Culture Wars

Copyright © 1998 John D. Beckett, Loving Monday: 61-64.

AS I ENTERED A NEW DIMENSION of spiritual understanding in the late 1960s, I began to realize how dramatically the culture in our nation was changing. By comparison, there was an innocence to the decade of the fifties, the years when I attended high school and college. Certainly there were problems, but such basic concepts as right and wrong, truth and falsehood, honor and dishonor, were better understood and accepted. They seemed to be woven into the fabric of society.

In the sixties these values were ripped from the social fabric. Our civility was jolted by the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the removal of prayer from schools, the Vietnam war, Woodstock, and radical unrest on college campuses. The turbulence of this period uncoupled much of our society from an already declining acceptance of traditional values, creating a legacy that today forcefully impacts the world of business. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the university classroom, as Charles Colson discovered in a visit to Harvard a few years ago.

As a guest speaker in an ethics course at the Harvard Business School, Colson, who was involved with the Watergate scandal and is now head of Prison Fellowship, addressed the abandonment of traditional and biblically based values. As he recounts in one of his books, he told the students that Harvard could never teach business ethics because the school did not believe in absolute values—the best it could do would be to teach pragmatic business judgments.

"You can't teach ethics here because you don't believe there are moral laws," he said. "But there are moral laws just as certain as there are physical laws. We are simply unwilling to admit it because it interferes with our desire to do whatever we please, and doing what we please has become the supreme virtue of our society. Places like Harvard, indeed Harvard of all institutions, propagate these kinds of values."

Colson's speech was met by passive silence, then polite applause. Anticipating a more hostile reaction, he later queried organizers of the event: "Why such a docile response?"

"The material you presented was totally new to them," said one young man. "They didn't have the tools to debate it" (Jack Eckerd and Charles Colson, Why America Doesn't Work).

Unchanging Truths

Absolute values. Moral laws. Such terminology presupposes a basis, a standard by which truth and falsehood are measured. Not so many years ago, the response to Colson's remarks would have been different. The sobering reality is that what business school students are now being taught is rooted not in unchanging truths but in moral relativism and situational ethics, depriving them of the kind of solid foundation they will need in their work. In contrast, as recently as in the 1920s, business publications like the Harvard Business Review regularly made reference to well-anchored truths transmitted through our nation's Judeo-Christian heritage.

As much as institutions like Harvard have strayed from our nation's historical cultural roots, the problem actually goes back much further. Discerning the tap root that still nourishes modern Western culture will help us understand more fully what is happening, not only in our elite business schools but in many of our modern businesses in the West. And it will help us gauge our own attitudes toward our work and callings.

To take on this somewhat philosophical topic, I will need to depart briefly from the narrative of my experiences in business. If you're like me, delving into philosophy requires some "heavy lifting." But I believe you will find it very worthwhile. For me, it has been nothing short of revolutionary to discover that a system of thought going back over three millennia has so affected the society in which we live and work today.

One more note of encouragement as you wade into the balance of this short section. Gaining clarity on this topic will also provide a good foundation for moving into Part Three of this book, "Applications." There I will relate landmark lessons we've learned, drawing from our efforts to integrate a culturally different, biblically based perspective into our day-to-day work. I trust you will readily see how it all fits together.

So keep your seat belt fastened. If you encounter some turbulence, it won't last. Before you know it, we'll be on our final approach for landing.