The Wrong Kind of Question

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

In the annals of political campaigns, Ronald Reagan’s question is considered brilliant. Americans have heard variations of it ever since from candidates in both parties. It works because it’s very American. But that’s exactly why it’s the wrong kind of question.

Americans go to the polls tomorrow in what appears to be a tight race. The 1980 campaign was also a tight race. A week before the election, Reagan held a two-to-three point lead over President Carter. That was when the candidates held their only debate. Reagan closed with a knockout punch. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Over the next few days, Carter’s numbers sank. Reagan won in a landslide.

Reagan touched a nerve, but it was the wrong one. He appealed to individualism, a deeply held American trait. David Brooks touched on it in a brilliant 2009 column “What Life Asks of Us”. He says we are defined by the kinds of questions we entertain. One set defines us as thinking individually. A different set of questions defines us as thinking institutionally. The difference between the two becomes apparent in the kinds of questions two religious sects asked Jesus.

The Pharisees were the first sect. They asked Jesus what constituted an escape clause in marriage (Mt. 19:1-9). Christ recalled creation, how marriage was instituted by God as a picture of the union of the Son and his church, a bond never to be broken. The fact that the Pharisees even entertained this question indicated they didn’t view marriage as an institution. It was an individual’s choice. Their confusion led to a follow-up question. Why then did Moses command some to get a certificate of divorce? Jesus countered – Moses never commanded this. He permitted it. When people are looking for what is a permissible loophole, they’re not thinking institutionally about marriage.

Then came the Sadducees’ question (Mt. 22:23-32). They asked which husband a wife will be married to in eternity (she had seven husbands while on earth). It was a set-up. The Sadducees didn’t believe in heaven, so they didn’t see marriage as illustrating a union consummated in eternity. They didn’t know that when Jesus consummates his marriage to his bride, the interim picture is put away. In entertaining this question, the Sadducees reveal they don’t understand marriage as an institution.

With a divorce rate hovering at 50 percent, many Americans don’t consider marriage an institution. They do think institutionally about other things, however. For instance, we don’t routinely ask our spouses if we should go to work. That’s because most of us work inside institutions, and they set the rules. We don’t routinely ask if we should file tax returns. That’s because we recognize the IRS as a rather onerous institution. Surgeons don’t ask whether they should operate in a conscientious manner. They work in the institution of medicine, bound by the Hippocratic Oath.

Besides marriage, there are at least two other institutions infected by individualism. The first is politics. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is an individualistic appeal. It “works” because it’s American. But it’s not wise. Politics is from the Greek polis – the city. In older Christian faith traditions, the question was: Are our neighbors better off? Is our city and society better off than 30, 40, or 100 years ago? (Jer. 29:7).

Yes – 30 years ago. In a recent op-ed piece, David Smick writes, “The political party that controls the White House after January could, four years later, be out of power for a generation. The economic challenges are that daunting.”<sup1 The culprit? “The globalization model of the past 30 years is cracking up.” There appears to be no new model to replace it, and neither party is addressing it. Instead, candidates divert our attention with “simple bromides,” writes Smick. Coached by consultants, the political calculus reduces complex issues to simplistic candidate promises – jobs and more jobs. This ignores the power of overlapping institutions. As a friend puts it, the President can order eggs anyway he likes or order a nuclear strike – but between the two, he can’t get much done. Various institutions get in the way. The critical question is not which man gets elected, but how do we renew our failing institutions to facilitate the well-being of all?

The second institution infected by individualism is the church. Most American Christians entertain the wrong question almost every weekend: Are we going to church this Sunday? Americans claim to attend church about 50 percent of the time, but a series of studies shows actual churchgoing is half the professed rate.2 Americans attend church, on average, a little more than once a month. Can you imagine showing up at work once a week?

I’m familiar with this because my family raised one question for almost a decade. Come Saturday night or Sunday morning, they would routinely ask, Are we going to church? We went to church when I felt like it. I’m ashamed to say I was forging my family’s faith on the anvil of individualism. It was irresponsible, and I have repented. In ancient Christianity, making culture is the mandate. The Bible pictures cultures as beaten paths. It is impossible to mature in the faith if you don’t beat a path to church every week.

If you’ve entertained individualistic questions, don’t despair. Instead, distinguish between enter and entertain. When the Jews built idolatrous temples, God said such atrocities never entered his mind (Jer. 19:5). Enter is the root of entertain (“to hold”). To entertain a thought is to hold it. There are many questions that never enter God’s mind, but you’re not God. All sorts of questions will naturally enter your mind. The question is whether you entertain them. You can’t stop the birds from flying overhead but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. By Tuesday evening, Americans will have the President they deserve. Both candidates will have pandered to America’s predilection for individualism. The losing party will begin beating political plowshares into statistical swords so they can skewer the President in 2016. They’ll ask you to entertain whether you are better off. For those serious about cultural renewal, recognizing this is the wrong kind of question is a step in the right direction.
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1 David M. Smick, “What will replace the globalization model?” Washington Post, October 16, 2012.
2 John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “Where Religion Matters.” American Outlook. Fall 2002, pp. 40-44.

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11 Comments

  1. Mike, Politics is not something I dwell on. But, the thought that immediately came to me was this. If my neighbor is better off than he/she was four years ago, why is he/she better off? If the reason is that the future of our corporate life together as Americans was mortgaged in order for them to be better off, I’m not inclined to continue to support the leader who mortgaged that future.

  2. Wow! Great insight. Are the cities better off? Are the states? Are the regions? Are the churches? Are the Financial institutions? Are the corporations? And who is promising or asking fir the vote as an “American”. I wasn’t having difficulty as fo who to vote for , but as I listen to both Demcratic and Republican messages, which one is more institutional in their thinking really matters. Who is going to make the institutions better off the next four years really has deeper meaning now! Thanks Mike, this is brilliant. Ron Morley

  3. Just a question about Arthur Holmes question about liberal arts education in his book the idea of a christian college, chpter one: what am I going to do w all this stuff ( liberal arts courses) or what will all this liberal arts stuff do w and for me? Is this in your reckoning, individual or institutional? Just wondering.

  4. David:

    Good questions. Since I’m not familiar with Arthur Holme’s book, I’ll hazard a guess. It would seem to me that “what are we (not I) going to do with all this stuff?” would be a question reflecting institutional thinking.

  5. Institutions matter centrally — yes. But, too, is it possible that Reagan was speaking in the second person plural, with the whole polis in mind, and that he held a longer view of history than just four years? The deeper question concerns the healthiest possible interface of the individual and social order, and how neither can operate without the other.

  6. John:

    Possible, yes. Likely, no.

    Ronald Reagan didn’t evidence any exceptional sort of “longer view of history” and it’s doubtful he would have been elected had he spoken of “the healthiest possible interface…” etc. My hunch is he spoke in the second person singular.

  7. Mike,

    I appreciate the comparisons of the questions asked of Jesus in scripture; helpful in understanding what institutionalism is and is not.

    If politics is “downstream” in terms of culture (beaten paths), when it is time to get elected, is it OK to work within the culture (beaten path) at hand rather than attempting to use the election as the fount of culture? While Ronald Reagan’s question likely was to appeal to individualism, does he, or any candidate, have another option until culture changes up-stream? I am asking because I am not sure of the answer.

  8. Mike:

    I take issue with your “hunch” about Mr. Reagan’s intent in asking the question.

    Surely the worth of any institution must be measured by how it affects the lives of individals “created in the image of God.”

    It may have been to his advantage that hearers interprited his remarks as being directed to them personally. But any reading of his speeches and writings over much of his lifetime reveal a conviction that the well being of the polity is dependant on preserving and strengthening our historical institutions and precepts.

    You can agree or disagree with his policies, but it seems clear to me that his purpose was to draw people back to the defense of their institutions.

  9. Excellent stuff here, Mike.

    A major issue Christians should consider is how they view the relationship between the individual and the state.

    Many have bought into the ideology that the individual is central to a free and just society and that the state’s job is to protect the individual in his/her pursuit of happiness and even be instrumental in ensuring the individual’s success.

    But this completely forgets all the intermediary institutions between the individual and the state. The state’s role is not only to work for the justice and prosperity of the individual, but to ensure that the intermediary institutions thrive in the society.

    Family, Businesses, Schools, Hospitals, Non-Profits, Unions, etc. are the keys to a healthy society.

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