Crime and Character

"The moral relativism . . .of the recent past isn't right." These are not words we normally expect to hear form a movie star. But the speaker was actor Tom Selleck, and he was traveling across the country promoting a new organization called Character Counts. The message of Character Counts is that people of all political persuasions ought to be able to agree upon certain core values. Character Counts proves its point with its own leaders: Founders include both Selleck, who is politically conservative, and former U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan, who is politically liberal. Selleck argues that all Americans can agree "that certain things are right and wrong." Jordan's message is much the same. She describes crime as "a deficit in values." Citing the example of drive-by shootings, Jordan said, "We are plagued by young people who seem to have a disregard for human life. If a person values life, then you don't have life being snuffed out as if it were trivial." Values. The very fact that values are at the center of the discussion today shows that the political debate over crime has taken a new turn—for both conservatives and liberals. As Myron Magnet explains in his book The Dream and the Nightmare, traditional liberal thought fixed responsibility for crime on poverty and other social ills—which in turn are shaped by impersonal economic forces. The liberal solution to crime was to modify those economic forces through enlightened social policy and government programs. But this is a very low view of human nature—a sub-Christian view. It treats people as passive products of the environment—like corn or alfalfa that automatically grows or wilts depending on the rain and sunshine. On the other side, traditional conservative thought (especially its libertarian form) has treated crime as a matter of incentives. Crime rises when the benefits of criminal behavior outweigh the cost of punishment. The conservative solution was to increase the cost through harsher punishments and longer sentences. But this, too, is a sub-Christian view of human nature. It treats people as little more than calculating machines, totting up external incentives. Both liberal and conservative approaches have proved impotent to stem the tide of rising crime. And the reason is that both are based on wrong presuppositions. Both begin with a view of human beings as passive, devoid of dignity and moral significance. The good news is that today people on all sides of the political spectrum are returning to a richer view of human nature, one rooted ultimately in our Christian heritage. In this view, people are active and responsible moral agents. The long-term solution to crime is a reformation of values. Barbara Jordan is right: The only way to prevent crime is to teach the high value of human life. Critics used to say Christianity was harsh and negative, because it places responsibility for behavior squarely on our own moral choices. But today both liberals and conservatives have come to realize the wisdom of that view. Sure, environment makes a difference, and incentives do matter. But in the end, it's character that really counts.


Chuck Colson


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