The Corrosion Of Civic Virtue In America

Apr 13th, 2024 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

A regular columnist in The Economist magazine writes under the label “Lexington” and recently published an article summarizing a 1988 six month visit by a Chinese political scientist, Wang Huning, to America and his subsequent book, America Against America.  [Wang is now Chief of Ideology and Propaganda in China.] Wang was mesmerized by the voluntary pursuit of financial wherewithal, rather than any ideology or political system of coercion in America.  For him, this was a source of stability. He was astonished at public libraries, where people could access the knowledge of generations past.  His visit to Plymouth, Massachusetts and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia demonstrated how the American shared political tradition was a powerful unifying force.  But, Wang saw centrifugal forces pulling at these unifying forces.  He was particularly interested in two:

  • Americans claim to value both liberty and equality, but these values inevitably conflict.  Americans prioritize freedom.  “They resent paying taxes that might yield greater equality, with the result being a destabilizing divide between rich and poor.”
  • Americans also claim to regard the family as the basic unit of society, but, “in spirit, the family is being hollowed out” because Americans actually emphasize the individual.  Individual family members have their own bedrooms and their parents prepare them to enter society, “like entering a battlefield.”  These children, he concluded, would not have time to take care of their parents as they aged.

Wang was especially interested in Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, which charted the shift to cultural relativism in higher education.  The result is that Americans are abandoning their shared values, which has caused a “spiritual crisis.”  He lamented the developing American civilization based on “individualism, hedonism and democracy,” and argued that America would soon face “an unstoppable undercurrent of crisis.”  He prophetically identified one of the sources of America’s discontent and polarization—the corrosion of civic virtue.  From a communist ideologue has come a unpleasantly honest assessment of American civilization.

As we enter 2024, a presidential election year, what are the evidences of the corrosion of civic virtue in America?  Let me cite three examples.

First of all is the state of the family.  Meghan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal has reviewed two important books on the state of the family (Brad Wilcox’s Get Married and Timothy Carney’s Family Unfriendly).    Her review summarizes the dismal state of this foundational institution.  “A society may demonstrate brio in dramatic ways—by putting up spectacular buildings, say, or sending astronauts into space—but perhaps the most powerful expression of cultural confidence is one that takes place on a smaller scale: men and women committing themselves to one another in marriage, building families with children and grandchildren. These are acts of self-belief and demonstrations of hope for the future. By this measure, Americans show themselves to be increasingly uncertain and unconfident.  Marriage is disappearing from vast swaths of the populace, denying millions of men and women and children its comforts and protection. An unprecedented fertility drought, meanwhile, means that more Americans are dying every day than are being born.”

  • “The American heart is closing before our very eyes,” writes Brad Wilcox in “Get Married,” an urgent polemic that marshals anecdote, testimony and social-science data to make the case for wedlock in a culture increasingly averse to it. Mr. Wilcox calls the shift away from marriage “epochal” and writes that Americans are at risk of forgoing “all the fruits that follow from this most fundamental social institution: children, kin, financial stability, and innumerable opportunities to love and be loved by another.”  Mr. Wilcox traces the origins of the shift to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the vogue for divorce in the 1970s, from which emerged notions about marriage that have become lodged in the national understanding: that men and women enjoy more happiness, wealth and sex outside wedlock; that family structure has no bearing on human flourishing; that religious marriage is oppressive; that children are expensive little annoyances that ruin the fun.”
  • A professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, Mr. Wilcox uses charts, graphs and lively, info-packed text to give the lie to these immiserating ideas. “He finds, among other things, that married men and women are wealthier than their unmarried or divorced peers; that married couples with children are happier than childless spouses; that children from intact families are more likely to finish college and dramatically less likely to be abused than those from other types of household.”
  • “There is zero advantage to marriage in the Western world for a man,” declares a strident social-media figure. A piece in the New York Times extols the “freedom, personal control and self-realization” of living alone. The Atlantic presents “The Case Against Marriage,” while Time magazine talks of “Having It All Without Having Children.” The dismal melody is insidious—and it’s catching. “Countless young men and women are deferring or avoiding marriage altogether, pouring their conjugal and parental energies into elaborate modes of ‘self-care’ and the cosseting of pets. Marriage rates are near the historic lows reached in the plague year 2020 (around 34 single people out of every 1,000 marry every year, down from twice that in 1980). Among poor and working-class Americans, marriage rates are in what Mr. Wilcox calls ‘free fall.’  Fewer than 40% of working-class adults, and just over 25% of poor adults, between the ages of 18 and 55 are married.”
  • As with marriage, so with children. “Birthrates collapsed in 2020 and 2021,” writes Timothy Carney in “Family Unfriendly,” a book that anatomizes the ways in which American society makes it difficult for couples to have and enjoy children. “Each day in December 2020, nearly 8% fewer babies were born than on the same date a year before, according to the Census Bureau; a similar comparison for 2021 shows a further decline of more than 9%. Discouragements include tax penalties, social norms that demand children be continually supervised, and laws requiring bulky car seats that effectively limit the number of children who can fit in a vehicle. More broadly, a dismal ‘culture of sterility’ defames children as vectors of disease and climate-endangering emitters of greenhouse gases.”
  • “Fewer children now means fewer adults later, of course, and fewer adults means fewer workers. But human beings are not merely cogs or widgets whose value derives from their contribution to economic life. Forgone marriages and children mean foregone human connections, greater loneliness and atomization, fewer opportunities for love and serendipity and joy. Nor, Mr. Carney notes, has rising secularism ushered in an earthly paradise: ‘A de-Christianizing America was supposed to be a happier, more liberated, brighter one. Instead it’s an America that traded out hope and love of mankind for self-loathing and a constant terror of the coming inferno.’”

Second is a rather bizarre funeral for Cecilia Gentili at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.  Gentili was a transgender prostitute, an atheist and “a misogynist who denied womens’ bodies were of any real relevance.”  Carl R. Trueman poses a most relevant question:  “Why an atheist man convinced that he is a woman and committed to a life of prostitution would wish to have a funeral in a church?”  Trueman offers a profound observation:  “As the Christian transformation of the Roman Empire was marked by the emergence of the liturgical calendar and the turning of pagan temples into churches, so we can expect the reverse to take place when a culture paganizes.  The pagans will respond in kind.  And so we have a month dedicated to Pride and church buildings used for the mockery of Christianity.  Time and space are reimagined in ways that directly confront and annihilate that once deemed sacred.  A funeral in a Catholic cathedral for an atheist culture warrior is a first-class way of doing this.”  He adds, “Our age is not marked so much for disenchantment as by desecration.  The culture officer class is committed not merely to marginalizing that which previous generations considered sacred.  It is committed to its destruction . . . Desecration speaks to the exultation that active destruction of the holy involves.”

Finally, in December 2023, the Southern Baptist Convention settled a sex abuse lawsuit brought against a man named Paul Pressler for an undisclosed sum.  As David French reports, the lawsuit was filed in 2017 and alleged that Pressler had raped a man named Duane Rollins for decades, with the rapes beginning when Rollins was only 14 years old.  The horror of this story is that Pressler is one of the most important American religious figures of the 20th century.  Pressler was a Texas state judge and a former president of the council for National Policy, a powerful conservative Christian activist organization.  As French summarizes, “The evidence that people were aware of allegations against him stretches back decades.  To take just two examples, in 1989, Pressler failed an FBI background check after President George H. W. Bush tapped him to lead the Office of Government Ethics.  And in 2004, First Baptist Church of Houston investigated accusations of a college student, deemed his behavior ‘morally and spiritually inappropriate’ and warned him but took no other action.”  Ultimately, it took Rollins’s lawsuit to expose Pressler’s actions (Pressler, now 93, has not admitted guilt.)

French goes on to argue that the Pressler case is illustrative of why we are so polarized as a nation.  “The American right exists in a news environment that reports misconduct on the left or in left-wing institutions loudly and with granular detail.”  But, the right ignores such stories as Pressler’s.  It is a “cultivated ignorance” where news outlets and influencers of the right agree not to share facts that might complicate their partisan narratives.  The right will indict the Harvey Weinstein’s of Hollywood in the self-righteous framework of the righteous “us” taking on the villainous “them.”  But when the Presslers of the right do that same thing as the Weinstein’s of the left, it is more complicated.  “We’re all left with the disturbing and humbling reality that whatever our ideology or theology, it doesn’t make us good people.  The allegedly virtuous ‘us’ commits the same sins as the presumptively villainous ‘them.’”  French concludes that “. . . the truth—the whole truth—is indispensable . . .  When our own institutional and individual sins are so appalling, humble repentance and reform replace our partisan rage.”

The corrosion of civic virtue in America is obvious.  Government will not solve this.  Only genuine, heartfelt repentance and brutal honesty will restore genuine civic virtue to our civilization.  It begins with an acceptance of the finished work of Jesus Christ by faith.  It beings with a humble admittance that we are all sinners, capable of the most dastardly of sins.  At the cross there is no “us” vs. “them.”  The right is no more righteous than the left.
Embracing that fundamental truth would go along way to solving the poisonous partisanship now permeating American civilization.

See “Lexington” in The Economist (24 February 2024), p. 24; Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal (9-10 March 2024); Carl R. Trueman in First Things (22 February 2024);  and David French in the New York Times (29 January 2024).

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