Category: Public Policy

Blog author: jrichards
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
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After much whispering and pre-publicity, a group of 86 evangelical leaders has announced their support for what The New York Times calls “a major initiative to fight global warming.” As part of the “Evangelical Climate Initiative,” they are calling for “federal legislation that would require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through ‘cost-effective, market-based mechanisms.'” (For a response from another group of evangelical leaders, go to the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance.)

I have great respect for the supporters of this initiative, and I don’t doubt their sincerity. And I’m glad to see a call for “market-based” solutions to a problem. Unfortunately, this looks to me like another example (alongside the fuzzy advocacy of the ONE Campaign) of Christians, evangelicals in this case, endorsing a hip cause without thinking through its economic logic.

I doubt any of these evangelical leaders has relevant expertise when it comes to global warming, especially since the scientific issues involved are exquisitely complex and change from day to day. So presumably they are simply trusting the advertised “scientific consensus” on this issue and using that perceived consensus as a filter for interpreting mundane events, like ice melting in Antarctica. That’s a problem, not only because the consensus is more manufactured than real (that is, objectively decided), but also because a scientific consensus that the planet is warming still wouldn’t tell us what to do about it. That’s a prudential question that can only be answered by taking account not only of the intended consequences of a policy, but also its unintended consequences.

The issue is not whether we should see ourselves as stewards over creation. That’s a non-negotiable Christian principle. The issue is whether these evangelicals have done the obligatory serious thinking before advocating a specific public policy.

When it comes to global warming, there are at least four separate issues to keep in mind. You don’t need to be a climate expert to do this.

(1) Is the planet warming?

(2) If the planet is warming, is human activity (like CO2 emissions) causing it?

(3) If the planet is warming, and we’re causing it, is it bad overall?

(4) If the planet is warming, we’re causing it, and it’s bad, would the policies commonly advocated (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol, restrictions on CO2 emissions) make any difference? (more…)

Blog author: jspalink
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
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With the publication of Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI is warning that an all-encompassing government would be unable to provide the one thing that people really need — loving, personal concern. Sam Gregg sees parallels between Benedict’s new encyclical and Tocqueville’s 19th century understanding of the autonomous, social associations that gave America its dynamic character and limited government power.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
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Here’s a convincing op-ed piece by William Romanowski, who teaches film studies at Calvin College, “Missing the big picture.” He writes in USAToday about the ambivalent impact of the upswing of religiously-oriented movies coming from Hollywood. “Were more evangelicals to think about movies in terms of their faith beliefs, they would actually have an opportunity to not only buy tickets, but also to begin to shape the entertainment industry,” he writes.

But how evangelicals (broadly defined) attempt to shape the industry is important as well: “The best motion pictures transform the real world into an imaginary one with ideals, values, attitudes and assumptions woven into characterizations and storylines.”

“Evangelicals can influence Hollywood when they think of the cinema as an arena for cultural discourse but not a place for converting members of that culture to a specific Christian orientation. In other words, evangelicals’ goal for the movie industry should be to encourage discourse, not merely evangelizing,” he concludes. He cites Million Dollar Baby, Syriana, and A History of Violence as examples of films with moral complexity and texture that can precipitate important discussions about issues like social violence, politics, and euthanasia.

These aren’t normally the kinds of films that are considered “family friendly,” but Romanowski makes the case that they can be considered as important touchstones for salient religious conversation.

HT: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Religion News

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
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What might a big city Wal-Mart look like? Until now, such a question was only answerable through some imaginative speculation.

Wal-Mart has announced plans to open the first store within Chicago’s city limits in the Austin neighborhood this summer. The 145,000-square-foot facility will also be the first to have what is called a “green roof,” 67,000 square foot “covered like a rug with flowering, cactus-like plants that live in cold weather.”

The roof is designed by Roof-scapes, Inc. of Philadelphia and will “have only 3 inches of soil, no irrigation system and will be designed to reduce rainfall runoff and, in conjunction with other green roofs, lower the city’s air temperature,” according to Charlie Miller, a Roof-scapes spokesman.

But perhaps even more interesting than what the store will look like on the outside is what will be missing from the inside. According to the Sun-Times,

will have no full-line grocery store, a concession Wal-Mart made to the City Council, which feared Wal-Mart would undersell smaller grocery stores and put them out of business. Wal-Mart will sell a limited amount of non-perishable, frozen and refrigerated food in addition to clothing, electronics, jewelry and household goods, but will sell no fresh fruit or produce. Those restrictions were necessary to win City Council approval of a zoning change to clear the way for Chicago’s first Wal-Mart.

According to a 2003 project by the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change, the Austin community had a median income of $33,633 in 2000, but “because it is so large, it has pockets of growing wealth, as well as signs of continuing poverty. ‘It’s interesting,’ described an Austin resident, “you’ve got the rich people and the poor people around here.'”

The City Council, in its wisdom, decided that there is a certain price level that groceries shouldn’t go under (in the interests of the community, of course).

What happened to consumer freedom? No one is forced to patronize Wal-Mart…the residents could willingly pay more at the smaller grocery stores if that’s what they wanted. They might well value cheaper produce more than they do intimate neighborhood stores.

Indeed, I suspect that the poorer residents of the neighborhood might rather spend their hard-earned money getting more for less at Wal-Mart. But that choice won’t be available in Chicago, at least not yet, thanks to the special interests of the Chicago City Council. (Thanks to John Powers for the tip.)

Blog author: jspalink
Monday, February 6, 2006
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“Stop sending us your used clothes”
“Why 30 grams of fat is good for the poor”
“Look closely and you’ll see the Virgin Mary in this tortilla”

Acton is wrapping up a three-month project that had print advertisements running in several publications: WORLD, Crisis and the Michigan Catholic. The idea is to get people thinking about the economic consequences of trade policies and the power of entrepreneurial creativity. We’ve received a lot of feedback on this project, most of which was highly positive — with a few critical zingers. (Thanks to those of you who allowed us to use your names in the comments.) If you haven’t had a chance to see the ads, please visit the special Web page we built around this campaign for more information. We’d like to get your insights. Please email us at home [at] acton.org

I fully agree with your underlying point/message. I liked the “used clothes” ad very much. But… As a non-Catholic, I am uncomfortable with the tone of your “Virgin Mary” ad (though it might play well in media markets with a large proportion of Catholics). The “30g of fat” ad also sends mixed messages — while I agree that the appearance of McDonalds is a sign of a degree of stability, protection of private property & investment, and openness to foreign direct investment and other commerce (all very good), I don’t think that American fast food is much of a blessing to the world, least of all the underdeveloped world. Freer markets and protecting the lives/property of agriculturalists would certainly help feed and enrich these people better than new McDonalds branches in major cities would (these countries are far too heavily urbanized as a result of welfarism and statism).
~ Steve Daskal

I think your ads are tremendous. As you know, I’m sure, the provision of food aid to Africa also is detrimental to the local food production market, in the same way as the sending of used clothing. Thank you for these!
~ Philip Sawyer

Great ads. They communicate a difficult concept in a respectful manner. It makes me want to know more about Acton. Keep up the good work.
~ Name withheld

Thank you for the ads. I especially identified the one titled “Stop Sending Your Used Clothes.” As a Kenyan I witnessed how the used clothes market wiped out all the three textile industries that were located in my city, Thika. Even though the used clothes were cheaper and allowed poor people to afford more clothing, it increased poverty in the area because as each industry closed down, unemployment went up impacting many families. Many of these textile industries had hired a lot of women workers. This meant that when these women lost their jobs they could no longer support their families. Many of these women were forced to either depend on men or turn to prostitution. The city began to witness an increase in the AIDS epidemic. There is a high correlation between AIDS and poverty. Poverty does not only strip off people of their dignity but it also makes it difficult for people to make good moral choices. AIDS will only be fully! eradicated when poverty, particularly among the most vulnerable,(women and children) is eradicated.
~ Name withheld

You are doing good work. You are exactly correct with the ad message. I hope they are well heard.
~ Larry Spears

As a student of both moral philosophy and economics, I have been greatly encouraged to see your ads. They are professional, research based, and just the type of thing to make a liberal’s jaw drop. They challenge some fundamental assumptions made by liberals that are completely false. After years studying under a very liberal faculty, I rejoice every time I see a relevant, timely message encouraging free market ideals. The beautifully designed posters are much more effective than some of the lame and unprofessional “research” I have seen from other organizations. Thank you!
~ Name withheld

Quite honestly, I think they are disgraceful, sinful, anti-Catholic and an abomination if one knows anything about charity and economics at all. But I suspect you really don’t care what people think.
~ Name withheld

I think this is a long overdue and an excellent way to start educating Catholics about vital essentials of economics! Keep up the good work!
~ Name withheld

After a year of lobbying by vice-president for governmental affairs Rev. Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals has backed off of attempts to formulate specific policy recommendations to the federal government on global warming. According to the Washington Post, “The National Association of Evangelicals said yesterday that it has been unable to reach a consensus on global climate change and will not take a stand on the issue.”

Of course, this disappoints those environmentalist groups that had looked to find a new ally and gain legitimacy from the evangelical movement. The evangelical push on global warming met “internal resistance,” and “In a letter to Haggard last month, more than 20 evangelical leaders urged the NAE not to adopt ‘any official position’ on global climate change because ‘Bible-believing evangelicals . . . disagree about the cause, severity and solutions to the global warming issue.'”

Among the signatories to the letter were Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries; James C. Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family; the Rev. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries; the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Richard Roberts, president of Oral Roberts University; Donald E. Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association; and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.

Following the letter, NAE president Ted Haggard claimed that “We are not considering a position on global warming. We are not advocating for specific legislation or government mandates.”

But if this is the case, it is an abrupt shift from the NAE’s recent position. In an interview in October of last year, Rev. Richard Cizik said, “We are currently working on a paper that is scheduled to come out this month on climate change that will get into some policy details, but for the moment we have no specific positions on any environmental legislation.” The article also says that in November of 2005 the NAE “will begin circulating a charter calling on its member network and top-level Beltway allies to fight global warming.”

But Haggard denies this ever happened, saying, “Allow me to confirm at the outset that the NAE is not circulating any official document on the environment.”

The WashPo article paints the decision to back off of official policy recommendations on global warming as a defeat for the “fledgling movement…’the greening of evangelicals.'” The assumption is, of course, that all environmentally-responsible evangelicals must embrace particular positions with respect to global warming. This is simply false.

Part of the reason the NAE had been so unwilling to embrace secular environmental groups was because it did not want to be beholden to a specific political ideological position with respect to the environment. It wants to exercise the freedom of Christian conscience regarding environmental stewardship. Cizik says, “We need to develop our own voice and strategies and tactics, and once we’ve gotten our own feet on the ground, then we can talk about possible cooperation.”

Cizik himself sees it as only a matter of time before evangelicals learn to compromise with more secularist and radical groups. “There are those in my community who are concerned that environmentalists are advocates of population control, of big-government solutions, or New Age religion, and have apocalyptic tendencies,” he says. “I am trying to reason with my community that we’ve earned our spurs in co-belligerency — collaborating with groups we wouldn’t otherwise work with, in the name of the common good.”

But in the interim, evangelicals will continue to retain their independence in defining environmentalism. And that means dealing with debate and consensus among evangelicals.
Rev. Gerald Zandstra, onetime director of programs at Acton (now on a leave of absence), writes that evangelicals are “not as monolithic, closed-minded, or dangerous as some, especially those who are unfamiliar with Christianity, seem to think.”

He also says about evangelical environmentalism: “The Judeo-Christian community for 5,000 years or more has taken its responsibility for the environment seriously. The whole concept of ‘stewardship’ is one that comes directly from sacred texts. It is built into the opening chapters of Genesis and woven into the whole of Scripture. Human beings, acting as God’s stewards, are to provide care for the earth, remembering that it does not belong to us. Rather, we are managers.”

E. Calvin Beisner, adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and professor of social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary, also signed the letter to Haggard asking the NAE to suspend its policy course.

Beisner said that the signers “feared that the NAE was going ‘to assume as true certain things that we think are still debatable, such as that global warming is not only real but also almost certainly going to be catastrophically harmful; second, that it is being driven to a significant extent by human activity; and third, that some regime, some international treaty for mandatory reductions in CO2emissions, could make a significant enough drop in global emissions to justify the costs to the human economy.'”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 3, 2006
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More from the State of the Union:

“…the number of children born to teenage mothers has been falling for a dozen years in a row.”

That’s a good thing. But there’s still a marriage crisis, and part of it is related to birth rates among unmarried women: Births to unmarried mothers reached a record high of almost 1.5 million and made up 35.7% of all births in 2004. Unmarried births made up the majority of Black (69.2%) and American Indian (62.3%) births, nearly half (46.4%) of Hispanic births, and 23.5% of Caucasian births. Source: Marketing to Women (Kaplan, 2006), p.3.

This phenomenon of course has many social effects, not the least of which is the increase of children born into poverty. More from the NYT on marriage and birth rates here.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 2, 2006
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The Feb. 6 edition of NEWSWEEK features a story on the debate program at Liberty University, in a bit by Susanna Meadows, “Cut, Thrust and Christ: Why evangelicals are mastering the art of college debate.” The story trots out a number of tired old formulas, with the lede referencing the fact that fundamentalists (used interchangeably with the term evangelicals) view of the imminence of the second coming: “When you believe the end of the world is coming, you learn to talk fast.”

But what really makes this an item worthy of notice on GetReligion is an illustrative misquote of Jerry Falwell. “We are training debaters who can perform a salt ministry, meaning becoming the conscience of the culture,” says Falwell. That’s what he actually said.

Apparently, though, “in the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK quoted Falwell as referring to ‘assault ministry.’ In fact, Falwell was referring to ‘a salt ministry’—a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ We regret the error.” No doubt NEWSWEEK still considers it an “assault,” albeit of the verbal and intellectual variety rather than physical.

Still, the story does illustrate one of the more important growing trends in contemporary evangelicalism: the emphasis on the use of political power as a means for furthering the aims of the Church: “Falwell and the religious right figure that if they can raise a generation that knows how to argue, they can stem the tide of sin in the country. Seventy-five percent of Liberty’s debaters go on to be lawyers with an eye toward transforming society.”

“I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans’ godly heritage,” says freshman debater Cole Bender.

Meadows writes, “Debaters are the new missionaries, having realized they can save a lot more souls from a seat at the top—perhaps even on the highest court in the land.” The article does implicitly raise the challenge to politics-minded evangelicals to recognize the difference between moral suasion and political coercion. The former addresses matters of the heart and soul, while the latter necessarily addresses externals. A religion that focuses too much on externals to the detriment of the heart will at some point become legalistic and Pharisaical.

And it remains to be seen if and when evangelicals achieve the political victories they desire if they will be willing to only seek to enact public policy that addresses clear moral matters and issues of justice, as the governing authority is “God’s servant to do you good” and “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV).

I’m simply not convinced that the “top-down” method of evangelization is the right way to view things. Falwell says, “So while we have the preaching of the Gospel on the one side—certainly a priority—we have the confronting of the culture on moral default on the other side.”

I would think that a necessary part of evangelism is “confronting the culture,” but can’t that be done as part of the proclamation of the Gospel (see the Second Use of the Law)? After all, the conscience can falsely justify as well as condemn, and the “conscience of culture” is no different.

I’m always suspicious when I hear “the Bible and…” or the “the Gospel and…”. It signals to me that the Church is getting away from its calling, the commission to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Engaging, critiquing, and transforming culture are all important things. But we’re wrong if we think that the primary means to accomplish these goals is something other than the preaching of the Word.

The other activities of the Church (moral suasion, charitable work) need to be consciously and intentionally connected to this ultimate purpose of the Church (or viewed as simply as penultimate). Otherwise, they run the risk of subverting the Church’s mission through distraction. They are never simply ultimate goods unto themselves.

Even Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the “father of modern liberal theology,” knew better. He writes:

That a Church is nothing but a communion or association relating to religion or piety, is beyond all doubt for us Evangelical (Protestant) Christians, since we regard it as equivalent to degeneration in a Church when it begins to occupy itself with other matters as well, whether the affairs of science or of outward organization; just as we also always oppose any attempt on the part of the leaders of State or of science, as such to order the affairs of religion.

While we would differ on what the concerns of “religion” or “piety” consist in, I do agree with Schleiermacher that the tendency of a Church to emphasize “the Gospel and…” is a degeneration. Perhaps this is just an infelicitous coordination between the two on Falwell’s part. But it isn’t the only place I’ve heard such things, and I do think it’s illustrative of broader trends in evagelicalism.

I was reminded recently that Jesus repeatedly underscored the high value of seemingly very small things. The signficant results of small mustard seeds and lost coins made his parable points well but, as a mom, the story of one lost sheep made me quickly leap to the incalculable value of one lost person. On a planet of billions, many of whom live and die with scarcely any notice, Jesus says God notices … and cares. And He calls us to care.

Acton’s 2005 Samaritan Award Winner Profiles (PDF), now available online, demonstrate that large or small, effective compassion greatly values even one lost or needy person. As helpful as “best practices” from such charity programs can be, each evidences more important best principles.

Principles transcend practices, because practices are simply activities, albeit some times ones linked to impressive results. But could they be as effective in Memphis as they are in Seattle as they are in tiny Seminole, Oklahoma? That is why Acton’s Samaritan Award entry survey is based on Marvin Olasky’s 7 Principles of Effective Compassion. The manner in which an effective charity may encourage reconnecting a homeless person to family and community may look very different among programs in those three cities — quite different in demographics and culture. But any homeless program in any of those cities should operationalize this “affiliation” principle.

Dr. Olasky asks: “Does the program work through families, neighbors, and religious or community organizations, or does it supersede them?” For example, studies show that many homeless alcoholics have families, but they do not want to be with them. When homeless shelters provide food, clothing, and housing without asking hard questions, aren’t they subsidizing disaffiliation and enabling addiction? Instead of giving aid directly to homeless men, why not work on reuniting them with brothers, sisters, parents, wives, or children?

The 2005 Samaritan Award Winners represent a wide variety of social services and budgets. Some programs serve a large number of ‘lost sheep’ and some serve only a few. Yet each has demonstrated a sharp understanding and commitment to effective compassion principles. An extensive report of each may also be found at Acton’s online Samaritan Guide.

We commend them to you.

The math and science skills of American high schoolers and college students continue to erode. Michael Miller looks at the implications for U.S. economic competitiveness and offers some suggestions for fixing what ails the schools.

Read the full commentary here.