The larger morality

Many Americans are shocked by the case of the two congressmen who some years past engaged in sexual relations with teen-age pages. Indeed it is sad that elected public servants should have fallen prey to behavior that damaged not only their own integrity but that of two young persons whose welfare should have been carefully protected, even if the young people did not have the good sense to protect themselves. The House of Representatives took the unusually severe step of censuring rather than merely reprimanding the lawmakers. It could certainly do no less.

There is a danger, however, in treating these cases in isolation from the general tone and texture of American society. As disturbing as the incidents themselves are the reactions which were heard from the lawmakers' constituents back home. Many, if not most, of the people interviewed by the Boston Globe in Rep. Gerry Studds's district in Massachusetts saw no reason why the congressman should resign. The attitude seemed to be that a public official's private life is his own and that the public need judge him only on how well he represents the electorate.

If that is a widely held view these days, it is cause for profound concern. Public officials have not always been above reproach, of course. Every period of political history has been marred by scandal, including immoral sexual conduct. But there was a time when such conduct was at least deemed unacceptable and harmful to the country. Americans expected their officials to hold certain standards and set an example.

Recent years have seen a growing reluctance of the public to address issues in moral and spiritual terms. Often there is reticence even to use the word ''moral.'' Ethical relativism seems to be the new fashion, the idea being that in a pluralistic society people's ''values'' differ and therefore no one has the right to set standards for everyone. Live and let live, the argument goes, without recognizing that the Judeo-Christian moral code is of more than human origin.

The problem can be exaggerated. But should it not concern Americans that the moral and spiritual fiber of society has weakened? This shows up not merely in the rising number of teen-age pregnancies out of wedlock; the use of hard drugs in the schools; increased promiscuity; the spread of pornography; growing public acceptance of homosexu-ality; the prevalence of crime. The moral erosion can be seen also in myriad instances of corruption and dishonesty in daily life. A legislator diverts left-over campaign funds to personal use. A food supplier defrauds the government of millions of dollars by manipu-lating the food stamp program. A Vietnam war veteran fabricates a story of battlefield heroics to raise money for a worthy cause. The list could go on. And often the cheaters and liars are individuals who are regarded by society and who regard themselves as upstanding citizens. The moral lapse begins with a small, seemingly innocuous dis-honesty. Then it becomes a contagion.

Much is made these days of purifying the physical environment. How about a nation's mental environment - the environment in which intellectual, political, and social ideas are born, in which laws are made, social institutions function, new generations are raised? Should this not be protected with even greater zeal?

Surely that is a central purpose of Christianity - to protect and elevate society by requiring a purification of individual thought and action. To refrain from murder, adultery, theft, perjury not only ennobles individual character. It preserves the community as a whole, bringing under control the selfish and brutish elements of human nature that cause anarchy and violence. No society can function without the cement of moral order.

If today there seems to be confusion and instability in many aspects of life, perhaps it is because the moral structure is not as strong as it should be, because so much immorality and amorality escape public judgment. Without fear of being thought self-righteous or old-fashioned, citizens and their leaders might consider the consequences of apathy to the fundamental virtues. Perhaps here lies the answer to such problems as economic instability, political turmoil, nuclear uncertainty. For without that binding glue of morality, the national social, political, and economic fabric suffers severe disruptions.

Fortunately, there are signs today of an awakening to the need for moral and spiritual reinvigoration. Social critics are calling for more civility among people and greater respect for one another's integrity. Businessmen are insisting on more time to be with their families. Church leaders are stressing the importance of the high moral standards set forth in the Bible. Young people are turning from preoccupation with themselves and reaching out with concern to others.

It can be hoped that the case of two errant congressmen is seen by the public in the light of the larger questions it raises. This is an occasion for individuals and institutions to take moral stock - to reflect on what their performance is contributing to society's cohesion and health.

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