New York Times Book Review
Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choiceby Alan Wolfe
What is the difference between right and wrong? What does it mean to lead a good life? How binding is the marriage vow? What are your obligations to an employer? To your friends? To yourself? Is it always immoral to tell a lie? "[A]n
"No sociologist now writing is able to capture and describe American manners and morals better than Alan Wolfe."David Brooks
What is the difference between right and wrong? What does it mean to lead a good life? How binding is the marriage vow? What are your obligations to an employer? To your friends? To yourself? Is it always immoral to tell a lie? "[A]n alert and knowledgeable social critic," Alan Wolfe asked Americans around the country such questions in "his intriguing exploration of our collective character, testing prevailing notions of the culture war" (New York Times Book Review). Focusing on the traditional virtues of loyalty, honesty, self-restraint, and forgiveness, Wolfe "strips away ulterior agendas to give us a look at the raw material of the American conscience" (New York Observer) and discovers that "Americans...have not so much left traditional morality behind as they have redefined it in ways that suit their individual tastes, purposes, and situations" (Washington Post). "Wolfe is right that [the search for moral freedom] is a revolution...a very American revolution."Newsweek
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The Examined Life
Sue Simpson can live anywhere she wants and in any way she pleases. An American, she grew up in England, and everything about the place made her uncomfortable. Her parents settled in a quaint village filled with beautiful Tudor homes, but the local residents, suspicious of foreigners, looked down their snobbish noses at her. At first she attended a traditionally male boarding school, where her classmates included around eight hundred boys and only ten girls. Any pleasure she might have taken in being surrounded by members of the opposite sex was quickly quashed, however, not only by the unceasing hazing she faced, but by her discovery that she had no interest in males. Ms. Simpson was delighted when she could finally return to the United States to attend Oberlin, a college that, because it "really allowed you to experiment and try stuff out," made her own coming out as a lesbian relatively painless. Upon graduation, she moved to Boston, but found that city, much like England, too confining.
Then she discovered San Francisco. Thirty-four years old, childless, living with her partner, she believes that self-knowledge is the key to personal growth, and she has devoted much of her Life to furthering a yogalike method of reducing stress called the Alexander Technique. What she likes most about San Francisco is that "everything exists here. Things you cannot even imagine exist here." Americans, she believes, devote far too much of their timeandattention to shaming others into social conformity, and she will have none of that. Anything goes, she says about San Francisco: "It goes on every level, intellectually, sexually, you name it."
Wendy Samuelson, like Sue Simpson, is a thirtysomething gay woman living in that city's Noe Valley neighborhood. "We put our dysfunctions right out front" is how she describes San Franciscans. "It's; like, if we've got people who dress like drag queens, well, that's certainly nothing to be ashamed of." One of her close friends, she goes on, is a drag queen, although, alas for him, "he's not a very pretty girl." Ms. Samuelson cannot understand his obsession, if for no other reason than the money and time involved: "Wigs and hip pads and shoes and all this stuff, it costs. In fact, it's more serious than the Miss America Pageant." Now why, she asks herself, "does he want to go onstage and do that? It's ugly drag. He thinks he's a white black girl, which I find vaguely offensive." Still, she concludes, the whole point of living in San Francisco is to try things out. "He's busting out of his shell and he's not good at it yet, but he might be. And if this is what he wants to do, I should support him in that and just understand."
Kenny Miller also believes he has an obligation to understand and support his friends. A gay man who works as a web designer in San Francisco's Castro district, he resembles Michael Tolliver, one of the main characters in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series. Mr. Miller believes that most of the men attracted to the Castro are, like himself, "just sort of trying to figure out their lives." A friend of his is really into sadomasochism, and while Kenny at first had his reservations, he has since dropped them. "When he started explaining to me why he was doing this and what it was about and why it was really important to him," he continues, "it sort of made sense." Mr. Miller is wary of imposing limits on the right of a person to engage in explorations that might teach him more about his desires.
San Francisco is the kind of place, and these three individuals are the kind of people, that lead a number of conservativesfrom public commentators such as Robert Bork, William Bennett, and Gertrude Himmelfarb to Christian activists like Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwellto conclude that something is seriously wrong with the moral character of American life. The most notorious events of the dreaded 1960sthe Free Speech Movement, violent resistance against the military draft, the rise of the Black Panthers, and the drug and music scene with its ground zero at Haight-Ashburyhappened either in San Francisco or across the bay in Berkeley and Oakland. In the next decade Castro Street would become the main street of Gay America, home to not only a direct confrontation with traditional American morality but also, by the end of the 1970s, a disease that seemed to vindicate the wrath of God. With a climate and scenic beauty too good to be true, San Francisco came to represent a repudiation of the self-discipline and delayed gratification that once constituted the core of both capitalist and Christian virtue. Political and theological conservatives therefore find in San Francisco everything that goes wrong when people believe that they can somehow live without obedience to firm rules of moral authority, handed down by tradition, tested by centuries of experience, and inscribed in the great moral and religious texts of the West.
For many religious and political conservatives, gay Americans are a symbol of a sexual revolution that has affected all Americans whatever their sexual orientation. Every inner-city teenager who becomes pregnant, every suburban divorce, every popular sexually saturated soap opera on television is an indication of what happens when America loses its understanding of the importance of sexual restraint and its respect for traditional sexual roles. Were America in general to become more like San Francisco in particular, they believe, its moral condition, already low to begin with, would sink to new depths. To elevate the needs of the self over obedience to God, or any commanding source of moral authority, is to become a slave to the passions and hence radically unfree.
As much as gay men and lesbians focus the attention of American conservatives, those who believe in the power and message of Jesus Christ (especially fundamentalist and born-again Christians) tend to preoccupy American liberals. Mary Masters, a forty-eight-year-old African-American living in Hartford, Connecticut, is one of the devout. When we interviewed her, she came to the door wearing a Christian T-shirt; every question we asked her turned into an illustration of how "my faith in Jesus christ and in his word is what keeps me on the right path." She holds that the only successful ways to deal with the problems of drugs and prostitution that plague her neighborhood are through programs, such as Team Challenge, that bring Jesus' message to inner-city children. The same could be said for teenage pregnancy, a phenomenon that, in her opinion, could be substantially reduced or even avoided if a Christian sense of shame were still alive in her community. From the large number of babies that are killed each year through abortion to the hypocritical behavior of a president who attends church but also cheats on his wife, Mrs. Masters is convinced that Americans, by failing to bring Jesus into their lives the way she has, are living in an increasingly immoral society.
At the opposite end of the countryand of the economic scalefrom Mrs. Masters in Hartford, we talked to Julia Fenton, a high school teacher and mother of three children living in Atherton, California. Mrs. Fenton is also a born-again Christian. "I do believe that Jesus is who he said he was and is, the risen Lord, and he's coming again" is how she began her interview with us. Like Mary Masters, Mrs. Fenton understands the world around her primarily through her faith. Economically successful, she and her husband send their children to secular schools in Silicon Valley, where they learn a certain sophistication and lessons about how to succeed in life. But Mrs. Fenton once taught in a Christian school and loved the experience. What impressed her so much about that school is that "in a culture that is so enamored, falsely so, with the individual and with the rights of the individual," a religious atmosphere "is just so helpful to help deliver people from a self-centeredness that is almost a disease."
Conservative Christians like Mary Masters and Julia Fenton worry those Americans who believe in religious tolerance and pluralism. Fundamentalist Christians, the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano writes, lack the flexibility of mind essential to democracy. Sectarian in outlook and authoritarian in temperament, according to liberal organizations such as People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union, they want to forbid other Americans from exercising their right to an abortion and to impose on public schools their particular theological orthodoxy. Conservative Christians are not moved by love of God, many leftists argue, but by hatred of those who are different, especially gay men and lesbians. We should not be fooled by their piety but instead recognize that their primary objective is the political one of supporting the most extreme candidates and ideas shaping the Republican Party.
Liberals would not worry so much about conservative Christians if they lived, as they did at previous points in American history, essentially private lives. The problem is that contemporary evangelicals, in their view, are committed to spreading the "good news" of the gospel anyway they can. As a result, the political influence of conservative Christians exceeds their actual numbers, since they tend to operate as stealth candidates, taking advantage of the apathy of others to gain positions of influence. Were more Americans to adhere to the agenda of the religious right, Americans would be in danger of losing their rights, especially their right to be different. To live up to the ideals of diversity and democracy, Americans need to avoid anything smacking of blind obedience and instead celebrate the potential of everyone to become a full human being.
Divided over whether the greatest threat to America comes from moral traditionalists or moral radicals, cultural commentators from both the right and the left find in the growing influence either of homosexuality or of conservative Christianity evidence of something seriously wrong with their country. But the moment we begin to talk to real people who identify themselves as belonging to one or the other of these categories, we begin to realize that how difficult it is to group people in such a way that puts devotion to God over here and the primacy of the self over there. Such a way of thinking assumes that these categories are mutually exclusive. There are reasons to suspect that they are not.
Born-again Christians like Mrs. Masters and Mrs. Fenton strongly affirm their Christian convictions, but both of them also affirm their own participation in the process of discovering them. Because Mrs. Masters's father was a minister who took her to church as a young child, there would be reason to believe that she inherited her faith from him. This, she tells us, is not the case, for the most crucial aspect of her belief in Jesus is that she was born a second time. It happened thirteen years before our interview with her, in 1985. At that time, she was living in sin. Something of a party girl, she stayed out late at night and drank too much. Although she continued to attend church, she now realizes that, at that time, she was not saved. She knew that although she had always read the Bible, the words meant little to her. As a result of being born again, she has changed churches, to one that takes God's word more seriously and now dedicates herself to teaching the Bible to young children on Sundays.
As she talks, it becomes clear that Mrs. Masters's faith has helped her gain control over her life. Her father had abandoned his family, leaving her mother alone with three children. Religion gave her mother the strength to leave Alabama and to find a job up north so that her daughter could go to college. Mary Masters became a nurse, married, and had one child, who is now twenty-eight. But her marriage worked out little better than that of her parents. Now that she is divorced, her faith is more important to her than ever, but it is not something that commands her to abstain from life's pleasures. "I think it's okay to go out and pamper yourself, to do nice things for yourself. I think it's okay for women to go out and get a facial, to get a manicure, to get their hair done." Mrs. Masters does these things because she is lonely and hopes that a little romance will soon enter her life. "My husband left me for another woman," she tells us. "Hey, okay, I've gotten over it. I must go on living. Right now, I'm just waiting on the Lord to send me another man." There is nothingsave, perhaps her divorcein Mrs. Masters's life even remotely like the lives led by the San Franciscans with whom we spoke. But it would also be wrong to describe a religious believer like Mrs. Masters as a follower of moral traditions handed down to her, for, as the term "born again" so strongly suggests, she has had to make her own way through life and has called on Jesus for assistance.
The same is true of Julia Fenton. More articulate and better educated than Mary Masters, she makes it quite clear that faith is necessary, not for avoiding choices, but for making the right ones. Captivated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn's observation that the line between good and evil runs right down the middle of every human heart, she understands human nature as "a struggle between dignity and depravity." There is, she says, an "enormous, tremendousbeyond what we can imaginecapacity for dignity inherent in human beings," but there is also "an equal capacity for depravity." Since we can go one way or the other, we must direct ourselves in the right direction. "It's a very dramatic arena of choosing" is how she puts it, "and I do very much believe in human freedom of choice." We are not, she believes, prisoners of destiny. "I really, strongly believe that human beings can make a new start," she says, and she feels that she has done so in her own life. That is why she is so inspired by the story of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, for if he can go through "the kinds of incredibly costly choices he made to live a virtuous life," then we who live in better times ought to be able to do so as well.
Born-again Christians emphasizing the need of the individual to choose are met halfway by pleasure-seeking Americans affirming the power of God. Sue Simpson is one of themif in her own way. Religion was a required subject in her English boarding school, she says, and no one took it seriously, least of all her parents: "The message I got at home was that it wasn't important." Compared to their indifference to religion, she finds herself admiring her grandmother, who converted to Catholicism. Not that she is about to do the same thing, but faith, she understands, gave her grandmother the courage to go on with life after a series of tragedies. Ms. Simpson's own faith is more tied up in personal seeking than it is in organized religion, but, as she sees it, it is faith nonetheless: "Faith is good," she says. "You have to have faith in something in order to carry on.' She is skeptical about organized religion because it relies on a sense of social shame to induce conformity to society's norms, but she also believes, very much like Julia Fenton, that people need to make their own choices. There is no choice involved in being gay, she points out, but there is a choice in coming out. Knowing that her sexuality made her different from society's norm, "I had to look at things more, and I had to ask some difficult questions. And in doing so, I'm sure I look at morality differently too because, obviously in some parts of the world they are going to say that I'm immoral for being gay, but I know I'm not. I've had to make an individual morality and see a more general morality in order to make my own functioning seem viable."
At one level, gay men and lesbians are challenging conventional religious and moral ideas, but, at another level, they are redefining them to account for who they are. Wendy Samuelson, the gay woman who understands her friend's need to be a drag queen, announces proudly that within a year of our interview with her she will be getting married. True, she will be marrying a woman, but for her, it is an occasion meant to celebrate the commitment she is making, and she sees no reason that she should not invite all her friends and family to witness the fact that she plans to spend the rest of her life devoted to one person. Kenny Miller, the gay man who believes that sadomasochism made sense for his friend, like a number of the gay men with whom we spoke in San Francisco, and indeed like Maupin's Michael Tolliver, grew up in the South. His Southern Baptist church, which did not allow drinking and dancing, was hardly going to be receptive to a man attracted to other men, and Mr. Miller left his religious environment behind when, at the age of nineteen, he came to terms with his homosexuality. Still, Mr. Miller appreciates the upbringing his parents and congregation gave him. "I mean," he says, "I learned how to be gracious. I learned how to treat people nicely and respect people's wishes." And both his parents and his former church have learned to respect him. When Kenny Miller was nursing his lover, David, who was suffering from brain cancer, his little church back home put his name on their prayer listand, he adds in amazement, David was not only gay, but Jewish. Kenny's parents, who were only too happy to have him leave home as a teenager, watched the way he took care of his lover and learned to love their son all over again. Too much the typical San Francisco spiritualist to believe in sin and redemption, Kenny Miller, like Sue Simpson and Wendy Samuelson, does not consider himself a Christian, let alone one who was born again, but that does not mean he rejects religion and its ability to make sense out of the world's mysteries.
Society requires a common morality capable of softening and guiding the unchecked desires of its citizens and a system of rights capable of protecting minorities and enhancing the self-development of all. Yet neither conservatives nor liberals generally believe that people themselves can be trusted to play much of a role in finding the balance between those two imperatives. For conservative critics of America's moral condition like William Bennett, lessons about the proper way to live can be gleaned from the great stories that make up the Western tradition. Our job is to imbibe those stories, to memorize them and cite them, not to revise and resubmit them. We ought not to substitute for them our own accounts of what is right and wrong, for our accounts will inevitably be subjective, too much the product of a society that emphasizes the sensational on the one hand and the craving for acceptance on the other. America, from the point of view of its conservative critics, is awash in subjectivity as it is: put a camera or a microphone near anyone, and he will immediately begin to talk of his desires and wishes. The last place to turn for an understanding of what is moral and what is not is to Americans' own stories of how they ought to live.
Liberals, in positing the primacy of rights, also look with suspicion upon the views of ordinary people. In their view, majorities so rarely respect the rights of individuals who advocate unpopular views or who lead unpopular lifestyles that courts must restrain democratic exuberance. Public opinion in a democracy cannot be ignored, they believe, but neither can it be the sole criterion of what is permissible and what is forbidden. We ought no more to fashion public policy with respect to abortion or to gay rights by reading polls than we would have done had we allowed slavery to remain legal in the South because the majority of voting Southerners supported it. "The whole point of an independent judiciary," the legal scholar Laurence Tribe has written, "is to be 'antidemocratic.'" If a majority of Americans, upset at the moral condition of their country, were to support laws upholding religion in the public square or punishing disrespect for the flag, we would be correct to ignore them. Liberals, the philosopher Ronald Dworkin has argued, need to identify precisely those civil rights to which political majorities are likely to object and then "to remove those rights from majoritarian political institutions altogether."
Against both of these positions, the views of Sue Simpson on the one hand and Julia Fenton on the other tell us more than what a small number of Americans think; they also help answer the question of whose thoughts should count. There is much to be said for telling and retelling the great moral stories of our tradition, just as there will always be rights that need to be protected against majority scorn. But it is also important that a democracy take into account the stories that people tell about themselves and their own condition. Americans have their own views about human nature, God's power, political authority, virtue and vice, the content of character, and individual responsibility. They will not, we can be fairly sure, express themselves with the brilliance and clarity of Socrates, St. Paul, or Immanuel Kant. But there can also be something dignified about the ways in which people consider the conditions of themselves and their society. If they cannot offer the examined life, they can offer the experienced life. Morality for them is not likely to be based on abstractions but on consequences. Because they live with the choices they make, their views are unlikely to be frivolousor frivolously adopted.
Meet the Author
Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and the author of, most recently, the best-selling One Nation after All.
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The subtitle of Alan Wolfe's latest social study is "The Impossible Idea That Defines The Way We Live Now." Professor Wolfe purports to study the idea of moral freedom and its applicability to the brave new world in which we live. This is a highly literate, reasonably well-designed popular study, the general conclusions of which are,insofar as Prof. Wolfe's interviews and surveys extend, no doubt generally accurate. For Prof. Wolfe tells us, in essence, that ours is a secular society in which relativism, materialism, subjectivism, and hedonism are displacing Christian humanism. That will come as no surprise to anyone. These isms, corrupt as they are, have led to a long train of sorrow and suffering: abortion, drug abuse, rampant crime, mass murder, and ethical confusion and chaos. When the idea of the sacred disappears, it will be replaced by a new god, and his reflection can be seen daily in our bathroom mirrors. One's complaint about Prof. Wolfe's study does not concern the question of its accuracy but rather the issue of whether he has even the foggiest notion of what "moral freedom" really is. He defines it as the idea "that individuals should determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life" (p. 195), which, of course, means that we should, much as Charles Reich once told us, "build [our] own philosophy and values" (p. 216) and re-define or re-design our own god (because the "old" one just isn't accommodating enough [cf. p. 226]). But of course this is not moral freedom at all; it is licentious and libidinous anarchy. Prof. Wolfe's (selected?) interviews of often well-meaning but inarticulate Christians unfortunately do not make the point one finds presented so powerfully in Pope John Paul's 1993 letter "The Splendor of Truth": "People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from Him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil" (#8). Moreover, the idea that freedom means the opportunity to "serve one another through love" (Gal 5:13; cf. 1 Pt 2:16) and the notion that freedom is selfless devotion to God (Mt 22:37)--and that therein lies the source of human dignity--Prof. Wolfe and a number of his readers would no doubt perfunctorily dismiss. Consider that one of his interviewees says of Mother Teresa that she was a "[vixen] on wheels" (p. 194). How can one react in the face of such stunted moral "vision" except to feel, not anger, not disgust, but pity? To think, even for a moment, that such a person (the interviewee) has a glimmer of "moral freedom" is to misunderstand both "moral" and "freedom." For the source of "morality" is not to be found in our appetites and urges; and the meaning of "freedom" is not to be found in the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, lust, anger, gluttony, sloth, greed), but in ordering our lives so that we live as we should, in the service not of the one we design to approve the indulgence of our urges, but of the One who designed us (cf. Rom 6:15-23, 12:2) to know His peace (Phil 4:7) in eternal life (1 Jn 5:13).