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Choose the Future

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, March 7, 2013

Choose the Future

After watching three or four episodes, my brief enthusiasm for Downton Abbey came to an abrupt end when Matthew crashed his car and died. Sorry, but they jumped the shark.

Having said that, the next season should prove interesting. Matthew’s business sense and executive skills (not to mention his inherited fortune) were just what was needed to “save” Downton Abbey, keeping it and its way of life intact for future generations. And that, after all is the family’s big goal. While the characters want to preserve the past, their basic orientation is toward the future.

I though about that as I read an article about “the sequester mess” by economist Robert Samuelson. Criticizing our routine budget deficits, he pointed to the public attitude toward government debt after the Civil War. “Repaying [the government debt] became a ‘national obsession,’ writes political scientist James Savage in his ‘Balanced Budgets & American Politics.’ One English diplomat observed that most Americans ‘appear disposed to endure any amount of sacrifice rather than bequeath a portion of their debt to future generations.’”

That quote from the English diplomat is the most telling. They endured sacrifice for future generations. We seem incapable of enduring any sacrifice for anyone and, hence, the deficits, the budget impasses, and “the sequester mess.”

“Dear Elected Official,” we seem to say, “touch my entitlement program — be it Social Security, Medicare, pension, farm subsidy, government guaranteed mortgage, or senior citizen discounts at Denny’s — and kiss your job goodbye.”

Since job security is all the incentive many of elected officials need, they cheerfully add new entitlements, scrupulously avoid cutting existing entitlements — the biggest, fastest growing, and potentially the most damaging part of the budget — and, as economist Thomas Sowell writes, “leave it to future governments to figure out how to deal with the financial shortfall.” That is, to use the overused image, together we kick the can down the road and leave the problem to our kids.

Sadly, that’s just the sort of thing we should expect. Our unwillingness to sacrifice for the future is on clear display.

Nothing has appalled me more in the same-sex marriage debate than our cultural assumption that marriage is about the pleasure and proclivities of adults right now rather than the good of children in the future. In fact, it’s this cultural assumption that drives the entire debate.

If marriage between a man and a woman is all about companionship and romantic love for each other today, there is logically no reason in the world that same-sex couples should be forbidden the same status. And marriage has become something that is all about adults and today. Tomorrow, when love wanes, we adults have no-fault divorce and the (false) confidence that “the kids will be fine.”

But if marriage and sex are by their nature oriented toward the future, toward procreation and child rearing, toward the next generation and the generations that follow, (and they are) then marriage can only be one man and one woman for life.

Yet it is a very, very rare wedding at which the minister mentions to the happy couple that children and family are part of the deal. This despite the clear biblical mandate to the first married couple and thus to every married couple: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…" (Genesis 1:28a).

So it’s no surprise that fertility rates are down and, with no children to worry about, our concerns for the future, including our nation’s economic future, are a bit dulled if not entirely numb.

As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it, “The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.”

When asked whether he cares about Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham replies, “I’ve given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes, I do care.”

As a parent, Downton is his past. As a child, Downton is his future. He knows that the present is not for consuming the past. It is for conserving the past for the sake of the future. Would that we were all as certain of that as Lord Grantham.

Publication date: March 7, 2013