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Why is America coming apart?

Because democratic virtues cannot stand on their own

Two protesters show their signs at a rally outside the White House on May 14. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Why is America coming apart?

Perhaps it’s my relative youth showing, or what C.S. Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery,” but surveying the surrounding culture and observing the increasing polarity of our national debates, I often think to myself, “have things ever been so cataclysmically strange?” There is a general sentiment I hear expressed by people from all walks of life, some even much older than myself. I talk to so many who perceive the moral disarray and fragmentation of America with disbelief and shock.

I don’t arrive at this perspective by comparing the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950s to 2022. No, I’m fine to compare this to a year as recent as even 2008, the year I graduated from college. 2008 seems like a different epoch of moral history compared to America in 2022.

What would have been revolutionary in 2008, like “gay marriage,” seems almost “traditional” to many Americans in 2022, by the sheer force of its cultural normalization in America. Drag Queens dancing in front of children is as recreational as baseball in some parts of the country, or so it seems. Mainstream medical guilds now suggest that confused children and teens mutilate their bodies to tranquilize the mind. Public schools when I grew up might have been secular, but they weren’t morally insane or propagandizing students in cultural self-hatred like I routinely hear about now. Major media outlets are entirely compromised by a groveling deference to wokism and identity politics. The left once called for abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare,” but the move to de-stigmatize abortion and gloat about it has moved the needle in a ghoulish direction.

The surrealism of our simmering unrest is explainable, I think, in the near total collapse of Christianity as America’s underlying public ethic. At least for the moment, put away questions about Christian Nationalism. What I’m observing is the final stripping away over the last few years of the last thin layer of Christian veneer. No secularist will say this out loud, of course. Because that would mean restoring virtues that figures like former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy believe are incompatible with liberty. Such virtues can only be grounded in a transcendent account of the universe.

America’s future must be grounded in transcendent truth or else cultural demise is a certainty.

Tragic as this is (and it is tragic), stripping away the dross does at least allow wildly divergent views on the world to surface in full force. Are you for lethal violence toward unborn human beings, or aren’t you? Unabashed honesty that comes from staring down the secular abyss will at least allow Americans to choose whose vision they think best comports with human flourishing.

Americans are growing more honest about the different moral universes they occupy. We should not be surprised when those universes come into conflict and test whether the democratic experiment can persist without a thick moral vision anchoring it. The debates that Christians are having about the durability of liberal democracy stem from the question of whether liberal democracy can persist as the moral worldview once supporting it—that is, Christianity—is denied. I do not believe that it can.

In fact, I want to be even clearer about that: America’s future must be grounded in transcendent truth or else cultural demise is a certainty. A few years ago, I would have been reticent to admit this because I saw pluralism as an essential part of American greatness. I still believe that, but only in the areas where pluralism can actually work. Ripping apart children in the womb and castrating children does not find cover in “pluralism.” We are testing whether violating the outer boundaries of natural law can allow a civilization to endure. It cannot.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said this out loud in a column from Oct. 26, noting that it’s “hard to see is how the struggle can be simply averted through a retreat to classical liberal principle, because there isn’t quite enough there there to found a lasting settlement. For better or worse, the future peace depends on the outcome of the present conflicts.” Douthat draws the conclusion that politics cannot heal the divides that plague America. Only a renewed moral vision can accomplish that.

You either see this or you don’t. Those unwilling to be convinced will continue believing that democratic virtues alone will sustain our nation. Do they really believe that such virtues exist on their own?

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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