11.06.2016 Preaching Text: “Yet now take courage…says the Lord…; work, for I am with you…, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.” (Haggai 2:4-5)
Okay. There’s no need to keep you in suspense. My endorsement during this election time goes to…God and the church of Jesus Christ (along with all the other “mediating institutions” of society).
In this month’s Beacon, I commented on how depressing I’ve found the current presidential election. And apparently I’m not alone.
In Friday’s edition of the New York Times, an “above the fold” headline read: “Voters Express Disgust Over U.S. Politics in New Times/CBS Poll.”
The article states that more than eight in ten voters say the [presidential] campaign has left them “repulsed rather than excited.”
So I guess I’m in good company, though it does make you wonder about the remaining 20 percent!!! (But that’s a sermon for another day.)
In my Beacon article I admitted to not being particularly thrilled with either candidate, though I do plan to vote. But I also argued that while this campaign says a lot about each of the candidates, it says even more about the state of our society.
For politics is, as has been noted, downstream from culture. That which “repulses” 8 of 10 voters is therefore symptomatic of what’s going on in the wider culture and is reflected in the politicians it tends to produce.
I’m increasingly worried that as a culture we seem to invest far too much in politics (and thus, by extension, politicians). Though this does not mean, I’m quick to add, that politics is unimportant.
But it is to say that when we lose our belief in God, and a commensurate belief in a transcendent reality far greater and truer than the world we live in, politics becomes our “ultimate concern,” a phrase Paul Tillich famously used to define idolatry, as anyone or anything other than God we make into a god, and thus worship.
As I look over our national landscape, there seems little that hasn’t been politicized. And that goes for our churches too.
As most of you know, after the horrific terrorist attack at the Orlando, FL nightclub this past spring, a quickly assembled service was organized by the Harwich Clergy Association.
It was a service I attended but did not to participate in as a worship leader. The reason? In speaking with the host pastor during the planning phase, I was told the purpose of the service was to “protest.”
I declined because my first instinct was to mourn the loss of innocent life, not to protest. For, in my opinion, our culture too often avoids grief completely and jumps headfirst into pointing fingers and devising quick fixes.
But in the face of violent death, at least for the families of those who lost loved ones, there is no quick “fix,” only the empty void of punishing loss and acute heartbreak.
Though I do believe there’s a time and place for solution-seeking, the primary role of the church is to address spiritual matters, not least the community’s spiritual and emotional need to grieve.
Besides, who to blame and how to fix things isn’t always patently obvious, even with the passage of time, much less right-out-of-the-gate. Not only that, but reasonable and faithful people can and will disagree about how best to effect Christ’s call to do good. The answers, in other words, are not always easily or obviously discerned.
Several weeks later, a second service was organized and held by the Clergy Association following a spate of shootings that killed several police officers. This time I did choose to speak, though reluctantly, because I wanted the opportunity to talk about grief, as opposed to politics.
Days after the second service, the Clergy Association received a critical letter from a retired clergy person who lives in town and who attended the service. His wife also sent a letter to the Cape Cod Chronicle arguing pretty much the same points.
In short, their objections had to do with what was said, what was not said, who was in attendance, and who was not.
For me these two letters underscore the problem of politicizing the church. Someone always feels his or her views are not being honored.
This, of course, is not to say that there is no connection between politics and religion. After all, far too many in the early church were for forced to decide between worshipping Caesar or Christ. Their answer determined whether they lived or died. As I always say, you can’t get more political than that.
It’s also true that as Christians we’re required not only to live moral, spiritual lives, but to share our faith-filled selves with our neighbor, which includes assisting the vulnerable and those in need, which may sometimes involve political action.
Yet as I observe the current state of our culture, it seems we’ve lost confidence in the very “mediating institutions” that traditionally used to provide the mechanisms for helping our neighbor and holding our society together. These mediating institutions are the church, the family, and other various local community organizations.
Such institutions used to serve as the place where we could find community (solidarity) and where character was formed. Here habits, virtues, and a sense of meaning were nurtured and inculcated. It was here people turned to for help, companionship, guidance, strength, and a sense of identity.
In Coming Apart, a landmark book by Charles Murray (perhaps best-known as co-author of The Bell Curve), we are shown statistically the steady decline of these mediating institutions over a fifty-year span, from 1960-2010.
In those 50 years, Murray’s thoroughly researched study reveals a widening gap between the rich and an ever-expanding poor, especially the gap between those he calls the “post-Protestant elite” and the rest of society.
In Coming Apart, Murray identifies two fictional towns, Belmont, named after the upper-middle class suburb outside Boston, and Fishtown, a section of Philadelphia which over these fifty years has gone from being a stable and functioning working-class neighborhood to an increasingly dysfunctional, low-income trouble-spot with high rates of unemployment, crime, broken families, single mothers, and children adrift and without hope.
Among other things, Murray’s study shows that the citizens of Belmont tend to live very traditional lives, with very WASP-ish, middle-class values, despite their outward “bohemian” rhetoric. These are the same people David Brooks once famously referred to as “Bobos,” or “bourgeois bohemians.” If truth be told, they’re a lot like us.
Brooks’ Bobos tend to come from strong, intact families, have low divorce rates, work as professionals with relatively high incomes, and boast of high academic achievement. They possess both self-discipline and a strong work ethic which they value as the key to success.
Counterintuitively, Murray’s study also showed that Bobos go to church in numbers (55%)) far greater than in Fishtown. They also are involved to a far greater degree in other local community organizations, such as the PTA, etc.
Fishtown has few of these attributes or affiliations. Over the last fifty years, in fact, the mediating institutions that once defined life there (and still do in Belmont) are largely absent, including, again somewhat surprisingly, the influence of the church.
With an ever-weakening family structure, no real sense of communal solidarity with their neighbors, they live out the “bohemian” lifestyle the denizens of Belmont proudly profess but don’t really live by.
Fishtown is beset by dissolution. Belmont, for its part, merely shrugs nonjudgmentally, mostly unaware of the effect their bohemian rhetoric commends to others.
Unlike Belmont, the residents of Fishtown lack not only the financial resources but the social capital to weather the storms of life. They suffer from a lack of emotional, spiritual, economic, and community support, even as Belmont’s cultural winners move ever-further away from them.
Without these traditional mediating institutions, the same ones Alexis de Tocqueville admired in antebellum America, the state must intervene.
America, from its inception, has been an ahistorical experiment. Freed from subservience to the state, from kings and queens, the idea of America was to allow a freed people to pursue their own lives based on certain “unalienable rights” conferred by God, and not, it’s essential to note, the state.
As Tocqueville astutely observed, without the external controls of the state governing conduct and morals, such things were left to the free, autonomous individual.
And this is where America’s mediating institutions filled the void, its “free associations,” i.e. family, church, and various local community organizations. Within these institutions Americans learned how to be free, godly, virtuous citizens.
Yet were these mediating institutions to fail, the free individual would either regress into once again becoming a ward of the state and/or becoming a disconnected, asocial, autonomous individual, what we today might loosely define as a “libertarian.”
In our reading this morning from Haggai, the prophet, speaking from Babylon, encourages the faithful to rebuild the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, which alone, he argues, can provide what the people most need.
Today the situation seems not all that different. As in Haggai’s time, the key to the resurgence of our national character is to be found not so much in electing the right politician but in rediscovering the Lord as our God, our ultimate concern, which involves, for us Christians, rebuilding and reenergizing His Church.
For a renewed Church invariably aids society not by establishing some sort of repressive theocratic rule, but in serving as a spiritual leaven that benefits the whole of society, and all its peoples and institutions. Amen.