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Seinfeld nation

The front page of Wednesday's Independent is devoted to a story that chronicles the collapse of public and private morality in Britain. The story entitled "Britain facing boom in dishonesty ..."  reports that according to a study by the University of Essex, the British are:

becoming less honest and their trust in government and business leaders has fallen to a new low amid fears that the nation is heading for an "integrity crisis".

Lying, having an affair, driving while drunk, having underage sex and buying stolen goods are all more acceptable than they were a decade ago. But people are less tolerant of benefits fraud.

The Independent summarizes the results of a study carried out by the University of Essex's Centre for the Study of Integrity and suggests the "integrity problem" will get worse as the young are more tolerant of dishonesty than the old.

The article cites statistics illustrating the decline in trust in government and in falling moral standards and concludes with a warning from the study's author that this collapse in civic and private virtue will have political consequences. The study's author stated:

integrity levels mattered because there was a link between them and a sense of civic duty. If integrity continues to decline, he thinks it will be difficult to mobilise volunteers to support David Cameron's Big Society project."If social capital is low, and people are suspicious and don't work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial," Professor Whiteley said. "It really does have a profound effect."

The Independent put some effort into this story -- front page coverage, man in the street interviews, trumpeting the story as an exclusive and advance look. Overall, they do a pretty good job -- well written, thoughtful interviews and comments, strong insight into the consequences of the findings.

But ... no mention of religion or faith in this story. It may well have been the Essex study did not include religion as one of the strands of civic virtue, but even so that would have been worth a mention. The reader is confronted with the assumption that religion is irrelevant to morality.

I would contrast this story with the prime minister's recent speech on virtue.  Remember when Tony Blair’s press secretary famously said “We don’t do God”, even though Mr Blair was known to be a believer. Nine years later the current prime minister, David Cameron -- whose public utterances about his personal faith have been less rigorous than Mr. Blair -- did not find himself similarly constrained.

At celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible, Mr Cameron affirmed the centrality of the Christian faith in forming a tolerant civic society. Tolerance was not a product of secularism, he argued.

Moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore. ... Put simply, for too long we have been unwilling to distinguish right from wrong. ‘Live and let live’ has too often become ‘do what you please’. Bad choices have too often been defended as just different lifestyles.”

These social observations flow naturally from a speech marking the KJV, the prime minister said, because:

The Bible is a book that has not just shaped our country, but shaped the world. And with three Bibles sold or given away every second… a book that is not just important in understanding our past, but which will continue to have a profound impact in shaping our collective future.”

The Bible permeates “every aspect” British culture, language, literature, music, art, politics, rights, constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy and welfare provisions, Mr. Cameron said, adding that:

We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.

While he was not addressing the crisis of public and private morality in Britain, writing in the Wall Street Journal on 21 January 2012, Charles Murphy described a similar disease afflicting America. In his article "The New American Divide"

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions.

For Murray, religion is a component of the common civic culture and its decline a mark of the collapse of civic virtue.

Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that [working class] Fishtown has become much more secular than [bourgeois] Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.

The bottom line ... the Independent article presents a classic example of a religion ghost in a secular news story. The topic under review -- public and private morality -- is inherently connected with religion, yet no word about religion appears in the story.

Should the Independent have noted the absence of religion in the public morality report? Is religious belief intrinsic to morality? Can the two be separated? Given Prime Minister David Cameron's widely publicized December speech about Christian Britain -- how could the Independent not touch upon religion in its report on collapsing public and private morals.

Or, have we reach the point where Britain become a Seinfeld nation? Where it is no longer news that the majority can now affirm with George Costanza. "Jerry ... It's not a lie, if you believe it."

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