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Challenges Facing the Culture

R&L: What did you mean when you subtitled your 1989 book Against the Night, “Living in the New Dark Ages.” Have the last four years changed your views?

Colson: When I wrote Against the Night, I was fearful that we were entering the new dark ages, that the barbarians were not only at the gates of our culture but coming over the walls. Looking over these past four years, I see no signs that we are awakening to the threat; in fact, almost every single cultural indicator reveals a deepening decline and further erosion of decency and civility in our society.

I believe, in fact, that we have crossed a major cultural divide–the barbarians are not just coming over the wall, they are inside running things. We can no longer say that America is a Christian nation in the sense that we enjoy widespread acceptance of historic Judeo-Christian values. We have instead become a post-Christian culture.

That doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to church–they are; nor does it mean that people no longer believe in God–the vast majority do. What it does mean is that society’s underlying shared assumptions, the values we hold in common, the intellectual and philosophical building blocks of our society, are no longer Christian. The truth is that most of the cultural elite in America today are decidedly hostile to Christianity.

But the gravest danger is that most people don’t realize it. We have become, as I have written in The Body, “Donahueized”: We sit before the tube mindlessly watching freak shows, unable or unwilling to even contemplate the great questions of life. We do not seem to care. One of the best definitions I’ve heard of decadence is “the hollowing out of meaning.” And that is precisely what has happened in America.

What so gravely concerns me about the future is that the forces arrayed against moral conservatives and defenders of truth seem overwhelming. The gatekeepers of our culture almost to an individual are antagonistic; and they have successfully characterized conservative Christians as right-wing, fanatic bigots, even terrorists and bombers.

I desperately hope that I am wrong–and I’m well aware that God in his sovereignty at any time can reverse the fortunes of any culture. He often does it starting with the most insignificant acts. So Christians should not despair, but simply persevere in their devotion to the truth and their calling.

R&L: Nobel-prize winning economist Gary Becker writes about the economics of crime, and in an interview with us said, “Crime is not irrational to the criminal, because he thinks crime is beneficial to him.” Do you think this is a valid assessment? How has our society come to a place where it is more beneficial to be a criminal than to be virtuous?

Colson: Though I am not an economic determinist, in one sense Becker’s analysis of crime is correct. That is, that the criminal makes a deliberate choice. I don’t believe, however, that he weighs the cost-benefits ratio explicitly, though with such a small percentage of criminals being caught and prosecuted, he probably thinks he won’t be caught. But in the final analysis, he makes a moral choice to do wrong rather than to do good.

One of the most pernicious philosophies infecting America in this century is that individuals are not responsible for their own behavior, that minorities and other groups have been oppressed, and as a result of that oppression and poverty, commit crimes. In the 1960s, Ramsey Clark said, “Poverty is the cause of crime.”

What this did was to excuse individual behavior, remove moral restraints, and enable individuals to justify doing wrong. It also resulted in the government building massive numbers of prisons all in an effort to “reform” or to “correct”–or in the fashionable term of the time–“to re-socialize.” This was the most massive experiment in human engineering ever–and doomed from the outset.

For the evidence clearly demonstrates that prisons do not rehabilitate. The best scholarship, such as that performed by professors Samenow and Yochelson as well as Wilson and Herrnstein, has concluded that crime is a moral problem, the result of people making wrong choices, the lack of moral education during the morally formative years.

R&L: How would you restructure the American penal system?

Colson: I would start by looking realistically at what prisons do and do not do. Prisons have one primary use–to incapacitate violent offenders and segregate them from the rest of society for public safety. Other than that, they accomplish very little.

So I would reserve prisons for the violent and dangerous offenders which are less than half of the current prison population. The others who are incarcerated for non-violent, non-dangerous offenses should be put into work programs, community-based treatment centers, restitution programs, home incarceration, and the like. In doing this we would free enough prison space so that new prison construction would be unnecessary and we would have adequate space to incarcerate truly dangerous offenders longer.

I would also insist upon work programs for every single inmate in an American institution. It is scandalous today that they sit in barren cells with nothing to do–1.3 million Americans idle. Not only do we lose the benefits of their labor, but they lose any sense of purpose or usefulness in life. We are literally destroying them.

These changes could be effected quickly; all they require is political courage, a commodity that is in woefully short supply these days.

R&L: Prison Fellowship has a “Christian” prison model in Brazil, where for the last fifteen years only four percent of the inmates have been repeat offenders. Would you advocate privatizing U.S. prisons to implement this strategy here?

Colson: Prison Fellowship operates an extremely effective private prison in Brazil. But I do not think it would be possible to institute a similar system in America, unless by some miraculous stroke of good fortune the ACLU should disband. The heart and soul of the Humaita Prison in Brazil is explicit Christian teaching, volunteers who encourage and mentor the inmates, discipling them as Christians, and the building of character. To try this in an American prison today would be to risk the wrath of the thought police.

I have a further objection to private prisons, and that is that once they become a profitable enterprise, there will be enormous pressures to keep them in business, when in fact we should be reducing prisons, not expanding them.

R&L: Could you explain your plan for restitution for crimes?

Colson: Restitution should be ordered for every crime.

First of all, it is a biblical principle; secondly, it helps the offender restore a sense of self-dignity; thirdly, it brings benefits to society and the offender. It is socially redemptive.

I would order restitution for property crimes universally. Where the inmate can pay the individual, he should do so; where it is impossible to make personal restitution, then the offender should pay into a victim restitution fund.

R&L: Are you in favor of offenders paying for the costs of their imprisonment?

Colson: If we paid inmates for gainful employment as we should, and as many Third World countries do, then the offender would pay for his own incarceration. Prisons in Singapore make money. Ours could too, if we had meaningful work programs.

R&L: What effect do you think the trend of “politically correct” thinking and behavior will have on religious institutions, which by definition require an exclusivity of ideas and behavior?

Colson: The great crisis in American life today is the issue of truth. Christian and Jewish groups make explicitly exclusive truth claims. But in a society that has confused tolerance with indifference and relegated truth to a lesser virtue, if it exists at all, there is an inevitable conflict.

In today’s politically correct environment, anyone asserting that something is true is automatically labeled a bigot, offending the reigning goddess of tolerance. The only absolute left in American society is the absolute that nothing can be absolute.

This is the philosophical heart of the culture war. We should remind ourselves, however, that no society has ever survived without a strong moral code which by definition involves moral absolutes.

The reign of philosophical relativism will divide religious institutions into two categories: the first (and majority) are those who will conform to the culture–and lose their Christian distinction; others will stand firm and experience genuine persecution.

R&L: In your new book, The Body, you deal extensively with the persecution of the church in the former Eastern Bloc nations. Do you think the outcome of the culture subscribing to politically correct thought and behavior will be a similar persecution?

Colson: I do not believe that we in Christian or Jewish faith communities in America will be persecuted at the point of a bayonet, but rather by the sharp stilettos of the cultural elite. The effect is likely not to be much different.

Today one is thrown off a campus for articulating politically incorrect views; and some are even suspended from their professions for expressing crude and vulgar remarks. It’s a very short distance from being penalized for an expression of a view to being penalized for holding that view.

Our culture does not enforce its views by tanks and armies, but it does by powerful communication. Stigmas, scorn, and ridicule can produce conformity sometimes more readily than arms and weapons.

So in reality, the persecution of believers in the West is likely to become similar, if less bloody, than the persecution in the East. Someone has rather aptly called it “the reign of social terror.”

R&L: What is your basis for the high value you put on work?

Colson: God created the universe. He was satisfied with his “work” and then commissioned us as humans to participate in the development of that which he created–tilling and cultivating the garden, subduing the earth, naming the animals. All of these are areas of human endeavor that God saw fit to assign us.

Work is thus God ordained, and work is thus meaningful and done to his glory. We seek excellence, regardless of the nature of the task.

I also believe that we are created by a purposeful Creator in his image and thus we are purposeful beings. When individuals are deprived of meaningful work (as with prisoners), they are stripped of meaning. The Jew and the Christian should have–as they always have had–a very high view of work, in notable contrast to the Greeks, who looked upon it as an essential drudgery to be performed by the lower classes while the upper classes had the luxury of meditating and thinking.

R&L: We often hear about a “decline in, or death of the work ethic” in the United States. Is this valid?

Colson: The work ethic is in decline, one of the many casualties of the deliberate secularization of American life.

Its religious roots are essential. If work is done to the glory of God, which constituted a core belief of the Protestant Reformation, then individuals have every incentive to work well and to work hard. If it is done merely for the satisfaction of our pleasures, then the quality of that work is significant only to the extent it provides material reward. One simply works to get away with whatever one can.

And in the welfare state, all incentive to work is removed. Despite the discrediting of Marxist, socialist, collectivist, economic utopianism world-wide, we are still practicing it in the inner cities of America (as well as advocating it on many campuses). Consider the gutting of the work ethic in the inner city. Most Americans forget that black inner city Americans in the 1950s had a far better work ethic than white communities. Today it is gone. Why? A shift occurred when Lyndon Johnson told people living in the inner city that they were not responsible for their behavior, that they were victims of oppression, and that we, that is, the white oppressor, would now rescue them. We rescued them all right–five million women existing on aid for families with dependent children, unable to marry or work for fear of losing their benefits; and a prison population that has risen five-fold in the last twenty years.

On a broader front, a radical individualism, the idea that we pursue life only for our own individual gratification, destroys the very moral content of work and assails the work ethic at its heart.

R&L: In Why America Doesn’t Work, you state that the “just compensation” for labor, borne out in the Ten Commandments, is private property. How much value do you think God places on the ownership of private property?

Colson: One cannot read the Scriptures without concluding that God both intended there to be private property and created a system for the just compensation of labor and the accumulation and the respect for private property.

Think of it this way. Everything is God’s. He created it, but he gave us dominion and responsibility for the ongoing development of his creation; and he contemplated that we would take earthly ownership of property.

Why else would God order gleanings, for example, unless he contemplated that there would be private property owners. Why would God have ordered a Jubilee every fifty years to redress economic imbalance unless he contemplated that in the forty-nine years preceding Jubilee people would be accumulating private property? Why would he order tithing if people had no property from which to tithe? Why would he command that “Thou shall not covet” if no one had property that was to be coveted?

The critical issue in my understanding of the biblical mandate is not the ownership of private property–clearly that is approved in Scripture. The issue is how it is used, stewardship. Is it used to the glory of God, and for the benefit of his creation? In the pursuit of those goals, God, in my view, places the highest values on the ownership of private property–and our being faithful stewards.

R&L: How much of a role, if any, should religious institutions play in instilling the value of work and its related characteristics?

Colson: I do not believe there are any institutions in our society today that can reinvigorate the value of work and the work ethic apart from the family and the church. The place to instill the work ethic is in young people. We should encourage them away from cultivating a lifestyle that languishes before the television set. Children from the earliest point, even those crucial, morally formative years of one to six, should be taught respect for property, and made to understand that as members of a community their duty is to contribute to it. As soon as possible they should be made to work–and rewarded accordingly.

The church should be teaching the value of work, the work ethic, and ethics in general. During the Reformation it was said that finding a vocation was the first act of discipleship. The whole notion of a “calling” has been ignored by the therapeutic church of the twentieth century.

R&L: You state that the profit motive should be strong in America, that it is the backbone of the free enterprise system, and that it is a “moral imperative that carries moral responsibility.” We don’t often hear those descriptions regarding profits since the 1980s were maligned as the “decade of greed.” Why is the profit motive so important?

Colson: The eighties were called the “decade of greed” because of the gross excesses of the Boeskys, S&L raiders, and the like. Without any question a looter’s mentality was unleashed. But why was that?

The free economic system was not the problem. What was responsible for this was the secularizing of America that stripped the marketplace of its sense of moral responsibility.

Political freedom is impossible without economic freedom. No one has found a system that better ensures liberty and the growth of a healthy economy than the free enterprise system. But the free enterprise system, like any other, is good only so long as there are inner moral restraints that temper what otherwise are the inevitable excesses of any fallen system.

The lesson we should learn from the eighties is not that profits are bad or that the free enterprise system failed, but rather that whenever inner moral restraints are eroded, external restraints have to take their place. But external restraints inevitably limit freedom–and would ultimately destroy the free enterprise system.

What then is necessary to save the free enterprise system? A moral renewal, the re-establishment of individual moral responsibility and accountability, individual virtue, the belief that there are moral absolutes derived from Judeo-Christian revelation or, for those who cannot accept that, at least from natural law.

Absent these inner restraints–the inculcation of character by a consensus that promotes virtue, the reassertion of moral absolutes of right and wrong and individual behavior– not only is economic freedom in jeopardy, but political freedom as well.