It is often lamented that our public schools and universities no longer teach virtue to their students. But that is not really the case. Most students in America today have had the virtues of tolerance, environmentalism, egalitarianism, and multiculturalism instilled in them since before they could read. They have also been assured that smoking is the greatest personal vice of the modern age. And these virtues have not been taught to them in a passive way. On the contrary, they have been beaten into them with a single-minded earnestness that makes Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” seem tame in comparison.
The reason for this earnestness is not hard to discern. Whether or not Aristotle was right to define us as political animals, it is certain that we are moral ones. We know instinctively that we should live a certain way and that transcendent standards of good and evil exist and are binding. The fact that we continually violate those standards does not take away from the fact that they are written on our consciences and cannot be ignored or effaced. We know, whether we want to admit it or not, that certain actions, behaviors, and lifestyles are sinful.
And therein lies the problem. Increasingly since the 1960s our country has sought to free itself from all sexual prohibitions; to redefine our roles and duties within the family, the church, and the community; and to indulge in unrestrained consumerism. Those who would promote such a re-envisioning of traditional standards inevitably run up against the intractability of our ingrained moral sense. Our consciences balk at the establishment of a values-free society. As “nature abhors a vacuum,” so human nature abhors a moral vacuum.
In response, the elite social engineers who would usher us into a brave new utopia purged of all “medieval” notions of right and wrong have fashioned a seemingly foolproof system for hoodwinking the human conscience. Rather than announce the death of “bourgeois” moral standards, they provide us with substitute moralities that satisfy our need for standards while leaving us free to reinvent the values and institutions upon which civilization was built.
Don’t worry if that still small voice within your breast tells you that your sexual behavior is sinful or that you are a narcissist driven by greed and envy; just read some minority literature, recycle a few cans, and quit smoking, and the voice will go away. Is something convicting you to take a stand against the semi-pornographic literature taught at your local middle school? Relax! Sign a petition against global warming and indulge in phony outrage against any politician who makes a statement that could be construed as racist or sexist. That should cure you of any inner compulsion to fulfill your civic duty. And when all else fails, remember that the easiest way to justify your own indulgence in sin is to graciously tolerate the sins of your neighbors.
Two decades before the sexual revolution began to unmoor Americans from traditional moral and ethical standards, C. S. Lewis warned against this devil’s game of misdirection. Indeed, he suggested that the game was quite literally devilish in its nature and intent. In The Screwtape Letters, he allows us to eavesdrop on the infernal correspondence between a senior devil named Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. In Letter XXV, the experienced uncle explains to his neophyte nephew that one of Satan’s greatest and most effective strategies for preventing real virtue from taking hold is to
direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.
To illustrate his point, Screwtape maps out for Wormwood the proper strategy for dealing with an age that, like the first-century church of Laodicea, has grown lukewarm and worldly. Given that the inhabitants of such a tepid, apathetic age can only be restored to Christian service and obedience through an outbreak of spiritual revival, the devils must convince them of the “dangers” of enthusiasm. You can do anything you want, the devils must assure the people, as long as you don’t become too zealous—as long as you don’t become (God forbid) “fanatics.”