Why we need a transfusion

There are three steps to integrity. Most of us skip step one.

Miller is a senior editor of The Lutheran.

Do you say what you mean and mean what you say? All too often the answer is no, which may explain why we tend to assume others aren't saying what they mean either.

Think back: How many times--after a meeting at work or church, or following a political speech or press conference--do you ask, "Is that really true? Did he really mean that?"

If your gut tells you that what you heard is trustworthy, the relief you feel is telling you something else. It's reminding you that much of what we hear is carefully packaged to gain advantage, protec the speaker or at least avoid the hard work of honest disagreement.

We assume this lack of integrity in many relationships. And when we need to justify this, we need only point to the morning paper. Today's tells of a disgraced state legislator who, during his campaign, claimed to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He "exaggerated," he says.

Another article describes how President Bill Clinton and candidate Bob Dole are using high gas prices to fuel their p olitical campaigns. The truth behind higher prices, however, seems to have been a traffic fatality on the road to the White House. But can we blame them? Do we really vote our principles--or our pocketbooks?

"We care more about winning than about playing by the rules," writes Stephen L. Carter, author of the book Integrity (BasicBooks, 1996). This affects everything from the media and education to politics and personal life.

Carter, a Yale Law School professor and Epis copal churchman, wrote the book, he says, "because of the difficulty of trying to raise children with good social values in a nation that talks about values but often can't live up to its aspirations.

"Integrity is the crucial element of go od citizenship. It's more important to know if someone has integrity than to know whether I agree or disagree with him. If you lack integrity, nothing else you say you believe matters."

Integrity is more than honesty, writes Carter, who als authored the 1993 best-seller The Culture of Disbelief, which detailed how the law and popular culture trivialize religion.

Consider, for example, a dying man who confesses to his wife an adulterous affair that occurred 35 years bfore. He dies, conscience clear. He was honest. But is this riskless confession an example of integrity or just another self-serving violation of his marriage vows? Or how about the man who says he will support his live-in partner, unless she gets pregnat. Honest? Sure. But integrity? No, says Carter.

Nor does living according to a consistent set of principles amount to integrity. Hitler and the murderers of Bosnia also strove for their principles.

So what is integrity, an why does America seem to need a transfusion of it? The Lutheran asked Carter those questions during an interview in Chicago.

The Lutheran:
When you say a person
has integrity what are
you saying about him?

Carter: As I define it, integrity involves three steps. The first is to discern what is right and wrong. Discernment takes time and emotional energy. It's much easier to follow the crowd. The second step is to struggle to live according to the sense of right and wrong you have discerned. The third is to be willing to say what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Your book places great
weight on discern ment.
Is this the step on which
Americans tend to trip?

Americans tend to ignore the first step. We think we're too busy, too tired to do moral reflection. But the second step is the hardest. In their hearts many people know the right thing, but they won't do it because they don't want to take the pressure.

I had a student who had been adamantly pro-choice who changed her mind and decided she was pro-life. But she wasn't going to tell anybody because her friends wouldn't like her. That's not a unique example.

Is this human desire to be
liked the root of America's
"integrity shortage," or are
other cultural forces at work
in our souls?

There are a lot cultural forces. Let me mention three. First, integrity is expensive. It ultimately involves sacrificing something. An example of integrity is the person who says to the boss, "I can't work late tonight because I promised my daug hter I'd come to a play, and I'm not going to break my promise." When I give that example people say to me, "But what if he gets fired?" A good question, and he's got to take it into account. It's unfortunate that he has to make this choice, but a lot of choices about integrity are material in this sense, or they come in response to a variety of financial pressures.

And the other two forces?
They are ideological, not material. Ideological str and number one is our individualism. I believe deeply in personal freedom. But we now have a sense of individualism in America that is unmediated by any sense of moral norms. This reduces moral judgment to something very similar to desire. So instead of searching for what is right, we are searching for how we can do what we want.

What's missing is some sense
of the transcendent, whether
it be God, the law or some
commitment to the good.

Yes, and the third force is our great difficulty having moral conversation. It's difficult today to have a moral discussion rather than a constitutional discussion. Take the young man who attended his classes at the University of Califo rnia with no clothes on. When people criticized him his response was, "I've a constitutional right to do it." As a constitutional scholar, I have serious doubts about that. But even if he's right, that is not an answer to the argument that it's morally wr ong.

If we can't have moral conversations without invoking the Constitution as a shield for criticism, we can't develop the moral norms that we need to guide individual choices. We end up with a situation where we can't have a conversation in which you have an opinion that what I'm doing is wrong. And that's no way to run a serious society.

Integrity is a joint enterprise;
it requires community discussion?

And that's why I say that although it's not necessary to be religious to have integrity, it is easier. A key element of integrity is the willingness to stand up and be counted for what's good and right even if you face criticism or suffering. That is eas ier to do if you have a faith community to draw strength from than if you are just an individual. It's no accident that the civil rights movement began in the churches. The faith community, committed to moral truth, provided the support needed to stand up in the face of the dogs, the guns and jails.

Your definition of integrity stresses
the need to discern what is good and
right. Doesn't this assume some common
set of values upon which we can refl ect
together? But in a society as diverse
as the United States we don't seem to
have this meeting ground.

There is a broad range of issues on which we have to be willing to say that people of integrity can take different sides. I happen to be an opponent of the death penalty. I think that position has some integrity to it. I know a lot of thoughtful people with plenty of integrity who are in favor of the death penalty. I don't think they are evil or morally worse than I am. I do n't think they are stupid. They've reflected and reached a different view.

I also believe there is a small set of issues about which a person of integrity can hold only one position. For example, we can say racial hatred and mass slaughter are wrong. We know that from history. We don't need to agree on a philosophical system to agree on that.

There is a lot of moral agreement in America. The amount of moral disagreement is exaggerated because the media focuses on a handful of issues on which people have sharply different views--abortion, gay rights, affirmative action. But beyond this there is a large core on which we can reach agreement. These teachings are common to various religious traditions. They also show up in public opinion surveys and in the Constitution. For example: respecting others, believing in family, not lying or stealing, being courageous.

The "Golden Rule"--treat people the
way you want to be treated--would
seem to be part of this core.

That's a good example. And even if we have trouble living it, we still believe we should aspire to it.

What aspects of our lives should we
pay much closer attention to if we
are to live with integrity?

Integrity begins in the home. I say I love my wife and my children, but do I manifest love? Am I ever cruel? Am I short with them? Am I able to apologize? Can I make the soft answer to turn away wrath?

Then the job: What does it mean to have integrity there? Professionalism and the satisfaction of a job well done are parts of it. But it also means doing the moral searching needed to be sure that what we are doing for our emp loyers are the right things to do.

One of the most common ways we
fail to live with integrity involves
the expedient lie, the one that greases
the wheels and avoids problems.

And one lie leads to another, and suddenly we are living in a web of lies. We end up living enormously skeptical lives. It's unreasonable for us to demand of ourselves and others the kind of perfect integrity that no mortal has. But I do suggest we pay close att ention to it. Otherwise it's pointless for us to demand integrity of the media or politicians when we don't demand it of ourselves.

How can the church help?
When my wife and I moved to New Haven [Conn.], we were hunting for a church. People asked us, "Are you liberals or conservatives?" The theory was, if you are a liberal you should go to Church X; if conservative, go to Church Y. Church X will confirm all your liberal stuff. Church Y will tell you all the conservative stuff you believe is right.

It's as though the reason to go to church is to be told what you are doing is great, as opposed to being transformed by your faith community as it puzzles together about God's will. I fin d that troubling and offensive. Christians can't transform the world unless we transform ourselves. To quote my wife, "We have to be the change we seek."

Interested in integrity? See our related theme articles:

4 ways to nurture your integrity, page 9
Blessed are the pure in heart, page 10

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