Is Competent Public Administration the Downfall of the Modern Miracle?

Civilserviceexam1

The Imperial Chinese civil service examination became a model for selecting civil servants on their merit the world over (source).

Yesterday in Sunday school we talked about miracles. Participants argued that while “big” miracles like loaves and fishes and parted seas might be uncommon today, “small” miracles—the kind that only an individual or a small group might witness—abounded and in the aggregate amounted to a major expression of divine favor. Reasons given for this state of affairs included a growing tendency to keep such experiences private as well as the growing wickedness of the world at large.

I silently added that today even churchgoers are children of the Enlightenment with a better grasp of how the world works and less of a need for supernatural explanations than the authors of our scriptures. After having slept on it, however, I wonder if there isn’t another, more prosaic explanation for the dearth of miracles in the modern age—namely, a well-functioning state. 

During the Sunday school discussion I thought back to the instances of divine intervention that had been shared in fast and testimony meeting—help finding a locksmith after getting locked out, help getting a prescription filled and help locating a tour group after arriving late at the meeting point. None of these experiences were explicitly cast as miracles, though they were shared as examples of the power of prayer, which may be a distinction without a difference—mortals supplicate the Lord and He responds in their favor.

At any rate, it occurred to me that perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that anyone in Western Europe would consider these examples evidence of anything even remotely divine. I’m not just referring to the inroads secularism has made in Europe, though these have doubtlessly been significant. In a recent survey, for example, Europeans ranked “religion” last among

  • twelve factors that do the most to create a feeling of community among European Union citizens;
  • the values which matter the most to Europeans personally; and
  •  the values that best represent the European Union.

Then again, the people in my ward who shared these experiences weren’t European. I attend an international ward where many of the members hail from Southeast Asia and Africa. Of course, rates of church attendance and religiosity vary across these regions, just as they do across Europe, so it’s not simply the case that people from these regions are just more religious and prone to believe in miracles.

I am certain that the members of my ward are more inclined to see the Lord’s hand in our endeavors than the average person on the street, but what struck me about the examples provided was how, well, mundane they were. I mean, people get their doors opened and prescriptions filled and become reunited with their tour guides all the time without invoking God. But our fast and testimony meetings are replete with such stories. Why?

Maybe—and I realize that this is a stretch, but bear with me—a key difference in how we experience life’s challenges lies in the public administration of our country of origin. Western Europe, for example, is home to some of the most formidable public administration regimes the world has seen, run by systematic, meritocratic civil service bureaucracies—things just get done and done well; exceptions prove the rule. Southeast Asian and African countries, on the other hand, are among those where perceived corruption is high.

Being mired in a swamp of corruption, cronyism and capriciousness make your personal network and access to power absolutely crucial for survival in an unpredictable environment where you can’t assume that the person you hire to open your door won’t rip you off or your pharmacist won’t give you tainted medicine. In this case, being treated fairly could very well rise to the level of the miraculous. Navigating life on a level playing field with transparent and fairly administered rules, on the other hand, is going to be relatively straightforward with fewer surprises. Sure, it might involve filling out forms and standing in lines, but transactions, even with strangers, will be generally predictable.

This is all speculation, of course, but still I wonder if, generally speaking, people from different countries (and social classes; money is a tried-and-true problem solver, after all) locate the divine in different areas of their lives, depending on what is outside their immediate control. Maybe the relative decline of religiosity in developed countries isn’t necessarily due to sinfully coveting wealth, but the options to calling on the Lord for help that wealth provides. By and large, developed countries are also home to competent public administration systems. And so even in the absence of personal wealth or connections, a fairly administered state founded on the rule of law provides a higher degree of certainty to individuals that their purposeful activities will result in intended outcomes, decreasing reliance on personal networks as well as the black box of religious observance to get things done.

In other words, why turn to your Elder Brother (also invoked during this fast and testimony meeting, incidentally) when you’ve already got a Big Brother keeping the trains running on time and the garbage collected?

Comments

  1. Wow – this is opening a whole new train of thought for me. And we don’t even use trains here in America! Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

  2. When people speak of miracles, I assume they are saying “I don’t understand how _____works”. Otherwise, why does God hate amputees?

  3. Thank you, DeAnn.

  4. “a fairly administered state founded on the rule of law provides a higher degree of certainty to individuals that their purposeful activities will result in intended outcomes, decreasing reliance on personal networks as well as the black box of religious observance to get things done”

    Really great post — and great points. Dovetails really well with work I’m currently doing on public corruption.

  5. Yet administration can be a gift. Europeans are good at it and don’t even recognize it as a gift from God.

    1 Cor. 12:28

  6. Otherwise, why does God hate amputees?

    I’m happy when things work out for people, but miracles hardly resolve the problem of evil, that’s for sure.

  7. Given the title of the post I thought that this was going to be about how competent government results in a decline voter participation – with democracy being the modern miracle. When things are being administered well people find voting to be more of a bother than anything else they could be doing.

  8. Thanks, John.

    Yet administration can be a gift.

    That’s a fair point.

  9. When things are being administered well people find voting to be more of a bother than anything else they could be doing.

    I agree that the sense of complacency that can arise would affect not just religious observance but also civic participation.

  10. Jack Hughes says:

    Interesting ideas here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that developed European countries with robust social systems have declining religious participation. When your government treats you fairly and takes good care of you, you are less likely to be in a place of stress or desperation to rely on faith. But when you are overwhelmed with debt from medical bills and student loans, or facing eviction for being unable to pay rent, you are probably more likely to lose faith in the system and turn to God instead, whether in the form of religious devotion or seeking aid from religious organizations.

    My ward has a handful of families and individuals who receive financial assistance from fast offering funds to help them with rent, utility or medical bills (I’m the financial clerk, so I sign the checks). The bishop recently told me that he was about to cut some of them off, as they were “free riders” and not on a path to self-reliance; as soon as they get cut off, he said, they stop attending church. I don’t know if that is always the right thing to do (and I’m glad it’s not my decision to make) but there is a weird relationship of dependence and religious belief going on here. Perhaps people who remain faithful and devout in an increasingly secular society are just dependent on that faith community, if not financially then socially or some other reason.

  11. robust social systems […] when you are overwhelmed with debt from medical bills and student loans, or facing eviction for being unable to pay rent, you are probably more likely to lose faith in the system

    Excellent point. It’s not just how well the system is administered; what the system sets out to accomplish certainly matters too.

  12. I think I had a comment get stuck in moderation or the spam folder.

  13. Chillingly, Carl Schmitt agrees with you. He equates the exception in politics (i.e., some case that can’t be handled according to established legal norms) with the miracle in theology. Unfortunately, the way to keep miracles in play was dictatorship… This is all in his book Political Theology. It’s a sobering read.

  14. Suomalainen says:

    Or… good public administration is an indication of a people living the precepts of God rather than creating the need for miracles wherever they turn. ;)

    I assume Big Elder rather enjoys Little Elder doing good things of his own accord, not only individually but societally as well.

    Greetings from faithless ‘Europe.’

  15. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    You often will encounter people in US Mormon congregations who think that Israel in the reign of the judges was a model society. I want to shake these people by the shoulders and say, “What the hell is wrong with you? Have you even read Judges?”

    Ancient Palestine was an awful place full of awful people doing awful things.

  16. “Ancient Palestine was an awful place full of awful people doing awful things.”

    Currently reading Utah Territorial court records, c. 1860. Same can be said of them. Turns out there were also many good people there, but I am hereby decreeing that anyone holding any society up as a model (except, perhaps, the City of Enoch, and we don’t have many details about them) can be either politely disregarded or laughed out of the room.

  17. Suomalainen says:

    Anon, exactly. Found bits of the OP and some of the comments here about Europe ethnocentric and disturbing. Wanted to hold up a mirror… in case it wasn’t obvious.

    In either case, outward religiosity and inward faithfulness or the ability to see miracles may not actually be related.

  18. Jason, thanks for the reference; I will check it out.

    anyone holding any society up as a model […] can be either politely disregarded or laughed out of the room.

    No true Scotsman would do such a thing!

    Found bits of the OP and some of the comments here about Europe ethnocentric and disturbing. Wanted to hold up a mirror… in case it wasn’t obvious.

    I reviewed the comments—which didn’t take long because there aren’t that many and almost half of them are mine—and I’m not seeing the disturbing ethnocentricity. Do you disagree that, say, Finland is a well-managed country or that, say, religious disaffiliation is on the rise in Finland?

    outward religiosity and inward faithfulness or the ability to see miracles may not actually be related

    Of course. Hence the qualifications in the OP.

  19. I would argue (with others) that most miracles are effected through the hands of men and women. A lot of us have come to discount the idea that human intervention has anything to do with God. One might argue ‘therefore’ no more miracles.

    Granting the “hands of men and women” approach, when we read “feed my sheep” some of us hear “use fast offerings to help the needy who are part of our community” and some of us hear “vote for universal health care and welfare for the needy of all shapes and sizes.” I think the idea that competent public administration serves as a substitute for miracles or an act of miracle depends on which group you fall into.

  20. pdmallamoyahoocom says:

    Then there’s the miracle category known as “apparition,” as in Marian, if you’re Catholic, or perhaps Moroni(c), if you’re LDS – and what are these, really, beyond self-generated responses to seeking? Yes, it is tempting to go pure psychology on all these phenomena, but, as I periodically remind my haughty self, it’s a big Universe …

  21. Suomalainen says:

    @peterIIc Neither. I perceive bias against European-style public administration in both the OP (esp last para) and some of the comments.

    In reply to Jader3rd — actually, “Europe” (to keep the generalization I see elsewhere) has pretty decent voter turnout. A well-run system might actually at times engage its citizenry politically, not discourage it. Also Don – what group of 741 million people from vastly different national, cultural, social, religious and linguistic backgrounds realizes anything? Otherwise agree.

    Overall, I must say this post somehow strikes me the wrong way. Statements to the effect that ‘Europeans’ recognizing God’s hands in the mundane is miraculous’ is as problematic as following it with “oh wait, it was actually Southeast Asians and Africans.”

    Mostly I strongly disagree that conclusions about people turning to or away from Christ can be connected to any sort of political systems. I do agree that certain people experience and value divinity in different ways — but public administration might also be the effect, not the cause of that or both —or be wholly unrelated. In either case, any judgments about whether hardships or systems preventing hardships are better at revealing the divine arm to individuals must be very carefully made.

  22. As the child of Nordic immigrants I know my religious relatives do not believe in a “blessing dispenser” God. They have this pragmatism that says the rain falls on the just and unjust regardless and that’s why life requires faith. They just don’t look for or expect miracles. They find the American religious tradition of a prosperity gospel deeply troubling and often ask me about the Mormon view of blessings and miracles. That doesn’t mean they don’t find meaning and comfort and joy in their Lutheran faith. My Great Aunt told me shortly before her death–“God did enough by condescending and dying for me. I needed nothing else, so I didn’t ask.” She was just so grateful for Christ. I find myself asking for miracles/tender mercies/help and looking for it to confirm my beliefs, but her example of very simple faith and gratitude has actually enriched my personal worship as a Mormon.

  23. Thanks for clarifying, Suomalainen. Personally, I think European-style public administration/social welfare is great (though under great pressure from the usual suspects). The last paragraph no doubt suffered from my attempt to be clever with the brother metaphors, but what I was trying to capture was a sense of dismay that some American members of the church have expressed for the parts of Europe they didn’t travel here to see, such as the growing secularism or its social welfare states (or what is left of them). Point well taken that voter turnout in Europe is generally—but not universally—higher than in the US. I can tell that the broad, regional generalisations have stuck in your craw; actually, I had just three countries in mind (which is bad enough!) but thought the applications might be broader. Maybe not. As for your comment that “Europe” cannot realise anything, I think you protest too much. See, for example, the linked survey (yes, I realise that the EU =/= Europe, but please don’t tell me that EU citizens aren’t Europeans).

  24. That doesn’t mean they don’t find meaning and comfort and joy in their Lutheran faith.

    My sincerest apologies for implying anything else. The question that gave rise to this post was not “Are Europeans capable of worshipping God/seeing His hand in human affairs (given the extent they rely on the arm of the flesh to take care of their daily needs)” but “Do our circumstances affect how we categorise life experiences” and “If so, do robust institutions account for the differences (given the great job they do in taking care of daily needs)?” My instinct is that the answer to the former questions is “Of course!” The final question requires more study (of course!) but is a more interesting one than the usual explanation that the world has simply become more wicked.

  25. Geoff - Aus says:

    I have been impressed when visiting northern Europe, how religious individuals are. The don’t attend church but for example they take incredible care of cemeteries.
    Early in the last conference there was a speaker who talked about Elijah building an altar, dousing it with water and then calling on the Lord to light it. I hoped he was going to tell us Pres Nelson was going to do the same, but he compared it to something much less impressive. If God was willing to help out his prophets like that, why not now? Imagine the TV coverage, it would go viral. If the church is to fill the earth that would get it moving.
    For those unaware, there are countries where voting is compulsory. (You can be fined for not voting), you can also have preferential voting, where you number the candidates in order of you prefer, and if your number 1 doesn’t get many votes your vote moved on to your number 2, until it counts. You can also have a national electoral commision who not only arrange the election but do the electorate boundaries independently so there is no gerrymandering.
    There are lots of ways the American system could be improved.

  26. Suomalainen says:

    Alright, fair enough. And I probably misunderstood some of what you were saying. I also don’t mean to defend the European state model as a haven of godliness in any way – just wanted to point out that I don’t think it has as big of an impact on faithfulness/faithlessness as was surmised in the OP.

    My point about Europeans not realizing anything (and this was in reply to Don’s comment that ’Europeans’ don’t realize administration was a gift of God) was merely to make the point that ’Europeans’ as a group are incredibly diverse. Western Europe has around 400 mill people, the EU 500 mill, and all of Europe 740 mill. People throw these terms around as if they were the same. It does matter what group of Europeans one is talking about, as there’s vast differences between the North and the South, the West and the East, the EU and non-EU, and rural vs urban Europe. If you say ’Europe’, you include parts of Turkey, for example. Maybe I’m being nitpicky. But you do get some very religious folks and regions in the EU too, believing in all sorts of miracles and professing their God and religiosity openly. Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Portugal for example.

    But anyway. Don’t mean to hog the conversation. Please carry on your discussion everyone. ✌🏻

  27. I have often thought along these lines. It was a scriptural mandate given to his disciples to go and perform miracles to the people. With our restored rhetoric of the apostles and the priesthood why do we very rarely (if ever) bring our lame, deaf and blind to be healed of their infirmities? I understand these are the “classic” miracles and there is so much more to miracles than these very physical healings, but why is this not a practice. Why does it seem to not even cross our minds to heal the man in the wheelchair, the child who is deaf and the woman who is blind? Is it a lack of faith? A lack of understanding of The Lords will?

  28. I appreciate the feed- and pushback; at the very least it encourages me to think twice before opening my big yap and sometimes I even see the error of my ways!

    It seems that I expected the qualification in the OP—”Of course, rates of church attendance and religiosity vary across these regions, just as they do across Europe, so it’s not simply the case that people from these regions are just more religious and prone to believe in miracles”—to do more work than I should have, and I do regret placing stumbling blocks in my readers’ path.

    There are lots of ways the American system could be improved.

    Indeed. At the very least it would be useful for American to realize what their system is supposed to do—namely, produce winners with clear mandates. It’s arguably doing a bang-up job in that regard, even if sometimes the winners look a lot like losers.

  29. Why does it seem to not even cross our minds to heal the man in the wheelchair, the child who is deaf and the woman who is blind? Is it a lack of faith? A lack of understanding of The Lords will?

    Possibly all of the above, as well as the notion that that’s what doctors are for, though I would argue that chronic and terminal illnesses where medicine is unable to provide the desired outcomes really does bring out the faith and prayers of those affected. I mean, in the past year alone we had at least three stake-wide fasts for seriously ill individuals.

    And I think this goes back to my hunch that we turn to the Lord when we feel that life has slipped out of our control. Certainly some do sooner than that, but I imagine—based on an egocentric model of human behavior—that many might not see the need if the pills are working, so to speak.

  30. Why do we not seek the blessing of healing for the physically afflicted? I have asked myself this again and again in recent years with regard to the mentally ill. My life has been spent in singles’ wards, where once you are past the age where the majority marry, become seriously skewed by the ravages of mental illness. Some ward members are mentally ill. Some had parents who were and have developed terrible coping strategies as a result. Some are struggling with the effects of failed marriages to mentally ill people. Note, I am referring to life debilitating mental illnesses where there are breaks with reality, violence or such behaviors as self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, spending all the family’s money, having sex with strangers, suicide attempts, and other behavior your lessons in Young Women do nothing to prepare you for.
    A few years ago I visited my bishop to request a blessing for a ward member struggling with serious mental illness. The symptoms were out of control and her children were suffering terribly. I worked for her and saw this daily. He informed me there was nothing he could do. All I could think was “Why then was the Priesthood restored to earth?” I still ask myself this. Have miracles ceased? Only because faith has died, sometimes even in our bishops.

  31. I remember making a similar observation in EQ when we were discussing some early Utah pioneer drought miracle in one of the prophet’s lives. Do we see similar miracles today? My observation was that farmers today just have crop insurance.

    Whether it’s the state or the free market, we’ve done a lot to squash uncertainty, and with it, any real need to exercise faith, at least for worldly outcomes. I think that’s a good thing, but I can see how that could be distressing to some people.

  32. Why does it seem to not even cross our minds to heal the man in the wheelchair, the child who is deaf and the woman who is blind? Is it a lack of faith? A lack of understanding of The Lords will?

    Um, yeah it crosses our minds. It just doesn’t seem to work.

    As a gay Mormon, I sought all manner of “healing” for an “affliction” that also held judgment-day ramifications upon my soul — a dimension of infirmity that blind, deaf, and crippled people don’t really deal with. You can chalk it up to insufficient faith, but that’s a soul-crushing accusation to make, especially when you don’t know the depth of struggle and persistence in prayer and fasting.

    It’s like dealing with grief: at some point you move beyond Bargaining into Acceptance. And when other people you just met try to reopen Bargaining on your behalf, it can be highly disruptive to your self-confidence and well-being. So maybe don’t.

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