I’m writing this piece in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, and I’m enjoying a certain kind of calm. I’m not talking about the balmy weather. No, it’s a political calm. Politicians seem to be largely leaving their pet issues off the table, and have focused on something about which we all agree: helping one another.
The truce will not last long, of course. Heck, it might be over before I finish this piece.
But certainly by the end of this week, we will be back to politics-as-usual. Mainstream media outlets will run editorials linking hurricanes to Climate Change, and thus to Trump’s actions on the Paris Climate Accords. The strong implication will be that Republicans are to blame for your hurricane woes. Not long after that, someone will bring race into things, probably triggered by video footage of looters. The hurricanes will no longer be a point of unity, but will be another flashpoint of divisive rhetoric from both sides.
What is wrong with us? Why do we so quickly return to faction, pitting the Children of Light (our side) against the Children of Darkness (their side)? I think the reason is deeply religious. America has lost its civic religion.
Presidents from Quincy Adams to Lincoln to Reagan took for granted a basic, underlying belief shared by the vast majority of Americans: that America and its destiny is part of a world-redeeming story. We don’t take that idea very seriously, these days. One wonders how the many great speeches of American history would fall on our mostly deaf ears. We no longer have a shared understanding of our own identity, and that is why national unity is becoming less and less important to us. Sure, we come together during tragedy. We share a moment after natural disasters. We shared a moment on September 12, 2001. We may even come close to a unity of purpose, for a time. But it never lasts. When the immediate threat goes away or becomes less immediate, our unity of purpose dissolves with it. “What does it matter if we’re divided? It’s not like we were doing anything that important, anyway…”
Stepping in to fill the void of meaning come the politics of faction. Left and Right imbue their political goals with cosmic significance. America becomes, at best, a mere instrument for the advancement of partisan, ideological goals. For Democrats, letting Republicans be elected may irreparably harm the entire planet. For Republicans, the future of morality and human prosperity depends upon obstructing the Democrats. Leftist comedians unapologetically depict assassination. Right-wing pundits drink Leftist tears.
This isn’t relegated to the fringe. President Trump’s campaign slogan, on the surface pro-American and unifying, conceals an implication that previous administrations were pulling us all down. Obama’s slogan “Forward” did a similar thing—it implied that his political enemies wanted to go “backward”.
Can our national disunity be fixed? Can Americans regain a faith in their nation’s redemptive purpose? As a great man once said, “that’s above my pay grade.” But I think that a bit of introspection is a good place to start.
Since its founding centuries ago, the soul of America has been split between a traditionalist and agrarian Right-wing founded at the Anglican port of Jamestown, and an hyper-moralistic and urban Left-wing founded at the Calvinist township of Plymouth Rock. Throughout our history, the national mood has swung back and forth between these two poles like a pendulum. Times of greatest social change naturally correspond with a Leftward swing. The Second Great Awakening is an example. Its post-Millennial Calvinist theology was linked strongly with social progressivism, and paved the way for the Christian Abolition and Temperance movements.
Contemporary American culture is experiencing another Leftward swing. And while the modern Left is largely irreligious, its character is still deeply Protestant. I’m not referring to the knee-jerk anti-Catholicism recently on display from some Leftist politicians. I’m referring to the entire worldview of mainstream, Left-leaning American culture. The theology of our secular Left is post-Millennial in character. Believers feel they can participate in their own salvation through collective action in much the same way the old Calvinists did. From what do we need saving? From ourselves. Unbridled human activity is a threat to the planet, likely to bring life to a fiery end. But, by buying proper light-bulbs and electing the right politicians, we can avoid apocalypse and enter the Kingdom.
The Calvinists had a hopeful, progressive eschatology. But, at the same time, they were miserable pessimists about individuals and their sin. From the very beginning of the Reformation with Martin Luther, the Protestant impulse was one of pious self-abasement. I must be nothing so that God can be everything. The Calvinists managed to one-up the Lutherans in this regard. While the Lutherans claimed that humans were so corrupt that not a single act they performed apart from God could be good in any way, the Calvinists retorted that humans were so corrupt that they can’t even tell what good and bad is, let alone be good. The Lutheran knows he’s bad, and chooses God. The Calvinist can’t even choose God; God must choose him.
I bring this up because our culture’s view of its own sin, especially dealing with issues of race, stems from this same Protestant impulse. White Leftists have public debates over the levels to which they themselves are inherently, implicitly, or internally racist. The debates are as fruitless as scholastic discussions of angels on the head of a pin. The natural end-point of this way of thinking is a new doctrine of Total Depravity. And according this new secular Calvinism, the only right course of action for a depraved white person on race issues is: shut up.
I realize I have painted a pretty dismal picture, here. And I’m not providing solutions, either. But I do think if we understood ourselves and our national character a little bit better, we might be able to curb the worst excesses to which we are prone. Perhaps we could steer our religious fervor about the environment in a less apocalyptic direction, contenting ourselves with setting an example to the world of responsible stewardship toward the environment (the “City on a Hill” model). Perhaps we could avoid the excessive mental asceticism regarding our racial sins, and content ourselves with providing concrete, tangible improvements to the lives of our minority citizens. These seem like simple things about which all Americans could agree, if we could only understand ourselves a little bit better.