America’s Moral Crisis
Many Americans feel a sense of alarm about the moral condition of American society today.
Many in the liberal half of America worry that the political right has been taken over by amoral forces that only pretend to be righteous while they indulge their lust for power and wealth. Many in the conservative half of America fear that America’s moral integrity has been eroded by an “anything goes” culture abetted by the moral permissiveness of contemporary liberalism.
Both these worries are well-founded. Indeed, these two moral crises — the rise of fascistic forces in the political realm and the degradation of values in the cultural realm–are two sides of the same coin.
The purpose of this article, and of my website, NoneSoBlind, is to put the pieces together, to provide a clear and integrated picture of the moral crisis now besetting America. It is a vision that offers both good news and bad.
The bad news is that the crisis is much bigger than you probably suspect. The good news is that the same vision that reveals the magnitude of this crisis also suggests a strategy for successfully meeting our present challenge.
Bigger than the Bush presidency
First, the bad news. If you see the problem simply in terms of the current presidency, the bad news is that our crisis goes much deeper than that.
Even looking only at the political realm, this presidency should be seen as manifestation of the success of a set of amoral forces that have worked for a generation to take over the county. And these are forces that will work to maintain their grip on power even when their present public faces leave office.
Never in the history of this nation has so much power been in such ruthless hands.
But it’s bigger still, extending beyond the arena of power. The success of these unscrupulous forces –arising from the political right– is due in part to a more general unraveling of the moral fabric of America. And in this deterioration –reflected, for example, in our trashy popular culture– the liberal half of America has played an important role.
So it is not just a problem with “them,” as most of us in polarized America believe, but with “us” –all of us— as a whole cultural system. All of America is now challenged to regain its moral vision.
Two forms of moral blindness
The moral blindness of the conservatives is that they’ve become unable to tell the difference between the good and the evil. Many American liberals, on the other hand, have become blind to how vital and how real that difference is.
The conservatives don’t see the true moral nature of their ruthless leaders. They have been seduced by those leaders, buying into the sheep’s clothing of their false righteousness, under which is hidden the wolf of their unbridled lust for self-aggrandizement. As a result, they’ve handed power to forces that work systematically to undermine good order in America and around the world.
The moral blindness of many liberals lies in their sliding into a moral relativism that sees matters of right and wrong as merely matters of individual opinion. Unwilling to judge anything but “judgmentalism,” willing to tolerate anything but “intolerance,” too many liberals have become unable to see the difference between good personal choices and bad ones.
While the most urgent threat to the soul of America comes from the right –for nothing is so dangerous to a society than to mistake the evil for the good, and to hand to forces of evil the power to shape its destiny—the moral blindness of today’s American liberalism has also contributed to this rise to power of fascistic forces.
Liberalism’s dual contribution to the crisis
It has done so in two ways.
First, unable to recognize the truth in the old idea that the battle between good and evil is a central part of the human drama, liberalism has been unable to recognize the nature of the forces it’s up against. It is this inability to see these forces for what they are that has rendered liberalism impotent to make an effective stand against them.
And, second, unwilling to take seriously the distinction between right desire and wrong desire, liberalism has been complicit in the emergence of a trash culture that undermines standards and ideals and that cultivates what is base and degrading. This moral decadence, in turn, has created among many Americans a kind of moral anxiety that has historically provided fascistic forces an opening to exploit in their quest for power.
Polarization as a failure of the cultural system
Just as the rise to power of fascistic forces and the degradation of values in the wider culture are two sides of the same coin, so also with these two forms of moral blindness.
The two sides of our polarized society are failing in different –but complementary—ways to meet the fundamental moral challenge that humankind must face at both the individual and social levels.
Goodness in the human sphere requires us to reconcile the desires and needs of our inborn nature and the moral demands of the larger order into a harmonious and life-serving whole, integrating the values of liberty and of order.
But as the goodness of moral integration breaks down, society becomes polarized, with each side of the divide failing in its own characteristic way to serve goodness. The parts that need to be brought together instead break apart, with each side of the polarized system emphasizing only one half of the picture and then trumpeting its corresponding unbalanced half-truth about morality.
Two ways of failing to achieve human wholeness
The liberals’ way of failing to harmonize the natural energies of the human creature with the need for good order in the overarching human system is to over-identify with natural impulse and to scant the authority of moral demands. The resulting failure to distinguish between good and bad choices opens the door to decadence in individual lives—and consequently also in the culture that surrounds them. In a culture where the ideas of “good” and “evil” are regarded as leftovers from a primitive worldview –where moral judgment is rejected as “judgmental”– the moral fabric of culture and of human lives gets ripped apart by the spirit of “Anything goes.”
The conservatives, meanwhile, over-identify with those elements at the top of the moral hierarchy –conscience, ruler, God– often to the point not only of suppressing but even of denying their own forbidden impulses. As a result, they are liable to contribute to the spread of evil by giving power to those authorities who are adept at dressing up sin –greed, lust for power, the craving for war, the pleasure of sadistic dominance—in the garb of righteousness, indulging forbidden impulses under the banners of God and country.
These conservatives are easily seduced by such false righteousness, then, both because of their excessive deference to that which is above (authority) and because of their failure to come to harmonious terms with their own desires—driven underground by a harsh morality—to which their seducers offer covert gratification.
America –thus divided into two sides afflicted with these forms of moral blindness—is progressing dangerously far down the slope of moral dissolution. The harmony and wholeness characteristic of the good is giving way to the division and strife characteristic of evil. Protective frameworks that have taken centuries to create–of manners and morals, of standards of truth, of Constitutional protections, of norms of international conduct—are being dismantled.
And the opening thus created has allowed certain destructive patterns and forces –long lurking in the corners of America, expressing themselves in the darkest moments of our history—to coalesce and grow and, increasingly, take control. It is these “patterns and forces” –rather than the individual human beings through whom they expand their domain—that warrant being given that ancient and freighted name, “evil”.
The “battle of good and evil” as the play of patterns and forces in the cultural system
The forces that build good order, and those that destroy it, are not to be understood as “just” residing in the human psyche. That psyche itself is shaped by the patterns of culture moving through history. And –as our religious traditions understood about good and evil—these patterns do use people to perpetuate themselves and expand their domain.
At this moment of American history, it is especially evil whose workings it is important that we understand.
We can now see, for example, how patterns like that of power and manipulation developed in the racial tyranny of the Jim Crow South, and like the pattern of righteous rationalization of conquest developed in the theft of land from Native Americans, can be taken off the shelf –generations later, and under completely different circumstances—to resume their destructive work.
The workings of such systemic forces show why we still have need for a concept like “evil,” even if we do not accept the theological worldview in which, in Western civilization, that concept has been handed down to us.
It is simply a reality of how history unfolds through cultural systems that, if there is a breakdown of those frameworks that a culture has developed for the nurturance and protection of goodness–within the psyche, within the realms of cultural expression, within the realms of the governance of power– there are other, dark forces that will work opportunistically to tear things apart.
It is in this sense that it is meaningful to talk about this crisis as one in which America is coming under the sway of evil. Opportunistic forces have been working in this way for a generation, exploiting the degradation of good order to extend the domain of their control over the nation—undermining the value of truth and the possibilities of meaningful deliberation, fomenting division and polarization among groups, empowering the mighty at the expense of the weak and enriching the rich at the expense of the poor, tearing down the traditional American practices of democratic comity and discourse and fair competition, making America the very kind of power in the world that America has traditionally opposed.
“Spiritual” forces –vast, enduring, subtle patterns that operate to impose their imprint on the human realm for good or for evil—can be discerned as simply a factual reality of how, at the most fundamental level, human systems unfold through time.
And little can be more important to human societies than what kind of “spirit” is ruling their affairs.
Toward a prophetic social movement to save America
The bad news, then, is that America now faces a crisis in which the stakes could hardly be larger. This is a crisis as big as any our country has ever faced—as big as the Depression or World War II, even the Civil War. But unlike those, the challenge we now face is essentially a moral one. Our challenge is to save the very soul of America.
But then there is the good news. The same vision that illuminates the essential nature and gravity of this crisis also reveals how this present challenge can best be met.
These forces will not be overcome by purely political approaches. We have slept too long for that, allowing the terrain of power and the arena of discourse to become too corrupted to be transformed by the usual means.
But a clear vision of this moral crisis reveals those crucial nodes in the American system through which the present dangerous dynamic can be changed. As the crisis is, at its heart, a moral and spiritual one, it is to that level that we must address our efforts.
We do not need to wait to win the material power of the political arena to begin to turn this battle. We can summon, rather, a moral and spiritual power to overcome those forces that now reign over all three branches of government as well as much of the media and the economic system.
What is needed is a “prophetic” social movement, an effective way to speak moral truth to amoral power.
What relies for power on a moral lie can be defeated by moral truth
For this prophetic social movement to succeed, it is essential for those who oppose the forces presently ruling America to remember that the heart of the problem is not that these ruling powers are too conservative, or that they are too aligned with “traditional” rather than “progressive” values.
To wage the struggle in those terms is not only to misunderstand the nature of our adversary. It is also to continue to fall into the trap that they have so successfully set for their opposition, and to abet their continuing seduction of millions of good people on the conservative side of America’s cultural divide. It is to help foster that spirit of divisiveness on which they feed.
The heart of the problem, rather, is that these powers are not what they pretend to be. The darkness of the spirit that animates them is manifest in their ruthlessness and arrogance and dishonesty. They are not righteous, but rather they are serving as channels through which destructive -- evil -- forces are extending their domain.
Only by selling their false image of righteousness to good, conservative Americans could these forces gain power. But that which depends on moral lies can be defeated with moral truth—for, if these good people can be helped to see that these emperors have no moral clothes, they will withdraw their support.
Most of those who have supported these rulers should be regarded not as our opponents but as our potential allies. For the urgent struggle now is not that of liberal values against conservative values, but of those who really care about goodness against those who only pretend to.
To accomplish these worthy goals, unmasking the false righteousness of our rulers must be framed in terms of Americans’ shared values—of justice and compassion and truth and fair play—and supported by evidence drawn from our common knowledge.
This can be done by telling the stories of what has been enacted right before all our eyes. But the stories must be told in the right way: the prophetic rendering strips the stories of their superficial political content to reveal the underlying moral reality—the dark reality of bullying and lying and arrogance and the unrestrained lust for power. (See Dimension 4 in Book-cubed.)
By this means, we can unite the good people of America, and end the polarization that our amoral leaders have worked to foster—helping America’s conservatives to remember how better to tell the difference between good and evil.
How Liberalism Also Needs Moral Revitalization
At the same time, this “prophetic” approach will require America’s liberals to remember how absolutely vital—and real—that difference is. From liberalism’s present moral superficiality and flaccidity, it will not be possible to speak from that place of conviction from which comes that power of prophetic speech.
Therefore, in order to wage such a prophetic struggle, America’s liberals will need to re-establish a much deeper connection with the moral and spiritual core of our human reality.
Prophet Elijah Confronts King Ahab and Jezebel
And through that same moral and spiritual deepening, American liberals might at last also join forces with the good people among America’s conservatives who for more than a generation have been raising the alarm about the degradation of our culture. Re-raveling the structures of goodness at this level, too, will help drain the moral swamps that America’s present fascistic rulers have been so adept at exploiting.
At its root, then, our present national crisis is a symptom of moral and spiritual deterioration of the American cultural system as a whole. To meet the challenge of this crisis successfully, both sides of our polarized society will have to become – morally and spiritually more whole.
(All images illustrating this story from clip art or public domain except the eagle drum, a creation of Joan Hellquist, whose spirit drums can be found at PlacitasArtists.com.
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Dr. Andrew Bard Schmookler is a prize-winning author, radio commentator and public policy analyst. He is the creator and author of the website None So Blind, which is devoted to understanding the roots of America's present moral crisis and the means by this present challenge can be met. He can be reached
at email@example.com. Schmookler does regular talk radio shows -in both red
and blue states -- discussing the questions of meaning and value that we face in our lives.
Schmookler's commentaries on social and political issues appear regularly in The Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Albuquerque Tribune.
Dr. Schmookler served during the 1990s as a member of the "Global Problems
and Opportunities Group" at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington, D.C., helping to prepare for the Congress and the
President an assessment of international issues and contingencies for which
American policy-makers should prepare.
In 1984, Dr. Schmookler was awarded the Erik H. Erikson Prize by the
International Society for Political Psychology. And in 1985, he was
selected by Esquire Magazine as "one of the men and women under forty who
are changing the nation."
Among Schmookler's books are several bearing on the problem of war and
peace, including the prize-winning book “The Parable of the Tribes: The
Problem of Power in Social Evolution”, “Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War”, and “Sowings and Reapings: The Cycling
of Good and Evil in the Human System”.
He has written two books on the problematic relationship between economic forces and human needs: “The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny” and “Fool's Gold: The Fate of Values in a World of Goods”.
Dr. Schmookler's most recent book is “Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide”, which explores some of the basic issues that underly this country's current polarization.