The common theme heard in remarks by the Republican presidential candidates in Iowa last weekend was how broken America has become. Not broken in the theological sense that can lead to confession and repentance, but, depending on the candidate, a brokenness reflected in school shootings, or abortion, or incivility, or even bad TV and movies. What none of the candidates acknowledged was that government, even if it might be headed by one of them, mostly lacks the power to substantially right those wrongs. For conservatives to suggest it does aligns them with the misplaced faith of liberals. The powerlessness of politics to reach into the heart was trumpeted by news that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is divorcing his second wife. Reports say he has been having an affair with a congressional aide young enough to be his daughter. Gingrich and several other members of Congress won a Republican majority in 1994 by touting "family values." How can people who want credit for honoring the Contract With America be taken seriously when they violate a contract with their wives? If they won't impose "family values" on themselves, why should the rest of the nation accept them trickling down from Washington? Conservatives, especially those whose views are shaped in part or in whole by religious notions, are placing too much faith in the state for deliverance. Politicians are happy to have their votes and will make religious-sounding grunts in attempts to win them. This is why a report of Gov. George W. Bush telling a journalist he has "accepted Jesus," and then using language normally associated with the unredeemed, gives us pause. Yes, a president has power to influence the tax rate and the makeup of the Supreme Court, which are important matters. But no president has the power to shape souls. As Jeremy Rabkin writes in the current Policy Review: "Expecting popular culture to do the work of churches or Bible studies is on par with expecting to find spiritual inspiration from the Gallup poll. Popular culture may be more debased than it used to be, but it was always beneath the standards pious people set for it." Religious conservatives will again find their pockets picked if they put too much faith in politics to heal the nation. According to a recent survey published in the Los Angeles Times, many of them lack some important basics, even while they lament the absence of such things in the politicians who have failed to meet their expectations. While more than 90 percent of households keep at least three copies of the Bible, which even politicians are now quoting (and often misquoting), two-thirds of them do not regularly read it. More than half cannot even name five of the Ten Commandments or know the names of the four Gospels, yet most of them want the Commandments hanging on public school walls. Perhaps they should first hang them at home. How can a sick and biblically illiterate society be healed if those who profess to have the answer similarly suffer from illiteracy? My preacher last Sunday said the most powerful example to a world that has rejected virtue is for people who claim to know the truth to "love one another." Are religious rightists mostly known for loving each other, or are they mainly associated with what and whom they don't like? Real power is tossed aside, or paid lip service, in favor of political power, which is not power but illusion. Like illicit sex, faith in politics can only make one feel good for the moment. True power remains with individuals. Ultimately we have the power to shape and even change lives. It is unleashed when families with young children control access to or eliminate television in their homes; when those children are educated at home or in private schools where their family's beliefs are upheld, not in state schools where the values of the state are taught; when people stay married in good times and in bad; when quality time with children is quantity time; when people are valued more than things; and when parents, not children, rule. This power, properly and lovingly applied, is more effective than politics. But politicians don't win by telling voters that such power can't be found in Washington.
-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate