by ProfDave, ©2020
(Dec. 15, 2020) — For the first three hundred years, immigrants to America and their descendants regarded this vast new continent as a gift from God – the bountiful land, the opportunity open to enterprise, the freedom from oppression – especially religious liberty. They expressed their reverent gratitude in their laws and public documents, their monuments, their educational institutions from Harvard and Yale down to the one room schoolhouse. Almost all institutions, public and private, were founded and adorned with references to the Providence “that made and preserved us a nation.”
This is not to say that those immigrants and their descendants were saints. Far from it. Church attendance and membership among the masses were a fraction of what they are today. Alcoholism and violence were common. Immorality was present enough despite intense social disapproval. Dishonest business practices, consumer fraud, and political corruption were rife. Racial and ethnic hatred, slavery, abuse and neglect of women, children, the mentally ill, newer immigrants and strangers went relatively unchecked. But the Bible and the civil religion of “Christian America” was the standard and the consensus to which everyone could appeal – both reformers and resistors of reform. Americans fell well short of the Puritan ethic, and their faith sometimes wavered, but they knew the standard from which they had fallen and paid at least lip-service to Biblical ideals.
What has happened in the last century? We no longer thank God for our freedom, security, and prosperity – those things are no longer gifts, but rights. Many of us are now embarrassed or offended by any serious reference to God or Christ. Our freedom to pursue personal happiness now trumps all morality and no one has the right to tell us otherwise. Our sexual liberty means a lot more to us than someone else’s religious liberty. Our resentment of any interference is a symptom of our challenged consciences. Bottom line: we really don’t want God telling us what to do.
The consensus has dissolved. We are no longer a white, mostly protestant Anglo-Saxon nation. Immigration has changed the mix. The Great War, the Great Depression, and the failure of Prohibition deflated the post-millennial hope that reform and revival would bring in the Kingdom of God on our continent. Racial prejudice and urban blight (among other things) exposed national failure to live up to American and Christian ideals, while modern cultural and intellectual currents sought alternative world views in scientific naturalism and existential revolution.
The numbers and fervor of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, are still as strong as ever, but they are no longer dominant in American society. Their beliefs and values have become de-coupled from public life and the commanding heights of the nation: the media, the law, and the schools – the cultural “we.” Somewhere along the line “we” lost our ideals. “We” don’t believe in them anymore. At least on the national level. Parallel tendencies are even more advanced in Europe. Western Civilization is groping for an alternative to its moral foundation in Christianity – even while globally the faith is on the rise, undermining Marxism in Asia, provoking Islam to extreme measures and taking Africa by storm.
The question is whether the West – and an increasingly integrated world – can find a new moral foundation or get along without one. That is the question of destination. The more immediate question is one of surviving the journey.
Since the election cycle of 2012 a great political chasm has opened between the sexually “liberated,” progressives and neo-Marxists on the one hand and the “faith, family, and freedom” patriots on the other. Two views of the nature of reality, of reason, of humanity, and of a healthy human society are in conflict. Is there anything real and true beyond biology and physics (and perhaps economics) or not? Is human worth absolute or relative to social utility or “quality of life” or what have you? Do all lives matter or only those who share my identity? Are social institutions deserving of self-sacrifice or chains to be broken? Does marriage and family, for example, exist for adult gratification or for generating and preserving future generations? Is there such a thing as the common good that we all should seek, or only special rights and entitlements for our sub-cultural tribes?
Can multiple moral foundations coexist? Can we work it out without repression? Can freedom and personal security survive in cultural conflict? The deadlock in Congress is only the tip of the iceberg. This may be the biggest test of American character and civil society since the Civil War! It has been coming for a long time. If not this cycle, perhaps the next – or will it drag on for another generation, ending in a cataclysm that leaves one side in command, but still leaving the underlying issues unresolved (as in the Civil War). Hmmmh.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.