Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Kinder, Gentler America

Our 41st president, George H.W. Bush ran his presidential campaign on the slogan, "a kinder, gentler, nation." Many made fun of his idea, but I think it was a good one.

Last evening, Sally and I joined some friends at the Riverside Dinner Theater in Fredricksburg, VA. We saw The Music Man. We truly enjoyed a wonderful time of fellowship with friends and found the production very uplifting. The story takes place in the early part of the twentieth century in the fictional town of River City, Iowa. The musical brings classic Americana to life, revisting an era of our history when things were slower, simpler, and less taxing on the soul.

A couple of years back, we saw the musical Showboat at this same theater. That presentation, too, reminded us of an America that seems so distant from us now.

I have three wonderful daughters. They are all grown up now and on their own. As I consider their future, and that of my granddaughter, my heart feels sad.

I want my kids to know that America was once a very special place—even more special than it is today.

French traveler and writer Alexis de Toqueville coined the term, "American Exceptionalism" during his visit to America in the 1830's. Somewhere in me, and I suspect in many Americans, there is a belief that our nation differs from the other developed nations of this world. Our unique Christian origins, our national creed, our history, our distinctive religious institutions, and our constitutional system of government, set us apart from all other nations.

The by-product of these and other cultural influences was (and still is to a lesser degree) a nation in which the individual was respected and general civility and neighborliness were the norm and not the exception. There were of course pockets in this country where these virtues were not practiced as they should have been, but in my view the anomalies do not outweigh the good that was America.

Today's American culture is crass by comparison. Civility has, in the culture at large, been replaced with impropriety, immodesty, and impudence.

Pop culture is ugly. It lacks beauty. It is devoid of the honorable. It is cheap, inelegant, and clearly low-class. It is second-rate to what it once was.

Pop culture is ugly because pleasing the self rather than pleasing God has become the norm. In the last fifty years, we have have learned to prize personality more than character. We have exchanged a common virtue for individualized, self-determined values. Pop culture does not esteem probity, prudence or purity. But America used to treasure those things.

I sometimes watch old movies on the Turner Classic Movies channel. I wish my kids enjoyed those old films like I do. Filmakers used to promote the kinds of principles and practices that made America a great nation. Few films today buttress the qualities of virtue, morality, temperance, and righteousness.

I am sad when I hear from people I love that they have enjoyed a film which promotes crassness and bad behavior. I ponder, with a measure of melancholy, whether my generation will be the last generation of Americans to have truly known and seen just a little bit of that kinder, gentler, America.


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