Virtues Reinvented

Social Engineering the New Vices

It is often lamented that our public schools and universities no longer teach virtue to their students. But that is not really the case. Most students in America today have had the virtues of tolerance, environmentalism, egalitarianism, and multiculturalism instilled in them since before they could read. They have also been assured that smoking is the greatest personal vice of the modern age. And these virtues have not been taught to them in a passive way. On the contrary, they have been beaten into them with a single-minded earnestness that makes Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" seem tame in comparison.

The reason for this earnestness is not hard to discern. Whether or not Aristotle was right to define us as political animals, it is certain that we are moral ones. We know instinctively that we should live a certain way and that transcendent standards of good and evil exist and are binding. The fact that we continually violate those standards does not take away from the fact that they are written on our consciences and cannot be ignored or effaced. We know, whether we want to admit it or not, that certain actions, behaviors, and lifestyles are sinful.

And therein lies the problem. Increasingly since the 1960s our country has sought to free itself from all sexual prohibitions; to redefine our roles and duties within the family, the church, and the community; and to indulge in unrestrained consumerism. Those who would promote such a re-envisioning of traditional standards inevitably run up against the intractability of our ingrained moral sense. Our consciences balk at the establishment of a values-free society. As "nature abhors a vacuum," so human nature abhors a moral vacuum.

In response, the elite social engineers who would usher us into a brave new utopia purged of all "medieval" notions of right and wrong have fashioned a seemingly foolproof system for hoodwinking the human conscience. Rather than announce the death of "bourgeois" moral standards, they provide us with substitute moralities that satisfy our need for standards while leaving us free to reinvent the values and institutions upon which civilization was built.

Don't worry if that still small voice within your breast tells you that your sexual behavior is sinful or that you are a narcissist driven by greed and envy; just read some minority literature, recycle a few cans, and quit smoking, and the voice will go away. Is something convicting you to take a stand against the semi-pornographic literature taught at your local middle school? Relax! Sign a petition against global warming and indulge in phony outrage against any politician who makes a statement that could be construed as racist or sexist. That should cure you of any inner compulsion to fulfill your civic duty. And when all else fails, remember that the easiest way to justify your own indulgence in sin is to graciously tolerate the sins of your neighbors.

Screwtape's Strategy

Two decades before the sexual revolution began to unmoor Americans from traditional moral and ethical standards, C. S. Lewis warned against this devil's game of misdirection. Indeed, he suggested that the game was quite literally devilish in its nature and intent. In The Screwtape Letters, he allows us to eavesdrop on the infernal correspondence between a senior devil named Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. In Letter XXV, the experienced uncle explains to his neophyte nephew that one of Satan's greatest and most effective strategies for preventing real virtue from taking hold is to

direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.

To illustrate his point, Screwtape maps out for Wormwood the proper strategy for dealing with an age that, like the first-century church of Laodicea, has grown lukewarm and worldly. Given that the inhabitants of such a tepid, apathetic age can only be restored to Christian service and obedience through an outbreak of spiritual revival, the devils must convince them of the "dangers" of enthusiasm. You can do anything you want, the devils must assure the people, as long as you don't become too zealous—as long as you don't become (God forbid) "fanatics."

Of course, Screwtape implies, if the age were possessed of the opposite character—if it were ascetic and gnostic, driven by a Manichean hatred of the flesh—then the devils would encourage, rather than proscribe, fanaticism. Bourgeois complacency, not revolutionary zeal, would be held up as the greatest danger.

And so it goes for all manner of ages. First determine the zeitgeist; then steer people away from the one thing (whether it be a virtue or a vice) that can help them curtail their excesses. "Cruel ages," Screwtape explains, "are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, [and] lecherous ones against Puritanism."

But what of our own age? What strategy is Screwtape employing today to confound our understanding and prevent us from triumphing over, or even recognizing, the characteristic sins of our age? On what specific planks is his program founded?

The First Three Planks: Intolerance, Elitism & Ethnocentrism

The first plank is obvious. Intolerance must be attacked as the greatest possible sin. Though it is true that there have been periods of church history when the voice of tolerance needed to be heard, ours is not one of them. Today we are desperately in need of moral outrage—not the scapegoating of public figures who violate politically correct speech codes, but a sense of inner disgust at our own depravity, as well as communal indignation at the defining down of personal and social deviancy.

The demonization of intolerance begins in grade school in the form of teachers who will not allow anything to injure the self-esteem of their emotionally fragile charges. Children are protected from shame lest they become intolerant toward themselves. Such protection is purportedly offered as a safeguard against psychologically damaging guilt; what it has produced instead is a generation of young people who refuse to acknowledge in themselves the presence of pride or deceit or vanity or avarice or laziness.

Plank one having rooted out moral and ethical judgment, plank two proceeds to undermine intellectual and aesthetic judgment. Alongside intolerance, elitism is held up as the prime destroyer of fairness and equality. In the name of egalitarianism and inclusivism, all differences are attacked as anti-democratic. Our children are all the same, the mantra goes, and therefore their talents, skills, and accomplishments should all be judged to be of equal quality and merit.

One could argue that the Protestant Reformers, the American Founding Fathers, and some of the French Revolutionaries were right to question elitism, but in our age, such questioning only furthers our appalling lack of standards in education and the arts. In an age when all forms of "text"—from the Bible, to Hamlet, to a popular film, to a comic book, to a reality TV show, to a centerfold—are placed on a level playing field, only the return of elitist attitudes can restore our lost sense of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Only through such a return can we hope to free ourselves from the lowest-common-denominator world we have built. Only thus can we overcome our envy-driven refusal to celebrate true excellence in the classroom, the concert hall, the artist's studio, and the local bookstore.

All things being equal, it shouldn't be difficult to restore this lost sense. If we simply set our high-school and college students to studying the Great Books, what Matthew Arnold called "the best that is known and thought," they would regain their powers of discernment. They would learn again to distinguish beauty from ugliness, creative genius from adolescent self-expression, Virgilian sadness and Dantean indignation from fashionable angst and political spin.

Alas, all things are not equal. The third plank in Screwtape's platform of misdirection renders this solution impotent. By outlawing that most terrible of vices, ethnocentrism, the devils have ensured that our young people will not be fed by the great and enduring ideas of the Western intellectual tradition. Rather, in the exalted name of multiculturalism, they will be restricted to a diet of narrow, provincial works (mostly motivated by feelings of entitlement or victimization) that are as universal as the latest hairstyle and as lasting as yesterday's newspaper.

Plank Four: Homophobia

Thus have our finest colleges and universities been neutralized as potential restorers of standards. But what of that great bastion of traditional values, the family? Surely its ministry cannot so easily be frustrated by a devilish redefinition of virtue and vice.

Or can it? Disguised beneath the public outcry against homophobia (plank #4) lurks a powerful method for undermining the family. It is a good thing society has been taught to excoriate violent assaults upon gays and lesbians, but the ratcheting up of homophobia to the status of an unforgiveable sin has carried with it implications that go far beyond denouncing violence.

When people who define marriage as the union of one man and one woman are accused of homophobia, it becomes nearly impossible to defend the family as a God-given institution that precedes the state. Once the family becomes a site of social engineering, it quickly loses its status as the prime shaper and training ground of morally self-regulating citizens imbued with a sense of personal honor and public duty.

Indeed, the more homophobia is equated with hatred and even fascism, the more the family becomes redefined as an oppressive social institution that must be regulated. It is surely no coincidence that the media began to demonize SUVs at the very time when our nation saw a much-needed increase in large, conservative, traditional, often homeschooled families—for it is precisely those families that have the most use for SUVs.

Plank Five: Sexism

And that leads us to the fifth and most destructive of all the planks, the ongoing public outcry against the evils of sexism. This plank is particularly insidious, for it involves a subtle redefinition of the word "sexism." In the past, a man was considered a sexist if he treated women exactly the same way he treated men. Today, he is considered a sexist if he doesn't treat men and women exactly the same.

True sexism (or male chauvinism) comes about when a man refuses to acknowledge, and make allowance for, the fact that women interact with the world and each other in a different way from men: "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus," to borrow the title of a book hated by feminist social engineers. Feminists hate this book because they decry any suggestion that essential, God-created differences exist between the sexes. And they deplore the Judeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us to celebrate those differences, especially within marriage, where the husband and wife, rather than being clones of one another, complement each other in a rich and even mystical way that strengthens the couple, their children, and the wider community.

This is what modern feminists label "sexism." And by proscribing it, they have fostered gender confusion, not only within the family, but also among teenage boys and girls who no longer have a sense of their own identity, and who are almost painfully incapable of understanding and affirming their own masculinity and femininity.

This confusion has been greatest among boys, who have lost a sense of their duties and responsibilities as future leaders. Though the media ignores it, our country is about to face a major crisis of male leadership. The early signs are already among us. In larger and larger numbers, men are abdicating their God-given calling to lead their homes, their churches, and other vital social institutions. Instead, they remain boys (or "guys") until they are 40.

Yes, women have always been the glue that holds families and communities together. But when there have been positive and dynamic changes made in those communities, when the shackles of political slavery, economic injustice, and unnatural conformity have been thrown off, it is godly, confident men who have led the way. It has always been, to quote an old song that badly needs reviving, "stouthearted men who will fight for the right they adore" who have paved the way for the triumph of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. They have done so because they have held a high and proper view of their masculinity and because they have been supported by women with a high and proper view of their femininity.

But such changes will be forestalled as long as "sexism" stands in the way of revival. Promise Keepers, a grass-roots Christian movement that called on men to be strong and faithful husbands and fathers as well as agents of racial reconciliation, was the answer to prayers raised up by thousands of godly wives. And yet, every time the group met, it was picketed by feminists who accused the participants of sexism.

The Way to Recovery

If our country is to recover its heart and soul and return to the values and traditions that made it strong, we must have the courage to shatter the current tyranny of politically correct language. Only when we are prepared to be "intolerant" of corrupt moral standards, "elitist" in affirming genuine standards of excellence, "ethnocentric" in upholding the enduring ideas of Western civilization, "homophobic" in standing for marriage and the natural family, and "sexist" in professing the Judeo-Christian view of the sexes, will we regain a true and correct understanding of virtue and vice. Only then will we be able to rebuild what has been broken. 

( is Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University; he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include From Achilles to Christ, Apologetics for the 21st Century, and Literature: A Student's Guide.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #29, Summer 2014 Copyright © 2023 Salvo |


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