SOUDER: Losing true north: America’s broken moral compass

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It seems like we don't have our bearings.

By Chuck Souder

Little Johnny’s third-grade teacher asked, “Johnny, how do you spell crocodile?”

Johnny thought for a moment and then began, “K-R-O-K-O-D-I-A-L”.

“That’s not the way crocodile is spelled,” Johnny’s teacher corrected.

“Maybe not,” replied Johnny, “but you asked me how I spell it!”

Unfortunately, little Johnny isn’t the only one who thinks like that. As New York Timescolumnist David Brooks reported last week, according to a recent study by sociologist Christian Smith and his team, most 18-to 23-year-olds in America base their ideas about right and wrong on simply how they feel about it at the moment. Compounding the problem, the study showed that they have trouble even thinking in terms of morality at all.

Consider these excerpts from Brooks’ column:

“When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all…”

“When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. ‘I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,’ is how one interviewee put it. The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. ‘It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’

As one put it, ‘I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.’”

While discouraging, the results of the study shouldn’t be surprising. What these young people are expressing is the logical result of what they have been taught.

For the last several decades, there has been a concerted effort to do away with the “old-fashioned” ideas of Judeo-Christian morality and standards that are rooted in something beyond ourselves.

Also commenting on the study, columnist Dennis Prager said, “With the death of Judeo-Christian-God-based standards, people have simply substituted feelings for those standards. Millions of American young people have been raised by parents and schools with ‘How do you feel about it?’ as the only guide to what they ought to do. The heart has replaced God and the Bible as a moral guide.”

Earlier in his column, Pragerwrote these provocative (but true) words: “If moral standards are not rooted in God, they do not objectively exist. Good and evil are no more real than ‘yummy’ and ‘yucky.’ They are simply a matter of personal preference.”

It is ironic that Brooks’ column appeared in the Timeso n Sept. 12, because it confirms the point of my last column – that without a Judeo-Christian perspective, there is no way to understand what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 – and no logical basis to even talk about the concepts of good and evil and self-sacrifice.

This is not to say that only Christians can be moral, or that only Christians can be selfless. But it is to say that, apart from God, the very concepts of right and wrong – or good and evil – cannot logically exist.

If there is no objective standard, then who is to say that what happened on 9/11 was wrong?

In addition, without a biblical worldview there is no logical reason for the strong to sacrifice themselves for the weak, as so many did on 9/11 (and throughout history). In fact, Richard Rorty, a foremost liberal philosopher and an atheist, acknowledged that for the secular liberal, "There is no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'"

Brooks ends his column this way: “Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.”

In response, Prager ends his column with an illustration of another logical outcome of this way of thinking: “Forty years ago, I began writing and lecturing about this problem. It was then that I began asking students if they would save their dog or a stranger first if both were drowning. The majority always voted against the stranger – because, they explained, they loved their dog and they didn't love the stranger.

“They followed their feelings. Without God and Judeo-Christian religions, what else is there?”

The danger, of course, is that so often our feelings mislead us.

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things…,” and Proverbs 14:12 warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”

In the blockbuster movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, among three possessions that Capt. Jack Sparrow prizes is an old compass. In the course of the movie, more than once someone tries to discard the compass, noting with mocking disdain that it doesn’t even point north. Only later do we discover that it is a magic compass, pointing to whatever the owner wants most.

One of the first times it comes into play is when the heroes are searching for the mysterious Isla de Muerta, which is not found on any map.

Will Turner asks, "How can we sail to an island that nobody can find, with a compass that doesn't work?"

Sparrow’s first mate replies, "Aye, the compass doesn't point north, but we're not trying to find north, are we?"

Using your heart as your moral compass will inevitably work the same way: it will lead you where you really wanted to go in the first place.

But though it worked for Capt. Jack, your story is unlikely to have a happy ending.


Chuck Souder is on staff at Shelby Christian Church. He can be reached at csouder@shelbychristian.org.