He found Americans of all persuasions - from the most radical to the most traditional - want to lead a good life, but in almost every case, are determined to decide for themselves what a good life means.
Wolfe, a professor of political science, conducted interviews in eight different communities, ranging from the gay Castro District of San Francisco to the heartland farming town of Tipton, Iowa, and from Tex-Mex San Antonio to the immigrant-laden mill city of Fall River.
His conclusion: On the heels of political and economic freedom, an exhilarating - and unnerving - new era of moral freedom has arrived.
"Moral freedom occurs when individuals are expected to determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life," said Wolfe.
"They decide what is right and wrong, not by bending their will to authority, but by considering who they are, what others require, and what consequences follow from acting one way rather than another.
"Moral freedom means that people want to play a role in determining the truths by which their lives will be governed. That is not the same thing as saying that there are no truths by which behavior ought to be governed...
"In my research, I find that Americans are seriously engaged in moral inquiry. They do believe in God. They understand the importance of traditions.
"But they have also learned to be skeptical of moral authority, at least in part because those who lead institutions of moral authority - the state, the schools, and to some degree the churches - have violated their trust.
"I see them longing to be reconnected to those institutions, but only after these institutions do something to overcome the distrust that people have."
"Although ordinary Americans do not often read philosophy, theology and history, they also know that traditions change. All religious traditions...have adapted to new realities. People thus wonder why this should not continue."
NOTE: An interview with Alan Wolfe appears in the May 4 issue of Commonweal. Wolfe's quotations in the above article were reprinted with permission by the Commonweal Foundation.
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