The Common Good

America's Greatest Deficit is Spiritual, Not Merely Financial

With all the angst about the economy, the deficit, and a looming government shut-down, I'm still concerned that we're treating symptoms rather than diagnosing the underlying disease.

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I know something about this. I spent a week in the hospital last year having loads of tests done -- blood work, heart scans, stress tests, and sonograms. I was discharged without a diagnosis, merely with hopes that by treating the symptoms, whatever was wrong would go away. It didn't. It turned out my real problem was a tick-born disease, and once it was diagnosed, a ten-dollar prescription of antibiotics cured me. Without that ten-dollar prescription to treat the real problem, I could have experienced life-long disability.

We know our primary symptoms in the body politic these days: rising deficits, a bubble-bust cycle, too-big-to-fail banks, dysfunctional electoral politics, and overdependence on fossil fuels in spite of their threats to our environmental and national security. And we know our secondary symptoms as well: excessive consumer credit, the mortgage crisis, high taxes, oil spills, climate change, and record gaps in income and wealth between a super-rich minority and the rest of us. Too often, what we get instead of diagnosis is blame shifting, with Republicans and Democrats pointing across the aisle: "It's their fault!" Or even less helpful, we get vicious scapegoating, where we vent our frustration and anxiety on some minority group -- Muslims, gays, and immigrants for starters.

Most of our spiritual leaders seem to be shirking their responsibility in this regard, leaving it up to Michael Moore, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert to challenge our conscience. When will more and more pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams join together and lead their people in a process of national self-examination to deal with our spiritual deficit? Using the best resources from our spiritual traditions, what might we discover through honest and sober spiritual self-examination -- the kind, by the way, that is associated with the season of Lent?

We would, among other things, have to face our humility deficit. When things go wrong in the world, we have a well-practiced habit of blaming others -- extremists, al Qaeda, liberals, conservatives, and so on, without soberly facing our own role in creating these problems. Charlie Sheen and Muammar Gaddafi might just offer us an exaggerated reflection of our own unacknowledged denial about our national arrogance. It's astounding, when you think about it, that "American Exceptionalism" hasn't been exposed as a cover for American arrogance; every time we pull out that verbal credit card, we add more to our national humility deficit. We all know what, according to scripture, "pride goeth before."

We would also have to face our compassion deficit. What portion of our anti-government sentiment, truth be told, flows from a legitimate concern about government waste, and what percentage flows from a "what's mine is mine and to hell with anybody else" mindset? What will future generations say about us when they discover we cut services to the poor, the elderly, the sick, minorities, and to children while we expanded protections and advantages for the richest and most privileged few among us?

At the root of all our deficits, we would have to face our basic spirituality deficit. Yes, I know America is at the top of the heap for religious observance, and public God-talk is already in the yellow zone, if not the red zone, for many of us. But recent comments from several political leaders who also make great claims for religious zeal and fidelity -- Baptist Mike Huckabee and Roman Catholic Newt Gingrich come to mind, not to mention Sarah Palin and a boatload of others -- show that religiosity and spirituality aren't the same thing. Our "dress-for-success" religiosity, aimed at sending "vote for me" signals to winnable religious constituencies, will take us to a very different place than a sincere pursuit of naked spirituality will.

Could it be that oil spills in the outer environment manifest our spiritual failure to restrain greed? Could rising sea levels reflect the rise of spiritual recklessness? Could melting ice caps manifest an over-heated spiritual condition? Could our insatiable budget for more and bigger weapons betrays a lack of faith in the power of nonviolent peace-making, that our nostalgia for a mythical good-old-days betrays our lack of hope in God's guidance to a better tomorrow, and that our demonization of the other signifies our lack of love for God, neighbor, stranger, and enemy? In short, could our fiscal financial deficit be revealing a spiritual deficit -- not just in "them," but in all of us?

Is this our moment for spiritual leaders to step forward and offer a more penetrating spiritual diagnosis of what ails us? Could our spiritual deficit be the issue nobody's talking about? Are we ready to go into treatment?

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a former pastor and the author of over a dozen books, including Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words.

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