Commentary Magazine


Whence Sacrifice?

“We live in a sacrifice-free bubble of volitional delusion.” If Mitt Romney put his private fundraising speeches through a syllable-multiplying machine he might come up with something like that—generalizing, demonizing, and dismissive of entitlement-happy American moochers. And liberal columnists would mug him for it.

But in fact a liberal columnist wrote it. The line appeared in Frank Bruni’s Sunday New York Times column about the lost American virtue of sacrifice. “It’s odd,” writes Bruni. “We revere the Americans who lived through World War II and call them the ‘greatest generation’ precisely because of the sacrifices they made. But we seem more than content to let that brand of greatness pass us by.”

Indeed we do. And he certainly tells conservatives nothing new when he writes: “The size of the federal debt and the pace of its growth can’t be ignored.” And those of us who’ve long been dismayed by the Obama administration’s use of class warfare can only agree with Bruni’s contention that “[t]hese days sacrifice is what you recommend for others, not what you volunteer for yourself.”

But there is an extraordinary absence in Bruni’s discussion: the word “culture” appears nowhere. The column redefines sacrifice as a government ask, and not a personal or cultural virtue at all. For Bruni, sacrifice is to be reclaimed with an eleventh hour pronouncement from the president to render unto Caesar. Government will tell us to part with what is ours so that it can get America’s house in order. Simple as that. He wants Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to talk seriously about American sacrifice in the upcoming debates so that Americans will in turn think seriously about it themselves.

There is a great and growing divide between what our political reality demands and what our culture now produces, and Bruni gets nowhere near it. Sacrifice is vanishing because the cultural institutions that promote or sanctify it—family, faith, and patriotism—are on the wane. “In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all [American] twenty-somethings were married,” a 2010 Pew study found. “In 2008, just 26% were.” And in 2011, American births fell to a 12-year low. To previous generations the demands of family meant a life defined by self-denial, delayed gratification, and the giving of one’s time, energy, and money. Is a 42 percent drop in those who claim such an existence supposed to have no effect on the quality of our national character?  Can this be fixed with a White House call to duty?

To the snickering celebration of progressives, religious belief is tumbling in America as well.  Particularly among the so-called “millennial” generation. Among Americans 30 and younger, belief in God has fallen 15 percentage points in the last five years. With that belief  goes the divine endorsement of selflessness, charity, and sacrifice. Indeed, the simultaneous rise in youth devotion to the Occupy movement offers a beautiful illustration of a generation’s transition out of an institution of sacrifice and into a sub-culture of entitlement. Frank Bruni should try interrupting an anti-banking drum-circle chant to tell Occupiers they need to sacrifice more because Obama says so.

And of course there’s the fading belief in American exceptionalism, today considered by progressives to be a kind of imperialist thought crime. Last November, Pew found that 49 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others,” while 46 percent of Americans disagreed. (In 2007, 55 percent said American culture was superior; in 2002, it was 60 percent).  Why make sacrifices for a country that’s no better than any other on the planet?

It makes sense that Bruni avoids discussing the cultural underpinnings of our increasingly selfish citizenry. As Yuval Levin discusses in a brilliant essay in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, “the progressive view of government has long involved the effort to shrink and clear the space between the individual and the state.” Culture, in the progressive view, should collapse itself to make room for increased government as needed. It is not surprising then that Bruni not only looks to the president to simply decree a renewed sense of sacrifice but that he also considers the end of military conscription as a possible culprit for sacrifice’s waning.

The challenge of course goes beyond the nature of our government. One can rail against the entitlement policies of Barack Obama and others but in a sense those policies are a form of accommodation with a culture that’s turning away from the non-governmental institutions that promote personal responsibility, charity, and sacrifice. Frank Bruni finds it “odd” that we’re giving up on a virtue we praise only because he pays no attention to how that virtue was instilled and passed on. He quotes a string of presidents who spoke of American sacrifice in this or that light, as if “sacrifice” is an incantation or logic command to be programmed into our political life when desperately needed.  It is not. Sacrifice, rather, is the personal and cultural reality of people who’ve toiled in hopes of seeing its delayed rewards—for themselves or for others. A sense of sacrifice is what generations of Americans found in the institutions that they built and maintained specifically because they expected neither moral nor material elevation from their government.

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