Posts tagged with: politics

In this week’s commentary, which will appear tomorrow, I summarize and explore a bit more fully some of the discussion surrounding evangelical and religious engagement of the budget battles in Washington. One of my core concerns is that the approaches seem to assume too much ongoing and primary responsibility on the part of the federal government for providing direct material assistance to the poor. As “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” puts it, “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

In one real sense this perspective lets Christians, individually and corporately, off the hook too easily. I highlight the following quote from Abraham Kuyper: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”

My basic contention is that we can only move to address the secondary role of governments of various levels (local first, federal last!) providing relief when we have thoroughly grappled with Kuyper’s basic insight here. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef explore this dynamic in a bit more detail in their Deacons Handbook, in a section on “The Church and the Welfare State.” They take as their starting point the position that “Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.”

In this way their emphasis is on revitalizing the diaconate first. They recognize that in many ways the government has filled in the gaps, but in so doing has often eroded the foundations and space for other organizations to step back in and fulfill their own mandates. DeKoster and Berghoef, writing in 1980, anticipate something like the faith-based initiative as part of the move back for the church to meet its social responsibility.

I’m less sanguine about that proposed solution, but I do think that the tax credits for charitable giving are something that ought to be protected, or perhaps even enhanced (President Obama’s latest proposal would limit exemptions for wealthy citizens.). In this context it is also worth noting the conclusions of a recent NBER paper, which shows that government subsidy tends to “crowd out” the initiative of private institutions from seeking their own sources of funding (imagine that!).

Kuyper’s quote comes from his opening address to the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, and is published in translation as “The Problem of Poverty.”

Update: Over at the CRC Network, Karl Westerhoff, who guides the “Deacons” topic, asks some pertinent questions:

But how is this a diaconal matter? Well, I’m wondering…. Does this national conversation have echoes in our churches? In our families? Should it? Are there implications for how we make OUR budgets? And what about our families? Is there an opportunity here for some fresh conversation about family spending patterns? Can we talk about the choices we make with our money, and the expectations we have for the money we spend on charity? Where has the church spent benevolent money that really had the result we hoped for? What can we learn from that? How are we shaping our family lives and our congregational lives in ways that address need in truly Christ-like ways?

These are precisely the kinds of questions we need to be asking. I think what we’ll find is that government has a far larger and more expansive role in some of these answers than many often think.

Jim Wallis and a number of other Christians involved in politics are trying to gain attention for the question, “What would Jesus cut?” The answer to this question is supposed to be as obvious as it is in other moral contexts. For example, would Jesus lie about the useful life of a refrigerator he was selling for Best Buy? No way. Would he bully a kid into giving away his lunch money? Not a chance. Would you find him taking in the show at a strip club on interstate 40 in Arkansas? Unlikely to the extreme.

Would he agree to a 2% cut in the marginal tax rate for income made above $250,000? Would he EVER accept a cut in welfare spending? Those take a little more thought. Jim Wallis and others think it’s a no-brainer. Let us reason together.

As I look over what Wallis wrote, I see several things worth noting. For example, he complains that some Republicans want to cut domestic spending and international aid, while they support an increase in military spending. The implication is that this is obviously a sub-Christian position. But is it? Probably the most essential purpose of government is to protect the life and freedom of citizens. The government achieves this goal through military means. Unless one takes the position that Christianity implies corporate pacificism, then it is unclear the Republicans have blundered according to Christian ethics. Now, match the question of military spending versus international aid and/or domestic spending. Are the latter obviously superior to the former? No. It depends on not only what the stated objective is for the different types of spending, but whether they actually achieve their purposes. To simply state that the Republicans want to bolster military spending while cutting international aid and domestic spending is to achieve nothing at all by way of an indictment.

Here’s another example. Wallis complains bitterly that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans add billions to the deficit. He is referring to the extension of George W. Bush’s cuts in the marginal tax rates that existed under Bill Clinton. The first question I have is how does Jim Wallis know that the level of taxation was just to begin with? And why take Bill Clinton’s tax levels as the Platonic form of taxation? Maybe they were too high or too low. The highest marginal tax rates have fluctuated drastically in the United States during the last century. John F. Kennedy made a big cut, with impressive economic effects, as did Ronald Reagan. Is Wallis sure that by cutting taxes those men robbed the poor and gave to the rich? Maybe a lot of poor people got jobs because of them. And we aren’t even getting into the question of whether rich people actually have an enhanced duty to pay taxes. If there is a community need, is it righteous to grab a rich person and employ the power of legal coercion to extract the needed funds?

Still another problem with this redistributionist attitude about taxes and spending is that it assumes a zero sum state of affairs. For example, one could assume that the most people would be better off under a system like the old Soviet Union that spread resources out to citizens in a way that prized equality of rations. The United States system didn’t do that nearly as much, not nearly at all. But which of the two systems provided a better life for people? The answer is easy. The United States and its emphasis on liberty did. Why? A more free economic system produces far more wealth than an unfree one. If your equality system produces a little, bitty pie, it may give you a lot of philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn’t do as much actual good for people as the system that prizes free productivity and success over equality.

What Jim Wallis is saying comes from a good heart. He is worried about things like fairness and, of course, about helping people. But the reasoning he employs in doing so assumes that federal programs actually achieve what they set out to do, which is far from obvious, and that they don’t create incentives for behavior that results in greater problems, which often happens. He also assumes a zero sum society. It is entirely possible that economic thinking that concerns itself more with productivity than with equality will actually leave the great majority of people better off.

Acton on TapIf you weren’t able to make it to Derby Station on Wednesday for our latest Acton On Tap event, have no fear: we’re pleased to present the full recording of the evening’s festivities featuring Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminister Seminary via the audio player below.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Trueman or his work, check out Jordan Ballor’s introduction right here. Considering that the PowerBlog’s focus over the past few days has been on how Christians are approaching the debt crisis in the US, Trueman’s thoughts on the current political scene seem quite appropriate to highlight.

Here’s the audio – Enjoy!

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I posted some initial thoughts on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” which was released by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action yesterday.

I’ve been engaged in what I think are largely helpful conversations on this document in a number of venues in the meantime. Gideon Strauss challenged me to look at the document again, and reconsider my criticisms, and I have been happy to do so.

For instance, I voiced the concern that the core budgetary problem that must be addressed concerns entitlement spending, and I judged that the Call does not sufficiently address that concern. Gideon pointed me to a piece by Michael Gerson, a signer of the Call, that makes precisely this point: “Debates on discretionary spending are important. Our government should not waste money on ineffective programs. But discretionary spending is a sideshow, even a distraction, from the main governing task: getting entitlement spending under control so it does not crowd out all other government spending.”

I also made a related point that we should not be juxtaposing cuts in, for instance, defense spending with those on other discretionary areas, including social programs. As Gerson writes, these debates are largely a “sideshow.” And so Gideon also pointed me to today’s editorial about the Call, which makes a number of important points, not least of which is that “It would be simplistic to portray the present challenge as a simple matter of ‘guns vs. butter’ and to overemphasize the contribution that prudent reductions in defense spending, however necessary, would make to the current debt crisis.”

One further point of concern I voiced is that “what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on.” Gideon pointed me appropriately to the CPJ “Guideline on Government.”

These are all good and necessary documents for understanding the proper interpretive context for the Call, and I’ll admit, they weren’t the first things I thought of when attempting to understand the petition. I still wonder, though, why some of these things couldn’t be made more explicit in the document itself? If Gerson is right, that debates over discretionary cuts of whatever programs are really a distraction, why not make the focal point of the Call entitlement reform in a more central and explicit way?

And I do think there are other relevant interpretive contexts for understanding the Call. Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and a host of others have been involved over the last days and weeks in a “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign that bears many similarities to “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Much of the material surrounding that campaign does seem to focus on fights over discretionary cuts, even to the point of contrasting military and social spending.

Jim Wallis said, for instance, “On a television program yesterday evening, I said that I want those who now propose major cuts to critical low-income family support programs to say, out loud, that every item of Pentagon spending is more important to our well-being and security than school lunches, child health, and early education programs.” He goes on to highlight particular social spending programs that should be immune to potential cuts.

I don’t think that kind of rhetoric is helpful at all, and is more of what Gerson might call a “sideshow.” But it is important because there is so much continuity between the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign and the “Call for Intergenerational Justice.” A significant number of signers of the Call, including Wallis and Claiborne, also are behind WWJC. And even the language about cutting budgets “on the backs of the poor” is reiterated with respect to the Call. Signer Jonathan Merritt writes that the Call means “we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

So while the CPJ documents Strauss points to are certainly relevant to understanding the Call, I submit that the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign is also relevant. And here we might have a hint at why some of the more substantive theoretical questions regarding the role of the state in the provision of various social goods is not examined in more detail in the Call itself: the signers don’t have a unified view on this principled point. The CPJ Guideline on Government is a good starting point, but I find it highly doubtful that it would be assented to by all of the signers of the Call.

So perhaps there really is more than one way to read this document, and it can be put to various uses by various constituencies. This ambiguity, combined with my own doubts about what it actually does substantively say, are enough for me to refrain from signing it, even while I most certainly do agree with the sentiment that the current debt burden is unsustainable, both fiscally as well as morally, and continue to respect the work of many of those who have signed it.

A number of prominent evangelical leaders in America have issued a statement on the budget fights in the federal government. “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action. Signatories include Ron Sider of ESA, Gideon Strauss of CPJ, Richard Mouw, Michael Gerson, Shane Claiborne, Andy Crouch, and Jim Wallis.

Here are some initial thoughts:

There is very little principle in this statement, which purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” The basic principle communicated is: “We ought to care for the poor because God does.” This is of course laudable and true, as is the commitment to “intergenerational justice,” as long as that is defined as not living today on the backs of the unborn and not code for something else.

But the rest really just consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care. To wit: “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Given the current state of affairs, which the statement acknowledges is a “crisis,” I don’t think it is helpful to energize the grassroots to petition to save particular programs from scrutiny and reform. Things are so bad that everything should be on the table. The situation is not an either/or between social spending and military spending, as Claiborne and Wallis would have it. It’s a both/and, and that includes entitlements.

Which brings me to my next point: There isn’t nearly enough in here about entitlement reform. Social Security must become “sustainable,” but there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the real drivers of huge swaths of our national debt. Non-discretionary spending needs to be scrutinized.

But that’s not all. This call wants to place “effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health” out of bounds. The fact is that many of these programs are busted, and I think it is disingenuous for those who know that to say that we have some kind of moral obligation to keep throwing good money after bad simply out of some vague concern for “the poor.” That is more like a salve for guilty consciences than responsible social action.

The language of the statement doesn’t seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don’t care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.

So what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on. Once we’ve decided what government is for you can start to make some principled decisions about funding priorities…things closest to the core mission of government should get the highest priority, and so on.

And the focus really shouldn’t just be on what government should and shouldn’t do. Many of these leaders are religious leaders. The focus should be on what these other institutions can and should be doing, beyond simply serving as lobbying organizations for governmental programs.

I guess, needless to say, I won’t be signing.

I read with considerable attention “Congressional bosses from Hell: Sheila Jackson Lee” in the Daily Caller today. From the article:

Congress was in recess, and the 435 lawmakers who drive the frenetic pace on Capitol Hill were home in their districts glad-handing constituents. For that reason, the door to [Sheila] Jackson Lee’s office was open and the sounds emanating from inside were pleasant laughter and conversation.

‘You could tell when she wasn’t there,’ Stephens said. That was because on a day in which Congress was in session, a different set of sounds often came through closed doors to Jackson Lee’s office: screaming and, many times, crying.

Having worked for a U.S. Congressman, former member Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss), I find some of the congressional staff dynamics and stories both entertaining and troubling. Many of the stories and anecdotes I tell from my time working on a congressional staff are among the most popular for audiences. I also learned a lot of valuable people skills, patience, and greater compassion for helping those in need. In my case, I had the privilege of helping many military veterans with federal issues.

Recently, I attended a social event where some staff of several well known Michigan lawmakers openly unloaded on the arrogance and temperament of their bosses to me in conversations. It did not surprise me. I have heard many similar stories before. It continually reinforces the well known Lord Acton adage about the corrupting nature of power.

I learned a lot from working with and for a congressman and his staff. Many of the lessons I will retain forever. In contrast to the piece in the Daily Caller, here is just one important lesson I pulled from a talk and essay I wrote for Acton on Tap:

The congressman I worked for, Gene Taylor (D-Miss) did help to reinforce something timeless and virtuous.

One day I was dispatched with the duty of locating him in the Rayburn House office building. The reason was simple; the Secretary of the Navy was waiting for him in his office. Some of the staff was panic stricken and mildly embarrassed because they could not ascertain his whereabouts and he was terribly late for the meeting. Congressman Taylor was not frequently attached at the hip with his cellular phone or pager. I remember looking in all the places you would look for a House member in the Rayburn building and not being able to locate him. After I had given up, I preceded to walk up the stairs and found him talking with a maintenance worker in the stairwell.

I told him that the Secretary of the Navy was in his office and he nodded his head and introduced me to his friend, whom he treated like a celebrity, bragging up the individual’s fishing skills. While I did not always agree with the positions or votes he recorded on issues, Gene Taylor always reinforced the significance of treating people the same. He also taught me a valuable life lesson when he told me:

‘You know why I’m friends with the capital police, the maintenance workers, and the common fisherman down at the harbor? It’s because they will continue to be my friends when I am no longer a congressman.’

Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky has the cover story for the upcoming issue of WORLD magazine, and it’s worth reading in full, “The revival of localism.”

Olasky’s basic narrative focuses on “young men and women who understand that they are Christian pilgrims in this world—but they expect to stay in one place, making friends and being of service, unless and until God moves them on.”

He has a number of salient data points and interesting interviews, including Caleb Stegall, the exemplar of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Economically-speaking an emphasis on localism can easily embrace distributism.

Thus, writes Olasky,

An emphasis on local control of government, local production and consumption of goods, and local culture is popular among young Christians. Their favorite author is often a pre-baby-boom author and Kentucky farmer, 76-year-old Wendell Berry. Berry praises reverence for God and life, the pleasures of good work, good food, and frugality. He says those joys are more likely to be found in healthy rural communities that value small farms and don’t overdose on technology.

But Olasky’s is, I think, a generally accurate assessment, and one that provides a good entry point to ongoing cultural developments. The Acton Institute has lived out this emphasis on decentralization, in one sense, and has from the beginning, by locating itself out of the Beltway by design. Olasky’s piece is sub-titled, “Young conservatives reject lure of Washington, D.C., in favor of a more powerful place-home.”

One shorter term economic driver is only mentioned in passing by Olasky: “…declining property values have crushed many hopes of upward mobility.”

The housing bubble has crushed not only upward mobility but also mobility more generally. The myth of the rootless generation is going to be demolished by the mere fact that anyone who bought a house in the last ten years is generally going to be unable to get out from under it for perhaps the next decade. That’s just about a generation of relatively immobile homeowners.

Acton on Tap

Carl TruemanDr. Carl Trueman is our guest for Acton on Tap tonight at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids. Be sure to join us and bring a friend if you are within hailing distance of this fine establishment (arrival at 6pm, discussion at 6:30pm).

Dr. Trueman, who teaches church history and serves as academic dean at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, will be giving a brief talk under the title, “An Englishman Abroad: Amateur Reflections on the Current Evangelical Political Scene.” One of Dr. Trueman’s recent books is called Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. In this book Trueman argues that “conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas.”

I have said before that I think that the thesis of Trueman’s book and my own recent work, Ecumenical Babel, are on one level quite complementary. We both see a problem with the politicization of the church’s prophetic voice and social witness. We do differ in the objects of our analysis and therefore in the diagnosis of the problem. Where Dr. Trueman sees conservative cultural and political agendas exerting undue influence on evangelical though in North America, I perceive progressive, even neo-Marxist, ideology at work in the larger mainline ecumenical movement.

So while Dr. Trueman’s point of departure is at some distance from my own, I think our projects in one sense meet in the middle. We are both responding to the phenomenon that Paul Ramsey described in 1967:

…in the United States conservative and liberal religious opinion is the same thing as conservative and liberal secular opinion—with a sharper edge. In short, the polarization of public debate on most issues is simply aided and abetted by the polarization of religious forces.

As for Republocrat, which I reviewed for our own Religion & Liberty, I conclude that Trueman’s “project is not about demonizing capitalism, wealth, or profits on the one hand, or political power on the other. It is about putting the pursuit of profit and power in its proper place.”

Find out more about Republocrat with this video introduction:

Join us tonight if you are able, and if you aren’t we hope to provide some follow-up about the event. My hope is that it will be an example of the kind of principled discussion and vigorous dialogue that should be able to take place between Christians, even on matters as divisive as politics and culture, even in the midst of disagreement.

If you are on Facebook, be sure to check out the event page and follow Acton’s page for details about other events.

Acton On The AirIf you’ve been following the news recently, no doubt you’re aware of the controversy in Wisconsin surrounding Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposals – which include curtailing collective bargaining for state employees – which have led to massive union protests in Madison and the state Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois to try to delay the vote and force changes in the bill.

Last week, a couple of radio shows turned to Acton for insight on the Wisconsin situation. On Monday, Rev. Robert A. Sirico joined guest host Sheila Liaugminas on The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio to discuss how to properly value the work of public employees, Catholic teaching on unions, and some of the problems posed by public sector unions:

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On Tuesday, Acton’s Director of Research, Dr. Samuel Gregg, joined host Al Kresta on Kresta in the Afternoon on Ave Maria Radio to discuss both the Catholic Church’s historic teaching on unions and its response to the present situation:

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The Catholic Herald, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Madison, Wis., recently published a column by Dr. Constance Nielsen on the principles held by the Catholic Church concerning unions.  Dr. Nielsen provides a very insightful outlook on how Catholics can view the current debate occurring in Wisconsin over union rights:

In this context it is good to recall John Paul’s warning against too strong of a connection between the work of Unions and the political arena. Though Unions enter into politics, understood as “the pursuit of the common good,” they are not meant to engage in the struggle for the power of political parties, nor have too close of a tie with any political party. In such a case, “they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes” (LE 20, emphasis in the original).

Again, the Pope primarily has the private sector in mind. Unions are actually meant to resolve economic issues in order to avoid undue intervention of the State, not to increase it (see RN 45 and CA 48). But his comments are even more pertinent for public sector unions where fiscal power, in the form of campaign contributions, could be wielded by the Unions in order to effectively choose their own bargaining partner. This has the potential for creating a relationship of mutual self-interest, leaving those outside of the arrangement marginalized and voiceless, but still paying for it. Such a condition actually poses a greater threat of excessive State involvement, which it is the very purpose of Unions to help avoid.

But however the secular media might portray the unrest in Wisconsin, as “taxpayers vs. public workers” or “liberals vs. conservatives,” an authentically Catholic view of society would not frame it this way. What is most salient for the Catholic perspective is John Paul’s corrective that the conflict ought not, in fact, be understood as a power-struggle. The struggle, he writes, should always be aimed towards achieving justice; it should never be seen as a struggle against other people (LE 20). In other words, both sides of any labor disagreement ought to be working for justice and the common good, rather than to achieve their own personal victory.

More can be found on Dr. Nielsen’s commentary on the Catholic Herald’s website.