Daly contends, “The horrors of Bolshevik governance stemmed directly from their repudiation of the precious fruits of Western political thought.” It is a classic example of the tendency of some to promote cheap moralisms while ignoring the empirical realities of any given context, what then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger termed in 1985, “the antithesis of morality.” In addition to fostering mass suspicion, starvation, and ultimately a despotic police state in Russia, the Bolsheviks also have the blood of literally millions on their hands, Orthodox Christians as well many Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others—the rotten fruit of their noble quest for the common good. (more…)
Jim Wallis and a number of other Christians involved in politics are trying to gain attention for the question, “What would Jesus cut?” The answer to this question is supposed to be as obvious as it is in other moral contexts. For example, would Jesus lie about the useful life of a refrigerator he was selling for Best Buy? No way. Would he bully a kid into giving away his lunch money? Not a chance. Would you find him taking in the show at a strip club on interstate 40 in Arkansas? Unlikely to the extreme.
Would he agree to a 2% cut in the marginal tax rate for income made above $250,000? Would he EVER accept a cut in welfare spending? Those take a little more thought. Jim Wallis and others think it’s a no-brainer. Let us reason together.
As I look over what Wallis wrote, I see several things worth noting. For example, he complains that some Republicans want to cut domestic spending and international aid, while they support an increase in military spending. The implication is that this is obviously a sub-Christian position. But is it? Probably the most essential purpose of government is to protect the life and freedom of citizens. The government achieves this goal through military means. Unless one takes the position that Christianity implies corporate pacificism, then it is unclear the Republicans have blundered according to Christian ethics. Now, match the question of military spending versus international aid and/or domestic spending. Are the latter obviously superior to the former? No. It depends on not only what the stated objective is for the different types of spending, but whether they actually achieve their purposes. To simply state that the Republicans want to bolster military spending while cutting international aid and domestic spending is to achieve nothing at all by way of an indictment.
Here’s another example. Wallis complains bitterly that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans add billions to the deficit. He is referring to the extension of George W. Bush’s cuts in the marginal tax rates that existed under Bill Clinton. The first question I have is how does Jim Wallis know that the level of taxation was just to begin with? And why take Bill Clinton’s tax levels as the Platonic form of taxation? Maybe they were too high or too low. The highest marginal tax rates have fluctuated drastically in the United States during the last century. John F. Kennedy made a big cut, with impressive economic effects, as did Ronald Reagan. Is Wallis sure that by cutting taxes those men robbed the poor and gave to the rich? Maybe a lot of poor people got jobs because of them. And we aren’t even getting into the question of whether rich people actually have an enhanced duty to pay taxes. If there is a community need, is it righteous to grab a rich person and employ the power of legal coercion to extract the needed funds?
Still another problem with this redistributionist attitude about taxes and spending is that it assumes a zero sum state of affairs. For example, one could assume that the most people would be better off under a system like the old Soviet Union that spread resources out to citizens in a way that prized equality of rations. The United States system didn’t do that nearly as much, not nearly at all. But which of the two systems provided a better life for people? The answer is easy. The United States and its emphasis on liberty did. Why? A more free economic system produces far more wealth than an unfree one. If your equality system produces a little, bitty pie, it may give you a lot of philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn’t do as much actual good for people as the system that prizes free productivity and success over equality.
What Jim Wallis is saying comes from a good heart. He is worried about things like fairness and, of course, about helping people. But the reasoning he employs in doing so assumes that federal programs actually achieve what they set out to do, which is far from obvious, and that they don’t create incentives for behavior that results in greater problems, which often happens. He also assumes a zero sum society. It is entirely possible that economic thinking that concerns itself more with productivity than with equality will actually leave the great majority of people better off.
The following is a statement by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, on Mitt Romney’s Dec. 6 “Faith in America” speech:
Mitt Romney is right that religion and morality are core convictions in American society. Our freedom depends on this, I completely agree. Without the ability to manage our lives morally, the state steps into the vacuum, both in response to public demand and to serve the state’s own interests in expanding power.
But soon after spelling this out, in part, he makes this bold claim, which I believe repeats John F. Kennedy’s error: “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”
So here we have an odd tension. Religion matters, he says. But religious authority does not and should not matter in the management of our public lives. If this proposition had been believed by the kings of Europe in the Middle Ages, freedom would never have been born, for it was precisely the jealousy of religious authority that led to limits on the state and kept that state at bay.
Similarly, it was the churches before and after the American Revolution which said no to the leviathan state, precisely because it had intruded into areas that more properly belong to religious authority. The churches didn’t merely mind their own business; they spoke to the whole of society, and we should be thankful for that.
Maybe we are not accustomed to thinking of religion as a limit on government. But this has largely been so and continues to be so. It was the Catholic Church that beat back communism in Eastern Europe and just last week prevented dictatorship in Venezuela. In our own country, the churches are the main protectors of religious liberty, for they tend to resist intrusion by the state at every level.
The idea of authority is inescapable. If public officeholders are not to obey religious authority, what authority do they submit to? Perhaps we can say the Constitution but the signers of that document too held fast to religious convictions. More likely the authority to which they submit is legislation and its enforcement arm, meaning that to the extent that they brush off their religious institutions, they will tend to become obsequious toward the state.
For my part, I find it strange that American culture should require someone running for president to make a break with his or own religious authority. This strikes me as an attack on the conscience. The right question we should be asking: What does the religious authority teach about the role of the state?
Bush has lots to say about encouraging what he calls “capitalism for the campesinos.” He ties this to “social justice,” by which he means, above all, “meeting basic needs” to education, health care, and housing so that people can “realize their full potential, their God-given potential.” But social justice, thus conceived, doesn’t require massively redistributive government action; rather, it requires unleashing the potential of individual initiative, sowing some seeds, and leveraging the efforts of non-governmental organizations, especially faith-based ones.
In comparison to a speech from President Kennedy in 1961, Knippenberg concludes, “If you compare GWB to JFK, you’ll see that the goals aren’t all that different, but the thought put into the methods is.”