It’s like we are living in two different realities.
This is, perhaps, one of the most commonly expressed sentiments in our current political and cultural climate. Here in America, we seem to have bifurcated into two mutually exclusive, and completely incompatible, worldviews. We see this cultural reality reflected most strikingly in our news media: turn on the TV to one channel, and you will receive a completely different set of events, presentation of them, and analysis of their meaning and implications, than if you tune to another channel. People seem to have two different and incompatible basic sets of instincts about things.
Now, this may seem strange and incomprehensible. It is tempting to dismiss the other side as “out of touch with reality.” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.
There are two realities.
The two sides in our political debate are both convinced that we are in imminent danger of being plunged into a vicious dictatorship. Strangely, though this is the only thing they seem to agree on, they have completely different reasons for arriving at this conclusion. What do we do when we have two camps of people who fully believe that the country is about to be delivered into the hands of a cadre of evil people, and that this election is the only thing that can save us from a horrid dictatorship?
We have to take a step back, take a deep breath, and look at this with a larger perspective. I will suggest that, at least in the short term, this election is really a red herring.
What has failed is not the government. It chugs along much as it ever has.
What has failed is the American people. We are responsible.
This may sound harsh, but it is and must be the truth. We are going to have to face this hard reality. We fear the government – both the left and the right fear what might happen if the other side gains full control of it – but neither side is quite going to impose an actual dictatorship if they win in November, at least not within the next few years.
What matters far more than our outward political strife is what is going on in the hearts of the American people.
Both sides perceive politics as a sort of panacea, as though if only the government would act a certain way, everything would be solved. This is, fortunately or unfortunately, not the case. It is often observed that politics is downstream of culture. I would add that culture is downstream of religion. Every society has a religious foundation, whether it thinks it does or not. There must be some internal guidance, a moral foundation by which the standard is set, by which men live and judge other men, and which serves as a guiding torch for the civilization as a whole. This is the spirit of a nation, or of a civilization, which, once established, is changed at the peril of the whole structure that has been built upon it.
What we see at this time in history is two competing civilizational spirits. I would add that it is a privilege to observe this unfolding in real time. It is an instructional moment that we ought to take advantage of. Let’s dive into what is happening.
The character of a nation is determined by the character of its people. This is a fundamental reality that we will never get past merely by fighting political battles. In America, we have changed our character, deliberately and recklessly, with dire consequences.
The primary thing we have done is abandoned the idea of a righteous God as the foundation and legitimate source of good things, civil society, and the body politic. When we did this, several things necessarily followed.
This belief in God, or, at the very least, in some kind of higher power as the source of moral authority for our civilization, was a Chesterton’s Fence: a thing that, if you don’t think past the surface, seems to be extraneous and safely removable without causing harm to anyone. Remove it, however, and you will quickly discover exactly why it was there. Deprived of the moral foundation of the Christian God and His revelatory Word, we left behind all of the natural conclusions of that foundation, the traditions and attitudes that logically follow from it. We left or neglected our churches, abandoned the institution of the family, de-feminized our women, emasculated our men, eschewed artistic beauty standards in favor of emptiness or ugliness, and left high culture, formality, and civility behind. In short, having forgotten the spirit of our religion, we threw off all of its trappings, thinking that this would liberate us unto a glorious path of freedom and progress.
But this did not happen. We did not, as we thought we would, simply give up our need for a sense of meaning, which we had formerly placed in God. Man will worship something rather than nothing – a god or gods of some sort – and if he does not worship the true God, there is nothing he will not invent to replace Him. We have now converged on a loose collection of things which have become our gods in the absence of God. Chief among them is the god of Self. We love and worship our own selves, our individuality, or our self-actualization, rather than treating these things with the respect that comes from the knowledge that they are gifts to us from a Creator. Another god we worship is material goods or wealth. In our capitalist society, this one comes naturally: we want to make money and have things, and we are very good at this. Material goods are status symbols in a society driven by one’s “success” – which is always defined in terms of money, influence, and social status.
Human authority, or man’s reason, is another god. We look to the men in white lab coats for our every cue, even ignoring common sense and long-held experiential knowledge for the sake of our trust in “experts”, whose scientific knowledge is based on a method that by definition questions everything. Our obsession with what Roger Scruton called the “cult of ugliness” in the arts has led us to create ever uglier art, architecture, and music, leaving behind the high value we had formerly placed on beauty, which is intended to remind us of our Creator, the Author of all things beautiful. This too is a god – perhaps the most tyrannical of gods, for it forces us into a constant state of depressed self-importance, congratulating ourselves on our enlightened rejection