Quality of character

One of the many memorable lines from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, considered by many to be one of the most powerful orations in American history, speaks to the heart of his message: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Right-thinking people will agree that skin color is not the criterium for evaluating the true worth of a person. We wonder, though, to what extent Americans still agree with King that the true plumb line, the defining criterium, of a person’s worth is character. If so, what does commendable character look like? Who defines it?

We live in an age when “quality of character” is increasingly becoming an ambiguous concept. The goal of developing strong moral character—the term itself sounds antiquated, doesn’t it?—seems to be slowly but surely eroding. In our “reality” TV world, we must conclude it’s more important to be a character than to demonstrate character. Civil discourse and behavior are on a free fall into rude and crude. Raunchy language, personal put-downs, bullying—whether it’s the urban street or the halls of Congress, disrespect is the common tongue.

If we were to seek a revival of strong character, how would we define it? The Center for Youth Ethics cites Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Boy Scouts aspire to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. (Ah, now we understand why “boy scout” has become a favorite put-down of the party crowd.) Finally, Roddy McDowell includes purity, humility, meekness, honesty, diligence, charity and fidelity as values to parody in the song “Seven Deadly Virtues” from “Camelot.”

So, maybe we can define the content of “good” character after all. The question is, do we truly value it—for ourselves as well as for our children? Lest we forget, we truly value it only when we humbly commit ourselves to live it out each day before others. —DR