views were changing while he was writing an ethics column for Esquire magazine, creating a witty persona that his editor once dubbed "Shecky Spinoza." By it's very nature, this assignment forced him to ask probing questions and to seek ethical standards that have stood the test of time.

In his book, Stein concedes: "Subtly, though even I was unaware of it at the time, a theme began to run through those pieces: that some of the moral precepts people like me had so casually jettisoned in the sixties as woefully antique -- like, oh, the more demanding of the Ten Commandments -- have served humanity pretty well, after all."

Before he knew it, the questions raised by his day job and the lessons he was learning as a father pulled him into a stream of hot social issues -- such as debates about day care and the so-called "Mommy Wars." Then his wife dropped out of "Women Against Right-Wing Scum," a support group for New York media professionals. Then stunned colleagues started calling them "a traditional family."

Then, at a dinner party, Stein said he believed it's bad for children to grow up without fathers. A friend went nuclear, exclaiming: "Jesus Christ, when did you become a fascist?!" There was no turning back after that.

Stein also began to ask what happens when a culture loses its ability to teach that some acts are always evil, no matter what the cultural context or the circumstances. But if there are eternal rights and wrongs, where do such standards come from?

"I do believe that each of us has an innate sense of what is right and wrong," he said. "But there has to be more to this than feelings. This must be predicated on traditional moral truths. ... I think we all know, deep in our hearts and our souls, that it is these bedrock truths are what make it possible for us to have happy and productive lives. To deny that is insane."