The Waning of the Secular City

David Blankenhorn, The Tampa Tribune, 5/19/1996

Recently, however, a wide diversity of scholars and policy makers, including many who support the goal of relimiting government, have pointed out the obvious weakness in this thesis. While limited government may be a necessary condition for social renewal, it is almost certainly not a sufficient condition. If the welfare state cannot solve our social crisis, it seems equally clear that reducing or even dismantling the welfare state will not, by itself, reverse our social deterioration. From this revised perspective, our core challenge is not simply to reduce government but, more importantly, to utilize and empower the institutions of civil society – from families to churches to workplace and charitable organizations – to solve social problems. This thesis regarding the central importance of civil society is now approaching the status of conventional wisdom.

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Subject: Civil Society

More by: David Blankenhorn

The central challenge facing our society in the coming decade is not how to grow the economy, create jobs or establish economic justice. Nor is it whether the federal government should get larger and raise taxes, or get smaller and reduce taxes. These economic and political questions are important but not determinative.

The determinative question in the United States for the foreseeable future is cultural. Can our diverse, free society rebuild the moral consensus, the shared cultural story, upon which our experiment in ordered liberty ultimately depends? Because most people conceive of moral inquiry essentially as religious inquiry, confronting this challenge in the coming years will almost certainly lead to a growing, and potentially polarizing, preoccupation in our society with matters of spirituality, faith and religious expression.

Three decades ago, a number of fashionable scholars asserted that "God is dead." Today, public and private faith in secularism – as both a synonym for human progress and a viable basis for finding meaning in life – looks increasingly like the greatest illusion of our generation.

Three large trends are fueling the emerging de-secularization of our society. First, the United States is several decades into a chronic social recession. The signs of decay are all around us: rising levels of violence and disorder; the decline of child and adolescent well-being; increasing rates of illegitimacy and fatherlessness; community decay; the growing failure of schools to educate the young; the decline of voting and other forms of civic participation; and the steady increase of incivility, mistrust and coarseness in both our public and private lives.

The second trend is our Wholesale intellectual retreat from the idea that great acts of the federal government can lead the way to a better society. The model of government activism that was born in the 1930s and reached its height of popularity in the 1960s is now almost completely discredited. Moreover, because this model has proved conspicuously unable to arrest, or even to cease from making worse, our deepening social recession, the prospects for its resurgence in the near future seem quite bleak. Across the world, highly centralized, relatively inflexible bureaucratic structures – whether administered by elected governments, communist parties or multinational corporations – are facing intense pressures to either reform themselves or become extinct.

The third trend is the dramatic current upsurge in religious revivalism in the United States. This phenomenon, which some scholars are already comparing to previous Great Awakenings in American history, is most clearly evident in the rapid and continuing growth of many evangelical Christian churches and ministries, but can also be seen, at least in embryonic form, in Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism and the Nation of Islam.

The Million Man March in Washington, D.C., is one example of this growing revivalism. So is the public decision of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, to apologize and seek atonement for the sin of racism. So is the explosive growth of the Promise Keepers movement, in which hundreds of churches and thousands – soon to be millions – of men publicly commit themselves to spiritual renewal, racial reconciliation and higher standards of husbandhood and fatherhood.

The interplay of these three large trends now structures much of our public agenda. Consider, for example, our debate during the past year over the role of the federal government, as well as the sudden popularity, among both scholars and policy makers, of the idea of "civil society."

For the past several years, our politics have been clearly dominated by the goal of reducing the size and reach of the federal government. Yet the rationale for this goal extends well beyond the need to balance the budget. According to this argument, the primary cause of our social recession is the growth of big government, especially the welfare state. Not surprisingly, if big government is viewed as the main problem, shrinking government, or at least transferring many federal activities to the states, becomes the main solution.

Recently, however, a wide diversity of scholars and policy makers, including many who support the goal of relimiting government, have pointed out the obvious weakness in this thesis. While limited government may be a necessary condition for social renewal, it is almost certainly not a sufficient condition. If the welfare state cannot solve our social crisis, it seems equally clear that reducing or even dismantling the welfare state will not, by itself, reverse our social deterioration.

From this revised perspective, our core challenge is not simply to reduce government but, more importantly, to utilize and empower the institutions of civil society – from families to churches to workplace and charitable organizations – to solve social problems. This thesis regarding the central importance of civil society is now approaching the status of conventional wisdom.

But today, the terms of this debate are beginning to shift again. Just as the goal of shrinking government is now largely viewed as insufficient, so the goal of strengthening civil society is already recognized by some analysts as important but insufficient. The reason is that the civil society we seek is one that presupposes, and depends upon, a larger moral consensus.

Absent a guiding set of shared cultural norms, the institutions of civil society are just as likely as the programs of the welfare state to be either impotent or destructive. Neighborhood gangs, private militias, politically correct speech codes on college campuses, Internet pornography – these are all manifestations of civil society. But will this brand of civil society halt our social decline?

The civil society solution is a mirage unless it is guided and anchored by what the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb calls "re-moralization" – the recovery and application of shared moral ideals. Yet the goal of re-moralization is ultimately a religious goal. There are notable exceptions and qualifications, of course, but the central fact remains: The Judeo-Christian religious tradition is our society's primary source of shared moral ideas.

For this reason, the renewal of our civil society will be impossible without the growth and success of faith-based activism in our public square. For the same reason, encouraging religious associations to achieve major social reforms, from educating children to rebuilding inner cities, is likely to command increasing attention from policy makers in coming years.

For many of our society's leaders, this situation is new. It presents hard challenges. For those on what is often called the "religious right," the challenge is to embody compassion, recognize the importance of pluralism, and embrace the search for common ground. For those on what is less often called the "secular left," the challenge is to stop sneering at religion and recognize that, for better or worse, the possibility of arresting our social recession is now inextricably linked to religious renewal and the waning of secularism as a guiding public idea.

This article originally appeared here.

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