Posts tagged with: Acton Commentary

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My commentary this week addresses the demonstrations in New York and in other cities against free enterprise and business. One of the main points I make in this piece is that “lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.” Here is the list of demands by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is in essence a laundry list of devastating economic schemes and handouts. Additionally, the demands are counter to America’s founding principles. The commentary is printed below:

Class Warriors for Big Government

By Ray Nothstine

Acting as unofficial scorekeeper, Sojourners Founder and CEO Jim Wallis recently declared, “There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.” However, many of the class warfare protesters who are taking to the streets to “occupy” Wall Street and American cities are the disgruntled children of well-to-do parents. A quick sampling of video clips from the protests shows students from elite universities like Harvard, George Washington, and Columbia. Such protestors are driven less by genuine economic hardship than by misguided animus toward the market system that has enabled the wealth from which they have benefited.

One such protestor, Robert Stephens, launched into a tantrum about a bank seizing his well-educated parents’ $500,000 home. The claim turned out to be bogus, but he managed to convince sympathetic media outlets that he was the victim of abuse and scorn at the hand of free enterprise. Stephens, a student at the prestigious George Washington School of Law in Washington, is just one of many out-of-touch protestors pointing simplistically to the market as the culprit in the current economic downturn while ignoring other sources of financial dysfunction, such as the crony capitalism of government subsidies to business or government fiscal irresponsibility.

Struggling to make ends meet, most Americans lack the time to tune into protestors who are just as distant from their problems as Washington bureaucratic elites. Ronald Reagan offered these poignant words as he called on his own political party in the 1970s to shed its big-business country club image and to embrace the factory worker, the farmer, and the cop on the beat:

Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government competition with business, frustrated minorities and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by the self-anointed elite.

Excessive taxation, regulation, and centralization of power always save their most vicious bite for the middle class. They are the hardest hit, not the super wealthy, some of whom call for higher taxes and are fawned over by a bloated government with an insatiable appetite for revenue. If there is any class conflict, it will come from the taxpaying class as it tries to tame the avarice of the political class. Most Americans are not very sympathetic to radical protestors because they still believe in an American Dream of limitless potential and opportunity.

While some protestors call for more government—or even the use of force—to restore their version of social justice and utopian economic schemes, lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.

This nation’s founders adopted a system of government emphasizing a separation of powers and federalism to protect private property and the harmony of the Republic. Protestors calling for a dismantling of these ideas, whether it is through the confiscation of another’s property or through massive, centralized power seem alien to most Americans. During his inauguration another American President, Bill Clinton, aptly declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

The virtues and values that have shaped our Republic offer the best for America. One of the wealthiest men of America’s founding era was John Hancock. Yet the man who once quipped, “They [the Crown] have no right to put their hands in my pocket,” was no miser. Often a political foe of the founder known for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, American President John Adams nonetheless wrote, “If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock.” Hancock supported churches, city improvements, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the education of orphans. However, a much greater compliment was bestowed upon him. He was widely known for treating those of modest means with the same respect as those with wealth and power.

History too shows the consequences of regimes that wished to redistribute the wealth of others and make denunciations about greed, especially wrapped within a materialistic, secular worldview. That was class warfare, too, and it ended in blood and wretched poverty.

The debate over the separation of church and state as well as religion’s role in politics has been intense and ongoing for years. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Tony Oleck seeks to add clarity to the debate. In his commentary, Oleck balances the desires of the Founding Fathers with what it means to be a Christian. Get Acton News and Commentary every Wednesday in your email inbox. Click here to sign up today.

Controversial Christianity: Understanding Faith and Politics

By Tony Oleck

As the race for the 2012 party nominations for president heats up, the question of religion and its place in politics surfaces yet again.  Whether the controversy is over mosques or Mormonism, religion permeates much of today’s political talk, despite various pleas for a “separation of church and state” from both the secular and religious worlds.  But what does the separation of church and state truly mean?

While many use the phrase to refer to a complete isolation of religion from politics, history tells us that the most famous advocate of this principle in America, Thomas Jefferson, may have had a different idea of what a “wall of separation between church and state” really meant.  In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson writes:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship. . . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church & state.

What Jefferson sought to prevent was state intervention into religious affairs. And the separation of church and state, as our founding fathers understood the phrase, meant the avoidance of a church-state.  A church that acts as or controls the state is not in accordance with Christ’s message, but a church that informs the state is.  If the role of the state is to allow for and to promote the freedom and well-being of its citizens, then it has only to benefit from the Christian understandings of truth, freedom and God’s undying love for the world.

I am reminded of something a former English teacher once told me about religion and politics.  “It’s like when I go to get my car fixed,” he said, “I don’t determine which mechanic to go to by what religion he practices.”  While I would agree, I tend to take the leadership and future of my country a little bit more seriously than whether or not my radio works.  Granted, a candidate should never be excluded from office for solely religious purposes, but a Christian nevertheless need not feel ashamed for supporting a particular candidate because of his or her religiously-based position on certain social issues.

Why did our founding fathers describe man as “being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”? And why were the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation under God” added eventually to our currency and our pledge of allegiance, respectively? It was because they realized that only in recognizing man as having been created in God’s own image as a species set apart could America grow and prosper.  It was this common Christian heritage that allowed the state to grow in the first place.  While not all of America’s founding fathers were necessarily practicing Christians, they understood that for the American experiment to succeed it must at the very least be founded on Christian principles; on both faith and reason. They understood the transformative nature of Christ’s teachings and the dignity and truth which they expounded to human beings.

This is not to say, of course, that the United States only has room for Christianity as a system of belief.  Religious freedom is a necessary condition for a just and prosperous society.  As Pope Benedict XVI said in his World Day of Peace address this past New Year’s, “Where religious freedom is acknowledged the dignity of the human person is respected at its roots and through a sincere search for truth and good, moral conscience and institutions are strengthened.  For this religious freedom is a privileged path to peace.”

But while religious freedom is necessary for peace, it is never an excuse for inaction.  Christians often feel the need to separate their religious beliefs from their political views so as not to “impose” their beliefs on others, but this separation is contrary to the Gospel message.  Because acceptance of the Gospel and the subsequent sharing of the Gospel go hand-in-hand, a Christian who is content to confine his faith to the walls of his own home may be a Christian by name, but he is an atheist by practice.

Christianity is more than a moral code. It is by its nature both transformative and truth-seeking. And if Christianity is meant to transform our lives and to expound truth (whether that truth is culturally attractive or not), then it becomes necessary that we allow our faith to inform our politics.  It offers the lens of a true enlightenment, through which we can understand the meaning and purpose of political action in the first place.

My commentary is about the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck the South in late April. The focus of this piece is primarily what is going on in Alabama, but it is true for the entire region that was affected. I’d like to thank Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa for lending his time to talk with me about his experiences. There were so many inspirational anecdotes and stories he offered. I only wish there was room to include them all. I will follow up with more of his story in a separate piece for Religion & Liberty. This is the link to the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. The commentary is printed below.

Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity

by Ray Nothstine

Traffic was “reminiscent of a fall football weekend,” declared an AP report last week from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Volunteer armies, faith-based charities, and other service organizations descended upon affected areas in the wake of tornadoes that killed 238 people in Alabama alone. Now, following the whirlwind, we are seeing the compassion and strength of a faith-filled region.

As federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency work to repair their reputation following intense criticism after Hurricane Katrina, the experienced workers from faith-based charities are leading on several fronts. Many church groups now have state of the art kitchen trailers that can easily feed 25,000 a day. University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts “extremely decentralized” and added, “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”

One grassroots organization is proving to be effective at meeting immediate needs through social networking. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, which has partnered with the Christian Service Mission, is a group of Auburn University sports fans who have united on Facebook to reach out to their rivals. Fans post a need and somebody responds nearly instantaneously to address the situation or share updates. Toomer’s Facebook network has exploded and they are now assisting flood victims and the tornado-ravaged community of Smithville, Miss. In a letter thanking the governor of Alabama for his leadership during the crisis, Toomer’s declared:

In one way or another, none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith-based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.

In an interview, Tuscaloosa resident Jeff Bell described the tornado as “destruction like I have never seen in my life.” Bell, who took shelter during the storm in the basement of a Baptist church, said he prayed what he thought was his final prayer. Bell said of the recovery, “What I am seeing is spiritually amazing. Black and white churches are forming a bond as well as all different denominations.”

Bell, who lost his job because of the tornado, praised the business community. “Small business owners who have lost everything are finding ways to help their employees,” he said. Big business has contributed, too. Hyundai Motor Company alone pledged $1.5 million for recovery efforts.

One of the strengths of faith-based charities is they do not have to make income tests before they help people in need. Unfortunately, sometimes when FEMA does help an individual its bureaucratic tentacles can cause more harm than good. This was the case in Iowa after flooding in 2008, where individuals and families applied for money after their homes were destroyed. After months and months of waiting, they finally received funds. But this year 179 recipients were later told they were never eligible and had to pay it back in 30 days. Some had to return as much as $30,000. A recent report said that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

For many in the South, church life is the center of community. Members do not just spend Sunday in the pews but attend myriad weekly activities at their centers of worship. To say the church is the pulse of a community is no exaggeration.

Christianity proclaims a future regeneration of a disordered world. The Church is that earthly reminder and Sunday worship is a powerful symbol of a gathering of the redeemed for the day of restoration. It remains a comforting place for questions of “Why?” during disasters and trial. Alabama is second to only Mississippi as the most religious state, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The gospel, as embodied by Christ, is the story of giving and sacrificing for those we do not know. It is little wonder that government assistance efforts are playing catch-up across the South. “Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis,” says Charles Wilson Reagan professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Alabama, affectionately nicknamed “The Heart of Dixie,” is no longer just a powerful symbol for the region or the Old South. It has become a universal symbol for what a faith-filled community can do when its people are unleashed as a force for good.

Last summer I wrote a commentary titled “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill.” I made the point that ultimately the kind of spiritual labor that goes on in the Gulf is invaluable. The work done by the fishermen and those working in some other industries along the Gulf is nothing short of a cultural heritage. It is the kind of work that is more than a paycheck and is a superb example of the value of work. I also highlighted the resiliency of the people who work the waters along the Gulf Coast. This from Garden & Gun magazine, taking a look back at the oil spill from one year ago:

The full impact of the spill on the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf has not been determined, but now, a year after the disaster, shrimpers are readying their fleets for another season. “Remarkably there is an optimism and resilience among the people of the Gulf Coast,” says [Jeremy] Craig. “Despite the hardships, they still have a lot of faith in their way of life. Right now, Vegas is getting his boat ready and looking forward to getting back on the water, and that is what gets him up in the morning.”

Here is a highlighted portion of my commentary from July:

Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”

Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”

BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.

In a recent Acton Commentary, Stephen Grabill and Brett Elder reflect on the tension that often exists between conceptions of ministry in the church and in the world. They point especially to the Cape Town Commitment, which on the one hand identifies a “secular-sacred divide as a major obstacle to the mobilization of all God’s people in the mission of God.”

But on the other hand, write Grabill and Elder, “The gulf between economics and theology in evangelical social engagement and missionally informed action is a momentous barrier that must still be overcome before we can truly embrace all legitimate vocations as sacred and worthy callings.”

There are some positive signs on this front, however, and the workplace section of the Cape Town Commitment is one of them. A piece by Rob Moll in today’s Wall Street Journal highlights this hopeful trend, as he writes, “Not only does the church tend to privilege church and missionary service over business, but it often condemns business practices and implies the guilt of any participants. Yet there are signs that this dynamic is changing—not least because churches rely on the donations of business professionals.”

In a follow up to Jordan Ballor’s commentary last week, “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church,” here is a related excerpt from Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the rise of Evangelical Conservatism. I will review the new book published by Norton in the next issue of Religion & Liberty and for the PowerBlog. The excerpt from Dochuk’s book is an excellent reflection of not just how the local church can fulfill their Gospel mandate to help the poor, but also empower and build the community:

The sense of community the Allens found in this congregation was deeper than anything found in Dodson. Theirs was not an uncommon experience. During the last stages of the Depression, southern evangelicals relied heavily on their churches for support of all kind. After moving from Oklahoma to Compton in the 1930s, Melvin Shahan, for instance, saw his parents falling into debt, even with his own weekly ten-dollar paycheck from Goodyear helping out. In response, the Shahans’ church organized a “pounding,” a ritual that saw congregants stock the pantry of a needy and unsuspecting friend with canned goods, preserves, and smoked meat. Melvin would later recall that such acts of kindness were facilitated in part because his neighbors lived so nearby, something he did not experience in Oklahama:

‘So many people there are at Guymon [Oklahoma] came from neighboring farmhouses out around town. When they came into town for the services, it was farther for them to drive than it was here [Compton] where people lived right in the immediate area of their church.’

For the Shahan family, the intimacy of the country church often idealized by those from the South was a reality not enjoyed until after arriving in Southern California. The same applied for the Allens. When wartime conditions sent fathers to the front and mothers to work, the congregants of Southern Missionary leaned especially hard on each other. Since women constituted a majority of church membership during these years, the onus for community fell on them. Churchwomen not only organized drives to increase Sunday attendance but also made sure that neighborhood families were provide with child care, transportation, and, when needed, financial support. For Marie Allen, whose family livelihood depended on her full-time work at a local defense plant, such neighborly assistance proved financially critical. More importantly, it strengthened the bonds of Christian sisterhood and her ties to the church family. (p.21)

This week’s commentary developed out of my remarks at Acton on Tap. My years of studying and reading about the civil rights movement at Ole Miss and seminary aided in the writing of this piece:

Will Tea Parties Awaken America’s Moral Culture?

Tea parties are changing the face of political participation, but critics of the tea party movement point to these grassroots upstarts as “extreme,” “angry,” “racist” and even “seditious.” Yet The Christian Science Monitor reported that tea party rallies are so orderly police have given them more latitude than other protest groups. Are tea parties really seditious or do they instead invoke a genuine American tradition of protest—such as when civil rights leaders too made appeals to the Founding Fathers?

With knee-jerk charges leveled against tea party rallies, it may be prudent for organizers to think more carefully about the message and images they express. Dismissing out of hand the most common charges, however baseless, could prove costly for a movement of real opportunity aiming to transform the culture.

Naturally, tea partiers have borrowed from the symbols of the American Founding, but the civil rights movement may offer an even greater teachable moment. One clear reason for this is that tea party movements need to awaken the moral culture of politics and public discourse. A grave danger on the road to that goal is getting stuck in the rut of partisan politics and rhetoric.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. movement was so successful not just because of his commitment to non-violence and the justice of his cause, but also because his words and actions consistently looked to expand the number of people who sympathized with the civil rights movement. He understood the importance of symbols and crafting narratives to reach those outside his crusade for justice. King hardly ever focused on specific legislation or public figures but appealed to greater universal truths and posed deeply moral questions to the Republic.

In his heralded “I Have a Dream” speech, King made no mention of contemporaries, save for a reference to his children and the governor of Alabama. King instead focused on Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and President Abraham Lincoln. King knew those were powerful symbols for all Americans, and that a massive audience—not just those already in agreement with his ideas—was his target. He borrowed widely from the narratives and promises of America to appeal to this country’s better nature. King’s movement was so transformative, Washington was forced to take notice, and even President Johnson quoted the movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome,” when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 1965.

King was also a moderating force in the civil rights movement. His non-violent tactics and insistence on not breaking federal court orders, except in extreme cases, were at odds with more radical black leaders. His appeal was also a Christian one that found resonance in the wider American culture.

Tea Party groups should learn from King’s actions precisely because their participants are law abiding and peaceful. There are fundamental truths to their claims, too, because they invoke the better nature of our government given to us by our Founders, just as King did.

Rallies that depict President Barack Obama as totalitarian or as Adolf Hitler undermine the moral witness of tea parties. Tea partiers who show up with semi automatic rifles strapped to their back in open-carry firearm states do likewise. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Like King’s and other transformative movements, the tea party cause should be focused on winning converts and influencing those who may be opposed to them. All of this may seem difficult without a national leader, but part of its strength is drawing from the already countless leaders who have graced American history. While tea party advocates shouldn’t moderate on principle, they should reject tones of excessive anger and fear.

President Ronald Reagan, for example, was adored not just for his ideas about limited government and freedom, but also because of his sunny personality and optimism. This quality helped Reagan push those ideas back into the mainstream.

Like Reagan, King too was an optimist and embodied a vision. In his 1963 book Strength to Love he said to those seeking justice: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” There is no better truth for tea partiers to build upon.