The decline of morality

Mona Charen

March 24, 1993|By Mona Charen

A JUDGE in Shreveport, La., has ruled that teachin abstinence may not be part of a sex education program for high school students. Abstinence, said the judge (urged on by Planned Parenthood, which filed the suit), is a religiously based virtue. To teach it in public schools is to violate the separation of church and state.

Now, before you laugh, consider this: It has long been illegal to display the Ten Commandments in public classrooms, and the Supreme Court recently held that a milquetoast, ecumenical, watered-down invocation of God's blessing on graduating high school seniors was also violative of the Constitution.

Have we reached the point in America where virtue is considered contaminated because it has been known to keep company with religion?

In truth, the whole concept of virtue is out of fashion in modern society. Or at least, the traditional virtues -- self-control, honor, fortitude, frugality, fidelity and duty -- are held in low esteem. We have replaced them with what could be called "easy virtues" like tolerance, non-discrimination (in every sense of the word) and egalitarianism.

And what have we wrought, in modern society, by jettisoning traditional standards of virtue? We have a decaying social fabric in which criminal behavior is rampant, family structure is fragmented, drug abuse, suicide and sexually transmitted disease are epidemic.

William Bennett, former education secretary, has made a critical contribution to our understanding of the importance of these issues by compiling a list of "Leading Cultural Indicators." The list is a way to keep tabs on our cultural and, if you will, spiritual health as a society, just as the leading economic indicators measure the strength of our economy.

Examining trends from 1960 to 1990, Mr. Bennett finds that the U.S. population has increased 41 percent, and the gross domestic product has nearly tripled. At the same time, during those crucial 30 years, violent crime increased 560 percent, illegitimate births (the origin of so many pathologies) increased by more than 400 percent, the divorce rate quadrupled, teen suicides increased by 200 percent and SAT scores dropped by 80 points.

Liberals believe that these trends represent the failure of government to do more to help people. Conservatives believe a) that some of these trends were exacerbated by misguided government attempts to help, and b) that far more important than what people have is what they believe. In other words, most of the problems we label "social" or "economic" are really moral.

One survey of crime and disorder in Great Britain shows that in the first half of the 19th century, there were high levels of public drunkenness, theft, violence and illegitimacy, all of which dropped to remarkably low levels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. George Orwell, writing in 1944, noted that England was renowned for "gentleness." But "it is not much more than a hundred years since the distinguishing mark of English life was its brutality."

What changed an entire nation's national character (another neglected word)? Sunday school. Attendance at Sunday schools rose steadily throughout the latter half of the 19th century. In 1888, 75 percent of children in England and Wales attended religious schools. When attendance fell off in the 20th century, crime, dishonesty, illegitimacy and disorder increased dramatically.

Our great-grandparents understood that you cannot expect virtue if you don't teach it. They didn't attempt to instill self-esteem; they instilled fortitude and self-control. We've fallen far that we do not even agree on what virtue is. As the judge in Shreveport proved, ours is an age of moral confusion -- for which we are paying a heavy price.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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