Several of you called my attention to a Wall Street Journal/University of Chicago poll published a little over a month ago, which described a “tectonic shift” in American values over the last 25 years. The summary below was published by Axios.
“Look at the tectonic shifts from a Journal/NBC poll 25 years ago, in 1998:
- Patriotism is very important: Dropped from 70% to 38%.
- Religion is very important: Dropped from 62% to 39%.
- Having children is very important: Dropped from 59% to 30%.
- Community involvement is very important: Dropped from 47% to 27%.
- Money is very important: Rose from 31% to 43%.”
Patriotism, religion, having children and community involvement have all crashed. The only thing that has risen in value is money.
What are we to make of this? Some say, “not much.” “Polls are often inaccurate and can’t be trusted.” Others, like Axios, say it’s a dramatic documentation of moral rot at the heart of our nation. Axios opines: “The bottom line: the poll quantifies a generational and political divide that shows a rot at the very soul of our nation.”
I could go there — “moral rot” — but that seems pretty harsh, certainly judgmental.
My take is a little different. I think these shifts portray a country/society where people are really frightened. All of the things that trend down — love of country, religious faith, having kids, and community involvement — involve some, often quite significant, level of trust. They involve risk-taking, self-giving and even self-sacrifice.
You could say our souls are rotten and selfish. But maybe what we are is scared? Scared and unlikely to trust things — institutions and wisdom that wasn’t arrived at yesterday — that Americans have traditionally trusted, like our country and democracy, the church and its faith. I’m guessing a lot of people feel these two institutions have let them down. And in many cases they/we have.
The other two — having children and being involved in your community — also require trust and a willingness to take risks. And, yes, those are big changes and they are worrisome ones. But my take isn’t so much that we are rotten people as that we are scared people who are increasingly reluctant to put ourselves out there. Even the rise in valuation of money: We could condemn people as greedy, and certainly there’s truth in that. But it may be that people, however misguided, are hoping that money will protect and secure them. Many think money and big houses will make them safe.
Besides the institutions that are struggling and have let us down, there’s another factor. What the German social theorist Hartmut Rosa calls “acceleration.”
Rosa says modernity is characterized by constant speeding up, by acceleration. Everything is constantly being ramped up and amped up. This is driven largely, but not only, by technology. Everyone feels that they are somehow falling behind. Instead of striving to get ahead (as our parents and grandparents did), people now feel they must be running faster just to stay even, to avoid losing what they’ve got.
Technology’s promise has always been that it will relieve humanity of burdens and increase our control of life’s uncertainties. But it doesn’t seem to have worked out quite that way. Instead, every new technological innovation carries the expectation that, having this new tool, we should now be able to accomplish, produce, do — or even be — more. Instead of burden-reducing, the latest innovation imposes new burdens, along with new ways in which we don’t experience mastery or control. Moreover, we are constantly encouraged toward “self-optimization.” Get this new app, that new life hack!
“Constant acceleration,” says Rosa is how most of us today experience life. We’re always trying to “keep up,” and to avoid “falling behind.” This contributes big time to the kind of shift in values and priorities documented in the poll above. “Who has time or energy for church, kids, community service? We’re barely keeping up, as it is!”
A final thought on these “tectonic shifts” in American values: the four values that are in eclipse today all were part and parcel of the world of the church, and in particularly of the mainline Protestant churches that many of us grew up in and of which at least some of us remain part.
We, the mainline churches, were about all four of these: patriotism, faith, family, and community. So if life today prioritizes all of these less, it stands to reason that the religious congregations that have been about these things would experience decline.
Often when focusing on church decline, I and others have put the blame on the churches. Not without reason. Our flaws and failures are many. And yet, it may also be the case that what we’ve traditionally been about things American society and people aren’t prioritizing now. Maybe we need to give higher priority to understanding and speaking to people’s fears, and doing so in a way that builds trust and renews faith.