The Cost Of The Decline Of Institutions And Character

May 13th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

As I have argued many times in Issues in Perspective, God has created three primary institutions, each with clear stewardship responsibilities: The family, the state and the church.  Our God is a God of order and structure.  Disorder, chaos and dysfunction result from not following His moral law and His revelation to us in His Word.  God created humanity to live in community submitting to Him and to the institutions He has created.  With the accommodation to postmodern autonomy, commitment to God and to His institutions is in serious decline.  Disorder, dysfunction and chaos are the rule.  In this edition of Issues, I want to focus on four consequences of this disorder.

  • First is the perverse perspective about the state, about government.  According to Genesis 9 and Romans 13:1-7, government is to promote justice and thwart evil.  A helpful phrase to embellish these stewardship responsibilities is the concept of ordered liberty.  As former Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has observed, “Government doesn’t give us rights, or meaning, or purpose or permission.  It exists to protect us from the whims of the mobs and majorities . . . More than anything else, zealots—on the right and the left—seek total victory in the public square.  They believe that the center of life is government power.  They preach jeremiads of victimhood and decline.  On the left, they want a powerful bureaucracy.  On the right, they want a strongman.  But they agree on a central tenet:  Americans are too weak to solve problems with persuasion.  They need to state to do it.  The zealots thrive on the chaos of the current moment.  We are living in a disrupted age.  The Digital Revolution has shifted Americans’ technological, economic, geographic and cultural life, and our political disruption is the result of these changes in our ways of feeling and thinking.  Modern media . . . has transformed Americans’ conception of community.  As communications become more instantaneous, we’ve become siloed and more lonely.  We know less about our neighbors and more about viral nut jobs who reinforce our polarized political opinions.  Social media, cable television and click-bait news amplify the angriest voices.  This is a casino business model, trying to captivate audiences instead of informing them.  Social algorithms run on rage.  Good-faith arguments don’t go viral.  The stupidity of tribalism has made politics primarily about partisan identities, not persuasion or policy.”
  • Second, American culture is steeped in individualism, a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” kind of individualism.  The sense of community and dependence on one another seems almost anathema in America today.  Social media reinforces this as well because with this technology each one of us can create our own reality; Americans might have many “friends” on Facebook or Instagram but many are more lonely than ever.  The “one another” passages of the New Testament stand in distinct opposition to this radical individualism.   As Alissa Quart has commented, Americans must learn to accept help “with grace and, crucially, recognizing the importance of others.  It takes dignity and skill to learn to lean on friends, loved ones and colleagues . . . . Being vulnerable takes courage.”  She concludes that “dependence is, if you think of it, a form of connection and social cohesion.  It brings us closer to others, which at this moment in America might be the thing we need most.”
  • Third, Americans have lost the importance of character in the expectations they have for their leaders.  Jane Coaston of the New York Times reminds us of a 1966 conversation between William Buckley, conservative founder of the National Review, and Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy.  Buckley quoted Hefner as having argued that “man’s morality, like his religion, is a personal affair best left to his own conscience.”  Hefner described his view as “anti-puritanism—a response really to the puritan part of our culture.”  On Buckley’s TV program, “Firing Line,” he asked Hefner if he had “rewritten the ancient theological tablets.”  If he had, “Oughtn’t you to claim some sort of moral authority to do so, and if so, what is that moral authority?”  As Coaston argues, “Sixty years later, in many ways, [Hefner’s] view has won over the conservative movement that Buckley was so central to.  Many conservatives today do not consider personal morality that important.  Many are willing to accept a leader who lies, boasts of sexual escapades and flaunts pushing the ethical envelope with impunity.  The phrase often heard is “we do not elect a pastor to the presidency.”  This is true but the importance of personal character used to be an important metric for leadership in America.  Witness the effort to hold Bill Clinton accountable for his sexual escapades.  I am reminded of the convicting comments the evangelical sociologist, James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia, in his book, The Death of Character:  “We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for. . . We want character without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom.  In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”
  • Finally, the importance of marriage and family is central to God’s program for human flourishing.  Social science research continues to confirm this.  Brendan Case and Ying Chen of Harvard University were part of a new study (reported in the journal, Global Epidemiology) that shows that for women, getting married is linked to significantly better physical and mental health.
    • “Married women had lower risk of cardiovascular disease and were happier and more optimistic . . . The women who got married in the initial time frame, including those who subsequently divorced, had a 35% lower risk of death for any reason over the follow-up period than those who did not marry in that period. Compared to those who didn’t marry, the married women also had lower risk of cardiovascular disease, less depression and loneliness, were happier and more optimistic, and had a greater sense of purpose and hope.”
    • “We also examined the effects of staying married versus becoming divorced. Among those who were already married at the start of the study, divorce was associated with consistently worse subsequent health and well-being, including greater loneliness and depression, and lower levels of social integration. There was also somewhat less robust evidence that women who divorced had a 19% higher risk of death for any reason over the 25 years of follow-up than those who stayed married. Given how many factors influence health and well-being (genes, diet, exercise, environment, social network, etc.), the fact that marriage could reduce 25-year mortality by more than a third—and that divorce could possibly increase it by nearly a fifth—indicates how important it remains even for modern life.”
    • “Other things being equal (and of course in particular cases they often aren’t), marriage—with the support, companionship and affection it offers—is still a crucial constituent of a flourishing life for many women. In the past 30 years, for instance, norms against extramarital cohabitation have relaxed considerably. As recently as 2001, Gallup found that only 53% of Americans thought sex outside of marriage was morally acceptable, but by 2021 that figure was 76%. Our data can’t tell us how that change has shaped the significance of marriage today, though recent research has typically found that unmarried cohabiting couples report less happiness and relationship stability than do married couples.”
    • “In view of marriage’s profound effects on our sample’s health and well-being, it is unsettling to consider its rapid displacement from American life. In 2021, for instance, the annual marriage rate reached an all-time low of 28 marriages per 1000 unmarried people, down from 76.5 in 1965, a trend driven both by rapid increases in cohabitation and by even steeper rises in individuals living alone. So too, the U.S. leads the world in the percentage of its children growing up in single-parent homes (23% in 2019, compared to, for example, 12% in Germany). All of these trends are concentrated among poor Americans and people of color, who arguably have the most to gain from the safety net offered by marriage.  The causes of marriage’s marginalization are complex, including not only cultural shifts but also economic constraints, particularly the declining earning-power of less-educated men, which even today substantially reduces their marriage prospects. It is clear, however, that many of us now view marriage not as an essential setting for socializing sex and raising children but rather as a dispensable luxury good.  Our findings, added to an already extensive literature showing the value of marriage, ought to serve as a wake-up call for a society in significant denial about this crucial element of flourishing.”

The late, eminent social scientist, James Q. Wilson, a profoundly sensible and wise man, stressed the central importance of character and virtue in a culture.  When he wrote about character and virtue, he focused on the basics— decency, cooperation and that actions always have long-term consequences.  Wilson once wrote that, “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind.”  For Wilson, virtue for people becomes a habit when they practice good manners, are dependable, punctual and responsible—each day!  In his 1993 classic, The Moral Sense, he wrote, “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”  Wilson believed that the family was the basic unit of society and when it is in trouble, so is the rest of the society.  He believed very strongly that humans are born with a strong moral sense and that moral sense is either reinforced by the culture or it is destroyed by the culture.  That judgment sounds quite similar to what the Bible declares quite forcefully:  We are born with an innate sense of right and wrong (Romans 2:14).  That innate sense is reinforced by the strong family, the church and the broader culture; if they are dysfunctional, the conscience is hardened.  That hardened conscience then rationalizes sin and dysfunctional behavior results.  The crisis of character we now observe in America is a result of that very cycle.  James Q. Wilson discerned something going on in American culture and wrote about it.  The Bible has been arguing precisely the same thing for nearly 3,500 years.  Perhaps it is time to heed these pronouncements.

See Ben Sasse in the Wall Street Journal (3 January 2023); Alissa Quart in the New York Times (12 March 2023); Jane Coaston in the New York Times (19 March 2023); Brendan Case and Ying Chen in the Wall Street Journal (18-19 March 2023); Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (2012 April 2012); and David Brooks in the New York Times (7 March 2012).

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