That question came to the fore tangentially in a comments discussion on Ann Althouse's site this morning.
It's become cliche to refer to America as a litigious society and for good reason: It's true.
There are any number of reasons for this:
- The United States has far more lawyers per capita than any other country in the world. Those people have got to find something to do.
- And because those who sue others incur no loss if their suit is tossed out or they lose (other than the money spent on hefty legal fees), the incentives to sue, for both lawyers and complainants, are usually too powerful to resist.
- And, we have increasingly become what I call a "rights oriented" culture.
Of course, both of these elements--mutual responsibility and individual rights--are part of the American tradition. The brilliance of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is that the President who initially insisted that the war was only about maintaining national unity--in other words, about mutual responsibility--finally came to portray it as also being a struggle for individual rights, namely those of the slaves and of all who wanted to live free. Lincoln saw the need to work both great themes of American history.
But our national life veers off course when we tilt too far in one direction or the other.
The tilt toward obsessions with individual rights has been quite pronounced in recent decades. There are several reasons for this, I think:
- One is the Civil Rights movement. The movement is, of course, a bright spot in US history. But nations are as prone to "fighting the last war" as generals. The struggle for rights has become one of the prevailing motifs of our politics and culture, even when dealing with issues where such questions are tangential at best. This only encourages the very human impulse to "look out for number one" and "to shaft before you get shafted."
- Another factor is our access to technology. Through technology, middle class Americans are capable of doing more than ever before. That's good. But technology also can, and often does, make us more insular, seemingly more self-sufficient--though this is clearly a delusion, and less communal. We have become less practiced at dealing with others.
- Another factor is the emergence of gigantic corporations with few ties to communities or nations. They are so driven by the bottom line that they often are contemptuous of consumers, rights, or governments. Some of these impersonal behemoths seem almost constitutionally incapable of benign behavior or of admitting their deficiencies. They make the "little guy" feel very little indeed. David is thus incentivized to find some rocks to cast Goliath's way.
- Another reason is our society's almost pathological refusal to accept personal responsibility. This means that hordes of people who may or may not have a beef bring suits.
I laugh every time I watch that scene. For a grown woman to blame her actions on the bad example of her mother is, when you think about it, patently absurd. There ought to be a statute of limitations on how much we can blame our parents for what we do.
Yet, we live in a culture where it's perfectly acceptable to blame everybody else for the troubles we bring on to ourselves. Get burned by coffee just out of the pot? Sue the restaurant. Get overweight from too many fat-burgers? Hey, it's not your fault.
In the end, I feel that our litigious society is one manifestation of a profound spiritual crisis in America. In spite of our religiosity, we're not in touch with some fundamental elements of the Judeo-Christian heritage:
- Our highest calling is to love God and love neighbor. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says that we should allow ourselves to think and live more like Jesus, "Who, though He was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited." Instead, Paul said, we should think of others' interests ahead of our own. That's countercultural!
- We're called to make a fearless inventory of ourselves. In Psalm 139, the writer asks God to "search me, Father, and know my ways." And it further invites God to show him whatever is displeasing to God in his life so that he can turn away from the sin (repent) and receive forgiveness and the power to do better.
- When we do have disputes with others, the New Testament emphasizes making every attempt to resolve them quickly. "Be angry, but do not sin," the apostle Paul writes. We're not to be doormats. But we are to attempt to resolve issues.
But I honestly believe that if there were a spiritual awakening in America, we would be less litigious.
I'm not talking about adopting the agendas of religionists of the Right or the Left. Often, it seems to me, they're only interested in imposing their own versions of Christianity on the rest of us through the law.
By spiritual awakening, I'm talking about communities and individuals daring to surrender to Jesus Christ, allowing Him access to their wills, minds, and souls. I'm talking about allowing Jesus Christ to unleash His Spirit within us so that we become part of His new creation (Second Corinthians 5:17).
Nobody perfectly reflects Jesus Christ in their life, of course. There are, as the saying goes, only two kinds of people: forgiven sinners and unforgiven sinners.
Perhaps if more of us could make the healthy admission that we are sinners, as prone to wrong as others, and if we could ask Christ to bring forgiveness to us, we would be far less critical of others, far less inclined to shaft our neighbors, far more prone to taking personal responsibility, and so, far less likely as a society to play that game George Harrison once called "the sue me, sue you blues."