The federal government yesterday raised the debt ceiling another $1.9 trillion, thus allowing themselves a nice cushion of over $14 trillion of non-existent money to spend on their pet causes.
The difference between the federal government and you and me when it comes to debt is simple: The federal government can print more money to fund its appetite for projects designed to secure votes; and then it can require someone other than themselves
This will be a short column. My hands and fingers are so stiff and sore from shovelling snow that I don't think they'll take much more than a few succinct comments. Hamilton, VA, is snowed in - big time. I dug 30 inches of snow off my driveway Saturday and yesterday, and now I'm so stiff and sore that I'm not sure I'll feel like going out to my meeting today.
Watching all that snow pile up to the left and right, I kept hearing a voice in my head saying, "This means something." With the President speaking out of both sides of his mouth on the latest developments of the Christmas bomber, and planning a "jobs" bill which is really just a second stimulus (like my dad used to say, "I don't know; I cut if off twice and it's still too short."), the Obama Administration is beginning to feel like a snow job. He's the Cheshire Cat President, saying whatever he wants according to the audience before him, and only knowing himself precisely what he means.
But he comes on with that smile, that chin hiked up, that teleprompter rolling, and he sounds so smooth. It's only later that we discover we've been snowed. But now we won't be digging out of the white stuff. We'll be digging out of the red stuff - debt - and not only us, but our children and grandchildren. And the soreness I'm feeling from the latest winter storm is nothing compared to the damage being done to the nation by an Administration and Congress that think you can spend your way to prosperity by promising people whatever they want and giving them whatever you think they need.
More snow is forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday. Shoot, I coulda told you that.
Are Americans being seduced by government to acquiesce in the increasing centralization of power? Roger Kimball fears it may be so. Writing in The New Criterion (January 2010) he insists, following Hayek, that government's tendency to usurp responsibility from citizens becomes a form of seduction, enticing Americans to prefer an existence of being provided for over taking responsibility for their lives.
This shift of responsibility from individuals, families, churches, and communities to federal bureaucrats takes place slowly. Consider American education, for example. Back in 1830, when America consisted of a few million people in less than half the states, every voting precinct had a school board, whose purpose was to represent the interests of the parents in their precinct to train their children for responsible living, That meant somewhere around 100,000 school boards, each making separate decisions about such things as curricula, shools, and textbooks. Today there are only something like 16,000 school boards in America, whose purpose is to implement policies and programs decided by teachers' unions and federal and state bureaucrats, with only marginal input from parents.
The same has occurred with the matter of retirement. Whereas families, in the past, took care of their own, with the aid of churches and other local societies, that role has been shifted to the federal government through social security and Medicare - neither of which is sufficiently funded.
But Americans have been happy to be relieved of the duty of educating their children and caring for their aging parents. When government offers to pick up the tab and collect the revenues from someone other than us, we seem all too happy to let things happen. After all, we'll be old one day, too.
Kimball writes, "The element of seduction that is so central to this sort of managerial despotism is one the things that makes it so hard to resist." We simply don't have the spine to say, "Thanks, but I'll handle it myself." The real issue in the growth of big government - and all the burden of debt, taxes, and control that accompanies it - is not so much one of bureaucratic and political grasping for power as it is one of the character of the electorate. Government is sapping the will of the electorate, who are simply unwilling to resist or decline whatever perk Washington waves before them.
The need of the hour is not for small government. The need of the hour is big character. Before the element of seduction turns us all into rats at the federal Skinner bar, we need something to renew and fortify the character of the American electorate. And this is not a job for political parties. The renewal of character must come from the churches and, ultimately, from the Lord. But the present gospel, preached in so many churches, of forgiveness and eternal life will not renew character, not even in the pews. Only a Gospel that honors an exalted King and seeks His Kingdom, leading to lives of self-denial and sacrifical service, will provide the renewal we seek.
Pray, friends, for revival of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
The Obama Administration is positioning itself to receive the credit for what they consider to be imminent success in Iraq. Talking with Larry King on Wednesday night, Vice-President Joe Biden claimed that the success enjoyed in the past year and the upcoming draw down of troops will be viewed as major achievements of this Administration. That in spite of the fact that the troop surge, which just about everyone now acknowledges to have been a success, and the draw down timetable were developed under President Bush. Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden bitterly opposed the surge.
Then, yesterday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed Vice-President Biden's claims, once again owning for the Administration the looming success in Iraq. These, of course, are, to be kind, gross exaggerations of the truth.
But the Obama Administration is becoming famous for these. Their policy seems to be to say or claim whatever puts them in the best light, whether or not the facts back it up, and then keep saying it, in every possible venue, until, it having been said often enough, people assume it must be so. The Cheshire Cats who work in the White House know what they're doing. These are not bumbling mistakes or understandable hyperbole. This is policy. Say whatever you need to say in order to take credit for whatever looks good, and keep saying it until we decide that we have established the claim as consenus, if not fact.
Man, I'm getting really tired of this. I keep wanting the President to do something consistent with his claims to be a Christian, and yet, just about every week, he spins out some new policy or claim that flies in the face of Biblical principle, sound judgment, or simple truth. Is it just that we will believe anything? Are we all just whistling in the grave yard - It'll be OK, everything's all right, these are good and decent people?
The problem in American politics today is not, in the first instance, in the politicians. It's in the electorate. Politicians will play to whatever they believe the electorate will accept, and they're always testing the water. This Administration is simply bolder and more brazen and perhaps even mendacious than previous ones. Unless the electorate gets some grounding in truth, some vision for government that reflects the Christianity-informed program our Founders erected, and some spine to resist the equivocators and all their seductive offers, this polis as we know it today is doomed.
Lies, half-truths, and deliberate deception can never build a great nation. But consciences captive in the grip of sin and self-interest cannot - will not - resist the Lie, as long as they see something for themselves in it. The electorate needs a new conscience. The electorate needs the Gospel.
The business community has watched in amazement the near-meltdown of Toyota over the past several weeks. The Japanese car maker has recalled some 9 million vehicles worldwide to repair problems of which they were aware, but "which the firm has only belatedly taken seriously", according to The Econmist (February 13th 2010). How could this happen to a company once recognized as the standard ov excellence?
The process of Toyota's fall is a kind of syndrome that, as I hope to show, crops up in all kinds of places. The company "initially refused to acknowledge the problem." That's the start. Everyone knows something's not right, but, hey, we're the standard of excellence; it can't be serious. An explanation - really, a rationalization - was then offered to explain the anomalies, but it was not quite credible. Next, everyone at Toyota settled into the mindset that it wasn't their problem, if, indeed, there was a problem at all, a mindset which "becomes entrenched" the more the problem comes up, threatening harmony in the company.
Meanwhile, the initial problem is bred throughout the manufacturing process and distributed to more and more consumers, turning the intial problem into a tsunami of complaints, including several deaths. Firm in its position, Toyota was not open to outside advice or analysis, until, at last, the problem was too big to ignore and it was recalls and apologies all around.
We see this same syndrome at work in highly visible Christians who fall into sin: think Mark Sanford. A little transgression - a flirtatious conversation, a little peck on the cheek - is rationalized as no big deal; becomes a series of phone calls, developing into clandestine meetings. All they while rationalization keeps the door to greater and greater sin wide open, and a mindset develops that somehow insists that what I'm doing isn't all that bad - it's not as bad as Hitler, let's say. Sooner or later the cat will jump out of the bag, then its groveling, apologies, humiliation, shame, a broken marriage, and a career in the toilet.
The same thing happens in churches, too: a little compromise with the world, let's say, in how we worship or the way we exercise oversight of our congregations, or our practice of overlooking people's sins rather than dealing with them. No big deal; it's what all the other churches are doing. Soon doing things the world's way becomes the new norm, and every Biblical text is either ignored or rationalized to fit the new paradigm. Shallowness spreads like a happy virus, because everyone who catches it is happy for the low expectations held out to them by church leaders. Doctrine goes by the wayside - too heavy, too intellectual and impersonal - and pop culture overgrows the church like kudzu. Toyota syndrome.
Toyota's crisis offers one compelling lesson for all of us: check deviations at once, before they undermine all excellence and bring catastrophe from which one may never recover.
Word yesterday that the White House has formally approved the construction of two new nuclear power plants, to be built in Georgia. If there was ever a "better late than never" scenario, this is it.
American industry has more genius and resources for making nuclear power a key player in our insatiable diet for electricity than all the other countries in the world. Construction has been held up in the past over worries that plants might not be safe and where to dump the waste material. Environmentalists have been a major opponent of nuclear power development. Honestly, those folks can find more flora and fauna that are threatened by extinction than the rest of us could have ever imagined.
But now the President wants to go forward with nuclear power, and I, for one, salute his decision. Except for this one thing: Why does American industry have to wait for the President before it can go forward to produce the services most people recognize are vital to our continuing ecnomic growth? Do presidents really have that much power? Is it necessary for a president to be persuaded of the merits of some new industrial or economic venture and to give it his OK for business to proceed? If so, what's next to be approved? Or disapproved?
The nation will benefit from nuclear power in many ways. Yes, there will be accidents, spills, and that nasty discharge to be disposed of somewhere. But, I don't think we're looking at a Chernoble any time soon, probably not at all; and give some entreprenuer enough space to think, tinker, and toy, and he'll find a way to put that nuclear waste to good use.
The President will anger his supporters on the Left, but I think he probably figures they're already mad at him, so, hey, what the heck? Plus, the Right will love him for it. And Mr. Obama doubtless likes being in the position of "Captain of Industry" - what with all his investment in cars, banks, investment houses, and, soon, insurance firms.
Americans need to watch this tendency of government to play the role of arbiter over the marketplace. But, for now, give thanks to God that a wonderful gift He has given to men will begin to make more of its divinely-appointed contribution to the common weal. And thank the Lord for the President as well. There may be hope for him yet.
You will recall the story of King Saul who, charged with eliminating the Amalekites, spared the best of the spoil and took the king captive as a kind of political trophy. Confronted by Samuel concerning why he had not accomplished the task appointed to him by the Lord, Saul blamed the people. He claimed that he had done everything right, but the people had taken the spoil and, well, what could he do (1 Samuel 15)?
Yesterday President Obama established a bi-partisan commission to find out why the government can't seem to pay for its programs and just keeps spending money hand-over-fist anyway. This from the man who last week presented a budget to Congress with more than $1.3 trillion in deficits, and who raised the country's debt ceiling to its highest level ever. Shouldn't the President just sit down with himself, take a long look in the mirror, and ask, "Hey, Obama, what's the deal? Why can't you control yourself? Why do you insist on spending more money than the nation will ever have?"
I don't know; perhaps he's done that, and perhaps appointing this commission will give him time to deflect the heat from himself to someone else, maybe even the commission. Or maybe the commission will come up with a "bi-partisan recommendation" to raise taxes, and then the President can throw yet another campaign promise overboard. At any rate, just like King Saul, President Obama is refusing to be a leader, refusing to take responsibility yet again, and looking around for someone else to blame for the nation's ills.
This is not leadership. This is not the stuff we expect of a President. Meanwhile, across town, conservative politicians assembled en masse, not to demonstrate their ability to lead the country - in my view, nearly as questionable as that of Mr. Obama - but to point the finger of blame and derision at the President. Real mature.
Are there any leaders left out there? Have all the prophets retired? Are we waiting from some real leader to be discovered out among his father's flocks somewhere - someone who'll take on the giants at the risk of life and reputation, clinging to nothing more than, "This is what the Lord says"?.
I don't think that's likely any time soon, either. The leaders this nation needs for tomorrow won't be reared on the "blame someone else" mindset of America's current political class. They will be born in the fires of revival, nurtured in the classroom of spiritual discipline, thrust into leadership through lives of loving service, and proven as the men and women of God they claim to be by lives of holiness and Truth.
But where are the churches that will be the nurseries for such leaders?
Saturday night Fox News host Glen Beck wowed the faithful as keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. His address was, in typical Beck fashion, a lesson in history as much as an exhortation to action, and both Democrats and Conservatives felt the ruler across the wrist.
Beck showed how America's political culture has drifted from the moorings of the Founding Fathers into an eddy of progressivism that threatens to pull the vessel of State under the waters of big government. Again and again he called the audience to return to the Founders and the intentions of their minds in crafting articles for the American state. Doubtless many conservatives and, consequently, not a few of the followers of Christ, will hail Beck's speech as just what the doctor ordered for, as he put it, a new day of freedom to dawn in the Republic.
But revisiting political points of view can never be the way to renewal. Indeed, today's "Progressives" argue as passionately as their conservative opponents that they are upholding the values of the Founders and the intent of the Constitution. Both sides in the current impasse are, in fact, following but the echoes of Truth which alone can bring the fullness of freedom to the land - as, indeed, were the Founders of this independent republic.
Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and the rest were soundly influenced in their political views by the remaining echoes of a Christian consensus that had guided the Western world for a thousand years. But other influences were also in the air - humanistic, rationalistic, scientific - and these shaped the Founders' thinking as well. As Barry Alan Shain and others have shown, the Christian worldview was still, at the end of the 18th century, the dominant paradigm for political thought, as for most other aspects of life. Dominant, but not exclusive, and not pure, either.
The Founders gave strong echoes of Truth in their wisdom, and since then those echoes, bouncing off the jagged walls of American history, have been variously heard, interpreted, and followed. As long as we seek to chart a better course for the nation on the strength of mere echoes, we shall never find our way out of the current morass.
What America needs today, beginning in the churches of the land, is not to embrace the echoes, be they ever so clear, but to seek the Voice behind them. Deviations from Scripture are systemic throughout the Christian community. Many - such as our inveterate tendency to schism and our addiction to pop culture - have come to be regarded as normal. But they are not, and as long as we refuse to seek the Voice of God in His Word for all matters of faith and life, we, too, will be led astray by echoes, and our echoes will be lost in the cacophony of echoes which now fills the moral, cultural, social, and political air of the land.
"To the Law and the testimony," the prophet cried. This exhortation is the need of the hour and the only course of action that can lead us through the fog of echoes into the clear and resonant tones of Truth - for ourselves, our churches, and our nation.
What an odd name for a legislative procedure that promises to alienate Republicans and Democrats even more than at present and drive the wedge between Congress and the White House even deeper into the wood of government: Reconciliation? Not to mention the way this maneuver, if it succeeds, will further infuriate the Tea Party crowd. About the only thing reconciliation will reconcile is Democratic politicians to their settled ideals.
But then a lot of government is like that, isn't it? Lawmakers are astute at determining which words "work best" with the majority of the people, and then using those words to cloak policies which have only their own political interests and tenures in mind. Then there's the matter of what such euphemisms say to the electorate about how our elected officials think about us: they'll believe whatever we tell them, as long as it sounds good. Read: superficial, uninformed, unthoughtful, gullible, self-interested.
The present political atmosphere requires Americans to navigate through the fog of euphemism to discern the true nature of what's being proposed. And, alas, that means reading and conversation - two skills with which American Christians, in particular, are unskilled and unaccustomed. I check the websites for which I write from time to time to see if there are any responses to which I ought to reply. Normally, not more than a handful of folks have left a comment, and many of those are, to be frank, rather self-serving.
On the other hand, I visited the website of a well-known secular journal of culture and the arts because I wanted to leave a comment on an article I had read in the journal. I had to get in line. By the time I reached the site - the day I received the journal in the mail - already 243 people had responded, many in long missives, and an active dialog was underway between respondents.
They who prefer television to reading will always be susceptible to manipulation by politicians skilled in the art of euphemism. And they who are loathe to discuss matters of politics, culture, and morality with their families and neighbors will not have developed the skills of reason and persuasion essential to formulating sound judgments and changing others' minds. But that's precisely where most members of the Christian community are at present.
Peter's exhortation to "gird up your minds for action" comes to mind (1 Pet. 1.13). I wonder how many Christians have read that verse without ever stopping to think that perhaps it was addressed to them? To you?
The term, "show trial," came into the vernacular during the Soviet period. In a show trial an innocent is dragged before the court for a hearing and sentencing that usually led to years in the gulag. The accused was doomed before the opening arguments. The judge already knew what he had to decide. The charges, arguments, and whatever adjudication may have ensued was all for show. The State would get its way, no matter who had to suffer.
Watching the President's health care summit I had some of that same feeling. The President and his Democratic colleagues weren't there to talk about reaching some compromise on health care. They knew what they wanted and what they were going to endorse. The arguments put forward by Republicans were all for show. In the end, none of them was welcomed as contributing to the Administration's thinking.
The health care summit was a show trial, and Mr. Obama admitted as much when, right at the end, he announced that they would give it maybe, oh, six weeks - to see if the Republicans would come around, that is - and then they'd do whatever they had to do to get this deal done as they want it done. That is a show trial. And what it shows me is that this Administration is so full of its own sense of absolute rightness, that it wouldn't be open to a fresh idea on health care or anything else if it came on a bolt of lightning from on high.
Pride, we know, comes before the fall. Tyranny comes with show trials. Mr. Obama is not a tyrant, but he definitely strikes me as one who has convinced himself he's got it all figured out and if he just holds the line, people will either finally see it his way or he'll do whatever it takes to get his way anyway. This is governing by attrition.
Happily, as the President reminded us in his closing remarks, elections will be held this year. And he seems to think he can beat those, too. Well, we'll see. But no Christian watching the health care summit can come away thinking that was anything but a staged event, designed to wow the electorate - bi-partisan, in front of the cameras, lots of discussion - and to cow the Republicans. I see no evidence that anything remotely approaching the will of God was in the President's mind or on his agenda. And yet, didn't he take an oath to God?
More information is being gathered in our day than can be stored in all the computers, everywhere in the world. According to a special report in The Economist (February 27th), advances in technology now permit the daily gathering of quantities of data so vast, that a special science has developed simply to sift through this data and ferret out the useful from the trivial.
For example, Wal-Mart handles more than 1 million transactions every hour, feeding data bases holding 2.5 petabytes - "the equivaltent of 167 times the books in America's Library of Congress." Cisco Corporation estimates that, within three years, the amount of data "flowing over the internet annually wil reach 667 exabytes..." For some perspective, one exabyte is equal to 10 billion copies of The Economist.
I find this not so much alarming as fascinating. Just think of all the data that is not being observed, gathered, and studied - all the complex interactions occuring in all the plants in the world, the movements of molecules of air, the blood coursing through the bodies of all living things, the cells dividing in all the microorganisms of the vast oceans. Mankind will never be able to observe and record all the information transactions taking place on planet earth, even within the next second - much less throughout the entire cosmos. But all the activities of simple existent translate into data, information, and, in the end, thoughts.
No wonder the psalmist marveled, "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! (Ps. 139.17) For, back of all this information, all the data of every aspect of the entire cosmos, is the mind of God, and of His Word. Physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne, in an attempt to describe the interface between the unseen world of God and His Word and the visible world we inhabit, to give some definition or explanation of this exchange, described the means whereby the world continues to exist as an ineffable, incessant, information transfer from the mind of God to the world of His creation.
How vast indeed is the mind of God! Of what yet unknown powers is our God capable! And how we, who have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.16), are to be rebuked to shame for the paltry use we make of this great gift of our Savior.
Great reserves of insight, ideas, plans, and communications, borne in the minds of ordinary believers, are squandered day by day by people who refuse to read, prefer television or video games to conversation, and do not dare to ask or think anything more than what gives them personal comfort each day - in spite of the fact of vast power for more dwelling within us (Eph. 3.20). The world is hungry for information, yet the Christian community barely taps the greatest information gift that God could ever bestow - His own mind.
This is a matter of Christian stewardship, for which, one day, we all will be required to give an account.
Unemployment in America currently stands at around 10%. But that's only part of the picture. If we add to that number all those who have simply given up seeking employment, or who are employed in jobs well beneath their qualifications and past experience, the number rises to closer to 20%. Break that down by certain age groups and other classifications, and the numbers creep even higher. Unemployment has settled like a bad chest cold on the nation, and there doesn't seem to be any immediate relief in sight.
Indeed, efforts to ameliorate the situation can also contribute to making it worse. By extending unemployment benefits now to 99 weeks, the federal government may actually be encouraging unemployment and discouraging local businesses from hiring people whom they do not view as needing jobs, at least, not right away. Funding those continued unemployment benefits by made-up money - what Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning protested against for three days - adds to the problem by increasing the national debt and debasing the money available to create new jobs.
By trying to help the unemployed we may actually be exacerbating the problem. What's to be done? Who's the real culprit here? Which way lies a remedy?
Well, let's start where we live. If Christians were more concerned for the plight of the poor in their communities, more faithful in giving to the work of the Lord, and more concerned about praying for and seeking the peace of God for their communities, would the local base of resources - for aiding the poor and helping them to prepare for new jobs - be more abundant? The witness of some churches, like inner-city Baltimore's New Song Fellowship is definitely yes. Under Pastor Thurman Williams this small congregation - 100 or so people - has developed such a burden for its neighbors that it has given itself tirelessly to discovering and initiating efforts to renew the Sandtown community. They've built a middle school for neighborhood kids. They provide job counseling, training, and transportation. The church sponsors a free medical clinic for the community and maintains a building-supply center, which has helped them to rebuild over 100 homes in the community.
So also with the People's Church on Chestnut Ridge in Philippi, West Virginia. Ruston and Donna Seamon have devoted nearly thirty years of ministry to poor people through pastoral care, youth work, tutoring students, rebuilding and repairing homes, and - just begun - bringing cheap electricity into the hollows of this Appalachian community.
What if all the churches in America had a similar burden for their neighbors? Would we begin to see not only the problem of unemployment, but a lot of other problems begin to subside? I think it is highly likely. Both New Song Fellowship and the People's Church are staunchly Biblical, evangelistic, and committed to the task of making disciples. But they understand their mission as one of reconciling all of life in their communities back to God, and doing whatever it takes, enlisting any who will join them, and creating the institutions and projects necessary to love their neighbors as themselves and honor God with their hearts, minds, and strength.
Visionary pastors lead visionary churches in visionary solutions to implacable problems. Government cannot solve the problem of unemployment. But where local churches will engage their communities in constructive, sacrificial ways, unemployment and many other social and cultural problems can find new life in Jesus Christ.