During and since Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful run for the Presidency much has been said and written about extremism, especially extremism on the so-called “right.” Much of this commentary has been in the form of sharply adverse criticism. Not a little of this commentary has itself been extreme, though often couched in impeccable academic language with its disarming plausibility.
With much of this critical reflection one has Iittle trouble agreeing. Extremism as commonly understood does not commend itself to the Christian as a suitable position from which to approach delicate social, economic or political problems and issues. And therefore Goldwater’s celebrated defense of extremism in his acceptance speech was most ill-advised, even though plainly aimed at abnormal situations in which abnormal measures might be called for in the defense of freedom. By this unfortunate utterance in its historical context Goldwater placed himself and his cause in a defensive position from which he was never able to extricate himself. He should have known that a naively forthright exposition of political and social views cannot hold up in the face of the well demonstrated capacity of the propagandists of the “left” to turn words and phrases to their own advantage.
Furthermore, one has little trouble sympathizing with those who declare that certain well-known religio-politicai spokesmen of the “right” “do not speak for us.” Even though the basically conservative theology of some of these spokesmen may be congenial to us, such spokesmen often do not give careful, precise articulation to views that otherwise may engage our sympathetic concern and support. At the same time we should acknowledge that possibly these spokesmen with their lack of penetration and precision have moved into a vacuum left by the failure of Christian scholars to wage the battle of Christ on every front.
However, when we have voiced these critical sentiments, have we done justice to the thunder on the “right”? We would be most unwise to think that a movement as vocal and persistent as the extreme “right” can be dismissed with a bit of sharp criticism, even though pertinent. We do well to probe the roots of this extremism. It is manifestly and in large part a reactionary movement, representing a strong and deeply felt reaction to certain trends and failings in the national life. An adequate answer to the extreme “right” can be given only by way of an understanding in depth of these tendencies over against which the “right” has polarized and to which it has reacted so sharply, even violently.
Spokesmen of the “right” are often criticized for proposing simplistic solutions to intricate problems. This criticism is probably correct in many instances. However, it would appear that some criticisms of the extreme “right” suffer fro m over-simplification also.
There are those, for instance, who simply dismiss the “rightists” as people who cannot accept the fact of change in modern life. They want to go back to the good old days, free from all the economic and social pressures of our time. To be sure, the fact of change, constant change, dramatic change, frequent change, has become a hallmark of our current culture, as Margaret Mead and others have so tellingly pointed out. And it is most natural to feel the emotional pull of the recoil from this relentless process of change that fills many a heart with a kind of nameless foreboding or nostalgia. But to assume that the singling out of this patent fact in the total situation adequately accounts for extremism on the “right” is to give expression to an extreme in superficiality.
Then there are those who would dismiss “rightist” extremism by calling it a fear reaction. It is simply fear, we are told—fear of Communism, fear of government, fear of change, fear of new words, fear of big labor, fear of Negroes, fear of Red China, fear of space, fear of tomorrow, fear of fear. One has little trouble recognizing a strong fear element in much of extremist reaction. But, again, only petty justice is done to this phenomenon by simply calling it the extreme reaction of many fear-ridden, small-minded people. The fear element is there, so it seems to the writer. But fear under the right circumstances is a perfectly proper and reasonable reaction. To evaluate fear properly one has to ask what are the factors that have prompted the fear.
Another analysis suffering from over-simplification says that “rightists” generally are the “haves,” the “advantaged” in our society, people who want to keep what they have and are callous to the needs of the “have-nots,” the “disadvantaged.” This evaluation may not be without its measure of truth. But again it appears to be an inadequate explanation of a complex phenomenon, much like the opinion that all on the so-called “left” are “have-nots” and “disadvantaged.”
Era of Crisis and Change
It is a truism to assert that we have been passing through an era of rapid change in the past half century. This fact has been dramatized by declarations to the effect that history has moved more rapidly in the past Sfty years than it did in the previous one thousand. Whatever the relative accuracy of such statements may be, they do serve to underscore the dizzy pace of change in the last decades. Such rapid change must naturally also be deep-seated change. And at the same time it can be stated that this era of tremendous change has also been an age of crisis. This fact is high-lighted by the spate of books, articles and speeches dwelling on the crisis of Our age-crisis in world affairs, crisis in social developments, crisis in education, crisis in morals, crisis in the church, crisis in culture. Responsible voices have used grim terms in speaking of these crises. More than once I heard that grand Christian scholar J. Gresham Machen warn that humanity today is standing over an abyss. W. T. Stace, one of America’s well-known philosophers, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1948 of the crisis in morals resulting from the rejection of the religious basis of morals, and added ominously “meanwhile disaster is overtaking us. His grave judgment is aptly indexed by the frightening growth in American crime, with the rate of crime developing five times faster than the rate of population growth. One also recalls Professor Sorokin’s much-quoted work, The Crisis of Our Age. Rather typical of this preoccupation with crisis in our times is a speech by a noted member of America’s business community. Delivered in 1961, the address dwells on various trends in American economic and political life. The title of the speech is “The American Tragedy.”
These are but samples of the virtual chorus that has lifted its voice of frustration and distress in a gathering gloom. At the deeper level these changes and crises of our times with their far-reaching historical and cultural roots have resulted in a situation in which mankind is struggling in a quagmire of intellectual, moral and political relativism. Standards assumed to be fixed have been disappearing. The generally accepted cultural house in which Mr. and Mrs. American have lived rather comfortably and often unthinkingly has had in it certain time· honored furnishings. Prominent among these are: 1. intellectually the final reference point for truth is God; 2. morally the ethical standards of the Bible are the foundation of all good conduct; 3. politically the federal government plays a constitutionally limited role in a situation in which the states exercise certain sovereign and indisputable rights. These fairly fixed and sometimes unshakably fixed furnishings in Mr. and Mrs. American’s cultural house have been wearing out, and no new comparable fixtures have been taking their place.
The changed climate, from reassuring certainty to empty uncertainty, was most aptly described by none other than the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in an opinion handed down on June 4, 1951. This strategically placed and articulate spokesman of modem culture said this: “Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are no absolutes, that a name, a phrase, a standard has meaning only when associated with the consideration which gave birth to the nomenclature. To those who would paralyze our Government in the face of impending threat by encaSing it in a semantic straitjacket we must reply that all concepts are relative.” No great acumen is needed to recognize the sharp break between Chief Justice Vinson’s position and the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence.
The Lost Individual
In such an age of crisis and profound change many an individual loses his sense of significance as a free and responsible person. So long as he can attach himself to certain fixed realities such as God or God’s laws or some “self-evident truths,” he can exercise his sense of freedom and responsibility in relation to such. Yes, then he can attain to a lonely moral grandeur as he and God make a majority. When these foundations of life and culture are washed out by the torrents of change and crisis, what is there to take their place? Once again the memorable words of Aristophanes come into focus: “Whirl is King, having driven out Zeus.”
Subtly but tellingly suggestive of the current truthless intellectual and cultural milieu is something that is occurring with increasing frequency in the daily press and in the news magazines. More and more issues of principle are being called “emotional” or “abstract” issues. Such language is being used, for instance, with respect to the factor of the individual workman’s rights in connection with the proposal that section 14-B of the Taft-Hartley Act (allowing for “right-to-work” laws in the various states) be repealed. Let it be carefully noted that issues that once were regarded as being the most real and the most meaningful are now being labeled “abstract” and “emotional.” How near is Orwell’s 1984?
It is obvious that a rather fearsome void occurs in the lives of men who come to the realization that those most precious things that have given foundation and structure to their total experience can no longer be invoked. This mood of spiritual emptiness and its despair at its deeper levels found expression between the covers of a book back in 1929. Joseph Wood Krutch expressed it eloquently in his The Modem Temper. What was then limited pretty much to the pages of sensitive books has now become a much more widespread mood, not bound by the covers of a book. Krutch, like the existentialist thinkers who have succeeded him, was quite wining to settle for the despair that the new view of life gendered. As this mood took on the broader aspects of a social and cultural fact, the badge of the mood was bound to become less that of a resolute acceptance of despair and more that of a growing fear in a deepening darkness.
Another feature of this mood is a logic that seems plain and inescapable. When these traditional fixtures on the cultural and personal landscape no longer have relevance, the 6eld is left wide open for some earthly principality or power to force its will upon defenseless men. Then we have an open 6cld for some social or political force to take on the character of Nietzsche’s amoral Superman, a creature not bound by the outworn notions or good and evil that men have bowed to in the past. Such a force may be a vocal and demonstrative group in a democratic society pressing its will upon politicians grown insensitive to factors of right and truth and having ears attuned only to the more clamorous voices of the electorate. Or such a force may be the strongest governmental unit that bears on the lives of the people involved. Or it may be a group of men who make up a court of “law” that is not bound by any absolute standards in its final jurisdiction over the lives of the citizens, a group of men who probably have had little training in the philosophy of law but much on the treadmill of cases.
This logic seems inexorable. Where long-honored moral, cultural and political values are no longer recognized by a society, ail that is left is the will of man disposed to assert itself in raw power to gain those ends that an economically advanced culture has made desirable. Or, there may be some bloc of regimented folk who assert this raw power toward ends that they want to attain. Time and again in recent decades we have seen such socio-economic blocs in our society enforce their demands by taking the law into their own hands, destroying property and even life to force their will on a reluctant minority. And we have seen politicians play hand in glove with such groups for the sake of purely political gains. The end of such activities in a society that honors no absolute values is anarchy—or bondage to a repressive government that must finally take the unrestrained and undisciplined factions in hand. increasingly the strong arm of the federal government is being called upon to police the undisciplined and disorderly in our society. And not infrequently this is done with an eye to the political advantage of the policing power, or it is done according to the political prejudices of the group in power.
This mood of feeling lost in a growing moral, cultural and political wasteland can be aptly portrayed by reference to two songs that once had a large place at that point where religion and patriotism meet—or rather, used to meet. These songs are rarely heard today. It is to be doubted that they may still be sung in the public schools, in view of their strong religious and devotional tone. One of these songs, so rich in the things that made the United States of America what it has meant to so many, has these lines in it:
Our fathers’ God, to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light; Protect us by Thy might, Great God, our King.
There are still many citizens in the land who cherish these words and are deeply devoted to them, with greater or lesser intellectual apprehension of their full intent. These citizens arc still convinced that liberty is bound up with belief in God. And thus as the sign “God Not Wanted” goes up on the doors to the nation’s public schools, and secularism moves relentlessly onward, the deeply disturbing realization grows that something basic and inestimably precious is perishing from the scene—just as cut flowers must die because cut 01I from the source of their life.
Another song that speaks of God in every stanza and that is rarely heard today has these lines in it:
Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.
To many Americans these words express a glorious and absolutely valid principle that is of the very stuff of life. In our growingly secularistic culture with its relativism in morals these words become empty. And it takes no careful student of the national life to see that the tremendously important thrust of the words of this song are wholly lost on many of the people of the land. More and mOre in our culture liberty means the unhindered right to press for those ends that seem desirable to those concerned. Where there are no fixed standards, meaningful self-control is an impossibility. A teacher in a public high school once told me that her students plainly defined their moral code as follows; We can do as we please so long as we don’t get hurt doing it. Such students never really sang the song just referred to -unless they sang it in the way that so many songs are sung, with no intellectual apprehension of words that are often senseless anyhow. What must the result be in a culture whose lack of fixed moral standards breeds such amoral youth? The answer again is plain anarchy, or the police state.
Ascendancy of All-Powerful Government
In the age of crisis and profound change we have been describing we see a process of erosion going on at many crucial points. First of all there is erosion of moral integrity. Of a piece with this is erosion of personal responsibility. It is not surprising then to witness the development of an instrumentality of overall control, namely, an all-powerful federal government. Step by step the federal government has been asserting its power and control at points where previously it had practiced restraint or a hands-off policy. We need not enter the area of motivation here. There is no need to speak of a sinister plot. Without doubt people with strong socialistic leanings have held positions of trust in many sensitive spots in the government. For our purposes we need say no more at this point than simply that a desire on the part of political leaders that the government be helpful and beneficent may explain much of the growing power concentrated in Washington, D.C. And, of course, the big money is there.
The growth of overall power and control by the federal government with its tremendous financial resources (under a steadily mounting debt limit) is seen especially in the mushrooming welfare and assistance programs. The cost of these programs is skyrocketing, as is frequently being pointed out today. Developing among us are what some call “welfare jungles” where people livc in a subculture maintained by some form of assistance that dulls the sense of personal responsibility. Indeed, growing among us is a whole host of people who are beholden to an all-powerful, rich, favor-dispensing government.
Shouldn’t we rejoice that the poor and the disadvantaged arc being cared for in some measure? Isn’t it heartless to question such assistance programs administered by a beneficent government? In answer let it be said that it is to be doubted that there arc many Americans who are insensitive to the needs of the poor among their fellow citizens. But—clear thinking is called for in a situation that has in it so many pitfalls. And the present wTiter would want to be the last to presume to have the answer to a complicated problem, and a pressing problem. The question thrusts itself upon us; are not there very important moral considerations in this very human area of need? Can a machine-like, non-moral, check-dispensing federal agency (that is always somehow politically colored and motivated) reckon with such important moral factors? Who arc really the poor? What is the place of personal responsibility here? Are the poor simply social statistics? or political pawns? Who are the really unemployed? How does personal responsibility operate here? And what about the frightful disclosures of rank immorality among those who benefit from the Aid to Dependent Children program? No wonder voices are being raised calling the expanding web of federal assistance programs a failure.
The large measure of dependence by so many citizens on the federal government has another facet that is not lost on the average discerning and troubled citizen. Articles have appeared in responsible journals raising the question whether we have passed a point of no return in this matter. So many people owe their livelihood in whole or in part in one way or another (through employment or assistance) to the federal government that this host of people and the voters they influence can swing national elections to suit their ever-growing demands. A realistic appraisal of the political scene must add the fact that there are always men who will play the game that brings the votes.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of the United States of America has always enjoyed a large measure of deep respect by the citizens. The comfortable and reassuring feeling was abroad in the land that to a degree not common in an imperfect world here justice was meted out in keeping with the requirements of the constitution and the duly enacted laws of the land. Here was a house of truth and justice of which Americans could be proud, a place where the dirty hand of politics was largely unknown.
Since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt this veneration of the highest court of the land has been undergOing :t change. It became increasingly apparent that appointments to the Supreme Court were more and more dictated by political considerations, whereas judicial competence and experience were given a secondary place. The average citizen cannot help being disturbed when he reads of the very few years of judicial experience that the entire membership of the court has had prior to sitting on the highest bench. The average citizen knows this is an area where he is largely ignorant. But he can read, read the many sharp criticisms that have been increasing with regard to the Supreme Court. He can understand the criticism that the court is departing from its constitutionally assigned role of interpreting the law and entering into the area of making laws, or of extending the boundaries of laws according to their own philosophy of government and society. Wherever truth and logic may lie in this delicate area, the fact is inescapable that also at this vital point many a citizen has felt the loss of a source of strength and stability as the storms of opinion and change rage in a relativistic culture.
The Communistic Threat
One more prominent feature of the “rightist” mentality remains to be mentioned. This is its preoccupation with the threat of world-wide Communism. Concern with this fact of history has often been excessive and has thus led to extremism. An illustration of such extremism was the designation of former President Eisenhower as a Communist.
This article will not deal at length with this facet of the subject. I would simply like to remind the reader of a few considerations in order to see this matter in proper perspective. Here too we should try to understand a reaction that has at times been extreme.
First of all we must reckon with the material presented above. A people who sense that their cultural, spiritual and political house is falling apart around them are bound to express an excessive anxiety toward any real threats to their security and existence. In the second place many a citizen has felt that the force of Americanism with its cultural and moral erosion has been a very weak force with little solid conviction to drive it over against the dedicated and fanatical devotion of Communism. A simple logic has brought to many the sinking feeling that a culture and nation that no longer takes seriously its motto “In God We Trust” has no fundamental ideological sword with which to fight godless Communism. The feeling has been further depressed by the frequent revelation of inability on the part of American servicemen to state clearly just what they were fighting for. Not unrelated to these considerations is a third one. Though the exact facts were hard to come by, it seemed to many that the cause of freedom-loving people was betrayed in greater or lesser measure at certain high level conferences such as Yalta. The conviction has persisted that the role of especially the American participants in such conferences as those at Yalta and Cairo was exceedingly weak and concessive before hard-driving, dedicated Communist negotiators. Then, adding to the mood of deep concern over the Communist threat is a fourth factor, namely, a similar weakness and lack of conviction in dealing with Communist sympathizers and tools at work in key places in the American government. And finally, those deeply troubled over the threat of world-wide Communism have seen with startled eyes a relatively easy march of this force whereby nation after nation came under this domination, even Cuba, but ninety miles from the American mainland.
What Shall Christians Do?
The above discussion ought to suggest that we are dealing with a complex phenomenon, one with a deep and spreading root system. It would seem to the writer that every Christian ought to be sensitive to the movement of those historical forces that have stirred the “rightist’s” deep concern. When this deep concern gives way to extremism, it ought” at least to be understood. By that we do not mean condoned, as the above discussion should make apparent. Tn all other areas of human frailty we at least try to understand rather than merely condemn. Also, an attitude of academic detachment will hardly get us into a position from which we can hope to deal with the mentality or a person who is convinced that his house is crashing down upon him. It will hardly do to speak cruditely of “the wave of the future” to people who see a gigantic wave already engulfing them. It will hardly do to speak of a “post-Christian age” to those who see the fading away from our culture of all that has been thought of as being Christian, thus leaving their lives bereft and destitute or all that is somehow most meaningful and precious to them.
What shall Christians do? Let those who are greatly troubled in time of peril and change, and also those who seek to evaluate the attitudes of the troubled ones, listen more attentively to the great God who governs the restless sea of history, He still speaks to distressed men with his imperious and loving “Fear not.” Let all hear the voice of reassuring sovereignty speaking above the tempests of life, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Furthermore, there is work to be done—much work. It is wasteful of precious energy and time to give way to the ineffectuality and irrelevance of frantic actions and utterances. History has had dark days before, very dark ones, when man’s little day seemed at an end. But the light has always broken through again and a new day dawned. That inextinguishable light comes from the Word of God by his Spirit, the Word of eternal truth that is embodied supremely in Jesus Christ. His Kingdom of truth will always stand indestructible as the powers of history spend themselves and are spent. Christians must always address themselves resolutely to the high calling of God to speak his truth to all generations and thus to further his everlasting Kingdom. An aspect of that task is to seek to know that history and that culture within which the Christian must work, relevantly and meaningfully. He must make sure that some disturbing upheaval in history is not actually a dramatic new opportunity for Christian witness and service. Let us get on with our abiding task, and not give way to faintheartedness. Could it be that perhaps many who like to regard themselves as standing in the Christian tradition have become too comfortable ill a world that must always be regarded as being essentially hostile?
Finally, we do well to recall the admonitions or God’s servant Peter, who wrote to Christians living in a time of fierce conflict. What did the apostle say to these harassed folk? We recall that by temperament Peter was disposed to sharp reactions. This man, with his native disposition to extremism, speaks by the Holy Spirit in these very pertinent words: “Wherefore girding up the loins of your mind, be sober…as children of obedience.”
Children of the Most High in Christ ought always to be sober —“calm and collected in spirit…temperate, dispassionate, circumspect.” God’s children, undergoing “fiery trial” in the first century after Christ, were repeatedly admonished to maintain this frame of mind. God’s children of the twentieth century, whose trial for the most part can as yet hardly be called “fiery,” ought to do no less.