By Tom Ehrich
MORGANFIELD, KY -- I steered north, rather than east, and made my way to Camp Breckinridge, where my parents were stationed in World War Two.
The former Army facility is a Job Corps center now and off-limits to visitors. But they have a museum housed in an old camp building. I will visit today.
Why? Why am I veering off a route I had planned through eastern Tennessee? As I was looking at the map Tuesday morning, I realized that making this trip to Camp Breckinridge and Morganfield was important to me.
To honor my parents, of course. To see where I spent my first year or so as a baby. Maybe also to make my peace with not having served in the military.
And more. When I was explaining to the folks at Nick's BBQ near Bardwell, KY, why I am making this 30-day trip, I found myself saying, "I want to see what is happening in America."
That hadn't been my plan when I started this pilgrimage. But the more I drive, the more I see of the states, the more I encounter our checkered history and the great injustices that are still going on -- the more I realize that something has been lost.
My homeland is going astray. All nations fall short. We are human. But it seems we Americans have lost our moral compass.
Our various culture wars are thinly disguised attempts to promote intolerance and to stifle others. We have put our democracy up for sale. We have become weak: too focused on comfort, too self-indulgent, too captivated by Mammon. Our dominant religious voices are filled with white rage.
I want to understand this, and I want to know what I can do to help turn this disappointing moment around.
I don't think we are bad people or that America is a failed idea. I think we are like the early white settlers who came to the grasslands of the west, saw amazing expanses of green, and decided to make it an annual crop.
Once they had harvested the grass, however, the grass never returned. As they discovered too late, it had taken hundreds of years for that grass to grow.
I think we drew the wrong lesson from defeating European and Japanese fascism and launching a great industrial expansion. We thought we were exceptional, that we had defied the laws of gravity and morality. We could repress workers and still expect them to work. We could award huge paychecks to executives and still expect a sturdy social fabric. We could wage internal wars of intolerance and still have the mutual respect required for democracy. We could give our children whatever they wanted and avoid undermining their character. We could take education for granted. We could oppress whomever we wanted. We could treat Christianity as a Sunday outing for families. We could treat the Bible as an arsenal of weapons to bully anyone we disliked.
We thought all of this, and many still do. But we were profoundly mistaken. We weren't exceptional. We were courageous, and we were lucky. But the laws of gravity and morality still applied to us. All that we took for granted and casually abused has turned barren, like the soil under abused grassland.
And now we have entire industries and political movements that sell exceptionalism, "national pride" and "family values" but are fraudulent.
A pilgrimage that I thought would be a journey of personal faith has turned in a different direction. I am now seeing that Christian faith going forward will need to be profoundly social, political, economic -- a faith of the marketplace, not the private meditation mat.
That will mean conflict, but maybe this time meaningful conflict. Not bullying and claims of institutional superiority, but serious people of serious faith discussing what God's presence and call are today. We will disagree. Progressive Christianity is no more or less Godly than Conservative Christianity.
This will be a time for prophets, teachers and mission-doers, not just angry religious leaders who make careers out of lacerating cultural enemies.