Friday, February 23, 2007

Shifting American Values

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Fifteen years ago, the subject of "values" was on everyone's lips, reaching its crescendo during the political campaigns of the time. While the hubbub surrounding those national debates has died down, the importance of the subject to American life has become more critical as society has continued to coarsen and deteriorate in the intervening years. At the time, topics like homosexual unions, partial-birth abortions, ubiquitous Islamic terrorism, global warming, and illegal immigration were barely blips on the radar, while front-and-center were single-motherhood, AIDS, a desultory economy, whether Bill Clinton had inhaled, and George H.W. Bush's "read my lips: no new taxes" promise. To put it another way, in 1992, Americans were glued to the tube to watch
Roseanne and Murphy Brown, and in 2007, they watch Desperate Housewives and Two and a Half Men with equal fascination. Plainly, our values have not improved.

While most pundits generalize the divide over values as a societal conflict between the Left and the Right—or Liberals versus Conservatives—this is ultimately an oversimplification. Missing from this analysis is a huge group of Moderates or Centrists that bounce from one side to the other depending on the issue. Beyond this, some groups—like apolitical churches—do not fit on this political-cultural spectrum at all, although they are frequently stuck on the extreme right wing by default. These last groups are unfortunately too insignificant (numerically) and too politically impotent (by choice) to make much of a difference to the pundits.

However, the Liberal-Conservative spectrum is instructive as a starting point in analyzing the foundational values of Americans. These labels divide the nation into progressives and traditionalists—or, in other words, those who promote experimentation and change and those who want to maintain the status quo, respectively. In more philosophic terms, left of center are those who are either passionately or unconcernedly eager to enter the brave new world of relativist humanism, while right of center are those who distrust and resist it with varying degrees of rigor.

What most analysts miss is that the entire spectrum has steadily shifted leftward since at least the early decades of the twentieth century. It has been observed, for instance, that Conservative Republican Ronald Reagan's tax cuts were similar to Liberal Democrat John F. Kennedy's twenty years before. Another example is Richard Nixon's impeachment and subsequent resignation as opposed to Bill Clinton's impeachment and subsequent non-resignation. A third illustration is the press corps' hush-hush attitude toward Kennedy's questionable affairs versus the media's indulgence toward Clinton's peccadilloes. In other words, what is considered to be radical at one time becomes mainstream a generation later. While these examples focus on presidential matters, a similar movement is easily seen in dress, speech, music, visual arts, and even religious belief. If unchecked, values tend to slide downhill.

This shift indicates a major weakness in America's values: They are no longer anchored to immovable principle. Beyond the fact that they are no longer fixed in Scripture, American cultural and political standards have only a tenuous hold on the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution! In order to legitimatize progressive rights—read, "demands"—activist judges must either stretch a Constitutional principle to the breaking point, or appeal to non-American sources, such as United Nations treaties or European Union law, to justify their existence in American jurisprudence. This is why liberal politicians advocate considering the Constitution as a "living"—read, "malleable"—document, while conservatives generally support its "original intent," meaning that its principles are "fixed." To this point—and the odds of returning to Constitutional principles are eroding daily—the progressives are sweeping to victory.

It is America's untethering from Christian and Constitutional values that keeps members of God’s church from appearing anywhere on the Liberal-Conservative spectrum. When the nation upheld a modicum of godly or biblical principles, true Christians could perhaps identify with a fair number of their fellow citizens who were also God-fearing. But now, beyond the chasm that separates us doctrinally from mainstream Christianity, we even find few fellow-travelers who desire a free, sovereign, republican America! In short, whether the issue is religious or patriotic, our views do not even register on the chart.

This is reminiscent of John 15:19: "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." We cannot expect to have much of anything in common with this world, even with our fellow citizens—those we play with, go to school with, or work with. Their values are not our values. Their hopes are not our hopes. Their goals are not our goals. We are called to be different, set apart, sanctified by God.

Later, in His prayer before He was arrested, Jesus asks the Father:

I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. . . . Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to you. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. . . . I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. . . . Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. (John 17:9, 11, 14-15, 17)

We are both set apart and kept, or guarded, by God's Word, the truth. It is the certain and authoritative bedrock of our values. As long as we hold on to it firmly, the truth will make us very different from those around us, but it will also guide us and preserve us toward God's Kingdom, where our true citizenship resides. In these days of societal degeneration, of values lurching toward Gomorrah, our foundation stands strong, and we will too, if we keep it firmly under us.

Friday, February 9, 2007

What Makes a Civilization Great?

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A recent trip to South Africa allowed me to compare conditions in that nation with what I remember from my two previous visits, as well as what I have read and heard about it before the African National Congress, backed by international pressure, installed itself over the government. Particularly striking were a few news items and interviews brought to my attention on the present state of education there. A once-good educational system has broken down, probably past the point of no return.

Without becoming too detailed, here is a partial list of deficiencies:
  • Schools are routinely vandalized of everything useful over vacation breaks.
  • Teachers are scarce and terribly underpaid. Classrooms often contain scores of children under the supervision of one teacher.
  • Even public schools are too expensive for many families. When they do finally scrape up enough money to enroll their children, weeks or months of the school year have already passed, putting the children impossibly behind.
  • The government cannot get textbooks to the schools. In many cases, whole classes must share one book.
  • In a recent national interview, the current minister of education wore a T-shirt that read, more or less, "I do only what the little voice inside my head tells me to do."

These are hardly encouraging signs of progress. To the contrary, what is occurring in South Africa, once the continent's shining beacon of prosperity, goes beyond the educational system. It is full-fledged societal disintegration. Its murder-rate is among the highest in the world, its economy is struggling, its best and brightest are fleeing to more promising climes. It is saddening to witness the double-quick dismantling of a once-great nation.

The present circumstances in South Africa reflect typically human and carnal reactions. After decades of white-rule, South African blacks are relishing their new powers and taking out their pent-up frustrations on whites. To be frank, what is being practiced is reverse discrimination under the guise of government-sanctioned equality programs. Racial quotas are strenuously enforced, rejecting highly qualified candidates in favor of those with the "correct" skin color. In many respects, the game remains the same, but the players have just switched sides.

Yet, it is really not the same. In terms of governance, the values of the opposing sides in this clash of peoples are radically divergent, mirroring the differences between Israelite and Gentile cultures. Jesus comments on this to His disciples in Matthew 20:25: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them." The Living Bible catches the essence of Jesus' intent by rendering this, "Among the heathen, kings are tyrants and each minor official lords it over those beneath him." This is the direction South Africa seems to be heading, toward tyranny.

The essential difference that Jesus points out is that, generally, Gentile rulers exercise power to dominate those under them and to bring themselves even greater power. This is rule by a strongman, easily seen in Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Mao, Stalin, and the like. On the other hand, cultures heavily influenced by biblical principles, as the Israelite cultures have been, tend to follow more rule-of-law, power-sharing governmental schemes, such as democracy, republicanism, constitutional monarchy, and the like. These nations prioritize principles and law over the aims and ideas of the head of government.

The latter method has shown itself superior in most cases because it curtails the excesses of the power-hungry while unleashing the creative, economic, scientific, and intellectual power of the governed. For instance, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, ruled by strongmen like Khrushchev and Brezhnev, could not keep pace with the innovative genius of the West's scientists and engineers, having to resort to military and corporate espionage to keep their arms within sight of NATO's weapons systems. This same principle is at work in the economic war between China and the United States. While the U.S. economy has its inherent weaknesses, the Chinese economy, though seeming to expand by double digits each year, is doomed to fail before long due to its unhealthy manipulation by a few powerful figures in the Chinese government. By comparison, the U.S. economy is, in principle, more robust and resilient because it relies on the combined strength and acumen of millions of businessmen, investors, and consumers. It falters only when the government tinkers too heavily with it.

Notice how Jesus continues His instruction concerning government: "Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:26-28). From this come a few principles of government that Jesus instilled within the church and which He will follow when He sets up His government on earth. The two that are most easily seen are 1) a leader must be a public servant, and 2) his primary motivation must be to sacrifice himself for the good of all.

So what makes a great civilization? A culture or a nation that employs the strongman principle of government may have a colorful history, but it will never amount to a truly great civilization. That title is reserved for those peoples who practice the principles of government set down in God's Word. However imperfectly performed, those societies that have enshrined biblical principles in their constitutions have enjoyed peace, progress, prosperity, prestige, and power far beyond the crude dictatorships of strongmen. As Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 show, God backs up His eternal laws with both blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, and they are still in effect. The more a society incorporates His laws of good governance into its government, the greater and more lasting its civilization will be.

Solomon wrote three thousand years ago in Proverbs 29:2, "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan." How true it is.