Category: Christian Social Thought

shovel_and_dirt_No2Why do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues? This is the fourth in a series of posts that addresses that question by examining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. The first in the series can be found here; Part 2 can be found here; and Part 3 can be found hereA PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.

9. Social mobility — specifically getting people out of poverty — is infinitely more important than income inequality.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama signaled that income inequality will be his domestic focus during the remainder of his term in office. The fact that the president considers income inequality, rather than employment or economic growth, to be the most important economic issue is peculiar, though not really surprising. For the past few years the political and cultural elites have become obsessed with the issue.

That was not always the case. In 1990, a Nobel-winning economist wrote:

One reason that action to limit growing income inequality in the United States is difficult is that the growth in inequality is not a simple picture. Old-line leftists, if there are any left, would like to make it a single story–the rich becoming richer by exploiting the poor. But that’s just not a reasonable picture of America in the 1980s. For one thing, most of our very poor don’t work, which makes it hard to exploit them. For another, the poor had so little to start with that the dollar value of the gains of the rich dwarfs that of the losses of the poor.

The economist who wrote that was none other than Paul Krugman, who more recently said, “the president was right. Inequality is, indeed, the defining challenge of our time.”

The reason for Krugman’s change of opinion has less to do with economics than with political partisanship. In the apparent absence of other real economic problems, some progressives have decided to allow covetousness to drive their political agenda.

schoolchoicesignWhy do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues? This is the third in a series of posts that addresses that question by examining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. The first in the series can be found here. Part 2 can be found hereA PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.

7. The best way to compensate for structural injustice is to increase order and individual freedom.

As it relates to economics, structural injustice could be defined as occurring when outside forces unjustly limit some person’s opportunities to enact their morally legitimate plans. Almost all evangelicals – whether liberal or conservative — agree that structural injustices still exist and that they must be opposed. Where we disagree is about what forms of structural injustice are most pervasive in 2014 and how they should be corrected.

We tend to think of structural injustices as macro-level phenomena (such as racism) that affect the actions, practices, beliefs, and laws of a large region (such as the Jim Crow laws that that codified racial segregation and discrimination). That has historically been the case in America. But today, structural injustices are usually created on the micro-level and affect a smaller area. Take, for example, the issue of poverty. In 2014, the two factors that are most likely to create structural boundaries that keep a child in poverty are their parents and their local community.

NovakIt is no stretch to say that Michael Novak is a towering figure in 20th century Catholic social thought. His 1982 seminal work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, influenced thinkers in the U.S., Latin America and Soviet-controlled countries. George Weigel has summed up Novak’s vocation and contribution to Catholic social teaching, economic thought and moral culture in an article at City Journal. Weigel begins by stating that Novak’s work wasn’t simple:

Novak has applied his philosophical and theological skills to virtually every consequential aspect of the human condition. He has not followed a preset itinerary but has deliberately charted previously unexplored territories and terrain. That choice—to break out of conventional patterns of thought and become one’s own intellectual GPS—has not always made for an easy life.


naturallawA few weeks ago I asked why natural law arguments more persuasive. Natural law advocates intend for such argument to persuade both believers and non-believers, so how do they account for the relative ineffectualness of such arguments? Why don’t more people find them to be persuasive?

In response to my question (as well as questions and criticisms from others), Sherif Girgis proffered a defense and explanation:

Yes. Over the last few years, my coauthors and I have heard from many saying we had convinced them to join the marriage debate by showing them its value (and giving them the moral vocabulary and syntax to discuss it); from others who decided to retire this or that contrary argument; and from still others who switched to our side of the issue. These have included non-Catholics, non-Christians, agnostics, even a prominent former Marxist thinker. We have often remarked, channeling Chesterton, that the argument for marriage has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found (we’d say feared) difficult and left untried.

Then where are the mass conversions? We freely admit that moral philosophy can’t produce them. It doesn’t convert en masse, because evaluating its arguments takes sustained attention. It requires holding several pieces together; discerning subtle patterns; and generating and testing alternatives by turns, in an always-unfinished process. Philosophy is famously better at knocking down than building up; even the strongest of its affirmative conclusions do not overpower but invite, suggest, recommend. And by itself, philosophy tugs so softly at the imagination and senses that it can pull the head before the heart, leaving readers not so much moved as divided.

Girgis adds that while natural law arguments may not sway the masses, it may change the thinking of the influential elites:


Fresco of Lazarus and the rich man.

Fresco of Lazarus and the rich man.

In the editor’s notes of the new issue of Religion & Liberty, I mentioned Time magazine’s iconic 1964 photo spread “War on Poverty: Portraits From an Appalachian Battleground.” Appalachia was a major target of America’s war on poverty. Today many of those same problems persist despite the steady stream of federal dollars. Unfortunately, unintended consequences from government spending, has expanded many of the problems, as Kevin D. Williamson covered so well in the piece “The White Ghetto” for National Review. Fr. James Schall notes in this interview, “Governments are often the one agency most responsible for poverty in the name of getting rid of it.”

What I appreciate about the interview, is Schall gives us a unique perspective and new ways to think about poverty. Schall, a Catholic priest, is a prolific author who taught at Georgetown University for over 35 years.

The feature piece of the issue, written by Eric James Russell and Rodger E. Broomé is titled, “The Tipped Scales Against our Youth.” The authors cover the challenges facing many young people today and offer solutions toward fixing them.

Rev. Johannes Jacobse offers an excellent review of George Gilder’s new book, Knowledge and Power. Joseph Sunde posted an interview with Gilder on the new book on the PowerBlog. Timothy J. Barnett reviews Reckoning with Markets: Moral Reflection in Economics by James Halteman and Edd Noell.

The “In the Liberal Tradition Figure” for this issue is Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). In reading some of her writings, I noticed a strong affinity for work, especially affirming the work of lay people within the Church. Unfortunately, a lot of her teachings have been hijacked by crackpots and various new age movements. R&L believes it’s important to recover the truth and holiness she championed. Hildegard is a saint in the Anglican and Catholic churches, and Pope Benedict named her a Doctor of the Church.

Rev. Robert Sirico contributes a piece titled “Breaking Bread at Acton University.” If you are considering attending Acton University and have never been, this is definitely a must read.

There is more content in the latest issue of R&L, including our executive director’s explanation of why the Acton Institute is accepting Bitcoin donations. The decision by itself has garnered considerable media coverage.

zero-sumWhy do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues? This is the second in a series of posts that addresses that question by examining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. The first in the series can be found hereA PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.

In my first post, I covered the first four principles (#1 – Good intentions are often trumped by unintended consequences; #2 – Our current economic and historical context must be taken into account when applying Biblical principles; #3 – To exploit the poor, the rich need the help of the government; #4 – We love economic growth because we love babies). In this post I want to consider points #5 (The economy is not a zero-sum game) and #6 (Poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than structural injustice).

5. The economy is not a zero-sum game.

In a zero-sum game, one person’s gain (or loss) is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. It’s similar to dividing a pumpkin pie between five people: someone can only get a larger slice if someone else’s portion is smaller.

Many progressives in America, including far too many (though not all) liberal evangelicals, believe economics is a zero-sum game. They believe wealth, like a pumpkin pie, is fixed and that “there must be one winner and one loser; for every gain there is a loss.” This may be true in some economic systems, but it does not apply in free markets.

Jay W. Richards explains why free enterprise does not require that there be an economic loser for every economic winner:

Blog author: dpahman
Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Today at Ethika Politika, I reflect on what it might look like to adopt thanksgiving as one’s orientation toward human experience and society:

We may think of gratitude … as an appreciation of the joy that uniquely comes from what is virtuous and the recognition of “what God has done or is doing.” Now we have a hermeneutic for our experience, grounded in the God-given “‘eucharistic’ function of man,” to borrow from Fr. Alexander Schmemann. It is not enough to simply appreciate what is given. One must submit what is given to the standard of the Good, be thankful for it to the extent that it measures up, and be critical of it to the extent that it does not. The goal is ultimately transformative: In thanksgiving we offer up to God the good things he has given to us and receive them back transfigured by his grace.

In the ancient Church, one of the common charges early Christians brought against Gnostics, who denied that the God they worshiped was the Creator of the world, was that they were being ungrateful. Whoever our Creator is, they reasoned, we owe him a great deal of gratitude. Thus, in this way they recommended a eucharistic worldview. (more…)

liberal-conservativeWe read the same Bible and follow the same Jesus. We go to the same churches and even agree on the same social issues. So why then do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues?

The answer most frequently given is that both sides simply baptize whatever political and economic views they already believe. While this is likely to be partially true, I don’t think it is a sufficient explanation for the views of more thoughtful and sophisticated evangelicals (which naturally, dear reader, includes you and me).* Even if we start with our naturally acquired political orientation, our engagement with the Bible tends to have a dialogical effect, causing us to modify and rethink our economic views in light of principles we discern from Scripture.

Because we conservatives and liberals come to different conclusions, though, one side will be right and the other wrong (or at least more right and more wrong than the other). We all believe our views on economics are true, which is why we are justified in holding these beliefs and think those who disagree are necessarily wrong. That is just how belief works.

But we often don’t have a sufficient depth of understanding about each others fundamental economic beliefs to know why exactly we come to such different conclusions. Too often we express disagreements about policy without comprehending what guiding principles are motivating our differences of opinion.

Acton Institute Director of Research Samuel Gregg joined host Mike Murray on his show “Faith, Culture and Politics” on the Guadalupe Radio Network to discuss his latest book, Tea Party Catholic. The interview lasted nearly a half an hour, and you can listen to it via the audio player below.

The 2014 Acton Lecture Series got underway last week with an address from Jay Richards on the topic of “Why Libertarians Need God.” In his address, Richards argued that core libertarian principles of individual rights, freedom and responsibility, reason, moral truth, and limited government make little sense in an atheistic and materialist context, but make far more sense when grounded in a theistic belief system. The video of the full lecture is available below; I’ve embedded the audio after the jump.