My Take: The budget commission and our nation of Huck Finns
November 16th, 2010
04:05 PM ET

My Take: The budget commission and our nation of Huck Finns

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

In a seminar this week my students and I read a rant by the Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry against the perpetual adolescence of Huck Finn’s America, and our own.

Berry begins his essay, “Writer and Region,” by praising Huck Finn for escaping from the stultifying “indoor piety” of Miss Watson to the secular adventures of the raft, the Mississippi and the out of doors. He criticizes Huck, however, for his refusal to return home, for vowing at the end of Huckleberry Finn to “light out for the territory” yet again.

The problem with Huck, with Twain and with America, Berry writes, is that we want our freedom free of responsibility. We are a nation of perpetual adolescents, ever adrift on the Mississippi, refusing to come home to what Berry calls (after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) the “beloved community.”

Huckleberry Finn fails in failing to imagine a responsible, adult community life,” writes Berry. And “this is the failure of Mark Twain’s life, and of our life, so far, as a society.”

It is also the failure of our collective response to the preliminary report of the co-chairs of President Obama's fiscal commission.

In the theater of the absurd that followed the bipartisan deficit-reduction proposals of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, Democrats and Republicans alike proved themselves unwilling to grow up and act like adults. Here, too, there is “something stunted.” Here, too, there is the evasion of responsibility and a refusal to act like grown-ups.

In a rare fit of bipartisan pique, liberals and conservatives joined hands to blast the co-chairs' proposals. On the left, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said that Bowles and Simpson had told working Americans to "drop dead," while Nancy Pelosi said the report was “simply unacceptable.” Meanwhile, Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist called the commission "merely an excuse to raise net taxes on the American people."

As anyone who has ever balanced a checkbook can tell you, the United States is heading for a fiscal disaster. If we want to avoid the fate of Greece, whose economic future is being dictated by outsiders, we will need to get our own house in order.

But at least when it comes to fixing the deficit we are now stuck with two Parties of No. No, we cannot raise the gas tax or cut the home mortgage deduction, say the Republicans. No, we cannot raise the age for Social Security to 69, say the Democrats, even if that change does not kick in until 2075.

We have had our costly adventures; we have run the rapids of wars and tax cuts and spending sprees we cannot afford. It is now time to grow up–to come home to the responsibilities of adulthood.

Leaders in both parties know this, yet they refuse to act. Instead of coming home to their responsibilities as adults, they are boarding their rafts for yet another ride down the river. Why do they think they can get away with this? Because they are convinced that the voters are even more childish than they are.

Are we? Are we going to join the Republicans and the Democrats and the Tea Party for yet another ride down the river? Or are we going to call members of the U.S. Congress back to their responsibilities as adults, and as our representatives?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Opinion • Politics

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. NL


    I grew up believing that Huck was the very spirit of America. The adventurous, not wanting to play it safe, make your own way in the world kind of guy who explored new frontiers without any worry of worldly ties. How would this country have ever been settled without the willingness to leave the every Sunday, family church service behind. He's actually a pretty good example for Christians too. Love life and, in the example of how he relates to Jim, to act out of love not expectation.

    November 19, 2010 at 9:44 am |
  2. Darlene

    I love Fox News. It is fair and balanced, and thats what you don't like.....just because they don't bow down and agree with every liberal whiner that crosses thier path.

    November 17, 2010 at 8:38 pm |
  3. MicheleG

    Just what IS the problem in our legislative branch? What's really preventing cooperation and consensus?

    All the foolish posts here don't seem to want to address the real problem. It seems like it's the current fad to just blame some one, ANY one else for whatever is the current flap du jour rather than taking a serious look at what's preventing any kind of solution or reconciliation.

    The process is broken. What broke it? WHY have our so-called "leaders" morphed into a sort of permanent adolescence? "reality" listed many items which has America faced, but it sounds like the issue in the essay has to do with America's political turmoil and MONEY problems....THERE's the dodge.....

    November 17, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • NL

      The game has changed, maybe. It use to be about how to best serve the nation, and now it seems to be mostly about getting more of your pieces on the board than your opponent. The issues don't matter as much anymore. Politics are played more like professional sports with people cheering for their 'team' to win, but not really caring how they win.

      November 19, 2010 at 10:06 am |
    • MicheleG

      A fair analogy, I think. Thanks.

      November 19, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  4. perezking

    If you are planning a mortgage refinance then you should search online for "123 Mortgage Refinance" before you decide they found 3.25% refinance with bad credit history and also did instant analysis of my mortgage.

    November 17, 2010 at 2:55 am |
  5. Sum Dude

    I guess this article is about what the author believes about the budget commission and the subsequent political reactions...ok.

    Not the usual religious-themed sort of "belief" that tends to hook the article in with this particular blog, but it's a nice change in a way.
    Yet the political problems lie much closer to hand than a few sound-bites given by the politicians.

    A sort of a call to action, the article makes no mention of the actions behind the scenes or the political motivations of the politicians...but that's a quagmire, isn't it?

    That sounded like a nice beach, Prof. Prothero, are you sure you spent enough time there? Ever since you came back your articles are, well, strangely empty of "oomph".

    Or maybe it's just me. I'm too jaded. It's probably a perfectly good article, and I'd have to admit it was pretty well-written this time, but the position you appear to take is....not a deep one.

    Hell, I AM jaded. I could use a vacation. 😛

    November 16, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
    • Sum Dude

      Okay, a slight addition here.

      The lack of responsibility (Huckleberry reference) goes hand-in-hand with legislating morality in defiance of our personal rights and freedoms contained but not enumerated in our Constltution.

      And a proposal comes out that offends both sides (a healthy endorsement), and most just shrug and go back to whatever they were doing.
      The rich are trying to kill the goose thinking to get the last egg before anyone else does...and the whole world economy gets mangled...in many places ON PURPOSE.
      Anyone willing to donate some money to send me off on a looong vacation? 😀

      November 16, 2010 at 11:22 pm |
    • Whizzerd

      Sum dude, you need some serious meds.

      November 17, 2010 at 3:16 am |
    • Sum Dude


      You and me both. 😛

      November 17, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  6. Gary

    straight up T Party agnostic American .

    November 16, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
    • jeff

      careful 'round here... okay to be straight on these boards, but some will take exception at you getting all up T about it... 🙂

      November 16, 2010 at 9:25 pm |
  7. Gary

    C.N.N. was candy and cowardly for firing that reporter for saying he gets a little nervous flying with full garb muslims. Fox news lets you speak your mind. Fox news lets you call out socialists like Obama.

    November 16, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Gary: Thanks for demonstrating your ignorance. Juan Williams is the person to whom you are referring, and he was an employee of NPR not CNN. If you can't even get your facts right, doesn't it make you wonder how many other things you got wrong? Well it should.

      November 17, 2010 at 9:01 am |
  8. Gary

    fox news is awsome. Fox news is not politically correct. As an agnostic I agree they are too religious. Fox news dosnt allow us white guys to get punked around.

    November 16, 2010 at 9:16 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Fox News did not let me post anti-Republican comments prior to the November elections.

      Fox News, like the Republican Party, is for the white, rich men of America. So your comment about them taking care of white men is spot on.

      I am a white man, but I am not a racist.

      November 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  9. David Johnson

    @Stephen Prothero

    I seldom agree with your take. I wish you would consider writing for Fox News.

    November 16, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
    • Sum Dude

      @David Johnson

      Hay, bro! That is a pretty severe condemnation! Fox News! It's like telling him to go to hell.....! lol

      I kinda agree with you, too. Is that bad or what? 😀 Cheers!

      November 16, 2010 at 7:39 pm |
  10. Reality

    Stephen, Stephen, Stephen,

    You noted:

    "The problem with Huck, with Twain and with America, Berry writes, is that we want our freedom free of responsibility."

    I beg to differ as noted below:

    -Operation Iraqi Freedom- The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US Troops killed in action, 3,481 and 924 died in non-combat, 97,172 – 106,047 Iraqi civilians killed as of 8/10/2010 mostly due the Shiite and Sunni suicide bombers.

    – Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: US troops 1,116 killed in action, 902 killed in non-combat situations as of 08/10/2010. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror,

    – Sa-dd-am, his sons and major he-nchmen have been deleted. Sa-dd-am's bravado about WMD was one of his major mistakes. Kuwait was saved.

    – Iran is being been contained. (beside containing the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Baghdad, that is the main reason we are in Iraq. And yes, essential oil continues to flow from the region.)

    – Libya has become almost civil. Recently Libya agreed to pay $1.5 billion to the victims of their terrorist activities. Apparently this new reality from an Islamic country has upset OBL and his “cra-zies” as they have thre-atened Libya. OBL sure is a di-sgrace to the world especially the Moslem world!!! Or is he???

    – North Korea is still u-ncivil but is contained.

    – Northern Ireland is finally at peace.

    – The Jews and Palestinians are being separated by walls. Hopefully the walls will follow the 1948 UN accords. Unfortunately the Annapolis Peace Conference was not successful. And unfortunately the recent events in Gaza has put this situation back to “squ-are one”. And this significant stupidity is driven by the mythical foundations of both religions!!!

    – Bin La-d-en has been cornered under a rock in Western Pakistan since 9/11.

    – Fa-na–tical Islam has basically been contained to the Middle East but a wall between India and Pakistan would be a plus for world peace. Ditto for a wall between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    – Timothy McVeigh was exe-cuted. Terry Nichols will follow soon.

    – Eric Ru-dolph is spending three life terms in pri-son with no par-ole.

    – Jim Jones, David Koresh, Kaczynski, the "nuns" from Rwanda, and the KKK were all dealt with and either eliminated themselves or are being punished.

    – Islamic Sudan, Dar-fur and So-malia are still terror hot spots.

    – The terror and tor-ture of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait were ended by the proper application of the military forces of the USA and her freedom-loving friends. Ra-dovan Karadzic was finally captured on 7/23/08 and is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the law of war – charges related to the 1992-1995 civil war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's secession from Yugoslavia.

    – And of course the bloody terror brought about by the Ja-panese, Na-zis and Co-mmunists was with great difficulty eliminated by the good guys.

    With respect to your complaints about the US debt:

    Have you written your Congressional representatives and suggested some ideas of your own? Probably not!!!

    How about a 15% flat tax on all "non-profits" especially those with large stock and bond holdings. For example, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs investment holdings in publicly-traded securities, 2007-2008 tax period was $6, 145, 612 and the ACLU has $250 million invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds. "Non-profits" pay no taxes on interest, dividends or capital gains on these investments.

    And should we allow Gates and Buffet to reduce their taxes via Gates Foundation "donations"/write-offs? Of course not.

    For a $750,000 or greater value home, no mortgage deduction.

    Once again some incentives to live a healthy life style and also ways to pay for universal health care.

    1. An added two dollar health insurance tax (or higher) on a pack of cigarettes. Ditto taxes on alcolholic beverages, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the tax. Ditto for any product shown to be unhealthy (e.g. guns, high caloric/fatty foods??)

    2. Physicals akin to those required for life insurance- the overly obese will pay signficantly more Medicare and universal health insurance (unless the obesity is caused by a medical condition).

    3. No universal health care coverage for drivers driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or using cell phones while driving.

    4. No universal health coverage for drug addicts or for those having self-inflicted STDs.

    5. No univeral health coverage for abortions unless the life of the mother is at significant risk and judged to be so by at least two doctors.

    6. No universal health coverage for euthanasia.

    7. No foreign aid given to countries who abort females simply because they are female.

    November 16, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • David Johnson


      You asked: "Have you written your Congressional representatives and suggested some ideas of your own?"

      Yes, but taxing the churches was not received well.

      November 16, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
    • jeff

      8. Blog tax, with surcharges for length and repeat posts? BTW, how do you self-inflict an STD? forget to use those toilet seat shields? LOL

      November 16, 2010 at 7:45 pm |
    • jeff

      @Reality – looks like you're trying to legislate morality? Several of your suggestions are not logical from a cost-containment perspective. Euthanasia is much cheaper than keeping a person alive and suffering. Abortion is much cheaper than the cost of caring for a person for their entire life, and drug addicts and people with loose morals who get STDs should be punished too. As should smokers and drinkers and people who don't treat their body as a temple. But I guess it makes sense... since there is no God, the state must take His place.... 🙂

      November 16, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
    • Reality

      You self-inflict a STD by not wearing a condom or not using it properly. Or simply by having s-ex with another person with a STD knowing beforehand said person was infected.

      November 16, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
    • Whizzerd

      Rubber faster!

      November 17, 2010 at 3:18 am |
  11. Nonimus

    Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot.
    By Order of the Author
    G. G., Chief Of Ordnance

    (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1885)

    November 16, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
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