personal morality and public religion

I was just catching some of the latest that Cristiana Anampour wrote about those “Teen Mania” youth rallying publicly in Frisco for a stronger sense of personal morality.

On the one hand, I see those groups. Major league crowds of young folks turn out. Do I know kids like these, committed as they are? Yes. I can tell you that their commitments came about not because of the rally group, but rather they were looking for someone to rally them on such matters, and the group came along.

Can they sustain that commitment? Some will, most won’t. I say that with sadness. Because I really believe that they are far better off (happier, more whole, more able to devote to one another, and less likely to get disease) by not having sex at least until they have first wound their lives into another’s. I really believe that some things are better off not tried; I’ve seen too often when someone tries these activities and gets hooked or has it turn ugly or even deadly. I’ve seen bad attitudes on one thing infect attitudes in other parts of their lives. I’ve seen with my own eyes and in my own life that self-control is critical to becoming a healthy adult, and how lack of it can stand in one’s way.

Is our youthful “moral decline” all the fault of the “godless pop culture”? No. The urges are biological, psychological, and sociological. The body is geared to desire. The mind is geared to love intimately and be caught up in another. The soul longs to fit in, not just because of peer pressure but because people are inwardly constructed to be a person among other people and not someone separate or alone. Those things are part of what God has put into them. However, pop culture as it is now constructed talks a good game of individual freedom, while it undermines the discipline and ridicules the self-control needed to make it real freedom instead of a stealth captivity. There’s a lot of good going on in pop culture, some really-true truths from people whose aim is still true, even if they misfire sometimes. (Who doesn’t?) And many kids have gotten pretty good at finding it — in fact they do a better job of finding it than my own “do your own thing” generation did at that age. (Not hard to do…) They’re also smarter, if not wiser, about their own sexuality. But most of the time, pop culture celebrates the kind of lives that wreck a person or causes them to lose their sanity, or at least keeps them spending. It feeds a constant craving of attention or excitement, laying itself prostrate before the almighty buck, titillating and stimulating until the mind can’t think straight from all the sensations and complications. Increasingly, it breeds a cynicism about living that rumbles ever louder under its ground.

But aren’t I afraid of the right wing, the lurking fascists, the dominionists? Yes. From the part of Christianity I deal with, I know them well. I know how they kinda slip their ideas into everything. I do know how much they believe that they should be in charge of our country and our world. (I can say that about some of their opponents too; those opponents are just much less likely to use stealth and force to get there.) But not all conservatives, evangelicals, or even fundamentalists are dominionists; in fact they predominate only in some parts of the Pentecostal camp. Most people who are out there cheering on the conservative causes are ordinary people who live their lives pretty much like everyone else, with all the crazy quilt of conflicts between their morality and decision-making in daily life that everyone else has. And sometimes they choose better, and sometimes they don’t. I am completely unafraid of those people, even as I must stand against the confining social vision and love of the halls of power of Dobson, LaHaye and dominionists, whom I do sometimes fear. The ordinary conservatives are every bit as much a part of America’s backbone as the left’s ordinary people, and like anyone else they have every right to a full place at the table – including a right to have a say in determining what that place is. These people are not an enemy. The more certain sectors (mostly from the Democratic Left) treat them as an enemy, the easier it will be to coalesce them with other ridiculed middle-Americans into a new silent majority, to once again be manipulated by politicians. That’s why I hate so much to see them lampooned, ridiculed, and dismissed. We’re still paying for the last time we let that happen.

It is not anti-freedom to try to develop a sense of public morality, one that stretches beyond just the issues of pluralism. It is not anti-freedom to publicly encourage stricter forms of personal morality — public address is the only forum wide enough for it. A weak sense of personal and public morality erodes the ground on which freedom stands. Does that mean I’d support the Teen Mania rallies? No. I don’t think their approach is real enough, it encourages youths to bypass important questions. But I don’t oppose it either, because I really do believe in encouraging a clear moral vision for one’s personal life, and that can only be done if the culture allows social space for it. It does not do so now, as proven by the constant protests against them. And we all eventually pay for that. That, I believe, is an absolutely critical public issue.

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