I'm not a big fan of Bill O'Reilly, but I find, in spite of myself, and of his enormous ego, I generally agree with what seem to be his positions on most matters. Until last night.
Responding to an email Mr. O'Reilly glibly asserted that "you can't make public policy based on the Bible." Oh, really? Someone should have told our Founding Fathers, for as scholars such as Barry Alan Shain and Forrest MacDonald have pointed out, that is precisely what they did in crafting the Constitution.
Historians of the Founding I have read are near-unanimous in their view that the Christian worldview, still vibrant at the time, made a major intellectual contribution to the shape of this independent republic. Even a generation after the Founding, de Toqueville commented on the strong role of Christian faith in America, including its public policy.
Mr. O'Reilly's tossed-off remark was either naive, ill-informed, or simply unthinking. If Christians are not allowed to insert their Biblically-informed views into the crafting of public policy - such as pro-life, which Mr. O'Reilly, a Catholic, strongly advocates - then why should they be involved in the political arena at all? Does Mr. O'Reilly mean to suggest that faith has no role in public policy?
For Bill O'Reilly to make such a facile assertion as though it were Constitutional truth is irresponsible. As he said, he's not a student of the Bible. Perhaps if he were, he would understand better how, without the Bible, Western law as we know it today simply would not exist.
Professor Jerry Pattengale is encouraged that college students today seem to be asking the big questions once again. In his review of Anthony T. Kronman's Education's End (Books & Culture, November/December 2009) Dr. Pattengale is hopeful that this portends the beginning of a new era in higher education, one in which understanding, not research, will be the driving force in student learning.
Dr. Pattengale does not agree with Anthony Kronman that "enlightened secular humanism" will be able to supply the best answers to students' questions about life and its meaning and purpose. I share that conviction, and, like Dr. Pattengale, I'm encouraged to think that young people are beginning to take more seriously issues other than having fun and getting a good job. The higher education experience will always feature healthy doses of these, but it's heartening to think that over and perhaps through all the fun and career prep is a growing interest in the things that matter most.
I guess what concerns me is whether or not, as young people begin asking the big questions, Christians will be on hand with the big answers. For as important as the questions are, asking the questions alone won't guarantee that students find a more satisfying and fruitful experience of life as a result of what Alexander Astin once referred to as their "four critical years."
Now is the time to begin preparing young people in local churches to think deeply about life, immerse themselves in the proven answers given by our forebears in the Christian faith, and search the Scriptures daily with a view to knowing, living, and proclaiming all the counsel of God. Church youth groups are not much given to such endeavors. Serious piety, serious reflection on contemporary issues and events, and serious study of the Bible aren't nearly as prominent in youth programs as having a good time with your Christian friends.
But the kids who are beginning to ask the big questions, while they may listen politely to their professors, will be more interested in what their peers believe, how they think and how they answer these questions in genuine and meaningful ways. If we can begin equipping Christian youth with big answers to the big questions of life, we may see a new revival of genuine Christianity flare up and spread like wildfire - as it frequently has in the past - through the campuses of the nation.
Having spent a good deal of yesterday afternoon unsuccessfully trying to craft a poem, I am reminded of two things: First, poetry matters, as Dana Gioia argued in his masterful book invoking that idea. And second, poetry is hard work. Which is good, because if it weren't there would be more poets than there are already, and contemporary poetry would be even more meaningless than it is.
I second Czeslaw Milosz's penetrating condemnation of contemporary verse, The Witness of Poetry. In these lectures, first delivered at Harvard, Milosz exposes 20th century poetry for the farce that it is - having abandoned all true form and art for a merely subjective landscape that aspires to the status of religion. But he didn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Milosz understood that poetry can connect people with transcendence, but in order to do so it must be true to its proper calling.
That calling can be subversive, even revolutionary. When the English wanted to subjugate the Irish, they rounded up the poets, put them all in jail, and destroyed their harps. They must have understood what Luis Cernuda meant when he wrote, "certainly a poet is almost always a revolutionary...who, like other men lacks liberty, but with the difference that he cannot accept his privation, and dashes against the walls of his prison."
The poet wants to slow the world down, to give it more careful inspection, so that she can draw out all the inherent glory and beauty of each moment, every small event or thing. And this is, indeed, a revolutionary way to look at the world, because it takes everything seriously, studies everything as "under the heavens", and looks for the stamp of divinity in every aspect of existence. We could use a revolution in that kind of thinking.
In 1974 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put forth his formula for bringing down the Soviet Union. He wrote in an essay entitled, "As Breathing and Consciousness Return", that all that would be necessary to usher in the end of Marxism in Russia would be for every person who loved his country "to take a single moral step within his own power."
Reflecting on the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20 years ago yesterday, we can see, in retrospect, that that was pretty much the way it happened. East Germans driving through Hungary to the West by the hundreds of thousands, candle-light vigils and prayer meetings throughout the old Eastern bloc, and before you know it, the wall is down and the Soviet era with it.
How soon we forget. Or how slow we - Christians, I mean - are to learn. Year by year the Church in America settles more comfortably on the margins of society, while the unbelieving world grows ever more indifferent, if not hostile, to our existence. Will this ever change? Has God forgotten how to revive His Church? Will we never see another age in which the Church has a major influence on every aspect of life and culture?
And are we content with this?
"If My people..." That must be the hugest "if" in all recorded history. Unless Christians are willing to turn to God in prayer and repentance, to change our ways and embrace His Kingdom, and to wait, wait, wait on Him, day and night, we will not be revived. But what a small price this seems! Commit to pray every day? To follow the Spirit as He convicts of this and that and another sin? To take up new life in Jesus in all the details of our lives?
We don't have to start or be a huge ministry. We don't have to travel to remote parts of the world. We just need to pray, repent, and be transformed, one step at a time, one day at a time.
Miss Manners, asked about how to walk in high heels, replied, "Right foot, left foot." How to get revival and reformation going again? Right foot, left foot - pray, repent.
In his remarks yesterday during the memorial service at Ft. Hood, President Obama declared that "no faith" would justify such horrible acts of violence against innocent people. While I appreciate the President's being present to express the nation's sorrow and outrage, I can't help but wonder what in the world he meant by that.
Because it's obvious that at least one religious faith, militant Islam, does in fact prescribe, indeed, command that its adherents carry out acts of violence against "infidels." In fact, Major Hasan, the President must know, had been in contact with one imam who espoused this very thing. It is the highest honor a jihadist can achieve to die in the fight against all who do not adhere to the Islamic faith. So just what did the President mean?
He can't have mean that he didn't know of any such religions. I know he's not uninformed of the religion of militant Islam and its jihadist wing.
Perhaps he meant no valid or legitimate religion would condone such acts. If so, why didn't he say so? And then why didn't he go on officially to denounce and condemn militant Islam and any other such religions of which he might be aware? And if this is what he believes, then will he begin to address his personal rhetoric more specifically to the issue?
Perhaps he intended to put all religions on notice? That henceforth, this Administration, which apparently intends to control as much of American life as possible, will not look kindly on religions that teach wanton violence?
I really don't know what he meant, but whatever it was he meant, it doesn't make any sense. Mr. Obama's remarks strike me as having been rhetorical flourish and nothing more. Impressive, but meaningless. Like so much else in this Administration to date.
The Apostle Paul warned in Titus 1 about those who play games with language in order to make themselves look good. Mr. Obama, who claims to be a Christian, should be instructed by the Apostle, and by the Savior, Who also commanded us to let our speech be plain and true.
I've been mulling over the question of what Americans consider "news." That is, when we go to the evening news programs, pick up the daily paper, or peruse a periodical, what are we looking for? What do we want to know, and why?
Just as important, how do the people who deliver the news determine what they ought to pass along? The process of selecting and reporting news is a kind of guessing game, fouled by advertizing, in which the news producers and the news consumers seek to correlate their concerns to the benefit of both.
Most news seems to have a basis either in violence, politics, economics, or scandal.
The history of Western civilization shows us that a trinity of liberties is almost inextricably linked. Freedom of religion, free governments, and free markets have been found together in the West for nearly 1,000 years now. These did not develop all at once. Historically, freedom of religion had to be wrested from the hands of an oppressive Roman government. This gave rise to greater political freedom, over the course of the MIddle Ages, and, with the Renaissance and Reformation, economic freedom followed.
Of course, The United States is the prime example - along with Britain and certain other European nations - of the beneficial interplay of these freedoms. The preservation of all seems almost to enhance the benefit of all, and of all the people served by them.
But we have yet to see whether it is possible to drop one member of this trinity and have the other two somehow manage to survive. This is the course that internation leaders committed to globalization have determined to take. The Economist is typical of the view that seems to obtain in most governments today - political and economic freedom are of the essence, and go hand in hand: "economic and political liberty are linked - not as tightly as people hoped 20 years ago, but still linked" (November 7th 2009). But what about religious freedom?
Religious freedom does not exist in some of the most powerful emerging economic giants - Saudi Arabia, China, even India to a certain extent. Can economic and political freedom survive without the bedrock of religious freedom underneath? The world today seems to think so, as witness the almost non-existent effort on the part of our own government to make religious freedom an issue in the modern world.
My sense is that, without religious freedom, political oligarchs will absorb economic freedom by degrees, until, owning enough economic influence, they can buy off or simply scale down political freedom to suit their own interests and agendas. When people are willing to give up political freedom in order to maintain economic security, it is evidence that they have already abandoned meaningful religious convictions; and it is a harbinger that, soon enough, all freedoms will be redefined, if not simply lost.
Which makes it just that much more important, while we still have religious freedom, to exercise it fully and to declare our intentions of keeping this and defending the other two agents in this trinity of liberties.
Our growing postmodern consensus is breeding the poison of tolerance into the moral life of our society. So toxic has the nation's moral bloodstream become with this doctrine that it is increasingly difficult for the nation's opinion-makers to render meaningful judgments on moral issues. Who are we, the logic goes, to look askance at the values and practices of others, who, because they have different backgrounds and live in different contexts than we, we must rather accept than judge?
We see this especially in the case of the Ft. Hood massacre. That Maj. Hasan had clear terrorist links and bents is indisputable. But few are the voices rising to condemn his actions as terrorism. Rather, Maj. Hasan is described as "confused," "disturbed," "fearful," and even suffering from "secondary post-traumatic stress disorder," a malady, we hasten to add, which does not even exist.
We saw it also in the case of Roman Polanski, whose capture in Switzerland and return to America was greeted with howls of disapproval by the cultural elite in Hollywood and New York. James Bowman, writing in The New Criterion (November 2009), finds the case of Mr. Polanski - among others - revealing as to the state of America's moral pathology. Mr. Bowman wonders what has become of the notion of shame - of roundly expressed, public disapproval and humiliation for acts so offensive to decency that they can only be described as wicked.
Shame these days is nobody's privilege. Those who do try to invoke it are hooted down and pilloried for their putative self-righteousness. Even in the Church shame hardly has a presence. We are so quick to forgive, excuse, explain, and move on beyond the failings of church leaders and the everyday sins of church members that shame is simply considered to be in poor taste.
But, as Mr. Bowman reminds us, "the absence in certain influential sectors of society, and increasingly in society as a whole, of any sense of shame about...wickedness...is the precursor to a denial that it is wicked at all."
When God confronted Adam and Eve after their fall into sin, He did not seek to assuage their sense of shame, or assure them that it was OK, after all, no more than what any red-blooded human might do, given the circumstances. No, God drove home the point of their shame, affirming and searing it into their souls, so that they would never forget it, and ever seek never to know it again.
When shame goes, decency goes, and moral relevance - which is to say, moral irrelevance - becomes the default morality of the society.
The function of our eyes, at least in part, is to convey information to the brain about our immediate surroundings, thus allowing the brain to calculate the best course of action, say, around the jutting edge of a cedar chest. It is important, therefore, that our eyes be clearly focused and consider all obstacles within their immediate horizon, so that the brain, discerning short-term troubles, can guide the body to avoid long-term pain.
But when the eyes are distracted or obscured - whether by darkness or thought - or when, as may sometimes be, they are bereft of their wonted lens - unpleasantries eventuate: in my case, a bruised thigh.
Which throbbed yesterday as I read America's First Lady of Verse, Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). The Lord has His way of chiding us for careless behavior, and warning us against future recurrences. Mrs. Bradstreet gently reminded me, in one of her "Contemplations," "Dim eyes are the concomitants of old age..." Slow down, she seemed to say. Don't be in such a hurry. Make sure you can see what stands in the way before you turn the next corner. I needed that precisely one hour before I read it.
Her Contemplation continues, though, with salient advice for the nation: "Dim eyes are the concomitants of old age, and shortsightedness in those that are the eyes of a republic fortells (sic) a declining state." The nation closed its books on the most recent fiscal year nearly $1 trillion more in debt than the previous year - the largest national debt ever incurred, nearly $1 1/3 trillion, an amount unthinkable to any previous Administration or generation.
The eyes of our republic are shortsighted with economic bandaids and political advantage. Now health care reform must be foisted on the nation before the end of the year, if possible, and, after that, we can be sure that another run will be made at cap-and-trade legislation. But, while rough edges, snares, pitfalls, and dead-ends are jutting out on every hand, our nation's leaders are rushing toward their vision of a bright tomorrow, a vision which exists only in their fancies, and the pursuit of which, before they achieve it (though no nation following such a course ever has), will occasion many bumps, bruises, contusions, and upheavals in the body of the American people.
Our leaders are lurching after fancies without carefully considering the path on which they are leading us for the future. And we can be sure of this: sooner, rather than later - but later as well, to be sure - if we continue on this path, pain and suffering await us. I'll recover from mine. Will the nation?
Every parent knows that if you continue to do everything for your children, they'll never grow up. They will discover that they don't have to clean up their room, in spite of all your threats; sooner or later you'll do it for them. Homework due tomorrow? No problem; mom and dad will work it through for them. Need some money? Why work when the folks are always willing to dole it out? Trouble at school? Dad'll sort it out; he always does.
Parents who thus continue to control and do for their children stifle their initiative- and risk-taking propensities and squelch their creative spirits. The same is true between governments and their citizens. When government is the ultimate overall safety net, people learn to like being taken care of, so that they don't have to take care of themselves. Yes, a certain amount of freedom gets lost in the bargain, but no one seems to mind too much, as long as everything is provided. The future we should fear is Brave New World, not 1984.
Philip Freneau (1752-1832), one of America's early popular poets, marveled at the vision, engineering, and hard work that went in to the making of the Erie Canal. No tyrant compelled this project, he observed; nor was any slave pressed to put his hand to the task. This wonder of the modern age was an example of "What Freedom's nervous sons can do."
I was talking last week with a friend who works in the health care industry - actually, he provides financing for hospital systems so that they can recapitalize with the latest technology. I asked him what he anticipated the biggest impact of the current health care reform initiative would be, and he answered without hesitating. "It will stifle innovation in the technological field."
Wherever government extends its reach into the private sectors of society, the energy that "Freedom's nervous sons" might invest in innovation very often dies on the vine. Why make a better automobile, improve our investment and banking services, or strive for better medical technologies when Uncle will prop us up and bail us out, come what may? Are we inching toward a day when "Freedom's nervous sons" will be relic of the past, replaced by "Uncle's fawning fools"?
The reports are beginning to come in on the impact of the federal stimulus package of last spring. From all over the country we are hearing of jobs being created and saved by the scores of thousands. There's only one problem: much of it is apparently untrue.
The latest official report on the success of the simulus has jobs being created in non-existent Congressional districts. It reports more than 400 jobs created in a Chicage school district that only has less than 300 jobs total. Many of the "jobs" are really just raises; somewhere around half the jobs are government jobs in one state or district or another, which means that the billions Americans have been made to pony up over the next generation are being used to create more government, which probably will mean more of the same in the days ahead.
The Obama Administration is incompetent. Either they don't know how to create jobs (no government does, except in its own halls), they don't now how to count jobs, or they simply don't know how to report jobs. Whichever it is, this Administration which wants to take over one-sixth of the economy cannot tell the truth to its people about its biggest undertaking to date. That is incompetence, and may be even worse than that.
Some may shrug and say, "Oh, well, c'mon - they're just numbers." No they aren't. The bogus numbers Americans are being given to justify and celebrate the stimulus - and to grease the skids for future spending and government intervention - reveal an unreliable, disingenuous, deceitful strain to the present Administration. No government can simply float such blatantly false reports before the public and not have anything but scorn for the masses of the people: "What the hell; just tell them anything."
That's the way I feel, and if it's not the way you feel, well, maybe you just haven't been lied to enough in your lifetime.
Do not adjust your set. That distinguished young gentleman talking about the need to curtail America's debt is indeed the same President Obama who has spent the first year of his tenure driving that debt through the ceiling. Suddenly Mr. Obama is listening to the voices of sanity and the future, warning him about increasing the nation's debt to levels that will cause people, in the President's words, to lose confidence in the American economy.
But whose voices? Which people? The tea-party crowd? Fox News? John Boehner? Mitch McConnell? The Wall Street Journal?
Huh uh: The Chinese. Mr. Obama was publicly reprimanded for his cavalier approach to America's debt by the Premier of the nation that serves as America's de facto banker, with over $800 billion in Treasury Notes alone in their hands. That little trip to the bamboo woodshed seems to have reached the President like nothing his own countrymen have been able to say for nearly a year.
I find that frankly a little scary. Is it that the voices of reason here in his own country are simply not persuasive? I don't think so. Mr. Obama is chastened and sobered not by those who love this country and its form of government, but by those whose designs on America are not nearly so noble. And that troubles me. If the President is willing to re-think his policies on debt and the economy simply because the Chinese don't like what he's doing, what's the next item on the agenda that will subject to review and change because some foreign power wants to see something different?
What if, for example, the Arab world wants to see a different attitude toward Israel? Or the European Union begins to insist that we follow the lead of certain of their member nations and allow Muslims to create enclaves where elements of sharia law obtain? Will all the rhetoric and ink of the President's critics and political opponents be able to keep him from steering the nation according to the GPS of whatever foreign power he hopes to mollify, assuage, or impress?
Because Jesus Christ is the very embodiment of the wisdom of God, we should expect that those who truly know the Lord will manifest a degree of wisdom reflective of the character of Christ. I'm still waiting to see the first evidence of such wisdom in President Obama, who, as we know, claims to be a Christian.