Paul Kelly, Editor-at-Large, The Australian
In the litany of words about the census the core issue has been avoided — the almost certain link between the generational decline in the Christian faith as guide to the common good and the collapsing relationship between the people and the political system.
The reality is staring us in the face. Yet it cannot be spoken, cannot be entertained, cannot be discussed because there is no greater heresy and no more offensive notion than that the loss of Christian faith might have a downside.
Christianity has fallen from 88 per cent of the population in 1966 to 52 per cent today, and seems sure to slide soon below the 50 per cent threshold. It would be absurd to pretend this epic change does not have profound consequences for society since it constitutes the eclipse of a particular conception of human nature.
At the same time the past decade has witnessed a shattering of trust across the Western world including Australia between the people on one hand and politicians and elites on the other. This dysfunction in Australia has multiple causes within politics itself: the identity crisis of the major parties, the rise of negative politics, a self-interested Senate, leadership failures and internal disunity.
It is obvious, however, there is a deeper problem, that something more profound has gone wrong. The sense of a community of shared values is disintegrating. The most fundamental norms, accepted for centuries, are now falling apart as disputes erupt about family, education, gender, sexuality, marriage, tradition, patriotism, life and death.
The decline in our civic virtue is undisguised, respect for institutional authority has eroded, the idea of a common community purpose is undermined, trust is in retreat but the most important singular development is the transformed notion of the individual — the obsession about individual autonomy in every aspect of life: love, work, race, sex, culture and death. Put harshly but not inaccurately, it is narcissism presented as self-realisation and human rights.
The idea that our democracy is founded on core moral truths about human nature has collapsed — or is collapsing. Donald Trump’s election as President was driven by fear the American dream had been cancelled and by alarm that elites led a separate life and used power for their self-interest. But the deeper source was a feeling that the moral foundations of the country were eroding.
Confronting the US dilemma, American writer George Weigel said: “The first step is to recognise that American politics is in crisis because our public moral culture is in crisis. The second step is to recognise that American public moral culture is in crisis because of a false understanding of freedom. And the third step is to recognise that the false notion of freedom evident across the spectrum of American politics is based on a false anthropology: a distorted idea of the human person and human aspiration.”
If this sounds too lofty or too deep, let’s revert to the brilliant 2015 book by New York Times columnist David Brooks, The Road to Character,to offer down-to-earth examples of what has happened.
Brooks says: “Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as ‘I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary’. The median narcissism score has risen 30 per cent in the last two decades. Ninety-three per cent of young people score higher than the middle score just 20 years ago.
“By 2007, 51 per cent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals. In one study middle-school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus Christ came in second and Paris Hilton third. The girls were then asked which of the following jobs they would like to have. Nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant — for example, Justin Bieber’s — than president of Harvard.
“As I look around the popular culture I kept finding the same message everywhere: You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same cliches: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great.”
Brooks argues there has been a “moral shift” in the way parents now raise children and this has permeated through institutions from Girl Scouts to the churches. He quotes a Texas preacher telling his flock: “You were made to excel. You were made to leave a mark on this generation.”
Australian writer Anne Manne, in her 2014 book The Life of I,says: “Changes in our culture have created an economic, social and relational world that not only supports but actually celebrates narcissism, cultivating and embedding it as a character trait.”
She says by the mid-2000s The New York Times declared that narcissism was not only an academic “growth industry” but also the explanation favoured “by columnists, bloggers and television psychologists”.
“Narcissism had become a central problem of our time,” Manne says. She quotes a prophetic passage from the path-breaking 1979 book by Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism,where Lasch talks about the preoccupation with self: “People now responded to others as if their actions were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time.”
Manne references the work by academics Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge showing the rise in narcissism over generations. They called the problem an “epidemic”. According to Manne’s summary, Campbell and Twenge concluded that “what makes a child grow into a narcissist is spoiling, indulgence, an absence of moral discipline in building character and a culture of excessive praise, of telling children they are special”.
“The new terror is to be invisible,” Manne says. “As playwright Preston Sturges once quipped, ‘He was forgotten before he was remembered.’ Lena Dunham, the clever and creative writer behind the hit show Girls,put the new sensibility this way: ‘My dad finds Twitter just infinitely unrelatable. He’s like, Why would you want to tell anybody what I had for a snack, it’s private! And I’m like, Why would you even have a snack if you didn’t tell anybody? Why bother eating?’ ”
Now reflect again on Weigel’s bedrock argument: that we have a “distorted idea of the human person and human aspiration”. In a deft juxtaposition, Brooks exposes how far we have come and how far we have fallen.
His book begins with a reflection on the generation of the Depression and World War II — described by writers but not themselves as the “greatest generation”. You might remember them, perhaps they were your parents, the last generation of the universal Christian norm.
What did they achieve?
Apart from suffering economic hardship, they won a war, beat the Germans, beat the Japanese, changed the world, backed their mates, returned home, raised families and contributed to their society. Guess what: they stayed humble. They didn’t beat their chests, didn’t say how great they were, didn’t seek media attention, ask what the country was doing for them, behave like narcissists or declare how extraordinary they were — when they had claims to being extraordinary.
Not only did they not boast about their achievements. Often they refused to even talk about them. How remarkable and humble was that? Brooks quotes Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent, saying: “We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other people.” Brooks says: “Their collective impulse was to warn themselves against pride and self-glorification.”
Many will recall the Australians of that era, a society of 88 per cent Christian nomination. People then had a different view of human nature. Yet their modesty, humility and Christian forbearance makes no sense in today’s world. The past is just a foreign country. Some of their generation went to church, others didn’t, some keenly avoided entering a church. But that was of no account. They were part of a Christian society in its outlook and virtues and view of human nature.
The progressives — and Brooks agrees to a certain extent — say the world has improved since the 1950s and 60s, when sexism, racism and homophobia were rampant. The truth is that values have changed; some of the changes are good and some are bad. For Brooks, it is a question of character.
He says: “The more I looked into that period, the more I realised I was looking into a different moral country. I began to see a different view of human nature, a different attitude about what is important in life, a different formula for how to live a life of character and depth.”
Brooks does not make the link to Christianity — yet the link is unavoidable. Many of the virtues of the greatest generation are lost or fading. Some people fight to retain them and are traduced as a result. It is impossible, however, to separate those virtues from the Christian norms that were so pervasive at the time. Narcissism was in short supply and never rewarded. In those days Christian virtue was the norm and, critically, it was always the default position.
Christianity shaped not just the view of human nature, individual morality and how people were expected to behave. It also shaped the social norms. American sociologist Charles Murray says: “Religion’s role as a source of social capital is huge.”
Murray refers to Robert Putnam who, in his classic book Bowling Alone, says: “As a rough rule of thumb our evidence shows (that) nearly half of all associational memberships are church-related, half of all personal philanthropy is religious in character and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context.”
As Murray points out, the post-war standards of American society were overwhelmingly shaped by religious norms. There was near universal marriage, divorce was rare, television shows mirrored “the American way of life”, in films there were no four-letter words, nudity or sex, crime was low, few people even in poor neighbourhoods had served prison time and there was virtually no problem with illegal drugs.
On the other hand, people drank like fish and smoked like chimneys. The south was racially segregated, racial disadvantage was huge, the civil rights movement was about to erupt, women were held back, pollution in some cities had become untenable, poverty was disguised but widespread. The cultural revolution seeded in the 60s was at hand. It was an irresistible tidal wave propelled by a changing world, technology and a baby-boom generation.
As Murray says, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had appeared in 1962 triggering the environmental movement, Ralph Nader had begun his critique of the auto industry on behalf of consumers, Bob Dylan’s theme songs were being released and the Beatles had captured the youth of the West. Each of these events would resonate in Australia.
The rise of progressive values in the name of freedom and justice would march in parallel with the decline of religious faith. Put another way, they were different sides of the same coin. Eventually, the revolution took judicial and legal form. The greatest institution that embodied the new social order was the US Supreme Court.
In a series of judgments, the court redefined the idea of freedom and human nature. Weigel captures this, quoting from the majority decision in the 1992 planned parenthood case. “At the heart of liberty,” the judges said, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” Led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, this philosophy was repeated in the more recent decision to impose same-sex marriage.
At this point individual autonomy and human rights (what some might call “the Big Me”) replaced the concept of an objective moral order founded in the Christian tradition. The notion of a God-ordained morality was swept aside along with its view of mankind as more than a bundle of desires to be sanctified as human rights. Man, not God, was enshrined at the centre of the universe.
The judges reflected the spirit of the age and the cultural revolution that had transformed the West. The idea of freedom was separated from a higher order moral duty and tied to personal self-realisation and self-esteem. Narcissism was legitimised. Weigel says: “There is no claim here that the American democratic experiment rests on self-evident moral truths.” The upshot was a society of many truths; each person was granted autonomy to decide his or her own moral truth.
What does this mean for politics?
It requires little insight to conclude such a society and culture that prioritises a cult of “individualism” when translated into the political sphere is less cohesive and united, more divided over existing norms, less willing to accept the decisions and compromises of political leaders, far more difficult for politicians to manage and persuade and, above all, from which to extract a working majority position. In short, governing is harder, the gap between politicians and public more difficult to bridge and the society divided at its essence.
There is, however, an even deeper problem.
As the moral status of the church declines, the moral status of progressive ideology grows. Vacuums will be filled. Because the Christian ethos was tied to the past and tradition, it became a target for the new ideology of personal freedom. This is founded in the view that settler societies such as America and Australia have failed to come to terms with the racism, indigenous exploitation, sexism, patriarchy and monoculturalism at their heart. The task of community leaders was once to uphold the values of the civilisation; now, more often than not, it is to dismantle them.
Pivotal to this transition is the progressive attack on the Aristotelian framework that made the West a success. This concept was articulated at various stages by the popes, notably Leo XIII and Pius XI. As outlined by Tulsa University professor Russell Hittinger, this envisages three “necessary” elements for human happiness: domestic society (marriage and family), faith and church and, finally, political society. A brief reflection might confirm the wisdom of this framework.
It is, however, now being dismantled in the new and manic crusade of human freedom. Progressive doctrine denies any preferred model for family structure since that would be prejudicial and discriminatory; it now approaches its ultimate objective in the realm of faith — to drive religion from the public square and reject the role of religion and church as a mobiliser of social capital in a secular society.
The final logic is that everything depends upon politics. As the society of family and marriage becomes mired in confusion, as the society of church and religion is the target of assault, so the society of politics is being asked to assume a role and burden utterly beyond its capacity and guaranteed to leave community-wide unhappiness.
The tripartite design that made the West such a workable and successful proposition is being torn part. Once dismantled, it cannot be put back together. This is being done in the name of justice, rights and progress. There was an inevitability about the decline of Christian faith, but there was nothing inevitable about the dismal pretender that presents as its replacement.