In my recent entry on being American I quoted John McCain and Thornton Wilder as authorities. McCain evidently views America as a sort of overriding moral cause that we should all buy into, Thornton Wilder as an inescapable reality and predicament we must accept and deal with on its own terms. That is to say, their understanding of America is their religion. It defines what they believe is ultimately real and unavoidable and obligatory, at least for us (as with Wilder) and possibly for everyone (as with McCain).
That’s just their angle, though. It’s true that various neoconservatives and other politicians continue to profess Americanism as a religion, and Richard Rorty apparently proposed it as a Leftist strategy, but it has receded since the ’60s, partly because of the Vietnam war and other displeasing features of American life but more basically because of the general convergence of America with Europe and much of the rest of the world. In its place there has been a trend, at least among the well-placed and influential and their hangers-on, toward History and Scientific Rationality as religions.
History, like Americanism, takes the social system of which one is part and its internal tendencies as the ultimate standard, but looks more to an incipient global system than to local peculiarities. Scientific Rationality treats procedures likes those of the modern natural sciences, together with various supposedly rational default positions, as sufficient for all realities that need concern us. Usually the two are combined: the emerging global system claims to embody scientific rationality, and scientific rationality is thought an all-conquering force that will soon bring everything under its sway. (People say postmodernism or some such has superseded scientific rationality, but the latter is still the functional view and postmodernism etc. mostly a way of making meaningful criticism impossible.)
It seems there’s a basic problem with all these views, one Thornton Wilder noted and emphasized: “Americans are still engaged in inventing what it is to be an American.” None of these grand principles—America, Science, Global Society—tell us what’s worth doing, and on the whole they deny that we can stably be anything whatever. Our purpose and identity becomes self-invention, which obviously goes nowhere, so we get bored and disgusted and turn to stupid diversions: the consumer society and pop culture. Emerson, of course, put it best: “Whilst we are waiting, we beguile the time with jokes, with sleep, with eating, and with crimes.”
Religions that don’t illuminate and don’t satisfy don’t last. Man is a social animal, but the society around us is no longer one that can socialize us. It moves too much on the level of what it understands as the public sphere—free contract and legal regulation—and defines everything else too forcefully as private taste and so excludes it from any scheme of objective value. “I believe in America” is rather in decline. “I believe in Science and Reason,” or “Tolerance and Progress,” or “the EU” will I think follow suit. Most of those faiths have become somewhat ashamed to speak their names in demanding intellectual circles, and when demanding intellectuals notice that something’s amiss social institutions and the people are likely eventually to follow.
So what will happen? The New Age seems a bit of a stopgap, the consumer society and pop culture gone spiritual. To my mind a radical turn is likely at some point. That is why I think the recent motu proprio liberalizing the availability of the old Tridentine Mass is so important. The New Mass accepted and subordinated itself to the modern world, which seems likely to disappear because of its own incapacities. The Old Mass didn’t bother accepting anything, except what is permanent in our situation, and responded to what it accepted by pointing to and presenting something radically other than any social order. As such it was able to ground what has since become known as Western Civilization. On the face of things, it could once again became the infinitesimal but infinitely consequential point about which something necessary and new crystallizes. We shall see.