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Religion, Happiness, and the American Dream

By N. Daniel Korobkin

America as we know it is dead. At least that is what Charles Murray would have us believe in his latest book, Coming Apart.

The “American project” is Murray’s term to describe what America has stood for since its founding, and how it has succeeded in emerging as the greatest country in the world with the greatest global influence.  America has preserved traditional values and emphasis on the four necessary ingredients for this project: family, vocation, community, and faith.  The values and nature of each one of these parts of American society has seriously eroded over the past four decades, and that is why our society is crumbling.

The traditional family of two parents married to each other and raising children has become more rarified, and this has contributed to a degradation of social ethics and morality.  Vocation refers not only to one’s profession and job but also to one’s work ethic, industriousness, and honesty.  This too, has taken a turn for the worse, in that people’s ambitions for financial success have overshadowed all other considerations, and American businessmen are no longer embarrassed to live large and take huge bonuses at others’ expense.  Communities no longer offer the same opportunities for volunteer organizations and gatherings, such as pot luck dinners at the local church or rotary club, and thus there is greater xenophobia and estrangement from each other.  Finally, people’s commitment to their respective faiths has diminished; fewer people attend worship services regularly, and religion is no longer a central part of most Americans’ lives.

Not only do these ingredients comprise the American project, they contribute to the individual’s sense of happiness and fulfillment.  Take away these elements, and people tend to be less happy.  Since the 70’s these features of American society have continually eroded; some have disappeared entirely, while others have changed so significantly as to no longer be recognizable.

Of the four aforementioned, Murray spends the largest part of his book discussing the unraveling of the American community.  He presents a bleak picture of an increasingly divided class system in America today, where the privileged live more and more isolated lives in isolated communities, to the point where they are completely oblivious to the lives and challenges of the less privileged.  This has led to an America that is more divided today than ever before.

An early proponent of the American project, frequently quoted by Murray, is Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), who, observing the United States as a visiting French foreigner, marveled at the unique achievements and character of American society: its industriousness, its work ethic, and its commitment to religion, family and community; all these were unique elements of Tocqueville’s America that evoked his effusive praise.  Murray sadly observes that it would appear as if all of the elements of this American exceptionalism have all but disappeared in modern America.  Furthermore, Americans have resigned themselves to a more European model of the state taking care of its citizens, instead of the citizens uniting on a grassroots communal level to take care of themselves.

Murray does not assign weight to the four ingredients that go into making the American project successful.  For instance, he doesn’t tell us whether the lack of religious commitment is more or less of a contributing factor to the unraveling of society than the slow disappearance of the traditional nuclear family.  Nor does he convey a connectivity between these four ingredients; he represents them as distinct and disparate elements of America, without suggesting that one or more of these elements may be strengthened or weakened as a result of the rise or fall of the others.

This issue of connectivity is important to me personally, because we all view the world through our unique lenses.  As a religious cleric, I thus suppose that I cannot but observe that many of our cultural values are the product of our religious values; as goes our commitment to religion, so go our families, vocations, and communities.

While this may sound overly reductionist, it’s not my own idea.  Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, German social scientist Max Weber, one of the most important voices of modern sociology, wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  The book was predicated on Weber's observation that in Germany at the time, there was a disproportionately higher percentage of Protestants than Catholics among community leaders, capital investors, and skilled corporate managers.  Weber concluded that embedded within the religious ethos of the Protestant is a particular work ethic that drives the Protestant to industriousness and financial success.  He thus examined the teachings of the two founders of modern Protestantism, Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Weber discovered that Luther had emphasized a theology that allows the non-cleric to be as close to God as the priest in the church.  How is this accomplished?  Through an honest day’s work.  All work, not just religious work, was considered sacred in God’s eyes.  A Protestant could therefore take special pride and have an extra spring in his step every time he made a sale; every additional coin in his coffers was one step closer to God.

Calvin went even further, and suggested that in order to be one of God’s elect who would reach Heaven, it was necessary to live a moral and ethical life that included industriousness, hard work, and frugal living.  This theology resulted in a more productive work force.  Moreover, it produced a working class that wouldn’t blow its paycheck on the latest big screen television, but would instead thriftily invest that money in the bank, thus continually building capital for the future.  Early American aphorisms like, “A penny saved is a penny earned” find their origins in Calvinist founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin.

Murray doesn’t offer any solutions to the current state of affairs, only observations.  He does, however, suggest that the current trends are reversible if only America takes note of the need to go back to our roots.  While I share Murray's overarching diagnosis of modern American society, I’m afraid I don’t share his one glimmer of optimistic hope that things can turn around.  The simple fact is that Western civilization has been moving further away from religion and further toward secularism since the 18th century, and the trend has only accelerated in the last 40 years.  Yes, there have been small periods of greater religious devotion within certain pockets of the Western world (think of Mormonism as one example in American society), but overall, it seems like the dice have been cast.  As science and technology ascend in their importance in everyday life, so diminishes the importance of religion. And as religion deteriorates, so deteriorate our work ethic as well as community and family structures.

But is all lost, then, as Murray would have us believe?  Are there not modern societies today where people lead happy and productive lives that are nonetheless devoid of religion?  Indeed, recent studies of the “happiness index” show that within the largely secular countries of Scandinavia, people are happier overall than in countries where religion is more embraced and emphasized.  But of course, Norway is not America, nor has it enjoyed the level of success and world influence that America has.  There is no “Norwegian project” to speak of, no declaration of principles that espouses an exceptional way for people to live, contribute and grow together within a society.

Murray may be correct that the American project–that which makes America and Americans exceptional–is coming apart.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans’ pursuit of happiness is now unattainable, but it does mean that our ability to accomplish the great and exceptional American project of being a light unto the nations, to quote Isaiah, has now come to an end.

If the American dream is the pursuit and acquisition of happiness, then not all is lost.  There is no reason to assume that Americans can no longer lead happy and meaningful lives, even if religion, which is the barometer for family, vocation and community, has been compromised.  But if the American dream is something greater than happiness for the individual, if it’s about the creation of a society that acts as a moral compass for the rest of the world, then we are awakening from that dream, and that component of our greatness has been lost.  In the end, Americans may simply have lost interest in their role passed down to them by their forefathers, and just don’t care anymore.  A world without America, however, will be much worse off, and that’s truly a reason for concern.

N. Daniel Korobkin, M.A., M.S., is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto.