How Catholics and Protestants could have saved the nation

by Ken Briggs

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Thanks to our explosive politics, practically everyone thinks the country is headed for disaster, or is already there. It comes as close as the pre-revolutionary upheavals other nations have experienced before the dictator arises or is snuffed out just before taking power. Even allowing that current reaction is largely hysterical or wildly wrong about the state of the nation's political stability, there is nearly universal conviction that the glue that once held us together at all has become unstuck.

Researching a book on the fate of the Bible in America opened my eyes to major factors in this meltdown. The Bible itself, often described as the bedrock of the nation's conception, has virtually disappeared from the nation's self-help books. It's no longer the assumed arbiter of our ethics or our sense of mutual responsibility.To be sure, it has been construed (wrongly I believe) to support iniquity against blacks and women, among others. But its actual contents could be used to correct those distortions. Now it's simply ignored. That's shocking to many who somehow believe it remains our silent loadstone or seeps into the public mind all on its own. But that source of civic kinship, warts and all, is fading fast and no longer can summon us to weigh our purposes and values.

That might not be so bad if anything had replaced it. Instead, we defaulted to two of its greatest foes, stark individualism which has fragmented us into separated seekers, and its ideological founder, self-serving capitalism. Increasingly, we wander around lost in little silos, frightened and, yes, angry.

Commentators galore, including my neighbors, bewail this lack of connectedness and sense of community. Books like Bowling Alone make scholarly arguments to undergird it.

There is an ironic element to this despondency and confusion. It seems shared equally by the political extremes and, of course, preoccupies the middle. It comes to the fore when something wretched happens to persons themselves and by collections of people like families. A common symptom is the awkward effort to summon responses from disparate members of the city when a family's home burns down or a child is beset with a fatal disease. For lack of a generally accepted means of understanding something like the premature death of a teen, there emerges a well-meant cry of bewilderment and an appeal for funds to aid the survivors who have found themselves deep in debt.

Good people of many stripes -- probably most of us -- therefore find ourselves anxious and hollow at times when old comforts, including the bromides, might have eased us through and reminded us of how death, for instance, can become something other than a black hole.

The fragmentation, to me, is the scariest part, and nothing remotely appears to remedy the isolation and disconnectedness.

The deification of selfhood has been with us seemingly forever, though the Puritans stolidly believed in a corporate concept of community in which the good of all took priority over the individual. It didn't work out particularly well, for reasons both internal and external, but they didn't simply step off the boat swearing allegiance to personal success or zero sum games.

Their vision didn't entirely disappear but was soon overwhelmed by the creeping excitement of entrepreneurial achievement with its inherent competition. So long as a certain balance obtained, the nature of community life was promising on both fronts. Gradually, however, the common good incentives lost out to the quest for personal gain and we arrive where we are. From the outside, in terms of GNP, technological wizardry and appearance of prosperity, we still look pretty good, the vaunted envy of the world. From the inside, however, much desolation.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the common good legacy branched into two expressions that, if joined, might have kept us from the excesses of self-centeredness -- if they had joined forces, which they didn't because Catholics and Protestants weren't talking to each other. One was Catholic social teaching; the other the social Gospel of progressive Protestantism. Both sprang from neglected portions of the New Testament in which the pursuit of justice is an integral part of the Gospels rather than a sidelight or an opportunity for exhibiting sacrifice-less charity. Both embraced the idea of common origins, equal worth and obligation to include everyone in the abundance of the earth's resources for food, health, working conditions, education and so on. 

That spark from Pope Leo XIII help propel Catholics to advance organized labor, fight for laws protecting children and in support of FDR's New Deal. Sadly, the Reagan attack on the New Deal's basic provision for needs enlisted the children and grandchildren of many of those same Catholics.

Protestants in many mainline churches became imbued with the ethical imperatives of the social Gospel, so eloquently spoken and lived by its founder, Walter Rauschenbusch, but the cynicism and demoralization from World War I slowly blunted its appeal, and denominations grew increasingly inward.

The common good sprouted again for a time during civil rights and anti-war campaigns during the '60s and '70s, enlisting both Protestants and Catholics in limited numbers, before the emphases faded again as if they were extracurricular activities.

My point is that if that leading of the Holy Spirit (if I may be so bold) that inspired Leo XIII, Walter Rauschenbusch and other visionaries (and led Paul VI to declare that seeking justice was central to what it meant to be Catholic) had been instilled in generations through the 20th century, it might have protected the frightful weakening of the common good. Instead, individual entrepreneurial drives won out. If social concern embodied in justice could have become central and inspiring, perhaps Christianity might have made a difference. As it is, the American success culture filled in the gap and has left us without common ground to stand on.

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