On December 30, 2016, renowned historian and teacher of world religions, Huston Smith, died at 97. We had the pleasure of working with Huston and his wife, the scholar Kendra Smith, when they authored “The Almost Chosen People” for our Deepening the American Dream series. In this far-reaching essay, Huston and Kendra Smith trace the American sense of liberty as a spiritual concept that has both inspired and eluded us. They track the erosion of the American Dream in the twentieth century and look toward our inevitable membership in the global family of nations forming in the world today. In remembrance and celebration of Huston Smith, here is an excerpt of the 2006 essay.
The American Dream in the Twenty-First Century
Gandhi said that people who think that politics has nothing to do with religion understand neither politics nor religion. He meant that unless religion is little more than a private solace to the individual, we must act collectively—politically—through the institutions that shape our world. If we acknowledge the worth of each individual, seeking a society that makes real the possibility of the American dream for each one, we must participate responsibly and wisely through these institutions. The most important of these are religion, economic structures, education, and—presiding over all of these because it protects our security as individuals and as a community—government. Today none of these institutions is serving us well. Individual achievement and success are only a small part of the American dream of realizing our full potential as human beings within the sacred body of life. We depend on others for both our individual development and our communal well-being. Let us look briefly at each of these institutions.
All human societies give religion a prominent place. It energizes and frames the meaning of our lives. In America, it has sustained those who risked their lives in the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement, through death marches and imprisonment, and in all our movements for justice. Human beings are capable of heroism and great endurance when they believe they are part of something larger and greater than themselves—in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God—and when they have the moral support of a spiritual community. Love—love of God and a responsible loving care for others—casts out fear. When love is central, religion is a beneficent engine.
On the other hand,
when religion is primarily a defense against fear of the Other, of persons who have different beliefs or who look different or have different rituals or lifestyles, religion is an equally strong ingredient in causing disrespect at best and persecution and violence at worst.
Where fear and a need for certainty rule, religion becomes authoritarian, intolerant, and militant. We see this in pockets of our own country and in others that fear our cultural influences as well as our military and economic domination.
Religion (which is to say Christianity) in America is currently hamstrung between liberals and conservatives (typically referred to as fundamentalists or evangelicals) who cancel each other out. Fundamentalists are similar in their insistence that the Bible be read literally, but they differ in their outreach. Some provide spiritual homes for persons who are adrift or addicted, while others present a legalistic and condemning face to the world. At one extreme of the religious spectrum are those who deny that we are responsible for our planet, who embrace an “end times” doomsday scenario, an Armageddon, claiming this as proof of their faith in God. On the other, more activist end are others who would throw out judges and overturn the rule of law in the name of God. What is needed is an infusion of respect to enable people of differing beliefs to work together for justice and a caring community.
Liberals, in contrast, tend to be socially responsible but have lost their sense of transcendence, and more liberal denominations are losing members rapidly. The distinguished sociologist Peter Berger tells us that if anything characterizes modernity, it is a loss of the sense of transcendence—of a reality that exceeds and encompasses our everyday affairs. Universities incorporate that loss, and as clergy need to be educated, their university education dilutes their confidence in transcendence. Yet the conservatives’ grip on transcendence is no stronger. Theology has thus transformed into ethical philosophy, while piety has turned into morality. As a result, the authority of religion has waned along with the mystery of the sacred. This situation has led, on balance, to a secularized America and a growing backlash against it in ultraconservatism. In the words of the novelist Saul Bellow, “It is hard to see how modern beings can survive on what they now get from their conscious minds, especially now that there is a kind of veto against impermissible thoughts, the most impermissible being the notion that human beings might have spiritual lives of which they are not conscious.”
Recent years have seen the growing conviction that government is no longer “of the people, by the people, and for the people” but an alien behemoth that arbitrarily throws its weight around. This attitude is reflected in the too often heard rationales for not voting: that a vote makes no difference and that all politicians are the same. The same cynicism is expressed when people say that we have the best congressional representative (or senator or president) that “money can buy.” Political candidates who say, “It’s not the government’s money; it’s your money” do us a disservice by strengthening the delusion that government—its debts and spending priorities—have nothing to do with our own values and responsibilities. Voting fraud and the destructive influence of money on politics have been with us since the earliest days of the republic, but apathy and cynicism are pernicious, and remedies that keep pace with changing technology can be found. Government is the way, the only way, that we as a people can act collectively to extend the blessings of the American dream, although religiously inspired movements have often provided the momentum that culminated in law (for example, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s).
Abraham Lincoln, in the 1859 speech in Illinois that thrust him onto the national stage, spoke eloquently of a danger that faces us now. When people no longer feel that government is representing and serving them, he said, citizens will stop participating in the political process. “There are always men of ability and ambition who will usurp power.” Walter Lippman, a commentator reflecting the same thought in the 1950s, said that in the United States, it would not be a military general who took power but a Mr. Nice Guy. By this he meant that our cultural attitudes and our Constitution would protect us from a military coup, but a low turnout of voters and the general disinterest that confront us would replace a referendum on the issues with a popularity contest. Our constitutional blueprint is sound, but it is not encoded in our DNA.
Apathy and cynicism threaten our liberty more than any external threat. We need to recognize that democracies are fragile and exceedingly rare in the world. The important thing is to care.
By preserving the right to participate in the democratic process, we affirm the worth of each person and express our care for others and for the world.
The full essay is available to read and download here.