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America is a great nation -- but we must keep working at it

America is a great nation. In fact, despite the problems that plague it, the failures that frustrate it and the shortcomings that stymie it, it's the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.

That fact alone provides a certain amount of comfort and confidence as our country experiences the toughest times since the Great Depression of seven decades ago.

But if we're not careful, it also produces a false sense of security that obscures the dangerously slippery and self-destructive slope on which America stands today.

Researcher and author George Barna had a lot to say about that during a recent visit. And he has a lot more to say about it in the most recent of his more than 40 books.

"One of the greatest characteristics of America is its resilience," he writes in the just-released "The Seven Faith Tribes." "Incredibly, the United States has always fought its way back to health. We have remained a forward-thinking country brought together by shared values, goals and hopes. Our track record of bouncing back from hardships is a powerful rebuff to those who claim that the end of our stability and influence is at hand.

"But," Barna continues, "America's history of rebounding from severe challenges does not insulate us from the need to address the realities that have dragged us down into our current down cycle."

Speaking to the annual Turlock Mayor's Prayer Breakfast last month, Barna detailed what he called "the anatomy of a breakdown" in describing the state of the Union.

His comments struck a chord, and I've thought about them a lot since then. Even though Barna's work focuses on the intersection of faith and culture, you don't have to be religious to see how spot-on he is in his assessment of some troubling trends that threaten the health, well-being and, ultimately, survival of the greatest nation. And to see how those same conditions are destroying the effectiveness of our core institutions, be they federal, state or local; public or private; governmental, educational, religious or business and industrial.

Barna contends, and I agree, that we suffer from:

Absence of a shared vision.

Loss of shared values.

Extinction of the common good.

Deterioration of respectful dialogue.

Abandonment of decency and character.

How did we get here? It's happened, Barna said, as we as a society have chosen:

Conflict over cooperation.

Self-satisfaction over self-sacrifice.

Proclaiming over listening.

Ego over humility.

Receiving over giving.

Posturing over civility.

I've thought about those two lists, and would encourage you to do the same as you contemplate the state of your country, your community, your organization, your church and even -- and especially -- your family.

That can be a pretty sobering thing to focus on, especially on a Sunday morning in springtime. But it's an important thing to think about. After all, there's a lot at stake, for us as individuals, families, communities and a country.

"This is a critical moment in American history," Barna writes. "Everything is changing -- and some of the most salient aspects of our existence are not changing for the better. ... I am convinced that our nation is in a major crisis moment, a genuine emergency that demands an extraordinary response."

Vasché, The Bee's editor and senior vice president, can be reached at 578-2356 or at