Our nation’s founders knew the constitutional republic they formed would function properly only if citizens were moral and educated. John Adams said, “we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Washington emphasized the key role of morality as well, “The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality .” Samuel Adams and Jefferson made essentially the same statements.
While we should ask if Americans still qualify as a moral people, a more practical question is whether and how we are training moral citizens, especially the rising generations.
Parents have primary responsibility for training their children in morals and virtue. That teaching will occur through direct instruction; some will be passed on in daily interaction; and much will be imparted by the example parents set for their family.
Unfortunately, because of financial and domestic pressures, many parents have too little time and structure to instruct their children in honesty, responsibility, self-discipline, kindness and sexual morality. Some don’t believe in such “old-fashioned” values, or they don’t know how to formulate and teach them. Far too many parents naively hope their children will pick up foundational moral principles at school or church or by societal osmosis. Children are certainly not learning those great virtues from texting or apps or video games.
Churches have been a critical source of preserving and passing on high principles and conducting effective education in morality and ethical behavior. Indeed, most denominations speak less of ethics and morals in favor of the stronger stuff of commandments and covenants, violation of which is sin. In this way organized religion has helped set the moral tone of nations throughout most of history. Regrettably, Americans attend church less often and thereby miss critical lessons in moral standards.
Schools have historically had a strong role in imparting guiding principles of conduct and morality. For well over a century, McGuffey Readers were the texts that first taught children to read and then educated them by studying great literature. The books were strongly moral; they highlighted unselfishness, courage, honesty and service.
Because of cultural and judicial hostility to schools teaching anything that smacked of religion, our education system retreated from much of moral instruction. Moreover, the irresistible drumbeat for schools to teach and students to master and be tested on core subjects like reading and math has greatly reduced teachers’ opportunities to teach fundamental ethics.
Nor can we look to our culture to offset the decline in parental, religious and educational teaching of morals. Popular culture mavens (much of the mainstream media, popular music stars and the Hollywood clique) have long demeaned and undermined marriage and marital fidelity and encouraged an anything goes moral climate in sexual and other matters.
In the face of this morally bankrupt onslaught of film, literature and music, is it any wonder that we see numerous gross violations of that moral code, which has served us so well for thousands of years — teachers having trysts with their juvenile students; powerful politicians, entertainment, and even religious leaders taking egregious liberties with powerless subordinates, including children; fathers sexually abusing their own family members; and men treating women like disposable sex toys?
Granted that criminal and civil law forbid most of these abuses; society demands that every accountable person, irrespective of background and moral training or its absence, must refrain from such behavior. Simple decency should prevent it at all. But these restraints have not proven adequate and will not become more so in the future. One wonders that if these perpetrators had received more teaching of right and wrong, if they had enjoyed the influence of strong role models who exemplified appropriate conduct and self-restraint, might they not have checked their desires and urges and not so selfishly violated their victims?
This is how amoral societies work. They tear down restrictions in the name of freedom; they later find those discarded strictures protected innocent victims and society generally from the evil committed by morally ungoverned souls.
May our nation, our culture and our people grasp anew the proven standards of conduct and teach them assiduously to all.