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Hello, fellow wayfarers … What happened to the Christian insistence that "character matters" … Why pornography deadens sexuality … How churches can address what smartphones are doing to Gen Z (and to the rest of us) … A Desert Island Playlist from Malaysia … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

Why Character Doesn’t Matter Anymore

I guess Ned Flanders goes to strip clubs now.

Until this week, I hadn’t thought about the caricatured born-again Christian neighbor on the animated series The Simpsons in a long time. New York Times religion reporter Ruth Graham mentioned him and his "cheerful prudery" as examples—along with Billy Graham and George W. Bush—of what were once the best-known evangelical Christian figures in the country. Indeed, a 2001 Christianity Today cover story dubbed the character "Saint Flanders." Evangelical Christians knew that Ned’s "gosh-darn-it" moral demeanor was meant to lampoon us, and that his "traditional family values" were out of step with an American culture this side of the sexual revolution.

But Ned was no Elmer Gantry. He actually aspired to the sort of personal devotion to prayer, Bible reading, moral chastity, and neighbor-love evangelicals were supposed to want, even if he did so in a treacly, ultra-suburban, middle-class North American way. As Graham points out, were he to emerge today, Flanders would face withering mockery for his moral scruples—but more likely by his white evangelical co-religionists than by his beer-swilling secular cartoon neighbors.

As Graham says, a raunchy "boobs-and-booze ethos has elbowed its way into the conservative power class, accelerated by the rise of Donald J. Trump, the declining influence of traditional religious institutions and a shifting media landscape increasingly dominated by the looser standards of online culture." (This newsletter you are reading right now represents something of this shift, as I’ve spent upward of 15 minutes pondering how to quote Graham’s article without using the word boobs.)

Graham’s analysis is important for American Christians precisely because the shift she describes is not something "out there" in the culture but is instead driven specifically by the very same white evangelical subculture that once insisted that personal character—virtue, to use a now distant-sounding word the American founders knew well—matters.

Yes, part of the vulgarization of the Right is due to the Barstool Sports / Joe Rogan secularization of the base, in which Kid Rock is an avatar more than Lee Greenwood or Michael W. Smith. But much more alarmingly, the coarsening and character-debasing is happening among politicized professing Christians. The member of Congress joking at a prayer breakfast about turning her fiancé down for sex to get there was there to talk about her faith and the importance of religious faith and values for America. The member of Congress telling a reporter to "f— off" is a self-described "Christian nationalist." We’ve seen "Let’s Go Brandon" a euphemism for a profanity that once would have resulted in church discipline—chanted in churches.

Pastor and aspiring theocrat Douglas Wilson publicly used a slur against women that not only will I not repeat here but that almost no secular media outlet would quote—and that’s without even referencing Wilson’s creepily coarse novel about a sex robot. Wilson, of course, cultivates a cartoonishly "Aren’t we naughty?" vibe not representative of most evangelical Christians.

But the problem is the way many other Christians respond: "Well, I wouldn’t say things the way he says them, but …" In the same way, they characterize as just "mean tweets" Donald Trump attacking those claiming to be sexually assaulted by him for their looks or war heroes for being captured or disabled people for their disabilities or valorizing those who attack police officers and ransack the Capitol as "hostages."

What’s worse is that evangelical Christians—including some I listened to pontificate endlessly about Bill Clinton’s sexual immorality (pontifications with which I agreed then and agree now)—ridicule as pearl-clutching moralists those who refuse to do exactly what they condemned Clinton’s defenders for doing, namely, weighting policy agreement over personal character.

In the midst of the late-1990s Clinton scandal, a group of scholars issued a "Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency," which stated:

We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy.

Those words seem far more distant than a Tocqueville quote now.

Our situation today would be understandable in a world in which words that come out of a person don’t represent what’s present in the heart, or in a world in which external conduct can be severed from internal character. The problem is that such an imagined world is one in which there is no Word of God. Jesus, after all, taught us the exact opposite, explicitly and repeatedly (Matt. 15:10–20; Luke 6:43–45).

Ironically, some of the very people who advance the myth of a "Christian America," in which the American founders are retrofitted as conservative evangelicals, now embrace a view that both the orthodox Christians and the deist Unitarians of the founding era would, in full agreement, denounce. From The Federalist Papers to the debates around the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, virtually every Founding Father—even with all their differences on the specifics of federalism—would argue that constitutional procedures and policies alone were not enough to conserve a republic: Moral norms and expectations of some level of personal character were necessary.

Do these norms keep people of bad character from ascending to high office? Not at all. Hypocrites and demagogues have always been with us. What every generation of Americans have recognized until now, though, is that there is a marked difference between some leaders not living up to the character expected of them and leaders operating in a space where there aren’t expectations of personal character. You might hire an accountant to do your taxes, only later to find that he’s a tax fraud and an embezzler. That’s quite different from hiring an open fraud because you’ve concluded that only chumps obey the tax laws.

That’s because no leader of any community, association, or nation is an abstract collection of policies. We select leaders to make decisions about matters that haven’t happened yet, or that might not even be contemplated. A dentist who screams profanities at opponents and promises a practice built around "revenge and retribution" and the tearing down of all the norms of modern dentistry is not someone you should trust with a drill in your mouth. How much more so when it comes to entrusting a person with nuclear codes.

Moreover, what conservatives in general, and Christians in particular, once knew is that what is normalized in a culture becomes an expected part of that culture. Defending a president using his power to have sex with his intern by saying, "Everybody lies about sex" isn’t just a political argument; it changes the way people think about what, in the fullness of time, they should expect for themselves. This is what Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously called "defining deviancy down."

Louisianans defending their support for a Nazi propagandist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan because he’s allegedly "pro-life" is not just a "lesser of two evils" political transaction. The words pro-life Nazi—like the words pro-life sexual abuser—change the meaning of pro-life in the minds of an entire generation.

No matter what short-term policy outcomes you then "win," you’ve ended up with a situation in which some people believe authoritarianism and sexual assault can be offset by the right "policy platform," while others believe that opposing abuse of power or sexual anarchy must necessitate oppose being "pro-life." Either way you look at that, you lose.

What happens long-term with your policies in a post-character culture is important. What happens to your country is even more important. But consider also what happens to you. "If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual," C. S. Lewis wrote. "But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilization, compared with his, is only a moment."

The Bible not only warns us about what character degradation—from immorality to boastfulness to heartlessness and ruthlessness—can do to the souls of those practicing such things, but also about the ruinous effect on those who "approve of those who practice them" (Rom. 1:32).

Ned Flanders is not, and never was, the Christian ideal. Personal piety and upstanding morality are not enough. But we should ask the question—if The Simpsons were written today and wished to make fun of evangelical Christians, would the caricature be someone inordinately devoted to his family, to prayer, to churchgoing, to kindness to his neighbors, to the awkward purity of his speech? Or would Ned Flanders be a screaming partisan, a violent insurrectionist, a woman-ogling misogynist, or an abusive pervert?

Would that change be because the secular world has grown more hostile to Christians? Perhaps. Or would it be because, when the secular world looks at the public face of Christianity, they wouldn’t dream to think now of Ned Flanders but only of one more leering face at the strip club?

If we are hated for attempted Christlikeness, let’s count it all joy. But if we are hated for our cruelty, our sexual hypocrisy, our quarrelsomeness, our hatefulness, and our vulgarity, then maybe we should ask what happened to our witness.

Character matters. It is not the only thing that matters. But without character, nothing matters.

Porn Culture as Cannibalism

Speaking of strip clubs, I was reading the philosopher Byung-Chul Han this week. That sentence is not one I ever expected to write, but I was struck by Han’s discussion in his book The Disappearance of Rituals on the subject of pornography. "Porn kills off sexuality and eroticism more effectively than moral repression ever could have hoped to," Han writes.

He points to a movie, Nymphomaniac (let me quickly reassure you that I haven’t seen this film, so I am taking his word for it), which he argues makes the point with its mystery-less presentation of explicit sex through the message "Forget about sex." The film, he writes, reduces the human beings involved to their "parts" and thus renders those parts as attractive as those "of any other mammal."

"In Latin, meat is caro," Han writes. "In the post-sexual age, pornography is so intensified as to become carography."

The point Han is making is one Christians should recognize immediately. The major challenges to a Christian view of personhood have always been those that sought to sever the biological and spiritual aspects of a human person—the very distinctions that make us "wayfarers" in creation, groaning, as it is, for liberation from futility (Rom. 8:19–23). Some counter-Christian views try to degrade our bodily existence with the idea that what’s really you is only the spiritual, immaterial aspect—your soul or your mind. Others try to degrade the spiritual aspect of existence—what’s really you is your nervous system, your cognitive apparatus, your bodily appetites. Both lead to the same place: They put us out of our mystery.

Christians should also recognize the results Han identifies. The decoupling of sex from intimacy does not give people more of what they long for, of what God created to be good, but less. Anything created for communion (like, say, the fruit of a tree within a garden) can be twisted into something merely consumed by the appetite. The result is not so much life that God resents it, the way we tend to think. The result instead is deadness, a withering away into a self that can’t even be a self, rent apart from genuine connection to the world beyond the self. Pieces and parts of human beings—real or digital—can’t create that connection; only persons can, and, like the baby in Solomon’s court, persons can’t be split asunder into pieces and used as parts.

Almost every time many of us teach about the Scriptural warnings of following "the flesh," we make a point to emphasize that "flesh" here does not mean the body, in the sense that somehow what’s skin and bones about us is evil. It’s right to make that point, because to leave that false impression would be to deny the Incarnation itself. The problem, though, is our misunderstanding, not the wording of the prophets and apostles.

When "the flesh," the creaturely, biological aspect of our selves, is disconnected from what is more than that—the possibility of communion with God and with other more-than-just-mammal persons—the end result is the negation of life itself. In unhitching the appetites from what they point to, the sign from that which is signified, a person ends up not magnifying what he or she is seeking but bargaining it away.

As the apostle Paul put it, "For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Rom. 8:6, ESV).

Smartphones Are Killing Our Kids. What Can We Do?

I will write about this more later, but Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, releases next week. Yesterday I recorded a podcast with him, which will air in a couple of weeks, posing some of the questions I’d received from listeners since our last conversation back in the fall.

Many people ask, "Well, doesn’t every generation think that some technology is going to mess up their kids?" Haidt shows in the book, and on our podcast, how different smartphones are from previous technologies such as television or radio. He argues that one difference, apart from the overwhelming evidence about the unique harm of this kind of "rewiring," is that those previous panics were of one generation about another, not those of the generation about themselves.

When in the 1940s people said that comic books were a danger to young people, Haidt argues, comic-book–reading adolescents didn’t agree with that assessment. For those of us who grew up watching way too much television (I can recite from heart both hymns and sitcom theme songs, and for the same reason: I heard both over and over and over), the grown-ups might have thought this was bad for us, but we didn’t think so. Haidt shows, though, with overwhelming data, how Gen Zers themselves are reporting that smartphones are harming their mental health.

The problem is, what then? The collective-action problem is that a single adolescent without a smartphone doesn’t improve much, if anything. As a matter of fact, he or she might then be disconnected from countless conversations his or her friends are having—making mental health problems worse. At the same time, there’s nothing a family can do about society; if we wait for that, we will just give up.

Haidt recommends, though, ways that smaller communities of people can create peer-group cultures resistant to rewiring. I mentioned to him a new book by Darren Whitehead, pastor of Church of the City in Franklin, Tennessee, near where I live, called The Digital Fast: 40 Days to Detox Your Mind and Reclaim What Matters Most, in which he discusses leading his congregation to a commitment to break free of smartphones—not forever but just for a period of time roughly coinciding with what some Christians observe as Lent.

No one claims that this is a panacea, but it might be a start. First of all, a congregation-wide emphasis can at least attempt to create groups of peers who are doing this all at the same time. It’s just for a limited time, so the commitment is not as great as That’s it; I’m done! It’s possible that this could have the same effect as, say, "Dry January" does for some people. People who aren’t at all willing to swear off drinking alcohol forever sometimes cease for one month, because their friends are. Many go right back to the same patterns they had before, come February. But some of them reflect on how hard it was to abstain, prompting them to reconsider their own reliance on the substance.

That approach to digital detox might not be the right one for your church, but, even if not, it might prompt you to start asking the question of what could work.

Desert Island Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. This week’s submission comes from reader Stephen Cheong from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

RDM Warning to Readers: This is the first Desert Island Playlist to include Michael Bolton so I plan to hum "This is the tale of Captain Jack Sparrow / Pirate so brave on the seven seas (What?) / A mystical quest to the Isle of Tortuga / Raven locks sway on the ocean’s breeze" just to get us in the island vibe.

  • "Speechless" by Steven Curtis Chapman: Probably the pick of SCC’s influence from when I was a teenager … clear and to-the-point lyrical concept plus all the different guitar parts/rhythms to analyze!

  • "Elijah" by Rich Mullins: "It won’t break my heart to say goodbye"—he definitely lived his lyrics and it still challenges me to consider when I can say the same.

  • "Go the Distance" by Michael Bolton: "I will search the world, I will face its harms / ’Til I find my hero’s welcome, waiting in your arms." I want this to be sung at my funeral.

  • "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper: "If you fall, I will catch you, I’ll be waiting." I’ve always thought of this song as a love letter from the Father.

  • "Encircling" by Iona: I can trace my musical taste/style to "before Iona" vs. "after Iona." Hearing this song literally changed my life … I never knew music could be like this—epic lengths, strange time signatures, huge dynamic range.

  • "The Ringbearers" by Dave Brons: Iona’s spiritual successor, with a special focus on Tolkien-inspired songs. Lyrically, this was like water in the desert during COVID-19.

  • "Hope Is the Anthem" by Switchfoot: Another COVID-era lyrical lifeboat. "My heartbeat, my oxygen / My banner, my home / My future, my song / Your hope is the anthem of my soul."

  • "Come Back Soon" / "Don’t You Want to Thank Someone" / "The Good Confession (I Believe)" by Andrew Peterson: Can’t decide between these three … all of them express a longing that I feel more and more as I get older.

  • "Joy" by Dave Beegle: Rock/fingerstyle take on "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring." One of my first tastes of instrumental guitar music … I’m still learning how to play it!

  • "Broken Sky / Long Day (Reprise)" by The Neal Morse Band: I don’t know any other song that captures the whole range of the human life struggle (and hope) like this one. And a killer melody and solo that builds to such a climax … listening to it feels like what the climax of a worship service is (or could be).

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like, along with the city and state from which you’re writing.

Quote of the Moment

"Implicit in the word ‘character’ is a story. It is a story about living for a purpose that is greater than the self. Though this purpose resides deeply within, its origins are outside the self and so it beckons one forward, channeling one’s passions to mostly quiet acts of devotion, heroism, sacrifice, and achievement. … For parents and other adults the task of ‘saving our children’ means, in large part, telling children what they are being saved for."

—James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character

Currently Reading (or Re-Reading)

Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories (Penguin)

Cal Newport, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout (Portfolio)

Owen Barfield, Unancestral Voice (Barfield Press)

Brad P. Irwin, with Tim Perry, After Dispensationalism: Reading the Bible for the End of the World (Lexham)

Byung-Chul Han, The Disappearance of Rituals (Polity)

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
Editor in Chief

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