Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1)
The first Psalm gives us an enlightening account of God’s law. The explanation is primarily prescriptive: if you follow God’s Law, and take it to heart, you will be happy, but if you choose wickedness . . . well, then your wages will be death. Here is one of many indications in Scripture that while God allows us to conduct our own affairs, both on an individual and societal level, he wants to be involved. For instance, here he reminds us of the consequences that necessarily follow bad actions. He has created us in such a way that we desire his presence in our lives (as St. Augustine puts it: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you”). And so he has created a variety of means for communicating with us without controlling us.
We see God’s desire to communicate reflected in different ways in our observances over the next two days. Today is the feast of the Archangels: our word “angel” comes from the Greek ἄγγελος, which simply means “messenger”. The function of angels, at least as far as they concern us, is as carriers of God’s messages to us. In addition to that, tomorrow is the feast of St. Jerome, who is known primarily for creating the first complete and reliable Latin translation of the Holy Scriptures, making the Bible available to all those inhabitants of the Roman Empire who did not know Greek. We honor St. Jerome not just because of his life of heroic virtue, but because he made the word of God available to so many people.
I couldn’t help thinking about the Archangels and St. Jerome when I read this column [“Americans Concerned about the Declining Influence of Religion”] by Star Parker. It was published a few years ago, but we can be sure that the trends it identifies haven’t gotten any better in the interim. Parker is discussing a survey by the Pew Center showing that:
Over the last 12 years, the percentage of Americans that think religion is losing influence in American life has increased dramatically. In 2002, 52 percent of those surveyed said religion is losing influence. In 2014, 72 percent of Americans said religion is losing influence.
At the same time, Parker says, “fifty-six percent say that the waning of religion is a bad thing compared to 12 percent that say it is a good thing”, and she points to a Pew poll from 2012 that found that 58 percent thought religion was “very important” against only 12 percent who believed the opposite.
What are we to make of these figures? One would think that the large majority decrying the decline of religion must nonetheless play some part in that decline. I suspect that we are seeing, at least in part, the struggle between our willing spirits and the weak flesh (see Matthew 26:41) within our restless hearts: “Lord give me chastity . . . but not yet” (St. Augustine has all the bases covered). There are also more concrete considerations. Parker, who was at one time a single mother on welfare, and who credits the welfare reforms of the 1990’s with rescuing her from a life of dependency on government largesse, sees the baleful moral consequences of such dependence as an important proximate cause. Most Americans, largely out of a sense of Christian Charity, supported the enormous expansion of government assistance programs starting in the 1960’s.
Who appreciated that the program would undermine the very religious, traditional values that keep families intact, essential for the work ethic that leads people out of poverty? Massive increases of government in the lives of low-income black families were accompanied by a tripling of single parent households and out-of-wedlock births, laying the groundwork for intergenerational poverty.
Now it’s happening in the whole country. As we’ve gotten more government telling Americans how to save for retirement, how to deal with their health care, how to educate their children – American families have been damaged and out-of-wedlock births have increased six-fold from 1960 to 42 percent today. Government has displaced family.
“Now it’s happening in the whole country . . . Government has displaced family.“
But it’s not simply about government. In fact, Parker finds fault with both the Statists on the left and the Libertarians on the right who see the government per se as the issue, as if adding more government or radically cutting it will alone solve our social problems. No, “you can’t have a free society that is not also a virtuous society”, and “we can’t separate our fiscal and economic problems from our moral problems.” And where does morality come from? Of course . . . God’s Law.
I want to be clear that I’m not pushing some kind of “Gospel of Prosperity”, but the discussion above does offer an example of how God knows the truth about us, and that living by that truth leads to happiness, while denying it brings on ruin. We know it from the messages carried by his Angels, the Scriptures he inspired, and the Church he established. As the Lord Himself tells Moses:
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-16)
Featured image: “The Archangels” by Michele Tosini, late 16th century