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A culture -- if we can keep it

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Could it be that the cause for the loss of national hope and happiness is related to the abuse of cultural foundations -- family, community, and church?

Kevin and Marilyn
Ryan

America is spectacular. We have a beautiful and spacious country, rich with natural resources and a gifted people drawn from the four corners of the earth. At this moment, our economy is barreling along, bringing us even greater wealth and opportunity. We are the envy of the world. People are clamoring to get in.

While our citizens acknowledge our national blessings in surveys, they also report in the same surveys a decline in the virtue of hope. So, too, with happiness, particularly among American youth. What is causing this dangerous erosion of the American spirit? One possible answer is a growing loss of cultural security.

Cultural security, a relatively new term, refers to how individuals think and feel about their well-being and their place in the world. How do they feel about their future and their relationships with those around them?

One way to think about our cultural security is to think about how the average American lives today compared to how Americans lived their lives 200 years ago, when the overwhelming percentage of us lived in villages, a time of comparative material poverty, where daily life was highly predicable. It was a time when a boy expected to follow the occupation path of his father and a girl expected to be a housewife and raise a family like her mother. Contrast this with the enormous growth in material advantages of today's young, but also the uncertain future they face today. Their great loss has been in cultural security.

A nation's culture and prosperity rests on three primary institutions: the family, the church, and the community. The family is the nurturing environment, where the young are taught skills and values, how to live and prosper in the everyday world. The community is where we learn how to live in peace and solidarity with others, how to give and take and how to serve others for the common good. The church is where they gain a larger view of who they are and what is expected of them. All three of these cultural foundations of human life have undergone profound transformations in recent years.

America has been a leader in cultural change. We are acknowledged as a daringly experimental society. Up until now, that has brought us great prosperity and international power. However, in the process, our "experimental society" has shaken the foundations of our culture. The question is, "How is the experiment working out?"

Yet, our media, a major force in shaping our present culture, mainly ignores the larger question of our national cultural security. On the other hand, it does give us a daily report card on the effects of the experiment: a nation with a huge debt and increasingly hardened political divide; the economic hollowing out of large parts of our country, massive social problems, such as our opioid deaths, homelessness, uncontrollable crime, and increasing racial and religious tensions. These are hardly the fruits of a vibrant cultural security.

Could it be that the cause for the loss of national hope and happiness is related to the abuse of cultural foundations -- family, community and church?

One doesn't have to look back 200 years to see the changes in the American family. While we still use the word "family," its meaning has changed radically. For instance, between 1960 and 2016, the percentage of children living in families with two parents decreased from 88 to 69 percent. Once largely limited to poor and minority women, single motherhood is now becoming the new norm. Today, about 4 out of 10 children are born to unwed mothers. The lack of a male role model in the home has been a major contributor to what is called "the crisis of boys," their failure to mature into adulthood.

Two parents working long hours and having to travel far from home to their jobs has weakened the influence of parents, leaving much of their children's moral education to pop culture. Family dinners and the telling of their family's story -- the glue of family life -- are increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

The powerful impact of community life has also undergone drastic change. The slogan, "It takes a village to raise a child" seems almost laughable. In modern, mobile America, where so many are moving and have little time, there is limited real opportunity to get to know one's neighbors.

One strong indicator of community -- until recently an American hallmark -- was our high level of community service and volunteerism, such as aiding the sick and the poor, tutoring, coaching or mentoring children. Studies show that in the last two decades, fewer Americans are volunteering and giving of their time than any period in recent history.

This behavior of adults has not been lost on the young. High school and college students are less likely to volunteer or give to charity today than they were 15 years ago. The bonds that link us together have become increasingly fragile.

Then, there is the church, not just our Church, but churches in which once was the most religiously healthy country in the world. Our Founding Fathers, religious and non-religious, were convinced that recognition of a Supreme Being was not just a social value, but a need for a democratic nation. They saw religion as elevating men and women out of their selfish lives and becoming part of what we Catholics call the Communion of Saints, a transcendent connection among people that demands that we take seriously the wellbeing of others. Without such a world view, we slip into a "survival of the fittest" mentality, where "the other" is either something to be manipulated for our own gain or an enemy to be dealt with.

The roots of our once strong culture are dying. And, perhaps, the battle has been lost. Many are convinced that the American Moment is over, and we are being pushed aside by more unified nations with more vital and disciplined cultures.

But a culture is man-made. So, instead of passively accepting the new cultural status quo, take up a cause, big or small. Fight the scourge of pornography. Demand the right and financial resources to educate our children as you see fit. Urge our state reps (some who claim to be Catholics) to take up the cause of the unborn. Push all our politicians to confront the national debt, which is loading the next generation with a massive debt burden. Work to clean up our airways and put a brake on vulgar and violent content.

Every generation is confronted with some challenge, such as a war or a crippling depression. Our generation is called to reclaim its culture. We owe it to our past. We owe it to the future.

- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.



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