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The Conservative Curmudgeon
December 26, 2008

Ignorance of Religious Traditions Accompanies America’s Ethical Decline
by Allan C. Brownfeld

More and more, the concept of ethics in Congress, business, and other areas of our society seems to be an oxymoron.

Sadly, young people, observing the behavior of their elders, are exhibiting precisely the same sort of indifference to traditional moral and ethical standards. For example, in the past year, 30 percent of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64 percent have cheated on a test, according to a new, large-scale survey.

The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at l00 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. Michael Josephson, the institute’s founder and president, said he was most dismayed by the findings about theft. The survey found that 35 percent of boys and 26 percent of girls acknowledged stealing from a store within the past year. One-fifth said they stole from a friend; 23 percent stole from a parent or other relative.

“What is the social cost of that, not to mention the implication for the next generation of mortgage broker?” Mr. Josephson said. “In a society drenched with cynicism, young people can look at it and say ‘Why shouldn't we? Everyone else does it.’”

Other findings include:
1. Cheating in school is rampant and getting worse. Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year, and 38 percent did so two or more times, up from 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively, in a 2006 survey.

2. Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33 percent in 2004.

Despite such responses, 93 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent affirmed that, “When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”

Iris Murdoch, in Metaphysics As a Guide To Morals, wrote: “The child... who is led by his observation to conclude that ‘Do not lie’ is part of an espionage system directed against himself, since the prohibition obviously means nothing to his elders, is being misled concerning the crucial position of truth in human life.”

This flexibility toward the truth shows later in life. According to a recent study conducted by Who’s Who Among High School Students, 78 percent of the high school students polled say they have cheated. Paul Krouse, the publisher, said, “There certainly has to be a breakdown in the ethics and integrity of young people probably mirrors the society they are living in.”

To deal with the ethics breakdown, the U.S. Marine Corps has added a “value training” course to its boot camp curriculum. One senior Marine officer summed up the situation: “The communities (new recruits) are coming from have put less emphasis on ethical standards and these kinds of core values we want to see... They’re not teaching values in schools. They’re not learning it from church members to the extent they used to. So there is a need that must be stressed in values-based education.”

A decade ago, when Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) was sentenced to l7 months in prison after pleading guilty to defrauding Congress of $636,000 in an illegal payroll scam, U.S. Attorney Thomas Motley called it a “scheme to defraud the U.S. that stretched over more than 20 years.” The judge in the case, Norma Holloway Johnson, said that, “When I think of your case... the one phrase that comes to mind is betrayal of trust.” Yet, when Rostenkowski responded, he said: “Having pled guilty, I do not believe that I am different from the vast majority of members of Congress.” Recent examples of congressional corruption indicate that Rostenkowski may have had a point.

One important reason, perhaps the important reason, for the breakdown in our society that is evident all around us is the fact that we have entered an era of moral relativism in which we hesitate to declare any action wrong and immoral or to
confront the existence of evil. Will Herberg, theologian and author of the well-known volume, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, stated: “...[T]he really serious threat to morality in our time consists not in the multiplying violations of an accepted moral code, but in the fact that the very notion of morality or a moral code seems to be itself losing its meaning.... It is here that we find a breakdown of morality in a radical sense, in a sense almost without precedent in our Western society.”

The decline of religion in our society has been recorded by Professor Stephen Prothero, chairman of the department of Religion at Boston University, in his book Religious Literacy. In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, only a tiny portion of them know anything about religion. When he began college teaching l7 years ago, Prothero writes, he discovered that few of his students could name the authors of the Christian Gospels. Fewer could name a single Hindu Scripture. Almost no one could name the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

“During the l930s,” wrotes Prothero, “the neo-orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr skewered liberal Protestants for preaching ‘a God without wrath (who) brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’ But my students’ ‘dogma aversion’ (as one put it) goes liberal Protestantism one further. These young people aren’t just allergic to dogma. They are allergic to divinity and even heaven. In the religions of their imagining, God is an afterthought at best. And the afterlife is, as one of my students told me, ‘on the back burner.’ What my students long for is not salvation after they die but happiness... here and now. They want less stress and more sleep.”

The disconnect between young Americans and their religious tradition is, in Prothero’s view, a subject about which all of us should be concerned. He hopes that Americans will have enough religious knowledge to debate ethics positions using holy texts, to understand Biblical references in political speeches, to question their own beliefs about God, and to encourage others to question theirs. He faults priests, rabbis, imams, and ministers for not engaging the younger generation. “Far too often,” he declares, “religious services in the U.S. are of the adults, by the adults, and for the adults. And don’t think young people aren’t noticing.”

The connection between our ethical decline and the growing ignorance of our religious traditions is a subject to which our religious leaders, and not only our religious leaders, should turn their attention.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 2008 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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