Government overreliance: The devil is in the details


The Constitution is powerless against Satan.

Earlier this month, the state of Oklahoma received a proposal from New York-based Satanists to build near the state Capitol a 7-foot-high statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed pagan idol. The Satanists’ letter boasted that, “The statue will also have a functional purpose as a chair where people of all ages may sit on the lap of Satan for inspiration and contemplation.”

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Now, while the Satanists are real, there’s a lot of fakery involved. It’s a stunt — a clever one — exploiting the constitutional injunction against governmental favoritism towards religion. The Oklahoma Capitol has a statue of the Ten Commandments on its grounds, and that vexes atheist activists and Satanists alike. It’s a version of the old rule about bringing candy to school. If you didn’t bring enough for everyone, then no one can have any. If Christians and Jews can have a statue of the Ten Commandments on public property, so can everyone else. And if they can’t, no one can.

It’s doubtful that Oklahoman children will be sitting on Baphomet’s stony lap any time soon, and that’s more than fine with me. But that doesn’t mean, at least as a matter of logic alone, that the Satanists don’t have a point.

Indeed, if you want to argue that erecting a tribute to Lucifer on public property is a bad idea, the Constitution is pretty useless. That’s no knock on the Constitution, mind you. Lots of wonderful things are of little utility in fighting Satan. Puppies, ice cream, the warranty on a Ford Pinto: These are as helpful in fighting Satan as a winning smile is in putting out a house fire.

The Satan statue controversy is of course absurd, but absurdities are often useful in illuminating more substantial issues.

America is becoming vastly more diverse — ethnically, culturally, religiously and morally. In a great many ways that’s a good thing. But in this life, no good thing comes without a downside.

Consider immigration, historically a boon to America. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam (a liberal in good standing) found that increased immigration hurts “social trust,” causing people to “hunker down” within their own bands of friends or alone in front of the TV. Everything from trust in political leaders and the political process — both of which are at or near all-time lows, by the way — to voting and carpooling drops precipitously as more strangers move into a community.

Conversely, people increasingly look more to government — the police, local politicians and bureaucrats — to solve problems that once could have been worked out in a neighborly conversation. This reliance on legal authority and entitlements further crowds out the charitable mechanisms and institutions of civil society, inviting yet more government intrusions.

By the way, Putnam explicitly rejects racism as the culprit here. Rather, the cause is a breakdown in shared norms, customs, language and the other often invisible and intangible but no less real sinews that bind a community together.

Family breakdown, the decline in good blue-collar jobs, the decline of organized religion, etc., are all equally good or better examples of things sapping the strength from social trust and cohesion and encouraging government to pick up the slack. In Europe, charitable giving and voluntarism are anemic because people think charity is what they pay taxes for. The churches are all subsidized but the pews are empty.

And when the connective tissues of an organic society are removed, all that is left is the bone of abstract principle. For conservatives, that mostly means invoking the Constitution — which is rightly silent on how people should live. For liberals, that often means shrugging and saying, “Who are we to judge?”

Neither response offers much of an argument against giving equal time to devil worshippers.

For many liberals that’s OK, because a strong civil society isn’t a big priority. Indeed, they often talk about the state as if it’s synonymous and overlapping with society. That’s why ridiculous phrases like “government is just a word for the things we do together” are so popular with people such as president Obama.

But government isn’t synonymous with civil society, nor is it a substitute for family, church or community. And if you mistake the state as a replacement for such things, you further weaken them.

The unraveling of the old cultural, moral and religious consensus has been a boon to individual freedom in myriad ways. But you can say this for the old civilizational confidence: It didn’t lack for arguments against state-sponsored devil worship.

(Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at: goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)

Also see,

A New York state of mind: Illiberal liberal values

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