Many Americans experience this country’s social, cultural, and political scene as an unremitting dumpster fire. Our society is torn between competing visions of the good life. Our cultural institutions are increasingly dysfunctional and unable to inspire confidence. As a result, many find it easy to lose hope in the American experiment.
Thus George Packer’s Last Best Hope meets a felt need among many American citizens. He offers a serious socio-cultural analysis of our society that eventuates in a measured hope for the future of our great nation. In his view, “America is no longer a light unto the nations”—a fact recognized by many or most Americans—and we must do something to redeem ourselves as a country. We are a dysfunctional society, a nation in crisis. Nonetheless, Packer argues, we can meet the challenges we face and carve out a path for future flourishing.
Packer writes that the past several decades have seen the emergence of four competing visions of America’s moral identity. Each is best understood in relation to the others.
Packer argues that the first narrative, “Free America,” has been the most powerful of the four during the last fifty years. It praises the engine of consumer capitalism and embraces the “negative” liberty of unfettered individual freedom. Unfortunately, he argues, this libertarian vision has eroded many Americans’ way of life by undermining institutions, encouraging irresponsibility, and mobilizing anger and despair when things didn’t turn out well.
The second narrative, “Smart America,” is a more cosmopolitan interpretation of our nation. It embraces capitalism and meritocracy and focuses on the potential of America’s “smart set” to fuel our country’s potential for flourishing. Packer writes that this narrative undermines patriotism in its focus on the global economy and global community.
Packer argues that the third narrative, “Real America,” is exemplified by Sarah Palin’s failed vice-presidential campaign, during which she averred that there is a “real America” of hardworking, patriotic citizens in small towns and a “fake America” of cosmopolitan, urban elites. Packer argues that this narrative ignores that the real America to which Palin referred had been in precipitous decline for some time.
The fourth narrative is that of “Just America.” Those who take this view of America—many of them young—no longer have faith that a person can work hard and reach his or her dreams in this country, that democratic capitalism is clearly the best economic-political system, or that America is a light to the nations. They view America as fundamentally unjust, racist, and oppressive. Packer argues that this narrative cannot sustain America’s flourishing any more than the previous three narratives can; it politicizes every sphere of culture, overthrows liberal values, and provides a dead-end vision for our nation.
Packer concludes his analysis by arguing that our nation must coalesce around a sturdy narrative about equality, an ideal that has shaped America’s self-understanding for years but has now fallen into neglect. His overview is insightful, but it fails to recognize the two most fundamental divisions in our nation: first, division between those who believe there is a sacred order underlying our social order and those who don't; second, and related, disagreement about what type of solutions are possible in the real world.
Sociologist Philip Rieff rightly singled out the first division as one that has riven our nation for more than two generations. On one side of the divide are Americans who wish to sever our nation’s social order from the Judeo-Christian sacred order that has long shaped its institutions and citizens. On the other side are those who champion this transcendent order as necessary for the flourishing of our cultural institutions and thus also for the members of our society.
The second fundamental divide is between constrained and unconstrained visions of the world. The constrained, or “tragic,” vision of society promoted in the biblical and classical tradition holds that human beings are both fallen and finite. External constraints—moral norms, institutions, traditions, religions, and even nations—are necessary to constrain evil and foster human flourishing. Furthermore, the best way to correct injustices and promote human flourishing is by reforming existing institutions and traditions. The unconstrained or “utopian” vision of society, however, holds that we can have unlimited belief in society’s social scientists, bureaucrats, and intellectuals to cast off traditional norms and raze existing institutions on the way to building an ideal social order for the future.
These two divisions are connected. Those who believe social order is based on sacred order are more likely to subscribe to the constrained vision of society, recognizing that even our brightest social managers are finite and even our best moral exemplars are fallen. Conversely, those who wish to sever social order from sacred order are left seeking an immanent salvation for our society. They must rely upon flawed and finite humans to foster revolutions that would create an ideal social order.
Rieff was right that our nation awaits “a people” who can recover the frightening beauty of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” Indeed, divine transcendence is both beautiful in its vision for human flourishing and frightening in its assertion of a divine law that undergirds that flourishing. Thomas Sowell has noted that the unconstrained vision for society, undergirded as it often is by a rejection of sacred order, has proven disastrous for society and culture (e.g. the French Revolution).
If We the People can recognize and respect the sacred order woven into creation’s design and into each human being, our democratic republic can flourish. We can avoid the unbridled optimism that results when people have too high a view of human capabilities, and the resulting cynicism when humans inevitably exhibit flaws. We can put our ultimate hopes in God rather than in human revolutions but, at the same time, can exert ourselves in upholding the moral law and reforming the injustices in the institutions we’ve been bequeathed.
Last Best Hope is an intelligent and helpful analysis of our nation’s various social fissures and narrative wars, but it should be read in light of our fundamental divisions over sacred order and the constrained vision of the world. Given that American citizens will one day meet God as Americans, let us be faithful and vigilant in our attempts to reconnect social order with sacred order, and to embark upon a constrained attempt to rectify the imperfections and injustices in the current order.
Bruce Riley Ashford is a fellow in public theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and author, most recently, of The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach.
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