Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Moral Center: How We Can Reclaim Our Country from Die-Hard Extremists, Rogue Corporations, Hollywood Hacks, and Pretend Patriots by Daniel Callahan








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According to Daniel Callahan’s The Moral Center, self-interest is the root of the deterioration in moral values in most aspects of American life. Personally, I’ve thought that it was permitting right turns on red signals that led to the pervasiveness of putting oneself first at all times in all places. If it’s ok to ignore a red light sometimes, why not all the time? Callahan has a finger that points at many of us, and that can become uncomfortable at times. His solutions seem somewhat tired, but reading The Moral Center helps stimulate thinking on this subject. Here’s an excerpt, from Chapter 2, “Family Matters,” pp. 44-51:


In the sweep of history, married couples in America are far better off than they were a century or even a half cen­tury ago. Life is better for nearly all families thanks to modern medicine, indoor plumbing, electricity, larger homes, and so on. As Stephanie Coontz has pointed out in The Way We Never Were, spouses used to die on each other all the time from diseases like polio and tuberculosis, (Early deaths broke up more marriages in the nineteenth century than divorce does now.) Also, poverty rates were much higher fifty years ago, and per capita income was much lower. Given all this, it seems silly to say that eco­nomic hardship is behind the high divorce rate. Yet if the pressure cooker is less hot in absolute terms, the squeeze on many couples is still intense—and seems to be growing in some ways~ Stressed-out parents have become such a staple of research studies and bestselling books that some­times it seems as though married America is having a col­lective nervous breakdown, Times may have been rockier in the past, but they are plenty rocky today. What’s differ­ent now is that there is far more focus on self-gratification and far less need to be in a family. So it is more tempting than ever to call it quits as soon as life pressures kick in and a marriage turns difficult.

No one knows how to roll back individualism, which has been gaining steam for three centuries, and no one wants to go back to a time when strong blood ties made the difference between life and death, On the other hand, we do know this: Better-off, more educated people are more likely to stay married. We also know that the divorce rate for this group has been declining. This points to at least one sure way to bolster family life: use public policy to reduce financial stresses on married couples.

Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?

If only. Families have gotten little help in coping with mounting economic pressures. You can see this right out­side the front door of Focus on the Family. A recent study by a Colorado state agency estimated that the hourly wage a person needs to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Col­orado Springs is $14.12. Many jobs pay much less than this, The study estimated how many combined hours a week a couple in that city would have to work at minimum wage to afford the apartment: 110. In Denver and Boulder it was closer to 150 hours. As in so many other parts of the country, family incomes have not risen as fast as housing prices in the state. “The bottom line is that many Col­oradans cannot afford a home;’ the study concluded.21

Things are even more Darwinian when it comes to health insurance. If you don’t have coverage through your job, you’re in big trouble, The average cost of a family pre­mium in Colorado is more than $10,000—too much money for many working families, Medicaid, the health insurance program for poor Americans, can’t fill the gap. This program was never designed to help those with jobs and, in any case, Republicans in the state legislature have starved Medicaid to the point that Colorado ranks second to last in the breadth of its coverage. Without any health coverage, many families rely on emergency rooms and free clinics, but these services are in scarce supply, too.

The legislature doesn’t just underfund Medicaid, it also has never fully funded the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is designed to cover children of working families. And, just for good measure, it has sometimes re­fused to fund the state Earned Income Tax Credit, which works in tandem with the federal EITC to ensure that par­ents who work do well enough to meet the basic needs of their family. (President Reagan once called the EITC “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.”)

To a visitor from outer space—or Western Europe— the shabby treatment of families by America’s “pro-family” politicians might seem impossible to fathom. How can it be that these leaders talk endlessly of family values, only to leave families at the mercy of soulless economic forces that fracture marriages and hurt children?

This paradox is less inscrutable to anyone who knows America, We don’t like to mess with the free market here, even to help families. And we tend to deny how much eco­nomic change has altered family life. This is why most parents are now in the workforce—mostly out of necessity— and yet the United States still lacks affordable child care or paid parental leave. This is why we can slowly wave good­bye to employer-provided health insurance and the average cost of a family premium can soar into five figures, yet few families get help on this front,

The American love affair with capitalism, whatever the human toll, is well known. Less understood is the exact con­stellation of values that makes Americans so brilliant at gen­erating wealth and innovation—and so inept at protecting families from the downside of economic competition.


I got some insight to this paradox when I headed south from Colorado to the far more conservative state of Texas, In Dallas, I had a long talk with Ann Hettinger, who is the North Texas director of Concerned Women for Amer­ica. Founded in 1978, CWA got going when Beverly LeHaye, a born-again Christian, saw an interview with Betty Friedan on television. LeHaye fumed as she watched Friedan talk up the Equal Rights Amendment, and she decided that feminists shouldn’t be allowed to speak on be­half of American women. LeHaye set out to fight the “anti­God and anti-family” forces gaining strength in America, and to bring biblical principles into public policy. CWA started “prayer/action” chapters around the country and within three years had 100,000 members. Its first mission was to defeat the ERA, It also led fights against abortion, pornography, sex education, and the “homosexual move­ment:’ At one point, CWA members deluged the presidents of the three major television networks with two million postcards opposing condom advertising on TV.

By 1987 CWA had enough juice that President Rea­gan spoke at its annual convention. Today, CWA is a grass­roots powerhouse that’s more than twice the size of the National Organization of Women, with an eleven-million-dollar annual budget, five hundred prayer/action chapters nationwide, and 500,000 members. It rightly calls itself “the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization.”

Hettinger is a charming woman in her late sixties who grew up in rural Texas. She is a lapsed Democrat and a born-again Southern Baptist. Her husband is a partner in a major Dallas law firm, and when Hettinger is not doing her unpaid CWA work, she spends much of her time car­ing for her grandchildren. Family and faith are everything to Hettinger, and she sees herself as defending the family as God ordained it—the traditional nuclear family of a fa­ther, a mother, and children.

Hettinger readily acknowledges that economic changes have dealt the family a major blow. She traces the rising di­vorce rate back to World War II and later to women’s entry into the workforce. “Then you had the two-income family, where mother has to work here and father has to work there, and they don’t have any time for their children. Their ways parted, just like that, . . . In my day, in the area where I grew up, it took mother and father and all the chil­dren to make a home:’ Hettinger worked long hours along­side both her parents to bring chickens to market and can vegetables for the winter. “We were a family that worked together. We were a manufacturing unit. We took care of one another.”

Hettinger longs for the day when women will give up the career track and recommit themselves to their “God-given role of taking care of the family:’ But she admits this isn’t financially possible for most couples and doesn’t think that will change anytime soon. “The economy is not going to turn around so that more mothers can stay home with their children;’ she admits. Through her own grown daugh­ters, Hettinger knows well the struggles facing families, Does that mean she supports more active government help for families, like child-care subsidies? No. “Children are not wards of the state;’ Hettinger says. “Children are wards of their mother and their father.”

As an example of how working parents might cope with the challenge of keeping their kids out of child care, Hettinger cites a couple she knows where the woman works nights and the man works days. “Their children are never in day care, because one of them is with them all the time.” (Where sleep fits into this picture wasn’t clear.)

Hettinger’s views track closely with those of millions of Americans and underscore the enduring strength of tradi­tional values in the United States, If you watch television or go to the movies or live on either coast, it is easy to imagine that traditionalism is not so strong in America, Conservatives themselves often paint a picture of a godless nation hooked on drugs and pornography. The reality is different. ‘America is one of the most traditional societies in the world;’ writes sociologist Wayne Baker, drawing on data from the World Values Survey. “Moreover, America’s traditional values have remained relatively unchanged over two decades.”22

These values have persisted even as Americans have often practiced something else and even as they have grown more accepting of different lifestyles. For example, nearly three-quarters of respondents in one poll agreed that “we should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards even if we think they are wrong.” Americans don’t like to judge others.23

The United States is unusual in its traditionalism, Typically when countries get rich they dump traditional­ism overboard for a “secular-rational” mind-set, an out­look that fosters pragmatic policy approaches to family and sex. The World Values Survey shows this trend in one country after another. Not here. Americans have all the social disruption that comes with advanced capitalism, and then some, but little of the rationalism. Mom now has to work—and often wants to work—but we long for the good old days when she could stay home with the kids. We long so much for those days that we won’t adapt to reality. America is the most individualistic, hedonistic, workaholic society on earth. But, because of the sway of traditionalists, we can’t think straight about managing these conditions when it comes to our most important social institution, the family.


In seven chapters of The Moral Center, Callahan explores self-interest in these areas: family, sex, media, crime, work, poverty, and patriotism. In a moderate and reasoned way, Callahan tries to point us in a direction toward restoring a common moral life.


Steve Hopkins, December 18, 2006



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