Aimless Americans

You can tell a lot about people by the books they read. If you want to know what the 1970s were like, look at the best?selling titles of that decade: Looking Out for Number One; Winning through Intimidation; I'm OX You're OK   No wonder commentators called the seventies the "decade of Me." People seemed to be losing a sense of connectedness to other people?to their families, churches, communities. It was no longer popular to speak of duties and obligations binding us to a wider society.   I'm OK You're OK?but don't ask about Us.   It should come as no surprise that "the decade of Me" was followed by "the decade of greed," as some have called the eighties. Its message was, make it as fast as you can any way you can.   Sociologist Robert Bellah says Americans today are characterized by what he calls radical individualism. In his book Habits of the Heart, Bellah describes a survey of more than 200 average, middle?class Americans. He discovered that most Americans'philosophy of life goes no further than individual gratification.   It's not that Americans don't care about others. Many of the people Bellah interviewed are firmly committed to their marriages, their families, their communities. But when Bellah asked them why they care, all they could talk about was personal preference?I feel comfortable doing this, it makes me feel good.   It seems right to me.   You see, they had no wider framework of what is True, what is Real, on which to base their moral choices. They had given up a notion of ethics based on something bigger than themselves and their own feelings.   When I was interviewed on television recently, the interviewer seemed intrigued by the account of my conversion to Christ. But when we got to the subject of ethics, he looked at me quizzically and asked, "Do you have to be a Christian to be good? I mean, can't an atheist be good, too?"   I paused for a moment and then said, "An atheist can be good, but not consistently??only on impulse. An atheist has no objective reason for being good, no objective standard to guide him."   Just like the people interviewed by Robert Bellah. They were good on impulse?because being good made them feel good. But they couldn't give any reason beyond their own feelings.   And yet, when moral commitments have no basis beyond personal impulse, they are very precarious. Feelings can be changing, contradictory. Just think of a youngster facing the temptations of adolescence, a frustrated couple considering divorce, or a businessman wrestling with a difficult decision. All are torn by conflicting emotions. Which impulse should they follow?   How do they know which impulse is right?   The great Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, says the line between good and evil is drawn not between principalities and powers but through every human heart. If people believe all that matters is what feels right, they have no means to disarm the evil within them and to do good.   The firm conviction that ethical principles are not just the creation of my own mind and feelings is what makes them compelling. If I am good only because I want to be, well, I might just as well be bad because I want to be.   Tragically, Americans have lost that bedrock of Truth, that something beyond themselves that gives them a basis to decide what is really right and not just what feels right.   Ethics has been reduced to what fits my comfort zone.   In my next commentary I’ll explain how this warped view shapes the way American schools teach ethics. This is the fourth in an 11-part series on Christian Ethics


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary