America's sleeping sickness

LAST spring in Texas, Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a courageous speech about America's greatest crisis.

We suffer from "a sleeping sickness of the soul," she told her audience, the feeling "that we lack at some core level meaning in our individual lives, and meaning collectively, that sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another."


The central thesis of her speech came near its conclusion: "Let us be willing to remold society by redefining what it means to be a human being."

Mrs. Clinton's remarks were ridiculed, mainly by journalists. But over all her speech sank like a stone in a swamp, largely unremarked and unremembered, inspiring no national debate or plan of action. Yet in it she spoke of a crisis far greater than any described by her husband in his call for universal health care.


There is a yawning hole in the psyche of America and Americans where our sense of common purpose, of community and connection, of hope and a spiritual satisfaction should be.

It was easy to mock Mrs. Clinton's existential gropings. But though she had no easy label, no glib diagnosis, in those gropings she spoke the truth about a vacuum at the heart of the American character.

In his exceptionally intelligent and provocative new book, "The Culture of Disbelief," Stephen L. Carter says that that vacuum has been filled for many of us over the years by religious faith. Yet today, ironically, religion is that thing most consistently trivialized and shoved aside in the public arena, treated like an embarrassing tic or even a character failing, particularly when religious people seek to couple their beliefs with a vision of America.

"We err when we presume that religious motives are likely to be illiberal, and we compound the error when we insist that the devout should keep their religious ideas -- whether good or bad -- to themselves," writes Mr. Carter.

A professor at Yale Law School, Mr. Carter notes that separation of church and state "originated in an effort to protect religion from the state, not the state from religion." He reminds us of how much public good has come out of a sense of spiritual mission, from the civil rights vocation of Martin Luther King to the antiwar activities of many clergy during the Vietnam years.

"What was wrong with the 1992 Republican convention was not the effort to link the name of God to secular political ends," Professor Carter writes. "What was wrong was the choice of secular ends to which the name of God was linked."

Or, as Amitai Etzioni argues in his new book, "The Spirit of Community": "Just as we should not give up on patriotism because some politicians wrap themselves with the flag when it suits their narrow purposes, so we should not give up on morality because some abuse it to skewer their fellow community members."

Professor Etzioni is one of the founders of Communitarianism, a movement which argues that Americans have learned to expect rights and eschew responsibilities yet yearn for a sense of order and community that strikes a balance between the two. This emphasis on "we" over "me" has been seen by civil libertarians as retro majoritarianism, a threat to the rights of the individual.


But Professor Etzioni's driving impulse -- that we have done away with old forms, connections, rules, traditions, but have put nothing much in their place -- cannot be denied. He writes: "Moral transitions often work this way: destruction comes quickly. A vacuum prevails. Reconstruction is slow. This is where we are now: it is time to reconstruct."

We liberals must acknowledge this: that while the rights of the individual are precious, at some deep level individualism alone does not suffice. And the ability of the radical right to seize and exploit the terrain of the soul has been helped immeasurably by the failure of so many of the rest of us to even acknowledge the soul's existence.

Mrs. Clinton made a good beginning in April. And the discussion must continue, of what morality and community mean, of what we will build to replace the old outmoded forms, of how we will fill the vacuum. How uncomfortable it will make some of us to talk about such things. And how impossible it has become to avoid doing so.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.