Posts tagged with: liberalism

Earlier this month, prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson delivered the 2011 Kuyper Prize Lecture at the Kuyper Center conference, “Calvinism and Culture.”

In this lecture, Robinson explores and reframes our historical understanding of the Reformed tradition and its relationship to “Christian liberalism.” She says,

Contrary to entrenched assumption, contrary to the conventional associations made with the words Calvinist and Puritan, and despite the fact that certain fairly austere communities can claim a heritage in Reformed culture and history, Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation. And this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament. This is a bold statement, very much against the grain of historical consensus. Though I acknowledge that it may be indefensible in any number of particulars, I will argue that in a general sense it is not only true, but a clarification of history important to contemporary culture and to that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.

She traces this idea of Christian liberalism to the Reformation ideas about generosity and responsibility. She notes,

But in Renaissance French, libéral, libéralité, meant “generous, generosity.” And of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized Version. The word occurs in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, non-exclusive generosity.

The point here does not apply to non-exclusivity of doctrine (which is how it is typically understood, and applied as she notes in the context of figures like Adolf von Harnack). The point is rather that Christian liberalism, as informed by the Reformed reception of the biblical witness, is that it is focused on a vision of social life and culture.

As Robinson says, “All this is of interest because the verses I have quoted and the word liberal itself, supported by the meaning the verses give to it, are central to American social thought from its beginning.”

The audio of Robinson’s lecture is available in MP3 format here.

A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).

Another election has come and gone, and once again the balance of power has significantly shifted in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across America.  Tuesday’s results are, I suppose, a win for fans of limited government, in that a Republican House of Representatives will make it more difficult for President Obama and his Democrat colleagues in the Congress to enact more of what has been a very statist agenda.  But even with the prospect of divided government on the horizon, we who believe in individual liberty and the principles of classical liberalism still have much to be concerned with.  Perhaps the primary concern is whether or not those Republicans who were swept into office—not due to any real love of the electorate for the Republican Party, but rather due to anxiety over the direction the Democrats have taken the country—will be able to hold to the principles of limited government and individual liberty that so many of them claimed to espouse during the campaign, or whether those principles will be abandoned in a mad pursuit of power.  Forefront in the mind of every lover of liberty should be Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

My sincere hope is that with Americans deeply dissatisfied with both major political parties and finding that the government is either unable or unwilling to solve the major fiscal and social problems that we face, people will begin to re-think their basic assumptions about the role of government in American life.  For decades, the default assumption has been that the government is a force for good and can be a driver of positive social change.   Witness Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, etc.  All of these programs were designed by experts to alleviate some pressing social need, and were assumed to be the right thing to do.  After all, who wouldn’t want to help the poor and elderly to live a fuller, better life?  And yet, as the years went by, all of these programs—though well-intentioned by their creators—have failed to achieve their lofty goals.  The Social Security “trust fund” is devoid of funds and packed with IOUs left by politicians who, over the years, have spent the money promised to seniors on other programs.  Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs have warped the economics of health care, paying doctors less and less and therefore driving up the cost of private insurance in order to make up the difference.  Obamacare is little more than an attempt by the government to solve a cost crisis—created in large part by government intervention—with even more extensive government intervention into the market.  We already know how that story ends.  And as for the Great Society and the War on Poverty, trillions of dollars over the years simply failed to alleviate poverty in America, and in many cases only created deeper, more entrenched social problems.

It is clear by now to anyone who cares to look that massive government intervention into society tends to do more harm than good, no matter how well intentioned the interventionists are.  Government has its place—no arguments for anarchy are to be found here—but the government must be limited to its proper place.  The genius of the American founding came in the limitation of the national government to certain enumerated functions, leaving the people at liberty to take care of the rest of life as they saw fit.  The respect for individual liberty and the acknowledgement that the rights of citizens were not granted by the state but were granted to individuals by God himself provided a firm foundation for the vibrant growth and strength of the United States in the coming centuries.  As a people, we need to realize that the further we move away from those founding principles and the more we cede our liberty to governmental agents in return for a promise of security, the less likely it is that we will remain strong, vibrant, and free.

At the Acton Institute 20th Anniversary Celebration, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico reminded us of the roots of human dignity and the importance of individual liberty during his keynote address:

I think that the oppression threatening democracies will not be like anything there has been in the world before….

I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls….

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances….

Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.

I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom and that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of this people.

Alexis De Tocqueville, 1840.

Democracy in America, pp. 805-6.

Bruce Tinsley’s comic strip Mallard Fillmore has long been an excellent examination of conservative principles, current events, and problems associated with government interventionism. The strip appears in over 400 newspapers across the country. Yesterday featured a particularly simple and poignant strip humorously pointing out early attempts to crush the entrepreneurial spirit and the free market. The December 13 strip simply speaks for itself.

Right before I saw the strip yesterday I just finished reading a proposal in Michigan that has the support of Lt. Governor John Cherry for a new tax on bottled water.

In “The Real Culture War Is Over Capitalism,” Arthur C. Brooks argues in the Wall Street Journal that the “major cultural schism” in America today divides those who support capitalism and, on the other side, those who favor socialism. He makes a strong case for the moral foundations of free enterprise and entrepreneurship and points to the recent “tea parties” as evidence that Americans still favor the market economy. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, says Americans are revolting against “absurdities” like the bailout of General Motors that will be financed with ballooning budget deficits and trillions in new federal debt. He writes:

… the tea parties are not based on the cold wonkery of budget data. They are based on an “ethical populism.” The protesters are homeowners who didn’t walk away from their mortgages, small business owners who don’t want corporate welfare and bankers who kept their heads during the frenzy and don’t need bailouts. They were the people who were doing the important things right — and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.

Voices in the media, academia, and the government will dismiss this ethical populism as a fringe movement — maybe even dangerous extremism. In truth, free markets, limited government, and entrepreneurship are still a majoritarian taste. In March 2009, the Pew Research Center asked people if we are better off “in a free market economy even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time.” Fully 70% agreed, versus 20% who disagreed.

He also points out that the government has been increasingly “exempting” Americans from paying taxes, an intentional strategy to create a larger class of government-dependent citizens.

My colleague Adam Lerrick showed in [the Wall Street Journal] last year that the percentage of American adults who have no federal income-tax liability will rise to 49% from 40% under Mr. Obama’s tax plan. Another 11% will pay less than 5% of their income in federal income taxes and less than $1,000 in total.

To put a modern twist on the old axiom, a man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart; a man who is still a socialist at 40 either has no head, or pays no taxes. Social Democrats are working to create a society where the majority are net recipients of the “sharing economy.” They are fighting a culture war of attrition with economic tools. Defenders of capitalism risk getting caught flat-footed with increasingly antiquated arguments that free enterprise is a Main Street pocketbook issue. Progressives are working relentlessly to see that it is not.

Read the “The Culture of Charity,” the Spring 2007 interview with Brooks in Acton’s Religion & Liberty. Watch a 16-minute video interview with Brooks recorded at the Acton Grand Rapids office in May 2008

The Acton Institute was out in front on the warnings of all the problems associated with using corn ethanol as a fuel source. My article “The Unintended Consequences of the Ethanol Quick Fix“ was published in The Christian Science Monitor last July.

The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society has uncovered a new problem with corn ethanol. According to the GBCS corn is sacred to indigenous people, thus not appropriate for being used as an energy source. Could this be the famed corn goddess they are referring to?

A minister who attended a seminar forum expressed to me the feeling that the GBCS conference was far too left leaning, which is of course no surprise when one is talking about the United Methodist lobbying group. A few prominent themes of the forum were boycotting professional sports teams in Washington D.C. because new stadiums have displaced people who live in low income housing, environmentalism, and left leaning poverty initiatives. In a phone conversation today the minister expressed disappointment in the lack of attention that was given to more traditional Christian teachings, and called the political agenda “over the top.” This seminar program was designed for students in the 15 to 18 year old age group.

The GBCS is noted for all kinds of various left wing antics, such as their recent push for anti-Israeli divestment proposals. During this 4th of July holiday, I’m also reminded of when one of their staff members took cheap shots at the American flag in sanctuaries, going so far as to make a comparison with Nazis flags which once adorned German sanctuaries. Mark Tooley offered an excellent response to that controversy in FrontPage Magazine over a year ago.

UMAction, the Methodist wing of IRD that supports traditional and historic Methodism is encouraging women in the United Methodist and Wesleyan tradition in ministry to consider attending the “Come to the Water” conference in Nashville from April 10-13. John Lomperis of IRD appropriately notes, “Many evangelical clergywomen in the United Methodist Church feel sidelined or excluded in some of the denomination’s official clergy women’s networks because of a dominance of intolerant theological liberalism.”

Just last night I was talking to a female probationary member in a United Methodist Annual Conference who said she was required to listen to sermons that praised liberation theology and attend seminars that promoted many kinds of theological and political liberalism. Fortunately, this conference will stand in stark contrast to the famous Re-Imagining Conference.

I stumbled across this article at David Thompson’s blog, where he notes that the article’s author, Jay Rayner, is pondering “…the whereabouts of dramatic radicalism in an age of state subsidy”:

The actor Julian Fellowes, who wrote the script for the Oscar-winning country house whodunit Gosford Park and the book for the stage musical of Mary Poppins, is a good place to start. He’s professionally posh. He has a son called Peregrine. His wife is a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and a descendant of Lord Kitchener. He is, unsurprisingly, a Conservative Party supporter, and like all good Conservatives he takes the long view. ‘Very simply put,’ he says, ‘after the Second World War the avant garde became the establishment. That meant that no one was poking fun at the establishment any more because they approved of it.’

So is it a conspiracy? ‘Absolutely not. I don’t want to give the impression that there’s some plot going on. It’s just become impossible not to be a socialist within the artistic community these days.‘ He recalls emerging from drama school in the Seventies and realising he didn’t fit in. ‘Suddenly being young meant being left-wing, because if you were to the right you were a boring old fart.’ And that, he says, has not changed despite changes in government. The problem, he says, isn’t too much theatre from the left: it’s a simple lack of it from the right. ‘There’s something profoundly non-intellectual about it. Any reasonably free society must allow for a range of views, and we don’t have that.’

Interesting stuff. And reminiscent of an article penned earlier this year by David Michael Phelps for Religion and Liberty:

But here we reach a very crucial point, the point where we see that handing ideas to the Artist is not the same as handing them to the Propagandist. For the Propagandist, the message is the focus, the party line is towed without falter, and as a result, the Propagandist seldom produces Art of lasting persuasive power. For the Artist, the vehicle of the message – that is, the Art itself – is the focus, and this is precisely why Artists are so much more convincing in their work than Propagandists: Propagandists so concentrate on the water that they attend less to the holes in the bucket. Artists concentrate on making great buckets, often concerning themselves less with the contents.

Likewise, conservatives may be more apt to produce propaganda when they attempt to create Art because their ideas are often more sound than the liberal (in the modern sense) alternative and they have less need for – and therefore less incentive to learn – Story. Liberals can indulge themselves in shoddy Syllogism, because they make up for the lack with good Storytelling. But this doesn’t excuse conservatives from falling off the other side of the horse.

There a popular saying that suggests “If you are a liberal when you are young, you have no heart. If you aren’t a conservative when you are old, you have no head.” But I see no reason why must we lack one to have the other. We should have, and must communicate with, both. We must add Story to our Syllogism, adding emotional punch to our reason. After all, Socrates taught with syllogisms, and Jesus with parables.

Blog author: jarmstrong
posted by on Friday, February 9, 2007

Our religious and political rights are uniquely bound up together. Most young Americans, and far too many older native born American citizens, have little or no idea how important this truth really is.

The central idea behind this unique relationship in American political understanding is limited government. This is really what classical liberalism understood and fervently practiced. Modern liberalism has little or nothing to do with this understanding, preferring to stress ideologies that are neither truly liberal nor limited.

The founding fathers fervently believed that we were all created equal, with inherent rights to life and liberty given to us by God. This belief was rooted in both Judeo-Christian beliefs and some elements of Enlightenment philosophy. The securing of these rights was the very basis for a limited government. And a limited government was based upon the understanding that true power arose from the governed who were willing to consent to a just government.

There were some very big differences of opinion among our founding fathers, such as two very different views of America’s future as represented by Jefferson and Hamilton. In some ways these two distinct views clashed in the Civil War, as North and South came to represent these two differing positions. But regardless of these early differences what clearly united the founders was a deep respect for individual rights and for limited government. (more…)