Dr Thomas Lickona at work. Photo: Center for the 4th and 5th Rs
Following the Supreme Court’s majority decision in June to legalise same-sex marriage in the United States, New York Times columnist David Brooks appealed to “conservatives” (those who do not accept the possibility of marriage between people of the same sex) to stop fighting a losing battle over sexual morality. Instead, he suggested, they should take their Christian values into underprivileged areas and help people overcome material and spiritual poverty.
This struck Dr Thomas Lickona, director of the character education centre at the State University of New York at Cortland and a fan of Brooks’ writing on character, as a false choice, and he wrote to Brooks explaining why. Here is an edited version of his letter.
On a recent trip to see our California grandchildren, I was delighted to find your new book, The Road to Character, in an airport bookstore and was glad to be able to quote it in a book I’m working on (The Kindness Cure: Building Character and Culture—Our Best Hope for Preventing Peer Cruelty). That is to say I write as a fan—and in the same spirit of friendship and admiration with which you gently encouraged Christians to set aside their losing battle against the sexual revolution:
Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex. Put aside a culture war that, at least over the near term, you are destined to lose. Consider a different culture war, one just as central to your faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.
We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed. Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.
The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life. This culture war is more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham . . .
It’s a tempting course, appealingly set forth, but I cannot agree with it.
First, for many if not most Christians, it will seem like a false choice. The two great Gospel values are truth and love. They’re not only compatible; they’re inseparable. If you wish to speak the truth, you must do so with love (as Christ did). If you love someone, you must speak the truth to them. John Paul II said we are “called to build the civilization of truth and love.” When competing values have a claim on our conscience, It’s never either or, but always both and. There are many examples of Christians and non-Christians who are exemplars of both love of neighbour and witnessing to hard truths. Mother Teresa was one—unsurpassed in her love for God’s least ones, fearless in her defense of the sanctity of life, chastity, and other unfashionable Christian values.
Second—and I’m sure you know this argument—there is a connection between the sexual revolution and the widespread social disintegration, loss of social capital, and moral normlessness you rightly lament. Arguably, the sexual revolution is the dominant cultural revolution of the last half-century. It continues its march around the world, leaving in its wake a host of damaging consequences that affect marriage, family stability, the character formation of children, the sexual environment of schools, the moral content of our media, public health (20 million new STDs a year)…the list goes on.
The family is the foundation of society and the first school of virtue. The sexual revolution has been an unrelenting assault on that foundation. Can we achieve the stable families you say we need without people who make an enduring, sacrificial commitment to each other and the children they bring into the world? Research findings suggest otherwise, with negative effects on children – as you note.
Third, it’s surely possible to make a case for greater sexual restraint—even for saving sex for the relationship in which two people are committed to parenting the child who may be born—in a reasoned, thought-provoking way that doesn’t alienate. In a way that doesn’t seem like “a public obsession with sex” or a “communications disaster.” In the calm and thoughtful way that you write about hot-button issues.
When our Center addresses educating for character in the sexual domain (not our main focus but an important part of our work), we often begin with things that are likely to create common ground. For example, nearly all people feel that more should be taught to our young about the emotional dangers of premature sexual involvement—something that gets short shrift in most sex education.
Most people, liberals and conservatives alike, are also concerned about the sexualization of children. Stories that illustrate the sexual corruption of children by our hypersexualized culture move them to take stock of our sexual culture and the unanticipated fallout of the sexual revolution.
More than 10 years ago when I was writing my book, Character Matters, there were already stories in the media about young teenagers experimenting with oral sex. The New York Times ran an article titled “The Face of Teenage Sex Grows Younger,” and quoting psychotherapists counselling children, usually girls, who were emotionally distraught because of early sexual involvement. Kids can’t entirely be blamed for such behaviour. But the rest of us can be. We have created the world they have to grow up in. (See my paper, 10 Emotional Dangers of Premature Sexual Involvement.)
In a book on sex education published in 2014, a chapter I wrote with Stan Weed was the only one arguing for an abstinence education approach. We were grateful to be invited to contribute, giving us a chance to make the case that the media and the educational establishment have got it wrong regarding what really works. Stan Weed, the first author, is the world’s leading researcher on abstinence education, having evaluated more than a hundred federally funded abstinence education programs.
I think these experiences tell you something about why, not just conservatives but all reasonable people need to fight a (civil) culture war on behalf of the truth about sex, love and the family.
By the way, I am a Catholic, but I don’t consider myself a “conservative”. My wife and I have been active in both the pro-life movement and opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. We’re still registered Democrats but usually end up voting Republican because of the primacy we give to abortion. I support the Church’s teaching on the death penalty and applaud Pope Francis’ emphasis on social justice, the cry of the poor, and the vulnerability of the planet (though one can disagree on the particulars). I think the Gospel values are radical, not liberal or conservative.
Thanks for considering these thoughts, David—and for your moral voice on the critical issues of our time.
Dr. Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he directs the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility).