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Sojourns with Schall
September 17, 2012
America no longer has a coherent, common view of itself and what it stands for.

If we Americans listen to our own music, we hear that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have purple mountains and amber waves of grain. “God bless America.” But not everyone sees us this way, even among our own citizens. It is probably not wise to divide the world’s view of America into merely five or six different categories or descriptions. Still, it is helpful to reflect how differently the country is seen to be. We wonder if we are in a “decline and fall” situation. Or are we on the verge of a new breakthrough. Perhaps the barbarians are already in the gate. We just do not want to notice. They look like us. Our leadership seems vain and self-serving. Much depends on what we are willing to see rather than what is in fact there to see.

I.

The first view is that America is the cause of the world’s problems. Even though it was never really a “colonial” power, still the world is best seen as if it were the chief colonial power. As the wealthiest of the great powers, through its economic system, it has exploited the rest of the world. Its prosperity is unjust. It owes reparation to the rest of the world. The poor of the world are victims; their situation has little or nothing to do with them, their mores, governments, or religion. Were it not for America everyone would be rich. America must continually express sorrow for its actions. Its wealth must be given back to those to whom it rightly belongs. Moreover, America is morally decadent. It undermines marriage and family everywhere. It exports every dubious ethical aberration as if it were normal. The world needs to be protected from its moral decline and from its economic stranglehold. America is justly hated for what it is.

The second view is that America has long overreached its capacities. We are a relatively small nation that assumes way too much of the world’s burdens. America has tried unwisely to transform the world as if it has some kind of magic formula to do so. But the world is not interested. It rejects as alien any outside help that Americans might offer. Thus, we need to face facts. We need to withdraw from the world, pull in our horns, and come home. We need to pursue our own interests here. We have shipped much of our wealth, jobs, and talent overseas instead of taking care of our own industry and interests. It is time to trim our ambitions to what we can do. We cannot solve age-old problems that only get worse if we try to interfere in their workings. We need to protect ourselves; we need to identify our friends and enemies. Ever since we tried to do everything, everything has gone wrong.

A third view is that America is a uniquely compassionate and generous land. We have tried successfully to bring our former enemies back into the human fold. We did not seek vengeance, but put former enemies back on their feet so that they could take care of themselves. At great cost, we have protected Europe and much of the world. We left them free of worries about their safety. We are the main country to whom immigrants flock if they can. We are a tolerant land of opportunity where churches are freer than in any other country in the world. We have spent much of our wealth and efforts in giving help to others. Even when we are insulted, we continue to find ways to assist others, even our enemies. We understand envy and those who seek power for themselves. We want others to be free and prosperous.

America, fourthly, is the only real superpower in the world. If it does not keep its military and economic strength, no one will be able to resolve or modify the conflicts that constantly happen in the world. The United Nations is more of a problem than a solution. What we need in the country are leaders and highly trained services that can act, not just talk. They need to know the situation in various parts of the world, with the necessary power and persuasion sensibly to apply them to the flashpoints when they happen. No one else can or will do this service. We will not be loved for it. America does not seek empire or even gain. It wants a reasonably just peace but knows that the failure to develop and use power when needed is very dangerous and usually causes war and greater chaos.

Or, fifth, America is rapidly becoming, if it is not already, a welfare-state on the European secularist model. The state is to control all health, education policies, and monies. Everyone will be directly or indirectly taken care of by the state and its bureaucracy. Nothing will stand between the state and the individual. Culture, arts, and media will be in the hands of the state. Issues of life and death, well-being, and levels of income will be the state’s to resolve. The purpose of the state will be to equalize and rationalize all institutions and individuals. Everyone will be dependent on the positive law for a criterion of what is allowed. What private enterprise remains will be at the sufferance of state policy.

A sixth view might be that America has helped other peoples to become rich. Not just the European recovery, but China and India, once the poorest of countries, are now, through the market, vibrant economies of their own. Scientific development and technological advances spread from our universities, think tanks, and corporations throughout the world. Foreign students crowd our graduate schools. They have been a benefit to mankind. America’s wealth is not its own but is shared and exchanged with others. What is called American exceptionalism means that certain political, economic, religious, and moral ideas and practical institutions were formulated or perfected in America. It is these ideas and institutions that cause human well-being. Without them, societies stagnate or fail to develop or fall apart. They do not understand their importance. We know how to make everyone free and prosperous, but not if they are unwilling to accept the means and discipline that it takes.

II.

We are hard-pressed today to say that America is a single unified nation in which two parties vie to offer acceptable moral alternatives to our laws and problems. We are not allowed to say we are a Christian nation. In our country historically, it has not made too much difference which party won an election. The alternate program was also feasible and usually honorable. Life and death was not at stake in each vote. The differences were over means, not fundamentals touching the very meaning of life and human destiny. They were about better or worse ways of attaining the same purpose.

In many ways today, our politics are not really politics in the classical sense. They are closer to wars, not just cultural wars either. There is often hatred, not gentlemanly respect, for other views which strike at the very heart of what a human being is. Both sides see the victory of the other side to be a disaster. We find little cooperation. This level of antagonism is because the issues that divide us are non-negotiable at a very basic level. Our politics is really theology, struggles over the very meaning of what it is to be human.

We would like to think, moreover, that Christianity is safe under any selection of party. But this is no longer the case. In many ways, Christianity is struggling for its very existence, but is afraid to admit it. Odd theories of “social justice” have replaced the substance of faith. The state seeks to confine religion to the very minimal presence of ritual. We are free to use any “ritual” we want provided we do not seek to do anything else, especially try live according to its tenets when we leave the place of worship. We used to talk of Christians who went to church on Sundays but who lived the rest of the week as if they were secularists. This failure to practice one’s faith was seen as a personal problem. Today, it is the state that seeks to prevent us from practicing our religion outside of church unless it conforms to the state’s arbitrary view of what human life is about.

What might we conclude from these different views of America and its situation? Some in the Church itself have seen that it suddenly must make vigorous efforts in every sphere, including the political, if it is to be allowed any but nominal presence in the culture. We do hear voices that warn us to prepare for persecution. We are reluctant to think this to be possible. We may be forced to withdraw from the political arena and become something like the Copts in Egypt, people who are largely isolated and excluded from the public order but who keep the faith and get along the best they can, suffering when they have to.

America no longer has a coherent, common view of itself and what it stands for. Its very legitimacy is at stake. Religion itself has become part of the problem. The notion that all religions, however we tolerate them, are equal and worship the same god verges on incredulity and the abandonment of reason. What we will accept as our religion is usually a function of how we live. We will, in effect, create “civil” gods who allow us to do what we will. The differing views of America confirm the old observation that at bottom all politics are rooted in theology, including the politics that affirms that there is no god.

 
About the Author
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James V. Schall, S.J. 

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.
 

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