The Baghdad prison abuse scandal should serve as a warning to Americans that something has gone terribly awry in our society. Political talk shows and news columns this week are all about whether or not the top commandersperhaps even all the way up to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld--should be fired. These are important conversations, but they avoid a sickening fact: As a society, we are raising too many children who dont understand the difference between plain right and wrong. Otherwise, we wouldnt have U.S. soldiers committing such crimes.When I first saw the photos, like the overwhelming majority of Americans, I was shocked and horrified. The feelings of outrage were intensified by the fact that the perpetrators were American soldiers. How could American boys and girls do things so contrary for all we stand for in the world?
As I struggled to answer that question in my own mind and heart, I was reminded of a little book called The Abolition of Man written in 1947 by C.S. Lewis, the British author and social commentator. Responding to a textbook that introduced subjective and relativist values into post-war British schools, Lewis defended traditional Judeo-Christian morality.
Lewis explained that in the properly ordered composition of a human being, the head (the intellect) ruled the belly (the visceral appetites) through the chest. Lewis defined the chest as the higher emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments or character. Lewis went on to argue that the higher emotions of the chestin essence, the workings of the heart--were the essential liaison between the cerebral and the sensual. Without the chest, human beings become self-idolatrous worshipers of their own minds and their own appetites.
C. S. Lewis understood that moral relativism eventually eviscerates moral character. When schools train students to clarify their own values, tell them they have the right to question parental or societal values, and that each persons values are as valid as any other persons values, then you have made all morals relative and each person becomes the final arbiter of what is right or wrong for them.
When such thinking permeates society, there are no agreed-upon absolute Truths (with a capital T) where some things are always right and some things are always wrong. Instead, you are left with an almost endless number of personal idiosyncratic truths; nothing is always right or wrong but entirely dependent upon the situation, circumstance, or personal opinion. Additionally, no one has the right to assert that anyone elses values are wrong. In such a society, where nothing is always objectively wrong, anything is possible.
Post-modern relativism tears out the chest so necessary for stable moral character. As Lewis put it so poignantly: In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked when we find traitors in our midst. We castrate and then we bid the geldings to be fruitful.
Having subjected too many of our children to more than a generation of values clarification and societal moral relativism, we have produced ever larger numbers of chestless men and women. And this is far more than a religious vs. secular issue. It is a traditional morality vs. post-modernist issue. Going to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, doesnt guarantee Lewis chest or heart. We know that some of the accused soldiers attended church regularly. Perhaps some of these churches have been heavily influenced by moral relativism. Perhaps these soldiers were taught by precept or example, or both, to view the Ten Commandments as the Ten Suggestions to be affirmed or rejected by personal choice. Examples abound in our society of Buffet Baptists and Cafeteria Catholics who believe they have the right to pick or choose which parts of their religious tradition to affirm or reject and that the moral imperatives of their religious traditions are mere suggestions until personally affirmed by themselves, the final arbiter of right and wrong. Both The Barna Group and the Pew Forum have done surveys which show a remarkable disconnect between the teachings of various religious traditions and the personal beliefs and practices of those traditions adherents.
Dennis Prager, a popular social commentator and Jewish ethicist, tells a story that illustrates the impact this moral relativism has had on our children. He says that for more than a decade now he has been asking young people in various forums this question: If your pet dog and a stranger were both drowning and you could only save one, which would you choose? Consistently, one-third answer their dog, one-third answer the stranger, and one-third say its too hard a question and they cant answer it.
And for many of these young people, the one thing about which they are certain is that their answer is not normative or morally binding on anyone else. They believe each person must decide for himself and that makes the answer right for them.
Bad ideas have bad consequences. Moral relativism has produced more and more moral geldings. Eventually, some of them found their way into our military. What is particularly upsetting is that a few soldiers have besmirched the reputation of the American military, the societal institution least impacted by moral relativism. The American military has continued to teach, affirm, and honor, objective concepts of duty, honor, country long after civilian society made these ideals far more relative and subjective.
When society produces citizens without an internal moral compass, the military cannot manufacture soldiers who possess such a compass. The military system can punish scandals like Abu Ghraib prison, but when the nation gives them men and women without chests, without hearts, they cant prevent them.
The Baghdad prison scandal should send alarm bells clanging throughout our society. Like the dead canary in a coal mine, it is a warning that a lethally poisonous moral gas is loose among us.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 13, 2004.]
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.