Blog author: jmeszaros
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
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Many politicians have talked of repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).  Mitt Romney has said nullifying the healthcare law would be one of his first actions if he was elected president.  However, rather than just repealing the law and going back to the status-quo, with minor changes, the American people should demand true reform.

In 2001, Milton Friedman, the famed, Nobel-prize winning economist, published an article titled “How to Cure Health Care.” (Although worthy of serious consideration, Friedman’s analysis does not contain any explicit moral message, and is simply a policy analysis on healthcare.  For a more in-depth look at the moral dimension of healthcare reform, visit Acton’s special section on healthcare)

In his essay, Friedman stated that, “The United States spends a mind-boggling percentage of its GDP on a health care system that virtually everyone agrees is a disaster,” and that was in 2001.  Spending has only increased over the past decade.  In fact, according to the Department of Health and Human Services Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the United States spent 17.6 percent of its GDP on healthcare in 2009, and this figure is expected to grow over time.

In addition to out of control spending, studies in the United States and Europe at the time were showing “…public dissatisfaction with the increasingly impersonal character of medical care.”  Recently, a 2010 Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans are satisfied with the quality of healthcare they receive (62 percent rated quality as excellent or good), but only 39 percent rated the availability of coverage as excellent or good.

How did this happen? How has massively increased spending led to unsatisfactory coverage?

In four words: the government got over-involved.

Friedman explained, “In other technological revolutions, the initiative, financing, production, and distribution were primarily private, though government sometimes played a supporting or regulatory role.”  However, in healthcare, the government decided to intervene and regulate extensively.

It all started at the onset of World War II when, due to wage and price controls enacted during the war, “firms competing to acquire labor at government-controlled wages started to offer medical care as a fringe benefit,” which was not recorded as part of their salary due to the wage-controls.  As a result, employees came to expect healthcare from employers as part of their compensation.

The IRS eventually wised up to this and, wanting more revenue, started to tax the contribution.  Workers raised an uproar so Congress passed a law, The Revenue Act of 1942 (Section 127 specifically), allowing, in Friedman’s words, “… medical care expenditures to be exempt from the income tax, if, and only if, medical care is provided by the employer.”  This system, according to Dr. Donald P. Condit in his Acton Institute commentary “Should Business Be Responsible for Employee Health Care?”, “effectively punishes taxpaying citizens who are paying for health care benefits with after-tax dollars.”

Thus, if an employee paid directly for healthcare, this was added to their taxable income, but, if they went through their employer, it was not, setting up a large incentive to get insurance coverage from one’s employer.  Condit states “medical spending has increased with this ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario, wherein resources [health care dollars] are overconsumed with the perception that someone else [the company, the government] is paying.”

Friedman similarly demonstrated the result of this and other policies dealing with healthcare with a simple example: “In 1946, seven times as much was spent on food, beverages, and tobacco as on medical care; in 1996, more was spent on medical care than on food, beverages, and tobacco.”  In 50 years, healthcare went from a minor expenditure to the major expenditure of most people, and, during this period, spending by individuals and government on healthcare approximately quadrupled.

Friedman explained, “On the evidence to date, it is hard to see that we have gotten much for quadrupling the share of the nation’s income spent on medical care other than bureaucratization and widespread dissatisfaction with the economic organization of medical care.”

What can be done?

For starters, Friedman said: “If the tax exemption were removed, employees could bargain with their employers for higher take-home pay in lieu of medical care and provide for their own medical care either by dealing directly with medical care providers or by purchasing medical insurance.”  This would make families more responsible for their own healthcare and they could adjust accordingly, either spending less/more on healthcare or taking more/less in wages.  (It seems that most would probably spend less on healthcare and take more income in light of this National Journal article).

This kind of reform would help by “reprivatizing medical care by eliminating most third-party payment, and restoring the role of insurance to providing protection against major medical catastrophes,” rather than using insurance to pay “for regular medical examinations and prescriptions.”

This sounds great, in theory, but how would such a drastic change actually be accomplished?

Friedman advocated for medical savings accounts. He stated: “A medical savings account enables individuals to deposit tax-free funds in an account usable only for medical expense, provided they have a high-deductible insurance policy that limits the maximum out-of-pocket expense.”  This way, employees, not employers, would be responsible for their own healthcare spending, hopefully eliminating the third-party problem, while allowing the wages contributed to still be tax free.

Several companies, including Forbes, Quaker Oats, and the Golden Rule Insurance Company, tried out medical savings accounts instead of employer provided insurance and found that healthcare costs were lower and both management and employees were more satisfied than under the old employer provided system.

Friedman stated, “Families would once again have an incentive to monitor the providers of medical care and to establish the kind of personal relations with them that were once customary.”

This puts responsibility back on the individual to care for his or her family and brings to mind the words of 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”  Modern healthcare is obviously not comparable to biblical food, but the concept of individual responsibility has largely been lost with employer provided healthcare. This reminds all that a family is better served caring for itself rather than relying on someone else to make choices, including healthcare, for them.  Condit, in his essay, says as much: “Employer, or any third party, involvement in providing health care can interfere with an employee’s ability to make his or her own decisions and distort individual responsibility.”

Also, allowing families to manage their own healthcare costs would allow for greater efficiency by means of more efficient spending.  For instance, instead of using insurance to pay for a doctor visit due to a cold or a small prescription, one could pay out of pocket.  If most people paid out-of-pocket, the cost would likely go down because what individual would pay $80 (like my insurance company does) for a 20 minute doctor visit?  By putting people in control and not insurance or government bureaucracies, one could expect people to “shop around” for quality doctors.  Then, doctors’ offices would likely offer better care to compete for patients, instead of expecting an $80 to $100 payout from the insurance company or the government.

In addition, Friedman advocated for the abolishment of Medicare and Medicaid, which sounds rather radical.  However, he said the government should “…replace them by providing every family in the United States with catastrophic insurance (i.e. a major medical policy with a high deductible).”

That way “the family would be relieved of one of its major concerns – the possibility of being impoverished by a major medical catastrophe – and most could readily finance the remaining medical costs.”

This should satisfy the concern that impoverished citizens would not get adequate coverage.  Even if a small portion of the population is chronically ill or unable to pay their medical bills, these people would be covered by a government catastrophic care policy.

It is a citizen’s duty to care for those individuals in their communities who simply cannot help themselves.  Condit states, “Christians, and others, are expected to fulfill a service obligation, with a preferential consideration for the poor and underserved.”  This corresponds to the principles of subsidiarity and sacrifice seen throughout Catholic and Christian teaching.

In Luke 3:11, John the Baptist states: “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”  Jesus himself said, in Luke 14:13, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  Again, in Jesus’ and John’s teaching, the focus is on “you”, the individual, caring for ones neighbor, rather than an entity such as the government (or a corporation).  The government, naturally being more impersonal and disconnected, could provide support in the severest cases, when communities and individuals could not support their own.

Rather than harming the less-fortunate and marginalized, this kind of health reform could free up time and hospital beds (many families would spend much less time and money on care) to help those chronically ill individuals who truly need the best care and doctors available. Friedman’s approach does not solve all the problems of healthcare (how do I know this doctor/hospital is reputable or provides good care since there is no rating service, what about those that refuse to or cannot pay out of pocket, etc.) and this is only a basic analysis, but it does offer a seldom discussed approach to improve care, allow for greater individual independence, and decrease costs.

 

The future of corn ethanol is up in the air, and while the Senate gave signs of repealing both the subsidy and the tariff on imported ethanol, the bill the repeal was attached to failed and Congress is back to square one in the ethanol debate. The uncertain future of corn ethanol has brought forth discussion on the possibility of importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.

Before the U.S. begins importing ethanol from Brazil, a broad cost benefit analysis needs to be taken by the government to decide if it is actually a smart decision to begin importing and using sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.

A concern of many critics of alternative fuels is whether or not alternative fuels can meet demand. According to the Energy Tribune, corn ethanol cannot meet U.S. demand whereas even the country turned all of its corn into ethanol only 6 percent of its total annual oil needs would be met.

This leaves ethanol supporters looking for another energy source to help close the gap. They may be looking no further than the sugar cane based ethanol produced in Brazil. However, even importing Brazilian ethanol will leave the U.S. looking for another energy resource.

In 2010 the U.S. consumed 138.6 billion gallons of gasoline and Brazil currently produces about 7.4 billion gallons of sugar cane based biofuels. Importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil while still consuming corn ethanol does not even get the U.S. close to meeting its energy demands especially when 75 percent of Brazil’s ethanol output is sold within its borders, and it experienced a shortage earlier this year.

And the simplistic answer to this problem, planting more sugar cane, may not be the best solution. The Brazilian government has been surprised by the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. According to Brazil’s space research institute, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest increased from 103 sq km in March and April 2010 to 593 sq km during the same period this year. This surprised the Brazilian government which reported that deforestation had fallen to its lowest rate in 22 years when actually there was a 27 percent jump in deforestation from August 2010 to April 2011. The biggest rise in deforestation was in Mato Grosso, a state in Brazil, which produces more than a quarter of Brazil’s soybean harvest. However, what does that have to do with sugar cane causing deforestation?

A 2010 article by Foreign Policy explains how sugar cane based ethanol fosters “agricultural displacement” resulting in the deforestation of the rainforest:

Public officials declare that ethanol will not lead to deforestation in the Amazon or exacerbate climate change. They say that the particular soils and rainy weather characteristic of the rainforest are not suitable for the growth of sugar cane. Agriculture minister Reinhold Stephanes has been quoted as saying that “Cane does not exist in Amazonia.” In a withering blow to Stephanes’s credibility, however, authorities recently raided a sugar cane plantation in the state of Pará where 1,000 workers were laboring under appalling debt slavery conditions. In all, environmentalists claim, hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane have been planted in the Amazon.

Even if there are only a few cane plantations operating in the Amazon, ethanol may exert an indirect impact on the rainforest through a phenomenon known as “agricultural displacement.” Though the state of São Paulo is located far from the Amazon rainforest, the sugar cane there can drive other crops toward the agricultural frontier. In the state of São Paulo, sugar cane has been planted on former pastureland and this has pushed cattle into Mato Grosso. Hundreds of thousands of cattle are moving into the Amazon every year as a result of displacement by ethanol in the state of São Paulo alone, say environmentalists. This migration is becoming all the more likely since one can purchase 800 hectares of land in the Amazon for the price of just one hectare in São Paulo. Additionally, some soy plantations in the center of the country have been turned over to ethanol production, prompting concern among environmentalists that this will lead soy producers to move into the Amazon. And local observers say that sugar cane plantations are already pushing soy farmers and ranchers into the rainforest.

The same article by Foreign Policy states that sugar cane crops have also led to the deforestation in the Atlantic rainforest.

There are still many unintended consequences and factors the United States needs to take into account before importing sugar cane based ethanol. CNNMoney published an article stating that, “Some experts say the Brazilian formula gets even less gas mileage than its corn ethanol counterpart, which itself gets lower mileage generally than gasoline.” Furthermore, biofuels will have an adverse effect on food prices. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, biofuels will absorb 13 percent of global coarse grain production, 15 percent of vegetable oil, and some 30 percent of sugar by 2020. Again, what is more important, food or fuel? How are the poor and vulnerable expected to purchase food when it is being shipped to prosperous countries for fuel?

Just like corn based ethanol, sugar cane based ethanol also has its consequences. Experts continue to debate whether sugar cane based ethanol is a viable option. However, before jumping on the bandwagon, policy makers need to take a pragmatic approach when discussing the energy future of the U.S.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the annual conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and expressed particular concern over rising food prices and the instability of the global food market. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, the pope issued this challenge: “The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.”

Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg has done much to illuminate those structural causes and their effects on the agricultural capacity of developing countries. In an interview with EWTN two months ago, he talked about two of the most important drivers of high food prices: farm subsidies and energy costs.

“All the subsidies that go into agriculture—through things like import taxes and tariffs, as well as direct subsidies—have the paradoxical effect of reducing the incentive for investment in agriculture in developing countries,” said Dr. Gregg. African farmers cannot compete with their counterparts in the first world who are able to sell their produce at artificially low prices, and so developing countries end up turning away from food production. In the long run, this decrease in supply causes prices to rise.

Energy prices also affect the cost of food: the more a farmer pays for gasoline, the more he has to recoup from the sale of his crops. Again, market imbalances are causing prices to rise—OPEC, the cartel that controls a substantial amount of the world’s crude oil, determines its supply, and so “there’s a disparity between supply and demand,” Dr. Gregg explained. “OPEC and other oil-producing countries introduce a whole range of price distortions into the energy sector, resulting in higher prices”

U.S. energy policy is also to blame: from drilling moratoriums to ethanol subsidies, the federal government has effectively introduced inefficiency to energy markets.

Developing countries must be allowed to produce food without being undercut by Western protectionism and too-costly energy. When free markets are hindered, the poor suffer most.

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for a Free Economy at Northwood University. In the course of the weekend I was able to establish that while I wasn’t the first theologian to present at an IHS event, I may well have been the first Protestant theologian.

In a talk titled, “From Divine Right to Human Rights: The Foundations of Rights in the Modern World,” I attempted to trace the development of the concept of “rights” in the West historically, from the ancient world to modern times. A corollary purpose was to show the students that liberty and religion are not inimical or diametrically opposed.

Shawn Ritenour, a faculty presenter at last month’s Acton University, pursues a similar purpose in a recent post at his blog, Foundations of Economics (after his book of the same name. Timothy Terrell reviews Ritenour’s book in issue 13.2 of the Journal of Markets & Morality). Ritenour writes, “While it is true that many non-believers embrace and promote the free society and many libertarians despise Christ[, i]t does not follow, however, that Christianity and liberty have nothing to do with one another.” He goes on to provide some more resources for this point, particularly arguing that “a close study of God’s Word reveals that social institutions that promote liberty are positively mandated.”

Human rights are one of these social institutions that promote liberty and are positively mandated by the Bible. In my presentation at the Northwood seminar, I drew on some resources from the Acton film, The Birth of Freedom. In particular, I shared this video featuring John Witte Jr. that addresses the question, “How Has Judaism Contributed to Human Rights?”

As Lord Acton puts it, in ancient Israel “the throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven.”

Wayne Grudem

Religion & Liberty’s spring issue featuring an interview with evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem is now available online. Grudem’s new book is Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan 2010). It’s a great reference and I have already made use of it for a couple commentaries and PowerBlog posts here at Acton. “I am arguing in the book that it is a spiritually good thing and it is pleasing to God when Christians can influence government for good,” Grudem declared in the interview.

“The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast”
is a piece I wrote for this issue focusing on the faith community’s response to the tornadoes in the South, Joplin, Mo, and Hurricane Katrina. Pastor Randy Gariss of Joplin and Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa, Ala. were extremely generous with their time and helped to shape this article. Below is an excerpt from the article on Pastor Gariss’s thoughts on the response:

‘The churches are far better about getting out of their buildings now,’ said Randy Gariss, pastor of College Heights Church in Joplin. ‘Before it was more of a bunker mentality with some churches because of the cultural wars, but so many more churches are building relationships with the whole community.’

David Paul Deavel offers an excellent review of Daniel J. Mahoney’s, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order in the issue. The title of his review is “Saving Liberalism from Itself” and in the review he declares:

Under modernity, Mahoney argues, liberty is too often reduced to ‘a vague and empty affirmation of equality and individual and collective autonomy’ that ‘is inevitably destructive of those ‘contents of life’—religion, patriotism, philosophical reflection, family ties or bonds, prudent statesmanship—that enrich human existence and give meaning and purpose to human freedom.’

“Debt, Finance, and Catholics” is a piece authored by Sam Gregg. Rev. Robert Sirico offers “The Church’s Social Teaching is One Consistent Body of Thought.”

The “In The Liberal Tradition” figure is Richard John Neuhaus. I met Neuhaus on Capital Hill when I was working at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. He was very close to a philosophy professor of mine at seminary and Neuhaus was very familiar with Asbury Theological Seminary, where I was a student at the time. I specifically remembered he knew a lot about John Wesley and the 18th Century evangelical revival in England.

Nuehaus had a real pastoral heart to go along with his sharp mind and he seemed to have an encouraging word for everybody. “Wealth and Whimsy: On Economic Creativity” is an excellent essay from 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus that is certainly worth the read. There is more content in this issue so please check it out and if you ever wish to share any ideas or provide feedback on Religion & Liberty feel free to offer that in the comment section below.

Update: Thanks to Adam Forrest for linking the Grudem interview on the Zondervan blog.

This year’s Acton University was very successful, and we are still seeing its effects through blog posts, tweets, and Facebook messages. Some of our PowerBlog readers may be wondering what they missed out on, or would also like to think back a few weeks to their favorite Acton University moments.

To listen to a favorite lecture, or to find out what was missed, remember that Acton University 2011 lectures can be purchased and downloaded for $1.99.

Joe Gorra of the Evangelical Philosophical Society compiled nine interviews with different Acton University faculty who lectured on countless invigorating topics including, sustainability and the environment, ethics, Nietzche’s critique of Christianity and Caitalism, and free markets. Gorra’s post helps of relive some of the memories he had at Acton University, along with give those who weren’t able to attend the conference a taste of what was missed.

Gorra interviews James Otteson, a professor of philosophy and economics at Yeshiva University. Otteson’s course at Acton University was titled, “Adam Smith: Philosopher and Political Economist.” In the interview Ottenson explains some of the misconceptions associated with Adam Smith:

As you know, some hold various misconceptions about Adam Smith and his work. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time studying Smith and his objectors, what would you say are the top misconceptions that scholars or non-scholars often assert about him and his work and how would you respond?

Misconceptions of Smith come from both political directions, as it were. Some have portrayed Smith as a doctrinaire laissez-faire libertarian, while others, more recently, have portrayed him as something like a contemporary progressive liberal. Neither is accurate. His review of the available historical and economic evidence led him to conclude that, after providing protection for people’s lives, liberty, and property, minimal government interference in people’s lives led to prosperity for all—including especially the poor. So he was genuinely concerned about the least among us, and his policy recommendations were based primarily on concerns about their welfare. Yet his recommendation of limited government was presumptive, not absolute: It served as a default to which exceptions could be made if the evidence for the particular case warranted it. I call his position “pragmatic classical liberalism.”

John Bolt, Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, was also interviewed by Gorra. Bolt’s course, which delved into the works of Alexis de Tocqueville, was called “Centralization and Civil Society.” In the interview, Bolt discusses what the concept of “intermediary institutions” means:

Tocqueville’s concept of “intermediary institutions” is central to his vision of civic life and human flourishing. Can you explain the meaning and significance of that in Tocqueville and how it is indispensable to the maintenance of liberty and social cohesion in a civil society?

Tocqueville realized that the great danger in modern, egalitarian democracy lay in our tendency toward what he called “individualism.” In the U.S., at least, we don’t normally consider this a dangerous notion. But for him, individualism implied not heroism, but a kind of retreat into isolated nothingness and an evasion of responsibility for one’s fellow man. This kind of isolation poses dangers to liberty because as lone, equal individuals, we come face to face with our tremendous weakness. We need someone or something to save us, and having denied God (isn’t God the ultimate affront to a deep belief in equality?), we turn to the state.

Intermediary institutions (clubs, local political organizations, community activities, churches, etc.) tie us – really oblige us – to our neighbors. They train us to recognize the ways we can satisfy our various needs without turning to political power to provide the goods we require. He says these associations teach the art of being free and living responsibly. Without them, we will fall out of practice at self-government.

And in a testament to the success of Acton University, Gorra explains in his blog post, “Why the Acton Institute? Philosophy’s Good Beyond Philosophy,” his reasoning to attending the conference:

The work of the Acton Institute (www.acton.org), and especially their annual Acton University conference, is highly hospitable to this sort endeavor. Over the last several years, I have attended Acton University (second time this year, and happening now!), their Toward a Free and Virtuous Society events, and also co-sponsored Liberty Fund and Acton Institute events.

Honestly, I don’t know of any other conference or organization that intentionally affords the Christian philosopher the unique opportunity to engage in such interdisciplinary work at the intersection of theology, economics, and social policy. As a matter of enrichment (personally and professionally), I “come alive” at their gathering, my imagination is cultivated by the possibilities of how the theoretical and practical  goods of philosophy can converge and collaborate with other bodies of knowledge.

Acton’s intellectual architecture is intelligently designed to permit – no, encourage! – the good of philosophy to be utilized in this way.

Click here to read Gorra’s nine interviews with Acton University faculty.

 

Rev. Robert A. Sirico was recently a guest on The Matt Friedeman Show where he discussed the difference between charity and socialism. He talks about not only how we should give, but also how we can best help the poor. Socialism, according to Rev. Sirico, is the forced sharing of wealth and drains  morality out of good actions. A discussion of the Acts of the Apostles also takes place in the following YouTube clip that contains a segment from the show.

Anarchist punks are out and the socially-aware hipsters are in (even though they don’t want to say they’re “in”). A little over a decade ago, the hipster scene made its biggest comeback since the 1940s. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, many contemporary hipsters can be found riding their fixed-gear bikes to the farmers’ market or at a bar in skinny jeans drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The Moneyed Yuppies. Source: Hipster Christianity


 
An interesting sub-category has emerged: Christian hipsters. According to Brett McCracken in an article titled Hipster Faith in Christianity Today, Christian hipsters are rebelling against the over-spiritualized Christian culture they were raised in. Some of them say they have been scarred by contemporary Christian music, door-to-door evangelism and the non-denominational megachurches of their childhood. McCracken, also the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, says Christian hipsters are rebelling against

…the stereotypical evangelical church of the 80s – 90s: The Republican, middle class, abortion-clinic-picketing, anti-gay, anti-welfare, legalistic, not-so-interested-in-art-or-books WASP evangelical.

McCracken says the Christian hipster culture is small, but influential. Christian hipsters are returning to a more intellectual, traditional and back-to-basics Christianity. They are Protestants who may secretly wish they were Orthodox or Catholic in some respects. Chances are they read books by C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and probably prefer traditional hymns and Sufjan Stevens to Hillsong. Christian hipsters might like shopping at thrift stores, studying abroad, reading philosophy, drinking organic coffee, smoking cigars and serving beer or scotch at bible study.

Christian hipsters also express themselves theologically:

…through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and ‘new creation’ ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.

As mentioned in McCracken’s book, the theological beliefs of the typical Christian hipster can be linked with the Emerging Church, which is associated with authors and pastors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. According to an article in Christianity Today titled Five Streams of the Emerging Church by Scot McKnight, the doctrine of the Emerging Church is hard to define because systematic theology is viewed suspiciously. Since living out the Gospel is more emphasized than doctrinal beliefs, Christian hipsters who associate themselves with the Emerging Church are generally more focused on helping the poor rather than evangelism.

So what are the economic implications of the Emerging Church? They have been criticized for placing a heavier focus on the material world rather than the spiritual world, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Social Gospel movement in America led by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 19th and early 20th century, according to McKnight:

Sometimes, however, when I look at emerging politics, I see Walter Rauschenbusch, the architect of the Social Gospel. Without trying to deny the spiritual Gospel, he led his followers into the Social Gospel. The results were devastating for mainline Christianity’s ability to summon sinners to personal conversion. The results were also devastating for evangelical Christianity, which has itself struggled to maintain a proper balance.

The Social Gospel promotes the postmillennial view that Christ will not return until social evils are rid by human effort. Rauschenbusch was very critical towards capitalism and viewed socialism as the means to achieve justice on earth. It is too soon to tell if Christian hipsters and the Emerging Church will reflect the Social Gospel movement as strong as the past, but certain figures in the movement certainly echo a similar economic theme.

In his controversial book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, McLaren’s theological views have been criticized for twisting the Gospel and suggesting social and economic issues are more important than spiritual issues. On page 210 of his book, McLaren says,

Genesis provides a genealogy for all the pain and evil in the whole social structure of humans on planet Earth: it can be traced back to a problem of consumption beyond limits.

Some claim McLaren has replaced biblical themes with political and economic themes of consumption and class warfare (reminds me of someone named Karl Marx).

I do not fault McLaren’s desire to live in a better world. We all desire a better world because we were made for something far greater. Nevertheless, if McLaren believes human efforts can bring The Kingdom of God to earth, his beliefs are not biblical. In the words of Christ,

My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight for Me. But now My Kingdom is from elsewhere. (John 18:36)

Though the Christian hipster culture might not have a definitive doctrinal theology or a sound economic philosophy, they do have a deep passion for the poor and the desire to live out the Gospel. As Christians, the question is not if we should care for the poor, but how to care for the poor. We cannot properly care for the needy if we over-spiritualize or over-materialize the world because the church is called to address both spiritual and physical needs. Effectively caring for the physical needs of the poor requires a solid economic philosophy that fosters competition, innovation and wealth creation.

It is no claim to Manifest Destiny, nor act of hyper-nationalism or xenophobic patriotism to say that America is the boldest, most liberal (in its original etymology), most successful and most prosperous experiment in human experience. To state thus is to state history. It behooves us, then, to recall Lord Acton’s axiom to the effect that “liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.”

All who love freedom have their part to play in the cultivation of that fruit and to bring liberty to its right end: the truth about human dignity and human destiny. It is a worthy call.

In the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (14.1), Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow challenge the economic impact of our definition of society in their article, “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect.” It occurred to me that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew implicitly challenges our definition of society on a different, though similar, level than Strow and Strow.  Strow and Strow analyze the changing results of economic utility functions based upon one’s definition of human society. In his book Encountering the Mystery (2008), His All-Holiness, however, broadens our definition of society not merely on the basis of relationship, geography, or voluntary associations, but on the basis of ontological groupings. This is not to say that he would equate a human child and a dog (or a dog and a flower, for that matter), but that, for the Patriarch, society includes the entire ontological hierarchy of all creation.

This perspective produces interesting results. For example, one may examine the case in recent years when Canada was still paying the state of Michigan to put Canadian trash in its landfills. Financially, Michigan was benefiting from the deal, but environmentally Canada succeeded in minimizing its trash and retaining unused landfill capacity. Economically, both can be considered capital, but they improve the respective societies in differing ways. The financial benefit of Michigan was purely a human benefit, whereas the environmental benefit of Canada benefited humans, animals, plants, air, and soil alike, even if only on a marginal level. As a country, rather than a state, Canada’s definition of society was not only broader in terms of humanity (whether relationally, geographically, or associatively), but also in terms of all creation.

However, as Strow and Strow’s analysis shows, if one were to expand the definition of society to the whole world, Canada did not succeed in producing any environmental benefit (the quantity of total world trash was not diminished at all, only geographically relocated). However, Michigan’s financial gain may have redistributed wealth in a way that still (again marginally) improved the world as a whole (raising per capita income, perhaps), while globally having an indifferent effect upon the environment.

The challenge of His All-Holiness Bartholomew, I believe, is to define society as broadly as possible, not only in terms of relationship, geography, or association, moving from individual to family to state to country to the world, but also moving from particular (one human) to group (family, state, or country) to species (all humanity) to genus (all animals or even all living things) to most general genus (all creation), to use classical categories. If one seeks to find a final say in the Patriarch’s work with regards to the relationship between economics and ecology, one may have many criticisms. However, if one takes his work as a starting point of discussion toward a Christian synthesis between these two disciplines, I believe one finds fertile ground for cultivating a productive engagement of economics and ecology on a global basis with such a cosmic view of society.


The Patriarch’s book Encountering the Mystery is published by Doubleday Religion and can be purchased at Amazon. The scope of the book is far broader than the subject at hand, but chapter VI, “The Wonder of Creation,” addresses his view of the relationship between economics and ecology from an Orthodox Christian perspective in detail. Additionally, his many talks, letters, and encyclicals related to environmentalism can be found here.

For more on Orthodoxy and Environmentalism, Very Rev. Fr. Michael Butler taught a session at this year’s Acton University, which can be accessed here.

For more on the ecological relationship of humanity to creation as a whole from a Christian perspective, see also Benjamin B. Philips, “A Creature among Creatures or Lord of Creation?” in the Symposium section of the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

You can subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality here.