Acton Institute Powerblog

Beware the Yeast of the Bureaucrats

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

With the most recent fiscal cliff approaching this Thursday (February 28), it is worth asking, “How did we get into this mess?” My answer: a little leaven works its way through a whole lump of dough….

Touchstone Magazine
(March/April 2013) recently published my article, “The Yeast We Can Do,” in their “Views” section (subscription required). In it, I explore the metaphor of yeast in the Scriptures—how little things eventually work their way through our whole lives and can lead to big consequences. In some cases, I point out, this is a bad thing. For example, I write,

According to Evagrios the Solitary, one of the early Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, our spiritual struggle can be summarized quite simply: it is because we have first failed to resist little temptations that we eventually fall to greater ones. Following John the Evangelist’s warnings against succumbing to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16), Evagrios identifies three “frontline demons” in particular: gluttony, avarice, and seeking the esteem of others.

Little by little, when we give in to small temptations, they eventually work their way through our whole lives, leaving us vulnerable to bigger, related areas of temptation.

Now, how does this relate to our over $16.5 trillion national debt and annual deficits over $1 trillion for the last four years that brought us to a looming sequestration deadline, with little time to come up with some solution to drastically cut spending to get our finances under control, adversely affecting the lives of millions? Well, as I said, a little leaven works its way through the whole lump of dough.

mobile-coverGovernment spending has been on the increase for a long time now, even before the most recent boom since the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency. As Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has argued, “[T]he more Americans look to government for their economic salvation, the harder it becomes for America to turn back from the road to permanent economic decline.” Little by little, we have collectively asked for, or at least accepted, more and more from our government, in some cases to the point of dependency and looming disaster, no matter what happens this Thursday.

What solution might we offer, in light of this? Just as I argue in my Touchstone article, we need to counteract bad leaven with good leaven. To put it another way: the solution to intemperance is spiritual discipline or asceticism. We need to ask ourselves: what are the little things that we can to do take some of the burden away from the American taxpayer? Do we have an extra room in our homes for an aging parent or grandparent? Are we willing to sacrifice some free time to help out a disabled person in our family or church? Do we have any odd jobs around the house that we could hire an unemployed member of one of our communities to do? Or maybe, like Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, it means that some of our seniors take the time to ask themselves, do I really need the AARP after all?

The way out of this crisis, just like the way in, is not a matter of public policy alone but of the moral integrity of our culture. Certainly, our representatives need to find ways to cut spending, save what programs are truly needed and effective, and embrace more fiscally responsible and just policies, but we all could make it easier for them if we heeded the caution of one second century compendium of the Christian life: “Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving” (Didache 4.5).

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • RogerMcKinney

    I don’t think the problem with the US is that a little leaven has grown to a whole loaf of bread without our being aware of it. The majority of Americans has rebelled openly against God and is worshipping the idol of the state. That rebellion has consequences. Most are built in; they flow naturally from our decisions. The budget deficit is just one of the consequences of idolatry. We can see our future in Greece if we don’t end the idolatry and return to God.

  • Well said Dylan… as in the story of the frogs in the kettle where tepid water slowly (but surely) increases unknowingly to a certain boiled death.. so goes our culture. I’m finishing Steve Forbes book Freedom Manifesto: Why Markets are Moral and Big Government Isn’t; I quote from pg. 91 “…a common refrain in Ameican during Tocquville’s time was that a ‘self-governing nation must have self-governing individuals.’ Freedom does not imply license – a free society and a free market, then as now, require people who can control their passions – who have discipline to put aside self, present-oriented needs and to work toward a better future. In the words of Ben Franklin” “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

    Perhaps our fiscal mess is a direct result of our moral mess? Which begs the question is our real answer really about money, dollars, cents, investments, QE’s and policies? Or is it about repentance, humility, obedience, servanthood, contentment, and honesty….? America was great because it was “good” now we are a nation of “Nones.” Demographic jargon for the fastest growing ‘religious segment’ in our nation – short for “no-religion”?

    Without virtue and morality there is never fiscal sanity.

  • Pingback: Seeking the Meeting Point Between the Kingdom of God and the Common Good | Acton PowerBlog()

  • Pingback: St. John Chrysostom on Being Leaven to the World()