Encouraging listeners to be willing to accept social responsibility was the focus of a forum address given by Jean Bethke Elshtain on Tuesday.
“In American popular culture, we no longer believe in sin; instead we believe in syndromes,” Elshtain said.
Visiting from the University of Chicago Divinity School, Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics.
Elshtain said that democracy in America is on trial and “it is time for us to sober up and face the facts.”
She said that she and other colleagues are concerned about the “thinning out of the density of the social fabric,” a fabric that should bind us together as members of a common society.
In order for American democracy to continue, Elshtain said, “we need to lift up our outlook and humble ourselves. We must embrace humility, the humility portrayed in many of our Founding Fathers.”
Elshtain said that authority was an important part of society. One of the great mistakes in philosophy during the 1960s, she said, was “to suppose that the community could be sustained without authority.”
“The problem is that they argued that authority must be smashed all together,” Elshtain said. She reminded her audience of the important distinction between authority and tyranny.
Legitimate authority is required to establish institutions, Elshtain said. Institutions are an important component in the social fabric.
“To have a community, you must have people willing to shoulder responsibility,” Elshtain said.
Pointing to the complacency of society, people’s refusal to get involved and the general distrust of one another, the ties that bind are being thinned out, she said.
Elshtain spoke of a study that has asked Americans yearly the question, “Do you believe most people can be trusted or can’t you be too careful?” When the study was first conducted during the 1960s, 60 percent of Americans responded that most people were trustworthy. Now only 37 percent of Americans believe that most people are trustworthy.
Americans are more cynical than ever before, Elshtain said.
One reason for the cynicism and lack of confidence in the American government, she said, was that Americans realize that the government has taken on more wedge issues than it can effectively deal with at one time.