Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Conspiracy of Simplicity

“The story of Christ's birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love. So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists. And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas? What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?”

- From “The Advent Conspiracy

Mark Twain once observed, tongue-in-cheek, that an ethical man is “a Christian holding four aces.” I think I have some understanding of what Twain had in mind when he made that observation. I’ve sat at poker table or two in my lifetime and have some grasp of the machinations of the game. There were many times when bitter experience taught me that the master of the bluff, deception, deceit, and larceny was inevitably the one who went home with other peoples’ money. The emptiness of loss also taught me that, in order to succeed at the game, I had to out bluff the master, deal deception and deceit in spades, and become as ruthless as a cat burglar. Once I mastered those fundamentals I succeeded.

What does this have to do with faith and the Christmas season? A lot, I think.

Christianity was born in simplicity. Jesus was born in the humblest of places, in a stable. It’s true that wise men (the Magi) traveled a great distance to worship him as a king. It’s true that angels proclaimed his birth in song, for those who had ears to hear. It’s true that shepherds came to the stable to honor him. But, it’s also true that most people hardly noticed, or even cared. There were a few, beyond those who did honor him, who had more sinister motives. The powerful, fearing the possibility of their power over the people could be lost, sought to kill him. To that end, they ordered the murder of “Rachel’s children.” It’s recorded that her collective cries could be heard all over the land.

Not much is known about his early years. Some traditions hold that he performed miracles to amuse his pals. What can be gleaned from the New Testament was that he appeared to be a pretty serious minded youngster. Once, when his parents took him to Jerusalem, he stayed in the city when they went home. They found him three days later, sitting with teachers of the law, interpreting the law and answering questions to their utter amazement. When his parents expressed their displeasure at not being able to find him, he told them they should have known he’d be in his Father’s house. His parents didn’t understand what he meant. Few, if any parents, in any age, would.

He left the carpenter’s shop and became an itinerant preacher when he was about thirty years old. He never pastored a mega-church. He never was dependent on a political action committee for support. He didn’t have the luxury of mass media to spread his message. He never resorted to fund raising gimmicks. His hallmarks were compassion, wisdom, and a keen eye for the needy. His ministry and message bore the stamp of simplicity. He spoke of sight for the blind, freedom for the captive soul. He sought the hungry and thirsty. He took up the mantle of service and sacrifice while the wise and powerful of his day sought temporal power and privilege. When he displayed rare flashes of anger it was clear that it was a pure, righteous anger. Toward the end of his earthly life, in Jerusalem, he beat the fire out of the money changers and drove them out of the temple area. “How dare you make my Father’s house a den of thieves,” he roared as the whip came down on the backs of the merchants.

Jesus was clearly different, in a class by himself, and the kingdom he ushered in reflected his nature. The principles of his kingdom were simple, yet foreign to the paradigms of his day and ours as well. It was a topsy-turvy kingdom where up was (is) down and down was (is) up. It was a kingdom where the valley was (is) exalted and the mountain was (is) cut low. It was a kingdom with only one entrance, a gate. Jesus offered no alternate plan. There was a primary plan; there was no secondary or tertiary. In the vernacular of the poker table, Jesus was “all in.” His detractors and enemies thought he was bluffing and asked for a miraculous sign to prove his high sounding words were authoritative. Jesus’ response was to short, right to the point. “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.”

Was Jesus bluffing? Was he nothing more than another of those outrageous hucksters who pass through the portals of history from time to time? Was he just another Zeus or Osiris, a fable meant to amuse us? Or was he what he claimed to be?

I’ll stop there. You probably know the rest of the story anyway.

To be honest, this essay is less about him than it is about us, particularly those of us who claim his lordship in our lives.

I came to faith in Jesus back in the sixties. It was a time when a lot of us were looking for simplicity, peace, and power in our lives. The Christendom of those days reflected that longing. It was all simple. It was enough to love Jesus and to know that he had loved us long before we’d ever loved him. We seemed content to live our lives simply, waiting patiently for the time we’d see him face to face.

Then, something changed. The sixties became the seventies. Disco was in; inflation had gone through the roof. We were needy at first. Then, our wandering desires became needs. It didn’t take much after that to make Jesus the errand boy to satisfy those worldly desires. So, our prayer became, “Jesus, please give me this”…”Jesus, gi’mee this”…”Jesus, gi’mee dat.” To us, it sounded quite righteous. To our fellow players sitting around the table it sounded more like, “I need an ace to match the ones I have”…”Baby needs milk”…”Mama needs a new pair of shoes”…”Daddy needs a new bowling ball.” We’d blurred the line between bluffing and self deception.

Self deception morphed into a lust for power in the eighties. We were alarmed by the state of the world and decided we were going to fix things. We formed concerned citizens’ groups, moral majorities, and such. We’d had enough decadence. We were going to throw the reprobates out of office and start making the rules ourselves. We got ourselves galvanized around causes. We became king makers. The power we felt was intoxicating. Little did we realize that our grasping for the unclean things had made us every bit as corrupt as the lawbreakers we’d de-throned.

By the time the nineties rolled around we were absolutely drunk with power, so much so that we set about creating new visions of God and man. Mega-churches, preaching self realization, sprang from one side of the ecclesiastical wasteland. Para-church organizations were formed, with their roots entwined in lucre, using Jesus as if he were a marketing marionette, to be tugged and pulled at the whim of the organizational gurus. Not to be outdone by what they saw happening, others took to the airwaves, peddling Jesus like he was a shiny new car or Coca Cola. It was “Tell him what you want…he’s legally bound to do what you tell him” here and “Hundala kundala, send more money,” there. Still others sought to emasculate Jesus and enthrone themselves, weaving their spells with mantras like, “seek your inner god and goddess.” The masses bought it and the coffers filled to overflowing.

The page to a new millennium turned, ushering in more of the same. Powerful oratory, exalting self, continued to flow. The messages of a new age for a new man hissed across the airwaves. There were a few who sounded warnings, but their words most often went un-heeded. Dissenters were considered relics of the past whose trumpet calls were to be discarded like garbage at the end of the day. Words like service, sacrifice, and humility began to disappear from the Christian vocabulary. Then, self fulfillment gave way to full blown self worship. The cycle was complete. There was no where else to go. Man, in all his glory, sat on the throne.

This, I believe, is where Christendom in America stands today. It begs the questions. How far have we really come? Or, how deep into the pit of madness have we descended? Have we mastered the bluff so well that we can now discard God? Or, can we, given our fallen state, ever find our way back to the simplicity of the message proclaimed so long ago? – “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

Monday, December 07, 2009


Groucho: "That's in every contract, that's what you call a sanity clause."
Chico: "You can't a fool a me there ain't no sanity clause"
-Groucho and Chico Marx (from “A Night at the Opera”)

Groucho Marx, cited above, was an acknowledged master of the clever one liner. In one that relates close to home here in Emporia, Kansas, he is reported to have once said, “It isn’t necessary to have relatives in Kansas City in order to be unhappy.” Only Groucho could say something like that and make even the relatives in Kansas City laugh.

One of the enduring memories I have of him and his brothers is watching them cavort around in circles, skewering the high and mighty or the all knowing as they did. Even today, the sight of them circling relentlessly around their prey can make me howl with delight. No one did it better.

Somehow, these dream like snippets of Groucho and his brothers this morning got me considering the circular nature to almost everything we do these days. Here in America, for example, we seem to be caught in a vicious circle. We complain that our government has gotten too big and too powerful. We hold tea parties to protest. Then, some politician mentions the possibility of dismantling government programs close to home and the bureaucrats running the programs and the programs’ beneficiaries howl. The politician, seeing his or her re-election chances diminishing, recants and the programs remain in place. Politicians, ever clever, see that their collective fates are inexorably caught up in programs. Hence, they invent more programs and hire more bureaucrats in order to expand their support bases. The programs are codified in law, the people lose more control over their lives, the protests mount, the politicians make half-hearted attempts at putting the proverbial meat cleaver to the programs, the beneficiaries howl once more, the politicians recant, and the programs are kept in force.

A little over eight years ago we were all in an angry frame of mind, and we were right to feel the way we did. We took it out on the Taliban, then Saddam for good measure. But that didn’t seem to be enough. We couldn’t find Osama so we started, rhetorically and politically, slapping each other around. It was a valiant attempt at displacing our anger, but it fell flat. This all brings us to today. We’re angrier today than we were on 9-11.

This pattern of behavior is also called running around in circles. And, the pattern keeps repeating itself, mystically re-energizing when we come back, full circle, to where we began, primed to start the whole process over again. It would be an amusing way to live life if it weren’t so tragic. In fact, the only thing funny about it is the way it makes us looks more like Groucho’s foils than reasonable people.

The pattern has many manifestations, including circling the wagons, talking in circles, or using circular reasoning. We run around in circles, like chickens with their heads cut off. We try to run circles around those who oppose us. We’re so angry we’d fight a circular saw if we could. We circle around like vultures, looking for someone to attack. Some of us get a good laugh at the expense of UFOlogists who interpret the playful stomping out of crop circles in farmers’ fields as extraterrestrial visits

Then, when all is said and done, we try to reconcile it all by squaring the circle.

I think the Marx brothers were right – “there ain’t no sanity clause.” At least not in America these days.

Years ago, while I was attending Ohio State University, I found myself sitting next to limestone lion, taking a break from the boredom of sociology, geology, and the like. It was a cool spring day. The birds were chirping, giving thanks in their way for the beauty of the day. There was a refreshing breeze and the scent of freshly mown grass in their air. Off in the distance I could hear a contingent of R.O.T.C. cadets marching to a familiar cadence. “Hup two, hup four, hup two, three four, your left oh right a left.” I sat there, taking in the nature’s sights and sounds and the odd counterpoint of the martial rhythms over at the parade grounds. Then, a young voice broke through the rhythms. “Mind if I sit here?” “No, be my guest,” I responded without looking. I went on musing, not saying anything. A few minutes passed and his voice once again broke through the rhythms. “Marx was right!” he announced proudly. He’d gotten my attention. I looked over at him. He was young, under twenty-five for sure. He was unkempt, dressed in tattered jeans and what appeared to be a tan mohair winter coat. The coat looked like something I’d seen once in a Brooks Brothers advertisement. The most striking thing about the coat, however, wasn’t what it might have once cost. It had what appeared to be mechanic’s grease slathered strategically like barbeque sauce on a pulled pork sandwich from top to bottom and front to back. The greasy coat and the introductory statement made it pretty clear to me. This young man was anti-establishment. I gathered my thoughts. “Which one?” I asked.
“Which one what?” he responded.
“Which Marx?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Was it Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, or Harpo?”
The deadpan in his voice told me that he was quite peeved. I built up a bit more courage and followed up. “What was he right about?”
“You know…religion is the opiate of the masses.”
“What does that mean?”
You know, man. Religion is…Like it’s the…opiate of the masses.”
It was time to leave. My parting words of advice to the young man were, “Fella, you’d better be careful. You’re liable to bite your butt off chasin’ yourself around in circles like that.”

I think about that young man occasionally when I hear this generation’s outhouse lawyers accuse us Christians of circular thinking or believing fables when we use the ontological argument for the existence of God or dream about pie in the sky.

I find it all quite amusing, watching scientists, politicians, the wise men of our day and their faithful flocks use sleight of hand or gambler’s logic as they thrash around in the dark. It’s been said that if you have an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters that one of them is bound to write King Lear. The base operating assumption today is that there is no God. It’s just chance, extraterrestrials or politicians fiddling with the dials. As that young man might have put it if he could today: “You know man…it had to be extraterrestrials…I mean…Where did all those crop circles come from?” “And there’s an infinite number of planets out there…need I say any more?” “And you know that Barack Obama and the Democrats are going to fulfill every wandering desire we have.” And, if they don’t we’ll elect the Republicans and they will.”

Who am I to refute such impeccable logic? I think it’s best that I just keep playing the fool. I’ll maintain my little circle of friends and watch the rest of the world running around in circles of their own making. I’ll keep pinning my hopes on the satisfaction faith brings today and the glory of the promised world to come that will one day be revealed to those who wait patiently its coming. The ancients called it the “consolation of Israel.” They named it well. In this world of crazy circles spinning out of control I find great comfort in knowing there’s a place being built for us beyond the blue where the circle of love, life, and fellowship will be forever unbroken.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Johnny Verbeck's Machine

A few days ago, during one of those moments pregnant with hope on one hand and cynicism/anxiety on the other, the words to an old campfire tune came to mind. The song was about a man named Johnny Verbeck, a butcher by trade, who had invented a very special sausage making machine. The refrain went something like this:

“Oh, Mr. Johnny Verbeck, how could you be so mean?
I told you you’d be sorry for inventin’ that machine
Now all the neighbors’ cats and dogs will never more be seen
They’ll all be ground to sausages in Johnny Verbeck’s machine.”

Here in Emporia and the rest of America it’s the season of hope. Or, put more appropriately, it’s supposed to be the season of hope. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the mood in America right now. Cynicism and anxiety seem to be the prevailing realities. I think we may be suffering from Johnny Verbeck syndrome. We have a nagging sense that we’re being ground to sausages in some machine not of our own making. I think we want to escape its clutches, but it seems to cast some Svengali-like spell over us. We feel, simultaneously, terrorized, mesmerized, and hypnotized.

I read a report from Reuters this morning that we Americans no longer live in the world’s biggest houses. The Australians have overtaken us, by two hundred square feet per house. I’m not sure why Reuters reported the sad statistics. Was it to demonstrate that we Americans are losing our grip on the world? That things are bad and getting worse? If so, what should we do about it? Declare war on Australia, perhaps? Could it be that this is just another of those small gears in Johnny Verbeck’s machine?

A while back the Chinese shipped tainted baby formula to this country, about the same time AIG and the other big banks were on the verge of collapse. Two administrations fired shots at the Chinese across the diplomatic bow. One of the Chinese executives involved in the scandal committed suicide and two were recently executed. The AIG and bank executives got billions in taxpayer money and handsome bonuses to boot. It looks a lot like Johnny Verbeck’s machine to me.

The President recently criticized the Chinese for unfair trade practices and using monetary policy to keep the value of their currency artificially low. Here in America the Federal Reserve is furiously printing money, then giving it away while our politicians slap tariffs on goods shipped from China. The Chinese are awash in money and getting flusher by the day. America, the bastion of free markets and worldly wealth, seems to be sinking under the weight of debt and creeping protectionism, all being ground out like sausage in that infernal machine. Those who seem to know are telling us that within a generation we may owe more than we can produce or pay for.

I skipped the President’s address last night. This morning I read the transcript and the media reports. I can’t for the life of me figure it out. Are we sending our sons and daughters to win or to fight to a draw? And, where’s Hamid Karzai going to be in eighteen months? In Vienna, sipping coffee and munching on apple strudel, with millions of U.S. foreign aid dollars to spend? In the Congress some are proposing a war tax to pay for the billions needed for this surge. Does that mean the families sending their loved one’s into harm’s way may have to pay for the privilege of offering up the husbands, wives, children, and loved ones? Is that the price they must pay for their loyalty, honor, and patriotism? Are they the ones who might well wind up in the teeth of Johnny Verbeck’s machine?

My principle reason for skipping the President’s speech was to go downtown and watch the Christmas parade (or the Seasonal parade if that’s your pleasure). It seemed to be an appropriate diversion in the light of world events and Emporia’s annual debate about whether we should have a “seasonal” or a “Christmas” celebration.” I left my house hoping that in an hour or so downtown I could find someplace in America where Johnny Verbeck’s machine wasn’t going full bore. I got back home a bit after eight, tired and disappointed. The procession started pleasantly enough, with marching bands, kids on floats waving to the spectators, fire trucks festooned with Christmas lights, and old veterans still strutting their stuff, albeit occasionally out of step. Then, Johnny Verbeck seemed to take over. There was a long string of commercial floats hawking cookers, replacement windows, lawn services, and so forth, followed by politicians pressing the flesh. The subliminal messages seemed to be either the right vote or the right purchase would bring Christmas its true meaning. The piece de resistance was a small group of marchers under a hand written banner reading “ABATE,” the acronym for an organization called “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.” As soon as I saw that I sensed someone had put the last dog or cat in the sausage machine. I felt helpless against the tides of the times. It was time to go home.

My wife and I have frequent discussions about how to counter-balance all of this. Lately we’ve been reading the work of C.S. Lewis and talking about a sense of longing; the type of longing that doesn’t attach itself to some past joy in life, nor is it contingent on some worldly bauble. It’s a longing for something we haven’t seen yet, the place where moth and rust don’t corrupt.

A couple of thousand years ago, Johnny Verbeck’s machine was going full tilt in the once magnificent kingdom of Israel. Hope was in short supply. The price of temple sacrifices was skyrocketing. The glory of the Babylonian empire, one of Israel’s early conquerors, had long since faded. Alexander the Great, who was purported to have wept because “there were no more worlds to conquer,” was only a memory, as was the empire he established. Rome now ruled the world with an iron fist. People, quite naturally, felt oppressed. The voices of Israel’s prophets and sages had been silent for three hundred years. Then, a child was born. Some believed he was the fulfillment of a Divine promise. Others scoffed at the idea, as many do today. Some just went about their business. A few, in high places, felt threatened enough to attempt to kill him. He grew up in relative obscurity. He never owned much, other than his robe, which Roman soldiers cast lots for as they watched him die. He once told his followers, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

There’s not much need to go into great detail now. You know the story – wonderful sermons, profound stories, miracles, misunderstandings about the nature of his kingdom, a criminal’s death, followed by a resurrection. It was a life offered up as proof that the wonderful “treasures laid up somewhere beyond the blue” were far more than wisps and figments of overactive imaginations.

The older I get the more I sense that longing for the things I haven’t seen yet, the things promised and embodied by this one Man. I know they’re there and I know they’re good. I also know that in the current national climate my sense of hope and what/who it rests on must seem quite foolish to those who prefer the pleasure of being ground to pieces. And, that’s alright; we’re all free moral agents. I’ll continue in my foolishness; they can continue in their “superior wisdom”

I guess this brings it all full circle. I’m not going to spend my time this year looking for a forty six inch flat screen or some political messiah in the manger to replace baby Jesus. I want to find myself focusing on what the scoffers call pie in the sky. That probably makes me more a dreamer than a realist, again grist for the scoffer’s mill. I have no clever defense. I’m guilty on both counts. Once again, that’s alright. I’m at a place in life where I far prefer pie in the sky over Johnny Verbeck’s machine.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Time for Overcoming?

“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
Revelation 2:7 (The King James Version of the Bible)

Citing the yet published work of Robert Putnam and David Campbell (American Grace: How Religion is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives), former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson made the following observations about religion and civic life in a May 9th op-ed published on line at Real Clear Politics:

“The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: “If this is religion, I'm not interested.” The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable -- both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains.”

“The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn't changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, “more people are very religious and many are not at all.” And these beliefs have become “correlated with partisan politics.” “There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives.”

I’ve given thought to these ideas over the past few days, asking myself whether or not the notion that religious belief/faith has been increasingly politicized by the religious right and that the result has been polarization. I’ve also considered whether or not religious beliefs in America are increasingly being identified with “partisan politics.” In seeking answers to those questions, a far more important question has risen. “If American religious faith is indeed increasingly political in its expression, increasingly partisan, and increasingly polarizing, what do such conclusions mean for the Church in America?

The questions I’m asking myself are a natural outgrowth of my (so far) cursory reading of the work of Robert Higgs, some of which I outlined in last week’s post. While I can’t say I agree with everything I’ve read to this point, I am almost certain that Higgs is correct in his assertion that American government over time is becoming more and more powerful, more and more intrusive, and more and more collectivist. Could this then mean that the bases of social power have shifted from institutions like the Church and been supplanted by organs of government power? Could this be one of the reasons for the focus leaders like Jerry Falwell and other Evangelicals placed on gaining political power a generation or so ago? Could it be that they felt the Christian faith was becoming endangered and that the only avenue of social power available to them was politics?

If this shift has been true, or even close to being true, the paradigm shift from then to now has been enormous, far more so than any of us who were close to the movement could see while the wheel was still in spin during the heyday of the Moral Majority. The shift may have been so dramatic that the Church inadvertently reaped the whirlwind in exchange for gaining more and more political power. Time will tell whether or not that’s true, but I believe one thing is certain – current trends are not encouraging for the Church?

One of the signposts of the Church has been the slow abandonment of its societal mission in favor of government intervention in that mission. Ask most Americans, particularly those affiliated with the Church, what they mean when they insist that “someone must do something” about the societal crumbling they see all around them, they will inevitably talk of government programs or legislation to fix the problems. The “someone” they see solving our problems is government. That’s true whether one is conservative or liberal in their belief. One group wants more and more power to legislate morality. The other wants more power to craft programs that will cure social ills.

What happens when people of faith abandon their natural base of power for one seen as more tangible, like politics? The answer is obvious. The traditional basis for power is seen as less and less important, less viable, and less powerful. In essence, politics and ideology, whether left or right, replaces faith as the foundation for the life of the believer. The shift is subtle. The language of faith may remain the same for both groups, but the outworking of faith in society is seen as the task of government, not the Church.

As I’ve thought about this I’ve come to a tentative conclusion. The real root of the Church’s problem is a fear of loss, manifested in many ways. There’s a fear that if we don’t solve the nation’s morality problems politically, society will disintegrate. There’s the fear that we’ll lose our place at the table of power. There’s the fear that if we lose power we’ll lose the trappings that go with power – the prestige, the privilege, the fame, the wealth. While we wouldn’t admit to such fears, I believe they are real drivers for America’s contemporary faith communities.

In addition, politics is the venue of the concrete, the here and now. Religion is increasingly seen as the domain of the bye and bye. Why would one wrestle with the esoteric principles outlined in the Sermon on the Mount when the promise of a legislative solution from a politician will bring almost immediate results?

One of the great anthems of the civil rights movement was “We Shall Overcome.” Pete Seeger’s simple words found their way into the hearts of millions and shook conscience of the nation to its core. “We shall overcome.” “We are not afraid.” “We’ll walk hand in hand.” The words spoke of a firm belief, grounded in brotherhood. They were religious, prophetic in tone. The words went far beyond the promise of legislation, although legislation was one expected output.

As I listen to the words today I find myself thinking that the Church needs a fresh infusion of those hopeful words. In an increasingly chaotic world it ought to be comforting to know that there is room for the overcomer in the Almighty’s plan. Unfortunately, I think that’s becoming less and less true. Faith seems to be waning, replaced by a temporal belief that the real gauge of our security and comfort lie in political power and the possessions we hold.

Could it be that the time for overcoming is at hand? Could it be that the time for returning to our natural roots has come?

I believe it may well be!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Can Leviathan Be Tamed?

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.”
Philippians 4:8-9 (King James Version of the Bible)

One of the great benefits of the past few months of rehabilitation from open heart surgery has been a renewed appreciation for the gift of life. It really is good to be alive! Another has been the opportunity to spend large blocks of time thinking, then re-thinking the great issues of my times. Time away from the media spin doctors, contemporary culture, and the pressure of common sense has been quite medicinal.

One of the things I’ve become very aware of since December has been the enormous influence our mass media, culture, and public opinion exert on us. The ability these institutions have on us is pervasive and often pernicious. They often shape our opinions so that they conform to standards we would never reasonably accept if we took the time to think about whether or not the standards we so readily accept are right or that conformity is healthy.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Robert Higgs’ Crisis and Leviathan (Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. Two things have become clear to me in the reading. First, I believe Professor Higgs is correct in his notion of the ratchet theory. Briefly stated, Higgs believes that one of the prime movers in the growth of government over time lies in government response to a crisis. A war, for example, warrants a government stepping in and often stripping citizens of fundamental rights. The pretext for the expansion of power used by political leaders at such times is that the powers to be exercised are necessary to protect the nation’s citizens. The thesis seems reasonable at the time of the crisis and few citizens complain, believing that government is acting in their best interests. Then, when the war ends or the economic crisis passes, government’s power wanes ever so slightly, but never back to where it was when the crisis began. The other thing that accompanies the crisis is a shift in public opinion, or ideology. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the United States was far more conservative in its outlook than it is today. That is not to say that there isn’t a form of conservatism alive today, but it is to say that today’s conservatism is far from the conservatism of Edmund Burke or our Founding Fathers. A couple of hundred years ago conservatives held to notions like the value of individual liberty and limited government. Today, when airwave conservatives decry liberal ideas like the welfare state they don’t necessarily mean to limit government. Government must be fashioned to suit their ideology in the same way government from the left must conform to the ideology of the leftist. The end result is that government becomes more and more powerful. The government may be left of center or right of center, but one thing is certain. It has been, and is becoming more and more powerful with each inevitable crisis.

My interest in Higgs’ work lies less in his theories of government than it does in the ideological shifts he sees taking place in the public square over time. As I think about the enormous changes in ideology I’ve seen in my lifetime many questions come to mind, particularly as they apply to matters of faith. The most important of them for me is whether “American” religion has shaped ideology or whether ideology has re-shaped religion and un-pinned it from its historical moorings. At a personal level I find my self asking – “How much of my faith is historically rooted and how much of it has fallen prey to the whims of politicians, media ideologues, or the pressure to conform to the rapid changes taking place in ideology and culture?”

Seeking the answer (or answers) to that question will take some time, but I am certain about one thing. Along with the shifts in ideology have come coarseness, stridency, anger (sometimes rage), and hate. It has happened at almost every point along the current ideological spectrums, including religious thought. The debates and public discourse have become mean spirited.

In his work, Higgs doesn’t hold out a great deal of hope for the future. Future crises will come and that will mean, as he sees it, more and more power over our economic and social affairs being taken by government. Whether that government is conservative or liberal in its character is far less important than the fact that government power will continue to increase. As Higgs put it in his conclusion, “Can such an outcome be avoided? I think not, but I hope I am wrong. Americans have been brought to their present inauspicious circumstances by, above all else, changes in the prevailing ideology.” (Crisis and Leviathan, page 262)

What does all of this mean for people of faith? What role should we play in this social drama? Have prevailing ideologies re-shaped our notion of public responsibility? Have they re-shaped our faith? If so, how do we extricate ourselves from the trap?