Although the dimensions and consequences are still in dispute, there is general agreement that the quality of American life has undergone a profound change. There are those who profess to hear in the discordant sound of the seventies the overture to a new epoch in the history of man. If the measure is rhetorical, there is no reason to question the verdict. The effective disappearance of the restraints of libel, taste, and tradition upon public discourse has permitted an assault upon the verities that previously would have been rejected, if not suppressed, on grounds of blasphemy, scurrility, or obscenity—or, not uncommonly, all three.
To an unreconstructed libertarian the result is not all bad. Society is well served, I think, by the fact that a female Catholic scholar now may deliver before the American Academy of Religion an address entitled “St. Augustine’s Penis”—and that a family newspaper routinely can report her argument that the association of sin with the willful instrument of male passion has been a prime cause of the subjugation of women across the ages.
Such triumphs of rationality, however, are lonely out-croppings in an emotional tide that has all but swept the institutional church off its moorings. We have seen the history of religion, which for generations had been a stately chronicle of the gradual erosion of orthodoxy, suddenly take on the runaway quality of a psychedelic light show. A sociologist, Peter L. Berger, has described the process:
Protestant theologians, deeply impressed with what they thought was the irrevocable secularity of the age, finally wrenched out of themselves a declaration of the death of God—to be confronted, before the print was dry on their deicidal treatises, with seemingly endless legions of Pentecostalists, Jesus freaks, astrologers, witches, and other embodiments of renascent Goddism springing up behind every secularized bush. The Catholic Church, out of anguished aggiornamento, decided to bring the faith closer to contemporary man by translating the Mass from Latin into the vernacular. . . . One of the more piquant consequences. . . is that some of them are currently babbling away in glossolalia. . . while others are chanting hymns to the Lord Krishna—in Sanskrit.
This kind of disarray is not, of course, confined to the church; all of our secular institutions have been beset by similar confusions. To some extent this may be ascribed to the attack by the contemporary radical movement, which for a decade and more has attracted unprecedented public attention to its abortive effort to create a mass movement aimed at the presumed roots of our social ills. The failure of this frontal assault upon the structure of American society seems to have shunted a perceptible number of previously politicized Utopians into a quest for salvation through the effort to raise individual consciousness to a higher, “humanistic” plane.
The chiliastic quality of the protest movement invites comparison with what may be the closest parallel to the current condition to be found in the American experience— the national seizure of evangelical fervor the historians came to call the Great Awakening. In the decade 1734—44 widespread reaction against established ecclesiastical authority led a substantial number of colonists to repudiate Anglicanism, Calvinism, predestination, and all other dispensations which restricted God’s grace to a few. In the process they must have entertained sentiments that might have had a profound effect upon the pretensions of royalty, and the gentry’s claim to privilege, had they also been applied to the things the scriptures identify as Caesar’s.
The language used to describe the Great Awakening, and the aftermath, which extended well into the present century, seems quaint alongside today’s four-letter professions of grace, but the tenets of the faith have resonance with the contemporary movement—salvation through free will or free moral agency, direct inspiration, the inner voice, freedom from sin. The protracted camp meetings of two centuries ago assembled the faithful from great distances, and the outward manifestations were those of Woodstock: singing and dancing, spontaneous exhortation, falling into trances, “speaking with tongues.”
The ecstasy thus achieved prompted a significant number of converts to reject all material ambition, accept the living arrangements of the extended family, and band together in communes. In the 1780’s one of the founding Shaker prophets, Ann Lee, preached that God is of a dual nature, masculine and feminine; the masculine aspect had been realized in Jesus Christ, while the Second Coming had produced a female incarnation of the Holy Spirit in her own person. Whether or not the faithful accepted Mother Ann’s credentials, millenarianism was essential to the increasingly fragmented movement, and despite their credal differences all the Awakened acted in the conviction that the age of saints was near at hand.
The extremist groups never incorporated the multitude, and in time they disappeared, leaving behind a residue of place names as monuments to the strain of antinomian religious utopianism that lent motive power to the westward march of the American empire. The conviction that mortal man could attain a state of grace by free choice and individual effort was compatible with the temperament of those who sought their fortunes on the frontier. And a mystic sense of communion that could lift men out of themselves may have been a necessary relief from the alternate tedium and hazard of pioneer life.
As an emotional eruption of the underlying mythology of the Reformation the Great Awakening had a rôle in the genesis of the evangelical Protestantism that in more moderate forms dominated rural and small-town America for almost two centuries. The old-time religion lasted longest in the Southern region, left culturally stagnant by its lost war in the time when the great rush of urban modernity transformed the rest of the nation. I hear familiar echoes from my upcountry South Carolina childhood in the incantations of the amorphous cults that flourish around me today in California.
The comparison with the Great Awakening would no doubt be rejected by most of those who profess the new faith. To be born anew is to repudiate the presumed values of past and present, and currently the list of proscriptions is headed by what is loosely termed the Protestant ethic, now equated with the repression of man’s free spirit. But hedonism may be as natural a reaction for a middle-class youth repelled by the manifestations of his parents’ upward striving as Puritanism was for a frontiersman seeking to free himself from privation by his own bootstrap effort. Proceeding from contrasting material circumstances the common motive appears to be a search for wholeness, for community, not as an abstract social idea, but as the necessary fulfillment of individual need. “I think modernity has produced loneliness,” Professor Berger has written. “It has isolated the individual.” So, of course, did the frontier.
This, I suspect, is why the Great Re-Awakening embraces not only Jesus freaks, neo-Buddhists, transcendental meditators, and others who derive their rites from traditional forms of worship, but many who regard themselves as actively anti-religious. Neither God nor a professed social objective is essential to the urge toward self-fulfillment; enhanced sexuality seems to provide a sufficient motive force for many. What the Shakers would have called salvation through divine intervention is seen as a form of therapy intended to liberate the individual from repressions inherent in traditional family relationships, and in the functioning of the institutions prior generations have created to order society.
In challenging the legitimacy of the controlling Establishment the newly Awakened would appear to ally themselves with the New Left radicals who flowered in the Sixties. Both movements are Utopian, and they share a common vocabulary. But the difference is fundamental; the political activists, whose prophet is Karl Marx, believe that the millennium can only be achieved through forcible reconstitution of society; those who, often unknowingly, follow trails into the subconscious blazed by Sigmund Freud, appear to be committed to the proposition that the individual can overcome alienation simply by relating openly to other human beings, and that all good things will follow. The new millenarianism proclaims that heightened consciousness already has freed the rising generation of material ambition and competitive drive, with the result that the undefined new world a-comin’ will fall into place of its own accord.
The attractive notion that the country is actually undergoing a non-violent revolution has been endorsed by spokesmen with scholarly credentials. The faith is shared by an apparently increasing number of laypersons engaged in group and individual exercises designed to raise their consciousness to the level Charles Reich of Yale prescribes as guaranteeing both social justice and domestic tranquility. B. F. Skinner of Harvard, who doubts that this result can be achieved spontaneously, has devised an application of psychological technology called opérant conditioning that he contends can be used to purge mankind of destructive drives. The psychiatrist, Rudolf Dreikurs, proclaims the end of civilization as it has emerged over the eight thousand year progression from tribe to nation-state, holding that no society with any vestige of hierarchical structure can long survive the social democratic trend toward equality. In a society of equals, Dr. Dreikurs avers, every man will be motivated only by the desire to be useful, and he prophesies:
This change in motivation, coupled with an understanding of psychological dynamics, and the ability to free children from obstacles to their full mental and moral development, is the basis for my assumption that within the next fifty years man will become a different creature from what he is today, and will operate with faculties that are now unthinkable.
In many ways these doctrines are as old as the argument over the nature of man. What is new, at least in modern experience, is the millennial certitude with which they are posited. “There is a revolution coming,” Reich wrote in “The Greening of America.” “It will not require violence to succeed. . . . It promises a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual. . . . This is the religion of the new generation.” The great apostle of revolution, Marx, conceded that his stateless utopia would require a new man purified of base emotions, but he saw this revolutionary consciousness as the end product of a long, violent struggle to abolish private property, the market economy, and all distinctions of class, race, and creed. If Marx, too, proclaimed a doctrine of inevitability, it was subject to a slow and uncertain schedule; its rewards, like those stored up in heaven, would come only as the result of colléelive effort, mass dedication, and individual sacrifice. Those who have seen Marxism in its latest adaptation under Mao Tse-tung generally come away with the impression that the Protestant ethic is alive and well in China.
Here, too, there is a parallel with the Great Awakening. As we see it now in historical perspective, perhaps the most singular aspect of the earlier movement was that it had only the most tenuous connection with the violent political change that came to characterize the last half of the eighteenth century. Those who assembled in the backwoods of the New World to declare themselves absolved of temporal restraints simply ignored politics. Distance may have accounted for the fact that no sparks fell there from the fires being lit by Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot as they laid the philosophical base for the French revolution and provided the scriptures for the next century’s great secular effort to remake the world. But neither does it appear that the Great Awakening contributed in any direct fashion to the agitation closer at hand which would soon move the more venturesome members of the seaboard gentry to declare America’s independence from the British crown. Some historians detect an echo of the earlier spiritual explosion in the exuberant “Spirit of ‘75” that greeted the outbreak of the American Revolution. But Robert N. Bellah notes that popular fervor disappeared in the snows of Valley Forge, unable “to survive genuine adversity or overcome the selfish proclivities or inordinate demands of individuals.”
The Awakened looked upon separation of church and state as an irrevocable gift of God. The philosophical and juridical underpinnings of the American constitution’s guaranty of freedom of worship were the handiwork of men who professed membership in previously established denominations, or declared themselves agnostic. It appears that those with the most profound aversion to the material corruptions of society elected to withdraw rather than mount an effort to drive the wicked from the places of power. And so, as the decades rolled on, at New Lebanon, Oneida, New Harmony, Brook Farm, and Nauvoo, they attempted to establish the heavenly city by cultivating their faith in isolation, along with their crops and crafts. This kind of private self-fulfillment, and the more modest variations used as a spiritual shield by less favored brethren who remained in the outside world, complemented the vision of egalitarian, homesteading capitalism that prevailed through much of the nineteenth century. It could not be said that in its formative stages American society was devoid of professed morality or high idealism, but social consciousness ordinarily found its expression outside the province of severely limited government. Thus, Michael Harrington, the Socialist leader, identifies his country as “the American exception” when he considers the profound impact of Marxist utopianism upon the Western world in variations that range from moderate social democracy to militant Communism. “America,” Harrington regretfully observes, “was too socialist for socialism.”
If we have never seriously considered the abolition of private property and the redistribution of wealth, we have come as close as any nation to achieving a classless society—or at least one that has maintained and steadily enlarged an effective degree of social mobility. In our recent stumbling movement toward welfarism, we have done about as well as our socialist contemporaries in limiting the extent and effect of material privation. And our further shift toward a planned and regulated economy seems to be ordained by our technological achievements—a necessity now generally acknowledged by the professional managers who have largely replaced proprietors as the controlling agents of our economic resources.
Simply stating these evident facts of American life still constitutes heresy in the eves of those conservatives whose faith goes back, undiluted, to Adam Smith. But they are equally abhorrent at the other end of the political spectrum, for the New Left is reduced to a cultural aberration under a reading of history that sees the brand of revolution it espouses as, in the movement’s favorite epithet, irrelevant. Finally, the American condition offends those who take a holistic view of society; it has long been the academic fashion to look askance at the untidy pluralism that emerged under the application of eighteenth-century British libertarian values to a fledgling nation engaged in adapting a largely unpopulated continent to the demands of a new industrial age. “The humanist intellectual is, by function, a seeker after design, meaning, pattern,” writes the philosopher, Charles Frankel. “Mere foolish chance is likely to repel him. . . . He may recognize that politics is marked by accidents and triviality, that history is full of contingencies, and yet his soul wants a moral for its tale.”
So it is that a remarkable company has assembled under the banner of the Apocalypse, where prophecies of the imminent end of the American experiment sound from both Right and Left. One side sees the nation foundering under a wave of permissiveness which has undermined our institutional safeguards and unleashed the mob. The other sees the fulfillment of the Marxist dictum that capitalism cannot survive the internal contradictions produced by unbridled competition for material gain. There are fashionable variations on these themes. On the Left a kind of quasi-violent radicalism aimed at “liberating” the black, brown, yellow, and homosexual minorities and the female majority discharges emotions through the politics of confrontation. On the Right the resentment of immigrant ethnic groups against once-dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestants is given vent in an outburst of the kind of chauvinistic bigotry to which they were themselves subjected by the earlier settlers.
Throughout the sixties these conflicting dogmas produced a disorderly national debate fueled by a wide range of personal grievances, and this came to dominate what passes for political dialogue in the media. The mass of Americans have been variously alarmed, appalled, attracted, and outraged by the protracted fusillade of militant rhetoric, but so far the protagonists of organized violence—whether it be guerrilla war in the ghettoes or vigilante action to protect white suburbia—have gained no following that would stand the test of sustained action. The actual bloodshed produced by isolated acts of terror, and by overblown official reprisal, has been minute when measured against the unrestrained oratory that encouraged it.
Under Marxist analysis this condition still might represent a pre-revolutionary phase denoting an erosion of authority that will clear the way for the ultimate rising of the masses. But in this instance, too, theory distilled out of the terminal phase of a feudal society that never existed on this side of the Atlantic simply does not fit the American experience. There is no potentially revolutionary proletariat in a country where three-fourths of the citizens have achieved middle-class living standards and accepted middle-class values. Despite its egalitarian professions, the New Left by any test is perhaps the most conspicuously elitist and thoroughly isolated element in the society; its cadres of self-professed intellectuals and university students never managed to embrace, or even communicate with, any substantial proportion of the workers, or of the ghetto lumpenproletariat.
This does not mean that fundamental change is not inevitable in American society. The polarization of the last decade was real, and the tensions will not be brushed aside by some unseen hand. Much of the radical indictment is valid; the system always has been deficient in social justice, and the escape valve of the frontier has disappeared along with the other individual palliatives of a less complicated past. Our institutions and processes have not kept pace with the rapid technological and scientific change in which we have taken the lead, with the result that our peculiar system of governance is no longer sufficiently responsive to the needs of the governed. Even the most favored among us are not immune to the pervasive malaise. The accepted national goal has been an affluent economy presumed to provide universal benefits trickling down from the top to offset the unequal distribution of wealth and income. But it has turned out that the world’s highest standard of living has been paid for in the precious currency of lost amenities.
If we stick to broad enough generalities the consensus is that our national priorities are out of kilter. This is essentially an ethical judgment; most of those who influence the mainstream of public opinion concede that preoccupation with material things may have diverted us from human concerns. As a matter of elementary logic the radical contention that the ills of society are attributable to a controlling élite is impossible to refute; if there is an American Establishment it is by definition immediately responsible for what’s going on. This is the essential beginning point for any consideration of what might be done about our national afflictions, but it is also the point at which active and passive Utopians abandon effective communication with the mass of Americans.
The refurbished version of the old Utopian dream demands not only instant redress for social ills, but a total personal freedom of action no representative democracy could conceivably provide. The proffered alternative of participational democracy assumes that a modern mass society could function without effective delegation of authority and responsibility. This is a theological proposition that requires its supporters to accept on faith the postulate that a process of revelation already has produced a new breed of human being whose purity of purpose is such that we no longer have need of hierarchical institutions to order society. Those who balk at the implication of divine dispensation pursue the same objective in the belief that a flawed citizenry might attain such a state of grace through group therapy.
It is this romanticism that divides the New Left from the Old. “American radicals,” says the Marxist historian, Eugene Genovese, “have long been imprisoned by the pernicious notion that the masses are necessarily good and revolutionary, and by the even more pernicious notion that, if they are not, they should be.” Communists, from Lenin forward, have accepted as a minimum requirement the dictatorship of a dedicated élite capable of imposing a grand social design upon the masses. This kind of revolutionary theory is at least explicable; I have no doubt that any ruling class is theoretically subject to violent overthrow from below, and possibly may even deserve it. But the thesis passes into theology when it is argued that the process is historically inevitable, that human progress results from the constant erosion of the extant culture by an omnipresent counter-culture. This requires that history be expunged of the voluminous evidence that going to the root and turning society upside down has rarely, if ever, attained its stated goals. Marxist revolution is well into the third generation in the Soviet Union, and there is no indication that the stultifying state bureaucracy is withering away.
What appears to the uninitiate to be an improbable combination of scientism and mysticism seeks to provide a new revolutionary option by employing advances in understanding of the working of the mind to control human behavior so as to avoid bloodshed in the fundamental reorganization of society. Opérant conditioning might conceivably provide a painless means of achieving utopia, but its perfector, B. F. Skinner, candidly stated the terms when he titled his defense of the method “Beyond Freedom and Dignity.” The price of psychologically engineered order is the final abandonment of the concept of free will.
It is understandable that, even so, variations on this thesis should be seriously advanced by serious men, and that they should strike a responsive chord among many who find themselves appalled by the inertia of government, and the apparent futility of the conventional electoral approach to real and urgent issues. Sympathy for the underdog, and pleasure at the discomfiture of the mighty, combine to produce a sympathetic audience for those who cast off the ordinary restraints of civility. The veteran journalist, Harrison Salisbury, wrote in the introduction to a volume he titled “The Eloquence of Protest”: “The world is a prison. . . . This anthology is dedicated the agony of the world. . . . Nothing, for me, has matched the relentless agony of this moment.” A perceptive literary critic, Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times, agreeing that there is something unsettling in the air of the seventies, went on to observe:
I don’t know what the thing is—probably simple, accelerated hyperventilation—but I know the symptoms: hyperbole, license, all the devices of a rhetoric which has lost touch with grace, felicity, and accuracy. . . . To claim that the seventies represent any kind of magic breakthrough against injustice and intolerance, a burgeoning triumph of outrage transformed into an irresistible force, is to be carried away by wish-fulfillment. . . .
The danger of the age, then, is not so much seduction by false prophets as it is diversion from the tangible reforms our situation demands, and in many practical ways encourages. The current status quo will certainly yield to structural change in the face of sustained cultural upheaval; the question is whether the new arrangements of power will be committed to further improvement of the human condition, or used to preserve the old myths against the new.
One problem, as Kirsch suggests, is that the violence being done to the political vocabulary has robbed public discourse of precision. Humanism, in its faddish usage, has been denatured into a synonym for an encompassing permissiveness in interpersonal relations, and rationality is established as its antonym. A dichotomy is declared between reason and emotion, and the proposition is pushed to the point where the senses are deemed not to complement or augment the intellect, but to supersede it. Oppression is extended to cover the mere denial of privilege, and repression is virtually without limit—in the definition of the radical educational critic, Ivan Illich, encompassing any institutional or familial arrangement that might inhibit a child’s wholly voluntary relationship with his teacher.
The issue raised here seems destined to attract even more attention as scientists continue to improve their understanding of the mechanics and chemistry of the brain and their effect upon the processes of cognition. Forty years ago Freud’s leading British disciple, Ernest Jones, employed the new insights of psychiatry to challenge the Glasgow Rationalist Association, which proclaimed that its membership “unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority.” But what was then carried on as a philosophical dialogue, aimed at lifting a legitimate scientific controversy above the level of “arrogant self-righteousness,” long since has been engulfed in claims and counterclaims pressed in terms of a popular moral crusade.
Whatever auguries it may have for the future, concentration on the causes and effects of individual behavior bears only indirectly on the immediate issues identifiable in the current crisis; these arise from the mass reactions of those already conditioned by contemporary society. Civilization, as we know it, is the sum of trade-offs, and this, unfortunately, is not a form of exchange in which a social good is immediately purchased by the elimination of a social ill. The requirements of human progress have not been abrogated by the localized affluence that has persuaded some theorists that the world now has the technological capacity to eliminate scarcity. The belief that man’s competitive instinct is no longer necessary to his survival can hardly stand up to a look beyond the Northern hemisphere; the Darwinian laws remain in effect for the two-thirds of mankind who live in societies still unable to provide minimum standards of subsistence from their own resources. The fact that global interdependence no longer permits a reckoning of human well-being on a purely national basis challenges the conclusion that our internal problems, at least, are those of abundance. Even if this were so, it would not resolve the conflict between the requirements of social justice and the demands of individual liberty. The best that can be said is that this ancient issue now deserves the kind of re-examination denied it by those who insist that it does not exist, or does not matter. A start in that direction has been made by the perceptive French observer, Jean-François Revel. In his appraisal of the contemporary American scene Revel finds here the only possibility of achieving the humane goals of the revolutionary age. A similar thesis is elaborated by Michael Harrington in his book, “Socialism,” in which he contends that only the United States has accumulated the material resources and perfected the technostructure required to free men of the alienation associated with degrading labor. In this view it is precisely the triumph of technology over nature, the current bete noire of American radicals, that finally makes possible a liberating “revolution from below.” Harrington sees the last, long march to Utopia proceeding gradually, without resort to class warfare or the imposition of totalitarian restraints upon the individual, and he believes the process may be well under way in an American culture that still rejects the theoretical possibility.
It would seem that those with the most advanced view of the perfectibility of man would be the first to recognize that history does not run backward. The burden of their complaint is that the forward rush has robbed us of our humanity—a view that must elicit sympathy from a generation that, as Lord Ritchie-Calder reminds us, in its own brief span has passed through four historic periods comparable to those previously measured in centuries: The Atomic Age, the Cybernetic Age, the Space Age, and now the Bio-engineering Age. If the world we now must face is dominated by man-made machines and systems, this does not render it unnatural—for technology, after all, is the natural product of the questing mind and spirit of the human animal. The apocalyptic thesis that run-away technology is in the process of destroying spaceship earth has no more evidential support than the counter-argument that new frontiers of knowledge are already transcending the previous limitations of human existence. The question is still open, but in either case it is evident that the complex society that raises the issue cannot survive without the conscious application of high and special skills. It is this implacable fact that drains the substance from the absolutist rejection of elitism in any form. The systems we depend upon for the necessities and amenities of ordinary life require the services of people who know some things most of us do not know.
The problem we face today is as old as politics—how to make those whose special knowledge and skills are essential to the functioning and improvement of society responsible to society as a whole. The hazards and the ultimate futility of ignoring the inherent problems of power should be self-evident. Peter Berger suggests that if 75 per cent of the American people could in fact attain Charles Reich’s Consciousness III, and were thereby freed of all compulsion to address themselves to mundane matters related to self-advantage, the other 25 per cent would run the country. This, surely, is a shortcut to Aidons Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
The static tendency and inherited privilege of the élite once was properly seen as the prime barrier to human advancement, but that factor is significantly altered in a rapidly changing society. I would myself count it as progress that the mark of status has shifted from the assumption of divinity, to royal blood, to inherited wealth, to demonstrated professional skill. One could not automatically rate a modern meritocracy higher than its predecessor ruling classes on moral grounds, but the American version, at least, is more open to effective reappraisal by the mass of citizens. If popular opinion remains an essentially negative force, it is nevertheless as profound a factor in the fashioning of public policy as the private desires of the governing élite. And if self-interest, as opposed to devotion to the common good, is the measure of corruption, it must be noted that there is no consistent distinction between governors and governed.
The question of the age may be whether, in a time of unprecedented cultural flux, we have any reason to expect the survival of civil religion, defined by Robert N. Bellah as “that religious dimension, found I think in the life of every people, through which it interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendant reality.” It is generally agreed that Americans historically have accepted, although they have not always acted upon, a faith that provided a common moral standard and an essentially self-enforcing ethical code. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the new republic, while exalting individual freedom in its constitution, nevertheless assumed limits on permissiveness: “. . .while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash and unjust.” Jerald Brauer, undertaking a theologian’s review of the findings of observers who have dealt with the rôle of religion as a civic phenomenon, writes:
With slight variations, all these scholars agreed that a common faith developed in America, and it was parallel to, though not contradictory to, the faith proclaimed in the various religious bodies in America. Its roots were found in the Bible, but its offspring were found both in the various denominations, in the English enlightenment philosophy, and in the Scottish common sense philosophy which was itself a special Calvinist construct. . . . Eternal reward awaits those who are obedient and punishment will be forthcoming for those who fail. It is God’s will that all men are created equal qua human beings and have certain inalienable rights. This is prior to any government, which exists only to see that these rights are not violated by any human being.
Brauer concedes that “such a view operates out of faith and not out of empirical observation.” It follows that, even though the effect of the civil religion was that of a secular ordinance, it was linked to the institutional church as its conservator and propagator. From the outset this raised issues of the practical relationship of religion and polity that were not resolved by the formal separation of church and state, and these are still very much alive. In Switzerland in the lowering summer of 1974 traditional competitors for God’s grace sounded views that come down essentially unchanged from the time of the Great Awakening.
Billy Graham, exalting revivalism at Lausanne’s International Congress of World Evangelization, saw the gates of Hell yawning open because mankind had abandoned the doctrine of individual salvation through Jesus Christ. He marked the beginning of the decline at the point where the church “turned from evangelism to social and political action . . . the reconciliation of man with man, rather than man with God.” And he saw the process so advanced he conceded the possibility that he might well be speaking at the brink of Armageddon:
Absence of a fear of God, loss of moral absolutes, sin accepted and glorified, breakdown in the home, disregard for authority, lawlessness, anxiety, hatred, and despair— these are signs of a culture in decay. . . . In the West we are witnessing societies in trauma, shaken by war, scandals, inflation, surfeited and bored with materialism, turned off by lifeless religion.
The Reverend Mr. Graham confessed that he may himself have strayed from the path of rectitude when he consorted at White House prayer breakfasts with the likes of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and he looked squarely across the lake to Geneva and the World Council of Churches when he reaffirmed the evangelical faith: “To tie the gospel to any political system, secular program, or society is wrong. . . .” For the Council, fountainhead of the social gospel and the ecumenical movement, the shot from across the water came at a tender moment. Its Program to Combat Racism is caught up in internal controversy, charged with pushing the Christian doctrine of brotherly love into areas of direct political action and, some of its critics say, beyond that into espousal of violence. This became inevitable when the Council elected to spend money contributed by the major Protestant sects to support embattled ethnic groups in Africa, where it is virtually impossible to disentangle the movement for racial liberation from endemic guerrilla warfare. The use of violence in the name of justice poses an age-old dilemma for the most liberal of Protestant clergy, and for the more conservative denominations it is a desecration, as charged by the United Presbyterians in America in an attack upon the Council:
In our opinion the church has no business granting financial support to revolutionary, terrorist groups whose avowed purpose is to overthrow the governments of foreign countries, however it may disagree with their internal policies.
Reinhold Niebuhr, who recounted his lifelong struggle with this intractable issue in “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” learned from it that “man’s being and human society are by nature historical.” It is understandable that the young and the innocent tend to reject this hard truth, for the obvious imperfection of man and his works, seen as the culmination of human experience, dampens the idealism of those who have no doubt they could work out a solution to our social ills if only they had a clean slate. For those who have resisted the retreat into the cults of the Great Re-Awakening there is the danger of a lapse into cynicism or apathy as their own maturing experience refutes the angry prophets who, professing to speak for the rising generation, simply repealed history by declaring the emergence of a new man unencumbered by societal and genetic baggage.
A certain degree of optimism, whether or not it is reinforced by religious faith, seems to be essential to survival in any age. The physicist, Dennis Gabor, warned in “The Mature Society” that elaborations on Rousseau’s notion of the basic goodness of man had come perilously close to leading society into a dead-end. Nevertheless, he could assert:
I believe in the perfectibility of man, because this is the only working hypothesis for any decent and responsible person. But I know of the almost infinite corruptibility of man. History is mostly a sad tale, full of nauseating examples.
A contemporary of mine put an artist’s gloss upon the empirical appraisal of the human condition. Carson McCullers, imbued with a deep sense of the South’s special tragedy, beset by the Great Depression and the grave dislocations of her private life, facing the unknown perils of a world war that would soon engulf us all, outlined the theme that would inform her first novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” and all the considerable works that were to follow:
(1) There is a deep need in man to express himself by creating some unifying principle or God. A personal God created by a man is a reflection of himself and in substance this God is most often inferior to his creator. (2) In a disorganized society these individual Gods or principles are likely to be chimerical and fantastic. (3) Each man must express himself in his own way—but this is often denied to him by a wasteful, short-sighted society. (4) Human beings are innately co-operative but an unnatural social tradition makes them behave in ways that are not in accord with their deepest nature. (5) Some men are heroes by nature in that they will give all that is in them without regard to the effort or to the personal returns.
I turned back to this testament from the thirties when I came upon the poignant testimony of a young Georgian who might have been Miss McCullers’ spiritual progeny. Betsy Fancher, a graduate of Wesleyan College, abandoned her Methodist faith in reaction against the general Protestant failure to live up to the moral demands of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling against racial segregation. As the religious news editor of the Atlanta Constitution Miss Fancher had a front-row seat when the Methodist elders yielded to bigotry, refused to open their sanctuaries to their black brethren, and approved church schools as a refuge for segregationist parishioners. She found herself in agreement with the young Emory theologians who proclaimed the death of God, and with the Episcopal priest, Malcolm Boyd, who warned that “the next generation just won’t be there.”
Miss Fancher believes that Father Boyd’s prophecy has been borne out: “I know my redeemer liveth, as the old hymn says, but one of the few places I am unable to feel his presence is in the insulated sanctuaries of the faithful.” Yet in the New South article in which she recorded her disillusionment she included this description of the extent to which the United Methodist Church at its 1972 annual conference reinstated the social gospel:
Meeting in Atlanta’s vaulted civic center beneath the flags of 86 nations, over a thousand delegates . . .voted to merge its eleven segregated districts, integrating at last the second largest Protestant body in the world. At the history-making conference, the Methodists also trimmed their gigantic, lumbering bureaucracy, accepted the Wesleyan doctrine of pluralistic theology—”think and let think”—confessed the guilt of United States involvement in Vietnam, endorsed amnesty for all conscientious objectors, appropriated $2(, 000,000 for the “ministry of reconciliation,” condoned abortion, and recognized the rights of their dissident minorities —the blacks, the young, the gay liberationists, and their women members, who flaunted bright buttons affirming that “God loves uppity women.”
Miss Fancher predicted that this “mighty fire in the Bible Belt” is bound to subside, and she is no doubt correct; backsliding is common to all manifestations of religious faith. But, at the least, public support by the church’s governing body for what amounts to the current agenda of radical grievances refutes the cant that portrays the youth movement as a saving remnant cast out of the larger society. And, as one who has had somewhat longer exposure to Protestant recalcitrance, I would add that I find the spectacle of one of the old denominations reversing itself on matters of faith and morals in a mere decade an occasion for awe and wonder.
This is, I suspect, a generational matter in which the division comes on the question of whether the bottle is half-empty or half-full. If we join Miss Fancher in measuring the condition of the black minority against what by all rights it should be, we must be appalled at how much injustice and rank hypocrisy still exists. But, if we measure the same set of contemporary indices against the conditions that prevailed only two decades ago, when this review published the opening chapter of my “An Epitaph for Dixie,” it is evident that we have broken through barriers of institutional segregation that arbitrarily denied Negroes freedom and dignity through all our history, and we can also see that there is a measurable decline in individual bigotry.
I suggest that both perspectives are necessary. We will surely succumb to inertia without a constant goad for the individual and collective conscience, and we cannot expect it to come from within the governing establishment, where conformity is usually the price of survival. For this we must depend upon those Garry Wills has identified as the intransigently principled. Still, compromise is inescapable under a democratic system, and it takes more than unshakable faith and indomitable will to transcend the historical progression Niebuhr defines as inherent in human society.
It is a confusion of these functions that prompts so much current talk about working outside the system. If this means anything to one who is disposed neither to become a recluse nor to join the underground, the definition of system must be narrowed to government and its supporting electoral apparatus, which has degenerated into what Wills properly describes as “a vast, inertial conservative force.” Those who have lately had the greatest influence for social change— Wills cites Martin Luther King and Ralph Nader—have neither sought public office nor trafficked directly with those who do. But they have quite deliberately worked within limits generally acceptable to society, protected if not encouraged by the political system they sought to change. Their activities were made possible by the libertarian Constitution which stands at the heart of government and guarantees free speech, assembly, petition, and the right to litigation, thereby opening to the dissidents the forums provided by the courts, the legislative lobbies, and the mass media. Above all, King and Nader have functioned as masterful public-relations experts, and it would be hard to think of an activity less alien to the contemporary American culture.
Such appeals to the public conscience invoke the traditional precepts of civil religion, and they necessarily lose force when the protest movements blur the distinction between oppression, as the calculated result of public policy, and repression, as the psychological manifestation of majority social attitudes. A woman refused a drink in McSorley’s Saloon, a homosexual publicly ridiculed by a hardhat, a bearded youngster denied admission to Disneyland— all these are undoubtedly symbolic victims of an intolerant society, but they are hardly to be equated with Martin Luther King languishing in the Birmingham jail.
To say this is not to deny that these causes are humanly important. They may very well portend attitudinal change that in time can have far more profound social consequences than the belated emancipation of the black minority. I suspect that the self-styled sexual revolution, with all it implies in terms of altered family relationships, may turn out to represent a truly radical dis juncture in the human progression. However, to decide in advance whether dramatic departures from long-accepted norms of personal conduct are good or bad requires a prescience that is not within the capacity of the diverse and bemused American electorate. It is in this sense that a democratic constituency is necessarily inertial; it can be led by persuasion, but it will resist bold demands for radical action—or, worse still, react in panic.
The investment of so much passion and energy in the dubious notion that a sudden transformation in deep-rooted cultural attitudes is possible has resulted in the neglect of less ambitious programs for structural reform. There are, however, indications of increasing awareness of the political cause and effect of the widespread public discontent. This could turn out to be a propitious time for a concerted effort toward systematic procedural and institutional change, reinstating pertinent elements of the traditional American civic-religion as criteria for the conduct of public office, and as a reminder that private citizens also have duties as well as rights. This will require the restoration of effective linkage between those who are concerned with what ought to be done and those whose experience with the system indicates what can be done. To accept the principle that there is necessarily a polar separation between men of conscience and those whose decisions determine the policies we must live under is to institutionalize alienation as a wholly negative social force.
We may be gratified that so much effort has been devoted to exalting the possibilities of the human spirit, and to condemning the human obsession with material gain. But we also must be aware of the danger of separating faith and works. When my own declining generation was coming of age we responded from the heart to an eloquent injunction:
The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls—has barricaded the world with hate—has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. . . .
This is Charlie Chaplin’s closing speech in the classic motion picture, “The Great Dictator.” In the world of fantasy where these moving words were uttered the character Chaplin portrayed was undone by his own absurdities and the surge of human understanding. But the real Adolf Hitler could be disposed of only by the greatest collective effort mankind has ever undertaken. The evil Hitler symbolized lives after him in a world that is still very much with us.