The Unwritten Constitution of the Culture

 

That the culture is in a steady decline, if not a virtual free fall, has been amply demonstrated by numerous commentators, including William Bennett, William Raspberry, and Robert Bork.  One has only to surf network television, browse through a Blockbuster video store, attend an academic conference or “professional” wrestling bout, or walk through an art museum to witness the cultural toxicity.  Fatherlessness, abortion-on-demand, random violence, drug abuse, rampant extra-marital sex, debasing manners, and general incivility all point to a nation headed to moral oblivion.[3]  The corruption of popular culture is led by the framers of the unwritten constitution, those individuals and institutions that shape the mores and habits of the heart.  I posit that CNN’s Ted Turner and Hollywood movie producer Oliver Stone have a far greater impact on culture than the entire U.S. Senate.

 

It is important to note that it is not just political conservatives who are concerned about cultural ill health.  There are many Americans of all political stripes who decry teen pregnancy, violent videos, the collapse of marriage, and the vulgarity of prime time television.  Although they may differ with conservative Republican legislative prescriptions, they join in the chorus of dissenting voices on the direction of American culture.  We must not overlook their participation in cultural renewal.

 

The primary spiritual illness afflicting the culture is the loss of an active belief in absolute truth that transcends the immanent realm, or present temporal world.  Transcendence, as it will be used here, refers to belief in absolute truth grounded in a reality larger than the collection of temporal events and experiences forming everyday life.  C.S. Lewis refers to belief in transcendence or “the Tao” as “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”[4]  This is not to say that cultures rooted in transcendent truth are immune to social decay.  Indeed, the content of this belief in transcendent truth is very important.  Nonetheless, it is the eroding belief in transcendence and the rise of subjectivism[5] that is at the core of the American culture’s declining health.

 

Superficially, the rejection of transcendence by Americans is a highly conflicted matter.  According to the Barna Report,[6] 95 percent of Americans still believe in God; 68 percent agree God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today; 84 percent believe Jesus was God or the Son of God; and 43 percent attended church in the last week.  On the other hand, 72 percent of adult Americans believe that “There is no such thing as absolute truth; two people could define truth in totally conflicting ways, but both could still be correct”-- including 62 percent of born-again Christians and 42 percent of Evangelical Christians.[7] In other words, a significant percentage of Americans have inherited a theistic world from previous generations which they have “syncretized” with the cultural elite’s relativism, holding fundamentally incompatible ideas and affirming both simultaneously.  The so-called moral majority is at best a schizophrenic majority, both embracing a transcendent God of the universe and rejecting the very basis of that belief.

 

James Davison Hunter’s portrait of America as a deeply divided people, locked in a culture war with one another, does not seem to comport with the operational subjectivism of most Americans.  Closer to the mark may be Alan Wolfe’s One Nation, After All.  Wolfe argues that there is no culture war because the middle class does not believe in most things strongly enough to want to impose them on others.  While Wolfe agrees that America’s elites are engaged in cultural conflict, he finds that America’s middle class has found a common creed in a non-judgmentalism that trumps morality.  Thus, when the Supreme Court hands down decisions overturning state restrictions on abortion and Internet obscenity, bans student-led prayer in official school functions, and mandates legal authority to enact special rights for homosexuals as a protected class, Americans register their disapproval in opinion polls, but not at the polling booth. Where the Court’s decisions should provoke legislative and electoral resistance, the public shrugs. For many supposedly theistic Americans, their morality has no legs. 

 

It would be wrong to say that American culture has completely rejected transcendent truth.  To be sure, there is much in American society that is still rooted in a notion of objective right and wrong.  However, it is the overall trajectory of American culture that is cause for great alarm.

 

 

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[3]               While some of these downward trends seem to have turned the corner in recent years, the historic trajectory has been grim and cause for celebration is premature.

 

[4]               C.S. Lewis,  The Abolition of Man  (New York: MacMillian Publishing Co., Inc., 1947), 29.

 

[5]               “Subjectivism” means that all truth is relative and is defined by the individual.

 

[6]               Website (www.barna.org) under “Beliefs: general religious, heaven and hell, and theological.”

 

[7]               George Barna, Virtual America  (Ventura, CA:  Regal, 1994).

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