Columnists > Soul Food

It's depravity, stupid

Polls reflect all too accurately the state of the nation

Issue: "Passing of a peacemaker," Feb. 20, 1999

Bill Clinton kept himself focused during the 1992 election by constantly reminding himself of the central issue: "It's the economy, stupid." Today the roaring economy is the favorite conservative explanation for the president's soaring approval ratings. "People vote their pocketbooks" is conventional wisdom's answer to the question: "How can you believe he engaged in such despicable sexual conduct and then lied under oath and yet want him to stay in office?"

No doubt the unprecedented prosperity helps explain it. When you've got plenty of money in your pocket, you can tolerate a lot of things. And surely you don't want to rock the boat that delivers money and the things it buys.

But ultimately it's not the national economy but natural depravity that explains the mood of the country. Ronald Reagan was less cynical but no less wrong than Bill Clinton when he affirmed the fundamental goodness of the American people. By nature we all want to have whatever kind of sex we want with whomever we want whenever we want. By nature we all want to lie whenever lying is to our advantage. Remove the restraints and, "Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them" (Romans 1:32).

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There are three things that restrain the practice of depravity in a society and none of them is working very well in America at the end of the 20th century. The first is the conscience that testifies to universal standards of right and wrong. Paul described those who do not have the written revelation of God's law, yet who "do by nature things required by the law" and "show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them" (Romans 2:14-15). But the conscience loses its effectiveness as it is muted, distorted, and silenced by repeated indulgence in depraved desires. Watch a risqué sexual comedy movie from the early '60s and compare its underlying mores to those displayed in an 8 o'clock sitcom on television today. Society's conscience says little to condemn the president's behavior.

Second, civil government can restrain the tendencies even of the calloused conscience by commending those who do good and punishing those who do wrong (Romans 13:1-5).That requires the enactment and enforcement of laws, but politicians will not enact laws they don't approve, and authorities cannot enforce laws that lack sufficient public consensus. For instance, in most states, laws governing sexual behavior, marriage, and divorce now reflect the reign of the sexual revolution, which-though restrained somewhat by the fear of disease-rages on. Private behavior between consenting adults is nobody's business, and, if nobody's business, then why should anyone be expected to tell the truth about it? Civil government more undermines than reinforces God's standards in matters of sex and integrity.

The third restraint is the church, which has a unique role as the recipient, preserver, and proclaimant of God's revelation in His Word. What the darkened mind perceives at best dimly and partially by the light of natural revelation, the church sees clearly and fully in the blaze of the Bible. But the church-yes, the evangelical church-has lost her clarity, conviction, and courage. She can't bring herself to say that God has absolute, timeless standards for human life that reflect the beauty of his holiness. She shrinks from telling people that they are depraved sinners, unable to change themselves and deserving God's judgment, which they will surely receive. She is unable confidently to proclaim the only good news-that salvation from the mess of sin comes only from the righteous life and propitiatory death of Christ. The church can't help to restrain sin because she is dispensing empathy and therapy rather than declaring law and gospel.

Mr. Clinton's high job approval in the polls accurately reflects the depravity that must prevail when conscience is suppressed, civil government is amoral, and the church is silent. It's not the economy, stupid; it's the depravity.

William H. Smith
William H. Smith


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