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The Disappointed Generation
Paul Gregory Alms

My father believed in his country, his company, and his church. Born in 1940, he was just the right age to revel in American strength. He missed the Great Depression but rode the wave of American economic vitality. Nourished on stories of the Second World War, he saw his country as powerful and good. As he reached adulthood, Protestant denominations, such as his own Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, were growing quickly and easily. His was a generation of faith in the rightness of the causes that filled their life.

Within a year of graduating from high school, my father went to work for the BF Goodrich tire company. He spent almost the rest of his life working there. He was a “company man,” embodying a belief in the rightness of American business. He did not just work for BF Goodrich; he believed in BF Goodrich, and he had good reason for his trust. At BF Goodrich, he had parlayed a high school education into a lifelong career. More than that, the company had given him a purpose. It gave him a mission: to work hard, to succeed, and to be a part of an important common enterprise.

Work was more than a job for men like my father. It was tied to ideas of self and citizenship and purpose. Work was a sort of national sacrament. What you “did for a living” was tied up with deep notions that touched religion and identity and citizenship. Your small part in one not very big company was a part of the grand project of the American dream. Jobs were sacred obligations. Beyond the paycheck it produced, a job provided a connection to the noble idea called America that existed concretely in the workplace.

That American dream was central to my father’s sense of himself. He believed in the specialness of his country. America was good, morally right in her ideas and in her way of life. Individual politicians or policies may have been corrupt or evil, but America as America was righteous, a tool in God’s hand for good in the world, a nation of might and power that triumphed over evil. He believed that America’s triumph was a necessary part of what it meant to be America. America had to win her wars and her struggles with enemies, internal and external. Because America was good and right and guided by God, America was synonymous with success and vitality.

In addition to his devotion to his company and country, my father was equally convinced of the rightness of his church. He was a Lutheran. Not just any Lutheran, he was a “Missouri Synod” Lutheran. The LCMS was a conservative, immigrant church that had always insisted on strictly defending its doctrines and practice. He believed in “the Synod”: in her doctrines, traditions, and history. He believed that they were right. To my father, the LCMS was not just his church but the correct church. The Synod had a mission, and, by extension, so did he: to preserve and extend the LCMS.

My father, and men like him, were men of faith, shaped by loyalty to company, country, and church. Theirs was not a “greatest generation” who were called on to sacrifice their lives on the foreign shores of Europe or Korea or Vietnam. They gave their lives in the office and the sanctuary and the voting booth. These places all shared a great symmetry of purpose which framed their lives. That larger purpose took concrete shape in the buildings where they worshipped, worked, and voted. It was not an ethereal, world-fleeing ethos. It was the fabric of how they spent their time. The days and weeks and years they spent meant something beyond paychecks and possessions. They were Christian Americans who worked for a living in the greatest country that had ever been. Church and country and company all blended into a way of life that was sacred and special.

But if my father and his friends were men of faith, they were also men of disappointment. By the 1970s  and 1980s my father watched the objects of his faith dissolve. The basis of his vocational, civic, and spiritual attachments fractured and collapsed. One by one, everything he held to be most holy and essential to his way of life slipped away and changed shape, so much so that he could no longer recognize it. 

As the 1970s dragged on and the 1980s dawned, the idea of the American company my father knew went away. My father never called BF Goodrich a “corporation.” It was always the BF Goodrich “company,” a more manageable, sociable word. “Company” implies fellowship and a sharing of time. A “corporation” is none of those things.  He worked for the BF Goodrich tire company until it ceased to exist, except as a brand name. The company was eventually gobbled up by Michelin, an international French conglomerate. Not only did my father no longer work for a company, he didn’t even work for Americans. In his last few working years, the tire business discouraged and bewildered him. Gone were the emphases on loyalty and hard work that went along with the pursuit of profits. They were replaced, in my father’s view, by an impersonal drive to cut costs and improve the bottom line. To be clear, my father was not against profits. He saw capitalism and making money as part of the sacred American enterprise. But the human element had disappeared; the giant distant corporation demanded profits. The American company had ceased to exist, and, with it, the mission it had given him. There was no higher calling to do what he was doing. Driving up stock prices is not the same as taking part in the great American economic City on a Hill. There was no special calling to believe in. He was forced to take an early retirement.

His faith in his country took a similar beating. The righteous and powerful America of the Second World War and the Cold War turned slowly into the nation of a lost war in Vietnam, protests, Watergate, economic doldrums, and impotence. I remember the night in 1980 when US helicopters crashed in the Iranian desert on the way to rescue hostages. It seems a minor incident, compared with other more significant failures of those decades, yet it devastated my father. He could not understand how the righteous America that had defeated Hitler and held the Soviet Union at bay could not manage to avoid humiliation by a bunch of Muslim students. His frustration was more existential than political. His country, which had once been both victorious and morally good, was no longer either. He had believed in the divine specialness of America, and now there was very little in which to trust.

The straw that broke the back of my father’s multi-faceted faith was the failure of his church body. The same cultural pressures that bent America in the 1960s and 1970s pressed hard on the LCMS. As the synod became more and more Americanized, it absorbed the diversity and divisiveness of the culture. The monolithic Missouri Synod, where all believed, worshipped, and acted in common, slowly went away. A great battle over the inerrancy of the Bible came to stand for many of these changes and tore through the denomination in the 1970s. Many left the Synod, and many of those who remained were embittered and suspicious. My father was thankful the Synod remained faithful to its historic position that the Bible was free of error. Yet in the aftermath of that great struggle, congregations continued to go their own ways in matters of belief, worship, and practice and became more and more splintered. For my father, this was heresy. The Synod, in order to be the Synod, had to be of one mind. My father quit going to church for a number of years in the 1980s because the local LCMS congregation to which he belonged was using a non-LCMS hymnal and embracing practices that were unknown in the LCMS of his youth. The smaller issues revealed larger ones. His synod had ceased to exist.

It is easy to draw cynical lessons from the story of men like my father. He gave himself over to his passionate beliefs and was disappointed, at times bitterly so. Better, the lesson seems to be, not to trust oneself to such fallible institutions. These are lessons that many of my own generation seem to have absorbed and now take for granted. It is a credo of distance and safety. Keep allegiances at arm’s length. Work, but do not give yourself over to any one job. My peers are loyal to their careers, but not their companies. A job is meant to pay off in paychecks and stature. Whatever mission there is can be found in volunteering or in charity, but not in the work itself. Membership in a single local religious congregation is rare, and loyalty to a denomination or national structure is almost unheard of. Mine is the generation of “spiritual but not religious.” Whatever spiritual passion exists is mostly individualistic and interior. We are loyal to our own search for God, not to a fellowship, pledged and bound together. The same goes for commitment to country. There is a generic sort of patriotism, but it does not amount to much. My friends seem to know that love of one’s country is a virtue, but do not feel that love deeply. They take off their hat at baseball games and give standing ovations to soldiers, but do not lie awake at night worrying about the fate of America.

I am of my own generation, not my father’s. I do not share his burning faith in fallible things such as synods or nations or companies. But I wonder if I am the less for it. My father’s attachments disappointed him, embittered him, but also enlivened him. His passions moved him to love and to wager his energy on things that mattered. In contrast, hedging one’s bets when it comes to pledging allegiance appears secure but small and cowardly.  It seems my generation has something to learn from his.

 

Paul Gregory Alms is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Catawba, North Carolina.

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