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Our Dying Culture

By David F. Wells –

What is striking about our culture today is that its corruption is not simply at the edges.  It is not simply found among the cultured elite, the New Class that stands at the gates of our national institutions to bar entry to those whose views are judged to be intolerable.  It is not simply found among postmodern academics who are bent upon overturning all meaning and moral principle, or among vicious street gangs, or among rappers who spew forth obscenities and violence, or among the venders of pornography, or in the bizarre and unashamed revelations of deeply private matters that are aired on television talk shows. What is striking is that this corruption is ubiquitous. It is not located in this or that pocket of depravity, but is spread like a dense fog throughout our society.  It is even spread by those who are safe, ordinary, dull, and dim-witted, and not merely by the incendiary and bellicose, the subversive and anti-social.  “Wherever one looks,” writes Robert Bork, “the traditional virtues of this culture are being lost, its vices multiplied, its values degraded—in short, the culture itself is unraveling.”[1]  And the American public apparently agrees with this diagnosis. An overwhelming majority, 90 percent, believes that America is slipping ever deeper into a “moral decline.”


The Moral Majority

This undoing of our society can be grasped quickly by looking at a few raw statistics that signal the presence of the deep and destructive pathologies that are at work.  Since 1960 population has increased by 41 percent while violent crime has risen 560 percent.[2]  The U.S. Department of Justice projects that eight out of ten people will be the victims of violent crime at least once in their lives.  And the most active incubator for this violence is in the ten to seventeen age group, where the rate of the perpetration of violent crime has soared 400 percent since 1960.  Since 1960 illegitimacy has increased 400 percent.[3]  In 1990, 65.2 percent of black children were born to unmarried mothers.  And since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, an estimated 28 million unborn children have lost their lives.  Since 1960 the rate of teen suicides has risen more than 200 percent, making it the third leading cause of death among these young people.[4]  Since 1960 the divorce rate has increased 200 percent; as a consequence, less than 60 percent of children live with both biological parents. And while spending on our public schools has more than doubled in constant dollars since 1960, SAT scores have dropped, on average, seventy-five points. The federal tax burden on families with children is now 24 percent of their income, whereas in 1960, when children were doing better in school and better in society, the federal government only asked for 12 percent of family income.[5]  These facts diminish the hope that we can simply buy our way out of our predicament with larger and larger public outlays.
These, however, are the statistics that are graphic.  Just as telling, and perhaps of more interest, are those that measure more private matters, such as our moral intentions, matters that may not always be matters of law.

Americans today, say James Patterson and Peter Kim, “stand alone in a way unknown to any previous generation.”[6]  They are alone, not least, because they are without any objective moral compass.  “The religious figures and Scriptures that gave us rules for so many centuries, the political system which gave us laws, all have lost their meaning in our moral imagination.”[7]  While the great majority of Americans believe that they actually keep the Ten Commandments, only 13 percent think that each of these commandments has moral validity.  It is no surprise to learn that 74 percent say that they will steal without compunction, 64 percent say that they will lie if there is an advantage to be had, 53 percent say that, given a chance, they will commit adultery, 41 percent say that they intend to use recreational drugs, and 30 percent say that they will cheat on their taxes.  What may be the clearest indicator of the disappearance of a moral texture to society is the loss of shame.  While 86 percent admit to lying regularly to their parents, 75 percent to a friend, 73 percent to a sibling, and 73 percent to a lover, only 11 percent cited lying as having produced a serious level of shame.  While 74 percent will steal without compunction, only 9 percent register any significant shame. While pornography has blossomed into a $21 billion industry that accounts for a quarter of all the videos rented in shops, in the thriving hotel business, and on cable, only 2 percent experience guilt about watching them.[8]  And, not surprisingly, at the center of this slide into moral relativism is the disappearance of God.  Only 17 percent define sin as a violation of God’s will.

The moral terrain that was once dominated by a set of beliefs and virtues to which wide public assent was given has now disappeared.  There are, no doubt, many reasons for this.  Aside from anything else, the massive waves of immigrants, legal and otherwise, in this century have changed our nation.  In 1990 the Census discovered in America three hundred races, six hundred Indian tribes, and seventy different Hispanic groups.  As our social diversity has expanded, our national unity has been weakened[9] and our consensus about what is right and wrong has crumbled.  But secularization, in particular, has decimated this consensus, and today not only is the public square stripped of divine meaning but so, too, is human consciousness.  Amid all of the abundance and the technological marvels of our time, what is true and what is right have lost their hold upon our society.  They have lost their saliency, their capacity to shape life.  Today, our moral center is gone.  It is not merely that secularization has marginalized God, relegating him to the outer edges of our public life from whence he becomes entirely irrelevant, but we have also lost our understanding of ourselves as moral beings.  In our private universe, as in that which is public, there is no center.

At the most obvious  level this is suggested by the fact that 67 percent of Americans do not believe in moral absolutes—that is, in moral norms that are enduring and are applicable to all people in all places and all times—and 70 percent do not believe in truth that is similarly absolute.[10]  What this means, then, is that running through our society is a San Andreas fault line of a moral kind, one that may be engaged initially at the level of conflicting values but which also, and at the same time, involves competing worldviews, for one part of our society believes in absolutes and the other does not.  And since the great majority of Americans do not believe in absolutes, Jerry Falwell was guilty of considerable chutzpa in calling his movement the Moral Majority.

Among the real moral majority today it is not hard to discern pagan motifs.  Camille Paglia notes, with respect to pop culture, that it represents “an eruption of the never-defeated paganism of the West.”[11]  Her thesis, which she developed in Sexual Personae, is that there are always in culture two principles at work, the Apollonian and the Dionysian—one whose urge is to expand and the other whose work is to restrain, one that undoes shape and the other that demands definition.  What is now expanding, what she believes was recovered in the 1960s, is the pagan impulse, now wrapped in what is earthy and sensual.  This, happily, is liberating us from all social taboos.[12]

“For me,” she continues, “the ultimate power in the universe is nature, not God, whose existence I can understand only as depersonalized energy.”[13]  Defying many of the icons of feminist devotion, she then sets out with brilliant and pristine clarity what it means today to be pagan, and she is far more mainstream than the feminist critics who take such pained exception to her.  Pornography, for example, she thinks is good.  “Porn dreams of eternal fires of desire, without fatigue, incapacity, aging, or death.  What feminists denounce as woman’s humiliating total accessibility in porn is actually her elevation to high priestess of a pagan paradise garden, where the body has become a bountiful fruit tree and where growth and harvest is simultaneous.”  She adds that “‘dirt’ is contamination to the Christian but fertile loam to the pagan.”[14]  Paglia, to be sure, is cutting her own path through the world with a kind of beguiling swagger, but many of her assumptions, which she rightly calls pagan, are very widely held.

Indeed, they are even seeping into the church in milder and disguised forms.  In 1993, for example, women from several mainline denominations met in Minneapolis under the auspices of the World Council of Churches to explore the sexual side of God. Their erotically charged language, which produced no small furor, also gave unmistakable evidence of the reappearance of what looks quite like the old Baal fertility rites, dressed up though they are in modern, Christian form.[15]  And, more generally, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson are surely correct in seeing a neo-pagan influence evident in the current fascination in the churches in mining the self for religious meaning, an undertaking based on the assumption that salvation consists in getting in touch with oneself.  The result is a faith that is neither about truth nor unique.  It is, further, devoid of cognitive substance, and its Christ, who is divorced from history, has become simply a mold into which modern therapeutic content is poured.[16]  These are the contemporary garments in which the old paganism now strolls our world.

This resurgent paganism poses an enormous challenge, one that is both cultural and churchly.  In this chapter, however, I focus on only a small part of it.  I contend that the loss of our moral center, which is one of its chief consequences, is at the heart of the unraveling in our society.  Its final and most destructive outcome, which is now upon us, is that we have lost our ability to discern between, or even to talk meaningfully about, Good and Evil.  And while this collapse into cynicism and moral chaos bodes poorly for the future of American life, it is opening opportunities for the Christian faith that have not been present in this way at least during the twentieth century and, perhaps, for an even greater period.


Obedience to the Unenforceable

The cultural accord that has shaped our past was actually a matter of tough and deliberate virtue.  This virtue lay in our simple insistence among ourselves that we would preserve three domains in society.  Lying between law on the one side, and freedom on the other, would be a middle territory for the cultivation of character and the affirmation of truth, one that would be as vital to the preservation of our society as law and freedom.  This accord, to be sure, now seems quite quaint following the postmodern assault on all virtue and meaning.  But, as we shall see, that assault has not been without a very steep price.  Today we are experiencing the competition between law and freedom to occupy this middle territory.  The result is that the fires of license are stoked constantly by our growing moral relativism while at the same time they have to be constantly doused by our resort to law and government.  We live precariously on the knife edge between chaos and control, for what was once an open space between law and freedom, one governed by character and truth, is now deserted.  The result is that freedom is now unfettered and law must do double duty by assuming the role of character.  That seems to be the best way to understand many of the cultural strains, the turmoil and disarray, which mark our time.

Of course it is the case that every society needs laws as well as the weight of the judicial system to enforce those laws.  In every society there are flagrant violators who rob, swindle, beat, and massacre, and it is by a rather simple calculus that society acts.  It acts against the violator to issue just desert, to protect itself from being ravaged further, and, perhaps, to offer a corrective toward reforming the wrongdoer.

Along with establishing the right of law, the Constitution also secures a large role for freedom in our society.  It secures for its citizenry freedom from unwarranted intrusion by the state into both private and public life.  The Constitution is less clear about what we are free for, than what we are free from, but that itself may be part of its genius.  It is because we are free from state tyranny that originality and creativity and, indeed, Christian believing have all been able to flourish in America.

Lying between law and freedom, however, has always been this third domain.  It is that of character, the practice of private virtue such as honesty, decency, the telling of truth, and all the other kinds of moral obligation.  It is that of public virtue such as civic duty, social responsibility, philanthropy, the articulation of great ideals and good policies, all those things that might be encompassed in Paul’s statement that the Gentiles, “who have not the law, do by nature things required by the law” (Rom. 2:14).  This third domain is what must regulate life in the absence of legal coercion and government regulation.  It is where law and restraint are self-imposed.  The demands come from within, not from without.  In this area we find what John Silber has called “obedience to the unenforceable,” which was the language of English jurist John Fletcher Moulton earlier this century, who went on to say: “The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of obedience to the unenforceable.  It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its area testifies to the way they behave in response to that trust.”[17]

Today the middle territory is shrinking daily as our understanding of ourselves as moral beings collapses, and it is being invaded by the two other domains.  It is this fact that raises the most profound questions about American life.  Law must now do what church, family, character, belief, and even cultural expectations once did.  What is going to happen, then, if we keep stoking the fires of our rampant, amoral individualism and have to keep dousing those fires with greater and greater recourse to litigation and regulation?  Our society is going to become a platform on which more and more collisions occur.  It is going to be host to more and more thwarted, frustrated, and impeded desires.  And how will this be resolved?  Should we expect greater chaos or greater control in the future?  The answer, of course, depends on how our freedom, now channeled through our individualism, and how our legal system, established by the Constitution, choreograph their ballet.  Only a few illustrations of this dynamic can, of course, be offered, first from the side of freedom and then from that of law.


An Ode to Myself

Freedom today is largely understood through the prism of our individualism.  Individualism comes in all shades, but Robert Bellah’s distinction between that which is utilitarian and that which is expressive is one that is widely accepted.[18]  The former has to do with the calculations of career, of the individual pursuit of gain and advantage in the workplace. The latter is more psychological than commercial.  It is also a reflex to the harsh competition that capitalism produces.  This reflex takes the form of  seeking liberty from all constraints and, in consumption and 1eisure, finding solace for the wounds the soul absorbed at the workplace.  These are the psychological compensations for the brutalities of the work week.

This reflex, then, carries with it a sense of entitlement to being left alone, to being able to live in a way that is emancipated from the demands and expectations of others, to being able to fashion one’s own life the way one wants to, to being able to develop one’s own values and beliefs in one’s own way, to being able to resist all authority.  To be free in these ways, we think, is indispensable to being a true individual.  And much has happened to this ideal from the time when Tocqueville described and admired it (the nineteenth century) and what we find in its outworking today.

Nineteenth-century individualism was one in which personal responsibility played a large role.  It was the kind in which people thought for themselves, provided for themselves, owed nothing, and usually worked out their independence within a community, loosely defined though some of these were.  This produced the kind of person who, in David Riesman’s language, was “inner-directed,” that is, who was guided by an internal gyroscope of character and belief and who, as a result, saw it as a virtue to have clear goals, to work hard, to live by ethical principles, and who probably admired those who had taken lonely stands and triumphed over adversity by inner fortitude.  This, says Riesman, is the kind of person who would rather be right than be president.  Today’s individualist would rather be president than be right.  It is not character that defines the way individualism functions today, but emancipation from values, from community, and from the past in order to pursue gain, of one kind or another, in the present.

“The freedom of our day,” declared a Harvard valedictorian, “is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.”[19]

Today, it is not ideology that poses the greatest danger to America but what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls “permissive cornucopia.”  His argument is that following the spectacular failure of twentieth-century totalitarianisms, and the rise of democracy worldwide, the United States is now the world’s leader.  Yet whether it will be able to discharge its responsibilities has become doubtful because of its rotting fabric.  He sees a society “in which the progressive decline in the centrality of moral criteria is matched by heightened preoccupation with material and sensual gratification.”[20]  This produces deep undercurrents of hedonism in which personal gratification is pursued regardless of the good of society.

The game of “Monopoly,” Parker Brothers’ enormously successful creation and a favorite since the Depression, really is a metaphor for Our Time.  Each player begins with the same amount of money and then, by a combination of chance (which lands him or her on desirable properties that can be purchased), calculation (whether or not to buy and build, thus placing the other players in jeopardy should they land on the property), and misfortune (which lands one on someone else’s property), the game moves to its end by an inexorable logic no player can effect.  The buying and selling is made possible by the flow of money from the bank, but this is controlled in such a way that survival is assured to no one and, in the end, only one player ultimately survives.  Here are all of the elements of modern life: Here are the inexorable laws of the marketplace, which, Bellah notes, are “absolute but amoral”;[21] here is life’s ruthlessness and unpredictability, for in the end there is only one survivor; here players try to get away with what they can, as they do in life, for no player, landing on someone else’s property, will articulate that fact if the other player has not noticed; and here, as is so often the case in life, there is no place for the virtues, no place for mercy if someone is unable to pay rent, no place for compassion for those about to lose everything, no place, in fact, for anyone but oneself.  This is modern life.

The autonomy to devise one’s own values, however, is precisely why contemporary individualists do not find connections to the world.  They are, Riesman says, “ignoring those issues of relatedness to others and commitment to keep intact the precarious structure of civilization,”[22] and this is partly why therapists have come to assume such a large role in our culture.  What they try to do is to enable the self to make the adjustments necessary to find meaning in and connections to life, but this is often done under the language of enhancing the self, of enabling it to transcend itself, rather than that of limiting itself through moral obligation, service, self-sacrifice, and commitment to others.  The therapist, in other words, is looking at life in ways that are, as Bellah argues, “generally hostile to the older ideas of moral order.”  Why is this?  The answer, of course, is that technique has supplanted moral discourse, and the manipulation of the self has itself become the new (secular) religious order. Psychology is religion.

And in the public realm what this means is that personality has come to supplant character in importance.  We as individuals sell our personalities in the workplace as commodities that are disconnected from the inner lives in which they arose.  The same is true of television.  After all, who knows what vices and character flaws, what beliefs and values, lie behind the image we see on the screen of a person who is charming, relaxed, and funny?  We know that person only as charming, relaxed, and funny, and not as he or she may be—rapacious, promiscuous, conniving, and deceitful.[23]  There is a bull market today for image and personality as commodities that are separable from the person.

Nowhere is this disengagement between personality and character more plain than in the way that celebrities have replaced heroes in our culture, and in the way that villains have disappeared.  A hero was someone who embodied what people prized but did so in such a way that others wanted to emulate him or her.[24]  A celebrity may also want to be emulated, but the grounds of the emulation have now changed.  A celebrity usually embodies nothing and is usually only known for being known.  Fame, in our world of images and manipulation, can be manufactured with little or no accomplishment behind it but it cannot be emulated as can the virtue that a hero embodies.  In Daniel Boorstin’s rather caustic comparison: “The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.  The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.”[25]  It is our commercial culture that produces the celebrity, but it was the moral culture that, more often than not, elevated the hero.  As celebrities replace heroes, image replaces character, and commercial culture replaces that which is moral, we are left with a kind of individualism that simply festers with lawlessness because moral character is not its central interest.  Indeed, it is not an interest at all.

In 1995 Calvin Klein tested public sentiment by airing some advertisements that featured adolescents in sexually provocative poses.  The public—or, at least, that part of it that was vocal—was not quite ready for this, nor was the Justice Department, which began to ponder whether child pornography laws had been broken.  The advertisements were eventually withdrawn.  However, as John Leo pointed out,[26] not only were these advertisements treading a well-worn path of using sex to sell products, but they were also being pitched to the spirit of lawlessness in the culture at which many other advertisers are also aiming.  This is the spirit that assumes that there should be no obstacles to the expression of any instinctua1 urge, that people should be able to do whatever they want to do, that there should be no moral constraints.  This is the surfacing in the 1990s of the 1960s radicalism with its antisocial and antimorality impulse, which Paglia celebrates, but now it is considerably Yuppiefied.  The early pioneers were Nike’s “Just Do It!” (in other words, don’t think about it and don’t let anything stand in the way to your doing it) and Burger King’s “Sometimes, you gotta break the rules.”  And the imitators have been numerous.  Bacardi Black rum, which advertises itself as “the taste of the night,” goes on to say, “Some people embrace the night because rules of the day do not apply.”  Easy Spirit shoes even latched onto this theme, promising a shoe that “conforms to your foot so you don’t have to conform to anything.”  Ralph Lauren’s Safari celebrates “living without boundaries”; even stayed and reliable Merril Lynch declares that “Your world should know no boundaries”; and Nieman Marcus encourages its customers to relax because, it says, there are “No rules here.”

It is, then, this moral space between law and freedom that shrinks daily, for what cannot be enforced, it is now assumed, should not be a matter of obedience.  This, in itself, is a recipe for profound social disorder, but its most pernicious outcome, the one that has the deepest effects, is one hardly noticed at all.  It is that we have lost our ability to talk about Good and Evil.

This, in fact, is a deficiency long in the making, but one whose size and importance have been much enlarged in recent decades.  Andrew Delbanco places the beginnings of the problem well back into the nineteenth century.  He notes the dismemberment of the self that occurred as industrialization reshaped the country.  We lost our sense of “we” in community, which was replaced by the lonely “I.”  The older kind of world in which God ruled sovereignly and presided over its moral order became seriously fractured.  To soldiers involved in the Civil War, for example, and to the nation as it watched, it was a matter of blind chance who survived and who did not.  To pray for grace increasingly became more embarrassing than to hope for luck.  Sin, by the end of the nineteenth century, was rapidly fading as a belief, and how could it have been otherwise, he asks.  “Sin, after all, means transgression against God.  But God had been replaced by fortune, and fortune makes no moral judgments. . . . In what amounted to a new paganism, the concept of evil devolved into bad luck, and ‘good luck’ became the new benediction.”[27]

The loss of moral centeredness, a loss occasioned by the disappearance of God, by the supplanting of providence by chance and of moral purpose by self-interest, changed everything.  It changed the meaning of death, since there was no one to whom the dying were going.  And it changed the meaning of life, since what had given it meaning had now gone.  Writing as early as 1929, Walter Lippmann described the “modern man” as having


moments of blank misgiving in which he finds that the civilization of which he is a part leaves a dusty taste in his mouth.  He may be very busy with many things, but he discovers one day that he is no longer sure they are worth doing.  He has been much preoccupied; but he is no longer sure he knows why.  He has become involved in an elaborate routine of pleasures; and they do not seem to amuse him very much.  He finds it hard to believe that doing any one thing is better than doing any other thing, or, in fact, that it is better than doing nothing at all.[28]


Americans had been slow to see that as the old moral map faded they would be left, not with an alternative, but with no map at all.  It is true that the neo-orthodox theologians, like Reinhold Niebuhr, tried to staunch the flow in moral understanding and bring about a more realistic understanding of human nature.  They did have a few moments of success, but these turned out to be quite fleeting.  The real story of our time was being told through the relentless march of secular rationality as it destroyed all before it.  Today, Delbanco says, it has left moderns with only one conclusion: “to acknowledge that no story about the intrinsic meaning of the world has universal validity.”[29]

It is this cruel irony that we have brought upon ourselves.  The Enlightenment, which substituted its own rationality for God’s revelation, its purpose for his, its vision for his truth, its norms for his laws, now finds itself attacked by its own postmodern progeny and the great overthrower is itself overthrown.  In an ironic replay of Samson’s life, the disaffected children of the Enlightenment, those who have tagged along behind its proud dreamers, now find themselves in painful captivity, their eyes gouged out, and in one last spasm of rebellion encircle the pillars of Enlightenment ideology itself and collapse the whole structure upon themselves.  But even as they die, they know that in a world ruled only by chance, this final act has no meaning either.

As our understanding of ourselves as moral beings has disappeared, the vacuum has now been filled by alternative anthropologies.  These alternatives, however, are not only at the center of our cultural crisis; they are also at the center of our identity crisis.  If we are not moral beings, who stand in the presence of God and before his Law, who are we?  “I am my genes,” we reply; “I am my sexual orientation”; “I am my past”; “I am my self-image”; “I am my personality”; “I am my experiences”; “I am what I have”; “I am what I eat”; “I am what I do”; “I am who I know.”  This bravado echoes with its own emptiness.  Sin has vanished, but quite plainly this throw of the dice has not won the game.  Not only are our personal dilemmas growing exponentially, but our culture is also falling apart.  The more we indulge our moral and spiritual illusions, the more we have to douse the consequences by resorting more and more to law and litigation and the more we have to find palliatives for our own boredom, cynicism, and despair.


You Are Being Watched

If our freedom has led us into the dead end of license and nihilism, it is law that must now rescue us.  Since the 1960s, Gregory Sisk says, “a vision of the federal judiciary as the moral tutor appointed for a recalcitrant society has become dominant in the American legal academy and increasingly in the courts themselves.”[30]  Thus it is that the courts have taken it upon themselves to elevate certain values and to discount others, an obvious case being the creation of a legal right, and the granting of moral permission, for abortion in Roe v. Wade.  And later, in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, three justices on the Supreme Court suggested that the acceptance of this moral principle was required as a matter of good citizenship.  The Constitution intended that the courts would provide a small part of social morality, but in the dwindling world of the “obedience to the unenforceable,” the courts now threaten to provide the only morality there is, and some of it, at least, has become questionable.

The courts, in fact, have engaged our society across the entire spectrum of its life, from the most insignificant matters to the most weighty.  In February 1996—to take an instance of the most insignificant—Antonina Pevnev, the mother of a three-year-old girl, received a restraining order from Judge Charles Spurlock of the Suffolk Superior Court in Boston against the three-year-old son of Margaret Inge.  Apparently these two toddlers had a spat in the sandbox and the court had to issue its injunction in order to preserve the peace at Charles River Park playground.[31]  Is it romantic to suppose that the earlier social arrangements for resolving such disputes were superior?  In this case, the mothers would have had a go at it constrained by some sense of propriety and moral obligation.  If they had failed, the fathers, then the neighbors, then the neighborhood, then the respective ministers.  Character, custom, reputation, a sense of social obligation all would have acted to douse the conflict and prevent it from erupting any further.  Today, however, what all of these agencies once did, Judge Spurlock was obliged to provide through the court.

It was inevitable that a culture that nourishes 70 percent of the world’s lawyers would be the one that would attempt to convert every desire into a right.  And certainly the courts have encouraged this development by widening constitutional guarantees to free speech to encompass freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, reproductive freedom and, somewhat more sporadically, the rights of all to equal education and equal opportunity.  The great benefit of a right is that, once established in law, it cannot be overturned.  A right lodged in the Constitution is a right that government is pledged to defend, regardless of the financial and social costs and without respect for the size of the opposition to the possession of that right.  Rights are therefore eminently desirable things to have, especially in a culture that is spinning into license and lawlessness, for a right provides a social defense that character once, without the law’s coercion, provided for others as a matter of conscience.

Multiculturalism in the 1960s was initially an expression of the Civil Rights Movement.  It sought to allow visibility to women and ethnic minorities who had been excluded from positions of power and influence in society.  It sought to welcome cultural differences and to see in these differences what would enrich, rather than impoverish, the country.  It was an argument that some advanced from Christian premises and others on the Enlightenment principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all.  Multiculturalism today, however, has largely lost its ideals, given our postmodern context, and it has rapidly degenerated simply into a search for group power.  What accompanies this is not the embrace of other cultures but an ugly censoriousness toward all those with whom it is in disagreement.  Ironically, multiculturalism today is not about culture at all but about politics and power and what Richard Bernstein calls the “dictatorship of virtue.”[32]

In 1995 the University of Massachusetts, following a number of other universities,[33] proposed a policy on harassment that went well beyond the constitutional safeguards of citizenship.  This policy was designed to disallow certain kinds of speech with respect to women and ethnic minorities, to students who were pregnant, those who had the HIV virus, those who were gay, student cultural practices, the language they spoke, and their political affiliation.  Apparently, students would be vulnerable to the university’s sanction if they expressed judgments about the morality of homosexuality, or if they opposed someone’s political viewpoint too vigorously, or if they snickered when they heard that someone was pregnant.  This proposed law was made necessary because tolerance had vanished on campus.  When moral principle breaks down, of course, we are left with no other recourse than that of law.  Do we not have to wonder, though, whether placing all our social marbles in the basket of legal constraint is not worse than the problem it was designed to solve?

But what is the alternative?  The alternative, unfortunately, is usually the evasion of moral responsibility.  For on the underside of this multiculturalism is the cultivation of victimhood.  This is at the confluence of the deep currents of individualism, the therapeutic framework in which we think, and the loss of the moral fabric to life.  “The ethos of victimization,” writes Charles Sykes, “has an endless capacity not only for exculpating one’s self from blame, washing away responsibility in a torrent of explanation—racism, sexism, rotten parents, addiction, and illness—but also for projecting guilt onto others.”[34]  This “depersonalization of blame” is a sure symptom of the decay in our character and the loss of our older moral vision.

Today we stand at the turbulent meeting place of these two swirling, swollen currents.  From one side, the loss of moral vision threatens to undo culture along its entire front; from the other side comes the escalating recourse to law in order to contain a society that is splitting its own seams.  This contest between license and law is one that, in the absence of recovered moral fiber, can only become more shrill, more frustrating, more culturally destabilizing, more damaging, and more dangerous, and it is one that poses both temptations and opportunities to Christian faith.

The temptations will be there if we fail to understand this dynamic clearly.  Since the task of building character is so hard, the recovery of this third domain so daunting, the recourse to law, and the coercion that political triumph might allow, is almost irresistible.  No political agenda, however, can restore what has most been lost, this “obedience to the unenforceable.”  We can pass laws against murder, but not against hatred; against adultery, but not against lust; against fraud, but not against lying.  We can condemn violence, but we cannot command kindness.  We can condemn intolerance, but we cannot require civility.

It is this cultural dilemma that now drives the debate between Democrats and Republicans, the one wanting more law and the other more freedom, and we need to say, with respect, that both parties are both right and wrong.  Republicans are right that government regulation is burdensome and sometimes ineffective, but they are slow to see the consequences of having less law in a culture whose moral character is worn, where “obedience to the unenforceable” is tepid.  Democrats are right to fear what will happen in such a society where the heavy hand of the law is lifted, but they rarely see that the law cannot restore what we have lost, which is our sense of “obedience to the unenforceable.”  Republicans ask for more freedom, Democrats for more law, but freedom in the absence of public virtue is as disastrous as more law because of the absence of public virtue.

If these are the worst of times, they are also the best of times, for a moment of unprecedented opportunity is opening before the church.  It is, therefore, a matter of some poignancy to realize that in the very moment when our culture is plunging into unprecedented darkness, at the very moment in which it is most vulnerable, and in which the soil is most ready for the gospel, the evangelical church has lost its nerve.  At the very moment when boldness and courage are called for, what we see, all too often, is timidity and cowardice.  Instead of confronting modernity, the church is capitulating to it.  The gospel we should be preaching is one that offers an alternative to our cultural darkness; what the church is preaching is a gospel that too often reflects that cultural darkness.  Because therapeutic language has often replaced that which is moral and the quest for wholeness has taken the place of holiness, sin has become dysfunction and salvation has become recovery.  It is a gospel more about self-sufficiency than about Christ’s unique sufficiency, and it goes hand in hand with churches that prize marketing success above moral and spiritual authenticity.

The loss of moral categories in our society has also transformed the search for what is spiritual outside the church.  In what many see as a surprising twist, our deeply secularized world is now also awash with spiritualities of almost every conceivable kind.  What so many have in common, however, is that they are offering spiritual benefits with little or no accountability.  Designer religion of the 1990s allows itself to be tailored to each personality.  It gives but never takes; it satisfies inner needs but never asks for repentance; it offers mystery and asks for no service.  It provides a sense of Something Other in life but never requires that we stand before that Other.

This yearning for what is spiritual amid our secular wasteland is surely testimony to the fact that, as Augustine put it, we were formed by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.  Not even the torrent of modernity, with all of its anxiety, cynicism, and moral confusion, has succeeded in erasing what we are by virtue of our creation.  The truth is that the fields have never been so ready for harvesting.  Our culture has never been riper to hear a Word about a God large enough to provide meaning rooted in his own transcendent character and forgiveness that is objective because of Christ’s cross.  Without knowing why, many today ache to hear such things.  This is no time for the evangelical world to lose its nerve.  It is a time to recover a faith strong and virile enough to offer to our culture the alternative that it needs to hear.


David F. Wells is the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Theology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. This article is reprinted from Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals, eds. James M. Boice and Benjamin E. Sasse (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 25-42.  Used by permission.




[1]Robert H. Bork, “The Hard Truth about America,” The Christian Activist 7 (October 1995): 1.

[2]William J. Bennett, The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (Washington: The Heritage Foundation), 3.

[3]Ibid., 10.

[4]Ibid., 13.

[5]Ibid., 23.

[6]James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth: What People Really Believe about Everything that Matters (New York: Prentice Hall, 1991), 27.


[8]Ibid., 48, 57.

[9]This is the central theme pursued in Arthur A. Schlesinger’s The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York: Norton, 1993).

[10]This double rejection of absolute morality and absolute truth is not without significance when it is recalled that the Bible also links these two matters.  Truth is the opposite both of what is intellectually false and of what is morally defiled.  This yoking of belief and behavior, what is true and what is right, in the biblical understanding of truth is perhaps nowhere more succinctly stated than in John’s words: “If we claim to have fellowship with him [God] yet walk in the [moral] darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth” (1 John 1:6).  See also John 1:4, 5, 9; 3:19-21; 7:18; 8:12; 12:35, 36, 40; Eph. 4:25; 1 John 2:8-11, 27.

[11]Camille Paglia, Sex, Art, and American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1992), vii.

[12]Ibid., 102.

[13]Camille Paglia, Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (New York: Vintage, 1994), 20.

[14]Ibid., 66.

[15]At this conference goddess worship in the form of Sophia occurred and in a ritual involving the elements of milk and honey the following prayer was offered: “Our maker Sophia, we are women in your image: With the hot blood of our wombs we give form to new life. . . . Our sweet Sophia, we are women in your image: with nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child; with our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations. . . . With the honey of wisdom in our mouths, we prophesy a full humanity to all the peoples.”

[16]Carl E. Braaten and Robert Jenson, eds. Either/Or: The Gospel or Neopaganism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); see also Peter Jones, Spirit Wars: The Revival of Paganism on the Threshold of the 3rd Millennium (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995).

[17]John Silber, “Obedience to the Unenforceable,” unpublished address, Boston University, 1995, 2.  Silber’s brief discussion of the three domains is, for my purposes here, more helpful than that typical three-fold division of private, public, and voluntary associations.

[18]This distinction runs throughout Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Stephen M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985).


[19]Bellah, The Good Society, 44.

[20]Zbigniew Brzezinski, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 65.

[21]Bellah, The Good Society, 83.

[22]David Riesman, “On Autonomy,” in The Self in Social Interaction, ed. Chad Gordon and Kenneth Gerge (New York: Wiley, 1968), 446.  I have also attempted to sketch out our individualism has developed and why it is now so problematic in my No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 149-86.

[23]Normally, the discovery of unhappy moral realities lying behind the image might diminish the prospects of success for a performer.  But not always.  In our culture there are some deep pools of perversity that produce the opposite result.  IN 1993, for example, rapper Doggy Dogg was charged with murder in a drive-by shooting.  His debut as a rapper that year was in an album called “Doggystyle.”  Despite the murder charge—or, more correctly, because of it—the album made history  by rising to the top of the charts the first week it was out.

[24]Dick Keyes, True Heroism: In a World of Celebrity Counterfeits (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1995), 14-16; see also Joshua Gamsun, Claims to Fame:  Celebrity in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[25]Daniel Boorstin, The Image: or, What Happened to the American Dream (New York: Atheneum, 1962), 61.

[26]John Leo, “Decadence, the Corporate Way,” U.S. News and World Report, August 28-September 4, 1995, 31.

[27]Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 153.

[28]Ibid., 188.

[29]Ibid., 221.  John Diggins has recognized the consequences of this in our hollowed out political life and has sought to retrieve from the Founding Fathers and from subsequent thinkers those values and beliefs which, if reaffirmed, might restore some authority to our political order.  See his The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (New York: Basic, 1984).  Others have moved in a different, more religious direction.  Robert Wuthnow has suggested that civil religion now has two forms, one that articulates the goals of the political Left and the other of the political Right.  “On the conservative side, America’s legitimacy seems to depend heavily on a distinct ‘myth of origin’ that relates the nation’s founding to divine purposes.”  This is what gives America a special place  in the world and a certain divine approval to its foreign policy initiatives.  The liberal view of America does not root its interest in America’s founding under God.  It argues that America has a role to play in the world, not because it is some kind of chosen people, but because of the ethical responsibility that follows upon its position of power and its wealth in the world today.  “Rather than drawing  specific attention to the distinctiveness of the Judeo-Christian  tradition, liberal civil religion is much more likely to include arguments about basic human rights and common human problems” (Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988], 244, 250).  Both forms of civil religion, however, miscarry for neither adequately and convincingly  can shore up the fallen middle between law and freedom.  See also Robert Wuthnow, The Struggle for America’s Soul: Evangelicals, Liberals, and Secularism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 97-114.

[30]Gregory C. Sisk, “The Moral Incompetence of the Judiciary,” First Things 57 (November 1995): 34.

31]Roderick McLeish, “Is Litigation Becoming an American Pastime?”  The Boston Globe (March 8, 1996), 23, 27.

[32]Richard Bernstein, Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future (New York: Knopf, 1994).

[33]See Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: The Free Press, 1991).

[34]Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), 11.


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