Amid grievance and despair, it’s a challenging season for believers in America and its founding principles. Most of the current protests echo the fads of postmodern academia, insisting that America is a uniquely wicked and oppressive enterprise without redemptive possibility. Much of the commanding heights of culture to some degree feel obliged to pay obeisance to this grim perspective; journalism, big corporations, philanthropies, the social sciences, entertainment moguls and personalities.
Politics merely echoe what culture produces. Politicos of the left are captive to the activists. Politicos of the right only react and condemn; they no longer understand much less try to articulate American principles. So much easier to attack the opposition with sound bites. Toppled or threatened statues are defended, but only as cultural totems. The virtues and history the statues represent are not acknowledged, much less commended.
So Washington and Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt, Christopher Columbus, among others, are assailed physically and politically without real defenders. What’s attacked is not the edifice but America’s founding, history and core identity. Without Columbus, there’s no settlement of the New World by millions from around the world, continuing until this day. Without Jefferson there’s no declaration of human equality. Without Washington, there’s no republic forged in revolution. Without Lincoln, there’s no salvation of that republic from disunion and slavery. Without Roosevelt, there’s no American entrance into world power. So the country is nullified. Better that we as a nation should never arisen, that there should never have been a July 4! Or as Ecclesiastes says: “But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.”
Until almost recent times it was the Mainline Protestant churches that gave America purpose and direction by organizing its civil life and infusing it with spiritual and moral purpose. But in sync with the emerging counterculture of the 1960s, Mainline elites and institutions adopted the narrative of America as villain. As Mainline Protestantism imploded in membership and influence across the last 55 years, a new demographic called the “religious nones” has emerged. Many of them descend from the Mainline and are largely educated white middle class Anglo whites who carry the WASP persona even if they are post-Protestant and arguably post-Christian. These post-Protestants no longer seek redemption through traditional Christianity and they no longer understand America through the Protestant sense of moral mission. Now they seek validation through affirming social and political themes commonly identified as woke, by which they are societally credentialed as good people. (See my interview with Jody Bottom, author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.)
Part of this post-Protestant credentialing requires rejecting America as the Protestant project that God was using to deliver democracy and political equality to the world. The new woke post-Protestant narrative is that America is oppressive, racist, patriarchal, greedy, militaristic. It and its religious founders must be condemned by constantly evolving ever harsher contemporary standards. To do so is itself believed to be an act of humility and transparency, even though there is mainly judgement on others, rarely on selves.
Post-Protestants, like the old WASP elite, are a relatively small minority but they still inherit their privilege and disproportionate influence from their long ascendant ancestors. Non-WASPS, whether secular, or another faith, or actively Christian, are still intimidated by their power to establish social rules and publicly to shame, as in Puritan New England of old.
Of course, in the wake of Mainline Protestantism’s collapse, there remain vibrant Catholic and Evangelical communities in America. But neither inherits the traditions or societal cachet of the old Protestant establishment, which stewarded America across four centuries. Catholicism has rich traditions of social teaching and experience in stewarding civilizational assets. At least some Catholic bishops have spoken helpfully if cryptically against the angry deconstructionists who want to topple not just statues but America itself.
But Evangelical elites are largely silent or sidelined. Some who are reflexively aligned with the Religious Right might echo conservative soundbites but they, like secular conservative politicos of late, offer no deep explanation much less defense of American principles.
Meanwhile, other Evangelical elites are either intimidated by the zeitgeist or are rhetorically and intellectually ill equipped. Often they are busy lecturing, especially at this time of year, on the dangers of excessive patriotism or of conflating the nation with the faith. They are striving for wider approval for societal elites, or they are denouncing the excesses of their fundamentalist youth, oblivious to today’s dire spiritual challenges to American civilization.
So who will speak and who will lead? Among the rank and file of Americans, religious and not so religious, there remain large numbers who profess to be unapologetically patriotic. They have in their hearts what often they cannot articulate with words about the moral power and imperative of the American project.
We can pray and hope that among these silent millions there will arise new articulate voices and thinkers who will offer spiritual and moral defense for American principles. God may be raising up such persons even now to deliver us from the present moment. He is more merciful and longsuffering than the sanctimonious judges who stand in the streets, or in their faculty lounges, or in their seminary chapels, denouncing America as irredeemably cursed.
For millennia mankind labored and suffered under systems of caste and hierarchy, where slavery was unquestioned, where children always followed the predestined paths of their parents, where poverty and oppression were the unquestioned norm, where few spoke out of turn, where submission was expected, where bloody conquest and coercion were the main instruments of rule.
America, in contrast, in its best principles has uniquely challenged these old static civilizations with revolutionary affirmations about equality and opportunity for all. Its most privileged beneficiaries sneer at their position, imagining they are prisoners, when actually they in their comfort and power have resources unimagined by a thousand earlier generations. Ingratitude and grievance are intrinsic to fallen human nature. Even the Chosen People in their deliverance murmured.
Yet the promise of July 4 remains. Much of the world, even if unknowingly, still looks to its promises for hope. Even its most ungrateful critics operate under its blessings. What was accomplished in 1776 was providential, achieved and sustained across centuries by the sacrifices and insights of many millions. It is now challenged, but it will endure, and prevail against unthinking and malevolent spirits who offer no alternative hope.