The Demise of Moral Authority

By Kreyche, Gerald F. | USA TODAY, September 1993 | Go to article overview
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The Demise of Moral Authority

Kreyche, Gerald F., USA TODAY

Most Americans understand authority as the right and power to command, enforce laws, and exact obedience. Since the 1960s, this sort of authority has been in deep trouble as places such as Miami, the Bronx, and Los Angeles all have vented their spleen against the forces of government and civilization.

There also is the authority that is the power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge. For instance, we have scholars, physicians, and accountants who, as authorities, can serve as expert witnesses in their respective fields. We used to regard such people as worthy of belief and trust. However, this type of authority also has been challenged as, in an increasingly egalitarian society, more and more people falsely hold the ideology that one person's opinion is as good as another's. The protests against both of the above are rooted in the charge that all authority is oppressive and conflicts with the rights of the individual to do and believe whatever each desires. At rock bottom, individuals want to dispense with all authority and set up only themselves as judge and jury. People mistakenly have confused authority for authoritarianism. It is the latter, not the former, that is the true enemy of freedom.

Perhaps even more important in the current value crisis is the ongoing demise of moral authority, which implies having a natural measure of control or influence over another. Presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln not only were the nation's civic authorities, but also were seen as moral leaders. In literature, authors such as Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace), Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities), and Emile Zola (I Accuse) exemplified moral authority in their writings.

The demise of moral authority was followed by the disappearance of uniforms that reminded us of this status. Few nuns wear habits today, and many clergy have abandoned clerical garb. Priests, instead of wearing a Roman Collar, now often sport a necklace!

Moral authority is not bestowed, but is based on right conduct and the depths of one's character and personal commitment. it is difficult to define exactly, as is the use of "moral" in "moral support" or "moral victory." Nonetheless, moral authority is a reality, and we know it when we see it.

The most pristine example probably is that privileged status loving parents have over their offspring that lasts throughout the lives of the family. In the service of moral authority, parents must give children what they need, rather than what they want. Today, even this venerable institution is under attack as children sue their parents and parents pass off their moral responsibilities onto impersonal agencies.

By law, Pres. Clinton is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, but, given his youthful draft protests, he lacks any moral authority over them.

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