By Tim Dunkin
Here, in the first decade of the 21st century, we as Americans can look back on a history for which we are justly grateful. We live in a nation that saw freedom and prosperity abound like no other in the history of this planet. Our nation was forged in the crucible of the struggle for liberty, and her history, while certainly not perfect, has been one of consistently increasing liberty for increasing numbers of her inhabitants. Yet, we nevertheless find ourselves at a cusp in our history. We are poised at the precipice, ready to fall headlong into the pit of open tyranny. We have seen the erosion of our liberties become a full-fledged torrent of intrusion into our personal lives and invasion of our rights affirmed in the Constitution.
Specifically then, where are we? America has reached the point where there is seemingly no morality in our society or political system. There is little to nothing in the way of true reason or sense in the way we do things. Further, there is little willingness on the part of many of our people to do the things for the public good that are necessary to keep the government off of our backs and out of our lives.
The question then becomes, “How did we get here?” This is what we have to answer before we can know how to get back to where we ought to be. What we need to understand is that our nation didn’t get to the state that it is in overnight. Instead, our devolution is the end result of a long process of mistakes and deficiencies that crept into our society over the course of years, decades, and even centuries. In the following weeks, I would like to highlight some the things in the three problem areas I’ve identified above that are contributory.
The Decline of Morality
“Morality” is one of those terms that tends to set off alarm bells in the minds of many supposedly “conservative” individuals – and that it part of the problem. One of the main reasons we are where we are is because Americans – even many conservative, flag-waving patriots – have tossed off many of the moral restrains that made our society work. We need to understand, however, that morality is the key to true self-government, and without it, any society that tries to limit the scope of external government will fail.
The tendency on the part of many is to associate the term “morality” with a very narrow subset of social conservatism – the “religious Right” or the “Moral Majority,” opposition to abortion and homosexual marriage, and so forth. While these may be included in that category, “morality” goes far, far beyond that. Morality involves a complete system of standards and guidelines that govern our behavior and our interactions with others (these “others” being both God and our fellow man). God is a necessary component in this equation because morality is something that does not arise from within man, or from among men in society, but from a transcendent, eternal Creator who has established norms of permissible behavior for us.
This concept differs from that of “ethics,” with which it is often confused. “Ethics” are man-centered. They involve man’s ideas about what is permissible and what is not, and often fall into the category of “self-justifications.” Ethics are a way for us to individually define what we think is right and wrong. Ethics may often derive from biblical morality. Indeed, the ethical standards to which even most atheists hold are generally biblical in origin. However, these atheistic codes of conduct are “ethics” and not “morals” because they typically introduce certain modifications to the underlying biblical morality that are designed to allow the atheist to do what he or she individually wants to do without a moral restraint against it. True morals, on the other hand, are defined by God and find their focus on Him as their author with involving man's attempts at self-justification.
Our nation as a whole started down this road to immorality when we began to reject the prevailing philosophical principle of our early years, which was the Scottish Common Sense philosophy. The Scottish school, whose prominent voices included Thomas Reid, William Hamilton, and to a certain extent Adam Smith, rejected the skepticism and atheism of philosophers like David Hume. It essentially posited that what we call “common sense” was both accessible to the common man, and that this common sense was a firmer ground for man’s life and for man’s knowledge of the world around him than the various philosophical abstractions that led to skepticism and idealism. Marsden describes this school, and notes the influence that it had on America in her first century of existence,
“This old order correlated faith, learning, and morality with the welfare of civilization. Two premises were absolutely fundamental – that God’s truth was a single unified order and that all persons of common sense were capable of knowing that truth. The implications of these assumptions were carefully worked out by the philosophical school known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. In 1870 Common Sense Philosophy had been influential in America for a century, and for the past half-century it had been the dominant philosophy taught in American colleges. In spite of competition from various forms of Romantic Idealism, Common Sense Realism remained unquestionably the American philosophy….
“Common Sense philosophy continued to appeal to Americans into the nineteenth century also because it provided a firm foundation for a scientific approach to reality. In a nation born during the Enlightenment, the reverence for science as the way to understand all aspects of reality was nearly unbounded. Evangelical Christians and liberal Enlightenment figures alike assumed that the universe was governed by a rational system of laws guaranteed by an all-wise and benevolent creator. The function of science was to discover such laws, something like Newton’s laws of physics, which were assumed to exist in all areas. By asserting that the external world was in fact just as it appeared to be, Common Sense provided a rock upon which to build this empirical structure….
“Common Sense and empiricism provided the new nation with a basis for establishing a national moral order. The evangelical educators had taken the lead in shaping the opinions of the nation. The Bible, of course, revealed the moral law; but the faculty of Common Sense, which agreed with Scripture, was a universal standard. According to Common Sense Philosophy, one can intuitively know the first principles of morality as certainly as one can apprehend other essential aspects of reality.” (G.M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925, pp. 14-15)
Scottish common sense was informed on many levels by simple biblical morality, since so much of what people considered to be “common sense” was predicated on the biblical worldview. It was this worldview that informed the common people in America during the 18th and 19th centuries especially, but which has since declined. In society, this biblical morality was applied to social affairs, not in the sense of overt social activism (which came later), but through the broad-based understanding that biblical morality was the best and wisest framework through which a society could function and flourish. This worldview lent itself to the qualities of self-government necessary to both inhibit open display of public immoralities while yet also affirming the liberty of the individual to act so far as he was neither harming man nor bring God’s judgment upon society. The morality in question, based as it was on the Bible, was strictly defined and broadly understood. It was sense because it objectively made sense.
Typically, conservatives would tend to trace the rise of immorality in our society (again, using the stricter definition given above) to culprits such as the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, or to the rise of feminism. These, however, are merely symptoms of the rejection of the biblical morality and worldview that began long before.
The roots of this rejection are to be found in the rise of Romanticism, an intellectual and cultural movement that swept over Europe and North America beginning around the middle of the 19th century. Romanticism was an attitude and belief system that emphasized “feeling” and intuition over truth and knowledge. It was in many ways a revolt against the deductive reason and precise sensibility that had directed Western thought into the 19th century. As Charles Baudelaire, one of the most famous (and notorious) French Romantics, said,
“Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.”
In Victorian England, Romanticism initially met with a great deal of resistance, both from public intellectuals and from society as a whole. This is because the Romantics actively sought to set themselves against the mores that then prevailed in British society. The standards of society were viewed as hindrances to the creativity and happiness of the individual, and society itself was nearly viewed as corruption that took the individual away from his natural happiness and forced him into the mold of artificially-imposed standards and codes of conduct. The French Romantics, and their adherents in Britain, undermined Victorian society, and thus were subject to a good deal of censorship because of the seemingly purposeful assaults they made on the sensibilities of society. However, when all was said and done, Romanticism, aestheticism, subjectivism had won the day and molded British society into its own image,
“Queen Victoria was born in one world. She died in another. History has seldom recorded a greater transformation in so short a period of time....Between the Coronation and the Diamond Jubilee, Victorian life had passed from an agricultural to an industrial economy, from an aristocratic to a middle-class-proletariat society, from a fixed and static to an evolutionary science, from an authoritarian to a relative theology, and, generally, from a dogmatic to an experimental spirit. Many, indeed most, of these changes were still in progress at the turn of the century, but their force and significance had already become distinguishing elements of the late Victorian temper.” (C.R. Decker, The Victorian Conscience, p. 175)
In America, the same effect took place, and it was here as well that Romanticism attacked the twin pillars of American intellectual life – religion and reason. One uniquely American mutation of the Romantic spirit was found in the Transcendentalism espoused by men such as Henry David Thoreau, George Putnam, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Transcendentalism rejected the intellectual spirit of the times, as well as the doctrines of organized religion, and sought to replace them with an “inner spirituality” based upon man’s own emotion intuition. At the close of his essay “The American Scholar”, Emerson wrote,
“So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, - What is truth? And of the affections, - What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will….Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.”
In place of the world of objective knowledge with facts that are true, in and of themselves (including in the realm of religion), Emerson sought to instill in scholars a desire for subjective knowledge, a knowledge where the true value of it is how the individual “feels” and “interacts” with the world around him. In the realm of moral truths, we can see the intellectual groundwork that made possible the transition from objective morality to subjective ethicality.
McMichael and Crews said about the Romantic spirit in America, particularly as it was popularized and disseminated in our national literature,
“Yet Romantics frequently shared certain general characteristics: moral enthusiasm, faith in the value of individualism and intuitive perception, and a presumption that the natural world is a source of goodness and human society a source of corruption.” (Concise Anthology of American Literature, G.L. McMichael and F.C. Crews, p. 263)
Here we see the emphasis on individual “moral” perceptions (i.e. ethics) and their attendant enthusiasms to remake society into the image of what the Romantics considered to be more intuitively proper. And again, we see that the objective law and order and morality upheld by earlier generations was rejected and undermined by the Romantics and Transcendentalists,
“As a moral philosophy, transcendentalism was neither logical nor systemized. It exalted feeling over reason, individual expression over the restraints of law and custom. It appealed to those who disdained the harsh God of their Puritan ancestors, and it appealed to those who scorned the pale deity of New England Unitarianism....They spoke for cultural rejuvenation and against the materialism of American society. They believed in the transcendence of the "Oversoul", an all-pervading power for goodness from which all things come and of which all things are parts.” (loc. cit.)
In other words, man is good, and man is capable of deciding for himself what is right and good. In a sense, this was nothing more than a revival of the ancient Pelagian heresy, the belief in the inherent goodness and perfectibility of man. This belief system, naturally, leads to a rejection of the objectively-imposed morality of the Bible, based as it is upon the understanding of man's sin nature and the need to restrain its expression, and therefore had a steady corrosive effect on American society as Romantic ideals and thought patterns trickled down (often subconsciously) to the people at large. God’s Law, as a source of objective truth and an arbiter of man’s behavior, began to be held in more widespread contempt, if not always openly, then by omission as even professing Christians (such as in the “Social gospel” movement) began to replace the strictures of Scripture with the “moral enthusiasm” of “fixing society.”
Concomitant with the disdain for God’s role as Lawgiver, so also came a disdain for societal law and order, especially as it was founded upon biblical morality. As early as the latter half of the 19th century, the Romantic characteristics were at work, overturning the biblical morality that had undergirded not only American social interactions, but also the constitutional framework of her government. This is only natural. A concern for what we call the “strict constructionist” approach to the Constitution is itself a form of biblicism, in the sense of being a zeal for the actual text of that written document (as opposed to invented penumbras). When Americans turned away from a concern for the written text of the Word of God, everything else became optional as well, including the law of the land – the Constitution. As was alluded to above, much of this came from within professing Christianity, where a good deal of Romantic idealism, especially as it pertained to social activism and social welfare, began to replace the biblical worldview of previous generations.
One example of this was the Temperance Movement which, while perhaps superficially in line with biblical morality as far as opposition to the immoral and detrimental effects of alcohol are concerned, nevertheless rested its case more on the ills that alcoholism caused to society, and therefore the damage done to individual lives, instead of the innate, objective immorality of alcohol itself. The focus was not so much on what God thought about alcohol, but on how we could improve society to make it better. In turn, then, the emphasis of activity was in trying to enforce temperance onto society from above, through the activism of busybodies who knew better than the common people how the common people ought to live their lives, instead of relying upon the life changing Gospel of Jesus Christ to transform people after they had voluntarily yielded themselves to Him. In the process, an amendment was made to the Constitution which was wholly out of character with the original document, one that instead of limiting the role and scope of government, was instead used as the justification for the first widespread intrusion of government into every area of our lives, from our right to keep and bear arms, to the expansion of federal police powers, and to the vast expansion of the revenue generation capacity of the Republic.
In short, under the influence of Romanticism, much of professing Christianity turned away from God and to government as the means of improvement and restoration, and led our country down that same destructive path. Unfortunately, the spirit of subjectivism and anti-biblicism (in both religion and politics) have largely won the day in the public square where our societal discourse takes place. With it comes the pervasive immorality of our governing and social system as a whole. The objective morality that informed our ancestors and which buttressed our constitutional system is in tatters.
For instance, consider this: Biblical morality tells us a number of things about the subjects of work and charity. It tells us, for example, that those who do not work should not eat (II Thessalonians 3:10), and it tells us that theft is wrong (Exodus 20:15). This position is implicitly affirmed in our Constitution, with its complete lack of any provisions for social welfare or a social “safety net,” and with its ample protections of property rights. Yet, the “Social gospel” advocated by many professing Christians in America beginning after the Civil War (and continuing to this day), overturns this. Private works of charity (which were and are certainly laudable) began to be replaced by demands for the spending of public monies for the benefit of “the needy.” It became acceptable for “Christians” to call for theft from “the more fortunate” to give through direct redistribution to the “less fortunate.” This is using the power of the state to perpetrate theft, pure and simple, yet many professing believers involved themselves in the call for this type of theft and the encouragement of laziness, directly contrary to the demands of the Bible. You have millions who think this is the “Christian” thing to do. No, the welfare system is immoral. Compulsion to “do good” is neither moral not legitimate, it is not virtuous.
Likewise, rational capitalism based upon competition and having its origin in the liberty of individuals to use their abilities and assets to improve both themselves and the world around them, is a moral system of economics. Rational capitalism takes the often destructive drive of man’s self-interest, and channels it into outlets which benefit not only the capitalist, but also those whom he employs and those for whom he produces goods and services – what is often called “enlightened self-interest.” By being forced to compete for both customers and a labor force, the capitalist has the incentive to do right by them. Man’s sin nature being what it is, this ideal has not always been put into practice. Nevertheless, the “invisible hand” which Adam Smith wrote about has allowed enterprising individuals to generate profits for themselves while also providing meaningful employment for their workers and a generous standard of living for our society, as God has allowed us to be blessed. In America, even the poor live like the kings of other ages.
Yet, we generally see two immoral systems working to replace this in our modern society. The first is the force of socialism – a theory of economics driven by greed and envy and a lust for power. Through it, socialists hope to reduce us all to servitude and dependence, and that through the immoral mechanism of theft and redistribution. The other force, however, is the corporatism that is often falsely referred to as “capitalism,” with its collusion between government and business. This system seeks to unjustly benefit one entity over others through the power of state favoritism. It encourages all kinds of backroom deals and bribery and corruption, and the only ones it benefits are the recipients of official state favor, not the customer, the worker, or our families.
Another area of our political system that is saturated with immorality is in the increasing usurpation of the functions and role of the nuclear family by the state. Parents are given the duty by God to raise their children rightly (Proverbs 22:6, etc.). Yet, our public school system often spends more time with America’s children than their parents do. The public school system, then, really acts as the primary instructor in “morals” to our children, to the detriment of society as a whole, as we have seen. Many parents, with the encouragement of the government, have absconded in their responsibility to train up their children in the way they should go. Instead, children are being molded into the form that an immoral and socialistic educracy wants them to take.
Further, the role of “Child Protective Services” in interfering in the normal functions of the family unit, the vast majority of times being where there is no legitimate case of abuse going on, is intolerable. Children are pressured to “turn in” their parents, and impressionable young ones are manipulated by child psychologists to accuse their parents of whatever the state wants them to. The sanctity of the family is invaded by bureaucratic busybodies who are looking for any reason they can imagine to take children away from their parents (especially if their parents are raising them in a godly manner) and make them wards of the state. This amounts to nothing more than the theft of children, and the corruption of the innocent. If we were to return to a moral system, then every Child Protective Service bureaucracy in the country would be disbanded – genuine cases of abuse would and should be handled through the lawful police power of the state enforcing laws against assault, battery, sexual assault, and so forth.
It is immoral for the government to illegally inhibit the people from exercising their God-given right to keep and bear arms. Defending oneself, one’s family, and one’s property are righteously affirmed by God (Exodus 22:2), and indeed, to not do so is an immoral act that God says makes one worse than an infidel (I Timothy 5:8). Jesus Christ commanded his followers, for the time after He returned to heaven, to go so far as to sell articles of clothing and buy a sword (Luke 22:36), the contextual reason being that they would now need to consider taking the normal precautions to protect themselves in a fallen and dangerous world, as He would no longer be physically with them. In today’s usage, we can think of swords as having different calibers, ranging from easily concealable .22 caliber daggers all the way up to .50 caliber broadswords. Despite the prevailing philosophy of our day, having one and using it lawfully is moral and good, while the government trying to prevent us from being able to is immoral.
One aspect of immorality that strikes close to home for conservatives is the unwillingness to consistently hold ALL politicians accountable for their immoral actions – including our own. There is the tendency to want to condemn politicians on the Left like Ted Kennedy who were openly and brazenly immoral, or ones like Chris Dodd who try to hide their corruption but fail. Yet, many conservatives are noticeably silent when its one of our guys who gets caught doing something he ought not to have done. Up until a few months ago, I was a strong supporter of Gov. Mark Sanford from South Carolina, but haven’t been since his Argentine escapades. Call me censorious if you like, but I call it “consistent.” Biblical morality condemns favoritism (Leviticus 19:15, James 2:9), and that includes when it’s your favorite politician. That we are so quick to condemn those on the Left for transgression, yet so quick to defend those on the Right who do the same things shows the extent to which we conservatives have imbibed the spirit of our age.
Conversely, those who refuse to participate in our political system at all are, I believe, squandering an important opportunity that is given to them by God’s grace – the opportunity to participate in their own governance, something that has been exceedingly rare throughout history. Many Christians are afraid that any participation in our political system, even voting, will “contaminate” them. It does not have to. We ought to participate in it, though we should not be possessed by the obsession with politics that can overwhelm some. We can “use” the system, but not “abuse” it (I Corinthians 7:31). Refusing to make use of the lawful ability that we have been given to influence our political system for true godliness is to throw back into the face of the Father of lights one of the good and perfect gifts that have come down from Him (James 1:17).
Even something as simple as common courtesy is tied together with biblical morality. After all, you don’t get a more basic biblical message about how to treat your fellow man that Jesus Christ’s injunction “….and as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). Courtesy is biblical, and is altogether lacking in modern American society. People often don't like to hear about this because it brings a lot of our personal behavior under scrutiny. It means that cutting someone off on the expressway, or cutting ahead in line at the bank, or railing on someone because they did something you don’t like are not only rude, but immoral as well. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way, but many people in our society commonly exhibit this type of immorality, and it is a symptom of the greater subconscious rejection of the restrains of morality in our culture.
These examples are just a few of the many that could be elaborated upon at length (but I will spare you). Biblical morality is indispensable to liberty, because it provides the foundation for true self-government that doesn’t just do what it wants, but restrains itself from harming others. Our Founders and those who followed them understood this principle,
“For avoiding the extremes of despotism or anarchy….the only ground of hope must be on the morals of the people. I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments. Therefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.” (Gouverneur Morris)
“The Bible is the best of all books, for it is the word of God and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next. Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts.” (John Jay)
“Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.” (George Washington)
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” (Benjamin Franklin)
No other religious, philosophical, or ethical system has managed to produce as much freedom, prosperity, and general benefit for its participants as has America’s, with its explicit foundation in biblical morality. Even those among our Founders who were not Christians were influenced by these principles, and understood the objective truths that underlay this morality. They understood something that many of us today don't, which is that liberty requires self-restraint, and self-restraint, in turn, is only rational when it lines up with a moral standard that is not defined by ourselves, but by God. If we conservatives want to try to bring America back from the brink, we would do well to search ourselves and bring our ways of thinking and doing back into line with true biblical morality, instead of just taking the right stances on a few hot button issues.