My friend’s parents used that my generation were a bunch of long hair, marijuana-smoking pot heads who did not have the courage to step up and defend our nation in Vietnam.
They saw us as degenerates and spoiled. They were probably right about the second point. The anti-war protests and violence in our streets, along with the civil rights movement, led them forty-five years ago to say that America had lost its moral compass. They hated our hair, our music, our dress and our sexual mores. No surprise that our parents thought that the baby boomers signaled the moral decline of America.
But what is the verdict?
Boomers are entering their sixties and seventies and are now the senior citizens of America. The other day, a few of these folks had a chance to discuss the question of whether America’s morals were on the descent. The forum was conducted by the Hilton Head Ethics seminar. The group meets meets monthly and discusses all sorts of challenging questions. It provides one of the only ecumenical forums on the island not tainted by partisan politics.
The panel consisted of three clergy from three different religious perspectives including Greg Kronz (Episcopal); John Miller (Presbyterian) and me on the Jewish perspective. We all delivered presentations on whether we believed America had lost its moral compass.
What is morality?
Morality is about achieving a sense of unity in our society about what values are right and which are wrong.
My task on the panel was to discuss the question of the moral decline of religion in America.
All of us touched on how secularism had a significant impact on drawing people away from so-called traditional values. Biblical illiteracy was also a contributing factor toward Americans distancing themselves from the core values of our society. National partisan politics — when they infect and divide the culture of the congregation — also diminishes the moral standing of the religious community in America. The obsessive focus on money and personal prosperity theology as the sole goal of religion contributes to decline of religion as a moral force for good. All of these factors continue to drive many people away from institutional religion.
The problem is that Americans can’t agree on what has always been the morality of the nation. How then can we agree whether America’s morals are on the decline?
Age also plays a role in how we view morality. As we grow into our senior years, we long to return to less complicated times. But was there greater cohesion of shared values “back then?”
If we think about the 1950s as the model for today, for example, would African American agree that segregation were the good old days? Would women agree that the pressure to stay at home without having the choice to have a job or a career were the good old days? Did gay people who lived in secret and suppressed their God-given sexual orientation embody the good old days? Were those good old days really that good for all Americans?
We have been a nation in moral conflict with ourselves since the beginning of our republic. The last sixty years brought us moral conflicts over civil rights, reproductive rights for women, gun control, health care, gay rights and now DACA and immigration.
We are fighting about those issues today. Does it mean that because we fight over values that we are all not moral people? Let’s face the truth. The counterpoint texture of America’s struggle for values and a unifying morality is part of the ethos and culture of American society.
Is religion becoming less relevant in forging a consensus on national morality? More people, especially millennials, are engaged in the idea of self fulfillment rather than supporting the community in religious life. Religious doctrine is under assault from the non-denominational houses of worship which provide an alternative to mainstream religious institutions. Does that mean religion is on the moral decline or are our morals simply changing? Today it appears we are much more a society about “me” than “we.”
The ethics seminar of Hilton Head is a great organization for baby-boomers and pre-baby boomer generations to debate the question of America’s moral health.
Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Ancient civilizations down to our times have always been argued about national morality. The prophet Amos said, “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The biblical prophets introduced us to the question of moral decline of a society as a core concept in religion. We are still arguing about it to this very day.
The debate on morality is part of our spiritual and national DNA. It’s a struggle we all cannot afford to ignore.