comfort does not satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart.
This might sound strange coming from the lips of a libertarian economist
from the Hoover Institution at Stanford. But we all know it, especially
at Christmas, because most of us have at least a vague dissatisfaction
with the commercialism of the season. The curious question is, why
would we even be tempted to think that money and material goods
are everything? Particularly at Christmas time, we wonder how we get
so caught up in it all.
Here is a part of the answer: we don't allow ourselves to speak
in public about the things that really do satisfy the deepest longings
of the human heart. Who are we? Why are we here and where are we
going? What do we stand for? What won't we stand for? These are
fundamentally religious and theological questions. The Western world
has developed a reticence about discussing these topics since the
One theological principle of the Reformation was that "every
man is his own interpreter of scripture," or "every man
is his own pope." This idea was crucial to many of the more
anti-hierarchiacal forms of Protestantism. But today, we are living
with one of its cultural corollaries: namely, you can't argue with
anybody's interpretation of Scripture, and by extension, anybody's
interpretation of what is moral. Anyone who thinks he has an inside
line on the Truth with a capital T, is accused of trying to reopen
the Thirty Years War.
This idea, of course, does not follow logically from the theological
proposition that every person is entitled to interpret Scripture
for himself. Nothing in the idea of individual interpretation says
that every interpretation is equally correct. Nor does it preclude
a vigorous debate about competing interpretations of Scripture and
ideas about morality. In fact, many of the great thinkers of the
post-Reformation, modern world argued that open debate about
ideas would improve everyone's understanding of religious truth.
However, this is the position to which we have evolved in modern
America. We aren't allowed to say out loud that God has anything
to do with the moral law. It is considered bad manners, and a sign of arrogance to even make this suggestion. In parts of the country,
it is even considered poor taste to wish someone a Merry Christmas.
We are supposed to say, "Happy Holiday," as if we had
no idea what that holiday might be.
This leaves us with nothing to say about the questions that matter
most. We aren't allowed to say that going to heaven or doing God's
will is our purpose in life, since not everyone agrees with that.
People have talked themselves into believing that even bringing
up the subject is to take the first step toward a Crusade to force
people to want to go to heaven. So, we are only allowed to talk
about the lowest common denominator of human purposes: the seeking
of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Surely everyone can agree
on these things at least. We all want to be more comfortable, live
longer, and endure less suffering. Of course, some religious traditions
place limits on those goals. There are higher reasons for which
one would be willing to sacrifice one's life, health, and comfort.
But, being religious reasons, we don't talk about those in public
So what is left? Only the material. Most Americans are quite religious.
But because we don't have permission to talk about it in public,
we end up talking only about money and comfort in public. Since
we aren't allowed to "keep Christ in Christmas," all we
have left is an extended binge of spending and eating.
I believe that this is part of the West's Public Relations problem.
Other people see only what we talk about in public, which is money
and comfort. This is the sort of thing that makes the Muslim world
think we are the great Satan. I also think it is part of Capitalism's
Public Relations problem. Capitalism doesn't present itself as a
substitute religion, claiming that material comfort will provide
purpose and meaning to one's life. But with religion pushed out
of the public square, commerce fills in the blanks. This may be
why so many children of well-to-do, but not particularly religious
parents, deride American society as nothing but shallow bourgeois.
Who are we? Why are we here and where are we going? What do we stand
for? What won't we stand for? These questions do not simply disappear,
even if everyone supports a tacit agreement that it is bad manners
to talk about them in public. The American Religion of Perpetual
Progress can not adequately answer these questions. We would be
better off if we could get over our fear of religion. Then we could
allow religion to do what religion does, namely, help people to
face life's biggest questions.
So go ahead and enjoy this Christmas season without apology. Send
religious Christmas cards instead of generic "Holiday greetings."
Wish your friends a Merry Christmas. And display your own nativity
set proudly on your own property.
God bless us every one.