Friday, June 29, 2012

Maybe America Isn't So Great, After All

Like most normal, red-blooded American boys, I grew up with an understanding that this nation was a city on a hill, a supreme nation whose history and people separated it from all others. As I became more politically aware in my 20s, suffering several political defeats along the way (the continued growth of the welfare state, the curtailing of liberty, the moral decay) I held in the back of my mind a future turning point when things would get better. Just as an example, I remember writing President Clinton as a 13-year-old about the abuses of food stamps at my local grocery store in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Surely by now, such abuses would have come to an end. They have nearly doubled. 

Still, with the decay in the moral life, the cultural life, and the political life, there was always a stubborn insistence in my mind that the American will and persona would "take back the country." After yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court, that naivete is quickly disappearing. I am training my mind for a new reality, a reality in which there isn't a turning point in the future. True, I am probably overreacting to one man's strange judicial mind. And yes, the pundits remind me of particular silver linings. And yes, there are still political opportunities in 2012 and beyond. 

But there are far deeper problems that the sane person cannot ignore about our nation any longer. This particular law and Supreme Court decision have brought them to the fore. Highlighted now is our nation's desire to be acted upon, to become passive where we were once actors.

The nation we live in is one of increasingly weak minds and weak wills; "men without chests," C.S. Lewis said. Somehow, weakness has become acceptable to us. I always understand American to be a nation of strength; strong men and women, independent men and women, people who could accomplish and succeed on their own. Moreover, men and women who wanted to accomplish and succeed on their own. 

The American is active, not passive. The American seeks to do things on his own, without compulsion from others. He decides, he creates, he produces. He succeeds or fails on his own merits. He trades the promise of utopia for the risk of failure. Or he used to.

The American is also virtuous, defined by thrift and modesty. Religious life, now in a slow retreat, was once hugely defining for Americans. Will it continue to be so? Americans are charitable and compassionate. Americans are prudent, content to let the wisdom of experience guide their minds. 

These are the qualities that I assumed would come roaring back one day in enough numbers to turn the tide of our nation and to restore the city on the hill. The strong men - not the lazy ideologues who impose - would decide they prefer the risk of liberty. They would sacrifice to be free. While these traits are visible in many, especially our military, they are too easily being given up. Instead, other sins have won out. 

It begins with greed. We are a nation that consumes more than we produce. To be sure, capitalism is moral. But the consumerism we have embraced - defined by everything from sex-selective abortion to living beyond our means - is evil. We have gotten too lazy to distinguish between the two. Conservatives have lost the courage to defend capitalism and decry consumerism.

It continues with sloth. While many Americans, of course, continue to work hard, too many have become too lazy, relying instead on largess and unearned income. While a social "safety net" may be compassionate, sloth is immoral in any century, in any nation. 

Next comes narcissism. Read the works of Jean Twenge for a more comprehensive and damning summary. One anecdote says a lot. An international study that compared academic test scores and self-esteem found that Americans scored terribly on the tests, but had the highest self-esteem. South Koreans meanwhile scored much higher on the academic tests, but had lower self-esteem. A majority of young Americans are at best delusional about their abilities and their goodness. Nothing is more despicable to God than a proud sinner, a narcissist who lives by their own terms.

Most pernicious and pervasive of all is the sin of coveting. Where we once were content to earn what was ours and respect what others had, we have become a society that envies. Envy is at the root of our passive acceptance of sloth and the moral depravity of the vapid and lifeless celebrity culture. Our wealth has led us to believe that there is something desirable in material acquisition. That is a lie. 

Marketing, television, the celebrity culture and, of course, the politics of class warfare all have at their root the damnable sin of coveting. One cannot blame the marketers, the television producers, the celebrity or the politicians. They are complicit. But it is the American who covets. We own that sin. Until America becomes a nation of men who are content with their lot in life, we we continue to be a sick nation indeed. The material world is not, in and of itself sinful. But coveting is, and it is the root that must be destroyed if we will ever be a great nation again. 

What of religion? Aren't Americans still a religious people. Americans may be religious, but in so many ways, it is often the mere form of religion that passes for Christianity. Many Christian charities are largely government-funded. Megachurches and charismatics preach a false gospel. We have turned religious faith into a consumerist model like everything else. Even the Catholic Church contributed greatly in justifying the welfare state. Their efforts to fight it now are almost certainly too little too late.

Is it still possible that America can change? Of course. But it will require a majority of people willing to live lives of risk and independence. That corner may always be turned. But it seems naive and probably even ignorant to see it anytime soon. And not because a particular law has been upheld. But because that law represents a nation handing over something as fundamental as their health to others. That is profoundly un-American. Or at least, it used to be.