Our Other National Deficit

Our Other National Deficit

November’s election campaigns were so negative and oppositional that it should be depressingly obvious to voters that almost all our candidates for office are bereft of ideas, or have decided the voter is disinterested in ideas.

Our biggest national crisis is not our financial deficit; it is our ideational and spiritual deficit.

This makes Pitirim Sorokin eerily relevant today. Sorokin was a Russian émigré, first head of Harvard’s sociology department and author in 1941 of The Crisis of Our Age. In his sweeping study of great civilizations he observed that each progressed from ideational (reality is transcendent or spiritual) to idealistic (a synthesis of spiritual and materialistic) to sensate (reality is material).

These cycles are observable in American history whose Founders were obviously and passionately ideational. As America matured, her founding ideas and aspirations were retained, while increased attention was also paid to economic and technological advancement.

Sorokin concluded that Western Civilization, including America, had degenerated from this healthy blend of ideational and sensate, into an unhealthy “sensate culture,” by deemphasizing her spiritual and ideational foundations choosing instead a culture based primarily on material concerns.

When a culture reaches the sensate phase it either dies, rediscovers it’s own transcendent ideals and is reborn, or is displaced by a new ideational culture.

Like ancient Rome, America is in the last gasp phase of the sensate culture. Our ideational strength has been supplanted by a reliance on our economic and military strength, neither of which is sustainable without transcendent ideals and both of which are struggling today.

President Obama’s election revealed that the nation is hungry for ideals worth rallying around. His books and campaigns hinted at values deeper than the small minded, mean spirited partisan political world Americans have come to detest.

But while “Yes we can” and “The audacity of Hope”” are catchy, reassuring slogans, they ring hollow unless accompanied by an underlying set of ideals, clearly articulated and then implemented through well-thought out policies consistent with and flowing from those ideals.

After his election President Obama failed to rally the nation around the deeper ideals American longed for. Instead he assembled a team of partisan Washington infighters and promoted policies and passed laws through coercion and partisan power plays, He failed to articulate a compelling ideational rationale the public could understand and embrace.

Even Chris Matthews says Obama comes cross as an elitist who talks down to the public and expects to be trusted because he is the smartest guy in the room. Gone is the candidate who promised to serve all the people and who passionately communicated the ideals they could unite around.

The Tea Party movement on the other hand is passionate, but is largely oppositional. Whatever unity they possess consists of a cluster of policy positions they agree on. They are not articulating a cohesive underlying philosophical or spiritual rationale and it is fair to doubt whether they even have one.

I recall back in the 1990’s when Newt Gingrich announced the contract with America. Soon thereafter Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition released the Christian Contract with America.

In an interview with Ralph I pointed out that his Christian Contract looked like a simple “overlay” of the Republican Contract, and then asked him point blank, who is doing the theology that undergirds this Christian Contract With America?

“I don’t just want to hear regurgitated policy positions,” I said. “I want to know the underlying philosophy, theology, ethic or morality that would lead me to support or oppose for example, a flat tax.”

He didn’t know what to do with my question.

Building policies based on carefully reasoned and articulated ideas and values is not easy today because in a sensate culture the appetite for power is ravenous and the hunger for ideas is minimal.

The rebirth of an ideational culture requires leaders who know what they believe, why they believe it, have ordered their life around deeply held ideals and values, have lived them, can articulate them and understand how to develop policies around them. Only then can a leader unify the public and their elected representatives not just to support their policy position, but to engage and support the ideas that are the foundation on which the policy is built.

We will never solve our political, economic, societal crisis, until we address the other deficit, the deficiency of ideals and values worth believing in.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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