The inauguration of a new President looms before us. Since my focus is worldview and paradox in modern life, I’ll leave the political commentary to the pundits. However, this inauguration offers an opportunity to highlight an ongoing worldview shift for many Americans.
Simply put, the importance of character has been so diminished, I wonder if it will ever return to its former valued position in our culture.
I want to look at character today through the lens of two extended comments. First, here’s a thoughtful comment from one of my readers in response to my post, “Can Character Make a Comeback?” last August:
One hundred years ago, most people in the US were members of one Christian or Jewish denomination or another. Character was not a universal quality among the population, but it was highly valued by the population, and very small character defects, if made public, were considered to make one ineligible to hold public office. In the Sixties, I worked for the US General Accounting Office, an investigative agency that reports to Congress. A top secret security clearance was a minimum requirement for employment, and we could not accept more than a cup of coffee (literally) from anyone that we were investigating. Virtually all employees with whom I came in contact within GAO dealt with classified information, and our ethics rules in a most serious manner.
Now, there is a much smaller percentage of folks in the US who profess to be Christians, Jews or any other religion and there appears to be far less value placed on character by the citizenry. Fifty years ago, neither Trump nor HRC would have made it past the first round of the primaries. And, this lack of character appears to me to permeate many private and public entities. I suppose that we will, as a society, get the government that we deserve, but I grieve for the country.
I agree that 50 years ago neither of this year’s candidates would likely have been nominated, although, in my mind at least, the character flaws each presented were in no way equal or symmetrical. But my focus is character itself—why does character no longer seem to count as Americans make decisions about all kinds of things, not just their President?
This leads to the second quote from a fascinating piece by columnist David Brooks. He discusses how, beginning in the 1940’s, American culture moved away from understanding of the self as needing character formation and toward a self seeking self-fulfillment and self-glorification:
We now live in a world in which commencement speakers tell students to trust themselves, listen to themselves, follow their passions, to glorify the Golden Figure inside. We now live in a culture of the Big Me, a culture of meritocracy where we promote ourselves and a social media culture where we broadcast highlight reels of our lives. What’s lost is the more balanced view, that we are splendidly endowed but also broken. And without that view, the whole logic of character-building falls apart. You build your career by building on your strengths, but you improve your character by trying to address your weaknesses.
So perhaps the culture needs a rebalance. The romantic culture of self-glorification has to be balanced with an older philosophic tradition, based on the realistic acknowledgment that we are all made of crooked timber and that we need help to cope with our own tendency to screw things up. That great tradition and body of wisdom was accidentally tossed aside in the late 1940s. It’s worth reviving and modernizing it.
Indeed, that we are all endowed but also broken–that we are “made of crooked timber”–is the orthodox Christian worldview. Without this Christian worldview—exactly as my reader in the first quote points out—character has declined in America. It has been replaced by self-promotion.
Question: What can each of us do personally to reverse character’s lack of influence in America today?