Over on The American Spectator website, Acton research fellow Jonathan Witt explains that contrary to the misunderstanding of many on the political and religious left, business, justice, and the Gospel are already social:
Over on The American Spectator website, Acton research fellow Jonathan Witt explains that contrary to the misunderstanding of many on the political and religious left, business, justice, and the Gospel are already social:
The White House has a plan to mobilize prayer vigils in front of the Supreme Court in defense of Obamacare. It was reported that the administration met with leaders at non-profit organizations and religious officials who support the new health care law. The court takes up the constitutional test of the health care mandate in a couple of weeks. The mandate has now been challenged in 26 states.
Cue the same stale big government religious prophets who confuse statism and centralization of power with real Gospel redemption. This will of course include agency heads of mainline denominations, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and of course a liberal imam and rabbi for religious diversity. Liberal Catholics will no doubt be clamoring for camera time too. Unsurprisingly, the United Methodist lobbying building is hosting “radio row,” where advocates can take to the airwaves to gush over the new unpopular law. Fitting symbolism, given that the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society is woefully out of touch with the beliefs of so many of their own members in the pew.
Let me point you to a few excellent posts that have already addressed the irony of this prayer vigil given the religious conscience violation by the administration. Over at National Review Online, Yuval Levin gets right to crux of the issue with “Pray for the Mandate.” Fr. John Zuhlsdorf pretty much goes off, and appropriately so with his post, “The Obama Administration is organizing…. WHAT?!?”
In popular culture we hear lots of commentary and jokes about fundamentalists or “religious rubes.” They often reside in “flyover country” or the bible belt and are subject to sneers by the “elite.” These rubes, we’re told, frequently pray for greater morality and for a spiritual revival to sweep the country. Who can forget the snickering at the prayer rally organized by Texas Governor Rick Perry for the nation in 2011? Or the giggling by the enlightened when Southern governors or governors of farm states issue prayer calls for rain during droughts? But increasingly, it seems like the real religious rubes are the stale big government apostles whose power and partisanship is baptized by a bureaucracy that to them is omnipotent.
Partisanship and different worldviews are understandable and should be encouraged in our society. But when spiritual leaders are at the bidding of the bureaucracy, and embody an unwillingness to think critically about religious conscience and mandates, inevitably they become more of a religious rube than the ones they find so unenlightening.
My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.
First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.
A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.
Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.
King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.
The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.
Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:
Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.
Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.
Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:
Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.
Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …
The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.
What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.
I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.
Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.
In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.
Jim Wallis, the author, public theologian, speaker, and international commentator behind the Christian Left’s Circle of Protection, was in Grand Rapids last night, and I went to hear him speak. Wallis was presented as the latest in a long line of progressive luminaries to speak (or play their guitars) at the Fountain Street Chruch: Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, U2, and the Ramones have all appeared on the same dais. He was introduced to speak about “where we are going together so that we can keep our eyes on the prize.”
That’s a pretty hip list, and Wallis considers himself a pretty hip guy, so I was genuinely surprised to enter the nave and find a sea of grey heads. Even the handful of Occupy Grand Rapids protesters were in their forties and fifties. Well I’m here for his lecture, I reminded myself, not to draw conclusions from his demographics before he even speaks.
Wallis started off with baseball — a promising place to start — telling the audience, “Baseball, following teams like Detroit, it builds character.” (Detroit missed out on the World Series a few days ago when it ran up against the indomitable Texas Rangers.) I was hoping to hear him expound on this theme in the rest of the talk, but he moved on to his core message: that with respect to Christ’s words in Matthew 25:40, the budget is a moral document.
Then he addressed the handful of forty- and fifty-something Occupy Grand Rapids protesters, and spoke about hope. “Hope,” he said “is not a feeling. Hope is a choice we make based on faith.” His lesson for the protesters was the same, he said, was the same one he had learnt from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa during apartheid: that “hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
Both were very true statements on the nature of hope, and the secular, materialist world desperately needs to hear them. But hope is a theological virtue, and Wallis applied it only to the material world.
I understand that he was speaking to a wide audience in a Unitarian church, but the faith he spoke of — the faith that undergirds his hope in this world and the next — is a supernatural faith. Without talk of hope in the City of God, the lecture lacked a fundamental coherence that no anecdote about Desmond Tutu, Elizabeth Warren, or President Obama could supply. It lacked even a discussion of the character that the Tigers’ season might have instilled in the audience. (It is possible that part went right over my head, since I’m a Rangers fan and the experts have picked us to win in 6 games.)
The lack of any transcendent meaning in the talk may have been why the youth of today weren’t there. Times are hard, employment is scare, it’s a bad time to be graduating college and looking for a job. But young people don’t have time to go hear someone tell them that if they hope for more from this life, they’ll get it. Wallis should stay away from that message anyway, since Joel Osteen delivers it better.
Someone looking for a gathering of energized youth in Grand Rapids should come in June for Acton University. That’s a gathering based on true hope, and the attendees (with an average age probably 40 years lower than in Fountain Street Church crowd) gather from scores of countries to discuss economic growth motivated and guided by a transcendent faith. Until Wallis’s message goes a little deeper, he continue to expect audiences that just want to be told they’ve lived a benignant life.
John Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., wrote a column for the August 19 Bozeman Daily Chronicle about the Circle of Protection and Christians for a Sustainable Economy and how each has formulated a very different faith witness on the federal budget and debt debate. Baden says that the CASE letter to President Obama is “quite remarkable for it reads like one written by respected economists and policy analysts.”
I attended the FREE conference on the environment for religious leaders in July, the event referenced in Baden’s column (appended below). FREE is building a really useful conference/seminar for faith groups with outstanding lecturers and a truly diverse mix of attendees. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of environmental policy as informed by a religious worldview.
Also see Acton’s “Principles for Budget Reform” and associated resources on the budget and debt debate.
Religions’ reactions to financial realities
By John Baden
Many quite normal people, not just the paranoid, believe America will spiral downward and drown in a sea of debt. The Aug. 5 downgrade of U.S. bonds stoked their fears. Much of the debt problem is based on entitlements, commitments to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Prescription Drug Act.
As Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said on NPR on Aug. 9: “I am not going to tell an 80-year-old woman living on $19,000 a year that she gets no cost-of-living, or that a man who has been doing physical labor all his life and is now at a 67-year-old retirement – which is where Social Security will be soon – that he has to work four or five more years.”
Sojourners is a “progressive” religious organization that supports Frank’s position. (Ironically, billionaire atheist George Soros has generously supported Sojourners.) They have recently drafted a letter to President Obama, “A Circle of Protection: Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor.”
Sojourners acknowledge our unsustainable deficits – but reject reforms reducing entitlements directed to the poor. “Programs focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. … The budget debate has a central moral dimension. Christians are asking how we protect ‘the least of these.’ ‘What would Jesus cut?’ ‘How do we share sacrifice?'”
There is nothing radical or even unusual in their position. Many, probably most mainline denominations, support similar positions. Sojourners’ leader Jim Wallis wants to move the broad religious community into the policy arena. Hence he is mobilizing a diverse nonpartisan movement of Christian leaders to make them “deeply engaged in the budget debate to uphold the principle that low-income people should be protected.”
Few would question Wallis’ goal but his strategy is challenged by a new group, Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE). They too sent a letter to President Obama.
While they share identical goals of helping the most unfortunate and poor, their means are diametrically opposed. They question policy outcomes by asking the ecological and economic question “and then what?” What are the logical, practical consequences of policies allegedly designed to help the unfortunate and needy?
Their effort had an unusual origin. It arose from an economic conference involving an ecumenical, indeed disparate, group of religious leaders, mainly Christians and several Jews. They represented a wide philosophical and theological spectrum. Some are allied with the Sojourners, others opposed.
CASE’s letter soliciting signers began, “At one level CASE began with a few of us at a lovely conference in Montana with fresh air, kindred spirits, time to talk and the gift of the idea to join together. … Signatories already include us (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox) … (and) many who work alongside the very poor, and so on.”
I find their letter to the president quite remarkable for it reads like one written by respected economists and policy analysts. “We do not need to ‘protect programs for the poor.’ We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.”
Their text explains, “We believe the poor of this generation and generations to come are best served by policies that promote economic freedom and growth, that encourage productivity and creativity in every able person, and that wisely steward our common resources for generations to come. All Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.”
A decade ago I wrote a column celebrating Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday. Milton was an apostle of responsible prosperity and liberty. While he is gone, his influence lives. CASE’s letter to the president is a sterling example.
John Baden is the chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment and Gallatin Writers, Inc., both based in Bozeman.
The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has announced a debate later this fall between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler. They’ll take opposing positions on the question, “Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?” The debate is slated for October 27, 2011 at 7:00 pm, and you can find more details at the Henry Center website. This is a really important question the answer to which really turns on some important definitions.
I would take the “yes” or the “no” position depending on how you define social justice and church. If by social justice you mean what Wallis usually means, something along the lines of redistribution of material wealth by government coercion, then I would take the negative. If you also mean the church to refer to the church as an institution, then again, I would take the negative, particularly if by social justice you mean a political program to engineer a state of affairs in which all have equal shares.
But if by social justice you mean a state of affairs in which each is rendered what is due by the appropriate parties, then the church does have a role to play (even if it is not a primary or “essential” part of the church’s mission). In the sense of the institutional church, it seems that the role is to pursue its primary responsibilities of proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and exercising church discipline. That’s the way in which the institutional church promotes social justice, by doing its appointed task as part of the variegated social order. It would be hard to say in that regard that social justice is an essential part of the institutional church’s mission. It would rather be more like a secondary consequence or effect.
If we consider the church as an organism, however, consisting of all the individual members in their particular callings and offices, then promoting social justice becomes more clearly central. Promoting social justice would presumably be more consciously central for some callings than for others, at least in terms of the legal and political rules of the game. But each member of the congregation is called to manifest justice in their own dealings with others. They are, in fact, called to grow in the virtue of justice as an individual Christian.
What I’ve found, though, is that progressive and transformationalist Christians are often very quick to dismiss the kinds of distinctions I’m talking about here, and pursue in rather simplistic and straightforward way the pursuit of their vision of the right social order. Questions about the limits of the institutional church’s authority and responsibility are of little interest; whatever authority or structure that can be used must be pressed into service in promoting social justice. Nevermind if doing so in fact undermines rather than promotes a truly just society. This is why in my book Ecumenical Babel I note that the distinction between church as institution and church as organism is so important for reform and renewal of the church’s social witness.
In this regard, the exchange between Calvin Seminary professor Calvin Van Reken and denominational leader Peter Vander Meulen is instructive. In examining this exchange, you see Van Reken make precisely the kinds of distinctions I endorse here in addressing the question of “The Church’s Role and Social Justice.” You also see Vander Meulen run roughshod over such nuance in “The Church and Social Justice.” Van Reken’s essay on “The Mission of a Local Church,” wherein he identifies the ministries of “mercy,” as they are sometimes called to be a secondary calling of the church, is also helpful.
I should add that to the extent the institutional church has a role in promoting social justice directly in material terms, it follows that there are particular responsibilities that adhere to different offices. In this case, the role of the deacon would be that which has primary responsibility (rather than say the preaching pastor or teaching elder).