Reversing the Great Moral Decline

These days if you let it slip that you’d like to restore the Judeo-Christian ethical underpinnings of American society, you’re likely to be labeled an extremist.  You must want to forcibly convert the masses, outlaw other religions, imprison the atheists, ban secularists from the political sphere and achieve theocratic “dominion” of Christians over the apparatus of the state.  Or something.  Because, you know, your backwardness makes you susceptible to cultish thinking, and your hatred of “the other” makes you dangerous.  The enlightened ones may take to calling you Anders Breivik when you’re away doing — well, they don’t really know what you do, but they suspect you might be at militia meetings with people called “Bubba” and “Jackknife.”

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says the social and moral decay on display in the English riots should not have come as a surprise:

Britain is the latest country to pay the price for what happened half a century ago in one of the most radical transformations in the history of the West. In virtually every Western society in the 1960s there was a moral revolution, an abandonment of its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint. All you need, sang the Beatles, is love. The Judeo-Christian moral code was jettisoned. In its place came: whatever works for you. The Ten Commandments were rewritten as the Ten Creative Suggestions. Or as Allan Bloom put it in “The Closing of the American Mind”: “I am the Lord Your God: Relax!”

You do not have to be a Victorian sentimentalist to realize that something has gone badly wrong since. In Britain today, more than 40% of children are born outside marriage. This has led to new forms of child poverty that serious government spending has failed to cure. In 2007, a Unicef report found that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the world. The 2011 riots are one result. But there are others.

Whole communities are growing up without fathers or male role models. Bringing up a family in the best of circumstances is not easy. To try to do it by placing the entire burden on women—91% of single-parent families in Britain are headed by the mother, according to census data—is practically absurd and morally indefensible. By the time boys are in their early teens they are physically stronger than their mothers. Having no fathers, they are socialized in gangs. No one can control them: not parents, teachers or even the local police. There are areas in Britain’s major cities that have been no-go areas for years. Crime is rampant. So are drugs. It is a recipe for violence and despair.

The young people who went riot in the streets were not, according to Rabbi Sacks, the most responsible party:

…They are the victims of the tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.

What has happened morally in the West is what has happened financially as well. Good and otherwise sensible people were persuaded that you could spend more than you earn, incur debt at unprecedented levels and consume the world’s resources without thinking about who will pay the bill and when. It has been the culture of the free lunch in a world where there are no free lunches.

What was achieved was nothing less than the re-moralization of society—much of it driven by religion.

It was this that the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville saw on his visit to America in 1831. It astonished him. Tocqueville was expecting to see, in the land that had enacted the constitutional separation of church and state, a secular society. To his amazement he found something completely different: a secular state, to be sure, but also a society in which religion was, he said, the first of its political (we would now say “civil”) institutions. It did three things he saw as essential. It strengthened the family. It taught morality. And it encouraged active citizenship.

At the end of 2010, he published the good news. Social capital, he wrote in “American Grace,” has not disappeared. It is alive and well and can be found in churches, synagogues and other places of worship. Religious people, he discovered, make better neighbors and citizens. They are more likely to give to charity, volunteer, assist a homeless person, donate blood, spend time with someone feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger, help someone find a job and take part in local civic life. Affiliation to a religious community is the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race.

Much can and must be done by governments, but they cannot of themselves change lives. Governments cannot make marriages or turn feckless individuals into responsible citizens. That needs another kind of change agent. Alexis de Tocqueville saw it then, Robert Putnam is saying it now. It needs religion: not as doctrine but as a shaper of behavior, a tutor in morality, an ongoing seminar in self-restraint and pursuit of the common good.

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson “quotes a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, tasked with finding out what gave the West its dominance. He said: At first we thought it was your guns. Then we thought it was your political system, democracy. Then we said it was your economic system, capitalism. But for the last 20 years, we have known that it was your religion.”

Our problems are fundamentally cultural, and even more fundamentally spiritual, because what are missing are the elements of culture that our Judeo-Christian heritage furnished and safeguarded.  It does not take economists and the secretary of the Treasury Department to reverse a cultural deterioration.  In fact, the technocrats cannot do it.  It takes you and me, everyone, all of us.  That’s both the great challenge — that our problems cannot be eliminated in one fell swoop by a package of policies or a set of decisions delivered from on high — and the great benefit of our circumstances.  We don’t need to wait for others to fix it for us.  Indeed, they can’t.  Only we can.  But we can.  Little by little, collectively, we can.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John Haas

    “Britain is the latest country to pay the price for what happened half a century ago . . .”

    Exactly the sort of argumentation that gives “sermonizing” a bad name. You know what sermonizing is (as opposed to preaching): find some lamentable event that happens to be in the news, tie it to the increasing neglect of your own movement or values, and promise or imply we’ll get back to whatever golden age your listeners most admire if they’ll just rededicate themselves to your bag.

    The Rabbi happens to have a good bag. “Judeo-Christian values” (which no one had ever heard of before the 1940s, btw) are good, and necessary to human flourishing. I’m also a fan of intact families, personal responsibility, and all the rest.

    But it’s just too simplistic to blame the Beatles for the recent riots. Boneheaded arguments in the service of a good cause are still boneheaded arguments.

    Does the rabbi think the zoot-suit (actually, anti-Mexican) riots were the result of a sudden deficiency in Judeao-Christian values in 1943? What about Tulsa in 1921? What about the Springfield riot of 1908? The rioting women of Richmond in 1864?

    Besides, the rabbi should have known to take Kris Kristofferson’s advice, and blame it on the Stones, not the Beatles:

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I wondered who would be the first person to say “This guy blames the Beatles for the London riots.” It’s silly. It scores a rhetorical point, but we’re not in a Presidential debate here. I don’t think it does much for the discernment of truth together.

      No one had heard of “religion” before the category was developed, either, and yet there were religions. “Judeo-Christian values” is just a way of referring to the common elements in the moral teachings of the Jewish and Christian traditions. We develop terms and categories as ways of organizing history and focusing attention on the phenomena we think are important.

      The fact that there have been other riots at other times and places, presumably with other causes, does not mean that these riots are not reflective of the cultural changes Sacks references. As with those other riots, you look at the context and the nature of the riots, the qualities of the people who participate and how they describe their motives, and etc. Not that mysterious.

      But I’d be more interested in knowing, John: what *is* your critique of the sexual and moral revolutions of the 60s and 70s? Any criticism whatsoever? Can you take seriously the possibility that pushing a “whatever feels good” philosophy might have destructive consequences?


      • John Haas

        “But I’d be more interested in knowing, John: what *is* your critique of the sexual and moral revolutions of the 60s and 70s?”

        That seems a bit to the side, as the thrust of the article you quote is to locate the point of origin of a specific contemporary event (and which I hold is a boneheaded argument).

        But as you’ve asked, it’s easily answered: your and my critique of the goodness or harmfulness of the various behaviors that are conventionally attributed to that period would most likely be point for point the same. I imagine, eg, you applaud Loving v. Virginia and condemn Roe v. Wade. I do too. I would probably want to remind you that conservatives at the time deplored Loving, and many still do. (And I would also remind that Loving demonstrates that, perhaps, the pre-1960s moral code may not have been as “Judeo-Christian” as current nostalgics would like to believe.) I’m not sure what you think of Lawrence v. Texas; I’m not sure what I think either. I lean sort of libertarian on that, I suppose.

        What I would most want to insist on is that, while conventional to the point of being a cliche, your chronology is off.

        The sexual revolution (in the US and Britain) began as far back as the 1890s, and had several pulses where envelopes got pushed further and further out into the population. Beginning with pre-WWI bohemians, to the famously liberated 1920s, thru the ’30s, the real leap was made in the 1940s. The ’50s were notoriously libertine at the time, and the 60s and 70s just saw it moving into the open.

        And while some philosophers have been out-and-out hedonists, the regular folk, even the counterculture of the ’60s, by and large didn’t in fact adopt outright hedonism. They concluded, rather, that certain behaviors or substances were good, or harmless, and sometimes these diverged from the official culture.

        Even when they professed to believe the sillier slogans of the decade, they remained more conventional and middle-class than often even they knew.

  • Tiff

    John, I think he was using the Beatles as the most well-known example of the era, I don’t think he was blaming the entire counter-culture movement on the Beatles. =)

    I say a lot of it is on the baby-boomer generation. Even today they’re the ones complaining the most about losing their government “entitlements”. I’m sorry, some of us are saving our money for our own retirement b/c we’re not expecting the government to “take care of us” in our old age. I could go on a lot more about what I think of that group as a whole (obviously I know there are exceptions), but usually when I see a whining, entitlement, self-absorbed me-generation, I would say it started with them.

    • John Haas

      Yes, Tiff, I understand he was letting the Beatles stand in symbolically for all the changes of the ’60s (civil rights too? Should we still be “holding the line” in Vietnam? Maybe we can all move to Muskogee, at least in our minds?). I was doing the same.

      It can be very satisfying to partisans of the culture wars to indulge this sort of post hoc, ergo propter hoc argumentation, but (as the other examples of riots I offered show), it’s still boneheaded.

      As for the boomers, the rioters were post-baby-boom, the Beatles pre-, so we may want to rethink that one too.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        John, you need to give the argument a more nuanced read. The reference to the Beatles was illustrating a moral attitude or philosophy that spread within a certain generation, which then raised their children with those moral attitudes. So the fact that the rioters are of a later generation is not at all an argument against Sacks. It’s actually part of his argument.

        In some ways it’s worse for following generations; whereas many Boomers were actually raised with the pre-60s moral attitudes of their parents, and then lived with 60s values on top of the more traditional values that functioned as a kind of substratum for them, those who were truly raised with relativistic values do not have the kind of superego that the more traditional values formed.

        The story Sacks tells has to do with a moral and spiritual tradition that was passed down the generations for a very long time, which was at least partly discarded by a revolution in the way many Americans thought about moral issues. In some respects that revolution was positive. In many respects, I believe, it was negative. It’s only a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument if there is no logical and causal connection between what is pre and what is post. While these are complicated matters that cannot be proven by reference to the Beatles or disproven by reference to the fact that riots have occurred before, but it really seems fairly straightforward to me that a revolution in moral attitudes would have profound consequences upon a culture. The question is not whether there are consequences; the question is which consequences are for the better and which are for the worse.


    • Dear Tiff,the baby boomers put their money into the kitty all their lives and so they are entitled to this pay out the government used for education for whomever and for interest in their won accounts. They did collect interest on this money and it should go to the workers who paid into it so they could retire and have a little to live on.Perhaps Teddy was wrong??

      • Tiff

        Nancy, I’m assuming you mean Frankie, not Teddy? =) FDR implemented social security as part of the “New Deal” in 1935.

        The Social Security Act (Act of August 14, 1935) [H. R. 7260]

        “An act to provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits, and by enabling the several States to make more adequate provision for aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of their unemployment compensation laws; to establish a Social Security Board; to raise revenue; and for other purposes.”

        One main purpose was to help provide for widows, the disabled, and their children, since back then men were still the primary bread-winners and women had very little hope of finding jobs that could make the same amount of money as their husbands.

        Short answer, yes I think FDR was short-sighted, average lifespan was much shorter when this was implemented (approx 62-years vs. the 78-years it is now), and, like many programs, no one was thinking what the problems may occur 50+ years from the time it was created.

        I am willing to concede the baby boomers can keep their social security, I’m even willing to acknowledge paying into it for another x amount of years if the government will just end date the program, and admit, sorry, you Gen X, Yers, etc. you’re paying into this program and will never see a dime, because that’s where it’s going. If someone has a better solution, I’m all ears, because at this rate they’re going to tell people my age we can start collecting “our” social security when we’re 90, and I’ve already paid a good amount in this program and I’m assuming I’ll never see that money again.

        But the real point, is I always hear baby boomers talking about the moral decline of our society (I’m talking about people I know personally) and I want to ask them, what kind of moral education did you give your children? Well, I/we let them decide for themselves… okay, then where do you think this all started?

  • Jay

    Did anyone other than I get lost with the definition of “sermonizing?” “Post hoc ego propter hoc” is a convenient way out, and sometimes a lazy way. That’s especially true when were examining causal connections subject to intellectual, rather than empiracal observation. We’re not talking chemical reactions here. We’re talking changing attitudes, changing actions and resulting consequences.

    It takes a little induction, but humans are blessed with some intuitive sensing; were it not so, we could have never progressed (assuming we have–generalizing and perhaps not including those who represent the ills that are obvious and mentioned)to where we are. Though I hate to categorize and use labels, in a short comment I can’t seem to work myself past that problem.

    Anyone with enough maturity and objectivity, who lived through the change from an other-directed ethic to an anything-goes moral relativism, in the ’60’s, by a strident segment of society–usually young, could see, and soon did see, the destructive consequences. It certainly partook of many of the aspects of classical hedonism. A true historian could see that. Yet, that movement stroked themselves with the idea they were on to something new and better. I could see it, and I don’t pretend any great wisdom.

    It’s my opinion that we collectively are paying the price, and too many of us are unwilling to acknowledge the causes. Your article states it well. I’m somewhat puzzled at the motivation of the deniers.

  • John is correct that one should not jump from correlation to causation but misses I think Dr, Dalrymple’s more salient point. We’ve reached I fear, a tipping point, where religious belief is seen as societal evil instead of a force for good. Tolerance is afforded to any and all manner of lifestyles except Christians who are ridiculed and reviled without the raising of an eyebrow. While one can’t say with scientific certainty that the moral decay we see all around us is caused by the increased secularization of our populace, we seem intent on betting the ranch that it isn’t.

  • Basil

    This article seems to reflect a general malaise that you see among a lot of writers of many viewpoints — Krugman had a post yesterday on reflections of 9/11 which hit some of these same themes. I actually find myself agreeing with the notion that we are in decline, economically and morally. But I find this article deeply flawed because it posits that we lived in some sort halcyon “Judeo-Christian” past and that somehow we have fallen from grace, thereby triggering our decline. That is a very skewed, and opportunistic reading of history. Maybe life was easier if you were white, male and Christian, but for women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and numerous other minorities (including those dreaded gays) life fifty years ago was much more difficult, and those communities were substantially handicapped and marginalized. Since our moral and cultural collapse in the 1960’s we’ve taken apart laws of segregation, and made significant (though not complete) progress in opening opportunities to a wider swathe of society.

    The second flaw is that we will only recover through burnishing our “Judeo-Christian” heritage. There is this unproven assertion that religious people are better neighbors, more caring, more likely to be involved in their community, more altruistic. It may be true of SOME religious people, but I think that is often quite the opposite. Religion can, and often is, a force for violence, reaction, social rigidity, patriarchy, and marginalization of unpopular minorities. We see that in the incessant anti-gay campaigns that seem central to modern American evangelicals (and conservative Catholics and Mormons) — the results of which are now on display in a wave of assaults against gays going in Salt Lake City (arguably one the most “family values” cities in the US), or the open harassment of gays out on the street at the Pride festival in Charlotte, NC (Kathy Baldock at Canyonwalker Connections documents this extensively), the gay school kids in Tennessee confronting “God hates fags” rhetoric from their peers and naked prejudice from their school principal, or….(the list is pretty endless).

    More generally, it seems that much of the modern American religious scene seems more interested in strengthening patriarchy, and less concerned about community obligations. How exactly is it that thousands of self-proclaimed Christians turn out for a political/prayer rally led by a Texas Governor (and potential next President), a man who likely sent an innocent prisoner to his execution, and a man wants to abolish Social Security? That would impoverish millions of senior citizens. Where is the altruism in that?

    Religious identity is often a very negative force in society, particularly for those of us on the receiving end of attention by self-proclaimed Christians. But for what it is worth (not very much), I strongly concur with the notion we are well into a phase of social and moral decline, driven by greed, selfishness, and a lack of concern for consequences of our actions for future generations, or other communities. It seems that the bonds of our common citizenship have frayed, and that people self-segregate into their own lives, their own enclaves, and lash out to keep hold of their share of the pie. The trend seems to cut across communities, both religious and secular, and religious institutions/authorities seem just as selfish as any other.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      A couple quick thoughts:

      1. “Maybe life was easier if you were white, male and Christian, but for women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and numerous other minorities (including those dreaded gays) life fifty years ago was much more difficult…” It’s not about life being easier. As I’ve said in other posts, we’ve had some very positive moral and social developments since the sixties, especially for those who were marginalized. But it doesn’t change the fact that certain virtues — what I’ve called economic, family and patriotic virtues above — have attenuated. We are, I strongly believe, paying the price for that attenuation now. Of course, I’m not going to be able to prove every claim in every post. But I do write from this standpoint.

      2. “There is this unproven assertion that religious people are better neighbors, more caring, more likely to be involved in their community, more altruistic.” It’s not unproven, actually. It’s pretty thoroughly documented.

      3. Perry has not said that he wants to abolish social security. My guess is that he would restructure it, but I’m not a Perry fan. The point is that the supporters for Perry — like the supporters for Obama in 2008 — believe in some measure that his policies would serve their interests, but also believe that the policies he promotes would best serve the country as a whole.

      4. I’d be interested to hear more about the very negative way in which you have been on the receiving end of attention by self-proclaimed Christians — and glad we agree on the matters in your final paragraph.


  • Cathy

    Thank you Tim, for this excellent article. The last paragraph is where the real message is. And even if the Beatles wrote a song, “All You Need is Love,” it was Jesus Christ who said the 2 greatest commandments are Love God and Love one another…the entire Law and the Prophets hang on these 2 commandments. It won’t be through ‘religion’ but through Loving God and each other that the hoped for reversal of the Great Moral Decline will take place. So, how are we going to learn to Love one another??

  • Basil


    I was going to respond at length, but I appear to have hit your spam filter. I’ll try some other time.


    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Feel free to respond by email at EvangelicalPortal at Patheos dot com, and I’ll post your comment here. Thanks! Sorry about the irritating spam filter; it’s being changed soon. Cheers,


      • Basil

        Thanks Tim.

        I take it as a sign from God that I need to edit down my overly long response. I will work on that late tonight