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?