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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

New Great Awakening

My previous reflection (8-4-18) was on culture, especially religion, private and public. The genius of the founders was building a public while distinguishing it from the private. Persons and groups in the private realm could have their own opinions, worship their own divinities, and make their own livelihoods. And we as a people of many households and traditions can enjoy unity from the many, as our coins of the realm say, by sharing common ideas and spaces.

Frank Rich, columnist for the New York Magazine, just wrote another of his great articles entitled In 2008 Americans Stopped Believing in the American Dream. He describes the depression we endure, the disruption of the political order, the mistrust of democratic institutions as I have done earlier in these reflections. He agrees that this depression, disruption, and mistrust was building long before Trump who is merely a symptom, not a cause, of our discontent. He believes that the crash of 2008 was the turning point for the old white men, Trump's base, who bought into the American Dream.

My favorite sentence in Rich's piece is: "Perhaps the sole upside of the 2008 crash was that it discredited the Establishment of both parties by exposing its decades-long collusion with a  kleptocratic economic order." Yes, the American Dream, like all the dreams we have while sleeping, was not real. Like "10 acres and a mule" promised to liberated black slaves, like continuing increase in equality promised to a working class playing by the rules of the free market economy--just pipe dreams sold by the wealthiest of con-men.

Rich is agreeing with the analysis of Streek, Kuttner, Polanyi, Arendt, Harrington and the others I have been citing in my attempt to understand what is happening to our nation. The capitalist economy and its institutions have supplanted the reign of democratic politics and its institutions. Private pleasure of consumption overcomes public happiness through participation.

Economic growth, i.e. product and wealth, has become the American measure of success, the line between "winners" and "losers" in the game of life, and the divine attribute of the American religion. Ayn Rand and Milton Freeman are contributors to the American Dream Bible. Ronald Reagan and Paul Ryan are the ordained ministers preaching the Word of the Dream. Increasing consumption of the resources of the earth is not only our human right; it is our religious rite. Be happy. Make money. Go shopping.

And that is why we, perhaps like many life supporting planets in the universe, are reducing our chances for survival. There is substantial evidence that we are destroying both the material, social, and, I would add, religious or spiritual habitat that sustains our life. The recent piece in the NYT by Frank Rich’s son, Nathaniel, make that case quite well.

But again, my invincible hope kicks in. Yes, Frank, 2008 was the beginning of the end of the American Dream and Trump is the clearest harbinger of our loss. But this calls not for a restoration of that Dream, but a revival of the American public religion that can be discovered throughout human existence, enhanced by the great liberators in our own American history whose virtues conflict with the habits of those who depress and oppress the spirit of transcendence within us. Those habits are immediate satisfaction of material needs, choosing sides mine against yours, fear and distrust of strange people and strange ideas, and, above all, disenchantment of the earth and of public space. The Trumpian turn we now experience suppresses the spirit of unity and collaboration.

But it can also recall that spirit of commonality which we have forgotten and neglected. I won’t go so far as to say that Trump is God’s gift to us. Nor do I blame God for famine, blight, and destruction and other evils. I think we generally know what our civil religion is. Most of us welcome immigrants and refugees. Most of us value free speech and press along with honesty. Most of us know that abusing children and women, torture, and other forms of cruelty is wrong. I think we know the meaning of civic virtue because we have so many who have practiced it in our history. 

To restore our democratic republic, we need a revival of our democratic religion--a reaffirmation of the beliefs, attitudes, values, but most of all, the practices and virtues of that republic. I do not think it will be achieved by the printing of a new catechism or by the construction of a new temple. It will not be achieved by governmental, ecclesiastical, or corporate institutions, nor by force of law--though all these could help. 

It will be achieved by people practicing civility, engaging in civil service, and acting for social justice. I see it happening all around us, those “thousand points of light,” the elder Bush called it. Young students organizing to stop gun killing. Athletes taking a knee against racial violence. Women refusing to be groped by men in power. Organizers and leaders now forming community organizations in cities and towns throughout the nation to hold local corporations and governments accountable. Firmly but without violence or rancor. 

This may be an opportunity for a religious revival in America. Not just a Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Islamic, Jewish, Unitarian revival, not just a revival of democratic republican parties, not just a revival of families and neighborhoods—but of all of them working together to revive an American spirit that feeds and is fed by them. The rebirth of the new nation called for by Abraham Lincoln at another time of crisis. The restoration of radical democratic politics in America is concomitant with the renewal of the democratic republican or public religion in America.

On the Bicentennial of the American nation, 1976, the Catholic Bishops called for a movement of renewal called “Liberty and Justice for All.” It was a good idea and some wonderful things came out of it including a strong critique of the fundamentalist free-market economyand major support for organizing publics at the local level.

But perhaps on the 250thanniversary, i.e. 2026, all the churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, labor unions, civic associations, and community organizations will proclaim a new Great Awakening of the enduring values of freedom and justice, life, liberty, and the pursuit of public happiness over egotistic pleasure. It can’t be a Christian thing or a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist thing.  It can’t be a Democratic or Republican thing. It can’t be a Conservative or Liberal thing.  It can’t be a Coast or Heartland thing, a rural or urban thing. It’s got to be all those things.

We don’t have much time so we better start working on this. I want to be around to see it. In the meantime, keep the faith, keep up the struggle.

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