Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Grace and the Life of Robert Byrd

Robert Carlyle Byrd (20 November 1917-28 June 2010) died in the wee hours of Monday morning at the age of 92.  The longest serving member of the U.S. Senate in history, he was first elected to the House of Representatives from West Virginia in 1952 and served six (6) years (3 terms) before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958. His time in Congress overlapped that of ELEVEN (11) U.S. Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama) and he served as both Minority and Majority leader of the Senate (twice each).  He began as a conservative Dixiecrat (having belonged to the Ku Klux Klan as a young man in West Virginia), but he evolved–and repented of his racist past. (In Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, he describes first meeting Byrd in his office after being elected to the Senate and Byrd’s teary-eyed confession of his past.)  Once considered one of the most conservative of Democrats in Congress, by the time of his death, he was one of the liberal champions of the people–having opposed the invasion of Iraq on the Senate floor, stopped Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security by never letting it out of committee, voted for universal healthcare, for a ban on mountaintop removal (despite King Coal’s dominance in West Virginia), and for a climate change bill that included a carbon tax. His death may endanger the Wall Street reform bill in the way that Senator Kennedy’s death endangered the passage of health care reform.

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Marc Antony say that “the evil that men [sic] do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” But I hope Shakespeare’s Antony was wrong–at least, that this need not always be the pattern.  We are all flawed persons who do both good and evil.  I would hope that Robert Byrd’s evil actions (and he had them, not only as a young Klansman, but in attempting to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964) are buried with him and his many good things live after him. I know that the many bridges, roads, schools, and hospitals that he helped to build throughout West Virginia (one of the poorest states in the U.S.)

The life of Robert Byrd reminds me that repentance can be real. People can really change over time. He’s hardly the only one: I think of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, but in Byrd’s case it didn’t take an attempted assassination or being confined forever to a wheelchair to lead him to repentance.  People are complex, none of us are plastic saints, but some of us manage to change and grow.  In Christianity, we call this grace.


June 29, 2010 Posted by | biographies | 1 Comment

The 10 Most Irritating Conservative Celebrities (a Reply to Human Events)

Look, I believe in Free Speech. I believe people are entitled to express their opinions (which is why I have a blog).  I don’t put much stock in the political opinions of celebrities nor do I understand why others do.  I go to see actors in films or comics on stage because I think they’re good, not because I agree with what they believe in private life.  I like Bruce Willis and his films–though I can’t stand his politics.  I was a huge fan of the old TV Western Gunsmoke, despite James Arness’ strong Republican views. So, what? Further, I’m not a real fan of Sean Penn, even though I agree with most of his politics. 

But the conservative journal, Human Events, apparently wants to intimidate celebrities who express views with which they disagree. They have just come up with a list of The 8 Most Irritating Liberal Celebrities which not only names these dreaded liberals, but proceeds to smear them with slanted descriptions.  The 8 celebrities they single out are:

  1. Robert Redford (especially for his environmental activism)
  2. Matt Damon
  3. Al Gore (The former VP is a celebrity? Seriously? Not a Nobel Peace winning activist, author, filmmaker, businessman, former senator and VP who actually won the 2000 presidential election, but a celebrity?)
  4. Janene Garofolo (Hey, I wish she hadn’t gone overboard on tattoos, but she’s very talented.)
  5. Joy Behar
  6. Michael Moore
  7. Rosie O’Donnell
  8. Roger Ebert (They want to pick on a guy in a wheelchair?)


So, because this sleazy hit job ticked me off, I wanted to respond. I won’t include descriptions or slander of conservative celebrities because I don’t want to respond in kind. But I will list TEN (10) conservative celebrities that irritate the crap out of me–mostly because people pay them far more attention than they should on subjects on which they have zero expertise.

  1. Ted Nugent.  I could care less that the aging rocker loves guns and the NRA, but standing on stage in ’08 brandishing a machine gun and making obscene threats at then-candidate Barack Obama is just unacceptable.
  2. Victoria Jackson. I loved her on Saturday Night Live, but I seriously think she needs therapy, now.
  3. Stephen Baldwin. I’m mostly irritated that he failed to keep his promise to leave the country if Obama won the election.
  4. Mel Gibson. I can’t stand anti-Semites, but anti-Semites who talk constantly about their Christian faith really annoy me. I can’t even watch Gibson in his great early film, The Year of Living Dangerously anymore.
  5. Dennis Miller.  ‘Nuff said.
  6. Chuck Norris.  I like many of Chuck’s films and the early seasons of Walker, Texas Ranger, but why people care which losing political candidate he’ll back next is beyond me. And Chuck, LOTS of people had family members who died in Vietnam. It doesn’t make them or you an expert on foreign policy or military matters. You’ve PLAYED a soldier; that’s ALL!
  7. Laura Schlessinger. Her Ph.D. is in PHYSIOLOGY, but she pretends to be qualified to give psychological advice, marriage and family counseling, and political analysis.  She’s on her second marriage and lectures people about keeping their marriages together!! And people LISTEN!
  8. Rush Limbaugh.  If I start, I’ll never stop. I think he’s killing America.
  9. Glenn Beck. Again, I can’t start or I’ll be screaming forever. But I HATE that he’s trashing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy by holding a Tea Party event on the anniversary of the March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech.
  10. Sarah Palin the “Quitter from Wasilla” who can’t even finish a full term as governor.

These people really bug me. God must use them to teach me patience and love of enemy and other virtues.

June 29, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Some Basic Introductions to Christianity (Updated)

When I was an agnostic teenager in the 1970s trying to decide what this “Christianity” stuff was all about (the “I Found It” campaign and other evangelistic efforts were creating a mini-revival after the secularism of the late ’60s and the cynicism of the Watergate years), I was greatly helped by C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (Harper & Row, 1963; from radio talks given in 1943) and D. Elton Trueblood’s The Company of the Committed (Harper & Row, 1979).  My mature theology is not much like either of these worthies, but I remain grateful to each for the help given my younger self as a seeking pilgrim.  Each conveyed a sense of the central core of Christianity and a dislike for theological faddishness or extremes–whether liberal or conservative extremes. I would now say that each of these works is dated and has drawbacks–enough that I hesitate to recommend them as the best introductions to Christian faith today–but for a long time I saw little or nothing to replace them.  (There were many attempts, all along the theological spectrum, but in my view they all fell short.)

Yet I think that now there are  several good contemporary introductions that might serve contemporary seekers as well as Lewis’ and Trueblood’s famous works served me.  From the center of the American liberal Protestant tradition is Marcus J. Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (HarperOne, 2003).  Borg, a New Testament scholar teaching at the Oregon State University and one of the sanest member of the Jesus Seminar, was raised as a conservative Lutheran, lost his faith, and rediscovered it in a different, more revisionist, form.  He writes to both firsttime seekers and to those, like himself, who found that the conservative Christianity of their upbringing led them to skepticism.  In this work, he seeks to reinvigorate the liberal Pietist tradition of F.D.E. Schleiermacher, like him seeking to redeem Christian faith from both sterile orthodoxy and the “cultured despisers” of secular skeptics.  After 2 introductory chapters, Borg’s book is divided into two (2) sections, using the organizing metaphor of “the heart.”  Part One “Seeing the Christian Tradition Again” contains chapters on faith (The Way of the Heart), the Bible (The Heart of the Tradition), God (The Heart of Reality) and Jesus (The Heart of God). The next section on “Seeing the Christian Life Again,” contains chapters on being “born again” (A New Heart), the Kingdom of God (The Heart of Justice), “thin places” (a concept of Celtic Christian spirituality that focuses on places and times where one appears to see from this world to the next) (Opening the Heart), sin and salvation (Transforming the Heart), practice(s) (The Heart of the Matter), and being a Christian in an age of religious pluralism (Heart and Home).

Borg’s work is often compared to that of Brian McLaren, who is somewhat of a “guru” to the “Emerging Church” movement.  Although I have been critical of aspects of Borg’s work (both his scholarly work and his popularizing efforts such as The Heart of Christianity), I find Borg’s work to be far superior to McLaren’s.  Still, if one is interested in using a work of McLaren’s as a basic introduction for seekers, I’d choose his most recent work, A New Kind of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010).  Here one finally has concrete structure for the Emerging movement, instead of the annoying vagueness.  I don’t find McLaren’s introduction to be all that “new,” but it is an excellent restatement of the central Christian narrative and life in a 21st c. context–and to the U.S. fundamentalists out of which McLaren and many of his followers sprang, this rediscovery and restatement must surely seem new. 

 A New Kind of Christianity is organized around ten questions: the narrative question (3 chapters on the overarching storyline of the Bible);  the authority question (3 chapters on questions of revelation, inspiration, and related matters); the God question (especially focused on whether or not God is violent–Is Jesus’ nonviolence an exception to the [normal?] wrath of God or is Jesus the key to God’s very nature?); the Jesus question (Who was/is Jesus and what was/is Jesus’ mission?); the Church question; the sex question; the future question; the pluralism question (How should Christians relate to persons of other religions?), and the “What do we do now?” question.  This is especially helpful for those who have only been exposed to the narrow, harsh, and judgmental forms of Christian fundamentalism.

I highly recommend Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship:  Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Brazos, 2003). (The 2008 edition has a study guide attached for easier use in group settings.) Camp is a minister in the Stone-Campbell tradition and consciously chose to write this as a popular update to both Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (1963; German original, 1938), and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1972; updated, 1994).  Camp’s approach to Christian faith is far closer to Yoder’s and Bonhoeffer’s, but he seeks the popular style of Lewis.  The result is an easy-to-read invitation to the challenge of true Christian discipleship. This is an untamed faith that hearkens back to the original (pre-Constantine) Christian message. In the words of Will D. Campbell, one finds nothing of the acculturated “churchianity” of most U. S.  preaching where the message is “take up your cross and relax” or “take up your cross and get rich.”   Camp’s work is divided into 3 sections: Re-envisioning Discipleship; What Disciples Believe (with chapters on The Gospel, The Savior, and The Church), and What Disciples Do. The last section is especially good in connecting the practices of Christian faith to the basics of theological ethics (in ways sure to shock the politicized fundamentalism of America). Included in this section are the chapters: Worship: Why Disciples Love Their Enemies; Baptism: Why Disciples Don’t Make Good Americans (or Germans or Frenchmen); Prayer: Why Disciples Trust God Rather than Their Own Calculations; Communion: Why Disciples Share Their Wealth; Evangelism: How Disciples “Make a Difference.”  Camp has ably summarized the radical nature of true Christianity.

Diana Butler Bass writes from the perspective of mainstream Protestantism and as a participant observer in the renewal of neighborhood churches (not mega-churches).  Her book, Christianity for the Rest of Us:  How Neighborhood Churches are Renewing the Faith (HarperOne, 2007) uses case studies of 10 mainstream neighborhood churches which are not in decline, but are renewing themselves and impacting their world.  Excellent chapters on hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, & beauty.  Her third section, From Tourists to Pilgrims is full of hope for a revitalized Christianity in America.

For a Catholic introduction, I’d go with Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (Novalis, 2008; Orig. Pub, 1968), but it’s major drawback is its sheer length (720 pp).  His work Christianity: Essence, History, Future (Continuum, 2007) is even larger.  I’d love to see a Catholic and/or Orthodox introduction that is brief enough to hold the attention of most seekers, yet written as well as the other entries in this list.

I have not read Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperOne, 2010) but I am including it based on two things: First, I know Wright’s New Testament scholarship to be first rate and second, I trust the judgment of fellow theo-blogger Jonathan Marlowe, who recommended it in the comments section.  Like C. S. Lewis and Elton Trueblood, Wright’s work is both an introduction to Christianity and an apologetic for it (i.e., a defense of its truth). (To some extent, that is true of every work in this list.) With a British secular public as his main audience, Bishop Wright organizes Simply Christian around the theme that we find “echoes” of God and of the truth of Christianity in ordinary life and he seeks to “tease out” the reality which the echoes reflect.  Part One, “Echoes of a Voice” is the most directly apologetic (in the older sense of “defending the truth of the faith” and not of “saying I’m sorry”).  The world is unjust, but why do we all have a “sense of justice” that makes us want to set the world to rights? Why do humans seem to be made for community? Why is there beauty?

Part two, “Staring at the Sun” is an exposition of Christian basics with chapters on God, Israel, Jesus and God’s Kingdom (Rule), salvation (“rescue and renewal”), the Holy Spirit (God’s Breath of Life) and the church (Living By the Spirit). The final section is on the nature of discipleship/the Christian life. It has chapters on worship, prayer, the Bible (The Book God Breathed), individual discipleship (The Story and the Task),  life together as the new people of God (Believing and Belonging) and the Christian hope (New Creation, Starting Now).

The authors of these contemporary introductions to Christianity are all ministers or scholars, yet Lewis and Trueblood were laypersons and that was one of the keys to the success of their works–introductions by non-experts for the non-expert.  Is there any basic introduction to Christianity by a layperson that I would recommend today? Yes, there is.  Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s Living Faith (Three Rivers Press, 1998) is both a personal spiritual autobiography and an excellent introduction to basic Christian faith.  A Baptist Sunday School teacher for his entire adult life, Carter is one of the most biblically and theologically literate of U.S. politicians and former politicians. (Almost all American presidents have quoted Scripture and/or referred to their belief in God, but few have done so with any real depth of knowledge.  Among the rare exceptions are Abraham Lincoln–who, ironically, never joined a church and may have been agnostic–and James Earl “Jimmy” Carter.) Here one sees the influence of his parents, home pastor, his sister (who was a Pentecostal evangelist), Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhöffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the civil rights movement–not only on Carter’s presidency, but on his later peacemaking efforts.  The sequel, Sources of Strength: Meditations on Scripture for a Living Faith (Three Rivers Press, 1999) is in some ways even better.  Carter has organized his adult Sunday School lessons into an outline of Christian faith and living.  There are 52 brief chapters, so that the book itself could be studied by a seekers class for an entire year as a catechism or basic introduction to Christianity.  Here is a theologically informed layperson writing to other laypeople with simplicity and power. 

I’d love to see a comprehensive introduction to Christianity from a Black Church perspective, or from a Latino/a perspective.  It’s not really a full introduction, but the closest thing from a Black Church perspective is by Peter J. Gomes, Senior Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Pusey Professor of Morals at Harvard Divinity School. His The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (HarperOne, 2007) seeks to throw cold water on people who think that Christianity is tame and proper and reawaken a sense of its radical and scandalous nature.

Any of these introductions would be excellent guides for contemporary seekers and I recommend them to youth leaders, college chaplains, pastors, evangelists–and to those either seeking to understand Christianity for the first time or seeking a renewed comprehension. If I had to choose just one, I’d go with Camp’s because his “take” on the nature of what it means to be a Christian most closely resembles my own.  But all of these are helpful and church groups or campus ministries could use any of them for “seeker studies” or for new members’ classes.

June 16, 2010 Posted by | book reviews, books, theology | 10 Comments

Anatomy of Modern Movement Conservatism in the U.S.

In my previous post, I tried to rehabilitate the demonized term “liberal” in U.S. politics and locate myself as a part of this vital political tradition.  Here, I want to try to disect the anatomy of modern movement conservatism in U.S. politics.

Remember, “conservatism” as a personal temperament or orientation refers simply to a preference for the way things are and a desire for change to be slow and orderly when it must come. It is a focus on treasuring the good things of the past, of celebrating heritage. This kind of conservative is a traditionalist and it is vital that all societies have conservatives in this sense of the term.  In fact, seen as an orientation, we are probably ALL conservative about some part of our lives.

But what I want to describe is modern movement conservatism, conservatism as a political philosophy in the U.S. context. Once (before 1964) dominant among Southern Democrats, this is now the controlling force of the Republican Party in the U.S.–lately leaving little breathing space for other traditions within the Republican Party.  Movement conservatism as it exists today is a fairly recent ideology (ironically), first appearing after World War II and not really getting started until the 1950s–it’s early founders were William F. Buckley in his book, God and Man at Harvard and in the founding of The National Review, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, philosopher and bad novelist, Ayn Rand, her disciple, economist Milton Friedman (who began the horrible “Chicago School” of economics), columnist George Will and a few others.  Goldwater was the first presidential candidate of movement conservatives (1964)–and he lost in a landslide.  That landslide loss to LBJ could have crushed movement conservatism, but the youth movement’s unrest with LBJ over the Vietnam War added to Southern white dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party because of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, led Richard Nixon (who was authoritarian, but not really a movement conservative) to adopt “the Southern Strategy” of winning elections through thinly disguised appeals to white racial resentment.  Ronald Reagan was the first movement conservative to adapt Nixon’s strategy as a way, not just to win the White House, but to roll back the progessive and liberal gains of the New Deal and the Great Society.  Reagan was only partially successful in terms of legislation passed, but he changed the terms of debate from 1981 until now. (Liberals and progressives began to reframe the terms of debate in 2006 & 2008, but, beginning in the summer of 2009, conservatives have almost completely taken back the framing of political debate in mainstream circles in the U.S.–though whether this will lead to electoral or legislative success for these conservatives remains to be seen.)

As it has taken form in the post-1980 Republican Party coalition, movement conservatism is made up of three strands or streams–sometimes in tension as they do not really form a logically coherent governing philosophy.

  1. Business Conservatives.  This strand was once dominant in the Northeast (especially New England) and in some parts of the West.  It comes in 2 forms:  a) Protectionist crony capitalism, which is older, argued for tariffs and other trade deals which would support U.S. business against businesses located in other countries. It loves government corporate welfare in terms of defense contracts or sugar subsidies, etc. (or, in the West, free use of federal lands for mining, cattle grazing, etc.) b) “Soft” libertarianism. Pure libertarians are relatively rare in movement conservatism (but see Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Rep. Ron Paul, his son Rand, former U.S. Rep. from GA Bob Barr & a few others), but “soft” libertarians like Goldwater, former MN Gov.  Jesse Ventura, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson are much more numerous. They argue for small government with little help or hindrance to business–and they tend to be socially moderate, having a “live and let live” attitude about people’s personal lives. (I can still remember Goldwater yelling at Jerry Falwell that abortion was NOT a conservative issue!) The soft libertarians tended to be strongest in Western conservatism and the crony capitalists (think George H.W. Bush ) stronger in New England.
  2. National Security Conservatives.  This strand is found geographically dispersed nearly evenly across the U.S.  It came out of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R.  After the imperialist Spanish-American War and prior to WWII, most Republicans were isolationists who were critical of internationalist Democrats for getting the U.S. involved in wars. But the Cold War stand-off forged a bi-partisan foreign policy of “containment of Communism.” Among liberals (especially in the Democratic Party) this took the form of “Cold War Liberalism” until the Vietnam War destroyed that form of militarized internationalism–although Pres. Barack Obama seems to be forging a new version which I fear will do to his presidency what Vietnam did to LBJ’s.  But in the Republican Party (and, for a time, with Southern Democrats) this bi-partisan policy of containment led to what I am calling “national security conservatism.” Again, this comes in two forms:  a)Traditional Nationalism.  Ronald Reagan, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), Colin Powell, George Schultz, and even Condaleeza Rice all fall into this strand.  They want a large military that can dwarf any conceivable foe, but are mostly wary of rash military adventurism–especially after Vietnam.  They want to use military force sparingly, only when what they consider to be “vital American interests” are threatened (and these can be economic–including another nation’s oil or a key strategic location for a military base) and with overwhelming force when it is used–and because wars are expensive, they usually want clear goals, and clear exit strategies before engaging. (Major example: The first Gulf War–1990-1991).  b)Neo-conservatives or Neo-cons.  These are people, following the collapse of the USSR, who wanted the U.S. to be far more aggressive militarily as the sole remaining superpower.  Some were involved in the administration of George H.W. Bush–although Bush I himself wavered between traditional nationalism and the neocon view that he partly inspired with his talk of a “new world order” after the Cold War. But they were far more dominant in the administration of his son, George W. Bush–including Rumsfeld, John Bolton, Donald Wolfowitz and many others. The neo-cons took the old liberal theme of spreading democracy and changed it to a belief (the “Bush Doctrine”) that the U.S. had the right to invade any country anywhere that might one day conceivably be a threat and impose a U.S.-friendly democratic regime by force. The architects of the invasion of Iraq were neo-cons and Afghanistan seems to be evolving that way–despite the official repudiation of the Bush Doctrine by the Obama administration.  Whereas traditional nationalists want to use the military sparingly, neocons think the road to peace (an openly imperial peace) is perpetual war.  National security conservatives originally had a love/hate relationship with business conservatives–it takes big government to have a big military and wars tend to get in the way of free trade.
  3. Social Conservatives.  When added to the mix that forms modern movement conservatism, social conservatives were predominantly found in the Old South (Dixie), though there were outposts in the Midwest (e.g., Grand Rapids, MI, the entire state of Kansas) & the West (e.g., Colorado Springs, CO; Orange County, CA).  Today, social conservatives are more geographically dispersed.  a)A politicized form of Christian fundamentalism is the primary strand of social conservatism with echoes in Mormonism. Although it has learned to echo the terms of the business conservatives (“small government,” “low taxes,”), and eventually take them on board, the original issues of the social conservatives had nothing to do with such matters, but were about using (Intrusive Big Government) federal and state power to enforce traditional morality–banning pornography, gambling, banning or restricting liquor sales, opposition to the sexual revolution (including, after about 1979, opposition to legal abortion–and eventually adopting the conservative Catholic opposition to artificial birth control methods, too), opposition to women’s rights and gay rights, enforcement of prayer and Bible reading in public schools–all things that REQUIRE the big government action that, theoretically, business conservatives oppose. b) A second stream of social conservatism that is less religious is white racial resentment of the growing social, political, and economic power of non-whites, especially African-Americans and Latino/as.  There is overlap, of course, since neither private Protestant schools nor the phenomenon of “homeschooling” existed until the desegregation of the public schools.

Many times these different strands come to similar conclusions through different routes:  A Western soft-libertarian Goldwater conservative would oppose Medicare, Medicaid, and, eventually, universal healthcare because of a belief that government has no business interfering in the “private business” of healthcare–seeing healthcare as a commercial commodity instead of a basic human right.  A Southern social conservative may oppose the same things because of a belief that liberal Yankees will use all their tax money to help “undeserving” poor blacks instead of poor working class whites.  And militaristic nationalism has been widely shared throughout the history of the U.S.A.–but positively fetishized in Old Dixie where Civil War memorials are found every other mile and there are more military bases (and military highschools!) than in the rest of the nation and where, since the end of the draft, a greater than average number of military recruits are found.

But there remain tensions between the strands of modern movement conservatism–tensions wide enough that, in a parliamentary system, the Republican Party would be split into 3-4 parties.

I think the movement is incoherent and I think it is dangerous.  In the presidency of George W. Bush we finally saw what happens when (for the first 6 years anyway) movement conservatism dominated all branches of the federal government.  The result was 2 endless wars, a corrupt Justice Department, federal departments like FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) that were completely inept (run by a horse trainer!), Katrina, a huge budget surplus turned into a skyrocketing deficit and, finally, complete economic collapse.

That legacy haunts the Obama administration because, as Naomi Klein shows in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, movement conservatives during the Bush administration deliberately weakened government’s ability to be a force for good and then undermined the public’s faith in government, creating a vicious circle.  Ronald Reagan had said that the scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But most people want government to help–especially during crises. But movement conservatives spent decades weakening the capacity of government to help–becoming a self-fulfillment of Reagan’s prophecy.  If you deregulate the markets, for instance, and then understaff regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), you make it next to impossible to avoid economic meltdowns such as happend in 2008–and you make rebuilding and prevention harder.  If you shrink the budget for toy inspectors, it’s hard to keep lead toys from China from poisoning the nation’s children. If you weaken safety regulations in the mining industry, then spend years underfunding inspectors and enforcement mechanisms, you make it difficult to prevent mine cave-ins and difficult to hold companies accountable for unsafe conditions when such cave-ins happen.  The same process is at work in the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Government can never do everything, nor should it try–such an attempt would lead to tyranny.  But, from the perspective of anyone who is not a movement conservative, government exists to enable people to do together what it is difficult or impossible to do by themselves.  Government has been and can be again a force for good. (And one needs only look at some place like Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government for twenty years, to see that the lack of government is no libertarian paradise, but a very bloody anarchy.) Rebuilding OUR government’s capacities for good–and public trust in government as a potential positive force–will take some time. In my view, that is reason enough to keep the reigns of government away from modern movement conservatives.

June 5, 2010 Posted by | civil rights, ethics, History, political philosophy, pop culture, race | 3 Comments