Archived Posts March 2006 » Page 4 of 6 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A snippet from the upcoming Religion & Liberty:

It is true that democracy is the best of the political systems, in that it guarantees, through universal suffrage, a peaceful changeover of power. But democracy and its instrument, majority rule, is not a method to investigate the truth. –Rafael Termes

The blessings and responsibilities of a peaceful political system: something for a free people to remember on this noteworthy day in March.

Maximilian Pakaluk, associate editor at NRO, examines a recent panel discussion given by the New York Historical Society, which included Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Akhil Reed Amar, Southmayd Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, and Benno C. Schmidt Jr., chairman of the Edison Schools and former dean of Columbia Law School. The discussion was entitled “We the People: Active Liberty and the American Constitution.”

Pakaluk observes, “The three speakers, but especially Schmidt and Breyer, agreed that the Constitution is terribly hard to figure out. From the way they spoke of it, you would think it had been written by a group of postmodern philosophers. Who knew that a document of less than 5,000 words, filled mostly with seemingly dry regulations and instructions, could be so perplexing?”

He continues, “Breyer had a metaphor to describe what goes into interpreting the Constitution: It’s a matter of ‘patrolling the boundaries’ of ‘democratic space.’ This sounded like a complicated affair, but the judge graciously shared his secrets. There are, according to Breyer, six ‘tools’ to be used in understanding the Constitution: text, history, tradition, precedent, purpose, and consequences.”

Of those six tools, “Breyer finds it ‘more enlightening’ to dwell mostly on the last two. His explanation of this approach was somewhat unsettling: It involved looking at the ‘values’ expressed in the Constitution, and then figuring out what their consequences are for today.”

When Dutch theologian Herman Witsius (1636-1708) wrote his The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man in 1693, he described some of his own principles of textual interpretation. These were in part based on preceding examples of the applcation and understanding of government documents from classical sources.

In the very first article of his text, Witsius writes,

Whoever attempts to discourse on the subject and design of the Divine Covenants, by which eternal salvation is adjudged to man, on certain conditions equally worthy of God and the rational creature, ought, above all things, to have a sacred and inviolable regard to the heavenly oracles, and neither through prejudice nor passion, intermix any thing which he is not firmly persuaded is contained in the records which hold forth these covenants to the world. For, if Zaleucus made it a condition to be observed by the contentious interpreters of his laws, that “each party should explain the meaning of the lawgiver, in the assembly of the thousand, with halters about their necks: and that what party soever should appear to wrest the sense of the law, should, in the presence of the thousand, end their lives by the halter they wore:” as Polybius, a very grave author, relates in his history, Book xii. c. 7. and if the Jews and Samaritans in Egypt, each disputing about their temple, were admitted to plead before the king and his courtiers on this condition only, that “the advocates of either party, foiled in the dispute, should be punished with death,” according to Josephus, in his Antiquities, Book xiii. c. 6. certainly he must be in greater peril, and liable to sorer destruction, who shall dare to pervert, by rashly wresting the sacred mysteries of the Divine Covenants…

We can see that Witsius argues here that if there were such consequences and restrictions on the interpretations of secular laws, how much more there should be in the interpretation of the sacred texts of Scripture. We can also see that the dominant image for legal interpretation is that of “halters about their necks.” This classical image seems to be rather radically oppposed to Justice Breyer’s (post-modern?) notion of “patrolling the boundaries…of democratic space.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, March 14, 2006

According to The Church Report, a new resource has been released which offers churches guidelines for keeping their activities and functions within the letter of the law. As non-profit organizations, churches are held to the same standard as registered charities and cannot engage in certain forms of public speech.

A report by The Rutherford Institute, “The Rights of Churches and Political Involvement” (PDF), examines in detail what the restrictions are for churches. There are two main areas: “first, no substantial part of the organization’s activities may consist of carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation; and second, the organization may not participate in political campaigning in opposition to, or on behalf of, any candidate for public office.” For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the former case rather than the latter, since I take it for granted that churches shouldn’t be institutionally involved in campaigning for a specific candidate. For more on this second aspect of the law, see this post on the use of church directories by political parties, passed on by Joe Carter.

In its summary of the first type of restriction, the report states:

In short, only one reported court decision has found a religious organization in violation of section 501(c)(3) by engaging in “substantial” legislative activities. The IRS, however, refuses to abide by any precise standards, such as a percentage rule, to measure when “substantial” legislative activities have occurred. Hence, a church or religious organization seeking to acquire or maintain a tax-exempt status must be aware that there is always some risk that its attempt to influence legislation will prompt the IRS to pursue an audit and perhaps even revoke its tax-exempt status.

It goes on to say that “one risk adverse approach might be for a church to report pending legislation to church members, without proposing, supporting or opposing any legislation.”

The bottom line seems to be this: “Tax exemptions for churches and religious organizations are a privilege and not a constitutional right. In fact, to acquire and maintain this privilege, churches and religious organizations may have to forsake heretofore protected constitutional rights under the First Amendment.”

This means that if it is something that is germane to the proclamation of the gospel, a church must be willing to lose its tax-exempt status. The government could potentially use tax-free status as leverage to keep churches quiet about political activity. If the pastor and consistory feel that the issue is one of religious imperative, something like a status confessionis, the church must resist the temptation to impose restrictions on its own speech in the interest of maintaining a privileged position.

This clearly calls for prudence and wisdom on the part of the church leadership. I’m not suggesting that churches simply cast off their tax-exempt status on a whim. But when the issue comes down to one of keeping silent over clear moral evils or losing their special status, churches must choose the latter. Their ultimate allegiance must be to Christ and not Caesar.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the context of the enforcement of the Aryan clauses prohibiting pastors of Jewish heritage from ministry in the state churches, writes of the rare instance in which the church must “put a spoke in the wheel itself.” In his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he says, “Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order, i.e. when it sees the state unrestrainedly bring about too much or too little law and order. In both these cases it must see the existence of the state, and with it its own existence, threatened.”

He continues to argue that “there would be too little law if any group of subjects were deprived of their rights, too much where the state intervened in the character of the church and its proclamation, e.g. in the forced exclusion of baptised Jews from our Christian congregations or in the prohibition of our mission to the Jews. Here the Christian church would find itself in statu confessionis and here the state would be in the act of negating itself. A state which includes within itself a terrorised church has lost its most faithful servant.”

One such instance of the state making “too much law” and intervening “in the character of the church and its proclamation” would be the criminalization of certain types of speech as hateful or offensive.

Citing a recent OECD report, the EUObserver says that European schools are falling behind their counterparts in the US and Asia.

The main reason: a governmental obsession with equality that prevents investment and innovation in education, especially at the university level.

“The US outspends Europe on tertiary level education by more than 50% per student, and much of that difference is due to larger US contributions from tuition-paying students and the private sector,” noted the OECD paper.

Here’s how the news story concludes:

Despite European ideals like equality and equity, several OECD’s studies reveal that “social background plays a larger role in determining a student’s performance in countries such as Germany, France and Italy than in the US.”

“Europeans from difficult socio-economic backgrounds don’t receive the same educational opportunities as children from rich and middle-class families,” notes the paper.

This account accords pretty well with my own observations in Italy. The educational and economic mess created by governmental interference, protectionism and deference to trade unions results in a system where only the well-to-do and the well-connected end up with any sort of opportunity. If you happen to be born outside of Rome or Milan or to a poor family, tough luck.

From what I can tell, there’s not much of an educational choice movement in Europe but there ought to be.

This is probably not the best move for a state that has been among the worst in the nation in terms of unemployment: “Lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives are preparing to vote on a proposed hike in the minimum wage to nearly $7 an hour.” The state Senate passed the measure late last week, so the House’s agreement would put the matter into the hands of Gov. Granholm.

According to the Office of Labor Market Information, Michigan’s unemployment rate for January was 6.2%, which puts it in a tie for fourth-worst in the nation. Believe it or not, this is a notable improvement for the state, which at various points in the previous two years had been at the top of the unemployment rankings, hovering around 7%. The national unemployment rate is 4.7%.

Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes is the president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum,” which coordinates the Catholic Church’s charitable institutions. ZENIT reports on a speech the prelate delivered at a Catholic university in Italy. Archbishop Cordes has previously emphasized the importance of Christian organizations maintaining or recovering their Christian identity, but in this address he drew on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est to make his strongest statement yet:

“The large Church charity organizations have separated themselves from the Church and from their link with the bishops,” he said. “They have identified themselves completely with the nongovernmental organizations and have presented a program that is indistinguishable from the Red Cross or the United Nations.”

Doing this, he said, “they would be contradicting the 2,000-year history of our Church, and seriously deteriorating the credibility of its preaching.”

The archbishop evidently did not name the organizations he had in mind, but one infers from the report that his remarks had a “you-know-who-you-are” quality about them.

I take on the current upswing in public support for euthanasia laws, especially among certain sectors of Christianity in a BreakPoint commentary today, “Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death.” I note especially the stance taken by a Baylor university professor of ethics and the student newspaper in favor of legalizing euthanasia.

In a recent On the Square item, Joseph Bottum notes a similar trend, as he writes, “Euthanasia has been making a comeback in recent months, bubbling up again and again in little snippets in the news.”

As this happens, I argue that both scholars and laypersons need to realize that advocacy for a “right to die” represents a significant diametrically opposed challenge to a biblically Christian view of the human person—both in life and death.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, March 10, 2006

Seth Godin contends today that “most people don’t really care about price.” He uses a couple of arguments that involve aspects of convenience, and so he concludes, “price is a signal, a story, a situational decision that is never absolute. It’s just part of what goes into making a decision, no matter what we’re buying.”

He’s right, in the sense that everyone will not choose the service or item with the lower price at all times and in all places. But what he doesn’t make explicit is that convenience is taken into account in pricing, so that part of what price signals is the convenience factor.

And the convenience factor is really just about the personal valuation of time. And we all know, of course, that “time is money.” And that’s really what Seth’s examples prove.

The CrunchyCon blog at NRO is currently discussing the issue of factory farming, which is apparently covered and described in some detail in Dreher’s book (my copy currently is on order, having not been privy to the “crunchy con”versation previously).

A reader accuses Dreher of being in favor of big-government, because “he thinks we ought to ‘ban or at least seriously reform’ factory farming.” Caleb Stegall responds that he, at least, is not a big-government crunchy con, and that this was made clear “early on.” He issues a somewhat strange rejoinder a bit later.

But I think there’s something to the claim. It is one thing to argue that factory farming of the type Dreher describes is immoral, which as Frederica Mathews-Green relates involves “endless rows of pigs in cages too small for them either to stand or lie down; limbs protruding into adjoining cages get wounded and broken. But this damage is ignored, because it won’t affect the production of meat. The pig only has to cling to life long enough to be worth slaughtering.”

It’s quite another to argue that government should take a primary or definitive role in banning such immoral activity. As Aquinas notes, this calls for wisdom.

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

As I summarize, “In cases where the law would cause greater evil to be done, it is not prudent to criminalize the behavior.” Once the moral permissibility or impermissibility of an act has been settled upon, it does not settle the question of government’s responsibility.

It may well be that factory farming is disgusting and morally repulsive, but it also may be that the way to deal with it is not through government prohibition but through market mechanisms, i.e. morally-informed consumer choice. There is an underlying current that I sometimes detect in the depiction of crunchy conservatism that seems to confuse consumerism and materialism with capitalism, and accordingly ignores non-governmental market-based solutions to moral issues.

The news from across the pond today is that the UK government is announcing that it will miss its target set in 1999 to reduce the number of children in poverty by 1 million. According to the BBC, “Department for Work and Pension figures show the number of children in poverty has fallen by 700,000 since 1999, missing the target by 300,000.”

This has resulted in the typical responses when government programs fail: calls to “redouble” efforts and to increase funding, spin the results as a measure of success, and acknowledge that there is “still much to be done.”

But one member of the government seems to have an idea of the right solution. “The Conservatives’ David Ruffley, spokesman on welfare reform, said it was ‘disappointing’. He said his party agreed on the aim but not the means of reducing child poverty.”

“Child poverty is a scourge in society. And the numbers are too high. But what I think needs to be done is more creative and imaginative thinking,” he said.

Government should not be at the front lines of the fight against poverty for one simple reason: it does not create wealth. Entrepreneurs and commercial enterprises do. And as such government certainly should not be the only element in combatting poverty.

David Laws MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, gets at the heart of the issue when he says, “It is no surprise the Government is failing to deliver when the CSA is in chaos, tax credits are a mess and our lone parents employment rate is one of the lowest in Europe” (emphasis added).

That final point is crucial. Unless the government is going to create jobs for these parents in one of its many departments and bureaus, it falls to businesses to employ them. This is how it should be, of course, and any responsible poverty fighting strategy needs to reckon with this reality.