A decade ago, James Davison Hunter, (professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia) wrote a book titled: The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. Hunter’s observations remain as sobering today.
The daunting task we face as a nation
“We say we want renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for… We want character but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”
Professor Hunter suggested that, “the most basic element of character is moral discipline — the inner capacity for restraint, an ability to inhibit oneself in one’s passions, desires and habits within the boundaries of a moral order and on behalf of a greater good.” Hunter believes (rightly in my view) that, “the boundaries of moral order come in significant measure through social order.”
Is character dead?
If character and culture are inseparable; if the social order of the individual is what largely shapes his conscience, liberating or restraining it, perhaps we can understand why the professor believes character is dead.
Although churches have often played decisive roles in framing the boundaries of conscience, Hunter acknowledged that “character does not require religious faith.” What it does require is “the conviction of truth made sacred, abiding as an authoritative presence within consciousness and life, reinforced by habits, institutionalized within a moral community.” Here is the great challenge for western culture (and particularly for democratic societies). The diversity of moral traditions and varying ideals for the common good in pluralistic culture can be powerfully divisive forces. Hunter believes that such diversity challenges us “to confront the sources by which we define the ‘moral’ life and, by extension, ‘good’ character.”
If, for example, “our commitments to benevolence and justice are to have any substance and meaning, if they are not to be merely slogans, it is essential to open a discussion of the means by which we support these commitments.” How then do we arrive at consensus regarding the right means for recognizing truth and morality? This is far more than a theoretical question for those who care about the good of humanity.
But this settling the matter of means is particularly difficult for moral relativists and militant atheists. They have nothing to look to beyond their own feelings or experiences. On what basis should we impose one standard or law over another? Appealing to principles of utilitarian consensus will not be much good in a context of conflicting values and vision. In the wrong hands (or minds), as history proves, this approach to law can be dangerous. Something stronger must undergird utilitarian conclusions.
Judges who take the bench must repeatedly make decisions based on laws. These laws have an undeniable moral background to them that was forged in a social context based largely on a Judeo-Christian worldview. Although we cannot ask our government for laws formed explicitly from Christian Scripture, the current trend to push as far from these Scriptures as possible could be a significant cause of our demise.