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Cheating and Character: The Need for Authoritative Communities

Last week I discussed the cheating scandal at Harvard. In particular, I’m interested in what the alleged “unprecedented” cheating says about the state of our culture.

The answer is “quite a bit.” Not necessarily because the kids involved are typical or representative of American society as a whole, but because what is alleged to have happened points to the challenges involved in the “moral socialization of [our] young.”

That last phrase is from sociologist James Davison Hunter’s 2001 book, The Death of Character. Hunter wrote that “a restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present ...”

The key word there is “common.” While we can all point to individual examples of good character beyond reproach, the larger trends are not so encouraging.

The “social and cultural conditions” Hunter refers to involve what he calls “authoritative communities.” These communities make character possible by teaching the young to subordinate their own opinions and desires to what their respective communities require of them.

If this sounds “repressive” to you, congratulations; you get why the word “character” has been replaced by “personality.” Virtually from the founding, American individualism has struggled with the idea of “authoritative communities.” Liberty and freedom have often meant that you don’t have to subordinate your opinions and desires to anyone or anything.

Unfortunately, as Hunter documents, Christians were and are just as likely as their unbelieving neighbors to reject the idea of an authoritative community. When we insist that that our opinions and desires are shaped by the Bible and our relationship with God, we’re usually invoking an authoritative community of one — that is, ourselves.

Hunter points out that this rejection of authoritative communities matters because character and morality are “always situated.” That means that they’re the product of traditions, “defined by specific moral, philosophical, or religious truths,” and reinforced by “social habit and routine within social groups and communities.”

All of these work together to “[bind] our conscience and behavior” in ways that produce character.

The ultimate “authoritative community” is, of course, the church. At least in theory, the church is where, through word and sacrament, prayer and fellowship, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are conformed to the image of God’s beloved son day by day.

That’s the theory, at least. The reality is often very different. If anything, the individualism of American Christianity has gone into overdrive. There’s no shortage of authors and books who insist that you don’t really need the church to be a Christian, at least not one that would have anything resembling the final or even penultimate say over your opinions and desires.

The need to recover the church as an authoritative community was a priority for Chuck Colson in the least years of his life. While it first surfaced in his 1992 book, Being The Body, it came to dominate his thinking in books like The Faith.

Chuck knew that if Christians struggled with the idea of an “authoritative community,” then it was silly to expect non-Christians to act as if they lived in one. Which is why events like those at Harvard should not surprise us. Sadden us, yes. Surprise us, no.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: September 24, 2012

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