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Roots of public problems

America has gone through periods of change and doubt before, so today's unrest is not new

Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2009

Here's the walk-away line from a new study about the way religious voters see the world: Conservative religious activists still worry mostly about abortion and same-sex marriage, while their liberal brethren keep fretting largely about issues like torture and the environment. (Read the survey online at publicreligion.org.)

As I read the report, it hit me not only how we are stuck on the same issues but how irrelevant they are to many Americans today. It also struck me how we need new messages from religious leaders so we don't repeat previous economic mistakes.

Don't get me wrong: Abortion, same-sex marriage, torture and the environment matter, but they're not driving many Americans. What is? Larger personal and cultural dynamics.

Look at our health care, economic and immigration debates. The common denominator is a nagging fear.

Some see government reaching too far into their lives through too much bureaucracy, too much debt or too many immigrants. Others see government not going far enough to help them get health care, a job or a visa.

At a policy level, it's never easy to reconcile those tensions. But I guarantee you this: There's no way Washington can create lasting solutions to any of them without the broader culture reconciling the underlying anxieties.

Glenn Beck's mouthy anger from the right sure won't help us do that. The Fox News Channel host landed on Time magazine's cover with his motto of "I'm mad and you should be, too." Right behind him are the 72 percent of people surveyed by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who agree they are "mad as hell."

America has gone through periods of change and doubt before, so today's unrest is not new. But it is real. And it stems from what Dallas Theological Seminary professor Darrell Bock recently described on this newspaper's Texas Faith blog. We have lost respect for each other; we must try to conquer our opponents.

This is all part of the politics of fear, which has us locked in a nasty cycle. Look at the thread of anger that goes back to Bill Clinton's presidency. Conservatives loathed him; liberals paid them back by hating George W. Bush. Now, conservatives are returning the favor by disdaining Barack Obama. The cycle is motivated by each side fearing a loss of control.

When will the anxiety end? Only when we learn to listen to each other. That seems so basic - and pollyannish - that I can't believe I'm actually writing it. But we can't get anywhere until we come to appreciate another point of view; other, we keep tearing each other apart.

Think beyond the quick fix, as First Presbyterian Church of Dallas pastor Joe Clifford put it in that same Texas Faith debate. We want answers; we want them without pain.

Well, big problems don't get answered that way. It sure won't in the health care arena. We cannot overhaul our health care system without some dislocation. But there could be a payoff: Reform could lead to more Americans gaining insurance and health costs coming under control.

Here's one more societal trend that needs addressing, especially from our religious leaders the way greed shapes us and our economy.

It's easy to blame Bernie Madoff for greed. Few of us are that bad.

But we can't get to the roots of our economic crisis without reevaluating how much we need to live decently. Without self-restraint, we could end up back in an economic ditch, where people living beyond their means are swallowed up.

Of course, it's easier to get upset about abortion or torture, which touch few of us. But greed does tempt most of us.

Faith leaders will find it hard addressing our greed and fear, as things can get personal fast, but they should. Arguing about abortion and torture won't move us ahead.

• William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at wmckenziedallasnews.com



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