Friday, November 05, 2004

Hollow Men

The thing is, I'm with them. The people who said that the thing they cared about most was moral values. The people who voted against their own interests, because they thought their relationship with God was more important than their pocketbooks. Those are my people.

Like them, I think that much of what's wrong with this country is that it's hollow at the heart. It's run by what C.S Lewis would have called "men without chests," people who have never developed strong moral instincts, people who live by a rather confused and self-contradictory utilitarian doctrine of maximing pleasure and minimizing suffering. People who live in their heads, and prefer interacting with theories to interacting with human beings and concrete problems. (People like you and me, my dear reader.)

I have far more in common with those evangelical Christians than I have in common with my parents, with most of the professors who taught me, or with most of my political allies. I don't believe that life is about maximizing wordly pleasure. I don't believe that this world can be fixed (though I believe, maybe inconsistently, that it's our duty to try to fix it.).

The reason I didn't cast my ballot with them is not that I think their priorities are wrong. I think they're completely right. Giving this country a functioning heart is more important than fixing its economy or changing its foreign policy or even protecting its environment. Because with a bad heart all those things are bound to go bad anyway.

But there is a way in which I think they are wrong. I don't think the hollowness is out there, in some parcel of wicked politicians or biased journalists or rancorous academics. It's in almost all of us, and it won't be fixed by just voting in people who stand tall and say that they pray a lot. The problem is not -- particularly -- that our leaders are hollow. It's that we are. This is not a hollow that can be filled by poltical action, and trying to do so only puts us at the mercy of demogogues and pharisees.

Politics is a matter of this world. Of issues and plans and imagined futures and competing interests. That's as it should be. There's nothing wrong with being active in the world. But it's a deep, deep mistake to confuse that with our most important work, which is the work of the spirit. It's a mistake for two reasons. One is that it leads us to identify our political opponents with evil -- something we are too prone to do anyway -- and the other is simply that it takes our attention off what really is important.

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