In our last session a few of the things we seemed to agree about were that the “entertainment industry” isn’t entirely responsible for an environment that lets us accept a movie like “Basic Instinct” as a normal part of our lives; that entertainment is a two-way street and that if “Basic Instinct” is selling it’s because we want to buy it; that the sick entertainment industry reflects a sick society.
Yet no one seemed willing to address the question of why our society is sick, or where we might look to find help for the problem. When I dropped the word, “faith,” the majority seemed to feel that faith and religion and morality were irrelevant. The consensus seemed to be: “Oh, come on, let’s not bring that up.”
Until we start bringing that up, we’re spinning our wheels. Most of the discussions we’ve had over the past many years have been about social problems, all of which swim in the sauce of public morality, and yet, following the lead of politicians and pundits, we try to pick up the questions and shake off the sauce before we discuss them.
In the following pages I intend to look at the sauce. I’ll address faith, religion, and the church, and, most importantly for our discussions, their effect on politics and public policy. I’ll argue that the health of our society is directly proportional to the extent to which we allow people to make day-to-day decisions about things that affect their lives, on their own, without being diverted from those decisions by government decree; that to the extent we collectivize the common decisions in people’s lives and put those decisions into the hands of an elite few, no matter how brilliant and learned those anointed few may be, to that extent we degrade and sicken our society. I’ll argue further that from a moral and practical point of view we’re worse off today than we were fifty or a hundred years ago because gradually, more and more, we’ve abandoned the principles laid down in our Constitution, a document that embodies the faith of its drafters — a faith that defined our republic and made us unique in the world.
First let’s deal with faith itself. I don’t necessarily mean Christian faith. Faith is something personal that you hold yourself. Christianity is a religion that embodies a commonly held faith. I think that people often turn away from discussing faith and religion because of unfortunate experiences they’ve had with the church. But I submit that faith, religion, and the church are three separate things, though each feeds the next. I don’t claim to be a theologian. That’s Ken’s bailiwick. What I give you here is what I think about it. I don’t expect you to surrender without a fight.
Faith can come to you in various ways, but never by an exercise of the intellect. Faith isn’t intellectual. It comes to you when you recognize not only that you don’t control the world — not even your own world — but that something else does.
I think some people are born with that understanding. Most of us aren’t. But you can be touched by something. You can call it God if you want to. What you call it doesn’t matter because neither words nor symbols of any kind can describe what it is that touches you. The touch, itself, occurs outside of time; occupies no time. It isn’t like a Shirley MacLaine “experience”: being taken outside your body, for instance, into another world. Suddenly it has happened, and you can only recognize in retrospect that it has happened. But it leaves you with absolutely no doubt that there is an infinity of creation beyond your ability to grasp with your senses, that that infinite creation is a summer of brightness, and that all of it is in good hands: that all of this world’s glories pale before the reality of what creation really is like. And since the touch is beyond the reach of your senses, you can’t describe it. It simply is!
One person who has described that kind of experience a lot better than I can is C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. But as Lewis pointed out, the experience, lovely as it is, isn’t what’s important. Recognizing that the reality of creation is much larger than anything you can understand or deal with is what’s important — not just recognizing it in an intellectual sense, because you never really can do that anyway, but recognizing it in your soul (Nice word, “soul.”) That recognition is what I’ll call “faith.” Yes. I agree. It’s a very narrow definition. But for the rest of this article, that’s what I mean.
One thing that comes with faith is the further recognition that creation is being taken care of very well, thank you, and that you don’t really need to carry the world around on your own shoulders. It’s a terrible thing to carry the world on your shoulders and it’s something you usually don’t know you’re doing. It leads you to believe you can find salvation for yourself and for others in the collective acts of your society, if only those acts are well thought out by the best thinkers in the society. It leads to confusion and despair because, in the long run, you simply can’t do it, and trying to do it tends to isolate you from the Entity who really does carry the world. Worse, perhaps, at least from the standpoint of the effect it has on the society: since you can’t really understand the complexity of the universe the acts you carry out in good faith almost always have side-effects that you can’t anticipate and that exacerbate society’s problems.
Being touched in a way that opens your eyes and leads you to understand that control of the universe is out of your hands also leads you to want, somehow, to return the touch — to worship the thing that touched you. I’ll try to illuminate the process I think leads to a religion, with this parable:
Suppose you live in a two-dimensional universe where from time to time various people observe a phenomenon that they can’t account for. One of them says, “It’s round.” Another says, “It’s elliptical.” A third says, “It’s parabolic.” With arms apart, someone says, “It was this big.” Someone else says, “No, it was much smaller.” Then one day you have a transcendental experience in which, in a flash, you see a cone, in motion, intersecting your flat world. But since you can only experience two dimensions, you can neither describe nor think about what you saw. You sheepishly mention your experience to some other people and you find that they’ve had similar experiences — different in some ways perhaps, but all pointing in the same direction. You begin to gather and talk about what these things mean. After a while you begin to systematize your beliefs, and a religion is born.
Usually, what actually happens is that someone comes along who claims, in the terms of the parable, to be able to see in three dimensions. What he tells you fits your observations, but when he tries to explain what creation really is like he speaks in parables. He has to, because you see only in two dimensions but the reality he deals with has at least three.
The other thing that this kind of person usually does is codify the wisdom that thousands of millennia of human experience have condensed — experience that goes back to a time when man’s appetites and failings were less clouded in a fog of sophistication: perhaps a time when the result of, say, adultery was more immediately obvious and more instantly deadly. He merges this with faith and comes up with something like the Ten Commandments. The merging is rational because even though the universe is under the control of someone besides yourself, you can do things that put you out of touch with the controlling entity.
A church springs up when a religion is born. It’s important to have a repository for the interpretations and beliefs that created the religion, so we form an organization to carry out this task full-time and to perform the rituals associated with it. We form a church and we leave our precious faith in its good hands.
But have we? The church is a political agency because it’s a focus of power, and no political agency in human hands is in good hands. As Lord Acton pointed out, “Power corrupts.” You can’t escape it, and the more power you have the more likely it is that you will become corrupted. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There’s a third point Acton didn’t make that I think I’ve observed: The people most likely to become corrupted are the ones most likely to rise in any large political organization. And yet — here’s the rub — frail and failing as human hands are, there are no other hands available to administer human institutions.
And so, having immense power placed in their hands, the people at the center of the church almost always became corrupt, and the results were the horrors many refer to when you toss the word, “religion” into a discussion. Only problem is, the people who decry religion for the horrors of the church are lambasting the wrong thing.
At the level of the church, for Christians and Muslims and Buddhists to be in competition, even deadly competition, with each other is understandable. The competition is a political thing: competition for power in this life — in the world. And the churches' foundations, the three religions themselves, seem very different. Some have seen circles; some have seen parabolas; and though the interpretations they’ve come up with have a lot in common, they are different in ways fundamental and very emotional. But at the level of faith it seems to me all three are based on a transcendental, unspeakable knowledge that’s virtually identical.
As far as the churches are concerned, it seems to me that the sound of political babble is often so loud it drowns out the message they’re supposed to carry. I also think that some of our churches have virtually erased the message in order to make room for more politics.
Yet to throw out faith and religion because the church is a mess is like refusing to drive a car because automobile dealerships are so miserable. You can do it and it may satisfy your anger, but it leaves you on foot.
Once we lose the individual understanding faith can give us — that God is taking care of creation — we must turn with fear to the job of taking care of creation ourselves. And once we lose the common understanding that faith can give us we lose the glue that holds our society together. We break into warring groups, much like the churches themselves; each group with its own plan for salvation; each group attempting to coerce all the others into complying with its plan.
At our last meeting I said I thought that our society was less sick, say, fifty years ago than it is now. That idea got a lot of guffaws and then we moved on without discussing it further. I’ll amplify the point by saying that one reason our society was less sick fifty years ago is that we understood the Constitution a lot better than we understand it now.
Most political appeals are like a fight between kids who want a mommy to referee an argument. We want mommy to make those nasty bigots or “homophobes” be fair to blacks or homosexuals or whatever group we happen to have in our sights at the moment. We want mommy to decide what art people ought to buy. We want mommy to tell people what movies they ought to see. But no government is a mommy. When it comes to life’s most important questions the people who are government functionaries are no more qualified to decide anything important — what art should be encouraged, for instance — than any group of similar size chosen at random.
At one time or another most of us have heard someone complain about the poor quality of the people in congress and then, in the next breath call for, say, an “industrial policy”, or a government program to stimulate a particular part of the economy. In the first instance the person is looking at government as a collection of people. In the second he’s looking at it as an abstract ideal — an all-wise mommy.
Surely the first view is a more accurate appraisal of the quality of congress, but unfortunately, the second view is necessary because somehow, we have to have a mommy who can settle disputes if we’re to have a society at all. Again we run up against the problem that frail and failing as human hands are, there are no other hands available to administer human institutions.
It would be hard to argue against the idea that the United States has solved this problem more successfully than any other society in history — with a lot of help from British common law and from a few millennia of ideas left lying around by various philosophers.
The solution we came up with was the Constitution, and the most important thing about the Constitution is what it emphatically doesn’t contain: the idea that government is smarter than the society it governs. It wasn’t so much that the framers of the Constitution trusted individual people to do the right thing. Even a casual reading of the Federalist Papers will dispel that idea. Clearly, what the framers did believe is that there is a God, and that He is the One who rules the world. They believed that a large collection of people, left to themselves, full of evil appetites and prone to confusion, ultimately are led by God — perhaps forced would be a better word — to do what benefits us all. “In God we trust!” And they tried to diffuse power into as many hands as possible.
They enumerated very specifically the limited powers that were reserved to the government and said, in a statement that’s still clear to most everyone except members of the Supreme Court that all other powers are to remain in the hands of the states and the people. They created three branches of government, specifically to operate in opposition to each other and produce a balance. Then, not being entirely comfortable with their work, they issued a set of amendments called the Bill of Rights that even more specifically enunciated some of the things the government was not to do, fearing that these were the areas where the government most likely would be corrupted.
But we all know that in a democracy when a political question is put to a vote the result you get isn’t always the best one. At our last meeting most of you seemed to embrace with passion the idea that Colorado’s proposition two shouldn’t have passed. And I agree with you that people often do stupid things in a voting booth. But democracy isn’t what I’m talking about at all. There’s a lot of difference between the idea of a country full of people voting on a crackbrained idea that one person or a small group of people think up and propagandize, and a country full of people making their own decisions about the situations they face daily in their own lives.
It was the second kind of thing the Constitution’s framers tried to encourage. As far as the first is concerned the Federalist Papers make it clear that most of the framers were as afraid of democracy as they were of monarchy.
More and more we move away from the idea of individual responsibility and the faith that says God can govern through the actions of millions of people, making millions of individual decisions. More and more we want government to take on the difficult problems we should deal with individually or as voluntarily formed groups. We want government to substitute coercive welfare for voluntary charity. We want government to substitute coercive “social security” for individual financial responsibility. We want government to coercively subsidize a host of causes that small, special-interest groups feel are important. The National Endowment for the Arts comes to mind. We want government to force people unconditionally to rent their property to homosexuals rather than relying on conscience eventually to prevail where the cause is just. Those who try to carry the world on their shoulders will say, “But they won’t.” Yet the fact is, some do and if the cause is just, eventually most will.
“For nearly a hundred years after the Civil War blacks were discriminated against in the south. How long do we have to wait for that kind of thing to stop?” Yes they were, and in some cases they still are, but the discrimination that mattered most came from laws passed and enforced by state governments. And to answer the second question, we always have to wait just as long as we have to wait. No more and no less. There are a lot of depraved people whose bigotry and greed result in all sorts of problems for others. Capitalism, for instance, has produced its so-called “robber barons” yet, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s clear that Capitalism is the worst of all economic systems except for all the rest. The alternative, for government to take things into its own hands, almost always produces worse results than leaving things alone.
When the civil rights movement had as its objective to restore state-proscribed civil rights it had the support of a large majority of the people in the United States. But, having reached its original objectives, instead of fading away the movement has gone on to become the exact antithesis of what it started out to be. Now it’s a movement whose purpose is to enact laws to enforce discrimination, and though the movement has lost its widespread support there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop it. Yes, it’s sad that there’s still discrimination against blacks, and yes, it’s sad that blacks were held back by a century and a half of state-enforced discrimination. But as God said to Job, “Where were you, Job, when I laid the earth’s foundations?” Who ever said life had to be fair, and even if you feel that it ought to be, whom, exactly, would you have decide what’s fair and what isn’t? Politicians? Whom?
Attempts to take the problem out of the hands of the entity who controls the universe lead to the kind of problem discussed in the Wall Street Journal article I’ve included as an attachment. Nowadays, having experienced the results, it would be hard not to understand that when hiring quotas are used everyone in the group to which the quotas apply becomes suspect — the competent along with the incompetent. It leads to an environment in which no one can rise above the lowest level in the eyes of those around them — even in the eyes of those in the group being favored by quotas.
A hundred years ago, without government involvement, people engaged in a kind of local charity that worked well but that sometimes overlooked needy people. Nowadays we’ve corrected the oversights with a government welfare system that overlooks nobody and enslaves everybody — those who pay for it and those who receive it.
Sixty years ago the great depression was having a terrible effect on our people — especially on our older people, many of whom had lost their life’s savings in failed securities. To help them the administration came up with “Social Security”, which gave some of them immediate relief. But Social Security was always a Ponzi scheme — a pyramid that lifted those at its top at the expense of those at its bottom. There is no invested Social Security trust fund. Every dollar collected for Social Security is spent immediately. Some of it is spent to satisfy the obligations of the system. Some of it is borrowed and spent on other things and replaced with government IOUs, all of which must be redeemed by further taxation. Nowadays, to a large extent, Social Security has become a system that steals from the tables of the young to feed the whims of the old.
This kind of unanticipated side-effect occurs every time we try to lift the world onto our shoulders and solve a social problem the universe-controlling Entity hasn’t solved to our satisfaction. And we’re worse off now than we were fifty years ago because more and more we try to do this. Our substance is being nibbled to bits by special-interest groups acting through our government, who have at heart the “best interests” of: blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, women, etc. For several years Orientals were included in the list of those for whom God hadn’t made proper provision, but when it became clear that they could fend for themselves their special status disappeared.
But there always have been people in our society who want to take the world onto their shoulders and solve social problems by taking them out of the hands of the Almighty. What’s really changed is that we, and our political agencies, more and more let them do it, as we gradually lose sight of what was really important in the Constitution — the idea that power is best left in the hands of the people.
Over the past fifty years we’ve abrogated huge chunks of the Constitution, feeling that in many cases the document is out of date. All over the United States nowadays we have law-enforcement agencies seizing the belongings of people caught (or sometimes only suspected of) selling drugs. The Constitution says this: “No person shall. . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Yet we tolerate the seizures because it’s all part of that great program, The War On Drugs, which is having such a salubrious effect on drug users.
Some argue that we need to abrogate the fifth amendment for a while in order to get the drug situation back under control. To me it’s not a very persuasive argument. The long-term question as to whether, having given up this safeguard of our liberty “temporarily,” we’ll ever be able to get it back again seems to me infinitely more important than the short-term drug problem.
I could go on and on with examples of damage that’s been done to our Constitution — each time with the best of intentions; each time to solve a pressing social problem; each time with an arrogance that says, “Our group knows better than God how to solve this problem.”
I submit to you finally, this: Individual liberty is what made the United States the only truly successful revolution in mankind’s history and what made us the strongest, freest, most imitated people in all the world. Our Constitution was the guarantor of our individual liberty and the Constitution was written by men who, for the most part, understood that the universe is controlled by an Entity far beyond our ability to comprehend and is of a complexity far beyond our ability to perceive. They understood further that to whatever extent you transfer life’s day-to-day decisions from the people at large and concentrate them in the hands of a small group, you attenuate the effect of God’s hand on the life of the nation. But they also understood that to have a nation you have to have a government, and with great care and great caution they enumerated the limited powers government needs to carry out its proper function.
To the degree we increase those powers we sicken our nation. If you want to look for genuine solutions to the social problems we discuss, look for ways to get our people out of the hands of government so that they can be more in the hands of God.