As I was leaving church following the recent tragedy in Newtown Connecticut one of my fellow parishioners stopped me and shook his head. “What is this world coming to? Is there any hope for our country?” he asked. I didn’t say anything, but just nodded. It was a tremendous tragedy and I wasn’t about to get in a debate there on the sidewalk.
Some of my conservative friends that I’ve talked to recently think that America in particular and the world in general is in a moral decline. It is common for them to compare America with ancient Rome. “We’re heading the same way as Constantine,” a Republican colleague said to me a few weeks ago.
Both these incidents got me thinking. Are we in a moral decline? Is evil more prevalent in our world than it was fifty years, 100 years, or even 1000 years ago? And who is to measure morality anyway? Christians? Jews? Muslims? Why should anyone have the final say on what is evil and what is good?
It is impossible to agree on the specifics of what is moral and what isn’t. For example: some people think drinking alcohol is a sin. For others it is a family tradition. Some think that rap music is misogynistic, others say that it just speaks to life on the street.
However, there are five areas of morality that almost all religions and creeds hold to. Whether you are from Venice Beach or the Vatican, these principles are as good a place as any to see how our society is doing morally.
All major religions and even secular creeds believe that it is wrong to kill a fellow human being; it is wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you; it is good to tell the truth; freedom of thought and action is a good thing, and it is best to treat others like you would want to be treated.
If one looks at these five principles objectively over the past century, contrary to what most conservatives believe, the world is slowly becoming a place that better values human life, that tries harder to tell the truth, gives freedom to more people, and is safer for both people and their property.
Some facts that my friends on the right like to ignore are that over the last 200 years the United States has become much less tolerant of things like racial inequality, sexual discrimination, police brutality, gender bias, child abuse, religious discrimination and slavery.
Positively, our society now more highly values racial and ethnic diversity, personal freedom, religious freedom, and the importance of finding out the truth about our leaders.
Just fifty years ago in the U.S. Blacks had their own inferior water fountains, women couldn’t aspire to head a company, our leader’s dalliances went unreported by the press, it was alright for parents to beat their children, and New York City was a festival of crime.
Today society has inched ever so slowly out of this past and has become a better place for most people. Sure there is plenty of crime to go around, and even new crimes of the computer age. But violent crime is down overall, and if you walk through Central Park you don’t have to look over your back.
In 1810 prominent abolitionist and minister Theodore Parker wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is as true today as it was 203 years ago.
So, sorry conservative friends and naysayers. It is not only more fun to be optimistic, but it is more truthful too. Society is evolving. Get on board.
— This post is part of a series by two local writers who discuss topics from a liberal and a conservative perspective. The companion post is here.