While many expect and await the imminent melt-down of Charlie Sheen, I'm actually rooting for him. For better or worse, the spotlight is on him and if I had to choose, I prefer his redemption to his self-destruction.
Before dismissing the possibility of Sheen's redemption, please, Think Again. Wouldn't he be a better person, more in control of his life and his productive talents, if he had an ethical guide, like the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments? Wouldn't society be better off if he could redeem himself, and wouldn't you prefer a society where redemption was a life-affirming value?
I would. Because the way to a better society is through the painstaking and unexciting process of making each person more honest, grateful and responsible. Our highly individualistic culture encourages and celebrates uniqueness, risk-taking and entrepreneurialism. Therefore, people must have a strong moral system in their own lives to avoid becoming absorbed with pursuing self-interest and material well-being.
Living in a profoundly free society is both a blessing and a responsibility. Our founders established a political system to assert and protect man's God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which no king or dictator could take away. But they knew that free will could lead as easily to wickedness as it could to virtue, prompting George Washington to assert that “religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.”
One century later, Abraham Lincoln predicted that “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
But virtuous behavior doesn't come about spontaneously. It must be instilled, practiced and honored. Luckily, I've had moral support in encouraging good values and behavior in my 7-year-old. He believes God imbued him with a sense of right and wrong, but that he has the free will to decide how to behave. When he behaves well, not only is he happy to have earned approval, he is proud of himself. Making virtue habitual is his challenge, as it is for all of us.
This is not to say that we must all become religiously observant nor does it mean that the religiously observant are all virtuous. It doesn't even mean that one can't harbor doubts about God. What it does mean is that, like a muscle, virtue must be continually exercised to stay strong. Imagine living in a community where this was a priority!
That's why Hillel, arguably Judaism's most important rabbinic sage who also influenced Jesus, emphasized ethical behavior when he taught that Judaism can be summarized as, “What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor.”
It may be hard to avoid gossiping or being jealous of your neighbor, just as it is to run the treadmill every morning, but such ethical behavior unlocks mankind's infinite potential while mitigating our bad side. As statistics show, it also encourages virtuous acts. Values-oriented Americans are 16 percent more likely to donate to non-religious organizations and 54 percent more likely to volunteer for causes like PTAs and blood or food drives. They're also far more likely to return change mistakenly given them.
Those who clamor to secularize America by removing “God” from our money and the Pledge of Allegiance, or prohibiting the public display of the Ten Commandments, not only disown America's Judeo-Christian heritage (making it harder to transmit to our children), they blur the blueprint for a good society. If we're not aware of a calling higher than ourselves, we will only answer to ourselves.
This inadvertently undermines our extraordinary ability to correct societal imperfections. America's worst offenses — including slavery, bigotry and inequality — were eventually undermined by the Judeo-Christian narrative (articulated in unison by Rev. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) that all are equal in the eyes of God.
Life-transforming messages will be our best hope for youth who grow up in spiritually devoid and wasted urban landscapes. Instilling them with meaning and purpose, thereby producing effective parents, breadwinners and citizens is essential to eradicating drug- and violence-saturated anarchy.
To show the power of this value system, the brilliant commentator and devout atheist Christopher Hitchens was stumped in a debate when asked this hypothetical question: If your car stalled in a crime-ridden part of town, would you be relieved to know that the pack of men walking toward you had just come from Bible study?
Hitchens had to pause and Think Again because implicit in the question is the notion that living by these values can improve even the most imperfect among us, including Charlie Sheen. Now that's a “winning” strategy. Think Again, Charlie.
(Special thanks to David Hazony, whose book, “Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life,” inspired this column.)