Sunday, November 7, 2010

Government or God?

The headline caught my eyes, as it undoubtedly intended. After all, it came from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, often ranked the best business school for marketing in the United States. Marketing knows about catching our eyes.

One of the key principles of Baptist polity is the idea, now firmly imbedded in American ideology and constitution, of separation of church and state, which is to say that the government can't tell you how or when to worship God, and conversely, the church can't tell the government how to rule. Massachusetts Baptist Isaac Backus, a victim of persecution and discrimination by the Congregationalists in Massachusetts where church membership did carry citizenship rights, corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist, and they came up with the language that frames those rights and responsibilities. The underlying assumption of the founders, though, was that a belief in God was a given for good citizens. So, what choices do business school researchers think we are making now between government and God?

The research behind the Kellogg Insight headline is about how people seek stability in times of uncertainty, and that elections are just such times. Having waited with some trepidation on the outcome of this past week's election, most particularly the ballot questions in Massachusetts, I would agree that elections, even in places where our right to vote is firmly upheld, are periods of uncertainty. Yet I also take as a given that most people don't like change, and most of the impetus around our recent "throw the bums out" voting mentality is really a rejection of the changes that have occurred without our "permission." We blame the politicians for all of the changes in jobs, technology, the economy, our dreams and hopes, without acknowledging our own greed and gullibility. Yes, those mortgages really were too good to be true, and no, we really didn't have the money to pay for that big house, big car, and all of those gadgets. We vote for new politicians, believing in promises of a return to the good old days, and yet really cause more changes, because the good old days are gone.

Voting may feel like a regular part of the political landscape in many nations, but elections are also periods of uncertainty. Events like elections can shake people’s fundamental need to believe in an orderly structured world. To counter this apprehension, new research suggests people’s faith in a higher power becomes stronger. Surprisingly, the research also finds that when faith in the stability of God or the government is shaken, people turn to the other entity to restore a sense of control. (Kellogg Insight, November 2010)

Was this why we had so many guests in church last Sunday before the election? I had thought that Celtic folklore might have the explanation, that people are aware of the thinness of the boundaries between the mortal plane and the spiritual plane on Halloween and came to church for protection. In either case, there were definitely people who were in need, and seeking some sort of security or stability, a lot more than usual.

Researchers examined whether changing political climates can drive religious belief, especially faith in a controlling or interventionist deity. They found that beliefs toward God and the government can help satiate the same psychological need for structure and order and are interchangeable with one another.

“This research holds important implications for our understanding of the formation and strengthening of religious belief,” says Adam Galinsky, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management and one of the study’s authors.

So, if we don't believe in a controlling God, what does this research imply that we want government to look like? People need structure and order, and whatever provides that structure will be what people will turn toward. But, is it the institution itself or the belief that provides the stability? One of the research studies compared "people’s sense of governmental stability and faith in a controlling God both before and after an election." This compares perceptions and intangibles, not institutions.

Results from college campuses in Malaysia and Canada … found that perceptions of decreased government stability, such as immediately before an election, led to increased beliefs in a controlling God. Conversely, increased perceptions of political stability led to weaker beliefs in an interventionist God.

Higher levels of religious belief, commitment, and possibly extremism might be more likely in those countries that have the least stable governments and other secular institutions.
It seems to me that fundamentalists of all religions are those people who want more certainty, and want someone/some Power to be in control. This abdication of control and, often, of responsibility means that someone else, either government or God, is expected to take care of us and take care of our problems. It would follow then in those situations that we don't have much mutual responsibility for one another.

If, however, we believe in a loving God, rather than a controlling God, and we believe that we are called to love God and our neighbors, then we must take care of one another, and find ways in community to provide stability and safety. In the alternate stream of ancient traditions, the village, the tribe, the community was the safety net. As Christians today turn again to the teachings of Jesus and to what the community of the first followers of Jesus looked like, we find that our roots are in taking action to aid one another and to share with one another. We share those roots with faithful Muslims and Jews. We are not to worship the idols of wealth and power, nor to depend on Caesar. "Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God, that which is God's." We are God's children, created in God's image. In giving ourselves to the love of God and of our neighbors, we find security and safety that endures and that does not depend on making a choice between government and God.

Surely what elections teach us is that we cannot rely on the powers that be for security. For an in-depth look at how we need to be confronting The Powers that Be, read Walter Wink's book of that title, or get an excerpt here. We, that means each of us and our neighbors, are the security and stability that we need to cultivate through the power of Love. That probably means giving up control and temporal power. Ah, and will people vote for that?

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