As the United States begins gearing up for another presidential election, its citizens turn their attention to the examination of individual and national values that are part of the process. Each candidate strives to capture a majority of the electorate's attention through his or her assessment of current conditions and thoughts about how to improve our country.
History teaches us that this political process is sure to generate a lot of ideas-many of them in direct conflict with each other.
But just what is the significance of thinking and trends in the United States and its leadership? As the leader of the free world, what happens in the United States inevitably affects the rest of the world to some degree. Its thinking, trends and culture seem to invariably filter down to other countries around the globe.
So where is the United States headed and how can we measure its progress? Though most people are accustomed to measuring nations by their financial conditions (gross national product, imports, exports, taxes, cost of living indices, inflation, interest rates) and sociological conditions (human rights, personal freedoms, democratic structure, respect for minorities), the Bible reveals another broader and more accurate indicator of the condition of a nation and its people.
Some 3,500 years ago, in working with ancient Israel, God revealed an important principle that identifies true international leadership. To these people, described as examples for us (1 Corinthians 10:1-11), God said: "Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And the LORD will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them" (Deuteronomy 28:1,13).
What Is Morality?
Doing what God says is a moral issue. Though some may think of morality as simply an indicator of sexual values, morality is actually a much larger concept in that it encompasses allbehavior. Moral conduct means that one adheres and conforms to standards of right and wrong. Synonyms include ethics and righteousness.
But most people have rejected God's commandments as the eternal standards for human behavior. Some of the people most vilified in the mass media are those maligned as wanting to "impose their [actually God's] morality" on everyone else.
In deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, most people have followed the path of self-determination introduced to humanity by Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). Biblical morality, however, is based on God'sstandards-not the ever-shifting vagaries of human experience and reasoning. Godly morality identifies righteous individuals. The greater the morality of its citizens, the greater the morality and international stature of a nation.
Jesus Christ spoke of two great commandments-loving God and loving our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). When we consider the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), it becomes readily apparent that the first four of the ten embody the first great commandment of loving God. The last six teach us how to demonstrate love for our neighbors.
Using these two great commands, how does the morality of the United States measure up?
The United States has been described as a unique nation in that it has both one of the highest levels of formal education in the world as well as one of the highest levels of religious faith. This view mirrors the observation by the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who upon visiting the United States in the mid-1800s, observed that the strength of America could be found in its churches. But what about today? Is the United States still a moral nation?
A Snapshot of United States Morality
Much like the cacophony of ideas in a presidential race, United States morality today is a bewildering array of conflicting values and trends.
Polls tell us that most United States citizens believe in and pray to God-but church attendance is declining. Many now believe they can have a relationship with God on theirterms-that is, they can attend a church if they want, but they don't feel compelled to do so? Christianity is not viewed as a battle to be fought and won, but rather an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the victory.
In a similar vein, many feel they can select their own religious customs and forms of worship. This rapidly growing phenomenon has been described as "cafeteria Christianity," or, as one observer put it, "the Religion of the Sovereign Self" (World, July 17, 1993).
This self-oriented view of Christianity sees Jesus as a liberator of standards and rules. Some go so far as to portray Him as freeing mankind from a need to respect or adhere to the Ten Commandments. In the U.S., many hold the view that Jesus is there to forgive everything, so they are not really all that concerned with commandment keeping.
This incongruent idea-belief that one can love God while rejecting His commands-is illustrated in a recent report on Israeli Jews. "Considering religious observances to be part of their national identity, 90 percent of Israeli Jews take part in the traditional passover meal. Some 66 percent of Israeli Jews regard the Ten Commandments as valid, but 75 percent don't think God will punish those who break them. Though it seems contradictory to a Western mindset, many Israelis are quite serious about maintaining the continuity of their Jewish heritage even though they have no intention of obeying its rules personally" (Religion Watch, January 1997, page 8). Religion, for many, has become form without substance.
But even with the confusing array of ideas that can be found within Christianity today, many recognize a growing hunger, especially among aging baby-boomers now in their 40s and 50s, to return to traditional roots. Will such motivation lead to a return to higher morality? Only time will tell.
Let's now consider a few more areas by which we can gauge the nation's morality.
Crime: Is it Improving and Why?
Perhaps no subject has been so universally accepted in the United States as the "get tough on crime" movement. Politicians duel it out in television ads over which candidate or political party is tougher on crime. In recent years the death penalty has been reinstated in many states and the prison population is at a record level-a staggering 1.2 million.The result is that the number of violent crimes has been declining.
The question we should ask is whether this drop is due to increasing moral and legal behavior or simply because more habitual felons are now behind bars due to tougher sentencing laws and an enormously expensive prison-building binge.
Demographic factors-smaller numbers of young people of the age range most prone to commit crimes (late teens and early 20s) and baby boomers who are finally growing up and acting responsibly-have also dramatically affected crime rates.
The Family-Values Debate
Virtually all of our politicians describe themselves as "pro-family." After all, it makes a great sound bite for television. Now the term familyis used in so many ways that most people have no idea what a candidate means when he uses the term.
Since some use family to describe any and all living arrangements, the term has become meaningless unless one explicitly defines what he or she believes a family is. Since defining family is a controversial issue that can potentially anger voters who don't hold traditional views, some running for office are deliberately vague. Other candidates, noting trends that reflect a growing desire for traditional families, are more likely to address this issue.
Even though a small segment of our society is pushing to redefine families, others are staunchly defending traditional values. A new Gallup Youth Survey "shows that the majority of American teens still live in a nuclear household: a dad, a mom, siblings, and a pet or two. Most Americans would like this model to continue to be regarded as the ideal." Additionally, "There are strong signs that Americans are girding up to correct the problem of father absence and inattention. There is now broad support for a strong father role in the family" (Current Thoughts and Trends, March 1999, review of "Report on the status of fatherhood in the United States," George Gallup Jr., Emerging Trends, September 1998, Volume 20, No. 7, pages 3-5).
Along similar lines, family and consumer sciences (previously called home economics) is now making a comeback at institutions of higher learning. In explaining this phenomenon, education professor Wanda Fox observed: "For a while, society placed less value on family life and became very career- and business-oriented. Now we're realizing that we need both. These classes focus on decision-making skills, career planning, consumer economics, balancing work and family" (Psychology Today, January-February 1999, page 13).
The Abortion Debate
One of the best indicators of our society's immoral emphasis on personal pleasure over respect for life and biblical instruction has been the increasing number of abortions performed each year. Now, even this trend appears to be reversing. "Although about 25 percent of all pregnancies in the United States end in abortion, the 1990s have seen a dramatic drop in the practice. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which is closely aligned with Planned Parenthood, the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 is at its lowest in 20 years" (Current Thoughts and Trends,March 1999, page 13, report of Pastor's Weekly Briefing,January 8, 1999, page 1).
National attitudes are also echoing the numerical decline in abortions. "Another sign of slippage in support for abortion shows up in UCLA's annual national survey of the attitudes of college freshmen. Support for legal abortion dropped for the sixth straight year. In 1990 it was 64.9 percent. Now it is a bare majority, 50.9 percent" (U.S. News & World Report,"The joy of sexual values" by John Leo, March 1, 1999, page 13).
Leo identifies a number of factors influencing this trend. They include the gruesome details that came to light in recent debates over partial-birth abortions, more conservative attitudes toward premarital sex, the unwanted penalties of the sexual revolution, and a growing respect for religion. Now "only 37 percent of Americans think premarital sex is acceptable" (ibid.).
In contrast to other positive trends, the morality of United States leadership is shameful. The ancient prophet Isaiah's lament, "O My people! Those who lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your paths" (Isaiah 3:12), is true again today. While the media has bombarded us with the details of the United States president's extra-marital affairs and lying under oath to obstruct a sexual-harassment lawsuit, few understand the implications behind our nation's willingness to overlook these immoral actions and allow him to remain in office.
Though impeached in the House of Representatives, the country's senior legislative body, the Senate, bowed to polls showing the American public wanted them to look the other way. The president's defenders rationalized that although the president acted irresponsibly, his actions were not impeachable. The White House put its spin on the events by telling the public that it should focus on the nation's economic prosperity and overlook the president's behavior, which was strictly a personal matter that didn't affect his job performance.
Sadly, this reasoning apparently swayed the majority of citizens. They don't seem to realize that history records a number of leaders who, though immoral, brought temporary economic prosperity to their peoples. Bible prophecy tells us that people will fall for this same reasoning-prosperity at the expense of morality-from an end-time economic system called "Babylon the Great" (Revelation 18).
Commenting on the effects of this presidential morality debacle, psychologist and family adviser James Dobson noted that our people collectively have compromised on an issue of major moral significance. He explained: "Change occurs in a crisis.... When you go through a very emotional and difficult time, you come out of it different than you came in. I think the turmoil that has engulfed our nation in the past 12 months has had a profound effect on American culture" (Insight,"Dobson on Cultural Crisis," by James P. Lucier, February 8, 1999, page 45).
While many Americans appear to be shifting toward more conservative views on social issues, at the same time they apparently have become more tolerant and accepting of immoral behavior in others. Why this conundrum? Perhaps it is because those who practice immoral behavior constantly defend themselves by attacking others who disagree with their immoral lifestyles. Consequently, those who publicly advocate biblical values are ridiculed and portrayed as hypocrites and backward, self-righteous bigots.
The message that has permeated our nation is that we must not judge the behavior of others, that we must remain silent in the presence of immoral behavior. Yet societies ultimately pay a heavy price for such passive acceptance of evil. When we fail to confront evil, it inevitably overcomes us. There is a cause for every effect. As the proverb says, "the curse does not come without a cause" (Proverbs 26:2, Bible in Basic English).
Standing in the Crossroads
So what is the future for the United States in light of its moral quandary? Where does the nation currently stand? Just as in Isaiah's day, there are some who do not see or understand what is happening (Isaiah 44:18). Of these same blinded people, Daniel explains that they simply cannot understand (Daniel 12:10).
Others, having deeper insight, perceive that the nation finds itself in a precarious position facing difficult and profoundly significant choices. Given that impending challenge, some believe the nation is positioned for a great religious reawakening. Such an event is possible. God does hear when people repent (Jeremiah 18:8; 26:13) and history records times when there were significant reversals of social decline.
Christ's statements to His disciples of spiritual fields ready for harvest (Matthew 9:37-38; John 4:35) are eminently applicable. The United States is in dire need of the biblical truths that show its citizens how to live moral lives.
The United Church of God is striving to proclaim this message of hope, not only for the citizens of the United States but for the people of all nations. Everyone needs to understand the benefits of living according to God's instructions. We look forward to the day when all countries and their citizens will practice godly morality. WNP