WHEN IS IT THAT THINGS GET SO BAD THAT IT doesn't work anymore just to be an optimist?
When all in the same week things get unspeakably bad in Iraq-and then get even worse. When the president of Chechnya is murdered, and just a few days later the head of the Iraqi Governing Council is also killed in a suicide car blast in Baghdad. When gay marriage is not just predicted but finally legalized and practiced in Massachusetts. When the average price of a gallon of gas tops $2.00, and $3.00 prices are seriously predicted for the end of the summer. When the mainstream media wear their biases blatantly on their sleeves. When Ted Kennedy pointedly insults his own countrymen, and nobody seems to care.
And perhaps especially when the pollsters begin to say that a growing majority of Americans don't see much point anymore in resisting or opposing all this.
I'm not talking just about the polls that now show George W. Bush slipping behind John Kerry in the presidential race later this year. If the election goes that way, the consequences for our country and our culture will be profound enough. I am talking instead about the larger slippage in our national conscience-a slippage that makes even a presidential election seem like a minor issue.
Francis Schaeffer used to refer to this mindset as a fixation with "personal peace and affluence." He said it had already become the dry rot not just of our culture in general, but of evangelicals as well. And he said it would be the ruination of us as a people before its work was finished.
Evidence of such a mindset creeps in from every side. On the issue of abortion, pro-life organizations ranging from sidewalk protest groups to crisis pregnancy centers say they have to exert twice the effort these days to get half the response they used to. On the issue of homosexual marriage-almost unthinkable just a year ago-most evangelicals say they're opposed, but have profoundly disappointed conservative political activists by remaining largely silent on the issue. "The phones in Washington just aren't ringing," says Matt Daniels, author of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would limit marriage to a union of one man and one woman.
And when I noted in this space four weeks ago that evangelical young people are just as likely to download music illegally from the Internet as non-Christians are, I had a bigger response than to any column I've written this year. Disappointingly, more people wrote to defend such actions than to agree with me about the ethical deficiencies involved.
All of which is pretty depressing. It's especially hard in a presidential election year not to think of all those issues primarily in terms of their impact on the electoral college map. I suggest that however important that may be-and it is-what's far more important is how such a mindset will play out for the next generation. It's not just the choice between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry in 2004. Far more critical is the old adage that in any political setting, people tend to get the leaders they deserve.
I was wrong a couple of weeks ago in this column to report at face value a story that put evangelist Billy Graham in a bad light. In that column, I quoted a Texas newspaper reporter who claimed that Mr. Graham, in a 1993 conversation with George W. Bush and his mother Barbara Bush, had minimized the importance of seeing Jesus as the unique and only way to God.
In fact, the reporter-being interviewed recently for a special PBS television program about President Bush's faith-remembered things exactly backward from his own story 11 years ago. Ironically, the TV program itself included a visual backdrop proving his memory wrong.
Since the broadcast three weeks ago, Mr. Graham has vigorously restated the words of Jesus that he has faithfully preached for 65 years: "No one comes to the Father but by me." Although I quoted my source accurately, my source hadn't quoted himself accurately-and I'm sorry that in compounding his error, I let it appear that Mr. Graham was waffling on a critical biblical truth.
Remarkably, in a disservice to good journalism and to the practice of preserving an accurate record, PBS has altered the official transcript of its actual broadcast to cover (however clumsily) the reporter's error. It's always a serious matter to make such mistakes; and it always gets worse when we try to pretend that we didn't.