Posts tagged with: Social philosophy

rightstalkAre you sick to death of hearing about the recent Hobby Lobby contraceptive mandate kerfuffle? Me too. Yes, it’s one of the most important religious liberty cases in decades. But the constant debates about the case on blogs, newspapers, TV, radio, and social media, has left even those of us concerned about freedom beaten and exhausted. Besides, what is left to discuss? Is there really anything new that can be said?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be “yes, there is.”

Earlier this week Megan McArdle wrote one of the most insightful articles I’ve read on the issue (and I’ve read enough about it to make my eyes bleed). McArdle outlines three points that frame the debate and lead us into bitter disagreements:

davebratIn a piece today for the NYT Magazine, economics reporter Binyamin Appelbaum examines David Brat’s fusion of faith and free-market economics. Appelbaum finds that mixture problematic, to say the least, but it’s hard to sort out whether it is the religious faith or the free-market sympathies that Appelbaum finds more troubling.

In the opening paragraph, Appelbaum asserts that before Brat’s rise to prominence “there was plenty of skepticism about whether he merited the label of academic economist.” Who these skeptics are, who knew so much about Brat “even before” his “out-of-nowhere” victory, we are simply left to ponder. It seems some of his colleagues at Randolph-Macon College now harbor such skepticism. (Brat is running against a Randolph-Macon sociologist, Jack Trammell. Brat once wrote that “Capitalism is the major organizing force in modern life, whether we like it or not. It is here to stay. If the sociologists ever grasp this basic fact, their enterprise will be much more fruitful.”)

Brat’s academic record is a wortwhile question to take up, and one that there has been a great deal of interest in following his primary victory. I, like many others, wanted to find out more, and went in search of Brat’s publications (with the help of one of our interns). I’ve had a chance to look at a few, and even turned up the paper on Ayn Rand that had gained such notice. The Rand paper turned out to be a co-authored piece with a student, and something which barely qualified as a poorly-edited introduction to a conference presentation. It is certainly not a smoking gun for tracking down Randian sympathies.

The problem with Appelbaum’s piece isn’t that he is asking questions about Brat’s academic record. These questions should be asked. The problem is the tone of Appelbaum’s inquisition and his presumption against the coherence of Brat’s position. The sarcasm oozes from Appelbaum’s prose: Brat “is certainly not in danger of winning a Nobel Prize.” Likewise Brat has written “discursive papers devoid of math,” “cited Wikipedia as a source,” and “never been published in a significant journal.”

vintage 4th of julyWe Americans will celebrate 238 years of freedom this Friday. In 1776, the 13 colonies unanimously declared:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Freedom was declared; the men and women of the colonies no longer wished to live under a monarchy, but rather sought a free republic, where they could decide their own fates.

Today, it seems as if many Americans respond to this ideal with, “Meh….” (more…)

KuyperEtch (1)The Obama administration’s HHS mandate has led to significant backlash among religious groups, each claiming that certain provisions violate their religious beliefs and freedom of conscience.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling was a victory for such groups, but other disputes are well underway, with many more to come. Even among many of our fellow Christians, we see a concerted effort to chase religious belief out of the public square, confining such matters to Sunday mornings, where they can be kept behind closed doors.

In navigating these tensions, Abraham Kuyper’s Our Program (Ons Program) offers a wealth of perspective, particularly when it comes to how Christians ought to think about their role in the broader society. Recently translated under the title Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government, the book contains an entire chapter in opposition to a “secular state,” including a marvelous bit on freedom of conscience that’s worth excerpting at length.

“There should be freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of worship,” Kuyper writes, “but above all, the root of all these freedoms: freedom of conscience.”

The conscience marks a boundary that the state may never cross.

The limits to state power reside in the will of God. Government has as much power as God has assigned to it. No more; no less. It sins if it leaves unused a portion of the power assigned to it, but also if it arrogates to itself any power that is not assigned to it.

There is only one power without limits: the power of God, whence it is called almighty power. Anyone who accords the state the right to exercise power as if it had no limits is guilty of “deifying” the state and favoring “state omnipotence.” That is not indulging in “oratorical phraseology” but simply indicating a purely logical concept. [emphasis added, here and in any bolded text hereafter]

Kuyper certainly believes that government has a role to play, noting that “government alone has public power,” granted by God, “whereas all other organizations in and of themselves are of a private nature.” (more…)

redstatebluestateIn discussions of political issues, the American public is too often described in a binary format: Left/Right, Republican/Democrat, Red State/Blue State. But a new survey by the Pew Research Center takes a more granular look at our current political typology by sorting voters into cohesive groups based on their attitudes and values:

Partisan polarization – the vast and growing gap between Republicans and Democrats – is a defining feature of politics today. But beyond the ideological wings, which make up a minority of the public, the political landscape includes a center that is large and diverse, unified by frustration with politics and little else. As a result, both parties face formidable challenges in reaching beyond their bases to appeal to the middle of the electorate and build sustainable coalitions.

The new typology has eight groups: Steadfast Conservatives, Business Conservatives, Solid Liberals, Young Outsiders, Hard-Pressed Skeptics, Next Generation Left, Faith and Family Left, and Bystanders. (See addendum below for descriptions of each group.)

Pew Research’s most recent report uses cluster analysis to sort people into these eight groups based on their responses to 23 questions covering an array of political attitudes and values. Here are a few of the interesting highlights from the report:

Integrated Justice - front cover (1)Christian’s Library Press has released Integrated Justice and Equality: Biblical Wisdom for Those Who Do Good Works by John Addison Teevan, a book that seeks to challenge popular notions of “social justice” and establish a new framework around what Teevan calls “biblically integrated justice.”

The term “social justice” has been used to promote a variety of policies and proposals, most of which fall within a particularly progressive economic ideology and theological perspective. Educated in economics, theology, and intercultural studies, and with extensive experience in both politics and the pulpit, Teevan has witnessed these tendencies firsthand, proceeding to dissect the host of flaws, gaps, and inconsistencies therein.

Teevan’s unique and creative approach will surely interest the most experienced of “social justice” interlocutors, but his writing is also highly accessible for those just getting warmed up. Weaving together thought and action from a variety of directions and points in history with remarkable clarity, Teeven concludes with a refreshingly integrated economic, philosophic, and biblical framework. For young evangelicals in particular, who have lately become fond of leveraging “justice” vocabulary toward a variety of aims and ends, Teevan’s unique blend of careful analysis and practical application offers a particularly relevant challenge to the status quo.

Teevan explores a variety of areas and ideas, ultimately pointing the way to a framework wherein the pursuit of justice is expanded beyond mere economic redistribution, restoring many of these activities to the realm of personal stewardship through which “to whom much is given much is required” (Luke 12:48). (more…)

bratI had a chance to talk with Michelle Boorstein yesterday about David Brat and a bit of his work that I’ve been able to become familiar with over the past few days. She included some of my comments in this piece for the Washington Post, “David Brat’s victory is part of broader rise of religion in economics.”

I stressed that Brat’s research program, which in many ways emphasizes the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, has at least two basic features. First, he’s focused on increasing theological awareness of economic realities: “I never saw a supply and demand curve in seminary. I should have.” This kind of increased economic sensibility would help the church to be a positive factor for social cultural change: “The church needs to regain its voice and offer up a coherent social vision of justice and rationality.”

But on the other hand, Brat has a message for economists as well. He challenges the mainstream assumption of economics as merely a positive, value-free science that can provide objective answers to questions without the trappings of morality or religion. A comment on Boorstein’s piece illustrates this important aspect of Brat’s work:

Dave helped me understand the essentiality of the links between capitalism (voluntary exchange that serves both parties’ interests) and theology (man’s obligation to serve God through work and use gain to carry out Jesus’ admonition to help the poor). At first, I thought he was joking. Surely one did not have to embrace a theological perspective to be a good capitalist. But he was not joking. I now have a much more nuanced and mature understanding of the “moral foundations of capitalism” than I did before I met Dave.

Brat’s faculty page includes portraits of John Calvin, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and John Maynard Keynes. Obviously there’s a lot to David Brat and I look forward to becoming more familiar with him and his work.

Amid all of the bad reportage out there on Brat, and there is so much that it is hard to keep up, here are a few other pieces that I have found to be helpful: