Reversing the Great Moral Decline

Reversing the Great Moral Decline September 9, 2011

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.

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