Posts Tagged ‘conservative’

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

Look Out!

May 10, 2015

Around 1978 I heard about a book that had just come out called Looking Out for Number One. I was appalled. The title was completely at odds with what had been going on throughout the 60s and early 70s, and it sounded evil to my ears. I still think of that book as the beginning of the change in this culture’s psychology, one we’re still living out. Reagan became president a couple of years later, and he advanced this idea of looking out for number one, and it has been growing as a national belief ever since. The author of the book was a libertarian, and we see libertarianism gaining more and more traction.

I think that “selfish” is what is really meant nowadays when we say “conservative.” So-called conservatives insist that it’s a virtue, that you’re supposed to look out for your country, your family, and yourself before anything else. People who don’t share this idea are viewed with suspicion. But looking out for number one is not a virtue. It’s a biological view of morality—instinctive, unthinking. And people who follow it are quite capable of turning against their country, their mate, or their children whenever it serves their self-interest. Selfish people don’t care about anybody else, by definition. Selfishness gradually undermines any system that embraces it. We’re seeing that happen in this country now. The general atmosphere is becoming increasingly hostile and argumentative, less neighborly. There are movements in certain states to secede from the union. People live in isolation from one another in general. Here in San Francisco, for example, people seldom see the inside of other people’s homes. Some people point to social media as an example of the continuance of community, but I don’t think so. It’s superficial community, if it’s community at all. The culture has lost its memory of what real community feels like. I’ve lived in a few and I’ve always liked them. The only one I’m in right now is the South End Rowing Club, my swim club. It’s the one place I actually enjoying being. It’s not a fancy fitness club. It’s all volunteer, and you can feel it. There’s something greater than the sum of the parts.

So if looking out for number one is wrong, what’s right? I read once that we should look out for the well-being of everything that lives, not excluding ourselves. I think that makes good sense.

God and Mammon

November 12, 2010

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed here in Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is one of the basic tenets of our economics. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how we’re going to get people borrowing and spending again. We have to “grow the economy,” they say. And, as much as ever, the great majority of Americans believe that they should be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means taking everything apart, examining it in detail, and living solely by principle. The deeper meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” actually means abandoning one’s materialist existence and following truth—never doing anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus encouraged his disciples to leave their jobs and to become beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

Conservative and Liberal

June 17, 2009

I regard the way that most people use the words “conservative” and “liberal” as distortions of the language. Conservative and liberal are not states of being; they are modes. It doesn’t make any sense to say that someone is a liberal or a conservative. Liberal and conservative have more to do with energy. There are times when you can be liberal with your energy, and there are times when you have to be conservative with it. But you can’t be one way all the time. Nevertheless, we are trying to describe particular ideas when we use the two words as nouns, even if they have little to do with what the words actually mean. Conservative has generally referred to a person who clings to tradition or one who is cautious with money. But in today’s political arguments, it more often means someone who sees the rights of the individual as superior to those of the community.

In a healthy society—and in my opinion there are few, if any, these days—there is a balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community. We really are all in this together, and to insist that one or the other is more important is to be an extremist. One of the symptoms of extremism is that one sees everything in terms of a great struggle between Good and Evil. During the Cold War, the two extremist philosophies of Marxism and Laissez-Faire Capitalism (today’s “conservatives”) went after the other’s jugular. The Marxists were just as convinced of the righteousness of their cause as the Capitalists were of theirs. I think it self-evident that it is extremism itself—doesn’t matter what kind—that leads to evil.

Now that the commies are gone, Conservatives tend to see Liberals as the Great Enemy. Linguistically speaking, conservative and liberal are opposites. But politically speaking, they’re merely sloppy tags and don’t actually represent two ideas in strict opposition to one another.

So what’s a liberal? In current, between-the-lines usage, I think of “a liberal” as someone who sees the need for balance between the individual and the community, who is nearer the objective philosophical center, but feels the rage of the right wing and is somewhat timid about standing up for the balance that they know is necessary. Liberals, then, aren’t really left of center—at least not to the left of the center of truth. They’re a wee bit too far right.

The Poverty of Our Language

November 8, 2008

One of the difficulties in trying to discuss anything in this country nowadays is that most of our words, especially those in political use, have lost their meaning. They’re all code and connotation. Like the words “liberal” and “conservative.” They’re not states of being; they are modes. There are times when one can be liberal and times when one must be conservative. But to say that one is “a liberal” or “a conservative” is wrong-headed. What do they mean? Stands that were considered moderate when I was growing up are now considered far left. During the election I often read about people who were “too conservative” to vote for a black man, as though racism were a conservative value. These days when people use the word conservative I think that what they really mean is “looking out for number one” and screwing anyone who gets in the way. During the Reagan era, conservatives often invoked “family values.” It sounded wholesome enough. But everybody I knew was extremely hostile to the term. I don’t think many of them stopped to ask why it angered them, but I think everybody knew—instinctively, at least—that what it really meant was “father knows best,” and simply because he was the father. That’s not a conservative value; it’s egotism. If there had been a real discussion of what family life was about, what it could be or should be, “family values” might have had some usefulness. But there was never any intention of that. Its sole purpose was its use as an emotional weapon in the so-called culture wars.

During the last twenty eight years, and during the last eight years especially, I’ve often felt that America is heading for some kind of civil war. No one can ever win such a war. It’ll only bust up the country for good. Americans need to have some real dialogue. But we’ll never even get a start on one until we stop abusing the language and start saying what we really mean.