The decline of America is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years it has become clearer. Though its most obvious manifestations are social and political, its fundamental failure is intellectual and moral. At the heart of the decline was the denial of human imperfection, which rejected the reality of sin, which led to moral relativism and the personalization of truth, which replaced self-examination with self-absorption, self-congratulation, and self-esteem, which destroyed humility, invited self-deception, and thwarted self-improvement.
This sequence of developments, though not without earlier precedent, was most significant from the mid-twentieth century until the present. Four individuals were especially influential in its advancement.
Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which vaulted him into prominence and the country into more permissive attitudes toward sexual behavior. As a result, the idea that “women ask for ‘it’” make the processing of rape cases more difficult. The molestation of children by priests and others increased. The American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from an illness to a variation on normal behavior.
Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy Magazine, popularized Kinsey’s ideas through photos, cartoons and “advice” to male readers. The message was that all sexual activity is wholesome and should not be hampered by puritanical restraints such as those taught by religion. As a result many men and women embraced that view and began living by it.
Carl Rogers was a leading practitioner of Humanistic Psychology, which had a powerful and lasting impact on American culture and education. In his best-known book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers wrote, “I can trust my experience. . . when an activity feels as though it is valuable or worth doing, it is worth doing. Put another way, I have learned that my total organismic sensing of a situation is more trustworthy than my intellect.” Also, “the only question which matters is, ‘Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which truly expresses me?” And, a person “can trust his own feelings and reactions—that his own deep impulses are not destructive or catastrophic, and that he himself need not be guarded . . .”
Those ideas—putting feelings over reason, impulse over restraint, and personal satisfaction above all else—were glamorized in the media, taught in classrooms, and preached from many church pulpits as trustworthy guides to success, happiness, and spirituality!
Abraham Maslow was also a leading practitioner of Humanistic Psychology. He shared many of Rogers’ ideas, but is best known for his emphasis on Self-Actualization. He depicted a pyramid with a number of levels of advancement toward that goal. Most noteworthy was his idea that Self-Esteem must be established before achievement is possible. In subsequent decades, building students’ Self-Esteem became a major focus in schools and colleges, the standard of academic performance sank, and countless people woke up each morning reminding themselves how wonderful they are.
Sometime after the views of these four individuals had gained widespread acceptance, a number of scholars began thinking critically about what they had said, and discovered that all four views were badly flawed.
Long after Kinsey’s books and Hefner’s popularization of them made their unparalleled impact on the culture, Dr. Judith Reisman (and others) found that “Kinsey was not the all-American, church-going, married man he presented as, but rather a voracious bisexual who shot illegal porn films in his attic,” and that his sex research was “largely fraudulent.” Moreover, she”exposed the fact that Kinsey had solicited the experiences of pedophiles for his research, highlighting bone-chilling descriptions of child abuse recorded as ‘child sexuality’ in his studies.
After publishing Becoming and other similarly focused books, sponsoring “Encounter Groups” around the country, and changing untold numbers of lives, often in harmful ways, Rogers came to a moment of terrible realization and said to himself: “Well, I started this damned thing, and look where it’s taking us; I don’t even know where it’s taking me. I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next. And I woke up the next morning feeling so depressed, that I could hardly stand it. . . Where is it going to carry us? And did I start something that is in some fundamental way mistaken, and will lead us off into paths that we will regret?”
Maslow’s journals reveal that his understanding of his flaws came not in one great realization but numerous small ones: One was that he had “not previously made specific enough the relation of achievement as a base to self-esteem.” Also, that he had been “confused whether there is a correlation between high self-esteem and self-actualization.” That “the most ‘stable’ and ‘healthy’ self-esteem is based on ‘deserved respect from others.’” And that not everyone should trust his/her impulses; “there are people who shouldn’t . . . [and] times when none of us should.” (From The Journals of A.H.Maslow, 2 volumes.)
That Rogers and Maslow eventually realized and acknowledged their mistakes speaks well of them. But those realizations did not, in fact could not, help the many millions of people who had embraced the flawed ideas and not only practiced them but encouraged their children and grandchildren to do so. Today, several generations later, the negative consequences of those flawed ideas are corrupting American culture more than ever.
The concept of sin is almost never mentioned outside of Churches (and sometimes not even in them). Religion is more likely to be mocked than lauded in magazines and on TV. Self-esteem is still promoted as essential to success and self-criticism discouraged as harmful. Grade school and high school teachers encourage students to ignore their parents’ guidance in sexual matters, some even going so far as to secretly refer students for sex-change surgery. School boards have parents arrested for simply asking what their children are being taught. Prestigious colleges expel students for plagiarism but forgive their presidents who commit the same offense. State and federal officials discard reasoned discourse and shout accusatory feelings at one another, then wonder why little gets done, and what is done is often more harmful than helpful. Candidates for office blame their opponents of not keeping their promises and then make their own promises with no intention of keeping them. People condemn rioting and other lawbreaking by groups they dislike, yet excuse (and sometimes praise) the same actions by groups they like. Citizens complain that the politicians they elected five or ten times in a row have never done anything to improve their neighborhood, city, or state . . . and then vote for them yet again! (I am sure readers could add a dozen more examples.)
What can we do to reverse America’s decline? First, acknowledge the serious errors the four individuals made and several generations, including our own, have embraced. Then do all we can to restore the ideas and practices that were foolishly discarded: Realize that all humans are imperfect; that good and evil (sin and virtue) are real choices with real outcomes; that morality and truth are not created but discovered, and wisdom requires us to accept them whether we like them or not; and that the only real way to feel good about ourselves is to strive daily to become better.
The best hope for our country and culture is for enough of us to pursue this restoration in ourselves and encourage those around us to do the same.
Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.