September 1 1995 by JP Donlon
“One of the most striking and unexpected features of late 20th-century American life has been the re-emergence of religious feeling as a major force in politics and culture,” wrote American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Patrick Glynn in a recent policy journal. “It seems to me we are at an important transitional point in Western culture, moving out of the great modern era, with its deeply secular premises, into a new age that will not only be ‘postmodern,’ but also, in an important sense, ‘post-secular.’”
Judging from early reactions to last issue’s CE roundtable, “Have We Lost Our Moral Compass?” CEOs are not immune to such impulses, if indeed they ever were. As the results of our fax poll (see page 17) indicate, many CEOs recognize that most of the problems afflicting society today are manifestly moral and remarkably resistant to government cure. Poll respondents as well as roundtable participants feel strongly that leaders in both government and business should boldly assert absolute standards of right and wrong. This doesn’t mean that a wave of religious feeling is sweeping corporate boardrooms. Yet in talking with CEOs, I have heard many echo the sentiments of William Bennett, former education secretary and author of the bestseller “Book of Virtues,” who identifies “a corruption of the heart, a turning away in the soul” as the source of this decline. Bennett argues in “America’s Revolt Against God,” an article last year in Commentary magazine, that America is validating on a national scale the Augustinian insight that private belief in God, or lack of such belief, carries with it profound public consequences.
This also may explain in part the current metaphysical struggle within Congress in shaping its legislative agenda. Economic conservatives focus on the budget as the source of our problems, while social and religious conservatives focus on the Supreme Court and the secular humanist ideology behind decisions they regard as objectionable. Regardless of party affiliation, economic conservatives are anti-statist in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek. Social conservatives, Republican or not, find contemporary liberalism corroding the values of decent society. President Clinton and the rear guard of statist Democrats have become bystanders to the wider social debate.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, social critic William Kristol argues that the social-religious conservatives ultimately will prevail. Contrary to Big Media’s view that this is a political movement, Kristol argues that we are witnessing a religious movement with political implications, in the tradition of religious “awakenings” common in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, “but which, it has been commonly assumed, have no place in our secular, ‘enlightened’ 20th century.” He points to the rise of something called “Promise Keepers.” These are all-day meetings of men only (quick, call the gender police!) who pay $55 to spend 10 hours in a stadium pledging fidelity to their wives and children while singing Christian hymns. Four years ago, 4,000 attended the inaugural meeting. This summer, more than half a million attended. “After more than a century of militant secularism, hedonism, and materialism, all leading to carnivalistic nihilism,” writes Kristol, “a religious revival of some kind is in line with historical precedent. It is happening now. Its consequences for American society are bound to be large.”
Just as there is much about the business cycle we don’t understand, there is much about the spiritual cycle we don’t grasp. In “The Brothers Karamazov,” Dostoyevsky has Ivan Karamazov saying that in a world without God, “everything is permissible.” Bollinger Bolsheviks frequently but falsely link capitalism and license, but anyone familiar with “The Wealth of Nations” knows that Adam Smith reckoned that the strength of a vibrant market economy presupposes a strong social order, or at least a moral cohesiveness.