What happened to American morality?
Speaking at a memorial service for the five Dallas police officers killed by a gunman in retaliation for police shootings of blacks, President Barack Obama rightly stressed the need for Americans to come together around shared values arising from “a common humanity and a shared dignity.”
As events in Dallas and other communities remind us, racism and its progeny—discrimination, suspicion, hostility, violence—are deeply entrenched in America as they have been from the beginning. Recall that among the founders who proclaimed a national commitment to equality and justice were slave owners. Echoes of moral dualism on race still resonate in America.
But the problem of finding shared values also exists at another level.
The moral consensus that once existed was grounded in an amalgam of Judeo-Christian morality and natural law. Its breakdown among elite groups began in the 19th century, continued to the middle years of the last century, and burst into the open and was popularized in the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
The world view emerging from this process is now conventional wisdom for the culture-forming organs of American secular society—elite research universities, federal courts, foundations and think tanks, national media, and the big-money circles that fund the secular enterprise.
These reflect moral libertarianism of an individualistic sort. To explain: It exalts the virtually unbounded right of individuals to do as they please over the communal values of traditional morality according to which rights are defined and limited by objective moral truth. Where conflicts occur under the regime of the new morality, newly asserted rights are favored over old values.
Ideologies like gender theory lend a spurious intellectual sophistication for this process. The results can be seen in such things as the weakening of marriage and family life (the U.S. marriage rate has fallen from a postwar high of 16.4 per 1,000 population to around seven per 1,000 now), the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage, and a flamboyantly aggressive new campaign on behalf of transgender rights.
To be sure, supporters of the old moral consensus can still be found, although they have difficulty getting a hearing in a cultural setting where access to the public forum is granted—and often enough withheld—by the secular elites.
In this setting, Pope Francis is one of the few religious voices heard regularly, but the attention paid to him by the media is highly selective. The media take note when he says something they can interpret as advocating changes in the church. But when he emphasizes traditional doctrines and values, they aren’t listening.
Changing the state of affairs sketched here won’t happen quickly. The recovery of the moral tradition as a guide for America would go a long way toward tamping down the flames of racial conflict by giving practical substance to abstract concepts like President Obama’s “common humanity” and “shared dignity.” As things stand, though, the secular elitists are wedded to a deconstructionist, libertarian morality and determined to impose it on us all. The first imperative for those who see the folly of that is reasoned resistance.
Russell Shaw is author of “American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.”