I’ve tried to stay on top of the federal government’s response to natural disasters here at Acton. I’ve written a number of commentaries, blog posts, and a story in Religion & Liberty covering the issue. “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill” specifically addressed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For extensive background on this short clip of Bobby Jindal at CPAC 2012, see my post “Bobby Jindal on Centralized Disaster Response.”
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Corrupted Capitalism and the Housing Crisis,” I contend we need to add some categories to our thinking about political economy. In this case, the idea of “corporatism” helps understand a good deal of what we see in the American system today. Adding corporatism to our quiver helps us to make some more nuanced distinctions than simple “socialism” and “capitalism” allow.
Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s contention this week while campaigning in Michigan that the bailouts of the auto companies was a feature of “crony capitalism.” A better way to understand the relationship between big business and big government today might instead be characterized as “crony corporatism.” You have a select group at the highest levels of an industry influencing government policy, which in turn favors those big businesses, provides various moral and fiscal incentives to consumers to patronize these industries, and then when necessary bails them out.
In this week’s commentary I use corporatism as a way of unpacking what happened in the recent housing crisis. For too long the American dream has revolved around home ownership. Owning a home is a good thing for many people; for many others it isn’t. What we have failed to recognize is the moral hazard that attends to government promotion of a particular vision of the American dream and the crises that result. As Dambisa Moyo characterized the housing crisis,
The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.
The definition of the American dream offered by politicians should be far less precise, and presumably not include the level of specificity that says we should all own a home, drive a GM car, and have a college degree. As Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps put it in a 2009 interview,
I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.
The cultivation of an “ownership society” through government subsidy is only one feature of the creeping corporatism of contemporary America. As has been documented just in the last few days, the role of the government in directing and providing social goods has increased dramatically over recent decades. Following a New York Times story describing the increasing dependence of the American middle class on governmental initiatives of one form or another, Steve Hayward summarizes, “increasingly we’re taxing the middle class to pay themselves their own money, minus a large commission to Washington DC” (HT: The Transom). The government is increasingly using these subsidies and incentives to shape how people live their lives.
As I conclude in today’s piece, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued. These are functions that our families, churches, and friendships fulfill.” One place to look instead would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to enjoy God and glorify him forever.” Another would be the words of Jesus: “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
The primary point of my first book, The End of Secularism, was to demonstrate that secularism doesn’t do what it claims to do, which is to solve the problem of religious difference. As I look at the administration’s attempt to mandate that religious employers pay for contraceptive products, I see that they have confirmed one of my charges in the book.
I wrote that secularists claim that they are occupying a neutral position in the public square, but in reality they are simply another group of contenders working to implement a vision of community life with which they are comfortable. And guess what? They are not comfortable with many of the fundamental beliefs of Christians. Regrettably, many secularists are also statists. Thus, their discomfort with Christian beliefs results in direct challenges to them in the form of mandatory public policy.
Collectivism is often very appealing to Christians who want to do good for their neighbors. Unfortunately, collectivism is frequently a fellow-traveler of aggressive secularism with little respect for religious liberty. The veil has slipped. I hope we do not too quickly forget what was revealed in that moment. Collectivism gives. But it also takes. And what it takes is very often precious and irreplaceable.
After asking his most pressing question, “After all, do we really want to make accommodations across the range of faith?,” he makes this amazing statement:
“The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can.”
That sentence caught the immediate attention of many. Could someone of Nicholas Kristof’s influence and stature really write and mean that?
Mohler highlights some of Kristof’s commendable work on human rights abuses (he’s the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes), but Mohler says “when it comes to human rights at home, Mr. Kristof reveals a horrifying blind spot.”
Our country is not a country that “accommodates” or “tolerates” religion. There is undoubtedly a growing disconnect of those who have no fundamental understanding of the meaning of religious liberty in the American framework. Now we are clearly seeing that the exponential growth of government is a grave threat to religious liberty. Some of the “enlightened” want to somehow “accommodate” religion, at least publicly.
Face it, many who no longer look to the Lord for their help, look to the state as their provider, caretaker, and the dispenser of whatever freedoms they are granted.
Concerning our fortress of religious liberty, look no further than a book I recently reviewed on James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. Madison objected to the “fullest toleration” of religious freedom in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, and his language found its way into the Bill of Rights. Brookhiser spells it out perfectly in his Madison biography and points to the uniqueness of America’s first freedom:
Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).
Furthermore, take a look at “Birth Control Yes, Government Control No” in The Wall Street Journal for more on the threat to religious liberty.
Toleration or accommodation is of course flawed because it posits the notion that religious freedom or freedom of conscious is offered by the whims of the state. Many pundits rolled their eyes at the “war on religion” ad by Rick Perry during his presidential campaign. I admit, I think I rolled my eyes and thought it was quite the overreaction. I was too enlightened and nuanced for an ad like that. Given the actions of the executive branch, I don’t know if we can say it’s an overreaction anymore.
The Grand Rapids Press has a story today about the Acton Institute’s plans to move into new office space in the heart of the city. Stay tuned to the PowerBlog for exciting updates in the days and weeks ahead about the move.
GRAND RAPIDS – The Acton Institute, a conservative think tank dedicated to blending Christian doctrine and free market economics, may be better known on the international stage than in its home town. That may change soon. The 22-year-old institute is purchasing an old department store and office building in the heart of downtown. “We’re the only public policy think tank in Grand Rapids, but we’re probably better known internationally than in Grand Rapids,” said Acton spokesman John Couretas.
The institute’s new home at 98 E. Fulton Street was built as a Jacobson’s Department store and was known as the White & White Medical Arts Building during the 1980s and 1990s. Last year, the building’s east wall was the 2nd Place winner in ArtPrize as artist Tracy Van Duinen’s Metaphorest Project. The building currently is occupied by the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT), a nonprofit organization that helps students stay in school through exposure to the arts and aid under- or unemployed adults through technical skills training. WMCAT will continue as a tenant.
The Acton Institute, which has more than 40 staffers, is currently headquartered in leased space at the Waters Building, a downtown landmark at 161 Ottawa Ave. NW.
Read more on “Acton Institute will raise its profile in Grand Rapids with purchase of downtown landmark building” by reporter Jim Harger in The Grand Rapids Press.
Methodism was once the largest denomination in America. The faith grew rapidly from America’s beginning and has traditionally been characterized by aggressive evangelism and revival. It has carried a vibrant social witness, too. Methodist Church pronouncements once garnered front page headlines in The New York Times. Its high water mark undoubtedly came during prohibition, the greatest modern political cause of the denomination. Methodists even built and staffed a lobbying building next to Capitol Hill believing a dry country could remake society.
In Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, Mark Tooley has chronicled Methodism’s denominational political pronouncements from William McKinley, America’s first Methodist president, to 9-11. Tooley has unearthed a staggering amount of official and unofficial Methodist declarations and musings on everything from economics, war, civil rights, the Cold War, abortion, marriage, and politics.
Tooley, who is also the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church, offers very little of his own commentary on the issues in Methodism and Politics, instead allowing Methodism’s voice for over a century to speak for itself. Ultimately what emerges is a denomination that begins to recede in significance, perhaps because of the sheer saturation of their witness in the public square. But its leadership often trades in a prophetic voice for a partisan political one, and sadly at times, even a treasonous voice.
Methodists not only led on prohibition, but were out in front on issues like women’s suffrage, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. While they did not always carry a unified voice on these issues, even many Southern annual conferences and bishops broke with the popular political position of defending segregation in their home states.
While support for the New Deal and greater federal intervention in the economy was not rubber stamped by all Methodists, an emerging and often biting anti-free market voice would dominate official pronouncements. This continues to this day with declarations calling to support greater government regulations, single payer health care, and a host of measures calling for government wage and price controls. Way back in 1936, one Oklahoma Methodist pastor offered his own advice to some of his brethren:
Why do [these Methodist Reds] not get passports, emigrate to Russia where they can prostrate themselves daily before the sacred mummy of Lenin and submit themselves to the commands of Joseph Stalin?
Tooley chronicles the pacifist sentiment that begins to overtake the denomination. This amounted to the equivocating of a denomination that once was harsh in its critique of communism to one where a committee of bishops would pronounce by the 1980s, that “actions which are seen as ‘Marxist-Leninist’ by one group are seen as the core of the Christian message by others.”
Perhaps most shameful was the action of several bishops during the American hostage crisis in Tehran, Iran, from 1979 – 1981. United Methodist Bishop Dale White said of the new Islamic fundamentalist regime, “I know there are individuals in the Iranian power structure who do trust The United Methodist Church.” White offered assessments of the new regime being “democratic.” The General conference sent a message to Ayatollah Khomeni declaring that it hears the “cries of freedom from foreign domination, from cultural imperialism, from economic exploitation.” Methodist officials participated in pro-Khomeni student demonstrations in Washington D.C. and met with and offered praise for officials in the new Iranian government. One former hostage recalled:
Some of the people who came over especially the clergy were hypocrites because they came to aid and comfort the hostages but ended up giving aid and comfort to the Iranians and actually making it worse for us.
The election of President Ronald Reagan naturally sent many United Methodist Church officials into a tizzy. “People voted their self interest instead of the Social Principles of the church. It looks like United Methodists with everybody else forsook their Christian idealism at the ballot box,” said Bishop James Armstrong. Some United Methodist Bishops had already declared their denomination much more aligned with the Democratic Party. It was downhill from there for many Methodist leaders, as they coddled the Sandanistas and “Brother Ortega” in Nicaragua and dove head first into the nuclear freeze movement.
In the 1990s one General Board of Global Ministry official bewailed the Republican Congress by saying, “White, male supremacists now wear suits. They talk states rights and anti-taxes. The climate of hate and violence is a challenge to us.” General Board of Church and Society official Robert McLean declared that the GOP Contract with America effectively “cancels” the Sermon on the Mount.
Hyperventilating over partisan politics would continue in The United Methodist Church and continues to this day by American officials. Most recently many have joined forces with the “What Would Jesus Cut Campaign?” But because Methodism is a connectional denomination, the growing African influence is counter balancing what Methodist progressives and political liberals can accomplish. They have already reached the pinnacle of their power, which has been shrinking for decades. And because progressives have made so many predictable pronouncements, they no longer speak with the weighty spiritual authority they once held. It is a lesson for all churches and those that wish to bring their faith into the public square. At the 1934 Illinois Annual Conference one lay delegate offered what can be seen only as prophetic now when he declared, “It is time for churches to stop adopting resolutions and then finding out what they mean afterward.”
Just a few weeks ago, The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church & Society heaped praise on President Obama’s HHS mandate with no mention of the measure’s threat to religious liberty, deciding to only view it as a partisan measure to defend for furthering the role of government in health care.
At the conclusion of the book, after reading through 100 years of political pronouncements, Tooley finally offers just a hint of his own assessment,
American Methodism in 1900 was growing, confident, largely unified, and politically formidable. One hundred years later, it had already endured several decades of steep membership decline and accompanying political marginalization as church officials were no longer presumed to speak for most church members.
Tooley, through the myriad of voices that he has chronicled over such a lengthy period, understands those voices only need to speak for themselves to make his point.
In the 1920s Calvin Coolidge once said of Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist Bishops in early America, that “he did not come [to America] for political motives,” but came to bear “the testimony of truth.” One wishes Methodist denominational officials would not only follow more of Asbury’s doctrine, but his praxis as well.
Daniel Hannan, a British Member of the European Parliament, issued a strong warning to conservative Americans worried about their country’s future in a speech he delivered at the CPAC rally last week in Washington.
The self-proclaimed Euroskeptic and author of The New Road to Serfdom, warned U.S. political conservatives not to follow in Europe’s tragic footsteps by allowing their governments to seize too much power and create dependency on mismanaged socialized government programs — the very Welfare State culture that has a strangle hold on the Old Continent’s major economies such as Britain, France, Germany and Italy.
In Hannan’s opinion, Europe is “in the grip of a prolonged winter … of discontent” where there are nation-wide protests and grumbling every day against political and economic liberalization — but with little hope for actual change. Europe is in such a dire state, he says, because it is has long lost its culture of enterprise and self-responsibility.
Hannan said he always admired Americans for their optimism and “anything’s possible” attitude, but they need to make sure their “rulers remember they are not rulers but representatives.” He humorously noted that in Belgium, where he works in European Parliament, the country was without a government for nearly two years “and it was working brilliantly!”
Below you can watch Hannan’s interview and full speech delivered at CPAC.