Nicety vs. Reality

Did you hear the joke about a debate among three engineers as to the occupation of the Creator?

The first says, "God is a mechanical engineer. Look at the beauty with which our joints are constructed. Only a mechanical engineer could put together our bodies with such flair."

The second counters, "No, God is clearly an electrical engineer. Consider the elegant use of electrical charges by the millions of neurons in our brains. This is the handiwork of an electrical engineer."

The third says, "You’re both wrong. God is obviously a civil engineer. Who else would put a toxic waste pipeline right through a recreational area?"

The problem of politics — maybe even the problem of life — is that recreational areas are always next to toxic waste pipelines. The heavens, as well as tender mercies such as marriage, declare the glory of God, but the streets declare the sinfulness of man. That’s one reason people ask religious questions: We want to discern the origin of our mess and at least wipe down the counters.

Over the next 21 months running up to the 2008 election, columnists and candidates will twitter about the role religion is playing in American politics — as if that development were something new. But religion has always been a big-time influence.

Without the Great Awakening in the 1730s and the political thinking it generated, we would have had no American Revolution a generation later. Without the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century and the abolitionist movement that it spawned, we would not have seen the end of slavery a generation later.

Similarly, without the courage of many pastors and of groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference we would not have seen the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Without the pro-life movement Ronald Reagan would not have been elected in 1980, and the Cold War might have gone on.

More recently, George W. Bush would not have been elected and reelected without massive evangelical support. Without some neutralization of that vote, Democrats will not be able to win the presidency in 2008.

And that leads us to the big question — not whether religion will continue to play a role, but which religion? A religion that describes the reality of the human condition, or a religion based upon utopian hopes and claims?

For example, regarding poverty-fighting, believers in the religion of nicety state that poor people everywhere want to do the right thing, so solving the poverty problem is like solving a math problem: Move dollars from X to Y and the job is done. Believers in the religion of reality, though, see poverty as a complex tangle of spiritual, psychological, political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors.

Regarding foreign policy, those who subscribe to the religion of nicety believe that leaders and nations essentially want peace, so if only we clear up misunderstandings and sign treaties or arms control agreements, all will be well. Adherents to the religion of reality, though, understand that leaders and people often covet their neighbor’s homes, industries and wealth, and if they can grab such by force they often will. Those who want peace need to stop aggression and terrorism, by force if necessary.

The Bible presents a religion of reality. Worldviews battle other worldviews, and even a David who gets it right theologically finds sin crouching at his door and yanking on his heart. With paradise lost, we must now work hard for our daily bread, and even that — let alone our daily steak — depends on God’s grace. We cannot beat our swords into plowshares until, in God’s timing, paradise is regained.

The religion of nicety doesn’t take into account the sewage pipes. That’s why believers in the religion of reality cannot abstain from politics.