The Moral Ecology of the Twenty-First Century
Americans are rapidly changing their moral habits and surrendering to an aggressive secular culture, one that cannot long preserve the public ethos of America's Founding.
By April 1, 2000
Much has been made--rightly--of the military and economic strength of the United States. But that strength is not founded, principally, on material resources. In purely material terms, Brazil ought to be richer economically and even militarily than the United States.
The great strength of America has been its moral strength--specifically, its biblical and classical moral strength. The United States, like Britain, is a marriage of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, as proudly testified to in its architecture, its rhetoric, and its reference points.
"Long before the founding of the American republic," Gertrude Himmelfarb points out in One Nation, Two Cultures, "Montesquieu explained that 'virtue' is the distinctive characteristic of a republic, as 'honor' is of a monarchy, and 'moderation' of an aristocracy." Continental Europeans do not share the American obsession with morality; they disparage it as "moralistic." Their ethos still has lingering traces of their own monarchical and aristocratic heritage--vestiges of class, birth, and privilege that are congenial to a "loose" morality.
I am speaking here of the Continental nations. The common people of England, whether tutored by the dissident churches and Wesley's Methodism or by the traditions of Shakespeare's day, seem to have been spared the Continental amorality. Their American descendants were even more eager to highlight "character as the test of merit" and "self-discipline as the precondition of self-government." The Americans associated the two concepts "republic" and "virtue," as in the locution "republican virtue." To America's founders, it seemed inconceivable that a people who lacked republican virtues could establish a republic and make it work.
America's Moral Habits
If one were to ask taxi drivers in almost any large American city (many, if not most, of whom would be immigrants) what they like about America, one would not have to wait more than a sentence or two before hearing the term opportunity. Opportunity is a concept that goes beyond mere economics. It points to a whole constellation of institutions and moral principles. Thus, for instance, the Pew Foundation recently asked some three thousand Americans why they thought the twentieth century had succeeded in becoming "the American Century." The top three answers were (1) America's Constitution, (2) her elections, and (3) her private enterprise economy. In brief, the respondents pointed to three central sets of institutions. But institutions imply underlying habits. For instance, experiments in more than a hundred other nations that have gained their independence during the past one hundred years show that institutions can flourish only among people who possess the requisite habits. The soil of good institutions is good habits. The secret of the Anglo-Saxon peoples is good habits, a certain (may I say) moralistic streak not common on the Continent.
Liberty depends upon a moral ecology of a certain kind. This is true whether one thinks of liberty as a characteristic of institutions or as a characteristic of persons. Institutions depend upon habits, and so does the exercise of personal liberty. Isaiah Berlin was wrong to confine his attention to two concepts of liberty only. Berlin wrote of negative liberty as the absence of constraint, and of positive liberty as empowerment--the empowerment of the poor, the elderly, and others. A third form of liberty, more central to today's dilemmas, is constituted by the exercise of certain internal habits: acting from reflection and with deliberate choice (that is, taking responsibility for the consequences of one's actions). Liberty in this sense is not doing what one wishes but what, after reflection and deliberation, one recognizes that one ought to do--and willingly commits one's self to doing (inviting others to hold one to the promise). This third liberty might be called civil liberty, the central and defining liberty of republican life. This liberty is the soul of republican virtue.
Civil liberty is particularly dependent on public moral standards. When Aristotle was young, his city was overrun by a foreign invader, and he was sent to Athens for his safety. He never forgot how the pressure of foreign occupation forced even good people--people his family knew--to behave in cowardly ways. When, later, he wrote that "ethics is a branch of politics," he was drawing on this experience. Most people cannot long swim against the moral tide of their time. The ethos surrounding them blows them off the course they might otherwise have chosen. Therefore, statesmen concerned about the moral life of a republic must attend vigorously to its public ethos. That ethos has disproportionate influence upon the moral life of individuals.
Since about 1950, however, Americans have come to speak sparingly of virtue, habit, and character. For a time, in fact, these words almost disappeared from public discourse. Then a great renewal of religious and moral passion broke out--and was strenuously and at times violently resisted. A kind of "culture war" ensued--an internal "clash of civilizations." What one major part of the population finds "good"--abortion, let's say, or a homosexual ethos, or moral relativism--another major part of the culture finds narrow, self-destructive, and fatal for the nation. Conversely, others think that a pro-life stance, an insistence that matrimony is a covenant appropriate only between men and women, and a clear sense of right and wrong are narrow, bigoted, and destructive of liberty.
Changing Public Ethos
What, then, shall we say about the American public ethos at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
First, it is clear that public concern over moral decline is high. It has been a fixed principle of American civilization that the natural law of civilization is moral entropy. From high and heroic peaks, civilizations regularly decline, usually within three or four generations. Abraham Lincoln gave a famous speech at the Lyceum to this effect, describing in vivid terms "the silent artillery of time." Countless events of recent years have reminded the American public of this gloomy fact.
On the other hand, Americans also believe in the restorative power of religion. In fact, few in the founding generation could have conceived of long-term moral fidelity apart from religion. According to George Washington, whatever may be said of persons of peculiar character, human experience suggests that apart from religion, moral practices will not long endure:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . . Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure [some scholars think he was referring to Jefferson], reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Why is this, you might ask? Don't all of us know highly moral atheists and agnostics? Didn't David Hume dedicate his life to proving that an atheist could be just as moral as a devout Christian? For the few, it may be possible. Human experience, however, does not allow us to be optimistic about the many.
The atheist may think of morals as a set of rules, even an etiquette. For the devout Jew or Christian, however, morals are more than that. They are a personal bond--a sign of friendship (or personal betrayal). Because God is all-seeing, there is a reason to be faithful to him even in secret, when no one else could possibly observe. There is reason to paint the bottom of the chair--to do things right all the way around. Because God is all-knowing, rationalization and self-exculpation are in vain; a scathing honesty is inculcated.
Loss of Confidence
Americans have always imagined that they enjoy a covenant with God. They have sought to live up to God's laws--to make "a shining city on the hill"--and God smiled on their efforts. Americans have tried to exercise their liberty as God would have them do, and God, in His Providence, saw to it that liberty prospered, even against long odds.
I don't think we can say today that we have kept our side of the covenant. Since 1973, we have killed 36 million children in the womb (and, incidentally, thereby decimated the cohort whose labor had been counted on to keep Social Security sound). This is one reason why so many religious people no longer have confidence in America's future. "I tremble for my country," Thomas Jefferson once wrote, thinking of slavery, "when I think that God is just."
America's religious communities--Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism (both mainline and evangelical)--appear to have lost their certainty, will, and moral vitality. People still go to church in astonishing numbers; on any given weekend, more people go to synagogues and churches than watch all the college and pro football games, whether in person or on television. An astonishing number of Americans state that religion is "very important" in their lives. Sociologists tell us that in belief and in practice, Americans are very nearly the single most religious people in the world. "Americans as a people are as religious as the people of India," Peter Berger quips, "but governed by an elite as atheist as the Swedes." Nonetheless, American religious bodies seem unable to defend themselves against the onslaught of the aggressively anti-biblical practices, ideas, and rationalizations of secular America. In fact, official church activists typically become fanatical partisans of the latest secular assault upon traditional religion.
The American family, too, is only a shadow of its former self. Sexual life has been all but freed from marital purposes. In Washington, D.C., nearly half of all pregnancies end in abortion. Nonetheless, of those pregnancies that do end in birth, 65 percent are to single mothers, no husband present. One can only imagine the rage of young men born of such unions, groaning for the firm hand, advice, and connection of a father. What did they do to deserve a father who has abandoned them? In 1994, for the first time, in all of America--white and black--more than 50 percent of all first-born children were born outside of wedlock, representing 30 percent of all children born that year.
What is a family when men and women so easily abandon one another and their children? Of course, they do so with their own reasons, and for their own happiness. Still, the institution weakens.
There are today three great threats to America's moral nerve.
The first of these is that the Union may dissolve through a profound threat about which just a few people are thinking today--the loss of loyalty toward America among religious people (and not only the so-called Religious Right). More and more, an aggressively secular culture seems hostile to such people, and they feel as though they are being driven to the edges of American life. For the first time in our history, many such persons are beginning to regard the American culture of the present as adversarial to them. Many shrewd observers have also noticed that many Jewish Americans have been moved by suspicion of the Religious Right, and driven by that suspicion to an acceptance of the Left, even though many of their deepest views are more in harmony with the conservative partisans of liberty. This movement of a significant proportion of conservative-leaning Jews toward the Left deprives conservatives of great talent and leadership. Natural allies are falling out among themselves. The center is not holding.
Another threat is that the American people will lose their moral confidence. In the past, Americans always believed that Providence favored their purposes because their purposes were right and they sought to exemplify in their lives and in the country a certain righteousness. Today, however, many of the young have been taught that America is militarist, sexist, racist, imperialist, and bigoted--in short, that America is not only not righteous but even wicked. Many of those who have not fully accepted this characterization of America as evil are nonetheless uncertain about what is good. The things they have always thought to be good are now called "intolerant," and they have lost considerable faith in their instincts.
The third great threat is that the moral seriousness of the American people will wane, that the habits of hard work and high civilization will be depleted and rendered shallow. Reread the letters that young American soldiers wrote from the field during the Civil War, and then tune in to the youth culture on MTV. Which is the deeper culture, the higher level of civilization? The word goes around among foreign students at American universities, "Don't associate with the Americans. They don't work hard enough. They fool around too much. They are not serious."
Hope for the Future
Nonetheless, I still often share the ancient American hope in our people and our capacity for self-renewal--and the hope for a Fourth Great Awakening that will do again what the First, Second, and Third Awakenings did (in the generations following 1730, 1840, and 1890, respectively). There are many good signs in America today. The election and success of Ronald Reagan, the great breakthroughs in economics, and the collapse of communism--truly, in our lifetime we have witnessed near-miracles. Words of truth were more powerful than all the military might of the Kremlin. Incentives did break thick, resistant stagflation. The world of 1999 is so different from the world of 1980 that we have little excuse to be pusillanimous today.
But I don't want to end on a Pollyannish note. Truly, a free society is the most fragile kind of all societies. Any one generation can forget its formative ideas, can ignore or abandon them. It takes only one generation to turn out the lights and slip into a soft and pleasant slavery.
Still, I have a somewhat positive prediction. Although I am not certain that this new century will be another American Century, I am certain that the Creator, when He made this world, made it fit for liberty. The whole point of creation, Judaism first taught us, is so that somewhere in this vast cosmos, among the stars, at least one creature would be conscious--and free. Humankind was given the ability to recognize what the Creator had wrought, to give thanks, and to accept the Creator's invitation to friendship.
Somehow, in the twenty-first century, liberty will triumph. Of that I am certain. How, I don't quite see. But that's all a free people needs--a chance. Free peoples have no right to demand guarantees or to prefer security. They need a world open to their own initiative and responsibility.
The twenty-first century will be the Second American Century if enough of the world's people--and its chosen leaders--freely will it so. If we keep our nerve, and our fundamental conviction, that right makes might.