I hope you have a happy Independence Day. Does this Fourth of July feel different this year? It seems that patriotism is at an all-time low, that cynicism, pessimism, and disillusionment about this country are the reigning sentiments. Part of the problem is our political and cultural polarization, but my impression is that both of the contending sides are gloomy about America.
Donald Trump and his supporters wanted to make America great again, but that implies that it isn’t great right now. Some conservatives are criticizing the liberal democracy started by our national founders and enshrined in our Constitution. They think that so much freedom has undermined the family, the community, and the church, and is responsible for the “liberal” progressivism that rules today. Meanwhile, those progressives see America as rotten to the core, with our history nothing more than a record of racism, genocide of the native tribes, and other kinds of oppression.
The freedoms that America stands for and that we used to celebrate on the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence are under attack or are being reconsidered. Freedom of speech? Not on college campuses or on social media. Freedom of religion? Not when the religion is critical of homosexuality. Freedom of the Press? That’s a joke, as the press increasingly volunteers not to criticize the government. The freedom to keep and bear arms? That–and not the “defund the police” movement, which has demoralized police forces and led to mass resignations from law enforcement professions–is held to be responsible for the soaring crime rate, so that our leaders are trying to find a way to work around the Second Amendment.
About the only freedom that is positively affirmed today is sexual freedom. Though never mentioned in our Constitution, the freedom to have sex however we want to can still stir emotions. Perceived threats to “abortion rights” can still motivate big protests. Freedom of speech can gain supporters when it is invoked to protect pornography. Many cities no longer have a Fourth of July Parade, but the Pride Parades still draw enthusiastic crowds.
One aspect of our national malaise was touched on by a BBC reporter who is retiring from his American beat after four decades. Here is his poignant observation. From Nick Bryant, Once the future, US now captive to its past:
When I came to United States as a wide-eyed teenager in the mid-1980s, one of the things that seduced me about America was its preoccupation with the future. Almost four decades on, I’m struck by how it remains captive to its past.
Rather than being cyclic, history feels depressingly looping. We keep on revisiting the same arguments. We keep on going over the same ground.
“We cannot escape our history.” The words of Abraham Lincoln seem even more redolent now than they did at the time of the Civil War. Competing versions of the American past have created antagonistic versions of the American present. It helps explain why the nation so often feels like it is in a state of cold civil war, and why I feel that I have been reporting for so many years on two Americas.
It isn’t that America is still fighting the Civil War. Today we are questioning the winning side of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery, is being portrayed as a racist, and his statues are being torn down and vandalized. Abolitionists are condemned as “white savior figures,” the flag under which thousands died to end slavery is dishonored as a racist symbol, and the emancipation proclamation is minimized as just a prelude to Jim Crow laws. And the Civil Rights Laws of the 1960s that ended the Jim Crow laws are minimized as making promises that were never delivered.
Though many, even most black Americans–especially those who lived through the Jim Crow era–know that their lot has improved greatly, critical race theory, which is being enshrined in our schools and other institutions, keeps us fixated on a past that can never be changed. Other kinds of critical theory–of feminists, “queer theorists,” environmentalists, and animal rights activists–do the same, and because the oppression they concentrate on is “systemic,” there is really little that can be done about any of it.
Yes, some Americans defend our history while other Americans demonize it. But I am struck by how both sides no longer seem to have much hope for a future.
As Bryant says, Americans used to be future-oriented, to a fault. This was true across the political spectrum. Liberals saw the unfolding of social progress, with radical leftists thinking the revolution and the workers’ paradise was just around the corner. Conservatives agreed with the optimism of Ronald Reagan that it was “morning in America.” No one of either persuasion talks like that any more!
Certainly, it’s absurd to have so much paralyzing self-pity. Our affluence and standard of living is beyond the wildest fantasies of our forebears. Our technology continues to do wonders. Our medical advances have dramatically improved and extended our lives. Our nation is currently at peace. Why all of this angst and self-doubt?
At its root, no doubt, is our nation’s spiritual emptiness and moral failures.
Though right now even many of our churches seem spiritually empty and morally compromised. But maybe all of this is a prelude to another Great Awakening.
Maybe our cultural stagnation is a prelude to an American renaissance.
Or maybe the American experiment will collapse, like the Soviet Union did. Maybe we will revert to totalitarianism. Maybe our future is to be an outpost of Chinese Communism.
Or maybe Christ will return soon.
What do you think? Do you think America has a future? What can we do, if anything, to pull ourselves out of these doldrums? Is there a case for optimism?
But, having said all this, an important truth remains: When someone in your family is sick, destitute, and mentally losing it, that doesn’t mean you don’t love him. In fact, your heart goes out to him. His sad condition is reason to love him even more! And to want desperately to help him! What can we do to get our country back on its feet?