Bret Stephens is a little upset with Donald Trump, and not without reason. Stephens objections are philosophical and moral, and I agree with him on those levels, but I am more taciturn about the Trump presidency. That Trump was vacant on those levels was obvious from the start. This is what we elected, the job now is to figure out how to work with it, not deride it. Mr. Trump is not to blame here, he is merely a reflection of history and the nation’s reaction to it. The question I am far more interested in is, “How did we get here and how do we get out of it?”
To this question Stephens, discussing Trump’s moral equivalency between Putin and the U.S,. said something quite worth examining:
This also explains why Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, calling the idea “insulting [to] the world” and seeing it as an undue burden on our rights and opportunities as a nation. Magnanimity, fair dealing, example setting, win-win solutions, a city set upon a hill: All this, in the president’s mind, is a sucker’s game, obscuring the dog-eat-dog realities of life. Among other distinctions, Mr. Trump may be our first Hobbesian president.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the political potency of this outlook, with its left-right mix of relativism and jingoism. If we’re no better than anyone else, why not act like everyone else? If phrases such as “the free world” or the “liberal international order” are ideological ploys by which the Davos elite swindle the proletarians of Detroit, why sacrifice blood and treasure on their behalf? Nationalism is usually a form of moral earnestness. Mr. Trump’s genius has been to transform it into an expression of cynicism.
America today is highly, even frighteningly, cynical. I note it even in myself from time-to-time. Here’s the thing – we have been telling kids for a few generations now that everybody is just as good as everybody else. But everybody knows what a mess they are. Put on top of that the kind of image crafting that social media permits, so that everybody’s life looks just so perfect, cynicism has to result. When kids grow up watching “reality” TV that is just as contrived as anything scripted, people are going to begin to think that everything is image and they will be naturally cynical.
The church with its public face being things like the Bakker or Swaggart sex scandals, the Benny Hinn more-than-conspicuous consumption, pedophile priests, and the mainline’s moral collapse in less than a generation, has contributed to this cynicism. That which claims moral authority has some pretty ugly morals. One must be cynical when approaching the church. Even I, a life-long church goer and committed Christian, now approach any new church with a presumption that under the skin is the usual garbage.
This cynicism that is so pervasive reflects a desire on the part of the nation for something really, genuinely good – the kind of good that shines brightly in the darkness. Most people, myself included, don’t think they can get it so they settle for a reflection of their own cynical attitude. But cynicism is rooted in a desire for the real, and in this case that means obviously and authentically good.
I know thousands of small, personal examples of such goodness, but I find myself wondering if in a world where media is more pervasive than reality if that is enough anymore? The problem is, of course, that the instant that good gets broadcast it can become fodder for the cynicism machine. Not even the best of us is without our dark side. I do not think learning how to capture social media for goodness sake is the way to go here.
Rather I think there are two things that have to happen. For one, thousands of small, personal examples of great goodness need to become millions. Too many people live their lives without ever experiencing such goodness. That means evangelism and discipleship, practiced one-on-one. It means reaching out beyond your comfort zone, even to one person and encouraging them to do the same. It means suffering their cynicism as you do.
Secondly we have to return to our own concept of goodness the idea of confession. We are not perfect. The measure of goodness is not in what we do right, but how we handle what we do wrong. It takes far more strength to say “I was wrong,” than to craft an image of strength without flaws. Trump’s mistake was not in admitting that the US kills, but in casting it in a morally equivalent light. We do so out of necessity and with contrition, and that is our genuine strength.
The church today works to hard to create an image of “everything’s good.” The image should be, “We’re sinners relying on God’s grace to get us through our screw-ups.” Confession takes far more strength than covering up.
It’s simple really, we cannot be good, we just can’t. In church language we call that “original sin.” But we can be, and gloriously are, forgiven to try harder the next time. Our strength is not our own, it is derivative of the one that forgives us. That’s why our strength is in confession, not confusion. Through confession the light that shines is God’s not our own. Authenticity is evident because we are not pretending to be strong, we are openly relying on someone else’s strength.
And let’s face it, the strength we rely on is as strong as it gets.