|Volume III, Issue 1
|“Traditional Values” Is For Wimps
Philip K. Weingart
O Theophilus is the Quarterly Journal of The Center For Biblical Literacy
“Traditional Values” Is For Wimps
It was late in the 1970s, and Conservative Protestant Christianity was just awakening to the importance of political action. I wanted to find a phrase for the public arena to describe what I stood for, a phrase that an unbeliever could embrace as easily as a believer. It had to define a category narrow enough to include only the moral choices Christ requires but broad enough to roll comfortably from the lips of a politician. I think I came up with “traditional morals” on my own, but leaders like Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority made “traditional values” the vogue term. In retrospect, what I really wanted was to proclaim Christ in the political arena without inviting persecution. It was an understandable, human sort of goal, but it was also wrong. I thought I was clever; In fact, I was a wimp.
“Traditional values” is Christianity in the language of capitulation. It fits comfortably in the mouths of politicians because it says nothing offensive. Unbelievers can embrace it because it contains nothing to make an unbeliever uncomfortable. But it fails to say what our culture needs to hear. We do not want our neighbors to adopt traditional values; we want them to acquire Christian virtue.
Modern Americans seem to lack integrity. We start projects and do not finish them. We make promises and do not keep them. We acquire debts and do not pay them. We marry and then abandon our spouses and children; we divorce when things don’t work out. We lie to our insurance agents, we lie to our tax agents, we lie to our employers, we lie to our spouses, we lie to ourselves. We steal, we cheat, we gossip, we dishonor our parents, we dishonor God. Then we blame everyone but ourselves for the deterioration of the nation’s wealth and stature. Unfortunately this describes many who profess Christ as well as those who don’t.
The cure for the above is to behave according to God’s law by the power of the Spirit, as penned by Paul:
“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh…. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:16,22-23)
It might appear that earlier Americans were better at this than we are, but they did not get that way by adhering to tradition; they got that way by looking to the Word of God as their guide. We should do the same.
Christian political activists coined “traditional values” to win public relations points, but it has not worked. “Traditional” is a word which evokes a negative reaction in modern America. America as a nation rejected tradition as an authoritative source of direction as early as 1960. Most Americans see “tradition” as a collection of old wives’ tales, a mindless repetition of practices initiated by applying prejudice to ignorance. If our goal was to win some kind of cultural high ground by choosing the right words, we erred badly when we picked “tradition”.
“Values” is not much better. The use of “values” to describe moral precepts began with the works of Max Weber, who studied the things which different individuals hold dear. As Weber’s ideas wandered into American popular culture, Americans applied Relativism to the notion and changed morals into a matter of what each person feels is important. Morals were once absolute and universal, but values are relative and personal.
Secular America objects to Christian activism by charging that Christians want to force everyone to act as we think they should, Nazi-style. If God’s laws were our invention, their charge would be correct. Making laws from our “values” is like saying, “We hold this way of living dear, and we expect everyone to live up to it whether they hold it dear or not.” Insisting on an absolute standard is only justified if the standard is genuinely God’s. To call what we stand for “values” plays into the hands of our opponents.
Our concern should be to use words which say what we mean. Do the words “traditional values” accurately declare what we mean? They do not come close. What we mean is something like this:
“Almighty God, our Creator, has set certain immutable laws of behavior in the universe. We violate those laws at our peril. Every man can believe as he chooses, but if our nation permits behavior outside of God’s immutable laws, it will collapse. Therefore, our nation’s laws should reflect God’s immutable laws.”
What “traditional values” says is, “Things worked better in the past, and we should adopt our ancestors’ ways of looking at things if we want things to work better now.” It’s a nice thing to say, but it has no teeth, it is not necessarily the truth, and it is certainly not the Christian message.
If we are going to articulate our message, the noun should describe behavior which agrees with God’s laws. Words like “virtue” or “integrity” carry more of an absolute sense than “values.” The adjective should identify what it is that makes this behavior right, i.e. the source of the compelling authority, which we acknowledge as God Himself. Tradition has nothing to do with it, nor does it matter what we value. The determining factor is the sovereignty of God. Consequently, “godly” or “Christian” do well, and perhaps “holy”. “Absolute” or “universal” are also good, but fail to identity God.
So, what we have been saying to America is “return to traditional values,” but what we have meant is more like “live according to Godly integrity.” My focus is going to be on Christian virtues from here on, and I intend never to use the phrase “traditional values” again. I issue a call to all American Christians to say what they mean. Do not call the nation to traditional values; instead, live according to Christian virtues, model them for your neighbors, and proclaim them for what they are. Against such things there is no law.
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