Word from the Center: Friday, March 1, 2019

Welcome to “Word from The Center” FRIDAY, a Two-Kingdom, practical reflection on the issues of the day from the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty. I’m Gregory Seltz. Today’s topic/issue….

Religious Liberty and the Challenge to Re-Awaken Public Virtue in America

In his book, The Death of Character, James Davison Hunter says,

When Newsweek poses the question, “How Do We Restore a Sense of Right and Wrong” on its cover, it tacitly acknowledges that our “sense of right and wrong” is less and less present to the living memory of our entire culture[1]

So much of what we think of as “innate” in our moral sensibilities derives mainly from cultural resources that are dwindling…There is nothing here, then, that can rebut the challenge of nihilism. Whether psychological pragmatism, general social consensus, anthropological universals, or legislation mandating character education—none of these can answer the claims of nothingness.[2]

In a nation that is yearning for cultural and communal civility today, the more basic questions to be asked are, “Can we become a virtuous people again and how?” And, “Is it possible to transmit those virtues to the next generation in a nihilistic, individualistic age?” Such questions are broader than individual piety or morality. They intersect with dialogues about faith, family, church, school, and community because those public structures exist to sharpen and to maintain virtue across generations. Those worldview traditions also undergird, compel, and even motivate one to become the human being that God created and redeemed one to be for others. But here’s the present problem. The very institutions that guard and guide us towards such a full humanity are virtually powerless today in the lives of people. The family structure is fractured almost beyond repair. Our schools transmit unlimited choice and technological sophistication with virtually no moral framework for balance and check. Our work is becoming more mechanized and dehumanized, often isolating people from others and from the world in which we live. And many might even wonder just what a worldview or faith-tradition actually is.

Hunter’s book despairs of the sociological reality in which we find ourselves today. And why not? The data is what the data is. He notes that even the various virtues-based educational systems are not enough. Why? Because they all assume that the individual, and the individual alone, is the final authority of what is truly virtuous and moral. The question remains, “Can such things be turned around?” Maybe the better question is, “Who is to do the turning?”

I’m glad you asked! Our work in Washington D.C. is NOT to seek more “political” answers for issues like these. We believe that such issues are ultimately to be faced as families, by our churches, and in our communities and towns with each other. Our work here in D.C. is actually to push against the notion that all these solutions are to be political and policy based; we are pushing back on the government’s encroachment where it truly doesn’t belong and most often doesn’t succeed. Our work here is to protect and to expand the church’s voice in the community because the answers to these problems are not coming from federal policies in Washington. They ultimately come from lives turned back to God, motivated by a worldview that honors love and virtue more than oneself.

The Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty is committed to religious liberty, protecting the voice of the Lutheran Church and others in the communities in which they serve, but not merely as an institutional survival mechanism. No. We are committed to protecting the public voice of the Christian church and its people as a reminder to the church and to the community that the issues we face have a family and a faith component. Hunter calls for more and more “public” institutions that are not political in nature. Let’s pray that the present trend of politicizing everything is reversed. And then let’s find a way to start rebuilding healthy, lasting families, as well as schools that not only teach values and virtue, but also help develop character. May they do so within and among churches that continue to proclaim and demonstrate the power of faith in God as the key not only to happiness, but the key to life itself.

[1] “Shame: How Do We Bring Back A Sense of Right and Wrong?” Newsweek, 6 February 1995.

[2] James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good and Evil. (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 226.