Saturday, March 14, 2020

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Family Values, Politics and Coronavirus

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Family values are moral principles derived from religion that are passed on within families and that define the standards of legitimacy that shape a nation’s political and cultural standards.  Most Americans claim to be Christians, but ironically most white Christians support Donald Trump, whose egregious immorality is the antithesis of the moral teachings of Jesus.

The altruistic values taught by Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors--including those of other races and religions--as we love ourselves.  It’s taken from the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus and accepted as a common word of faith by Islamic scholars; but many Christians seem to have forgotten it.   

A changing family structure reflects the decline of altruistic family values and Christian morality.  Before the 20th century the extended family was the cultural norm in America, with several generations of the family living together and supporting one another.  In the 20th century the smaller nuclear family of parents and children replaced the extended family; and in the 21st century the nuclear family had to make way for unmarried couples and same-sex marriages.

David Brooks has asserted that the nuclear family was a mistake; but the decline of the nuclear family seems more the effect than the cause of America’s increasingly decadent culture.  The more likely cause is that individual values and technological advances undermined the altruistic values of the nuclear family that once held the fabric of America’s democracy together.

The nuclear family has been the basic social unit in Western culture from biblical times, but the emphasis of the Enlightenment on individual rights and freedom has liberated both men and women from collective family responsibilities and transformed political, social and cultural norms in the process.  We’re yet to see where that transformation will ultimately take us.

Over the years Americans have become more self-sufficient and rejected the collective values once associated with the extended family.  But events like the Great Depression, World War II and 9/11 have reminded Americans that in a democracy we have to promote the common good with universal and altruistic values, or suffer common hardships.

A church that once promoted altruistic family values now ignores the lack of Christian morality in politics.  Instead, it promotes a prosperity gospel that resembles Ayn Rand’s self-centered objectivism and contradicts the altruistic teachings of Jesus.  In seeking popularity, the church has been complicit in supporting America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture.

Providing for the common good has become as much of a casualty in American politics as family values.  Technology and prosperity have fostered “personal fulfillment” and “self esteem” at the expense of altruistic obligations to care for the needs of others.  Now it appears that coronavirus has brought a day of reckoning to America.

Americans are told they must avoid crowds and traditional entertainment venues to avoid spreading the deadly and highly contagious virus.  Such mandatory social distancing has already caused a stock market crash, and it could well transform the materialistic and hedonistic values of our decadent American culture.

In economic depressions and wars, Americans learned that providing for the common good is as important in a democracy as in a family.  America requires a politics of reconciliation to save it from the partisan identity politics that promote divisive and polarized “us versus them” politics.  Ironically, the coronavirus crisis could restore altruistic family values to American politics.  


David Brooks article is in the March 2020 issue of The Atlantic magazine.  Robert J. Samuelson has cited Brooks’ assertion that the nuclear family was a mistake as an unlikely cause of our bitterness at
Andrew Bacevich has cited Ross Douthat’s recent book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, to explain the decline of the traditional family and America’s increasingly decadent culture. Bacevich found most interesting Douthat’s reflection “on the declining birthrate in the United States and throughout most of the developed world. ‘Below-replacement fertility,’ he writes, ‘is the fundamental fact of civilized life in the early twenty-first century.’ It is also ‘an inevitable corollary of liberal capitalist modernity,’ welcomed in some quarters as a predicate to personal liberation, especially for women, and as necessary to counter the threat of global overpopulation.  Aging societies, according to Douthat, tend to be risk-averse and are therefore less dynamic and less creative.
But for Douthat “the empty cradle” fosters a host of problems. Just a half-century ago, it was more or less taken for granted that building a traditional family was the foundation for living a fruitful life. Today, it is one option among many. Family is whatever I say it is. The same goes for you. And you can change your mind whenever it suits you. This describes the freedom that decadence allows.
Yet among the consequences, Douthat writes, “men and women seem to be having more and more trouble successfully and permanently pairing off.” Today sex itself may be falling out of favor, with information technology offering “virtual alternatives to old-fashioned copulation.” As families become smaller, discretionary, and disposable—a trend that Douthat calls “postfamilialism”—loneliness and alienation increase. The relationship, he insists, is causal. Furthermore, as birthrates fall, average age goes up. Aging societies, according to Douthat, tend to be risk-averse and are therefore less dynamic and less creative. While immigration can offset these effects, it comes with its own complications, contributing to the sort of racial, ethnic, and class divisiveness so much in evidence today in the United States and in many other parts of the West.
...Douthat’s critique is not confined to issues related to family. He dissects in detail ‘the consistent ineffectuality in American governance,’ the ideological polarization of the two main political parties (“the most decadent part of a decadent system”), Hollywood’s preference for formulaic blockbusters and remakes of whatever sold two decades ago, the reliance on drugs to tranquilize untranquil youngsters, the onset of pervasive “religious torpor,” the rise of the surveillance state, the anti-democratic impact of an arrogant and insular meritocracy, and the myriad insidious effects of advanced technology clogging our daily lives like a particularly virulent form of kudzu.
...Douthat speculates that [decadence] may prove to be remarkably sustainable. He envisions the United States and other Western nations being subjected to an “endless autumn.” Creativity, warmth, and hope will be in short supply, but there will be time to spare and, for some, money to burn. So cruise line CEOs take heart: business prospects appear bright—assuming that the coronavirus doesn’t sink us first!”

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