I'm feeling the effects of a sugar hangover on this St. Pat's Day morning. Last night at youth group, we played a fun and silly game with the teens. In honor of today,we divided them into groups and had them unpack boxes of Lucky Charms cereal, separating out each type of colored marshmallow charm into different bowls. (For the record, there are now nine types of colored sugar bits in Lucky Charms; in my youth, there were only five. I remember when the ads promised "new blue diamonds".) Of course, after this game was over, we all ate the little charms, which left me with quite a headache. We also had a splendid limerick contest, which was -- to our considerable relief -- quite "clean." It's nice to have fun and games every once in a while; our conversations in recent weeks have been quite serious, and we needed a break. Did I need to eat sugary horseshoes and clovers? No. But I did, and am living with the consequences this day.
My inbox is full this morning with missives from folks outraged by my position on Choice For Men. I'm sorry that I won't be able to reply to most of them, but I did patiently read through every one, including those that use the most extraordinary epithets. As tempting as it is to share some of the hatefulness that has arrived in my e-mail, I'm going to refrain.
My dear friend John from New Zealand has a long post up this morning about youth groups and conservatism. He tells the stories of three young fellows he works with, and how his experiences with them helped shape and galvanize his political beliefs. Though he drops a few rhetorical bombs, it's a splendid and challenging post, and I recommend it with enthusiasm.
Of course, I'm sympathetic to some of the tenets of social conservatism myself, particularly those that advocate personal restraint and responsibility. (Naturally, I don't see those virtues as the exclusive domain of the right.) But my Christian socialism and my commitment to youth are not uneasy allies. I'd like to think my politics and my work with teens inform one another.
Like John, I see the pernicious effects of drugs, divorce, and parental narcissism on my teenagers. When he writes about the value of fathers and two-parent households, I find little with which to disagree. I'm happy to say that in the instances of divorce he cites, John does not blame women or the feminist movement, but a man's selfish "pursuit of novelty" (which seems to me to be the chief, but certainly not the only, culprit in my family break-ups. Women, of course, can fall victim to the dangerous seduction of everlasting novelty as well.)
Here's where John and I disagree:
I also see another cancer afflicting my kids, one that John leaves out: materialism. So many of my teens, regardless of background, are obsessed with things. They talk about clothes, about I-Pods, about cars. They gleefully make lists of what they want, and speak with almost bitter envy of their peers who have more "stuff." Many, not all, but far too many, long to be rich in order to have all of their material desires fulfilled. Though they are reluctant to admit it, far too many connect personal happiness to possessions. Most are smart enough to recognize the shallowness of that belief, but it's what has been ingrained in them by the culture.
My Christian socialism is profoundly troubled by the contemporary uncritical conservative acceptance of the virtue of wealth and the pursuit of things. A economic structure built on ever-increasing consumer spending and the pursuit of the latest and the hippest does tremendous damage to all of us, both those who are able to afford much and those who are not. I cannot be a true conservative until the organized right is willing to see the damage that materialism wreaks upon our culture, and willing to take policy steps in order to do something about it. I'm tired of hearing the gospel preached on the sexual issues and having it ignored on the economic ones. (For what it's worth, I get tired of hearing the opposite preached in liberal churches). Conservatives rail -- and rightly so -- about the culture of human disposability; they worry that abortion and euthanasia allow folks to get rid of the vulnerable because they are inconvenient obstacles on the road to one's own personal happiness. Fair enough. But when conservatives turn a blind eye to cultural forces that teach kids to always want "more, more", they fail to realize how the market itself teaches the young to think of possessions -- and lives -- as disposable.
I'm not a liberal in the classic sense. Consistent-life ethic Christian socialism has common touchpoints with liberalism, particularly in a profound concern for social justice. Like organized conservatism, it advocates restraint and care and a sense of the sacred in matters of the body, particularly around sexuality. But it refuses to see the pursuit of wealth and physical comfort as virtuous, and it sees crass materialism as being at least as damaging to kids as sexual promiscuity.