Character, Community & the Church Cherie Harder
Monday, March 12, 2012


James Q. Wilson’s death last weekend generated a flurry of rightfully laudatory tributes. Wilson was perhaps the most respected political scientist of his generation. His scholarship reshaped approaches to crime prevention and policing, and reaffirmed the importance of virtue for the public good, as well as personal flourishing.

At a time when academic research favored materialistic and Marxist explanations for human behavior, Wilson’s emphasis on character and virtue was seen by some as quaint or partisan. His manner and methodology – rigorously empirical, quick to acknowledge the limits of research results, measured and even winsome – not only disarmed some of his critics, but helped reframe academic and public discourse on public administration to more deeply consider the moral and cultural factors that shaped individuals and societies.

His research also led to conclusions with spiritual implications: that character is formed within a web of community, that habit shapes the mind, heart, and will, and that human beings were imprinted with “a moral sense” that required cultivation and reinforcement. Such conclusions, rooted in biblical wisdom ultimately encourage vastly different public policies than determinism, Marxism, and even radical individualism.

The profound implications of Wilson’s work become all the more pronounced when considering the recent work of another renowned social scientist, Charles Murray. In Coming Apart, Murray argues that the most significant and corrosive division in America is cultural, rather than financial – and that the former often breeds the latter.

In fact, Murray asserts, often counter-intuitively, that “family, vocation, faith, and community” are in far better shape among the wealthy than the working class, that the erosions of these institutions and supports have accelerated and exacerbated financial divisions, and that connections between communities have broken down, such that neighborhoods have become more homogenous along financial and cultural lines, such that those born into a broken family of little means have far greater distance to travel – both geographically and culturally – to find other models.

If Wilson and Murray are right, what is to be done? In many ways, the institution perhaps best equipped to bridge such divisions, to cultivate relationships and help habituate virtue, is the church. It is hard to imagine a more vivid example than Jesus in reaching out to the rich and powerful and least and last alike in offering relationship. In a society far more stratified than ours, his followers included wealthy tax collectors, hot-headed fishermen, uppity Pharisees, and disenfranchised women. In the process of drawing towards Him, they were also drawn together, across class, gender, and cultural lines far more entrenched than today.

It is a challenge that some churches have consciously embraced, and many others ignore. The implications of Wilson and Murray’s work is that without bridges between the affluent and the afflicted, and without a reinvigoration of the character-forming institutions of marriage, family, and community, the fallout will be felt by all.

As sociologist Bradford Wilcox put it in a recent review of Murray’s work: “The price of not bridging the cultural divide is to accept an America where the powerful and privileged continue to (discretely) embrace the values and the institutions that make possible the American way of life and where everyone else increasingly finds that way of life out of reach. It is a scenario where the end of the American experiment would surely not be far behind.


Cherie Harder