“That’s Not Who We Are”–Are You Sure?

This has been a bad week for the public image of the United States. The negative impressions are well deserved; one can only hope, though without a great deal of confidence, that the events now well publicized will be the occasion of some serious soul-searching. Secret Service agents having a very busy time with Columbian prostitutes; American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with body parts of suicide bomb carriers and (perhaps) slain combatants. Not the stuff the land of the free and home of the brave ought to be posting on the shingle at the front door.

In both cases Washington officials were quick to point out that this is not who we are, not what we are about, not consistent with our values. I believe they genuinely believed what they were saying. I’m not so sure that what they said and believed was entirely true. There is a very real and quite legitimate question about whether these acts were really far off the mark we currently aim at in our culture, by default if not by intent.

Both the Hillary Rodham Clinton (Secretary of State) and Leon Panetta (Defense) are part of a generation that takes a given moral order for granted, whether or not their actual beliefs adequately account for or uphold that given order. According to that order, some actions are just plain, self-evidently wrong; and the actions that have made the recent headlines fall very clearly within the category of the forbidden. They are disturbing actions, in one case because, while prostitution is certainly nothing new, employing prostitutes while engaged in the doing of the country’s business in a foreign land obviously disrespects one’s fellow citizens, let alone one’s own family members; in the other case, the actions seem so heinous that many of us cannot comprehend anyone thinking it, let alone doing it and documenting it. It’s not the stuff we would expect anyone to treasure for home viewing in their later years.

But much has happened to undermine the assumptions on which Clinton, Panetta, and the entire generation they are part of, uncritically relied. And the failure of that generation (my own) to think through and validate the moral law with sound reasoning has led to the virtual demise of even its most basic ideas of decency, civility, and discipline of both self and offspring. When the only virtue remaining is a badly warped sense of tolerance, we mistakenly and tragically lose the power to draw lines other than by political force. And among the first to take advantage of this void was the entertainment industry, which continued to push the boundaries with ever weakening resistance. The result has been music, movies, games, and conversation about the same which devalues decency, civility, and discipline. And now we face the generation which such an approach has spawned, and we find ourselves in disgust, yet with no recourse other than to lament.

I am going to venture an opinion an opinion here against which some readers may well scoff, bristle, or rail. It seems plausible, however, to lay some of the responsibility for our moral situation at the feet of a political agenda which includes the leveling of the religious landscape. That is, when a governmental position is adopted, as undoubtedly and avowedly has been done, holding all faiths to be of equal value, it actually holds none of them to be truly worthwhile. And in so doing, it has removed any constraint against on the (im)moral impulses of its citizens other than those imposed by law. This serves the government well in that it allows no room for other lords than itself. If that is too strong a statement, consider the real meaning of religious freedom, including the freedom of grounding morality in a transcendent reality, when government itself defines religion, as the current president has done. It does so in order to control and shape citizens in its own image.

But if the truth about mankind includes a fallen nature along with our undeniable wealth of potential for creativity, watch out for what we create and the purposes for which we do it. And I submit we are reaping the consequences. Or am I just an old curmudgeon?

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5 thoughts on ““That’s Not Who We Are”–Are You Sure?

  1. I think your premise that the political agenda currently in vogue in our country has leveled the religious landscape has validity. Faith traditions (communities) have been marginalized effectively and have lost their voice to the larger culture (why this happened is another conversation). The political agenda as described above, albeit very important, is but one symptom of a more serious disease endempic in our culture. There seems to be a disconnect in the American psyche between governmental practice and our everyday lives. But the ideals or values of the body politic eventually show up in the values and practices of the government. While it is so convenient to point our finger at government, government agencies and politicians for practices that are disgusting and reprehensible, we do so at the risk of pointing to ourselves. Am I being unfair?

    • They do indeed “show up” in gov’t, Kirby. But gov’t lacks the resources to deal with it. For many years we operated, relatively successfully, under a civil religion (Robert Bellah’s famed concept). But I have a hunch that there developed an assumption that genereic pluralism could adequately substitute for the abandoned civil religion (the later Bellah). Pluralism offers no moral vision and creates no mediating institutions that stand between the people and the government, leaving the public square naked (Richard John Nuehaus) and with nothing to put on. I’m starting to feel an urge to think this one through and spell it out; just running through my mind now.

      • The common view I would submit is that the mediating institution is the courts, and to a much lesser extent the press/media/RousingOfThePeople.
        Jefferson would have definitely viewed the press in that manner, in fact thought “jury of your peers” and “free press” were more important than “direct election”. The founders also wrote/believed that the States themselves (ala 10th amendment) were a mediating institution as well, and that they provided “options” or as Ronald Reagan once said “you could vote with your feet”. I for one find Pennsylvania (despite its systemic corruption), a better place to live then Massachusettes or New York (where I have also lived), despite the fact that in aesthetics, environment and intellectual fizz New York makes PA look childish.

        The courts were/are in my mind a serious mediating institutions, because they were not a DEMOCRATIC institution (that is not a party label). And the founders were not interested in creating a democracy but a Republic. The courts are generally unelected (certainly at the federal level), or have very restrictive election issues (I’m very familiar with PA’s ins and outs). The courts were not to be interested in what people think instantaneously (or “right now”), but what the constitution said, and decisions of the past. A highly undemocratic institution. Obviously we have strayed from that course now including UN, World Court, and European Court decisions in US Supreme court decisions at the minimum.

        So while I agree with you to a certain extent, my Taleb like criticism would be that on a good day, it is a bit more complex than that, and on a bad day causality is indeterminate.

        Yesterday at my monthly Lancaster Convene meeting, Ron Hoover (of Convene) basically said “everything usually boils down to sovereignity question”. I though about that, and then wrote it down. As a great admirer of Radical Orthodoxy on my path to Rome, and in that light, I absolutely agree with you that “this serves the government well.”

        As we have discussed in the past, publicly and privately the Founders had a much more realistic and nuanced view of humanity and its drivers. I watch with positive anticipation 10th amendment exercises and nullification actions by the states, returning to a mixed earthly sovereignity would benefit us all.

      • The mediaitng institutions Neuhaus referred to (in his book The Naked Public Square, were not those of the government in any way. They were those organized ways of ordering life that stood between the gov’t and the citizen to sustain, enhance, define, and enrich life. Thus they would provide a psace in which life was not under the control of the state. Over time the state seems to attempt either taking over or invalidating those mediating institutions, which may be as far apart from one another as bowling leagues, volunteer fire companies, churches, and community groups of all kinds. To varying extents, these associations also serve to ground an ethic, one which may or may not be verbalized, but is understood nonetheless by those who participate. When these are removed for one reason or another, nothing is left to stand between the person and the state, which when devoid of its own firm grounding becomes arbitrary and coercive if not reigned in.

  2. I like what you/newhaus are saying, I get it. I’ve read quotes of the past “my God given rights as an Englishman” and Hannan an English MEP is for ever explaining natural rights as “space” to the European parlament.

    Unfortunately, with the possible except of Ron Paul, and Judge Napolitano no one can actually parse these concepts on input or communicate them, (and I am so glad that one trick pony Santorum is now gone, there is nothing like a thoroughly broken and confused “evangelical” spokesman to set everything back 50 years).

    But let me put my reformed hat on, admittedly it is very small and ugly, and shrinks a size every year, but….. if you have a strong theology of ordained government, what kind of one do you want? The weakest? It would appear that from a Federalist perspective that is exactly what the founders wanted. Again I think of Buckham’s Theology of Revelation: “Absolute power on earth is satanic in inspiration, destructive in its effects, idolatrous in its claim to ultimate loyalty.” I think that is the next station on the American ride, there is literally nothing that you possess including the privacy of your person that they must be sovereign of.

    Time to join the revolution.

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