This is a familiar argument, made bitterly by conservatives such as William Bennett and Robert Bork. But Wolfe is no prophet of despair. He is a sociologist and an upbeat public intellectual who has spent many years examining the moral condition of middle-class Americans. Americans are as morally serious as ever, Wolfe says, but they are no longer willing to follow old rules. Besides, the revolution is irreversible. There's no going back, so we might as well get used to it.
"Americans are not going to lead 21st-century lives based on 18th- and 19th-century moral ideals," he writes in his new book, "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice."
Wolfe thinks the traditional sources of moral authority (churches, families, neighborhoods, civic leaders) have lost the ability to influence people. In part, this is the result of appalling behavior by so many authority figures (lying presidents, pedophile priests, corrupt corporate executives, etc.) And as more and more areas of American life have become democratized and open to consumer "choice," people have come to assume that they have the right to determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life.
Wolfe, a moderate and centrist by inclination, tends to see moderate behavior in the people he studies. In his previous book "One Nation After All," he argued that the culture war is dead or dying, and that America has evolved a strong consensus on political and social issues. (This is a highly debatable thesis for all who remember the stark red-and-blue electoral map of Bush vs. Gore, but Wolfe is surely right that Americans today are reasonably well united.)
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