The late Allan Bloom wrote in “The Closing of the American Mind” that the contemporary talk of “values” is what is left when society accepts the notion that there is no genuine right or wrong. Moral issues are reduced to matters of personal preference and conviction. My “values” may not match your “values,” but we all must respect each other’s convictions equally in matters of common concern.
The very concept of morality has been undermined by postmodern philosophers who argue that all moral systems are merely relics of the repressive past, put in place by oppressive forces. So, since all truth, including moral claims, is socially constructed, postmodern humans are free to “deconstruct” these moral codes and find “values” within.
The loss of the nation’s moral center has been long in coming. The late Frederick Moore Vinson, a former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, declared before 1950 that “nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are not absolutes.” Coming from one who was then America’s foremost jurist, the statement was a dark prophecy of things to come.
No thinking person can ignore the massive and seemingly insoluble moral debates that plague modern society and frame national debate. When the most basic issues of life – sexuality, family, marriage, and moral responsibility – are up for grabs, the nation has reached a testing point of unprecedented proportions. Given the confusion, only the most radical relativist can celebrate our current state of moral affairs.
The reduction of morality to values was a hallmark of the 1980’s, when progressive educators began pushing this agenda in the public schools. Throughout the educational world, “values clarification” exercises became the order of the day, with children and teenagers encouraged to invent their own individualistic systems of morality and to “develop” their own values. Since these are individually determined, no one can be right and no one can be wrong. We can already see the moral damage inflicted by those students who were taught to doubt or defy traditional morality. A generation raised in the incubator of moral relativism is groping for enduring truth in the moral wilderness.
Where does this lead? To moral decay, even within the church. A sex education program produced a few years ago by a major mainline Protestant denomination urged parents to respect the values of their young children, and to accept the fact that these may differ from their own. The material prepared for adolescents offered suggestions for dealing with parents whose values may seem too restrictive or outdated. The curriculum insulted and rejected the moral convictions of parents and urged teenagers to understand that their parents might well be hampered by hang-ups with sex.
When all talk is of values, it is obviously of little real moral value. Morality revealed in the Bible is not a matter of mere personal values, it is the authoritative instruction for the moral life as defined by our Creator. Christ, the prophets, and the apostles did not instruct God’s people to look within for a moral code but to follow the explicit moral commandments revealed in God’s Word. King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 14:12 “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
American Christians do not serve society well by receding into the moral background. The answer cannot be found in an assumption of secular norms or in the shared conviction that no common moral convictions are possible. We cannot accept the reduction of morality to values, though we do understand that a true system of morality produces real values, and puts value on that which is right, righteous, and just. If the Christian church does not take the moral high ground we will leave a secular society groping for values without Christian moral witness.
The most urgent moral issues we face are really spiritual issues – the refusal to accept God’s definitions of marriage, the refusal to defend the dignity of human life, the rejection of the Creator’s right to define our own existence. Christians cannot hide from these battles. We must respond with a note of clear, uncompromising, and unambiguous moral conviction.
The word “sin” has been ruled out of bounds for civilized debate. Once God is removed from the cultural equation, sin no longer makes sense. Human beings may offend each other, or even assault each other – but sin only makes sense against the revealed background of God’s perfect holiness. Christians cannot hesitate to identify the problems of our times as sin, but we must wonder how popular culture can live without that category.
If sin is defined in this debate as a mere violation of individual values, the word has lost its Biblical meaning. Sin has meaning only when seen in the blinding right of a Holy God, against whom all have sinned. Christian churches have been afforded an opportunity they must not squander. The gospel itself calls for moral witness. The church must be on the front lines of the moral crisis with a boldness to speak the truth in love – the only genuine value.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “When Morals are Reduced to Values”