Last night we finished watching the BBC miniseries “Brideshead Revisited”, based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel. At one point, a very wealthy lord, who had run out on his family and abandoned the church many years before expressed dislike of his son’s choice in marriage. The woman that he marries is a commoner, and the old man does not appreciate her outlook on life. The old man’s son at one point says that she doesn’t fit in very well with his family because she has “middle class values”. That got Andrea and I to thinking. The characters in Brideshead Revisited are mostly a train wreck- broken families, alcoholism, indigence and the like. But they are very wealthy, so they can avoid the more obvious consequences.
The underclass in Britain at the time also had many of those same character traits- this was early this century. The very poor in our own nation do as well; anyone who has done charity and outreach work in this country, as I have, knows that a large proportion of the people in this country who are truly needy, especially who are truly needy for any great length of time, are needy because of their own character. Before anyone gets excited, I am certainly aware of a great many exceptions to this rule. Nonetheless, in a country with rule of law such as Britain or America, if one is hardworking, disciplined and has the ability to defer gratification, then absent some terrible medical condition, one will not be destitute. That doesn’t guarantee wealth by any means, but it should be enough to keep one off the street with food on the table.
“The values of the middle class” is a common expression, and what is meant by it generally is hard work, reliability, dependability, discipline and the ability to defer gratification. To attain the middle class it is necessary to have the ability to work toward a long-term goal, to save money, to put up with a lot of unpleasantness for the sake of some greater benefit in the future. Going to college used to be a difficult and strenuous task for most people, requiring significant sacrifice usually on the part of both parent and child, if one was middle class. It cost a lot of money, you had to defer income for several years, you had to study and work hard and avoid a lot of the things young people often do in order to get an education. University academic standards have declined tremendously in the last several decades. While there was always a certain amount of carousing associated with going to college, it was necessary to show some discipline and some self-control to complete one’s college education.
Home ownership likewise was a major accomplishment, not something everyone could attain. Even after the advent of the 30-year mortgage, one had to save up a significant downpayment and convince a bank that one was creditworthy. That required discipline, hard work and deferment of gratification.
The government decides to try to increase the middle class
by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go
to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own
homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college
aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds
of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that
let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t
produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
Getting people out of poverty and into the middle class is a major policy goal of most governments. People in the middle class provide stability to a society, and they provide tax revenue. They don’t consume many government services and they don’t get into legal trouble nearly as much. So the federal government decided quite a while ago that they would subsidize home ownership and college education, because doing so would get more people into the middle class. But those are just markers of the middle class, not the traits that actually make someone middle class. The traits themselves, as Reynolds says, are hard work, discipline, and the ability to defer gratification, the ability to stick with something even if it’s hard, to gain a greater benefit down the road. When government just gives people things that in the past they had to work for, then that actually undermines the very traits that produce the middle class.
In this last election, many people remarked on the gender gap, the greater propensity of women to vote for the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate. But an even greater gap, and one much less remarked upon, is the marriage gap. Married females were almost 25% more likely to vote for Romney than Obama. Married males were 19% more likely to vote Republican. Marriage is another endeavor that, especially in our own day of easy divorce, requires “middle class values” to attain and keep. Marriage is often hard; it requires the ability to compromise, to work with others, to defer gratitude and to control one’s desires.
One really easy way to become poor or to stay poor is to get divorced. Another way is to have a child out of wedlock. The wealthy can afford to pay for the fallout of broken families and single parenthood, at least in a financial sense. The poor cannot afford it, and it’s one of the major reasons they stay poor.
In our time of media saturation and popular culture, people study and emulate the lifestyles of the very wealthy. On TV we see lots of images of single happy people sleeping around and raising children by themselves without much trouble, people who never seem to work much and never seem to suffer very much from their choices. Poor people see the lives of wealthy people and think they will be happy if they emulate those lifestyles, of promiscuity and substance abuse, but the rich are only able to live that way, insofar as they do at all, because they are rich and able to buy their way out of some kinds of trouble. Less obvious is the tremendous emotional and spiritual damage they do to themselves. But the poor, all too many of whom get their ideas of the happy life from Jersey Shore and Jay-Z, suffer immediately and obviously from a lifestyle of substance abuse, promiscuity and sloth. Subsidizing college educations and home ownership for people without discipline and without self-control will not change anything, other than to temporarily mask the true deleterious effects of a lack of character.
The values that are necessary to the middle class are also the values necessary to success in the Christian life. Christianity is hard. It takes discipline and self-control. It takes the ability to defer gratification. The parables of Jesus point constantly to this truth, calling us to look to the long term for the benefit; if we are not able to stick through the hard times to get to the good times, then we will fail. We will fail when our own sins tempt us, when the hostility of the world beats against us. Paul tells us to set our eyes on things above, not on things on this earth. All too many people become Christians looking for the fast benefit; most of those fall away. Perseverance is necessary.
It is no secret and no surprise that the rise of the middle class in history corresponds to the increasing influence of Christianity. Before Christianity’s influence, and absent that influence, society tends to divide itself naturally into categories of oppressor and oppressed; the rich elites born into the right families and willing to inflict violence and exploitation for the sake of the stability of the society (and their own benefit), and the oppressed who are viewed as too undisciplined and lazy to be trusted to rule their own lives, who must be made to work for the benefit of the ruling class, and cared for by the ruling class, for their own good. This is how the kingdoms of men are always organized. The kingdom of God, when it was revealed by Jesus Christ, was shown to be not the rule of some better earthly king, but the internal spiritual rule of Jesus Christ, mediated by the Spirit of God, in the hearts and minds of those who put their trust in Him. When enough people in a society start to be governed by this kingdom, they realize that they don’t need earthly kings any more. A man who is ruled by God has no need to be ruled by other men. He is free. The free societies of the west were all the product of this knowledge, first in the rise of Christianity in Northern Europe and England, and later especially as a result of the Protestant Reformation that recaptured many of these principles from the earthly tyranny of the Roman church.
As the state seeks to increasingly dominate every area of our life, they attack everything that stands as a rival. So marriage is undermined, treated as inessential and unimportant. They do this by disconnecting childbearing from marriage, making it easier to have children out of wedlock. They undermine the need for hard work and deferment of gratification through welfare policies, social security and medicare, all of which become “entitlements”, not simply safety nets for hard cases but the normal expectation that the government will take care of us. Education, medical care, housing, food- everything is increasingly dependent on state direction and state subsidy, all through funds taken from the smaller and smaller pool of productive people, or simply invented through the fiction of fiat currency and deficit spending. Friedrich Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom looks more prophetic by the day- we are becoming serfs, workers dependent on the direction of the state for our every move.
I have no policy prescriptions here. I am not telling you to vote Republican, or call your congressmen for anything. But if people in this country want to remain free, we must start with ourselves. We must free ourselves from slavery to our own lusts and desires, and that happens only through faith in Jesus Christ and new birth through the Spirit. There are spillover effects, common grace effects of a Christian society, so that even those who are not regenerate can experience some of the related benefits. But only through the gospel can we as individuals or communities really enjoy true liberty. Christ came to bring the truth, and the truth sets us free. Once we are free in our hearts, free men willingly serving Christ our king, we will forever be free of the slavery of men, whatever our earthly condition. When we give up that freedom, as individuals or as societies, we will again fall into bondage, the natural slavery of the human race, which we sadly see happening all around us in America today.