You don't even have to be paying much attention to our American culture today to hear desperate complaints that we have lost our moral center, assuming we ever had one.
Many -- but not all -- of these complaints come from people who want us to join their fundamentalist-leaning religious organizations, who want legalized prayer again in public schools, who are appalled that anyone cares about the legal and moral rights of LGBTQ+ people, who are pretty sure the end-times are near and/or that most of us are going to be sent by an angry and vengeful god to suffer eternally in the unquenchable fires of hell.
By contrast, there occasionally also are wise people -- like the journalist David Brooks -- who are able to take a sane look at what isn't working in our culture and our politics and offer some helpful insights about what's missing and how we've gotten off the moral and ethical track as a people. That's exactly what Brooks does in this challenging article in the current edition of The Atlantic.
Here's the problem, as Brooks describes it: "We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions — families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces — helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation."
Then he adds this: "The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein."
Just to be clear, Brooks is not yelling "Make America Morally Great Again." In fact, he frankly acknowledges that back when there was an "ethos of moral formation that dominated American life," much went wrong.
"(W)e would never want to go back to the training methods that prevailed for so long," he writes, "rooted in so many thou shall nots and so much shaming, and riddled with so much racism and sexism. Yet a wise accounting should acknowledge that emphasizing moral formation meant focusing on an important question — what is life for? — and teaching people how to bear up under inevitable difficulties. A culture invested in shaping character helped make people resilient by giving them ideals to cling to when times got hard."
One result, as Brooks rightly notes, is that "In a culture devoid of moral education, generations grow up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world."
In this kind of moral vacuum, he says, people will fill it with something -- in our American case, with "politics and tribalism."
One disastrous result has been this, Brooks maintains: "When private virtue fails, the constitutional order crumbles. After decades without much in the way of moral formation, America became a place where more than 74 million people looked at Donald Trump’s morality and saw presidential timber."
Brooks not only delineates the problem, he proposes several answers. I'll leave you to read his proposals for how to fill our national moral vacuum with something other than "politics and tribalism."
But I also encourage you to support efforts to create moral citizens wherever you find those initiatives. One I'm proud to be a part of as a board member is the SevenDays organization, which teaches kindness and understanding through education and dialogue. We work especially with teenagers to help them recognize the common humanity in all people and to stand against hatred wherever it shows up.
There are other good ways to respond, of course. But before you do that, you need to grasp what the essential problem is, and Brooks lays it out as well as anyone has done in recent times.
"(H)ealthy moral ecologies don’t just happen," Brooks writes. "They have to be seeded and tended by people who think and talk in moral terms, who try to model and inculcate moral behavior, who understand that we have to build moral communities because on our own, we are all selfish and flawed."
(I tried to say something similar in this sermon I gave this past Sunday at my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City.)
CLERGY NEED TO USE THEIR PROPHETIC VOICES
The upcoming Jewish High Holidays give rabbis an opportunity and a responsibility to use their prophetic voices to address what needs fixing in our society, the head of a rabbinical school writes in this RNS column. "For those in the pulpit of a synagogue and in other positions of religious leadership," he writes, "passivity and silence are not options. Neglecting to speak out against this multitude of dangerous events and ideologies is a grave sin of omission." But for clergy of any faith, such words from the pulpit can be authentic only if whoever is preaching is not compromised by already having blessed what is wrong and needs fixing. You can't, for instance, preach about the dangers of climate change if you live in a mansion, drive a gas-guzzling luxury car and fly around in a private jet. That's called hypocrisy. And the people in the pews (or watching on TV) will notice.