As we pause to celebrate the Fourth of July this weekend, it is against the backdrop of troubling realities. There is the continuing recession and its corollary, high unemployment. In real terms that means millions of people without work, struggling to support their families and uncertain about their future. And there is the oil spill, continuing to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, with long-term consequences we do not yet know.
So as we are celebrating Independence Day 2010, there is new agreement about a need for regulation. The President hopes to sign a bill regulating Wall Street to mark the Fourth. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, independence and regulation. Emotionally, perhaps spiritually, our bias is for the former. No one sets off fireworks to celebrate regulation. But independence always does exist in tension with other values, whether dependence, regulation, or responsibility.
Years ago the psychoanalyst and concentration camp survivor Erich Fromm argued that Americans needed another statue alongside the Statue of Liberty. He said we needed a Statue of Responsibility.
After the decade that began with accounting scandals of Enron and Worldcom, followed by the initiation of two costly and continuing wars, the collapse of banks and financial institutions, the recession, and now the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we may have concluded that the reigning wisdom — “No regulation is necessary, the market is self-regulating and self-correcting” — isn’t adequate. The time has come for regulation. There is debate about just how much regulation, and whether government can be trusted to regulate well and wisely.
But effectively regulating energy traders, corporations, banks, investment firms, and oil companies, important as it may be, strikes me as only part of the challenge. What about self-regulation? Is it time for Americans to rediscover the wisdom of restraint and of limits? Is there a need for strengthening not just regulations, but character?
Judith Warner raised similar questions in a recent New York Times article. “What remains to be seen, as we move forward into . . . ‘a new age of regulation,’ ” wrote Warner, “is whether this new spirit of control and reform will carry over into the American psyche? For in the anything-goes atmosphere of our recent past, it wasn’t just external controls that went awry; inwardly, people lost constraint and common sense, too.”
While it’s not easy to figure out what level of regulation of banks and corporations is workable and wise, it’s probably a lot easier than trimming the sails of a culture given to excess. Or to put it a different way, how does moral formation happen in 21st-century America, or does it? Do we think it necessary? If we do, who is doing it or going to do it?
For a long time there was an alliance of institutions engaged in moral and spiritual formation: the family, churches and other religious congregations, schools, and in some measure government. That alliance has weakened, if not disappeared altogether.
And yet, we are a country and culture riddled by the problems that stem from a deficit of character and self-regulation. From widespread obesity, to emotional and violent outbursts, to parents gone AWOL, to uncontrolled spending and accumulation of personal debt, the list is legion. Immense SUVs and sprawling McMansions with a TV in every room are the outward symbols of the disease. A widespread sense of entitlement may be an inward expression of a culture that has little use for self regulation.
As a religious leader, I think churches and other religious institutions have something to answer for here. Too often in recent decades, religion or “spirituality,” our revealing preferred term, has gone soft on hard and hard-won spiritual and ethical wisdom. Too many religious institutions have embraced happy talk, prosperity gospels, and personal spiritual experiences, but lost the capacity to speak of character and moral formation, the manifold temptations of life and of responsibility. Words like “duty” and “sacrifice” seem quaint. The prevailing wisdom has been that of the consumer culture, with church worship transformed into entertainment and theology into therapy.
There is a kind of philosophical issue lurking here. For a long time now, our operative assumption has been some version of that of the 19th-century Romantics, on the order of, “The individual is pure and good but gets screwed up by society.” So we must “do what’s right for us,” “express and be ourselves.”
A longer theological and biblical tradition that has informed western culture for centuries has a different starting point and assumption. It begins with the idea that the self is distorted and requires formation. Yes, I can hear readers yelping in protest. And yet the latter perspective is, I would argue, a truer account of reality, of the human condition. This tradition taught, with some success (and many failures), the wisdom of stability and modesty, the values of sacrifice and service, and the need for self-control and self-restraint.
After the array of icebergs that our national ship has run into in the past decade, is it possible that there may be renewed interest in moral and spiritual formation as well as social responsibility? There’s some hint of that from those who study generational characteristics and markers. Neil Howe and William Strauss, writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2007, concluded that the Millennial generation (born 1982 – 2001) are more community focused and institutionally minded that the generations before them, the so-called Boomers and Gen-X. I see some evidence of this in religious congregations and communities.
I will spend the Fourth with friends who have a tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud, taking turns reading several sentences each. I actually find it quite moving. Reading the Declaration reminds us of core national values and past struggles.
Even as it reminds us how much we value independence, it also reminds us that managing independence requires self-discipline and strength of character.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!