False gods

April 13, 1994|By Mona Charen

AN Easter-week U.S. News & World Report story proclaimed that "the wealthiest, most powerful and best educated country on Earth is still one of the most religious." The evidence? In response to a poll question asking "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" 93 percent of respondents said "yes."

We've heard all of this before. Americans have always -- or at least as long as I can remember -- told pollsters that they believe in God (though this "universal spirit" stuff sounds awfully New Age and superstitious to me). But does saying that you believe in God make you religious?

Look around. Are we a nation that behaves as a pious people would? We tolerate a 25 percent illegitimacy rate. But even more telling is that 56 percent of Americans have said (in a different survey) that people who have babies out of wedlock should not be subject to moral reproach of any kind.

Recent jury verdicts in the Menendez, Bobbitt and Williams cases have suggested that Americans may be losing their grip on the concept of guilt and personal responsibility.

A few years ago, a Florida jury strapped on earphones and listened to the lyrics of 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" and declared them to be not obscene.

If this is a religious nation, its faith is a flimsy one lacking in rigor. It is all forgiveness and no repentance. None of the great %J religions teaches that marriage should be sacred only "so long as we both shall love." Yet millions of Americans treat it that way.

None of the major religions teaches that bearing illegitimate children is a moral act. Yet millions of modern Americans clearly believe that it is.

None of the major religions teaches that abortion is just another form of birth control. But we in America have elevated abortion to the status of constitutional right.

Now, it is true, as U.S. News & World Report notes, that the success of William Bennett's "The Book of Virtues" reveals a hunger in the country for more solid spiritual and moral fare than the culture has been serving up. And that is a hopeful sign. But before we get excessively self-congratulatory about the new spiritual breeze in the land, let's not forget what Mr. Bennett's book supplanted on the best-seller lists -- Howard Stern's autobiography!

Forty percent of Americans say they attend church weekly. That may be true. But the kind of moral lessons they get from their churches and synagogues will vary considerably -- so many of the mainstream faiths having snipped and shaped their traditional morality to suit the times. Moreover, a weekly church service may last an hour or two, but the average American spends more than seven hours per day watching television, where most of the values that religion teaches are flouted and ridiculed.

According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the average TV watcher sees 14,000 references to sex in the course of one year (and they are not uplifting references). The average child watches 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence by the end of elementary school.

A people's piety can be measured only by behavior, not by protestations of belief. The rate of violent crime in the United States is higher than that of any other industrialized nation. Since 1990, 90,000 Americans have died at the hands of other Americans -- more than were killed during the entire nine years of the Vietnam War.

If Americans say they believe in God but behave violently, are sexually irresponsible, abandon their children and make light of values like chastity and modesty, then their "religion" is a mere affectation, or worse, a blasphemy.

Despite all of the foregoing, there are millions of Americans for whom religion is a serious guide to the moral life and who do try to conform their conduct to the precepts of their churches. But even for them, there persists a serious question: Why have so many remained silent while America slipped from her moral moorings? My religious tradition (Judaism) teaches that we are each responsible not just for ourselves but for our community.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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