In America, too many of our citizens suffer from material poverty. But an even greater number suffer from spiritual poverty. Leon Kass asks, “How fares the struggle against our spiritual impoverishment? Are we Americans, despite our continuing freedom and prosperity, really losing the quest for meaningful lives?”
It would be easy to argue that life in America is spiritually more impoverished than ever. As evidence, one might cite the rising respectability of public atheism and the falling off of religious observance; the eclipse of the ideal of work as vocation; the emptiness of the popular culture; the weakening of marriage and family ties; the failure of higher education to nurture the hungry souls of our young, and the huge increase in clinical depression among college students; the decline of patriotism and national attachment; and new expressions of doubt about America’s future, fueled by a strident cynicism on the left and a growing despair on the right.
But this picture is at best incomplete. As Charles Murray points out in his recent book Coming Apart, marriage, industriousness, law-abidingness, and religiosity are alive and well among the nation’s elite, even as they are in decline among the lower classes. Many of our social indicators show a partial repair of earlier unravelings. Community service is on the rise; so is private philanthropy. There is once again a proper respect for our armed forces. And despite their superficial cynicisms, America’s young people — and not only among the privileged — continue to harbor deep desires for a life that will prove meaningful: a life of love and work, with service to God and country, in pursuit of truth or goodness or beauty.