406) Soft or Hard Words? (part two of two)

          (…continued)  Michael Barone was a writer for US News and World Report for eighteen years and is now the senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.  He has written numerous articles and a book about what he calls ‘Hard America and Soft America.’   He says ‘Hard America’ is the dog-eat-dog real world that is ruled by competition and accountability and performance.  Life is tough out there in America’s work place and economy; there are winners and losers, moments of brilliant success, and times of crushing failure.  Even good people get beat up and knocked down, and they have to just up get up and keep going.  There are many opportunities in America, but there are no guarantees.  That is what Barone calls Hard America.

     But, says Barone, there is also ‘Soft America.’  Soft America tries to protect people from such realities.  In education, for example, he says, there are many who are more concerned about self-esteem than about competence, more concerned that no one ever has to feel bad about anything than about whether or not anyone learns anything.  And so there are efforts to downplay and even avoid the rigors of testing.  Therefore, the numbers of A’s received keeps going up and up, but the abilities of students keeps going down.  Standards continue to be lowered in what has been called the ‘dumbing down’ of everything.  And still, everyone who shows up gets promoted, and then receives a diploma.  Many ‘experts’ on parenting also proclaim this softness, encouraging parents to be positive and supportive of the child’s every spontaneous whim.  Parents are told to be careful to avoid too much discipline, too many restrictions, even, some say, one should avoid the use of the word ‘no.’  This, says Barone, is Soft America.

      Barone then goes on the argue that even though Soft America coddles and spoils, Hard America plays for keeps.  Students might get automatically promoted through 12 grades of doing nothing, but on the job if they do nothing, they will get fired, not promoted.  Average students may in high school be “A” students, but they find in the competition for jobs they are no longer on the top of the heap.  The private sector lays off people when profits fall, the military trains under live fire, and young people who never before heard the word ‘no,’ will now hear it from the banker and the boss.

     Then, says Barone, an interesting thing happens.  The kids will often grow up when they reach Hard America.  America, he says, produces very incompetent 18-year olds, but remarkably competent 30-year olds.  By way of contrast, he points to Europe.  In Europe, education is competitive and demanding, and students in practically every European nation beat the pants off American students in test scores.  But, he says, in Europe, adult life is often soft, and many workers are protected from the rigors of competition and the marketplace.  There, it is the adult workers that are coddled and spoiled with short work weeks, long vacations, and incredible benefits and job security.  So what happens?  Even though European students do better than their American counterparts, the adult American workers do better on the job, keeping American dominant in the world, economically, scientifically, technologically, and militarily.  It is Hard America, says Barone, that leads to our competence, productivity, creativity, and unparalleled success in the world.  (NOTE:  Hard America, Soft America was written in 2004.)

     Of course, this is all greatly oversimplified, and much more needs to be said– and Barone does say much more in his book.  For example, Barone argues that these competing visions of hard America and soft America affect every aspect of our lives; not only our education and our jobs, but also what we pay in taxes and how government benefits are designated, how our military’s effectiveness is maintained, and how our courts are run.  And yes, Barone would say, there is a place for the soft touch in every aspect of society.  But we can afford to be soft, he says, only when we also maintain the aspects of Hard America.  The soft touch is sometimes what is needed, but we cannot only be soft, all the time, with everyone.

     I found that article by Barone in my file, read it, said to myself ‘that’s interesting,’ and threw it away.  Then I read Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:32-40 (see previous blog), and I went digging through the garbage to retrieve the article.  Michael Barone writes about ‘hard and soft America,’ and I think he is on to something.  We also see in Luke 12, and in other parables and sayings of Jesus, both hard and soft words.  God’s grace offers to us the kind and soft word of love and forgiveness and mercy.  Sinful human nature turns away and rebels, and that brings forth from God the hard word of command and threat and judgment.  You see both the hard word and the soft word in every book of the Bible.

     Martin Luther said that all of the Bible, all of theology, indeed, all of life can be divided into two parts, the Law and the Gospel, his words for the hard word and the soft word of God.  In the Law, Luther says, God commands and forbids, he thunders and he threatens, he judges and condemns.  That is not how God wanted to deal with the people he created to love and to cherish.  But from the beginning, people have turned away from God, disobeyed him, mistrusted him, and went their own way.  God could allow everyone do this, live out their years, and then return to the dust without hope.  God could do that; but still God wants us, he wants our attention, he wants a relationship with us, and he wants us to be with him for all eternity.  And God wants us to treat each other with kindness and dignity.  So in the Law God tells us what we do not want to hear but need most of all.  The Law, that hard word, is spoken only so that we may hear and return to him and then receive the Gospel, that soft word of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness, and, his promise of an eternal home for us.  

     So, the simple pleasant and soft word from Jesus to you in Luke 12 is simply to ‘be ready,’ because then, if you are ready, when he returns, ‘it will be good for you.’


Hebrews 4:12  — For the Word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

1 Peter 5:6  —  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 

Matthew 24:42  —  Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.


O gracious God and most merciful Father, you have given us the rich and precious jewel of your holy Word.  Assist us with your Spirit, that it may be written in our hearts to our everlasting comfort, to reform us, to renew us according to your image, to build us up into the perfect building of Christ, and to increase us in all heavenly virtues.  Grant this, O heavenly Father, for the same Jesus Christ’s sake.  Amen.  –Geneva Bible, 1560