Archived Posts March 2011 - Page 5 of 7 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Back to Budget Basics,” I argue that the public debt crisis facing the federal government is such that “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.” This piece summarizes much of my analysis of various Christian budget campaigns over the last week (here, here, and here).

There are things that are more or less central to the primary task of government, and our spending priorities should reflect that relative proximity. Things like defense spending, whether or not these funds could be spent better and more efficiently, are central to the role of the federal government. Various kinds of social spending, whether or not they are good and effective, are not clearly so central.

I cite the example of Abraham Kuyper as a model to follow in attempting to outline the various responsibilities of social institutions, especially the church and the government, with respect to poverty. Kuyper first says that any resort to government aid for the poor is “a blot on the honor” of Jesus Christ. This relief is first and foremost a task for Christians, not the government. But he also adds that if and when Christians fail in their charitable callings, the State must intervene, “quickly and sufficiently” (snel en voldoende). The “sufficiency” of this response lies at least in part in its ability to address the need and move on, stepping in quickly, addressing the problem sufficiently, and stepping back out.

We have gotten to where we are in this country in part, at least, because private and Christian charity did not fulfill its mandate, at least not completely. But the whole point of “sufficient” government intervention is to be a stop-gap, a last and temporary resort, that provides space for other institutions to step back in and resume their basic responsibilities. It is thus not a permanent and primary purpose of government, particularly at the federal level, to provide direct material assistance to the poor.

My fear is that the social spending at the federal level has moved far beyond intervening “quickly and sufficiently,” and has increasingly crowded out other subsidiary institutions from meeting needs more locally and less centrally. What we need now is not to privilege such government intervention as a fixture of our society, but to reinvigorate and empower other institutions to relieve these burdens from the government. Otherwise government intervention often becomes an obstacle to, rather than a servant of, true justice.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Robert Kennedy, author of Acton’s CSTS volume, The Good that Business Does, weighs in on the Wisconsin/Ohio flap over public sector unions and collective bargaining in this interview with ZENIT. A sample:

The Church has certainly been a champion of the right of workers to form labor unions but has never argued that unions have the liberty to undermine the common good.

Like many other kinds of organizations in many other sectors of society, unions can lose sight of their responsibility to respect the common good in the pursuit of their legitimate objectives. A union, no less than a business trade association, can position itself to exercise disproportionate influence in public life….

A well-ordered society, in the Catholic view, is one in which the appropriate independence and freedom of each sector — labor, business and government, for example — is preserved for the sake of the common good. If this balance breaks down, the common good is likely to suffer.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We’ll have the Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty online later this week and you won’t want to miss it. Subscribe here. We’re previewing the issue on the PowerBlog with a book review that, because of space limitations, had to be shortened. This post publishes it in full.

Constantine and the Great Transformation

Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010)

Reviewed by Johannes L. Jacobse

The argument that the lifting of the persecutions of early Christians and the subsequent expansion of the Christian faith led to a “fall” of the Christian Church is more widespread than we may believe. Academics have defended it for years. Popular Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism, takes it as a truth second only to the Gospel.

Towering over this argument is Constantine the Great. When Constantine faced the final battle that would determine if he became Rome’s new emperor, he saw a cross shining in the sky above the sun and heard the words, “By this sign conquer.” He took it to mean that divine providence chose him to be the emperor of a new and undivided Rome. His soldiers went to battle with a cross painted on their shields and won. The persecutions stopped. Christianity was the new religion of the empire.

But is the collective wisdom accurate? Is it true that the fourth century represents decline? No, argues Peter J. Leithart in his new book Defending Constantine.

Emperor Constantine (Byzantine mosaic ca. 1000 from the Hagia Sophia)

“Constantine has been a whipping boy for a very long time and still is today,” Leithart begins. The historical and theological consensus identifies Constantine with “tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy.” Constantine, the conventional wisdom goes, was a “power hardened politician … a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the Church for his own ends … a murderer, usurper, and egoist.”

This opinion has its roots in the work of John Howard Yoder, a prominent pacifist and “probably the most influential Mennonite theologian who ever lived,” Leithart argues. His influence is far reaching and includes such prominent names as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University among others. “In Yoder’s telling, the Church ‘fell’ in the fourth century (or thereabouts) and has not yet recovered from that fall. This misconstrues the theological significance of Constantine … ”

Challenging Yoder’s thesis is not the only reason Leithart wrote the book but it certainly is the most compelling. Leithart believes Yoder’s pacifist preconceptions distort the historical record to such a degree that they blind us to the inherent moral power of the Christian faith to transform and elevate human culture. The pacifism of Yoder and like-minded disciples, Leithart argues in so many words, is nothing less than a debilitating emasculation of the Christian faith. (more…)

Writing in the Boston Globe, columnist Jeff Jacoby says that a “more fundamental problem with the “What Would Jesus Cut?’’ campaign is its planted axiom that Jesus would want Congress to do anything at all.”

As a believing Jew and a conservative, I don’t share the religious outlook or political priorities of Wallis and his co-signers. But you don’t have to be Christian or liberal to believe that in God’s eyes, a society is judged above all by its concern for the unfortunate. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 — “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me . . . Whatever you did for one of these least . . . you did for me’’ — echoes what Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets preached centuries earlier: “Learn to do well: seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.’’

But does it really follow from these timeless injunctions that God expects legislators never to eliminate any poverty program or social-welfare line item, or even to roll such spending back to where it stood a few years ago?

Read Jacoby’s “Separation of Jesus and Congress” in the Boston Globe.

In this week’s commentary, which will appear tomorrow, I summarize and explore a bit more fully some of the discussion surrounding evangelical and religious engagement of the budget battles in Washington. One of my core concerns is that the approaches seem to assume too much ongoing and primary responsibility on the part of the federal government for providing direct material assistance to the poor. As “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” puts it, “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

In one real sense this perspective lets Christians, individually and corporately, off the hook too easily. I highlight the following quote from Abraham Kuyper: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”

My basic contention is that we can only move to address the secondary role of governments of various levels (local first, federal last!) providing relief when we have thoroughly grappled with Kuyper’s basic insight here. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef explore this dynamic in a bit more detail in their Deacons Handbook, in a section on “The Church and the Welfare State.” They take as their starting point the position that “Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.”

In this way their emphasis is on revitalizing the diaconate first. They recognize that in many ways the government has filled in the gaps, but in so doing has often eroded the foundations and space for other organizations to step back in and fulfill their own mandates. DeKoster and Berghoef, writing in 1980, anticipate something like the faith-based initiative as part of the move back for the church to meet its social responsibility.

I’m less sanguine about that proposed solution, but I do think that the tax credits for charitable giving are something that ought to be protected, or perhaps even enhanced (President Obama’s latest proposal would limit exemptions for wealthy citizens.). In this context it is also worth noting the conclusions of a recent NBER paper, which shows that government subsidy tends to “crowd out” the initiative of private institutions from seeking their own sources of funding (imagine that!).

Kuyper’s quote comes from his opening address to the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, and is published in translation as “The Problem of Poverty.”

Update: Over at the CRC Network, Karl Westerhoff, who guides the “Deacons” topic, asks some pertinent questions:

But how is this a diaconal matter? Well, I’m wondering…. Does this national conversation have echoes in our churches? In our families? Should it? Are there implications for how we make OUR budgets? And what about our families? Is there an opportunity here for some fresh conversation about family spending patterns? Can we talk about the choices we make with our money, and the expectations we have for the money we spend on charity? Where has the church spent benevolent money that really had the result we hoped for? What can we learn from that? How are we shaping our family lives and our congregational lives in ways that address need in truly Christ-like ways?

These are precisely the kinds of questions we need to be asking. I think what we’ll find is that government has a far larger and more expansive role in some of these answers than many often think.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing for the Huffington Post, Shane Claiborne is also asking “What Would Jesus Cut?” I’m still opposed to the whole notion of reducing Christ to budget director, as my earlier post points out. But Jesus as Secretary of Defense of the United States or rather, Jesus as secretary of peace as proposed by Congressman Dennis Kucinich is equally unhelpful. Mark Tooley, president of IRD, has already weighed in on Shane Claiborne’s not so brilliant drafting of Jesus for president.

As a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” one should assume Claiborne is serious about deficit reduction. We should take him at his word, but what about defense spending for deficit reduction and the proper role of government? And as John has already pointed out in his post, and what everybody should know, is that defense cuts alone will not balance the budget.

There are responsible conservative lawmakers, like U.S. Congressman Justin Amash from right here in West Michigan, that have rightfully said defense cuts should be on the table as part of plan for fiscal responsibility. In terms of the proper role of government, defense spending is a clear federal mandate for taxing and spending (Article 1, Section 8). The constitution should still be relevant, and one could assume we may not be in the same spending mess we are in right now if it was taken more seriously.

Claiborne says, “Even though the 533 billion dollar military budget is the elephant in the room and the gushing, bleeding wound of America’s deficit … it has been the sacred cow.”

This is what is unhelpful, and Mark Tooley has already pointed this out in his own response to “What Would Jesus Cut?”, that “probably Claiborne doesn’t know that ‘programs of social uplift’ have out expensed defense for 40 years, starting with the Nixon Administration.” Defense spending is 20 percent of the annual budget, while Medicare and Medicaid takes up 23 percent of the budget and social security is 20 percent as well, but tack on another 12 billion in annual dollars. Claiborne says “As Dr. [Martin L.] King said, ‘A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” But this is clearly not the case as Clairborne just pulled out a pithy maxim without ever looking at any real numbers.

Tooley also makes a good point about Claiborne’s Anabaptist tradition as well:

Claiborne, an Anabaptist, is author of Jesus for President, a 2008 book describing government as the biblical Whore of Babylon. Oddly, many neo-Anabaptists ferociously denounce government as demonic, almost sounding Libertarian, while still demanding more and more government for politically correct social programs.

Claiborne believes America is the evil imperialist par excellence. But why is it then okay for God to ordain that same ‘evil’ state to fill the bellies of the masses and provide for their every social need through government fiat?

This brings up a good point about rhetoric versus reality. The nuclear freeze crowd of the 1980s hyperventilated across the United States and Western Europe with help from Moscow because Ronald Reagan was strengthening the NATO alliance by sending nuclear Pershing II missiles into Europe. Reagan’s efforts were disastrous for the Soviet Union, and the peace he achieved dwarfed the objectives of the same old arms agreements advocated by the nuclear freeze movement.

Perhaps, “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” would have been better served without the inclusion of such names as Jim Wallis and Claiborne. Serious matters call for a more serious discussion. I reviewed The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald Sider, who is also a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Still left of center, Sider praised market forces, saying, “On balance, a market economy respects human freedom better, creates wealth more efficiently, and tends to be better at reducing poverty.”

Claiborne can make no such statement. He seems to view the free-market as a construct of an evil imperialistic American empire. Markets seem only useful to him in the context of underpaid enlisted military men and women selling cookies to buy their uniforms. Claiborne may have something worthwhile to say every once in a while, his bio is interesting to say the least, but on budget matters and defense spending he’s clearly babbling.

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Monday, March 7, 2011

With the surge in oil prices, there’s renewed interest in alternative energy options. Numerous countries have gradually taken steps to promoting renewable or clean energy technologies, and it seems the United States is drifting more towards favoring alternative energy options as the Obama Administration is looking at banning off shore drilling along the continental shelf until 2012 and beyond. However, before we move farther down this road, a critical analysis of the pros and cons is a must.

A more serious assessment is now being applied to ethanol and its effect on food production. There’s now more caution on the use of ethanol, based on both economical and moral arguments, and the same approach also needs to be taken when analyzing clean technologies such as the use of wind turbines.

As a recent article in the Mail Online demonstrates, many countries in Europe are currently seeing the unintended consequences of their policies favoring the use of wind power.

The article notes that the wind turbines are proving to be very inefficient:

The most glaring dishonesty peddled by the wind industry — and echoed by gullible politicians — is vastly to exaggerate the output of turbines by deliberately talking about them only in terms of their ‘capacity’, as if this was what they actually produce. Rather, it is the total amount of power they have the capability of producing.

The point about wind, of course, is that it is constantly varying in speed, so that the output of turbines averages out at barely a quarter of their capacity.

This means that the 1,000 megawatts all those 3,500 turbines sited around the country feed on average into the grid is derisory: no more than the output of a single, medium-sized conventional power station.

The wind turbine’s production of energy not only fluctuates based on the varying speeds of the wind, but is also seasonal. For example, Britain’s wind turbines became largely inefficient in the winter when the weather was mostly freezing and windless, and to keep homes warm Britain was forced to import immense amounts of power from nuclear reactors in France.

Furthermore, the article also notes, each country in Europe is required to produce more wind turbines each year which will result in a higher increase of CO2 emissions because of the need to build more gas-fired power stations to function as a back-up energy source when the wind drops. Due to the unreliability of the wind, these gas-fired power stations must run for twenty-four hours a day to be prepared for any moment when the wind may diminish.

The article is also quick to point out how the production and installation of the wind turbines also brings forth an increase in CO2 emissions:

Then, of course, the construction of the turbines generates enormous CO2 emissions as a result of the mining and smelting of the metals used, the carbon-intensive cement needed for their huge concrete foundations, the building of miles of road often needed to move them to the site, and the releasing of immense quantities of CO2 locked up in the peat bogs where many turbines are built.

It is such unintended consequences of wind turbines that possibly make them counterproductive to their stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Like the production of ethanol in the United States, the production of wind turbines in Europe is a market that relies on the government. Wind turbines are very expensive to build, and often require a government subsidy in order to get them built.

Many countries in Europe are seeing the disastrous effects of relying on wind turbines, and some are even beginning to shift away from their reliance on them. Germany, for example, which has produced more turbines than any other country in the world, is now building new coal-fired stations.

Yes, wind turbines were supported with good intentions: to provide clean sustainable energy while also supporting environmental stewardship. However, wind turbines may be actually counter-intuitive to their original goals. While the rising oil prices are having adverse effects on everyone, when searching for alternative fuels, we need to be critical of the potential of unintended consequences they may bring upon us.

Posts on ethanol production and the ethanol subsidy can be found here and here.

While there is much to applaud in the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action’s “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” the lack of discussion of the problem of economic growth is troubling. I believe Don Peck is correct when he writes in The Atlantic:

If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men—and on white culture. It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.

The only solution here seems to be economic growth. And while tackling the staggering problem of the debt is an integral component to ensuring the younger generation gets a fair shot to succeed the first and most pressing issue is employment itself. There is little in ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice’ that takes this challenge seriously as it calls for cuts in programs (Such as military spending and business subsidies) which do create jobs for many Americans. This is not to say that these cuts should be taken off the table but rather that there needs to be an acknowledgement that these cuts will also affect Americans negatively and may, in the short term at least, add to the ranks of the poor in America.

These are not easy questions to answer but I believe that any solution to the question of intergenerational justice must begin with the question of economic growth. We need solutions that empower entrepreneurs, invigorate the private sector, and accelerate economic growth informed by an understanding of the role of markets and free enterprise.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 7, 2011

I’m not sure I have ever really encountered the term intergenerational justice before this discussion over “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” at least in any substantive way. This unfamiliarity is what lay behind my initial caveat regarding the term, my concern that it not be understood as “code for something else.”

The Call itself provides a decent definition of the concept, or at least of its implications: “…that one generation must not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another.”

One of the commenters here at the PowerBlog is Peter Vander Meulen, who runs the Office of Social Justice at the Christian Reformed Church (the denomination to which I belong). Vander Meulen rightly reiterates that much of the disagreement has to do with our differing views of the primary responsibilities of government.

Much of my concern with the Call is that is does not display enough in terms of substantive commitment to principles. I think our debates about the budget crisis need to lead us back to consider from first principles what the role of government in society ought to be relative to other social institutions. (I hope to provide more on that positively later this week.)

It is on this point that my concern about the invocation of intergenerational justice in this context, and social justice more broadly, is not being construed in a vigorous enough manner.

To put it bluntly: How can a call for intergenerational justice in particular, or social justice more broadly, have any plausibility without addressing the fundamental social problem of abortion? If intergenerational justice is about the duties and responsibilities from one generation to another, it seems obvious that the starting point of the discussion, from a particularly evangelical and even more broadly Christian perspective, should be on the question of whether that next generation has a right to come into existence in the first place.

It is an unfortunate reality that social justice and abortion are oftentimes not viewed as related in this way. Acton Institute research fellow Anthony Bradley wrote last week at WORLD’s site about how abortion is often not considered a priority justice issue. In the context of the abortion rate in New York City, he writes,

I’ve been browsing the mercy and justice websites of several of New York’s well-known churches and Christian non-profit groups for discussion of New York’s abortion crisis. Outside of the crisis pregnancy centers themselves, I have not found much of anything. What one will find are very good discussions on subjects like fighting homelessness, improving inner-city education, opening women’s shelters, and dealing with sex trafficking and juvenile delinquency. I raise this issue because I am concerned that perhaps the missional pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

Closer to the context of this discussion, Mr. Vander Meulen’s agency, the Office of Social Justice (OSJ), was instructed by the denominational synod last year to “boldly advocate for the church’s position against abortion.” This instruction was deemed necessary because the OSJ did “not currently offer many resources to advocate for the unborn,” despite the fact that there is an official denominational position on the question of abortion (while there is not one on so many of the issues that the OSJ does “boldly advocate” for). You can judge for yourself whether that situation has changed substantively in the intervening time (e.g. “Advocacy…Coming Soon!”).

One of the signers of the Call, Jim Wallis, perhaps illustrates this illegitimate dichotomy between social justice and abortion in his judgments about the moral status of the abortion question. In a 2008 interview with Christianity Today. When pressed on this point, Wallis spoke candidly:

“I don’t think that abortion is the moral equivalent issue to slavery that Wilberforce dealt with. I think that poverty is the new slavery. Poverty and global inequality are the fundamental moral issues of our time. That’s my judgment.”

By contrast I do think the “Guideline on Human Life” offered by CPJ is rather more helpful and substantive than the current efforts of the OSJ to “boldly advocate” against abortion.

But shouldn’t consideration of abortion be a critical consideration in any discussion of “intergenerational justice”? The Call itself invokes the context of “generations yet unborn” and the relationship between “grandparents” and “grandchildren.”

If the connection of abortion to the budget debate remains unclear to some in the context of intergenerational justice, we might raise the following considerations:

Does the Call adequately address government provision for funding of abortions, whether through entitlement coverage or through funding for organizations that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood? There are clauses advocating that “Effective programs that prevent hunger and suffering and empower poorer members of society must continue and be adequately funded,” and that “We must control healthcare expenses.”

Is funding for Planned Parenthood support for “an effective program” that prevents suffering or something that should be cut?

And there are also clear demographic and population implications for questions of future funding of entitlements, including Social Security. As I noted above, I hope to make the link more clear later this week when I talk about the need to get back to basics in the budget crisis.

Last week’s issuance of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis” has occasioned a good bit of discussion on the topic, both here at the PowerBlog and around various other blogs and social media sites.

It has been interesting to see the reaction that my comments about the Call have generated. Many have said that I simply misunderstood or misread the document. I have taken the time to reread the document and do some reassessment of the entire debate. Unfortunately this has raised more questions than answers for me thus far.

Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice, has kindly offered to help us sort out some of these concerns. He’s in Grand Rapids later this week and has generously agreed to a public discussion in an open mic, informal setting we’re calling, “Opposing Views: America’s Debt Crisis and ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice.’”

Details are below and at the Facebook event page. We plan to record the event and make it available for those who aren’t able to join us. But if you are, come along and bring your questions.
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