America, though a wealthy nation, is nevertheless becoming socially stratified -- so much so that those at the fringes of life have lost touch with those at the top. The rich refer to the "poverty problem," and the poor, in turn, blame the rich for all their woes. This rift opens a door for the enemies of our shared values to exploit our differences, and thus weaken our nation.
Of course, social stratification isn't our only problem. Crime and illiteracy are found in every demographic, and in recent years, the quality of education in America has declined for everyone. Grade inflation and plagiarism are growing problems at America's top universities, and are creating a class of white-collar criminals and incompetents whose actions threatened to undermine industry and commerce. On the other end of the spectrum, lack of education, crime, and destructive behavior keeps an underclass permanently entrenched in poverty and despair.
Unfortunately, secular society fails to recognize that these problems all stem from the same root -- the loss of community, and the resulting decline in moral values. Consider this: The average citizen finds herself in a world her forefathers would not have recognized. Our systems and institutions have become increasingly impersonal. No one knows the owner of the retail outlet in his own neighborhood anymore, and no one knows who calls the shots at the multinational corporation that has replaced the community bank.
As our society grows in complexity and expands in bureaucracy, society's leaders become increasingly distant from the average citizen, which results in more bureaucracy. This is the new tyranny -- an oppressive bureaucracy, in which systems and models have replaced human tyrants. The result is the same, as the average citizen is constrained but unable to locate the exact source of the problem (always the case when dealing with a faceless bureaucracy). The appearance of a free society remains: We can still vote and expect to have our votes counted; the judicial system performs at least a ritual of fairness; and the public's exercise of the right of petition for redress of grievance seems to be fairly robust. All the bells and whistles are in place. And yet rich and poor alike continue to suffer under an oppressor as undeniable as it is elusive.
So in the age of impersonal corporations, imperial educational institutions, and impenetrable government bureaucracies, where can one find real connection and accountability? By returning to the lessons of the past. Decent and God-fearing souls must help rebuild American community by reclaiming the traditional values that built it -- faith, thrift, work, social justice, personal accountability, and enlightened compassion. Taken together, these elements make up the fertile soil out of which a vibrant community may grow.
Of course, the recovery of our national and individual values brings other benefits as well. In the tradition of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, revisiting our virtues is an excellent catalyst for new ideas and fresh thinking. And we could use a bit of both right about now.
Printed with permission from InsideCatholic.com.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.