You’ve heard of the trade deficit and attention deficit disorder. Well, several strands of discontent in American life can be traced to what I call the “Authority Deficit.”
Whether the context is President Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war, cops unable to make city streets safe or parents struggling to rein in unruly children, authority figures seem increasingly unconfident. It’s a spiritual problem, if you would permit me to suggest the possibility, not to mention a biblical one.
Observe Bush at a White House news conference as the octogenarian reporter Helen Thomas badgers him with a contemptuous query about Iraq, to which he responds with the right words but decidedly not the right body language, nor the right tone of voice. His body and voice — the half smile, the hesitant cadence, the apologetic shrug — convey inner doubt. No wonder even Republicans hesitate to follow him.
Here in Seattle, in the notorious neighborhood of Third Avenue and Pike Street where I work, it’s painful (and dangerous) to see the unconfident policemen. Not long ago an altercation on the street corner across from our building, smack in the middle of the city’s chief tourist area, led to a (non-fatal) shooting.
Threatening-faced youths mix with crack dealers and meth addicts while visitors from out of town, who innocently associate Seattle with Microsoft and Starbucks, move fearfully through the urban corridor connecting charming Pike Place Market with the Convention Center. The city government acts as if it has no right to aggressively enforce laws against vagrancy, drug dealing and mayhem.
In my office, people swap horror stories. One colleague of mine got off the bus on the way to work at 8:15 a.m. She observed a couple having sex against the side of a fountain. A few feet further, a tall muscular guy with a shaved head and tattoos covering his arms and face was screaming at and threatening a man holding a briefcase. A few feet further, she saw a cop. What was the cop doing? Writing out a parking ticket.
Another co-worker observed a policeman trying in vain to disperse a group of five loitering youths outside a McDonald’s. The cop told them to move along, to which they replied genially, “Sure, officer, you got it.” But they didn’t move an inch. Ten minutes later, the five youths had been joined by five more, while the same policeman stood a few feet away, powerless and humiliated.
The spell of authority is easily broken when the authority figure loses the belief that something greater than himself underlies his claim to authority. I see this in parents, my contemporaries, who find it very unnatural, even dishonest, to command our children. When kids misbehave, we speak to them without the authority that they in fact crave.
Impotently, we plead with them. “Why did you have to do that!?” “Come on, stop that, please?” We protest their misdeed. We can’t command them.
All this arises from a modern spiritual condition: the weakening of confidence that any institution — the presidency, the police, parenting — represents any authority beyond itself. I know it’s hard to imagine now, but previous generations actually believed that in some sense, a leader or a parent spoke from an authority vested in him ultimately by God.
The idea goes back to the Bible. God appointed the prophet Samuel, who in turn anointed the first in the line of the kings of Israel (even, indirectly, those who were acclaimed as king by the people, rather than simply inheriting the job).
Some kings were good, others bad. But they all ruled with divine backing, or as later theologians would call it, the “divine right of kings.” Nor is the concept unique to Western thought. The Chinese phrase, meaning the same thing, is “the mandate of Heaven.”
In the Jewish understanding, the two tablets of the Ten Commandments convey the idea visually. On the first were carved commandments describing a society’s relationship with God. On the second, laws governing people’s interaction with each other.
According to an ancient midrashic tradition, the juxtaposition is meaningful. In a culture from which reverence for God is absent, respect for other people will evaporate — as we are finding out in the United States.
An American president isn’t a divinely appointed monarch, nor is a policeman or a parent. But not long ago, the representatives of such institutions could make a claim to being repositories of a transcendent source of moral authority. Ideas of right and wrong came from God, while human beings, however imperfect, sought to enforce or teach firmly rooted moral norms under the mandate of Heaven.
As the West secularized, that assumption wore away. We may all pay a very severe price, one far worse than that being paid now.
The Bible’s true political legacy, in short, is as a bulwark of freedom. We forget that truth at our peril.