Each year tens of thousands of mostly underdressed people spend weeks hanging out in the Nevada desert in an “annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.” If you’re like me, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about the Burning Man festival is . . . hippies. Lots and lots of hippies.
But Burning Man isn’t a hippie festival. (Really, it’s not.) In fact, underneath it all, says the festival’s co-founder, Larry Harvey, is a very anti-hippie concept: “old-fashioned capitalism.”
Olasky’s work does double-duty, however, not only chronicling this transition but cogently arguing the superiority of voluntary aid and charity, which can effectively address both spiritual as well as material aspects of poverty.
In the special issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” we also find a wonderful resource on this topic in the form of Abraham Kuyper’s reflection from 1895 on the relationship of Christ and the gospel to material concerns, “Christ and the Needy.”
Current debates surrounding the U.S. federal budget have turned the spotlight on subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good, all aspects of Catholic social teaching. In an article by the Catholic News Service’s Dennis Sadowski, Acton research fellow and director of media Michael Matheson Miller said, “The principles are there. They are to guide us and we are to pay attention to them. You have to affirm those principles. Where Catholics are going to disagree is in the prudential implementation of them.”
Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan was criticized for citing these principles in his draft of the 2013 budget.
Catholic critics, primarily from academia and community organizations tackling social justice issues, have challenged Ryan on his claims, charging that he is misusing Catholic teaching to support a blatantly political agenda that makes scapegoats of the poor and endangers vulnerable people.
Taking a more measured approach, the chairmen of two U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees have voiced their concerns about cuts in several domestic and international programs. Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, have called for “shared sacrifice” and a “circle of protection” around the poor and vulnerable in budget negotiations.
“Can one have an off day in giving the Jefferson Lecture (an off week or month in writing it)?” asks Matthew J. Franck in reference to the recent NEH honor afforded to agrarian Wendell Berry. “I’d like to think so. For judging by the text of the lecture Berry gave in Washington at the beginning of this week, his thinking can be fairly repellent.”
Titled “It All Turns on Affection,” his lecture is chiefly a catalogue of Berry’s hatreds. He hates wantonly destructive land use, soil erosion, mountaintop-removal mining. So far so good.
He hates “agribusiness” and large-scale farming, though it is a great success story in the battle against hunger. He hates “corporations” and derides the notion that they are “persons” in the law, sounding as much like a wise man as the average backbench Democratic hack in the U.S. Congress. He hates “industrialism,” “plutocracy,” and “capitalism,” explaining why his thought is popular among a certain breed of college professors. He hates “materialism” but seems unable to transcend it at any point in this lecture.
Taking a breather from his litany of loathing, he indicates that he loves Nature, which he capitalizes, and draws attention to capitalizing, just in case we might be too slow to miss his implicit pantheism. He loves the local, and he loves the land, and he loves the impressive but largely vacuous sentences he composes about them.
Below is an excerpt from an early speech given by Calvin Coolidge to the Algonquin Club in Boston, Mass. in 1915. These remarks are included in a series of speeches Coolidge published in the book, Have Faith in Massachusetts. The speeches primarily deal with his philosophy of government, which because of his emphasis on foundational beliefs, remained consistent.
In the excerpt, Coolidge quotes a “Dr. Garman,” who was a professor at Amherst College, in Amherst Mass. Coolidge graduated from the school in 1895. Coolidge’s political rise certainly coincided with a rise in popularity of the social gospel and the progressive movement. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were progressive presidents that preceded Coolidge. The rise of the progressive era saw the belief that the ideas and ideals set forth in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence could be improved upon. Coolidge would later masterfully pick that kind of thinking apart in his presidential address on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926.
As stated before on the PowerBlog, Coolidge is receiving considerably more attention today. Amity Shlaes, interviewed in the Fall 2009 issue of Religion & Liberty, will release a new biography of the 30th president in June. If you are in the Grand Rapids area, I will be hosting an Acton on Tap on Coolidge’s philosophy of government on May 10.
Coolidge uses the backdrop of a lecture that mentions the purpose of Christ and his coming to earth, the value of work, service, and human nature, to check the social gospel and the progressive utopian ideal. In his remarks, he strongly posits progressive and social justice schemes within the materialist worldview.
Coolidge believed that America’s founding principles could not be improved upon, and that they were in fact the real progressive view. He believed that there were fundamental truths about man and his relationship to the state. Furthermore, he held those views because of his understanding of the fall of man. Below is the excerpt from his remarks “On the Nature of Politics:”
The State is not founded on selfishness. It cannot maintain itself by the offer of material rewards. It is the opportunity for service. There has of late been held out the hope that government could by legislation remove from the individual the need of effort. The managers of industries have seemed to think that their difficulties could be removed and prosperity ensured by changing the laws. The employee has been led to believe that his condition could be made easy by the same method. When industries can be carried on without any struggle, their results will be worthless, and when wages can be secured without any effort they will have no purchasing value. In the end the value of the product will be measured by the amount of effort necessary to secure it. Our late Dr. Garman recognized this limitation in one of his lectures where he says:
“Critics have noticed three stages in the development of human civilization. First: the let alone policy; every man to look out for number one. This is the age of selfishness. Second: the opposite pole of thinking; every man to do somebody’s else work for him. This is the dry rot of sentimentality that feeds tramps and enacts poor laws such as excite the indignation of Herbert Spencer. But the third stage is represented by our formula: every man must render and receive the best possible service, except in the case of inequality, and there the strong must help the weak to help them selves; only on this condition is help given. This is the true interpretation of the life of Christ. On the first basis He would have remained in heaven and let the earth take care of itself. On the second basis He would have come to earth with his hands full of gold and silver treasures satisfying every want that unfortunate humanity could have devised. But on the third basis He comes to earth in the form of a servant who is at the same time a master commanding his disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; it is sovereignty through service as opposed to slavery through service. He refuses to make the world wealthy, but He offers to help them make themselves wealthy with true riches which shall be a hundred-fold more, even in this life, than that which was offered them by any former system.”
This applies to political life no less than to industrial life. We live under the fairest government on earth. But it is not self sustaining. Nor is that all. There are selfishness and injustice and evil in the world. More than that, these forces are never at rest. Some desire to use the processes of government for their own ends. Some desire to destroy the authority of government altogether. Our institutions are predicated on the rights and the corresponding duties, on the worth, of the individual. It is to him that we must look for safety. We may need new charters, new constitutions and new laws at times. We must always have an alert and interested citizenship. We have no dependence but the individual. New charters cannot save us. They may appear to help but the chances are that the beneficial results obtained result from an increased interest aroused by discussing changes. Laws do not make reforms, reforms make laws. We cannot look to government. We must look to ourselves. We must stand not in the expectation of a reward but with a desire to serve. There will come out of government exactly what is put into it. Society gets about what it deserves. It is the part of educated men to know and recognize these principles and influences and knowing them to inform and warn their fellow countrymen. Politics is the process of action in public affairs. It is personal, it is individual, and nothing more. Destiny is in you.
May 1st was the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on the Catholic calendar, and in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI offered a short reflection on human labor when speaking to construction workers (via Whispers in the Loggia):
I’m taken in mind to how, in the New Testament, in the profession of Jesus before his public ministry, the word “tecton” appears, which we translate as “carpenter,” because then homes were mostly homes of wood. But, more than a “carpenter,” it’s an “artisan” who is able to make everything necessary for the construction of a house. So, in this sense, you are “colleagues” of Our Lord, as you’ve taken up what he did willingly, according to his own choice, before he announced to the world his great mission.
The Lord has wished to show in this way the nobility of this work. In the Greek world, only intellectual work was considered worthy of a free man. Manual labor was left to the slaves. It’s totally different in biblical religion. Here, the Creator — who, in a beautiful image, made man with his own hands — himself appears to give us the example of a man working with his hands and, in doing so, working with his mind and with his heart. Man imitates the Creator because this world given to us by his hand is an inhabitable world. This appears in the biblical story from the very start. But always, in a powerful way, in the fact that Jesus was “tecton,” “artisan” — “worker” — appears the nobility and greatness of this work.
Having said all this… it’s a moment to say “thank you” for all this, for your work which encourages me — as you gave everything — to give on my own part, in this late hour of my life, the greatest amount I can possibly give.
“Walter Hooper once said of C.S. Lewis that he was the most truly converted person he had ever met,” says Baptist theologian Timothy George. “The same thing can be justly said of Charles W. Colson, who came to faith in Christ through reading Lewis’ Mere Christianity.”
In an article for the National Catholic Register, George examines the legacy of his friend, a man who helped forge Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the ‘Manhattan Declaration.’:
I recently came across an interesting academic journal, Diaconia: Journal for the Study of Christian Social Practice. One of the sample articles available is by Herman Noordegraaf of the Protestant Theological University in Leiden. His piece is titled, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor” (PDF).
The latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality is a theme issue on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” and a series of pieces take up a line of recent history in the Netherlands. A significant article by Rolf van der Woude, senior researcher at the Historical Documentation Centre for Dutch Protestantism at the VU University Amsterdam, examines the changes in Reformed thought on the social question from the First Social Congress in 1891 to the Third Social Conference in 1952. As van der Woude concludes, in the post war era, “A new generation believed that the beast of the state, caged for so long, had now been tamed. At the end of the 1950s, Van den Heuvel’s generation retreated, the Netherlands entered a period of economic boom, and a generous welfare state was rapidly erected from the ground up wherein welfare was no longer a matter of charity but a matter of justice guaranteed by the government. The beast of the state had become an ally.”
Noordegraaf’s piece can be read as a companion article to van der Woude’s, tracing the development (or lack thereof) in Christian social thought in the Netherlands over the last half century. As Noordegraaf writes, the situation has largely remained the same, in that the church’s primary responsibility is understood not merely to have to provide material assistance to the poor, but rather advocate for reliance on the welfare state for such provision. As Noordegraaf writes, a declaration on the problem of poverty in 1987 codified the approach of “aid under protest,” in which the churches provide aid to the poor but only under protest that the government was not meeting welfare needs appropriately. The statement reads:
We reject the way people are once again made dependent on charity. We plead for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government. For this reason, financial aid given by churches in situations of need should be combined with protest against the causes of this need to government and society.
Noordegraaf’s observation is that the churches, both locally and denominationally, have been too concerned with meeting the momentary concrete needs of the poor and need to pay more attention to the mandate to lobby the government for more expansive social welfare programs. The point is that the need for Christian or church-based charity indicts the lack of justice under a modern constitutional state, where freedom from need and want ought to be simply guaranteed.
As Nordegraaf concludes concerning recent trends, “More and more, as the above mentioned reports show, churches have been involved in material aid: when people are in need and ask for help, you give it. It is a kind of safety net under the increasingly porous safety net of the state.” He continues, “The fact that the churches found this problematic reflects their belief that the principles of the welfare state are worth fighting for. This has to do with a vision of the task of the state to promote the general welfare and to secure the basic needs of people in society.” Noordegraaf concludes that “it is in harmony with the calvinist approach of the responsibility of the state that churches try to make clear to government and to society at large that they have helped with material aid. This signalizing can take many forms: in letters, reports, talks, discussions, programmes in the media, articles in newspapers and so on. In this way, individual aid is combined with advocacy in the public domain.”
I commend these two articles to your reading: Rolf van der Woude, “Taming the Beast: The Long and Hard Road to the Christian Social Conference of 1952,” and Herman Noordegraaf, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor.”
They will make clear just how much things have changed over the last 120 years in the Netherlands, when Abraham Kuyper emphasized the priority of Christian giving in 1881, arguing that “the holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.” Such emphasis on private Christian charity is now understood to be retrograde and obsolete.