Whatever became of virtue?

By Mona CharenSavannah (GA) Morning News 3/31/93

November-December 1993 – A state judge in Shreveport, Louisiana, has ruled that teaching abstinence may not be part of a sex education program for high school students.

Abstinence, said the judge (urged on by Planned Parenthood, which filed the suit), is a religiously based virtue. To teach it in public schools is to violate the separation of church and state.

Have we reached the point in America where virtue is considered contaminated because it has been known to keep company with religion?

In truth, the whole concept of virtue is out of fashion in modern society. Or at least, the traditional virtues—self-control, honor, fortitude, frugality, fidelity and duty—are held in low esteem.

We have replaced them with what could be called “easy virtues” like tolerance, non-discrimination and egalitarianism.

And what have we wrought, in modern society, by jettisoning traditional standards of virtue? We have a decaying social fabric in which criminal behavior is rampant, family structure is fragmented, drug abuse, suicide and sexually transmitted disease are epidemic.

William Bennett, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, has made a critical contribution to our understanding of the importance of these issues by compiling a list of “Leading Cultural Indicators.”

The list is a way to keep tabs on our cultural and spiritual health as a society, just as the leading economic indicators measure the strength of our economy.

Examining trends over 30 years, from 1960 to 1990, Bennett finds that the U.S. population has increased 41%, and the gross domestic product has nearly tripled.

At the same time, during those crucial 30 years, violent crime increased 560%, illegitimate births increased by more than 400%, the divorce rate quadrupled, the teen suicide rate increased by 200%, and SAT scores dropped by 80 points.

Liberals believe that these trends represent the failure of government to do more to help people. Conservatives believe that some of these trends were exacerbated by misguided government attempts to help, and that what the people believe is far more important than what they have.

In other words, most of the problems we label as “social” or “economic” are really moral.

National Review has published a new book called The Loss of Virtue. This collection of essays by British scholars probes, in a style so old-fashioned that it seems to belong to another century, the discarded virtues—probity, honor, self-sacrifice, manliness (properly understood), diligence and so on.

Even to list those traditional virtues is a rebuke to our soft, complaining, petulant culture today.

Christie Davies offers a fascinating historical survey of crime and disorder in Britain. The first half of the 19th Century was marked by high levels of public drunkenness, theft, violence and illegitimacy, all of which dropped to remarkably low levels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

George Orwell, writing in 1944, noted that England was renowned for “gentleness.” But “it is not much more than a hundred years since the distinguishing mark of English life was its brutality.”

What changed an entire nation’s national character? Davies has an intriguing suggestion: Sunday school. Attendance at Sunday schools rose steadily throughout the latter half of the 19th Century.

In 1888, 75% of children in England and Wales attended religious schools. When attendance fell off in the 20th Century, crime, dishonesty, illegitimacy and disorder increased dramatically.

Our great-grandparents understood that you cannot expect virtue if you don’t teach it. They didn’t attempt to instill self-esteem, they instilled fortitude and self-control.

We have fallen so far that we do not even agree on what virtue is. As the judge in Shreveport showed, ours is an age of moral confusion—for which we are paying a heavy price.  undefined