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Robert BenneNovember 13, 2012
Robert Benne is a Lutheran ethicist as well as the Jordan Trexler Professor Emeritus and Research Associate at Roanoke College.
We are indeed a changed country. We are in decline economically, socially, and culturally. And the crucial factor—religion—that undergirds all those sectors is losing its punch. The victory of Barack Obama is a sure sign of these changes. Let’s start with the economic dimension. We have incurred trillions of dollars of debt with no end in sight but with very little to show for it. In its spending spree the government picked winners (not very many) and spectacular losers (quite a few). Meanwhile, the administration has swept under the rug—for the sake of victorious campaigning—the ticking bomb of unsustainable entitlements. We shifted payment of our debt to our grandchildren. Any effort by Paul Ryan to address these challenges was met with fear-mongering. The same tactic was used on venture capitalists—especially those of Bain Capital—who are important to economic vitality.
The welfare state has dramatically expanded—food stamps, unemployment and disability payments, Medicaid, student loans—creating an ever increasing number of people depending on government programs. They, of course, voted for Obama, fully expecting the programs to continue and expand. The official unemployment rate is high; the hidden numbers of those who no longer seek work or who are underemployed is far higher. The percentage of able-bodied men working is smaller than ever.
Populous states with fiscal disasters on their hands—California, Illinois, New York, Michigan—handed over their ample electoral votes to Obama, expecting, of course, to be bailed out in return. Metropolitan centers dependent on federal largesse handed millions of votes to the incumbent. Most of the country is red but those centers are deep blue.
The federal reserve keeps interest rates historically low, hoping to prime the economic pump for Obama while at the same time returning scarcely any interest to the pension funds of the retired. Obamacare promises to add further billions—if not trillions—to the national debt in spite of a myriad new taxes that are supposed to support it.
Obama will now be emboldened to squeeze and regulate energy suppliers enough to raise prices and force conservation, making “green energy” more competitive, especially with its generous federal subsidies.
The federal government obviously has to expand to take care of all these needs and causes. Siphoning off more and more private wealth for public use, it will supplant private economic decision-making with governmental. We will indeed resemble European states with their “industrial policies.” As government intervention increases, economic dynamism decreases. That’s what America voted for.
This will mean far less financial support for our military, which is already being diminished by an administration that believes that America has been too arrogantly involved in world conflicts. Partly pressed by financial weakness, the administration has increasingly withdrawn from its leadership roles, first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, and soon in the entire Middle East. The world will become a far more dangerous place.
Though we are in an economic mess, the causes of our decline are deeper. Our culture—the meaning system and values that guide social and economic life—is unraveling. We now have whole sub-groups of people whose values do not inspire or guide them toward productive lives that contribute to society. On the contrary, they cost society a lot by becoming dependent upon the state and by proliferating problems (drug and alcohol usage, violence, crime) that often mean involvement with the criminal justice and social welfare systems. They replicate their problems in the children they are often incompetent to raise. Meanwhile, the whole society exhibits ever lower marriage and fertility rates. A smaller percentage of people are married than ever before. Our fertility rates have dropped below the replacement rate. There are not enough workers to sustain an aging population.
It is no coincidence that this social vertigo coincides with the weakening of religion in our society. Paul Tillich famously remarked that “religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion.” Our substance is thinning out. The mainline denominations have so accommodated to the social vertigo that they have little oomph. They no longer have confidence in their message or the formation they can offer to the young. Catholics and evangelicals, while still strong, are increasingly plagued by internal division.
Our ancestors in all the Western nations recognized that stable marriages and families are the essential building blocks of society. The institutions of marriage and family were theologically envisioned and sustained by robust religious communities. They knew competent citizens were formed by the “social estates” of marriage and family, shored up by religion. Even the skeptics endorsed the idea that decent societies are dependent on religious virtue. (Without religion, how will the servants act?)
But the Sea of Faith is receding in America. We are hearing “its long, melancholy, withdrawing roar" (to quote Matthew Arnold). Its withdrawal is applauded by the “nones” (those without religious connections) and the more ardent secularists, who voted spectacularly for Obama. They want a public square denuded of religion and private life shaped by unfettered desire. Our weakened religious culture will produce virtue for some time yet, but how long before we tumble headlong into the abyss of our possibilities?
In short, our economic mess is a product of our social disorder, which in turn has much to do with our weakened religious vitality. This all cannot be blamed on Obama, but his victory was enabled by it. At the very least it is a symptom of it. What to do about it? One response might be the Epicurean: build a wall around your little castle to keep out the din of decay and enjoy the small pleasures of life. Another might be to hope for and participate in a religious renewal. Jonathan Edwards, “America’s theologian,’ argued that human flourishing in history was dependent on religious revival fueled by the movement of the Spirit. The First Great Awakening—in which he vigorously participated—issued in the movement for independence from Britain. Maybe a new awakening can save us from our decline.
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