Moral Formation In American Civilization

Sep 30th, 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.

Anyone who is intellectually honest can only reach the conclusion that American civilization, morally and ethically, manifests a depravity and decadence that permeates almost everything.  There is polarization, anger and bitterness.  There is confusion, dysfunction and moral chaos.  There is loneliness, isolation and seclusion fostered and enhanced by the social media phenomenon so pervasive within our civilization.  Public education is adrift in terms of curriculum, the absence of discipline and the depressing results of the basic requirements of life—reading and math skills.  Columnist David Brooks laments all of this in a recent essay declaring that American civilization now lacks a reliable vehicle for what he calls “moral formation.”  In this Perspective, I want to quote extensively from this essay and then offer a conclusion sourced in Scripture.

First, a summary of the salient aspects of Brooks’s essay:

  • “Over the past eight years or so, I’ve been obsessed with two questions. The first is: Why have Americans become so sad? The rising rates of depression have been well publicized, as have the rising deaths of despair from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. But other statistics are similarly troubling. The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990. The share of Americans ages 25 to 54 who weren’t married or living with a romantic partner went up to 38 percent in 2019, from 29 percent in 1990. A record-high 25 percent of 40-year-old Americans have never married. More than half of all Americans say that no one knows them well. The percentage of high-school students who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” shot up from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021.

My second, related question is: Why have Americans become so mean?  . . . We’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis, and it undergirds our political dysfunction and the general crisis of our democracy. What is going on? Over the past few years, different social observers have offered different stories to explain the rise of hatred, anxiety, and despair.  The technology story: Social media is driving us all crazy. The sociology story: We’ve stopped participating in community organizations and are more isolated.  The demography story: America, long a white-dominated nation, is becoming a much more diverse country, a change that has millions of white Americans in a panic.  The economy story: High levels of economic inequality and insecurity have left people afraid, alienated, and pessimistic . . . [But] the most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.”

  • “Moral formation, as I will use that stuffy-sounding term here, comprises three things. First, helping people learn to restrain their selfishness. How do we keep our evolutionarily conferred egotism under control? Second, teaching basic social and ethical skills. How do you welcome a neighbor into your community? How do you disagree with someone constructively? And third, helping people find a purpose in life. Morally formative institutions hold up a set of ideals. They provide practical pathways toward a meaningful existence: Here’s how you can dedicate your life to serving the poor, or protecting the nation, or loving your neighbor.  For a large part of its history, America was awash in morally formative institutions. Its Founding Fathers had a low view of human nature, and designed the Constitution to mitigate it (even while validating that low view of human nature by producing a document rife with racism and sexism). ‘Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed,’ Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more dispos’d to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, and much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d.’”

“If such flawed, self-centered creatures were going to govern themselves and be decent neighbors to one another, they were going to need some training. For roughly 150 years after the founding, Americans were obsessed with moral education. In 1788, Noah Webster wrote, ‘The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities?; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.’ The progressive philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1909 that schools teach morality ‘every moment of the day, five days a week.’ Hollis Frissell, the president of the Hampton Institute, an early school for African Americans, declared, ‘Character is the main object of education.’ As late as 1951, a commission organized by the National Education Association, one of the main teachers’ unions, stated that ‘an unremitting concern for moral and spiritual values continues to be a top priority for education.’”

“Beyond the classroom lay a host of other groups: the YMCA; the Sunday-school movement; the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; the settlement-house movement, which brought rich and poor together to serve the marginalized; Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, which extended our moral concerns to include proper care for the natural world; professional organizations, which enforced ethical codes; unions and workplace associations, which, in addition to enhancing worker protections and paychecks, held up certain standards of working-class respectability. And of course, by the late 19th century, many Americans were members of churches or other religious communities. Mere religious faith doesn’t always make people morally good, but living in a community, orienting your heart toward some transcendent love, basing your value system on concern for the underserved—those things tend to.”

  • “These various approaches to moral formation shared two premises. The first was that training the heart and body is more important than training the reasoning brain. Some moral skills can be taught the way academic subjects are imparted, through books and lectures. But we learn most virtues the way we learn crafts, through the repetition of many small habits and practices, all within a coherent moral culture—a community of common values, whose members aspire to earn one another’s respect.  The other guiding premise was that concepts like justice and right and wrong are not matters of personal taste: An objective moral order exists, and human beings are creatures who habitually sin against that order. This recognition was central, for example, to the way the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s thought about character formation. ‘Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice,’ Martin Luther King Jr. believed. Elsewhere, he wrote, ‘The force of sinfulness is so stubborn a characteristic of human nature that it can only be restrained when the social unit is armed with both moral and physical might’. . . ‘What gave such widely compelling force to King’s leadership and oratory,’ the historian George Marsden argues, ‘was his bedrock conviction that moral law was built into the universe.’”
  • What happened?  Why did this commitment to moral formation collapse?  “The crucial pivot happened just after World War II, as people wrestled with the horrors of the 20th century. One group, personified by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, argued that recent events had exposed the prevalence of human depravity and the dangers, in particular, of tribalism, nationalism, and collective pride. This group wanted to double down on moral formation, with a greater emphasis on humility.  Another group, personified by Carl Rogers, a founder of humanistic psychology, focused on the problem of authority. The trouble with the 20th century, the members of this group argued, was that the existence of rigid power hierarchies led to oppression in many spheres of life. We need to liberate individuals from these authority structures, many contended. People are naturally good and can be trusted to do their own self-actualization.”

“Schools began to abandon moral formation in the 1940s and ’50s, as the education historian B. Edward McClellan chronicles in Moral Education in America?: ‘By the 1960s deliberate moral education was in full-scale retreat’ as educators ‘paid more attention to the SAT scores of their students, and middle-class parents scrambled to find schools that would give their children the best chances to qualify for elite colleges and universities.’ The postwar period saw similar change at the college level, Anthony Kronman, a former dean of Yale Law School, has noted. The ‘research ideal’ supplanted the earlier humanistic ideal of cultivating the whole student. As academics grew more specialized, Kronman has argued, the big questions—What is the meaning of life? How do you live a good life?—lost all purchase. Such questions became unprofessional for an academic to even ask.”

  • “In a culture devoid of moral education, generations grow up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and a team of researchers asked young adults across the country in 2008 about their moral lives. One of their findings was that the interviewees had not given the subject of morality much thought. ‘I’ve never had to make a decision about what’s right and what’s wrong,’ one young adult told the researchers. ‘My teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,’ many teenagers said.  The moral instincts that Smith observed in his sample fell into the pattern that the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called ‘emotivism’: Whatever feels good to me is moral. ‘I would probably do what would make me happy’ in any given situation, one of the interviewees declared.   ‘Because it’s me in the long run.’ As another put it, ‘If you’re okay with it morally, as long as you’re not getting caught, then it’s not really against your morals, is it?’ Smith and his colleagues emphasized that the interviewees were not bad people but, because they were living ‘in morally very thin or spotty worlds,’ they had never been given a moral vocabulary or learned moral skills.”
  • “Expecting people to build a satisfying moral and spiritual life on their own by looking within themselves is asking too much. A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another. Social trust falls partly because more people are untrustworthy. That creates crowds of what psychologists call ‘vulnerable narcissists.’   We all know grandiose narcissists—people who revere themselves as the center of the universe. Vulnerable narcissists are the more common figures in our day—people who are also addicted to thinking about themselves, but who often feel anxious, insecure, avoidant. Intensely sensitive to rejection, they scan for hints of disrespect. Their self-esteem is wildly in flux. Their uncertainty about their inner worth triggers cycles of distrust, shame, and hostility.  The breakdown of an enduring moral framework will always produce disconnection, alienation, and an estrangement from those around you,’ Luke Bretherton, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, told me. The result is the kind of sadness I see in the people around me . . .  Sadness, loneliness, and self-harm turn into bitterness. Social pain is ultimately a response to a sense of rejection—of being invisible, unheard, disrespected, victimized. When people feel that their identity is unrecognized, the experience registers as an injustice—because it is. People who have been treated unjustly often lash out and seek ways to humiliate those who they believe have humiliated them.”
  • “If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized . . . Politics appears to give people a sense of righteousness: A person’s moral stature is based not on their conduct, but on their location on the political spectrum. You don’t have to be good; you just have to be liberal—or you just have to be conservative. The stronger a group’s claim to victim status, the more virtuous it is assumed to be, and the more secure its members can feel about their own innocence.  Politics also provides an easy way to feel a sense of purpose. You don’t have to feed the hungry or sit with the widow to be moral; you just have to experience the right emotion. You delude yourself that you are participating in civic life by feeling properly enraged at the other side. That righteous fury rising in your gut lets you know that you are engaged in caring about this country. The culture war is a struggle that gives life meaning . . . If you are asking politics to be the reigning source of meaning in your life, you are asking more of politics than it can bear. Seeking to escape sadness, loneliness, and anomie through politics serves only to drop you into a world marked by fear and rage, by a sadistic striving for domination. Sure, you’ve left the moral vacuum—but you’ve landed in the pulverizing destructiveness of moral war. The politics of recognition has not produced a happy society.”
  • “Moral realists are fighting to defend and modernize these rules and standards—these sinews of civilization. Moral realism is built on certain core principles. Character is destiny. We can either elect people who try to embody the highest standards of honesty, kindness, and integrity, or elect people who shred those standards. Statecraft is soulcraft. The laws we pass shape the kinds of people we become . . . Democracy is the system that best enhances human dignity. Democratic regimes entrust power to the people, and try to form people so they will be responsible with that trust. Authoritarian regimes seek to create a world in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Second, permit me an addition to what Brooks is arguing: The church is the key to moral formation.  The New Testament affirms that the church (ekklesia) is literally a body of “called out ones.”  In the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles, the church is both an organism (the universal, living body of Christ) and a local church organization, with leadership and structure, which assembles together for worship, instruction and edification (see Acts 8:1; 13:1; 14:23; and 20:28).  This local assembly consists of those who profess faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ.  The one universal church is manifested in a particular locality, yet each individual assembly is the church in that place (e.g., Paul refers to the Corinthians as “the church of God which is at Corinth” 1 Cor. 1:1).


  • Since the church is founded on the apostolic message of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-8), it is essential that its members be continually instructed in it.  Thus teaching is a NT priority (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:1-2), because the most dangerous threat to the church is false teaching (see Acts 20:29-30; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 2 Peter 2:1-3).  Teaching children is both a family and church responsibility (see Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 6:1-4). Along with teaching, exhortation and encouragement are essential for the growth of believers as they face a hostile world(Acts 14:21-22; Hebrews 3:13).  
  • Exhortation and encouragement are accomplished by gathering (normally on Sunday) with other believers in corporate worship (Hebrews 10:24-25), where there is the reading of the Word, prayer, singing of praises, the preaching/teaching of the Word, and the collection of offerings (see Acts 20:7; 2:42; 4:31; 1 Timothy 2:1; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Acts 11:27-30; 1 Corinthians 16:1). Conversion places you into the church, which, among other things, is the family of God.  “I” becomes “we” and it is in the local church where we begin to live out this family name.
  • The local church is also to teach, cultivate and nurture love, as it is woven into the fabric of believers’ lives (1 Corinthians 13; John 13:34-35).  It is commanded by Jesus and is the mark of the church.
  • The local church is to witness to the world what Christ has accomplished through His death, burial and resurrection.  This is done through proclamation and through the exemplary behavior of believers in every circumstance of life.  As salt and light, the church benefits and enriches culture.  Church members are guardians and examples of truth in a world of falsehood and deception and are thereby instruments to restrain evil (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7).


See David Brooks, “How America Got Mean” in The Atlantic (September 2023), pp. 68-76;

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