We Worship the God of Security
By Henry G. Brinton
We live in a culture of fear, and since 9/11 we have grown increasingly anxious about terrorism, pandemics, environmental disasters and nuclear annihilation — anything that can injure or kill us. Our method of coping is to make an idol out of any activity, agency or technology that will promise us security.
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has written a new book Be Very Afraid that examines how we respond to the constant threats we see around us. His conclusion: Instead of freezing when they face a threat, Americans get busy and buy duct tape. Nothing frustrates us more than terrorism alerts such as the one recently issued by the U.S. State Department for travel to Europe. It warns us of potential danger but gives no specific guidance.
I believe that this idolatry of safety is a very unfaithful response. Whether one is Christian, Jewish or Muslim, the challenge of faith is to put trust in God, not in security precautions. Nor is it a sensible response. Atheists realize — right along with people of faith — that we cannot control every aspect of the world around us. Security is a false god.
On May 4, the front doors of the Supreme Court were closed to the public permanently. The reason: security concerns. "In one swift, final fiat," wrote Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott, "the architectural logic of Cass Gilbert's magnificent 1935 neoclassical structure, which dramatizes the open access to justice, has been rescinded."
We are turning into a society in which access to so many public places is being controlled by metal detectors and security guards, and we tend to go along with these precautions. Few people ask questions about checkpoints and closings, and most seem to accept full-body scans, metal detectors and restricted access to public buildings.
Why? Because we worship the god of security.
The alternative is to accept that life is fragile, and to realize that we cannot eliminate all threats to our physical well-being. Over the course of my 24 years in the ministry, I have seen children die of cancer, young men perish in traffic accidents, and healthy women lose their lives during routine surgery. Tragic deaths, every one of them. But religion teaches that death is not optional, and that no amount of duct tape, metal detectors and advanced medical technology will grant us immortality.
Every Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a season of spiritual preparation for Easter, I put ashes on the foreheads of my church members and say to them, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." One longtime member of the church cherished this service and always responded by saying, "Yes, I remember." Her funeral was last fall, and I told this story at her graveside.
One of the goals of religious faith is to fashion a life that is not consumed by fear of death. This can be done by looking for eternal value in each day on earth, eternal salvation in heaven, or some combination of the two. But these approaches are difficult to sustain in our advanced liberal society, where there is little consensus on eternal life, or even on what makes for a good life on earth. "But we can agree on things that we ought to fear," says Thomas Hibbs, professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University. The result is that "the pursuit of happiness gets transformed into the pursuit of freedom from unhappiness."
When we can agree only on what we ought to fear, the stage is set for the idolatry of security. After 9/11, we established a Department of Homeland Security, and borrowed billions from our grandchildren to fight two overseas wars in the name of national security. "We say, on our money, 'In God we trust,' " observes William H. Willimon, bishop of the United Methodist Church in North Alabama, "but our military budget suggests that this is a lie." Our trust is in the federal agencies, military campaigns and cutting-edge technologies that promise to protect us.
Faithful, but ready
Such an investment in national security is to be expected in a country that prizes separation of church and state, and does not use religious principles as the foundation of its defense budget. We are not a nation of pacifists, and our spirituality has long followed the practical wisdom of the saying, "Trust in God and keep your powder dry."
But if the vast majority of us claim to trust in God, then we need to be prepared to put our money where our faith is. In 2008, we Americans put far more money into the Department of Defense and war on terrorism ($623 billion) than we voluntarily gave to all of the churches and charities across the United States ($308 billion). Based on spending patterns alone, the message is that we value national security more than spiritual security.
No amount of money can buy us complete safety, however, because we cannot achieve it by human efforts alone. "We live in an insecure world, and for Americans no other event has brought home that fact as has 9/11," says Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. "Anything could happen, any time. Our lives could change, our way of life disappear. Ground Zero is the scar on the wound of our vulnerability."
Does this mean that we should abandon all screenings at airports? Of course not. Sensible precautions make us all safer, and deter those who want to perform evil, violent acts. But unless we, as a nation, want to descend ever deeper into debt and fear, we need to manage our risks instead of constantly attempting to eliminate them, and accept the fact that being vulnerable is a condition of human life. Remember, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. No further wars on terror or increasingly intrusive high-tech checkpoints are going to change this fundamental fact of life.
We also need to assess what our worship of the false god of security is doing to our souls. If we could somehow achieve invulnerability as a nation, what would this do to our national character?
"We would likely walk through the world with a John Wayne swagger," predicts Volf, as the nation becomes oblivious to the interests of others and comfortable with the prejudices about them. "Living in a secure but unreal world," he concludes, "we would be a danger to others."
National security is an expensive religion to practice, and it tends to increase our insecurity as we become more zealous about it, whether we are people of faith or atheists. We will never eliminate every threat to our personal and national well-being, and our efforts may strain our relations with neighbors as we make our barriers ever more impenetrable.
I believe that it is better to put our trust in God than in metal detectors, and to accept that our greatest security is always found in a power much higher than any branch of the federal government.
Henry G. Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia and author of an upcoming book on Christian hospitality.