Small Face-to-Face Christian Communities in a Mean-Spirited & Polarized Society
June 1992By Robert N. Bellah
Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, and senior author of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society.
Walter Brueggemann, one of our most interesting Old Testament scholars, has called the present situation in America an emergency. There are plenty of objective indicators that we are indeed in an emergency, and the subjective perception of an emergency a recent Gallup Poll shows that over 70 percent of Americans think we have gotten off the track is not to be taken lightly. What is the nature of our emergency? Most obviously it is our economic situation, but it is clearly more pervasive, more systemic, than just economics.
In our economy we are not just experiencing a recession but also a spoiled moral environment, to borrow Vaclav Havels words. A recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer makes the point:
Whatever white-collar America once assumed about getting ahead, trusting employers or simply staying employed, the reality of the 1990s is becoming clear: The deal is off. There was an implied contract: You give us your loyalty, well give you security,' says executive-network organizer David Opton of Weston, Conn. Thats not true anymore. Instead as corporate America shrinks, consolidates and otherwise cuts costs, it is squeezing more people out of work and more work out of people than ever before in the careers of managers, office staff and business professionals . The recession were in right now is more than just an economic recession, says Robert Gilbreath, a corporate restructuring consultant in Atlanta. Its a social and cultural recession.Mistrust and its inevitable accompaniment, decline in loyalty, are widespread in the economy just when we need strong, resilient economic organization. A recent poll of 1,000 top company officials shows that 90 percent feel far less loyalty to their firms than they once did.
Such developments suggest that we are indeed not just in an economic recession but in a cultural and social recession as well. It is not only that our economic institutions are not working very well; it is that loyalty, solidarity, what the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes calls adhesion, that basic trust that holds any society together, is weakening generally: It is not only corporations that we dont trust; we are not sure of our schools, many are not even sure of their families, and, overwhelmingly, Americans are deeply suspicious of government, and at every level. So to the economic, social, and cultural recessions we would have to add a political recession. Indeed, the situation is so bad that we can unhesitatingly speak of a political depression of unprecedented severity. Americans dont like their government, they dont think it can do anything well (except to fight Desert Storm), the military and the churches are the only institutions at the moment that can obtain a confidence level above 50 percent, and our political institutions, including the Supreme Court, are at an all time low. Yet Americans do want their government to do something, though they are not sure what, and they are very sure they dont want to pay for it.
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