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First Things First, Second Things Second

How less religious faith means less liberty.


by James Leroy Wilson
September 5, 2001

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First Things First, Second Things Second_James Leroy Wilson-How less religious faith means less liberty. Richard John Neuhaus says that "The first thing to say about religion and public life is that public life is not the first thing." My interpretation is that religious faith is the standard by which public institutions, their performance, and their ethics, are judged, because religious faith is the most important, the first, thing in life.

That's not true to those who have no religious faith to speak of. But almost all who do not posses religious faith still have faith in something, which is called a cause. Campaign-finance reform is called a cause because of the beneficial effects it will allegedly have in our political culture.

Causes are called causes because of their hoped-for effects. The two meanings - cause and effect and political cause - are actually the same. Logically it goes: if [the cause], then [the effect, which makes the world a better place]. Some causes are pretty shallow, like "If the Bears won the Super Bowl, then I'd be happy." Idolizing sports and entertainment celebrities is a cause: "this person has given me so much joy; how wonderful it would be if I met her in person."

But there are other causes of greater import to liberty and justice. The problem of people without religious faith is that, without believing in the transcendent power of an eternal entity to whom the cause-effect relationships of the space-time continuum are irrelevant, they make the second things - matters related to public life - the first things. When government becomes your faith, or family, or pure science and academic integrity, or even "the Church," here's what happens:
  • We come up with a remedy for what ails us, a "cause."

  • We refuse dissent on the matter, and view those who disagree with us as fundamentally bad people who shouldn't be allowed to stand in the way. Ask John McCain - his critics are "special interest groups" while his supporters are "public interest groups."

  • If we attain power through the advocacy of the cause, the cause no longer becomes the primary goal, but rather keeping the power. Which is justified because advocating the right cause makes me a good person, and good people should rule. The public discovers that the cause was not really the cause after all, it was the egotism of the cause's leader that was the true cause. Ask the Clintons or Gary Condit, or hundreds of others who have made a sham of our democracy.

  • If we fail to win power, we are bitter and angry for the rest of our lives, forever questioning not only the competence of the current leaders, but the very legitimacy of the regime itself. Ask Alan Derschowitz about the 2000 Presidential election. You should probably ask Abbie Hoffman, except he committed suicide.

  • If our cause is implemented fully, the benefits, if any, will be as temporary as the ABM treaty. If, like in Marxism, there are no benefits, then we maintain that it wasn't implemented properly. If, like Social Security, it had at least the appearance of success for three generations but has run its course in the march of history, it must be defended vehemently on account of those alleged benefits.
I'm naming names, which isn't fair because that implies they have no or insufficient religious faith, which I can't judge. But although we should be judged by our actions and not our words, it is unsurprising that those who preach bigger government, better government, and more government as the solution to life's problems are usually political allies with those who are openly hostile to organized religion, who blame religion for most of the social ills that big business didn't produce. They won't acknowledge that while religious fanatics might be able to take over the government, it is the fanaticism, not the religion, that is the cause of the intolerance and oppression. The key word of the "Islamic extremist group the Taliban" that is destroying Afghanistan from inside is not "Islamic" but rather "extremist." Fanaticism and extremism are actually just shaky faith. Believing in the principles of a just God, but perhaps doubting that that God will actually do anything, fanatics resort to the secular political order to impose their views on everyone else.

We'd like to think that mature democracies are less vulnerable to such extremism. In reality, moderation exists only on the fringes, among groups who want to protect your personal liberty and our national security and recognize that doing much more utterly defeats the intention of protecting your liberty in the first place. Do the Democrats do that? Do the Republicans do that? Do the "moderates" on the Supreme Court do that? Do religious fanatics or extremists flock to the Libertarian Party, or do they vote Republican as the best side in the "culture war" against Democrats - or vice versa?

That our mainstream parties are themselves more interested in power and control for themselves rather than your liberty and security is, I think, evidence that religious faith is lacking in America. The people are aware that something is direly wrong, either with themselves or with those parties, which is why voter turnout is low. But virtually all media outlets from which they get information, which are both giant corporations themselves advertisers for other corporations, tell you that there are no alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans. I wonder why that is. Maybe because, with those two parties, corporate interests will be protected regardless.

So the revolution will not be televised. The only revolution possible to at once restore our Constitutional liberties is for people of faith to actually live according to the principles of their faith, and not be swayed by commercials or by the somewhat fascist concept called the "American way of life" that encourages us to buy nice things for us and our kids - and also to keep us in a tension filled "culture war" in which Republicans would trample on our liberties to protect traditional institutions, and Democrats would with more fervor trample on our traditional institutions to protect "social justice." No matter who's in power, the values of the consumer culture - economic conservative, social liberal, win out every time.

Leaders in all religions have not only been a miserable failure in this regard, they have been complicit in evil. They'd rather increase their media exposure by railing against those corporations or the government which serves their interests, but also to tacitly if not explicitly endorse Democratic and Republican candidates. They'd rather fight for secular public "causes" and support the most outrageously extreme and demagogic statements by partisans, than hold their own people to account for their sins. I say, better they hold their own flocks to account for their own consumerist way of life. People, adults included, want and seek discipline, which is why more rigid and doctrinaire sects tend to flourish while liberal ones flounder. So preaching about economic values and spending habits can be influential if churches had the courage to try.

The second thing - what the law should be - has triumphed over the first thing of religion. Forcing other people to live their lives according to your own interests and values, your causes, is more important than how you yourself live. This is backward. Rationality exists, and so does irrationality. Neither are bad.. Only by placing irrational faith is in first things first -our religion, our lives, our salvation - can the disinterested, rational intellect be freely applied to the second things of maintaining secular institutions like the civil government which protects our right to exist in the first place.

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