We and our journalists, when faced with a crisis, have a tendency to focus on its immediate causes, and then tinker with them while attempting to affix blame in the partisan debate. Thus, in what may become known as the Financial Crisis of 2008, we focus on better regulation and troublesome government intrusion into the market while mustering arguments for the culpability of either the Bush years or the ideological and self-serving liberal Democratic Congress. Of course, there is helpful truth to be found in those investigations. But there are more important truths, and ultimately more helpful ones, to be found in pulling back to look at the bigger human picture and see the deeper problems embedded in our souls, or if you will, the contemporary American character.
Daniel Henninger takes this broader approach in his little newspaper essay, "Mad Max and the Meltdown" (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, 2008). He states his thesis metaphorically, saying, "A nation whose people can't say "Merry Christmas" is a nation capable of ruining its own economy."
Skipping his step by step summary of how this crisis unfolded, we come to his conclusion. The problem has been fundamentally not one of inadequate regulation, though there certainly was that. The problem was one of inadequate moral restraint on the part of many of the people involved, from the greatest to the least of them. This widespread moral wandering was made possible by a larger society that is aggressively discouraging religion among its citizens.
What really went missing through the subprime mortgage years were the three Rs: responsibility, restraint and remorse. They are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets: risk and reward. Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down. And so we come back to the disappearance of "Merry Christmas." It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. ... Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.
John Adams tells us, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." He said this not because he lived in a religious society and was so immersed in that point of view that he could not imagine the liberating possibilities of atheistic secularism. Late eighteenth century moral, political, and religious thought gave him a vivid awareness of the alternative. His claim on this point is based instead on his understanding of liberty and the human soul. Our constitution oversees a system of political and economic liberty. That system is not self-sufficient. It cannot govern what Immanuel Kant called "a nation of devils." Such a people, unable to govern themselves from within, would need a very powerful, active, and omnipresent state to restrain them.
C.S. Lewis saw this problem in his day. In The Abolition of Man, he argues that the Enlightenment project to refound all knowledge on an amoral, or "value-neutral," scientific basis, together with its philosophic collapse into nihilism or what we are calling post-modernism, have landed us in an inhuman and unsustainable situation by debunking the very means by which we make moral judgments or even recognize their possibility. "In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and we expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful" (Harper edition, p.26).
People want to be free of religion, especially Christianity, but they want to retain the morality that derives from and requires that religion for it to make any sense and to give it force in the human heart.
We see this vain hope expressed in a recent atheist ad campaign in London that has migrated to Washington DC in time for the Christmas season. It asks, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." It is yet another effort not only to take Christ out of Christmas, but also to remove Christ from Christian character.
Mere exhortations of this sort are notoriously ineffective, however, because people, left to themselves, are incorrigibily self-centered. They must be governed from above by the looming consequences of violating the divinely established moral order. It was the irreligious Thomas Jefferson who confessed, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever."
Even better, however, is when people are governed from within by a heart transforming spiritual grace that restrains selfishness and inclines the heart in charity toward not only one's family and neighbors, but also to strangers--both seen and unseen--and, yes, even to one's enemies. If we sow the wind, we can expect to reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).