The Dog Days

In the desert Southwest, the rhythm of life is the reverse of what it is in most of the country. Unlike Minnesota, for example – where my Nordic relatives hibernate the winter away – here it is summertime that puts us in the doldrums. We call the dragging final weeks of summer the “Dog Days.” Nearly all church and social activities are suspended from June ’til August because it’s too hot to move, or sometimes even to think. Now that fall has begun to creep in, we are just beginning to emerge, like gophers, from our holes.

I always liked my birthday: September 11th. It came just at the start of a new school year, when life was beginning to get interesting again. Then ten years ago, the date became a byword for tragedy. People ask me what day I celebrate my birthday now, and are astonished when I tell them I haven’t changed it. The events of a decade ago, however tragic, did not undo my birth – nor will it bring a single victim of that cataclysm back to life if I choose to celebrate my birthday on a different day.

We can only be afraid and angry on cue for so long before we get tired of it. Fear and anger have nothing to do with patriotism, nor are they emotions in which Christians are told to indulge. I think our whole country has sunk into the Dog Days. We languish in a stupor, while the professional opinion-makers tell us what to think and how to feel.

This is an especially deadly condition for those of us who are Christians. When did brain death become a cardinal virtue? Nothing seems to make the self-appointed leaders of our faith madder than independent thought. Merely asking questions is enough to send them into a red-eyed snit.

For a short time, I wrote for a political blog that welcomed independent-thinking gays and lesbians. They were Right-of-Center, but I hoped they’d find a place for a slightly-Left-leaning libertarian like me. It turned out that even there, independent thinking was a potentially dangerous thing.

I wrote a post criticizing Ann Coulter – the new conservative “Queen of Fabulous” – because of the stupid things she said about a gay soldier being court-martialed for a security breach. I suggested that few gays and lesbians who enlist in our military think their uniform will include butt-less chaps. For this, many of those who read the blog emerged from the underside of their slimy rocks and shrieked at me. It seems I had awakened that hellish horde: the Social Conservatives. Frustrated by the experience, I wrote another post in which I asked what I thought was a fairly good question: These people keep calling themselves “social conservatives,” and they seem to be proud of the description. But when they use that term, what do they really mean?

Another writer who worked for that blog got his undies into such a twist about my question that he fired off a post attacking me for it. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that he never actually answered the question that had aroused his ire. It didn’t seem, to me, to be a very hard one. If you’re going to use a term to describe yourself, you ought to be able to tell anybody who asks you what it means. If it means nothing – or if you don’t want anybody to know what it means – then why use it?

In the post that ignited all the fury, I wrote that as far as I was aware, the term “social conservative” meant one of two possible things. It was either a philosophy of governance or an opinion of oneself. Often it seems to combine both of these meanings, but I’ve never heard anybody use the term who seemed to mean anything else.

If you describe yourself as a social conservative, my experience has been that either you believe your own code of morality should be used to govern everybody, whether others share your convictions or not – a sort of kinder, gentler, version of the “creeping Sharia” these people claim they dread so much – or that you simply think you’re a little bit better than everybody else. Even if you’re too magnanimous toward others to force them to do things your way. My gung-ho assailant berated me for offering these as the only two options, but in all his grumbling and ranting, he never did get around to offering a third.

Probably because there is no third option. If there is, attacking me for asking what it might be is certainly less constructive than simply telling me what the heck that other option is. Like so many of the terms people use to describe themselves these days, “social conservative” can’t stand up under scrutiny because it has no reasonable substance. It is a mindless button to push to get us to feel, feel, feel. But never to think, and certainly never to ask any questions.

The pressures of life in this new, troubled century are cooking our brains into soup. Thus far, a decade into the new millennium, I would characterize it as the Dog Days. We’re tired of all the conflict, of having to take a stand on who’s right and who’s wrong when each side seems only partially right and partially wrong. So we retreat from the heat and glare of it all and hide out in hibernation. But when we venture forth from that hole – if we ever do – what will we find left of the world we’ve abandoned?

Politicians have become so cynical that they actually hope we’re all too stupid, or lazy, or burned out to think clearly. It’s why they tell us the things they do, and expect that we’ll simply believe them. Preachers and professional religious leaders do the same thing – and for the same reason. It isn’t really new behavior, of course. It characterized the start of the First Millenium, just as it did the Second, and is proving true of the Third.

This is the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s why the religious leaders and politicians condemned Him. It’s how they incited the mob to clamor for His death. It’s why they ordered the tomb sealed and a guard placed in front of it. “People will believe anything,” they tell themselves – and so, they’ll tell us anything today.

The social conservatives keep telling us we must let them tyrannize us for the sake of “religious freedom.” But what about the religious (or non-religious) freedom of everybody else? How can freedom for some be purchased at the expense of freedom for others? The truth is that it can’t be. Freedom is a seamless garment, and just as those Roman soldiers gambled for Jesus’s robe – all or nothing – instead of dividing it between them, freedom is being gambled for by the powers that be.

All or nothing. One group may seem to get all, but the rest of us – if we play that game – will end up with nothing. And if the social conservatives play for all-or-nothing freedom, they’ll be left with nothing, even if they “win.” Nothing but the blood-and-sweat-soaked robe of a dead Jew.

Jesus dedicated His life to freedom: “You will know the truth, and it will make you free.” Tyranny turns a living faith into a dead dogma. Without the freedom to ask questions, the freedom to move into fresh territory, the freedom to learn and grow, faith is not faith at all. To quote one of the social conservatives’ favorite slogans in a sense that gives it actual meaning, “freedom isn’t free.”

They’re always trying to make us afraid of terrorism, and of those who would force their religion upon us, but exactly what are they really saying? That we should blindly place our trust in them, even though their aims are identical to those of the enemies who would conquer us from the outside?

It’s time for the Dog Days to come to an end. We all need to wake up from our stupor now. While we still have a life worth waking up to.