How and Why America Is Still Searching
By Neal Windham
I fear that our ability—maybe even our desire—for dialogue is gone. What does this mean for a people whose first and greatest prayer is, “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”?
I live and dwell and have my being in a nation that’s been in search mode for better than 50 years. Long before Google, in the decade of the Kennedys and Vietnam, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury, Americans were engulfed in a search for what it means to be a free people.
At the same time, we were trying to make sense of the Industrial Revolution, which had played such a significant role in turning proud local producers into empty, uninformed consumers. It was a revolution that had flattened art and beauty and enslaved smaller towns with their emerging rail systems to the unforgiving time schedules and production demands of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
In those days, the door was opened wide to endless technologies of convenience. Yet, simultaneously, rampant abuses of creation, a growing lack of purpose, and the talk of the times focused more on rights than responsibilities.
It’s little wonder we are now witnessing the birth of a new political reality. As one party appears to be imploding, the other struggles to find its voice, and no one is happy.1 No one. Americans are searching for their core identity, the very heart and soul of a nation, as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has come to mean so many different things to people from increasingly diverse backgrounds.
What, we wonder, is next? Just what will the new political and moral order look like in America?
In his recent book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas argues that contemporary Americans have marginalized virtue as a necessary component in public discourse. He calls attention to repeated cries for moral stamina—from the founding fathers as well as Alexis de Tocqueville. It was this 19th-century French visitor to America who once famously remarked, “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”2
Metaxas argues that the outcome of the American experiment can be only as positive as its continuing commitments to virtue and faith. He is hopeful, concluding there is much to celebrate, but offers this caution:
Those of us who have adopted a cynical view of this nation . . . are doing our part in making sure that our negative view of America is what America becomes. . . . You might even say we are cursing America.3
Though not without its critics, this is an important and timely book.4 Let me explain why. Americans have come into an unprecedented era of public information, for good and ill. As a boy, I recall hearing preachers say, in effect, God would show video clips of our worst moments at the Final Judgment. But today, we don’t have to wait for the Final Judgment. We see clips of this kind all the time on the news and YouTube, where everybody is watching.
Metaxas is right to point out that virtue matters deeply. For the republic to flourish, its people, all of them, need to cultivate virtue; we need to see virtue at work on the news and YouTube.
But virtue is not all that’s missing here. In fact, there is something deeper, more foundational, than virtue, and Metaxas does not miss this, either; it is, in a word, faith. Virtue (it would seem) depends upon us, upon heart habits, upon good behavior. But when, at the end of the day, our efforts born of virtue are not enough, when we have done the best we can and things still go very wrong, to what then do we turn?
“Freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom,” writes Metaxas.5 This he calls “The Golden Triangle of Freedom,” leaning deeply into the insight of his friend, Os Guinness. The question remains, however, faith in whom or what? Metaxas’s answer is, in a word, religion.6 But is religion enough?
Something to Believe in
Today, Americans are a people who, much like our ancestors, remain in search mode, a people looking for something to believe in. We live and breathe the right to live and worship (or not worship) as we will, which, in turn, means we will continue to explore things, to find out all we can in order to live meaningful and fruitful lives.
So we are, in a sense, still pioneering, or at least attempting to do so. With little remaining physical geography yet to be charted, we’ve turned now to space, especially cyberspace, as a sort of new frontier, and not just that, but really a new dimension of human experience.
It is here that we are now pushing the limits of freedom. Few filters remain. We can hear and see pretty much anything we like. Along with this new reality, we envision the possibility of greater awareness, genuine justice, and enhanced human flourishing. And all of that could, I suppose, happen were it not for the long-established fact that for every virtuous societal and technological advancement, every good and decent pioneering discovery, there is a thief waiting to harness this power for malevolent purposes. As my then 4-year-old grandson, Whit, put it, “Decepticon makes poor choices, Pappy.”
A Prophetic Calling
More than anything, what worries me today is the tone of the national discourse. It is so often unforgiving, if not downright mean. It no longer sounds like a united search, but more like a little child who has long since forgotten, or never learned in the first place, how to share or listen. It hides behind a cloak of decency and moral high ground, but is entirely unaware of its own shadow side. In many ways, it is no longer a search at all, but something more akin to a self-appointed prophetic calling—an oxymoron, if ever there were one.
The Bible gives us prophets who are local (tied to actual physical spaces), linked (face-to-face, not virtually), and called (not self-appointed):
“The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1).
“The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the Lord came to him” (Jeremiah 1:1, 2).
These prophets are people of moral courage, to be sure, but, equally, they are humble. “‘Woe to me!’ I [Isaiah] cried, ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’” (Isaiah 6:5). Imagine presidential candidates talking like that!
Americans will do well to exercise humility and love locally in their many Google searches. While national and world news outlets will always have an important role in society, too much global information has the effect of obscuring and numbing us to the more immediate concerns of our lives.
Some years ago, I had students practice what we called, “The Quest for Christian Community,” a study of community life in the book of Acts, followed by implementation of its principles in the lives of the students. I noticed students had a great desire to save the world, as 20-year-olds often do (not a bad thing). Many of them successfully took on significant overseas projects (for example, clothing Italian gypsies), and others, projects closer to home (seed money for an elevator in the chapel building).
Interestingly, the hardest tasks often resided closest to home—caring for a roommate whose parents were getting a divorce, tutoring students who were struggling in their classes, tending the needs of an international student—and these were frequently neglected. I concluded, the more immediate the need, the greater the danger of ignoring it.
And that, I think, is what is most needed in American context, a very real, healing, human presence among our neighbors: the more immediate the need, the greater attention and the fuller the resourcing to address it.
But the fact remains, many of us are terribly isolated in real life, having built our walls high and sturdy, exchanging front porches for sunrooms and decks (that would be me), making three- and four-car garages the focal point of our newest suburban residential architecture, coming and going in multiple vehicles without ever stepping outside to see the neighbors. Replacing presence and conversation with virtual “living.” Trudging to work during our hour-long commute and reversing that process at day’s end.
Let me be frank with you. In my worst moments, I wonder whether we’ve just quit the search altogether, whether our seemingly ubiquitous interest in myopically focused rights has not ended dialogue—the ongoing conversation among civil people as to mutual betterment—whether the nearly total inward and vitriolic turn of so many Americans in our times signals the end of the American experiment as we have come to know it.
While I don’t wish to be among those whom Metaxas sees as “cursing America,” neither do I want to minimize or ignore the very real dangers we face. As one thoughtful colleague put it, “It would be both terribly irresponsible and an affront to the good news of the gospel to ignore how our own history, with all of its triumphs and beauty, also includes moments of ugliness whose effects we still feel acutely in the present.”
I haven’t given up; there is so much that is so right about this country, beginning with its welcoming Lady Liberty. I am so grateful to reside here! But, like anyone who is prone to putting too much faith in a nation, any nation, to be more than God ever intended it to be, maybe a “savior” of some kind, I must repeatedly turn my eyes back toward the kingdom of Heaven—its sacred texts, metanarrative, and God. My abiding prayer is not (and never has been) “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Depending upon what one means by “life,” “liberty,” and “happiness”—and recent American debates suggest there’s no consensus here—this might be a wonderful goal. But it is not a prayer. The prayer of the church remains, “Your will be done on earth.” To the extent that American values and behaviors mirror that prayer, that search, I say, “Hallelujah! Bring it on! Amen.”
1I am writing this article in July 2016.
2Quoted in If You Can Keep It: the Forgotten Promise of American Liberty by Eric Metaxas (New York: Viking, 2016), 59.
4John Fea, who teaches American history at Messiah College, has taken exception to several of Metaxas’s arguments as, in fact, manipulating history to promote a political agenda. You can read his comments at religionnews.com (accessed July 13, 2016).
5Metaxas, If You Can Keep It, 54.
Neal Windham is the professor of spiritual formation at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.