Faith Matters Sunday: The Perils of Common Sense
Published on: March 7, 2010
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  • ebriddick

    WSM: please cut the first 12 paragraphs which were written by the “village explainer” and cut right to “Nevertheless, this is Lent”. They were too long winded to read on a Sunday, and depending on your typing speed, must have taken too long to write.

  • BSOC

    A very strong week from my favorite Democrat, though it is Gordon S. Wood not Gordon Woods. Also, I would suggest Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer’s “Religion in American Life” as well as Butler’s “Becoming America”.

  • fahznab

    You start from the harder deist (or agnostic) foundations of the founders allowing humanity focused ideals to take the preeminent role. Then it is trickled into the evangelical movement, but what of the civil American religion? – or the Dewey and James contributions along the way? There is a general evangelical culture in the American sense, yet fundamentalist extremism has its pockets and is not welcome in the public square yet still thrives in our plurality.

  • SC Mike

    This Midwesterner-by-birth lives in the South by choice and I don’t see “fundamentalist extremism” thriving as fahznab does, but perhaps I misunderstand his meaning or don’t get out enough.

    During my four-year sojourn in Minnesota I did join others in testifying against Creationism and Intelligent Design before the local school board, but the folks lobbying against teaching evolution were vocal but neither influentia nor numerous. The same is true here in the Palmetto State, but we always have to be on our guard…

    For a while the global-warmists — not the scientists, but the elite cheerleaders — were courting Evangelicals and other people of faith in an effort to gain their support for protecting Earth from man’s harmful influences, and they made some headway. Whether that’s fading along with the general influence of the warmists is not yet clear.

    All that said, what at times confounds folks applying “common sense” is that which appears to be counter-intuitive. For example, how can one cut taxes and increase revenue? One really can’t, given such loose language, but do the Archie Bell & the Drells on terminology and state more precisely that cutting tax rates can increase revenue, and folks can readily envision the effect on certain transaction taxes like capital gains.

    If your $100 gain on your $1000 investment is subject to a 35% tax, you’d probably be tempted to let it ride, hoping for further gains given the tax hit. But if the tax is 15%, maybe 20%, you’d immediately sell and put the money into something else.

    In both cases, common sense dictates that you’d probably be better off selling and taking your gain, but there’s a perverse psychological block at the 35% tax rate level that’s not present at the lower rates, and it’s that bug that delays realization of the gains and reduces government revenue. In other words, the lower rate encourages you to take the gain, and you’ll do so again and again and again and — well, you get the idea. Meanwhile the purchaser may find ways to enhance the asset you dumped, take further gains, and we’re off to the races.

    FWIW, I’ve been an atheist for over 40 years even though I was raised Roman Catholic and even attended the only pontifical seminary outside of Italy. Even some of us lapsed Papists appreciate the cultural value of religion.

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  • Walter, this is no blog post; it is a university lecture, and a good one. My only comments are these:

    First, the point that the American environment democratized the churches and that the churches in turn helped democratize the society, and integrate it into a social whole (more or less) is beyond doubt. This leads however, as you point out, to people confusing their “natural attitude” about society for theology. This is your critique of “common sense”, which was, of course, a redaction of loftier ideas about natural law, which was itself another, less overtly theological way of discussing God at a time of reason and emerging science. Democratized common sense religion inverts what theology is supposed to do; it allows unselfaware culture-bound assumptions to unwittingly shape religion rather than the other way around. Hence your plea for taking religious traditions seriously. This is exactly the point I make regarding Judaism in America in JEWCENTRICITY (chapter 6, “The Two Religions of American Jews”), so I therefore know your analysis is right.

    But the only justifications for enabling, allowing or wanting religious tradition to shape society, and not allow a backflow in which common culture-driven, free-for-all fads shape religion (what I have called the conceit of the contemporary) are two-fold: either religious authority is based on revelation (the original formula), or is is based on the Burkean/Pascalian notion (if I may) that stability in society is a value in itself, and that if necessary benign myths about revelation work nearly as well for the purpose as revelation itself. The problem, of course, is that the former foundation can only be based on faith, and the second on elitism and ultimately deception. One could say a great deal more about this, of course, but I won’t, for now.

    Second, one of the most fascinating examples of the merger of American Protestantism with modernism, and an attempt, really, to fight the emerging dichotomy at the end of the 19th century between the so-called secular and religious worldviews, was the emergence of the Chautauqua movement. Chautauqua tried to annex modernism to religion, and to religious tradition, before modernism ran off on its own and turned its wrath on religion. Almost forgotten today, and unfortunately not mentioned in your post (but it was very long….), studying the origins and evolution of Chautauqua shines a very bright light on the interplay between religious ideas and the momentum of American social development as the old, steady market economy evolved into finance capitalism and a mainly rural society vaulted into first a more mixed and then an urbanized industrial one. Luckily, the next issue of THE AMERICAN INTEREST (May/June 2010) will contain precisely such a fascinating look at the Chautauqua movement.

  • More Garfinkle in the WRM comments section please.

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