Alexis Would be Amazed

By Patrick F. Cannon

In his 1835 book, Democracy in America, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote this: “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to conceive of one without the other.”

            In 2023, it seems that Americans don’t find it impossible at all. In 1940 (I was a sprightly two then) 72 percent of our fellow citizens went to church on a regular basis. By 2020, only 47 percent did. The other day, the results of a Wall Street Journal/NORC poll revealed that the share of Americans who say that patriotism is very important has declined to 38 percent. As recently as 1998, it was 70 percent.

            But there’s more bad news (or good, depending on your age, class and education): In the same period, those who saw religion as important dropped from 62 to 39 percent; the belief in community involvement, another American trait noted by de Tocqueville, went from 47 to 27 percent; and the share who say having children is important has gone from 59 to 30 percent. This latter confirms the reason for our declining birth rate, particularly among better-educated women.

            Religion’s decline has been reflected in the number of American children educated in parochial schools, always dominated by those operated by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1960, they enrolled 4.3 million students in elementary grades; by 2000, the numbers had declined to 1.8 million; and even with a slight increase due to Covid, to approximately 1.3 million this school year.

            I was educated in Catholic schools for eight elementary grades, but I’m among those who no longer regularly attend church. And although I no longer believe in the divinity of Christ – or any other religious figure – his basic message of forgiveness and tolerance still inform my moral opinions and decisions. But I wonder what replacement we have for this religion-based moral education when so few of our young people attend either religious schools or churches that offer Sunday School? 

            Many of our surviving Christian churchgoers seem more attached to the Old, rather than the New, Testament. They seem to prefer the vengeful Jehovah to the Jesus of the Beatitudes. How else can you explain their continuing support of Donald Trump?  And their belief –regardless of what the 1st Amendment might say —  that this is a Christian country? The odious Marjorie Taylor Greene, when reminded of the Constitution’s specific separation of church and state, responded that, after all, most of the Founders were Christians. And no doubt White and straight too.

            Patriotism doesn’t have to mean “my country right or wrong.” It should mean “my country is worth my efforts to make it a better, fairer, more democratic place.” Yet, our young people seem to be more and more disengaged from anything but their own concerns. Even their literature, art and music seems more personal than universal. I listen to the songs of someone like Taylor Swift and hear little but self-regard and complaint.

            Swift has no higher education to give her some perspective, but the decline of the liberal arts at our colleges and universities means that an important source of moral education for many of our young people has been lost. Even those with a more rounded education can be forgiven for tuning out given the quality of our politicians.

            But maybe I’ve become too cynical. Perhaps you can give me some cause for optimism?

Copyright 2023, Patrick F. Cannon   

One thought on “Alexis Would be Amazed

  1. It’s doubtful one can gain a humanistic moral education, as might have been possible a half century ago, in today’s woke leftist universities, beyond the simplistic diversity, equity and inclusion cliche` that passes for wisdom there. Even if one is not a believer, the moral teachings and laws of the Judaeo-Christian tradition hold far, far greater validity.

    The opinion of the majority as the source of authority in 19th Century America’s democracy intrigued de Tocqueville, but he also observed the conformity of ideas and expression it produced. He wrote:

    “In the United States, the majority takes charge of providing individuals with a host of ready-made opinions, and thus relieves them of the obligation to form for themselves opinions that are their own. I know of no other country where, in general, there reigns less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”

    In de Tocqueville’s day, religion may have informed, and restricted, public opinion. Today, that is hardly the case. There is no set of moral principles, no right or wrong, only a relativistic, subjective sense of Self and a tenuous reliance on “science” both natural and social, theories really, to guide us.

    Machiavelli, speaking of politics, argued that where there is no (higher) court of appeal, we must judge actions by their outcomes. This has been paraphrased as “the end justifies the means.” In today’s America, even final results are ignored in favor of what’s understood as public opinion or majority consensus, like the Obama’s “consensus of scientific opinion” on climate change, just as it might have been in de Tocqueville’s era (though I’d like to think those early American were more practical-minded). The problem is, with no “higher court” or absolute moral parameters, whoever controls public opinion controls society. And mighty are the efforts of politicians, the media, academia, Hollywood and various social forces, working singly and in concert, to feed a consumerist quest for truth and mold public opinion in their favor.

    My revered high school English teacher, Miss Marcia Roberts, used to scold us. “How can you judge,” she would ask, “if you don’t know anything?” Then, knowledge was a path to truth. Now, students are urged to trust their emotions and personal judgments based on what persuasions they consume. And as for outcomes, if you end up with power and wealth, well that just proves Machiavelli and your idea were right, even if you are an amoral sociopath.

    Alexis would be amazed indeed if he saw our country directed as it is by the pathetic likes of Biden and Trump, the puerile vanities of Taylor Swift (among many others), the bland partisanship of the NYT, and the rantings of any scoundrel with a college degree and a Twitter account. But the conformity he observed then, still rules now.

    Liked by 1 person

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