Moral Malaise

As I opened my newspapers last week, the word indictment jumped out at me in bold, black type—not once, but three times. On Wednesday, former U.S. Representative Mary Rose Oaker was indicted on seven counts of lying to the FBI, making false statements, and conspiring to defraud the House bank. The very same day James Watt, the former secretary of interior, was indicted on 25 counts of lying to a federal grand jury and obstructing investigators probing his lobbying activities in the HUD case. Then, on Thursday, a federal grand jury indicted former Ohio Representative Donald Lukens on charges he accepted bribes in office from two Ohio businessmen. Three indictments of major public officials in one week? I almost felt as if I'd been time-warped back to the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, when words like indictment and conspiracy seemed to leap out from every headline. Once again Americans are wringing their hands over the moral failures of American society. Just a couple of weeks ago, Newsweek entitled its cover story "Shame." Seventy-six percent of the people Newsweek polled decried America's moral malaise. And congressmen are getting into the act as well, voting funds for a program called "Character Counts." They're searching for ways to restore moral order to American life. Yes, everybody recognizes that we're in a moral tailspin, and that we've got to do something about it. But what? Our cultural elites want us to believe that the solution to public vice is public virtue. They proliferate trendy causes and ignore the real solution, which is personal virtue. This point was illustrated beautifully in a story told by Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosophy professor at Clark University in Massachusetts. Sommers published an article urging ethics teachers to focus as much on private virtue as they do on public virtue—to teach things like personal honesty, decency, and responsibility. One of Sommers's colleagues, an ethics professor, scoffed at her argument. This colleague insisted, "You're not going to have moral people until you have moral institutions." And she informed Sommers that in her own classroom, she planned to continue talking about social justice—issues like women's rights and the corruption of big business. But at the end of the semester, Sommers's colleague was singing a different tune. More than half the students in her ethics course had cheated on a take-home final exam. With a self-mocking smile, she told Sommers, "I'd like to borrow a copy of that article you wrote on ethics without virtue." This professor had learned the hard way that we can begin to deal with the moral malaise in American life only when we begin to cultivate personal virtue. Here's a challenge for us—and a great opportunity. Because we need to point our neighbors and our children to the one real answer to the moral malaise and the one place it can be found. The Bible is the best possible guide for ethics because it teaches personal righteousness . . . something that comes about only through a transformed life in Jesus Christ.


Chuck Colson


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