The sociology of influence

May 29, 2006

I wrote below about the battle that recently occurred in Kentucky over religious liberties, and about how responses typically line up; the fears of marginalizing the irreligious with public displays of religious sentiment, and the fears of the religious that their rights are being suppressed.

  In such discussion it often comes down to what are essentially political considerations; that is what our political laws and rights allow us to do. Because our religious liberties spring primarily from a very simple constitutional structure, that is, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", ideas about it are many and varied. A good part of the court's time has been devoted to settling the issue, with little success over these last two hundred years.  

In discussions about religious liberties, I tend to take a slightly different approach to the issue, which is often confusing to some. I think the political left in our country has succeeded in making the issue primarily a political one; and as much as they have, they have succeeded in limiting religious expression in the public venue. I don't think it is primarily a political issue, but a sociological  one. Now up front I will admit both the political and sociological sciences are difficult frameworks by which to conduct discussions, both of them being 'soft sciences', that is studies that can't be readily conducted with in the confines of the lab (which would be expected, as they both concern human choices and the ways our societies interact; one can't exactly haul 21st century America into a lab on campus, can one?) and which don't lend themselves to readily available quantification.  

Nonetheless they are important frameworks by which to consider issues in our society, albeit radically different ones. Politics concerns itself primarily with the distribution of power and methods by which decisions are made in our society; in short, who wins, and who loses; or more properly, as Laswell  put it, "who gets what, when, where, and how". Sociology though concerns itself with our social lives; with the behavior of humans as they interact with each other, the formation of relationships and communities. They are related, but take different approaches.

  I think in the early part of the 21st century, evangelicals have allowed themselves to become defined in our society politically. I think this has happened because they have followed the secular left's lead in dealing with our societies ills; we have approached them politically. Whether we are talking abortion, or gay rights, or public expression of prayer, both the secular left and the religious right have battled within political institutions for power. By in large, the left has won in this arena; and the reason they have is because political solutions are really about acquisitions of power, and ultimately (despite popular perception) believers in Christ aren't by and large concerned about acquiring secular power.

  We are (or should be) concerned however with the sociology of our country; that is, they way humans interact and relate to one another. It is quite obviously a primary concern of our Creator, who established both societies (like Israel) and the means by which they would live, as well as commissioning communities (the Church) and structure with which they would relate. Obviously Jesus was concerned with human interaction and behavior, as exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount  and the parable of the Good Samaritan . Our country springs in large part from the influence of such early believing communities.  

Now I don't mean to say we should ignore politics all together; I think it is very important for us as good citizens to be informed and involved in our political processes. Indeed, I have spent a number of years doing just that. That involvement has allowed me to see first hand the danger;  the danger of becoming political beings, seen primarily through the lens of a set of political issues. As much this is so, I think we lose influence in our society. We may stop gay marriage until the next election, but we will also be seen primarily as the political group that must lose power because they oppose gay marriage.  

And that brings us back to the Kentucky revolt. I think that action came closer to what we need to be doing with a sociological rather than political approach. Rather than continue to fight the issue through the courts, the students just lived the way their community always had; they prayed. They didn't say, "this is our right", they just prayed, saying in effect, this is who we are; this is how we live, this makes our community what it is, and they acted accordingly. I think Christians on the whole could learn much from this; we need to stop trying to seek to have rights or political power granted to us, and start living according to the faith that we say we have. We pray, we celebrate God, we love our neighbor, we oppose what is evil; this is who we are, this is the way we interact – you can vote us out of office, but you cannot diminish us or the way we live in this society.


More than a day off

May 29, 2006

One of my few regrets in life is not having ever served in the armed forces. Unfortunately, at the time when I would have joined the military, I was a left-wing anti-establishmentarian, who despised any institutions I deemed authoritarian. Had I only converted a few years earlier, I may have thought differently.

Sadder still since I come from a family that has a long history of service; I am named after an uncle who died at age eighteen after stepping on a land mine in Italy during WWII, my father fought in the same war in Italy and Africa, another uncle, who died recently, served at both Normandy and Iwo Jima. My only brother was in the Navy, and served in Bahrain shortly following the Gulf War.

Today is their day, and now, despite my own lack of service, I want to express immense gratitude for their service and sacrifice, without which, we wouldn't have the freedom and prosperity we so richly enjoy. Thank you.

Revolt in Kentucky

May 23, 2006

There was a minor revolt recently in Russell Springs Kentucky, at the Russell County High School. A group of about 200 hundred students stood and began to recite the Lord's Prayer during the opening remarks by the Principal; this despite an order by the judge banning prayer at the event. The revolt continued with remarks by senior Megan Chapman, who gave credit to God for her success in life.

Surveying a discussion group about this event revealed a number of typical responses. Those against cited fears of ostracizing the non-religious, while those for brought up the need to defend religious liberties.

One commenter put it this way:

this is the reason we don't support prayer as an institutional feature, because it marginalizes people. and there the kids go, marginalizing people.

to sum, they weren't standing up for their rights because those rights were never in danger. they're creating an in-group/out-group atmosphere, and that's… well, "mean of them" is the most negative term i can use on this forum, but i assure you, i don't like this at all.

One wonders if the same commentator would be equally offended by recent commencement addresses by Jodie Foster or Thomas Wolfe, comments certain to 'margenalize' a number of listeners.

Both views I think somewhat miss the mark; I don't think what is at issue here is as much religious concern as much as it is a cultural one. Students, parents, and administrators of a southern Kentucky high school are apt to be be more religious than say those at the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, the article quotes a resident of the town, saying, "In our little town, we've always had that prayer at commencement…Why not? That's part of our everyday life." I think the students weren't attempting to impose a particular religious belief on anyone as much as they were attempting to keep a belief system, albeit a secular statist one, from being imposed on them.

In the founding of this country our forefathers gave great leeway to the individual states to determine their own courses of action, provided they follow certain limited provisions of our Federal Constitution. There is no indication they intended to impose a monolithic secular culture on the nation, and no reason Federal judges should be attempting to impose one on the citizens of Russell Springs.

The Da Vinci Ode

May 23, 2006

I spoke recently at our church about the Da Vinci Code, introducing it's themes and it's foundation in Gnosticism. The audio is available here. Be kind.

In Memoriam – William Delbert 1925 – 2006

May 22, 2006

My uncle Bill died last week, on a Sunday afternoon in New Orleans. "Paw Paw" as my nieces and nephews called him, finally gave in after struggling through two strokes, and ultimately a hurricane that took away what little vitality he had left. He was my last living male relative in my father's generation, making the loss of his passing all the more sad.

His life was a simple one, though powerful in a way so few are today. He lived through and survived the depression, only to be sent off to fight in the Great War, World War II. There, in the Navy he experienced some of the greatest battles of our time. Serving aboard the USS Blessman, he lived through and witnessed the invasion of Normandy and Iwo Jima, at the latter surviving the explosion of a 500lb bomb that killed 40 of his shipmates.  I don't think I began to appreciate his service until I saw the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.

Returning home, he went to work for New Orleans Public Service, working in electrical utilities, a job he would retire from. He bought the house he would live in most of his adult life (until Katrina took it), and was faithfully married to two women, the first my aunt Theresa, whom he lost to cancer, and the second my aunt Barbara, who died a few years before him. He had five children, all of whom are successful adults in their own right today.

His death, though not widely felt, marks the loss of one more connection of this generation to the past. As with most men of his generation, he didn't talk much of the things he had experienced; though looking back, he lived through and personally experienced some of the most incredible moments in recent history.

That perhaps is what most separates our generation from his; he strived to do simple everyday things well and faithfully, and ended up being a part of the greatest events of our nation. Our generation desires to do and say great things, but often fails to do the everyday things – having faithful, lifetime marriages, raising children into fruitful adulthood, and establishing homes and communities. These are the things which, founded in our faith, bring the most profound sense of accomplishment in the end.

The truth offered by Christ that, "He who is faithful in little will also be faithful in much" was profoundly exemplified in the life of my uncle, and others like him. I can only hope it will be true of me in the end.

Censorship, Libertarianism, and the Da Vinci Code

May 17, 2006

As expected, with the current controversy surrounding the Da Vinci Code, some are calling for a boycott of the movie; and of course, others, motivated presumably by libertarian sensibilities, are calling such actions censorship, and vowing to see the movie simply as a support for the free exchange of ideas. The story they say, is after all fiction and as such shouldn't be condemned in the same way someone might of if the work was said to be fact. Of course, libertarianism would be equally protective of a presumed factual attack on Christianity.

To test the argument they are making, I think a thought experiment is in order. Rather than a fictional account attacking the fundamental tenets of Christianity, instead imagine a book that posits that the Jews secretly run the world, or one extolling the benefits of a race war, won by whites.

 Two such books actually exist, the first being the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a bestseller currently in the Middle East. The other of course is the The Turner Diaries , a fictional account of the future following a race war – a novel said to have influenced the likes of Timothy McVeigh.

 In such cases would we expect that a major Hollywood Director would produce such a film? Would well-known stars eagerly involve themselves and defend such a project, because, after all, it's only a story? Would we see the press staunchly defending the right of those same players to produce such drivel?

I would presume not; and that presumption would be soundly based on the understanding that even in the case of fiction, there can be an agenda and an intention to influence popular thinking. It would be not be wrong to strongly condemn such fiction in writing and film, indeed it is critical that we do so, even if such criticism peaks the curiosity of some. In the same way we need to be strongly and wisely critical of the Da Vinci Code and it's claims, whether or not those making the claims hide behind the moniker of fiction, art, and storytelling.

Despite their claims to the contrary, libertarians ultimately lean toward those philosophies which are critical of Christianity; and that is one of the primary reasons as a Christian I couldn't be a libertarian, nor attend the Da Vinci Code movie in good conscience.

Reality Check

May 11, 2006

Joe Carter has posted a piece about the unwarranted pessimism that pervades our society today. I think his conclusion, "Americans don't need to fret about the economy (booming), the situation in Iraq (improving), or crime (falling). What they should be worried about is the outbreak of pessimism. That plague is reaching pandemic levels" misses the point a bit. His determination concerning the warrants of our pessimism is based on standard measures – the economy, the state of the Iraq war, and crime rates; and I agree, by those measures, we aren't doing nearly as bad as the current popular tenor would seem to indicate.

What I think drives the current pessimism though has little to do with those factors; instead, I think it has everything to do with the realization we all had on the morning of September 11th, 2001. We came to understand that day that even when the economy was booming, there are no apparent threats to our national security, and crime and poverty seemed to be fading, the very fabric of our national and personal confidence can be shredded by a small group of determined individuals who think that causing mass death is a legitimate means of political expression. We were hit again with the tenuous nature of our civic existence after Katrina smashed into our coast.

Our society still reels from those events, and like a parent who lost a child in a senseless act of violence, no amount of beneficent circumstance will relieve us of the gnawing concern that nothing is certain, that we are powerless to prevent the tragic from invading our lives at its leisure.

It calls for us not to be rooted in hopefulness about the latest military advance or economic forecast, but to anchor ourselves finally in something true and eternal; something our society seems to have lost its desire or wisdom to seek.