As with the sexual revolution, these shifts were intuitive without being intellectually necessary. A more global perspective on politics and culture required giving more serious consideration to non-Western traditions and theologies. But it did not require, as a logical consequence, the thoroughgoing relativism about religious truth that many Americans came to embrace.From Charles Murray's Coming Apart:
the fourth great trend undercutting Christianity in the 1960s: the changing economic landscape and the religious consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth. One need not subscribe to a vulgar Marxism to recognize the impact of economic changes on patterns of belief. It was John Wesley, no prophet of secularization, who remarked that “wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.”
only rarely in the Council’s hundred thousand words is the distinction between natural and supernatural even implied.”... Neuhaus pointed out, the documents of Vatican II—and especially Gaudium et Spes, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World—described “the Christian hope … in remarkably this-worldly terms,”
“In ten years people will believe only what they experience; anything else they will not believe,” a Jesuit told readers of U.S. Catholic in 1968.
the reformers had overestimated the potential for sustaining religious practices by marrying them to secular causes. “He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower,” the Anglican Ralph Inge remarked, and so it was with the accommodationists.
Progressive clergy shed their vestments on the sacristy floor, threw their incense in the trash, and sold their golden vessels to antique dealers, only to discover that somehow the puritanical young men and women who had marched with them on the picket line had got hold of all these discards and more besides—tarot cards, Ouija boards, Tibetan prayer wheels, and temple gongs. The Latin had been eliminated from the Mass so that the young could comprehend it, but they preferred instead to chant in Sanskrit. Campus chaplains had ceased trying to sell prayer and were selling social action instead, but their former constituents were hunting up Hindu gurus and undertaking systematic regimens of meditation and fasting.
GREAT NATIONS EVENTUALLY cease to be great, inevitably. It’s not the end of the world. Britain goes on despite the loss of its onetime geopolitical preeminence. France goes on despite the loss of its onetime preeminence in the arts. The United States will go on under many alternative futures. “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” Adam Smith wisely counseled a young correspondent who feared that Britain was on its last legs in the 1700s.1 As a great power, America still has a lot of ruin left in it.
Rome’s initial downward step, five centuries before the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire, was its loss of the republic when Caesar became the first emperor. Was that loss important? Not in material terms. But for Romans who treasured their republic, it was a tragedy that no amount of imperial splendor could redeem. The United States faces a similar prospect: remaining as wealthy and powerful as ever, but leaving its heritage behind.
Over the course of the twentieth century, western Europe developed an alternative to the American model, the advanced welfare state, that provides a great deal of personal freedom in all areas of life except the economic ones. The restrictions that the European model imposes on the economic behavior of both employers and employees are substantial, but, in return, the citizens of Europe’s welfare states have (so far) gotten economic security. I think it is a bad trade. In chapter 15, I indirectly described why. Let me be more explicit here. The European model assumes that human needs can be disaggregated when it comes to choices about public policy. People need food and shelter, so let us make sure that everyone has food and shelter. People may also need self-respect, but that doesn’t have anything to do with whether the state provides them with food and shelter. People may also need intimate relationships with others, but that doesn’t have anything to do with policies regarding marriage and children. People may also need self-actualization, but that doesn’t have anything to do with policies that diminish the challenges of life.
The ways in which food and shelter are obtained affects whether the other human needs are met. People need self-respect, but self-respect must be earned—it cannot be self-respect if it’s not earned—and the only way to earn anything is to achieve it in the face of the possibility of failing. People need intimate relationships with others, but intimate relationships that are rich and fulfilling need content, and that content is supplied only when humans are engaged in interactions that have consequences.
All of these good things in life—self-respect, intimate relationships, and self-actualization—require freedom in the only way that freedom is meaningful: freedom to act in all arenas of life coupled with responsibility for the consequences of those actions. The underlying meaning of that coupling—freedom and responsibility—is crucial. Responsibility for the consequences of actions is not the price of freedom, but one of its rewards. Knowing that we have responsibility for the consequences of our actions is a major part of what makes life worth living.
Toynbee took up the processes that lead to the disintegration of civilizations. His argument went like this: The growth phase of a civilization is led by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue, and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along. Then, at some point in every civilization’s journey, the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority. Its members still run the show, but they are no longer confident and no longer set the example.
Why were four-letter words, which formerly were seen by the upper-middle class as déclassé, appearing in glossy upscale magazines? How had “the hooker look” become a fashion trend among nice girls from the suburbs? How had tattoos, which a few decades ago had been proof positive that one was a member of the proletariat, become chic? Toynbee would have shrugged and said that this is what happens when civilizations are headed downhill—America’s creative minority has degenerated into a dominant minority, and we are witnessing the universal next step, the proletarianization of the dominant minority.
American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves. Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I am thinking of qualities such as American industriousness and neighborliness discussed in earlier chapters, but also American optimism even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it, our striking lack of class envy, and the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies. Finally, there is the most lovable of exceptional American qualities: our tradition of insisting that we are part of the middle class, even if we aren’t, and of interacting with our fellow citizens as if we were all middle class.
I am not suggesting that people in the new upper class should sacrifice their self-interest. I just want to accelerate a rediscovery of what that self-interest is.