David Brooks on Moral Individualism of America’s Youth

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Borrowing from one of Christian Smith’s many recent books, David Brooks reflects on the moral state of today’s young people.


During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America’s youth. 

Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so. 

Read the rest here.

Most students at Messiah College (the college where I teach) have a well-formed moral compass. But this does not mean that the kind of moral relativism that Smith and Brooks describe is not present here.  We would be foolish to suggest that Christian young people have not been shaped in one way or another by the culture that surrounds them.  This, I think, is why the work of Christian colleges are so important.  I hope that we are training young people to cultivate the virtues necessary to counter the moral relativism of our culture and to be ever aware of the common good when pursuing their various vocations and callings.  We are not always successful in fulfilling this mission, but we do make a conscious effort to bring the best of the liberal arts tradition to bear on questions about what it might mean to lead a good and flourishing life.

People Outside the United States Are Bowling Together

Some of you may recall Robert Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam argued that community is declining in America.  His primary evidence was the significant membership decline in civic organizations such as Rotary and Kiwanis and other community groups and activities such as bowling leagues.

While people continue to “bowl alone” in America, community and civic organizations are thriving outside of America.  In this Washington Monthly article, John Gravois traces the rise of organizations such as Rotary, the Boy Scouts, Lions, and Toastmasters in places like Uganda, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates.

Here is a taste:

In a radio interview earlier this year, the former Arkansas governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee sniffed at President Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia. “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings,” he said, “and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary clubs, not madrassas.” Huckabee’s innuendo was unmistakable, but he got one thing precisely backward. Indonesia has more than twice as many scouts as we do. In fact, with around 17.1 million badge-seeking, uniform-sporting, oath-swearing youth, Indonesia has the largest scouting association in the world. The United States, whose scout numbers are steadily dwindling, is not even a close second. And for the record, Rotary has around eighty-nine clubs in the country as well.

OK all you blog-reading pundits.  What does this mean?

Are We a Nation of Individuals or a Community?

Duke University history professor William H. Chafe asks the age-old question in an op-ed in the Seattle Times.  He reminds us that the tensions between individualism and community have been around for a long time.  Here is a taste:

THE partisan battles tearing us asunder in America today raise a fundamental question that has reverberated throughout our history — who are we as a people? Are we a community that places the good of the whole first, or a gathering of individuals who value first and foremost each person’s ability to determine their own fate.

The choice is artificial, of course. Each day, our lives represent a mix of the two. But looking at our history in light of these competing values can illuminate the choices before us.

When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 in search of religious freedom, their leader John Winthrop delivered a sermon titled “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Winthrop said their mission was to create a “city upon a hill,” a society that embodied values so noble that the entire world would emulate them.

Winthrop wrote, we would need to strengthen, defend, preserve, comfort and love each other, and bear one another’s burdens. “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes the community as members of the same body.”

Massachusetts was governed in its early decades by a sense the communal good must prevail. “Just prices” were prescribed for goods, and punishment was imposed on businesses that sought excess profits.

Soon enough, a surge of individualism challenged such regulations. Entrepreneurs viewed communal rules as shackles to be broken so they could pursue individual aspirations — and profits. The “just price” was discarded.

While religion remained a powerful presence, secularism ruled everyday business life, and Christianity was restricted to a once-a-week ritual. Class distinctions proliferated, economic inequality increased, and the values of laissez-faire individualism displaced the once enshrined “common wealth.”

It’s Not About You

Once again, David Brooks nails it.  His observations about today’s college graduates are on the mark.  When Brooks discusses these kinds of social and cultural trends he reminds of the late Christopher Lasch.

Here is a snippet of Brooks’s column:

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.

Finally, graduates are told to be independent-minded and to express their inner spirit. But, of course, doing your job well often means suppressing yourself. As Atul Gawande mentioned during his countercultural address last week at Harvard Medical School, being a good doctor often means being part of a team, following the rules of an institution, going down a regimented checklist.

Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

Do College Students Want a Compliment or Pizza?

A recent study shows that college students would rather receive “a boost to their ego–like a compliment or a good grade on a paper–than eat a favorite food or engage in sex.”

Here is a taste of a New York Times article on the subject:

Recent books like “The Narcissism Epidemic,” by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, have described a trend toward increasing levels of self-esteem and narcissism in young people. The idea is not without controversy, as other psychologists have questioned whether young people today are any more self-absorbed than earlier generations. Some believe that the maturation process is simply more protracted, and the delays are misinterpreted as selfishness.

The results of the new paper suggest young people have a compulsion to feel good about themselves that overwhelms and precedes other desires.

Money is Highly Dangerous to Your Spiritual Health

I usually don’t post spiritual exhortations like this at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but this one hit me between the eyes so I am going to address it here.  It comes from Patrick Michael, a professor at the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin.  It was written for Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed.  Here is a taste:

I’ve been thinking a bit about money recently, not least prompted by Ireland’s recent financial apocalypse that current and future generations will be paying off for years to come.
My proposal for this guest post (thanks for the invite Scot) is that we (western Christians) have, by and large, read the Bible in a way that neuters much of what Scripture says about money…


The Bible has an astonishing amount to say about money. Yes, some of it is comforting to Westerners – it seems to legitimate private property, affirm personal responsibility and (within limits) views prosperity as valid fruit of hard work and a sign of God’s blessing.

But the vast majority of the Bible’s teaching on money should make us very wary indeed of all that money brings.  I suggest that in both in the Old and New Testaments the overwhelming message is this:


Money is highly dangerous to your spiritual health

Repeatedly the Bible links money with spiritually destructive attitudes and actions such as:

  • greed with exploitation and injustice (Amos 8:4-6);
  • wealth with pride (Ezek. 28:4-5);
  • covetousness with destroyed relationships (Exod. 20:17);
  • desire for more with discontent (Heb. 13:5-6);
  • riches with an utter inability to enter the kingdom of God (Mt. 19:6-24);
  • lust for more with selfishness and futility of life (Eph. 4:17-19; 2 Tim 3:1-5);
  • the love of money as a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10);
  • having plenty with spiritual peril (Lk. 12:13-21).

Jesus says “You cannot serve both God and money” (Lk. 16:13) and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk. 12:34). His words should make his followers highly cautious and self-critical in their use of and attitudes to money. Yet we tend to filter them out.

When it comes to money, are we so deeply shaped by our consumerist, individualist and capitalist culture that we take it as a given – a natural ‘good’, a blessing from God and a fruit of our hard work? We earn it, handle it, borrow it, spend it, save it and give some of it away – but, if you are like me, we rarely really think about it beyond the desire to have a bit more. And we certainly don’t think of it as spiritually dangerous….

Read the the rest here.

What the Founders Didn’t Teach Us

Over at The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, Berry College political philosopher Peter Lawler reviews Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truth: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future.  It is a long review.  It is a great review.  While Spalding notes that the American founding was influenced by a combination of Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, and Christianity, Lawler argues that “Lockeanism, more than anything else, provided the principled foundation of our free institutions.”

Once Lawler establishes the predominance of Lockeanism, he is then able to point out how Locke’s ideas are too individualistic to sustain social institutions such as the family.  Lawler

…a shortcoming of Lockean liberalism, the kind of liberty to which the Founders were primarily devoted, is its tendency to undermine the stability of the family over time. As the nation’s elites become more devoted to such principled individualism, the family weakens. Well before the Progressives, Tocqueville noted the many factors that would exact a toll on the kind of devotion that produces lots of well-raised children: self-obsessive, petty materialism; the restless anxiety that accompanies democratic affluence; the theoretical denial that we’re anything more than ephemeral, biological beings; and doubt that human beings share moral or social goods in common—doubt that we really are, deep down, social and relational beings. The modern democrat has more and more trouble, as he becomes both more principled and more narcissistic, thinking beyond his own, personal being toward generating biological replacements or finding loving personal compensation for his own natural finitude in his family, children, and personal accomplishments generally. From its beginning in 1776, one dimension of the nation’s heritage is the thought of the Lockean individual in the state of nature that being starts and ends with me. If I don’t endure, nothing endures.

That’s not to deny that modern, democratic liberty has in some ways improved family life. As Tocqueville says, the disappearance of cold aristocratic formalities has been good for love in America, maybe especially for the friendship of the father with both son and daughter. Because everyone is free to marry the one he or she loves, there is less excuse than ever for the dangerous liaisons that inevitably accompany being stuck with marrying for money or property or social standing. Who can also deny that thinking of women more consistently as free, consenting individuals has done wonders in the eradication of unjust “double standards,” making us much more attentive to the various dimensions of spousal abuse, undermining arbitrary and otherwise excessive reliance on “gender roles” in excluding women from the worlds of work and politics, and even in leading fathers to share the ordinary duties of parenthood? In general, we should follow Tocqueville in resisting the temptation to romanticize what was better about even the recent past by making our nostalgia so selective that we forget the human misery and injustice people endured then and which we should be grateful not to have to endure now. Lockean progress, we have to admit, has in many ways been real progress. But that progress has not proven beneficial in every way, and it has not delivered personal benefits without imposing personal costs.
Read the rest of the review here. 

The Lonely Crowd Turns 60



In October 1950 David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney published The Lonely Crowd, a sociological analysis of the “American character.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education has a short piece, authored by Rupert Wilkinson, on the significance of this landmark work in sociology and American studies.  Here is a taste:

The book spoke to middle-class concerns about conformity and softness in the new, standardized suburbs of postwar America. For all its moralistic rigidities, the inner-directed type looked more individualistic, hence more attractive to many Americans, though Riesman insisted that in other-direction he did not depict more conformity but rather a change in “modes of conformity”—the way people were induced to conform…

…It was the first book to stress a change in modern society from a culture of production and scarcity to one of consumption as a social act—from making things to relating to people, from “the hardness of the material,” as the authors put it, to the softer touch of consumer-focused sales and services. In politics Riesman coined one of his many engaging labels, the “inside-dopester,” to describe a person drawn to political life as a consumer, eager to be in the know rather than to make policy. (At the time of writing the book, Riesman and Glazer were much concerned about voter “apathy,” which they connected to a passive, consumer view of politics.)

Read Wilkinson’s full and insightful analysis here.

Glenn Beck and Protestantism

I taught the Protestant Reformation today in my United States survey course. I regularly devote a lecture to the Protestant Reformation and its influence on the settlement of New England. The more I deliver this lecture the more I am struck by the individualist nature of Protestantism as opposed to the more “collective” nature of salvation as understood by Roman Catholics.

Today as I prepared for this lecture I thought about how Glenn Beck seems to equate the individualism of Protestantism with true Christianity. I then ran across Peter Montgomery’s essay on Beck’s view of salvation and it confirmed a lot of what I had been thinking. In many respects, Beck’s entire God and country message assumes that the United States is a Protestant country.

Montgomery describes how Beck and his new friend David Barton are obsessed with individual salvation. Here is a taste:

In the Tea Party era, ‘collective’ is a four-letter word. Beck and Barton don’t even like the terms “human rights” or “social justice” because they see them as collectivist. In a televised conversation in April, Barton dismissed social justice, saying “That’s collective rights. Jesus was not into collective rights. He didn’t die for world in large. He died for every single individual.” Beck is spending so much time on collective salvation because he wants people to believe it is behind all the nefarious things he wants them to fear:

Get into your church and demand, demand that your minister, your priest, your rabbi, your pastor talk about individual rights. If they don’t know them, tell them to pick up George Whitefield. Tell them to pick up the sermons. They are available online. They are available in bookstores everywhere. The sermons that led to the American Revolution, on individual rights.

First off, the idea that Whitefield’s sermons triggered the American Revolution is a point that is still up for debate among historians. But how do Christians who take seriously passages such as Acts 2 fit into Beck’s vision for America? Is there a doctrine of the “Church” in Beck’s belief system? What about Catholicism?

The tension between individualism and community (or the “collective”) has always been at the heart of American history and American religious history. Montogmery writes:

I’m not going to evaluate Beck’s interpretation of liberation theology here. (For a thoughtful response to Beck’s interpretation of liberation theology, see RD’s
interview with scholar Serene Jones by Elijah Prewitt-Davis.) But it is clear that Beck is dismissing the faith of millions when he creates a simplistic label—‘individual’ or ‘collective’—and declares the latter to be un-Christian. For many Christians, says J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee, it’s a both/and, an individual decision nurtured by a church community. Max Carter, a Friends minister (and, like Walker, a commenter on a recent Washington Post On Faith question about whether Obama’s faith matters), says this:

I hesitate to criticize Beck’s faith, but his belief that Christianity is about “individual salvation” is actually counter to the faith of millions of Christians who see the church as the “ark of salvation” and that “personal salvation” is itself a perversion of the Christianity of Acts 2 and the earliest years of Christianity. Ask any Amish person.

Individualism and the Tea Party Movement

While I was riding my exercise bike on Sunday morning I watched Chris Wallace interview Glenn Beck on Fox News.

I thought Wallace did a good job of getting Beck to admit the fundamental differences between Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement and Glenn Beck’s “reclaimed” Civil Rights movement. Despite the fact that the interview was conducted on Fox, I thought Wallace asked the right questions.

What particularly struck me about the interview was Beck’s strong defense of Protestant individualism. At one point in the Wallace interview Beck said:

I would love to have an open conversation (with Barack Obama) about collective salvation…most Christians would look at collective salvation, which is my salvation, my redemption, is incumbent (sic) upon what the collective does, so I can’t be saved unless the collective is saved. Well that is a direct opposite of the what the gospel talks about. Jesus came for personal salvation. It’s why people say ‘you just accept Jesus and your saved.’ That’s not what my church teaches…you need to change your heart as well. OK, that’s what I happen to believe. What does the president believe?…In four different speeches he has told, mainly students, that your salvation is directly tied to the collective salvation. That’s not something that most Christian recognize. I’m not demonizing it–I disagree with it…

Beck is just the latest American public figure to fuse Protestant individualism and the individualism that stems from American libertarianism. The equating of Protestantism and political liberty has been around for a long time in this country, as several historians, from Mark Noll to Nathan Hatch, have shown us.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Alex McNeill reflects a bit more on Beck’s individualism. McNeill spent the day on Saturday talking to people at Beck’s rally. On average he found them to be sensible, friendly, and polite. If there was unifying principle that brought them all together it was this emphasis on individualism.

McNeill writes:

Individualism is beneficial for leaders to peg success or failure of a movement on each person’s virtue rather than the power of the collective to effect change. Individualism is focused on personal attainment, personal happiness, and personal livelihood, and fails to see how each relies on a system that empowers, privileges, or dispossess either the individual or others in the process. As I discovered at the rally, to shift the conversation from “I” to “we” in speaking of a collective liberation was quickly flagged as anti-American and dismissed.

Since when did “we the people” become synonymous with Socialism? How can we convince people that “loving their neighbor” means more than just praying for them, that it means supporting a system that raises each of us up through access to education, health care, jobs, and a livable life? How can we encourage people to stop thinking of themselves as living in subdivisions and start living in neighborhoods? How can we shift from the Jesus of the comfortable to the “sell all your possessions” Jesus?

I don’t think we change the nature of the conversation by berating those with whom we disagree, further sowing the seeds of resentment and faction. We change the nature of the conversation by connecting our own work to the values or faith by which it is motivated. The Christianity I practice requires that I love my neighbor even when it isn’t easy, that I work for “the least of these” even when I want to quit, that I give my two coins even if they are the last two I have, and that Jesus died not only for my sins but also those of the tax collector, the Samaritan woman, and the Pharisee.

I cannot, in good conscience, profess to be a Christian and not see the world as composed of a “we” rather than just “me.” It is also, because I am a Christian that I cannot dismiss the Tea Party outright as I hear their cry of suffering. Many people at the rally spoke to me about losing their jobs, nearly losing their homes, and losing their spirit. That suffering is real, despite whatever else may be said. The Tea Party offered hope, if nothing else, and a direction for anger at individuals rather than towards a system of disempowerment. All I know is, as I surveyed the crowd, I couldn’t help but think about what could happen if all these people suddenly transformed their anger into a movement bent not on equality, but justice.

Why Denmark Sounds Like A Nice Place to Live

Alyce Mckenzie, a professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology (Southern Methodist University), shares with us (at the Faith Forward blog) the story of her son’s return to suburban Dallas after spending a semester in Copenhagen.

McKenzie wonders how the people of Denmark can live in a relatively secular society and still be so content and stress-free. Here is a taste:

My 21-year-old son got home 3 days ago from a semester spent in Copenhagen, on a study abroad program sponsored by Southern Methodist University…Back in our suburban Dallas home, his American father grilled steaks on the patio and I wondered how long it would take him to get bored with suburban Texas life after life in Copenhagen.

Our convenience oriented, car-driven culture in suburban Texas is a far cry from life in Denmark — which, according to my recently returned raconteur, features some of the following: riding a bike or walking just about everywhere. having lights that go on and off automatically, recycling all glass bottles, drinking tap water, being able to let your baby in the best baby strollers bask in the sun a bit while you go in and pick up a few groceries for tonight’s meal, beautiful public spaces, green parks where people enjoy leisure time, high-speed and clean trains, not being obsessed with work to the point that family and leisure are devalued, and, by all accounts, a happiness factor that exceeds ours…

…In his 2008 book, “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Tell us about Contentment,” Phil Zuckerman (who lived in Denmark from 2005-2006) seeks to account for the fact that Denmark and Sweden have such high contentment quotients in light of the fact that worship of God and church attendance are minimal. His book is, in part, an attempt to counter conservative Christian pundits (Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, William Bennett, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Weyrich) who swear that a society without God is hell on earth. No, says Zuckerman, based on his experience in Scandinavia. Life in an irreligious democracy can actually be quite pleasant and civil. Denmark and Sweden are strong, safe, healthy, moral, prosperous societies.

…Zuckerman seeks to discover the “unique contours of the world views of secular men and women who live their lives without a strong religious orientation.” Many are “cultural Lutherans,” who have their children baptized and confirmed and who marry in the church because it is the traditional “thing to do.” But they tend to operate out of a rational, scientific worldview, not invested in questions of the holiness of the Bible, the reality of the resurrection, or the existence of heaven or hell.

How, wonders Zuckerman, do they deal with questions about the meaning of life and the approach of death? His basic findings are that Danes seem to focus on gratitude for the pleasures and gifts of life right now: family, work, and the beauties of the natural world. They are more interested in their family, home, bikes, careers, weather, and favorite British or Brazilian soccer players than questions of the meaning of life and the existence of heaven and hell. Many of the people he interviewed did not seem fearful about the fact of physical death or particularly curious about whether it was the end of life or if there was an afterlife…

It is interesting to see one’ own life (in the context of one’s culture) through the lens of someone with recent, firsthand experience of another cultural context. I know that I am driven by the Protestant work ethic in my vocation as a Professor of Preaching, always striving to learn more and speak more effectively and teach others to do the same. I spend just about all my time thinking about the meaning of life and the significance of the Bible and better ways to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I derive meaning, joy and purpose from my faith. But it’s hard for me to look up from my list of things to do long enough to live in the moment or bask in relationships. It’s hard for me to shift my focus from goals to gratitude for the gift of life in the here and now….

Living in Denmark has had an impact on my son. I predict that he will seek a life that is more communal and relational than the life of individual-achievement-at-all-costs that is a popular version (or perversion) of the American Dream…

Some Thoughts About Divorce and America

I am in the mood this morning to riff on the institution of marriage. So here goes:

Al and Tipper have divorced after 40 years of marriage and the American punditry have been having a field day with the story. I obviously do not know Al and Tipper and am in no position to comment on their marriage. But my mind started spinning this morning when I read Deirdre Bair’s New York Times op-ed, “The 40-Year Itch.” Bair argues that a divorce can actually be a good thing. It can provide people with more freedom, more opportunity, and new experiences. Here a few snippets from her piece:

“People change and forget to tell each other,” Lillian Hellman said. Still, many couples seem to have an “aha!” moment when they realize that it’s time to split up. No matter how comfortably situated they are, how lovely their home and successful their children, they divorce because they cannot go on living in the same old rut with the same old person.

Men and women I interviewed insisted they did not divorce foolishly or impulsively. Most of them mentioned “freedom.” Another word I heard a lot was “control”; people wanted it for themselves for the rest of their lives. Women had grown tired of taking care of house, husband and grown children; men were tired of working to support wives who they felt did not appreciate them and children who did not respect them. Women and men alike wanted time to find out who they were.

One spouse might have wanted to keep working while the other wanted to retire. Often, there was an emotional void; one would say that the other “doesn’t see me, doesn’t know who I am,” while the other hadn’t a clue: “I thought everything was just fine; we never argued, we don’t fight.” One grew disenchanted with the wrinkled person across the dinner table and wanted someone new and exciting.

Many stories ended with some rendition of, “It’s my time and if I don’t take it now, I never will.”

One cannot go on living in the “same old rut.” People want their “freedom.” Men and women want to find out “who they were.” They want something “new and exciting.” Of course they do. Don’t we all?

As I read these blurbs from Blair’s book, I became more convinced that divorce is really an American thing to do. (And I am assuming here a divorce that does NOT stem from abuse or violence or perhaps even serial infidelity). Divorce celebrates the wants and desires of the individual and the therapeutic culture that defines our society. If you are bored in your marriage–then it only makes sense to get out. If you are “disenchanted with the wrinkled person across the table,” then go find something “new and exciting.”

I say that divorce is the “American” thing to do because America is, of course, a country that celebrates personal self-fulfillment, starting anew, freedom of choice, and therapeutic consumption. Marriage is all about what YOU get out of it, and if you are not getting what YOU need from it, then it is time to bail out. To honor a marriage commitment that might, at times, place limits on one’s life or force one to sacrifice his or her own desires for the good of this sacred compact, undermines the self-interested philosophy that passes today for “common sense.”

So it seems to me, all you children of the 1960s or New Left wannabees, if you want to be countercultural, then stay in your marriages.

Andy Catlett, Philip Vickers Fithian, and Place

This morning I finished Wendell Berry’s Andy Catlett: Early Travels. (You can read my previous post on this novel here). It is a short, moving and simple story of a nine-year old boy developing an affection for a place that will last throughout his lifetime. (By mere coincidence, the novel ends on New Years Day, 1943).

What I love about Berry is how he completely inverts the common narrative of how a young boy “comes of age” in America. If you are looking for a Ben Franklin or Horatio Alger “coming of age” story here, you will not find it. How refreshing!

When Andy Catlett “travels” (ten miles by bus) he goes from his parents’ house in Hargrave (which Berry describes as a town “with the modern ambition to be what it was not”) to Port William. Andy does not “find himself,” like Benjamin Franklin did when he left Puritan Boston for Philadelphia, in a big city filled with opportunities and possibilities. Instead, he “finds himself” in the context of a place–a community with no real “prospects,” but a community nonetheless. Andy “comes of age” in a place that, by the standards of modern progress, is on the way out. There is no future in Port William. But rather than rejecting the limits that such a rural and agricultural town places on his life, Andy embraces those limits and finds real happiness in Port William. This is a place in which he can invest himself.

As I read Andy Catlett, I could not help but think about the eighteenth-century “coming of age” of Philip Vickers Fithian. Though Fithian was a bit more ambitious than young Andy, he also maintained a deep connection to his “beloved Cohansie,” the small Delaware Bay communities nestled along the Cohansey River in what today is Cumberland County, New Jersey.

Here are a few passages from The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Philip Vickers Fithian loved springtime on the Cohansey. As winter bid its farewell to the village along the river, Philip rejoiced in the morning sounds of birds keeping “a continual round of engaging music.” His soul was refreshed by the “feathery choir” of the bluebirds singing their “melody to God of nature on account of the approaching spring.” Even the frogs on the riverbank caught his attention as they filled the evening air “with their shrill and deafening voices.” From his bedchamber window Philip could see peach, apple, and cherry trees coming to life on his family’s farm. “The Spring now displays its gaiety and exalted grandeur in bloom and pride,” he wrote in May 1767; “the Apple and the Cherry trees are in the extremity of their glory, and the Trees of the wood, arraying themselves in green.” Delaware Bay’s southwesterly breezes felt fresh and warm. Indeed, spring was the time of year when Philip reflected most intently on the virtues of home.

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that “no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet. Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet. He was a patriot it he classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land.

As he grew in intellect and learning and, as we will see, was exposed to a kind of life outside of Cohansey that few of his neighbors and none of his ancestors had ever experienced, the beckoning of home would become that much greater. As a child of the Enlightenment and one of the region’s first native-born college graduates, Philip could have easily transcended–culturally, geographically, intellectually–Cohansey’s warm confines. However, he also knew that his pursuit of self-betterment was held in check by what Karl Marx would later describe as “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” In an eighteenth-century world where young people started to believe that self-improvement was possible, Philip realized that the limits imposed by the past anchored him and had just as much impact on who he was and what he would become as did the optimism of the Enlightenment stream from which he would drink so deeply.

Black Friday Reading: "Being Consumed"

In “honor” of Black Friday I have been reading Wiliam T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans, 2008). Cavanaugh is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In this short book, Cavanaugh puts our free market, capitalist, consumer-driven economy under the microscope of the Christian tradition. His chapters on the free market and consumerism are of particular relevance for anyone tempted to join in today’s Black Friday shopping-fest.

In his chapter entitled “Freedom and Unfreedom,” Cavanaugh sets his theological sites on Milton Friedman and free-market defenders everywhere. For Friedman, a market is “free” when it “gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want.” According to Cavanaugh, two “corollaries” follow from Friedman’s view of free markets. First, this understanding of free markets defines freedom negatively, “that is, as freedom from the interference of others, especially the state.” Second, this understanding of free markets “has no telos, that is, no common end to which desire is directed.”

Using the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo, Cavanaugh responds to both of these corollaries. For Augustine, freedom is not “simply a negative freedom from, but a freedom for, a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile goals.” And all of these “goals are taken up into the one overriding telos of human life, the return to God.” For Augustine, autonomy is impossible because to be “free” without God is “to be nothing at all.” Ultimately, modern consumerism and free markets do not serve any meaningful ends. As Cavanaugh puts it:

In order to judge whether or not an exchange is free, one must know whether or not the will is moved toward a good end. This requires some kind of substantive–not merely formal–account of the true end, or telos, of the human person. Where there are no objectively desirable ends, and the individual is told to choose his or her own ends, then choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good. When there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.

Even property, Cavanaugh argues, is a gift from God that must be used to serve the common good. (I will let you chew on that one a bit).

In his chapter “Detachment and Attachment,” Cavanaugh offers a Christian-based reading of consumerism. “What really characterizes consumer culture,” he writes, “is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things. Or:

…the detachment of consumerism is not just the willingness to sell anything. The detachment of consumerism is also a detachment from the things we buy. Our relationships with products tend to be short-lived: rather than hoarding treasured objects, consumers are characterized by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods. This dissatisfaction is what produces the restless pursuit of satisfaction in the form of something new. Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism. Buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies consumerism This restlessness–the moving on to shopping for something else, no matter what one has just purchased–sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.

Cavanaugh argues that consumerism is a type of spirituality–a way of connecting with other people and finding meaning in life. He calls it “one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world, arguable more powerful than Christianity.”

Things and brands must be invested with mythologies, with spiritual aspirations; things come to represent freedom, status, and love. Above all, they represent the aspiration to escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. Each new movements of desire promises the opportunity to start over.

But what about the Christian belief in the goodness of material things? Are we not to enjoy the fruits of creation and the products made by talented and gifted human beings? Yes, Cavanaugh argues, but

Created things, though good, are never ends in themselves; rather, they point outside themselves toward their Creator. As St. Augustine says, all created things contain within themselves traces of the Creator. Precisely because of this, they are not ends but means toward the enjoyment of God. According to Augustine, created things are to be used, but only God is to be enjoyed.

Cavanaugh also suggests some things ordinary people can do to resist the powerful current of consumerism. Churches, he argues, should be involved in promoting economic practices “that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place.” He encourages us to buy locally, put our money into smaller banks that make loans to community projects, and participate in the fair trade movement.

He also suggests turning our homes into “sites of production, not just consumption”:

Few of us have the means to make most of what we consume, but simple acts such as making our own bread or our own music can become significant ways to reshape the way we approach the material world…It also increases our sense that we are not merely spectators of life–for example, hours spent passively watching and listening to entertainment that others make–but active and creative participants in the material world. We can appreciate, as Pope John Paul II said, our true vocation as sharers in the creative activity of God.

There is a lot more we can say about this excellent and provocative little book. For example, Christian readers will want to read Cavanaugh’s suggestion that the Eucharist offers a model of community that challenges our consumer mentality. And I do not have the time or space to write about his chapters on globalization and scarcity.

For those of you looking for a theological critique of the kind of economic system that informs “Black Friday” go out and get a copy of Cavanaugh’s book. (But wait until tomorrow!)

Would You Give Up Your Right to Vote for a New I-Phone?

40% of Messiah College students enrolled in a United States history survey course would.

Every year my colleague, Cathay Snyder, conducts a survey among the members of our United States to 1865 survey course. This course serves as a general education requirement for students and it represents a pretty good cross-section of the Messiah College student body. This year 84 undergraduates–from first year students to seniors–took the survey.

Here are the results:

  • 40% of Messiah College students would give up their right to vote in one presidential election in exchange for a new I-Phone.
  • 92% of Messiah College students would give up their right to vote in a presidential election in exchange for four years of free education at Messiah College.
  • 62% of Messiah College students would give up their right to vote FOREVER for one million dollars.
  • 75% of Messiah College students believe that one vote CAN make a difference

Today I shared the results of this survey with my students and asked them to respond to these trends. Here were some of their responses:

Would you give up your right to vote in one presidential election for a new I-Phone?. Most of them talked about how important technology was to their everyday lives. One student even suggested that cell phones and other forms of technology would make her better prepared to land a job in her chosen field. So I pressed them. Was their own economic betterment (chance to land a good job, pursue their own version of economic happiness, live a comfortable life) more important than their participation in American democracy? Most said that it was.

Another insightful student made a historical argument. As a woman, she was not going to betray all of the women who went before her who fought for women’s suffrage.. She was thus unwilling to trade away her vote for a piece of consumer technology like an I-Phone. Responding to her remark, another student lamented this society’s lack of historical consciousness. If we knew what it took to get universal suffrage, we may not be so present-minded and passe about participation in American democracy. Yet most of the students in the class were at Messiah College not to study the liberal arts–things like history, literature, philosophy, politics–that might help them become more informed citizens. Instead, they were in college on more specialized career tracks–accounting, business, engineering, and nursing. One student lamented that becoming an informed citizen was too much work and the proliferation of information on satellite television and the Internet only confused him more. When I suggested that the study of things such as history prepared one to be more active and informed citizens, most of them nodded in approval, but I am guessing that few of them will pursue careful study of such a field beyond the required general education course.

One student, referencing a passage I gave them from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, described how among democratic nations,

the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any ideas…As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who…owe nothing to man, and expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone.

Most agreed that Toqueville was right, but really had no particular interest in doing anything about it.

I am most sympathetic with those students who would give up their right to vote in one presidential election for free college tuition, room, and board. Many thought that college would allow them to acquire the skills needed to be an informed citizen and thus an informed voter. Others, when pushed, understood this trade off in economic terms. They were willing to pass on voting in one election if they could gain the skills necessary to pursue economic comfort and a “good job.” What is striking is that this is something I would fully expect from any college undergraduate. Christian college students are not a whole lot different. In fact, when this survey was given to NYU students, they actually came across a bit more civic minded and less materialistic than the students at Messiah.

Would you give up your right to vote FOREVER for $1 million dollars? Apart from economic acquisitiveness and the chance to make a million bucks, few students could justify this position.

What fascinates me is that 75% of the students surveyed believed that one vote CAN make a difference, yet this did not stop many of them from giving up the opportunity to “make a difference” in exchange for an I-Phone or one million dollars. As one student put it, “I believe that one vote can make a difference, but just not my vote.”

There was a certain cynical response from the students during the discussion of these results. They clearly want to be good citizens and participate in the democratic process, but few of them thought that they could really make a difference with their vote. Many felt that they were not being heard and this discouraged them from voting. All of them admitted that ideals such as democratic participation were no match for the kinds of “pursuits of happiness” that corporate America had to offer them.

In the end, those who fear that Christian college students are mounting some sort of assault to overtake the country with their Christian ideals, political virtue or spiritually-inspired disinterestedness seem to have little to worry about.

Brooks: Republicans are the Party of Untrammeled Freedom and Maximum Individual Choice

David Brooks is at it again. In today’s column he takes the Republican Party to task from his perch as one of the New York Times‘s conservative columnists. And once again, he makes perfect sense.

The party sometimes seems cut off from the concrete relationships of neighborhood life. Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom these days that they are no longer the party of community and order. This puts them out of touch with the young, who are exceptionally community-oriented. It gives them nothing to say to the lower middle class, who fear that capitalism has gone haywire. It gives them little to say to the upper middle class, who are interested in the environment and other common concerns.

The Republicans talk more about the market than about society, more about income than quality of life. They celebrate capitalism, which is a means, and are inarticulate about the good life, which is the end. They take things like tax cuts, which are tactics that are good in some circumstances, and elevate them to holy principle, to be pursued in all circumstances.

Brooks’s op-ed reminds me of the words of the late Christopher Lasch. (True and Only Heaven, p. 38-39):

The “traditional values” celebrated by Reagan–boosterism, rugged individualism, a willingness to resort to force (against weaker opponents) on the slightest provocation–had very little to do with tradition. They summed up the code of the cowboy, the man in flight from his ancestors, from his immediate family, and from everything that tied him down and limited his freedom of movement. Reagan played on the desire for order, continuity, responsibility, and discipline, but his program contained nothing that would satisfy that desire. On the contrary, his program aimed to promote economic growth and unregulated business enterprise, the very forces that have undermined tradition. A movement calling itself conservative might have been expected to associate itself with the demand for limits not only on economic growth but on the conquest of space, the technological conquest of the environment, and the ungodly ambition to acquire godlike powers over nature. Reaganites, however, condemned the demand for limits as another counsel of doom. “Free enterprisers,” according to Burton Pines, an ideologue of the new right, “insist that the economy can indeed expand and as it does so, all society’s members…can increase their wealth.”

The Spirit of Commercial Optimism Will Always Prevail

David Brooks has identified the true American religion: the pursuit of wealth. I like Brooks because he is one of the more historically informed columnists writing today. In yesterday’s column alone, Brooks referenced Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Horatio Alger, Norman Vincent Peale, Andrew Carnegie, Russell Conwell, Dale Carnegie, and Walt Whitman. This is a virtual pantheon of those who have defined their “way of improvement” in terms of the accumulation of wealth and success. Brooks writes:

Walt Whitman got America right in his essay, “Democratic Vistas.” He acknowledged the vulgarity of the American success drive. He toted up its moral failings. But in the end, he accepted his country’s “extreme business energy,” its “almost maniacal appetite for wealth.” He knew that the country’s dreams were all built upon that energy and drive, and eventually the spirit of commercial optimism would always prevail.

Whitman and Brooks, of course, are right. America has always been, and always will be, the great Enlightenment nation. Americans will always understand their “pursuits of happiness” in terms of economic progress and the accumulation of wealth. That is just who we are.

The belief that the “way of improvement” might lead “home” is a left-over relic of the eighteenth century. The idea that the pursuit of American ambition could be balanced with more local affections and attachments, or that we might be held in check by limits we or others or God place on our lives, is a notion that was part of a world that is long gone–the world of people like Philip Vickers Fithian. This world has been crushed by the forces of American modernity– the triumph of individualism, industrialization, consumerism, Protestantism, and nationalism. It is a world left to the historians.

As I wrote The Way of Improvement Leads Home I often wondered if it has to be this way. Maybe so.

Are the Roots of Modern Liberalism Christian?

There is some excellent discussion going on (you will need to scroll down a bit) over at The Immanent Frame on Nicholas Wolterstoff’s new book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

I have yet to read Wolterstorff’s book, but from what I can glean from this discussion and other reviews, he is arguing that the roots of justice and rights are not to be found in Greek or Roman civilization, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, but in the Bible and the early church fathers.

Much of Wolterstorff’s argument is based on the scholarly work of political scientists John Witte Jr. and Brian Tierney, whose recent books are on my reading list as I work on my current project on Christian America.

I found the posts by John Schmalzbauer and James K.A. Smith especially interesting. Schmalzbauer discusses the ways that evangelicals have struggled to adopt “rights talk”:

…evangelicals regard “rights talk” as an alien language with little connection to Biblical faith. Raised in the evangelical subculture, I have experienced this attitude firsthand. During my undergraduate years at Wheaton College, one of my professors presented the class with a startling claim: human rights are a product of modern political thought and cannot be found in the Bible. At the time, I wondered how he could square this statement with the dozens of Bible verses proclaiming the rights of the poor. In Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Yale University philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff offers a devastating critique of the historical narrative employed by my professor.

Smith claims that Wolterstorff is promoting a “Whig Calvinism”–a Reformed version of the neo-conservative Catholicism associated with the late Richard John Neuhaus and his First Things gang. He concludes: “Wolterstorff…has unwittingly been assimilated to regnant paradigms in liberal political thought and is now “baptizing” them with a theological story.”

The posts by Schmalzbauer, Smith, and others are worth checking out in their entirety. I should also add the Wolterstorff responds to his critics.

The Obama Assault on Individualism

On Tuesday I suggested that Barack Obama’s inaugural address draws deeply from the historical well of the civic humanist or republican tradition in America. (And I am not alone). His emphasis on duty and the dangers of self-interest sound a lot like some of our so-called Founding Fathers.

Though he does not use the term “civic humanism,” E.J. Dionne offers a similar interpretation of Obama’s speech, focusing particularly on the president’s assault on two varieties of individualism. He writes:

What makes Obama a radical, albeit of the careful and deliberate variety, is his effort to reverse the two kinds of extreme individualism that have permeated the American political soul for perhaps four decades.

He sets his face against the expressive individualism of the 1960s that defined “do your own thing” as the highest form of freedom. On the contrary, Obama speaks of responsibilities, of doing things for others, even of that classic bourgeois obligation, “a parent’s willingness to nurture a child.”

But he also rejects the economic individualism that took root in the 1980s. He specifically listed “the greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” as a cause for our economic distress. He discounted “the pleasures of riches and fame.” He spoke of Americans not as consumers but as citizens. His references to freedom were glowing, but he emphasized our “duties” to preserve it far more than the rights it conveys.

Obama’s rhetoric will confuse both sides of the political spectrum. This is a clear sign that he is on the right track.

UPDATE: See Robert Bellah’s thoughts on some of these issues here. (HT: Art Remillard at Religion and American History).