Category: Christian Social Thought

Today at Ethika Politika, I critique David Bentley Hart’s recent (non-)response to the critics of his attack on natural law in public discourse last month, appearing in the most recent issue of First Things. My article, “Hart’s (Non-)Response to His Critics: Trying to Have It Both Ways?” is a response to Hart’s recent article, “Si Fueris Romae.”

While Hart’s most recent article may seem unrelated, it starts to sound remarkably similar to his article on natural law from last month about half way through. It is this convergence between the two that I examine and critique.

Ultimately, Hart seems to be trying to “have it both ways” when it comes to natural law. I find this to be particularly evident from his conclusion, in which he criticizes US policy toward China, writing,

Decade upon decade, we hear of the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and murder of China’s religious minorities (house-church Christians, Tibetan Buddhist monks, and so on), of the cruel measures taken to enforce the nation’s one-child policy, and of countless other chronic atrocities, but our response consists in little more than a sporadic susurrus of disapproval, just loud enough to flatter ourselves that we have principles but not so loud as to allow those principles to interfere with fiscal or trade policy. We try to shame the ruling party with pious panegyrics on “human rights,” as though the concept had any appreciable weight outside the cultural context that makes it intelligible, but we buy and borrow from the party, and profit from its policies, without hesitation or embarrassment. I think the government of the PRC might be pardoned for concluding that our actions, and not our words, indicate where our true values lie.

While at Ethika Politika I critique his reliance upon the concept of natural rights even while claiming that only our “cultural context … makes it intelligible,” there is another point to consider here. Putting aside the inconsistency of his principles, would his recommendation — more restricted “fiscal or trade policy” — really have the effect that he hopes? (more…)

Billy Graham meets John Paul II in 1981.

Billy Graham meets John Paul II in 1981.

Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary makes some salient points about why Protestants should pay any attention at all to the doings in Vatican City (HT: Justin Taylor):

Some may wonder what the point of reflecting on Rome is for a Protestant. At least threefold, I would respond. First, Protestants benefit from a conservative papacy: on public square issues such as abortion, marriage and religious freedom, the RCC has a higher profile and more power – financial, legal, institutional – than any Protestant group. We all benefit from the cultural and legal power of the RCC in these areas. Second, your neighbours probably do not distinguish between Christian groups. A sleazy, morally corrupt RCC is like a sleazy, morally corrupt televangelist ministry: we are all marked with the same brush in the public eye and our task of evangelism becomes that much harder. Third, RC authors often offer more penetrating insights into secular culture than their evangelical equivalents. Comparing George Weigel to Rob Bell in such circumstances is akin to comparing Michelangelo to Thomas Kinkade.

Therefore, while I have very serious theological disagreements with Catholic authors, I would suggest that they by and large offer well-argued, well-written and insightful commentaries on the state of the world in a way that is rare in evangelical circles. One can learn a lot from watching a great mind wrestle with a problem, even when one deems the conclusion erroneous; there seems little to be gained from watching a mediocre mind playing ping-pong with the same.

Trueman goes on to discuss the example of George Weigel in more detail. Read the whole thing.

For more on Protestantism and contemporary politics, I reviewed Trueman’s Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative in the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of Religion & Liberty, “On the Place of Profits and Politics.”

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Surprise was the reaction in Rome on hearing of the elevation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, to the Papacy. My colleagues in Rome told me that the Plaza was unusually quiet as the people tried to figure out what was going on.  I guess the Cardinals showed that they elect the pope on their own terms, and now everyone is wondering who Pope Francis is, how he will lead, and what will characterize his pontificate.

Intra and Extra: Challenges for the Pope in the Church and the World

The Pope’s main role is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his first homily as Holy Father he asserted just this. “We can walk as much as we want,” he said  “we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ.”  He also has a Church to govern—and he’ll face serious challenges on both fronts.  On the inside, the Church continues to reel from scandals and abuse. The curia needs to be reformed and the bureaucracy cleaned up. On the outside, Pope Francis faces a growing and hostile secularism, religious persecution from a number of fronts, dwindling number of believers in traditionally Catholic lands, including Latin America, and increasing ignorance of the basic tenets of Christianity. But there are also some real positives. The Church continues to grow in the Global South—especially in Africa and Asia. Belief is still high in Latin America, though many Catholics are leaving for the Pentecostals or evangelicals. Among U.S. Catholics, Hispanics are now the majority.  And while the Church in the West may be getting smaller, it is also more vibrant and serious. Younger Catholics are orthodox and evangelical, and dissenters like Hans Kung are aging and less influential each day. Pope Francis also has the advantage of following Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose interpretation of Vatican II and whose intellectual and spiritual guidance set out a framework for the New Evangelization.

Francis brings several important things to his papacy. The most obvious are that he is a Latin American, and not a member of the Roman Curia. The Curia needs reform, and being an outsider with experience of diocesan dysfunction will serve him well. Further, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he not only dealt with extreme poverty, corruption, lack of rule of law, and social and economic volatility that is common in the developing world, he also has had to contend with virulent and aggressive secularism that is common in the West.  He has been a fearless defender of human life and family, has called abortion the “death penalty for the unborn,” and has been unafraid to clash with political leaders over corruption, reminding them that social corruption is rooted in personal sin.

He also brings a long record of engagement with the poorest of the poor. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “A Passion for Government Leads to Neglect of Our Neighbor,” I examine how the disconnect between desires and deeds with reference to helping the needy among us perpetuates unbalanced budgets and spending on debt to the detriment of future generations. I highlight how St. John the Baptist came to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children” (Luke 1:17) by exhorting people to look to their neighbors and the small but practical ways they can serve them in love:

During his ministry, John’s message to everyday people, according to Luke, was remarkably simple: “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” To the tax collector, he warns not to take more than is due, and to the soldier his counsel is “be content with your wages” (cf. Luke 3:10-14). This was “the way of the Lord”?

I conclude by recommending the same for us today. The problem is not that people do not care, it is that we have forgotten with whom responsibility for the work of caring for the needy among us lies first of all. (more…)

“Is there a religious way to pump gas, sell groceries, or advertise for a craft store?”

In a new paper, “God and the Profits: Is There Religious Liberty for Money-Makers?,” Mark Rienzi asks the question. (HT)

Rienzi, an assistant professor at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, writes in direct response to the federal government’s HHS contraception mandate, focusing on the religious liberty challenges faced by for-profit companies. As Rienzi argues, imposing such penalties requires “singling out religion for disfavored treatment in ways forbidden by the Free Exercise Clause and federal law.”

From the abstract:

Litigation over the HHS contraceptive mandate has raised the question whether a for-profit business and its owner can engage in religious exercise under federal law. The federal government has argued, and some courts have found, that the activities of a profit-making business are ineligible for religious freedom protection.

This article offers a comprehensive look at the relationship between profit-making and religious liberty, arguing that the act of earning money does not preclude profit-making businesses and their owners from engaging in protected religious exercise.

Many religions impose, and at least some businesses follow, religious requirements for the conduct of profit-making businesses. Thus businesses can be observed to engage in actions that are obviously motivated by religious beliefs: from preparing food according to ancient Jewish religious laws, to seeking out loans that comply with Islamic legal requirements, to encouraging people to “know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” These actions easily qualify as exercises of religion. (more…)

It often comes to light over matters of disagreement that one side attempts to shut down the debate by emulating Ring Lardner’s father in The Young Immigrants: “’Shut up,’ he explained.” Of course, this isn’t at all a real explanation, but it sure does slam the door on any further discussion.

This disingenuous tactic is witnessed again and again in the climate-change debate. Most notably it appears in the tactics of those who believe the science is settled, a scientific consensus exists and global warming indeed poses a serious catastrophic threat to our planet – as evidenced by a March 7, 2013, webinar conducted by As You Sow for proxy shareholder resolutions.

As You Sow – which says 18 percent of its members are faith-based organizations – seeks to prompt corporate boards in which it owns stock to adopt its view of climate change. One method to achieve this goal is shutting down the debate completely. As noted in its 2013 “Proxy Preview,” AYS and a “very broad coalition of investors is continuing a vigorous initiative to make companies be more transparent about how they spend corporate treasury money on political campaigns and lobbying.” (more…)

America has a lot big problems—and we American’s like them to have one big cause. We also prefer that they have one big solution (preferably fixable by our big government). Take, for example, violent crime. Since 1992, the population increased from 255 million to 310 million but the violent crime rate fell from 757.7 per to 386.3 per 100,000 people. While in 1994 more than half of Americans considered crime to be the nation’s most important problem, only 2 percent believed that in 2012.

prison-ministryNo one knows exactly why the crime rate dropped so precipitously, though numerous experts have their pet theories. Penologists credit increases in incarceration while police say it’s community policing. Others say it’s due to increases in abortion or reductions in lead in gasoline. All of these factors may have played a role, but one consideration that is often overlooked is the role of religion.

For instance, as H. David Schuringa points out,

(more…)

In the video below, Ralph Baer, the “father of video games,” explains why he still invents at 90 years old. “What do you expect me to do?” he asks. He likens invention to the work of a painter. Would someone ask why a painter doesn’t retire? It’s what they love to do! Indeed, it is a calling.

In The Entrepreneurial Vocation, Fr. Robert Sirico writes,

Entrepreneurs, as agents of change, encourage the economy to adjust to population increases, resource shifts, and changes in consumer needs and desires. Without entrepreneurs, we would face a static economic world not unlike the stagnant economic swamps that socialism brought about in central Europe.

The same can be said about inventors like Baer as well. Like them or not, video games have been a huge source of wealth creation in our country over the last 40 years. Not only are whole teams of programmers required to create a single game, but modern games even employ actors, composers, writers, artists, and so on. In many ways they are (or at least could be) the culmination of culture up to our present time, and it all started because Baer invented a fun little gadget and managed to market it some 40 years ago.

I remember as a child of the ’80s, we actually had a Magnavox Odyssey 2 growing up. A child today would likely find it bizarre that I could find any enjoyment from such primitive sound, graphics, and interface, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. Yes, looking at it now, I can vividly remember the feel of the controller in my hand, the excitement of a child in wonder at what, at the time, was such amazing technology and a source of fun and competition with my brothers. It may not be impressive to many today, but inventions like this and the people who invent them ought to bring us to awe before the God who created heaven and earth and such fascinating and creative creatures as the human race, capable of wondrous invention after the image of the God who created them so fearfully and wonderfully unique.

At Ethika Politika today, I examine the recent critique by David Bentley Hart in the most recent issue of First Things of the use of natural law in public discourse in my article, “Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience.” Ultimately, I offer a measured critique—somewhat agreeing with, but mostly critical of Hart’s position—pointing out Hart’s oversight of the vital role of conscience in classic natural law theory.

What I find so bizarre, and have for some time now, is the relative ambivalence, at best, of many contemporary Orthodox writers when it comes to natural law. Hart, for example, hints that he might approve of natural law reasoning so long as all parties involved hold to a metaphysic that acknowledges “a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate.” However, even then he is not clear. Indeed, he begins his article by writing,

There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. (emphasis mine)

Hart is not alone among Orthodox writers in this regard. With the notable exceptions of Stanley Harakas, Tristram Engelhardt, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (if there are others I apologize for my ignorance), contemporary Orthodox writers scarcely have employed natural law in their social ethics, if they even endorse it at all. Often it gets thrown under the bus in ill-advised false dichotomizing between all that is Eastern and therefore wonderful and all that is Western and therefore overly rationalistic. (more…)

Religious groups seeking to serve myriad liberal agendas during the 2013 shareholder proxy resolution season look no further than As You Sow, a group dedicated to “large-scale systemic change by establishing sustainable and equitable corporate practices.”

AYS will unveil its Proxy Preview on March 7. Trumpeted as the “Bible for socially progressive foundations, religious groups, pension funds, and tax-exempt organizations” by the Chicago Tribune, this year’s preview predictably includes such “issues” as hydraulic fracturing; e-waste recycling; waste disposal; and pushing coal-fired utilities to adopt more stringent environmental standards than required by law.

Nowhere does AYS mention companies’ fiscal responsibility to return profits to shareholders. Neither does it mention how adherence to these progressive shibboleths might negatively impact the world’s most economically disadvantaged by reducing corporate profitability. (more…)