Those of us that find the results of last November’s election disappointing have found it more disappointing than the “average” political loss. We worry, rightfully so, that the election signals more than political winds, that is portends something base and fundamental shifting in the nation. We have discussed here that attitudes about religion are a part of that shift. But what specifically is it about religion that is the issue?
This nation has never been unified religiously, so it cannot be so simple as adherence to a single religion or denomination of a religion. There is clearly some “core” shared by most religions where things are shifting and that lies at the root of the concern that so many of us feel. I think the picture is emerging of what that core is.
Last Wednesday, Jay Nordlinger wrote an extensive defense of Mitt Romney as our candidate. It is worthy of a long and careful read. But within this very worthy piece was one little bit that I found stunning:
So, what did Romney offer the “middle class”? I’ll tell you what: He offered to avert financial collapse. To do something about the debt and the deficit. To reform entitlements. To reform the tax code. To foster the conditions in which economic growth occurs. To help put people back to work. To save the frickin’ country.
That’s not program enough for the “middle class”? What does he have to do, enter each of their homes and bake them muffins? Swab their floors? (Actually, knowing him and his neighborliness, he would do that.)
That is stunning one, because Nordlinger is right about Romney’s character and the whole willingness to bake muffins thing. But secondly, I read that right after I read another piece that made the expectation on the part of the voters for the muffins seem not quite as far-fetched as it does at first glance. “The College Fix” pointed me to a BBC article. The College Fix post, essentially an extended pullquote from the Beeb article was headlined
Confident Idiots: American Students Growing More Confident, Less Capable
That’s an attention grabber to be sure. The portion of the Beeb piece that CF emphasized was:
It asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas – and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being “above average” for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.
Self-appraisals of traits that are less individualistic – such as co-operativeness, understanding others and spirituality – saw little change, or a decrease, over the same period.
Twenge adds that while the Freshman Survey shows that students are increasingly likely to label themselves as gifted in writing ability, objective test scores indicate that actual writing ability has gone down since the 1960s.
And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 – a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students’ self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period.
Certainly that goes a long way towards putting some meat on the “low information voter” thing that has come to be discussed so ubiquitously. But from the perspective of this blog, the real heart of the Beeb’s bleatings was this:
“Our culture used to encourage modesty and humility and not bragging about yourself,” says Twenge. “It was considered a bad thing to be seen as conceited or full of yourself.”
“What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success.
“Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”
Yet there is very little evidence that raising self-esteem leads to tangible, positive outcomes.
“If there is any effect at all, it is quite small,” says Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. He was the lead author of a 2003 paper that scrutinised dozens of self-esteem studies.
He found that although high self-esteem frequently had a positive correlation with success, the direction of causation was often unclear. For example, are high marks awarded to people with high self-esteem or does getting high marks engender high self-esteem?
And a third variable can influence both self-esteem and the positive outcome.
“Coming from a good family might lead to both high self-esteem and personal success,” says Baumeister.
We talked a lot about humility on this blog during the election cycle, particularly about how very unhumble Obama was/is. If this braggadocio is indeed now a cultural value then that could explain a great deal of the affection much of the electorate grants to Obama – he is the epitome of such.
Moreover, while the studies cited here involve university students, such training in “confidence” begins long before the university level and could go a long way towards explaining why the so called “low information voter,” a group that previously generally stayed away from the polls because of their lack of information, would vote in such numbers. And such people would naturally have the expectation that the candidates would come over and bake them muffins. While Obama did not literally do so, his campaign was designed to create the impression that he was in fact doing so on some grand sort of scale.
Now, in the short term I think there is little conservatives can do but go with this flow. This sort of thing cannot change in four or probably even eight years. I will leave it up to the candidates and consultants to figure out how to make conservatism appealing in such a voting environment. But all of us have to realize that such is a holding action at best. At very fundamental levels this self-involvement is antithetical to traditional conservatism. Such self-absorbed people cannot be relied upon to do charitably that which conservatism holds should be done charitably. Conservatism at its very heart requires a larger perspective than the merely personal. If the voting environment does not change, we will eventually lose it all.
Of course events can, and probably will, intercede that change everything. However, in this media saturated culture, events are less impactful than they used to be. Pearl Harbor changed the nation for at least a couple of generations. 9-11 changed the nation for less than a decade. We cannot rely on the natural consequences of change based on events to result in a rebound that is lasting and meaningful. We have to do more.
I think the search for a more lasting and meaningful fix should start with Evangelicals. The church in all its expressions is, as we have discussed here endlessly, the institution best suited and situated for affecting culture generally. A large portion of the nation still self-identifies as “evangelical,” and therefore that seems like the right place to start. Unfortunately, the Evangelicalism of today is something quite different than the Evangelicalism of C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham and others that I grew up with. Modern expressions of Evangelicalism, as seen most prominently in the mega-church movement, rely on the self-esteem movement for their energy. Gone is talk of sin and the need for confession, to be replaced by the gospel of “Jesus will make you feel good about your life.” In other words, on this level, the “brand” of Christianity most people claim they hold exacerbates the problem, it does not fix it.
What I will not do here is descend into the deep theological debates that surround this change in church practice, I will simply note it as reality. And further, I will emphasize that such change is fundamentally at odds with the values that the church attempts to uphold in its followers and its political actions. If Evangelicals hope to prevail on things like abortion and marriage and most importantly religious freedom they have to return to the traditional understandings of sin, confession and humility. Most people hold their values deeper than their theology. I think the fear, prevalent amongst many Evangelical leaders, that a return to such teaching will only result in shrinkage in the church is ill-founded.
Properly taught, by people whose lives exemplify both the values and the teaching, the teaching will take hold. Slowly at first, and with much resistance to be sure, but as the truth becomes apparent it will be irresistible. We have little choice.