09/21/2009 09:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Has America Lost Its Moral Compass?

During an awards ceremony, a Rap star takes the stage away from one winner and shouts that another should have won.

A political pundit calls the President a racist.

In the middle of the President's address to a joint session of Congress, a representative shouts, "You lie!", and... is hailed as a hero by some.

Lumbering through a moral wilderness of incivility and unreason we are losing the best of ourselves to fear and uncertainty.

With a struggling economy, rising unemployment, and a sensation-obsessed media, trust and confidence are at all time lows while discontent and rage have reached staggering highs.

"Bury Obamacare with Kennedy"; "Impeach the Muslim Marxist"; "I've Got Your 'Trigger' Right Here..." read the signs at the September 12 "Tea Party" rally held on the National Mall in Washington last week.

"What has happened to the United States of America?" writes Steve Wacker in a letter (Sept. 17) to the New York Times. "...we waste precious time appeasing a fringe that apparently thinks catcalls, insults and half-truths are the keys to effective governance."

But we've faced this kind of paranoia before.

"You must have faith," a newly elected president told Americans in 1933. "You must not be stampeded by rumors."

Franklin Roosevelt, disabled in body, but resolute in spirit and action led us out of the fear and uncertainty of a great depression.

"Confidence and courage are the essentials in our plan," Roosevelt told a tired and destitute nation. "We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. Together we cannot fail."

However, in a weekly radio show to more than 40 million, Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, denounced Roosevelt, capitalists and "Jewish conspirators."

Before Roosevelt's election, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, "...a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications, would very much like to be President." As America recovered, Lippmann revised his opinion: "The nation which had lost confidence in everything and everybody has regained confidence in the government and in itself."

We saw that fear again in the form of the swaggering, demagogue senator Joseph McCarthy who began a relentless, four-year attack by intimidation and innuendo beginning with this announcement: "I have here in my hand a list of 205 names known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department."

It took calm, but steadfast special counsel Joseph Welch to not only confront the brutal tactics of McCarthy but shake America back to reason and reality: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness... Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"

During those times, fear and unreason were defeated by the larger principles of responsibility, fairness and respect.

And now, once again, we are looking into the abyss.

Once again, we need someone who will stand up and stand for our highest aspirations; someone who will not be bullied by fear or uncertainty. We need a hero who understands that responsibility is not just a word we teach our kids, but a commitment to a duty beyond ourselves. We need someone who can see the crisis before us and act in a determined way to bring us back to reason and reality.

President Obama has, as perhaps his greatest challenge, to lead us out of that fear, back from that uncertainty.

But it's our challenge, too.

Although moral integrity requires us to make decisions that are consistent with our values, responsibility requires that we practice the necessary self-control in exercising rights like free speech. As responsible citizens, we should always seek to improve our knowledge rather than rely on others to do our thinking for us.

Fairness requires that we are open-minded and willing to look at relevant information from differing viewpoints. Being open-minded asks that we separate fact from speculation, rumor and innuendo.

It will take the character and courage of all of us to find our way back from the current moral wilderness we find ourselves in.

The responsibility is ours.

The hero is us.

Together, we must not fail.

Jim Lichtman writes and speaks on ethics to corporations, associations and schools. His commentaries can found at