What gives life purpose? What gives life meaning?
These are two of the most important questions in life that we are not supposed to talk about in public. In order to make our liberal, tolerant social order work, we decided that it was no longer socially acceptable to talk about these topics in public.
We did this because questions such as these concern what we most value, which can invite bitter conflict when there is disagreement over their answers. So, without the society at large determining questions of ultimate value, the people were left to find the meaning and purpose structures privately within common social life — consisting of the mere political and economic realms of life.
The problems with this result are manifold: first, the political and economic realms of life are not really separable from the meaning and purpose realms, or, in other words, the economic and political realms cannot be separated from the realm of ultimate value. Secondly, the separation worked better when the local communities and churches were stronger and when the differing answers to the questions of value were more similar than they are now such that people could find common ground on their implications in economic and political questions. We took for granted that the liberal idea of dismissing value questions from public life would work because we all had value systems stemming from a common Judeo-Christian heritage. This is no longer the case.
Why can’t the political and economic realms of life be separated from questions of ultimate value? Well, first because no realm of life can be separated from questions of ultimate value. Friedrich Hayek, in his book The Road to Serfdom, points out that planned economies cannot work because they require making moral and value judgments for every facet of existence from the top down. How is this the case? Making economic decisions means deciding that some things are more important than others. Let me give an example of household budgeting to illustrate the point. Let’s say someone has $1,000 to decide how to spend. Let’s also say that they need to spend $250 of that money in order to not be hungry. Still, a person may decide to spend more than $250 on food. Why would they do that? The answer depends on the value the person places on food. Some people find food, especially good food, incredibly valuable. What I am describing here is the difference in value judgments based on taste. Different people prefer to spend their time and resources in different ways. This is no big deal in an economic system where people have the freedom to decide to spend their money on what they like, as opposed to having some bureaucrat make the decision for them.
However, we still have to make economic decisions, bearing some anarchistic worldview, and make value judgments about what should be prioritized. Even from a strong libertarian point of view, where the only valid forms of use for government power are the military and police, we still have to decide how much money to spend on these services and in what manner they should operate. For example, baked into libertarian ideas about what types of actions are right for the state is that liberty is to be given a very high place in the order of value. A different value system might view order and safety as worthwhile reasons to sacrifice certain liberties. Clearly, both perspectives are going to have very different viewpoints on how much should be spent on military and police and in what manner those organizations should function.
Today many people complain about, and rightly notice, how divided our country has become. I cannot help but think that as the value systems Americans use to guide their lives become more diverse, we have a harder time coming to agreements about how to run our country. But the problem really runs deeper than just diverging values because the systems by which agreement might be forged have collapsed. This collapse and what I will spend the rest of this paper investigating are very much related to the second problem I pointed out earlier: the collapse of local communities and churches.
The first function of local communities and churches was to pass on the value systems on which America has traditionally run and flourished. Tocqueville observed in his book, Democracy in America, that the American system functioned because of the strength of its churches because they form the moral character of the people, which then forms the manner in how they vote and govern themselves. Churches, and the local communities that met in those churches, passed on and formed the next generations with the system of values by which the Americans before them had lived and how they would raise the generation that came after them.
With the rise of industrialization, the manner in which Americans had lived radically changed. A society that had mainly consisted of rural people and farmers increasingly became centered around large industrial centers in cities. This meant the breaking up of the smaller communities and churches that had formed the values of each generation before then. While American religiosity remained high, the groundwork was set for what would lead to its decline in the future. In a small town, everybody knows everybody. When you go to church in such an environment, you will know almost everyone around you. In city life, which begins to develop as more typical for Americans going forward, this kind of experience would become less and less common. Instead, many people would go to church and know a small portion of the people sitting next to them in the pews. This has been my experience growing up in the city of Austin. However, after visiting my dad’s family in the small town of Shiner, Texas, I can see what it is like to be a part of this intense community experience.
I have identified the elements of local community and church as the relevant levels of analysis for value formation for two reasons. First, the church has been the institution that espouses a doctrine of value. But it is equally important that this doctrine of value finds a realization in practical action. This is where the local community comes in and why it is especially valuable that the local community be organized around the church. The Christian faith teaches that a person ought to love their neighbor. For someone well situated in a community, this teaching takes on immediate practical application. It is easy to imagine what this looks like in terms of the people you like and the people you find more difficult to associate with. There will also be a profound sense of cognitive dissonance present in a community that is organizing itself around a set of principles but failing to live up to them.
In a deeper way, however, what a value system is supposed to tell a person is what they should do. In our modern atomized world, we have value systems that are dissociated from immediate practical action and a sense of personal responsibility. Someone reading this article so far may have wondered and assumed what I was referring to by the diverging value systems of our nation. Some may have assumed that I would think Islam is the value system of most concern. I do not believe this. While it may be more difficult to find common ground in values between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Islamic tradition, Muslims still share a great deal with the Judeo-Christian tradition in terms of values. The most troubling part about the Islamic tradition in terms of its compatibility with our liberal social order is its tradition of winning converts by violence instead of by speech. Although, it would appear that most American Muslims do not follow that tradition of violence. I actually see secular religions as the greatest threat and divergence from the traditional value systems that have guided our country. I have identified the two main strains of secular religion, or value systems, present in our country as what I will refer to as Politicalism and Wokeism.
I identify Politicalism as the strain most present on the right side of the political spectrum. While many of the people who practice this secular religion may appear to adhere to traditional religion in some ways, I identify it as distinct in that it is realized in a transition of values to action that exists almost entirely in the political realm. These people can be identified by an almost obsessive consumption of political news and a high level of engagement. This system of belief works like this: the person poses a set of beliefs most centered on the political realm and finds their realization in action by constant political engagement. This way of living becomes strongly ideological. Right and wrong become about espousing the right set of beliefs rather than a personal confrontation, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn believed, with the line of good and evil that runs down the heart of every human being. It excuses people from the personal responsibility of becoming virtuous.
This gets to the root of why the “secular religions” are properly understood as ideologies. True religion offers a person a value system that requires the personal pursuit of virtue. An ideology allows a person to excuse themselves from personal moral responsibility and to draw the lines of good and evil outside of themselves. This gives people the direction of an answer of what to do without the pain and burden of confronting the evil within themselves. Rather, they can find their sense of direction in fighting the “evil” of those people who stand on the other side of their ideological line. Politicalism is the result of the atomization of human beings who have lost the line of connection between values and action because they have been disconnected from the local communities and churches that used to provide this path. Feeling lost, they turn to the only sense of direction their culture still offers them that does not require total rebellion against their traditional values: the political realm. This is the trouble with a society that refuses to talk about ultimate value in the public sphere: people get a reduced version of values through politics, which cannot meet the total needs of the person for direction and purpose. We end up taking what was supposed to be downstream and informed by our highest beliefs and substitute politics for our highest values.
Wokeism, on the other hand, takes the path of total rebellion. It functions as an ideology, drawing the lines of good and evil externally from the person rather than internally. However, unlike Politicalism which uses an atrophied version of the old systems of value, Wokeism rejects them altogether. Drawn from the sense of being lost, without direction and atomizing, this ideology theorizes that the solution to this crisis can only be to destroy the old order. It wants to blame what came before as the cause of the current problems we face. However, our culture must acknowledge Wokeism’s obvious flaws. In order to leave something better for the next generation, we ought to repair and improve the tradition and order that came before. Yet, most people, who have received from their tradition a sense of purpose and direction for their lives and have come to a proper love for their elders, will not be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Wokeists never received a sense of purpose or direction from their tradition. This is part of what makes ideology so attractive. Local communities offer a concrete place in which a purpose is needed, valuable, and able to make a contribution. For those growing up in today’s atomized world, even if they are offered the value direction of the faith, it will more often than not be left as a free hanging set of ideas without a concrete sense of how it is supposed to be acted out such that a person feels that their life has meaning. Wokeism comes in and says here is exactly what you should do and how to do it. Even better, it preaches that a bright new world stands on the horizon through its practice.
A cultural tradition is the generational accumulation of a people’s strivings to live well within the world. When we inherit a tradition, we inherit the practices that our ancestors used to navigate life, as well as their mistakes. This is why it is necessary to always be building upon and renewing our tradition. But, we must also be cautious before deciding to make any changes, big or small, because sometimes we do not fully understand why our ancestors did something a certain way in the past and, perhaps, they did not fully understand it either. Rather, traditions develop in a somewhat unconscious empirical manner much of the time. One person does something a certain way and finds that it works, and so the people after them do the same thing the same way even if no one necessarily asks how or why it works. So, we would be foolish to toss out tradition after it has served us so well for time immemorial, especially if our reason for doing so is simply not understanding it.
The woke ideology is obsessed with the sins of the West. It is ungrateful for and unable to see all the good that the West has accomplished. It fails to recognize the great accomplishment of the West in abolishing slavery and the beliefs that brought about its abolition, focusing only instead on the evils perpetrated by slavery. They take a Rousseau-like approach, assuming that all human ills are socialized, instead of recognizing the ways in which society has been structured precisely to fix certain human problems even though it fails to solve other problems and sometimes creates new problems with its solutions. Their solution is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, assuming that destroying the old will naturally and inevitably produce something better. This would be like throwing away our entire scientific tradition because it has been wrong about some things in the past and is inevitably wrong about some things now, assuming that if we start again fresh, we would be able to do everything perfectly.
How can we build on and renew our tradition? We can shift our attention from the macro scale and political realm to again focus on the local communities and churches that have been crippled by the changes of our modern world. We do not have to go back, but we have to find a way to rebuild these structures within the context of the world as it is today. This may mean turning back certain changes like reemphasizing federalism in our system of government and working against the increasingly powerful and centralized corporations in favor of local businesses. Most of all though, I think that instead of embracing Politicalism and Wokeism, we need to engage again with our churches and work to build real communities within those institutions. We need to get to know our neighbors and be there for each other through good and bad times. We should pay more attention to local politics than national politics. We should encourage our children to get involved in their local communities and to find ways to contribute, instead of only focusing on a faraway future at college and in the business world.
When we again build a society where we can find meaning in our lives by belonging and working for a group of people who care about us and who we care about, we will overcome the impulse toward ideology. When we can again form communities devoted to the pursuit of ideals that are realized by the attainment of personal virtue instead of utopian world order, we will overcome our divisions. When we engage with people we disagree with on a local level rather than a national level, we are able to forge agreement and find common ground. The key to the renewal of our society is the renewal of local community and religious life.