Posts tagged with: michael gerson

Here’s the key assumption in Michael Gerson’s piece from last week, “The Libertarian Jesus”:

Private compassion cannot replace Medicaid or provide AIDS drugs to millions of people in Africa for the rest of their lives. In these cases, a role for government is necessary and compassionate — the expression of conservative commitments to the general welfare and the value of every human life.

Private compassion certainly could do this, and much more. Private giving generally dwarfs government programs in both real dollars and effectiveness.

Does this mean that there is no role or never a role for government? No. But that role is one of last and temporary resort. The dichotomy that Gerson draws from one side (and many libertarians draw from another) is false.

Gerson also misunderstands the import of Coburn’s claims that compassion cannot be coerced, “that true giving and compassion require sacrifice by the giver.” The divide between government programs and individual charity isn’t a public/private distinction, but rather a political/moral distinction, where the moral element may sometimes but not always necessitate political action. Poverty is simply not morally equatable with slavery or abortion.

Abraham Kuyper makes the point pretty well in his treatise on The Problem of Poverty. Read these two quotes in juxtaposition and you can see where Gerson’s errors reside.

First, from the main text, “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 honor of your Savior.”

And second, from a footnote, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

With whom does the primary responsibility for care for the poor reside? Answer that question, and you can properly relate the political and moral claims regarding poverty.

In today’s WaPo, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson opines on Senator Barack Obama’s recent address to a gathering of UCC faithful (HT).

In “The Gospel Of Obama,” Gerson writes, “By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ — among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations — he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.”

Gerson bases this judgment on the contention, citing a Pew Forum researcher, that the younger generations of evangelicals “tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.” The apparent “liberalizing” of young evangelical interests is no doubt an expression of a broader cultural phenomenon.

In addressing the UCC gathering, it would seem that Senator Obama was simply taking a page out of Rev. Jim Wallis’ playbook. For Wallis, Democrats need to get comfortable talking about matters of faith. I’ll admit that I found this passage rather curious:

Yet what we also understand is that our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government. Because whether it’s poverty or racism, the uninsured or the unemployed, war or peace, the challenges we face today are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.

I guess I would see the “perfect ten-point plan” more the realm of government, and the “moral problems” as the realm of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque rather than the other way around. It seems that from framing something as a “moral” issue it immediately follows that it is a political issue.

Gerson calls Obama’s speech, “a class in remedial religion,” and perhaps that’s all the Democratic party is ready for. But Gerson realizes that this “remedial religion” wasn’t presented to the Democratic faithful, but to a much more narrow slice of the liberal movement: religious progressives.

What really needs to be done, says Gerson, is a three-step process of recovering religious rhetoric effectively. “First,” says Gerson, “candidates should talk about their own faith and the importance of religion in public life, both of which Obama did well.” That’s in part what Wallis’ CNN forum on faith was intended to do…to give Democratic candidates a primer on speaking about religion in public.

But on two other fronts, Gerson finds Obama’s speech lacking: “Second, Democrats should emphasize common-ground issues that credit the moral concerns of religious conservatives while calming the waves of the culture wars — such as confronting the toxic excesses of popular culture, encouraging character and discipline in public schools, and promoting religious liberty abroad,” and “Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand.” This last point is one that has been echoed by a number of others (although it’s not a prominent plank in Wallis’ platform for faithful Democrats).

I do wonder, however, how this third element would go over among the UCC mainstream, who themselves are not representative of this younger evangelical mindset. The UCC is a supporting member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and according to one source, the UCC “has strongly supported the legalization of abortion since 1971. The UCC supported FOCA and strongly opposed the PBA ban to the point of joining the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARRAL) in a statement affirming President Clinton’s veto of the PBA Ban Act in 1996. The UCC has also called for the church to support abortion in any national health care bill.” There’s a real disconnect at this point in Gerson’s piece, in that he seems to confuse the progressively mainline UCC with “young evangelicals.”

In the end, Gerson’s analysis seems to line up with what Tony Campolo wrote recently, “It is time for us to name the hypocrisy of the Left in complaining about how the Religious Right is violating the first amendment while turning a blind eye to their own candidates’ use of churches as places to campaign.”

Gerson observes in the same vein,

Obama’s criticism of the religious right for baptizing the agenda of economic conservatism — making tax cuts their highest legislative priority — had some justified sting. But then he proceeded, in the typical manner of the religious left, to give a variety of more liberal causes a similar kind of full-immersion baptism: passing a “universal health care bill,” withdrawing quickly from Iraq, approving comprehensive immigration reform. Agree with these proposals or not, none is a test of true religion.

And this points to the flaw, I think, in Wallis’ program for making the Democratic party religion-friendly: “Obama is clearly more fluent on religious issues than most in his party. But to appeal broadly to religious voters, he will need to be more than the candidate of the religious left.” Connecting the mainline churches to the Democratic party will not do much to attract young evangelicals, no matter how diverse their policy interests.

Joe Knippenberg criticizes Gerson for using “rights” language in describing the status of the poor and oppressed. Here’s the offending passage from Gerson:

The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim “Thus sayeth the Lord,” spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

It seems correct that we should judge policy not only by motive but also by outcome. That’s an important point, one that folks like Jim Wallis should consider more often.

Knippenberg writes that such an invocation of rights “tends to short-circuit prudence and the kind of balancing political judgment always requires. I can have a duty toward someone and he or she can have a claim on my attention and compassion without requiring me to take political action on his or her behalf. Stated another way, by emphasizing the political as opposed to the charitable element of the concern with widows and orphans, Gerson already begins to distort the debate.”

I think Knippenberg’s instinct is right to try to protect the realm of moral duty and obligation apart from political action itself. But in allowing “rights” to become a strictly political term, I think we’d be making the same mistake that some libertarians make with regard to conflating moral duty and political rights. That is, political rights should be understood as a sub-group or species of the broader category of human rights.

Gerson doesn’t make this distinction, but it’s not clear that he means to conflate political rights with all kinds of human rights either. Defining the necessary faith as both “active” and “political” makes that a valid conclusion. But it seems to me that “the means to achieve those ideals” may not be political at all, and that’s a big part of where the prudential argument should be at. The political element may enter in only by defending and upholding the liberty necessary for elements of civil society or individual action to respect those rights and fulfill those duties.

Update: Terry Mattingly at GetReligion weighs in on the Gerson piece. He writes of abortion, “There is room for political compromise here, but I have met very few young Christians who actually disagree with traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality and marriage. Would Democrats be willing to compromise and meet people in Middle-American pews in, well, the middle on this hot-button issue? Would the party’s leadership be able to convince its secular/religious liberal alliance to compromise?”

As a follow-up to John Armstrong’s post, I point you to this excellent response to Gerson’s article by Joe Knippenberg at No Left Turns (HT: Good Will Hinton).

Knippenberg raises the relevant question whether “the ‘new evangelicals’ he describes will have sound practical judgment to go along with their decency and moral energy.”

I think it’s true that the potential is there for the “new” evangelicals to go the Jim Wallis route, who is proclaiming the election as “a defeat for the Religious Right and the secular Left,” which leaves, you guessed it, the Religious Left.

Pundits and pollsters are sorting out the results of Tuesday’s elections day-by-day now. Most are agreed that these mid-term elections do not signal a huge victory for the political left. But why? The Democrats did win both houses of Congress didn’t they?

  1. Most of the seats lost by Republicans were lost to candidates as a result of the Democrats running men and women who were far less extreme than the voices of the post-60s crowd that has controlled their party for decades. Think of Robert Casey, Jr. and Harold Ford, Jr. as two basic examples.
  2. American is still fundamentally religious, with upwards of 85% expressing allegiance to some organized faith and a third still attending a house of worship weekly. The Democrats took this far more seriously in this most recent election cycle. Time will tell what this means and how it will play out but I expect more pro-life candidates from the Democratic Party in the coming years. One can at least hope and pray for such. In a recent Pew Research study only one in four thought this party was “friendly toward religion.”
  3. The polls say 21% of Americans call themselves liberal, 33% conservative and 46% say they are moderate. While I am not sure what the “moderate” classification means it is obvious liberals are still the minority. (By the way, the designation Independent has more adherents than either Republican or Democrat.)My guess is that if you used my own label of “progressive conservative” you would gain the majority of the middle.
  4. There is every reason to believe that this election was lost by the Republicans, not won by the Democrats. I personally hope that the leaders of the Democratic Party will use their new power appropriately but there are a number of wild cards to be watched very carefully. The greatest immediate loss will likely be in the appointment of more restrained judges given Joe Biden’s new role in the Senate.
  5. The Democratic influence over the African-American vote is still tenuous, even though the numbers do not reveal this strongly yet. Stephen Carter, in his book, The Dissent of the Governed, describes two black women who said that “they preferred a place that honored their faith and disdained their politics over a place that honored their politics and disdained their faith.” Will this thinking grow? The overwhelming majority of older blacks believe, and generally for good reasons, that the Democratic Party is the party that gave them their civil rights. The political impact of this historic fact could be changing, though slowly for sure. Religious Democrats are more likely to change their party affiliation, nearly four times as often as Republicans, according to a National Election Surveys study. This trend also needs to be watched.
  6. The party that can rightly appeal to the newest Hispanic voters will have greater success in the future. The Republicans made large gains in 2004 but went backwards on Tuesday. The debate about “illegal immigrants” is politically loaded. The next Congress will likely take up this issue and the President may get his way after all. This again should be watched. The strong arguments on the left and the right may be moderated in the 110th Congress by a comprehensive agreement the president can and will sign. Personally, I hope so.
  7. And what about young people? The numbers are not clear yet but in 2004 the number of young people moving toward the conservative category increased by 143%. There may have been a slowdown in this trend on Tuesday but I doubt it is a huge shift yet in terms of long-term practice.

In addition to these observations, a number of cultural patterns strengthen the conservative cause. Besides volunteerism being higher on the right, add to these various observations things like fertility patterns (conservatives have far more children than liberals) and the effects of education. All in all, you have some major trends favoring a more conservative direction for the future. (more…)