Been There, Done That

If I qualify as an expert in any field besides prisons, it's government scandals. After all, I was part of the granddaddy of all contemporary scandals: Watergate. Perhaps that's why reporters and friends are probing me for my view of the current scandal, which the Fourth Estate has dubbed "Filegate." What folks ask me most often is: Does Filegate rank on a par with Watergate? And will the scandal sink this administration? My hunch is that in some ways Filegate may ultimately extend far beyond the crimes of Watergate. After all, the crime that put me behind bars was to leak information to the press taken from a single FBI file. The current scandal involves 700 files--files containing highly confidential information. This is nothing short of domestic spying carried out at the highest levels of government on a massive scale. My second hunch is that even such a large-scale scandal will not have the same effects Watergate did. The Watergate hearings, coming on the heels of a very divisive war, unleashed a huge tide of moral outrage and pent up anger. But we are a decidedly different people from what we were 20 years ago, and I'm not sure that we are even capable of such outrage today. Americans have become morally desensitized. How did this happen? During the past two decades, we've been bombarded by scandals that were often concocted by political elites. We turn on our television sets and see politicians claiming to be shocked, shocked, at what their opponents are up to. We've come to expect the news menu to include the scandal du jour--and now we have trouble recognizing real scandals and summoning up the appropriate moral indignation. But the deeper change in our national character since the seventies is that we've succumbed to moral relativism--the philosophy that everyone lives by his own private code of ethics. If ethics is really a private matter, then who are we to criticize anyone else? Who are we to judge? A recent U.S. News and World Report poll reveals how deeply this philosophy has invaded American life. When asked what qualities they valued in a leader, a majority of Americans said they valued a candidate's position on the issues over his moral character. In fact, 67 percent of those polled said a candidate can govern effectively even if he has substantial flaws in his personal character. But one of the most fundamental principles of ethics is that moral responsibility in the smaller things is the only reliable preparation for larger tasks. Far from being trivial, minor tests of character are the best basis on which to predict future behavior. That's why we need to educate our neighbors on the vital connection between private and public virtue--of how personal immorality leads directly to institutional decay. If we're willing to scuttle the importance of personal virtue, we cannot expect our public institutions to somehow magically retain a virtuous character--as Filegate is now showing us. But Filegate, with its suggestion that political operatives were examining private data on Americans, just might shake a morally jaded populace out of its spiritual torpor--and that's important. Because as we learned with Watergate, this country can survive a morally flawed president. What it can't survive is a morally indifferent electorate.  


Chuck Colson


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

Sign up for the Daily Commentary