The Corner

‘Service Religion’ and the Crisis of Cultural Confidence

I’m coming just a bit late to this David Brooks column, but it’s still worth highlighting. Commenting on the millennial generation’s zeal for service, Brooks remarks:

 If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good. Typically, they’ve spent a year studying abroad. They’ve traveled in the poorer regions of the world. Now they have devoted themselves to a purpose larger than self. . . .

These people are refreshingly uncynical. Their hip service ethos is setting the moral tone for the age. Idealistic and uplifting, their worldview is spread by enlightened advertising campaigns, from Bennetton years ago to everything Apple has ever done.

It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.

Brooks goes on to note that not only do young people wrongly neglect politics in the Third World, they also underestimate the problem of disorder. In other words, they serve but they don’t really try to change the culture of the places they serve. They may bring mosquito nets or micro loans, but corruption, venality, and disorder remain. It’s an interesting observation, and though his observation isn’t confined to religious young people, it’s similar to my own concerns about service-first, Gospel-second (if at all) Christianity.

Yes, people need mosquito nets, but a lack of netting generations after we figured out how malaria is transmitted (or a lack of clean water, or virtually any other aspect of public health we take for granted) is a symptom, not the cause of multi-generational poverty and suffering in the Third World. To be clear, it’s vitally important that we alleviate these symptoms — and those who labor to alleviate those symptoms are doing heroic work for the “least of these” — but that can only be part of the story.

Unfortunately, however, at the same time that our millennials are filled with idealism, they’re also drained of cultural confidence. Especially if they’re products of contemporary elite education, they’re likely to believe that history is dominated by a litany of American and European sins and equally likely to think of poorly understood indigenous cultures as dysfunctional largely because of our malign cultural influence. For some it’s almost as if their service is a form of penance for Western cultural wrongs, real or imagined. (“I’ll build your school but heaven forbid that I tell you what your textbooks should say.”)  

There’s a healthy middle ground, however, between cultural imperialism and cultural relativism, and — maybe, just maybe — our own national health and prosperity are not entirely the result of exploitation and oppression but instead the result of certain civilizational virtues that can and should be replicated elsewhere.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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