We all know America is going to Hell in a hand basket, and the rest of the West is pretty much already so close to the flames that it’s started melting; or maybe not. Of course that depends on who you talk to. I can’t speak in detail about the entirety of Western civilization, but it’s clear that much of Europe and the English speaking world has rejected much of its cultural inheritance, with the deleterious results that follow. Is America following their possible demise, close behind?
Political and cultural conservatives are often fond of pointing out the negative in American Culture, that we are a nation in inexorable decline. And there are indeed numerous examples of this to point to, which I won’t do here. But when I read some commentator’s litany of complaints I often wonder, do they not see any positive signs of cultural health? Are the skids so greased that rot and dissolution are the inevitable result of where we now stand? These questions and others in a similar vein, we’re inspired by a piece I read at a favorite internet destination of mine, the First Things blog. The piece, by Elizabeth Scalia, has a provocative title: “American Optimism is a Strange God.”
I’ve always found American optimism an endearing trait, even an inspiring one that has had tremendous benefits over our 235 years of existence. So I wondered how someone can see it as a false idol. No doubt there is such a thing as false optimism, believing wonderful things will happen in spite of evidence to the contrary. But is American optimism really a “strange God”? I will quote Ms. Scalia at length as to why she thinks a deep pessimism about the prospects for America’s future is warranted:
There are probably ten thousand articles to be found on the Internet all fleshing out their theories of what is behind America’s swift collapse. Curiously, most of them will touch—all without realizing it—on the seven deadly sins; Capitalist Greed; Spiritual Sloth; Physical Lust; Nationalist/Military Pride; Consumer Gluttony; Partisan Wrath; Class Envy. Good arguments can be made blaming some are all of these sins for our current dire straits and for the sense that we are standing upon a precipice.
But I wonder if it is not the first and greatest sin named by Yahweh and given to Moses, that is most at fault: the sin of idolatry. We have loved ourselves so well; we have denied ourselves nothing and placed too much of what we love between ourselves and God; we have cherished mere things or other people; over-identified with ideas or ideologies and made an afterthought of God, who will not be mocked.
Make no mistake, America is not only on a precipice, she is watching the supporting ground below as it shifts and cracks and bits of edging break loose and fall—and a nation tumbles quickly once the foundations are fragmented. Nations fall all the time, of course, but America was supposed to be special—the “exceptional nation” or, as Madeleine Albright called it, “the indispensable nation”—the “last best hope” for the world.
But the last best hope for the world was always the Triune God of Creation. And even some religiously minded Americans seem to have forgotten that.
Perhaps God is tired of the idolatry that has snuck into some hearts disguised as patriotism—where the pledge is nearly equated with prayer and an excellent but earthbound document written by men is treated like the word from on high. Maybe he is tired of the idolatry of the parents whose darlings were over-indulged into stupidity, or the idolatry of the consumer who will stand in line overnight for the latest “must-have/already-obsolete” iToy, or the idolatry of mere ideas that trend and pass and carry off with them our charity and our clarity, leaving us more confused and distanced from God and each other, than we were before. Maybe it is the idolatry of our own earthly “power,” that has brought us to this shaky place.
My, my, there is a lot of bile pent up in those words. Is it justified? I suppose if what she said is true, maybe so. But the problem I have with such assessments is that they generalize in the extreme. I have no doubt that there are many people in America guilty of such things, but are these things as ubiquitous as she seems to think?
In fact, in the admittedly anecdotal evidence of my everyday life, I just don’t see it. On a macro level, reading and watching, watching and reading, I suppose there is plenty of evidence for collapse, but life isn’t what the media writ large tells us that it is; what it is, is several hundred million people every day going about their business, raising their families, going to work, going to school, schlepping the kids to sporting and school events, being entertained and entertaining, planting, harvesting, building and tearing down, loving, hating, winning and losing, failing and succeeding, worshiping, sinning, and seeking redemption, living as best they know how with the breath God has given them.
I’m always amazed on a daily basis how incredibly decent most people are; the kindnesses shown, the courtesies advanced, the services rendered, the social niceties that make a society function are in full display every day, most everywhere across this great country, by most everyone. My apologies to all you conservative curmudgeons out there, but I just don’t get the sense Satan is sitting on his dark throne licking his chops just waiting to get the OK from the real Master of the Universe to pore down burning sulfur on the United States of America.
Popular culture is often grist for the conservative mill of societal decline. Here I think the same over generalization is often found to focus on the worst, giving the impression that, how did Ms. Scalia put it, America is “upon a precipice.” There are multitudinous examples of, as the ancients put it, the true, the good and the beautiful on display in American popular culture.
I will give one I saw recently on the popular CBS crime drama Hawaii Five-O. It was the Halloween episode. Steve McGarrett, the unit’s leader, and his sidekick, “Danno” are dealing with mysterious murders on an Hawaiian holy ground. Danno is the cynical type, asserting religion is nonsense. In a scene typical of the show, the two of them are driving to the next scene where the evidence leads them. McGarrett questions Danno’s cynicism and you can tell he finds it hard to believe Danno doesn’t believe in God, that there isn’t some force greater than the material universe we inhabit. His incredulity to what he clearly thinks is his partner’s blindness was refreshing to see in a procedural crime drama. The examples in TV, movies, literature, etc., can be multiplied many times over.
What strikes me as strange about Ms. Scalia’s analysis and others like it is that from a Christian perspective it makes no sense. She says the last best hope is “the Triune God of Creation.” True enough, but Jesus wasn’t in a popularity contest. He said, in fact, that “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13, 14) Although most Americans affirm Christianity, many are just nominally so. How many of the few would have to turn to the Triune God of creation to lead America away from the precipice? And how exactly would that work? As Abraham pleaded with God to spare Sodom, God agreed that if there were even 10 righteous souls there he would stay his hand. There are a lot more than 10 in America.
In fact our cultural demise has little to do with average Americans, who as I said above are exceedingly decent folks. What it does have to do with is our cultural elites, those who sit astride the levers of power in our educational institutions, and in the professions of media and entertainment. Most of these professions of cultural influence are populated by committed secularists who are in fact hostile to true religious liberty, as I argued in a piece at TAC recently. If you want to change America, you have to change who inhabits these professions. It’s as simple and difficult as that.
I’ll end this with another thing Ms. Scalia’s piece brought to mind, Whittaker Chambers. If you are not familiar with Mr. Chambers, he was an ex-communist who became a believer in God and fought communism in his writing, and most famously in the case against convicted spy Alger Hiss. I read Chambers magisterial Witness back when I was first coming of age politically back in the early to mid-1980s. Chambers was convinced that in the Cold War, America and the West was on the losing side, and he primarily thought this because the West had lost and rejected its Christian heritage. His pessimism was palpable. It was not an angry pessimism, like we see in Ms. Scalia’s piece, but a sad, mournful type of prophetic witness. Fortunately, he was wrong about the Soviet Union and communism’s strength. I think the modern conservative Whittaker Chambers are also wrong about America’s demise.