The Religious, Ambitious Lose Faith in America
Every schoolchild learns that the European settlers who came to North America in the early 17th century fell into two distinct groups: those pursuing freedom from religious persecution and those seeking to make a fortune in the tobacco and fur trades. Remarkably, these very different factions managed to collaborate in founding what would become the wealthiest and most benevolent nation in history, a country in which the seemingly incompatible priorities of God and gold never ceased to play formative and mutually supportive roles.
It is in light of this history that the nearly decade-long aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis seems so disturbing. It is not merely that the recovery has been painfully slow or that the benefits seem to have been distributed disproportionately to the owners of paper assets. Nestled among recent and seemingly optimistic unemployment statistics are clear indications that both the most ambitious and the most religious Americans have soured on the country their like-minded predecessors together created.
Consider first the fact that so few people today think it is worth risking their time and money to start a new business. "You never see it mentioned in the media, nor hear [it] from a politician," says Gallup polling's CEO Jim Clifton, but "for the first time in 35 years, American business deaths now outnumber business births." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 400,000 new companies are currently forming annually, while 470,000 cease operating, a net minus of 70,000 per year that Clifton calls a devastating, if silent, "earthquake." Since 1978, the rate of new business formation has fallen by almost half.
These figures are even more disturbing when we realize the widely acknowledged role that new companies play in providing entry-level jobs and boosting overall employment. By some measures business may look better, observes Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, but he adds, "I think there are things to be worried about, and the state of entrepreneurship is one of those things."
If this historical decline in entrepreneurial activity were not by itself a cause for alarm, then what are we to make of a parallel development within many religious communities?
Having concluded that the culture war has been lost to secular forces, leaving it its wake laws and institutions increasingly hostile to Christian values, growing numbers of Protestants and Catholics are electing to withdraw from civic life and focus on developing their own communities — through homeschooling, limited exposure to popular media, the shared reading of religious classics, creating alternatives to public assistance and healthcare programs, and even self-sufficient farming. Rod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative, refers to this movement as the "Benedict option," after the example of Saint Benedict of Nursia, who laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christianity during the decline of the Roman Empire.
"The mood among social conservatives has been darkening for years," notes Damon Linker, a senior correspondent at The Week, as progressives threaten to implement anti-discrimination laws to force acquiescence to gay marriage, public funding of abortion, and other secular values. A poll in the fall of 2015 by YouGov.com found that a remarkable 53 percent of religious Americans now believe Christians should forgo any kind of public service, such as serving on the local school board, and instead concentrate on building a robust subculture. This expanding sympathy for the Benedict option — or "Ben Op," as adherents refer to it — represents such a dramatic reversal of religion's traditional role in American life that Dreher believes many Christians are effectively "living as exiles" in their own country.
In spite of using very different languages — one commercial, the other theological — the similar complaint being voiced by entrepreneurs and the devout is not difficult to discern. Just as would-be businesspeople object to burdensome taxes and bureaucratic regulations, so the faithful confront an excess of legal and governmental zeal on behalf of secularism. In both cases, the political elites seem uncomfortably willing to sacrifice America's traditional faith in the collective wisdom of unfettered individuals for more coercive ideological agendas.
Not coincidentally, such protests echo the grievances expressed by many voters in the current primary season, although the surviving candidates in both parties still seem more interested in imposing their own global solutions than in freeing citizens to find their own. It is perhaps not a surprise that a longtime socialist like Bernie Sanders would promote sweeping federal health and education programs, but Hillary Clinton's supposedly more moderate platform distinctly reflects a top-down liberal bias. Even Donald Trump sells the image of a superpowered executive who can "make great deals" with other countries and mobilize Washington to "win again," governing priorities that would have been alien to America's founders.
If there is any wisdom to be gleaned from the unprecedented reluctance of both entrepreneurs and the devout to play their traditional roles in the life of the nation, it is the need for the leadership of both parties to step back from their expansive agendas and once again consider personal liberty as the ultimate guarantor of lasting progress. It is long past time for the unencumbered individual to retake the lead in building a better America.
Lewis M. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009. He is the author of To Thine Own Self Be True: the Relationship between Spiritual Values and Emotional Health (Doubleday).