When the country goes temporarily to the dogs

“The fundamental cause of the trouble in the modern world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell


Lord Russell wrote that back in 1933 just as Adolf Hitler was being installed as the duly elected chancellor of Germany. Benito Mussolini had been ruling Italy since 1922, and fascist dictator Franco was on the rise in Spain.

Moderates like the UK’s decent leader Ramsay McDonald sought appeasement, but they were no match for Hitler’s fanaticism.

Russell had put his finger on an issue of his day, but he had also voiced a timeless truth. Fanatics are always so certain of themselves, while wiser people, aware of various possible solutions to any problem, struggle with self-doubt.

The latter know that immigration policy in a globalized world is complex and vexing. They know that overhauling an entrenched system of cronyism and lobbying in modern politics will take time, tact and resolution.

But fanatics can just chant “Build that wall!” and “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!” And they do so with great gusto and confidence. They seem so… to use Russell’s term, cocksure.

It’s the same in the church.

Some of us believe we need to do the work of developing a detailed and compassionate biblical response to issues like gender roles or homosexuality or gun control or Israel and Palestine.

But fanatics demand a yes or no answer. Are you in favor of same-sex marriage? Do you support Israel or not? Yes or no!!

They can put a single Bible verse on a placard and know that it explains their whole belief on any given topic.

But it’s hard to get a detailed and nuanced theology of human sexuality on a placard. It’s hard to get a detailed and nuanced theology of anything on a placard.

The wise among us don’t mine the Bible for proof-texts. They examine it in detail and put each verse into conversation with the broad biblical themes of the Kingdom. And they take the time to explore complex answers to equally complex issues.

The bitter irony is that the more access we have to information – good information as well as dross – the more some people prefer simplistic answers and trite solutions.

Hey, I’m not opposed to brevity where appropriate, but I always remember Albert Einstein’s caution: “Everything should be made as simple as possible. But not more so!”

Not more so. Not three-word slogans so.

Garrison Keillor once wrote, “When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word.”


In other words, the wiser heads can’t compete with fanatics on their own terms. You can’t reduce the irreducible. You can’t counter one simplistic slogan with another. You can’t not know the alternatives and limitations to any proposal you make. Doubting yourself – or at least being open to correction and improvement – isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. But it’s not a popular thing these days.

Build your case. Do the work of exploring meaningful, useful responses to vexing problems. Resist the temptation to be simplistic. Don’t be drawn into dueling slogans at ten paces.

The dogs are barking. The fools and fanatics are cocksure.

Some of us need to learn to walk on fences for a while until the woofing dies down.


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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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9 thoughts on “When the country goes temporarily to the dogs

  1. Yes….you nail it. This is how I feel as I struggle with complex issues….. self doubt…..what is truth?
    While I envy others for who the truth sound so simple…..yet alienate so many vulnerable people.

  2. Great post Mike. Thanks.

  3. Excellent post. Thank you

  4. Ah the yes or no answer happens to me constantly at church. I am constantly confronted with people demanding I explain why I support same-sex marriage and why I refuse to condemn homosexual behaviour and they want it done in 2 minutes flat. When I say it is a complex issue they say “No! It’s simple!” and quote a couple of out of context verses to show me how foolish I am. lol?

  5. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” H. L. Mencken

    Unfortunately its not just trump who used this approach to win elections….. Abbott’s “Stop the boats” resonated deeply in the Australian Electorate despite not making any sense as an immigration policy.

  6. Excellent post Mike. Thankyou so much for your valuable insights.

  7. Aahh!!! Thanks, I think I just need to learn to walk on fences for a while…..

  8. Thank you for this article. It needed to be written. I support same sex marriage too. I am not going to explain to anyone why anyone in my community should not have the right to get married- yes, I am part of the Gay community. Love is love. I do love God so much. God’s love is unconditional- look at who Jesus hung around with.

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