This year the movie God Is Not Dead preyed on every Christian parent’s fear of sending a child off to college only to have their family’s faith and values undermined by an atheist college professor espousing some form of moral relativism. The movie hinges on a certain cliché, but the cliché is a cliché because many of us took a class with “that professor.” He might not have been so over-the-top, but his prejudices were evident.
The American university tends to be fairly hostile to the conservative movement. One of the core tenets of conservatism is the Judeo-Christian teaching that humans are fallen creatures. Moral right and wrong are objective categories, and human nature tends toward the wrong in absence of coercion. God-given social structures, e.g., family, community, and government, help restrain wickedness.
Progressivism, on the other hand, tends to view the human spirit as intrinsically good. For some progressives, “good” becomes a relative term defined by the individual. The only “bad” is to infringe on another person’s ability to express their own version of “good.”
It is no secret that most university professors are progressives, and over the last forty years, universities have replaced real virtues with tolerance and diversity. The prevailing spirit of progressivism has led to many forms of insanity on college campuses. Yale’s Sex Week is perhaps the most notorious example of how American universities celebrate the demise of tradition, but moral relativism permeates every college classroom.
Many conservatives blame left-leaning professors for this rise in moral relativism. Certainly a liberal faculty will promote progressive values, but the battle for conservatism was lost long before these students ever met their first college professor. In my experience, freshmen arrive on campus as moral relativists.
I realized the problem in my first year of teaching when a class of freshmen tried to rehabilitate Hitler. After reading some of Mein Kampf a couple of students in the class suggested that Hitler had a few good ideas. As our discussion unfolded, more than half the class agreed that perhaps what was good and true for the Germans was not good and true for the Jews. They suggested that we were dealing with a difference of perspective. Most of these kids identified themselves as conservatives. They were shocked when I informed them that truth was not dependent on nationalism. Over the years, dozens of students have earnestly asked me what made Hitler do what he did. They need a social-scientific explanation because they do not understand the conservative notion that humans are fallen. When we have lost the ability to call Hitler evil, we have lost much.
Recently, my students gave me further proof of their moral relativism. In my freshman history class, I assigned a short paper based on excerpts from Thucydides. Thucydides wrote about the devastating war that took place in the fifth century BC between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. In addition to having them read Thucydides, I lectured on the war and assigned readings from secondary sources. I thought that I had prepared them.
The assignment covered Thucydides’ account of the funeral speech by Pericles and Thucydides’ account of the dialogue between the Athenians and the people of Melos. In the funeral oration which takes place at the beginning of the war, Pericles lauds Athens as being the school of Hellas. Athens is the greatest of the Greek city-states. She is the greatest in both military and artistic achievement, and her greatness rests on her democracy. In the Melian dialogue which takes place mid-way through the war, Thucydides describes how the Athenians attempt to force the neutral island of Melos to join their alliance. When the Melians ask why they should join, the Athenians threaten to destroy them if they resist. The Athenians explicitly argue that might makes right. In the end, the Athenians kill all the men on the island of Melos and sell all the women and children into slavery. Athens, so proud of its own democracy, refused to allow its neighbors self-determination.
When I created this assignment, I had high hopes for it. I asked my students to explain why the same author would write two vignettes that show his native city in such different lights. I expected to hear that Athens began good but lost sight of its values. I thought perhaps some would blame Athens’s moral failure on its overweening pride. I had hoped that some would point out that democracy can be an unstable form of government if it isn’t founded on virtue. I was shocked and dismayed by what my students told me.
About two-hundred students did the assignment, and almost three-fourths of them failed to see anything wrong with Athens’s attack on Melos. Their line of reasoning was scarily consistent. Pericles said Athens was a democracy. We know that democracy is good. Therefore, Athens was good. Many even explicitly approved the genocide that occurred at Melos because it showed that democracy makes a people strong. An overwhelming majority of students could not even see Thucydides’ condemnation of Athens. Athens was a democracy, and democracies only do good things. Seemingly evil acts must be explained away. Interestingly, those students who could tell the difference between good and evil were not necessarily my best students. It seems that a sensitivity to morality has nothing to do with academic ability.
How did so many of my students become moral relativists? I did not teach them that, and I know my colleagues did not either. I teach at a fairly conservative university that promotes Christian values. We are not a group of leftist professors. Most of the students at my university identify themselves as conservatives. But every year hundreds students come to us as de facto moral relativists. What went wrong? Why do they not articulate a conservative worldview?
They cannot think with a conservative worldview because they have had limited exposure to conservative values. Children spend thirteen years in a school system which was founded upon progressive ideals about education and which increasingly promotes statism. For eighteen years the entertainment industry communicated to them an equally progressive worldview. From all sides children are taught to believe in the inherent goodness of humankind and to cherish the values of tolerance and diversity. There is no good and evil; there is just diversity. There is no justice and truth; there is only tolerance for other opinions. Democracy has become a good in its own right instead of being founded upon virtue. When democracy becomes its own end, any atrocity can be justified by a majority vote.
The conservative movement must accept some of the blame. Conservatives have made short-term political gains, using sound bites and slogans, but we have not communicated the depths of our worldview. Conservatives champion democracy just as fervently as the progressives, but we do not explain that democracy must rest upon a consistent system of values, a system that tells the truth about humanity. Why neglect this fundamental task? Perhaps imparting the conservative worldview diverts money and energy from political battles, and we fear no one would listen anyway.
We few conservative professors do the best that we can to make students think clearly about the human condition and the nature of good and evil. Liberal professors, on the other hand, will merely bring consistency to a student’s inchoate relativism. I hope to see the number of conservative professors rise as young scholars begin to react against their mentors’ sacred cows, but conservative parents cannot wait for the cavalry. It might not come. Parents need to impart their worldview to their children before the college professors get a crack at them. Preparing children to think with proper moral categories takes intentionality. Parents need to recognize the problem and admit that their children do not necessarily understand their worldview. American culture will not do the work of explaining virtue. One day a cultural revival may occur in America, but that day has not happened yet.
If conservative Christian parents want their own children to be the hero of God Is Not Dead, then parents must make sure that their children understand their worldview. Worldview isn’t about specific policies. It isn’t about a particular stance on taxes, military spending, or immigration reform. Real conservatives can disagree with each other about all these issues. Worldview tells us what it means to be human and what it means to be virtuous. Unfortunately, conservatives too often pick a “conservative” position on a certain policy and then justify it using the language and tenets of progressivism. If I don’t want my children to grow up to be moral relativists, I need to make sure that I myself don’t sound like a moral relativist when I talk about the world.