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Monday, May 7, 2012

So what's so bad about the American Religion?

I concur with Berman and his long tradition of social critics beginning with De Tocqueville as to the nature of America's religion.

I concur that both political parties, the left, right, and center, so-called liberals, conservatives, and moderates, are generally adherents to this religion but compete like Pueblo kiva dancers in their 4 year reenactment of the religion's central ritual.

I also concur that this religion is destructive to America and to humanity--though possibly for different reasons than Berman.

I think that this religion is destructive, not because of the free market capitalist economy it advances, not because of economic institutions (corporations, governments, entrepreneurs, schools), and not because of the advanced technological products.  I think the religion is destructive precisely because the American economy, its goals and means, its symbols and activities, is the religion.

It is destructive because it assumes and advances a vision of human nature and future that is destructive of human nature and future.

It is destructive because it is out of order, out of balance, out of sync with who we are and who we might be.

It is destructive because the morality it advances is unethical; it lacks objective meaning, lacks value attuned to the good, lacks consistency with reality, lacks ultimate integrity.

I explain.

There are (at least) three motivators of human activity: 1) self-interest or the fulfillment of human ability to survive and thrive biologically/materially; 2) affiliation/recognition or the fulfillment of the human ability to socialize, speak, and act;  3) meaning/value or the fulfillment of the the human ability to understand, create, and be open to the infinity of the universe.

These three springs of human being relate to 1) economy for satisfying the needs of life, 2) politics for satisfying the desire for association or love, and 3) culture for satisfying the desire to understand or meaning.  We poetically name these three: body, heart, mind.

The problem with our American religion is that we have reduced all these realms to the pursuit of material wealth.  We have put our politics and culture to the service of our economy.  We have made economy, production and consumption of material goods, the end-all and measure of human success.  And we have lifted up the USA as the definitive symbol and model of this morality.

In an ethic of integrity (I refer to my ethical model), the three realms would be in tension, in sort of a balance of power, limiting one another.  And within each of the three there would be limiting tensions as well.  But when the economy becomes the religion, when human being and action, culture and politics, are measured by economic growth, we have lost our integrity and our humanity.  In Berman's words, America has failed.

What Berman calls the "alternative tradition" in American history, that of communitarian republicanism, is really the assertion of politics (in its root meaning of constituting a polis or an open space for speech and action) over against, or at least along side of, economic concerns.  And we create a culture (search for and expression of disinterested value and meaning) that sustains both.

Instead, we have made the summit of our aspirations, the benchmarks of progress, the fulfillment of our humanity a matter of production and consumption.  Our crisis is the demise of true politics and the community it engenders and of true culture and the meaning and value it expresses.  This is our crisis--the one lately being exposed by Berman, but as he points out continually also exposed by social and political thinkers throughout our history.

The crisis that is generated by our worship of economy, I would argue, is not just an American crisis, but a human crisis.  It is not only America that is in danger of collapse; it is the total human prospect.

Next: I try to clarify the crisis we face.

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