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Every so often, a society ought to take stock of itself not just in the usual material terms but also on the basis of its moral climate.

If ever there were a need for such a reassessment, it's certainly time for one now in view of the way the rate of illegitimate births has been rising rapidly.So rapidly, in fact, that one of every six children in the United States is now born out of wedlock. Though blacks account for more than half of such births, the black illegitimacy rate has been declining during the past decade while that of whites is rising.

It would be easy just to moralize on this subject. But sermons, sadly, often fall on deaf ears, particularly when they are directed at teenagers.

Instead, we'd like to pass along some pertinent observations of The Christian Science Monitor, which, while lofty, smack more of common sense than of preaching. Here's the key part of those observations on the need to curb the rising rate of illegitimacy:

"It is not a matter of depriving individuals of something worthwhile, of restricting their actions or freedom of choice. It is a matter of maintaining and enhancing those values that enable an individual to develop the best in himself or herself.

"Why should this require celibacy outside of marriage? Because chastity, like other Biblical moral demands, helps free human thought of the purely physical and bring to light man's higher nature - the 'new man' of whom the New Testament speaks. It has to do with what a person thinks himself or herself to be, and has the potential to become. No one, man or woman, wants to be a mere sex object - an unfulfilling role if there ever was one.

"Most will agree that to experience life in the fullest sense requires disciplining thinking and action. Doesn't this also include bringing lust under control? Holding the physical senses in check?"

The Monitor goes on to note that some physicians are starting to warn of the dangers to mental and physical health from premarital sexual indulgence, that some social workers are starting to counsel teenagers to say "no" as the best method of birth control.

But such measures won't be enough as long as society emphasizes physical pleasure and instant gratification. To change the moral climate, advertisers must stop using sex to sell products. We must stop confusing pornography with free speech. We must stop letting actors do on the screen what they would be arrested for doing on the street. We must stop glamorizing hedonism.

But until the courts and the legislatures follow through on this challenge, the one place outside the churches to start improving America's moral climate will remain in strong homes and in the example of young Americans' peers and parents.