Sunday, March 30, 2008

Why don’t Christians talk about humility anymore?

Sometimes Garrison Keillor talks about how Protestants used to believe in seeking humility. He will talk about how people in Lake Woebegone think that drawing attention to yourself and being assertive in public is something that a Christian should not do. As near as I can tell outside of Lake Woebegone church people in America don't talk that way anymore. Assertiveness training has been remarkably successful. Far from being humble Americans now revel in their right to be assertive, very much including the majority who consider themselves Christians,

Along with this assertiveness comes a strange sense of entitlement. So lacking in humility are such a large percentage of Americans that commercials now often refer to what they are selling as "what you deserve," confident that Americans think what they deserve is something fine and grand. Telling a traditional humble Christian that what you are selling is what she/he deserves would be a disaster, because as sinners we don't deserve very much. A commercial encouraging people to "get the car you deserve" would, I imagine, conjure up imagines of some old broken-down jalopy in someone with a traditional Christian outlook.

I've been pondering this curious state of affairs for a while and I have started wondering if the rise of the religious right had anything to do with this. A preacher trying to get her/his congregation to get active in politics and vote cannot also encourage humbleness. A determination to defeat politicians who do not agree with you and elect new ones you have selected is the epitome of hubris and pride. The leaders of the religious right had to transform their congregations into assertive people who could and should seek to transform the broader society and lead their neighbors. The idea that Christians should first seek to transform themselves had to be deemphasized. If people waited until they perfected themselves before trying to perfect society they would never get around to participating in politics at all.

Now that the Republican coalition of the religious right, neo-conservatives, financial conservatives and small-government libertarians shows signs of falling apart people are starting to wonder how anyone could have ever thought that these groups had any common ground. The social conservatives of the religious right have had very little of their agenda actually enacted in law – abortion is still legal, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile the tax cutters and neo-conservatives have everything they asked for. It surely must becoming clear to the religious right that the Republican elected officials are giving them only lip service, not legislation, in return for their work, money and support. That, along with all the sexual and financial scandals involving Republican law-makers, must have the religious right wondering if they have given up too much in their pursuit of political transformation. Perhaps that realization will be followed by a belated recognition that the goal of transforming society by political action was a profoundly unchristian idea and a mistake.

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