Acton Institute Powerblog

Poverty and the Christian Left

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There is clearly a "Christian Left" growing among evangelicals in America. We have heard a great deal about the "Christian Right" for more than two decades. I frequently critique this movement unfavorably. But what is the Christian Left?

The Christian Left is almost as hard to define, in one certain sense, as the Christian Right. And it is equally hard to tell, at least at this point, how many people actually fit this new designation and just how many potential voters this movement really represents. Is there real political power in this movement? Time will tell. It seems to be a small right group now but the movement is clearly gaining in terms of public notice. It is especially appealing to some evangelical Christians who draw a lot of attention to a select set of issues that they have linked to the Bible in a certain way.

There can be no doubt that since the 2004 presidential campaign  this movement has grown in popularity. It is becoming increasingly outspoken in how it frames the political issues of the day in terms of Christianity. The father of this movement is Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a magazine read by several thousand. Wallis is also the author of one of the most misnamed books I know: God’s Politics (Harper, 2006). If someone my age and background wrote a book with this title I think I would be maligned for my sheer audacity and incredulity. But Wallis is a kind of hero among many young zealous Christians thus his title seems quite acceptable to them. His book is a manual of solutions and social views that represent an activist role for government in solving the issues of poverty, education, and international peace. In fact, if one issue represents the core of Wallis’ interpretation of Scripture it is the issue of ending, or at least of drastically reducing, poverty.
This summer a major event of the Christian Left will be held in Washington, D.C. It is titled: Pentecost 2007: Taking the Vision to the Street and will be held June 3-6 at National City Christian Church. The goal of this conference is to "call individuals, churches, and most importantly, our political leaders to commit to putting poverty at the top of our national agenda." The promotional literature adds, "We believe that the conversation about moral values in America has been widening and deepening, building into a movement for real change." The promoters of this event believe that Christians "from across the political spectrum are being moved by this call for justice and are forming partnerships." It further suggests that there are many "new found partners and allies" that are coming together and thus this event will be a place for that to happen.

It is interesting to note what presidential candidates have accepted invitations to speak at Pentecost 2007. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards will appear at the presidential candidates forum on June 4th. Other featured speakers during the conference will include Brian McLaren, Rev. Rich Nathan, Lynne Hybels, Gary Haugen and Ron Sider. There is also an "emerging leaders" track that features a younger leader. Workshops and visits with Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill are planned. You an learn more about this event here.

I have no personal problem with the Christian Left staging such an event. They are perfectly right to promote their solutions to poverty. The problem I see here is the staggering hubris behind suggesting that their way of answering the poverty question, which I believe Christians should seriously address since the Bible speaks a great deal about it, is the only solution for Christians who really care about this issue. (You get the same approach when global warming is presented.) Long before these advocates of the Christian Left got excited about promoting governmental solutions to poverty there were large numbers of Christians promoting alternative solutions through the market, private enterprise, and the church. These types of solutions, which are rooted in both Catholic and Reformed theology, preserve personal freedom and keep government from becoming the central player in the solving this problem. There is a long tradition of Christian social thought that is not based on the federal government leading the way in charity and economic growth for people, including the weakest among us. From reading the literature of the Christian Left you would never know this tradition existed at all since the literature paints with such a broad brush, much like some in the Christian Right.

Here is what I would really love to see. A open forum designed for Christians where alternative views and solutions are genuinely discussed and debated in the light of Christian theology and tradition. We could start with the various contributions of the Catholic Church, especially since Vatican I, and then move to the thought of Abraham Kuyper and the progressively Reformed witness in this same area. I would like to challenge the promoters of this event, if they are serious about real Christian solutions, to invite some articulate speakers to such an event who do not represent the Christian Left. By this means they could address the issue of poverty and how to solve it in a way that might build the kind of consensus we truly need. The Pentecost 2007 deck is very heavily stacked. If you believe we need the kinds of solutions traditionally offered by the Democratic Party since the 1930s then you will likely love this event. If you prefer the moral agenda of the Christian Right then you will not love it at all. I urge young Christian leaders to consider these facts and then realize that these two positions do not represent the best Christian thought on these very important subjects. We desperately need to have a church-wide discussion about these matters in the coming decade.

In the last election cycle Sojourners featured a campaign with a clever bumper sticker that said: "God is not a Republican. And he is also not a Democrat." I seriously wonder if they meant it, especially since the type face they used tended for the sticker gave away their concern to attack the Christian Right and the Republican Party as their primary to the effort. When I read their literature I get the strong feeling that they routinely confuse the social solutions of Clinton, Obama, and Edwards with those of all faithful Christians just as much as some on the Right confused the coming of the kingdom and Christian principles on a few moral issues with the election of George W. Bush.

Do you know who has hired all the consultants over recent months in order to appeal for the religious, or the faith, vote in the 2008 election? If you said, "The Republicans" you had better try again. If any one of the three leading Republicans candidates (Guilliani, McCain or Romney) is nominated it will be interesting to see who injects the "religion card" the most aggressively into the next election. I don’t really care for the way the Christian Right tried to link the kingdom of Christ to the Republican Party over the past twenty years. I sense that we are going to get the reverse in the next eighteen months. It is at least worth watching and it would be wise that we ask lots of questions.

Missional Christian theology is not equal to the Christian Left’s political and social agenda. Sadly, some have concluded that the two really do go together. It is the church that will suffer loss once again if this mistake is perpetuated in the manner that we now see developing. Christians need to engage the politics of many important ethical and social issues but they should do so only after they have worked much harder to understand the serious nature of what is required to form a public policy that is deeply rooted in historic Christian theology.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

John Armstrong John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."


  • Hi John,

    There is a tradition of market based solutions to these great social problems that the Christian Left tries to monopolize, you’re right.

    But there is also a tradition of market critique, marginalized by Acton and Austrians, to these so called market solutions proposed by free market advocates. This tradition does not always take the form of Big Government socialism. In fact, there is strong tradition in the Catholic church called “Distributism” (proposed by G.K. Chesterton and Hillare Belloc) that would have small government and a wide distribution of property and capital ownership. In the protestant tradition there is the Georgist (or “Geoist”) movement that questions modern landed property ownership rights (an enlightenment invention) while championing freetrade, globalization, and other market oriented ideas.

    We would do well to remember these “Third Ways” and get out of our two party rut.

  • Well Trevor,

    With all due respect to two of my favorite authors, Chesterton and Belloc, and the insightful nature of their writings on economnics; I am not convinced either of our two parties in the USA are all that committed to small government.

    This needs some research, but pension funds, hedge funds, university endownments etc seem to have accomplished much towards “wide distribution of property and capital ownership”. However, our corporate governance systems seem to act as a guarantee that corporate executives are rewarded at the expense of equity holders, employees, vendors etc.

    Contrary or perhaps corollary to Chesterton and Belloc, I think captialism has driven us to a condition where there is broad public ownership property and capital. Yet, I can’t help but think that our hereditary political system (I am in Chicago, where political titles are passed between generations) and executive capture of corporate resources are great tasks in furthering democratic capitalism.

  • Hi John,

    I agree that our economy has resulted in a fairly wide spread of capital ownership in recent years. However, I’m not quite sure if it is the product of capitalism or the product of the automobile. Hernando de Soto has taught us that landed property ownership is the prerequisite for the creation of capital (see “Mystery of Capital”) and the automobile has allowed a great deal more ownership opportunities than would otherwise be able. It will be interesting to see, after we’ve sprawled out as much as possible, if capital begins again to be concentrated itself in the hands of the few.

    Never-the-less, I’m no distributist. I’ve read their books and essays and, in the end, love the vision but none of the means they propose to attain that vision. I would rather take the geoist approach of taxing privilege instead of labor and leave it at that. Inheriting political titles is surely a travesty, but so is inheriting any other monopolistic position. In my opinion that includes large landowners and others who have claimed for their own private profit large chunks of natural capital.

  • Well Trevor,

    I am not convinced that there are many “natural” monopolies. I am of the opinion that competition generally regulates monopolies, and that the only guaranteed monopolies are government imposed.

    As to taxing privilege, ancedotally, I rode the train a month or so ago with the grandson of a local Billionaire. He was stoned and eating his Chapstick, while wearing mismatched clothes. I don’t think he is the only person not capable of managing resources, which will soon enough be removed from him. The gene pool sort of takes care of itself on that one.


  • John,
    David Ricardo and many other economists have long recognized the monopolistic nature of land ownership. It’s pretty simply, 1) there is a set supply and 2) an ever increasing demand. Therefore the price of land is set by demand alone. It is 100% economic rent and therefore 100% monopoly price. This is econ 101.

    Competition only works to destroy monopolies if supply is flexible. No one is in the business of “producing land” so it’s really a different category than other commodities.

  • Hi Trevor,

    Is there really a set supply? My gg-grandfather moved to Chicago to dig canals on what was an near impossible place to live. Now there are 7 Million people living around here, vs. the 7,000 that lived here in 1836. Did anyone think of building residential buildings up 88 stories in Ricardo’s day?

    Then again, in my hometown, land prices actually declined from 1980-2000, because the farm economy was so weak…homes and building sites were actually being returned to farmland as people moved to the city.

    The set supply may only be in the minds of the economists. In the world of the engineer (and canal digger), there is a vast undeveloped resource in the land.

    Technological change is typcially ignored by those that think the economic pie-sized is fixed. I think the land argument is one of the oldest canards in the Econ Book.


  • Hi John,

    I think we’re talking about two very different things. Land, in economics, is really “location” not the improvements made to a given location (buildings, sewers, fertilizer, etc.). Those things are refered to as “capital”. 88 story buildings are capital, not land.

    So, land may be used more or less intensely depending on the technology, population rate of increase, building stock, and a host of other such things but, in the end, the total supply of land (locations) cannot change one iota. History has shown us that in most cases the demand for land is always increasing (the few exceptions are due to speculation bubbles and changes in technology that lead to lower land uses in what were desirable locations – think downtowns through the 1980’s).

    Make sense?

    Part of Ricardo’s observation (which has been unchallenged by economists) is that land rents increase as land is used more intensely (read 88 story residential tower in Chicago) – this is completely due to demand since supply cannot change. Land rents have a direct corollary with the sale price of land and are 100% the result of location advantages due to the surrounding capital (social, physical, or whatever) and/or natural resources (oil, gold, silver etc.). This is, of course, obvious to any observer. It is why an empty plot of land in New York sells for 30 million dollars and an empty plot in rural Missouri of similar size sells for $100. This value is not created by the landowner but it is the landowner who profits from it. One modern example – Donald Trump.

    I’m not one who thinks that the “economic pie-sized is fixed” – far from it! Man is constantly finding ways to use land more intensely to increase the total wealth. My point though is that, in the long run, it is the land owners who profit most from this wealth creation because the rents they charge are set by the demand for their land.

  • Yes Trevor,

    I understand what you are saying, I just don’t think it holds up over time. Much like the Manchesterian Liberals fixation on the price of corn, the Distributionists (and more importantly Henry George’s) fixation on property probably was good for their campaigns, but not much use in economic analysis.

    The supply of $500,000 Building Lots in Winnetka Illinois is 0. There are none. Is there a monopoly? No, the market is fragmented among approximately 6000 landowners. The supply of $1,000,000 lots in Winnetka is approximately 6000 units, as the market rate is about $650,000 per lot. The quantity supplied is relative to the price, not the demands of any “monopolist”.

    Does the holder of one lot of land in Winnetka have a monopoly over his lot? Yes, But what if he bought his property for $750,000, and it is now worth $650,000. Does the land owner still “profit most from this wealth creation because the rents they charge are set by the demand for their land”. No not at all, it is certainly a loss.

    There is a market for land, like there is a market for most anything else. The quantity supplied varies based upon the price a buyer is willing to put to the seller. Neither the USA nor the North Shore of Chicagoland is anywhere near its capacity for holding population, even at $650,000 a lot. And if it were near its capacity, technology would come along to increase supply, if there is a profit in it.


  • John, you say that you understand what I am saying but you continue to talk as if supply can be increased – in other words you are still conflating land with capital.

    I’ll quote Winston Churchill here: “Land differs from all other forms of property. It is quite true that the land monopoly is not the only monopoly which exists, but it is by far the greatest of monopolies — is a perpetual monopoly, and it is the mother of all other forms of monopoly. It is quite true that unearned increments in land are not the only form of unearned or undeserved profit which individuals are able to secure; but it is the principal form of unearned increment which is derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but which are positively detrimental to the general public. Land, which is a necessity of human existence, which is the original source of all wealth, which is strictly limited in extent, which is fixed in geographical position — land, I say, differs from all other forms of property in these primary and fundamental conditions.”

    Concerning competition among landowners (“6000 landowners…”): The answer is that competition among landowners does not lead to lower prices. Again, this is because supply cannot be increased to meet demand. Thus, as demand increases, the rent also increases so that the land is appropriated efficiently. Yet, this appropriation would happen regardless of who collects the rent – as long as “someone” does.

    Also, your example of a $750,000 lot dropping to a $650,000 lot is an example of a change of prospective rent payments for the land which has changed its market selling price (think of market selling price here as approximating the capitalized rent present value). When the landowner bought the property at 750k he took a risk. He believed that the demand for that property would hold up and it didn’t. He gambled and lost. But the real question is who profited from the sale of the 750k property in the first place? At one time the property was not worth anything and someone claimed it. He then sold for profit (or loss) to someone who sold it to someone else etc and etc until it ended up in someones’ hands at 750k. In the end this chain of landowners profited by 750k although individually some may have lost or gained more than others. Notice however that NONE of that 750k was the result of labor or enterprise or anything else that creates wealth. ALL of it came from the monopolistic advantage that the site held over other sites. The initial landowner happened to pick a lucky site – a site that would be in great demand in times to come.

    Being lucky is all fine and good but in this case the owner of this land and the owners of all the other land in the area are collecting rents from their tenants – rents that wouldn’t exist except for the increased demand for land that cities bring and rents that would be much better used to finance the needs of the cities (roads, sewers, police, etc.) instead of the private accounts of the landowners.
    By collecting these rents for we could eliminate all other taxes and free man for the burden of having a prortion of his labor being confiscated in taxes. As it is, man pays the landowner “his” rent and the city “it’s” tax. The just method would be to just pay the city it’s rent.

  • Trevor,

    Thank you for posting such a polite argument.

    The supply of land for farming, housing, and any type of devlopment is always in fluctuation, and the usage varies with the price, as well as the “ownership” more leveraged than any other resource (just like it was leveraged in Churchills time).

    I suppose there is a finite supply of anything, bananas for example. There is some theoretical limit to the amount of bananas the world can grow. But that does not make a banana a monopoly, rather a tradable, leverageable, price dependent good much like real property.


  • John,

    Sure there is a limit to the *possible* supply of bananas the world could grow but the immediate supply of bananas is increased every time a banana is grown and decreases every time one is eaten – and this is kept in check through market forces. The vast majority of commodities have supply chains that can be increased or decreased with market demand. The same is *not* true for land. What changes with land is not the supply; it is the intensity of use. If the demand for a land increases, supply of land cannot increase. Instead, land that was used less intensely (or not at all) enters into a state of higher use. The supply does not change, the usage level changes to match market demand. It’s an important difference because this later change means landowners have no check on their “profits” whereas a banana can only make so high a profit before a new banana grower enters the market and undercuts him (lowering his profit).

    Usage levels, if you’ll notice, are directly related to land rents. In fact, land rents perform the important job of appropriating land efficiently. As cities grow they demand more land and more intensive use of existing land. Farmers on the periphery of the city see the demand (and thus the price) for their land increase and they have a financial incentive to sell or change its use to whatever the market is demanding. In the center of this growing city there is an incentive for landowners there to use their land more intensely (build higher) or sell to one who will. Land rents (which drive land prices) are the driving force in our system for land use change.

    So it is the usage, not the supply, of land that changes as market demand changes. This is very different from every other commodity. If the demand for a certain widget increases the manufacturer sees an incentive to increase the supply of the widgets but if the demand for land increases all that can change is the price of the land (which drives usage changes). Those lucky enough to be sitting on land that sees an increase in demand see a windfall of unearned income.

    Heck, I saw this “windfall” myself. My property appreciated by ~30% in the past few years and I made as much money on my property for doing nothing as I did through all my labor in the same time. If I were to sell today I would, in effect, have doubled my wage over the past year. What did I do to deserve this? I bought a house and the land under it.

    There’s a popular phrase that I think illustrates my point very well: “Invest in land, they’re not making any more of it…”

  • Regarding usage vs. supply:

    Imagine that there are 1 million Prius cars sitting around freely available to whoever wanted to use one. Now, just because only, say, half are being used it does not follow that the supply of Prius’ is only 500,000. No, the supply is 1 million, the usage level is 500,000. Likewise with land. Just because some land goes from less intensive to more intensive use it does not follow that supply has increased.

    This is important because, unlike Prius’, all land is NOT created equal. Land in New York has a much higher economic potential when used than land in rural Missouri. Thus, just because there is free land in Kansas it does not follow that land monopoly does not exist. There’s an economic incentive to monopolize some land over other land.

  • Yes Trevor,

    You are describing the demand curve, and it is not particular to monopolistic markets.

    A glass of water costs next to nothing, yet one will pay an infinite amount for it if dying of thirst.


  • A monopoly has the power to restrict supply to increase price. The difference between the price of the good in question within a competitive market and the price of the good within a monopoly controlled market is called economic rent. When land ownership results in a trade value being attached to the land then land ownership, by its very nature, becomes monopolistic in that the value attached to land is 100% economic rent. The value would not exist but for the restriction in supply. There is land monopoly wherever there is land value.

    Land, like your glass of water example, would have next to no value except that one cannot live without access to land. It is essential to life and liberty. Thus, when supply is restricted the price must rise. The moral question is this: Why should private landlords be allowed to gain due to the natural supply restriction cities impose on land access?

    Even if one is dying of thirst he will not be forced to pay an infinite amount for water unless, of course, water is artificially withheld from him. Land ownership rights artificially prohibit access to land, the stock of life, from non-owners *without compensation* and thus can force non-owners to pay rent payments to the private benefit of the lucky landowners. Why?

  • John,

    You wrote:
    “You are describing the demand curve, and it is not particular to monopolistic markets.”

    Of course I am describing the demand curve. You’re right, it is not particular to monopolistic markets *except when supply is restricted*. In other words, if demand *alone* sets prices than we do in fact have a monopoly.

  • James Schaeffer

    Yes, and long before there were “large numbers of Christians promoting alternative solutions through the market, private enterprise, and the church.”,there was Jesus to whom monetary wealth meant nothing and giving one’s all, literally, meant everything.

    I know you guys have a capitalistic, economic agenda, which is a good thing, but remember your roots, for Christ’s sake.

  • My roots? Starving landless Irish, Canal digger, railroad builder, dirt farmers in that order. Not to hard to remember them.

    Giving one’s all certainly meant not starving your family, not drowing in sewage, getting product to market, growing corn to feed the world. To do that is to Glorify God in the fullest.