November 16th, 2010
04:05 PM ET
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.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.