A reader writes:

Rod, a note about the decline of America. I’m writing this email from my phone while the memory is still fresh in my mind.

I’m an attorney in Virginia, and I just left a court house where a small town is investigating a large issue of public corruption. I can’t give many details to protect the anonymity of my client and the privacy of others, but it was truly astonishing how many people were at the court that day to answer questions about what had happened in that town.

It was a sad state of affairs. But as I walked out of the courthouse. I looked across and I could hear church bells ringing. Then a police car pulled into an intersection with its lights on, and the officer started directing traffic. A line of cars started to flow from a church. I stopped a while to stand in respect, because though I live near DC, I’m from a small town, and I know that’s just what you do.

But then the church bells stopped in a jarring way. Apparently, they weren’t church bells. It was a recording of church bells being broadcast over speakers from a church steeple. That really got to me, and I’ve thought about it as I continued to walk away.

It was fake. That’s why it got to me. It had the appearance of gravitas and honor and old-ness, but it was a cheap recording that probably worked well in the beginning and was probably quite cost effective. But now it has aged, and the cheap underbelly of what we see on the outside showed itself. It wasn’t pretty.

Then eventually, the music started again. Church bell recording, as the cars continued to pass. But it wasn’t a hymn like it had been before. It was “The Star Spangled Banner” — “The Star Spangled Banner,” played on recorded church bell chimes was being used to mark a funeral. Why?

Because this is rural America, and it is crumbling. It is crumbling for multiple reasons, and I’m sure only one of them is things like the massive public corruption issue playing out in the courthouse. I’m sure another reason is the thinness of institutions that is hard to recognize when they’re going well, but the recording of the church bells cutting off in a jarred series of static and clicks was quite an epiphany (apocalypse?) illustrating that problem.

The fact that the church-bell tune that popped up right afterwards was “The Star Spangled Banner” just completed the sad metaphor. Why is that an appropriate song? “Be still my Soul.” “Be Thou My Vision.” “Amazing Grace.” There are endless better choices. Why “The Star Spangled Banner”?

Maybe because that “Americanism” is the only religion still standing in places like that. And it has a thinness to it that the fake church-bells only exaggerate when you know that they aren’t real and are just a recording.

I had to leave before the end of the procession. It was just too much. I don’t believe our country is going to pull us through on this one. We need our faith to do so. Maybe we can rebuild the country on that social foundation after it all collapses.

UPDATE: Reader John R.:

I recently attended a family reunion near the home of my youth (in a very rural county). While there was a festive air as we ‘cousins’ caught up with each other, below the surface there was a somber tenor. But not just due to us ‘cousins’ growing old and facing the inevitable health problems. There was a genuine foreboding as to the future of the community and the nation. We are witnessing the passing of a way of life with no understanding of what will replace it. The accelerating pace of change has removed any doubt as to the eventual outcome – the disappearance of the ‘reality’ of our formative years from which our worldview was cast. We have become aliens in our own homeland and feel like exiles in Babylon.

Most distressing was the slow dissolution of the faith foundation of our shared youth. Most were no longer active in church. For those few committed souls that were still active, each told the same story. One of declining attendance, aging membership and a circling of the wagons. No one had a solution. The feeling of resignation, that the 20th century church of our youth was destined for irreversible decline and inevitable collapse, permeated the conversations. The lawyer used the ‘canned music’ as a condensed symbol of the empty shell representing a dying institution – and with it a bygone generation. No one knows what will rise from the ashes.

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