WASHINGTON -- You can tell a lot about a country by the gurus it chooses. Fifteen years ago, we received moral instruction from the likes of Phil Donahue and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
At their hands, we learned that the only thing to be ashamed of was shame, that it took courage to break with centuries-old traditions, and that we needed to give ourselves ''permission'' (Mr. Donahue's favorite word) to indulge our fantasies, flout our religious tenets and seek our own personal happiness.
The worm has turned. Mr. Donahue and Dr. Westheimer are retired. And the two most popular radio programs on the air are Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
It says something about the enduring conscience of this country that Dr. Laura has become such a sensation. After all, there are many who believe that liberal democracies tend inexorably toward moral corruption. Even Jefferson was taken to task for including the ''pursuit of happiness'' in the Declaration of Independence. There is a difference, his critics have noted, between pursuing virtue -- the religious goal of the English founders of the first American settlements -- and pursuing ''happiness'' (a very French notion).
In any case, though Americans have engaged for the last several decades in a massive social experiment -- pursuing happiness untethered by moral considerations -- they are prepared to listen to and heed a woman who preaches self-abnegation, moral responsibility and guilt. Yes, guilt.
She preaches guilt for the guilty, of course, not the innocent (though even the capacity to make such distinctions marks Dr. Laura as a reactionary). The liberals thought guilt had been slain once and for all in the 1960s. What ordinary folks have discovered in the interim is that without guilt, there is no conscience, and without conscience, there is no civilization. ''Man is the only animal that blushes,'' wrote Mark Twain, ''or needs to.''
The nature of the calls Dr. Laura gets reveals, alas, how very much damage the ''no guilt'' crowd has already done. A young man calls Dr. Laura explaining a problem. He and his girlfriend have a 12-month-old son and are considering marriage. But he hesitates. He's just not sure he's ready for such a big commitment.
Dr. Laura is blistering to such callers. Not ready for the commitment of marriage? You've already made a child.
What she wants
A young, single woman calls Dr. Laura saying she wants to pursue a career but also very much wants to be a mother. She's thinking of getting artificial insemination.
Dr. Laura asks if the caller had a good father. ''Oh, yes.''
''Well,'' Dr. Laura continues, ''if your father meant something to you, why would you deliberately set out to deny your child a father? Tragedies happen. Fathers are killed in accidents or die of cancer. But why would you set out to do that to your child?''
''Well, I want . . . ''
''I don't care what you want, it's the child I'm thinking about.''
Dr. Laura has no patience with self-described victims (she's likely to call them cowards or doormats), psychobabble of any stripe or ladies who want to dwell excessively on their feelings. She is, in short, the complete antidote to modern pop culture.
On a recent program, she spoke with a woman whose father had abused her sisters. Any of a dozen pop psychologists would have treated the caller as a victim. Not Dr. Laura. She got her to admit that she was betraying her sisters by maintaining a relationship with the father and, further, that she was using his history as a way to get money out of him. Ring of truth.
Such certainty comes at a price, though. Dr. Laura doesn't always listen to her callers. A man said he lived in a different city from his kids. She pronounced this absolutely morally culpable unless he was in jail or in the military. Was he? Well, no, but . . . She would hear no more. Gee, what if the guy were in traction in the hospital? What if his wife had stolen the kids and he couldn't find them? It would have been worth hearing his reasons.
But that's a quibble. Over all, Dr. Laura is just what the culture doctor ordered: a firm, clear, judgmental Dutch Aunt steering a wayward nation back to upright and seemly behavior.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/31/97