110 One Nation, After All?

Alan Wolfe is one of the nation’s most highly regarded sociologists. In One Nation, After All (New York: Penguin Books, c. 1998) he surveys “what middle-class Americans really think about God, country, family, racism, welfare, immigration, homosexuality, work, the right, the left, and each other.” The middle-class, Wolfe asserts, constitutes America, so middle-class morality defines its culture. Despite extremists’ warnings about the “culture war,” despite the laments of various “discontents,” this nation is, according to ordinary folks, united in its most important convictions. The book’s data comes from 200 two-hour intensive interviews with suburbanites living in four cities: Boston; Atlanta; Tulsa; San Diego. In Wolfe’s opinion, these four regions accurately sample the nation’s populace, though he acknowledges the small number of subjects make his study less than statistically sound. But since he wants to draw a more impressionistic picture of the “middle-class,” which he thinks to be suburban rather than urban or rural, he defends the validity of his presentation.

America’s middle-class has a “quiet faith,” a private faith rarely discussed only loosely aligned with traditional theology or established churches. Personal experience, and little else, shapes folks’ faith and ethics. One woman believes that “‘everyone inside has their own persona of God,'” so “‘You don’t have to accept anybody’s dogma whole. Live with the concept of God as your perceive it'” (p. 51). Another woman declared that God doesn’t tell us what’s right or wrong, because “‘You know in your gut that something is wrong, so you have to listen to what’s inside'” (p. 82). Since everyone is free to devise his own concept of God, to design his own morality, middle-class Americans strongly endorse “an Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not judge.'” Refusing to judge others or to condemn even their most egregious acts, qualifies one as a good person. Consequently, few of the folks interviewed “used words like ‘sin,’ ‘moral rot,’ ‘decay,’ or ‘Satan,’ terms that” one often associates with conservative Christianity” (p. 49). Wolfe’s study confirmed other sociological surveys which indicate “that Americans are among the most faithful people in the world” (p. 44)–though they are highly selective when it comes to precisely what they believe. Summing up the “quiet faith” of his subjects, Wolfe says: “they put their faith in people. A deep-seated belief in people’s goodness enables middle-class Americans to accept the principle that people should be free to choose their God, or even not to choose God at all, without worrying that the consequence will be anarchy, for good people will always make the right kinds of choices” (p. 85).

After examining America’s attitudes toward family, country, and community concerns, Wolfe concludes his study with a glance at “morality writ small: not only should our circles of moral obligation never become so large that they lose their coherence, but morality should also be modest in its ambitions and quiet in its proclamations, not seeking to transform the entire world but to make a difference where it can” (p. 290). Accordingly: “If one is giving advice, one should do so tentatively; although it is a term of derision among Christian conservatives, the idea of the ‘Ten Suggestions’ rather than the ‘Ten Commandments’ is exactly the tone in which most middle-class American believe we ought to establish moral rules” (p. 291). Still more: “middle-class American have never let God command them in ways seriously in conflict with modern beliefs” (p. 298).

To Wolfe all this bodes well for America. He’s encouraged to think that “religious” people expect very little from themselves or one another. Yet one suspects that’s because the folks interviewed bolstered Wolfe’s own admittedly “liberal” convictions, justifying a secular society, highly tolerant in most every way, but still committed to a democratic society. In an earlier book, entitled Whose Keeper, he discounted the worth of religion, calling for people to follow social scientists (such as himself) for moral guidance. Religious conservatives, especially, Wolfe argued, should not be trusted. Thus the value of One Nation, After All, in my judgment, lies in its anecdotal evidence, which surely proffers snapshots of this nation’s character. For more solid sociological data, however, works such The Death of Character, by John Davidson Hunter, are more trustworthy.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, like Wolfe, is a Jewish intellectual. She, however, represents the Right rather than the Left and is a historian rather than a sociologist. She also takes a thoroughly different take on American culture in One Nation, Two Cultures (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). She shares Adam Smith’s view that in every society two moral systems compete: that of the common people versus that of “people of fashion.” Fashionable elites indulgently condone vices such as “‘luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes, etc'” (p. 3). Common people, manifestly evident in the Victorian Era, which Himmelfarb has thoroughly researched, generally follow religious convictions, condemn personal vices and uphold the moral standards they believe necessary for their good.

The Victorian Era, of course, ended early in this century. By 1950, Pitrim Sorokin at Harvard was lamenting the “‘sexualization of American culture’ and ‘sham-Nietzschean amorality’ that were engulfing the country. ‘What used to be considered morally reprehensible is now recommended as a positive value; what was once called demoralization is now styled moral progress and a new freedom'” (p. 14). Soon thereafter the counterculture of the 1960s intoxicated America, setting in place what Roger Shattuck labels “the morality of the cool” (p. 25). Declaring independence from despised “bourgeois values,” the counterculture “also liberated a good many people from those values–virtues, as they were once called–that had a stabilizing, socializing, and moralizing effect on society” (p. 18).

What’s been lost, Himmelfarb believes, is the “civil society” which generally reigned in the United States until WWII, rooted in self-sacrifice and nurturing healthy families. “Today, unfortunately, many parents are as ineffectual in promoting and enforcing social order as are other authorities, and that miniature system is as weak and unreliable as the larger social system of which it is part” (p. 45). Primarily this is due to the demise of the “ethic of sacrifice” which sustains a good family. Various social planners, however, with their preference for state-controlled institutions, have deliberately sought to minimize traditional marriage, blurring the distinction between marriage and cohabitation, between heterosexual and homosexual unions. The traditional family has been sidelined by the sexual revolution which brands children a burden, bringing us to the point where Italian demographers predict that soon “almost three-fifths of that nation’s children will have ‘no siblings, cousins, aunts, or uncles; they will have only parents, grandparents, and perhaps great-grandparents'” (p. 56).

Beyond the details of the cultural revolution which has transformed the West, Himmelfarb prescribes ways to counter it. Since by nature we are political animals, as Aristotle rightly saw, we must act effectively in the political realm. Laws cannot but legislate morality, so we must work to exert influence in that area. But culture, shaped by religion, necessarily undergirds a politics capable of legislating morality. “Republican government means self-government–self-discipline, self-restraint, self-control, self-reliance–‘republican virtue,’ in short” (p. 85). Reflecting a consensus of the Founding Fathers, George Washington, in his Farewell Address, urged Americans not to “‘indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion’: ‘Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports'” (p. 86). Though often celebrated as the architect of the “wall” between church and state, even Thomas Jefferson supported a Christian America. Once asked why he attended church when he doubted Christian dogma, Jefferson replied: “‘no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Or can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example'” (p. 86).

Today, of course, Christians struggle to make their case for Christian ethics in the public square. “Having been spared the class revolution that Marx predicted, we have succumbed to the cultural revolution” (p. 118). There is a militantly anti-Christian bigotry in America. The media and intelligentsia belittle and assail the “Gospel Lobby” for its ignorance and intolerance. “Indeed, the very language of morality has been transformed, so that once honorific words are now pejorative. To pass moral judgments is to be ‘judgmental’ and ‘moralistic’; to engage in moral discourse is to ‘preach’ and ‘moralize’; to pronounce upon moral affairs is to wage of ‘moral crusade,’ or, worse, a ‘religious crusade.’ With the disparagement of the moral vocabulary comes a trivilization of morality itself'” (p. 118). So we find the anomaly of anti-smoking zealots, in Hollywood and Congress, who promote fornication and sodomy! The schools piously ban even pictures of guns while passing out condoms and procuring abortions!

Further complicating the picture, many sectors of the church world have failed to inculcate traditional moral precepts. “George Gallup, who has done extensive polling on the subject, speaks of ‘an ethics gap’ between ‘the way we think of ourselves and the way we actually are’–between, in effect, religious faith and moral practices. The sociologist James Davison Hunter dates this gap to the late 1950’s and early ’60s, when liberal Protestant theology was being redefined in ‘secular, humanistic terms,’ accommodating itself to the ‘worldview and “life-styles” of modernity.’ This process of accommodation has since gone on apace, so that today many mainline churches offer little or no resistance to the prevailing culture. On the contrary, some are very much part of it, priding themselves on being cosmopolitan and sophisticated, undogmatic and uncensorious. Thus they carefully avoid, in their sermons and public declarations, the old language of morality– ‘sin,’ ‘shame,’ ‘evil’–preferring the new language of sociability–‘inappropriate,’ ‘unseemly,’ ‘improper'” (p. 98).

Sound in its sources, judicious in its evaluation, persuasive in its argumentation, Himmelfarb’s study is both readable and worth reading if one wants to understand where we now stand in America.

“What the soul is the body,” according to one of the earliest documents in Church History, “Christians are to the world” (Letter to Diognetus, 6.1). And that, George Weigel argues, in Soul of the World: Notes on the Future of Public Catholicism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1996), is our current calling and challenge. Weigel, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., recently finished a definitive biography of John Paul II and certainly represents a vital segment of the Catholic Church.

“What the Church most urgently needs to teach the world is that the world’s fulfillment lies beyond history, and that the nature of that fulfillment has been disclosed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ‘first-born among many brethren’ (Rom. 8:29, RSV)” (p. 2). Christians proclaim and live according to the great truth that “Jesus is Lord.” Given that commitment, “our first institutional or corporate commitment is to his Body, the Church” (p. 16). Unlike the World Council of Churches, which declares that “The World Sets the Agenda for the Church,” the Church of Jesus Christ ever sets her own agenda in accord with the mandates of her Head. Consequently: “The first thing the Church asks of the world is space–social, legal, apolitical, even psychological–in order to carry out its distinctive ministry of word and sacrament” (p. 37). Rather than consult the world for her agenda, “The Church asks the world to let the Church be the Church.” Indeed, at times the simply “demands that it be allowed to be what it is: a reality ‘in the nature of a sacrament–a sign and instrument . . . of communion with God and unity among all men.’ The first thing the Church asks the world is that the Church be allowed to be itself” (p. 37).

Given that commitment, the Church in America must ever struggle to maintain a healthy balance in her relationship with the democratic state. Certain Christian values, such as a high regard for the individual person, lend themselves easily to a democratic polity. Yet as things now stand, Christians may well need to engage in “uncompromising confrontation rather than polite dialogue. When unborn human beings have less legal standing than an endangered species of bird in a national forest; when any configuration of ‘committed’ adults is considered in enlightened circles to constitute a ‘marriage’; when senior senators bloviate about ‘sexual harassment’ in kindergarten while national illegitimacy rates approach 30 percent of all births: well, one is reminded of Orwell’s observation, to generations ago, that ‘we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men'” (pp. 68-69).

This leads Weigel to bring John Paul II forward as an inspired guide for our day. His carefully thought out and articulated positions blend the evangelism of the Gospel with the moral backbone of discipleship. In saying “yes” to the personal freedom basic to democracy, John Paul also warns against the totalitarian implications of unlimited democracy, wherein “rights” become license to kill the unborn, the weak, the unneeded. “Because human beings, as persons, have an innate capacity for thinking and choosing and an innate drive for truth and goodness, freedom to pursue that quest for the true and the good, without coercion, is a basic human good” (p. 112). In every man’s conscience, a dialogue takes place with God, providing the basis for his freedom. As John Paul II insisted, in Veritatis Splendor, “there is a moral logic built into the world and into us. That is, there is a universal human nature, and human reason, through reflection on that nature, can discern certain fundamental truths that are the foundation of the moral life” (p. 158).

Americans, John Paul says, rightly treasure their freedom. But not all freedom is good. Only an “ordered freedom,” disciplined to serve man’s ultimate good, can rightly be considered worthy of man. Real freedom is being able to do what you ought to do, to make decisions and take steps which enable one to attain one’s end. America’s Founding Fathers wisely averred: “only a virtuous people can be free.” Professor Rocco Buttiglione, an advisor to John Paul, says: “‘Nothing good can be done without freedom, but freedom is not the highest value in itself. Freedom is given to man in order to make possible the free obedience to truth and the free gift of oneself in love'” (p. 126). Tragically, too many in our day define freedom as doing whatever one desires at the moment. Thus, John Paul says, we see “choices ‘against life’ are being described as ‘legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights.’ Wrongs have become rights” (p. 123).

The “ordered freedom” the pope endorses flourishes in the “free economy” he supports in one of his finest encyclicals, Centesimus Annus. Unlike certain forms of ruthless, laisser faire capitalism, John Paul contends that wealth creation today derives from “human creativity and imagination, and with political and economic systems capable of unleashing that creativity and imagination, than with ‘resources’ per se” (p. 139). Neither socialism, which he rigorously condemns, nor the Welfare State rightly suits the nature of man. To truly help people means to treat them with dignity. We help the poor, we extend a “preferential option for the poor,” when we empower them, liberate them from all that oppresses or constricts their lives. “What works best for the poor is democratic politics and properly regulated market economies” (p. 140). What John Paul calls “the Social Assistance State,” widely evident in “social democratic” nations, easily robs folks of their stature as persons. “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending'” (pp. 132-43).

As the “soul of the world,” Christians–and the Church–must preach the Gospel and call the world to its principles. Contemporary politics, so democratic in nature, can be brought under the lordship of Jesus. Contemporary economics, so clearly capitalistic in much of the world, can be rightly synthesized with a Christian view of human nature. The world, so long as it is never considered as an end in itself, can be made right for man when its structures closely resemble the principles of Christ’s Kingdom.

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