Dennis Prager suggested that poll should be taken of 1,000 Americans to discover the answer to this question: What is the best thing most Americans can do to make the country better? He also presumed that the answer from today’s Americans would be far different than from Americans before the 1960s.
Since the early 1960s and ‘70s, a moral life has been defined as engaging in activism. One improves America – indeed, one becomes a good person – by fighting for a cause. That cause may be feminism, environmentalism, socialism, material equality, racial equality, LGBTQ+ liberation, or the welfare state – free health care, free college tuition, free preschool, free day care, free school breakfasts and lunches, even free income.
This is a massive break with the American past. While there were always causes to champion – the abolition of slavery being the greatest and costliest – most Americans did not think the best thing they could do with their lives was to become a social activist.
Prager explained that the term “social activist” comes from the prosperity of America during the second half of the 20th century. Until the post-World War II era, most Americans would have offered any or all of the following responses to the topic question: What is the best thing most Americans can do to make the country better? He explained the differences.
No. 1: Developing one’s moral character.
With the macro-ization of morality, the definition of moral character has changed. It is no longer working on oneself, conquering one’s demons, controlling one’s appetites – in short, fighting one’s flawed nature….
… Character development now means struggle with a deeply flawed America, not a deeply flawed self.
No. 2: Getting married and making a good family.
… That’s the single best thing the vast majority of people can do to make a better world. However, most college graduates and essentially the entire intellectual elite mock this idea.
Yet, what could be possibly better for society than the great majority of its people marrying and attempting to raise decent people.
No. 3: Taking care of one’s family, especially one’s parents.
This is another traditional definition of leading a good life.
However, this has been subverted by three developments: first, the unprecedented number of Americans who have not made a family (i.e., a married couple with children); second, by the state taking care of more and more people – individual citizens, their children, and their parents; and third, the unspoken pandemic of adult children who not only do not take care of their parents, but have also removed them from their lives for personal or political reasons.
No. 4: Going to church (or synagogue).
For the highly educated who believe that religion is irrelevant to character, I have always asked two questions:
First, if religion is irrelevant to moral behavior, why are almost no violent criminals regular churchgoers? Second, if you were traveling in a strange city, it was midnight, you were lost, and you saw a group of young men walking toward you, would you or would you not be relieved to learn that they just had attended a Bible class.
No. 5: Taking care of the poor in one’s community, usually by joining a service organization such as a church charity, or a Kiwanis, Lions, or Rotary Club.
Almost every American who had the time joined some group that did good in his or her community.
Men joined service organizations. Women volunteered in a whole host of charities, such as hospitals, schools, and churches.
There is less volunteering today than at any time in American history….
Prager closed by stating, “People don’t understand that the best thing they can do for this society is to lead an individually good life and raise honorable children, not join a protest movement.” I agree with Prager that America needs moral and honorable individuals and strong families.