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Referring to polling data indicating that Sweden was the least religious country in the world and India the most, sociologist Peter Berger used to say that the United States was a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. It remains the case today that many members of the American intellectual, administrative, financial, and even creative elites are unengaged with organized religion on a personal basis and, more consequentially, are only dimly aware of the profound and pervasive impact that religion has on domestic and international politics.
That blind spot is exceptionally dangerous in the 21st century. As American society faced major economic and social changes in the past, religious revivals transformed old religious communities as new religions and denominations sprang up. Today we are facing another such upheaval as the shadow of the singularity and the transformational forces of the Information Revolution shake the foundations of American life.
The decline of old denominations, the rise of new ones, religious polarization, and violence are not new in American history. The early republic saw the rise of Baptist, Wesleyan, African Methodist Episcopal, and Unitarian congregations as Anglicans, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Presbyterians lost ground. Waves of immigrants made the Roman Catholic Church the largest religious body in what, historically, had been the most vehemently anti-papal society on earth. The Pentecostal movement that originated among mixed-race congregations in early-20th-century Los Angeles is today the fastest-growing religious movement in the history of the world. The civil rights movement and the Great Awokening both echoed earlier fights in religious communities over secession and slavery, while the trans movement challenges deeply rooted and widely shared moral beliefs in much the same way Joseph Smith and his estimated 40 wives challenged the consensus of their day, when early Latter-day Saints believers were persecuted, driven from their homes, and sometimes murdered.
But even by these volatile standards, something more consequential seems to be happening in the 21st century. It is not just that mainline Protestantism, Evangelical Protestantism, and American Catholicism are simultaneously undergoing crises. It is not just that feminism and the LGBTQ+ movements in their dizzying proliferation challenge historic Christian beliefs. It is not only that the hedonistic, consumer-oriented focus of blue model society places the satisfaction of individual desire at the moral center of American life. Our singularity-haunted century is a time of exhilarating dreams as well as horrifying nightmares, as possibilities ranging from nuclear annihilation and catastrophic climate change to the abolition of inequality and the indefinite extension of the human life span appear to depend, increasingly, on the outcome of mere political battles.
It is no wonder that Americans from every camp, and some with a foot in more than one, are struggling to come to terms with the kind of eruption of fanaticism and extremism into our political life that we would normally associate with religious upheavals. On one side there are people who insist that to say men can’t give birth is to commit an unspeakable hate crime; on another there are those who are ready to organize for a civil war against the forces of wokeness. Growing numbers of liberal Democrats fear that Republican victory in the next election will bring American democracy to an end even as unchecked climate change threatens to make the planet uninhabitable; many Republicans fear that a prolongation of Democratic rule will mean that trans activists, unchecked illegal immigration, the collapse of law enforcement, and the relentless lust for power by the Deep State will crush what is left of American freedom.
Most of us, thankfully, want nothing to do with the fringe on either side, but it is hard to resist the feeling that Yeats’ poem "The Second Coming" is more relevant than ever: The center doesn’t hold; the best have lost all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. We stand, it increasingly appears, on the edge of history, and the political stakes are approaching the infinite.
This is not a temporary aberration. The specifics may change; radical trans activists and Donald Trump will not occupy center stage from decade to decade. But as America and the world ride the Adams Curve up an evermore dizzying slope, new hopes, new fears, and new conflicts will replace the old ones, and humanity will remain balanced on a knife edge between triumph and despair. Who knows whether our society will become less or more formally religious as time goes by; but I am reasonably certain that the sense that infinite values depend on the outcome of political struggles will continue to whip us into political frenzies as our political disagreements take on, more and more, the intensity that in the past was reserved for wars of religion.
This is a bad time to be Swedish. Under contemporary conditions, the psychological and political significance of religious sentiment and perception is too important to ignore, but many American intellectuals will struggle to wrap their heads around such an unfamiliar and alien subject—even as the American educational system increasingly fails to provide students with a solid introduction to the social power of religious ways of thought.
It may be helpful for more secular readers to think of “religion” not as someone’s adherence to a specific creed or cult, but as a universal characteristic of human consciousness from which our beliefs about good and evil and justice and injustice emerge. We are not often aware of the deep roots of our sense of identity and connectedness to the world, but our intuitions, ideas, and emotions about our relationship to existence are constantly shaping our perceptions of and judgments about our own conduct, that of other people, our political loyalties and opinions, the legitimacy of social and political institutions, and our duties and our rights. As a result, our senses of justice and legitimacy are deeply connected to our religious sense, and religion is both an intimate, highly personal phenomenon and a massively powerful social and political force.
Religion in this broad sense is something that virtually everyone shares, but American culture and politics have been shaped by a more specific form of the religious sense grounded in the traditions that reflect the legacy of Abrahamic religion. No cultural development since the advent of writing rivals the importance or impact of the Abrahamic tradition. The political, scientific, moral, and philosophical consequences of the emergence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and their close cousins, Liberalism and Marxism) are almost incomprehensibly large. By the beginning of the 21st century, more than half of the living human race (2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, and 14 million Jews) belonged to one of the Abrahamic religions. Despite the defections from Christianity in parts of the West, globally the numbers continue to grow.
It is difficult if not impossible to grasp the direction and the dimensions of world history, to say nothing of American history and contemporary developments, without coming to terms with the peculiar form of monotheistic religion associated with the wandering herdsman widely considered by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim believers to be the father of their respective faiths. It is out of the Abrahamic world that America’s religious, civic, and political culture have emerged, and if we want to grasp the nature of the forces that both unite and divide us today, we will need to come to grips with the reality that we are, whether we like it or not, the heirs of Abraham.
“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” is the classic statement of Jewish faith. “I believe in One God,” is the opening of the classic formulation of Christian doctrine known as the Nicene Creed, repeated every Sunday by congregations all over the world. “There is no god but Allah,” is how the Islamic statement of faith opens.
The belief that there is one all-powerful, all-knowing God, the Lord of Time and the Ruler of the Universe—who, acting alone and without aid, made everything that exists—is, whether one personally agrees with it or not, the most consequential idea ever to thrust its way into human consciousness.
I don’t mean by this statement to disparage Hindu, Buddhist, or other non-Abrahamic belief systems. Ancient Greek philosophers found their own way to the concept of a unitary divine being without, so far as is known, direct exposure to Abrahamic religion. Similarly, philosophers and mystics in the great Asian traditions arrived at their own ways of understanding that unity of power, benevolence, and wisdom the family of Abraham worships as God. But Abrahamic religion puts the unity of God at the center of popular piety, greatly intensifying the power of this world-altering concept to reshape the social and intellectual landscape of a given culture.
As a grand hypothesis that claims to provide a single explanation for everything that happens in the heavens and on earth, the monotheistic idea is, for one thing, a daring leap that opens the door to a world of speculation and research—a path from tinkering to science. Postulating a single creator for the entire universe leads to the belief that the universe is predictable and rule driven. Events in the natural world are not just one darn thing after another; they do not reflect the caprices of minor deities. There are laws of nature, and because human beings are created by God—and in the Abrahamic religious accounts we were created in God’s image—most if not all of those rules should be discoverable by the human mind. The mathematical reasoning that we do in our heads corresponds with the mathematical structure that exists in the external world, and the experimental results we obtain in our labs here on earth can help us understand the nature of quasars at the far ends of the universe.
Similarly, in philosophy the idea that there is one all-powerful and self-sufficient God who created humanity in his image serves to stimulate the quest for truth. Our minds may not be able to plumb the full depths of divine transcendence, but the correspondence between creature and creator, a correspondence that includes the faculty of reason, means that as far as our minds can reach, they can discern the truth. Reconciling the scriptures of the great Abrahamic religions with the conclusions of Greek philosophers was the business of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian thinkers well past the classical period. The works of Maimonides, Averroës, and Aquinas, each representing the culmination of centuries of reflection, still stand as massive monuments in the history of human thought and continue to shape and inspire philosophers and political thinkers to this day.
Abrahamic thought and religion are as foundational and constitutive in the worlds of politics and history as they are for science and philosophy. Abrahamic religion holds that every human being matters, is a direct object of concern and care by the Creator of the universe, and is an immortal soul whose fate has eternal significance—and that the history of the human race is a moral and ethical story with a purpose and a meaning. Those are genuinely world-shaking convictions, and people who have never read a word of the Abrahamic scriptures or darkened the doorways of an Abrahamic house of worship live in a world shaped by Abrahamic values and ideas.
Women matter. Peasants matter. Slaves matter. Social divisions like race, caste, and wealth are evanescent. God judges impartially between rich and poor, and every human being lives under the same moral law. Every human being has rights by divine decree that do not depend on or proceed from the will of the state. Rulers are accountable before God not only for their personal conduct but also for the consequences of their policies on the poor and the weak. These are radical ideas, and they have touched off more than one revolution in the long course of history. They continue to subvert tyrannies and challenge hierarchies of privilege in our time. In my opinion, the Abrahamic political revolution will continue as long as imperfect human social orders fail to live up to the requirements of Abrahamic justice.
But Abrahamic politics is not just about the rights of individuals and the poor. Abrahamic thought gives meaning to the entire span of human existence: Created without sin in perfect harmony with nature and God, humanity tragically lost that original connection early on and was plunged into the world of greed, confusion, evil, and chaos that we know. God, however, has determined not to leave us in this wretched state and has reached out to the world through prophets and lawgivers to set us on the right track. At some point, God will intervene decisively to restore order and justice to the world.
Humanity’s life on earth is therefore divided into three eras. There is the prehistorical era in which our earliest ancestors lived in harmony with God and inhabited Paradise. The Fall precipitated the era of history in which we now live. In this time, humanity, thanks to God’s mercy and grace, struggles toward a purpose. During this time, the actions of citizens and governments can either advance or retard that purpose. We all have a moral duty to cooperate with the divine plan and, so far as we are able, advance the work of recovery and repair. The end of history will come when God intervenes to bring history to its glorious conclusion.
Jews, Muslims, and Christians of course disagree vehemently over the specifics of the divine plan, but the Abrahamic approach to history is something they basically share. The human story is not just a set of random events, nor is it a cyclical process. A moral imperative is encoded into history; individuals and states are either acting in accordance with divine mandates or in violation of them.
These beliefs lead the followers of these traditions to bring ethical ideals into public policy and diplomacy. They also lead to wars of religion as Abrahamic believers seek to impose their moral and religious visions around the world. The Abrahamic vision of history is so powerful and corresponds so deeply to the intuitions that many people have about the world, moreover, that even those who reject these religious doctrines embrace the historical and political visions that Abrahmists propose.
When Francis Fukuyama greeted the end of the Cold War by suggesting that the end of history was upon us, he was consciously referring to the Abrahamic schema of history. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel built his philosophical system on the foundation of the Abrahamic historical vision. His idea of the end of history—the point where human society had developed to its intended perfection under the guidance of the Spirit that expressed itself through the historical process—is nothing more than the old Abrahamic idea of the arrival of a divinely perfected earthly order in philosophical robes.
Hegel was neither the first nor the last European thinker to recast Abrahamic history into political terms in the wake of the Enlightenment. Liberals in the United States and beyond saw in the integrated scientific, technological, and social progress of their times the signs of a progressive and permanent change in the human condition. Scientific knowledge would create a more prosperous world. That prosperity would enable the spread of education and enlightenment to the masses. With time, the combination of free markets and free institutions would bring an end to poverty, tyranny, and war even as scientists learned to cure sickness and extend the human life span.
Liberals were not the only children of the Enlightenment to build an essentially secular worldview on Abrahamic foundations. Karl Marx, who saw his life’s work as integrating the German philosophical tradition with the British political economy, was if anything more explicit than Hegel in recapitulating the Abrahamic outline of history. Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels pictured humanity as moving from stage to stage toward the final classless utopia of universal peace and abundance. Early humans were hunters and gatherers, living in a classless and Edenic “primitive communism” of relative equality and peace. The Neolithic Revolution and the rise of the ancient empires forced humanity out of the Garden of Eden and into the misery of class oppression and war. But that was not the end of the story. While neither an Abrahamic God nor a Hegelian Spirit was guiding us, the material progress of the human race was gradually but inexorably laying the foundation for the return by a fully developed, scientifically managed future human society to a sophisticated version of primitive communism.
St. Augustine saw human history as a long march from the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time to the City of God at the culmination of history. Marx saw a similar progression from the rural but primitive paradise of the hunter-gatherers to the glittering communist metropolis of the future.
Liberals and Marxists also carry the ethical imperatives of the Abrahamic worldview into their political visions. From their viewpoint, human beings have a duty to assist the arrival of utopia. Rulers who fight to save their backward autocracies are not just wasting their time fighting the inevitable tide. They are doing something evil, and it is the duty of good and honorable people to resist them.
This is why in my view Liberalism and Marxism deserve a place in the quarrelsome, divided family of Abraham. They resemble the religions descended from Abraham in their claims of universal and exclusive truth, in their unshakeable belief in their right to dictate morals and politics to the world, and in their confidence that at the end of the day their visions will triumph over their rivals’.
As the five Abrahamic faiths have spread around the world, the influence of these ideas has grown. If we add Communist China and proponents of liberal democracy to the Abrahamic West, Middle East, and Africa, where Christianity and Islam have largely replaced indigenous religions, it should be clear just how pervasive the legacy of Abraham has become.
“Look up to the heavens,” the Voice had said to Abraham (as translated by Robert Alter), “and count the stars, if you can count them.” That, the Voice said, will be the number of your descendants. And on another occasion: “I will make you most abundantly fruitful and turn you into nations, and kings shall come forth from you.” Scholars differ on whether and how much the story reflects an actual series of historical events, but whether the Voice was a divine call, a herdsman’s imagination, or an episode in a legendary cycle with no discernible historical foundation, the past 4,000 years have seen this prediction fulfilled.
Not every consequence of this astonishing development has been benign. The family of Abraham is uniquely large and uniquely influential. It is also uniquely truculent. Abraham’s putative descendants warred across the deserts of the Middle East for thousands of years, and Christians and Muslims have been calling holy wars against one another since the first Islamic armies swept out of the Arabian Peninsula nearly 1,400 years ago.
Human beings fought wars long before Abraham followed his flocks into Canaan, but the belief in a single Creator introduced a new source of conflict into the world. If there is one God who is entirely good and who is actively intervening in human history, then we really ought to follow his commandments. There is one truth that ought to be known and believed by all people, and there is a right way to live to which all people ought to conform.
The pagan priests of Jupiter did not believe that all people should worship the same god. Nor did they care if the rites by which Jupiter was worshipped in Rome differed from those used in his temples in Naples. The Romans and their neighbors fought over honor, territory, security, and wealth; they did not fight over religion. Shinto priests today have no desire to convert the world to their belief system. It is the heirs of Abraham—including Liberals and Marxists—who believe that the world’s welfare requires the global dissemination of their faith and who have often felt compelled to spread that faith by fire and the sword.
While Abrahamic thought and religion remain central to American identity, we must remember that the United States is only one of many countries around the world whose political ideologies and self-image are grounded in Abrahamic imagery and thought. The ancient Hebrews, the Islamic caliphates down to the Ottoman era, the Byzantine and Russian emperors, and the Habsburgs all believed that their states represented the culmination of a divine purpose. In the American case, the primary sources of American social and political thought—the Protestant version of Western Christianity, Enlightenment Liberalism, and various forms of progressive ideology ranging from middle-class reformers like John Dewey to the Marxist and quasi-Marxist hard left—all saw the nation’s history as part of a cosmic story taking place within the Abrahamic framework.
For our predecessors, the arc of history seemed clear. The great civilizations of the Greco-Roman world had reached an apex of cultural and political accomplishment, just as the pure religion of the early Christian church marked a spiritual high point in humanity’s long, divinely assisted recovery from the Fall. But the promise of the classical era had been cut short. Corruption and decadence brought an end to the liberties of the ancient peoples, while the gradual corruption of the early church under the influence of tyrannical emperors and scheming clerics led to what American Protestants saw as the evils and errors of the medieval church.
The barbarian invasions marked the fall of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization even as the consolidation of papal power marked the degradation of Christianity and left Western civilization in the shadow of the Dark Ages. But the early Americans believed that this was not the end of the story. The scholars and humanists of the Renaissance began to recover the ideas of the ancients from obscurity. The Protestant Reformation inaugurated the process of recovering the early purity and power of the Christian faith.
The intellectual and spiritual recovery led to the rebirth of the ancient spirit of republican liberty and, Americans believed, the virtue that made liberty possible. American and British observers both saw the Glorious Revolution of 1688—when James II was overthrown after the defeat of his plans to establish absolute monarchy and break the power of Protestantism, and Parliament emerged as the most important center of power in British politics—as a decisive victory over the forces of superstition and tyranny, opening the way to accomplishments even greater than the greatest achievements of the ancient world.
Between the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution almost 90 years later, the fruits of the new order seemed to explode across the historical stage as the scientific and intellectual accomplishments of the Enlightenment astounded contemporaries. From Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries in mathematics and physics to Adam Smith’s groundbreaking work in political economy, from James Watt’s development of a more efficient steam engine to John Harrison’s creation of chronometers accurate enough to permit ship captains to determine their longitude on extended voyages, one astonishing innovation after another electrified the European world and pointed toward even greater accomplishments still to come.
The American colonists could not help but see these phenomena through the prism of Abrahamic thought. History was not a random series of unrelated events. The hand of God (or the finger of an equally powerful and mysterious fate) was guiding this process of recovery, renewal, and accelerating advancement. As they looked forward, the colonists and the early Americans believed that they were fated to play a decisive role in the future and further unfolding of the most remarkable era of progress in the history of the world. The realities of geography and demography indicated that the American republic would become one of the largest and most populous countries on earth. Their unique hold on the world-transforming principles of the spirit of the Reformation and Enlightenment meant that their society would long continue as a font of innovation and a beacon of liberty to the rest of the world.
The United States of America, many of its citizens believed, was not fated to become just one powerful country among many empires that rose and strutted their brief hour on the stage before fading into historical memory. The United States had come onto the world stage with unprecedented potential at the moment when Abrahamic history was moving toward its final, climactic fulfillment.
This vision of America’s role in the world resonated with the major religious and philosophical currents of the early years of the republic. Orthodox Protestants coming out of Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican, Wesleyan, and Anabaptist traditions found nothing strange or unsettling in a political vision that placed the Reformation at the center of modern history. Less conventionally religious children of the enlightenment like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were equally at home with the vision. Providential liberal nationalism, this belief that God or fate was leading the United States to play a transformative role in the consummation of world history, became an essential element of our national culture.
These beliefs would only tighten their grip on the national imagination in the generations following the revolution. The United States kept growing richer and more powerful as world history seemed to move ever closer to a dramatic climax. The titanic scale of the wars of the 20th century, the horrors of totalitarian Nazism and Communism, and the apocalyptic peril represented by the development of nuclear weapons all dramatically underscored the movement toward some kind of historical culmination. The approach of a grand climax to world history—whether one anticipates the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous democratic utopia or fears global destruction in the fires of nuclear war or climate change—makes the Abrahamic schema of history look more probable and adds both credibility and urgency to Abrahamic ideology in all its forms. The growing importance of the United States in world politics precisely as the climax of history seemed to inexorably approach reinforced Americans’ sense that their country was destined to play a critical role at this climactic time.
The 21st century, so far, has seen more of the same. As humanity rides the Adams Curve’s accelerating trajectory toward a radically uncertain future, the United States continues to occupy a unique position in world affairs. Whether the danger is climate change, the rise of uncontrolled artificial intelligence, nuclear proliferation, challenges to the “rules-based world order,” or an increasingly totalitarian China bent on hegemony, the chances of a benign outcome rest heavily on the position and the performance of the United States.
Time will tell whether the American sense of mission will prove more accurate than the dreams of the great powers of the past. What matters for contemporary American politics is the reality that this vision of the country’s purpose is losing its ability to integrate Americans of many different backgrounds and beliefs into a common national consensus. Tradition-minded Christians, Enlightenment liberals, and secular progressives are united today by a feeling that world history is rushing toward a climax and that America has an important part to play in the drama to come. But there the consensus ends. America in the 21st century is as Abrahamic as ever, but that heritage increasingly divides rather than unites us.
The presence of deep political divides in the United States is something I’ve never been able to ignore. I was born into the staunchly segregationist and white supremacist culture of the Jim Crow South in 1952, and my earliest impressions of the political and social world were informed by the rapid dissolution of an entire world of custom, sentiment, and law. My extended family was deeply divided by the upheavals of that time as my parents embraced the civil rights movement while my mother’s parents and their relatives were slow to accept and, in some cases, fought the change.
For my parents and many of their friends and contemporaries, such as my father’s seminary classmate Jack Spong, their rejection of the segregationist culture of the white supremacist South led to an embrace of theological liberalism. For some of my mother’s family, and for many other conservative Southern whites, their continuing loyalty to the Jim Crow system went hand in glove with continued adherence to traditional views of biblical inerrancy and orthodox Protestant dogma. As a child I struggled to understand the rifts in my family and the upheavals in the wider world. In the years since, I’ve tried to reconcile my growing conviction that the liberal Protestant theology of my parents’ generation is too weak to work with my equally robust belief that the anti-racist liberals were right about the need to extirpate Jim Crow segregation and the white supremacy that enabled it.
The turmoil I saw in the white South in the 1950s and 1960s as the civil rights revolution overturned the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and forced millions of Southern whites to reconsider the morality of once-revered customs and values was the harbinger of a revolution in values that continues to challenge Americans today. For those like my parents who seriously tried to understand the demands for racial justice, it was not just a problem of reckoning with the consequences of segregation and racism against Black people, important as that was. There was also the wrenching question of reckoning with the implications of the civil rights movement for the culture in which they had grown up.
If, as was clearly the case, the Jim Crow racial system was a moral abomination, what did that say about the values of their parents and grandparents who had accepted and helped in some cases to perpetuate it for so many decades? What was there to say about the preachers who remained silent about this great public evil Sunday after Sunday? And what about those who tortured the Scriptures to justify racial discrimination? For Protestants like my parents, taught to rely on the Bible, which was understood in their communities as the authoritative source of spiritual truth, what did it mean that generations of ministers and theologians had studied the Scriptures earnestly and devotedly their whole lives long, yet never noticed that the social order they upheld was flagrantly evil and unspeakably unjust?
White Southerners were not the only people who had to rethink their ideas about the American past in those turbulent years. The version of American history taught in public schools and promoted in the national media back then was simplistic and boastful. There was little reflection on the shadows in the American historical story. The atrocities of slavery, the destruction of indigenous peoples, the economic exploitation of poor people and immigrants, the failure to offer equal opportunities to women … Were these really the hallmarks of a providential nation destined to bring light and freedom to the world? As racial violence descended on American cities in the 1960s, as the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy shocked the country, and as the American engagement in the Vietnam War grew bloodier and more controversial, more and more Americans began to question the moral foundations of American society.
The growing current of skepticism about whether a country with America’s checkered history could claim a leading place in humanity’s struggle for a better future led to a searching examination of those values themselves. Our democratic ideology had coexisted with racial discrimination for centuries. America’s anticommunist convictions had led the country into the Vietnam War. Could the fault lie not just in America’s failure to live up to its values but in the values themselves? Was liberal providential nationalism itself a symptom of the sickness and moral failure of American society, a poisonous form of national egotism that justified centuries of crimes against Native Americans, Black Americans, and others?
These questions about the moral foundations of American life led many members of the Baby Boom generation to reject the traditional American narratives. While Soviet Communism had appealed to similarly radicalized Americans in the 1930s, the sterile Soviet system of the Brezhnev era had few attractions for the Boomers. The New Left, as Boomer radicals became known, was as critical of America’s capitalist consumer society as the Old Left had been, and many of its members flirted with Cuban and Chinese communism but ultimately looked more to create a new kind of egalitarian, progressive society in the United States rather than imitating existing socialist societies.
But while a relative handful of radicals joined groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panther Party, or the Weather Underground, a much larger number of Americans lost confidence in the cultural and ideological framework of the past. They also lost faith in the American government. The generation that lived through the New Deal and World War II believed that Washington, D.C., was a force for good in the world. The generation that lived through the Vietnam War had its doubts.
Meanwhile, another profound change was working its way through American society. Traditional moral standards had always been honored as much in the breach as in the observance, and it was easier in the past to control the public discussion of sexual behavior than to suppress the behavior itself. But whether or not human nature really changes so much from one generation to the next, American attitudes about sex certainly began to change dramatically in the 1960s. “Shacking up” was socially unacceptable in the 1950s, and sexual promiscuity and divorce were strongly frowned upon. A generation later they had become commonplace among middle-class youth. Homosexuality began its long journey toward acceptance and, ultimately, celebration.
The reasons for these monumental shifts in public opinion are diverse. The development of antibiotics and oral contraceptives substantially reduced the risks of premarital sex. The lengthening period between the onset of puberty and the achievement of full adulthood made the ban on premarital sex much harder to sustain, especially in a culture saturated with sexually charged advertising and entertainment. The dignity and courage of so many gay Americans in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a rejection of the prejudice that confronted many of its victims led many Americans to reconsider the deep social prejudice against sexual minorities—and the traditional religious teaching that condemned homosexual activity. The emphasis on consumption and the satisfaction of desire inherent in the mass production, mass consumption economic model of the late-20th-century United States also made the advocates of traditional morality seem out of step with the times.
Western societies had gone through cycles of tight-lipped restraint and ribald Rabelaisianism in the past. “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Sir Toby Belch demands of the Puritan steward Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Ben Jonson’s plays mocked the dour self-righteousness and inevitable hypocrisy of Puritans like Tribulation Wholesome. The puritanism of Oliver Cromwell and John Milton overcame the joie de vivre of the Elizabethan age but yielded in its turn to the louche climate of the Restoration under Charles II. Regency England was licentious while the Victorians were prudish. But what happened in the late-20th-century West was different. The proponents of the new morality of the 1960s and beyond did not see themselves as immoralists flouting accepted moral standards. They saw themselves as the true moralists, upholding a higher, better standard of conduct than the blinkered and prejudiced proponents of traditional Judeo-Christian morality.
The old morality was, the new moralists suggested, deeply immoral. It repressed women, subjected sexual minorities to cruel persecution, and blighted human freedom and creativity by confining the expression of human sexuality to a rigid and primitive code.
The combination of political and moral dissatisfaction with traditional American society laid the groundwork for a new synthesis, one that found its voice among the so-called woke. America’s traditional political code was a thinly disguised cover for a society based on white supremacy and economic exploitation. Traditional American morality was simply the organized oppression of women and minorities in the service of a hierarchical patriarchy. What America needed was a deep reckoning with its problematic past, followed by a radical turn toward an entirely different future.
The Great Awokening of 21st-century America fell on its adherents like the religious revivals of the American past. A sudden awakening to the racial and economic inequalities embedded in American culture led to a dramatic change of heart and a new perspective on both morals and politics in much the same way that the audiences of D. L. Moody and Billy Graham had awakened to a new sense of sin, of God’s grace, and of a new way to live.
As had happened in the religious revivals of the past, a sense of an apocalyptic turning point in world history played a role in the Awokening. For many, this was about climate change. American capitalism with, allegedly, its relentless emphasis on growth, its grounding in systemic racism, and its fetishization of consumption was a global force on course to wreck the climate and plunge the human race into an apocalyptic catastrophe.
Meanwhile, those who still retained their faith in more traditional forms of American ideology and religion increasingly saw the rise of the “successor ideology” of woke anti-capitalism in apocalyptic terms. Believing as they did that the traditional American way of life was a beacon of hope globally and the foundation of American freedom and prosperity at home, upholders of the older American ideology saw the partisans of the Great Awokening as an existential threat to everything they held dear.
But this does not mean that the United States is doomed to descend into some kind of civil war. Our history and our institutions, whatever their flaws, prepare us to live with political and cultural dissonance better than most. American culture was born out of the firestorm of the British Reformation, when Protestants and Catholics struggled for supremacy before Britain’s Protestants turned on one another in the civil wars of the 17th century. The long struggle for religious and political freedom extending from the reign of Henry VIII through the Glorious Revolution left both Britain and America with the ability to manage religious diversity. Ideas like federalism and the separation of church and state can help us manage the conflicts of our time, just as they helped our predecessors deal with similar issues in the past.
If we look back at American history, and at the British history that lies behind it, we see that the pendulum doesn’t continually swing in an ever-widening arc. The kinds of extremism and fanaticism we see today are periodic features of our political life, but moderation tends to gradually reappear. The worst excesses of the Puritans and the most tyrannical instincts of the ruling establishment gradually and almost imperceptibly faded away. American history is full of examples of bitter foes learning to cooperate on common projects. The conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholics united today in the pro-life movement were once the bitterest of enemies. Common economic interests bring atheists and evangelicals into friendly associations like local chambers of commerce. Americans of all religions and no religion continually join together to work on common problems and to pursue common political and social goals. Those who cling to purist ideologies and cannot or will not enter coalitions end up being marginalized in a political process that requires broad agreement. Even fanatics tire of impotence, and the gentle but unremitting pressure to compromise ultimately makes itself felt.
It does not pay to be smug about America’s future. The problems before us are grave. But we should remember that no society in the history of the world has as much experience as we do in managing the bitter disputes that break out among Abraham’s quarrelsome heirs. And if America can manage the raging storms of the Information Revolution, renewing our prosperity and rebuilding our unity, we can point the way for others. Providential liberal nationalism, like America itself, is badly in need of reform, but the United States still has a major role to play as the human story unfolds. The God of Abraham isn’t finished with us yet.
Walter Russell Mead is the Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at Hudson Institute, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, and the Global View Columnist at The Wall Street Journal. He co-hosts the weekly Tablet news podcast What Really Matters.