In the eccentric 1950 hit film Harvey, Jimmy Stewart plays an affable drunk named Elwood whose best friend and boon companion is a six-foot-three invisible rabbit. Naturally enough, people thought he was nuts.
Today, if only Elwood would call his invisible friend Yaweh he could get elected to Congress. Why? Not just because Americans are religious. We've always been that. In the past, however, we generally stuck by the maxim "God helps those who help themselves."
Today, however, encouraged by promise-the-world preachers, we Americans seem increasingly ready to leave our civic duties and personal responsibilities in God's hands. Joel Osteen actually goes so far as to compare God to a GPS system, constantly recalibrating and rerouting our lives as we go astray. That would merely make for a bad metaphor -- if people took it that way. But the evidence shows that all too many of us are happy to give it up to the Big Guy.
Reviewing the results of two national surveys, Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, found that more than two-thirds of Americans believe that God is personally involved in their lives.
Now, in one sense, that might not be troubling. As I've written before, if you regard God as the personification of love or hope, that's cool. But the same survey data imply that 71 percent of Americans believe that whatever happens to them is just part of God's plan. That's not cool. That's fatalism. And fatalism can be deadly!
Democracy depends on capable adults ready to shoulder responsibility for the public weal. When at the end of long and arduous constitutional negotiations, Benjamin Franklin stepped out of Independence Hall, a local woman asked him, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin responded, "A republic, if you can keep it."
Can we? Not if we shun reality in favor of reality shows. Not if we let magical beliefs dominate reason. Not if we elect politicians based on how they interpret God's will.
Could it be that reality is so hard that we have to give up any responsibility for it ? Surely not. For all our difficulties, we have it better than any generation before us. This downturn may be tough, but it's a Sunday picnic compared with the Great Depression. The War on Terror may be vicious, but it's peanuts compared with the Cold War and its spinoffs. AIDS may be awful, but it's nowhere near as devastating as the tuberculosis epidemic was, not to mention smallpox. Why, then, are we so unwilling to grow up and accept the burden of responsibility?