Radio Personality Hugh Hewitt: US Morality Tank Needs Refill

Moral Leadership Requires Courage, He Tells Denver

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By Anna Maria Basquez

DENVER, Colorado, FEB. 23, 2011 ( Three-time Emmy-winning producer and radio personality Hugh Hewitt called for leaders to “lean into” the culture morally, despite the current trend of modern society to recoil from moral leadership.

Hewitt delivered his talk, “Who Is Going to Lead? Moral Character and the Future of American Public Life,” to a standing-room-only audience of more than 500 in the refectory at the Archdiocese of Denver on Tuesday. He pointed out a tendency for people to admire those who represent an anti-moral consensus, and that law can’t govern the whole of human behavior.

“What’s the solution? Moral leadership,” he said. “Vibrant, confident, talented moral leadership.”

There are many examples of voices in American history, present and past, that he said “have stood up and said, without fear, without trepidation, what they believe in.” He named Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans, whom Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver wrote about in recent years, and Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke of St. Louis. He also noted less prominent leaders, such as parish priests and Catholic newspapers.

“The problem is, in this society, that kind of leadership will not have any attention paid to it except of the mocking variety,” Hewitt said. “So corrosive is the reaction to anyone who leans forward in modern media that people have stopped leaning forward.

“If you look at the 2010 election and what will come ahead in 2012, it is not uncommon to find people saying, ‘Let’s put aside the social issues,’ which is code for conversations about morals, because we don’t want to have them, because if we do have them you will be rebuked. The great shrinking back is what I call it, or the great recoil, is under way.”

Hewitt is a professor of law, a practicing attorney, a radio journalist. He worked as a ghost writer under the Nixon administration briefly and as assistant counsel under the Reagan administration. Hewitt also won three Emmy awards for earlier work he did on a news program for public television in Los Angeles.

In his talk, he also urged people to recognize and support leaders who do look to “lean into” popular culture morally.

“When you see someone leading in the way I’ve described them,” Hewitt stated, “and if you agree with me, you support them, you write them notes, you stand up and you cheer them, you call them and you congratulate them, and you stand by them when they are assailed by the popular culture.”


He referred to the House vote that approved an amendment presented by Republican Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana to cut off funding of Planned Parenthood, America’s largest abortion provider. In that vote, he said an echo of a moral architecture in society came through.

“More than anything else, what is required of people who would lead morally is courage,” Hewitt said. “It’s a very interesting challenge … one I saw personified by Pence last week. [He] stood up on the floor of the House and gave a speech as to why Planned Parenthood should be defunded every dollar of their $360 million dollars … and he won. He gave a less than five-minute speech, probably the most moral speech on the floor of the House in the last 10 years at least. The shell game that is the funding of Planned Parenthood is probably in more peril than it has been in the last 40 years.”

Crowd applause was audible throughout the headquarters of the archdiocese, also called the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, following the remark.

“It goes to show that when people like Mike Pence stance up and make arguments for first principles and morals, they can win, but it really required for him a certain amount of courage,” Hewitt stated.

Regarding the question of his talk — who’s going to lead the moral character of public life — Hewitt said that “it’s a question people need to keep asking.” He added that it “is one of the most important questions we can ask.”

He asserted that 1956 was the best year to be born in the United States in terms of the wealth and prosperity that the nation enjoyed for the next 55 years. But he pointed out events like the crisis of confidence after Watergate, the unravelling of public trust in various officials and the Roe V. Wade vote, “which launched an assault on the unborn,” served to also make those 55 years morally rotten.

“All of that progress and wealth which has been so dizzying has not been able to obscure for us that we’ve had this enormous moral crisis unfolding around us,” Hewitt said. “What if all that progress and wealth that I’ve just talked about … what if that was all the product of the moral consensus that is now gone.

“What if getting that product, that enormous wealth and progress, used up gasoline that had been deposited in the moral gas tank by generations earlier? In other words, you cannot have the second part — prosperity and upward mobility, scientific progress — without the first part?

“We don’t know. I think it is a necessary requirement for the West to have been the West. And that as a result, we’re onto uncharted sea unless we refill that gas tank. And we are far gone.”

“It’s close to empty,” he added, “and we have to refill it.”

Traditional values

He said a fabric of morality still exists in some major lawmaking arenas, but it’s going to require more courage and a shifting of peoples’ ideas of who to admire.

He referred to a ballot proposition in 2008 that provided “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

“The sense of urgency is palpable,” Hewitt said. “When Proposition 8 made it to the ballot in 2008 in California, it passed with a majority, 52 to 48 … in favor of traditional marriage. Narrow, but real. There was an echo of the basic outline of the moral consensus.

“It was not covered that way. It was covered with relentless hostility. It was covered by the remaining gatekeepers who did not want the moral consensus position to win. That’s telling me that in California, the most liberal of all of our cultural states, there is still a majority in favour of the traditional echo of morality.”

Hewitt, a friend of Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, complimented the archbishop’s leadership in the Church. Hewitt blogged this after interviewing Chaput in 2008: “I wish I were so lucky as to have Archbishop Charles Chaput as my bishop. If we had a hundred more bishops like him, the Church in America would be in better shape.”

Tom Wanzeck, 51, of Our Lady of Loretto Parish Community in Foxfield, was among the audience and emphasized Hewitt brought passion to the subject.

“Hugh discussed how so many in America over the last 50 years have been abundantly successful in economic terms, yet have experienced an unprecedented moral decline,” Wanzeck said. “He used that analogy that we all started with our moral gas tank ‘full’ in the 50’s and now we are running on empty. Hugh shared ‘the solution’ as vibrant, talented, and confident moral leadership.”

Patrick Mercado, 41, who attends Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception regularly for Chaput’s homilies each week, said he liked Hewitt’s points made about personalities admired in today’s world.

“The point that stuck out for me was ‘when we find the good, pursue it,'” Mercado said. “Hewitt pointed out that in today’s world those that are admired are not those who have moral character but those like the Facebook founder who are wealthy or tech giants. Thus, progress has become more valuable than morality for many.”

Steve Hesprich, also of Our Lady of Loretto, said he was a first-time Hewitt listener Tuesday evening. He said that while there was a message of hope in Hewitt’s address, it wasn’t strong. Hewitt led into his talk with many examples of the collapse of public figures in the public eye, he pointed out.

Hesprich added, “Hewitt gave a very poignant example when he talked about the most admir
ed people in the current generation, after factoring out people who were chosen because of office, especially the president: Billy Graham, John Paul II, Oprah and Mother Theresa — that these may be the last remaining ‘admired’ people who actually stand by values.”

“He seemed to me to bring in a good mix of humor to lighten things up through his talk without making light of the serious moral issues of leadership in this country.”

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