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Naivité and Intellectual Poverty in Modern America:
The Ethical Challenges

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Alan Geyer
Ideology in America:  Challenges to Faith
Louisville, Kentucky.  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.  133p.)

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Geyer is an ethicist who here analyzes the ethics of current political processes in American society.  He defines moral challenges for the Christian church in the United States, and makes some suggestions on how the church can address the political situation while maintaining its independent integrity and morality based on faith.

Historical Foundations
The publisher's notes describe the book this way:
"A foremost ethicist challenges conservative ideologies."  The author presents a summary of ideologies affecting the United States through its history.  This will be valuable for the younger generation to understand the roots of the philosophical questions being dealt with.

Cultural Poverty
There is a tendency for each new generation to begin in a vacuum.  I have noticed a cultural poverty of historical perspective in the current American generation.  There seems to be less attention in American education to the cultural history.  Younger Americans are not given a view of the intellectual foundations that initially formed this country.  This has led to much revisionism in the last two decades of popular thought.

We have seen the rewriting of history on several fronts to match current concepts.  A romantic interpretation is given to the early stages of the American experiment usually ignoring the complexities and conflicts involved in the attempt to overcome the political aned religious tyranny over men's minds and beliefs.

This appears notably in the astounding claim made amazingly by supposedly conservative religious leaders in America that America's founders had no concept of Separation of Church and State.  Only a gratuitous misreading of founding documents and the prolific philosphies of the era could allow someone to make such a claim. And yet somehow proponents audaciously call this argument "conservative"!

Confused Argument
Confusion seems to have developed concerning ideas of personal and institutional religion in modern American society.  Arguments on the topic of the separation of official church and state have become confused with questions about the public expression of personal religious convictions.  Geyer discusses the principles involved here.

The new use of government power to restrict personal expression of religious beliefs indicates a confusion over the separation of formal church and state institutions with the private expression of religious views in the public arena, which is specifically protected by the constitution.  The original desire to prevent official church institutions from controlling government power, as was the common state in Europe in the 1700s, has now been extended to limit the personal rights of individuals in the public arena, which is a whole separate question in American culture and constitutional politics.

Some religious advocates have likewise tried to impose their personal or denominational views on others by use of state mechanisms to impose their views as "official" or public policy, on the basis that America has always been a "Christian nation."  But this status has never been any part of the official constitutional status of the US.

The US specifically was established without any established religion!  The major religious view at the time of the founding of the United states of America was Deism, followed by nearly all the founding fathers, as clearly documented in history.  The percentage of Christians in the US is now higher than at the time of the founding of the new nation.

The original concern was dual:  the state was to show no favoritism to one religious persuasion over another, and likewise no organized religion was to exercise power over the organs of government.  On the other hand, however, there was to be no restriction of a person's public expression of religious conviction by government.  This is guaranteed by the constitution.

I am also unaware of anything in the documents of the era that mention anyone being protected from being exposed to someone else's religious views.  A basic value of the American experiment was to foster the exchange of ideas and the tolerance of variety!

After a brief outline of the historical streams of thought affecting modern American ideas, Geyer then focuses in on an analysis of the ideologies of what has come to be called "Neo-Conservatism."  Geyer develops a competent analysis of this movement and suggests ethical questions that arise.

Economics and Religion
An aspect of the cultural or intellectual poverty in American thought is the seeming lack of awareness of the foment of ideas in the 1800s that led to the major economic and social approaches in the early 20th century.  Underlying questions are the concepts of wealth and the social justice concern of access to wealth.

Alternative economic theories arising in the 1800s seemed to differ partly in their concepts of wealth.  Some theorists assumed that there is only a limited amount of wealth that must be administered and distributed by centralized power (Example, Marxism-Leninism).  Others held the view that wealth may be produced, thus there is no set quantity or even identity to wealth (Example, Anglo-Saxon industrialism).  The latter extended in the 20th century to the wealth of ideas and information.

Marxist-oriented critics of capitalism also naively ignore the fact that the first legal and political controls on the unbridled greed of capitalist industrialists was exercised in the United States in legal controls placed on business monopolies like the railroads and the oil industry.  Most people seem also unaware that the first legal acknowledgement of the right of workers to organize was also instituted in the United States, with Labor Day being established in many states in the 1800s, and a national holiday declared by Congress in 1894.

The current generation seems to lack awareness of the economic and social theories that developed into Socialism and Communism and various social reform movements in the Anglo-Saxon world.  Without such an awareness, leaders will misread or ignore components of current social questions or political discussions.  This is evident also in the naive American political approach to the rest of the world, assuming the rest of the world is another American just waiting to happen.

Geyer explores the relationship between religious and economic theories, the tension between individualism and community, centralization and decentralization, the conflicts between urbanism and agrarianism and the conflicting assumptions behind concepts of government and business.

Two-Track Thinking
He investigates the complementary but conflicting views between pragmatism and morality.  Geyer notes that many 19th century churches and the current neo-conservative movement hold both without apparently feeling the conflict.  Geyer gives attention to the role and ethical views of various Christian streams in American culture.

He concludes with a development of 10 principles of ethics, faith and action from which American churches can contribute to the political process without capitulating to any particular economic or cultural ideology that might compromise Christian values.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[reviews] Enlightment in and out of the American Churches
[Review] Hilarity Sounds Alarm for America
[review] John Adams:  Meeting a Founding Father
[review] Myth and Morality in Modern Science
[review] Rationalism, Natural Religion and Tolerance
[TXT] Religion and the State
[Review] Too Honest for the White House
[reviews] Toward a Realistic and Moral Capitalism

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First reading notes written 6 November 2004
Edited 25 September 2007
Review finalized and posted on Thoughts and Resources 11 December 2007
Rewritten 15 December 2007 and revised 2 March 2009
Reviewed on Amazon 3 March 2009
Last edited 20 December 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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