Public Virtue

 

Daily, public figures reveal their lack of basic human decency. This shame of our age displays itself constantly through the hour-long news cycle, with a sexual assault by an actor revealed at noon just before a politician’s unethical exploits hits the wire at 1:00, to be followed by shady dealings of the media itself in the 2:00 hour. Later that day we’ll find the failings of a sports star deliciously paired with the current faux pas of a B- list producer. By the evening, boorish comments from a social media star will begin to register, and there is sure to be some backlash. The evening will certainly bring troubled news from a corporation whose PR machine can’t keep the wrong story out of the news.

A portion of the deluge can be chalked up to the purveyors of news, whose responsibility to fill the networks’ time slots with controversy must impose a heavy burden. This week, I was at the gym on the stationary bike, and thus subjected to the cable news networks dueling stories. CNN and Fox News were competing for my attention with ticker crawls proclaiming “Fashion becomes Political”, and “Twitter Comments Spark Outrage”. They can’t churn out enough real news to pay the bills. I couldn’t pedal fast enough to escape.

There is more to the story than the coverage, though—the exhibits of bad character littered thought the public square are simply what happens when people who neglect character formation remain on display for longer than they can maintain the façade. Of course, few of them were given status because of their character in the first place. We give people fame and power in exchange for a very narrow set of skills (or because they have risen through serendipitous circumstances), and are surprised that such persons fail in tests of character. This surprise is perhaps the most hopeful part of the equation—perhaps something survives within us that truly does desire to see goodness from people.

And yet character formation remains neglected, not only by the famous folk, but by most people. Too few people have mentors helping them develop character, too few have practices that cultivate virtue and which restrain our vices. Humanity seems to recognize the importance of character, but to ignore the paths that lead to its formation.

This, too, makes me believe in the critical mission of the church.