Having ventured into the realm of high generalization about cultural systems, in my second entry I wish to raise my game to a still higher level.
We have heard many warnings recently from Church leaders about American and world culture spiraling downwards. While this diagnosis can be debated (it is always the best of times and the worst of times), a pessimistic mood has prevailed at Church headquarters. Some relief was granted in this last conference when a few talks struck the theme of “Don’t Despair.”
I believe there are grounds for adopting the pessimistic stand because morally and religiously our culture has been hollowed out. Neither our theological beliefs nor our moral standards are supported in the cultural systems that dominate our society: capitalism, democracy, and science.
I do not mean to say no men and women of faith and high moral standards remain in American society. Just the reverse is true. We meet people everyday whose integrity and moral conduct put most Mormons to shame. These are our allies in the effort to uphold faith in a disbelieving world. What I do mean to say is that the prevailing cultural systems, the ones acknowledged as valid by the official institutions of the country like the government and the schools, do not validate our fundamental beliefs. Strong religious institutions with parallel beliefs and standards to ours exist, but they are sectarian. They are not universally acknowledged as valid. They are the convictions of part of the people.
At the beginning of the century it was not so. Protestant culture, as Jan Shipps has argued, remained an unofficial religious establishment. You need only tour the Columbia campus, viewing the stone inscriptions on buildings erected in the first two decades, to realize how religious language was used to express a university’s highest ideals. At that time it was explicitly Christian. By the middle of the century, Christianity had expanded to Judeo-Christian. Sometime in the last fifty years, Judeo-Christian disappeared and no explicitly religious language remains. Now the cross on the Columbia seal is an embarrassment to the university.
What remains, science, democracy, and capitalism, have powerful moral values of their own. Science with its open pursuit of truth, democracy with its equal rights for all, and capitalism with rewards to industry and skill, but none of these require belief in God or observance of what we call moral standards. You need not be generous or chaste to thrive in any of these cultures, and you certainly need not believe. They are all godless in the sense of not requiring faith of successful practitioners.
This detachment from religious belief and moral standards seemed innocuous for a long time. Religion throve in the interstices. It was not necessary for official validation when most people of good will still embraced religious belief and the official cultures did not officially attack religion. But the hollowness of the religious culture was revealed in the sixties when pressure on the ostensible religious and moral structures of the nation led to a collapse. I am not one to blame the sixties for everything wrong in society, as right-wing commentators are wont to do. I am simply saying that the sixties were a revelation. Insomuch as moral standards fell in that decade, it was a sign that the official culture offered no support. The ideological foundation of belief had been gutted. The democratic value of equality came to prevail over all others.
For all these reason I foresee a continuation and perhaps growth of unbelief at the heart of the culture–in the media and in the universities. There will be resurgences of religious faith; the need to believe is too strong to be permanently obliterated. But those who disbelieve will have the greatest confidence in their position. They will say that reason offers no basis for believing, where the word “reason” stands for the prevailing wisdom of the culture which indeed offers no basis for belief. That basis is not present in science, democracy, or capitalism. Mormons will have allies, friends, and admirers, but we will face unrelenting criticism and opposition from those who argue that our beliefs and our moral standards are unreasonable. More and more of our brothers, sisters, cousins, and children will wander off into the fields of unbelief while the inhabitants of the spacious building point and laugh.