REBUILDING AMERICA’S SPIRITUAL FOUNDATIONS
BY CHARLES W. COLSON
I spent the first half of my professional life in politics and public service. When I was in the White House, I was a complete secularist and confirmed conservative; and though I didn’t know it at the time, I was also a social utopian. I really believed that people could be changed by government being changed. I never looked beyond the structures and the institutions and the legislation into the hearts of people.
But when I became a Christian, I gained a new perspective on the actual influence political structures have over the course of history. I began to see that societies are changed only when people are changed, not the other way around.
The crisis is not political; it is moral and spiritual. And so is the solution. That’s why Christians are the only ones who can offer viable answers.
Back in 1976, many evangelicals had great hope for the reversal of America’s moral decline and firm convictions about just where that hope lay. A relatively unknown candidate had emerged from Georgia to take the country by storm. His name was Jimmy Carter, and he was a Baptist who talked openly about his faith. He even taught Sunday school.
Disillusionment soon set in, however. Even a president who taught Sunday school didn’t seem to make a difference. So in 1978, leaders of what is now known as the Religious Right met in Washington to set their own conservative political agenda for the 1980s. Their candidate, Ronald Reagan, would be different, they promised. His public charisma and apparent sympathy for their convictions would channel evangelical energies and change the nation.
On election night, 1980, the Washington Hilton was awash with blue balloons, white streamers and exuberant evangelicals. Men and women more accustomed to singing “Nearer, my God, to Thee” cheered their victory lustily to “Happy Days Are Here Again.” “Welcome to the Great Awakening of the 1980s,” observed one commentator.
But as the sun set on the Reagan presidency eight years later, it also set on the hopes of many of these once-euphoric Christians who had overestimated their influence and underestimated the difficulty keeping their balance on the slippery slope of politics. Despite unprecedented access to the Oval office, they had been unable to implement their agenda. Most of the items had been either defeated or shelved.
After eight years of the most conservative presidency in recent memory, Roe vs. Wade was still on the books. The anti-pornography campaign could claim a study commission but no legislation. Despite zealous anti-drug crusades, crack and cocaine continued to rule the streets of America; gang warfare and spiraling crime rates stalked the inner cities. And prayer-in-school advocates were left with nothing but the dubious comfort of President Reagan’s assurance that “as long as there are math tests, children will pray in schools.”
There are several different theories about why the Religious Right failed. Some say evangelicals simply aren’t monolithic as a voting bloc, as Pat Robertson discovered in his sputtering campaign for president. Others believe that earnest religious people were simply betrayed by double-talking politicians. And still others question whether there ever was a mandate for social change. Perhaps the great moral revolution of 1980 was wishful thinking; advocates fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda.
But I think the true explanation lies in our disregard for these two key truths: first, the solutions to all human ills do not lie in political structures; and second, it is impossible to effect genuine political reform solely by legislation.
Government Is Not a Cure-all
Many Christians, like much of the populace, believe the political illusion, that is, that political structures can cure all our ills. The fact is, however, that government, by its very nature, is limited in what it can accomplish. What it does best is perpetuate its own power and bolster its own bureaucracies. Government programs to help the needy, for example, easily get hung up in their own red tape–tangled in forms and memos and committees and meetings and budget analyses.
As historian Paul Johnson observed in Modern Times, the 20th century is the pathetic story of the effort to live by the bread of political power alone. In not-so-modern times, Samuel Johnson saw the same truth: “How small of all that human hearts endure/That part which kings or laws can cause or cure.”
Christians cannot afford to continue to confuse access to the Oval Office with political influence; nor can we put all of our hopes and energies in the political basket. Invitations to White House dinners don’t assure political pull; nor can politics promise the penetrating societal change we seek.
In their high expectations of politics, many Christians also misjudge the source of true societal reform. In reality, it is impossible to effect genuine political reform without reforming individual and, eventually, national character.
While it has moral responsibility to restrain evil, government can never change the hearts and minds of its citizens. Attitudes are forged by spiritual forces, not by legislation. “All history, once you strip the rind off the kernel, is really spiritual, ” said historian Arnold Toynbee. Values change when spiritual movements stir the hearts of people and when fresh winds of reason stir their minds.
Such standards as keeping the law, respecting human life and dignity, loving one’s family, defending one’s nation, helping the needy and sacrificing for the common good depend directly on individual virtues such as courage, loyalty, charity, compassion and duty. The success of government itself depends on these characteristics; yet government is powerless to create them in its citizens. Real social changes cannot take place unless a nation’s character demands them.
“Politics is the art of the merely possible,” argues Russell Kirk. “The long-run decisions of the electorate are formed not by party platforms and campaign speeches, but by visions–by prejudices, if you will. Only the changing of such visions can produce large enduring political alterations, for better or worse” (1).
Not that I advocate withdrawal from politics. I believe every aspect of life is subject to Christ’s lordship and that Christians are called to bring biblical influence to every part of society, including political structures. That’s my objective when I speak before state legislatures and other political groups, urging reforms in our criminal justice system. We are to work within and without politics for justice and righteousness.
And we cannot abandon the political arena because progress there is elusive, excruciatingly slow, or even nonexistent. We must dig in for the long haul. It took decades to bring about the abolition of slavery, to end industrial abuses and to establish civil rights. Those who led the battles for these reforms were sometimes dismayed, but not deterred. We should take courage from them, but we must do so without illusions.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is an unusual politician in that she understands–and is willing to state publicly–the limits of politics.
Addressing the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Mrs. Thatcher said, “The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace… for which we all long…. There is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideals are not enough. We parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You the church can teach the life of faith.”
Our ultimate hope, even for politics, does not lie within the political realm. It lies in the reassertion of what Margaret Thatcher calls the moral impulse.
“When all is said and done, a politician’s role is a humble one. I always think that the whole debate about the church and the state has never yielded anything comparable in insight to that beautiful hymn ‘I Vow to Thee My Country.’ It begins with a triumphant assertion of what might be described as secular patriotism, a noble thing indeed in a country like ours: ‘I vow to thee my country all earthly things above; entire, whole and perfect the service of my love.’ It goes on to speak of ‘another country I heard of long ago’ whose King cannot be seen and whose armies cannot be counted, but ‘soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase.’
“Not group by group or party by party or even church by church–but soul by soul. And each one counts” (2).
There are no quick fixes. Politics alone cannot hope to cure our ills. Only what Russell Kirk calls “the changing of vision,” what Margaret Thatcher calls “the moral impulse,” can change the character of an increasingly secularized nation.
Rebuilding the National Morality
Moral education is not a matter of tacking the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls or making college freshmen take Introduction to Character 101. You cannot drill character the way you drill multiplication tables.
Moral sensibilities are based on a complex range of beliefs and experiences that stretch back into earliest childhood; these roots of the moral ordering of the soul are nourished by relationships with parents and friends, by community traditions, by role models, by the emulation of heroes in literature or history, by a whole series of early choices that create moral habits. Human nature, formed by a million factors and experiences, is not easily shaped by some moral instructor. We are more complex than we imagine.
Below of surface-stream, shallow and light
Of what we say we feel–below the stream
As light of what we think we feel–there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep
The central stream of what we are indeed (3).
Aristotle made an important distinction relevant to this point. There are, he argued, two kinds of virtue. The first is intellectual virtue, which is the cerebral process of discovering truths through instruction and study and the application of reason in philosophy, literature and history. The second is moral virtue, which is more fundamental and is the product of habits learned early in life from family, class and community. Moral virtue teaches the values of courage, justice, self-restraint, seriousness, and compassion. “A man’s habits become his virtue,” said Edmund Burke (4).
Moral virtue without intellectual virtue may be inarticulate, unable to produce a systematic justification for its convictions. But moral virtue remains the prop that holds up the social order by controlling passions that would otherwise require a repressive apparatus of law enforcement.
Intellectual virtue without moral virtue, however, is an exercise in hypocrisy. Robespierre, the austere lawyer who led the Jacobins of the French Revolution, was selfless in his dedication to the revolution, uncompromising in his principles. His admirers called him “the voice of virtue. ” Such purely intellectual virtue, cut off from the habits of the heart, became the cold, hard virtue of the guillotine, exacting and merciless with an insatiable taste for blood.
Moral virtue is the most essential element of a just society. But once squandered, can it be restored? Who or what is equipped to regenerate a moral impulse in the long-atrophied conscience of a corrupt culture?
Perhaps it’s easier to answer such questions by starting with the negatives, which sum up the points we have discussed thus far.
First, we cannot expect moral virtue to spring from academe. No social institution is more captive to culture’s relativism than today’s value neutral education. Even in a best-case scenario–even in the context of a belief in absolutes–education is no provider of moral virtue. It can inculcate a passion for truth, informed by history and tradition. It can communicate a faith that the universe is so constituted that it yields truth to those who seek it with tenacity. Colleges and universities, as Russell Kirk has noted, “cannot make vicious students virtuous or stupid students wise, but they can endeavor to prove to their students that intellectual power is not hostile to moral worth, and they can aspire to chasten intellectual presumption with humility” (5).
Second, while government has a worthy task to perform and depends for its success on citizens of character, it can do little to create them. By upholding a standard of justice and enforcing the rule of law, the state does provide a limited form of moral education. By punishing some acts and rewarding others, it reinforces certain basic moral habits that are necessary to the peace and order of society. But humanity’s deepest motivations, its strongest virtues and blackest vices, escape the control of government. Any government.
Neither Stalin nor Calvin could dictate character. To believe government can do so is to perpetuate an illusion and to invite tyranny. As writer Orestes Brownson replied to Karl Marx in 1848: “In most cases the sufferings of people spring from moral causes beyond the reach of government, and they rarely are the best patriots who paint themselves in the most vivid colors, and rouse up popular indignation against civil authorities. Much more effectual service could be rendered in a more quiet and peaceful way, by each one seeking, in his own immediate sphere, to remove the moral causes of the evils endured” (6).
And finally, we cannot look to the media as a disseminator of moral virtue, no matter how many Christians get jobs at CBS. Television, the most popular medium of our day, is so limited in its ability to present any coherent vision, any message other than fleeting emotion, that it is a handicapped resource even at its best.
The Family and the Church: Our Hope for the Future
We cannot pin our hopes for the future of moral education on the classroom, on legislation or on the airwaves. No, I believe there are only two institutions that can cultivate moral virtue: the family and the church, those “communities of memory” to which Robert Bellah refers, where traditions, history and discipline provide a context for understanding the world. The enduring strength of our society lies in strengthening these two communities.
The family is the primary and most important source of moral instruction. Russell Kirk does not exaggerate when he argues that “Our very nature is acquired within families: We are not self-reared after the fashion of Tarzan. The human family lacking, there would cease to be a human nature. Doubtlessly some race resembling in outward aspect the extinct homo sapiens would survive for a time. But you and I would feel little kinship with these . . . degenerate caricatures of human beings among whom families had ceased to exist” (7).
We’ve seen all too clearly in the West that when radical individualism fragments the family, it fragments the transmission of manners and morals from one generation to the next, breaking the fragile chain of instruction that upholds society by instilling moral virtue. No matter how we try to compensate, it is nearly impossible for those, left drifting at this stage to catch up later. (There is no makeup exam in moral instruction.) Unable to hand down our moral heritage we raise generation after generation of increasingly rude, lawless and culturally retarded children.
How can the family be strengthened? Certainly there are some practical steps: Welfare reforms must be extended and augmented by volunteerism and help from the private sector. Divorce laws should be tightened. Laws requiring fathers to support their children should be enforced, and increased tax deductions for children would ease financial pressures on families.
But, ultimately, the recovery of the family will depend upon something much more fundamental than tax policies and welfare reform. The problem will only be adequately addressed when we deal with the individualism and relativism that are destroying the notions of duty and commitment central to the marital and familial bond. And in this regard, the most crucial thing we can do is also the quietest–and the most difficult.
We must strengthen our commitment to model strong families ourselves, to live by godly priorities in a culture where self so often supersedes commitment to others. And as we not only model but assertively reach out to help others, we must realize that even huge societal problems are solved one person at a time.
Real help for troubled urban families, for example, will come only through individuals who care. That may mean volunteering to tutor inner-city kids, to teach young mothers about nutrition, or to help young fathers develop a sense of responsibility.
One example of this type of volunteerism is Prison Fellowship’s Project Angel Tree, one of our programs that excites me most. Since 1982, Angel Trees have provided Christmas gifts for hundreds of thousands of inmates’ children as well as needy families in urban areas. Christian volunteers follow up with these families, getting them involved in local churches, assisting them with material needs, and providing friendship and models of Christian love. Such individual caring has helped to reconcile shattered families and to gently bring restoration to some of the most broken and seemingly hopeless situations.
The second important instructor of moral education is the church. At its best, the church is a community where virtue is taught and celebrated, where character is instilled through instruction and discipline. It can inculcate values that adhere to a transcendent standard of right and wrong, equipping Christians to live out the truth in love in the midst of a relativistic and lonely culture.
For hope and victory in the battle against the barbarians, Christians need not look to new organizations, newsletters, charters, or conferences and speakers. Such efforts are worthy, but limited in what they can accomplish. This new dark age will be best illumined, I believe, by character and hope transmitted through those structures God ordained long ago: the family, the first school of human instruction and the best building block of society; and the church, the community called by God to love him and to express that love in service to others.
If we are faithful, these will light the way back to eternal things.
1. Russell Kirk, “The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky,”Modern Age (Spring 1985), 113.
2. Wall Street Journal (May 31, 1988).
3. Matthew Arnold quoted in James M. Houston, I Believe in the Creator (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1980), 175.
4. Quoted in Kirk, “Wise Men,” 69.
5. Kirk, Dreams of Avarice, 155.
6. Quoted in Kirk “Wise Men,” 24.
7. Ibid, 55.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS EXCERPTED FROM COLSON’S BOOK AGAINST THE NIGHT, 1989, AND WAS PUBLISHED BY FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, PAGES 5-13. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.