When God turned right

Sam Smith, 1998 – Sometime between the 1960s and the 1980s God became a conservative. This is not tosay that God wanted to become a conservative, only that the great perception processor in the sky that has assumed so many of the Lord’s functions in recent years declared it so. If one wants proof that God is not inclined towards vengeance, the lack of divine retribution for this heavenly hijacking by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, et al (with an         media as unindicted co-conspirators) is evidence enough. It is even suggestive of possible wimpish tendencies upon high. A bolt or two of lightning during a C-Spanned news conference would have been much more reassuring.

When I was growing up, heaven was clearly on the side of the Democrats. We knew that Republicans went to church but they were sanctimonious prigs who on the other six days of the week were given to robbing the poor and taking candy from babies. The idea that God might actual be one of them was beyond comprehension. Now all that has changed. Not only is God a conservative but the meanest son of a bitch in town, slapping down welfare mothers with one hand and pot smokers with the other, while simultaneously closing factories, censoring the Internet, drug testing anything that burps, and making sure rapees pay for their carelessness by giving birth to its evidence.

This transformation of morality into an entitlement for the powerful and a punishment for the weak is, of course, a parody of piety. In truth, today’s ubiquitous self-righteousness only barely conceals a moral degeneration of our culture more indicative of terminal illness than of an awakening. Morality has, for the most part, become just one more cynical gimmick with which to sell salvation, promote videotapes or save a politician’s butt.


 We have come to worship this tawdry new God not by a single path. Rather a confluence of trends and happenstance has brought us to the Shrine of the Two Commandants, which are: (1) They are Wrong and (2) We Are Right.

A few things helped us along the way such as:

[] The liberals got scared. As the right co-opted religion and values, the liberals and the left complained about excesses but failed to offer a moral alternative or even to defend their own morality. Instead, liberal rhetoric directed at the right often seemed to mock faith and values and not just their abuse.

[] The more compassionate religions lost their voice or became otherwise engaged. By leaving the struggle to liberal politicians and advocacy organizations, mainstream religions helped to empty political issues of their moral component. Where, for example, were Presbyterian ministers on cable television with 800 numbers splayed across their chests? Where were the preachers and rabbis calling in to talk shows? Where were the voices of other religious viewpoint ts on the op-ed pages? Why did a country &western singer rather than a minister have to raise the fundamental question concerning the Christian right — namely if Jesus came back tomorrow would he be wearing a $10,000 Rolex on his arm? It was not because the less aggressive faiths lacked the power to be heard. For example, an analysis of Who’s Who found that Episcopalians are seven times as likely to be in prominent positions than is the general population, Jews six times, Presbyterians and United Christ of Church members three times. Too seldom, however, was moral authority among the honors the listees had achieved.

[] The media didn’t understand what was going on. Read the American media and you might assume that there are only two religions of note: fundamentalist Christianity and Judaism. Other Protestants are treated as minor sects and the only Catholic who counts lives in Rome. In fact, there are more than one and a half times as many Catholics America as there are Baptists. There are more Methodists than there are Pentecostals and 80% as many Lutherans. Muslims, who are rarely even mentioned, are  likely to be as numerous as Jews in a few years. The media’s image of religion, in short, has been badly skewed.

[] Post-modernist theory discredited moral concerns. College students were taught to destroy and deconstruct old myths and truths but not how to put anything in their place. Multiculturalism was celebrated as though it could thrive without some form of synthesis, mediation and common ground. Substance was overwhelmed by image, philosophy by perception, yesterday and tomorrow by now.

[] More and more graduate students were trained to serve a technocracy. The past few decades have brought a rapid growth of a technocratic elite obsessed with “objective” and short-term results. At America’s law and business schools, issues of conscience are rarely on the exam. The core question — what is right? ~ has been replaced by the question of what is legal, what is cost-effective, what “works.

[] Former turf of the unspecialized humanist, such as journalism and politics, also became more technocratic. Among other things this has produced politicians who advocated like corporate executives and defended themselves like corporate lawyers. Journalists have learned to speak the same language often reducing issues of propriety and fairness to mere procedural concerns or demanding a “smoking gun” where once a pair of unglazed eyes would have sufficed. Even many public interest activists have accepted the notion that change properly occurs through legalistic and bureaucratic mechanisms. The voice of the prophet is not only discounted, it is considered inappropriate.

As income disparities increased the mandarin class, the gap grew between it and the rest of America.  The media, as the translator for this class, attempted to get America to accept its values— pouting, for example, over outbreaks of the populist spirit, the lack of a “civil society,” and the ubiquity of “conspiracy theories.” Community was replaced by self. Instead of morality being a mutual concern aggregated in questions such as what is in the public or neighborhood’s interest, morality became increasingly a personal matter. The explosion of the self-help genre exemplified the loneliness and isolation of the contemporary moral wanderer.

[] Those attempting to raise moral concerns found themselves ignored and ridiculed. In the media, the sound of the moral has been reduced to perfunctory cliches such as “a small group of protestors stood with signs as. . . ” The idea that one would actually want to witness a belief in justice, honesty, or decency became regarded as sweetly naive at best, at worst a sign of madness. The media’s message became: “everybody does it.” In a country where everybody aspires to be everybody it was a powerful message.

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The foregoing list is not as varied as it may seem at first glance. A common thread runs through all the items: the acts and acquiescence of those to whom society has traditionally looked for moral guidance: teachers, ministers, writers, intellectuals, activists. In short, it is an accounting of the failing of those at the last ramparts of hope and faith, on the last battlement of the human spirit.T he problem, to be sure, is not new. In Chaucer’s time these people were called “clerks,” which is to say someone other than a layman. When we speak of a cleric, for example, we are harkening back to when such, a, person, would, be known as a “clerk in holy orders.” Today we lump these folk together as intellectuals or members of the elite.

In the late 1920s, the French essayist Julien Benda wrote a book called La Trahison des Clercs, which has been fairly translated as The Treason of the Intellectuals. Benda tells of Tolstoi seeing one of his brother Army officers strike a man who had fallen out of rank during a march. Tolstoi demanded: “Are you not ashamed to treat a fellow human being in this way? Have you not read the Gospels?” The officer replied: “And have you not read Army Orders?” Benda’s target was “most of the influential moralists of the past fifty years in Europe” who called” upon mankind to sneer at the Gospel and to read Army Orders.”

In other words, to replace morality with law and bureaucracy. At the end of the nineteenth century a fundamental change occurred: the clerks began to play the game of political passions. The men who had acted as a check on the realism of the people began to act as its stimulators. Benda had them in his sights: At the very top of the scale of moral values they place the possession of concrete advantages, of material power and the means by which they are procured; and they hold up to scorn the pursuit of truly spiritual advantages, of non-practical or uninteresting values.