Posts tagged with: politics

Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.

The Belgic Confession of 1561This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.

There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.

In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.

The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.

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.

The curious alignment of Good Friday and Earth Day last week sparked much reflection about the relationship between the natural world and religious faith, but the previous forty days also manifested a noteworthy confluence of worldly and otherworldly concerns. The season of Lent occasioned a host of religious voices to speak out not simply about spiritual hunger, but about material needs too, as political debates in the nation’s capital and around the country focused on what to do about federal spending.

As I explore in an “On the Square” feature at the First Things site today, such discussions “often generate more heat than light.” In “Budget Cuts of Biblical Proportions,” I note the recent formation of a “Circle of Protection” around “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.” I also highlight “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis,” which I consider a “valiant attempt to elevate the debate.” If the point of the Call was to raise the discourse to more adult levels, then I think it must be judged a success (insofar as it has had any broader impact). Last week’s roundtable discussion at AEI attests to this, I think.

In the final analysis, however, I judge the Call to suffer the same fate as these other similar campaigns: “Instead of focusing on ways to empower other institutions and levels of government and galvanize them to relieve the burden of the federal government, these efforts simply feed into the fundamentally false dilemma of federal action or no action at all.”

One of the basic problems is that we no longer agree as a society what government is for, what the telos or purpose of the institution of the state is. I argue that we need to reconsider the basic purposes of government, which will then provide us with a framework for prioritizing certain kinds of spending. I also argue that the strategy to pursue where the true costs of government have been hidden by deficit spending and when there is a system that has been “trying to do too much for too many for too long” is to work to privatize and localize, rather than to nationalize and centralize.

This kind of strategy really does offer an alternative to the “lazy” and “unimaginative” options of simply raising taxes (on the rich, the middle class, or both) or cutting spending. Michael Gerson recently said that across-the-board and “indiscriminate cuts are an abdication of governing.” On this view, then, cutting spending and retaining relative spending priorities is not a viable option.

An illusion behind all of these Christian campaigns on the budget crisis is the idea that we can skip over these questions and still have something worthwhile to contribute to the national discussion. This error lies in the belief, as the Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey put it,

that there is such a thing as hybrid or satyrlike statements of moral fact within the scope of prophecy and precise preaching, and within the competence of Christian deliberation as such, or the deliberations of Christians as such. Statements of moral fact would melt together moral judgments and fact verdicts, principle and application, into something else that is somehow neither and both.

The mistaken impression is that so long as particular programs or policies aren’t explicitly identified in these calls then we are still operating within the legitimate realm of principle rather than making prudential judgments about specifics.

Gerson also says, “Serving the public interest requires a determination of what works and what doesn’t. This is one of the primary duties of those in government.” This underscores one of the sticking points that arose from our discussion of the Call last week. There is a great deal loaded into the term “effective” in the document. One person’s “effective” program is another’s wasteful and superfluous expenditure. Every interest group contends that its programs are the ones that are essential and indispensable. Everyone has their own favorite projects. So again, I ask, what makes a program effective? The Call doesn’t help us here.

So the dynamic of our situation is this: we no longer agree about what the good society looks like, or what government’s role at various levels is relative to that goal, and so we can no longer agree on ways to progress towards that goal. Forming “circles of protection” and calling for intergenerational justice will simply continue to nibble at the edges of and paper over these more fundamental problems until such time as we can begin to answer some of these questions. In the case of the budget this means getting back to basics. But more fundamentally it means agreeing about where we ought to be going.

Thus, writes C. S. Lewis, “Progress means getting nearer the place you want to be.” The question really comes down to where we want to be and what it will look like when we get there; and on that we don’t all agree.

In the forthcoming Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Wayne Grudem. His new book, Politics According to the Bible, is an essential resource for thinking through political issues in light of Scripture (Zondervan 2010). If you write about faith and politics, this book is a handy resource to have at your disposal. I find myself using it more and more as a resource in my own writing.

He is also the author of Business for the Glory of God, which is definitely a book that fits nicely within Acton’s mission. It was a delight to talk with Wayne during this interview. He is extremely gracious and kind and a serious thinker who contributes so much not to just issues of policy for Christians, but theology as well. Be sure to check the upcoming print or online edition for the rest of the interview.

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Dr. Wayne Grudem is the research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for 20 years. He has served as the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as President of the Evangelical Theological Society (1999), and as a member of the translation oversight committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He also served as the general editor for the ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008). Dr. Grudem’s latest book is Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan, 2010). He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.

It seems that political partisanship has been especially toxic in recent years. What can Christians do to be an effective witness against the hyper-partisan politics that many say is bad for the country?

I don’t think people should avoid being partisan. People should stand firmly for the right policies, as they understand them. What we can avoid is failing to act with kindness and graciousness towards those with whom we disagree.

When I encourage Christians to influence governments for good, this does not mean an angry, belligerent, intolerant, judgmental, red-faced and hate-filled influence, but rather a winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, and a persuasive influence that is suitable to each circumstance and that always protects the other person’s right to disagree. But one also has to be uncompromising about the truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God’s Word.

I want to encourage Christians to be careful of their attitudes and not to bring reproach on their cause by acting with hateful attitudes toward others. However, I do not think that the solution to political partisanship in the United States is some kind of compromise in the middle of two party’s differences. This is because I think in many cases there are morally right and wrong positions, and we should continue to hope that the morally right positions will triumph and the wrong positions will be defeated in the normal course of ordinary political discussion and by democratic elections.

What are your thoughts on the tea party movement? Is it a movement Christians should be involved with?

I am in favor of following the original intent of the Constitution, and I am in favor of lower taxes and less government control on people’s lives. I think, as I explain in my book, those positions are consistent with Biblical teachings on the role of government and the way judges should function in a nation. In the Bible, judges have the role of interpreting and applying laws, but not of changing laws or making laws. That is the difference between conservative and liberal views of the courts. So those are good emphases in the tea party movement, as I understand it: those are emphases on a limited role for judges, the original meaning of the Constitution, and lower taxes and smaller government. Those are consistent with Biblical teachings. Now, you know, as in any movement there can be diverse views, but from what I know of the tea party movement, I’ve found that it has been a good thing.

You supported Governor Romney in the last presidential election. Do you think there is a credible argument for not supporting Romney, solely because of his Mormon faith?

Yes, an argument can be made that it is a significant political liability. I don’t think I recognized how strong the suspicion of Mormonism was, and the anti-Mormon sentiment among some evangelical Christians. Mormon theology is, frankly, very different from evangelical Christian theology on what we believe about the Bible, about the nature of God, about who Jesus is, about the nature of the Trinity, about the nature of Salvation and the nature of the Church. Those are incredibly huge differences in doctrine. And while I can support a Mormon candidate for political office, and I am very happy to work with Mormon friends on political issues, I cannot cooperate with them on spiritual issues because our theology is so different.

I still think that Governor Romney is a highly qualified candidate, and an honorable and trustworthy and wise man, and if he wins the nomination, of course I will support him and vote for him.

The Detroit News published Dr. Don Condit’s Acton commentary on Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) in today’s paper. The ACOs are designed to manage costs under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Medicare beneficiaries will be “assigned” to 5,000 patient-minimum organizations to coordinate their care. While HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talks about improvement in care, the politically poisonous truth is that Medicare is going broke and ACOs are designed to save money.

The words “rationing” or “treatment denial” or “withholding care” are not part of her press release, but reading the regulations reveals intentions to “share savings” with those who fulfill, or “penalize” others who fall short of, the administration’s objectives. The administration’s talking points include politically palatable words that emphasize quality improvement and care enhancement when the real objective is cost control by a utilitarian calculus.

Physicians and other health care providers will find themselves in conflict with the traditional ethos of duty to patient within ACOs. Doctors will face agency conflicts between the time honored primary duty to patient. Medical care providers will receive incentives for controlling spending, and penalties if they do not. “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24); not even physicians.

Read “Obamacare rules belie compassion, care” on the Detroit News website.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Do Less with Less: What the History of Federal Debt and Tax Leverage Teaches,” I reflect on how the federal government has lived beyond its means for decades. This reality is especially important to recognize as we approach Tax Day this year as well as in the context of debates about how to address the public debt crisis.

There are many who think we need to raise taxes in order to close the historic levels of deficit spending. In theory I would consider raising taxes as a viable option, or at least preferable to continued deficit spending, since it would at least make the real cost of government more visible. Roughly 40% of what the government spent last year was beyond what it took in.

But without structural connections between increased taxes and balancing the budget, there’s nothing at all to give us hope that the government wouldn’t simply continue to leverage the greater revenue into greater deficit spending. In this vein I note the conclusions recently updated by Richard Vedder and Stephen Moore, that “over the entire post World War II era through 2009 each dollar of new tax revenue was associated with $1.17 of new spending. Politicians spend the money as fast as it comes in—and a little bit more.”

Calvin College philosophy professor James K. A. Smith doesn’t take this reality into account, I don’t think, when he recently argued that the current situation calls for raising taxes, both on the rich and the middle-class. Thus, he writes,

But only a lazy, unimaginative take on this would assume that “low taxes” is a given. So sure, one strategy to reduce debt would be to slash spending, which inevitably happens on the backs of the poor and vulnerable, particularly women and children.

The alternative to such an unattractive option as Smith sees it is to raise taxes, particularly on the rich. Smith thus points to the idea that America needs to adopt a “graduated tax like most other North American countries.”

The fact is, though, that the US already has a progressive tax system, and indeed places a much higher relative burden on the top decile of household incomes than other developed nations.

One of the next big fights will be over raising the debt ceiling, as Smith points out. Perhaps we can link balanced budgets with increases on the debt ceiling (something more feasible than passing a balanced budget amendment). The idea would be that we only increase the debt ceiling on the condition balancing the annual budget, and that we only think about raising taxes to balance that budget if we actually commit to balancing it.

Simply raising taxes won’t do anything but give the federal government more money to leverage into higher levels of deficit spending.

I’m scheduled to discuss “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” with Paul Edwards later this afternoon (4:30 pm Eastern). You can listen to the live stream here and we’ll link to the archived audio as well.

You can check out my piece in last Saturday’s Grand Rapids Press, “Christ’s kingdom is bigger than the federal government,” and an Acton Commentary from last month, “Back to Budget Basics,” for background.

Be sure to visit Acton’s newly-released “Principles for Budget Reform,” too.

This graphic from NPR’s Planet Money also puts the looming “government shutdown” in perspective.

In today’s Grand Rapids Press I respond to a previous piece by religion columnist Charley Honey, “Religious voices have a place in the state’s budget cut discussions.”

I Hope I Die Before I Get OldI argue in “Christ’s kingdom is bigger than the federal government” that there is a basic confusion from many religious voices in the budget debate about the primary role of the federal government, and make the point that Abraham Kuyper’s “famous quotation attributes the claims of lordship over ‘every square inch’ of the world to Christ, not to the government. To miss this critical distinction is to undermine the very basis of Kuyper’s comprehensive and variegated social thought. For Kuyper, there are important differences among the responsibilities of the government, the church, the family, schools and a host of other social realities.”

I also refer to last month’s conversation with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” (audio here). Be sure to check out the event later this month where I’ll be a panelist to discuss these issues along with Strauss, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Jonathan Merritt, and Ryan Streeter, “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old,” hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (the event will be streamed online for those fortunate enough not to live in or near the Beltway).

Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, William McGurn looks at some of the root causes of the catastrophic decline of the city of Detroit. Census information released last week showed the city — once the fifth largest in America and a place which had such awe-inspiring industrial might that President Roosevelt labeled it the Arsenal of Democracy — had lost more than 25 percent of its population in the last decade. Detroit’s population fell to 713,777 in 2010, the lowest since 1910 (two years after Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced). The city, vasts stretches of which are depopulated, is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.

What happened to Detroit?

As McGurn points out, much of Detroit’s problems are of its own making. There was no tsunami or hurricane to blame. He quotes Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, on the cultural factors that have contributed to the city’s demise:

Most Americans did not need to be told that Detroit is in a bad way, and has been for some time. Americans know all about white flight, greedy unions and arrogant auto executives. The recent census numbers, however, put an exclamation mark on a cold fact: A once-great American city today repels people of talent and ambition.

“Detroit is a classic example of how a culture that was legendary for enterprise and innovation was slowly eroded by toxic politicization from the 1960s on,” says the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. “It’s been class warfare on steroids, and the inevitable result is that so many Detroiters who had the means—black and white—have fled the city.”

Another way of putting it is this: Unlike New Orleans and Japan, the ruin we see in Detroit is entirely man-made.

Read “A Requiem for Detroit” in the Wall Street Journal.

Ballor and StraussAt long last, here’s the audio from our latest community event. On March 10 at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids, Acton hosted an open mic discussion on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis” featuring Gideon Strauss of The Center for Public Justice – one of the drafters of the statement – and Acton’s own Jordan Ballor.

A mea culpa – in my effort to make sure that the equipment used to record the event was set up correctly and working properly, I managed to neglect to start the recorders on time, and thus the recording begins with the event in progress. The good news is that I realized my error in time to catch the meat of Gideon’s opening argument; the bad news is that I missed his rather witty opening comments, and for that, I apologize to Gideon and to our listeners.

Regardless, the audio of the exchange is available to you below; have a listen and let us know what you think in the comments.

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