105 The Death of Character

To understand our culture, reading the works of James Davison Hunter, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, is mandatory. (I’ve favorably reviewed two of his prior books in my “Reedings”–Evangelicalism in #1 and Culture Wars in #20.) In his just-published The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good and Evil (New York: Basic Books, c. 2000), he presents a comprehensive catalogue of the data (carefully documented in extensive endnotes), perceptive analyses of the issues, and prescient prescriptions for action. He clearly states his thesis in the book’s first sentence: “Character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed” (p. xiii).

Ironically, character’s demise has been accompanied by sincere calls for the recovery of virtue, the renewal of values, the restoration of a moral society. Certainly there are admirable individuals, and groups of committed individuals, who demonstrate a depth of integrity and good character. The plague destroying the nation is not “individual moral failure” (p. xiv) but is more broadly evident in sociological evidence, where we see that “The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed” (p. xiii).

Character has collapsed because the dogmatic creeds which necessarily undergirded it have been discarded. The theological foundation, the religious worldview, which made possible the cultivation of moral character no longer shape America’s culture. We’re suffocating in the spineless slime left behind by earlier generations; “we want the flower of moral seriousness to blossom, but we have pulled the plant up by its roots” (p. 13). Revealingly, there’s much talk about the need for “values,” the restoration of “values.” But values are human constructs we place on things–just we price goods in the grocery store. “Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. They are substitutes for revelation, imperatives that have dissolved into a range of possibilities. The very word ‘value’ signifies the reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable. Both values and ‘lifestyle’–a way of living that reflects that accumulation of one’s values–bespeak a world in which nothing is sacred” (p. xiii).

The death of character, strangely enough, has been helped along by the very folks who claim to desire it–the “moral education establishment, those who have given their professional life to the task of moral education” (p. xv). These folks, usually with the best of intentions, have effectively sterilized the soil needed for the plants they want to flourish. Hunter persuasively argues that our public schools and other institutions (including the churches) entrusted with educating our children have embraced strategies which “aggravate rather than ameliorate the problem. Rather than restore character and its attending moral ideals, they are complicit in destroying them” (p. 9). Consequently, he says, in a powerfully cogent synopsis: “We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on terms that we want it” (p. xv).

If we’re concerned about the moral life of the nation, we must carefully cultivate moral living in the nation’s children. Today’s “inclusive” education, with its concern to offend no one, to make all youngsters feel good, lacks the demanding rigor which shapes the moral life. Character, Hunter says, rightly combines moral discipline, moral attachment, and moral autonomy. One must be able to restrain his desires, to say “no” to temptations; one must say “yes” to what’s good, sacrificially love and uphold commitments even at personal cost; and one must make decisions freely, on one’s own. Plato’s Republic made it clear that a good nation has rulers with character, devoted to the good of the body politic. The architects of the United States recognized that its republican system could survive only so long as the people and their leaders were virtuous, and Alexis de Tocqueville reported that the new nation was in fact blessed by it. In our century, however, “personality” has superceded “character.” Performance replaced achievement, appearance usurped reality. And, importantly, psychology has replaced theology as the source for moral standards.

To restore character to the nation, Hunter repeatedly insists, we must dislodge psychology from its eminence in educational theory and practice. “When it comes to the moral life of children, the vocabulary of the psychologist frames virtually all public discussion” (p. 81). Importantly, psychology presupposes a cosmology which elevates methods over metaphysics, stressing process rather than content. It’s a cosmology like Nietzsche’s which is “beyond good and evil.” Indeed, “The Nietzschean description of the self as essentially the will to power is neither a euphemism nor an exaggeration. From Adler to Piaget to Glasser and beyond, the psychological paradigm of moral education has made cultivating the will to power into a central pedagogic mission” (p. 214). Furthermore, educational psychology sucks away the teacher’s authority, insisting he become a “consultant” or “facilitator,” simply one of a group of “learners.” It eliminates clear distinctions between good and evil, merely encouraging “prosocial” rather than “anti-social” adjustments to situations. Accordingly, it declares that each person must determine what’s right for himself, and the “right” will differ from time to time and place to place. “In short,” Hunter says, “the perspective offered by contemporary developmental psychologies essentially invert the old formula by teaching us that moral maturity is not adaptation to, but liberation from the constraints of the social order” (p. 186).

Subtle changes in the 19th century, documented by shifts over the decades in such texts as McGuffey’s readers and YMCA programs, reveal the “progressive turn in moral education” which ultimately prevailed in both public schools and Christian organizations. So entrenched did this position become that Hunter labels it a “regime” which “is overwhelmingly therapeutic and self-referencing; in character, its defining feature is a moral framework whose center point is the autonomous self. This regime’s strategy of moral education now pervades all of the mainstream institutions that mediate moral understanding to children” (p. 86). “Earlier theorists saw morality primarily as a category of knowledge and moral judgment as a rational capability” (p. 83), but psychologists tended to emphasize the priority of affective judgments. Follow your feelings, express your feelings, especially those which encourage self-esteem, not your reasoning. Moral truth is thus subjective, known only within one’s heart, not derived from some objective reality. “As Thomas Lickona put it, objective morality has been ‘washed out of the culture'” (p. 193).

In the hands of John Dewey, the progressive stance was philosophically articulated and persuasively implemented throughout the educational establishment. Dewey, with his “developmental perspective,” consciously sought to eliminate revealed religion from the schools, insisting that only experience is normative. Moral standards must never be imposed upon children. Rather, children should discover morality on their own, devising their own standards on the basis of their own experiences. Public schools quickly embraced Dewey’s views, and religious educators (predictably) tagged along. Teachers were solemnly warned not to sermonize or moralize, to remain nonjudgmental in simply facilitating discussions. “By the early 1940’s, the Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians had largely accepted a psychologically based pragmatism as the framework for the religious education of youth” (p. 67). This was especially evident as Carl Rogers’ client-centered counseling techniques and educational strategies of swept through Christian circles.

In a comprehensive summary, as illuminating as I’ve read anywhere, Hunter says: “It is important to emphasize that these historical changes are not merely a matter of a change in the ideas imparted to the young. Rather, the transformation is more comprehensive–entailing a basic transmutation in the dominant regime of moral socialization. The content of moral instruction changed–from the ‘objective’ moral truths of divine scriptures and the laws of Nature, to the conventions of a democratic society, to the subjective values of the individual person. The sources of morality authority shifted–from a transcendent God, to the institutions of the natural order and the scientific paradigms that sustain them, to the choices of subjects. The sanctions through which morality is validated changed–from the institutions and codes of the community to the sovereign choices of the autonomous individual. The primary institutional location through which moral understanding is mediated changed as well–from the family and local religious congregation and their youth organizations, to the public school and popular culture. So too the arbiters of moral judgment changed–from the cultivation of a sense of good and evil through memorization of sacred texts to a largely emotive deliberation over competing values. In this, the premise of moral education changed as well–from the sense that children, for all their other endearments, sinful and rebellious to a sense that they are good by nature an only need encouragement. Finally, there has been a transformation in the purpose of moral education itself–from mastery over the soul in service to God and neighbor, to the training of character to serve the needs of civic life, to the cultivation of personality toward the end of well-being” (pp. 146-147).

Though the psychological “regime” has succeeded in imposing its views, evidence mounts detailing its abject failure. Frankly, “there is little or no association, causal or otherwise, between psychological well-being and moral conduct, and psychologically oriented moral education programs have little or no positive effect upon moral behavior, achievement, or anything else” (p. 152). What’s absolutely necessary, but largely missing, to build strong character is “a social world that coherently incarnates a moral culture defined by clear and intelligible understanding of public and private good” (p. 155). Only adults living according to firm standards, monitoring the behavior of children, both teaching and modeling righteousness, can morally educate their young.

Hunter acknowledges that there have been strong reactions to the dominant culture. He explains and evaluates the “neoclassical and communitarian backlash.” Neoclassical writers such as William Bennett, Christina Hoff Summers, and William Kilpatrick, have built a strong case for restoring “virtues” to their former centrality. Communitarians such as Amitai Etzioni have called for a healthier social fabric, compassionate communities which nourish the moral life. Yet both groups lack the deep commitment to the hard work and particularity which establish moral communities. Then there have been faith communities which have challenged various aspects of the dominant society. Yet, as is evident in many Evangelical efforts such as James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family,” the paradigm of developmental psychology still rules.

What must be done, Hunter says, is not what most Americans want to hear! We must make theology once again central to a counter-culture which derives its moral truths from a transcendent God. Adults, especially, must teach and live by a Divine Law, indifferent to the fact that it will not be “acceptable” to everyone. Strong communities of faith incubate character. In time, perhaps, such small communities could begin to shape a culture of character which is so clearly needed.

Data substantiating Hunter’s case may be found in William J. Bennett’s The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, c. 1999), an “updated and expanded” edition of a book with the same title published five years earlier. The cultural indicators Bennett charts are: crime; family; education; youth behavior; popular culture and religion; and civic participation. The footnotes lead one to trustworthy sources, largely government documents. The charts and tables enable one to quickly comprehend the data. Compared with his earlier study, there’s much good news! Welfare roles have shrunk, violent crime, abortion, divorce, suicide, have decreased. SAT scores are up, as is charitable giving. But there’s bad news too. More babies are being born to unmarried women. Couples are “living together” rather than marrying. STDs are spreading rapidly.

Yet, if one compares today’s conditions with those in 1960, the data are disturbing. “Since 1960, our population has increased by 48 percent. But since 1960, even taking into account recent improvements, we have seen a 467 percent increase in violent crime; a 463 percent increase in the numbers of state and federal prisoners; a 461 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; more than a 200 percent increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; more than a doubling in the teenage suicide rate; a more than 150 percent increase in the number of Americans receiving welfare payments; and almost tenfold increase in the number of cohabiting couples; a doubling of the divorce rate; and a drop of almost 60 points on SAT scores. Since 1973, there have been more than 35 million abortions, increasing from 744,060 in 1973 to 1,365,700 in 1996” (p. 4).

Consequently: “The nation we live in today is more violent and vulgar, coarse and cynical, rude and remorseless, deviant and depress, that the one we once inhabited. A popular culture that is often brutal, gruesome, and enamored with death robs many children of their innocence. People kill other people, and themselves, more easily. Men and women abandon each other, and their children, more readily. Marriage and the American family are weaker, more unstable, less normative” (p. 5).

To the extent that statistics tell the story, Bennett’s book tells us much about the America we live in.

Douglas Groothuis, associate professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, provides us a fine discussion of current thought in Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 2000). The bad news about Postmodernism, Groothuis says, is that it “has dispensed with Truth and replaced it with truths” (p. 11). At the fountainhead of the movement resides Friedrich Nietzsche, with his “will to power,” who argued that there’s “‘no true world,’ only ‘a perspectival appearance who origin lies in us.’ Everything is a matter of relative and pragmatic perspective, with no method by which to adjudicate rationally between perspectives in order to discern an objective truth true for everyone. Nietzsche claims: ‘There are many kinds of eyes. Even the sphinx has eyes–and consequently there are many kinds of “truths,” and consequently there is no truth'” (p. 107).

Indeed, one of the marks of Postmodern thinkers is their habit of placing “truth” in quotation marks, suggesting there is something unreal about it. Thus Jacques Derrida will insist that a text means nothing in itself, there’s nothing intrinsic which one can truly know. Only one’s reading, one’s interpretation of texts truly matters. And then Richard Rorty, following his master, John Dewey, reduces “truth” to “‘what one’s peers let one get away with'” (p. 20)! To Groothuis, Rorty’s “jargon” is little more than “what historically has been called a ‘snow job’ or a ‘con job'” (p. 105). Postmodern ethics inevitably slides in the direction of nihilism, holding that since nothing is really true nothing is necessarily good.

Christians who seek to live in the Truth and proclaim it cannot but object to the central endeavor of Postmodernism. With Simone Weil, they know that “the need of truth is more sacred than any other need” (The Need for Roots). Francis Schaeffer wrote, incisively (in The God Who Is There), that we’re called “not primarily to an alternate lifestyle,” to build a distinctive “community,” but to discern and proclaim truth, Indeed: “Our primary calling is to truth as it is rooted in God, his acts and revelation; and if it is indeed truth, it touches all of reality and all of life.” To do so prompts thoughtful believers to embrace a metaphysical realism solidly defending a “correspondence” definition of truth. “As J.P. Moreland puts it: ‘This is why truth is so powerful. It allows us to cooperate with reality, whether spiritual or physical, and tap into its power. As we learn to think correctly about God, specific scriptural teachings, the soul, or other important aspects of a Christian world view, we are placed in touch with God and those realities. And we thereby gain access to the power available to us to live in the kingdom of God'” (p. 82).

To do that, we must, Groothuis says, resist Postmodern currents which would cast off the moorings which bind us to the One Who Is Himself Truth .


The Postmodern message has a powerful conduit: television. In a significant sense “the medium in the message,” and millions of Americans ingest five our hours or more of TV each day. “Televisions are also becoming nearly omnipresent imperialistically colonizing automobiles, airports, restaurants, classrooms, bars, daycare centers and computers” (p. 283). Truth, however comes not from images on a screen but through words which correspond to reality. The images on TV, like the idols in pagan cultures, falsify reality. “God gave us a book, not a video” (p. 286).