Civil War By Other Means

There's one element of the current campaign that really surprises me: Never in my lifetime have I seen people so disenchanted with politics. There's a deep vein of discontent running through the body politic. What's the source of this wide-spread disillusionment? Some say it's the economy. But when you think about it, the economy isn't really in such bad shape. It's true we've gone through a recession, like the rest of the industrialized world. But ours has been relatively mild and we're slowly pulling out of it. Inflation has never been lower, and interest rates are lower than they've been in 40 years. On the other hand, voters ought to feel there's something to celebrate: the end of the Cold War. Today we go to bed at night without worrying that a nuclear war might blow up the planet. All through the world, societies are racing to adopt western-style democracy. Yes, things are really pretty good in America today. So why do voters seem so frustrated? The answer lies not in the issues, it lies in the corruption of the political debate itself. This campaign has stooped to a new low, slinging empty slogans and reducing debate to 30-second sound bites. But the root of the problem runs even deeper. Political discourse has degenerated because moral discourse has degenerated. So says journalist E.J. Dionne, in his book Why Americans Hate Politics. We have lost any vision of the common good, Dionne says. Our nation is in the throes of a "cultural civil war"--a war primarily over moral and social issues. We all know what issues he means: abortion, feminism, day care, homosexuality, welfare. Our society is so fractured that we can no longer even agree on how to define these issues, let alone resolve them. How did we come to such an impasse? It started when philosophers thought they could have morality without God. But that led to chaos. Every philosopher who came along offered his own definition of right and wrong, which contradicted the philosopher before him. Finally they all threw up their hands in despair and decided no one could ever find any moral truth. But without a standard of truth, morality is reduced to mere feeling or preference. The statement "Murder is wrong" has to be translated "I don't like murder" or "I prefer you didn't murder." And if everyone is just expressing private feelings, then no position can really be right or wrong. There's no objective way to choose between them--no way to persuade people rationally. Public debate is stymied, and each side ends up trying to dominate the other merely by raising the decibel level. As a result, politics has become "civil war carried on by other means"--to borrow a phrase from moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Politics has become hostile, confrontational, and downright ugly. And that's the real reason voters are frustrated. So when your friends complain that the campaign is just a hash of empty sound bites, tell them they're quite right. Then tell them why political debate has become so insipid. We will never revive civilized debate unless we return to the conviction that morality is impossible without God. It's the only way to stop the moral civil war.


Chuck Colson


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