Jim Ragsdale of the Pioneer Press editorial board is right. He wrote an insightful Op-Ed essay on Dec 11th saying that American politics have changed since the Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960 and for the worse.
What we have lost is our civil religion – a common meeting place for the faithful of all faiths. What scholars call our civil religion was the use of ethical standards and moral responsibility under a sense of guiding providence by leaders such as Washington and Lincoln. They stood apart from any sect or cult and grounded the nation’s politics in devoted service to country.
It was to this civil religion – sometimes expressed as a separation of church and state – that John F. Kennedy appealed when he asked Baptist voters to consider his candidacy for the Presidency as one sought by an American and not by a Catholic duty bound to obey the Holy Father in Rome in all things.
We have traded a politics of trust and decency for one of mistrust and indecency.
I would argue the cause of our decline has been the culture war which arose over the Vietnam War at the hands of the Baby Boomers.
As a cultural theme, Boomer protest over Vietnam asserted that America was neither decent nor trustworthy; that our government lied and that its efforts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to stop Communist atrocities were foully tainted.
When the protest movement proved successful and we abandoned the struggle so that the Communists imposed their rule over those small countries, it seemed to many Americans that the anti-war disparagement of American ideals and traditions had been proven correct by events.
But not everyone could accept that judgment. After the loss of South Vietnam in 1975 and the Bicentennial of 1976, the religious right arose in politics to stop the “liberals” from getting their way.
Sadly, in its crusade to save America from those who were attacking its core legitimacy, the religious right used the values of sectarian religion and not the more open norms of our traditional civil religion to fight back. Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority and helped carry Ronald Reagan into the White House under the banner that “It is morning again in America.”
Too much of the wrong kind of sex—unwanted pregnancies, then gay-rights—in particular was negatively deified as the cause of a moral rot which, in turn, had turned God away from the country and had brought on its trials and tribulations.
Many Boomers did not take this new cultural dynamic lying down and fought back asserting the values of a deeply secular individualism with accompanying self-indulgence. Our politics turned hard; no quarter was given; moderates were driven out of the major parties.
America was the loser.
And so we began to splinter into hostile warring cultural camps each bent on preventing the other from coming to power and neither willing to compromise for the common good. Nearly half of adult Americans dropped out of politics.
And so we have come to the politics of gridlock – of mutually antagonistic red and blue communities, of ideologically one-sided, gerrymandered congressional districts, the politics of money and the thoughtless sound bites that are dumbing down our people and, perhaps worst of all, the most mediocre political leadership – across the board – in our country’s history.
What is to be done?
That is the subject for another essay.