The Post-Cold War Era: a Lesson from History

Each new generation is different.  They look at the world in a whole new way that the previous generations never thought about before or in great detail.  Sometimes the differences are huge, and sometimes they are minor.  And often they cause misunderstandings.  So it is no wonder that younger generations of Americans find current government policies distasteful, particularly when it comes to defense spending and foreign policy.

You might have seen a cartoon floating around describing how clever the Scandinavian countries are to have devised a means to provide free higher education for their citizens while the US is letting its citizens build up student debt.  It makes the usual liberal arguments that higher taxes and a smaller defense budget would help make free higher education a reality in America as well.  And because Millennials are either just starting their college careers or graduating, this cartoon appeals to them the most.  Why are we spending anywhere from $800-900 billion on defense when we could be using that money to help solve social inequality and the student debt problem?

There are many problems with what the cartoon is saying, particularly when it comes to free tuition.  However it also leaves out a big detail that has influenced the reasoning for such a high defense budget.  The Scandinavians were not expected or able to rebuild the modern world after WWII.  America was.

After VE Day, Europe was in shambles.  6 grueling years of war had wiped out most of its infrastructure needed to rebound.  America, through the Marshall Plan, was willing to supply the necessary resources to rebuild Europe to avoid placing the responsibility on the Germans which had in part caused both the war and the global depression.  America was also doing the same for Japan.  However the Marshall Plan was facing frustration with the Communist regime in Russia.  Stalin was unhappy to see that Germany had twice invaded his country, each time nearly grasping victory.  Twice, in his mind, had the unrestrained behaviors of capitalist countries dragged the Russians into costly wars.  Enough was enough and it was time that Communism spread beyond the Russian borders.  This meant assimilating Eastern European nation states into the USSR to serve as buffer states from between Russia and the West and to be prime examples of the virtues of a communist regime.  America and much of the West found this to be a terrifying display of power that threatened to end their way of life.  And considering the problems with the USSR’s command economies, it is very likely Europe would still have been in ruins had Russia been allowed to extend its reach westward.  Of course this was prevented by the American military and the ability for America to transfer large amounts of wealth into military capabilities.  The USSR was unable to keep up and dissolved in 1991.  This victory came at a price.  The manpower and resources that went into containing the Communists and rebuilding the modern world did not go toward expanding and perfecting domestic programs like the education and healthcare systems.  Europe can only afford to boast about how great their healthcare is and how free their tuition is because Americans have made it possible for the last 70 years.

Unfortunately, many Millennials don’t appreciate this important history lesson.  For us WWII and the Cold War are ancient history.  We can’t appreciate what it was like to practice drills for nuclear fallouts at school along with fire and tornado drills.  The closest we can come to feeling the same dread as the Cuban missile crisis is the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  And as much as the news media and pundits like to compare the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam, they had nothing on the political ramifications people thought would take place if the communists won.  Yet trying to convey these experiences often comes across as needlessly paranoid which tends to reinforce the idealist approach that 20-somethings have for foreign affairs.  A great example of this is the Ukraine crisis.  Many see this as Putin trying to rebuild the Russian empire under the USSR.  To do nothing but reduce military spending would be giving America’s most recent enemy a chance to catch up.  Yet a typical response from a Millennial would be to say, “I want less student debt.  I want the poor and needy to be given what they need because that is how I see myself.  Why do we want to spend more time and money on a foreign war?  Didn’t we learn anything in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Besides we already outspend Russia, why spend more?”

Of course this isn’t just a generational problem.  It is also a difference of ideology as well.  There are many on Capitol Hill, in school rooms, news broadcasts, etc. who did experience the horrors and tragedies of the Cold War yet believe it is time for America to reel-in its global defense system.  Though generally a liberal position, notable Republicans like Ron Paul are also proponents of this view.  For them the time for war and becoming involved globally is over.  Now is the time for us to stay home and address domestic issues.  This is a very admirable sentiment, but it ignores the historical record of American history.

From the beginning America has been involved abroad.  After gaining Independence and ratifying the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were debating which contemporary power should be their allies.  The popular choices were Great Britain, whose naval power was viewed in awe and political philosophy was the precedent for American government, and France, the ally for independence as well as a culturally desirable country.  The debate between the two was so strong that it even makes an appearance in George Washington’s “Farewell Address.”  The often quoted line, “steer clear of permanent alliances” suggests that Washington was appealing to an isolationist view.  However if one were to reread the address in light of its historical context, he was attacking those who wished to stand with France and participated in the Citizen Genet Affair.  And that was not the end of America as an actor on the world’s stage.  There were the Barbary Pirates, the land purchases and wars to make settlers safe, and our relations with those in the Caribbean and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.  And even when Presidents like Woodrow Wilson, LBJ, and W. Bush campaign to not send American troops overseas or to spend the resources of the federal government on foreign ventures, they end up having to do the opposite.  The reason is because as empires or nation states expand, they must compete for resources, trade, or both.  And these often cause friction which in turn can cause hostile relations.

But why do we need to be so widespread?  Why do we need to be in everybody’s business?  Because when modern nation states begin trading goods, they also share ideas.  This creates what is known as globalism, a system where countries around the world become more connected and interdependent of each other through trade, military cooperation, and or culturally.  Thus what affects one country has the potential to affect others even if indirectly.  See WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the conflicts of the Cold War, and the recent Great Recession for examples.  This makes isolationism improbable and limited intervention nearly impossible to execute.  Whether we like it or not, America will have to remain involved in foreign affairs.  The question is whether we will learn from history and try to efficiently prepare ourselves for whatever comes our way?  Or do we continue to hope that things have changed and Americans can go back to looking after Americans?

College Kids and the Church

Ever since I went to college, I’ve wondered why my age demographic was not attending church services.  The elderly were there.  The very young and their parents were there.  Even a few high school and middle school kids seemed to come on a regular basis.  But if you were looking anyone between the ages of 18-26, especially if they were single and without kids, you might as well give up.  The books and online articles I read said this was a growing trend in America, but no one was sure what the solution was.  For a time the popular answer was to make the services more contemporary.  Exchange the pastoral robes with a suite or something less formal and more casual; trade the choir and pipe organ with a five member worship band; and tailor the message of the gospel to the interests of today.  The result was beneficial for “mega-churches” which targeted young adults with hip youth pastors and worship services that catered to the schedule and tastes of college students.  So that must have been the answer right?  Not necessarily.

After spending four years at Asbury and its required chapel services, I can personally testify that the modern contemporary worship services do not appear to be effective in growing and maturing 20-something Christians.  A handful of students would be dancing and lifting their hands to the worship songs, but the majority were standing stock still or fiddling with their phones.  And this was after multiple revival services, holy emphasis weeks, and personal pledges from the band to help the student body to become better engaged with worship.  I suppose we could say that because chapels are mandatory and there are students who have no interest in cultivating their spiritual life that this was an anomaly.  However, more recent articles are sharing similar experiences as well. blames modern worship leaders for drops in church attendance as well as creating factions within congregations.  The Millennial Pastor has made the same observations about modern worshippers saying they are “bystanders to the moment.”  His article almost makes an argument for people to observe the same liturgical practices as the Orthodox Church which require congregants to respond and react in the service.

While I empathize with these authors, I don’t completely agree with the conclusions made by these articles.  Not all worship leaders are narcissistic pigs and not everyone who is inactive during in worship is a bystander to someone else worshipping.  However I would agree that the push to make church services more in line with contemporary tastes and styles has not been entirely helpful.  If we look at how worship and ministry is reflected in the Bible and Tradition, we often find that the ultimate goal was to meet God on his terms while meeting the needs of others.  Think about it.  In the Old Testament, God was very specific about how the place worship was to be built as well as the procedures for various sacrifices and ceremonies.  He even went into detail about the clothing the priests and the people could wear.  This wasn’t because God was trying to be anal, but because he needed the Israelites to understand how important and special their relationship to God was.  And to be honest it is difficult to be reminded of that when the stage or altar looks like it has been setup for a rock or garage band and the musicians act as if they’re performing before millions instead of encouraging believers to reflect on their relationship with God.

In terms of ministry, Christ did meet where the people were.  If they were blind, he granted them sight because of their faith.  If they were caught in adultery, he showed them mercy instead of hate.  But notice he never brought himself to them.  Yes did become human and live among us, but isn’t it interesting that he never went out of his way to find people.  Instead they came to him in order to be changed.  When that occurred, Jesus was willing to work with them.  That is not the reason for why many churches have contemporary services.  Many do it to attract the multitudes by bringing the idea of God and the gospel to their level.  And this has no basis in Scripture or Tradition.  Christ never dumbed down his teaching or made it relevant in order to draw people to him.  He may have used parables, but that was to teach not to draw people.  And this really turns the question I had earlier on its head.  If people came to Jesus because they had acknowledged that he alone was what they needed and Jesus never sought them out, then why do I or others worry so much that 20-somethings don’t attend church?

I guess it is because as Christians we don’t like the idea of just letting people be lost.  After all Christ commanded us to make disciples everywhere, including our own households.  So by nature we want to attract this “lost generation” and bring it into the fold.  Yet in doing so I fear we have wrongly compromised with the nature of our faith and understanding of our relationship with God.  It is not our job to draw people to God by offering the latest and greatest in music, in gaming, in preaching, etc.  It is our job to explain what a relationship with God looks like through music, technology, preaching, etc.

Is America an Oligarchy?

A month back a study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities was claiming that it had evidence that America was an oligarchy instead of a democracy.  More specifically those individuals and political organizations with money at their disposal are more influential in shaping policies than the average voter and grass root movements.  I’ve recently printed the study’s report and hope to post my review of it in the near future.  Instead, I would like to point out some errors that have cropped up as a result of the study particularly when it comes to political terminology and America’s history.

First, let’s define the words democracy and oligarchy.  The first comes from the Greek meaning “the rule of the people.”  In this form of government, all citizens have an equal voice and power to make, execute, and interpret laws.  The classic example of this is Athens with its Assembly of 400 or so men directing the affairs of the polis.  An oligarchy means “the rule of the few.”  Unlike democracy, there are multiple variations of an oligarchy.  For example, a state in which the nobles rule is known as an aristocracy.  Plato and Aristotle both thought an aristocracy was the corrupted form of an oligarchy; however, one could argue that a plutocracy or the rule of the very wealthy is equally or more corrupt than an aristocracy.  A meritocracy is another version where those with merit or credibility have the power to rule.  Because the concludes America is a plutocracy and not a democracy, it implies that America had at some point tried to become or declare itself to be a democracy.  But that ignores the evolution of American government.

After the War for Independence, America was organized by the Articles of Confederation.  Under the Articles each state legislature could form a team of representatives with each team being granted one vote despite the team’s size.  This was the first official form of government in the United States and it was not a democracy.  These national representatives were determined by the state legislatures who were democratically elected by the people of those states.  Thus it more resembled a republic at the national level which is the rule of representatives of the people.  Because the Articles of Confederation was flawed, the Founding Fathers created a new system under the current Constitution.  Now the people could directly choose their federal representatives.  This is called a democratic republic.  However, Senators and the President were elected indirectly with the former by state legislatures and the latter by the Electoral College.  Justices of the Supreme Court were and are determined without public consent.  The electorate was also limited with only wealthy, property owning, white men being allowed to vote in the beginning.  This means America was more or less a plutocratic republic, which seems to fit the ultimate conclusion of the Princeton study.

But that isn’t the end of American history.  After more than 200 years since the ratification of the US Constitution, the federal government has become more democratic in nature.  The electorate has expanded to include all citizens despite race and gender.  The age limit was even lowered to include those just out of high school.  The Senate, once determined by the state legislatures, is now popularly elected after the passage of the 17th Amendment.  While the Presidency is still determined by the Electoral College, the College and the popular vote are usually in step with each other.  The Supreme Court, however, is still decided between the President and the Senate.  Considering these electoral reforms one may correctly believe that America has expanded its capacity for democracy beyond the limited and narrow view of the Founding Fathers.

However, is or was America ever a democracy?

The simple answer is no.  While containing democratic elements, the American government has never been democratic but always a democratic republic.  Does that mean is some type of oligarchy?  After all ancient Rome was once a democratic republic but it was the patricians, the noble class, that held the power of government.  Again the answer is no.  There is no law requiring politicians or voters to meet certain socio-economical requirements.  The graphs which show a higher percentage of middle and upper class citizens participating to vote do not indicate why the poor are less likely to vote, though one could easily speculate why.  The wealthy may participate more than others, but that doesn’t mean the US is a plutocracy or any other form of oligarchy since they are not necessarily members of the government.

This brings the purpose of the study into question.  If the researchers never bothered to consider the democratic evolution of the American federal government but were willing to conclude the US was an oligarchy, what was the reasoning to do so?  The conclusion clearly does not have the earmarks of scholarly research unless the definition of an oligarchy has changed in the recent years.  I also find it interesting that the study was released on the heels of McCutcheon v. FEC which allowed political donors to contribute an unlimited number of funds to politicians and candidates.  Was it politically motivated to be published in response to the Supreme Court’s decision?  Or was it coincidental and the data was interpreted without bias?  That is the subject for another post.