FiveThirtyEight says there may be many more atheists in the nation that generally suspected. They base the assertion on the fact that polling results can vary wildly depending on methodology and the fact that being an atheist is still stigmatized in our society. Meanwhile, Christianity Today looks at some LifeWay Research polling data:
Many Americans are more worried about their reputation than their conscience.
They worry less about guilt and fear and more about avoiding shame, according to a new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.
Shame has become particularly powerful in American culture in the internet age, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. A single mistake or embarrassing moment posted on social media can ruin a person’s life.
“What’s our biggest cultural fear? Shame,” he said. “What’s surprising is not that personal freedom, ambition, and doing the right thing are valued by Americans. It’s that risk to our reputation is what matters most.”
Both articles and data sets illustrate that our behavior is based on a lot of pressures besides legality. In point of fact the United States government is constructed on that premise. The very idea of “small government,” assumes that other pressures aside from law will cause people to behave in ways that benefit the nation as a whole. From simple manners to economic productivity we rely on pressures other than the force of law to create general societal compliance. Imagine our society without the need for money and without shame – would chaos not result? If the only force that ordered our conduct was the force of law then totalitarianism would be a necessity! We would become the opposite of what the nation is supposed to be.
Look around the world at nations that are generally considered “failed” and you will find that within it legal, social and economic pressures are somehow imbalanced. Sometimes a tyrant uses the force of law to line his/her own pockets. Sometimes religion dictates the shape of the state, that is to say gains the force of law, when its best influence lies in other forces. Sometimes a desire for economic equality gains the force of law thus killing actual economic productivity. There are many other examples, but note that the force of law seems always supreme, and its overuse always results in destruction.
Because legal force trumps all others we tend to want to turn to it right away to solve an issue, but doing so is highly problematic in at least three ways.
There are some issues legal force cannot resolve adequately. Increasingly, people are turning to legality in an effort to bring themselves some sense of worth and/or legitimacy. Consider Nevada where prostitution is legal. Do you think just because it is legal the ladies that engage in such work are considered fine, upstanding members of the community? True, they practice their trade without conflict with law enforcement and the people that run the establishments may donate to civic projects and thus gain some recognition, but I am talking about the ladies themselves. Do you honestly think they feel any better about themselves or what they do just because it is legal? Making a thing legal does not make it good. Self-worth is derived from productivity and goodness, not legality. Ridding yourself of legal entanglements will not improve your self-worth.
There are movie scenes that will forever make you laugh. I can name a handful off the top of my head – pretty much anything with the Curly inclusive Three Stooges, the campfire scene from “Blazing Saddles,” the Mr. Creosote sketch from “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” (and several other Python sketches from various movies) and a scene from the 1979 Steve Martin classic “The Jerk.” The movie is simply one absurdity after another, but my favorite is when Martin’s character is trying to establish himself working in a gas station, living on a cot in the back and the new phone book arrives. He rapidly looks himself up, sees his name and number and begins running wildly through the streets screaming “The new phone book’s here – I AM somebody! The new phone book’s here – I AM SOMEBODY!” So absurd is the idea that one is validated by a phone book listing that I laughed myself breathless the first time I saw it. I’ve seen the movie probably 20 times now and that scene still manages to elicit a chortle. Getting listed in the phone book is about all the validation one can expect from legality.
Legal force is generally a corrupting force. Think about it for a minute. The idea of economic parity sounds so wonderful, and yet when it becomes law, the state becomes tyrannical. The force of law corrupts the economy. When the church has gained the force of law it has generally gone awry. Certainly that was a major factor in the Inquisition and the Crusades and an underlying driver of the Reformation. The Founders recognized the force of law as a corrupting force and thus sought to limit it and check it. If you actually read the document that first gave us the phrase “separation of church and state,” and you understand the historical context, you will learn that separation was intended to protect the church from the corrupting influence of government. We all know legality is necessary, but we also all know it needs to be kept under control.
Finally, putting legality in its proper place and limitations was what Jesus was all about. Jesus came at a time when religion bore the force of law. Of course, it was subject to Roman law above it, but Jewish officialdom ran Israel on a day-to-day basis – and they were corrupt. Jesus’s condemnation of officialdom was aimed at Jewish officialdom, not so much at Rome. Rome felt threatened simply because Jesus enjoyed a large and devoted following, but He never really challenged Rome. What do you think Jesus meant when He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.?” Jesus was telling us that the law has context and limits – that some things a human needs simply cannot come from the law. Of course, as a Christian, I believe that Jesus supplies that which the law cannot.
Why are so many turning to legalities for things they truly need to find elsewhere? Because we are a bit too busy in our society delegitimizing the elsewhere, as government tries to grab the authority for itself. People respond to non-governmental forces, as we saw in the introduction. We need to learn once again to wield those forces and rebalance our nation. The government is not going to give up its power, but we have power of our own if we will but use it.