Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Culture and the American Experience

The United States is a young nation. Since the founding of this country, we have become an ever-increasing mix of different races and religions. Contrary to other countries around the world whose people are united by a common race, history or religion, we are united by the principles of our founding; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our ancestors left the Old World for the New World in search of opportunity and freedom. These prized, sought after goals summoned people from around the world and resulted in a deep melting pot of cultures rarely seen in the history of the world. Citizens from nations that were hundreds, even thousands, of years old left behind their motherland for this virgin soil. The United States now harbors within her borders Chinese, Indians, French, Russians, Latin Americans, Italians, Africans, the list goes on and on. An important question needs to be considered; What is American culture? If culture is something that results from a people’s shared experience in history, resulting over centuries of societal evolution, what can be said of “American culture”? Could it be that we have an identity crisis within our borders?

American Life Posted by Hello

It would be helpful to consider the role of religion within the life of a culture. The ancient nations of the world have been forged by the influence of whatever faith is dominant in that particular society. As a result, religion becomes perhaps the dominant factor in a society’s culture. Elements that make up a particular culture (art, music, literature or just daily life) are strongly influenced by its particular religion. This perhaps can most clearly be seen within the life of European nations. In addition to having very distinct national cultures, (there is a “French way”, an “Italian way”, a “Spanish way”, etc., of doing things) there does exist a shared European culture among most of the nations, in particular the Catholic ones. It has been said for example, that in Spain the Catholic Church is not a Church, but the Church. It literally defines the culture of Spain. Christianity is undeniably the most formative force on the European continent. Attempts by European leaders to resist acknowledging its Christian heritage in the EU constitution is nothing short of a large scale state of denial. This kind of cultural formation can be found on other continents as well, regardless of the religion. Certainly the ancient cultures and nations of Asia have been molded over the millennia by common experience, including most especially, common religion. Enter the United States of America.

The United States is becoming more and more diverse. Recent statistics show that Asians and Latin Americans are immigrating to the United States at a massive level. What defines us as a nation? Do we have a “way” of doing things? Is a cultural identity possible with such a diversity of immigrants who possess a wide range of beliefs and values, rooted in vastly different historical contexts? In what are we “United”? Perhaps it is better to ask, What unites us? The United States of America is proud of its diversity of different religious beliefs. Whether Catholic, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim, we are all Americans and we coexist with any and all peace loving people. But if what defined a people for centuries was their culture, rooted in ancient religious tradition, what can be said of an American culture? What will the role of religion be in our culture? Are our founding principles (liberty in particular) enough to form an authentic culture, especially since our culture is composed of a wide mixture of other varying, and much older, cultures? At such events as the Olympics, we wave our flag as proudly as any nation. Our flag is lost in the sea of flags from the nations of the world. For each flag, there is a distinct culture, a way of life that corresponds to that flag. The question remains…what is our culture? I'm not suggesting that we don't have one, but it might be harder to pin down than others.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Reagan Legacy

Time will tell how large an impact the presidency of Ronald Reagan will have on history. For now, it’s safe to say that much of what we enjoy as Americans today can be traced back to Reagan’s legacy. National pride, national security, and economic prosperity were brought back to a nation that for years had been lost in a mix of scandal, botched military missions and erroneous economic policies. He also reminded us that the United States of America is a nation set apart, a shinning city on a hill with a global mission to summon the world to the cause of freedom. In response to the godless Socialism of the pernicious Soviet Union, Reagan boldly asserted the Judeo-Christian morality of Western civilization. In opposition to d├ętente, Reagan favored a strong confrontation against Communism, determined to see its demise. He reasserted and reinforced the strength of America’s military abroad, and as a result, boosted the morale of our military. In response to the big government mentality dominant since the time of FDR, Reagan proposed that “government is not the solution, it is the problem”. He believed in the ability, and dignity, of each individual to achieve anything, so long as government did not interfere. He upheld the belief in a free-market ecomony as positive alternative the the Keynesian-saturated policies of the Carter era. He reminded us that the strength and beauty of America lies not in the halls of Congress, but in the hearts of ordinary Americans.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, Americans had become deeply jaded and insecure. The Watergate scandal had sapped a good deal of credibility from our politicians. The prolonged conflict in Vietnam, resulting in thousands of American casualties, left America feeling stunned and humiliated on the world stage. America’s ignominious retreat in Vietnam was due more to the incompetence and feckless policies of our political leaders rather than any failure of the military. Other events, such as the American hostages in Iran and the botched rescue attempt by the Carter administration again left Americans feeling shamed. While Communism seemed to be spreading without limits, the United States seemed crippled and impotent. When Ronald Reagan came into office after a landslide victory, he immediately let it be known that America was back and injected into the veins of our society an optimism and excitement not felt since the early days of the Kennedy administration. The American hostages were released upon Reagan taking office and over the course of his presidency, the Soviet Union would face a gradual decline in power and influence eventually leading to its collapse. Reagan insisted on a pay increase for the United States military and restored America’s trust in her Armed Forces. Reagan believed that if Americans had more control of their hard-earned money, the nation would prosper as a result. He was right. His tax cuts resulted in an economic boom and his small government philosophy demolished forever the appeal of big government. Years later, Bill Clinton himself declared famously, “the era of big government is over”. This coming from the icon of modern liberalism; who would have thought? Ronald Reagan was unabashed in his faith and trust in God. This stood in stark contrast to the atheism running rampant throughout Communist controlled nations. His spirit inspired us to once again believe that America was a unique country in world history and that the United States was a nation to be proud of. His joy, humor and optimism was infectious and touched Americans of both parties.

In his eulogy, President Bush said memorably that “Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now, but we preferred it when he belonged to us”. This is true. In a very real way, he is still with us. Certainly his policies will have had an everlasting impact on the conservative movement in America. The person of Ronald Reagan transcended the label of “Republican” and party politics. He was and always will be quintessentially American.

Ronald Reagan Posted by Hello

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Catholic University Student

Often in discussions with friends, we hit on the state of the Catholic university student in America. Perhaps I sound like an unrealistic optimist, but I am usually pretty hopeful. For four years at Christendom I was surrounded by serious young Catholics. It was "normal" to see a great percentage of the students attend daily Mass. We all agreed on the basics. Now that I'm home, I'm able to get together with my old friends from high school. They too are all good Catholics, but we all have different college stories to tell. Some who went to larger Catholic universities do not share my optimism. They tell stories of low morality among the student body and Catholic professors who are far from authoritative on serious issues. Some friends often felt isolated and their desire to participate in the social life of the university clashed with their personal disgust with the lives many of their fellow students. While I am grateful for my experience at Christendom, sometimes I wonder if it presented me with an realistic impression regarding the state of our young university peers.

Some of my friends are now in graduate school and their observations regarding the morality of their fellow students is equally troubling. Those in medical school tell of professors and students who disregard the transcendent dignity of the human person in favor of a cold, utilitarian vision of medicine. In our discussions, my friends and I agree that many young Catholics feel a void in their souls. They are searching for something that would give meaning to their existence. If they are presented with the truth in a way that personally relates to them, they will usually respond. The "If it feels good, do it" motto of our parents' generation has become tiresome and many young people are beginning to realize this and are embracing religion in the hope of finding meaning and fulfillment. Many have accepted the challenge of Pope John Paul II to live a life of responsibility, authentic love and holiness. Our current culture preaches a radical individualism that results in self-alienation and emptiness. There's definitely a lot of work to do, but it looks like there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Young Catholics are embracing their faith with renewed appreciation and hope. Maybe we could start a little discussion of our own experiences and thoughts regarding this topic. We all come from different backgrounds, some are students, others are in the work force or military, so each insight will be extremely useful in arriving at a better understanding of the current situation.