Doing the Right Thing

My church launched a six-part video series Sunday night titled, Doing the Right Thing.  Produced by the Colson Center and the Witherspoon Institute, the study explores the ethical and moral breakdown that is assaulting culture from all sides.

Chuck Colson, speaking at a live Doing the Right Thing event

The series is hosted by Chuck Colson – famous for his role as President Nixon’s right hand man as well as for going to prison for his involvement in the Watergate Controversy – and Dr. Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.  Colson said, “We’re in an ethical mess… Why are we surprised?  It’s an inescapable consequence of neglecting moral training.” Speaking of a remedy, George added, “It has to begin in homes, churches, and schools.  At every level, we have to be working together to build a consensus around a sound and coherent ethic.”

The operative word from George’s comment is “consensus.” Listening to the panelists and experts interviewed for the video, it became clear that it is nearly impossible in America to agree upon “a consensus around a sound and coherent ethic.” A Harvard professor said that his esteemed university debated adding a required course in business ethics.  They eventually dropped the idea, because they couldn’t “build a consensus around a sound and coherent ethic.”

What this means is that America has now fully divorced itself from moral absolutes.  Confidently saying that right and wrong exist has grown troublesome, because doing so requires a standard from which to make such bold statements.  And no one wants to admit that our traditional standard was the Holy Bible.  We have rendered God weightless on American society, so ethics which find their origin in His word rest just as weightlessly.

Further, we have digressed so far that we don’t just deny moral absolutes; we embrace situational ethics.  Actually, we have gone further still: each person is free – even encouraged – to construct their own ethics.  For instance, if I value money more than honesty, I will cheat you if necessary to obtain money.

This explains, in large part, the steady degradation in quality of American made products and services.  In times past, business owners valued ethics.  They affixed their family name to their product or service, and they worked to offer the best possible.  They valued their customers, many of whom lived in their communities.  Today, by contrast, manufacturers purposely select cheap, fragile components, knowing they will contribute to a shorter life for their products.  Consumers will then have no choice but to purchase new ones in short order.  Profits will therefore mount for business owners.  Unethical behavior.

Americans see appliance repairmen more than ever!

The ice machine on my refrigerator broke not long ago.  I asked the repairman if I should consider purchasing a new refrigerator instead of fixing mine, since it was over sixteen years old.  His comment substantiated the breakdown of business ethics.  “Absolutely not”! he exclaimed.  “You’re lucky.  Your refrigerator is just old enough that it is actually a great product.  It was made when the manufacturers still cared about providing great refrigerators.”  Continuing, he said, “Most units I work on today are just a couple of years old.  I rarely get calls on the good, old ones like yours.  Keep it till it finally gives out!”

Expand this thinking into the world of finance.  The economic collapse of 2008 and 2009 was driven by greed at every level.  The lending crisis was rife with unethical behavior, starting at the top of the banking institutions and travelling all the way down to homeowners who had no business receiving loans for which they could never pay.  Surprisingly, laws and regulations against such unethical behavior exist, but no one – including the government – enforced them.  Too much money was being made all around, so everyone turned a blind eye…until the bottom fell out.

How, we wonder, could such wholesale unethical business practices exist at such high levels of finance, business, and government?  The answer is as easy as answering the following question: if a business leader isn’t raised to believe in sound ethical standards, will he automatically behave ethically just because he receives an important job?  No, he won’t.  If he constructed his own set of self-driven ethics early in life, he will carry these same beliefs into the boardroom.  If he values growth in business, accumulation of personal wealth, and advancement in his career more so than he values integrity and making sound decisions for all parties involved, he will act out his personal beliefs even if they break laws and traditional standards of ethics.  This is precisely what happened at the highest levels of banking and governmental regulation.

What we are discovering today at every level of American culture is that we are facing consequences for throwing out biblical standards of ethics.  With no foundation to agree upon, everyone works from their own standard.  And because the Bible makes it clear that all men are sinners, it follows that they will always construct personal ethics that favor them.  Their self-centered ethics will always run contrary to the Bible’s standards of morality.

Now that this dangerous mindset has filtered through society, now that generations of citizens have been raised in the void of true ethics, we are seeing fissures almost daily in almost every facet of American society.

I remember when President Clinton was enmeshed in the Monica Lewinski affair.  Cultural observers argued that his Two faces forever linkedunethical behavior in the Oval Office had no bearing on his ability to lead the country wisely.  The “experts” were wrong then, and we are seeing ample signs of their ignorant assessment now.  When people don’t personally adhere to a common standard of ethics, they will always feel free to construct their own in a variety of situations.  Carried to its practical conclusion, this approach inevitably leads to unreliable decisions.  When right is no longer universally held to be right, we are left guessing as to how people will react.  Their decisions and behavior will be driven by what they deem to be best for them at the time.

Contrast this modern malady with the character of the men who forged the birth of our great nation.  The Founding Fathers, though they argued heatedly at times, enjoyed “a consensus around a sound and coherent ethic” – namely, that found in the Bible.  Many of our early leaders were true Christians, but even those who weren’t believed strongly in the rightness and wrongness of the Bible’s standards of morality.  They were wise enough to realize that without a common ethic, democracy would soon shatter and implode upon itself, which we are personally living through today.

The Founding Fathers could not imagine, for instance, our recent lending crisis and resulting economic collapse.  The thought that government would grant mortgages to people (using tax payers’ money), when everyone involved knew that most of the recipients would default on the loans (reasons: insufficient income; poor credit history), in order to line greedy pockets with cash, would have been an anathema to them.  The process from start to finish would have appeared unethical.

The Founding Fathers could not imagine, to use another example, that the U.S. Government would allow the legal killing of babies in their mothers’ wombs.  They couldn’t fathom that we would debate over how late in a baby’s development is too late to murder a child.  They would find it shocking that their political descendants would dare to predict at which point an unborn fetus feels pain, using this as a guide for what separates legal abortion from murder.

These things would be unconscionable to them, because their consciences were tied to the Bible’s ethics.  Human life was created by God Himself and was therefore worthy of the fiercest protection of anything in the universe.

People are still reeling from the credit crisis

The lending crisis would have turned their stomachs, because it represents wealthy leaders knowingly taking advantage of the poor for the sole purpose of personal gain.  To our founders, this easily smacks of government overstepping its God-ordained role of protecting its citizens.

I am looking forward to the second installment of Doing the Right Thing. I for one need the constant reminder in my life that, apart from God’s grace and ongoing help, I will choose to do the wrong things.  At my sinful worst, I will even go so far as to redefine bad as good.  Only persistent exposure to the Bible’s truths protects my sinful heart from error and reorients my mind to the straight and narrow path.  As Albert Camus said, “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon the world.”

Written by Todd Ragsdale, pastor of Winnetka Heights Baptist Church in Tulsa, OK.  I am happy to hear from readers.  Please go to the “Contact” tab on this web site and send me a message.