Recently I was reading some of G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on society, government and power. During the early 20th century, this Roman Catholic philosopher/theologian was among the most perceptive societal critics in England. Chesterton not only viewed what was happening in culture from a moral perspective, he also was amazingly good at describing and defining what was happening in accessible ways.
One of his most perceptive ideas caught my attention. He clearly saw that “progress” was often built on the creation of new “gods” or causes, ideals and philosophies that took the role of “god” in that they siphoned off society’s reliance on their religious foundations and fastened them passionately to “instruments of progress.” He once wrote that liberalism is all about progress while conservatism is all about mitigating the unintended consequences of progress. I’ll leave you to figure out what that means and how you feel about it!
But what caught my attention was the reality that too often “progress” does make a god out of new ideas, especially when those ideas are in direct conflict with natural law. For example, the current debate on how the Constitution is to be interpreted revolves around whether we should understand the words the framers used in their cultural context or in ours. Does the “pursuit of happiness” mean whatever an individual today desires? Or are we to understand that the meaning of that phrase begins with what the original authors intended their original audience to understand from the words they used? If the latter is the case – as it is in the proper interpretation of all literature since meaning begins with authorial intention – then “happiness” is that which is moral and contributes to the common good. (You can do your own research on that if you want, but you’ll find this to be the truth.)
But enough about “false gods.” What I’m really wanting to discuss is Chesterton’s companion belief that those seeking power in society become experts in creating “false devils.” We’ve heard it said that those in power believe “you should never waste a good tragedy.” That is, every possible upheaval in normalcy presents an opportunity to instill fear in the governed, which, in turn, makes them easier to convince, easier to lead and – sadly – easier to dominate.
False gods are horrible, but false devils are also quite dangerous. We’re living just now inside a pantheon of false devils brought to us by myriad voices of news services, social media and the entertainment industry, which is busy convincing us that only superheroes can save the day.
We are deluged daily with a steady stream of doom-producing pronouncements. COVID is raging, people are dying, masks and restrictions are coming. China is menacing, North Korea is firing, Russia is conquering. War is coming. Climate change is devastating, farmland is vanishing, air quality is threatening. Education is brainwashing, Democracy is eroding, justice is dying. God is dead, morality is flexible, sexuality is god. Violent crime is threatening, governments are sleeping, private militias are forming, the end is coming.
With few exceptions, these doomsday pronouncements leave us feeling sad, fearful and too often helpless. And if they do spur us to some action it will most likely be anger-fueled, which is never helpful.
But, before you panic, just stand back and think about it. Where are the facts that ground these false devils in truth? Why should I believe these dire predictions? And how come different news outlets have competing fact sheets? We have to train ourselves to withhold judgment until we can actually ground that judgment on a solid foundation of truth. In other words, wait to worry!
I can remember when journalism consisted of giving us the facts and allowing us to come to our own conclusion. Now, far too often we are given the conclusions without any of the facts. In my world, if you want facts, read a good newspaper. Newspaper men and women are often still good journalists. If you trade quick for thorough, you’ll be surrounded by false devils.
Perhaps nowhere is the promotion of “false devils” more prevalent than in the world of politics. Politicians seem to want us all to be so scared that we can easily be herded wherever they want to take us. Sadly, much of the media serve as their sheepdogs, biting and nipping at our hearts to drive us panic-stricken in the pen of panic.
So, here’s the deal: The election season is upon us and it will be filled with false devils. Don’t fall for them! Get involved! Get educated. Hit the candidates’ websites. Read their blogs, emails, and listen to their speeches. Find out who is telling the truth, and whose views align with your convictions and values. Chase away the false devils, and certainly don’t bow down to the false gods. Be the citizen you want the rest of us to be, and who knows? Maybe we’ll dig through all the layers of falsehood and once again find the bedrock of truth, morality and sanity upon which we can build a city dedicated to life, liberty and the proper pursuit of happiness.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.