Acton Institute Powerblog

British Leaders Talk Moral Collapse

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British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband both weighed in on a moral decline that was exposed during the recent riots in Britain. An AP article titled “Cameron: Riot hit-UK must reverse ‘moral collapse'” covers their contrasting diagnosis and solutions:

Britain must confront a culture of laziness, irresponsibility and selfishness that fueled four days of riots which left five people dead, thousands facing criminal charges and hundreds of millions in damages, Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged Monday . . .

“We have been too unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong,” Cameron said. “We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said, about everything from marriage to welfare to common courtesy.”

Responding to Cameron, who is head of the Conservative Party, Labour’s Miliband offered these words:

In a rival speech, main opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband criticized Cameron’s response as overly simplistic, and demanded that lawmakers focus on delivering better opportunities for disaffected young people. “The usual politicians’ instinct – announce a raft of new legislation, appoint a new adviser, wheel out your old prejudices and shallow answers – will not meet the public’s demand …”

“Are issues like education and skills, youth services, youth unemployment important for diverting people away from gangs, criminality, the wrong path? Yes, they matter,” Miliband said.

More from the article:

Cameron insists that racial tensions, poverty and the government’s austerity program – much of which is yet to bite – were not the primary motivations for the riots across London and other major cities.

Instead, Cameron pointed to gang-related crime, and a widespread failure from Britain’s leaders to address deep rooted social issues, including the country’s generous welfare system.

“Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivized – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally demoralized,” Cameron said . . .

Both he and Miliband agreed that, following recklessness by bankers, the lawmakers’ expense check scandal, and media phone hacking saga, all sectors of society had a share of the blame.

“Moral decline and bad behavior is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society. In the highest offices, the plushest boardrooms, the most influential jobs, we need to think about the example we are setting,” Cameron said.

At Acton University in June, Metropolitan Jonah said if the West suffers from poverty, it is the poverty of loneliness. “What is secular inside of us is the root of consumerism,” he declared. He also noted, “The fruit of secularism is despair.”

The secularization of culture in the UK and beyond is why rioters fill their emptiness or disenchantment with material goods and gadgets, sadly, their most prized possessions. Ultimately, a meaningless loot to fill a life of disappointment and pain. Much has been made in pointing out the entitlement and welfare culture as the culprit of chaos and unrest. It is indeed responsible too, but carving it up, won’t solve the underlying affliction of our culture.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • It’s hard to read what Miliband has to say

  • It’s hard to read what Miliband has to say

  • Luke Daxon

    True enough, but it can hardly be said that your parish is inoculated against Mammon. The frenzied drum beat of the consumer religion is being sounded throughout the West. Are the scenes in London not likely to be replayed in New Orleans, Baltimore or Detroit at the first opportunity? If anything, the images in Louisiana after Katrina are worse.

    It is easy to pass judgement on our failures over here in Britannia (and goodness knows they are legion) but the looters could be knocking on your door before too long.

    • Agreed Luke. I’m definitely not making any comparisons about the superiority of the culture here to Europe or the UK. When I mentioned “our culture,” I was referring to all of the West.

  • Roger McKinney

    Luke: “The frenzied drum beat of the consumer religion is being sounded throughout the West.”

    You may not realize it, but that is pure Marxism. Here’s why: before socialism people believed that humans choose to be good or bad. That’s why they’re morally responsible. They have a choice.

    The traditional Christian way of thinking held that humans are born with a natural inclination to sin. Good parenting, education and police work helped to restrain that tendency, but ultimately the individual had to choose between good and evil.

    The first socialist, Saint-Simon, believed that people are born innocent of any desire for evil and turn bad only when forced by oppressive circumstances. In other words, we’re born good and society makes us bad. Marx perpetuated the idea. In fact, the USSR and communist China were mostly experiments in changing human nature.

    You are perpetuating Saint-Simon and Marx’s error about human nature with your “beat of the consumer religion” forcing people to act against their natural goodness and turning them evil.

  • Roger McKinney

    The Bible is full of that warning, too. The difference lies in the perception of human nature: is it formed in innocence and forced by society to go bad as socialists believe, or is it born with a tendency toward evil and the individual can choose how it goes, as the Bible says?

    If the Bible is correct, then the “frenzied drum beat of the consumer religion” is just one influence among many. The individual has the witness of his conscience, the Bible, the Holy Spirit, preachers, friends, family, etc. telling him the correct path to take while the consumer culture draws him in a different direction. But he can choose.

    If you think people can choose, then you’re a traditional Christian. If you think people have no choice and culture plus oppression determines character, then you are following socialist thought whether you know it or not.

    BTW, do you honestly think consumerism is a modern invention? If so, then why do the ten commandments include a warning against covetousness?

    • Approve.


    • Luke Daxon

      First of all Roger, please show me where I said human nature
      was naturally good. I never said it because I don’t think it. Nor do I require
      a homily from you on original sin. I know I am sinner and that I was born into
      it. I should be obliged if you did not put words in my mouth or presume
      knowledge of my spiritual condition.


      I don’t understand
      what you are trying to say. Perhaps it is this. You think I believe human
      beings are inherently pure and are only corrupted by external economic and
      social pressures. Remove those and you reverse the Fall. I believe NONE of
      this. Human beings are inherently sinful. As humans, we are born with a moral
      substance pre-disposed towards the bad. But external events, images and
      messages affect how we respond to this predicament. They can shape our moral
      substance slowly for the better, or solidify its badness. Your own words show
      you recognise this when you mention parents, pastors and policemen in the
      fashioning of moral character. A child that grows up with no externally given
      moral instruction, discipline or religious teaching is not likely to be model
      citizen. Without these interactions with the external world, which we might
      call ‘culture’, how do you think we develop virtues? As St Paul said, how are people to learn of Christ
      if there are none to preach the gospel? Are they supposed to imagine him


      This is such a basic point that I fail to understand what
      part you disagree with. Recognising the primacy of culture in preserving order
      and peace in this troubled world is the opposite of socialism. It is the
      essence of conservatism.


      But culture is not monolithic. It
      obviously changes over time and so does the potential effect it has on the
      promotion of moral virtue. The culture of the ancient Near East is, for
      example, vastly different from our own today, and that is my point. Our
      tendency to idolatry, to worship Mammon for example, was hard enough to control
      millennia ago. There are ample reasons for thinking the task is even harder


      As I mentioned in my previous
      post, some of the principal Christian opponents of socialism recognised the
      cultural changes in the West which foster materialism in a more insidious
      fashion than in earlier times. Solzhenitsyn accused the West of surrender to
      materialism as a result of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment which
      encouraged the individual to make himself and his instincts the centre of the
      universe. In so doing, Solzhenitsyn took aim at the roots of classical liberalism
      in the same breath as socialism.


      “The mistake must be at the root,
      at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the
      prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the
      Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the
      Enlightenment… We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms,
      only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession:
      our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and
      machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to
      suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible
      than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.” Harvard
      Address, 1978


      Wilhelm Ropke, rightly admired by other posters on this
      site, detested the trend towards base commercialism which he considered to be growing
      steadily stronger in the West. In particular, he denounced the power of
      advertising which is “a matter, which repeatedly demands attention because it
      separates our era from all earlier ones as little else does, so much so that we
      might call our century the age of advertising…only the blind could fail to
      notice that commercialism, that is the luxuriance of the market and it
      principles, causes the beauty of the landscape and harmony of cities to be
      sacrificed to advertising.” A Humane Economy, (3rd edition 1998,
      first published 1958), ISI Books, pp. 137-138.



      de Tocqueville saw
      in the United States of the 1830s a greater potential for materialism than in
      the aristocratic societies of Old Europe because “when … the distinctions of ranks are obliterated and privileges are
      destroyed, when hereditary property is subdivided and education and freedom are
      widely diffused, the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the
      imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.” Democracy
      in America
      (trans. by H. Reeve, ed. by P. Bradley). Now York: Random House. (Originally published in
      1835.) p. 137


      “A native of the United
      States clings to his world’s goods as if he
      were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within reach
      that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to
      enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his
      grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.” (p. 144)


      Three different men, and three different perspectives on the
      modern world, but all three recognised the enormous cultural changes brought
      about by modernity and how these have served to encourage materialism. You
      attack me for using the term ‘the consumer religion’. I think that is precisely
      what it is. An idolatrous cult that makes the pursuit of money, sensation and trinkets
      the meaning of human life. There is nothing new in this. It has always been
      with us. It is a natural result of the idolatrous inclination in the human
      character to worship elements of the created universe (e.g. stars, rivers, the
      state, money, whatever floats your boat) rather than God. BUT I repeat – the
      pull of materialism is more easily resisted in some cultures and times than
      others. It is a dynamic force, not a monolith and in our world, which has even
      less knowledge of the presence of God, it is particularly dangerous. Similarly,
      the voices warning against it (such as the preachers, friends, family you
      mention) can be louder at some points that others.

      • Roger McKinney

        Luke, your responses advertise your socialist training well.
        I never claimed you said that human nature is naturally good. What I said was
        this: your idea that society causes people to go bad assumes that people are
        naturally good and that is a fabrication of socialists.

        Luke: “Human
        beings are inherently sinful.”

        contradicts what you wrote earlier: “The frenzied drum beat of the
        consumer religion is being sounded throughout the West.”

         “how do you think we develop virtues?”

        We have a
        conscience, you know. Have you never known of children of good parents going
        bad? There are a few examples in the Bible, such Samuels and David’s sons. Or
        what about children of really bad parents turning to virtue? Happens all the

        With your
        thinking about the dominance of culture, you need to explain why most kids
        raised in poor environments don’t turn bad, but only a handful do.

         “Recognising the primacy of culture
        in preserving order and peace in this troubled world is the opposite of

        No, it is
        the foundation of socialism. The decisions of individuals create culture; that
        is capitalism. Society creates the individual is socialist thinking. Socialism
        aims to “save” mankind by changing the culture.

        “In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it.”

        Solzhenitsyn hadn’t escaped unscathed from his socialist education. Commercial
        interests will not smother anything that people don’t want it to smother. If
        people today care more about material things than other generations, and I don’t
        think that is true, it’s because they abandoned God first. Materialism did not
        cause them to abandon God. Once people abandon God, there is nothing left to
        care about except the material world. Duh!

        denounced the power of advertising which is “a matter, which repeatedly demands
        attention because it separates our era from all earlier ones as little else
        does, so much so that we might call our century the age of advertising…”

        Roepke was
        good on the basics of economics, but wrong about a whole lot of other things.
        He valued small businesses too much. As other Austrian economists have pointed
        out, the poverty reduction achieved in the West came about only because of
        businesses reduced the cost of producing most things. Cost reductions on that
        scale require mass production which requires large businesses, usually large

        As for
        advertising, it has no where near the power that Roepke and socialists
        attribute to it.

        “the pull
        of materialism is more easily resisted in some cultures and times than others.”

        I disagree
        completely. Culture has no impact on it. Response to the Holy Spirit’s work in
        each person’s life and their response to the Gospel is all that matters. Culture
        is nothing but the outcome of the struggle between the Holy Spirit and mankind’s
        fallen nature.

        • I don’t think it’s quite fair to call Luke a socialist. Let’s stick to the arguments themselves, shall we?

          • Roger McKinney

            My point is that most people in the West think like socialists because of their education. What I’m trying to do is highlight the socialist assumptions behind much of the current thinking.

            I’m not saying that Luke has consciously studied socialism and chosen to be a socialist. Most Westerners have no idea what socialism or capitalism are about. But most Westerners are what Arnold Kling calls folk-Marxists. They have adopted the assumptions and thinking of socialism through the mainstream media and the educational system without even knowing that they are socialist assumptions and not Christian.

            For example, the Economist magazine ran an article last decade about how all humanities and social sciences in the West follow Marxist assumptions and structure about classes and history. No one tells the students that they’re following Marx; the professors probably don’t even know.

            I’m not engaging in simple name calling. I’m trying to point out the origins of popular thinking and how they differ from traditional Christian theology.

          • Luke Daxon

            As always Roger – you accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being a socialist and unchristian (and before you accuse of me of slander, you clearly insinuate in your last paragraph that I do not possess traditional Christian theology) and then you appoint yourself the fount of truth on Christian doctrine. I must agree with you 100% about everything or I am a cretinous unwitting dupe of Babeuf. Would that be a fair summation?

            “I’m not saying that Luke has consciously studied socialism and chosen to be a socialist.” Well you could have fooled me, as you yourself say: “your responses advertise your socialist training well”. Again, your words give you away. You presume knowledge of my life which you do not possess. Very well then Roger. Do I qualify as a Christian or not in your book? You already have me down as, at best, an unwitting Marxist. 

            “Solzhenitsyn hadn’t escaped unscathed from his socialist education”. I am sure he’d have thanked you for that. He did more to challenge the power of socialism than you ever did, but quite clearly he lacked your ideological clear sightedness. 

            ““Human beings are inherently sinful.” That contradicts what you wrote earlier: “The frenzied drum beat of the consumer religion is being sounded throughout the West.”” Now, how on earth does that contradict what I said? Consumerism is an outcome of our natural predisposition to idolatry. It is a product of our inherent sinfulness. How is that contradictory?

            “Roepke and the socialists” So you think Roepke was a socialist, or one us unwitting fellow travellers? Perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling Samuel Gregg that. 

            There are many things I can and will say, Roger, in response your accusations. But the time being what it is in London, it is high time for me to log off. All the best.