Civic virtue — or the loss of civic virtue — doesn’t make the top 10 list of issues pollsters ask voters to rank. But I suspect many, if not most, Americans are doing a fair amount of private handwringing these days about our collective descent into the proverbial mud.
In the brave new world of presidential politics, personal attacks, insults and ridicule are becoming the new normal. Protesters shout down candidates, partisans get into violent confrontations and users of social media create daily streams of vitriol and hate.
The easy answer, of course, is to blame Donald Trump. After all, Trump has broken every unspoken rule about how presidential candidates speak and behave (apparently a significant part of his appeal). Because Trump hurls insults, intimidates the media, mocks the disabled, the argument goes, the lid is off for the rest of us to do likewise.
But did Trump create the current climate — or did the current climate create Trump? Perhaps soul-searching about how we got to this unfortunate place should begin by asking the American people to take a good, hard look in the mirror.
After all, “we the people” give high ratings to angry radio talk show hosts, shock jocks, reality-show shouting matches and popular entertainment filled with images that demean and dehumanize others.
Of course, the loss of virtue — the inattention to character — in much of our culture is only one factor in the coarsening of our political arena. But it helps explain how an outrageous reality TV star can successfully transition to an outrageous presidential candidate aided and abetted by media outlets eager to cover demagoguery and bad behavior in pursuit of higher ratings.
If Americans continue to ignore or devalue core civic virtues such as commitment to civil discourse, respect for the rights of others, concern for the common good and compassion for those in need, our experiment in democratic freedom is doomed.
“Liberty can no more exist without virtue,” warned John Adams, “than the body can live and move without a soul.”
Absent civic virtue, ideological differences lead to censorship, as is the case on many college campuses today. Absent civic virtue, religious differences trigger anger and violence, inflicting harm on minority religious groups. Absent civic virtue, school board and city council hearings degenerate into shouting matches, tearing apart communities. In short, absent civic virtue, freedom is no longer free.
Reversing the decline in our collective commitment to civic virtue will not be easy — especially in the year of the anything-goes presidential campaign.
But if we take the long view, there is something we can do to prepare the next generation to do better: Make sure that every school teaches and models civic virtues and good character as a core part of its educational mission.
Earlier this month, while grownups were shouting past each other at the Democratic convention in Nevada, young people of strong civic character were being celebrated in Washington, DC.
At a press event on May 17, Character.org, a national organization that supports character development in schools, workplaces and communities, designated 68 schools and four districts from 15 states as National Schools and Districts of Character. (Full disclosure: I am a founding board member of Character.org.)
If you want to feel hopeful about the future of democratic freedom in America, visit a School of Character (the complete list of past and current honorees can be found at www.Character.org). From the moment you walk in the door, you can tell that this is a place where young people and adults care about one another.
In Schools of Character, students, teachers, administrators, staff and parents collaborate to create a shared commitment to core ethical values that are taught and modeled throughout the school culture. Students participate in service-learning projects, develop the skills of civil dialogue, learn to address differences with understanding and respect, and in many other ways, prepare to be engaged, ethical citizens in a democracy.
Educating for civic virtue works: In Schools of Character, bullying is rare, cheating declines, test scores go up, drop out rates are low, attendance and graduation rates are high. Isn’t that the learning environment we want for every student in every school?
Legislatures and courts alone cannot protect our fundamental freedoms, especially the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Our freedom is ultimately sustained by the civic virtue of citizens.
“Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people,” wrote George Washington. “The general government can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people.”
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center.