Legislating Morality

Why did political attempts to change America’s moral climate fail?

With the late-20th-century collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and its East European satellites, democratization and free-market economics are sweeping many nations.

American democracy and the capitalist model have been the source of inspiration for much of this widespread change. James Q. Wilson, professor of public policy at Southern California’s Pepperdine University, writes: “Today we wonder whether the whole world might become democratic. Acting on the belief that it can, our government has bent its energies toward encouraging the birth or growth of democracy in places around the globe from Haiti to Russia, from Kosovo to the People’s Republic of China” (“Democracy for All?” Commentary, March 2000).

Along with democracy, however, America also exports its culture. And that culture is in a state of moral decline, as a number of observers have pointed out.

Robert H. Bork, former acting U.S. Attorney General and John M. Olin Scholar in Legal Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in his 1996 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, writes: “American culture is complex and resilient. But it is also not to be denied that there are aspects of almost every branch of our culture that are worse than ever before and that the rot is spreading.”

James Davison Hunter, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, points out that although “American culture has always been in flux,” since about the middle of the 20th century there has been growing confusion over such basic issues as the meaning of family, “family values,” how to raise children, the meaning of life, and the rules for living an honorable life. “Where a consensus remains in our moral culture,” he states, “it does so only in terms of the shallowest of platitudes.”

Where a consensus remains in our moral culture, it does so only in terms of the shallowest of platitudes.” 

James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, 2000)

Hunter contends that “the changes that have occurred are not just cultural. They have been accompanied by profound changes in the social environment in which children grow up. The increases in family instability, the absence of the father from children’s lives, the number of hours children are left alone and unsupervised by adults, and the role of television and other electronic media of popular culture have all been well documented” (The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, 2000).

Tony Bouza, former head of police departments in Minneapolis and New York’s Bronx, questions whether the current values of American culture are any different than those that typified the Roman Empire before its fall.

He declares: “If we [Americans] can see the decline of [America’s] families and cities and remain smugly confident of our inviolability, if we can witness the corruption of high figures and be blind to their connection to our prospects, if we can watch the loss of faith and remain secure in our confidence of salvation, and if we can sense the general moral decline yet think we will survive, then we can assert that we remain happy, dancing, singing, drinking passengers on the Titanic” (The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1996).

But what about all the nations that seek the American way? Does America’s exported democracy carry with it a culture that threatens to destroy the moral fiber of those nations that embrace it? Or can that same democracy offer the solution to the problem?

Fundamental Facts

Increasingly in the last few decades, individuals and groups in the United States began calling for what came to be referred to as “civil society.” Not least among them were Christian fundamentalist and evangelical communities, who felt they should attempt to stem the tide of America’s disturbing moral decay.

The roots of American fundamentalism actually lie in the late 19th century, when time-honored assumptions about biblical truth were challenged. Fundamentalism, though not known as such until well into the 20th century, was essentially a reaction to the gradually decreasing influence of religion in American society after the religious surge brought on by 19th-century revivalism; those clergymen who cried out for a return to what they saw as Christian fundamentals came to be called fundamentalists.

Their concerns were understandable. After the American Civil War, higher criticism of the Bible cropped up in many seminaries and called into question traditional views of biblical accuracy and authority. Darwinism and the new geology won rapid acceptance in scientific and educational circles and made people doubt long-established views of creation. Many American Protestants welcomed higher criticism and evolutionary thought and sought to modernize doctrine. Others developed a “social gospel,” which tended to emphasize saving society over saving souls.

In reaction to this, conservative evangelicals, fearing the loss of age-old teachings and the neglect of what they saw as the church’s primary calling, sought to shore up traditional beliefs and create new coalitions of conservative groups. During the 1920s and early ’30s, they attempted to purge liberals from their churches and eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The Dictionary of Christianity in America records: “The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association and the Anti-evolution League mobilized their forces and succeeded in getting legislation passed in a number of states. But the undisputed leader of the popular anti-evolution crusade was William Jennings Bryan, Presbyterian layman and three-time Democratic candidate for president. In the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee (1925), defense attorney Clarence Darrow humiliated Bryan, and as a result fundamentalism was held up to public ridicule. By the early 1930s their early successes were also rolled back.”

From 1935 to 1950, the more militant fundamentalists practiced what they called “come-outism” and created a vibrant subculture, building their own institutions and separating themselves in any way they could from anyone perceived as a threat. “As a result,” the Dictionary of Christianity states, “fundamentalism became identified in the public mind with anti-intellectualism, combativeness, extremism and what was viewed by many as a ‘paranoid’ style.”

New and Improved

After World War II, a number of younger fundamentalists, uncomfortable with what had happened to their movement, created a new brand of fundamentalism that engaged modern thought, produced many para-church organizations and involved itself more in the world’s affairs.

It was out of this background that Jerry Falwell, Baptist pastor and television evangelist, founded the Moral Majority. The conservative political group was created in 1979 to root out secular humanism and restore Judeo-Christian morality in society. Its aim was to educate and mobilize conservative citizens (mostly Christian) to elect moral candidates to office; to eliminate abortion and pornography; and to influence a wide range of public policies through lobbying offices in Washington, D.C.—in other words, to legislate morality and so bring about cultural renewal within American society. Democracy itself, they believed, held the solution to the nation’s cultural and moral problems.

The Moral Majority’s platform included support of a human life amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prayer in public schools, stricter limits on pornography, free-enterprise economics, and the death penalty.

The Moral Majority, in the opinion of analysts, never became a major factor in election outcomes. It did keep issues such as abortion and school prayer on the congressional agenda, but without much success. Media coverage was extensive but mostly unfavorable, and the organization drew vehement criticism from liberals, who objected to its efforts to legislate a sectarian morality. In 1989, Falwell announced the dissolution of the group, claiming that it had successfully helped establish the Religious Right—a movement that largely espoused the same views.

In that same year, Pat Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, founded the grassroots Christian Coalition. Its aim, according to Robertson, was “to give Christians a voice in government” and “to fight to bring issues of morality, family values and individual responsibility to the forefront” in the political process.

Time for the White Flag?

Only 10 years later, in the face of little significant change and bitter organizational setbacks, fundamentalist history began to repeat itself.

On April 9, 1999, in a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Fight or Flight: Is Politics Bad for the Soul? Conservative Christians Begin to Wonder,” commentator Fred Barnes wrote: “It’s been two decades since religious conservatives banded together as a major force in national politics. Almost immediately, they became a magnet for controversy, and over the years the attacks, mostly from the political left, haven’t let up. The basic charge has been that their flagship groups, first the Moral Majority, then the Christian Coalition, have commandeered the Republican Party and turned it into a vehicle for imposing theologically conservative religious views on the rest of America. . . .

Now there’s a fresh and very different line of criticism, coming from inside the world of conservative Christians. In their new book, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? [syndicated columnist] Cal Thomas and [pastor] Ed Dobson describe the Christian political movement as a paper tiger. After 20 years, they insist, religious conservatives have nothing to show for all their intense effort. Their fondest dream has been to change the culture, but ‘the moral landscape of America has become worse,’ Mr. Thomas says. . . . What’s worse, politics has become a ‘false god’ for many Christian activists. . . . Messrs. Thomas and Dobson urge Christians to give up organized politics and get back to church work.”

Politics has become a ‘false god’ for many Christian activists.”

Fred Barnes, Wall Street Journal, April 9, 1999

On the heels of the unsuccessful political attempt to remove former American president Bill Clinton, Paul Weyrich, president of a research and education organization called the Free Congress Foundation and one of the founders of the Religious Right, echoed some of these criticisms.

As reported by Barnes, “Mr. Weyrich doesn’t urge Christians to drop out of politics altogether, but in a widely circulated letter [dated February 16, 1999] he bemoaned the failure to oust President Clinton. He concluded that the culture can’t be changed through politics.” In that letter Weyrich lamented: “I believe that we probably have lost the culture war. . . . Even when we win in politics, our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important.”

Weyrich’s widely publicized views sent shock waves that reverberated both inside and outside the movement. While some reacted negatively, others admitted that, though some cultural changes have occurred, many problems and obstacles may be insurmountable.

From where, then, will the solution come? Ultimately, can morality be legislated? What is required to morally transform a culture gone wrong?

Hunter, in The Death of Character, points out that “so much of what we think of as ‘innate’ in our moral sensibilities . . . derives mainly from cultural resources that are dwindling. . . . Law and consensus . . . and all of America’s extraordinary wealth—individually or combined—cannot replenish them. Neither can the political thunderings of the Christian Right.”

Religious conservatives,” add Thomas and Dobson, “no matter how well organized, can’t save America. Only God can.”

Religious conservatives, no matter how well organized, can’t save America. Only God can.”

Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?

A political Solution

How will God “save America” and all those nations that seek to emulate its system of government, if not by transforming society through the legislative efforts of political activists?

The prophet Isaiah spoke of one who was to come, upon whose shoulder a government would rest (Isaiah 9:6–7). When that future head of state, Jesus Christ, appeared in the first century A.D., he affirmed his forthcoming role in government (John 18:36–37). His teaching pointed to the day when divine rule would replace human self-rule. Only then would true cultural renewal become reality.

Meanwhile, in the morally challenged society of His day, Jesus taught His followers to conduct themselves righteously as they lived and worked among those around them, maintaining moral purity as they awaited His return to effect real, lasting moral renewal. Their cause was to support a proclamation of good news—of the time when His government would bring the change desperately needed by a society in bondage to moral decay (Matthew 24:14).

Their responsibility was, as His was, not to make a political stand but a moral one. With the aid of His precepts, they were to navigate the difficult waters of the moral challenges they and their families would face, while living in a society that often opposed godly values.

A Change of Heart

The reality is that no system of government can force morality on its citizenry. Cultural renewal requires more than the passage of a set of laws demanding morality. It requires that people—individually and collectively—want to be moral.

He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality.”

Anwar Sadat

The words of two widely separated individuals, the previously mentioned columnist Cal Thomas and the former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, strike at the heart of the matter. Thomas writes, “When a building’s foundation is in disrepair, it must be replaced. This will take a change of heart and mind that requires different behavior and lifestyle choices. No politician can legislate that.” Sadat wrote in his autobiography, “He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality.” The most vital key to ultimately creating a truly reformed culture is the change that will have to occur within the “very fabric” of people’s thoughts.

The Bible points to that time. In due course, when an entirely new governmental foundation is laid, God will write His laws and ways, not in the form of legislative documents but in the willing hearts and minds of people, morally transforming society and delivering it from all its cultural ills (Jeremiah 31:31–33).

While activists and legislators strive to reform a culture through the politics of democracy and self-determination, God’s plan is to write His moral precepts in human hearts. The day is coming when cultural renewal—on a worldwide scale—will indeed become reality.