You are in: Coloured
Supplements » Letter from America (March 1999)
Letter from America by David Holloway
In the manner of the BBC's inimitable Alistair Cooke a number try their hand at a "Letter from America". Here is my offering after a short visit to the United States in mid-February and in the wake of the impeachment acquittal of President Clinton.
Currently there are two important stories in this economically successful nation - one is about moral decadence, but a second is about signs of a moral renaissance. I shall begin with the second story.
As in Europe many Christians in the US and even non-Christian commentators have documented, with varying degrees of despair, the moral decline since the 1960's - soaring crime, teenage pregnancies, an abortion tidal wave, rising fatherlessness, ruined cities and ruined schools.
But now some are celebrating signs of change. So Karl Zinsmeister writes:
very recently, some remarkable and encouraging developments have taken place. Many of the social trend lines that turned ugly in the 60's and 70's have begun to level off and even retreat, in many cases to their lowest levels in two or three decades.
And there is a change in attitude. Many are now edging their way back to what has been described as "tradition, moderation, and sanity." Also importantly strong majorities now place "reversing moral decline" as their highest priority for the nation, higher than any economic, foreign, or other domestic issue. Now 62 percent think that "a let-down in moral values" is one of the "major causes of our problems today." And to the question: "which worries you more - that the country will become too tolerant of behaviours that are bad for society or that the country will become too intolerant of behaviours that don't do any real harm to society?" While 6 percent have no opinion, 66 percent say they are more worried by too much tolerance; only 28 percent by too much intolerance.
For some time there has been a general awareness that the US murder rate is less than that in some areas of Europe (such as in Holland); and also that in some areas like New York zero-tolerance policing has had a profound effect. Today it is one of the safest cities in the US after being one of the worst.
It is only now, however, that publicity is being given to these other facts - that in America the divorce rate is down 19 percent since 1981; the birth rate for unmarried teenagers is down 7.5 percent since 1994; abortion is down 15.3 percent since 1990; and even crime is down.
It was General Douglas MacArthur who once wrote:
history fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into a political and economic decline. There has either been a spiritual awakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration to ultimate national disaster.
So it is a reasonable question to ask whether God's hand is in this turn around. For it follows the work of Christians in the 1980's and 1990's who both evangelised and, often against the odds and in the face of much abuse, stood up in the Public Square for biblical truth and biblical standards.
But there is another story. The concerns of the general public are one thing. Those of the cultural elites that control education and the media are quite another. In some ways America is sicker than ever. Princeton University, we are told, recently offered an Ethics chair to a philosopher who "defends infanticide and argues against making moral distinctions between humans and fleas." And there has just been produced the first mainstream Hollywood film presenting a sympathetic view of paedophilia - Todd Solondz' Happiness.
Then there is Bill Clinton and his sexual saga. All now know that Clinton lied. "The dress" proved he was lying when he pointed his finger at a TV camera and said to the US nation, and the world, that he did not have sex with "that woman ... Miss Lewinsky [a girl the age of his daughter]." What, however, has surprised many commentators are the people who stood by Clinton. These were, says Danielle Crittenden, the very "people you thought would be shocked - feminists, soccer moms, little old ladies." And the sad result of that, according to Dennis Prager, a radio show host, is that ...
... millions of American men have now been told that millions of American women do not view extra-marital sex as particularly troubling. UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Marmer told me that some of his male patients have said that thanks to women's passionate support of Clinton, they feel much freer to fool around.
So what has been going on? How does this fit in with a moral renaissance?
Dr James Dobson
Dr James Dobson, the Christian paediatrician and founder of Focus on the Family talks about a "barrage of sound bites designed to deny, mislead, and confuse the public." He says since the spring and summer of 1998 the media's "spin" has manipulated the public and tried to intimidate the Congress. Americans, he says, were told almost every day some of the following:
Paula Jones is lying; Paula Jones is white trash; Linda Tripp has broken the law; Ken Starr has wasted $40 million of our tax dollars; if we were to impeach members of Congress for infidelity there wouldn't be anyone left in Washington; this is just a witch-hunt by Ken Starr; it's a private matter that's none of our business; it's just about sex; Congress should get back to the nation's business; I (the President) have to get back to doing the job the American people asked me to do; everyone does it; and finally when the facts became undeniable, this offence doesn't rise to the level of impeachment; the American people want this ended; the American people don't care; the American people think Clinton has done a wonderful job; the American people voted for Clinton twice and now Congress wants to overturn the election.
All this was in sharp contrast, argues Dobson, to what happened two years earlier when there was an attempt to overturn the President's veto of a bill to ban partial-birth abortions - abortions of un-anaesthetized, late-term babies described as "murder during delivery". This failed by nine votes (and it failed again in 1998). But the public were not constantly told then in 1996 on Radio and TV that 71 percent wanted their legislators to prohibit late-term abortions. The media were not using poll data then to show that the President had defied the will of the people! And it is the same with a number of other issues, he says. For example, 72 percent want school choice.
James Dobson's conclusion is that "considering the effectiveness of the spin machine these past 13 months, it is remarkable that Republicans in the House had the courage to stand on their principles."
The cultural elites in the US (as in the UK) - and that includes those who control the media - according to the polling data are considerably more permissive morally than the generality of the public. But as these elites shape public values, you now have the situation of apparent public support for immorality while privately there is more opposition. For example, 70 percent of modern men think that homosexual sex is always or nearly always wrong. But a significant number think that it is wrong to give expression to that view in public and others that it should never be mandated as a principle for others. Morality, it is felt, is something very private. It is irrelevant in the Public Square. Such has been the persuasiveness of the cultural elites. So US legislators, as in the UK, support sexual deviancy while most think it wrong. Such are the times in which we live.
Some Christians are getting weary and depressed. But Chuck Coulson, the converted former Nixon aide of Watergate fame, says, "No!" Now is not the time to throw in the towel. He not only is encouraged by these new statistics suggesting moral change. He also believes that the 21st century presents Christians with a new opportunity. He notes the failure of the 20th century's idols - its ideologies - "communism, socialism, nazism, liberalism, humanism, scientism ... The only remaining "ism" is post-modernism, which is not an ideology but a repudiation of all ideologies. Its relativism is the admission that every attempt to construct a comprehensive, utopian world-view has failed. It is a formalized expression of despair. Only one compelling claim to transcendent truth remains, one secure hope: Christianity."
That is why Chuck Coulson on this point agrees with John Paul II who is claiming that the year 2000 will usher in "a great springtime for Christianity."
Not all Americans agree. There are still doom merchants. But there are significant signs of hope.