A Nation at War: Liberal Mayor Eric Adams Hints at Root Cause of America’s Culture of
Liberal Democrat Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, recently raised more than a few eyebrows when he observed, “When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.” While the mayor’s traditional liberal allies expressed concern with his words, his remarks should be the cause of significant reflection for a nation soaked in violence that echoes other carnage across the globe.
During my years in Congress in the 2010s, I received regular Global War on Terror updates from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that published frequent reports on Afghanistan and Iraq. The violence and deaths the ISW reported were all too routine; that, tragically, is the nature of war.
The effect is the same: shock, terror, and families left with a lifetime of grief.
Those ISW reports came to mind after the May 2022 attack at the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school that left 21 dead, 19 of whom were children. That horror came less than two weeks after another attack killed 10 at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. Like the mayhem reported in ISW’s updates, these are not events seen in a nation at peace. The Highland Park, Illinois, attack barely a month later, which killed seven and wounded dozens more on the Fourth of July, reinforced the sense of a nation in the midst of a war.
Whether an IED blows up a market or mosque in Iraq or Afghanistan or a madman mows down innocents with a gun or car at a school, supermarket, parade, or place of worship in America, the effect is the same: shock, terror, and families left with a lifetime of grief. Think of the nightmare that came to Pittsburgh in 2018, when a Jew-hating gunman opened fire inside a synagogue during Shabbat services, killing 11. In the back of our minds lurks the fear that any one of us could be a victim of such an attack.
More than four decades ago, the band Talking Heads released its classic song “Life During Wartime,” which describes a dystopian existence:
Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway,
A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance,
I’m getting used to it now
Despite the frequent recurrence of today’s violent acts, our revulsion confirms that we are not “getting used” to them. When these attacks involve firearms, politicians often rush to blame the guns. Indeed, in 2022, the U.S. House passed a bill — which went nowhere in the Senate — that banned the “possession, sale, or transfer” of certain semiautomatic firearms that millions of Americans already own. This bill came after President Joe Biden signed other legislation after the Uvalde shooting that expanded background checks and promoted “red flag” laws, the latter of which raise constitutional due process concerns.
Missing, however, from any of these legislative initiatives is any attempt to address the root causes of the violence epidemic. While gun control advocates quickly cite the ready availability of firearms after each mass shooting, they fail to mention that those same firearms were available six decades ago, and yet no such slaughter regularly occurred. So, if access to and types of firearms have remained the same, what changed?
One obvious difference, as Adams’ words suggest, is the waning of institutions that could instill and develop character, virtue, and values in our citizenry. Most importantly, decades ago, families were stronger and more stable. Houses of worship were full, and they generally taught and supported the bedrock Judeo-Christian moral values that developed out of millennia of thought and experience. Public school and municipal buildings posted the Ten Commandments. And the moral teachings and values these institutions fostered, such as the wrongness of killing, stealing, cheating, lying, adultery, etc., permeated our society.
Compounding the collapse of moral teaching, we simultaneously have faced a flood of debauchery washing over American society, courtesy of the American entertainment industry. Murder, mayhem, pornography, and other immorality, depicted in film, music, internet, or other mass media, became and remains commonplace and readily available, even to youth.
The question is not whether morality can be taught but whose morality should be taught.
In a 1798 letter, Founding Father John Adams wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The California-based John Adams Academy, elaborating, says, “Morality and virtue are the foundation of our republic and necessary for a society to be free.” John Adams’ admonition echos that of our first president, George Washington, who, in his 1796 farewell address, said that “[o]f all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
While George Washington, John Adams, and the founders understood that our form of limited constitutional government requires a moral people, the collapse of our common morality has made all of us vulnerable to the types of violent attacks we now witness. Simply put, a religious and moral person, by definition, does not walk into a school with an AR-15 deciding who lives and who dies that day.
Of the many solutions policymakers have proposed to address our epidemic of violence — from constructing economic recovery packages for distressed communities to increasing funding for drug treatment and interdiction efforts to hiring more police to enacting more gun control — I am unaware of any substantive proposals to address the moral breakdown in society. Perhaps there should be, and, for starters, we should educate students about the character and virtues needed for a free society. This could be done in the context of civics classes designed to teach children about the founding of our country, which should necessarily include a Lincoln-style emphasis on the importance and transcendent nature of the truths contained within the Declaration of Independence.
There may be some who would argue that teaching character, virtue, and morality in schools would be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Those arguments fail, however, when you consider that an alternative, relativistic morality is currently being taught in schools and has been since at least the 1970s. And, of course, morality can be found in speech codes aimed at stopping bullying and hate speech. The question is not whether morality can be taught but whose morality should be taught.
It is a good that Americans continue to be shocked by wanton acts of violence. But if we want to move toward a society in which such acts are few, then we should begin to look at means to change the culture so as to restore the common morality we shared decades ago. Part of that includes teaching the ethics, morals, and virtues that were common then, when, despite the availability of the same guns and ammunition magazines we have today, these acts of mass violence were simply unthinkable.
Keith Rothfus represented Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District between 2013 and 2019. He and his family live in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRothfus.