(RNS) -- So many of this year's election campaigns were so negative and nasty that voters are left to conclude one of two things: Either our candidates are bereft of ideas, or they have decided that we the voters aren't interested in them.
Our biggest national crisis is not our financial deficit; it is our deficit of ideas and ideals.
Somebody call Pitirim Sorokin.
Pitirim who? Sorokin was a Russian immigrant and the first head of Harvard's sociology department who warned of the dangers of a "sensate" culture in his 1941 survey of great civilizations, The Crisis of Our Age.
In a nutshell, here's how American history plays out when viewed through a Sorokian lens: America's founders were what we called "ideational" -- animated by transcendent spiritual ideas and ideals.
They were, in a word, passionate about this new democratic experiment and the ideas behind it.
As our nation matured, we retained our founding ideas and aspirations as we advanced our economic and technological capabilities.
That's what he would have called our "sensate" phase.
But he warned that the two needed to be kept in balance. Sorokin concluded that Western civilization -- including America -- had lost that balance and de-emphasized our ideational foundations and relied too heavily on our material capabilities.
When any culture reaches that point, it either dies, rediscovers its roots and is reborn, or is replaced by a new set of ideas and ideals.
And that's where we find ourselves today.
Like ancient Rome, America is in the last-gasp phase of a sensate culture. Our ideational foundation has been supplanted by a reliance on economic and military strength, neither of which is sustainable without transcendent ideals.
President Obama's election revealed we remain an ideational nation, hungry for ideals worth rallying around. His books and campaigns hinted at values deeper than the small-minded, mean-spirited partisan warfare that Americans have come to detest.
But while "yes we can" and "the audacity of hope" are catchy slogans, they ring hollow unless they're also accompanied by an underlying set of ideals. They, in turn, need to be clearly articulated and implemented through well-thought-out policies that are consistent with those ideals.
Once in office, Obama failed to rally the nation around the nation's deeper ideals. Instead, he assembled a team of Washington partisans and passed laws through coercion and political power plays. He failed to articulate a compelling rationale of governance that the public could understand and embrace.
Even MSNBC's Chris Matthews says Obama comes across as an elitist and expects to be trusted because he is the smartest guy in the room.
Gone is the candidate who promised to serve all the people, or the great communicator of ideals that could unite Americans.
Enter the Tea Party, which is passionate but largely based on an oppositional mentality. Whatever unity it possesses consists of a cluster of agreed-upon policy positions (lower taxes, smaller government) without articulating a cohesive underlying philosophical or spiritual rationale. It's fair to doubt whether they even have one.
The last time we saw this kind of passion, back in Newt Gingrich's 1994 Contract with America, Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition released a similar "Christian Contract with America."
In an interview, I told Reed that his Christian Contract looked like a simple "overlay" of the Republican Contract. I asked him point-blank about the theology that undergirded the Christian Contract With America.
"I don't just want to hear regurgitated policy positions," I told him. "I want to know the underlying philosophy, theology, ethic or morality that would lead me to support or oppose for example, a flat tax."
He didn't know what to do with my question.
Building policies rooted in carefully reasoned and articulated ideas and values is not easy because in a sensate culture, the appetite for power is ravenous, the hunger for ideas minimal.
Rediscovering an ideational culture requires leaders who know what they believe and why. It requires leaders who have ordered their lives around deeply held ideals and values and can articulate them and understand how to develop policies around them. Only then can a leader unify the public to support not only the policies but the ideas upon which the policies are built.
We will never solve our national crises -- political, economic, social or otherwise -- until we address the other deficit, the deficiency of ideals and values worth believing in.
Dick Staub is author of the just-released About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive and the host of The Kindlings Muse (www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com.
c. 2010 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: November 8, 2010