Struggling for the Soul of Our Country
Preston M. Browning Jr.
Wipf & Stock, 2016
In ten essays and three appendices, Browning, “a Southerner, an octogenarian, a socialist and, with reservations, a Christian” attempts to explain what he believes is a struggle for the soul of a nation – the soul being defined as “a complex mixture of beliefs, passions, conflicting desires, hopes, fears and contradictions.”
Browning, an academic, author, poet, critic and activist residing in Western Massachusetts where he operates Wellspring House retreat for writers, presents his seasoned views “developed over decades of reading, reflection, and writing.” These essays voice the passionate concerns of a man who has lived his entire life struggling to plant and nurture a new vision for American society. Readers will quickly gain an idea of where Browning stands by simply reading the table of contents
American Global Hegemony vs. the Quest for a New Humanity
American Pathologies and the Response of Faith
Why I am a Christian Socialist
Letter to My Grandchildren
Struggling for the Soul of America
Religionless Christianity in an Age of Spectacle
America’s Forgotten Wars
American Dystopia: Cold War, the CIA, and John F. Kennedy as Sacrificial Victim
Climate Change & Our Shared Earth
The Plague: Money in Politics
Israel’s Heartlessness: We See It in the Treatment of Palestinians
Anger and Hope
As with all of us, Browning’s life experiences have influenced his worldview. A child of the Great Depression, he was raised in rural Virginia in an Episcopalian family.
At church he regularly encountered the message of ancient Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament along with the words of Jesus, most of which he understood to have “excoriated the wealthy of their day for oppressing the poor and ignoring the suffering of the neglected and dispossessed in their midst.”
At home Browning had a mother who
“spent much of her time as a kind of unlicensed and unpaid social worker, visiting some of the most destitute citizens of our county, bringing to these wretched folk food, clothing, and sometimes a little cash but most importantly, a reminder that they were not forgotten.”
Browning says he “never recovered” from those impressionable years.
At a fairly early age I developed a distinct distaste for money-grubbing and an inchoate suspicion of capitalist ideologues, though it would be several decades before I was able to clearly articulate my deep repugnance and later yet before I realized it, although I had read little of Marx since my college days and had never attended a gathering of socialists, I was, in all but name, a socialist. Hence the motif that appears in one way or another in many of these pieces – an unqualified antipathy toward contemporary multinational capitalism and the American empire that supports it – follows quite naturally from the impressions and experiences of my childhood.
The foundation of Browning’s analysis of the state of America’s soul rests on four assumptions:
(1) that the many pathologies that undermine the psychological and spiritual health of America, including our addiction to violence of all sorts, are closely associate with the brutal, unrelenting quest for wealth that US capitalism epitomizes;
(2) that an economic system that destroys lives, families, communities, and the Earth, as does contemporary multinational capitalism, is neither sustainable nor worthy of the support of those who suffer its abuses;
(3) that America is a sick society breeding sick individuals and that only a radical revolution of mind and heart is likely to prevent future catastrophe;
(4) that as a society we face several major crises, the most immediately threatening of which is global warming, with which we are unprepared and seemingly unwilling to deal, at least with the seriousness such a threat requires.
Throughout these essays, Browning explores American history, foreign policy, economics, human rights, and environmental concerns – all matters of critical importance.
While left-leaning liberals (nothing pejorative intended here) will applaud most, if not all, Browning has to say, right-leaning free market conservatives (again, nothing pejorative intended) will likely dismiss the book as a socialistic, utopian rant. That would be unfortunate, for while one may not agree with Browning’s diagnosis and prescription, he raises many uncomfortable questions for all Americans. He deserves to be respectfully heard.
Browning is troubled by “American exceptionalism”, the belief that the USA is a superior nation above all others. For those who may believe this is no big deal, he says this exceptionalism is demonstrated by:
an American propensity to studiously disregard the opinions of other peoples respecting our country’s actions and, in fact, to regard any opposition to official US decisions as outright hostility.
He illustrates the assertion by reminding readers of the disdain America held toward countries that refused to join the US attack on Iraq in 2003.
Further, Browning believes America’s ignorance of its own history, along with the desire to live only in present means that the country continually fails to learn the lessons from its own past.
There is very little encouragement for contemporary America in this collection of essays. Browning challenges our own self-understanding as a morally upright, compassionate nation striving to enable peoples around the world to live in freedom and security. He sees the nation as driven by imperialistic aims – ensuring Americans continue to enjoy the good life at the expense of everyone else.
While I do not agree with all that he identifies as problems – his seeming disregard for the horrendous history of the Soviet and Chinese socialistic experiment is problematic to say the least – I believe he has identified many issues and hypocrisies within American culture that can no longer afford ignoring.
There is one matter which I cannot ignore. Browning describes himself as a Christian, and as an evangelical Christian myself – one who has invested the last 46 years of life in pastoral ministry – I confess that his understanding of what constitutes being a Christian is radically different from mine. To make my point, consider this statement he makes to his grandchildren in the essay entitled “Letter to My Grandchildren”. He writes:
I know that none of you believes in the supernatural, intervening God of traditional religion; neither do I. But I do believe that there is a spiritual force in the universe that in some way makes our lives – all life, in fact – possible and that prevents the universe and the Earth from flying apart into trillions of bits and pieces.
Whomever, or whatever, this god described by Browning is, he certainly is not describing the God revealed in the Bible – the Old and New Testament Scriptures of Christianity. The God of the Bible is a personal, all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God who intends to renew and restore the creation we have so carelessly and rebelliously destroyed. This Creator God has promised to create a new heaven and earth where righteousness will prevail (2 Peter 3:1-18).
As Americans go to the polls this November to elect a president from among the two most unpopular candidates in history, and in light of the surprisingly strong primary campaign led by the avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, Browning’s essays speak to many issues on the hearts and minds of the American public.