I have been told that the thoughts in previous post on this subject were a little too “random”. That the suggested alternative was not practical was obvious, and I think I admitted the same at the end. However it seems some missed the main point, so I’d like to try again from a different starting point. I’ll try to do a better job of defining what I see as the problem. I admittedly don’t have a practical solution to offer. But if it’s true that a problem well-defined is a problem half solved, we’ll settle for that.
Derrick Morgan, VP for domestic and economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, in an article in the Tulsa World on November 15th pointed out that a recent Gallup poll suggested that most Americans think the government is too big (54%) and that it should not promote traditional values (52%). Morgan obviously agreed that the government is too big, but that it should promote “traditional values”. He doesn’t really define what he or the Gallup poll defies as “traditional values”, but from the rest of his comments, one could probably surmise that he would include things like “self-responsibility” and helping one’s neighbor, as well as good moral and ethical values.
Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People said that he believed that being a person of “good character” was essential to not only being a good manager of people, but in any endeavor that required one to work effectively with others. His opinion was that good character traits were moral values like honesty and integrity. and that they were common to all the major religions of the world. He thought that the existence of these transcended ones view of God, but were those things were in effect “laws of human nature” which enabled people to get along together productively. He believed that although different religions had different views of God and different religious practices, they share the same “natural laws” of good behavior. I had this idea reinforced several years ago when I was part of a local interfaith religion discussion on immigration. We heard from Christians, Jews, Muslims and others about what their religion said about how one should treat the stranger in their community. It was amazing how closely these religious doctrines were to each other. In the Christian Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians he said, “Now we command you…keep away from any brother who is living in idleness… If any one will not work, let him not eat…For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort…to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living.” (It’s interesting to note that Thessalonica is in Greece, and based on what is going on in Greece today, they have not heeded this advice. For a country, running a deficit is an indication that there is more being consumed than they are producing. It would seem obvious that cannot go on forever.)
These would seem to me to be values that don’t necessarily require any particular view of God or that one even believes in the existence of God. So I would take “traditional values” to mean moral values such as honesty and integrity plus the idea of taking responsibility for oneself and helping a neighbor (or fellow human being) in need. Historically in this country, those things have been taught by religious organizations – the church. But the latest Pew survey shows, membership in religious organizations is trending down while the “unaffiliated” numbers are rising. As our guide in Estonia pointed out, there may not be a place where the unaffiliated are taught ethics, morality and traditional values.
Why are traditional values important? In Max Weber’s somewhat controversial book – The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, he tied economic ideas and progress to cultural values which in turn can be disseminated by religious organizations and religious movements. The controversy seems to primarily be from his crediting specific rise and improvement of the Western economies specifically to the spread of Calvinism, and gives little credit to other religious groups. What doesn’t seem controversial is that the values of the culture shape the social, economic and political aspects of a people. So if you like the economic success that our country has had and appreciate its political freedom and its social equality orientation, then it should be important that the “traditional values” on which those were based be maintained.
So where is training in traditional values to come from? Morgan suggests the government. But is that really the best alternative? Many historians have pointed out that political leaders have tended to pervert or distort religious and cultural values and beliefs to suit their own political purposes. Some intentionally and some – as Kierkegaard pointed out – unintentionally. So this is all not necessarily mal-intended; at least not in the beginning. But if there is anything to de Tocqueville’s warning that “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” then having the government in charge of promoting “traditional values” should give one some concern.
If the people are going to supervise the elected politicians running the government then I think it would be good to have a non-governmental organization in charge of promoting and educating the voters on “traditional values”. It should be supported by private funds, not out of the public treasury. It may not be a “religious organization” in the historical sense of the term, but it would be “religious” in the sense of maintaining the voters values and beliefs that made us the nation we have become and I hope would remain.
Derick Morgan in his Tulsa World article, notes that the increase in “welfare spending” is significantly responsible for the growth in government. He notes that reducing the size of government would likely mean reducing these expenditures. He says that many of us believe that churches, and other non-profit organizations should “serve at least most of the poor – materially and spiritually”. If the government does any of this, he thinks it should be as safety net, not as a way of life. While I have no conceptual problem with that, I believe in real life, the safety-net idea is a slippery slope for two reasons. 1) Many people don’t understand that many programs – social security for example – are supposed to be safety nets and not something to provide for their total needs. So they count on them. By the time they figure out that they are not supposed to be full support, it’s too late for them to provide for themselves. 2) The temptations to the politicians once the program is started is to do exactly what de Tocqueville suggested – promise them more for their vote.
So if we could ever figure out how to do a “traditional values” organization that we could all belong to, maybe we could also let it manage out welfare programs – ideally using privately donated funds like our religious organizations do.