The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Democracy and Culture

January 18th, 2006 · No Comments · culture

When I was very young and I was learning about government for the first time, my initial judgment was that our government was carefully contrived to make it as difficult as possible for one person or group to hold power for very long, while simultaneously preventing anything from ever getting done. I recall also making a moral judgment at the time that government must, therefore, be “bad”.

Later, I started to take a minimalist view of government. It was a necessary evil that should be limited to a few ambiguous powers, but I was never sure which.

Fast forward past a bit more life experience and my view of government has again transformed. Government is a natural progression of human social development, but the jury’s still out on which form of government is the best. The history of our democratic republican federal system has not been any freer from violence or knavery than what was had from centuries of dictators, emperors, popes or kings. Suddenly, the genius of the American system became clear: it’s a political waterwheel designed to power the ship of state by alternately lifting, then dislodging the wealthy and powerful.

Historically speaking, issues of scale and culture have determined the size and type of governments used. A federal system, like the one used by the ancient Roman empire and the modern American one, can adapt to immense scales and still be effective — so long as cultural divides are well managed.Rome was able to encounter and absorb areas with relatively homogeneous cultures within a given area, so their federal system automatically managed cultural shifts. The New World, and America especially, was settled by a myriad of cultures in an almost random way. There are few geographically meaningful cultural barriers more than a few miles wide, especially west of the Appalachias. The result is that we’ve developed a new culture with its own language and it now competes with all the indigenous and immigrant cultures. The divide between the ‘American’ culture and other cultures isn’t managed at all except as a reaction of other cultures against it. There’s a reflection of this dynamic in early Christian and late 2nd Temple Jewish attitude about ‘Roman’ culture.There is no single cultural motherland one can point to and say that here is the source of American culture. There is no designer, no developer, no writer, presenter or poet to whom we can look as being the Source of American culture. American culture is an amalgam of accretions assembled by chance over the wheels of fate. It is ambiguous, internally contradictory, and frequently inane, but it is what flows from the mouths of teenagers, sports commentators, political candidates, and Elks club members. American culture is what determines how clothes are cut, which toys are hot, and who’s jumped the shark. Not everybody is happy, of course, with a one-size-fits-all culture, especially one that is guided by whoever shouts the loudest.

One solution seems to be to make federal laws to resolve internal conflicts within American culture. The wealthy and the powerful decide these among themselves and relay to the rest of the population the results through the theatre of Congressional Legislation. Most of the major political hot-button issues today aren’t about commerce or foreign policy, but are rather driven by cultural conflicts. Gays, drugs, abortion… you name it. It’s difficult to get folks interested in tariff negotiations or price manipulation in foreign countries, but if you can convince them that whatever they perceive their culture to be is somehow threatened, they’ll vote you right into office. Even after four years of obvious incompetence and corruption, Americans cheerfully voted the same clowns back into office because they promised to protect their culture. (The great thing about that last sentence is that it can be applied to virtually every 2nd-term president since WWII. Probably to others, too, but I haven’t studied 19th Century American yet.)

I think where we see this most clearly is in regards to the recent debates over “Separation of Church and State” (which is, itself, a misnomer). What everyone seems to be stumbling over is that unseen elephant in the room: American culture. Despite laws specifically prohibiting such actions, laws set forth in the very Constitution of the United States, we have created laws establishing and endorsing religion: the of American culture. Whether it be the Pledge of Allegiance or the Amendments prohibiting alcohol or slavery, we have defined elements of our culture and our collective faith through actions of the federal government. Even our money is based on our ‘faith’. I suspect that it’s near well impossible to fully disentangle political and religious power, as each seems to induce the other.

What may be helpful is a return to the ‘Civic’ emphasis of our civic faith. Most of the discussion seems to be focused on things a small minority do differently than the rest. My understanding was that the point of having a ‘free’ country was so that minorities could do what they do without limitation. The ‘Civic’ emphasis is one of service to the community with honesty and integrity. But how do we get people away from cultural issues and interested enough in the actual role of government that they want to vote for candidates that want to regulate trade and govern responsibly? I don’t know of a way that doesn’t require a lot of money and a lot of public education.

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