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Climbing the Great Ideological Divide
Among sophisticates on Manhattan's Upper East Side and in Georgetown salons, President Bush's election in November of 2000 brought much wailing, gnashing of teeth, and rending of (fashionable) garments. Disgruntled "blue" voters threatened to move overseas to escape the "jihadists" and "mullahs" now running—and ruining—America.
Four years later, in a column entitled "Two Nations Under God," the New York Times's Thomas Friedman said he woke up the morning after Bush's reelection "deeply troubled" because "they [Bush and company] favor a whole different kind of America from me." Amen, echoed Tina Brown in the Washington Post: "New Yorkers don't want to live in a republic of fear."
But then the November elections of 2008 left moral conservatives perplexed as well, and no wonder. With the victories of Barak Obama and resounding Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, it seemed to them that the nation had been taken over by something close to a hostile power.
As these laments from both sides of the spectrum demonstrate, what we witnessed in these elections is a continuing deepening of hostilities between "red" and "blue" states—"Retros" and "Metros." Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb described this phenomenon as two cultures existing within one nation. She believes these two can coexist peacefully; I wonder. Americans are engaged in a civil war carried on by other means; as with the first Civil War, fundamental issues divide us.
A Cultural Grand Canyon
How did we get into this mess? Some suggest it started when secular forces pressed their views on abortion and gay rights in court. In part, that's so. But I think we must look deeper. We dug the hole that became a cultural Grand Canyon when we abandoned belief in a moral truth that is knowable.
People who reject transcendent authority can no longer persuade one another through rational arguments; everything is reduced to personal opinion. Debates about ideas thus degenerate into power struggles; we're left with no moral standard by which to measure the common good. For that matter, how can there be a "common good" without an objective standard of truth?
The death of moral truth has fractured America into two warring camps, with each side's preferences hardening into an ideology. And ideology is the enemy of revealed truth. It's also the enemy of classical conservatism, which depends, as Russell Kirk wrote, upon tradition and the accumulated wisdom of the past; ideology, on the other hand, is a human scheme for how the world ought to be formed. Whether on the Left or the Right, ideologies are utopian—the dangerous idea that we can construct the perfect society.
This is why politics has become so ugly today. When I first worked on Capitol Hill in the 1950s, there was camaraderie among politicians. Democrats dropped into our office to chat with us. People on both sides of the aisle met in the local lounge for drinks after work. Of course, we had disagreements. But when it came to questions like how we were going to take care of the poor, our differences were over degree and means. Everybody shared common ideas about what made a good society.
Not anymore. Today, ideologies are irreconcilable. Along with lower taxes, religious conservatives argue for moral order, respect for tradition, protection of life and religious expression. Many secularists, by contrast, dismiss the idea that the government should enforce any moral good. Indeed, they want government to protect individuals from having any such standards imposed on them: radical libertarianism.
This is at the heart of the culture war—why the "reds" and "blues" are locked in mortal combat. It's a struggle for ultimate power. Ultimate power is what moves in to fill the vacuum when a society loses its consensus on the validity of moral absolutes as the basis for a common worldview. And I can attest from personal experience that we are losing—or more disturbingly, have already lost—our communal sense of moral absolutes.
What's Wrong with this Picture?
Over the years, I've often taught worldview to groups of bright young students. With each group, I had the same distressing experience. When I presented a classic example of a self-refuting moral proposition, they just didn't get it.
An example: the late Christopher Reeve, in his wheelchair with a breathing tube, was testifying before a Senate committee. Reeve dismissed moral objections to embryonic stem-cell research, claiming that the purpose of government is "to serve the greatest good for the greatest number."
I then asked the students, "What's wrong with this picture?" When I got no answers I dropped heavy hints. Only one student gave the correct answer: if what Reeve advocated actually were our governing philosophy, he would not have been there to testify. Who would spend millions to keep him alive when that money could help thousands?
I don't know whether the students lacked analytical skills or were just confused, but when I explained the inherent contradiction, the lights finally went on. When I discussed the concept of absolute truth, and the fact that it is knowable, there was an occasional nod of understanding, but it was clear I was breaking new ground. These students, mind you, were products of Christian homes and schools.
This lack of worldview awareness is appalling—but it's exactly what the Barna Group found in a recent poll: just 9 percent of evangelical students believe in anything called absolute truth. What does this say about the job our schools, our families, and our churches are doing?
Let's tackle the schools first. Many Christians—like former Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley, who spent thirteen years in public office—support the public school system. They believe Christian students ought to be part of it and provide a Christian influence. Mark has practiced what he preaches, sending his six children to public schools.
But for the first time in his life, Mark is having real doubts. The problem is that diversity training—in which students are told it's wrong to make truth claims of any kind—has been impressed in the minds of our children. This twisted interpretation of tolerance makes it an offense even to make truth claims—or judge the ideas and behaviors of others.
This abhorrence of any claim to absolute truth comes from the postmodern mindset, which asserts that we can have no "grand metanarrative" that makes sense of reality. Since there's no such thing as truth, all principles are merely personal preferences. The growing prevalence of that mindset does much to explain why we are presently engaged in a new civil war. As professor Ed Veith explains, the postmodernist claims that all you can do is try to impose your preferences on others before they impose theirs on you.
We can see why postmodernism leads to warlike rancor when we examine its roots. As a philosophy, postmodernism draws inspiration from the writings of nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that "languages of good and evil" are rooted in neither truth nor reason, but in the will to power. In the 1930s the Nazis fleshed out Nietzsche's ideas, resulting in horrific consequences.
While the Western powers defeated the Nazis, we did not defeat the philosophy that incited them. In the Atlantic Monthly, political scientist Francis Fukuyama says the decline in traditional morality in the West can be traced most directly to Nietzsche's view that moral principles are not objective; they are cultural inventions that serve as smokescreens for power struggles. And since they are "socially constructed," they must be "deconstructed" to unmask the underlying power grab.
Thus, subverting authority becomes a good thing, breaking the rules an act of liberation. This explains why the word transgression from the King James Version of the Bible has become a shibboleth in some academic circles. As literary critic Roger Shattuck writes, postmodernists have "transform[ed] sin and evil into a positive term: 'transgression.'" They praise "transgressive" acts for breaking down oppressive moral rules.
The late Michel Foucault even praised irrational violence as a way to be liberated from rules imposed in the name of reason. As these ideas filter down to popular culture, movies and rap music depict murderers as confident, efficient, unflappable. Cool. And eventually kids, like the two Nazi-imitating teenagers at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, shoot down their classmates while laughing.
A historical parallel to Littleton took place eighty-five years ago when two college students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, murdered a fourteen-year-old boy. Their defense lawyer was the infamous Clarence Darrow, and his most dramatic appeal was to argue that Leopold had absorbed the ideas of Nietzsche at school. "Your Honor," he said, "it is hardly fair to hang a nineteen-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."
In both cases, of course, the murderers were accountable for their actions. Yet the Littleton killers were acting out the logical consequences of a postmodernism taught today from university to grade school. They were mirroring in grotesque action what the adult culture advocates in abstract concepts.
Francis Schaeffer taught a method of pre-evangelism that presses people to the logical consequences of their own beliefs. Littleton, as well as Leopold and Loeb, illustrate what Nietzsche's philosophy leads to when lived out in the real world. It is one thing to debate the topic in a rarefied academic setting; it's quite another when a Nazi-quoting teenager sticks a gun in your face. Suddenly, you realize that worldviews do matter.
Littleton also brought into bold relief the contrast between Nietzsche's legacy and the Christian worldview. The killers harbored a fierce hatred of Christianity and reportedly asked some victims if they believed in God before killing them. Included among the martyred teens were Rachel Scott, the first to be killed, who was told to "go be with him" and was shot in the head when she answered "yes"; Cassie Bernall, who was later found with her hands still clasped in prayer; and Valeen Schnurr, who survived multiple gunshot wounds after she also answered "yes."
Who can forget the news photos of crosses on the hill for the slain? Or the interviews with Christian parents offering forgiveness and reconciliation? Or the funeral services broadcasting the gospel message across the nation? I cannot remember any event in recent years that produced such stunning Christian testimony.
God is not mocked. A vicious attack on his people was turned into a powerful demonstration of faith overcoming evil. These teens inspired others. Across the country, youth pastors reported revivals. At Cassie Bernall's church alone, attendance increased by 500 people. Time magazine even ran a two-page spread on the stunning revival among teens.
Littleton brought us face to face with the two sides of today's civil war—the two worldviews competing for our allegiance—a postmodernism rooted in the will to power, contrasted with a biblical faith rooted in the will of God. Which will America choose? There is considerable evidence to suggest that many are now ready to make the right choice.
If you hold your ear close to the ground in Washington, D.C., the rumble you will hear is not the Metro but a populist rage hurtling like a railroad train toward the Capitol. Americans have by and large lost faith in their institutions, and the evidence is everywhere. According to a CBS News poll, at the beginning of the new millennium, 45 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing most of the time. Now less than 25 percent do so. A January 2010 joint poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that the percentage of people who view the president negatively had nearly doubled in a year's time. Approval ratings for Congress were even lower: 21 percent, and had subsequently dropped into the single digits by 2011, according to a Rasmussen poll.
In some respects, the distrust is justified. Hurricane Katrina was a blow that the Bush Administration never fully recovered from, just as ineffective response to the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill did untold damage to the Obama Administration. A cumbersome government bureaucracy too slow in providing help shattered citizens' faith in government's effectiveness.
But the ineffectiveness of government was magnified in the case of the Nigerian terrorist who almost brought down a Northwest airliner headed for Detroit in December 2009. Brave passengers, not a massive government apparatus, thwarted him. In the postmortem, we discovered that despite a multi-trillion-dollar campaign to protect citizens against terrorism, and the fact that the visa office in Lagos, Nigeria, had been warned that Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab was dangerous, it issued him a visa anyway. Appalling.
The bigger that government gets, the further it grows from the people. From the massive expansion of health care to increased environmental controls, higher taxes, and mind-numbing budget deficits, people feel overwhelmed and powerless. It doesn't help when Congress closes its doors to draw up the health-care bill in conference committee—signaling a request to the public not to butt into its affairs.
Where will all of this lead? There are a few likely scenarios. Government could get a dose of reality and put the brakes on. But its leaders give us no indication of restraining themselves. A second scenario could drive us off a cliff into national bankruptcy, which has happened in many countries whose governments spend irresponsibly. The third possibility, and the one I think we are on the verge of witnessing, is that the civil war over which philosophy will dominate how we are governed could spur a populist revolt.
Populist movements in the U.S. can be healthy, as when Andrew Jackson broke the grip of the Eastern elite on the presidency, or when William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for president, led a movement to give greater voice to the disillusioned masses. But this time, a massive wave of antigovernment sentiment could shatter the political consensus, which may well leave the country virtually unmanageable.
Red, Blue and Black and White
The inevitable consequence of all of this should deeply trouble Christians, who, of any segment of our society, understand the necessity of a strong government. The Bible teaches that God ordains government, appoints leaders, and requires obedience so that we might live peaceable lives.
Why is this? God recognizes that among fallen humans in a fallen world, even a bad government is better than no government. No government leads to chaos and mob rule. When order breaks down, justice is inevitably undermined. As Augustine of Hippo argued, peace flows from order, and both are necessary preconditions to the preservation of liberty and some measure of human dignity and flourishing.
This is why great leaders of the faith throughout history have held government in such high esteem. Some, such as John Calvin, considered the magistrate the highest of vocations.
Of course, while we have a high view of government, it isn't a blank check. Christian doctrines such as sphere sovereignty, subsidiarity (nothing should be done by a larger, complex organization when a smaller organization can accomplish it), the balance of power, and God's transcendent law must hold government in check. So if Washington has lost touch with the people, as Christians we should work fervently to reform these systems. Real reform may even have to come through an independent commission like Securing America's Future Economy (SAFE), for which Congressman Frank Wolf has tirelessly advocated.
The tea party movement may have a lot of traction in America today, but it makes no attempt to present a governing philosophy. It simply seeks an outlet—an understandable one—for the brooding frustrations of many Americans. But anti-government attitudes are not the substitute for good government. We should be instructing people enraged at the excesses of Washington and the growing ethical malaise in the Capitol to focus their rage at fixing government, not throwing the baby out with the bath water.
We Christians are to be the best citizens, praying for our leaders and holding them in high regard, even as we push for the reforms desperately needed to keep representative government flourishing. Only when we funnel frustrations into constructive reformation can we expect a government that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Until we have such a government, we will continue to witness today's civil war as the two factions fight for control. This is why we're seeing such hysterical rhetoric from the Left, which, with the loss of the House in 2010, fears it's losing its power—and power is all that matters. The Right is just as bad. Some leaders now say that the Republicans will try to impose their will on everyone else—an attitude repugnant to democratic governance.
Excerpted from The Sky Is Not Falling by Charles Colson. Copyright © 2011 Charles Colson. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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Posted September 25, 2011
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