U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, left, speaks during a campaign rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Aug. 8, 2016. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, right, speaks at a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 18, 2016. Left photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Keane. Right photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

On the erosion of our national character

(RNS) A government is only as good as its people, and a people get the government they more or less deserve.

These kinds of thoughts have run through my mind a lot recently as I have witnessed the carnage of this presidential campaign. I keep wondering whether the problem isn’t them but us.

Ours is a political culture in which the default setting is to maximize freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of commerce and exchange, freedom to create and dissolve just about any form of human endeavor one can imagine -- this is the American way of life.

Many people who have suffered under tyrannies of various types have come to our shores attracted by this expansive vision of freedom.

But today I join others in being anxious about a transition from freedom to chaos, from liberty to license, in the character of our country. Freedom is a great thing, except when people misuse it.

Freedom of speech is great except for when people use it to curse and slander others. Freedom of the press is great except for when the press libels people. Freedom of association is great except for when people form hate groups. Freedom of religion is great except for when their religion does harm to others or to their own children. Freedom to form and dissolve romantic relationships is great except for when people bring harm to themselves and others who count on them. Commercial freedom is great except for when business harms people with unsafe products. And so on.

It is clear that America’s founders understood that the freedom-maximizing government they were creating required a citizenry of sound character to go along with it. Government could stay small and limited if, and only if, people could regulate their own actions in virtuous ways.

You don’t need a whole lot of police in a town in which 99.9 percent of the citizenry on a given day are voluntarily choosing not to break the laws that their representatives have established. Virtuous business owners don’t cheat their customers or mistreat their employees, spouses of sound mind and character do not physically harm their children. And so on.

Religion has for centuries been one primary force undergirding the formation of character.

In the U.S. at the time of our founding, of course, the primary religion was Christianity. The founders counted on the force of Christianity to shape and constrain the exercise of freedom by most Americans. Even those who had left the theology of Christianity behind were still affected by the broadly Christian ethos that Christians and their churches had formed here.

That formative power manifested itself in many ways -- among them Christian preaching, home-by-home parental Bible teaching, the formation of human conscience, and the belief that everyone must someday give account of their lives to God. Of course the same thing happened and still happens in many other cultures in which a deep and widespread religiosity pervasively affects community, family, and personal values.

I think we have good reason to be anxious about the erosion of the moral (and religious) ethos that once formed and constrained our expressions of the maximized liberty of our political system.

The delicate balance that the founders expected -- a free people, but not utterly free, because they are shaped and constrained by the force of a powerfully religious and moral culture -- is in the process of being lost.

We can see the effects of that erosion in a variety of places.

I think it is especially clear in much of what passes for entertainment. Liberty has become license; entertainment has become degradation. Of course it’s not just in the media. Don’t miss the utterly ruthless business practices of many in corporate America, or the anything-goes ethos of our political fighting, to see a similar loss of moral restraint. There used to be certain things that decent people just did not do. This baseline is eroding, across the board. The erosion has certainly been visible in this presidential campaign.

We need a renewal of moral seriousness in this country. We need to retrieve religious and moral resources easily available to us for the cultivation of character. We need to be able to draw a distinction between liberty and license. We need creative ways to speak the language of character so that our children and grandchildren will be able to understand what we mean, and want it for themselves. We need to be brave enough to push back against the most egregious cultural expressions of raw degradation masquerading as entertainment.

And we need to look for leaders in every venue -- family, church, business, community, national government -- who exemplify character qualities like honesty, discipline, self-control, unselfishness, patience, forgiveness, humility, mercy, and covenant faithfulness.

(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. His RNS column is titled “Christians, Conflict and Change.” This commentary is adapted from his new book, “A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends”)


  1. I’m sorry that Pastor Gushee has joined the ranks of those screaming, “the sky is falling!” The character-forming influence of the church communities is still largely intact. Honesty and integrity matters. We still take the kiddos dropped off for Sunday School and do our best to teach them the why’s behind right and wrong.

    I work with volunteers within the public school systems, and am noting the growth of character-related programs operating within the schools that are welcomed there because they separate character from religiou. Never has the awareness and vocabulary of bullying been at a higher level in my experience. Wrongdoing hits the internet in nanoseconds and travels around the world. Businesses can’t pass off mediocre products and shoddy workmanship anymore, because there are dozens of websites where consumers can tell their stories to literally millions.

    Pastor Gushee may be decrying the loss of influence of churches, given the erosion of trust from more than a decade of pedophile scandals. The religious entity that looked the other way from that horrendous violation of youth, is now paying a handsome price for their lack of oversight. The church influence is strong even after families quit attending. In my experience of this spanning several decades, the basics of integrity stay alive within families for two or three generations after the family ceases to be active in church.

    Brighten up, Pastor. We’re in better shape then you think!

  2. “Religion has for centuries been one primary force undergirding the formation of character.”

    Absolutely. Religion justified slave holding, and justified ending slavery. Religion taught that gay people are evil and destroyers of civilization. Religion also caused many gay people to stand up and say, “ENOUGH!”, and their churches to stand up and say, “ENOUGH!”

    Religion justified the burning of witches, jim crow, anti Semitism, flying airplanes into buildings, slaughtering native populations, opposition to birth control and sex education in the face of rising teen pregnancy rates and a population rapidly exceeding our resources. Religion gave us Ted Haggard, Anita Bryant, Creflo Dollar, Jerry Falwell, child molesting catholic priests and their enabling bishops, and a host of others. Religion also gave us Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King.

    and on and on and on and on and on.

    Religion and morality are not the same thing, and never have been the same thing. This is one of the greatest con jobs of religion: that it is the source of morality, or worse, that it speaks for god and is the source of morality.

  3. The author has it all backwards, after religion’s further decline, a more virtuous society will be possible. Spare us the tears about culture and entertainment, it has never been better in the age of the internet. Politics is screwed up because of the GOP and their religious-right allies inherent fears and insecurities, that apparently Gushee also shares.

    As long as Christianity is entwined in politics and society, we do get “raw degradation” — look at Robertson, Falwell, Barton, Dobson, Trump, Cruz, etc. One they pass on and a younger more secular generation takes the reins…things get better, morality improves too.

  4. Of course the sky isn’t falling, but the author is lamenting a definite coarseness in contemporary politics and suggests that a general loss of moral character in society is the cause.
    Certainly anti- bullying programs are helpful, but institutions, like schools and churches, have been suffering a serious decline in influence for 50 years. The internet does as much harm to character as good, maybe more. Business owns the means of communication and shapes the public view for the sake of profit not the general betterment of society.
    The decline in trust for those institutions that once shaped character was caused by much more than pedophilia scandals and has more to do with demographic shifts during this time frame.

  5. Enough with the anti-religion already. Pick another song. Religion and morality are not the same thing. Individuals and movements have used religion to do terrible things. No one denies that obvious fact. Nevertheless, religion has been the primary source for morality (in varying forms) for much of human history.

  6. Slander and libel are not protected under the 1st amendment. Religious freedoms are curtailed when there is a need to protect people from physical harm. Crime is lower now than it has been in the past 45 years.

    We are doing ok, all things considered, outside of a presidential candidate who is running on a platform of blowing up our system of government. But it looks like he will lose, so the system remains intact.

  7. Politics has always been coarse. FDR was considered traitor. LBJ was called a baby killer. Support for McKinley was drummed up by factory bosses threatening to fire their employees if they didn’t support the republican. Etc, etc.

    That doesn’t even touch the way Clinton, Kerry, and Gore were portrayed by their opppnents.

  8. Evil done in the name of religion doesn’t discredit religion, no more than evil done in the name of patriotism robs a nation of its claim to sovereignty or a race of pride in its identity. Do all banks and businesses share the guilt of the worst thing done by the worst ones? Must atheists claim Stalin and Pol Pot?

    Christ himself had a vicious, three year running battle with the Pharisees, so it’s no news to Christians that churches and religions are capable of sin. It has been said, “The Devil does his best work behind stained glass.”…this by a noted member of the clergy. Organized religions have never claimed they are absent of sin and wrongdoing, they aspire to resist it…knowing that they won’t always go undefeated.

  9. You might want to look at this year’s murder rate before declaring crime at an all time low.

  10. Morality does not require religion and in fact religious morality is often in conflict with our better human natures. Religion is not the answer…

  11. Of course it does. Religion enables evil on a large scale. Religious morality is so relativistic, and so beholden to reactionary politics that it colors it’s few benefits to society irrevocably. Others being worse does not invalidate nor mitigate the evils of any given party.

  12. Nationally at an all time low. Been on a downward trend for the last 20 years. With a major hiccup from 2008 based on economic distress.

  13. “There used to be certain things that decent people just did not do. This baseline is eroding, across the board.”

    I think there is some truth in that, but it’s not entirely true. I don’t pin the cause of that erosion on individuals, but on institutions. As Tom said in a comment, businesses that worship money have spent a massive amount of it, including on psychologists, to manipulate the masses in whatever way benefits their wallets, regardless of the toll on societies. For an example of that we need only look at the energy companies that are knowingly devastating the environment for their own, short term, benefit.

    The rise of an ethic of Greed has an increasingly destructive affect on the human condition worldwide. I contend that Greed Ethic is the leading cause for deterioration in morality.

  14. In addition to my earlier comment, I pin the entire responsibility for Christianity’s decline on Christianity itself. Specifically I’m referring to those Christianists who are best known for who they hate and for their hypocrisy. Hateful rhetoric and victim-claiming has had a devastating effect. Who wants to be a part of that?

    The media has abetted that by allowing and even encouraging the worst examples of Christianity, like Pat Robertson, Jeff Dobson, Falwell, F Graham, etc., to represent the faith publicly.

  15. HL…I think you are right when you write that greed is a big problem. In fact, I would say a greedy person probably is not a very religious person in the first place. But I also witness greed in other ways. I live in a lower-middle class community…many ‘bottom-dwellers’…homelessness is common, along with substance abuse and general apathy among many residents. Employers struggle to find employees who can stay sober and show up to work on time consistently. I meet some homeless people to want to be useful, and to be productive. However, most of the ‘down and out’ crowd spend more time figuring out how to maximize their free government benefits than actually getting and keeping a job. Is this not a form of greed that plagues our society? The old-American work ethic was built around NOT taking charity or being a burden to society. I see that attitude less and less these days.

  16. I think you were referring to James Dobson. I wouldn’t trust the secular media for reporting on American Christianity, since I don’t think most news operations are headed by regular church-goers.

    I’ve attended many different churches for several decades and never heard ‘hateful rhetoric’ towards any person or group. But, if I didn’t go to a church and wanted to find examples of ‘Christian hate’, I’m sure I could go on-line and find some.

    That’s the problem of our ‘choose your own narrative’ culture. We often choose what we want to believe, and then look for evidence to support our beliefs. A man might decide to hate blacks, and could find all sorts of evidence to support his racist beliefs. Or, he could go to an all-black church and find loving people who care for each other in extraordinary ways.

    I do think those who claim the Christians are hate-consumed people are probably isolated from real Christians and/or getting distorted information from biased sources.

    (I would also say the same to conservatives who claim that liberals are stupid/lazy/corrupt, etc.)

  17. If you haven’t heard any, you simply have not been paying attention.
    Atheists have on morality.
    homosexuals want to destroy marriage.
    God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.
    You (fill in the blank, but usually Mormons or Catholics) aren’t real Christians.

  18. What churches do you attend, Ben, my friend?

  19. “Honesty and integrity matters”

    I think the author’s point is that honesty and integrity seem NOT to matter when you have nominees like Hillary and Donald. Are these candidates pillars of honesty? If honesty and integrity were more valued, we might have Bernie vs. Rand Paul or Ben Carson.

  20. People get the government they deserve? Pure nonsense. There is no feedback mechanism for revising or reforming the federal government. Ordinary people have exactly zero power and influence.

    Blaming the voters for failing to change things is like blaming a spider for failing to halt the foot that stomps it.

  21. I’m afraid I will have to disagree. it does indeed discredit religion, because religion claims to represent the forces, indeed the very fount morality and goodness.

    Patriotism claims that patriotism is a virtue, but not the fount of virtue. Not all banks share the misdeeds of the few, and no one said they did. But banks are banks, and they are not claiming they represent goodness. Neither Stalin nor pol pot did what they did in the name of atheism, but instead in the name of political and social philosophies destructive to human happiness; and in any case, pol pot was not an atheist.

    And in any case as well, that would be bigotry: classifying an entire class of people according to the actions of a few. Churches and denominations are not individuals.

    I don’t denounce religion in general, though I do think it is at best silly. and we agree that not all religion is bad or wrong. But I don’t see most liberal religious denominations attacking gay people as threats to everything good and holy, or defending racism or islamophobos, or denouncing other Christians as not true Christians and agents of the devil, or saying something like “God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Or flying airplanes into buildings; it’s not the Sufis doing that,

    That’s all conservative religion talking. And these I will judge by both their bad theology, and the bad fruit that they bear.

    And when the liberal denominations are wrong, I will say this also. But as Spuddie says, others being worse does not invalidate the evils of any given party. And all the charity in the world does not mitigate the evil done by some religions.

  22. I wouldn’t say all Christians are hate mongers by any means. I find very kind and loving people especially in the mainline churches. There are good folks in some evangelical churches too.

    I knew a really decent man pastoring in an Ass of G church and I know they ordain women so I figured they can’t be all bad. I dropped in on worship at AoG with a positive expectation. The male rev was dedicating a baby and he threw in a comment about her marrying a man when she grows up “because we all know that’s the only real godly marriage.”

    I walked out thinking, why would he feel he had to throw that into a perfectly nice occasion? What made him think it was appropriate or necessary in dedicating a baby? He has an agenda.

  23. I agree…his comment seems inappropriate for the moment. But, I don’t think of it is ‘hate speech’. Do you?

    If the topic of the sermon was ‘marriage’, and he carefully explained the church’s view of marriage and used scripture to support the church’s viewpoint, and came to the conclusion that only male-female marriage is acceptable for Christians according to the Bible, would that qualify as hate-speech, or simply a matter of opinion, or having an agenda, or something else?

  24. I grew up in the 1980s. It’s much lower today that is has been over the past few decades.

  25. David Gushee’s words could have been written a hundred year ago and even two hundred years ago. There have always been those who were/are convinced that America (and indeed the whole world) is going to hell in a hand basket, that morals are at an all-time low, and that greed, corruption and immorality are at an all-time high.

    What so many Evangelicals mean by a “return to morality” is a return to the 1950’s. You know – when black Americans had few rights, women were still “owned” by their husbands, and gays were arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. People always romanticize the past as being better, the present as being terrible, and the future as bleak.

    Like any human endeavor, religion has has been a force for good and for evil, sometimes more good than evil, and sometimes more evil than good. And like any human institution, it runs the gamut from good people to evil people. Religion has been used to do both good and terrible things to human beings. Those who romanticize religion have blinders on as surely as those who romanticize the past.

    The world has changed – we aren’t going back to a time when religion dominated and controlled our nation, our institutions, and the American people. Religion has lost it’s credibility with increasing numbers of people. Threatening people with the judgment of a deity has lost it’s ability to instill terror or fear. Advances in education and knowledge has kind of left religion in the dust. But people can still be moral and good without religion. Things like human empathy, honesty, integrity etc. can be instilled without religion.

  26. No, it doesn’t strike me as hate speech. It was his opinion. If he had brought that up in the scenario you described, that would have been reasonable.

    In my ears, hate speech is telling the other they are evil, going to hell, etc. Tone and intent make a difference too.

  27. Yes, that clergyperson does have an agenda there. He’s trying to encourage his audience (which just happened to include you that morning) to actually **understand and agree with** their own Bibles.

    Why? Because it makes a sharp and huge difference these days whether Christians stick with and live out the biblical TRUTH, or just fall into the same ole gay-worldview LIES and mess themselves up, like some of the main-liners clearly have done.

  28. I think this is one of David Gushee’s better commentaries, while I might quibble with a few small points, on par this is a very sound well reasoned statement.

  29. ” …we need to look for leaders…who exemplify character qualities like honesty, discipline, self-control, unselfishness, patience, forgiveness, humility, mercy, and covenant faithfulness. “, the author writes.

    Well said. Nobody is going to argue with that.

  30. To what religion did Chairman Mao ascribe in order to justify the “Great Leap Forward” that killed tens of millions? Which religion was Stalin’s? How about Pol Pot’s church?

    People see what the want to see and turn a blind eye to the inconvenient truth. The inconvenient truth here is that “All have sinned and fallen short the glory of God.” The problem isn’t religion, the problem is that religions and / or governments are being run by fallible people who quite often fail.

  31. …only if one ignores 2015 and the first half of 2016. Snopes does that as well, but murder is up 15% in the 29 largest cities this year.

  32. The Christian religion does not “represent the forces”. God represents Himself, we follow him imperfectly as everybody else does everything else imperfectly. The importance is that Christians keep trying to work on their salvation and help others attain theirs.

    You seem to be in the mindset that anybody whoever once fell off a bike is disqualified from telling anybody else “Don’t fall off of a bike!” That is what I get from your take on religion.

  33. I grew up in the ’60s and was also present as an adult in the ’80s. It is trending towards the the riots in Watts and Detroit, from what I saw then and I see now.

  34. Then you got exactly the wrong thing in every sentence.

  35. Agreed, at least on the first part. I think some people define ‘hate-speech’ as any comments that disapprove on their way of life.

    Jesus, according to your definition, would be guilty of hate-speech when he told the religious leaders that they were evil, blind guides, snakes, hypocrites, sons of the devil. Even if it were true, it would still be hate-speech, wouldn’t it? Or does ‘truth’ allow people more leeway with their language?

  36. No force on earth discredits religion more than the failure to denounce, fight against, and make amends for evil done in the name of religion, and nothing is more damaging to it’s longterm reputation. Conservative Christianity markets itself as the place where sinners learn not to hate, but in reality it is the place where sinners learn which targets and in which ways it is socially acceptable to hate. (I started to put the weasel words “all too often” in there but I am sick of weasel words on this topic.)

    Here’s a modern day parable that Jesus would approve of: half a century ago business hit on the idea of “branding”, selling the right to use a respectable brand name on a product they did not make themselves. Companies that did it reaped huge profits — at first. But over time the right to use these respectable names came into the hands of businesses that made shoddy products. When those shoddy imitations hit the market bearing respectable brand names, the public came to associate those brands with inferior products. Businesses who played that game suffered huge hits, and some failed. Even the ones that didn’t fail had to work for years, sometimes decades to regain the public’s trust. The parallel with late century conservative Christianity writes itself.

  37. What part of trends for the last 20 years did you not get?

    A rise in a one year period does not negate the long term trend towards crime is at an all time low.

  38. You are being hysterical. We have not seen violence on that scale in well over a generation.

  39. “To what religion did Chairman Mao ascribe in order to justify the “Great Leap Forward” that killed tens of millions?”

    Religion of the state. Replacing irrational devotion to ancient beliefs with irrational devotion of the state as an object of worship. Communism simply replaced religious practices with their own. Even with its own form of theology (Communist dialectic), its own saints, its own form of idolatry. North Korea took it to its most extreme traditionally religious levels. The leader is considered a godhead there. Mao was treated not much differently, as was Stalin. Deified by their followers in a modernized version of religion.

    “The inconvenient truth here is that “All have sinned and fallen short the glory of God.””

    You may choose to believe that to be the truth, but it is sectarian and subjective. One’s mileage may vary as to how seriously to take such assertions. As are all religious declarations.

  40. You and I don’t live in “trends of the last 20 years”, we live in the here and the now, also known as “the present”.

    Presently (right now, currently, as in today) crime is up. If I go into a back alley, the 20 year trends won’t determine the odds of if I get mugged or killed, it is what crime is like on the streets NOW.

    You’ve heard the investment commercials that say “Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.”? Baltimore, New York, and Chicago in 2003 aren’t the same as Baltimore, New York and Chicago in 2016.

  41. Now you are just making up your own definitions and parameters.

    Good Bye!

  42. Prof.Gushee forgot that if Christianity teaches love, it also teaches that those who are not Christians, who do not believe in Jesus as Christ, Messiah, would not reach salvation. While even the worst criminal who believes in Jesus will reach that as Jesus took on Him the sins of the mankind. Meaning of the Christian mankind. He forgets Christianity $meant besides progress, arts, and science also antisemitism and slavery.
    And abuses.

    What means his “who had left the theology of Christianity behind”? Judaism existed before Christianity, Jesus was a Jew and lived and died as such.

    If the author would have called to return to the spirit of the Ten Commandments, regardless of the faith, his Christian faith, if he would call for Universal rights regardless of the specific faith or its absence, I’d
    understand better his message. Returning to what Christianity showed in the past, which then formatted characters, would be a step back, not forward. We should learn from our mistakes and of those of previous generations.

  43. By all means pretend you never heard of a cult of personality. By all means pretend the Kim family is not worshiped religiously in north Korea.

    BTW nothing you mentioned mitigated, excuses or invalidates the bad acts done in the name of religion.

  44. Your ignorant dismissal of current events is duly noted. By all means keep pretending crime rates per capita are on the rise, when they clearly are not

  45. Floyd, you’ve always been quite clear about your personal agenda, and quite impervious to opposing arguments. I won’t waste my time contradicting your spin.

  46. Ed, I tend to see it much more as hate speech when a marginalized, powerless and small group is the one attacked. Strong, dominant groups have the means to defend themselves and maintain their dominance. The religious leaders you referred to fit in the second group and, as you are certainly aware, they did continue their dominance for a very long time.

    LBTG folks have existed in the first category for the past couple centuries at least. In human history, the vilification of LBTG is fairly recent. They are still far from dominant, but in the process of receiving full rights with the rest of American citizens. That has caused a corresponding decrease in dominance on the part of religious right types, and many of those types perceive that decrease as an attack.

    Christianity in America continues to be dominant in America and equal civil rights for all is not a threat, but it’s been a great fundraising tool for decades. The latter continues to be a great loss for Christianity in America.

  47. I suppose there are people who hate other people in every socio-economic demographic. But are only those in more powerful or established communities guilty of hate speech? Do we dismiss hateful speech by minority groups?

    I think this is a major part of the problem in our country, and contributes to the rise of a person like Trump. People see different standards are applied to different groups. We may teach in schools that everyone is equal, but students learn quickly that whites need to be careful how they refer to black people, or that a gay person may be a victim of a ‘hate-crime’ but a straight person would not be. Or a person with the desired ethnicity may be granted admission or a coveted scholarship to a university, while the anglo-American is denied.

    I understand how these things get started, but the unintended result is that America has become more and more divided over time.

  48. The reason hate speech is a problem is because it often results in hate action. Evidence throughout history till today shows that the underprivileged are much more vulnerable. Hence the difference.

    Your position has some merit, but I don’t think it’s enough to ignore the lessons of history concerning hate.

    BTW, I appreciate the tone of your comments. It’s nice to have a reasonable disagreement in a setting like this. Thank you.

  49. Thanks, HL, I’m sure we will have future discussions. I appreciate your civility as well when discussing some very sensitive issues. If everyone were as thoughtful as you, we would accomplish a lot more on these comment boards. I hope you enjoy a pleasant evening.

  50. So, we need government within government (because that is what religion is) to get people to act civilly and responsibly? Despite the rationalizations in this article, in the history of humanity religions have perpetrated as many evils as they have constrained. Yes, religious belief and practice can aid civility; but it is hardly a necessary element and is oft times the excuse used to be uncivil.

  51. Sorry. It is humanity which has been the primary source for morality. It is the biological imperative which has fueled tribalism, which is the basis of sociology, which foments the “common good”, which is the root of all cooperation; and which is also the root of all conflict. Religion is a human construct. Religion is an ever-so-carefully woven ribbon wrought to attempt to tie-up the entire package. Religion is some gnashshoal saying, “Look! Look at me! I’m the one who has figgered it all out! If you don’t believe it, there will be consequences! If you’re not just-like-me, there will be consequences!!” Religion foments ignorance. In my opinion, and in my decades of experience, those who tout religion are really touting one small, stinking heap of hubris.

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