David Brooks has an interesting column in today’s NYTimes entitled “The Spiritual Recession.” In it he bemoans a loss of American idealism regarding democracy. He points out that socialism never much penetrated the American psyche, even during the Great Depression, because we had an alternative faith. We believed that the American political system was, as Lincoln put it, the last best hope of the earth.

“Americans have lost faith in their own gospel.” Brooks says. “This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.

“Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. …Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with.”

I was struck by Brooks’ column, not so much by its analysis as by its diagnosis of a mood. Things are sour, and lacking in hopefulness about what can be done.

It reminded me of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. I guess if you are under 50 you probably have no idea what I am talking about. In July, 1979, in the middle of an energy crisis, Carter gave a speech–famous or infamous in its time–in which he talked about a “crisis of confidence” afflicting America. I remember being powerfully struck by his identifying a sense of hopelessness and loss of idealism. It seemed to me at the time that he put his finger exactly on the deepest issue. Without a will to sacrifice and work for solutions, we could go nowhere as a nation.

The speech was well received at first, but in a short time sentiment turned against Carter. It seemed that he was blaming Americans for their problems, rather than fixing them.

Which is, I think, precisely where we are today. Obama’s standing is very low, but so is everybody else’s. We want our leaders to fix things, and we don’t like to hear reasons why they can’t. Citizens of America would much rather rail against Washington than examine the impossible things they demand from Washington. They certainly don’t want to hear that they are at fault. They want to hold their leaders at fault.

Brooks is right that we need faith in democracy–that we are better people and a better nation when we keep that faith. However, that faith has not been maintained over the years through pep talks. It has been maintained by democracy’s effectiveness. There have been many times when America has been stuck with intractable problems, as we are today. But we have muddled through, sometimes blind and stumbling, to find our way. Democracy is tough.

Yes, we are in a spiritual recession. But somehow, through our ranting and our complaining and our posturing –and through our voting–we will get through. That is my faith in democracy.

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3 Responses to “Malaise”

  1. Doug Webb Says:

    Hi Tim, I liked this post. I think faith in democracy in part comes from educating school age kids in the history and lessons of democracy and I think that has been missing for sometime in public education. If kids today have no appreciation for how this republic was formed and of the challenges we went through as a democracy in the civil war, in the depression, and in WW 1 & 2 then how can they have faith in something they no nothing about. Also, apparently the basics of how democracy works that I learned in Junior High Civics is also not being taught. It is no wonder that we have several generations that are not educated about democracy and therefore have no faith in democracy. Doug

  2. Ray Says:

    Peter Hitchens comment once “We replaced Christian with political correctness”, in my view the end of our country, USA.

  3. clarksapoet Says:

    Tim – An interesting prompt. Here is my current take on the topic…

    on the spiritual condition of democracy
    as I see it

    there is a hunger
    among the youth
    to actually make a difference

    and a weariness among those older
    tired of believing in the brilliance of our direction
    where the benefits seem to fall primarily to the rich and well connected

    the pillars that held us up
    that provided space for well being
    and prosperity
    have been falling into disrepair
    and those outside the system
    have been getting closer to home

    there are shifts
    all around us
    coming quick and ever faster
    so that memories of privacy, freedom, getting ahead
    serious hard times that forged strong revisions to our systems
    are forgotten
    replaced by generations of new ideas
    new technologies
    new global relationships
    that dilute our direct community
    while overwhelming us with minute detail
    from all parts of the world

    learning and communication
    has greatly increased in speed and reach
    and only sometimes

    I wonder if our love and forgiveness is fast enough
    to match this increased speed and reach

    it becomes apparent
    after several wars
    that leave countries unchanged
    and merely facilitate leadership changes
    that may lack sufficient power
    to move against the tides
    pulling those countries apart

    it seems to me
    our faith
    is splintering
    to be shared by small communities
    bound by world views shared
    each going their own way
    in attempts to be impactful
    in attempts to be more immediately spiritually relevant
    in attempts to find truth that is increasingly hard to discern
    in the flood of information of all sorts
    washing over us

    and power seems to be passing from governments
    to more corporate structures
    that seek their enrichment
    and often
    are relatively unconcerned
    over the health and welfare
    of their citizen customers
    who ultimately serve those corporate bottom lines of wealth
    but perhaps primarily
    and more importantly

    I wonder
    how much my own vision is incomplete and clouded
    in relatively ungrounded hopes

    my old handholds are giving way
    and I’m finding my God-faith is being refined
    with love beneath and above me
    threading through all things
    and especially revealed in depth
    though hard times
    seen increasingly
    through God’s eyes
    beyond the fatalism that this “must be true”
    into the relationship
    that begins to see in greater detail
    how it is actually true
    as the plainest things
    are true

    I don’t know what else to do
    but to continually ask God
    to continually appeal to Love
    to show me
    my way forward
    and to see with God’s eyes of Love
    into all things

    Clark – 6/28/14

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