Sheri L. Dew: The Power of Virtue
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Following is the complete text of a talk given by Sister Sheri L. Dew at the World Congress of Families V in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on Aug. 10, 2009.
It is a privilege to gather in this celebration of the family. I am, however, a curious choice to introduce this session. I am not married and have not had the privilege of bearing children—which are, candidly, the heartbreaks of my life. This isn't by choice. My dream was to marry and have a house full of children. The answer to why I haven't yet married is simple: No one has ever asked me. So you may wonder, Why am I here, and why do I care so much about the family?
I care in part, precisely because I haven't yet been blessed with a husband or family of my own. I know firsthand that the passage in Genesis is true: It is not good for man or woman to be alone.1 This is not just good theology, it's terrific sociology.2 As grateful as I am for many things, I am painfully aware that I am not complete without a faithful husband.
Everything I have experienced, everything I have observed, and every deep conviction I have points to a profound truth: that marriage is sacred and was ordained by God, and that when He created the first man and woman and commanded them to procreate, He established His pattern for the family. I believe that is why the family unit forms the very bedrock of society.
We all know that every nation is ultimately at the mercy of its families. If families are riddled with problems, society eventually collapses under the weight of problems too vast for any government to meet. If families are strong, society is strong. I'll never forget meeting a group of young adults in southeast Asia. They were bright, talented, and eager to move forward with their lives. But they lamented not having parents to give them direction and feeling somewhat alone in life. All but a few had been orphaned by war.
In contrast, I met a strong family in Brazil. The grandfather had worked multiple jobs so that his son could go to college. That son became a respected educator. Now his children are highly educated, fluent in multiple languages, and raising families of their own. When I complimented him on his children, he replied, "This is the power of a family. Each generation improves upon the last."
Healthy, thriving societies don't just materialize out of thin air. They are built by healthy, thriving people who must be taught and nurtured somewhere. Schools and governments can help. But no organization can raise children as can a mother and father who love each other. Barbara Bush told a group of U.S. college students, "Your success as a family—our success as a society—depends not on what happens at the White House, but on what happens at your house."3
Therefore, our challenge is to understand how to strengthen families. We tend to focus on policies, legislation, and court opinions related to family. But today I invite you to consider that the single most pervasive threat to the stability and future of the family is sexual immorality in all its forms. Nothing would do more to strengthen the families of the world than a resurgence of moral virtue, particularly sexual purity.
I realize this point of view would get me laughed off most of the world's stages. And I respect everyone's right to believe and live as they choose. But since when has the opinion of the masses been a reliable barometer of what is in humanity's best interests? Too many are inclined to take the path of least resistance, which looks easier but only is at the outset. A relative few today believe that pornography destroys marriages or that adultery and premarital sex actually injure the family—though every great world faith tradition decries immorality. And as a New Testament Christian, it is impossible for me to ignore repeated warnings about the consequences of adultery, fornication, and prostitution—just to name some of the moral infractions identified in holy writ.
No society can be stronger than the moral fiber of its people. There is power in virtue. Said Clare Boothe Luce: "There can be no public virtue without private morality….And there cannot be a good society unless the majority of individuals in it are at least trying to be good people….A nation that is traveling the low road is a nation that is self-destructing. It is doomed, sooner or later, to collapse from within."4
Virtue, especially moral virtue, builds strength of character. A lack of virtue damages one's moral compass until ultimately that person can't be trusted. Consider the adulterer. If someone can't be trusted to honor the most sacred promise they'll ever make, who and what will they honor? Benjamin Franklin said it well: "There was never yet a truly great man who was not at the same time truly virtuous."5
The Apostle Paul counseled Timothy, "Keep thyself pure."6 Those three simple words, if heeded, would transform our world. Ironically, today we have a global fixation on the environment but have embraced a kind of impurity far more lethal than unclean air or water.
University of Chicago studies compiled in 2006 illuminate the problem. Premarital sex among men and women has increased. Adultery? Increased. Cohabitation without marriage? Increased. Number of sexual partners? Increased. Out-of-wedlock births? Increased. Sex among teenagers? Increased. Only one statistic decreased: the age at which youth are having sexual relations.7
C. S. Lewis was no doubt right when he called chastity "the most unpopular of the Christian virtues."8 Global violation of this virtue has become its own kind of pandemic such that anyone who dares advocate chastity risks being accused of intolerance and even fanaticism.
Yet history tells a different story. One civilization after another has caved in under the weight of its moral debauchery. A stable society is not likely to be destroyed unless it has weakened itself from within. Will and Ariel Durant, who spent four decades writing an eleven-volume history of civilization, concluded that "sex is like a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group."9 Such controls are best provided by fidelity in marriage. Anything short of that undermines marriage, and there is something fundamentally sick about a society where marriage is treated as a throwaway item.
I repeat: Nothing would do more to strengthen the families of our world than a resurgence of fundamental moral virtue, meaning sexual purity.
This is no small quest. The forces that mock morality are entrenched, noisy, and popular. Celebrities of all stripes glamorize immorality by flaunting their sexual escapades. Politicians lie about their adultery and then lie about lying. In my service as a White House delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations several years ago, I experienced the wrath of delegates who were outraged at the mere suggestion that abstinence was one solution for curbing AIDS. Indeed, it may seem hopeless, even ridiculous—morality taken to a bizarre extreme—to advocate purity when much of the world is in a moral freefall.
And yet, moral permissiveness does not lead to greatness. It never has, and it never will. I have observed this firsthand. We lost my brother at 39 to a heart attack, leaving a wife and three children, and we later lost a niece and nephew in a tragic accident. Our family has mourned again and again. But I have never seen anguish or grief to compare with the night a dear friend told his children he was leaving them because of his adultery. His children were distraught, and the ensuing emotional upheaval affects them to this day. Immorality exacts a very high price.
On the other hand, I have witnessed the fruits of moral virtue in the lives of millions of people around the world. In many cultures and lands, I have repeatedly observed that families who are spiritually strong tend to be morally strong, and that virtuous parents tend to raise virtuous children.
Several years ago, I participated in an international policy forum where the discussion moved from prostitution to pornography to abortion and so on. When the moderator invited me to comment, I noted that it seemed impossible not to notice a common theme—that every thorny issue had immoral underpinnings. I then told about my parents, who are devout members of our faith, what they had taught me about marriage and chastity, and how those teachings had governed my life. Afterwards, one woman after another pulled me aside and said the same thing: "You are so lucky. I didn't think chastity was even possible. I wish someone had told me this years ago—it would have changed my life."
I personally know tens of thousands of youth and young adults who are living morally clean lives. They are happy, productive, and anxiously engaged in becoming engaged. Moral purity is not outdated. Admittedly, it is also not easy. But I submit that it is easier than the alternative. Virtuous men and women never worry about a surprise pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Never agonize over confessing unfaithfulness. Have no emptiness after a one-night stand. No pain in losing one's family to infidelity. No haunting memories of indiscretions. Quoting C. S. Lewis, "Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog."10
A virtuous life is an easier, more fulfilling life. And it is one of the most powerful keys to strengthening families and therefore to strengthening our world.
What then can you and I do? The story of Monsignor O'Flaherty, a courageous Irish priest at the Vatican during World War II is inspiring. Against astonishing odds, he saved the lives of four thousand Allied prisoners of war. In a movie dramatizing his story, the Monsignor poses a question to Pope Pius XII as they discuss the risks the Monsignor's actions pose to the Vatican's political neutrality: "But what is our duty when we come face to face with evil?"
My friends, what is our duty when faced with today's threats to the family? Gordon B. Hinckley said: "The challenge to recognize evil and oppose it is one that every moral, virtuous person must accept. It all begins with our own personal virtue. Reformation of the world begins with reformation of self."11
You are men and women of influence. I invite you to use your influence to embrace and champion a resurgence of virtue. The world is filled with good people who may not know that virtue would transform their lives and who only need to be shown the way. If defending virtue requires sacrifice and discipline, then so be it. We have a choice to make. We can either watch our societies crumble under the weight of moral impurity, or we can lead out in the cause of virtue.
May we go forward, determined to make this world better by making it more clean. May we champion virtue as a key to building strong families. God will help us. No one cares more about our families than He does. As we honor Him by embracing the virtue He has ordained, He will help us preserve the foundational unit of every society, the family. Thank you.
(1) See Genesis 2:18
(2) As stated by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, LDS Temple Open House Video, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
(3) Quoted in Gordon B. Hinckley, Standing for Something, New York City: Random House, 2000, p. 146.
(4) Hall, Wynton C., Schweizer, Peter, Landmark Speeches of the American Conservative Movement, 62.)
(5) Quoted in Thomas S. Monson, Favorite Quotations from Thomas S. Monson, Deseret Book, 1985, p. 111.)
(6) 1 Timothy 5:22.
(7) Tom W. Smith, "American Sexual Behavior: Trends, Socio-Demographic Differences, and Risk Behavior," GSS Topical Report No. 25, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, updated March 2006.
(8) Mere Christianity, NYC, Harper Collins, 1980.
(9) Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, New York City: Simon & Schuster, pp. 35-36.
(10) Mere Christianity, p. 94.
(11) Standing for Something, p. 39.