By Kevin McCarthy
America today stands at a crossroads. One path leads toward the founding ideals that open the way toward “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for all. The other path leads toward the continued division into separate interest groups and a nation pulled apart. At this crossroads, we must make a choice: renew the founding ideals that define us as one people with a common purpose or continue on the path of division and decline.
A harmonious, productive society, has a cohesion power at its core that binds the society or culture together. What is it that fosters cooperation and inter-relationship of people? What is this “glue” that holds a society together? As we consider such questions, the answer is apparent. We can conclude that social harmony is based upon values that are held in common by the people of a society. Sometimes referred to as “First Principles,” these are core principles out of which are generated a common prescription of good behaviors.
This common prescription of values, or consensus on values, defines good citizenship and encourages positive social behaviors. In turn, people can build trust, a social compact is formed; a society emerges and endures.
The Declaration of Independence asserts a transcendent “first” principle – that we are “endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights” As mentioned, from principles come shared values. For example, from the principle that all people are “endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights,” follows the value that we should treat all people with dignity and respect. Since shared values become the basis for commonly held ethical standards, it stands to reason that our ethical standards prohibit abusing others and stealing from others because such behavior violates the shared value that all should be treated with dignity and respect.
We are losing a consensus on values
Our nation faces serious challenges in key areas effecting society. Issues effecting the soundness of the family unit swirl around us and the crisis seems to be at the breaking point to overwhelm society. The decline of the basic morality that underpins a stable family unit is one issue. The subsequent rise of fatherless homes and its impact on crime, gangs and the economy is another. Even the very sanctity of the family and the understanding of what constitutes marriage, or what is the essential merit provided for society by stable families, is becoming increasingly obscure.
Our challenges are also economic in nature. We are adversely effected by an unstable global economy. High unemployment remains a problem. Median family income continues to decline. Economic opportunity is diminished as the National Debt skyrockets and unfunded liabilities that are to come due looms ominously on the horizon.
The most telling challenge is expressed in our changing faith attitudes. The good news is that, according to various polls, upwards of 87% of Americans profess a faith in God. The bad news is that a declining number of people, now at only 36%, believe that we should live by the principles that, heretofore, have been the natural extension of faith in God.
In other words, there is an uncoupling of faith and those prescribed standards that define moral and good behavior. In America’s past, its rich religious heritage provided the common virtues that defined moral behavior and good citizenship. Alexis de Tocqueville had observed Americans of the early 19th century and noted that “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.” Apparently, not so today. A common notion of today is that religion should not impose its moral values upon society. It is the individual alone who must assert for himself his own code of conduct and personal morality. A recent survey, the National Values Survey conducted by the Culture and Media Institute, sought a 21st century assessment of the values that Americans held in common. Their stunning conclusion was that Americans no longer enjoy a consensus on “God, morality and not even what constitutes right and wrong.”
The sum effect of this decline of a consensus on values is the loss of the social cohesion that binds us together as a nation. As a result, we are rapidly becoming a nation of individuals and groups that promote their own interest before that of the nation. Without a renewed vision for the nation and a consensus on the values that will bring it about, the nation will continue to be pulled apart.
America is a work in progress
Opinion polls consistently show that most Americans feel dissatisfied with the direction of our nation. Many assume it is only a political problem that requires a political solution. We must be careful, however, in the way we assess the root of the problem and then clarify the nature of the change that is needed. In the process, we must be mindful that when seeking to “fix” a problem, there is a tendency to bring forth results that end up being even worse than the original problem. In order to make an accurate assessment of the way forward, we need to examine America’s origins and determine what elements are distinctive and good about our American heritage. Then, with such a clear view, we can set the right path for the nation.
That means, to consider the direction we should go at the crossroad, to evaluate the course corrections that are needed, it is important that we first consider America’s successes and how we were able to come this far. What were the distinctive attributes of the American experiment that enabled this nation to rise to its current level of prominence in the world? What is the essence of the American dream that has drawn people from all over the world? What is distinctive and worthy to preserve about those “great wells of democracy dug deep by the founding fathers” to which Dr. King often referred and spoke of frequently?
Before we proceed to assess those key elements, we should understand that we are not merely “looking backward” to the good old days or seeking to restore a former order. America is a work in progress and the founding of America is an ongoing process throughout history. American “Founders” have appeared throughout the ages and are not, exclusively, 18th century men in powdered wigs. However, what should endure are those distinct and timeless universal principles upon which is based the true vision of America.
Great Awakenings and timely leaders
A redeeming strength in America is found in freedom and, with freedom, in its visionary leaders who have periodically called America to live up to its founding ideals and to continue to aspire to its noble purpose. Throughout our history, it was the timely arrival of such leaders, inspired by a faith vision, who would stand as the conscience of the nation, challenging us to address wrongs and to realign with our founding principles. For this reason, despite our human shortcomings, America still represents the hopes and aspirations of people around the world.
At each poignant moment in our history, as every challenge rose before the nation, it was the timely interjection of the power of faith that stirred the soul of America and moved her toward the right path. At the founding of America, it was the First Great Awakening that had just preceded the Revolution and had made fertile the fields of liberty. America, at the time of the founders, was a nation stirred up by the inspired preaching of George Whitefield and John Wesley who reminded the Americans of the covenant with God made by their forefathers who came to this land to make it a “shining city upon a hill.”
While the founders failed to fully reject the sin of slavery at our founding, it was the spirit of the Second Great Awakening, carried forth by the rise of the African-American church, the Abolition Movement, Frederick Douglass and, ultimately, the final removal of the scourge of slavery through the blood and suffering of the Civil War.
It was, likewise, the people of faith led by Dr. Martin Luther King that brought to an end the segregation of the Jim Crow era and a beginning of a new era where we, finally, were to carry out “The Dream;” the vision and promises put forth in our founding ideals. In this way, America is a work in progress. Likewise, for today, as we stand at the crossroads, a new Great Awakening is needed and is, hopefully, already at hand. If it is to unfold, it will do so upon the foundation of men and women of a faithful vision.
In our next issue, Part II of Renewing America will get “under the hood” of America and examine those distinct elements of our heritage that have been responsible for the nation’s rapid rise as a symbol of freedom, hope and prosperity. In rediscovering the true source of America’s strength, we can accurately realign the nation toward the American Dream and the ideal of One Family under God.