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

A number of prominent evangelical leaders in America have issued a statement on the budget fights in the federal government. “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action. Signatories include Ron Sider of ESA, Gideon Strauss of CPJ, Richard Mouw, Michael Gerson, Shane Claiborne, Andy Crouch, and Jim Wallis.

Here are some initial thoughts:

There is very little principle in this statement, which purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” The basic principle communicated is: “We ought to care for the poor because God does.” This is of course laudable and true, as is the commitment to “intergenerational justice,” as long as that is defined as not living today on the backs of the unborn and not code for something else.

But the rest really just consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care. To wit: “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.”

Given the current state of affairs, which the statement acknowledges is a “crisis,” I don’t think it is helpful to energize the grassroots to petition to save particular programs from scrutiny and reform. Things are so bad that everything should be on the table. The situation is not an either/or between social spending and military spending, as Claiborne and Wallis would have it. It’s a both/and, and that includes entitlements.

Which brings me to my next point: There isn’t nearly enough in here about entitlement reform. Social Security must become “sustainable,” but there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the real drivers of huge swaths of our national debt. Non-discretionary spending needs to be scrutinized.

But that’s not all. This call wants to place “effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health” out of bounds. The fact is that many of these programs are busted, and I think it is disingenuous for those who know that to say that we have some kind of moral obligation to keep throwing good money after bad simply out of some vague concern for “the poor.” That is more like a salve for guilty consciences than responsible social action.

The language of the statement doesn’t seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don’t care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.

So what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on. Once we’ve decided what government is for you can start to make some principled decisions about funding priorities…things closest to the core mission of government should get the highest priority, and so on.

And the focus really shouldn’t just be on what government should and shouldn’t do. Many of these leaders are religious leaders. The focus should be on what these other institutions can and should be doing, beyond simply serving as lobbying organizations for governmental programs.

I guess, needless to say, I won’t be signing.

For PowerBlog readers around New York City, Rev. Robert A. Sirico will be speaking tonight, Wednesday March 2nd.  The event, Business and Compassion: Rehumanizing Our Economy, is hosted by Heart’s Home, International Center for a Culture of Compassion, and the American Bible Society.  Rev. Sirico is one of four members speaking on a panel.  The event will be from 7:00pm-9:00pm (EST) at the American Bible Society National Headquarters (1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023).  The cost of admission is $15 for students and $30 for general admission.  Any questions regarding tickets and admission can be directed to Heart’s Home.

I read with considerable attention “Congressional bosses from Hell: Sheila Jackson Lee” in the Daily Caller today. From the article:

Congress was in recess, and the 435 lawmakers who drive the frenetic pace on Capitol Hill were home in their districts glad-handing constituents. For that reason, the door to [Sheila] Jackson Lee’s office was open and the sounds emanating from inside were pleasant laughter and conversation.

‘You could tell when she wasn’t there,’ Stephens said. That was because on a day in which Congress was in session, a different set of sounds often came through closed doors to Jackson Lee’s office: screaming and, many times, crying.

Having worked for a U.S. Congressman, former member Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss), I find some of the congressional staff dynamics and stories both entertaining and troubling. Many of the stories and anecdotes I tell from my time working on a congressional staff are among the most popular for audiences. I also learned a lot of valuable people skills, patience, and greater compassion for helping those in need. In my case, I had the privilege of helping many military veterans with federal issues.

Recently, I attended a social event where some staff of several well known Michigan lawmakers openly unloaded on the arrogance and temperament of their bosses to me in conversations. It did not surprise me. I have heard many similar stories before. It continually reinforces the well known Lord Acton adage about the corrupting nature of power.

I learned a lot from working with and for a congressman and his staff. Many of the lessons I will retain forever. In contrast to the piece in the Daily Caller, here is just one important lesson I pulled from a talk and essay I wrote for Acton on Tap:

The congressman I worked for, Gene Taylor (D-Miss) did help to reinforce something timeless and virtuous.

One day I was dispatched with the duty of locating him in the Rayburn House office building. The reason was simple; the Secretary of the Navy was waiting for him in his office. Some of the staff was panic stricken and mildly embarrassed because they could not ascertain his whereabouts and he was terribly late for the meeting. Congressman Taylor was not frequently attached at the hip with his cellular phone or pager. I remember looking in all the places you would look for a House member in the Rayburn building and not being able to locate him. After I had given up, I preceded to walk up the stairs and found him talking with a maintenance worker in the stairwell.

I told him that the Secretary of the Navy was in his office and he nodded his head and introduced me to his friend, whom he treated like a celebrity, bragging up the individual’s fishing skills. While I did not always agree with the positions or votes he recorded on issues, Gene Taylor always reinforced the significance of treating people the same. He also taught me a valuable life lesson when he told me:

‘You know why I’m friends with the capital police, the maintenance workers, and the common fisherman down at the harbor? It’s because they will continue to be my friends when I am no longer a congressman.’

Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky has the cover story for the upcoming issue of WORLD magazine, and it’s worth reading in full, “The revival of localism.”

Olasky’s basic narrative focuses on “young men and women who understand that they are Christian pilgrims in this world—but they expect to stay in one place, making friends and being of service, unless and until God moves them on.”

He has a number of salient data points and interesting interviews, including Caleb Stegall, the exemplar of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Economically-speaking an emphasis on localism can easily embrace distributism.

Thus, writes Olasky,

An emphasis on local control of government, local production and consumption of goods, and local culture is popular among young Christians. Their favorite author is often a pre-baby-boom author and Kentucky farmer, 76-year-old Wendell Berry. Berry praises reverence for God and life, the pleasures of good work, good food, and frugality. He says those joys are more likely to be found in healthy rural communities that value small farms and don’t overdose on technology.

But Olasky’s is, I think, a generally accurate assessment, and one that provides a good entry point to ongoing cultural developments. The Acton Institute has lived out this emphasis on decentralization, in one sense, and has from the beginning, by locating itself out of the Beltway by design. Olasky’s piece is sub-titled, “Young conservatives reject lure of Washington, D.C., in favor of a more powerful place-home.”

One shorter term economic driver is only mentioned in passing by Olasky: “…declining property values have crushed many hopes of upward mobility.”

The housing bubble has crushed not only upward mobility but also mobility more generally. The myth of the rootless generation is going to be demolished by the mere fact that anyone who bought a house in the last ten years is generally going to be unable to get out from under it for perhaps the next decade. That’s just about a generation of relatively immobile homeowners.

Yesterday Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s column appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  The opinion piece brought a unique perspective to the discussion on the current protests occurring in Wisconsin.  Patrick McIheran, columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, referred to Rev. Sirico’s article in his column, appearing yesterday, which examined different viewpoints on the union protests in Wisconsin.  McIheran extensively quotes Rev. Sirico throughout his article:

A key principle is that people should be free to join together with others of their choosing — or not. “So far as I can tell,” writes Sirico, “the current practice of public-sector union organizing has little or nothing to do with this principle, so it is right and proper that Catholic social teaching should also recognize this.”

He goes on:

“A one-time member of a Wisconsin union, Stephen J. Haessler, tells me: ‘My previous experience with agency shop as a former member of a WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) local affiliate is instructive. I opposed my dues monies going to endorse pro-choice political candidates, but my opinions and preferences did not matter because dues were automatically deducted from my pay whether I joined the union or not. This was a violation of the principle of the freedom of association.’”

Are unions, he asks, “actually just political machines for coercing workers and extracting money through the political process?” If so, there’s no moral imperative to back their every demand. God does not insist we truckle to de facto auxiliaries of one political side.

Full article here.

Acton on Tap

Carl TruemanDr. Carl Trueman is our guest for Acton on Tap tonight at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids. Be sure to join us and bring a friend if you are within hailing distance of this fine establishment (arrival at 6pm, discussion at 6:30pm).

Dr. Trueman, who teaches church history and serves as academic dean at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, will be giving a brief talk under the title, “An Englishman Abroad: Amateur Reflections on the Current Evangelical Political Scene.” One of Dr. Trueman’s recent books is called Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. In this book Trueman argues that “conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas.”

I have said before that I think that the thesis of Trueman’s book and my own recent work, Ecumenical Babel, are on one level quite complementary. We both see a problem with the politicization of the church’s prophetic voice and social witness. We do differ in the objects of our analysis and therefore in the diagnosis of the problem. Where Dr. Trueman sees conservative cultural and political agendas exerting undue influence on evangelical though in North America, I perceive progressive, even neo-Marxist, ideology at work in the larger mainline ecumenical movement.

So while Dr. Trueman’s point of departure is at some distance from my own, I think our projects in one sense meet in the middle. We are both responding to the phenomenon that Paul Ramsey described in 1967:

…in the United States conservative and liberal religious opinion is the same thing as conservative and liberal secular opinion—with a sharper edge. In short, the polarization of public debate on most issues is simply aided and abetted by the polarization of religious forces.

As for Republocrat, which I reviewed for our own Religion & Liberty, I conclude that Trueman’s “project is not about demonizing capitalism, wealth, or profits on the one hand, or political power on the other. It is about putting the pursuit of profit and power in its proper place.”

Find out more about Republocrat with this video introduction:

Join us tonight if you are able, and if you aren’t we hope to provide some follow-up about the event. My hope is that it will be an example of the kind of principled discussion and vigorous dialogue that should be able to take place between Christians, even on matters as divisive as politics and culture, even in the midst of disagreement.

If you are on Facebook, be sure to check out the event page and follow Acton’s page for details about other events.

Joe Carter wrote a good piece on poverty and Christian charity over at the First Things site with some good quotes from Abraham Kuyper.

Carter writes:

The problem of poverty, at least in America, is not just that it makes it difficult for people to fulfill their material needs, but rather that it blinds us all to what we really need. After all, what the truly destitute—those without food and shelter—need most isn’t a handout or a redistribution of wealth. What they need is for Christians to heed Jesus’ command. As Kuyper points out,

For deeds of love are indispensable. Obviously, the poor man cannot wait until the restoration of our social structure has been completed. Almost certainly he will not live long enough to see that happy day. Nevertheless, he still has to live, he must feed his hungry mouth, and the mouths of his hungry family. Therefore, vigorous help is necessary. However highly I am inclined to praise your willingness to make sacrifices—and this is possible through God’s grace to many of you—nevertheless, the holy art of “giving for Jesus’ sake” ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.

The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God’s work. The government cannot take the place of Christian charity. A loving embrace isn’t given with food stamps. The care of a community isn’t provided with government housing. The face of our Creator can’t be seen on a welfare voucher. What the poor need is not another government program; what they need is for Christians like me to honor our savior.

We can see a similar reflection about the role of the state and love of neighbor in Pope Benedict XVI encyclical Deus Caritas Est where he writes in Paragraph 28

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.

But this of course means that we need to do something and actually get involved in helping the poor–and that is easier said than done. As Carter writes:

Some day I will stand before my Creator and he’ll ask why I didn’t feed my brother when he was hungry or clothe my sister when she was cold. Shall I tell him, “I couldn’t give, Lord, I lived in poverty”?

Unlike the poor widow, I’m rich in possessions and could give out of my wealth. But she gave out of abundance—an obedient heart and love for her neighbor—of which I remain truly impoverished.

Acton On The AirIf you’ve been following the news recently, no doubt you’re aware of the controversy in Wisconsin surrounding Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposals – which include curtailing collective bargaining for state employees – which have led to massive union protests in Madison and the state Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois to try to delay the vote and force changes in the bill.

Last week, a couple of radio shows turned to Acton for insight on the Wisconsin situation. On Monday, Rev. Robert A. Sirico joined guest host Sheila Liaugminas on The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio to discuss how to properly value the work of public employees, Catholic teaching on unions, and some of the problems posed by public sector unions:

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On Tuesday, Acton’s Director of Research, Dr. Samuel Gregg, joined host Al Kresta on Kresta in the Afternoon on Ave Maria Radio to discuss both the Catholic Church’s historic teaching on unions and its response to the present situation:

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In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Acton President and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico publishes a new opinion piece that looks at “the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions” through the lens of Catholic social thought:

Catholic teaching’s pro-union bias

By the Rev. Robert A. Sirico

There is a long-standing bias in Catholic social teaching toward unions, and this dates from the long history of labor struggles for fair wages and safe working conditions. There is a romance associated with this history, and it is bound up with strong moral concerns. And it is not just historical. The Catholic Church played a heroic role in the fall of Communism in Poland through its influence on labor unions that were striking against oppression, which is to say state coercion.

Pope John Paul II, who knew something about the social role of labor unions, also warned about their drift into politics. In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, he wrote: “Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.”

The reality with all public affairs, however, is that conditions change. Just because something is called a union does not make it automatically good and moral. Essential considerations of justice and freedom must be in place. Generally speaking, the long history of unions has been bound up with the right of free association. So far as I can tell, the current practice of public-sector union organizing has little or nothing to do with this principle, so it is right and proper that Catholic social teaching should also recognize this.

This reality comes to mind because of the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions. But the driving force behind the budgetary move has nothing to do with human rights, unless one considers the rights of Wisconsin taxpayers.

The alarming reality of state and federal overspending and debt is something that cannot be denied. Prudent and necessary cuts must be made in the Wisconsin budget, and state employees must be part of that plan. How do public-sector unions fit into this? It is nearly impossible for anyone to work for the public sector without being a member, and unions collect dues, which operate like taxes for most everyone else.

This was not always the case. Public-sector unions emerged after World War II in the wake of the crack-up of many big-city political machines, and they were a convenient way for government employees to extract higher salaries and benefits at public expense.

What does this have to do with the freedom of association? Industrial unions have been on the decline for decades precisely because of the freedom of association. Organizing activity for years has shifted to the public sector, where union political contributions carry a lot of weight. Unions that remain strong are that way because they push against the freedom of association, denying alternatives to workers and taxpayers.

A one-time member of a Wisconsin union, Stephen J. Haessler, tells me: “My previous experience with agency shop as a former member of a WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) local affiliate is instructive. I opposed my dues monies going to endorse pro-choice political candidates, but my opinions and preferences did not matter because dues were automatically deducted from my pay whether I joined the union or not. This was a violation of the principle of the freedom of association.”

Here’s the question Catholics need to ask themselves: Are the unions I support of the same type that are idealized in Catholic social teaching? Or have they changed to the point where they are unions in name only but actually just political machines for coercing workers and extracting money through the political process?

The bias toward unions in Catholic social teaching is rooted in a perception that unions fulfill certain moral conditions. When they fail to do so, the application of moral teaching can change. There is no a priori reason to back every union demand and no reason for Catholics to feel under any doctrinal obligation to do so.

The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, is quoted in a Religion News Service story on the Wisconsin budget and union battles. The wire service story was picked up by, among others, the Huffington Post and Christian Century:

Wisconsin dispute exposes Catholic split on unions

Feb 28, 2011 by Piet Levy

(RNS) The fierce budget battle in Wisconsin that’s pitting unions against Republican Gov. Scott Walker has also pitted the state’s top Roman Catholic bishops against each other in a series of public exchanges over the church’s historic support for unions.

The war of words — however polite — has exposed a longstanding rift between the church’s progressive and conservative wings, reopened in the birthplace of the modern labor movement.

Walker’s budget-repair bill requires public employees to pay more for their pensions and health care, and restricts collective bargaining power for most. The plan has prompted impassioned protests by thousands at the state capitol in Madison, and sent Democratic lawmakers into exile to prevent a vote.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki kicked it off with a statement on Feb. 16 that, quoting Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, said it was “a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth.”

The next day, Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison issued his own statement, emphasizing the church’s neutrality. Within a week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sided with Listecki, praising him for his “clear statement” and making no mention of Morlino’s.

The same day the U.S. bishops sided with Listecki’s pro-union message, Morlino wrote in his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Herald, that he and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference were neutral, even though the Catholic Church has long sided with the rights of unionized workers.

“The question to which the dilemma boils down is rather simple on its face: Is the sacrifice which union members, including school teachers, are called upon to make proportionate to the relative sacrifice called for from all in difficult economic times?” Morlino wrote.

“The teaching of the church allows for persons of good will to disagree as to which horn of this dilemma should be chosen because there would be reasonable justification available for either alternative.”

To be sure, Morlino has emerged as a hero of the Catholic right. In the heat of the 2008 campaign, he blasted vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “stepping on the pope’s turf — and mine” in appealing to church fathers for their support of abortion rights.

In 2009, Morlino fired a female church worker for using male and female imagery for God in her 2003 Master’s thesis.

Morlino argued that unions should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or be too closely linked with them. Conservative Catholic activists soon rushed to Morlino’s defense, with the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Michigan-based Acton Institute praising him as a “model of clarity” in the fractious debate.

“It is also useful to keep in mind that the Catholic position on unions is not an endorsement of all unions, in all places at all times and under every circumstance,” Sirico wrote at Catholicvote.org.

The Rev. Bryan N. Massingale, associate professor of theological ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, doesn’t necessarily see a conflict between Morlino and Listecki — at least from the statements.

“That’s not the way Catholic bishops tend to operate,” he said. “They tend to want to present a unified public voice.”

But Michael Fleet, a political scientist at Marquette, sees it differently.

“Obviously (Morlino) wouldn’t have written (his letter) unless some clarification or reframing was necessary,” he said. “If you think about it, Morlino would write a short letter if he agreed with Listecki, but he wrote a longer letter articulating how (Listecki’s statement) should be understood.”

For their part, priests in Listecki’s archdiocese sided with their archbishop. The Milwaukee Archdiocese Priests Alliance released a statement Feb. 25, that noticeably made no mention of Morlino’s statement in calling for the governor to restore collective bargaining rights for the unions.