Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thoughts on "Torture"

OK, I've tackled gay marriage. What about the other hot topic, "torture?" Or rather, should I say, "enhanced interrogation techniques?"

Let's start with a history lesson. The tension between America's principles and security has gone on for centuries. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, even Abraham Lincoln violated important principles we hold dear in wartime because they thought it was necessary to keep America and Americans safe. That doesn't make it OK, but it does mean that the Bush administration is not the first to ever make this faustian bargain. You could even argue that when America is scared economically, we likewise surrender liberties--for example in the New Deal and in today's big-government binge. Fear causes us to do dumb things, and then later we regret them.

All that said, there are a couple of points to be made. First, we don't WANT to regret today's actions later. And I think most people (although not all) would agree that, in general, we do not want to be a nation that tortures--not even if it "works."

For that reason, I think the argument voiced by some, "it doesn't work anyway," is not important at all. If it's just plain wrong, it shouldn't matter if it works. Or, conversely, if that's your only argument, and I can convince you the techniques are effective, your point should evaporate (and I doubt that's going to happen).

And I think we all (or most of us) agree that, except posssibly in the case of a ticking nuclear time bomb in a major city, we would NEVER want to resort to things that are definitely torture--mutilation, removing fingernails with pliers, electric shocks to genitals, or causing permanent physical harm of the sort that crippled John McCain.

The trick comes with such techniques as "waterboarding." It's psychologically freaky, but our own troops volunteer for it as part of their training (so they can learn to resist it). Supposedly it was used on only a very few high-level detainees, most notably 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Muhammed, and resulted in a treasure trove of information on Al-Qaeda that may have even prevented an attack on LA.

I don't know if that rises to the level of what I'd personally call "torture." But I can understand the people who say, "if you're not sure where the line is, shouldn't we err on the side of basic human decency, and be the kind of culture that affirms our best principles and respects human rights?"

Here's the deal, though--why can't we say the EXACT SAME THING about abortion? If I say that waterboarding is a necessary evil that should be "safe, legal, and rare," I'm an inhuman monster. But if somebody else says the exact same thing about taking the lives of unborn babies, they are progressive and sophisticated. Sorry. I'm not buying. One day we MAY regret pouring water on the face of a terrorist. Or not. But I pray that one day we WILL look back on abortion like we do now on slavery--a relic of a day when we were uncivilized and barbaric.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"Gay Marriage"

I have been meaning for some time to tackle the issue of "Gay Marriage." I've been putting it off, partly because it's a difficult undertaking, and partly because I don't want to screw it up. The business last week with the Miss USA girl getting grilled over it just got my wheels turning again. Here's the short version: of course, as a conservative, "fundamentalist," evangelical Christian, I think (read: believe with all my heart) that the Bible is God's word, and that, therefore, homosexual behavior (NOT inclination, behavior) is sin. As a disclaimer, let me further clarify by saying that it is only one of MANY varieties of sexual sin, and is no more or less distasteful to God than adultery, premarital/extramarital sex (does anybody even say "fornication" anymore?), and even divorce for reasons other than unfaithfulness. For us to single out gays as "worse" sinners because of any percieved "ickiness" in their behavior is to misunderstand sin. And these other behaviors are usually (or mostly) untouched by the law. So, consistency would suggest that I would adopt a similar laissez-faire attitude toward Gay Marriage. Just because I personally believe that Christianity's claims to exclusivity are 100% true does not mean that I want the US government to mandate baptism or punish apostasy, heresy, or unbelief. Why can't I leave these nice people alone?

Well, there is another layer of the onion at work in the marriage debate. Gay Marriage proponents are quick to say that allowing homosexuals to have marriage rights has no effect on the marriages of heterosexuals. I respectfully disagree. Marriage, as a legal institution, has throughout history not been about legitimizing sexual trysts between consenting adults. Marriage exists for one purpose: the raising of children into succesful adults (note: this does not mean that marriages cannot be childless, nor do I think the barren should be banned from marrying. Those outliers have negligible effect on the institution as a whole). The reason the government takes an interest in (and provides benefits to) marriage is similar to the reason they allow tax deductions for charitable giving and home ownership--they perceive a societal benefit to the practice. A great deal of research has been done on various factors that influence the strength of marriage as an institution. Some of the best work has been done regarding Scandanavia, where they are well "ahead" of us in liberalizing marriage. (If you are interested, try googling "Stanley Kurtz" and "Scandanavia" and "marriage." The main finding is this--whenever marriage is liberalized (including, by the way, the loosening of heterosexual divorce laws, or relaxations on social stigmas against cohabitation and illigitimacy), the institution itself suffers. Marriage rates drop, and the rates of children being raised in non-traditional homes rises. Again--a disclaimer: single parents, widows, blended families, etc. CAN do a wonderful job of raising families. My mother was raised in a non-traditional household. But statistically, the evidence is overwhelming that kids have the best chance of success when raised by Mom and Dad. One need only to look at the inner-cities of America to see the sad consequences of separating marriage from procreation. (You would almost think God knew what he was doing!) To the extent that legalizing Gay Marriage undermines the institution of marriage, it stops being "victimless," and begins to have victims... and the victims are future generations of children. (By the way, this is why I also think of abortion as being a more serious issue than other "social issues." In my mind, babies are good. Hurting babies is bad. Killing babies is VERY bad.)

But, you may say, if you feel that way, why don't you oppose no-fault divorce? Or, as one blogger wrote recently, "why not let gays have marriage, since we're not using it?" Actually, I DO oppose no-fault divorce (or rather, I would have, had I been old enough when that issue was being debated). But that toothpaste is already out of the tube. And just because we're doing one harmful thing to marriage doesn't mean that it logically follows that we therefore are obligated to throw away all restraint. That's like saying, "You're already speeding--why not take off your seat belt and have a beer while you're at it?"

There's also one other very important area of this debate that needs discussion. That is the area of civil rights. For many (and I do sympathize with them), this argument is about civil rights. Courts imposing gay marriage, even over the will of the people, is just like the courts striking down segregation in the 1954 Brown decision. It has been said that "gay is the new black." By that logic, those of us on the anti- side are just like those who favored Jim Crow. But there is another wrinkle, constitutionally. For those of us who are devout Christians, our first-amendment rights to free exercise of our religion--the right to speak and act in accordance with the belief that Romans chapter 1 is not just a myth--is going to bump headlong into the rights of homosexuals under the 14th amendment to be treated exactly like any other minority group. It has already begun to happen. Where gay marriage has been legalized (like Massachusetts), religious people have seen their ability to follow their consciences diminished. Catholic adoption agencies have been told they cannot opt out of providing adoption services to gay couples based on their religious beliefs (and, to their credit, they have stopped providing the services rather than go along to get along... again, with the result that more innocent children are harmed). At some point in the future, this slipperly slope leads to less religious freedom. Don't get me wrong--it may actually be good for Christendom in the long run to be more countercultural, even persecuted. but don't expect me to volunteer for it.

There are plenty of other, tangential, issues. A definition of marriage based on sexual attraction which rejects arbitrary standards such as being of opposite sexes leads directly to polygamy (2 is an arbitrary number), even incest between consenting adults (why should I not be allowed to marry my cousin or my sister, or for that matter my brother, or all three?) And society giving out benefits (such as joint-tax-filing rates or Social Security Survivors' Benefits) to people with less and less "arbitrary" requirements leads to all sorts of people lining up for them. Unless we're going to demand some sort of proof of consummation of the "marriage," why should anyone ever be single in the eyes of the tax man again? Looking back again at my mother's home: why should my grandmother and her sister, who lived together all their lives and raised a family, not be entitled to the same tax rates as two gay men or lesbian women who set up house together?

I could say lots and lots more. And none of what I would say is rooted in hate or bigotry. I've got friends who are gay, and I wouldn't want to do anything to cause them any harm or pain. But that doesn't mean that to avoid causing them pain I would be willing to accept all the consequences that go along with a redefinition of an institution that is thousands of years old. If it were not for these potential consequences, I would be perfectly fine with allowing pretty much anybody to do anything with anybody that interests them, and call it by any name they like. But I'm a big believer that your right to swing your arms ends right at the end of someone else's nose.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Three Things That Tick Me Off This Week

I'm trying so hard not to blog about politics like a younger version of Andy Rooney (the old curmudgeon on 60 Minutes). And each of these things that are ticking me off right now really deserve their own, longer, well-thought-out post. I'm not sure which one was the straw that broke the camel's back, but critical mass has definitely been achieved. Also, I'm trying hard not to be just a stereotypical right-winger tossing out criticism of liberals, Democrats, Obama, or whoever willy-nilly. But these three all just rubbed me the wrong way.

First, the media (and some of my colleagues) treatment of the "tea parties." Personally, Idon't get the whole "tea party" thing. Not my cup of tea (GROAN!). But to watch CNN or hear some folks talk, it's like these folks who think government spending is way out of hand are somehow out of line for even holding a rally, and that to walk around in one of these rallies is to risk being infected by toothless redneck stupidity on steroids. A fellow teacher (young, pretty, naive, and oh-so-sure she knows it all just out of grad school... a lot like me 15-20 years ago, except I was never pretty) told me she had been near the one in Charleston, and it was "scary." Look, why is it "scary" for these guys to gather, but ACORN, ANSWER, Code Pink, or pretty much every union demonstration is perfectly fine? I've written elsewhere about the demonization of conservatives (see Palin, Sarah... also "scary") and the double-standards of so-called "objective" journalism. But for whatever reason, this one just ticked me off.

On a different front, I was riled up at word that President Obama had ordered $100 million in budget cuts, and the White House was spinning it as keeping his campaign promise to cut the budget. This one was so ludicrous that even the Washington Post and New York Times had to laugh. Compared to the overall size of the budget, the stimulus package, the deficit, or the debt proposed by the same folks, $100 million dollars is statistically zero. Compared to my very middle-class household income, it is comparable to cutting our family budget by having ONE less Starbucks coffee (tall black, not a grande cappucino) for the whole year. Or maybe by not super-sizing fries one time at the McDonalds drive through. Come on! Don't insult our intelligence!

Finally, and back to elite opinion issues, I'm perturbed at the whole "Gay Marriage" flap in the Miss USA pageant the other night. I intend to blog sometime later about the whole issue (and you may even be surprised at some of what I will say then). But this time, I'm just mad about dishonesty again. Miss California was one of the finalists. They asked her what she thought about gay marriage. She was careful to provide appropriate disclaimers about how great it is that people in this country can choose, but then said that for her family, marriage was between a man and a woman. She winds up taking 2nd place overall, and the next morning the word on all the news was that she lost due to her insensitivity, and the whole "Miss USA Family" was saddened by her answer. OK--leaving aside any discussion at all about the issue itself--they ASKED HER THE DARNED QUESTION! If there was only one "right" answer, they could have given her an arithmetic problem! Something like 60% of people claim to not support gay marriage. In the state she represents, a majority of voters just voted against it. So what's so wrong with her holding that opinion? Why does a vocal minority get to decide you can't even ask certain questions? And while we're at it, isn't that the exact same answer Obama and Biden gave as candidates (because they knew it was the position held by a majority of voters)? Where was the outrage at THEIR "insensitivity"? (I know--the real answer as to why nobody cared when Obama said it is that they all know he was lying. But that's a different issue.)

I think all of these three issues bug me for a similar reason. All of them deal in some way with short-circuiting the ability for people like me to make a reasonable case for our beliefs. If numbers don't really mean anything, if anyone who deviates from "elite" opinion is scary and dangerous, and if it is taboo to even mention certain ideas, even when they are held by a majority of Americans, what is the point? As a teacher, I bend over backwards trying to give every side of every issue. I've even had parents complain that my lessons were too liberal, because I was trying so hard not to push my own opinions too much. I guess I'm turning into a dinosaur.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Count me among those who are glad that I didn't jump on the bandwagon and start bashing the Obama administration for weakness last week when the Somali pirate crisis first got underway. Although there may be plenty of areas where I would favor far different policies regarding the military than the president (such as his plans to cut production of the F-22 or missile defense), in this case I'm very pleased to give credit where it is due. From the very beginning, I said, "get a team of SEALs to that destroyer; problem solved." Sure enough, when the order came, it was three SEALs, three shots, three dead pirates. (When I heard that THREE pirates had been killed, I did not know at the time that the fourth had already left the pirate vessel and was captured. My first thought was that there was a fourth SEAL who had somehow missed his shot, and would never hear the end of it from his brethren who wear the trident.)

There are plenty of those who were on the Obama-bashing bandwagon who are now seeking cover by pointing out that the president did not give an order to fire, he gave (twice) the captain of the USS Bainbridge the right to make the call. But life is not a Harrison Ford movie. If our civilian leaders will simply let the pros do their jobs without interference, that's fine by me.

Piracy around the horn of Africa works for the pirates because the reward outweighs the risk. Millions of dollars in ransom can be had (which goes a long way in Somalia), and most merchants would rather pay than risk trying to protect their ships. Now there is a new element in the calculus--if the target is flying the Stars and Stripes, the risk factor can be assumed to be a little higher. This may not do a thing to end international piracy, but it may very well cause US vessels to be a little safer.

Moreover, this action buys president Obama some much-needed "street cred." Whether or not he intended this violent resolution, bad actors around the world (including state and non-state actors) have to reckon with the possibility that the new guy in the White House will pull the trigger. I'm reminded of when Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. After the USSR fell, we were able to see the Soviets' notes on that situation. They took note that the new president followed through on his threats (unlike his predecessor). There is no telling how much that belief contributed to the eventual end of the Cold War. It may be a perverse logic in this fallen world, but being perceived as willing to fight often means that you will not have to do so. And likewise, the perception that you will do anything to avoid a fight often ensures that you will have to later on (see Neville Chamberlain, 1939).

One last thought--there are plenty of heroes in this story. The captured ship Captain willingly traded his own life for those of his crew. He's the real deal--a maritime Sully Sullenberger. And the SEAL snipers that stealthily joined the Bainbridge and squeezed off those three head shots... well, they are the real deal, too. I have the pleasure of having coached a recently-minted SEAL officer, and he is one of the most exceptional individuals (in terms of physical, mental, leadership, and character qualities) I have ever known. I imagine that most of the men who went through BUDS/SEAL training with him are similar, or else they would have been among the 85% of applicants who wash out. I sleep better in my safe, warm bed at night knowing that the parapets of our civilization are manned by sentries such as this. Likewise, there are bad guys around the world who sleep a little worse tonight in the same knowledge. And that's just how I want it to be.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


By now most folks know that Newsweek magazine ran a cover story about the death of American Christianity. I've already done some blogging about the ingredients of American exceptionalism (including some related to Christianity), and I've said up-front that I do not think America is, or should be, a "Christian nation" in a formal sense. So that's not the direction of this post.

Likewise, it's not really a rebuttal of the story, although that would be interesting, too. The jumping off point for the story is a poll that shows that self-identification among Christians is down about 10% since 1990. Whether those who no-longer consider themselves "Christian" were previously committed disciples of Christ, or merely Americans for whom the default position was a non-commital generic Christianity is untouched. Also unexamined is the fact that the more theologically "liberal" mainline denominations are those shrinking, while the more "evangelical" groups are growing. And further ignored is whether the seeming shrinkage of the role of the "Christian right" in today's politics is the cause of, or caused by, or merely correlated with, the other cyclical elements of politics (certainly, in the age of Obama, ALL conservatives are down).

What gets me about this story is how much Newsweek seems to ENJOY it. To run a story questioning the importance and impact of Christianity on the eve of Holy Week is a slap. They have done the same thing at Christmas. Can you imagine, for even a moment, a major news magazine or TV network running a hit piece on Islam on the eve of Ramadan? Shucks, most of them wouldn't even exercise their free-speech rights to run controversial political cartoons depicting Mohammed for fear of giving offense (although there was zero hesitation by Pat Oliphant to run a glaringly anti-semitic cartoon in the Washington Post last month). Now, part of that is self-protection... radical Jews and Christians don't tend to commit acts of violence when offended at quite the same rate as radical Muslims. But there also is an underlying bias--Newsweek has become a liberal, secular opinion magazine. And that's what bothers me.

This past year, my father-in-law got a subscription to Newsweek from some magazine offer--whether Publisher's Clearing House or Reader's Digest... may have even been my daughter hawking them for Girl Scouts. He picked it because it was cheaper than Time. The most recent issue has been on his end table every Sunday when I have lunch over there, so I got to read their "reporting" throughout the election season. Never have I seen a supposedly "objective" magazine so in the tank for one side. Not only did Barack Obama get dozens of glowing cover shots (contrast with the unretouched close-up of Sarah Palin's face that showed every mole, hair, and blemish), the articles were as slanted as can be. Don't get me wrong: I like opinion magazines. I used to subscribe to National Review, but it was too expensive (and now I donate to their online site). I like to read The New Republic for liberal opinion (although I don't send them money). It doesn't bother me a bit that Fox News leans right and MSNBC leans left. But it would bother me if Rush Limbaugh lied and said he was playing it straight down the middle. Don't get me wrong--we all have biases, and I understand that most journalists are personally liberal. Walter Cronkite was a big-time lefty. But when he went to work, he was objective and honest. Too many modern "journalists" could learn something from that example.

So, when I see a hit piece on faith in Newsweek, I consider the source. But what irks me is that they present themselves to the public as "objective." And too many Americans don't know any better, so they accept the narrative put forth by the "mainstream media," hook, line, and sinker. It's easy to mislead the voting public if you've got the media in the bag.

Lower Sights, Higher Hopes

Wow--so many things to blog about: Holy Week, Somali pirates, the institution of marriage, Newsweek's article on the death of Christianity... and I've got a head full of thoughts on all of them! But what is really on my mind right now is a topic I keep coming back to again and again: my ongoing struggle with personal discipline.

I just came in from a "run," if you can call it that. A little over 20 minutes at 8:30 per mile. I've done that four times this week, with an eye towards adding five minutes the next week, and the next, and so forth, throughout the summer. Someone asked me recently what I think about when I'm running. When I was competitive, I always thought about the run itself--pace, mile splits, sensory feedback on perceived exertion. Nowadays, I find myself thinking about future runs. Not these little 20-minute jogs, but how good it would (will) feel to be able to cruise along effortlessly for 5 or 6 (or more) miles. Getting from where I am now to that point seems almost unreachable, but today I had an epiphany. It doesn't hurt nearly so bad if I go slow. Perhaps I'll never again log an 8-miler in less than an hour. But I could get back to running either the 8, or the hour, if I just adjust my horizons. And there is still some hope that if I get back to the kind of aerobic shape where I can go easy for an hour, maybe I can pick up the pace a little bit on the shorter stuff.

The same thought process is working in the area of my daily spiritual disciplines. I've gone a quarter of the year and stayed caught up on my daily scripture reading. At this rate, I could finish reading through the whole Bible again by the end of the year. But I'm not really enjoying it. I'll skip a day or two, then catch up. And I'm just slogging through the Old Testament. I think the Lord will forgive me for saying that Numbers and Deuteronomy just don't fire me up (and I positively dread the idea of spending all fall in the major prophets). What I really want to do is concentrate on the New Testament, reading both more chapters and also more deeply. A buddy of mine who is 75 years old and one of the most Biblically literate people I know has told me that he can work through the New Testament 7 times a year in the same time he can do the whole Bible, and that doing so has led to him having most of the epistles near-memorized. I'm about 98% sure that I'm going that route, probably starting this Easter weekend.

I've also had a bit of a breakthrough on the topic of prayer. My good friend Karl, who is one of the chaplains at school, has shared with me a little book called Hour by Hour, which is a set of prayers for use 4 times per day (morning, noon, evening, and night). It's heavy on the liturgical side, but I have found that using it helps me to "formally" pray several times a day, while also setting the stage mentally and emotionally for more informal and personal prayer in at least one of those times. Much like the running, I find that things go better if I ease in and "warm up" slowly these days.

In every one of these cases, what I'm finding is that I'm having to adjust my lofty goals (many of which were realistic at a time when I was younger, or fitter, or had more free time, or less kids) to more realistic and more attainable levels. It takes a little pride-swallowing to slow down, to read less per day, or to lean on someone else's prayers. But it also takes a little weight off of my shoulders. I would much rather be satisfied with meeting these modified goals than constantly kicking myself for the failure to meet the old ones.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Varieties of Religious Experience

We now take a detour away from my current train of thought to focus on what's really important. For most of the Christian world, today is Good Friday, the commemoration of the crucifixion. The title of this post is stolen from the title of a 1902 book on religious pyschology by William James, but that book isn't what's on my mind. What I'm thinking about is the many varied ways in which we reach out to God.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to encounter God in two very different ways, neither of which is part of the faith tradition of "my" church. First,we had a special chapel service at my (Episcopal) school which incorporated the Good Friday liturgy and also celebrated communion as part of the Maundy Thursday service (the Last Supper). My church was formed in the 1800s in America as part of a movement hoping to "restore" first-century Christianity. One of our movement's maxims was (and is), "no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible." So our forebears rejected later developments such as the liturgical calendar and feast days, and we intentionally turned away from such reformation-era innovations as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Therefore, we don't "do" Easter (or Christmas, for that matter... but Santa and the Bunny still come). However, I attended Roman Catholic and Episcopal schools as a child, and spent many years of study on the topic of the medieval church. So I have a personal affection for "high" church, for vestments, candles, processions, incense, and even old hymns on a big pipe organ. Yesterday's chapel was moving and meaningful. And there is a certain enhancement of the sense of small-c "communion" with like-minded Christians when you reflect that the same liturgy, the same prayers, the same Gospel readings (the passion according to John) were being shared word-for-word by millions of Anglicans yesterday and today. That doesn't mean I'll be suggesting we read from Archbishop Cranmer's Prayer Book when we break bread at the Summerville Church of Christ on Sunday. But reaching out to God in a "foreign tongue" had its benefits.

Then last night I had the pleasure of attending The Thorn at Seacoast Church, where my brother-in-law is a minister. Seacoast is a non-denominational community church built on the seeker-friendly "Willow Creek" model. Although theologically closer to my Church of Christ than the Anglicans, the difference in worship styles could not be more pronounced. The most obvious difference is that while one of our distinctive marks is a capella singing (based on the lack of any examples of instrumental music in the first-century church), one of Seacoast's biggest draws is its amazing worship band performing contemporary Christian rock. Not only do they celebrate Easter, but they do so with a 21st-century passion play which puts humorous dialogue in the mouth of the Apostle John. The chance of that happening in most Churches of Christ is pretty much zero.

I must say, by the way, that calling The Thorn a "passion play" is akin to calling Michael Jordan "some ballplayer." It was AMAZING, tracing the story of Jesus' victory over sin and death from the fall in the Garden of Eden to the empty tomb. My brother-in-law portrayed a "warrior angel" who fights the forces of darkness during Satan's pre-Genesis rebellion and guards the praying Christ in Gethsmane. An accomplished martial artist (black belts in two disciplines), he wielded a samurai sword in his role. I came primarily because he is one of my best friends, but I wound up spiritually strengthened and uplifted. I cried (just a little, and quite manfully) three times in an hour and a half (once during the ministry and miracles of Jesus, once during the scourging, and again as the stone rolled away).

I'm sure if members of either Seacoast or an Epsicopal church were to find themselves at my congregation, they would find some of our worship foreign (where are the vestments? where are the instruments?), but they may also find themselves strangely drawn closer to God by the simplicity of our service, and also by the differences with their own. I think if I had grown up on a liturgy, it could easily become stale and rote (as a young Presbyterian, I could mumble my way through the Lord's Prayer or Apostle's Creed with never a thought of the words). But seasoning my regular low-church diet with just a little high-church spice is spiritually very nourishing.

Happy Easter, all!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Western Civilization and "Cultural Knapsacks"

In my previous post I made a blanket reference to "western civilization." What do I mean by that, and why do I consider whatever that term means to be superior to the numerous alternatives out there? (I hesitated to even type the word, "superior," for in our modern world, the only sin we still frown upon is that of intolerance. But it's out there.)

Back when I taught world history, I used to refer to a "cultural knapsack" in which a group of people would collect various customs, beliefs, behaviors, philosophies, etc. A group can pick up these elements through various kinds of cultural diffusion--when my group, which has invented, say, the wheel, interacts with your group, who has developed, shall we say, written expression--and this interaction can be through war, through trade, through love and marriage--well, at the end of the day, we both wind up with both writing and the wheel.

So what's in America's cultural knapsack? Without getting far too detailed and academic, a little democracy and logic from Greece, some representative republican stuff and codified laws from Rome, a dollop of Judeo-Christian religion stirred into the mix in the first through fifth centuries. Both Eastern and Western Europe had those. The western half of the declining Roman Empire also got some Germanic "barbarian" institutions, including such things as trial by jury and what would become chivalry. Where the Eastern empire developed more autocratically, with a strong emperor and an admixture of church and state, the west managed to become decentralized and feudal, with separation of the sacred and the secular. In my favorite medieval country, England, the nobles eventually forced their king to accept Magna Carta, and the ideas that even a king could be subject to the rule of law, and that those who pay the taxes have a voice came to be.

But that is not all. The birth pangs of proto-capitalism in the Italian Renaissance intersected quite nicely with the tumult of the Protestant Reformation. Back in merry old England, a group of reformers whose theology was rooted in Calvinism began to believe that hard work was a virtue and that material prosperity was a sign of grace for the elect. Some of them eventually despaired of their efforts to "purify" the Church of England. These Puritan pilgrims set out on ships (which would have been impossible without the scientific revolution) for the New World (also discovered by western Europeans). They landed in a place with no "ancient history" to overcome, a tabula rasa, a land that was purely "modern." Of course, they displaced the indigenous peoples (and now, thanks in part to their western sensibilities, they are civilized enough to regret it). But they put into place an experiment in creating a country anew. And they did a pretty darned good job.

Compare and contrast that with what is in other cultures' knapsacks. Our culture was born after western Christians had learned the lessons of the 1600s that killing each other over doctrine was counterproductive. The middle east has folks who still haven't figured that out. Our pilgrim forebears had the "protestant work ethic" deep in their cultural DNA. Have you ever wondered why we could drop a McDonalds into the middle of Moscow but couldn't make capitalism work there? A thousand generations of programming. Why do the Chinese not throw off the shackles of their totalitarian regime? Because there is no Magna Carta, no limited feudal Germanic king in their background. They have been dominated by the emperors, by the khans, by the Mongols, and now by the communists, but have never really been free (as we westerners understand it) at all.

Obviously, these statements apply to groups in general, certainly not to individuals. As the age-old debate of "nature vs. nurture" goes with people, so can we apply this thought process to races, cultures, and nations. Moreover, I would further postulate that there are universal truths and principles that apply regardless of your "programming." As a Christian, I would say that these principles are rooted in the will of God. To the extent that any system "works," it only does so to the extent that it is in line with ultimate reality, the laws of nature as established by the Creator.

At any rate, I believe that the unique combination of cultural "ingredients" that make up the "recipe" for the American branch of western civilization (democracy, equality, freedom of speech, thought, and religion, the rule of law) are best suited to creating a world in which we can most freely "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Tim 2:2). And while it is far from perfect, I have no problem preferring that model over all its closest competitors.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The End of Western Civilization

There was a story last week that made some of the blogs I read. Apparently, a house burned down in England. Children were trapped inside. The neighbors wanted to attempt to save the kids, but were kept from doing so by the local police (who also would not go in). The reason for this was that regulations required them to wait for the fire brigade. Somewhere, Winston Churchill is spinning like a top in his grave.

I am an Anglophile. I love Churchill, Thatcher, and even Cromwell. I love the monarchy, and I love the Queen. I love common law, the mile, and the pound sterling. I did my graduate work studying the Brits from the Normans through the Tudors. Tomorrow will be my WWII lecture where I tell my 7th graders that Churchill, radar, and the Spitfire were all that stood between civilization and darkness in 1940. But that Britain is dying.

Part of the problem is demographics--the Brits, like so many Europeans, are not reproducing. Four grandparents produce between them two children and one grandchild. The family tree is upside down. Hand-in-hand with that is immigration. Somebody has to do the work and pay the taxes if there are not enough British to do it. A lot of these immigrants are non-western. Many of them are Muslim. None are products of the thousand years of cultural sculpting that produces Brits. Then there is the increasing connection with the European continent. Believe it or not, English merchants are required by law these days to weigh out their goods in metric measures. No ounces, no pounds, no yards. It is a little thing, but profound. Bureaucrats in Belgium can exert more control over the English people than can the Queen. There is also a disturbing loss of faith. The Church of England is stronger in Nigeria than in London... the current Archbishop of Canterbury has come out in favor of Sharia Law in parts of England.

Once upon a time, the very best thing that could happen to a country was to be colonized by the British Empire. Look around the world--almost every place you find pockets of prosperity or freedom mixed among third-world squalor (from Hong Kong to India to South Africa to, well, the USA), you find a place where the Union Jack once flew.

Those days are dead and gone. And with them has gone much of western Christendom. If only there were a nation of similar fortitude to carry the banner today. If only....

Saturday, April 4, 2009

On (Not) Running the Bridge

Today is the Cooper River Bridge Run. At 50,000+ participants, it is one of the top ten 10k road races in the USA. Literally thousands of people who do not consider themselves runners will "run" the race, and tomorrow morning they will all be talking about it. And many of them will innocently ask, "so, did you run the bridge?" Even more will ask me, assuming that since I have a drawer full of running clothes and spend two-thirds of the year coaching runners, surely I must have participated in this local event.

But I didn't. (I did jog two easy miles in my neighborhood, but the fact that it was on race day was coincidental). I used to run the Bridge Run pretty regularly. And I raced it. When I was decent, I used to find my name in the next day's newspaper supplement on the first page, in the first column--always in the first thousand finishers, once or twice around the first 500. (Editorial note--even then, I wasn't numbered amond the serious racers... I was a full 2 miles behind the Kenyans, and well out of age-group awards. Of those 50,000 runners, less than 200 are objectively any good.)

I suppose I could run the race like everybody else. Even if I didn't train a lick, I could do the weekend-warrior thing and gut out 6.2 miles on adrenaline and muscle memory. If I went slow enough, I might even be able to walk the next day (which is more than some can say). If I got in minimal shape, I could probably still break 50 minutes, which is about where the local non-runners start to act impressed. (The days of flirting with 40 are gone!) However, I just can't seem to muster up the desire to get up early, drive downtown, park, hang out in that huge crowd, and then fight the crowds home for a t-shirt.

I am not entirely sure when I lost the drive to race. I'm pretty sure it corresponded to me getting slower and being unwilling to pay the price in training that would have been necessary to forestall decline. I keep thinking that someday it would be nice to run occasional "fun runs" again, just for the atmosphere and the experience. Maybe next year!