Messing with the Wiring

Three years ago, James Davison Hunter, in The Death of Character, wrote that people act morally because they have learned to subordinate their own opinions and desires to what their religious communities require of them. The social implications of Hunter's work were clear: Weaken these "authoritative communities" that produce character, and it's harder to produce the kind of people necessary to sustain a self-governing society. Now, a new study shows that we not only need "authoritative communities," we are made to be a part of them. The study is titled Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities. Jointly produced by Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA, and the Institute for American Values, the study examines the scientific data in search of an answer to the question: Why, in a period of unprecedented affluence, do "large numbers of American children suffer from emotional and behavioral problems"? The answer is that "children are hardwired for enduring connections to others and for moral and spiritual meaning." And they're not experiencing these connections because the groups and communities that best provide this "connectedness" are under stress. The use of the word hardwired refers to the increasing evidence that the "mechanisms by which we become and stay attached to others" have a biological basis. That's what I meant when I said that we are made to be part of a community. The extreme individualism of American culture is literally unnatural. Of course, what our children are connected to is as important as being connected itself. The study emphasizes the role of "authoritative communities" in providing our children with "moral and spiritual meaning." These communities -- like the family and Church -- are characterized by their transmission of a "shared understanding of what it means to be a good person;" the establishment of "clear boundaries and limits;" "teaching love of neighbor;" and the encouragement of "spiritual and religious development." As with Hunter, the study's findings lead us right back to the Church and the family. While Hunter was writing about the impact on character, and this survey looks at the emotional impact on kids, the two reach the same conclusion: Undermining "authoritative communities" like the Church and the family is bad for everyone. If that's the case, then what should we do? One obvious response is to fight cultural innovations that threaten to further weaken the family. A good place to start is the Federal Marriage Amendment. The last thing the American family needs is to be "stretched" beyond recognition. Another thing is to make sure that our churches are the kinds of "authoritative communities" described by the study. Do we expect members to subordinate their opinions and desires to the teaching of Scripture? Or do we, in a desire to be "seeker-friendly," avoid seeming "dogmatic" at all costs? As the study makes clear, we're not doing our kids, or "seekers," any favors by adopting an easy approach. Instead, we should model the kind of community that does what comes naturally: doing what it takes to assure the well being of both our children and our society. For further reading and information: Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, Institute for American Values, 9 September 2003. Read an executive summary here. You can read remarks from the "Symposium on New Policies for Children at Risk" given in Washington, D.C., to announce the report. Learn more about the Institute for American Values. James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America's Children (Basic Books, 2001).
  1. Budziszewski, "'Little Platoons'," BreakPoint WorldView, March 2003.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 030424, "It's All in the Design." BreakPoint Commentary No. 021230, "So Close . . . So Far." (Archived commentary; free registration required.) To receive either the BreakPoint Marriage Amendment Packet (free) or the BreakPoint Speak the Truth in Love Packet (for a donation of $25 or more), call 1-877-3-CALLBP.


Chuck Colson


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