St. Paul Pioneer PressRod Dreher
Not that he cares, but the Almighty surely deserves our thanks for arranging to deny celebrity atheist Bill Maher, the Iron Man Nightlife Decathlete, an Academy Award nomination for his anti-religion documentary. But Maher got his licks in anyway, saying on last week's Oscar telecast: "I know, it's a touchy subject. But someday, we all have to confront the notion that our silly gods cost the world too greatly."
Too right! Our silly gods have plainly taken a lot out of humanity's hide, as a quick tour of the popular pantheon will attest.
The God of Money has been a particularly effective smiter of our hopes and dreams. His cultic devotees performed their rituals in the towering cathedrals of Wall Street, his evangelists carried the Go$pel to the masses through the media, and his Prophet, Alan Greenspan, commanded the devotion of the princes in the capital city and beyond. We believed the Oracle of the Federal Reserve had unlocked the secret of permanent prosperity by sacralizing the market, a mystery religion whose miracles were not to be questioned by mere mortals.
When the Prophet finally admitted last October that he had found "a flaw in the model" â€” that markets are made up of humans, who suffer from a flawed nature â€” the time to save ourselves from the consequences of idol worship had long passed. Greenspan the Once-Great: Look on his works, ye Mighty, and despair.
The God of Hedonism, in whose service the priapic Maher qualifies as a snake-handling holy roller, has exacted a painful tribute as well. How has Hedonism's first commandment â€” "If it feels good, do it" â€” worked out for us?
Marriage and the traditional family are disintegrating, for one. According to a 2007 study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, four in 10 babies born in America today are to single mothers. Younger adults cohabitate and have children outside of wedlock, says Pew, "at rates unprecedented in U.S. history."
The deleterious effects on children from weak, broken or unformed families have been copiously documented. One can't look forward to enduring an economic depression with so much social capital depleted.
Habits of thrift and prudent self-denial, dull though they may be, built this nation's middle-class wealth. But over the past 40 years or so, we dropped that boring old virtue. Why deny yourself anything? A big house, a great vacation, a new car â€” such were the ephemeral blessings bestowed upon communicants of the Church of Consumerism. This is how America went from a nation of savers to a country crippled by debt. Hedonism is a demanding and jealous god.
And let's not forget the God of Progress, whose cult is indigenous to our shining city on the hill. America was born out of the Enlightenment, which took as an article of its secular faith the idea that humankind was moving irreversibly toward a brighter future, under the guidance of reason. Modernity's notions of progress required weakening or outright decoupling society from the bonds of religion and tradition. To the progressive â€” and in the historical sense, almost all Americans are progressive â€” the past has no binding claims on the present.
But what happens to the progressive society when a storm blows up and strains at its foundations? That society may find that it's "like a fool who built his house on sand."
One of the "silly gods" denounced by Maher said that, and his words were recorded in a silly book upon which Western civilization was built. That book has a lot to say about the God of Money, none of it good. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul? And: You cannot serve both God and Money.
Nor will you find in the Bible's pages a brief for the God of Hedonism. "I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure," mourned the writer of Ecclesiastes, "and behold all was vanity and striving after wind." In the New Testament, St. James warns rather more darkly, "You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter."
That harshes my mellow. Truth to tell, we'd all rather party with Bill Maher than St. James. (Then again, St. James wouldn't drink all your beer and hit on your girlfriend.) But if we're honest with ourselves, we have to confess that for a long time, we've had rather too much Bill Maher and not enough St. James.
So, yes, let's confront our silly gods, the golden calves whose worship has brought us to this day of reckoning. It was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who said, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
Sound advice. We should try that sometime.