An Unstable Balance

For nearly a decade, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, an excellent group on the University of Virginia campus headed by respected Christian sociologist James Davison Hunter, has been conducting a "Survey of American Political Culture." This survey measures changes in the "ideals, beliefs, [and] values" that "bind [Americans] together and direct their common actions." What emerges from the latest installment of the survey is a portrait of a culture that wants to have it both ways and doesn't understand why that's not possible. According to the survey, "most Americans seek some balance or tension between commonality and diversity." They want both a shared moral consensus and the freedom to choose their own values. For example, 60 percent of respondents envisioned a future where "Americans will be more unified in their moral commitments." Seventy-one percent saw Americans becoming more, not less, religious. And an overwhelming number aspired to an America where the "lines between good and bad will be firmer" and to a society where people "stand strongly behind their personal convictions." That sounds good. But, at the same time, 60 percent of the respondents said that, in the future, "American families will take many forms." That's right -- 60 percent do not support the most important moral commitment to the traditional family. And the respondents' ideas about a more religious America did not include the religious tradition that created our way of life: Christianity. Three-quarters of them preferred a "mix of people of many faiths." The survey results may seem schizophrenic but, in one sense, they are understandable. What they are is an illustration of Americans' confusion over what it takes to make a good society. Take the attitudes towards religion. The results reflect the shift away from traditional religion, like Christianity, to what Americans have come to call vaguely "spirituality." This shift enables people to enjoy the emotional and psychological benefits of religion without any restrictions on personal freedom. The problem is that's there no evidence that this kind of religion can build the kind of society for which the respondents yearn. On the contrary, the "firm line" they desire between good and bad comes from people subordinating their own opinions and desires to the requirements of their faith. As James Davison Hunter points out, it's this submission and accountability to religious tradition that is the real source of morality. Similarly, the authority of the family to teach and reinforce moral standards is undermined by the insistence that it can take any form we choose. Like religion, the family's power to teach is rooted in the belief that it is the individual who must conform to its requirements and not the other way around. This binding of conscience is where the power to "stand strongly" comes from. Thus, a future in which the traditional family and religion play less of a role is a future where moral commonality is less, not more, likely. Helping people to see this and other flaws in their thinking is one of the primary goals of good apologetics and of BreakPoint. People have to be made to see where postmodern thinking leads: It promises moral freedom, but produces moral chaos. For further reading and information: Read the spring 2003 issue of "InSight," the newsletter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture that includes findings from the study mentioned in this BreakPoint commentary. (Free Adobe Acrobat Reader required.) Learn more about the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and its "Survey of American Political Culture." "The Laissez-Faire Family" -- At the April 4-6, 2003, BreakPoint conference, "Christians in the Marketplace," held in Colorado Springs, CO, Jennifer Roback Morse spoke about the "laissez-faire family" -- the government's approach to this foundation of society.
  1. Budziszewski, "'Little Platoons': God's Design for Our Relationships," BreakPoint WorldView, March 2003.
James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America's Children (Basic Books, 2001). Robert George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (ISI Books, 2001).


Chuck Colson


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

Sign up for the Daily Commentary