My son and grandson enjoy magic, and they’re both pretty good at it. I’m a good audience for their sleight-of-hand tricks because I’m easily distracted by what one hand is doing while the other is doing its “magic.”
I understand (though not from personal experience) that a favorite tactic of thieves is to work in pairs, with one distracting the clerk or passerby while the other pockets loot or picks a pocket – a more profitable version of the same thing.

Sleight of hand, of course, is not magic, but a skilled use of distraction to keep the “mark” from noticing the real act that is being done. It takes advantage of a natural tendency to follow the obvious and to miss the more important thing that is carefully obscured.

I may be stretching the application a bit, but I have wondered, in response to much of our current public deliberation, if we are experiencing a widespread practice of a kind of metaphorical sleight of hand as those who are guiding the public conversation fan flames in response to one “scandal” after another, with the effect of drawing attention away from other issues that are deemed by them to be problematic.

This kind of sleight of hand does not make a coin disappear or reappear or a shuffled card show up in a predictable place, but it can call attention to a real or conjured crisis or event and distract a vulnerable audience from keeping its attention focused on whatever issue had been a main concern.

It is a clever diversionary tactic that can be used on many levels, even at the highest levels of governance.

A crusading spirit in religion or politics can more easily generate support for an assault on some hot button issue than it can sustain a thorough transformation of character or context. It is easier to do battle for the Lord on a limited and controllable front than to examine and change structures of society detrimental to its people.

In his landmark analysis of the maturing religious “sentiment” (his term for the religious dimension of life), psychologist Gordon Allport noted that immature religion “is very likely to raise moral storms, and sporadically alter conduct, [but] it lacks the steady, persistent influence of the seasoned religious outlook.”

How many times in recent history have we been victims of diversionary tactics that have distracted us from needed attention to issues that lie at the heart of the long-term health of our society?

Moral storms do not seem to have a particular season. They can occur at any time and they are often quite effective at distracting an audience from attention to more basic concerns.

As we approach our annual observance of Independence Day, we naturally focus on the blessing of freedom bought and preserved at great price over many generations.

It is good to reflect on this feature of our lives, and to move beyond its simplistic meanings to the profound reality that it is.

One recurring refrain that has been part of this season’s public discussion is the idea that government is a negative feature of our common life, and that “Big Government” is the enemy of freedom and the cause of all our problems.

Government takes our money and squanders it on those who do not deserve it, so the line goes, and the audience cheers. Government purportedly takes more and more control of our lives, and the crowd responds, “Never!”

Meanwhile, schools and support programs for the most vulnerable in our society become liabilities that must be reduced, all in the name of freedom from the tyranny of “Big Government.”

The current dysfunction of the finest Congress money can buy, in the face of some of the most urgent economic, social, environmental and moral challenges we have ever faced, seems to be an effective exercise of sleight of hand.

While leaders raise the specter of “Big Government” coming to take away our freedom, we are effectively distracted from the realization that “Big Money” already has.

Where is that kid that every magician dislikes who says, “I see where that coin came from!” when you really need him?

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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