What Is the State of America?
(Amb. Alberto Fernandez, Mark Tooley, September 4, 2022)
Transcript available below
About the speakers
Ambassador Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). He was previously President of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. (MBN), which provides news and information in Arabic to the Middle East and North Africa. He is a member of the board of directors at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security (CCHS) at George Washington University. He is also a non-resident Fellow in Middle East Politics and Media at the TRENDS research and advisory center in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
A career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor, Amb. Fernandez has received numerous prestigious awards, among them the Presidential Meritorious Service Award (2008), the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy (2006), and Superior Honor Award for his work in Afghanistan (2003). His performance also garnered Senior Foreign Service performance recognition in 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2002. Amb. Fernandez is a graduate of the 46th (2003-2004) Senior Seminar, the State Department’s premier senior management course.
After arriving in the U.S. as a refugee from Cuba in 1959, he served in the U.S. Army (1976-1979) and graduated from the University of Arizona and the Defense Language Institute. His writings have been published extensively, in publications such as Brookings: Markaz, ReVista: the Harvard Review of Latin America; Middle East Quarterly; Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society (JAAS); Providence; Cipher Brief; AFPC Almanac of Islamism; Journal of International Security Affairs; Gatestone Institute; The European Conservative; The University Bookman; Foreign Service Journal; Defense Dossier; The Washington Post; and the SAGE Handbook of Propaganda. He has lectured and debated on U.S. foreign policy in numerous public venues worldwide. In addition to English, Amb. Fernandez speaks fluent Spanish and Arabic.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency and is a graduate of Georgetown University. In 1994, he joined IRD to found its United Methodist project (UMAction) and became IRD President in 2009. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church (2008), Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century: From William McKinley to 9/11 (2012), and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War (2015). He has written for The Wall Street Journal, World, Law and Liberty, National Review and other publications. He contributed chapters to several books: The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (2016), Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation(2020), The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (2022), Just War and Christian Traditions (2022), and Social Conservatism for the Common Good: A Protestant Engagement with Robert P. George (2023).
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. The Westminster Institute has been concentrating on human rights, religious freedom, foreign policy, and national defense issues for a considerable number of years, certainly for the eight years in which I have been its director, but the state of America is perhaps the key question that needs to be addressed. These other issues are not going to matter much if the United States collapses from within. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll, for instance, said that 64 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is in crisis and at risk of failing. So we are here to attempt an answer to the very daunting question: What is the State of America?
Joining me are two guests who are superbly qualified to attempt an answer to this question. First we have Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a position he held prior to serving as the President of the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), which is part of the U.S. government’s Agency for Global Media (USAGM). He held that position for three years before returning to MEMRI.
He served as a Foreign Service officer from 1983 to 1985. He was a career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, achieving its highest rank of Minister-Counselor. He was U.S. Ambassador to Equatorial Guinea and U.S. charge d’affaires to Sudan. He held senior public diplomacy positions at the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, Guatemala, Kuwait and in the State Department’s Near East Affairs (NEA) Bureau. He also served as the State Department’s coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications from 2012 to 2015.
A graduate of the University of Arizona in both his undergraduate and graduate degrees and of the Defense Language Institute, Alberto served in the U.S. Army and came to the United States as a refugee from Cuba in 1959. He is a prolific writer, most recently authoring the article Out With The ‘Olds!’ In With The ‘News!’, an analysis of America’s woke cultural revolution.
Our other guest is Mark Tooley, who is the President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and editor of the institute’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He worked [for] eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency and is a graduate of Georgetown University. In 1994, Mark joined IRD to found its United Methodist Project and became IRD President in 2009.
He is the author of several books, including Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century: From William Mckinley to 9/11 and The Peace that Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Law and Liberty, National Review, and other publications. He contributed chapters to several books, including Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation, Just War and Christian Traditions, and Social Conservatism for the Common Good. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today. What is the state of America?
Is American Culture Losing its Moral and Ethical Roots?
There are many ways [to respond to this question]. There are so many aspects of addressing this question. Perhaps one of the most fundamental ones is: is American culture losing its moral and ethical roots?
I mean, you know, I think when we address these issues, obviously, the easy, default [answer is] to say things are terrible and, you know, we are living in Babylon and, you know, we are collapsing. And I think that case can very well be made, but I always do think that one has to have a perspective in the sense that if you look at American history, there have been many different peaks and valleys.
And we talk about, for example, political polarization. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a time of great political violence in the United States, so-called days of rage, mostly from the Left, so you know we have had many bad things. Certainly, when you talk about the political culture and the state of the nation, I think that we have ample reasons to be deeply worried and deeply concerned. However, I do think we have to be a little careful about just kind of saying that it is over, America is going to collapse.
I think America could very well be collapsing morally and spiritually. I think that is a very good case that we can make. However, at the same time, the United States for all of its moral and spiritual failings is one of the two big countries in the world which is essentially autarkic. The other one being, of course, Russia, big country with a large population that can feed itself and that is armed to the teeth. So America as a polity, as an entity, I think has a lot going for it that other countries do not.
Now, that is completely separate from America as a moral project, or a paragon to the world, or a healthy society, or anything like that, so I would just kind of like to differentiate between those two things because I think things are terrible, however, that does not necessarily mean collapse in the sense of a physical or complete collapse. That is kind of the way I see it.
I mostly agree with the Ambassador. He spoke of the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, the anti-war protest and sometimes violence of the far left. My earliest political memory is at age six in 1971. My mother took me to the May Day anti-war mobilization in D.C. where several hundred thousand hippies literally tried to shut down the government by blocking the streets. It made a huge impact on me, and it seemed like everything was imploding.
I believe over ten thousand were arrested that day and put into RFK stadium, the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. Of course, we still had the war going on, forty thousand already been killed. I believe another ten thousand would be before the U.S. finally withdrew, and that was disastrous in terms of the collapse of Southeast Asia to the communists.
So would I rather be alive in 1971 or 2022? I think I prefer 2022. When I look at the difference, for example, in race relations and how we think about racial minorities 50 years ago, which I can still vaguely remember, versus now, [I] infinitely prefer now compared to then.
What most concerns me would be the retreat of institutional Christianity in America. It was the Church [which] had often mediated most of the national moral, cultural, and political crises, and as the institutional church commands less and less loyalty from a large percentage of Americans, that vacuum is very dangerous and will be filled by something else, probably not as helpful as the institutional church.
Robert R. Reilly:
Those are two very important points, Mark, but let us stay on that first one you made in which you pointed out that race relations in the United States are infinitely better than they were say in the 1960s. However, two years ago, the George Floyd killing in Minnesota caused enormous riots across a number of cities in the United States.
The purported pretext for them was, of course, police brutality and racism and unfair treatment of blacks. And this became the mantra that underlaid the famous slogan, Black Lives Matter, which you can still see in the yard signs of a number of American homes, so it was that event and the violence that attended it that sent a different message, and the message, of course, was that racism is rampant in the United States.
Then the accusation came from the 1619 project that America was based on, founded on, racism and that it is so institutionally embedded that only institutional destruction will solve it. So you are saying it is getting better, they were saying it is not only perhaps worse, but insolvable.
Well, to the first point, is racism worse than 50 years ago, I think that is an almost absurd assertion that could only be made by people who are very, very young or people who have no historical memory. Not long before I was born, the Freedom Riders were still trying to take public transportation to the South on Greyhound buses. [They] were attacked by rioters and beaten, and the local police did not intervene to protect them. That was a situation at the time of my birth that seems unimaginable now.
Even in my childhood, I can recall people in the Washington area using the N-word freely and unapologetically. That would be completely unacceptable now, but you know people are by nature ungrateful. We have made tremendous improvements in racial attitudes, and yet our human tendency is to ignore that, and to complain and bewail about where we are.
But the other problem gets to my earlier point, the retreat of the institutional church. With the retreat of institutional Christianity, we no longer have a spiritual understanding or the spiritual tools to understand forgiveness, and mediation, and moving forward, so we do have this tremendous stain of racism in our history, and we are unable to [process that]. Many of us have persuaded ourselves that we have to tear down the whole system because it cannot be redeemed. I think with the tools of Christianity, we understand [that] no, humanity has always fallen but redemption is always available.
Robert R. Reilly:
Alberto would you like to comment on that?
Yeah, no, I think Mark is absolutely right. I know you have said, Mark, the only people who would think that are very young or people with no historical memory. Unfortunately, we have people that are both very young and have no historical memory, so we are going to have people who are going to think that that there is more racism today than there was in the past.
And you know, I wrote a recent piece for MEMRI, and Pew did a study of the American electorate, Pew Research did a study and it found that the most Left-wing part of the American electorate, six percent, the most progressive part of it, tends to be well-educated, privileged or comfortable economically, often white, and yet it is that demographic that in the Pew Research was the most likely to want American institutions to be completely demolished and redone because of institutional racism.
So it is kind of this paradox that the percentage, the part of the electorate, which is very well-educated, very comfortable, and also, to be frank, very white was the one that was the most dismissive of what we have and wanted it to be demolished. In fact, African Americans were less extreme than that demographic, so I do think there is a problem of kind of no historical memory, and certainly among the young, the people having kind of misapprehensions.
I also think there is a problem that that we do not talk about, which is extremely complicated. I agree with you. I think there is less racism today than there was in the ’70s when I was a little kid. I do not remember it very well either, but America is different than it was in the 70s, and one of my big concerns is that in America today, so much of what is seen in this kind of binary black/white situation, and the reality is America is becoming much more complex in its kind of ethnic makeup.
People are uncomfortable. The term ‘people of color’ was created to kind of try to put all of this brown people in the same category, and actually the world is not really like that. It is more [complex], so I feel we have come out of the kind of racism that existed in the ’60s and ’70s, and yet we are entering in another situation where we are living in a kind of very racialist world where there is this kind of zero-sum game situation being played.
And I agree with you completely. This glue or this bond that Christianity can bring is frayed and missing in so many places, so we have condemnation and the heat and the anger of the past without the forgiveness, without the absolution that that faith, that a shared faith, can give. And I think that is a very dangerous thing. I remember this. Somebody said it. You know, if you do not like the Christian Right, wait until you have the post-Christian Right, right? But I think that is true of the post-Christian Right, post-Christian Left, post-Christian center. I think it is a very, very scary thing.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, both of you know the famous quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America wherein he said, and I am quoting from him, “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than America.” Mark, you spoke of the deinstitutionalization of religion in America. How did that happen and how damaging is it?
Well, it is very damaging, although I would point out that probably as a percentage of Americans there are more people who are regular churchgoers now than there were in the 1830s when Tocqueville was writing, partly owed [to the fact that] back then people lived in more remote locations, but we should not over-Christianize America’s past, but nonetheless, I think Christianity had a greater hold over the commanding heights of culture when Tocqueville was writing than certainly it does today.
And it leaves this tremendous spiritual vacuum in which people, especially the people we like to call the elites, the educated elites, when they are not bound to any institutional religion and therefore to validate themselves, to gain righteousness for themselves, they have to virtue signal and adopt the latest cause du jour, whether it is Black Lives Matters, or the LGBT cause, or whatever is going to come across tomorrow. So they are on that constant treadmill that they could never completely keep up on.
And the only solution I think is the reinvigoration of organized religion in America. One of our challenges today is – I mean there are obviously tens of millions of Americans who are still religiously devout, but they are increasingly less and less tied to church institutions increasingly, post-denominational, and they just do not have any deep connection to historic Christianity.
So how do we address that? Maybe you two being Catholics, you have the answer, but for those of us who are Protestants it is a little more complicated. How do you re-institutionalize Protestants and Evangelicals who have left the great denominations and are off doing something else?
Well, I agree. Of course, we Catholics have a whole slew of tremendous problems as well. And you know, when you talk about losing people, the Catholic Church also has a challenge of losing people. I mean, obviously, one of the deep challenges, which has always been true, which has always been true from the time of the Apostles, is making one’s faith relevant, and real, and connected to people. And that challenge has always been true in the history of the Church and it is true today.
And the danger also of kind of watering down Christianity, watering down the Gospel, following the latest fashion, the latest cause, there has always been a risk there, and so you do need people who are going to kind of have a clear vision of the truth and a clear understanding of how to present it. And I think this is a challenge across the institutional church writ large. And I think what has happened – and Mark, you have written about this, so correct me if I am wrong, one of the challenges – and I think, Robert, you have looked at this as well, is that there was a time when there were these kind of religious guard rails in America.
Aside from real faith there was a kind of societal expectation, right, to be a Christian. [It] was expected more or less, and I do not know if this died out in this [secularization]. I think it began dying out in the 50s, 60s, 70s, but today to be a Christian and to be a Christian in the public square has a price, has a real price. It is less convenient, right, it is less acceptable than it was, and so I think there is a tremendous challenge to reach people who are the same people with the same issues and the same sins that have always existed.
But doing it in this environment where there are not these kind of cultural guard rails or the kind of cultural Christianity that exists in a society regardless of the beliefs that individuals may have, right, the personal beliefs that people may have.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, you know, a Southern writer came up with a very attractive phrase, describing his youth, a youth back in the 40s and 50s, that he was “cornered into virtue” precisely by the Christian culture that was still extant at that time. But we are talking about a possible collapse from within in America, and Mark, some of the Christian religions [look like they are] collapsing from within.
You have been a courageous and stalwart defender of Christian orthodoxy within the Methodist faith. I do not know whether I as a Catholic would be in a position to say certain sectors of that faith apostasized by going against such fundamental Christian teachings about marriage, about the immorality of homosexual acts, and about the nature of the laity and the priesthood. So you have been a witness to this, and you have been combating it, so you have an inside view of the internal forces of corrosion. Could you talk about that?
Yes, Jody Bottom, the former editor of First Things magazine, wrote a book about this, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. It basically is about collapse of mainline Protestantism and how the secular elites of today are basically post-mainline Protestants. They still have that elite attitude, sort of detached attitude, but they have lost the faith and they have lost the institutional attachments to the Church.
And I think that we constantly underestimate the social, cultural, and political impact of the collapse of the great historic Protestant denominations that really guided America across four centuries, Episcopalians, and Methodists, and the Lutherans, and others, who now have almost completely receded from the scene and have been replaced either by secularism or by a post-denomination or non-denominational Christianity, which has many strengths but also many weaknesses and is much less connected to the pillars of support of our democracy that the old line denomination had.
Robert R. Reilly:
Alberto, there was something you said with which I think Mark would agree, that Christian culture across the various denominations in a more traditional America that provided guard rails certainly morally speaking but also in the general view of life, that the meaning of life was achieved in the transcendent, not in this world, that there were moral dislocations, disturbances in our souls, original sin, personal sin which we as human beings were incapable of extirpating ourselves. We could not save ourselves, therefore we look to a savior, and that savior being Jesus Christ.
Now, when that belief weakens or is removed, those problems still remain, under different names perhaps, so the approach to solutions to those problems becomes within this world no longer a transcendent solution but let us say an imminent one, which leads to this, these millenarian ideologies. When I was witnessing the riots following the George Floyd killing, and this went on for some time, seizing cities, defund the police, and so forth, what fired the grievances of these young people, and it seemed to me it was not just the specific act of injustice against which they were reacting, it was sort of the grounds of their own existence. They thought that the reason why they were not completely happy was someone else’s fault, that something must have been taken from them, and they mean to get it back, not through those traditional means that Christianity always provided, which was humble service, prayer, self-control, moral behavior, honoring your parents, etc. Do you both agree with that general assessment?
Yeah, sure, look what happened is, you know, and Mark talks about the collapse of the great Protestant denominations and faith in general, is that we all have that God-shaped vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled, will be satisfied in some way. And we often talk about drugs and sex and stuff like that that people do, but there are other things, kind of worldly things, like the world of politics, right, the cause of utopia, kind of utopian politics, which of course is a clear mark of Leftist politics that we have seen from the years of the Bolsheviks.
So of course, people are going to look for ways to fill that vacuum, and one of the ways that has happened even before the 2020 [pandemic] has been activism, right, and I think one can say that so much of what have been very good things often that have been done by secular, or liberal, or human rights, or ecological rights, or whatever rights organizations, all of those, of course, are offspring from something which comes from Christianity, right, it is a kind of secularized version of Christian service. It is being a missionary. It is being an evangelist except you are being an evangelist for the whales, or for climate change, or for social justice, or whatever.
So yes, absolutely, there is a tremendous kind of reaction to that. There is this ferment that exists that needs to be answered. One of the challenges is going to be how people of faith address this post-Christian world or people that do not have these kind of general understanding of kind of Abrahamic religions writ large, but are uneasy, unhappy, and there is a problem, and how you are going to reach those people and communicate to them.
Another effect of the retreat of institutional Christianity in America has been the increasing propensity to horribilize everything, as though bad stuff was not always happening everywhere all the time, throughout America, throughout human history. If you are a Christian, Catholic or Protestant, you recall the scripture that Satan is roaming the earth like a roaring lion, and so there has always been evil among us, but in this new, secular age, when something horrible happens, it is treated as extraordinary and somehow evidence of perhaps the end of the world or at least the end of the world as we know it, and we lose our sense of perspective and realism.
Yeah, we have anathemas, but we have no repentance or no true repentance and forgiveness.
Robert R. Reilly:
Mark, your extraordinarily fine journal, Providence, a journal of Christianity and foreign policy, has to address the impact of some of these issues on our foreign policy and how to address the harm that that has occasioned. I could give some examples if that would help, but as a good friend of mine was the number two person in AID, the agency for international development, for Asia for three years in the Trump administration, and indeed, he had lived in Central Asia for many years, he knew the territory.
And of his experience, he told me, Bob, you must understand that the soft power of the United States is gone. We have been promoting abortion, homosexual marriage, the LGBT flag flying from our embassy in Kabul and other places, whereas these Asian peoples still have traditional family cultures, and they do not want that. And that is what America has officially come to represent, and has promoted, and has used its foreign aid to promote. Can you speak to the damage this might have done and is there any way to address it?
Well, you are right, it is very damaging for America and the West to be conflated by the religious, traditionally religious majority of the world, conflated with secularism and sexual permissiveness, breakdown of the family. And it is hard for us to repair our culture from where we are, but the work must begin. Our journal focuses on stressing Christian realism, a school of thought associated with Reinhold Niebuhr but more deeply and historically Augustinian, and stressing the fact that humanity is intrinsically sinful but we do what we can with the tools that God gives us to advance some approximate good.
And so, as you say, utopian schemes, domestic or international, are doomed to failure. We have to work for incremental change where it is possible, and so hopefully, if we can rebuild traditional religious and moral beliefs in America, that will be reflected in our foreign policy. But [it is] just as important to re-emphasize and to reappreciate the founding principles of America about democracy, about human equality, about equal rights for all. That is the basis of American greatness, true American greatness. That has been America’s appeal to the world for most of our history, and it can be appealing.
I think that message is still there. Often, it is muted, but sadly even many Americans not just on the left but also on the right are increasingly asking questions, or are skeptical, or are disdainful of our founding principles about human equality.
Robert R. Reilly:
In fact, to what extent – many people have commented on what they say are two Americas today, that the nation is so profoundly divided over some of these fundamental issues, including, Mark, what you just referred to, the founding of the United States, what were its principles, were they universal moral principles to which we still adhere, [and] how do we understand ourselves as a nation? And there seem to be two very different answers to that question. That has resulted in a deeply divided United States, which at the extreme lead some people to forecast a civil war, [which is] not something I agree with, but the situation is bad enough that it leads a few people in that extreme direction. What do you think?
Well, the talk about civil war, I think from my hopeful perspective is just mostly online chat, people who like to bloviate, but this kind of rhetoric is not helpful. And again, regarding our founding principles, you all may have seen the student newspaper at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, advocate that all reference to Thomas Jefferson be deleted from the campus of the University of Virginia because, of course, he was a slaveholder, and the infamous far right racist demonstration that took place in Charlottesville several years ago gathered at the Jefferson statue, and therefore his legacy belonged to white supremacy and should be canceled, which is absurd.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, stipulating that God created all humans to be equal. That document ensured the eventual eradication of slavery, that document led directly to the foundation of the civil rights movement, [and] that document was quoted almost verbatim by Martin Luther King. And the legacy of Thomas Jefferson is one of democracy, human rights, religious freedom, equality for all. It does not belong to white supremacy. Yet, we have people on the ignorant far left and people on the far right who are wanting to jettison Thomas Jefferson and others of our Founders for some other vision of America that is utopian or rather malevolent.
Robert R. Reilly:
I might just quickly add, Mark, that Jefferson was responsible for the introduction of some 10 pieces of legislation that would have manumitted the slaves and abolished slavery in his State of Virginia, and also, of course, he supported and had had a line that was subsequently taken out of the Declaration of Independence specifically naming the great evil of slavery. So yes, he held slaves, no one will gainsay that, but there was no one firmer in his condemnation of this institution as an evil, not only for the slaves themselves, obviously, but for the slaveholders.
And of course, if you come from a religious perspective, you can understand that someone like Jefferson, like all of us, a sinner flawed even when he is trying to do his best, living in very complicated, challenging circumstances, but still used by God to do good.
We who are Christians have this narrative in the Bible of lots of very flawed and even bad people whom God uses to advance the cause of Good, but if you are operating from a secular perspective, you have to resort to a certain perfectionism where you have to cancel and delete and denounce everyone who does not live up to your expectations of the last five minutes.
Robert R. Reilly:
Of course, this same treatment was given to Abraham Lincoln of all people, the great liberator, the man who led the United States in the civil war, thank God successfully, which did lead to the extirpation of slavery, but there have been attempts to remove his statues, to defame him, to call him a racist. All of this does point, I think – it has the ideological component to it, which both of you have spoken about, but we ought to talk about the decline of education in the United States, the general decline of it, and to what extent it is responsible for this, and what were the reasons behind that decline.
My area is more foreign policy than education. I do not know what exactly the reasons for the decline are. Obviously, we have the challenge that a kind of a new ideology or successor ideology has successfully completed the institutional capture of many organizations and entities that guide education, culture formation, the universities, etc., and so you basically have a narrative that forms, which is a narrative of America, even before the 1619 Project, right, as America and its founding, its history, as deeply problematic, deeply flawed, evil.
I mean we all accept that America is flawed like any other human institution, but there is this kind of anti-American, anti-West narrative, [which] is deeply embedded now in our kind of cultural educational elites. And in my piece, the piece I wrote about the state of America, I thought there certainly would be a reaction, there will be a reaction against it at the ballot box sooner or later, maybe not this year, maybe in two years, whatever.
But absent a change in kind of the dominant institutions that formulate a national narrative and kind of formulate education in culture, indoctrination without a change there, I am actually somewhat pessimistic about the United States in that sense, in the sense of kind of its view of itself and its people’s view of the United States itself, because I do not think that a kind of a nihilistic, hostile worldview of American society and institutions is going to be able to engender people who can appreciate nuance.
We can appreciate [people like], for example, Jefferson, a great man with some great flaws, and others in our history and darkness and light in our own history, and so I fear [this phenomenon]. There was a recent incident that happened with the head of the American Historical Association. I do not know if you followed it. He wrote a piece talking about his fear that ideologues were basically going to take over, or are taking over, the teaching of history.
And his comments were very nuanced, and he talked about the problems of racism, and he talked about how the Right – you know, he had the expected anti-Trump bromides, and he checked all the boxes, right, that are expected from a kind of an ordinary, liberal educator. But he also warned about kind of this concern about kind of the politicization of the teaching of history.
Well, after it came out, he received just a kind of a firestorm of criticism, and of course, he wound up, as always happens these days, in the kind of the mea culpa apologetic situation of groveling for what he had said. So I am actually a bit pessimistic. If the center-right is not able to recapture these kinds of institutions that formulate kind of the national narrative, I think the problem creation is going to continue, it is going to get bad, it is going to get worse.
Yes, I was recently reading a Washington Post article about these issues, and a school teacher was talking about taking her class to a Virginia State Park, where she was horrified to find a statue or a memorial to former Governor Harry Byrd, who was running the state as a senator and governor for about 40 years, and was unfortunately a segregationist, but his career included much more, that she was so traumatized and fearful that the children if they noticed this statue or a memorial, they might have a complete meltdown on the scene.
Well, of course they would not even know who Harry Byrd was, but this idea that children are so fragile, that it cannot be explained to them that human life is complicated, people are complicated, everyone is a combination of good and bad, and including ourselves so we have to be a little bit reluctant about looking our nose down on other people, and maybe reflect on our own shortcomings [is regrettable]. So yes, this is where we are where a lot of very fragile people, adults and children, who cannot be exposed to anything that we potentially might disagree with.
Robert R. Reilly:
It is curious that the 1619 project, which was denounced by a number of extremely distinguished liberal historians, who simply said you have got the facts wrong, you are making absurd statements in here that are unsupported by any historical sources.
And I also read the 1619 project and wrote my own book chapter about it. None of this seemed [to bother them], none of this stopped the distribution of the 1619 project with teaching tools into thousands of high schools in the United States because I suppose it comported with this attitude that both of you have been describing, that as it is congruent with the idea that it is the United States’ fault, the founding, the original sin, that that is the irredeemable problem from which we are all suffering. So even when it is so apparent that the contentions are incorrect, it is unstoppable.
Alberto as a former diplomat knows, he has a great appreciation for the world as it is, but this 1619 narrative I think imagines the world as some sort of arcadia and America is the exception in terms of being this deep abyss of discrimination, and racism, and oppression, and with that narrative I do not know how you explain how tens of millions of people from around the world have voluntarily moved to America across 300 years. And very few of them or their descendants have left or have any desire to leave, and yet somehow, we leave out the rest of the story about the world just in the last century in terms of what happened in Nazi Germany, what happened in Stalinist Russia, what happened in Maoist China, tens of millions of people murdered by their own governments. The world is not an arcadia, and America for all of its sins tends to be a relative refuge for those who are seeking some level of decent life.
Yeah, we have gone from the American exceptionalism that America was uniquely great to the American exceptionalism of America is uniquely evil, kind of a cultural shift that has happened. I do worry about the effect of this on foreign policy. I feel that an America which is in turmoil, which is at war with itself is not a good international role model. I mean Mark is absolutely right, America’s attraction as a society for ordinary people will remain, but in the kind of global battle of ideas you know, an America which is at odds with the world also in the sense of not understanding that the world is a world of faith, not understanding the world is complicated, that the only path is this kind of Westernization, which is a very specific kind of progressive agenda, I do not think that is good for U.S. foreign policy writ large, and certainly our enemies use the fact.
The progressive agenda package is used by our adversaries, not just the Russians but certainly in the Middle East, which I follow closely, it is often used to point to how we fall. We do not have a link, and so we have no reason, no ability to criticize them. This came out when President Biden went to Saudi Arabia. There were various commentators who said that we have nothing to be ashamed of compared to the Americans. The Americans after George Floyd, after COVID, after January 6, and everything else, the Americans have nothing to offer to us, and the whole gay agenda as well. They threw that in as well. The Americans had absolutely nothing to say to us or offer to us.
Robert R. Reilly:
I think what that what Mark said I see firsthand. I see the promise of America working all around me. And I am sure you have both been to the swearing-in ceremonies at U.S. immigration where you see people from all over the world with tears of happiness when they swear their fealty to the United States to become a U.S. citizen.
Alberto Fernandez:[I have] not just been to them, I was one of them.
Robert R. Reilly:
You were one of them. Yeah, my wife is one of them. So there is something here that still works that we simply have not been talking about, or that has been suppressed by the forces that be in the media, and in the educational elite, and in the cultural elite, though not completely. And I would like to – since I mentioned the military in which you served, Alberto – to raise an issue that is a manifestation of the problem we have been talking about. If, indeed, these young people have an idea that the foundation of their country was grievously faulty, why would they wish to swear their loyalty to the U.S. constitution, and to the country, and if necessary, at the cost of their lives if they are in the in the U.S. military?
Here I want to refer to some rather extraordinary statistics that come from the Army. There is, first of all, the decline in the number of people physically qualified to serve in the military forces. [I have] a quote from the general who is responsible for this in the U.S. Army, General Joseph Martin, that we have gone from 29 to 23 percent of the population ages 17 to 24 that is available to serve because they are not physically qualified. In other words, there has been a physical decline. If you can imagine, only 23 percent of people in that age bracket from 17 to 24 are so suffering from obesity, or have indulged so deeply in drugs, or have a criminal record that even if they wanted to, they could not serve in in the U.S. Armed Forces. There is a record low percentage of young Americans eligible to serve, and an even tinier fraction willing to consider it. And indeed, the Army is far behind their recruitment requirements, and they expect it next year to be even worse.
I do not mean to suggest, by the way, nor does this general, that this is all an expression of the problems to which I just alluded. There is also the fact that the economy still offers young people a lot of opportunities. There are so many job openings. There are decent salaries, higher than that that can be obtained in the military that could draw them away, but generally this is true. There is a physical decline in the state of the health of young people, and there is this decline in even their willingness to consider serving their country in this way. Mark, [do you have any opinions as] to why that may be so other than the things we have already mentioned, that they have been exposed to the denigration of the country and a steady stream of things? Is that why they are unlikely to do it?
Well, I do not know. You mentioned fewer and fewer people are physically qualified, so that is a public health situation. I cannot address that, but I do think there are signs of hope. A friend of mine has been active in fighting for greater immigration control, so whatever you think about that, but his new book is actually optimistic in terms of reviewing the data in terms of how immigrants in the last 20 years have successfully integrated into American society, and they are climbing economically, [they] are becoming more politically diverse, much more Republican than they would have been 20 years ago, overwhelmingly English speaking, largely patriotic.
So whatever the public education system is doing, it is not necessarily successfully persuading immigrants that they should not be patriotic and enthusiastic Americans, because, in fact, they are. And we should not underestimate our nation’s capacity for reinventing itself and rejuvenating itself. I think we are relatively unique in the world for having – maybe it is a myth, maybe we are mistaken, or we exaggerate our capacity to reinvent ourselves, and yet it is this myth, whatever it seems to be sustained across generations, and I think it is actually a cause for hope and one of the bases of America’s strengths.
You know, Mark used the word myth twice, and we need myths, you know. There are national myths. These are narratives. These are how we see ourselves, and our identity, and our past, and our place in the world. This is something which is organic, and America has this organically, has this latent power because of our history, our very unique history.
It also needs to be nurtured. It is not something like a police state where you have the Party myth, the way you are supposed to believe in this thing, but it is something that is both organic and that has to be nurtured, you know, kind of a love of country, not some kind of base nationalism but an inclusive, and warm, and expansive patriotism. [This] is something that can be encouraged, and that can be nurtured, and which has to be nurtured without kind of suffocating propaganda.
Robert R. Reilly:
I think you both have mentioned the fact that the United States has come back from very serious problems which it has had in the past. I would only add that America has been misjudged by its foreign adversaries a number of times. It certainly was by Japan in World War II, and it certainly was by Nazi Germany. Americans were denigrated. I have read Hitler’s own remarks about Americans being a commercial people immersed in their pleasures and the consumption of worldly goods, and they have not the martial fiber to stand up to us. So we were supposed to be pushovers, and both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany learned otherwise.
A more immediate memory is 9/11. And Alberto is particularly aware of how America was judged by Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists as a thoroughly corrupt, materialist people lost in malls, shopping for ever larger home entertainment centers. They found out otherwise. In fact, I was the director of the Voice of America at the time, saying why is it so much of the world is surprised at our response, at the dignity and bearing of the American people as they conducted the funerals for those who were lost, by the patriotic fervor of the many who stepped up to military service, who left successful careers on Wall Street to serve in the military in a combat branch.
I recall many Europeans being amazed because they, too, thought America was too corrupt to respond in this way, and so I mentioned to the staff that is our fault. We cannot blame the general American media whose job is to tell bad news and to entertain in a way. Ours is to tell the story about the American character that they would not otherwise hear. Now, things have changed since 9/11. We cannot say in any way that they have gotten better. Do we still have the fiber to react the next time we are hit? Is there still enough underlying character and patriotism to replicate that performance, do you think?
Well, I think there is, but it depends on what form. I think that there is a kind of innate patriotism among Americans. There is an innate sense of service, of people wanting to protect their country and serve their country. However, if you try to conflate or confuse the defense of the country to the defense or the promulgation of a kind of a global American empire with a progressive agenda, which is not shared by people, that is not a really very attractive proposition. So I think the American people would always defend their country. I think that there are true patriots who would do that, and soldiers that would do that, but another misadventure, [no].
I mean you talked about 9/11, right? That whole exercise left a very bad taste in people’s mouths, how it ended, right? It is one thing to fight back against the people that hit us on 9/11, the Salafi jihadists who attacked the United States. That was a national cause, and people were in favor of that. Twenty years later, a lot of the American people were tired of Afghanistan, and wondering, well, why were we in Iraq at the service of a regime, a government, that was mostly controlled by Iran? We kind of lost our way along the way, so I would just kind of make that differentiation. I think there would be people that defend America but defend her from what and for what?
I think Americans are naturally patriotic, no matter what may be going on in the universities or the public-school systems. And who we are and what we are is the accumulation of our history for the last 400 years, and that history is very difficult to undo. I think it is built into our cultural DNA, and I think that strength will sustain us through any future crises. It has also been a reminder to us, the war in Ukraine, that democracies, and America especially, are very, very self-critical, reflective, self-critical, obsessed with our faults, but at least we do have these conversations and the capacity to self-reform, hopefully as a result of them.
The dictatorships constantly lie to each other, and dictators can never quite be sure what is actually going on in their own country, so we have seen this happen with Putin and what is happening to his forces in Ukraine, and that is a mistake that dictatorships and authoritarian regimes make over and over and over, regimes built on lies and therefore removed from reality.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I may close with this big question, what are the sources of renewal within American society today? If we are faced with decline in religion, decline in family, decline in morals, even physical decline, what is it that can be done, or perhaps has already been done, to restore ourselves, first of all, spiritually, and then other important ways?
Well, I mean I think of that term that Edmund Burke used about small platoons, the small things. I think the biggest defense and the biggest service that we can make to America – obviously, we have to be good citizens, but it is to be right with our families, with our communities, with our churches, and to strengthen them and protect them in this lost world that we are in. When I was in the military, there was this line that they said, “You know, you cannot do everything. You should fix the foxhole that you are in, right?” So we need to fix the foxhole that we are in. Yes, dream big, but take care of these things first of all. Those are the building blocks of everything else in the future greatness.
I agree with Alberto. [We have] this sense, the strong sense of the individual to shape your own destiny, to plan and shape future, to work for a better tomorrow, that we are not static, we are not wedded to the past, there are always new possibilities, the unique gift of American culture, of our crossing the Atlantic and conquering the frontier, there is always a better day that we can work for.
Robert R. Reilly:
I would like to offer my own observation that I see in the realm of education, not only the homeschooling that has been going on for quite some time, parents so concerned about the nature of public education that they educate their children in concert with other families that are doing the same thing, but the creation of new schools, new schools based upon traditional education and sound religious values. There is almost an underground of such educational institutions. They are small but growing, and also you see that in higher education with private schools. You have the great example of Hillsdale College in Michigan and its President, Larry Ahrn. It is now one of the hardest schools to get into in the United States.
And I will close just with a personal anecdote that I am given hope by young people who undertake to do the hardest things. Thank you very much, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), and Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, for joining me to today to answer the question: What is the State of America?
Now, I urge our audience to go to the Westminster Institute website or to our YouTube channel, where you can see the other subjects that we have been covering, China, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East, and other matters, and also please go through our list of offerings to find the fine contributions from Alberto Fernandez in his other appearances. So thank you again for joining us. I am Robert Reilly.