Why I am a Conservative, Not a Libertarian

Dad and I have had discussions over the years as to whether we are conservatives or libertarians. It’s been very interesting, because while at times we have defined ourselves differently, we have voted in ways that stretched those categories. Also, we’ve been known to switch labels at different times. But here’s me pinning myself to the wall with a definitive statement: there is a difference between those labels, and I am conservative.

Common sense and a boatload of bad experiences both require me to give a definition. Requirements be hanged. Both labels point towards broad movements, not narrow, concrete parties. If this was “why I vote Republican,” we might have definitions. Unfortunately, it’s not, and neither conservatism nor libertarianism have party platforms so much as tendencies.

So let me start with one tendency: views on authority. Libertarianism is all about liberty, liberty wherever it can be found. Authority is viewed with suspicion, and it is all delegated from the hands of the individual. Conservatism is not thusly. Conservatism does begin with fundamental rights and individual freedoms, but with those freedoms come responsibilities. And here’s the key—those responsibilities aren’t just to take care of yourself.

Libertarians, in my experience, tend to hop on a bandwagon I’m fond of—verbal beatdowns of government welfare, even Social Security and Medicare. But they then go a few steps farther, and defend the right of everybody to do what they want as long as it doesn’t very directly hurt anyone else. There’s a tendency there to define everything in terms of individuals and protecting them from other individuals. The government exists as a referee.

Conservatives beat the same drum with regards to redistribution of wealth, but play things a little different. Conservatives are big on family values, on civic responsibility and patriotism. A conservative will ostentatiously wave his Bible as much as his Constitution. There is a tendency in conservative talk to point outside the individual and talk about his relationship to the rest of the world.

This sometimes has tangible results, but not always on a policy level. Conservatives, regardless of their view on a given war, are far more likely to rally for our troops than libertarians. I have known conservatives (I’m one of them) whose greatest objection to the anti-war crowd is not necessarily what they say about the war itself, it’s their attitude towards the troops. Regardless of whether a given war is a good idea, we certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the soldiers who stick their necks out for us. That sense of thankfulness and honor can be missing in libertarians.

Now that whole little schpiel on war could create a reaction from a lot of libertarians (“yeah, but my position is really what’s best for the troops!”), but that simply makes the point. There is a difference in emphasis between conservatives and libertarians. One movement has a culture that thanks those who serve the community, one has a culture that is more concerned with critiquing the context in which they serve.

Back to views of authority. Now, I’m not the sort of guy who likes to be bossed around, even by people who have the right to do so. I’m just ornery that way. But I do think that we live in a world that has legitimate authorities, and we have to obey them even if they are wrong. Within reason. We cannot obey commands to sin, but we can obey commands to be stupid. We pay taxes, despite the enormous amount of stupid involved there. I think it should stay that way.

Here’s the problem with all this: the lines are fuzzy. Both movements love freedom more than the current establishment. Both movements can find support in the Bible and can bow the knee to Christ Both movements (despite allowing for Antifederalists) support the Constitution as the law of the land.

The haziness gets worse. I am taking my stand with conservatism because that movement has a place for rightful authority, and because it has a stronger sense of community, and because it tends to believe in a world where interpersonal relations are not based merely on the” as-long-as-they-aren’t-hurting-anyone-it’s-okay” principle. But there are side effects.

Back to the military thing. Conservatives look at our troops with rose-colored glasses and tend to see our wars with an aura of heroism that isn’t always there. And we turn a blind eye to a lot of things in a way we shouldn’t. Libertarians (despite a tendency to screechiness) pare things down to cold logic and cut right through all of that. In short, there are problems conservatism has that libertarianism doesn’t.

And here’s why I don’t care. Conservatism has problems, but those problems are more consistent with the world God made. We may go giddy with thankfulness, but we are right to be thankful. We may have lower standards for politicians, but that’s because we look at them with grace and a sense of priorities. We may sometimes be too loyal to our nation, but at least we understand loyalty at all. We may submit to authority more often than strictly necessary, but at least we can submit when we should.

This is not to excuse our problems. They are real, and nobody like a jingoistic goose-stepper. But it is to say that you have problems wherever you go, and sometimes they’re worth it. If I can be thankful, submit to authority, contribute to a community, and have a morality beyond my own orneriness, it’s all worth the price of having to make sure I don’t overdo it.

So that’s me venturing into the grey area. The contrasts honestly would not be so stark if I wasn’t, well, you know, contrasting. But they are important, and I hope my thoughts were helpful in you sorting out yours.

Have a blessed day.

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Love and the Artist

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis brought an artist up out of Hell/Purgatory into Heaven to decide if he wanted to stay. This particular artist, a painter, can’t sit still for two minute and enjoy the scenery. He can’t look at the landscape without wanting to paint it. When he’s forced to argue about this, the artist says that’s how every artist should be interested in the world—to put it in art. Art is the goal. The more heavenly local replies thusly:

‘No. You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

And that is profoundly true. An artist is not somebody who sits around thinking about or participating in art all day. That’s why those artsy people are so weird. A good artist, one who has his priorities straight, loves the world he is in, and wants to tell somebody about it.

Fundamentally, an artist is a two year old. Where more mature people just flip on a light, the whole concept makes him excited.

“Did you see that? He flipped that thingy in the wall over there and the round glass thingy way over there went zap! Then it got all bright! Do it again!”

In fact, the only difference between a young artist and a young scholar is that the artist babbles to mom for fifteen minutes straight about how cool the light is, and the young scholar tries to figure out how it works. And those two aren’t really mutually exclusive.

This means that the purpose of the artist is fundamentally to share. I’m fond of explaining both the way I babble to my family and close friends, and my desire to write with the phrase, “I can’t see and not say.” I have to tell somebody. Another artist, of course, might have to share visually with his paints, or musically with a piano. I prefer my words. At any rate, artists see something wonderful about the world and have to tell people about it.

I want to draw two things from this. First, this is why in a lot of societies artists are more or less sacred. In telling people about different aspects of the world, they connect people to a way of looking at life they can get more out of, that makes life more worth living. To paraphrase Lewis, art may not have survival value, but it gives survival value. And in so doing, art teaches people to be more human. That’s why it’s filed away among the humanities.

The other thing that needs to be stated is that when we lose sight of this fact, we get weirdoes and bad artists. If you are concentrated either on your medium instead of the thing it’s mediating, or on what the medium can get you, you will never have as much to say as the person who actually loves what he’s writing, painting, or fiddling about. Wrongly ordered love, as Augustine might say, is bad. You miss the point, and therefore cannot communicate the point to others. Hence both sellouts, who are in it for what the art can get them, and artsy people, who are also in it for what the art can get them, but in a more emotional, needy kind of way.

Let me qualify that: there’s nothing wrong with doing art for a living. After all, the artist has to live, and there’s no reason he can’t love what sells well. Problem is, he has to honestly love what sells well. The other half of that coin is that if what he loves, or what he should love, is not something that sells well, part of his job as an artist is to change that fact. If we’re communicating what we love, we ought to be able to make others love it.

And I will throw in a qualification for artsy-ness as well. All the mediums—prose, poetry, sculpting, and the rest—they all are things in the world, things to be loved. You can get quite good at them for their own sake. Your audience will be more limited and what you say will be limited if the medium itself is the primary thing you want to talk about, but it certainly is fair game.

But the primary goal of an artist should be to communicate something about this crazy, wonderful world God made. And, for that matter, to communicate something about God himself. The medium is not what we love, it’s what we’re mediating.

To top all this off, let me quote Lewis again. Because Lewis is a thing I love, and you should too.

“When you painted on earth–at least in your earlier days–it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.”

Even our earthly loves are not an end in themselves. We love the world, because it is something God made and then gave to us. That’s why artists tend to be a little ADD (at least, in my experience). They flutter about from cool thing to cool thing, spending just enough time to tell you about it before they switch to the next thing. Because, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” All our lesser creativity is simply a way of talking about the Creator who went before us.

Upon Your Wrath

In Ephesians we are told “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil.”

I was raised with the phrase “Let not the sun go down on your anger.” To me it seemed a general principle, and one I didn’t really understand. “Don’t go to bed angry.” Sure, but why?

Recently I had the opportunity to learn why from firsthand experience. I have struggled with bitterness for a long time. Usually it starts, and gets added to, when I say “no, I’ll let whatever they did slide this time. I don’t want to start a fight.” And then the anger builds, the resentment rises, and soon I’m left feeling bitter about so-and-so and what they did to me. That’s a hard place to get out of, and far from fun.

The other day I was given the opportunity to change that. I encountered the same sort of event that usually leads me into resentment, and as I was walking out that anger, I considered the advice a wise counselor gave me. He recommended that I talk to the person I anticipated being in conflict with, and deal with the problem before it started.

That evening, pacing around Moscow, it struck me what it meant to not let the sun go down on one’s anger. We can avoid dealing with problems when we fear conflict, but that won’t make the problems go away. If we refuse to address them, they just get bigger. Bitterness grows, the devil finds a foothold, and soon conflict comes on a scale far larger than you had anticipated. Don’t let that moment pass, don’t let the sun set. Deal with problems before they get out of hand.

It must be remembered, of course, that the preceding phrase is “be ye angry, and sin not.” There were more than a few things I wanted to say that would have been out of line, and would only have made the situation worse. In dealing with conflict between brothers, we shouldn’t add to that conflict. We can’t fix one sin with another.

I am glad to say that when we addressed our issue that day, we resolved things well. As a result, I have a better relationship with my brother in Christ, and have avoided another long, nasty battle with bitterness. This is a lesson I hope I have learned for good, and I hope my experience can encourage you in this respect.

Have blessed evening.

Between the Bayous

The Caddo Indians told an old legend of a cave where the Red River and Mississippi met, a place called Chahkanina, “the place of crying.”  When the Caddoes emerged from that darkness, their leader, Moon, told them to turn west and not look back. Among the bands that turned west were Nacogdoche. They settled in a land of deep woods filled with great pines, the earth shaped by the rivers and creeks that cut through it. The ground there was fertile, and they settled between two bayous, Lanana and Banita. They named their village “Nevantin.”

Nevantin, like other Caddo villages, was a collection of beehive-shaped huts. There they raised corn, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, and sometimes tobacco, which they considered sacred. They hunted deer and buffalo and small game in the surrounding woods. The village had a caddi, a chief, and a xinesi, a priest or shaman. They worshipped the “Caddi Ayo,” or “Lord of the Sky.”

For hundreds of years the Nacogdoche band continued in this way of life, year after year, harvest after harvest, in trade and marriage and war and peace. Then, in the year of our Lord 1542, a Spaniard named Luis de Moscoso Alvarado passed through East Texas with a company of explorers. News of these strangers from across the sea rippled through the Caddo bands. The story of Nevantin, the village between the bayous, was about to change forever.

Atheists and Operating Standards

So, after my last post, some friends of mine pointed to this article and pointed out that atheists can indeed act morally. I have a very sophisticated and complicated philosophical response to that statement. Are you paying attention? It goes like this: yeah, I totally agree.

Not only can atheists act morally, some atheists can even act better than a lot of theists. No doubt about it. That, however, is not the point.

I don’t know whether Christians actually argue that atheism leads to being a horrible person. Some may, I don’t. What I will argue, however, is that atheism cannot justify being a decent person. Not that it keeps you from being a decent person, just that it can’t justify doing so. In other words, an atheist that is morally principled is inconsistent with his worldview.

This is because morality is about shoulds. You should do this and not that. You should hold the door open for the old lady, you shouldn’t laugh as she struggles to get it open herself. You should defend the helpless, you shouldn’t steal from them or kill them at your convenience.

An atheist cannot talk about shoulds. An atheist can explain why (as primates, or a highly developed species, or a herd animal, or whatever) we have a tendency to act morally in a given situation. But that just tells us why we act a certain way, it doesn’t tell us whether we should act that way. The same evolutionary explanations can explain why rape and murder are so common. Explanations have nothing to do with should and shouldn’t.

A theist (specifically, a Christian) can. Should and shouldn’t, and their synonyms “supposed to” and “not supposed to” all assume that there is some sort of purpose. Human beings are meant to act in one way and not another. We have operating standards to live up to.

But operating standards require a standard maker. In other words, people with a purpose require a creator to give them that purpose. Laws require a law-giver.

The article claims morality can’t come from such a Being. It asks whether the commands given by God are moral because he gives them or he gives them because they are moral. The first, we are to believe, leads to the possibility of God commanding immorality. This isn’t worthy of much attention, as in such a scenario, by definition, that would not be the case. The second, it is assumed, places a standard above God, and therefore God does not actually establish morality.

Try this on for size: Right and wrong, good and bad, the system of morality, is inherent in God’s nature. The same way it’s in some peoples’ nature to be friendly and outgoing, in others to be quiet and contemplative, that’s the way in which the whole plan of justice and righteousness is in God’s nature. He defines morality by who he is. Then he tells us “Be holy, for I am holy.”

The article then slaps down some well-worn “evidence” that the Christian God is immoral. I won’t bother answering those charges, since anybody really searching for the truth can find answers to those online, talking to a pastor, or in the Scriptures themselves. I find it more interesting that the author is judging God’s actions by a moral standard which he has no basis for. The closest he comes to giving an origin for these standards is when he says “few of us would see [various heinous things] as moral.” I won’t dwell on the problem of basing morality on majorities (few vs. most of us). That’s a path that’s been well worn, and the problems there should be obvious. Besides, I don’t think that’s really his standard.

In fact, when I see this same discussion played out among various atheists and Christians, I very rarely see an atheist provide any solid basis for his views on morality. He is always eager to prove he is not a monster (who wouldn’t be?), but rarely forthcoming with an explanation of why he shouldn’t be.

Most atheists grew up and continue to live in Christian or (supposedly) post-Christian societies.  When they reference their knee-jerk moral reactions, they give little thought to the history and underpinnings of the ethical culture they live in. I would suggest that most of the morality they feel flows directly from their hearts actually flows from over a thousand years of repentance, grace, and hard preaching they took in with their mother’s milk.

Today there are very few societies untouched by the Gospel, and most of us would not be eager to claim them as fine examples of moral rectitude. This only gets more true the deeper into history and the farther from the Gospel you look. Which is not to say that the moment you remove Christ we revert to cavemen beating each other over the head with sticks, but there is a reason Christian societies prospered and spread while others died out. Solid morality makes for solid societies.

So, to recap: atheists can be nice, but they can’t tell us why we should be nice. Standards require a standard-maker, something atheists refuse to believe in. I hope this gave you something to chew on. Good night, and God bless.

Whedon, Nolan, House, and Hope for the World

This past year or so I’ve been up to my neck in Joss Whedon. Firefly, Buffy, Angel, Avengers, references to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Must be the company I keep. After a while, you start to notice patterns in a guy’s work, start to work out what he believes about the world.

Hanging out with the same folks that got me into Whedon, I’ve also watched a lot of Christopher Nolan. He is a far better writer and director, with films like Inception, the Batman Trilogy, Memento, and the Prestige under his belt. I began to notice as well that while he takes himself far more seriously than Whedon, they hold certain things in common.

By now it’s obvious that I’m going somewhere with this, and I’ll just show you my hand. When I watched the House series finally, the theme clicked into place across that series and both bodies of work. All of them take a certain view of death, the meaning of life, and how we are to live in response to it.

House has always struggled with death, firmly believing that there is nothing after. Life, he believes, is meaningless and ends in meaninglessness. We’re just, as the now aging adage attests, ugly bags of mostly water. In the final episode this is brought into startling clarity. But his response is interesting: he keeps on living. In every episode, from the first to the very last, we are told never to give up. Objectively, life may have no purpose, but it’s still worth living, still worth giving a little bit of our own purpose.

To keep it short, we’ll stick with Whedon’s Buffyverse. In both Buffy and in Angel we are told, pretty explicitly, that this world is hell. Buffy knows that in contrast with the peace of death, life is not worth living. Angel has seen that there’s a little bit of hell in every person, some amount of darkness that they infect the world with. We’re trapped in a world of pain and darkness. But Whedon is one step above House, and a bit more theatrical. He insists not merely on keeping on living, but on fighting the evil, again and again, with every apocalypse, even if there is no final victory. And he expects his heroes, and heroines, to do so in epic style.

Christopher Nolan, sticking to film, is much more cinematic, and therefore requires a slightly different form of analysis. But take a while and you’ll notice the same thing. The Joker, in Dark Knight, is right that everyone has some amount of evil in them. Yes, a hardened criminal may find it in himself to throw a detonator overboard, but that won’t stop Gotham’s great hope from going evil, or the whole city from blaming Batman. In Inception and Memento, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the feeling. The world is hell, keep on moving, do the best you can.

There are differences, of course. Nolan is actually a bit more despairing, and he’s honestly more concerned with truth and subjectivity than he is with the meaning of life. House is just as much about whether people can change as whether this world is hell. Whedon doesn’t always care much about the literal truth of materialism and life after death as he does about despair, heroism, and redemption. But they all do have the common theme that the world ought to make us despair, but we can’t just give up.

As a Christian this is both frustrating and heartening. I’ll start with the heartening part. Despite the utter meaninglessness of the universes these men create, they refuse to live like it has no meaning. They are determined to struggle on, even half-heartedly, because they recognize that there is something good in this world worth fighting for. There is a reason to live, even if they don’t know what it is.

But it’s frustrating, because they never come to an answer. They tell us to fight, but their reasons are vague and empty. It’s all passion, emotion, and attachment to our dreams, with no concrete answers. This is because if they gave those concrete answers, if they were consistent, Firefly would end in a bitter Mal dying alone in despair somewhere in deep space. If Nolan was consistent, there would be no third Batman. If House was consistent, he would have overdosed on pain killers long ago.

You can see this tension in the way their heroes live. In the Buffyverse, nine out of ten times there is a romance, it will end in death or betrayal. And if it ends peacefully, the death and betrayal comes later. In House, every character careens from cold, cruel self-interest that cuts their neighbors, to a tough sort of love because if they have no friends, what is left to live for? And Nolan’s world is just dark.

This is not to say they don’t have heartwarming moments, or grand scenes of self-sacrifice. All of them do. But they can’t account for it. The heroes do this because they know it’s right, but according to their own view of the world, it’s not. There is no meaning in life, and without meaning, there’s no point in living one way and not the other.

I am frustrated because I am a Christian. These are skilled men who have done a lot to shape the world of entertainment, and they’re incapable of giving answers to the questions they have to ask. As a Christian, I know these answers. There is a God, not just a vague deity, but a Father better than the absentees of House’s world. He created a world that was perfect. Then, by our choice, all the pain entered into it that Angel sees, all the hypocrisy House points out, all the cruelty of the world that Nolan scripts.

But here’s the other side: Whedon is right. This hell still is worth fighting for. Not only that, but it has already been fought for. The ultimate apocalypse has already occurred. The hero did die, and saw the other side, and now he’s back. But unlike Buffy, he didn’t bring a demon with him. And unlike House, his return is not an ending. Unlike Nolan’s heroes, the victory he earned is real.

But purpose is more than past plot, it points towards an ending. It points at the happiness that Whedon pictures in every romance while it lasts, and that House ends with in so many hopeful episodes. According to the Gospel, Christ’s victory is spreading, making itself known, developing in this world. Eventually, death itself will die, and with it all the pain that sin brought into the universe.

And what is our purpose? What is the drive that keeps us going despite the pain? It’s that God is worth glorifying, and we’re built to do it. It’s that God’s creation is worth enjoying, and that’s what we’re made for. On a grand scheme, that’s enough. But on an individual level, the beauty of the Christian hope is that we all have a specific purpose. We have our own gifts to glorify God with, our own pleasures we take in his creation. We not only have purpose in general, we have specific, personal meanings.

But this leads to a different life than House’s self-interested dissolution and partying. We’re not just after our own pleasure. Drugs and sex with every woman we can get our hands on is not only a distraction, it begins to be wearying and painful. It loses meaning. But, as every hero shows in a moment of truth, self-sacrifice does give meaning. Living for others, for God’s own creations through which he is glorified, that is our code of conduct. That is how we live.

I have nothing but respect for the wonder and excitement and crazed insanity with which Joss Whedon crafts his worlds. I hope one day to achieve the tension and heartwarming moments of hope and humor House is capable of. One day I want to rock the writing world like Nolan rocks the box office. But all of them miss the Gospel. All of them ask the questions they cannot answer. The hope of a Christian artist is to be as good as the pagans, and better, but to offer a hope they can never match.

And, in my case, to pray these guys come to Christ. A Christian Joss Whedon could change the world. I hope one day he does.

Embodying the Promises

The problem with really good sermons is that I get distracted chasing down one point in my head and miss the next ten minutes. Then the preacher finds another point, I get distracted again, and another novel I won’t get around to for fifteen years is imbued with further spiritual significance.

In one of these flashes of brilliance, Mr. Ben Merkle dazzled me with talk about covenants. When the Hebrews would make a covenant, they would cut a bunch of animals in two and walk between the pieces. In doing so, they were saying “If I break this covenant, let what happened to these animals happen to me.” After listening to this, I was startled by the obvious.

You see, when you make that covenant, you’re saying “If the terms of the covenant are broken, I will be broken and die. But if the terms are fulfilled, I will live.” You live exactly as long as the covenant. Its life and your life are the same. You live and die by fulfilling its terms.

This means that the covenant is not merely a business arrangement. It’s part of who you are. It is establishes a permanent relationship to the other parties, and it sets out a new way of life. From that point on, you and that covenant are inseparable.

Coming back home, this struck me in two ways. First off, God’s promises to us are a permanent part of his identity. The promises are guaranteed. But second, and just as important, the reverse is also true. When we are joined in covenant to Christ, we receive a new identity. We become people with a relationship and a way of life that is synonymous with our very existence. Being a Christian is not just a minor life-choice, a flavor of religion we prefer. It’s who we are. We embody the promises Christ made. That’s something to keep in mind.