Posts tagged with: christianity

Working as we do here at the intersection between economics and theology, the relationship between various kinds of classically liberal, libertarian, Austrian, and other economic modifiers and religion in general and Christianity in particular is in constant view. Sometimes the conversation is friendly, sometimes not so much. Sometimes the differences are less apparent, sometimes more.

Once in awhile a piece will appear on the Acton site or from an Acton writer that brings this discussion to the fore. Last week’s commentary by Anthony Bradley is a great example. Responses to his piece varied, but on a number of fronts his juxtaposition of the external coercive regulation of government and the internal moral guidance of religious faith was attacked.

Some equated religion with government, with the former being “merely unelected.” Others resorted to long critiques of the idea that religion and libertarianism have anything in common, engaging not only the substance of the issues but also delving into rhetorically questionable sidetracks, although some charitably noted, “At no point did Bradley seem to advocate the use of state force to promote Christianity.”

A few recent exchanges over at the First Thoughts blog contribute directly and helpfully to this conversation. Hunter Baker, an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and a contributor here at the PowerBlog, posted an excerpt from “a plenary panel session on the question of whether libertarians and social conservatives can get along.” Baker calls the two groups “co-belligerents in the cause of liberty.” Baker’s comments were inspired in part by an earlier piece appearing in Religion & Liberty, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?”

Joe Carter responded by highlighting a piece by Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” (PDF) which Carter calls “the greatest political essay on conservatism and libertarianism of the last thirty years—if not of the twentieth century.” In this acerbic and far-ranging essay, Kirk calls libertarians “the little sour remnant” and contends that beyond a shared opposition to collectivism, conservatives and libertarians have nothing in common.

There is no doubt some truth both to Baker’s and to Kirk’s claims. The question has in part to do with a definition of terms and the corresponding identification of those to whom “conservative” and “libertarian” refer. We must of course recognize that those who self-identify as libertarian or classical liberals are not a uniform party, and the same is true for religious or “social” conservatives. There are at least a half dozen or so schools or varieties of libertarianism, and there is diffusion and disagreement on any number of principles and concrete issues.

Arnold Kling makes a helpful distinction between “civil societarians” and other “strands” of libertarianism. My own way of parsing the terms is to distinguish broadly between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view (Weltanschauung). The former is much more limited in scope than the latter.

For the former, liberty is man’s highest political end. But it is not man’s highest end. Politics and its ends are means towards other, more diverse social and more important theological ends.

For those whose libertarianism is an all-encompassing ideology, as Kirk says, for whom there is a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle–that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of civil social order, and indeed of human existence,” there can be little if any room for a competing and alternative system of faith and life, e.g. Christianity.

As Lord Acton said,

Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

That little modifier “political” makes all the difference. Lord Acton limits liberty as the “highest political end,” but immediately proceeds to relate and subsume politics to other spheres of life.

Kirk proceeds to point out some of the specific differences between the two worldviews, including the attitudes toward the existence of the State as well as moral duties and positive rights.

It is only in this latter sense of libertarianism as a worldview, as a competitor with and alternative to other worldviews (including Marxism and Christianity), that Kirk’s conclusion can be judged entirely accurate: “When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis—but not until then.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 7, 2009

From the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 to Augustine’s City of God, the civitas is an enormously pervasive and rich biblical and theological theme. On the contemporary scene there area number of indications that evangelicals are looking more deeply and critically at engagement with the “city” as a social, political, ethical, and theological reality. This is part of the explicit vision of The King’s College in New York City, for instance, where Acton research fellow Anthony Bradley is currently a visiting professor of theology. At Houston Baptist University, the publication aptly named The City, “featuring leading voices in Christian academia and elsewhere on the critical issues of the times.”

North of the border, the Canadian think-tank Cardus has long examined the issues surrounding Christian cultural engagement, particularly within the dynamic matrix of what we call “cities.” Recently Cardus published critical perspectives from Darryl Hart and Nelson Kloosterman, “The Gospel and the City: What’s a Believer To Do?”

For a number of years now the Acton Institute has produced specialized conferences focused on the more specialized call to move “Toward a Free and Virtuous City.” The most recent installment of the “City FAVS” took place last month in Weehawken, New Jersey, and featured Dr. Bradley, Rudy Carrasco, Acton president Rev. Robert A. Sirico, and Michael Lee of Georgetown University.

As the Lord said to Jonah of that ancient capital, “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 21, 2009

In a column in this past Saturday’s religion section, Charles Honey reflects on the second great love commandment in the context of the national health care debate.

Honey’s piece starts out on a very strong note, detailing the perspective of Dr. John Vander Kolk, director of a local non-profit initiative focused on the uninsured:

“Where would we see Jesus in our culture?” asks the member of Ada Bible Church. “He would be down there with his sleeves rolled up, helping the people that don’t have any access (to health care). That’s what we’re being called to do.”

An editorial published this month by George Barna takes a similar point of departure.

In short, Jesus Christ showed us that anyone who follows Him is expected to address the most pressing needs of others. You can describe Jesus’ health care strategy in four words: whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever. Whoever needed to be healed received His healing touch. Whatever affliction they suffered from, He addressed it. Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.

But it is after this shared perspective that the respective pieces on health care and the Christian faith part ways.

Honey’s piece continues to argue, in the vein of the Forty Days for Health Reform, that the gospel imperative is best met through government action. “For many, it’s about treating others as you would want to be treated — seeing to it that they get the decent medical care you and I would expect. It’s just not that complicated.”

Barna, however, ends on a note of personal challenge. He writes,

Government clearly has a role in people’s lives; the Bible supports its existence and circumscribed functions. It is unfortunate that when God’s people, collectively known as the Church, fail to exhibit the compassion and service that He has called us to provide, we are comfortable with the government acting as a national safety net. In a society that has become increasingly self-centered and self-indulgent, we simply expand our reliance upon the government to provide solutions and services that are the responsibility of Christ followers. Some Christians have heeded the call, as evidenced by the medical clinics, pregnancy centers and even hospitals across the nation that were initiated and funded by small numbers of dedicated believers who grasped this responsibility. Imagine what an impact the Church would have on society if it truly reflected the model Jesus gave us of how to care for one another!

This echoes the words of Abraham Kuyper, who in an address on the social question of poverty, wrote, “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 honour of your Saviour.”

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I recently finished How to Argue Like Jesus (Crossway, 2009) by Joe Carter (The Evangelical Outpost, First Thoughts) and John Coleman. I would have loved to have had this book to assign during the 13 years I taught college composition and rhetoric. So many of my fellow evangelicals think rhetoric is a dirty word, as in “That’s just a bunch of rhetoric.” But as this primer makes clear, Jesus was a master of rhetoric, a master of principled persuasion.

Happily, How to Argue Like Jesus doesn’t act as if Jesus created a completely new rhetoric during his earthly ministry. Aristotelian categories serve as the basis for the first three chapters: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos. And in two other chapters, the comp/lit teacher will encounter many of the usual suspects found in standard overviews of poetic and stylistic devices (metaphor, simile, parallelism, chiasmus, etc.).

Chapter 5 focuses on the persuasive power of what Edmund Burke referred to as “little platoons.” Chaper 6 is a helpful summary chapter. And the final chapter provides three case studies, two taken from a Hollywood movie and one from a notable political speech from the 1960s.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book. The brief discussion of Jesus’s use of parables is generally solid, but Jesus stated explicitly that he used parables, at least in part, to block understanding in some of his listeners. I would have liked to have seen the book explore this curious feature of Jesus’s rhetorical strategy more adequately.

Also, while the book’s writing style is generally solid and engaging (as one would expect from the creator and sustainer of The Evangelical Outpost), can we declare a global evangelical ban on the adjective “impactful” and “impact” used as a transitive verb? Mercifully, the terms aren’t a common fixture of the book, but it does crop up in a few places, and it doesn’t impact me. No, it hurts me. It moves me to tears.

Thus, I urge my fellow evangelicals everywhere to stop talking about “impactful” things that “really impacted” us. And while we’re at it, let’s declare a global evangelical ban on the cancerous overuse of “just” in the sense of “simply.” I mean, when you’re praying, just reach down into your bag of prayer words and just yank it out of there. Just do it. Carter and Coleman didn’t let it infect their book. If they can do it, so can we.

But I digress. How to Argue Like Jesus serves as a highly effective primer on rhetoric. By taking readers on a lively journey through the many persuasive techniques Jesus used in his earthly ministry, the book promises to hold the attention of young evangelicals more effectively than a typical comp/rhetoric textbook. I can enthusiastically recommend it for both Christian high school English classes and as supplementary text in college composition and rhetoric classes. I know we intend to assign it to our homeschoolers in the Witt household.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Bible Answer Man is in the middle of an extended, two day interview of Jay Richards, about Jay’s new book, Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem. It’s the most in-depth discussion of the book I’ve encountered on the internet, and Hank Hanegraaff’s introduction alone makes it worth a listen. Yesterday’s interview is here. Today’s interview will stream here.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Tuesday, August 4, 2009

“We talk about what caused the financial crisis, whether ‘greed is good,’ and if ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ It’s John J. Miller describing his podcast interview with Jay Richards here at NRO. They discuss Jay’s excellent new book, Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem.

From Philip Jenkins at Foreign Policy:

Ironically, after centuries of rebelling against religious authority, the coming of Islam is also reviving political issues most thought extinct in Europe, including debates about the limits of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to proselytize. And in all these areas, controversies that originate in a Muslim context inexorably expand or limit the rights of Christians, too. If Muslim preachers who denounce gays must be silenced, then so must charismatic Christians. At the same time, any laws that limit blasphemous assaults on the image of Mohammed must take account of the sensibilities of those who venerate Jesus.

The result has been a rediscovery of the continent’s Christian roots, even among those who have long disregarded it, and a renewed sense of European cultural Christianity. Jürgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” Europe may be confronting the dilemmas of a truly multifaith society, but with Christianity poised for a comeback, it is hardly on the verge of becoming an Islamic colony.

Saturday is World Malaria Day, which each year draws attention to the scourge that malaria is to millions of people throughout the developing world. An estimated 1-3 million people die of malaria each year, and many of these are children. But even when people don’t die, malaria is debilitating. Malaria reduces the red blood cell count to low levels, which in addition to all of the other symptoms, drains energy and saps creativity. In response to this, the thing large multinational aid organizations have focused on are bed nets. Now bed nets can be helpful, but they are a short-term fix. Fortunately, after years of false ideology preventing the use of DDT, the world is starting to come back to its senses. Acton has been promoting this for several years.

Today, NRO’s The Corner quoted malaria expert Richard Tren, who argues that a bed net is a potentially useful but overemphasized tool in the war against malaria, with DDT and, surprisingly to some, economic freedom having greater promise for pushing back the scourge of malaria over the long run.

And if bed nets or any other foreign interventions are to do significant and lasting good, charitable enterprises will need to rediscover the importance of subsidiarity, of humans on the ground in relationship with other human beings, as opposed to government-to-government aid transfers that often do more harm than good.

One person who speaks forcefully to this issue is Rwandan Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana, a leading force in the reconciliation in Rwanda and a key partner in Bridge2Rwanda and the P.E.A.C.E Plan. In an interview we conducted with Bishop John near his orphanage in Rwanda last fall, he commented on why U.N. bed net programs often fail, and why the P.E.A.C.E. plan is succeeding:

We have a percentage of people, thank God, the number is getting less, but we have a great percentage of people who don’t read and write. And you give them a mosquito net; you scare them to death. You need to tell them that the mosquito net would prevent mosquitoes from biting them, and they need to trust you’re not telling them a lie. You’re not trapping them with that mosquito net. They’ve been deceived for too long. They need to have people who trust them, and they trust. And the people who love them; and the people they love. So Rick Warren has it deadly right to say that the church is needed to be employed into the economy, into the health and the social recovery of nations.

Churches have the life-giving hope of the Gospel, Bishop John explains, and they are embedded locally.

The church is out there with the people. You know I’m hugging and I’m shaking hands with every one of these children because I’m with them all the time. They know who I am, and they know I am there for them. During the aftermath of the genocide, many people ran away from here, and I stayed with them. All of these individuals giving the aid ran away from here. And I stayed. Churches are here. And we know how to approach them.

I recently received a request from a reporter to respond to the recent spate of studies and stories positing a decline in American Christianity. Here’s how I answered:

Broadly speaking, it is silly to think of secularization as a linear process. The prominence of the Christian faith waxes and wanes during different historical periods. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, the old golden age of faith picture of antiquity is not nearly as strong as many believe. There is, however, always a solid and motivated core.

What differs over time is the overall number of people who want to associate themselves with the basic project of the church. Sometimes, that seems advantageous and people do it for reasons of social respectability or advancement. At other times there is little to be gained from it and many turn to spending Sundays on the golf course or with the New York Times.

We happen to be in one of the periods when there is not a lot of social prestige or other benefit to being in the church and thus nominal members are dropping out. They have no desire to meet even modest demands of the church when they see no compensatory benefit.

The drop off in the number of nominal Christians also results from the ascendancy of conservative Christianity in the United States. The more intensely the church stands for something, the less likely it is that people with low commitment will associate themselves with the church. This has always been the church’s dilemma. Should it be a comprehensive church that baptizes babies and includes everyone in a Christendom model? Or should it concentrate on voluntary, adult decisions for a strict faith that actively excludes those not with the program. While mega-churches are often criticized for trying to be all things to all people, doctrinally speaking they are actually pretty orthodox and tilt more in the direction of believers with some commitment.

What has happened in the last fifty years is that the mainline churches which had seemed to prevail during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy actually lost by becoming increasingly liberal. They became so liberal that their membership had nothing to attach themselves too other than being against conservative Christianity. They can do that just as easily on their own as they can in a liberal church. They end up in the “other” or “none” category when religionists are counted.

In summary, the disappearance of the middle option of a semi-orthodox mainline Protestantism and the corresponding rise of conservative Protestantism is the best explanation for the results we see in the ARIS survey and other observances which claim a future of religious decline.

“Government budgets are moral documents,” is the often quoted line from Jim Wallis of Sojourners and other religious left leaders. Wallis also adds that “When politicians present their budgets, they are really presenting their priorities.” There is perhaps no better example of a spending bill lacking moral soundness than the current stimulus package being debated in the U.S. Senate.

In my commentary this week, “The Moral Bankruptcy Behind the Bailouts,” I offer clear reasons how spending more does not equate to morality, but quite the opposite in this case.

In fact, among many believers it seems that Christian thrift is lost as a value altogether. We forget how important financial responsibility and thrift was to the entire Christian tradition as important evidence of outward faith and devotion. Jordan Ballor offers some great words in his own commentary last year titled “The Fourth Pillar of the New Economy: Spend all you can:”

The eighteenth-century theologian and pastor John Wesley once preached that we should “earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” Productivity, frugality, and generosity are the core moral virtues that have animated prosperous and free economies in the West for centuries. But now the federal government seemingly wants to add a fourth and conflicting principle to these traditional values: “Spend all you can.”

As for Jim Wallis, not surprisingly he enthusiastically supports the stimulus package, and because of the enormous stakes involved for future generations, this shows a lack of moral judgment and courage on his part. It may also be that Wallis is hesitant to pull his support for this $1 trillion spending bill because he is afraid to go against a President that reminds him of the Prophet Nehemiah.