Political Rhetoric and the National Conscience
Flying between Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, a few weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing a recent publication. I asked him—a noted physicist- what he thought of the book, and his reply was, "Too many words, not enough ideas."As biting as those words seem, they reflect what many of US have felt at the end of a speech or lecture, or for that matter, a sermon. This is a readily identifiable sentiment, I might add, for we are at a time in our nation's history when we are condemned to hear political rhetoric crowded and clouded by words ad infinitum, ad nauseam. It is the price we pay for free speech in search of ideas that are worth pursuing. As one whose living is intrinsically tied to proclamation, I shall not come down too hard on those with whom I have at least one aspect in common, i.e. word usage. But I do want to raise the crucial issue of meaning behind the words.
It came upon me rather suddenly some months ago when I had punished myself by listening to a few political speeches back to back. I had continued to listen, not only from a sense of moral duty, but also from the shock factor of hearing so much talk about values. I knew something was wrong, radically wrong, systemically wrong, but I did not know how quite to touch the raw nerve of the problem. Then like a flash, I saw it: the modern malady in the political arena is one of a fundamental contradiction—there is an unblushing moralizing on politics and a shameless politicizing of morality. Just think about that statement and it becomes evident that it may well be the quicksand of contemporary wordsmiths as they smother us into moral suffocation.
Moralizing on politics, I said. and who would challenge that? But observe carefully what is being smuggled in. The recurring theme is one of "values." Ironically the word itself first gained such usage after the philosopher Nietzsche had announced the death of God. He then proceeded to resurrect a newfangled, self-defined value. for ethics, he proclaimed, had been buried with God. Out of the ash heap and rubble of atheistic thinking he refashioned an autonomous man, with no heaven and a new earth—a man unaccountable to a higher moral law, for there was no more a moral law giver. "Values." he called it, when in actuality a deadly devaluation had taken place and the laws of authority had shifted from an objectively revealed moral law to a subjective world where each one does what is right in his or her own eyes.
You may have noticed a trend in university curricula. Once there was a discipline called theology; now they call it religion. The reason is plain. Theology begins with God, religion with man. The same dethroning has taken place with ethics. In our "salvation by survey" society, values are now defined with fluidity, never finding a level except in each individual mind. Words flow in speeches, punctuated by "values" they have no point of reference, and hence, no possibility for debate.
But after all the verbose moralizing on politics has run its course, there comes the acid test when specific moral issues come before US as adjudicators. And masterfully, each issue becomes politicized as the wordsmiths pounce on the words like predators determined to mangle and spit out the remains. We have consequently become the hapless possessors of a society where sexuality, and even diseases, have become politicized to such a degree that one who has convictions is now being re-educated at the taxpayer's expense, and those with no convictions make moral pronouncements.
How revealing has been the vicious anger of Hollywood and the media when our Vice President justifiably called into question their trivializing of human sexuality: institutions that arrogated to themselves the desacralizing of everything, lashed out with contempt and ridicule when one of their own idols was touched. Alas! What a bleeding has taken place. It is not so much the death of God as it is the death of conscience.
So listen again the next time you hear some of the rhetoric. and you will find that good and decent words have been redefined to classify and justify indecent choices. It is not so much that there are too many words with no ideas, but that there is a radical distorting of ideas with the same words—and ideas have consequences. The English historian Macauley warned the American people decades ago that our constitution ran the risk of being "all sail and no anchor." His prophetic voice may well be fulfilled in our time.
How needed, then, is the Christian conscience today; a conscience which recognizes that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth." He is our point of reference, and it is about time that more politicians and opinion makers listened to His ideas.