They'll probably never again invite Joe Wright, pastor of a church in Wichita, Kansas, to open a session of the Kansas Legislature with prayer. Mr. Wright feels strongly about issues of right and wrong and isn't shy about expressing himself in no uncertain terms. After his recent invocation a few of the legislators took loud exception to his prayer: "It was gross, divisive, sanctimonious, overbearing," one said. Others called it "blasphemous and ignorant." What had this minister said that so stirred the wrath of these state representatives? Here is that prayer, as widely quoted in the print and electronic news media:
"Heavenly Father, we come before You today to ask Your forgiveness and to seek Your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says woe to those who call evil good, but that's exactly what we have done. We've lost our spiritual equilibrium and inverted our values.
"We confess that we have ridiculed the absolute truth of Your Word in the name of moral pluralism. We have worshipped other gods and called it multiculturalism.
"We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle. We have exploited the poor and called it a lottery. We have neglected the needy and called it self-preservation. We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.
"In the name of choice we have killed our unborn. In the name of right to life we have killed abortionists.
"We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building esteem. We have abused power and called it political savvy. We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it taxes. We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression. We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.
"Search us, O God, and know our hearts today. Try us and show us any wickedness in us. Cleanse us from every sin, and set us free. Guide and bless these men and women who have been sent here by the people of Kansas and who have been ordained by You to govern this great state. Grant them Your wisdom to rule, and may their decisions direct us to the center of Your will. I ask it in the name of your Son, the living Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen."
To some people Mr. Wright's invocation may seem inappropriate against the backdrop of modern moral and social values. But is it? Haven't we as a society strayed from our moral moorings?
Losing our bearings?
Values are like a lighthouse. They send out a constant message of reassurance and warning: As you make your way through the murkiness and confusion of life, keep values in view, or risk disaster.
A lighthouse marks a point from which ships can judge their positions to maintain their safety and security. It serves as a consistent, unswerving guide.
Values are like that. They are like beacons, allowing people to navigate safely the ocean of life.
Where in the world are we relative to traditional Christian values? Let's take a look:
- Two decades ago television-network situation comedies were talking about people's posteriors; now they show them.
- Today a woman can contract with a physician to terminate her unborn child yet be charged with child abuse if she takes drugs while pregnant.
- In some states a child cannot legally be given an aspirin without parental permission, yet a pregnant girl can undergo an abortion without informing her parents.
- Various self-proclaimed experts say that our values should depend on our circumstances and perspectives. In higher education the only absolute is that there are no absolutes.
Disintegration of values
Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush and author of several books on values, wrote an article for Ladies' Home Journal, "What's Happened to Our Values?" She warned that Western culture is full of harmful messages, that our values are deteriorating before our eyes (March 1995, p. 70). In a series of television interviews in 1994, she asked questions of other people who had written about values.
In Greenwich Village she interviewed essayist and social philosopher Stanley Crouch. Mr. Crouch, who is black, related to Miss Noonan the world of his youth, black neighborhoods of New York in the 1950s. "Back then, he said, when you waited with your books for the school bus, the old ladies would come by and say, 'You study those books,' and the barbershop was full of guys who'd give you a dollar for every A on your report card. Where are those old ladies and old men now? I asked. They're still there, he said, but they're fighting a losing battle, overwhelmed by cultural forces they cannot control" (p. 72).
Miss Noonan was struck by Mr. Crouch's observations: "On crime: We have 'defined deviancy down'-unable to accept the explosion of crime around us, we have taken refuge in redefining crime, calling it a social ill and hoping that money and good intentions will solve it. On the city in which he grew up: It was a place of hope, a place where, in spite of the Depression, people had a sense of possibility. On the city today: a landscape of broken homes and social pathology" (p.72).
Miss Noonan interviewed Barbara Dafoe Whitehead on the breakup of families. Ms. Whitehead, a "social observer," was the academic who stunned Atlantic Monthly readers with her article "Dan Quayle Was Right." As she undertook the research to write this controversial article about the former vice president's views on the American family, she discovered a world of unspoken data documenting the debilitating effects of divorce.
Ms. Whitehead, who is not divorced, spoke openly of family life in the United States. She noted that 20 years ago Americans began acting as if they had changed their minds about the foundation of family life. "We decided in the 1970s, out of a sense of optimism about the future, that we were going to reengineer family relationships in a way that made them more productive of our own individual satisfactions, and that it was okay to give up on an unhappy marriage and move on. That was a big change in thinking. And the second part was that children would bounce back. That was such a pervasive idea in the literature [of] the 1970s. Well, who would refuse a deal like that? And then, sadder but wiser, we now stand in the 1990s-and we realize that that optimistic scenario hasn't been played out" (Ladies' Home Journal, March, 1995, p. 73).
Television reflects society
Jacquelyn Mitchard, writing for the July 13 TV Guide, asked a question that plagues parents hoping to watch family-oriented television programs with their children: "What happened to the family hour? Eight p.m. used to be a time that brought us all together" (p. 12).
She contrasted '70s shows with telecasts of the '90s. On The Brady Bunch, Greg was afraid to tell his parents he had wrecked their car. On Mad About You, Paul's sister fears telling the folks she's a lesbian. On Happy Days, sharing Coke meant drinking cola through separate straws. On Beverly Hills 90210, sharing coke means snorting an illegal substance through straws.
"What was so great about the best of the family television shows of the past was that they weren't afraid to go beyond surface sentimentality to authentic-and sometimes complicated-feelings like compassion, ambivalence and gentleness" (p. 18).
Neil Postman, professor of communication arts and sciences at New York University, in his bestseller Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues that society is entertaining itself to death. He contrasts the opposing views of Orwell and Huxley, noting that Orwell wrote that our worst nightmare was externally imposed oppression, whereas Huxley's vision predicted that people would come to love their oppression, to adore the devices that would undo their capacity to think (1985, p. vii). We love to be entertained. But at what price do we mortgage our family values?
Robert Rector, senior analyst for welfare and family issues at The Heritage Foundation, writing in National Review July 15, compares religion to penicillin, noting that it is lethal against a wide array of behavioral pathogens. He comments on the irony of progressive thinkers who view religion not as a medicine, but as leprosy from which society must be quarantined. Mr. Rector believes the issue is not merely the purging of religion from public consideration and debate, but the more-critical expansion of the public square in the modern era, displacing the church from its essential roles in education and charity.
But, in spite of efforts to shove it to the sidelines, the church remains America's strongest weapon in the war against family disintegration, crime, drugs and despair among the poor (pp. 32-33). Values-based religion, not just preached but practiced, still influences our society.
Who decides our values?
News commentator Ted Koppel once remarked that when Moses descended Mount Sinai he wasn't carrying with him the Ten Suggestions on the tables of stone. Mr. Koppel's allusion was to the deceptive twin beacons of moral and ethical relativism. The Bible says the Architect and Designer of life presented us with moral and spiritual laws, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Romans 7:14).
Could anyone deny that the Ten Commandments are unique among the codes humans can follow? They define human behavior and morality in a simple way. Would anyone disagree, for example, that a law against murdering another human being was appropriate?
Yet in spite of the obvious morality of the Ten Commandments, many think of them as no longer appropriate, that no single source can determine the validity of values. Since all nations have long since enacted laws against murder, how could anyone say the Sixth Commandment, for example, should not be binding?
The opponents of and arguments against the Ten Commandments are legion. These laws are explained away in every way imaginable.
A classic argument claims that the Ten Commandments were meant only for the ancient Israelites, or that they are part of an "Old Covenant" and therefore long since obsolete. Yet the Bible clearly tells us that these are not Jewish laws, but God's laws for mankind (Exodus 19:7; 20:1; Deuteronomy 5:10; John 14:21; Revelation 22:14).
Some claim that, since several of the Ten Commandments tell people what not to do, they have no place in a world that emphasizes positive self-esteem and attempts to relieve everyone of any kind of responsibility. What some fail to recognize is that God used the "Thou shalt not" approach for eight of the Commandments because He had already witnessed the natural, downward pull of human nature: "Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5).
The apostle Paul wrote that "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-indeed it cannot" (Romans 8:7, New Revised Standard Version). If mankind were naturally inclined to avoid degenerate behavior, God would not have found it necessary to reveal commandments forbidding such harmful actions!
God sets moral standards
God gave us the Ten Commandments because they constitute the highest moral standards. They are absolute-they are perfect-because they are from God. But God created mankind with freedom of choice (Deuteronomy 30:19).
God laments that we often make wrong choices, rejecting His moral absolutes and bringing suffering on ourselves: "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:29).
We can think of the Ten Commandments as a lighthouse shining its trustworthy beam through the dense fog of ethical relativism and pointing the way to a life in harmony with godly principles. King David honored God's commands: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). He lamented that human beings do not naturally look to God's laws as lights to guide their lives: "Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do not keep Your law" (verse 136).
Almighty God carefully designed His eternal values as beacons to benefit us, to protect us from ultimate shipwreck. He instructs mankind how to live, but He leaves us the choice of whether we will follow His way.
God promises to ultimately give all humanity His Spirit so everyone will seek Him by keeping the Ten Commandments, which reflect His divine values. Then those legislators who took issue with the invocatory prayer might feel a little more kindly toward Pastor Wright. After all, he was only trying to shine some light in their paths. Apparently they thought he was blinding them.