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Where have all the grown-ups gone?

gushee standing at bookshelves aug 15
David Gushee in his office at Mercer University in Atlanta. Photo by Alice Horner.

This election year has been revelatory in many ways.

One thing that has been revealed is the weakness of many of our most central institutions, together with an associated loss of confidence in these institutions on the part of tens of millions of Americans.

In other words, many of us used to have confidence that grown-ups were in charge and ultimately all would be well. Now we are not at all sure.

The grown-ups were, for example, in charge of our politics.

You know, there were two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. They were sturdy old institutions, locked in conflict for sure, but part of the furniture of our national life. Somehow they produced pretty decent leaders for us, one generation after another, and America’s experiment in democracy seemed secure.

But now both parties look much weakened. The GOP has not been able to squash a hostile takeover by Donald Trump, with hostile-in-a-different-way Ted Cruz close behind. The GOP used to give us wise-seeming old senators like Bob Dole, and governors like Mitt Romney. This year not so much.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have given us Bernie Sanders, a fiery independent, and Hillary Clinton, a dynastic figure who despite many limits has become the last best hope for many of us this time.

The grown-ups were in charge of our churches.

You know, there were pastors, those nice people in suits or collars or robes, carrying their Bibles and prayer books and telling us the Gospel story and managing complex congregations toward steady growth.

But now the older churches appear to be in free fall, and the growing churches are led by twenty-eight year-old “elders” in skinny jeans, and many churches can’t stop fighting about sex.

The grown-ups were in charge of our economy.

You know, there were “businessmen,” those nice men with graying temples wearing pinstriped suits, soberly assessing business prospects and devising thoughtful investment portfolios.

But now we know that these men (and some women) have created an economic system that seems to benefit a few of them while placing all the rest of us at risk and shipping ordinary folks’ jobs overseas at the drop of a hat.

The grown-ups were in charge of our television news.

You know, there were those sober-minded TV anchors like Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite, who cast their eyes over the day’s news and offered fair-minded description and occasional wise commentary for the Great American Middle.

But now there’s not News, there’s Left News and Right News. And there’s not Walter Cronkite, but instead gorgeous young graduates of model school who look very little like Walter Cronkite. It’s the blonde leading the blind.

The grown-ups were in charge of our families.

You know, there were Mom and Dad, who got married and stayed married and tried their best to teach their kids right from wrong.

But now our families are so often in the hands of moms and dads who never got married, or who got married but then got on meth, or who careen from one relationship to another, or who can’t quite seem to get and hold a job, or can’t quite get over their anger or anxiety or alcohol issues.

I exaggerate. Of course. The past wasn’t so great and the present isn’t all bad.

I do think I am speaking of something that is real, however. Our major cultural institutions are indeed weaker than they were.

Our country still has many fine institutions, and there are mature human beings in charge of various enterprises. But there’s an awful lot of decay and rot as well.

This cannot be denied. It is reflected across our national life. Our disastrous politics this election year both reflects this reality and, sadly, appears to be advancing it.

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David Gushee


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  • We need “public people” with “prophetic imaginations” to raise up and inspire us all toward greater maturity and justice work! Walter Brueggemann has given me that language. We need public discourse that builds up instead of polarizing and destroying. Although Neil Postman’s work warns us about “amusing ourselves to death.” I wish the Church would be a shining example of mature and healthy leadership, but it sometimes shows us a picture of the opposite. David Gushee, your work contributes to an important counter-story that more of the Church needs to embrace and voice. Thank you!

  • The temper tantrum tyrants
    Who seek to run our lives
    Take turns at being bullies
    To see which one survives

    They won’t respond to reason
    They won’t respond to fear
    Perhaps if we ignore them
    They’ll hold their breaths all year

  • Calvin or Luther would have put things right with an army. Several Popes and Muhhamed did the same.
    Rational discussion of our problems would be a radical break with the past. Andrew Jackson anyone? W?Nixon?

  • Interesting hypothesis. Good to cushion it with “the past wasn’t so great and the present’s not that bad”. Still – looking at each of these:

    Politics – Trump shows that the Republicans (or at least a large fraction of them) are reality-denying bigoted nutjobs. While the democrats may have moved a little left, the breakdown here is not symmetric. Score + 1/2 for this one.

    Churches- Yes, these institutions are failing. But not due to the lack of “grownups” in leadership – simply because more and more people have realized that the mythology isn’t real. It would be good to have community institutions like churches that are instead reality based, but I don’t think a return to mythology would be helpful. Evidence denial in one area (Bible stories) encourages it elsewhere (evolution, climate change, etc.), after all. Score +1, since we do need a reality based replacement.

    Economy – I’m not sure economic corruption is any better than during past times, like the robber barons or the gilded age. Score 0 until we see some numbers/data. Maybe -1.

    News- Limbaugh, Beck, etc show that many on the right are reality-denying bigoted nutjobs. While MSNBC isn’t perfect, it’s reasonable at least, so the breakdown here is not symmetric. Score + 1/2

    Families- The divorce rate peaked ~ 1979, and has been declining. Raping one’s wife is no longer legal, domestic beatings and killings are down, abortion is safe and legal, and marrying the same-sex person you love is legal. Alcohol use was high before 1850, and since then has been about level. Treatment of kids is much better. Score -1 for this one (much better today than in the past).

    So I’ll give your hypothesis a total +1 out of 5. Or less. have you read Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels”? If not, I highly recommend it – it directly addresses this question, with plenty of data and sense.

  • This is a good article, well-written and sensible. Mr. G Key, I love your poem. And Mr. Host, I agree with just about everything you said.

    I needed to find something new to structure my ethical self around, and I chose 2.
    First, the overall goodness of humankind.
    Second, I’ve become a Pastafarian and owe my allegiance to Her Noodliness. She never advocates violence or hatred and I can get behind that 100%! Also, Pastafarianism makes more sense than the major religions.

  • Well, lots of grown-ups are going about their lives, making adult choices about investing their money, taking care of their families, and weighing in on local issues that affect their lives. They’re wisely ignoring those who wrap themselves around the Bible and their religious trappings to try and guilt us into supporting their supposedly-spiritually enlightened politics. It just kills the the David Gushees of the religio-political landscape that they are being roundly ignored by people with less education and lots more wisdom.

    Real grown ups are perfectly capable of finding authentic spiritual guidance and giving expression to it in their social, economic and political choices without any of your guilt-laden blather, Thank you very much!

  • Yet you are noticing Dr. Gushee’s words and responding to his thoughts.

    I don’t have to share Dr. Gushee’s religious beliefs to hear wisdom and close observation in his thoughts.