One of the most curious political phenomena of the western world is the indestructible affection in which the British hold their National Health Service. No argument, no criticism, no evidence can diminish, let alone destroy, it. The only permissible criticism of it is that the government does not spend enough on it, a ‘meanness’ (with other people’s money) to which all the service’s shortcomings are attributable. In effect, the NHS is the national religion.
A well-known religious figure is reported to have said: “For ye have the poor with you always.” This is even more the case if economic inequality persists (as the history of the world suggests it might) and poverty is defined in relative terms. The same well-known figure added, however, that “whensoever ye will, ye may do them good.”
The philosopher Mary Midgley tells us that myth is not just an obstacle to thought, or even merely an adjunct to thought, but an essential part of human ratiocination itself. Whether this is actually so or not in the philosophical sense, namely that human thought is completely impossible without the making and use of myth, I do not know; but what is certainly the case is that mythology is a powerful force in human affairs, not least in politics. And myth can do harm as well as good.
In Britain, the most powerful political mythology (perhaps for lack of any other) attaches to the National Health Service (NHS). This way of organising our health care was born with original virtue in 1948, since its conception, in more senses than one, it has become more and more immaculate. If the service had a slogan, it would be Noli me tangere. No British politician would dare admit that its institution was anything other than an unmixed blessing; no British politician, at any rate none who aspired to office, would dare do anything other than tinker with it at most. Against the mythology, Mrs Thatcher herself was as helpless as a day-old kitten.
We have actually contrived to invent a new kind of hypocrite. The old hypocrite, Tartuffe or Pecksniff, was a man whose aims were really worldly and practical, while he pretended that they were religious. The new hypocrite is one whose aims are really religious, while he pretends that they are worldly and practical.
G. K. Chesterton
A somewhat quixotic friend whom I’ll call Gus dropped by the other day to reprove me for recurring error. “Don’t take this wrong, Steve,” Gus said. “You know that you and I agree on a quite a few things. But I’m concerned. I have to object.”
“Object to what?” I asked.
“In your last book,” Gus explained, “and in a number of recent articles, and in a blog post just a day or so ago, you describe the current cultural conflict that is tearing up America as one between traditional ‘religion’ and a conflicting movement that you describe as ‘secular.’ ‘Secular egalitarianism,’ you sometimes call it.”
“Okay. And the problem is. . . ?”
“The problem is that this is a fundamental misdescription.”
In my previous post, I asked whether our society is “post-Christian” (as is commonly reported), and I suggested that the question might matter to readers of this blog insofar as many of our revered legal and political commitments are arguably grounded in Christianity (or at least in the bibical or Judeo-Christian tradition). I also quoted T. S. Eliot’s provocative contention that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else.” Eliot thought that “[w]e have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian.”
Suppose Eliot was right in 1939, when he gave his lecture. Even so, things might have changed. So we might ask whether our own society has become “positively something else” other than Christian. Has some other “positive” ideology or philosophy or faith come along to replace Christianity as a foundation for our social and political arrangements? If so, what is that “positive” replacement?
Several years ago in a conference at Cardozo and again in a book published earlier this year (The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom), I speculated that Christianity may have been replaced as a cultural and political orthodoxy by “secular egalitarianism.”
World Cup 2014 competition resumes this week, with 32 teams in eight groups competing for 16 spots. Each group features four teams in a round-robin format, so every team will play three matches. The two top point-earning teams in each group will advance to the round of 16. (The Americans’ prospects for advancement appear somewhat but not altogether bleak.)
European football has always puzzled me in comparison to American sports. Europeans often pride themselves in advancing a more egalitarian society in which opportunities for success are widespread rather than concentrated. By contrast, the Americans, they argue, allow for great disparities and inequalities of income and wealth. (Some argue that the facts do not support this fulmination against income inequality, but leave that aside for purposes of this argument.)
The basic impulse of this criticism is a desire to promote equality of outcome, rather than greatness. If some at the top have to be moved down a notch or two, we may sacrifice magnificence at the top, but we will provide greater and more widespread opportunity overall.
The reason I find this puzzling is that, when applied to sports, Americans tend to prefer egalitarianism – known in sports as parity – when compared to their European counterparts. All joking about the Yankees and Lakers aside, championships are more widespread in American sports than in European football.