The United States considers itself a secular democracy, and we turn our politics over to a technocracy that runs on pragmatic principles, but that is far from the complete truth. We are unable to treat politics pragmatically, because three extraneous forces distort our thinking: (1) Doctrinaire thinking about what is politically fair puts us at the mercy of self-appointed prophets. (2) Interested parties farm marginalized people as constituencies. (3) We positively deny the spiritual roots of our traditions, so authentic theological hopes get foreshortened and turn into idolatries. When these things happen, it begins to seem that this world is the only one we have in which to work out our salvation; then no cruelty is too much to conquer the existential dread that ensues. Religion, in a baleful sense of the word, then indeed becomes an underlying source of conflict, up to and including the disasters of war. Each of these hazards is spiritual in nature. Each in its own way supplants authentic faith and cuts sinners off from the mercy of God, which we have decided we don’t need.
1. Doctrinaire Prophets
From the beginning, our politics has been driven by the hope of perfection. The noble experiment of 1620 still informs our thought. From Christian pulpits we still hear, “In the richest country in the world, it is shameful that we still have . . . ” —fill in the blank: children without health insurance, homelessness, whatever offends the speaker’s sense of the best sort of person, and of our country as an example to the world. The homily makes no sense unless we of all people, we if nobody else, strive for perfection.
This exceptionalism cannot stand the light of day. Nevertheless, our politics runs on this unique sense of ourselves. As with the Puritans, it is still a matter of religion seeking tangible expression. From main stream electoral campaigns to radical opposition, the speakers claim to embody a truer patriotism—i.e., greater godliness—than the rest.
This is as much the case with those liberals whose virtue consists of denying American exceptionalism as it is with their conservative brethren. It goes just as strongly for those whose goodness is packaged as ungodliness; they have their superiority over the “hypocrites” in Church. Consequently, elections in America can never be purely secular power struggles. The public face, not excluding the supposedly secular left, must always be that of the crusader, pure and undefiled. George W. Bush’s political adversaries complained that he spoke like a fundamentalist, using the word “crusade.” He did so because he was taught his religion by certified, ordained ministers of the Gospel.
2. Farming Human Beings
The genius of American culture is to reduce everything to market competition. To gain support for a cause, we go public. We establish foundations, collect money, and advertise relentlessly. Just below the optimistic surface of the commotion, there is plenty of scope for negative judgment toward others. The implicit claim of a nonprofit corporation is, we have realized the existence of some suffering the rest of you are too thickheaded to have seen, or too slow to have alleviated. Each discrete social group, promoting its uniqueness and originality, lays an implicit claim against the rest of society: “What about me? I deserve redress.” Moreover, since the essence of marketing is competition, “I deserve it more than other people do!” It becomes important—as to a corporate board in businesses for profit—to sound worst off, the victim of greater injustice than the last heard from. Money flows accordingly; misery becomes a market good. It would be hard to imagine a more straightforward definition of perversion. In a theistic context, glory might be given to God, but in a secular context it cannot avoid turning into Pharisaism.
People of good will on the sidelines want to be known for a social conscience. These consumers’ sincerity need not be doubted. They want to do something for people less fortunate than themselves. They probably already belong to service club or volunteer at church. Thus they gain affirmation as good citizens, open handed and open hearted. From all public media come facts and images which are poignant, sentimentally appealing, even surprising and exciting. Churched or unchurched, we get the secular version of that old Calvinistic assurance; the approbation of a whole society, for being the kind of person who cares. Irresistible.
3. Consequences of Hope Foreshortened
How does this play out among the people it is supposed to help? The point of view in a social service agency gives an opportunity to see. They live at the low end of several human spectra at once. They have less imagination than average for inventing meaningful projects. They have less ability to articulate feelings or anything else in words. They have less money to use for ordinary distractions. They have less of everything on which healthy people build identities. To compound the problem, they watch more television—daytime television. They have made Oprah Winfrey one of the richest people in the world.
The most pervasive of human pains are boredom and anonymity. Sufferers are susceptible to any con who offers them a sense of identity. It need not be flattering; simple acknowledgment, any recognizable label is enough. This is vitally important in a mass society, especially one that touts consumerism as individualism. Authentic individualism is too austere for the mass; they want something ready made. All the media together constitute a menu from which to make a fashionable choice.
Once hooked into this system, they are malleable. They will conform themselves to the expectations of the ones who have paid to keep them watching. They think they are getting a free entertainment product for free, but in fact they have become the product. The time of their lives has been bought and sold to people they have never met, who do not have their interests at heart. They remain miserable, and become more so, on just the margin where the cost is least to advertisers..
But marginal people are buyers too; they get something from the transaction. Their peculiar vices are pride and anger, as would be expected of people in defeat. They are as ready as anyone to believe the world revolves around them, that theirs is uniquely righteous anger. Pride used to be one of the seven deadly sins, but now churches join in, extolling the pride of the poor as a positive virtue.
To be continued