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JudtIn his most recent book (Ill Fares the Land, New York, Penguin, 2010), Tony Judt, University Professor and Director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, reflects on the state of political life in the United States and Great Britain.  His title is drawn from a passage in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

As a historian, Judt points out that the greatest political crises occur when an untenable disparity of wealth between segments of a society develops. He believes that the crises in which we today find ourselves are due to this disparity.  He reminds us of some now quite familiar statistics.

In 2005, 21.2 percent of US national income accrued to 1 percent of earners.  Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker.  Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee.  Indeed the wealth of the Wal-Mart founders’ family was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the US population: 120 million people. (p. 14)

Growth in inequality corresponds to growth in many social problems, in fact, Judt’s data shows that it is not the wealth or poverty of a country that accounts for its degree of social ills but rather the level of inequality.  He points out:  “We spend vast sums on healthcare, but life expectancy in the US remains below Bosnia and just above Albania.” (p. 20)

     Most informed citizens are well aware if not of the magnitude at least of the basic reality of this economic disparity.  What Judt adds, however, is an analysis of the pervasive and corrosive effects of this every increasing disparity on our relationships to each other and on our social and political discourse.  Although he never uses the word, reflecting on his text leaves one with this question: Is social democracy possible where there is not a fundamental faith in each other and in the possibility of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  We live in a society that distrusts government, at least in part, because it does not see that the government is the mode of realizing its shared needs and aspirations.  For Judt “it is the gap between the inherently ethical nature of public decision-making and the utilitarian quality of contemporary political debate that accounts for the lack of trust felt towards politics and politicians.” (p. 180)

     A significant part of the argument of this very topical and important text concerns the impoverishment of our political and ethical discourse.  Can we even begin to create a more just and wise society as long as our sense of value remains confined to the economic?  What is of value and how do we measure worth?  Judt asks how we as a society determine the value of programs which enhance the sense of self worth and reduce the sense of humiliation in many of its members.  What is the value in providing transportation for those who are poor or who live in relatively unpopulated areas?  What is the social value of providing education and health care to the very large segments of society that cannot afford them privately?  To have lived through the recent health care debate in the United States is to be well aware that even the proponents of more universal health care coverage had to frame their arguments principally in terms of fiscal prudence.  Where was the discussion of the value of human lives lost and individuals and families threatened and demeaned for lack of health insurance?  Where even more importantly was the question of our responsibility toward each other?  One of the most indicative “Icons” of the entire debate is of an older person screaming at a rally for “the government to keep its hands off my Medicare.”   As we well know, Medicare is a social program based on a social contract, a contract that the society’s younger working members have with its older members to help provide for them after their working years, in the way that these older members of society did for those before them.  This contract is the responsibility we have toward and for each other and to those who both came before us and who will follow us.  It is only out of such a sense of responsibility that as societies we can address the larger and long term problems that confront us: the environment, infrastructure, international relations, healthcare, education, culture and the arts, and many others.  Much of the sense we have that government is “broken” lies in our inability as a people to confront and find ways of dealing with these life issues and, as stewards of the inheritance left to us by those who have come before us, to take appropriate care of our world and those with whom we share it in the present and to meet our responsibilities to our children and all those who will follow us in the future.

     A central question that emerges from Judt’s analysis is, in fact, a spiritual one.  Recently we attended a lecture entitled Religious Faith and Public Policy given by a respected leader in American religious life.  As we listened, we were reminded of the distinction between faith and belief made by a young John Rawls in his undergraduate thesis at Princeton University, newly printed under the title A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith.  Rawls writes that faith is always faith in a person while belief is assent to a tenet, doctrine, or ideology.  In the course of the lecture, it became clear that the speaker was speaking not of faith but of beliefs.  This is in itself a very important topic as indicated in the talk’s subtitle: The Role of Religion in a Pluralistic Society.  For the believer, however, the question of faith may be a deeper one. It is to this question that the “secular” text of Tony Judt draws us.

     Living in faith is living in relationship.  It is to live in remembrance of the fact that the ultimate horizon is that of Mystery and that all of us “live and move and have our being” in that Mystery.  For the Christian, faith means to live in abandonment to and trust of a personal Mystery that we take to be the Parent of all of us, making us all God’s children.  We often hear the assertion that the United States is a Christian nation.  Thus, how is it that social responsibility and a sense of personal and moral value beyond the economic are so absent from our political discourse?  Could it be that the life of faith, of relationship, is often lacking despite our avowed beliefs?  We have no trouble incorporating the language of personal morality into the public sphere, but the language of relationship, responsibility, and trust remains missing.

     How specifically would real faith as relationship manifest itself in the public sphere?  Two examples emerge from Judt’s text.  The first would be an increased trust in each other.  Perhaps as always but certainly in our day, the profit motive drives public media to foster fear and conflict among us.  The language of public policy for us is competitive and militaristic in nature.  We are entertained by the conflicts between pundits and the rage of gatherings of ordinary citizens who fear for their own and their children’s futures.  We are surrounded by cultural pulsations that foster mistrust and distance between us.  The true practice of faith, with the sense of trust at its core, could thus be a great contribution to our public life, a fostering of the great aspiration of the authors of the US Constitution, the ongoing formation of “a more perfect union.”  Much of our current political discourse, including unfortunately the contributions of many religious leaders, is driving us into further disunity.  There can be no possibility of union between persons without trust, and there can be no trust without faith in its deepest sense.

     The second aspect of trust would be the ability to trust in the very possibility of “a more perfect union.”  There is no small degree of nihilism behind the ever increasing propensity toward an autonomous and self-enclosed libertarianism.  It seems to be an inability to have faith in the possibility of a workable union, a public sphere where the conflicts between the demands of the self and the needs of others can somehow be creatively engaged.  Transcendent faith carries with it not only trust in the possibilities of repentance and conversion, but also the hope that “by little and by little,” by the grace of God, we can become less fearful and selfish and more loving and caring.  Part of the difficulty with the intersection of belief and public life in our time is that belief is often brought to the public sphere in a sense of arrogance and superiority.  On the other hand, faith, as relationship, is always humbly aware of its failure in relationship.  The person of faith is one who knows, through the purification of relationship, that our own pride form is always intruding on our attempts to relate more deeply and abandon ourselves more fully to God.  And in this we are taught that humility is the prerequisite for the possibility of any social interaction or relationship.  It is through a coming together grounded in humility that we may find ourselves open to Divine inspiration and direction.  It is only by means of a transcendent faith that we can live in the hope that sinful human beings can become servants of the Divine will and discover, in our diversity, the way of developing most fully our human possibilities.  It is only by the trust born from seeing our lives and times against the Divine Horizon that we can continue to work together toward those goals that seem so distant and often feel impossible.

     The perspective of faith does not give us answers to the political question of which branch of political thought affords us the best way to incarnate this faith. (Judt, who is writing a historical and political and not a spiritual text, believes that a renewed form of the politics of the Social Democrats is best.)  What the relationship of faith does call us to, however, is a trusting engagement born of humility and love.  Because it is a relationship that is never an isolated one but one in which we discover not only our God but the God of all, it summons us to offer ourselves not to an ideology or utopian vision but an ongoing work of doing what we can for the common weal. Judt writes:  “Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek.”  It is a most humbling, and oftentimes discouraging, experience to recognize how hard we must work for, at best, incremental improvements in our own life and in those of our brothers and sisters.  But a coming together in such humility and trust of those who give themselves in dispositions of repentance toward self and generosity toward others is precisely what the intersection of faith and public life would look like.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.