The band drove a Chevy car through a two mile track of instruments, releasing their latest song, “Needing/Getting.”
Their opening is, “I’ve been waiting for months, waiting for years, waiting for you to change./ Aw, but there ain’t much that’s dumber, there ain’t much that’s dumber/ Than pinning your hopes on a change in another./ And I, yeah, I still need you; but what good’s that gonna do?/ Needing is one thing, and getting: getting’s another.”
This song, though about a girl, plays nicely into a recent NYT op-ed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt entitled, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness.” He writes to show the Right and Left’s cultural narratives and their amazing ability to talk past each other on issues.
If you follow the sacredness, you can understand some of the weirdness of the last few months in politics. In January, the Obama administration announced that religiously affiliated hospitals and other institutions must offer health plans that provide free contraception to their members. It’s one thing for the government to insist that people have a right to buy a product that their employer abhors. But it’s a rather direct act of sacrilege (for many Christians) for the government to force religious institutions to pay for that product. The outraged reaction galvanized the Christian right and gave a lift to Rick Santorum’s campaign.
Around this time, bills were making their way through state legislatures requiring that women undergo a medically unnecessary ultrasound before they can have an abortion. It’s one thing for a state government to make abortions harder to get (as with a waiting period). But it’s a rather direct act of sacrilege (for nearly all liberals as well as libertarians) for a state to force a doctor to insert a probe into a woman’s vagina. The outraged reaction galvanized the secular left and gave a lift to President Obama. [emphasis mine]
Well, rawther! Holy Sacred Cow, Batman! The little trail of Bibles and birth control the Right and Left leave behind them as they skip through the woods to the White House must make it easy to trace the different group mentalities and preferences.
Haidt uses religious language to describe both the Left and Right, saying, “When sacred objects are threatened, we can expect a ferocious tribal response. The right perceives a “war on Christianity” and gears up for a holy war. The left perceives a “war on women” and gears up for, well, a holy war.”
The article needed a little vision: constrained vs. unconstained vision, that is.
In Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle, he defines visions as “the foundations on which theories are built.” Furthermore, visions “rest ultimately on some sense of the nature of man—not simply his existing practices but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations.”
The constrained view believes that, as human nature is what it is, no one man can be trusted, and thus it is necessary to have institutions (e.g. government) and laws to set proper boundaries. The unconstrained view, in contrast, sees the institutions as the problem, laws as teaching tools, and men as perfectible.
The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition. The unconstrained vision is a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive. The unconstrained vision promotes pursuit of the highest ideals and the best solutions. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the best as the enemy of the good—a vain attempt to reach the unattainable being seen as not only futile but often counterproductive, while the same efforts could have produced a more viable and beneficial trade-off. Adam Smith applied this reasoning not only to economics but also to morality and politics: The prudent reformer, according to Smith, will respect “the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people,” and when he cannot establish what is right, “he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong.” His goal is not to create the idea but to “establish the best that the people can bear.”
A December 2011 NYT article more clearly shows the divide. In Eric Weiner’s “Americans: Undecided About God?” piece, he says, “We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.”
Moreover, his kind of people “don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people—more loving, less angry—then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” “
The person who allows truth to only be good cannot appreciate another truth: that some truths are “truer” than others. This goes for non-religious truths, too. Milton and Rose Friedman, in their book Free to Choose, wrote, “A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.”
Haidt’s discussion of the two cultural “holy wars” being waged in American right now misses a point: someone, at some time, will have to make a decision. It is a decision that hinges on “protecting and upholding the Constitution of the United States.” But that action doesn’t fit most agendas, on both the Right and the Left. The Supreme Court’s upcoming decision could be “A very bad day For Obamacare”–and it could also be a turn-around for legislation in this country. Though the responses to non-conformity on this issue are vitriolic, often with a heavy dose of sarcasm, more hope springs eternal with President Obama’s $3.6 trillion dollar budget being rejected yesterday afternoon, 414-0.
We, as Americans, can not buy our way into a happy life. We were promised the pursuit of happiness, but not the contented happiness that can only come from within. Alas: neither can form in a country that resists a person’s conscience or sweeps aside religious liberty. How can one person’s rights be more important than another person’s liberties?
This is a perilous staircase to climb: the higher we climb away from our government’s foundations, the more government’s limits are disregarded. Tyranny is sacrilege to this country. It’s one reason why we fought for freedom to be our own nation. We should remind our President of this every day not in honor of the Founding Fathers, but because every single President takes an oath “that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and I will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That means something. That means more than most care to realize.
For those Americans who do not subscribe to a more dogmatic life–where obedience may seem like repression, and order is just a process that should be side-stepped for expeditious reasons–then perhaps the Constitution does seem like a load of red tape with those checks and balances, et cetera.
But even the Devil should get the benefit of the law, as Thomas More said to William Roper, his future son-in-law, in A Man For All Seasons:
More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
Self-interest may be a poor indicator of voting, says Haidt, but then again, so is sacredness. Because what is sacred to one person is nothing to another. A person who doesn’t mind what God thinks is not going to see the necessity of outlawing abortion, the killing of unborn humans, or even want to see.
A person who sees birth control as something that hurts women will not want to pay for it; but will be forced to, because the liberty to not provide will hurt women. And their hurt is more important than your hurt. That’s the cinch, isn’t it? Who is more important? Whose liberties matter more?
The answer should be, no one person is more important than another person. Every person has dignity and should be treated with such respect. This does not mean a person should be guaranteed anything from the government, though. The sphere in which people should move is their family, their friends, and their community; because those are the people and organizations who are paying their earned income to the government to re-dole out the money in ways the people cannot control and only consent to.
So here we stand, in the midst of American holy wars, where sacrilege offends both sides, and no decision can be reached because agendas have yet to be finalized. The tribal drums are beating. What will the Supreme Court decide? Will the President issue another executive order? Does Congress really speak for us? When will this madness end?
I need a break from the political silliness. I need the government not intrude on my religious liberties and beliefs, and then claim it is to protect another. That being said, in the words of OK Go, needing is one thing, and getting, getting’s another.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.