A moral America

Seldom in recent history has the question of morality come so strongly to the fore. The moral and spiritual fiber of the United States is being severely tested on matters as private as abortion, sexual conduct, and family life -- and as public as justice for blacks, women, minorities; compassion for the world's poor; noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations; and the fostering of human rights for peoples everywhere. It is widely recognized that America must have a strong moral and spiritual foundation. Without such a foundation, society grows lawless and stagnant; it loses its compass.

But morality must be built within the thoughts and lives of individuals and then translated into the nation's laws and policies through the democratic process. It cannot be imposed by the state either on individuals or on nations. And it is not Christian morality that lapses into bigotry, self-righteousness, or pious preachiness.

This election year finds Americans pondering these issues because of the emergence of religion as a political force. Significantly, perhaps, it is not only the Islamic world that is witnessing a resurgence of religious fundamentalism, with the difficulties this poses for democratic government. In the US, too, we see the merging of the Christian "new right" with the political right into a theocratic force that seeks to dominate the political process. The trend is worrisome.

Let us say at the outset that we understand the reasons for the religious revival. Many Americans feel deeply the need for a national moral awakening, for a turning back from what is seen to be a more and more permissive society. The fears are not unfounded. No one of the Judeo-Christian faith can fail to be concerned about the widespread immorality, the rise in out-of-wedlock births, the increased use of hard drugs by the young, the growth of pornography, the indecency portrayed in novels, on television, and even flaunted in the news magazines. America indeed needs to be shaken out of its unthinking tolerance of these trends. To the extent that Christian fundamentalists bring these issues to public notice, their efforts have value. An aroused public is a necessary prelude to constructive reform.

It is the method of correction which must be watched, however. All too often religious activism is narrowly and simplistically bound up with one issue, such as abortion or the Equal Rights Amendment. Some Christian groups go so far as to use "moral scorecards" to rate the performance of public figures on such unrelated issues as school prayer, the defense treaty with Taiwan, and the formation of a Department of Education. When self-appointed groups set out to decide who is moral and what a "Christian position" is, they risk practicing moral zealotry and destroying good public servants. The results can be incogrous, and often hardly moral in themselves. Such an able senator as John Glenn, for instance, who is an elder in the Presbyterian chruch, is rated zero by one ultra-conservative organization. Congressman Richard Kelly, implicated in the Abscam bribery investigation, merits 100.

What is needed for righteous government is not to elect those who supposedly hold the right view on a single or even several issues. It is, in the words of an editorial in Christianity Today, "to secure responsible political leaders of intelligence, deep moral commitment, political wisdom and administrative skills." Leaders, in other words, of probity who have the ability to govern.

It must be remembered that America is an increasingly pluralistic society, an amalgam of different races, cultures, nationalities, religions. Even the dominant Judeo-Christian religious groups differ as to their interpretation of biblical teaching and the practice of Christianity. In these conditions Americans can only be grateful for the Constitution's wisdom of erecting a wall of separation between church and state and leaving religious prac tice to individual conscience. For one group to insist on formal public prayer in school, for instance, smacks of dictating religion schools, as Ronald Reagan advocates, would put the government in the business of supporting religion. Surely religious tolerance is best safe-guarded when th state injects itself the least.

This is not to say that government has to be morally neutral or that Christian religious groups should play no part in the political process. Few would argue that church groups should go so far as to tell citizens how to vote. But they have every right to speak out on social and political issues if they wish, to participate in national debate, to point to unethical behavior in or out of government.* Christians of all denominations in fact need to weigh in more in the democratic process if laws, court decisions, and public policies are to reflect the highest standards of morality. Religious tolerance must not mean tolerance of drugs, pornography, antifamily laws -- all of which cry out for public indictment. It is simply the single-issue moral absolutism and parochialism we deplore.

A moral America encompasses more than an obligation to protect human life -- and abortion is a practice we oppose but which involves such complex issues as to be best left to individual conscience and choice. Morality involves the whole tone of society -- the integrity of government leaders, the ethics of corporate business, and the sensitivity of schools, universities, news media, and the arts and entertainment industry to purifying the nation's cultural as well as physical environment. It means addressing such problems as justice for blacks and other minorities, equal rights for women (recognized evey by many opponents of ERA), and training of the unemployed. Is it morally tolerable that millions of people cannot find work, that joblessness among black youth, in particular, runs a high 40 percent?

Looking abroad, few would deny that America should stand for principle in the conduct of its affairs. Toward this end, reform efforts must continue to assure that US policy remains free of such undemocratic practices of the past as interfering in other countries' electoral processes.

President Carter's early focus on human rights did much to lend a moral dimension to foreign policy, but in execution the policy offten left the US seeming merely moralistic and naive. We would have the US continue to hold high the banner of universal human rights and to use every prudent means to promote them. To neglect this matter would be to abandon the country's traditional ideals -- and the very things on which millions of people around the world look to the US for example and leadership.

But there must be the maturity to know that it is a nation's practice rather than its words which ultimately carry weight. For example, can Americans accept that, at a time when there is a raising world demand and competitin for energy and other resources, they are often wasteful and inefficient in their own consumption of these resources? Surely out of a sense of justice and of compassion for the less fortunate they can do more to foster economic growth in the third world, and to help husband the earth's bounty in a way that embraces and blesses all.

In the end, too, America's influence for good will depend on what kind of society it is and what it chooses to present to the world as its opportunities, its creativity and innovation, it is still the most revolutionary land on the globe. Yet the US image abroad is at times undercut by practices which tend to obscure positive American contributions. This happens, for instance, when some Americans overseas show off the worst aspects of their culture -- tawdry movies and magazines, vulgar music, a materialistic way of life -- or when some US business firms export foods, chemicals, and other products which are declared unsafe for domestic use. Those representing the US should respect the cultural and physical environment of other nations as well as their religious and other traditions.

This is not to fail to appreciate the enormous cultural, economic, and political benefits which America has shared and continues to share with those willing to accept them -- but merely to point to the need for cultivating moran and spiritual sensitivity in an age of growing global interdependence. The great underlying test of a nation's integrity, after all, lies only in the virtues of its society but in its demonstrated love for mankind, in doing unto others as it would have others do unto it. This is the ideal for which the people -- and their leaders -- must unceasingly strive.

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