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America's Moral Downturn:
What Lies Ahead?
Does morality matter? What are the long-term consequences when a nation's moral foundation crumbles?
by David Treybig
As the United States gears up for
another presidential election, Americans turn their attention to the examination
of people and values that are part of the process. Each candidate strives to capture
a majority of the electorate's attention through his assessment of the state of the
union and thoughts about how to improve the country.
History teaches us that the political process is sure to generate a lot of ideas--many of them in direct conflict with each other.
What is the significance of current thinking and trends in the United States and among its leaders? As the leader of the Western world, what happens in the United States affects the rest of the world as well. Its thinking, trends and culture invariably filter out to other countries.
Where is the United States headed, and how can we measure its progress?
Though most people judge nations by their finances (gross national product, imports, exports, taxes, cost-of-living indexes, inflation, interest rates) and sociology (human rights, personal freedoms, democratic structure, respect for minorities), the Bible reveals a broader and more accurate indicator of the condition of a nation and its people.
Some 3,500 years ago, while working with ancient Israel, God revealed an important principle that identifies worthy international leadership. To the Israelites, whom the Bible describes as examples for us (1Corinthians 10:1-11), God said: "Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth . . . And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them" (Deuteronomy 28:1,13).
As a nation whose motto, "In God We Trust," adorns its currency, Americans have at least symbolically invoked God's blessings. So shouldn't they consider the advice and warnings He gave ancient Israel as applicable to them as well?
What is Morality?
The decision to do or disregard what God says is a moral issue. Although some may think of morality as simply an indicator of sexual values, morality is actually a much broader concept, encompassing all behavior. "Moral conduct" means one adheres and conforms to standards of right and wrong. Synonyms include ethics and righteousness.
But most people have rejected God's commandments as the eternal standards for human behavior. Some of the people most vilified in the mass news and entertainment media are those who advocate "imposing their morality" (actually, biblical moral standards) on everyone else.
In deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, the vast majority of people follow the path of self-determination introduced to humanity by Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). Biblical morality, however, is based on God's standards, not the ever-shifting vagaries of human experience and reason. Godly morality identifies righteous people. The greater the morality of its citizens, the greater the morality and stature of a nation.
Jesus Christ spoke of two great commandments: Love God, and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). When we consider the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), we readily see that the first four of the 10 embody the first great commandment: to love God. The last six teach us how to love our neighbors.
Judged by these two great commands, how does the morality of the United States measure up?
America has been described as an unusual nation in that it has one of the highest levels of formal education in the world as well as one of the highest levels of religious faith. This view mirrors the observation by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who, upon visiting the United States in the mid-1800s, observed that the strength of America could be found in its churches. But what about today? Could the United States be considered a moral nation?
Snapshot of American Morality
Much like the cacophony of ideas in a presidential race, modern American morality is a bewildering array of conflicting values and trends.
Polls tell us most U.S. citizens believe in and pray to God, but the same polls tell us church attendance is declining. Many believe they can have a relationship with God on their terms. That is, they can attend a church if they want but they don't feel compelled to do so.
In a similar vein, many feel they can select their own religious customs and forms of worship. This rapidly growing phenomenon has been described as "cafeteria Christianity" or, as one observer put it, "the Religion of the Sovereign Self" (World, July 17, 1993).
This self-oriented view of Christianity sees Jesus as a liberator of standards and rules. Some go so far as to portray Him as freeing mankind from a need to respect or adhere to the Ten Commandments. In the United States many hold the view that Jesus is there to forgive everything so they are not all that concerned with commandment-keeping. They no longer feel obligated to put into practice the way of life God lays out in the Bible.
This incongruent idea--belief that one can love God while rejecting His commands--is prevalent in many nations beyond the borders of the United States. The trend is vividly illustrated in a recent report on Israeli Jews.
"Considering religious observances to be part of their national identity, 90 percent of Israeli Jews take part in the traditional Passover meal. Some 66 percent of Israeli Jews regard the Ten Commandments as valid, but 75 percent don't think God will punish those who break them. Though it seems contradictory to a Western mind-set, many Israelis are quite serious about maintaining the continuity of their Jewish heritage even though they have no intention of obeying its rules personally" (Religion Watch, Jan. 1997, p. 8).
In many nations religion is form without substance (see 2Timothy 3:5).
Yet, even with the potpourri of ideas within Christianity and Judaism, many recognize a growing hunger, especially among baby-boomers now in their 40s and 50s, to go back to their roots. Will such motivation lead to a return to higher morality? Only time will tell.
Let's consider a few more areas by which we can gauge the nation's moral standards and practices.
The Crime Rate: Is It Improving and Why?
Perhaps no subject has been so universally accepted in the United States as the "get tough on crime" movement. Politicians duel in television ads over which candidate or political party is tougher on crime. In recent years the death penalty has been reinstated in many states, and the prison population is at a record level, a staggering 1.2 million. The result is that the number of violent crimes has been declining.
The question we should ask is whether this drop is because of increasing moral and legal behavior or simply because more habitual felons are now behind bars thanks to tougher sentencing laws and an enormously expensive prison-building binge.
Demographic factors--smaller numbers of young people of the age range most prone to commit crimes (late teens and early 20s) and baby-boomers who are finally growing up and acting responsibly--have also dramatically affected crime rates.
The Family-values Debate
Virtually all of our politicians describe themselves as pro-family. After all, a pro-family sentiment makes a great television sound bite. Nowadays family is used in so many ways most people are no longer sure what a candidate means when he uses the term.
Since some use family to describe any kind of living arrangement, the term is almost devoid of meaning unless one explicitly defines what he means by it. Since defining what a family is can be a controversial issue that can anger voters who don't hold traditional views, some running for office are deliberately vague. Conservative candidates, noting trends that reflect a growing desire for traditional families, are more likely to address this issue.
Even though a small segment of society is pushing to redefine families, others are staunchly defending traditional values. A new Gallup Youth Survey "shows that the majority of American teens still live in a nuclear household: a dad, a mom, siblings, and a pet or two. Most Americans would like this model to continue to be regarded as the ideal." Further, "there are strong signs that Americans are girding up to correct the problem of father absence and inattention. There is now broad support for a strong father role in the family" (Current Thoughts and Trends, March 1999, review of "Report on the Status Of Fatherhood in the United States," George Gallup Jr., Emerging Trends, September 1998, Vol. 20, No. 7, pp. 3-5).
Along similar lines, family and consumer sciences--home economics--are making a comeback at institutions of higher learning. To explain this phenomenon, education professor Wanda Fox observed: "For a while, society placed less value on family life and became very career- and business-oriented. Now we're realizing that we need both. These classes focus on decision-making skills, career planning, consumer economics, balancing work and family" (Psychology Today, January-February 1999, p. 13).
The Abortion Debate
One of the best indicators of our society's immoral emphasis on personal pleasure over respect for life and biblical instruction has been the increasing number of abortions performed each year. Now even this trend appears to be reversing. "Although about 25 percent of all pregnancies in the United States end in abortion, the 1990s have seen a dramatic drop in the practice. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which is closely aligned with Planned Parenthood, the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 is at its lowest in 20 years" (Current Thoughts and Trends, March 1999, p. 13, report of Pastor's Weekly Briefing, Jan. 8, 1999, p. 1).
National attitudes also echo the statistical decline in abortions. "Another sign of slippage in support for abortion shows up in UCLA's annual national survey of the attitudes of college freshmen. Support for legal abortion dropped for the sixth straight year. In 1990 it was 64.9 percent. Now it is a bare majority, 50.9percent" (U.S. News & World Report, "The Joy of Sexual Values," John Leo, March 1, 1999, p. 13).
Mr. Leo identifies factors influencing this trend. They include the gruesome details that came to light in recent debates over partial-birth abortions, more-conservative attitudes toward premarital sex, the unwanted penalties of the sexual revolution and a growing respect for religion. Now "only 37 percent of Americans think premarital sex is acceptable" (ibid.).
National Leadership Lacking
In contrast to other positive trends, the morality of far too many American leaders is shameful. The ancient prophet Isaiah's lament, "O My people! Those who lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your paths" (Isaiah 3:12), is true again. Although the media have bombarded us with the details of the president's extramarital affairs and lying under oath to obstruct a sexual-harassment lawsuit, few understand the implications behind our nation's willingness to overlook these immoral actions.
Although impeached by the House of Representatives, the Senate bowed to polls showing the American public wanted lawmakers to look the other way. The president's defenders rationalized that, although the president acted irresponsibly, his actions were not impeachable. The White House put its spin on the events by telling the public it should focus on the nation's economic prosperity and overlook the president's personal behavior, which was strictly a private matter that didn't affect his job performance.
This reasoning apparently swayed the majority of citizens. They don't seem to realize that history records leaders who, though immoral, brought temporary economic prosperity to their peoples. Bible prophecy tells us people will fall for this same reasoning--prosperity at the expense of morality--emanating from an end-time economic system called Babylon the Great (Revelation 18).
Of the effects of the presidential-morality debacle, psychologist and family adviser James Dobson notes our people collectively have compromised on an issue of major moral significance. "Change occurs in a crisis," he explained. ". . . When you go through a very emotional and difficult time, you come out of it different than you came in. I think the turmoil that has engulfed our nation in the past 12 months has had a profound effect on American culture" (James P. Lucier, "Dobson on Cultural Crisis," Insight, Feb. 8, 1999, p. 45).
Although many Americans appear to grow more conservative in their personal morality, they apparently have become more tolerant and accepting of immoral behavior in others. Why this conundrum? Perhaps it is because those who practice immorality constantly defend themselves by attacking others who disagree with their immoral lives. Consequently those who publicly advocate biblical values are ridiculed and labeled as hypocrites and backward, self-righteous bigots.
The message permeating our nation is that we must not judge the behavior of others, that we must remain silent in the presence of immoral behavior. Yet societies ultimately pay a heavy price for such passive acceptance of evil. When we fail to confront evil, it inevitably overcomes us. There is a cause for every effect. As the proverb says, "the curse does not come without a cause" (Proverbs 26:2, Bible in Basic English).
At the Crossroads
What is in store for the United States and other nations with the same moral quandary?
Many comparisons can be made between the United States and the ancient kingdom of Israel. The culture of both sprang from principles revealed in God's Word. But, as the years passed, both became less and less devoted to those principles, priding themselves in their tolerance of the ideals of others instead of the ideals of God. Therefore God's response to the decline of morality in ancient Israel can be instructive for us.
Just as in days of the prophet Isaiah, many do not see the significance of our declining morality (Isaiah 44:18). Others recognize the disturbing signs that the nation is in a precarious position, facing difficult and profoundly significant choices.
Some among them believe the nation is positioned for a great religious reawakening. Such an event is possible. God does hear when people repent (Jeremiah 18:8; 26:13), and history records times of significant reversals of social decline, even in ancient Israel. But the reversals are usually only brief interludes in the progressively downward spiral of collective morality.
It is God's response to a people's rejection of His standards of morality that should concern us most. "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). God holds individuals and nations accountable for what they know. They are responsible for the knowledge He gives them.
In the United States a higher percentage of people claim to believe in the Bible as God's Word than is the case in any other major nation. Yet few practice what they claim to believe. Many voices from many sources point out a woeful disregard for God's instruction. Yet political leaders frequently assure Americans they are a "good" and "righteous" people. Most Americans seem to love to hear such praise, even if it is not fully deserved. God's standard for "good" is obedience to His laws. Few people live up to that standard.
God's Response to Immorality
Notice what God says He will do to people who refuse to practice what He teaches them.
"But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the produce of your land, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks.
"Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, because of the wickedness of your doings in which you have forsaken Me" (Deuteronomy 28:15-20).
We are experiencing, in season after season and year after year, one major weather catastrophe after another. This is how God first began to punish ancient Israel. But several decades of increasing local disasters did not bring about any lasting repentance. Finally God began to allow their enemies to whittle away their military and economic power. He gradually reduced them from the region's most prosperous nation to a vassal state of the ancient Assyrian Empire. But they still didn't learn their lesson. Finally God allowed the Assyrians to conquer Israel and take them into exile.
Could such a punishment come upon a nation as great and powerful as the United States? We must remember that God shows no partiality in His response to people (Deuteronomy 10:17; Romans 2:11). Even though God is patient with individuals and nations, wanting them to recognize their sins and repent (2Peter 3:9), He eventually calls us into account for our actions.
God blesses those who love Him and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6). But He also punishes those who don't (verse 5). The path we are following is the same path ancient Israel followed to its destruction. Those who think God will ignore America's moral decline are kidding themselves. If we collectively do not change direction, we may soon see the day that God will respond to America's moral decline in much the same way He did to ancient Israel's.
The Hebrew prophet Zephaniah offers a warning all people would do well to heed: "Seek the Lord, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Lord's anger" (Zephaniah 2:3).
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