Posts tagged with: liberalism

Ahead of tonight’s vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, Hunter Baker (a Baptist political scholar) and I (a Reformed moral theologian), offer up some thoughts as “Protestants in Praise of Catholic Social Teaching” in a special edition of Acton Commentary.

We write,

Commentators are already busy parsing the partisan divide between the co-religionists Biden and Ryan, but having Roman Catholics represented in such prominent positions in this campaign and particularly in tonight’s debate is also likely to catapult another player into the national political consciousness: Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

For people of faith, and even for people of no particular faith whatsoever, CST represents a praiseworthy model for responsible civil engagement in a diverse and plural culture.

We go on to point in particular to the objective moral order recognized by CST, the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and the tradition’s commitment to religious liberty.

For an example of those “parsing the partisan divide” ahead of the debate, see this piece over at Religion Dispatches. There’s sure to be much more like this in the days and weeks to come.

Read our whole piece, though, for more on how CST provides some hope that we might elevate the level of our political discourse.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, October 5, 2012

Call for Papers: “Economics, Christianity & The Crisis: Towards a New Architectonic Critique”

The 2008 credit crisis is not only a crisis in economics, but also a crisis in the basic concepts and assumptions that underlie our thinking about economics, economics as a science. Critical analyses are called for of both economic practices and economic theory. New concepts and paradigms are needed. The first Kuyper Seminar Amsterdam aims at exploring what resources the Christian tradition has to offer for developing a sustainable and just economy of the future.

(more…)

In the context of commentary on protests like those in Quebec and the Occupy movement more broadly, it’s worth reflecting on the dangers of democratic tyranny.

The “people” can be tyrannical just as an individual sovereign or an oligarchy might. That’s why Aristotle considered democracy a defective form of government, because it too easily enshrines the will of the majority into an insuperable law. As Lord Acton put it, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.” For this same reason Tocqueville worried about the tyrannical power of the will of the majority, once settled:

So, what is a majority taken as a collective whole, if not an individual with opinions and quite often interests, in opposition to another individual whom we call a minority? Now, if you admit that and all-powerful man can abuse his power against his opponents, why not admit the same thing for a majority? Have men, united together, changed their character? Have they become more patient of obstacles by becoming stronger?

Of course not. As Tocqueville goes on to observe, the self-righteous assurance of the majority makes their impatience even more striking. They will brook no dissent because of the assurance that they are correct and that the majority rules, as it ought to.

When the majority (99%) can simply decide to take what they decide they “deserve” from the minority (1%), you have the recipe then for deep injustice. What I don’t see, however, is any unified majority (yet). The student protesters in Quebec might have some sympathy, but whatever the political fallout will be, it is unlikely that the younger generation is going to be politically successful in their bid to protect their economic interests against the entrenched interests of the boomer generations. In part this is because as much as they might protest, or complain, or start Internet petitions, young people don’t vote and they don’t have powerful lobbying groups.

The dynamic is likely to be the same here in the US. As the share of federal spending is increasingly dominated by entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, you’ll end up having recipients of various entitlements fighting it out. And no matter how upset college students and recent graduates are, I don’t see their political interests holding more sway than say, the retired. The AARP will beat the student union six days a week and twice on Sunday.

We can see this dynamic playing out all over the world. As Bill Frezza writes (HT: The Transom) in the context of Greece and the EU crisis, “Democracy becomes a cancer if its powers are not limited. That is because a sustainable democracy requires not just votes, but also governing institutions that protect the rights of minorities against predatory majorities. The disease of voters voting themselves benefits at someone else’s expense has infected much of the world.”

He concludes, “Greece provides a stark example of what happens when a government runs out of other people’s money. If the rest of us don’t take heed while there is still time, we will all end up like you.” And if the Greek leftists have their way, it may not matter what the rest of the world does: “…if you want to send us to the bottom, we will take you to the bottom too.”

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg addresses the “considerable fractures” that continue to divide conservative and libertarian positions on significant policy issues as well as on “deeper philosophical questions.” He pulls apart the “often tortuously drawn distinctions” surrounding the political labels and then offers some reasons why the “often unconscious but sometimes deliberate embrace of philosophical skepticism by some conservatives and libertarians should be challenged.”

Perceptive critics of skepticism have illustrated that the concern to be reasonable and avoid self-deception about reality is the starting point of any quest for philosophical truth: i.e., the very knowledge that skeptics believe we can’t know. What reason could skeptics therefore have for desiring to comprehend that, in the final analysis, all is unknowable, unless they are engaged in a quest for truth? In other words, skeptics draw their deduction that we should be philosophical skeptics from foundational assumptions they cannot doubt.

Also self-refuting is the common skeptic claim that reason is purely instrumental. For to defend this position, the skeptic’s reason necessarily engages in a non-instrumental task. He presumes it is good to know the truth of skepticism, and on grounds of reason rather than feelings. It is thus inconsistent for skeptics to assert that all philosophical viewpoints are arbitrary opinions. When skeptics posit that humans can only be motivated by sentiment rather than reason, they are not proposing this statement as their own impetuous preference. They claim to be making a rational judgment.

Read “Beyond Conservatism and Libertarianism” on Public Discourse by Samuel Gregg.

On The American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that, “as evidence for the European social model’s severe dysfunctionality continues to mount before our eyes, the American left is acutely aware how much it discredits its decades-old effort to take America down the same economic path.” Against this evidence, some liberals are pinning the blame on passing fiscal and currency imbalances. No, Gregg says, there’s “something even more fundamental” behind the meltdown of the post-war West European social model. (Thanks to RealClearWorld for linking).

… this reality is that the Social Democratic project is coming apart at the seams under the weight of the economic policies and priorities pursued by most Social Democrats (whatever their party-designation) — including the American variety.

From the beginning, post-war Social Democracy’s goal (to which much of Europe’s right also subscribes) was to use the state to realize as much economic security and equality as possible, without resorting to the outright collectivization pursued by the comrades in the East. In policy-terms, that meant extensive regulation, legal privileges for trade unions, “free” healthcare, subsidies and special breaks for politically-connected businesses, ever-growing social security programs, and legions of national and EU public sector workers to “manage” the regulatory-welfare state — all of which was presided over by an increasingly-inbred European political class (Europe’s real “1 percent”) with little-to-no experience of the private sector.

None of this was cost-free. It was financed by punishing taxation and, particularly in recent years, public and private debt. In terms of outcomes, it has produced some of the developed world’s worst long-term unemployment rates, steadily-declining productivity, and risk-averse private sectors.

Above all, it slowly strangled the living daylights out of economic freedom in much of Europe. Without Germany (which, incidentally, also engaged in welfare reform and considerable economic liberalization in the 2000s), it’s hard to avoid concluding that Social Democratic Europe would have imploded long ago.

Read “The American Left’s European Nightmare” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.

Acton On The AirActon Research Fellow Jordan Ballor – who also serves as Executive Editor of the Journal of Markets and Morality – took to the airwaves in the Houston, Texas area last night to discuss the ecumenical movement, his book, Ecumenical Babel, and Christian social thought with the hosts of A Show of Faith on News Talk 1070 AM.

To listen to the interview, use the audio player below:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The state of religious liberty around the world is poor, according a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion. Doug Bandow breaks down the report over at The American Spectator—his piece is titled “A World Spinning Backward.”

Two years ago, Pew reported that 70 percent of humanity suffered from either government persecution of or social hostility to religion.

That trend is growing. According to Pew’s new study, “more than 2.2 billion people—about a third of the world’s population—live in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion are increasing. About 1% live in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities are decreasing.”

And in a finding that reminds one of Old Testament and Roman persecutions,

Pew noted that “restrictions on religion are particularly common in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they more often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical.”

Blasphemy prosecutions have become notorious in Pakistan. These laws began with the British, were strengthened by a military dictator seeking religious support, and now are disproportionately used against Christians, often to settle property or other disputes. Muslims who urge reform of the laws are at risk. Punjab governor Salman Taseer was vocal in his criticism of the blasphemy statute and was murdered in January.

So Bandow asks, “What is responsible for this alarming trend?”

One finding suggests an unusual form of global polarization. Authoritarian states are growing more repressive while liberal nations are growing freer.

But while the America remains the most religiously free region in the world, social oppression is breaking out even in Western democratic nations…. Pew found that “Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009.

Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia (where religious-oriented terrorism is on the rise), Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Italy are all guilty of backsliding. Bandow’s conclusion ought to be taken seriously:

Only one thing is certain: liberty is both rare and precious. Unfortunately, people in much of the world are free in neither their personal nor their political lives…. History obviously has more than its share of surprises left for us.

The First Amendment must never be taken for granted.

Even philosophers can be entrepreneurial when economic reality comes crashing in, creating an existential crisis. That’s one lesson from this intriguing Washington Post story (HT: Sarah Pulliam Bailey), “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers.”

The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable. But it does illustrate one response to the variegated crisis faced by higher education, particularly by those in the liberal arts and humanities. When you are done with school and have dim employment prospects and looming loans, you have a few different choices. You can ask, “Would you like fries with that, sir?” Or you can get out and create something for yourself in an entrepreneurial fashion.

These philosophical counselors represent something significant in the latter realm of response. And this is illustrative of the new kind of mindset that academics are going to have to have, even if they find places in traditional educational institutions. For a long time the entrepreneurial dynamism in higher ed was largely expressed in founding new centers and even independent think tanks and research institutions. This will continue, but it seems to me at the individual level scholars are going to have to be more creative and innovative simply to make ends meet. This will mean starting consulting businesses and creating new ways of providing a service to people, often outside of a traditional classroom setting. These realities are new for many in the liberal arts, but they are nothing new to researchers in the natural sciences.

So higher education is definitely undergoing a kind of destruction, but philosoprenuerial efforts like those in the WaPo piece will help determine whether that destruction is “creative” or not. I have hope that the decadence of humanities higher education can be challenged by these kinds of economic and moral realities.

Such examples are also instructive for those in other fields, perhaps especially theology. Increasingly institutions are realizing the need for “ecclesiastical entrepreneurs,” so to speak, and looking at new ways of integrating and aligning the interests of the academy and the church. In some cases this means new ways of combining programs, or launching new majors to provide expertise and instruction in a variety of institutional settings.

My contribution to this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

TV Bias Book Not Ready for Primetime

By Bruce Edward Walker

Reading Ben Shapiro’s Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV is similar to time traveling through the pages of a TV Guide. Dozens of television series from the past 50 years are dissected through Shapiro’s conservative lens – or, at least, what passes for Shapiro’s brand of conservatism – to reveal his perception that the television industry is – gasp! – overrun by social liberalism.

Trouble is, Shapiro finds signs of liberalism in nearly everything he’s viewed on the boob tube, and wields this bias indiscriminately against programming that may or may not possess a “liberal agenda.” His book may or may not be retaliation for a rejection the young author received for having his Hollywood aspirations dashed after producers vetting his background discovered Shapiro has authored a syndicated conservative column since his Harvard Law School days. This anecdote prefaces his lengthy jeremiad against the liberal establishment in the television industry.

When reading Primetime Propaganda, one is reminded of Harvard University professor Irving Babbitt who railed so much against Jean Jacques Rousseau that his students speculated he checked under his bed each evening to ensure the French philosopher wasn’t hiding there.

Like Kevin McCarthy warning against the Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Charlton Heston discovering the little crackers in Soylent Green are made from people, Shapiro casts himself as a lone voice crying in the wilderness about the prevalence of liberalism in television, portentously outlining the thesis for his work:

After reading Primetime Propaganda, you’ll be awakened to what’s really going on behind the small screen, and you’ll be stunned to learn that you’ve been targeted by a generations of television creators and programmers for political conversion. You’ll find out that the box in your living room has been invading your mind, subtly shaping your opinions, pushing you to certain sociopolitical conclusions for years.

That Hollywood is predominantly liberal is no surprise to anyone and there are plenty of examples to support this. But that doesn’t prevent Shapiro from hammering as hard as he can to fit pegs of all shapes into an ill-defined liberal hole. Such an approach amounts to nothing more than buckshot as he fails from the outset of his enterprise to define adequately the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” Read without this crucial critical perspective, I suppose anything that offends the author’s sensibilities is deemed the former and anything he enjoys must fall into the latter realm. However, Shapiro confesses to enjoying such programs as Friends and The Simpsons, which he also classifies as promoting social liberalism. Apparently, he reconciles this inconsistency by possessing immunity to the sociopolitical mind control to which the rest of us without Harvard Law degrees are susceptible.

Further, Shapiro takes the too easy path in many instances to declare programs such as All in the Family as liberal indoctrination. On this in particular, I beg to differ. The 1970s program was indeed created by liberal producer Norman Lear and featured the outspoken activist actor Rob Reiner in a featured role, but to malign the program for this and its admittedly intermittent liberal subject matter is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Lear’s All in the Family might have accomplished more for the civil rights movement than any number of protests, documentaries, and marches simply by creating a lovable, bigoted curmudgeon whom viewers loved despite his innumerable prejudices. Shapiro writes that the program made fun of blue-collar conservatives through its depiction of a racist dockworker. If an unreformed Archie Bunker represents the type of conservatism Shapiro advocates, I’ll take a pass. The under-30 Shapiro may not recall the rampant racism of the early 1970s, but this writer certainly does.

By listening to Archie Bunker’s stridently offensive and indefensible rants, millions of 1970s television viewers – some possessing similar if not identical views – witnessed the absurdity of his intolerance, and warmed to the black Lionel Jefferson and Italian house-husband Frank Lorenzo far more quickly than did Archie. This may not adhere to Shapiro’s version of conservatism, but it certainly tracks with conservative Judeo-Christian principles of loving one’s neighbor regardless of race, creed, or color.

Additionally, viewers also witnessed the hypocrisy of Rob Reiner’s avowedly counterculture character, Michael “Meathead” Stivic, who mooches off his in-laws and behaves chauvinistically toward his wife. In at least one episode, Stivic was revealed to be as intolerant in his countercultural views as Archie was in his bigotry. I hardly perceive of this as an affront to conservative values.

It’s undeniable that television programming is antithetical to many true conservative values, as it repeatedly attacks Judeo-Christian traditions, attacks religious beliefs at seemingly every opportunity, and promotes statist policies and alternative lifestyles. But what’s called for isn’t Shapiro’s broad-brushed approach but a far more incisive analysis of the television industry’s promotion of secular liberalism.

Over the last several years I find myself more and more being drawn into conversation about religion—specifically, Orthodox Christianity—and economics. Originally, my interest in the economic side of the conversation was minimal. Embarrassing though it is to say now, I only took one economics class in college and while I got a “B” I was an indifferent student of the subject.

Thanks to personal friendships I’ve discovered the work of economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich A. Hayek—two dominant voices in the Austrian School of Economics. Even here though my interests were, initially at least, not so much in policy as methodology; unlike the quantitative and empirical approach I studied in college, the Austrian school conceives of economics more along the lines of the qualitative approach at the center of human science movement. This qualitative approach to economics has resulted in some interesting, and to my mind extraordinarily helpful and insightful, research into religion by scholars such as Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark.

Among other things, the economic study of religion helps us understand why pluralism is good for religion in general but to the disadvantage of some religions in particular. Ironically, the free market in religion harms those liberal religious communities who value cultural pluralism and economic liberalism (in the contemporary American sense) but are suspicious, and even overtly hostile, to economic capitalism. On the other hand, those religious traditions that resist cultural pluralism and contemporary liberalism—but who often, though not universally—favor a free market approach to economics are the main benefactors of the free for all that characterizes the American religious landscape (see for example, Iannaccone, 1994).

Through this, circuitous route, I have lately come to an interest in economic public policy. Unfortunately such an interest is usually greeted with something less than enthusiasm—at least when (as in my case) you are an Orthodox priest. At the risk of making a gross generalization, clergy are typically as ignorant of economics and business as economists and business people are of moral theology and the ascetical tradition of the Church. Since I’m trading in stereotypes already, I would say that discussions between theologians and economists break down quickly since—intentionally or not—theologians assume economists are wicked even as economists assume that theologians are ignorant. Representatives of the two disciplines rarely understand each other because they rarely have even a basic grasp of the other academic discipline and the kinds of questions and concerns that its scholars seek to address.

This is why three small books published by the American Enterprise Institute are so welcome. The books (P. Wehner & A. C. Brooks, Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism; A. J. Pollock, Boom & Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity; S. F. Hayward, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World) are part of AEI’s Common Sense Concepts series. They’re all short—each took just an afternoon to read—introductions to basic ideas in economics. What is especially important is that they do this in a way that takes seriously Christian moral concerns. Meant primarily for college students and written from a broadly Evangelical Christian perspective, singularly and together they offer a good ethical and practical defense of democratic capitalism.

That said though a defense of the American model of democracy and of the free market, these works do not allow either politics or economics to drive the conversation. Rather both are examined soberly in light of “merely Christianity.” I think the authors would all acknowledge, as Wehner and Brooks do explicitly in their book, that “capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself” (p. 8). Both require “strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement,” sustain and (when needed) reform them.

But this symphonia is impossible without “an educated citizenry.” Such an education must be more than technical—essential though a sound technical foundation is. To fulfill the vision sketched out in these three books assumes that we possess personally what Peter Kreeft (1992) might call the “soft” virtues “such as sympathy, altruism, compassion” as well as the “hard” virtues of “self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty.” Like technological skill, personal virtue alone is insufficient. We need not only healthy, robust and vibrant families and churches, but also a political culture that supports and abides “by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome). Without these virtues, capitalism [and democracy] can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.”

Why are personal virtue and the rule of law essential? Because:

…capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web. Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it. Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complimentary. They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain (p. 9).

As both an Orthodox Christian and a social scientist, seeing democratic capitalism in this way helps me understand how the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church can make a contribution to American civil society.

Especially for St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas, the ascetical struggle does not extinguish desire (i.e., self-interest) as much as does purify it. As St Augustine argues, prayer, fasting and almsgiving teach me to order rightly the different elements of my life in light of the Gospel; asceticism points me beyond myself to Christ, helps me to love Christ, and in Christ to love my neighbor. Just as asceticism purifies my desires, the Church’s liturgical tradition provides me with a sense of the larger, eschatological context within which I live my life. Apart from such an eschatological experience, I will invariably and necessarily succumb to the temptation to take and make ultimate “the cares of this life” rather than to lay them aside as we hear in the Cherubic Hymn.

If Wehner and Brooks are correct, capitalism and democracy are “part of an intricate social web.” Understanding this social network requires not only personal virtue and just laws, but the eschatological vision that we receive in the sacraments and which we constantly accept and embody in the ascetical life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Work Cited:

Iannaccone, L. R. (1994). “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology, 99(5), pp. 1180-1211.

Kreeft, P (1992). Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.