I never thought I’d see the day that I’d agree with conservative columnist Cal Thomas. But it came to pass last month in the wake of the presidential election.
Thomas’ syndicated columns, which regularly appear in the Sun Journal and over 500 other newspapers, usually consist of re-iterations of the same old sermon -- that the country is headed towards perdition, having forsaken core American values like God, personal responsibility and traditional family for the lure of secularism, over-dependence on government and immorality. His prescription for these ills is invariably a heavy dose of the “moral majority” agenda.
I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when, Thomas, in a Nov. 11 column, groused that “President Obama's re-election mirrors the self-indulgent, greedy and envious nation we are rapidly becoming.”
In a later column on Nov. 14, however, while bemoaning Obama’s re-election and the failure of evangelical Christians to politically advance a kingdom “not of this world,” Thomas seemed to experience an epiphany.
Though he advocated that evangelicals refrain from compromising their political platform in order to gain an electoral majority, he also suggested that they shift their emphasis towards making government less important by putting their values into practice in everyday life.
He wrote, “Each church and religious institution, each individual, can find one poor family and ask if they want out of their circumstances and are willing to work for it, if a path is offered. One example: If a parent wants a child out of a failing public school, offer them financial help in placing the child in a good private school.”
And he offered another provocative suggestion. Instead of continuing the fight to legislatively ban gay marriages, Christian conservatives “might want to focus on strengthening their own marriages.”
It’s hard to argue with those propositions.
The “moral majority” has alienated increasing numbers of voters in the past decades by employing political power to impose its narrow religious beliefs on an American populace that has become ever more diverse ethnically, spiritually and socially. To make matters worse, some of its most visible representatives have hypocritically engaged in the kind of fallible human acts, such as fraud, corruption and adultery, they have condemned in others.
If evangelicals believe that abortion is evil, gay marriage a sin and government benefits a disabling crutch, they can practice what they preach and are certainly free to teach their children to avoid sex out of wedlock, marry spouses of the opposite gender and refuse all government handouts. (Then they’ll just have to cross their fingers and hope those lessons survive their kids’ rebellious adolescence, peer pressure, search for identity, DNA and biological urges).
And if evangelicals really want to put their faith to work, they should reach deep into their pockets to help the needy, because, Lord knows, there’s going to be less government money available for that after we dive head first off “the fiscal cliff.”
At a more profound level, Thomas has hit upon several historical truths in his column.
First, society can exist without a strong centralized state. That certainly happened during the European Middle Ages, and it’s happening today (in fact, if not in name) in intensely tribal countries like Afghanistan.
In such societies, the basic functions of the state – providing security from external threat, maintaining law and order, and resolving inter-personal disputes – have been carried out through interlocking, hierarchical social relationships between patron and client, feudal lord and vassal, manorial landlord and serf, chief and clan member, etc.
The problem, however, with replacing central government with a nexus of private power relationships (as occurred, for instance, after the disintegration of the Classical Roman Empire) is that the latter can’t support a complex and rapidly changing society.
In a sense, big government and high taxes are the price we pay for living in a technologically advanced, economically productive, socially fluid and highly mobile country.
We’ve come to expect high-tech transportation and communications networks that allow us to go anywhere and speak with anyone, ready access to food and consumer goods from four corners of the earth, health care that brings the dying back to life, electrical energy that is instantly available from a wall socket. All of this and more requires expensive public infrastructure, coordination, regulation and, to some extent, subsidies.
Still, we can enjoy the benefits of modern society, while at the same time, reducing the footprint of government on our personal lives, by supporting nonprofit organizations that assist those in need, operate private schools, run youth recreational programs and so on.
Contrary to libertarian fantasy, we can’t shrink government budgets to the point where public services shrivel to nothing -- not unless we’re prepared to accept a far more primitive, static and geographically constrained existence. But we can trim them at the margins by generously donating our time and money to voluntary associations that reduce the need for governmental assistance.
Second, using government power is far from the best way to improve morality. Short of employing brute force, big government can never exert the kind of constraints over individual standards of behavior that small tribal, clan or village societies achieve through social pressures.
In a sophisticated society like ours, the most effective way to improve morality is for each person to both model good behavior and to offer a helping hand to others. Christian theologians have called this concept salvation through “good works.” Jewish rabbis have named it “tikkun olam” (repairing the world). Regardless of the label, it represents the highest expression of humanity.
I don’t see the past as being nearly as golden or the future nearly as bleak as Cal Thomas imagines. However, I do agree that all of us hold the power in our own hands to improve the present.