Temperance for Today

The Progressive Policy Institute has suggested a new way of dealing with teen pregnancy. Or perhaps I should say they've rediscovered an old way. In a recent report the institute urged the administration to state clearly that it is "morally wrong" for unmarried teens to bear children, that becoming a single mother is "a selfish act," that fathering a child out of wedlock is "dishonorable." To many of us this may sound like rehashing the obvious; of course having children outside marriage is wrong. But to say so in a public policy statement represents a startling turnaround. For decades, policy makers have assiduously avoided the moral dimension to behavior. But today that dimension can no longer be ignored. Political commentators on the left and the right agree that the pathology of the inner city—from poverty to drug abuse to crime—is related to illegitimacy. To use the language of morality, it's related to sexual licentiousness. And the only way to cure that pathology is to restore a sense of moral duty—to cultivate the classic virtues. Take, for example, the virtue of temperance—or moderation, self-control. The Temperance Movement of the nineteenth century rescued millions of Americans from alcoholism. But temperance doesn't mean just laying off the bottle; it means controlling all our appetites. As C. S. Lewis explains, temperance refers "to all pleasures." The good things of life were created by God for our benefit, but too much of a good thing can be bad for us. Food is a gift from God, but we must not overindulge. Our homes and possessions are likewise gifts, but we must not live solely to acquire more things. Our sexuality is from God, too, but must be enjoyed in the right context, which is marriage. These are all examples of temperance. And the social pathologies plaguing the inner city reveal the bitter fruit of intemperance. In the counterculture of the 1960s, America's cultural elites rejected the traditional virtues of hard work and sexual restraint, in the name of liberation. Through advertising, movies, television, and popular music, these attitudes filtered to the rest of the culture—where they often spelled disaster. Upper-class college students might extol dropping out and turning on with drugs, but when practiced by ghetto youngsters it often meant addiction and death. Movies and rock music might glorify "recreational" sex, but when practiced by ghetto teenagers, it often led to illegitimacy and poverty. In his book The Dream and the Nightmare, Myron Magnet says the pathology of under-class culture is an exaggerated mirror of upper-class culture and its rejection of virtue. So it's encouraging that policy wonks at places like The Progressive Policy Institute are finally acknowledging the role of morality in our social disorders—and we should all engage in discourse on the moral basis of public policy. But none of us can afford to point the finger. When you and I fail to live virtuous lives, when we fail to encourage virtue in others, then we become responsible for the social break-down around us. In the end, public policy rests on private character.


Chuck Colson


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