Britain is soul-searching after raging youth mobs, some among them not yet teens, left five people dead and property damages estimated at $325 million in five nights of anarchy.
In the rubble of the riots, the British are unearthing the lexicon of right and wrong.
Signs of renewed respect for the importance of marriage, family and religion emerged in a nation where 45 percent of children are born to single mothers and just 14 percent regularly attend church. Some leaders question the moral agnosticism that for a generation buried these bulwarks of the better angels of our nature.
“In this risk-free ground of moral neutrality there are no bad choices, just different lifestyles. People aren’t the architects of their own problems, they are victims of circumstance,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in an Aug. 15 speech. “(T)his moral neutrality, this relativism — it’s not going to cut it anymore.
”We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said, about everything from marriage to welfare to common courtesy,“ Cameron observed. “Sometimes the reasons for that are noble — we don’t want to insult or hurt people. So you can’t say that marriage and commitment are good things, for fear of alienating single mothers.“
But failing to say what needs to be said because we don’t always live up to our ideals disserves and disrespects single mothers and their children.
Fatherless children have a natural “father-hunger,“ says Wade Horn, who led the Administration for Children and Families under President George W. Bush. When adults treat single motherhood as normal, though, as has been the trend in the United Kingdom and the United States, it tells fatherless children the problem is their feelings, not the absence of their father. They’re forced to smother reasonable longing.
Later, some of these children will turn toward gangs to find the sense of family and community they didn’t get at home. Dying to Belong is the apt title of a report on gangs and youth violence from the U.K.’s Centre for Social Justice.
Similarly, failing to disclose the risks of having a child without a marriage isn’t fair to young women. Nor does it well serve the single mother to insist that a husband doesn’t really matter, that she can just as well go it alone.
Tell that to the single mom beside herself with anxiety because her 14-year-old son, cutting himself since pursuit of his biological father ended in rejection, has gone missing for 24 hours.
We weren’t designed to face such struggles alone. Which is why leaders’ respect for the support structures of marriage, family and faith is critical to help those at risk today and to prevent suffering from social breakdown in future generations.
As Britain’s Cameron urged, leaders also must say what needs to be said about standards of right and wrong, of conduct and courtesy. A week earlier, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter had some tough talk of his own this side of the Atlantic.
Nutter’s subject: the “flash mobs“ of 20 to 30 youths, some no older than 11 that randomly attacked shoppers and restaurant-goers in the City of Brotherly Love. One thug with brass knuckles punched a bicyclist, fracturing his skull.
His remarks wouldn’t be politically correct, Nutter warned the audience at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philly, where he has been a member 25 years. The mayor unequivocally condemned the violence (calling it “stupid“ seven times in a half-hour rebuke) and directed sharp words at responsible parties, particularly fathers.
To young people: “(I)f you want to act like an idiot, move; move out of this city. . . . Take those doggone hoodies down. . . . Pull your pants up and buy a belt.”
To parents: “Parents, get your act together. . . . You need to get hold of your kids before we have to.”
To fathers: “A father has to provide a structure to a young boy, on how to become a good man. . . . A father also has to be a good role model, and help a young girl be a strong woman.”
“(M)aybe you’re sending a check or bringing some cash by,” Nutter added. “That’s not being a father. You’re just a human ATM. . . . And if you’re not providing the guidance, and you’re not sending any money, you’re just a sperm donor.
“You can do better than that.”
The mayor is right. America can and must do better.
Changing the culture demands leaders who will say what needs to be said about right and wrong — and the importance of family and faith to teach us those truths.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Miami Herald