Moral Governments and the Leveling Effect
by Mary Walker
Obedience is a virtue that must be central to any Christian faith. Practicing obedience is to actively submit our wills to what we know is right and true: God’s word. Last week, I posted to my Facebook page what I thought was a fairly benign column on obedience to God. To my genuine surprise, a few individuals barraged the post with negative, hateful and mostly irrational remarks about the Church. Confused about how an article on obedience could cause so much disdain and disgust, I spent a few hours thinking about it. Suddenly, while in line at the grocery store, it hit me. The very authority of God is a concept that most people do not recognize in their daily lives. I’ll never forget an episode of Meet the Press, where then-candidate Michelle Bachmann was ridiculed for saying she’d pray and seek God’s guidance about governing decisions. The host made it clear he thought this was a medieval, irrational way to approach governing. The prevalent mentality, in fact, is that our wills and desires are paramount; few talk seriously about submitting in any way to God or his Church. Where did this arrogance come from? Obviously there are plenty of places where original sin disrupts our right relationship with God, but I’d like to explore an avenue that has had an immense corrupting effect on our entire society: the government, which rules our bodies and is now attempting to rule our souls.
The Bible says little specifically about governing and politics, however, God structures governing relationships in one, irrefutable way: they are all hierarchies. God made Adam to rule over the animals and the earth, “He established the tribes of Abraham, which were patriarchal, the regime of Moses, which was theocratic and the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon.” (Kraynak 47) We see hierarchies in our Church structure (God, Jesus, Peter, pope, bishops, priests) and we see it in the natural structure of the family (father, mother and children). We even see it within ourselves (the spiritual, rational, and animalistic). It is my personal belief that God blesses us with these hierarchies because they help our souls aspire to something greater and help to put our relationship with God in perspective. God is SO much greater than us! Perhaps our souls need practice being timid, humble and relatively insignificant to truly recognize what “greatness” and “magnificence” really are.
Political philosopher Robert Kraynak, in his illuminating book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy sees hierarchy as essential to any government: “A hierarchical political regime produces hierarchies in the soul whereas a democratic regime produces an indiscriminate equality of pleasures in the soul and lets loose a wild variety of lower desires” (Kraynak 239). He describes something he calls “the leveling effect”. This is the opposite of hierarchy. If our souls aren’t drawn upwards, to the divine, they atrophy and sink into the abyss of secular culture. This leveling effect of democracy happens because the culture appeals to the lowest common denominator. Likewise, many of the movements within our souls, even vices, that would remain silenced are given a voice. There is no predominant force to lift the society to something greater and even awe-inspiring. Subsequently, our culture devolves. For instance, our contemporary fascination with diversity and multi-culturalism can be a good thing, but it leads to indifference, and an acceptance of everything, no matter what its intrinsic value actually is.
Additionally, Kraynak points out that in democracies like our own, we speak in a language of rights (the right to free healthcare or the right to anything one believes the government owes). Kraynak argues that this language of rights is subversive of authority and makes it difficult to think about the greater society when we are so focused on what the government owes us instead of the duties we owe the government (maybe it was no coincidence that it was a Catholic president who said, “think not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”). Tocqueville even said about America, “Rights have come to replace religion as the voice of freedom”.
While rights are lovely things to have, in the last few weeks I have heard dozens of women assert their right to subsidized denial of discipline and it’s made me long for an ordered, just hierarchy that, tempered by reason and discipline, could judge what is a right claim and a claim that is only dictated purely by emotion and irrational passions. I’m talking of course, about the kingdom of heaven. I can offer no political solvent to the leveling effect of democracy here on earth, other than a renewed recognition of God’s power in each and every one of our lives.
As Christians, we should always be seeking something higher, something more pure and beautiful, since we know that the pleasant things of this world pale in comparison to God’s love for us. The true irony is, the higher we lift our sights and focus our attention, the more lowly and humble we will become. Perhaps there is something staggeringly beautiful in your life, for me it is Gregorian chant, or an amazing piece of Baroque music. Realize how that beauty is separate from sin and how God has placed that beauty in your life to help elevate your soul to the virtue of humility. It was in reference to this virtue that Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”