Four Dangerous Ideas
I recently had the privilege to lead discussions on two vastly different works. The first was the Federalist Papers, a series of articles written in the 1780s by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay designed to convince the voters of New York to approve the proposed Constitution of the United States. The second work, “A World Split Apart,”is the transcript of a 1978 commencement address given at Harvard University by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was famous for writing about the abuses in Soviet Russia during the Stalinist era, but this address did not critique Eastern failings; it critiqued the failings of the West.
Read together, the two works give an interesting perspective on how our culture has changed over the last two centuries. The meaning and intention of some of the most noble sentiments of the Constitution have been reinterpreted in a way that they have become dangerous to our faith. These ideas are freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, and the pursuit of happiness.
My intention in this series of four posts is not to write about politics. I am not offering political solutions or critiquing political problems. I am discussing social and cultural beliefs, beliefs that have become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that we cannot see them for what they are. This subtle infiltration into our consciousness is what makes them dangerous to our faith.
Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech
In the first amendment to the Constitution, we are guaranteed the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The intention of this amendment was to prevent the government from clamping down on political dissention and criticism. It was assumed that the press, for instance, would act as a watchdog on corrupt or bad behavior on the part of the government. The press was also to be a source of information through which the electorate could make informed decisions. But the goal of maintaining an informed electorate by insuring a free press has not been accomplished. Instead the press reports only on what is fashionable.
This change has occurred largely due to the economic nature of public discourse. The press and the entertainment industry are subject to the economic pressure of financial success. Thus they do not write or show anything that their base subscribers or viewers dislike. If they alienate those subscribers, then the subscribers will stop watching, and revenues will go down. Thus public discourse is subject to fashion. It can inform the electorate only of what the electorate wants to hear. Unfashionable scandals are not scandals at all.
An example of the impact of fashion can be found in the news items selected by NPR. Most of the stories, except those dealing with breaking news, fall into an “oppressor vs. oppressed” narrative: some powerful, bad person or organization is causing harm to some powerless, good person or organization. We like to hear these stories because we feel for the underdog and the oppressed. These stories stir our moral outrage and draw us into action. But the world is not like that. Sure, there are powerful entities in the world that abuse their status and should be exposed. But are there not many more of the powerless and disenfranchised who do horrible things? We all know Walmart is supposed to be evil, but how many stories do you hear about people who shoplift from Walmart? I believe that such a story would not be well received. No one wants to hear about that. A powerful man who is racist is news. But a poor person who cheats on his taxes is not. Why do we care about the racist remark but not the tax evasion? I would suggest it is due to the fashion of the times.
The censorship provided by such a scheme is much more complete and pervasive than any governmental restriction of speech could ever create. It works on our ideas from the bottom up, not on our words from the top down.
Granted, there are voices that can and do offer critiques and alternative views. The impact of these voices on the culture at large, however, is minimal. On the one hand, if the views offered are completely out of fashion, then only a very small sector of the population can or will be willing to listen. Thus the effect will be marginal on society as a whole. On the other hand, some alternative views may be embraced by a large segment of the population, but these represent only a competing fashion. They will only offer debate and dissent on issues over which there is competition, which is of course healthy, but it masks the underlying similarity of opinion on other issues. We feel as if there is free discourse because of the difference of opinion, but we forget that much more is not being discussed because it is not a subject of ideological competition. The left and the right are at each other’s throats, but they both seduce their supporters into accepting ideas on which they agree. How often, for instance, does the press report on the bias of its own economic orientation? How often do you see stories questioning whether higher education is primarily for job preparation? Where are the in-depth stories examining whether high tech helps or hurts society? There is little to no debate on these issues between the left and the right.
The development of a fashion in the media blinds us into thinking that we are bravely taking on the most important issues of our times. But instead, our horizons are narrowed to the most fashionable issues of our times. Our ability as a culture to interact in successful ways is limited to those sorts of solutions fashion allows. More importantly, the fashion of our media envelopes us as individuals to such an extent that it is far more difficult to discern God’s view of good and evil.
An issue related to the freedom of the press is freedom of speech. Here the danger is even greater since the impact is more pervasive. As with freedom of the press, freedom of speech was designed to ensure political freedom. But the types of speech now included under the rubric of free speech has expanded well beyond freedom of political speech on issues of public concern. Freedom of speech has been reinterpreted as a ticket to spew abuse and verbally manipulate any statement without repercussion. Freedom of speech is now freedom from just about any and all restraint in speech.
As a result of our “free for all” speech, modern publications, radio, and video cater to many of our basest human desires in order to continue to titillate and excite the emotions. The strategy is to have the widest possible appeal and to keep the maximum number of readers and watchers engaged. All sorts of damaging ideas and images are thus thrust mercilessly on us, especially on our youth who are least able to resist. But if anyone tries to restrict this onslaught, “freedom of speech” is invoked to silence the naysayers.
Not only does free speech degrade our moral sensibilities, it also promotes a base form of legalism. The media, in recognizing the economic advantage of engaging our passions, constantly pushes the limits of the law in that direction. It has substituted internal restraints of goodness with external restraints of legality. Our culture now believes that it is morally acceptable to engage in character assassination, spreading of rumor, distortion of meaning, damaging innuendo, sexual exploitation, and misrepresentation—so long as it does not exceed the legal limits of such behavior. And if those people damaged by such behavior push back, the media reverts to the sacred dictum of the freedom of the press.
The danger here comes from the way the culture has demeaned kindness and decency. In the name of political freedom, we have allowed ourselves to believe that evil is OK. We have normalized unkindness in our speech. To the extent that we adopt these perspectives, we have debased ourselves and lost our way.
Separation of Church and State
The separation of church and state is also established in the first amendment to the Constitution. It grew out of the colonists’ experience with state-run churches. In Europe, the political rulers had authority over the church. Only one church organization was allowed, and people who dissented were subject to legal persecution. Thus the Constitution included the separation-of-church-and-state clause to avoid this sort of heavy handed political repression of religious freedom.
Since that time, however, the separation of church and state has been reinterpreted as a separation of religion and state. This has since devolved into a prohibition against any acknowledgement of the spiritual in any governmental entity. Clearly this was not the intention of the original founders. If that were the case, then there would be no mention of God in the founding documents. Appeals to God were, in fact, common in the founding of this country.
This change is primarily a response to the growth of a politically powerful atheistic segment in society. The growth of this segment is the result of the slow but steady increase in materialistic and naturalistic philosophy in the West—basically a denial of spiritual realities.
Many of the touch points where this battle is being fought are, for the most part, not particularly significant: for example, debates on who can pray in school and when; debates on what sorts of documents can be publicly displayed; and so on. How these particular issues play out do not seem to be too significant for our cultural life, but the general trend and the drive behind the battles are very damaging.
Effectively, separation of church and state has restricted the kinds of issues that can be raised in public discourse. Only issues that deal with worldly material needs are allowed. We constantly harangue over taxes and budgets. We debate about fair labor laws and immigration. National security is contrasted with civil liberties. All of these aspects of our public life deal with our mundane interests and needs. Missing is any discussion of the fact that man is not just a material being. Instead, that man is purely material is assumed without debate in the public sphere. The assumption tacitly implies that the things of importance are material: the types of problems that we have are purely material; solutions to problems are to be accomplished through purely material means. The idea that our deepest and most profound problems are spiritual is not even on the table.
I am not suggesting that material needs are not in the purview of public life. Nor am I advocating a “Christian political agenda” as a solution to our problems. Instead, I am pointing out how the trends in our culture have devalued and marginalized many of the most important aspects of public discourse. This is perhaps dangerous to our society. But more importantly, to our great loss, it encourages us to devalue the significance of our spiritual nature.
One of the main ways that this reinterpretation of church and state has affected our culture is in education. Our goal in education is to pass on the ideas, values, and skills that will help our children live the best lives they can. Spiritual questions—such as right and wrong, what it means to be a human, and whether there is a supreme being—are central to this task. But in the current system, to raise these questions is, in fact, illegal! This sort of restriction on education surely never darkened the worst nightmares of the writers of the Constitution.
Another important consequence of this reinterpretation of church and state has to do with how society approaches social services. Federal and state social services can only consider the material well being of those in need. All analyses and researches into our social problems are purposely blind to our most important problems, spiritual problems. Such an approach is bound to lessen the success of these services. The need for the spiritual in social services can be seen in Alcoholics Anonymous. My understanding is that AA promotes the idea of a higher being in its treatment. If AA were restricted from encouraging the attendees to consider a higher power, the program would be significantly less effective, both socially and individually.
Man is a spiritual being, and everyone recognizes this whether or not they admit to it. All feel the need for purpose. All feel the need for connection and love. All feel the call to the transcendent. The idea that we should eliminate this aspect of our lives from the public sphere is self-defeating at best and malicious at worst.
Rule of Law
The United States was founded on a writtenConstitution. The fact that this document was designed to be the highest law of the land was extremely significant. It put into place the rules by which the country was to be governed, and it restricted the means by which those with power could abuse that power. What the people were responding to was the nature of law in Europe. In most European countries, the decree of the monarch was the law. Granted, the monarchs were severely limited by traditions, representative bodies, and social structures; but in principle, no law could hold the King responsible for his actions.
In the United States, it was important to have the laws clearly spelled out and inviolable. No one was above the law. Everyone was subject to it. The system of checks and balances was included specifically to prescribe the laws for the people at the top.
But every set of laws, no matter how well written, is incomplete. It cannot take into consideration every method by which people can take advantage of others. For every new law enacted to clamp down on damaging or deceitful activity, other new ways can be invented. The laws of the United States relied heavily on the character of the people. The laws specified the minimum standards of behavior, not the expectations of how people will behave outside of the law.
Over the last two centuries, the internal constraints on bad behavior have eroded. Social pressure and expectations had been the primary means to maintain decency. But we have slowly freed ourselves from those norms, and in their stead has come an increasingly bloated set of laws. What has developed is a kind of Phariseeism. We have come to think more and more that whatever is legal is right. The rule of law then becomes a game. Instead of a fixture designed to prevent the injustice of the crown or the aristocracy, the rule of law has become a game in which winners and losers are chosen not according to justice but according to cleverness and availability of resources. Clearly, there have always been those who will manipulate and steer the law to their will. But the prevalence of that attitude has increased.
This trend can easily be seen in the business world. As an example, there was a practice in Wall Street in which traders had figured out how to intercept “buy and sell” orders milliseconds prior to an exchange. Because of their physical proximity and the superior speed of their internet connection, traders could place an order microseconds prior to the intercepted transaction. By this means, they were able to legally skim profits off all transactions they intercepted. This was clearly a fraudulent activity. However, since the practice was new and undetected, it was not yet illegal and thus considered fair game.
Another obvious example of legalism is in the press, as I mentioned in a part one of this series. The press has a great deal of freedom to publish as it desires. Because of the nature of the laws, outrageous injustices can and are perpetrated by the press, all within a strictly legal framework. Individuals lacking internal constraints feel justified in their actions, especially if it brings greater income or prestige.
The legal system itself is a perfect example of the legalism that has developed. I am not directly involved with the law system, so my observations are perhaps not the most accurate. However, it sure seems as if justice takes second place to technical considerations. For instance, if a suspect confesses without the Miranda rights being first administered, the suspect can be acquitted of the charge.
The cumulative effect of legalism is to discourage internal moral constraint. To the extent that the law is seen as the criterion for right and wrong, immoral but legal behavior becomes normalized, accepted. This sort of cultural attitude is toxic to our souls. We need to encourage each other to take morality seriously. We need to have standards other than just the law. The rule of law is good, so long as it does not replace a morality based on a transcendent reality.
Pursuit of Happiness
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson writes that we are endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Of these three, the last one may seem out of place as being rather less high minded. We might see life and liberty as unalienable, but the pursuit of happiness seems a little self absorbed. However, the word happiness when Jefferson used it did not have the same connotations that it has today.
The idea of happiness has had a long history. Aristotle, for instance, thought of happiness as the fulfillment of a human being’s goal in life. He distinguished man from all other creatures in the world by man’s rationality and social life. Since these qualities make man unique, then his goal or purpose must be wrapped up in these qualities. Aristotle equated happiness with outstanding moral and intellectual activity in the affairs of the city state. Thomas Aquinas took a similar view, except that for him the goal of human life differed. Aquinas saw the ultimate goal of existence in eternal life. Life on earth, then, could never bring complete happiness (i.e., completion of one’s goal as a human), only partial.
These ideas framed the concepts of John Locke. He wrote,
The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action… (Essay Concerning Human Understanding)
Here Locke seems to relate happiness with the “highest perfection of the intellectual nature” and “our greatest good.” This idea is clearly reminiscent of Aristotle and Aquinas. What Locke does not mean is that the pursuit of happiness is the license to please our worldly desires.
Jefferson, who immortalized the words “pursuit of happiness,” was drawing directly from Locke. In this context, then, it is obvious that the pursuit of happiness belongs with life and liberty in significance.
Today the pursuit of happiness has been reinterpreted to mean the right to go after worldly benefits. We have demeaned the original intent so much that it has become diabolical. The idea that God has somehow granted us the inalienable right to obtain worldly goods is about as antithetical to the biblical picture as you can get. One cannot serve both God and mammon. And yet if a person, organization, or government places restrictions on our ability to pursue our base desires, we feel our rights have been trampled on. How dare anyone prevent us from polluting our minds with pornography!
This demeaned view of happiness is fraught with danger. We live in a culture that has imbibed this view; it is all around us, and it is difficult not to conform to it. This view of happiness is particularly heinous in that it invites us to see that which is evil as noble. We are taught that rights are good and that infringements of rights are bad. Then we are taught that we have the right to follow our base desires. It is not stated in such stark terms because we would reject it. But it is subtly implied in all that we do and hear and see.
An example of this is the battle over sex and nudity in broadcast television. The perception is that the TV censors are infringing on our rights to watch what we want. The freedom to take mind-altering drugs is also becoming a right; it makes us happy. We have a right to health care because health is a part of our pursuit of happiness. The list could go on and on.
The pursuit of happiness as it was originally conceived is noble. We should strive to become the best human beings that we can. What makes us human is bound up with our moral and intellectual gifts. To debase this excellent sentiment by making it a pursuit of money, fame, and physical gratification is a tragedy—and dangerous to our souls.
Culture is a powerful force. I think we all recognize that at some level. But knowing we are affected and recognizing how we are affected are very different things. I think the juxtaposition of cultures side by side can sometimes help to open our eyes. It is instructive to have an insightful outsider like Solzhenitsyn look into our failings as a society. It is instructive to compare the thinking of the writers of the Federalist Papers with current thought. Even so, we can never escape the danger of an intensely seductive culture. We live in it; we breath it. We conform to this world despite the warnings of Paul. And it is at this exact spot where the danger lies. We are frogs in a pot of water in need of a thermometer. Ultimately, it is the juxtaposition of our culture with God’s values expressed in the Bible that provides the thermometer. But unlike frogs, we cannot jump out of the pot. We must find a path in the midst of the hot water. We must pray, as Jesus did, that God will sanctify us in the truth of His word (John 17:17)
Copyright June 2014 by Gutenberg College, Inc.