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FIRST-PERSON: Martha Stewart & the personality ethic

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–The dominant news story for the first week of March has been Martha Stewart’s release from prison. Even as I write this column her story is being trumpeted on the front page of newspapers and prominently featured in publications from sea to shining sea.

There is something wrong in a country where a person who was convicted of obstructing justice and lying to the federal government is wildly popular.

The situation is compounded when, in Stewart’s case, the individual amassed insane wealth by demonstrating how to host the perfect dinner party and properly prepare roast duck.

If the obsessive coverage of Stewart’s release is not disturbing enough, there were regular reports on her status and well-being during her five-month incarceration. Expect a book on Stewart’s prison experience before the year is out. Anticipate it to be an instant best seller.

The popularity of an unethical personality like Martha Stewart is only a symptom of America’s problems — it is not the cause.

Obscured in the shadow cast by Stewart’s release from prison are the results of a recent survey titled “Parents Describe How They Raise Their Children.” The results are eye-opening.

The survey of 707 parents was conducted in November by The Barna Research Group.

Barna asked the parents to list the most important outcome they are devoted to helping their children experience. Only 4 percent responded with “helping to establish appropriate moral values.” In another query, Barna asked what parenting quality was needed in raising children. Only 1 percent answered having “integrity or good character.”

Perhaps the most disturbing discovery made by Barna was that there was little difference between Christian and non-Christian parents. (The survey included 366 professing born-again Christians.)

In the survey, Christian and non-Christian parents alike indicated that inculcating morality and exemplifying integrity are not issues of great importance when it comes to rearing children.

The survey uncovered America’s biggest problem, which according to author James Davison Hunter is that “character is dead.”

In his book, “The Death of Character,” the University of Virginia sociology and religious studies professor details the demise of character in American society and the enormous task that faces those who seek to resurrect it.

In Hunter’s estimation, character began to die in the early decades of the 20th century. Prior to this time Americans embraced the Protestant ethic. Character was defined in terms of integrity, honor, duty, sacrifice and responsibility.

There was a consensus in America that the transcendent values found in the Bible were good for individuals and society. Hunter writes, “[C]haracter does not require religious faith. But it does require the conviction of truth made sacred, abiding as an authoritative presence within the consciousness of life….”

As the American economy began to shift from industrial production to mass consumption, character was replaced with the personality ethic. Responsibility to family and society were exchanged for an emphasis on image, appearance, duty to self and personal fulfillment.

The current consensus in America is that there is no consensus when it comes to truth or values. Hence, the end now justifies the means for most in our country. And the end is to be happy, which is defined, more times than not, in material terms.

Martha Stewart epitomizes the personality ethic that dominates America. She tutors on the fine points of style and grace while obstructing justice and lying to government officials. And for all of that she is rewarded with fame and fortune.

Our most recent election indicates that America is again listing toward morality as a central tenet. “To have a renewal of character,” James Davison Hunter observed, “is to have a renewal of creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels.”

If character, anchored in transcendent values, is to be reestablished in America, it will require the rejection of the personality ethic exemplified in celebrities like Martha Stewart. Based on the domestic diva’s popularity, replacing the personality ethic with character will not be an easy task. However, if America is to survive and thrive, it must be done.
Kelly Boggs is pastor of the Portland-area Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore. His column appears each Friday in Baptist Press.

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  • Kelly Boggs