Nonetheless almost every time the subject of politics comes up, some student tells me that all politicians lie. Then someone else generally adds, “Everyone lies and everyone cheats.” At this, I am inevitably confronted with a chorus of nodding heads.
Today’s young adults are remarkably cynical. Their conventional wisdom has it that almost no one can be trusted. Even when they get caught cheating, they brazenly defend themselves by asserting that this is what everyone does. It is merely the sensible way of getting ahead.
Of course, when I was younger dishonesty was also a problem. Indeed, Billy Joel wrote a song bemoaning the fact that honesty is hardly ever found. Nowadays, however, the acceptance of dishonesty has grown to epic proportions. Just how widespread was demonstrated in the recent election.
Even so, no large-scale society can survive if its members cannot trust one another. Strangers must bestow confidence on those upon whose services they depend lest they perish in their separate hovels.
Once trust becomes problematic, we get the turmoil currently on display in the Middle East. People turn on one another so violently that the only persons they can rely on are members of their own families. They certainly cannot trust politicians.
The United States has largely been spared this fate. With the massive exception of the Civil War and its aftermath, Americans have believed in the dependability of their fellow Americans.
Much of this owes to several historic crusades. Although most contemporaries are unaware of them, the first two Great Awakenings shaped the moral landscape of our nation. Taking place in the 18th and 19th centuries, these religious revivals encouraged personal rectitude — and they succeeded.
The first Great Awakening introduced Methodism to America and with it came calls for people to live honest lives. The second Great Awakening reaffirmed this commitment, but also sparked the temperance, suffrage and abolitionist movements. Evangelists literally crisscrossed the country preaching these virtues to huge crowds.
Today, however, the fires of religious enthusiasm have been banked. Like it or not, we have become a secular nation. This too was demonstrated in the recent election. It revealed that the evangelicals were neither as numerous nor as enthusiastic enough to elect the person they favored.
This secular trend is also visible in my Kennesaw State University classrooms. Even though the school is in the heart of what used to be called The Bible Belt, when I ask students how many of them are Protestants, no more than two or three claim they are.
Asked, however, if any are Baptists or Methodists, the hands go up. In other words, these Protestants do not realize they are Protestants. Nor are they cognizant of the particular dogmas of their denominations. While they typically believe in God, their faith is diffuse and not very deep.
If this is correct, then a new religious revival cannot be expected to generate the same results as the earlier exemplars. Yet we may need something similar. Hopefully there are moral principles to which both religious and secular individuals can strive to realize — that is, once reminded of them.
It would also be nice if one of these principles were honesty. Over the last several days I have been speaking to liberals and conservatives alike about our current impasse. While they don’t agree on much, one of the things that unites them is a recognition of how dishonest our public discourse has become.
Naturally, fervent partisans view the truth differently. Still, there are truths out there upon which most of us can agree if we have the integrity, and the diligence, to examine things as they are — not merely as we would like them to be. Yes, the truth can hurt, but falsehoods hurt even more.
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D., is professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.