So many writers these days are talking about America as a nation in decline. I am one who happens to feel there are some dangerous signals of such decline. For all of my usual instincts toward optimism and hope and opportunity, I am troubled these days, fearful about the future.
Most of our broader national discourse focuses on economic issues, and those are real. And the solutions proposed are almost always political, and those are necessary. But for me, the focus must eventually zero in on culture. Our culture is in distress. When a culture is dying, a nation is in real trouble. And then I find myself searching for the leaders who can recognize the deeper yearning in our culture for moral and spiritual renewal. And I ask: Where are the voices that can help us understand the complex and disheartening signals of cultural distress.
The movies, pop culture, the media, so many politicians, even our universities–for the most part, these culture-shapers have failed us miserably. If we really come to recognize our current cultural malaise and the almost desperate hunger for spiritual renewal, could it be that we should once again turn to our pastors, educators, and theologians to address these deeper yearnings.
Leon Kass, writing in the summer issue of National Affairs, talks about the “struggle against our spiritual impoverishment.” Are we really losing “the quest for meaningful lives,” he asks. I think his assessment of where we are is daunting:
It would be easy to argue that life in America is spiritually more impoverished than ever. As evidence, one might cite the rising respectability of public atheism and the falling off of religious observance; the eclipse of the ideal of work as vocation; the emptiness of the popular culture; the weakening of marriage and family ties; the failure of higher education to nurture the hungry souls of our young, and the huge increase in clinical depression among college students; the decline of patriotism and national attachment; and new expressions of doubt about America’s future, fueled by a strident cynicism on the left and a growing despair on the right.
Kass goes on to make a pretty positive case of improvement: “This picture is at best incomplete.” “Many of our social indicators,” he says, “show a partial repair of earlier unravelings.”
Maybe so. Maybe there is reason not to despair. That’s a big question for me. With Kass I want to locate and celebrate those positive signs. I want to work hard to make it so. But I remain disheartened. I think about our declining educational systems, what seems to be rampant moral coarsening, the dangerous threat to religious freedom, the decline of institutional loyalty, our apparent slackening work ethic, the terrifying spread of violence, the worship of the individual above all else, the violation of sanctity of life. We could go on. Clearly we have a lot of work to do.
In this political season of national discussion about where we are and where we are headed, how can we have a vigorous and intelligent debate about these deeper cultural currents of distress? Most of all, where are the leaders who are willing and able to take on these kinds of issues? And then I want to ask, as I always do, how do we prepare such leaders for the future?