WASHINGTON – A friend of mine e-mailed me Friday to see if I wanted to go to the Folger Theater production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

I e-mailed him back, fretting: Doesn’t that play promote suicide?

What’s the 411 on those Elizabethan teenagers? Were they friends with benefits who recklessly scarfed down unsafe substances and romanticized death?

Surely, the Apothecary is guilty of assisted suicide, selling the distraught Romeo a dram of poison and instructing him: “Put this in any liquid thing you will/And drink if off, and if you had the strength/Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.”

My friend suggested we skip the play and go out to dinner, where we could promote assisted gluttony. In this hyper-moralistic atmosphere, you can’t be too careful, even when a friar is on hand to warn “violent delights have violent ends.” I don’t want to get on the wrong side of the Savonarolas.

I saw “Million Dollar Baby” and was dazzled. But then Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved and other conservatives howled that Dirty Harry playing Dr. Kevorkian sends a positive message about euthanasia.

The culture cops are unmoved that Clint Eastwood’s crepuscular boxing manager, Frankie, is a Catholic who goes to Mass every day and agonizes about the morality of his actions.

Medved wrote that the Oscar nominations for “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Sea Inside,” which feature plots about assisted suicide, combined with snubs for “The Passion of the Christ,” “illustrate Hollywood’s profound, almost pathological discomfort with the traditional religiosity embraced by most of its mass audience.”

I guess Shakespeare is pretty much out from now on. Ophelia drowns herself; Cleopatra kills herself with an assist from two asps; Lear’s wretched daughter Goneril does herself in, as does Lady Macbeth. Brutus kills himself by running onto a sword held by his servant Strato (another assisted suicide), and his wife, Portia, dies by swallowing a burning coal; Othello stabs himself. And don’t even start with the lurid family values in Greek drama and myth, rife with patricide, matricide, fratricide and incest.

It’s funny that the moviemaker stirring up the fuss is an icon of the right, a man the president’s father aped when he said, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” When I interviewed Eastwood in 1995, he said he thought his party was onto something with its nostalgia for the old values. But he also said he was more libertarian than conservative: “The less you mess around with people, the better off people are.” That attitude is passe in the Republican Party. The Christian right thinks that the more you mess around with people, the better off people are. It is eager to dictate social, cultural and marital behavior, with an assist from the man whom it boasts it put back in the White House.

The Virginia House of Delegates last week endorsed license plates reading “Traditional Marriage,” featuring a red heart with interlocking gold wedding bands. (A married pal of mine joked that for verisimilitude, the plates should also feature a man and a woman looking miserable.)

But the Bard was more interested in untraditional marriage — like that lurid family dinner in “Titus Andronicus,” when Titus serves Tamora meat pies made from the bodies of her two sons, who have raped and mutilated Titus’ daughter in revenge for Titus slaying Tamora’s oldest son before her eyes. (Capped by him murdering Tamora and mercy-killing his daughter.)

Just because it’s not “Ozzie and Harriet,” does it have to be bowdlerized, or Medvedized — “Unmixed with anything that could raise a blush on the cheek of modesty,” as Dr. Bowdler bragged about his eviscerated Shakespeare?

Michael Moore and Mel Gibson aside, the purpose of art is not always to send messages. More often, it’s just to tell a story, move people and provoke ideas. Eastwood’s critics don’t even understand what art is. Politics — not art — is about finding consensus with the majority of the audience. Art is not about avoiding controversy or ensuring that everyone leaves feeling morally uplifted.

What I love about movies and plays is seeing fictional characters behaving in ends-justify-the-means ways I never would. What I hate about politics is seeing real officials behaving in ends-justify-the-means ways on the WMD “crisis” in Iraq, the Social Security “crisis,” and the spread of federal disinformation from paid “journalists.” Now that’s worth howling about.

Maureen Dowd is of The New York Times.