Lately we've been acting as if losing our moral compass happened one evening in November, 2016, when we elected an admitted sexual predator to lead us, or when we looked the other way at Bill Clinton's adulterous and reprehensible peccadillos.
It goes deeper than that—to whenever it was that Americans stopped thinking of themselves as a community and began to see themselves as individuals. The pandemic has made the fact painfully undeniable; after all, we have been in the throes of this plague for almost ten months now, and there are still people who feel it's their right not to wear a mask because...well, because. It's too easy to dismiss these people as idiots—they aren’t: the real problem is they don't feel a sense of community.
Earlier I implied a comparison between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and their behavior toward women may intersect a little on their personal Venn diagrams, but the overlap ends there. In Clinton we had a person who understood community, whose own upbringing was filled with acceptable and noteworthy interactions with people. We called Clinton many names, but sociopath was never one of them.
Rather than plow old ground and call Donald Trump by all the epithets he's earned, I want to emphasize his major failure—one that interacted with the current health crisis to drive America to its knees: Donald Trump failed to provide us with, or emphasize the importance of, a sense of community. Without that, convincing someone to wear a mask to protect others is a waste of breath. Why would any isolated individual care about mankind in general?
Maybe you are fortunate enough to live in a tight-knit neighborhood or exist in a large family structure of like-minded individuals. That's all well and good, but we need more than that in a pandemic...and maybe in normal times too.
When I was young I, like everyone I knew, attended regular church services. I don't remember looking forward to it, and since I was woefully weak in Latin, seldom knew what anyone was saying. But the sermon was always spoken in English, and when we all listened (it was not interactive), even if we disagreed with some fine point, there was a feeling that we were all in this together. We shared beliefs in a common good, even if only for that hour.
It will surprise no one that U.S. church membership has dropped from 70% in 1976, to 68% in 1999, to 50% pre-pandemic. The accelerated dropoff has little to do with a belief in some higher being or a diminution of morality, in fact the reasons are as far-reaching and varied as the absence of traditional family structure and the economic stagnation of the middle class. But if we stated home, we did not relinquish our need for community, for shared beliefs. So we sought them on Facebook and Twitter—and that made it easier, in November 2017, to hear the recording of a man boasting of abusive and intimidating behavior toward women and say, "you're our boy." A nation with shared beliefs would never have elected Donald Trump.
I am not about to criticize lapsed churchgoers, or promote organized religion. We have seen the hypocrisy of Trump waving a bible while his surrogates imprisoned children. And I think of The Scarlet Letter: the tortured minister who sinned against a Commandment but fills his life with good works, and his counterpart, the demonic physician who upholds the orthodoxy but refuses to forgive and in so doing sins against all humanity. Today, like then, we need less orthodoxy and more good works. Joe Biden may be able to provide that. If nothing else he can appeal to that sense of what it means to be an American, and what it means to be responsible for the wellbeing of others. His campaign and his activity since his election have centered on what transcendentalists called the oversoul, but which we might call in the age of technology, connectedness.
None of us is perfect, and Joe Biden's imperfections will all be more noticeable when he occupies the highest office in the land. But if he can model patience and tolerance and continue to underscore what unites us, there is a chance that he can create the same kind of "religion" that FDR did during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Admitting the near hopelessness of a situation is frequently enough to inspire hope, and even expressing fear for what is yet to come is more honest and motivating than the fanciful, Trumpian beliefs that it will all go away. In 1932 Herbert Hoover wanted to ride out the financial collapse; Roosevelt wanted to end it. The people who feared change voted for Hoover; the ones who would come to accept the fact that the only thing to fear was fear itself, chose FDR.
We have chosen Biden. He will not work miracles, but if he can provide the sense of shared morality that houses of worship once did, and if we can muster the same modicum of attentiveness that we once reserved for the leaders in those houses of worship, we may yet come out of this better on the other side.