September 20, 2006

Boston, Philly

The Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia book I mentioned in an earlier post is fascinating, all the more so because in his chapter on Catholics he attempts to show how religious subcultures take on the coloring of the host culture so thoroughly. On the one hand it's depressing given how we, as social animals, are so easily and predictably influenced.

The author says it's no coincidence that the Catholic Church in Boston produced so many leaders during the 1800s and 1900s while the Philadephia church produced so few. Puritans who founded Boston favored hierarchy and transcendence rather than egalitarianism and immanence and the Catholics in Boston took on that flavor. His argument is the Church in Boston produced visible earthly fruits in the form of more excellent colleges, far superior financial management, great leaders. Philadelphia did not, and it was because the Church was influenced by the prevailing culture. If his criteria as to how a city (or country) should be judged is too earthly, it is true that founders of institutions (i.e. leaders), for good or ill, cast shadows long after they're gone.

The Quakers who founded Philly favored immanence over transcendence and that spiritual egalitarianism tends to produce poorer leaders, partially because leadership is not valued in very democratic societies. After all, if the people vote on every issue how important are leaders? If God is in everybody, then what practical need is there for the Transcendent?

Adam Smith said that whatever the government subsidizes there'll be more of it and it seems that whatever people assign status to, there will be more of it. So when Catholic priests were held in awe back in the 1940s, it's no surprise that there were lots of Catholic priests. During the '60s and '70s, when excesses of clericalism were trimmed back so much that even teaching on the sacraments became watered down, priests fled. You can call it a weakness of human nature that we require status in order to do the right thing, but that's where we're at. And certainly Jesus promised "status" to followers. He motivated us by saying that if you want to be first, become the least, become the servant of all. He appealed to competitive instincts by calling those who would lead children astray "least in the Kingdom".

Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia was written in 1970, before the 24/7 'gotcha' media, before gigantic fund-raising requirements, before candidates were submitted to a strip-search of their private lives. And yet he makes a point of how so many quality people were deciding not to run for office, leaving only the mediocre. Does that sound familiar? It's ironic that many of those who most hate George W. Bush are those most in favor of a "purer" democracy - and thus worst leaders. They complain of the symptom while being part of the problem.

The dramatic influence of culture above all makes one realize how crucial Catholic schools or homeschooling is, at least schools that have managed to retain some of their Catholic identity.

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