California and God
This past week two articles appeared describing the abhorrent state of the State of California. At National Review, Victor David Hanson describes the relative lawlessness that pervades non-coastal California:
Crime rates are going up again in California, sometimes dramatically so. In Los Angeles, various sorts of robberies, assaults, and homicide rose between 5 and 10 percent over 2015; since 2014, violent crime has skyrocketed by 38 percent. This May, California’s association of police chiefs complained that since the passage of Proposition 47 — which reclassified supposedly “nonserious” crimes as misdemeanors and kept hundreds of thousands of convicted criminals out of jail — crime rates in population centers of more than 100,000 have increased more than 15 percent. California governor Jerry Brown has let out more parolees — including over 2,000 serving life sentences — than any recent governor.
Instead of a role model for the future, the Golden State seems likely to become a cross between Hawaii and Tijuana, a land for the aging rich and their servants. It still remains a perfect social model for a progressive political regime, but perhaps not one the rest of the country would likely wish to, or afford, to adopt.
As a California resident both pieces hit me square between the eyes. I have lived in California since the mid-80’s, started a business and thrived. My business continues to grow and I enjoy my work. I hate to think about retiring from my work. And yet, in recent years I want out of California so much that rather than the late retirement I have long envisioned, the prospect of an earlier retirement and the limitations such would put on my retirement lifestyle seems actually inviting. Both these articles very well describe many of the complaints that I have developed about this state in recent years, and yet they fail to mention the most significant one.
When I came to California it was the cutting edge of Christianity in America. California was booming in everything, including religious innovation and growth. But no more. For every Saddleback Church there are dozens of failing churches. Churches founded in the communities that exploded in that boom time and seemed poised to become centuries old institutions now struggle to meet payroll, let alone fill the pews. Religion is passé in California. While no one speaks of religion as an “opiate for the masses,” the “coastal elites” as Hanson describes them certainly act as if such is the case. Even those who are intellectually and socio-economically on a par with those elites are delegated to rube status if their faith is revealed. And I think this fact, more than any other, underlies all the dysfunction described in these two marvelous articles.
Both pieces discuss the estrangement between groups that anymore defines California. The groups themselves are many and varied – some ethnic, some geographical, some economic – but all exist in their own bubble barely acknowledging the other and certainly not understanding the other in any fashion. In daily life it is the clash of these groups that makes life so increasingly difficult. The petty crime that Hanson describes is justified in the minds of the perpetrator because the victims are “the other.” The rudeness that now permeates a trip to the grocery store, on the streets an in the aisles, is born of the entitlement that a specific group feels over and above another group.
California has always been a vastly diverse place, Hailing from the Midwest, when I arrived here decades ago one of the most notable differences was the great swathes of neighborhoods where English signs were hard to find. And yet there was not the feeling of estrangement that there now is. Then those neighborhoods were inviting, now they are foreboding. Given the diversity that has always been a part of the California culture, diversity is not the issue; the issue is the attitude we bring to that diversity – and without religion those attitudes are not very good.
Government can make people act pretty much anyway they want them to, but it can’t control their attitudes. Even grossly repressive regimes like the former Soviet that outlawed, and severely punished, expressions of discontent seem like trying to hold Jello with rubber bands when it comes containing people’s attitudes towards the life around them. That is one of the geniuses of the American Founders. They knew cultural forces, distinct from and uncontrolled by government, were necessary to build a truly harmonious and therefore thriving nation. Hence freedom of religion and speech.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
When I visited the Soviet Union in its dying days, ethnic strife was apparent. Despite the chest-pounding proclamations of Soviet officialdom to which I was daily subjected, life on the street revealed a nation divided on ethnic lines. Yet in this passage the Apostle Paul claims that Christianity erases such division. That’s what the Founding Fathers were thinking about – setting religion free set free the only force that can unite a divided nation.
The absence of that force explains California now as it explained the Soviet Union then. There needs to be a lot of policy reform out of Sacramento if California is to reclaim its place as the leading state in the nation. But such policy reform needs to be accompanied by a reawakening of the religious fervor that permeated the state when I arrived. Sometimes, the mission field is much closer to home than we think.