he utopian myth has taken hold in the home, where
idealism is served up through magazines, parenting seminars, maternity classes
and books on child development. In the most influential book ever written for
parents, Dr. Benjamin Spock encouraged parents to reject the old puritan notion
of children as savages, prone to evil and in need of civilizing. Instead, he
urged them to understand children as evolving psyches in need of attention. For
example, when a school-age child steals, Spock told author Dana Mack in The
Assault on Parenthood that parents consider whether their child might
"need more approval at home," and even a raise in his allowance!
Thus, even in the home, the heart and hearth of society, a sense of duty has
been replaced by a sense of entitlement, a sense that we have a right to what
we want, even if it means violating standards of proper behavior. Adults who
once gave firm and unequivocal moral directionparents, teachers, even
pastorshave been indoctrinated with the idea that the way to ensure healthy
children is not to tell them whats right and wrong, but to let them discover
their own values. As a result, most Americans have lost even the vocabulary of
moral accountability. Sin and moral responsibility have become alien
Just how deeply this has affected us was evident in an MTV network special
news report on "The Seven Deadly Sins," which aired in August 1993. The
programs description looked promising enoughinterviews with celebrities and
ordinary teens talking about the seven deadly sins: lust, pride, anger, envy,
sloth, greed and gluttony, but the main message that came across was the
participants shocking moral ignorance.
Rap star Ice-T glared into the camera and growled,
"Lust isnt a sin These are all dumb."
One young man seemed to think sloth was a work break. "Sloth Sometimes its
good to sit back and give yourself personal time."
Pride was the sin the MTV generation found the hardest to grasp. "Pride isnt
a sinyoure supposed to feel good about yourself," one teen said. Actress
Kirstie Alley agreed.
"I dont think pride is a sin, and I think some idiot made that up," she
Amazingly, the program offered not one word about guilt, repentance or moral
responsibility. Instead, it was littered with psychotherapeutic jargon, as if
sin were a sickness or addiction. Even the program narrator joined the chorus:
"The seven deadly sins are not evil acts, but rather universal human
Traditionally in the West, positive law (man-made law) was based on a
transcendent standard of justice derived from Gods law. But in the late 19th
century, legal thinkers such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, influenced by Darwin and
the rise of social science, began to shift these foundations, as we will see
later, reducing the law to summaries of the social economic policies that could
be determined scientifically to work best. The law was redefined as a tool for
identifying and manipulating the right factors to create social harmony and
The same scientific utopianism explains the rise of the welfare state. The
idea that both law and government policy should be transformed into social
engineering took root in the New Deal of the 1930s and blossomed in the Great
Society programs of the 1960s. Many American politicians became enthusiastic
converts, sincerely believing that all it would take to solve the problems of
poverty and crime would be some well-designed, well-funded government programs.
They were confident that they could win President Lyndon Johnsons "war on
Well, the war is over, and poverty won. The welfare state has backfired,
creating both a near-permanent underclass of dependency and a host of attendant
social pathologies, from broken families and teen pregnancy to drug abuse and
When we deny the Christian worldview and reject its teachings on sin and
moral responsibility in favor of a more "enlightened" and "scientific" view of
human nature, we actually end up stripping people of their dignity and treating
them as less than human.
elfare is not the only area of public policy that
illustrates the pernicious effects of the utopian myth. When it comes to crime,
Americas criminal justice policy swings back and forth between liberal and
conservative approaches: from an emphasis on rehabilitation and social
engineering to calls for tougher laws and harsher sentences. Yet both
approaches exemplify, in different ways, the same utopian worldview.
Traditional liberalism fixes responsibility for crime on poverty and other
social ills. Crime is not a matter of the soul, says the liberal; it is a
technical problem that can be solved by engineering the right social
conditions: devising the right public policies, distributing money to the right
places, and arranging the right physical environment. This view was expressed
at the dawn of the Great Society by then Attorney General Ramsey Clark. He
first blamed crime on social conditions such as "the dehumanizing effect on the
individual of slums, racism, ignorance and violence, of corruption and
impotence to fulfill rights, of poverty and unemployment and idleness, of
generations of malnutrition, of congenital brain damage and prenatal neglect,
of sickness and disease, of pollution, of decrepit, dirty, ugly, unsafe,
overcrowded housing, of alcoholism and narcotics addiction, of avarice,
anxiety, fear, hatred, hopelessness and injustice."
Astonishingly, after reciting this horrendous litany, Clark concluded
optimistically: "They can be controlled." Never mind how universal, how
endemic, how intractable these problems are; they are all merely technical
malfunctions that can be fixed by applying the right technical solution.
Since liberalism regards crime as the outcome of impersonal forces in
society, it also locates responsibility for crime outside the criminal. Already
at the turn of the century, Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who achieved notoriety
defending Darwinism in the Scopes trial, was portraying criminals as helpless
victims of their circumstances. He declared that "there is no such thing as a
crime as the word is generally understood I do not believe that people are in
jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot
avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control
and for which they are in no way responsible."
Today, Darrows heirs fill court-rooms across the country, wringing pity from
juries by presenting wrong-doers as victims of forces beyond their control.
This loss of moral responsibility has spread across the entire spectrum of our
culture, ushering in what writer John Leo terms "The Golden Age of
Exoneration." When people are consistently told that they are victims of
outside forces, they begin to believe it. When things go wrong, someone else
must be to blame.
Of course, acknowledging respon-sibility means attributing real praise and
blameand blame, in turn, implies the legitimacy of punishment. Thats what makes
moral account-ability so bittersweet. Yet punishment actually expresses a high
view of the human being. If a person who breaks the law is merely a
dysfunctional victim of circumstances, then the remedy is not justice but
therapy; and the lawbreaker is not a person with rights but a patient to be
cured. The problem, said C.S. Lewis, is that "to be cured against ones will is
to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or
those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles and domestic
animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it,
because we ought to have known better, is to be treated as a human person made
in Gods image."
Denial of sin may appear to be a benign and comforting doctrine, but in the
end, it is demeaning and destruc-tive, for it denies the significance of our
choices and actions. It reduces us to pawns in the grip of larger forces:
either unconscious forces in the human psyche or economic and social forces in
the environment. Social planners and controllers then feel perfectly justified
in trying to control those forces, to remake human nature and rebuild society
according to their own blueprints and to apply any force required toward that
"Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the
good of its victims may be the most oppressive," wrote Lewis. "Those who
torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the
approval of their own conscience."
Utopianism depends on a kind of willful blindness to the reality of human
sin and moral responsibility. But in denying the reality of sin, we lose the
capacity to deal with it, and thus, in the end, we actually compound its
effects. Therein lies
the greatest paradox of all attempts to deny the Fall: In denying sin and
evil, we actually unleash its worst powers.
The fatal flaw in the myth of human goodness is that it simply fails to
correspond with what we know about the world from our own ordinary
In any society, only two forces hold the sinful nature in check: the
restraint of conscience or the restraint of the sword. The less citizens have
of the former, the more the state must employ the latter. A society that fails
to keep order by an appeal to civic duty and moral responsibility must resort
to coercioneither open coercion, as practiced by totalitarian states, or covert
coercion, where citizens are wooed into voluntarily giving up their freedom.
Its not much of a stretch to imagine Americans eventually being so frightened
of their own children that they will welcome protection by ever-greater
government control. Thats why utopianism always leads to the loss of
The only alternative to increased state control is to be honest about the
human condition. The only solution for the pathologies that plague our society
is to expose the modern myth of human goodness and to return to biblical
realism. Sociologists are constantly searching for the root causes of crime and
other dysfunctions in society. But the root cause has not changed since the
temptation in the Garden. It is sin.
Christian worldview perspective clearly follows the
basic contour of the categories of creation, fall and redemption. In the
opening chapters of Genesis, we learn that human beings were made in the image
of God, to reflect His character; therefore, we are called to reflect His
creative activity through our own creativityby cultivating the world, drawing
out its potential and giving it shape and form. All work has dignity as an
expression of the divine image.
When God placed the first couple in the Garden of Eden, He assigned them the
first job description: work the earth and take care of it (Genesis 2:15). Even
in Paradise, then, in the ideal state of innocence, work was the natural
activity of human beings. In the words of theologian T.M. Moore, "Labor and
economic development, using mind and hands in a communal effort, are thus part
of the original mandate from God," he writes in his memo "Economic Aspects of
the Biblical Worldview."
Yet scripture is never romantic or nave about the human condition. The world
God created was soon marred by the Fall, and work is now under a "curse," as
theologians put it. Because of the Fall, making a living and raising a family
are tasks fraught with pain and difficulty. Understanding this, we can be
realistic about the agony of life in a broken world.
People who cannot restrain their own baser instincts, who cannot treat one
another with civility, are not capable of self-government. "Our U.S.
Constitution was designed for a moral and religious people," said John
Sadly, in our relativistic age, many people, even Christians, have lost the
ethical categories of right and wrong. A few years ago, a young acquaintance of
mine, who is a member of a good church, attended a four-week ethics course at
Harvard Business Schoola course that was started in response to the "Savings
and Loans" scandals in the 1980s. On his return, he raved about the course.
"What kind of ethics are they teaching?" I asked.
"Well, the professor really summed it up the last day when he said, Dont do
anything that will get you in the newspapers. Its bad for business."
"But thats pure pragmatism," I replied in astonishment. "Dont get caught.
Dont get the company in trouble. Whats that got to do with ethics?"
"But thats the point, isnt it?" said the young man. "To stay out of
Even ordinary Americans make similar arguments when justifying their own
choices. In some polls, close to 80 percent of the people say that they dont
believe in moral absolutes; they believe right or wrong varies from situation
to situation. This is sheer relativism.
The problem is that relativism provides no foundation for a safe and orderly
society. If all people are free to choose for themselves what is right, how can
a society agree on, and enforce, even minimal standards? And if there is no
ultimate moral law, what motivation is there to be virtuous? The result is the
loss of community; if you thought your neighbor had no clear definition of
right and wrong, would you sleep well at night or let your children play in his
hrough most of Western history, the moral consensus
was largely informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. But with the
Enlightenment, intellectuals began to argue that since God was no longer needed
to explain the Creation, He was no longer needed to establish moral laws.
Reason alone would form the basis for morality. Since
then, the great question that has faced Western society is the one posed by the
great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky: "Can man be good without God? Can
reason alone come up with a viable moral system?"
The Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion met from 1939 through the
war years and after. By the 1948 meeting, reports Fred Beuttler of the
University of Illinois, "the biggest fear of most academic intellectuals was
dogmatism and indoctrination." The relativists had carried the day. "All
absolutist thinking," they said, "has totalitarian potential." By the early
1960s the conference was disbanded. The original goal of defining "cultural
universals" had proved impossible, wrote Beuttler in an article at the
Think of it: For two decades some of the worlds greatest minds engaged in
stimulating debate and produced nothing. Why? Because they disagreed about the
proper starting point of ethical knowledge.
In our public schools it has become nearly impossible to teach traditional
precepts of right and wrong, and that has led to disastrous consequences. "For
generations," writes theologian Michael Novak, "the primary task explicitly
assigned public schools was character formation." That is no longer the
Dont educators understand where this kind of value-free teaching must lead?
A nation without virtue cannot govern itself. "Our people are losing virtue,"
Novak says bluntly. "That is why we have been losing self-govern-ment." And if
we cannot govern ourselves, then we invite others to govern us. The death of
virtue threatens our very liberty as a people.
At root, this great struggle is between worldviews, and it poses the
question: How now shall we live?
By the Judeo-Christian tradition or by the moral nihilism of todays
relativistic, individualistic culture?
A virtuous society can be created only by virtuous people, wherein each
individuals conscience guards the persons behavior and holds him or her
accountable. Without conscience, a society can be held in check only through
coercion. Yet even coercion ultimately fails, for there is no police force
large enough to keep an eye on every individual.
"In an America in which virtue is exalted, there will be 270 million
policemen," says Novak, referring to individual conscience, but "in an America
which mocks virtue, you cant hire enough."
The emphasis on social justice at the expense of private virtue is not only
mistaken but downright dangerous. People without personal morality inevitably
fail in their efforts to create public morality.
"There is no social sin without personal sin," writes Georgetown professor
James Schall. "Our youth today are almost invariably taught they must change
the world, not their souls. So they change the world, and it becomes worse."
Moral crusaders with zeal but no ethical understanding are likely to give us
solutions that are worse than the problem.
Whats more, when we focus young peoples moral attention solely on public
issues and causes, they fail to treat the personal realm as morally serious.
Some years ago, Christina Hoff Sommers, philosophy professor at Clark
University, wrote an article entitled "Ethics without virtue," in which she
attacked higher education for teaching ethics as social justice rather than as
individual decency and honesty. One of Sommers colleagues chastised her,
complaining that she was promoting bourgeois morality and ignoring the real
issues such as the oppression of women, the evils of multinational corporations
and the exploitation of the environment. But at the end of the semester, the
same teacher came to Sommers office, horrified that more than half her students
had plagiarized their take-home exam. They had cheated in an ethics course!
"What are you going to do?" Sommers asked. Sheepishly, the woman asked for a
copy of Sommers Chicago Tribune article on the importance of
hristianity gives an absolute moral law that allows
us to judge between right and wrong. Try asking your secular friends how they
decide what they ought to do, what ethical principles to follow. On what
authority do they rely? Without moral absolutes, there is no real basis for
An absolute moral law doesnt confine people in a straitjacket of Victorian
prudery. People will always debate the boundaries of moral law and its varied
applications. But the very idea of right and wrong makes sense only if there is
a final standard, a measuring rod, by which we can make moral judgments.
But Christians can cut through this fog and argue for the right of a healthy
society to express moral disapproval of socially harmful behavior.
Only the Christian worldview offers redemption from sin, giving power to
overcome the single most powerful obstacle to becoming virtuous: the rebellious
human will. Morality is not just about an intellectual acknowledgment of
ultimate standards, of what ought to be; morality is also about developing
virtuethat is, the full range of habits and dispositions that constitute good
character. We must not merely assent mentally to certain principles; we must
become people who are just, courageous, patient, kind, loyal, loving,
persistent and devoted to duty. And only the Christian worldview tells us how
to develop virtuous character, to become moral persons.
Excerpted from a new LifeWay Christian Resource Bible study, How
Now Shall We Live?, based on the book of the same title by Charles Colson
and Nancy Pearcey. Copyright 2000 LifeWay Press. All rights reserved. Used by
permission. To order call 800-448-8032 or fax 615-251-5983.
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