After we recovered from the immediate shock of 9/11, Americans sprung into action as one organism, uncaring of any ideological or social differences that may have separated us. Yet in the past fifteen years, we have fragmented and, in the process, lost the ability to speak of the moral and spiritual questions that affect our society in a post-9/11 America.
We encountered this question—that of the American soul—two generations ago. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans proved their courage and love and might. We won, only to find another adversary threatening our safety—the Soviet Union. Most Americans viewed the Cold War as a battle between the freedom of democracy and the chains of communism; Reinhold Niebuhr understood it as a conflict of moral and spiritual forces within the human soul.
He was not alone: William Faulkner in his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech said our fear of being blown up caused us to forget the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” Whittaker Chambers describes the Communist ideology as an attempt to eradicate the faith by which human beings and societies live and die. The Cold War presented the United States with an existential crisis not because it threatened our very existence but because it made us question the purpose of our existence.
The same question is posed to the American people today, albeit by a very different enemy. As Reinhold Niebuhr lays out in The Irony of American History, the crisis tendencies of the people is to the extremes—either toward naive idealism or bitter realism. Naive idealism convinces Americans we can fix the brokenness of the world through the proliferation of our doctrine; bitter realism suggests we hunker down in our fortress for the world is fraught with perils.
With the war in Iraq, we succumbed to naive idealism only to realize no amount of military might or democratic persuasion could cure hatred. In fact, we only succeeded in multiplying it. Now we are slipping into the bitter realism characterized by popular demand to screw the others and put ourselves first. These extremes are a self-sustaining ecosystem in which fear and disillusionment triumph over virtue. Here, we observe the drama of history is acted out within the theater of the soul.
Leaders in the American community, especially those with a national audience, must address the growing existential fear Americans harbor due to the rise of terrorism in the twenty-first century. And they must not do so in purely economic or political terms, frosted with idealistic or cynical philosophies. They must offer an alternative—a discourse that addresses the moral and spiritual cravings of the human heart.
Joshua Cayetano is a Richter Scholar and a student in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. He is majoring in political science and history with a focus on Middle Eastern studies. Originally from Pacifica, California, he enjoys traveling to different countries, sitting on the beach with any good book, or playing basketball.
Photo by Patrick Tomasso via Unsplash