[Part 1 is here.]
That most colossal blunder of Marxist experiments, the Soviet Union, collapsed more than twenty years ago, and yet Marxist thinking still penetrates the warp and woof of contemporary culture, so much so that it’s easy even for avowedly anti-Marxist conservatives to think from within the box of Marxism when considering the problem of cultural decay. Breaking out of that box means emphasizing but also stretching beyond such factors as insider cronyism, class envy, and the debilitating effects of the welfare state.
So, for instance, the influential 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau rejected the doctrines of the trinity, the deity of Christ, miracles, and the idea of original sin, writing that at one point as a young man he suddenly felt very strongly “that man is naturally good” and that it was only from the institutions of civilization “that men become wicked.” Rousseau’s view has had enormous cultural consequences, giving credence to the perennial human impulse to do whatever feels natural, never mind how stupid or destructive.
The English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple put it this way in an interview he gave for The Truth Project:
It’s a very convenient idea because it means all you have to do to be good is to be your true self, and since your true self is really determined, you know what your true self is by doing exactly what you like. Then doing what you like, exactly what you like, becomes virtue, which is one of the reasons, for example, why in this country now, people who get very drunk in public believe that they’re acting virtuously.… It’s spontaneous; it’s not artificial.
Then, too, by the nineteenth century, philosophical materialism had begun to exert a wider influence, aided and abetted by its kinder and gentler cousin, methodological materialism.
Philosophical materialism holds that there is no Creator, that ultimately there is only matter and energy, and nothing more. On this view, there is no true human creativity, only the outworking of the laws and constants of nature, the random shuffling of particles in the void. Its more modest cousin, methodological materialism, is less demanding. According to it, one doesn’t have to embrace full-blown philosophical materialism to join the ranks of serious intellectuals; just be sure to leave God out of your academic theories.
Most researchers—both in and beyond the hard sciences—have been taught some version of this rule. The result is that in everything from cosmology to psychology students are taught only theories consistent with atheism, theories in which concepts such as transcendent morality, human agency, and the categories of good and evil simply drop out of the picture.
These and other false and destructive ideas (e.g., utilitarianism, relativism, logical positivism) have worked their way deep into the cultural matrix, obscuring God’s role in history and marginalizing Him in people’s thinking, enforcing a sacred/secular divide that encourages one to conclude that religion is a fine thing as long as it doesn’t sully itself by wandering out in the public square. With these ideas holding sway over much of Western culture, it’s little wonder so much of our art, architecture, and music—so many of our movies, TV shows, and novels—wallow in moral relativism, ugliness, and nihilism.
Certainly, economic structures and misguided political policies have an influence on culture, but as we try to diagnose the causes of cultural decay in the societies of the West, from the freest to the most centrally planned, we should keep in mind the old truism that ideas have consequences. That truth holds for ideas both in and beyond economics. Keeping that in mind can help steer a person around the facile logical progression from (1) encountering cultural decay around us, (2) noting that this is going on in a relatively free economy, and (3) blaming the free economy.
Having steered around this fallacious logical chain, we’re better situated to recognize the abundant evidence for something that should be commonsensical: planned economies that spend lavishly to protect people from the consequences of bad decisions accelerate cultural decay.
Capitalism needs the prophetic voices of its best cultural critics, but most of all capitalism needs the theological soil from which it sprang—a Judeo-Christian understanding that recognizes human agency and responsibility, that values human dignity and human freedom, that takes account of both human evil and the creative power of humans made in the image of the Creator—He who is the ultimate ground of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
That vision tells us that we are called to be creative, to pursue excellence, and to serve as good stewards of a good creation, not to junk it up with cheap and tacky ephemera or to seek for significance through unbridled consumption. It also tutors us to recognize that the material realm is neither inherently evil nor the greatest good. This, in turn, helps us avoid two destructive extremes: on the one hand, old-style socialism’s disdain for material beauty; and on the other, the hedonism of consumerism.
What’s driving the cultural decay around us isn’t economic freedom; it’s a secular and essentially materialistic worldview that marginalizes or even denies the divine, a denial that manifests itself in a stream of architecture, art, literature, film, and music that trumpets nihilism over truth, goodness, and beauty. By missing the real culprit, the cultural critics of economic freedom make matters worse twice over. They squander their energies in what would be better spent battling the real culprit, false ideas about the nature of the human person. And they feed what actually accelerates cultural decay—the leviathan state.
[NOTE: This is the final part from my chapter in a forthcoming collection of essays exploring Christian critiques of capitalism, published by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.