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Small Face-to-Face Christian Communities in a Mean-Spirited & Polarized Society

RESPONDING TO OUR MORE-THAN-ECONOMIC RECESSION

By Robert N. Bellah | June 1992
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 Havel’s 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, we’ll give you security,'” says executive-network organizer David Opton of Weston, Conn. “That’s 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 we’re in right now is more than just an economic reces­sion,” says Robert Gilbreath, a corpo­rate restructuring consultant in Atlan­ta. “It’s 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 don’t 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 don’t like their government, they don’t 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 don’t want to pay for it.

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