The Veith title and the essay itself is based on the work of Robert Putnam, "a very important social scientist", who has written a new book called Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. It deals in part with what happens to a society that refuses to hold anyone else to a moral standard. The collapse of moral standards (in the face of unwillingness to call out bad behavior and set expectations for good behavior) is causing a crisis among families. We do feel sympathy for latchkey kids, abused kids, families split, drug culture ruining lives. NY Times columnist David Brooks opined about "Our Kids",
But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.
Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
I am familiar with Putnam's work, most notably his 2001 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
Six months ago I referenced Putnam's earlier work from Bowling Alone in a blog essay, Churching Alone: The Collapse of American Churches. I'd written about the lack of a thriving biblical presence in communities, the Christian parallel to what Putnam had been saying about civic responsibility in his 2001 book. However, his new book "Our Kids" actually touches on the Christian relativism, 'judge not' mentality problem even more insightfully, albeit unknowingly. There IS a cost to relativism that affects both the secular society AND the biblical church. Let's see from the bible what the cost to the church is when it sinks into 'non-judgmentalism.'
We see that clearly in the letter from Jesus to the Church at Thyatira. The church there had refused to set moral, biblical standards. Jesus was angry that they were tolerating sin. They were too tolerant, just like the 'judge not!' crowd screeches at the Christian who attempts to set biblical standards of morality. We all know Jesus did not mean for that to become a cover for their own immoral behavior.
The problem at Thyatira was that they were tolerating a false prophetess. They were tolerant. This false prophetess, metaphorically named Jezebel, was declared to be leading the Thyatirans to idolatry, apostasy and infidelity (of the Lord).
Being busy, serving, loving, and persevering is not enough, if sin is allowed to take hold. The situation was so serious, Jesus promised that unless the Jezebel false prophetess repented and her followers with her, He would --
--throw her onto a sickbed,
--and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation,
--and I will strike her children dead. (Revelation 2:20-23)
THAT is how seriously Jesus takes sin in the church. Tolerant love is no love at all, if it includes allowing false wolves to lead people away from Jesus.
Within the church, failure to set a moral standard based on His word brings death, either through the wages of sin or via direct intervention from Jesus. Outside the church, even secular people wonder about the long-term effects of a general lack of agreed-upon moral standards, as Mr Brooks stated in his NY Times article here,
People sometimes wonder why I’ve taken this column in a spiritual and moral direction of late. It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate, unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.
Yet of late, the rapid decline in morality has occurred precisely because of a general refusal- in the church and out- to define morality and to stick by the standards. It must be acknowledged that in order to function effectively, a society needs to have moral standards, and these standards need to be agreed upon. Where does on obtain a moral standard? They ALL originally came from God.
At no time in any epoch and at no place upon the earth did all people ever agree on the truth...but enough people agreed so that the false ones felt pressure to conform at least superficially to the moral standards the bulk of society lived out. Now, since no one agrees even upon the basics, such as 'what is marriage?', it's a free-for-all.
Yes, failure to "judge" immoral behavior in the church angers Jesus. That was a problem in Corinth. Paul charged the Corinthians for failing to specifically articulate a moral standard about incest and adultery. A man had his father's wife, and all the church AND the pagans knew it. (1 Corinthians 5:1). The Corinthians did 'not judge,' and the problem grew scandalous and destroyed their witness. Failure to live by Christian boundaries then leaks over into the world, where even the peer pressure to even pretend to be moral declines and eventually evaporates. Pretty soon, the tipping point is reached where no one will stand up for any standard at all, and all is deemed good and acceptable.
We are called to be a holy people so as to be pure for Jesus and to be an example to the people of the world. (Romans 11:13-16; 1 Corinthians 10:33). A young Christian lady who does not sleep with her boyfriend is committing a moral act, all the brighter for the darkness that surrounds her. A married Christian man who doesn't look at porn, or tell dirty jokes at work, is committing a moral act. Couples who stay together and do not divorce are performing a radical, moral act.
In a healthy society, social morality is comparatively "thick." One consequence of the cultural revolution of the 1960s was a weakening, a thinning out, of social morality. The result is that the standards of right and wrong are reduced to the minimalist test of whether a particular action is legal. This is an unthinkable degradation of standards from the America of earlier periods, when society assumed that an individual's moral responsibilities encompassed far more than merely observing the law. The decline in social morality and the rise of legalism are illustrated in Figure 1.2 below. (Source)
Christians who speak out against sins like fornication, homosexuality, divorce, gossip, anger, impetuousness, fiscal irresponsibility ... are doing Christ's work by pointing to His moral lines He has set. Further, as Putnam said, we need a moral vocabulary. In the Christian world, call sin as sin, not a mistake, or a stumble. It is up to us to set the lines and stay behind them, because we know where they are.
Holly Hunter's character Jane Craig said to William Hurt's character Tom Grunick in the movie Broadcast News, when Tom breached ethics and faked a news spot, "You crossed the line!" Grunick responded,
"It's hard not to cross it--they keep moving the little sucker, don't they?"
Non-Christians are confused as to what morality is and what a moral life lived out looks like. The takeaway for us is:
--we have an absolute line, it does not move nor does it change with the culture. Share it.
--call sin what it is: sin
--call it out in the church. When Ananias and Sapphira were killed by Jesus on the spot for being hypocrites and liars, all who heard of it feared greatly. The church grew. (Acts 5:1-10, Acts 6:1). Paul opposed Peter to his face. (Galatians 2:11). Peter called out Simon the magician and exhorted him to repent. (Acts 8:20).
--live morally in the world. We are meant to be the Light in the world, our own sin and non-judgmental tolerance doesn't help anyone. Tolerating sin dims our Light.
Non-judgmentalism has a cost. Yes, we are living in a time that is pretty bad, morally speaking. Perhaps even worse than the well known immorality of the Corinthians lived among. There was a line that even the pagans didn't cross, that the Corinthians tolerated,
"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife." (1 Corinthians 5:1)
I say worse, because it seems that we tolerate that kind of thing pretty well now. We also have the world's first three-way gay marriage, government approval of three-person genetic babies, polyamorous parenting, and more. Again, as Mr Brooks said in his review of Putnam's book,
The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens...They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another.
Christians, ASSERT. One way of behaving IS better than another, and it's better because one way of behaving pleases God more than another. We know the line, we know the standards, we have the vocabulary. Do not fall into the pit of non-judgmentalism. Someone's soul could depend on being honest, clear, and forthright about right and wrong, morality and immorality. His word is the benchmark, the line, the standard of morality and every good thing. See the 'if-then' statement of Proverbs-
My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and equity, every good path;
10 for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
(Proverbs 2:1-2, 9-10)