The debate over the separation of church and state as well as religion’s role in politics has been intense and ongoing for years. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Tony Oleck seeks to add clarity to the debate. In his commentary, Oleck balances the desires of the Founding Fathers with what it means to be a Christian. Get Acton News and Commentary every Wednesday in your email inbox. Click here to sign up today.

Controversial Christianity: Understanding Faith and Politics

By Tony Oleck

As the race for the 2012 party nominations for president heats up, the question of religion and its place in politics surfaces yet again.  Whether the controversy is over mosques or Mormonism, religion permeates much of today’s political talk, despite various pleas for a “separation of church and state” from both the secular and religious worlds.  But what does the separation of church and state truly mean?

While many use the phrase to refer to a complete isolation of religion from politics, history tells us that the most famous advocate of this principle in America, Thomas Jefferson, may have had a different idea of what a “wall of separation between church and state” really meant.  In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson writes:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship. . . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church & state.

What Jefferson sought to prevent was state intervention into religious affairs. And the separation of church and state, as our founding fathers understood the phrase, meant the avoidance of a church-state.  A church that acts as or controls the state is not in accordance with Christ’s message, but a church that informs the state is.  If the role of the state is to allow for and to promote the freedom and well-being of its citizens, then it has only to benefit from the Christian understandings of truth, freedom and God’s undying love for the world.

I am reminded of something a former English teacher once told me about religion and politics.  “It’s like when I go to get my car fixed,” he said, “I don’t determine which mechanic to go to by what religion he practices.”  While I would agree, I tend to take the leadership and future of my country a little bit more seriously than whether or not my radio works.  Granted, a candidate should never be excluded from office for solely religious purposes, but a Christian nevertheless need not feel ashamed for supporting a particular candidate because of his or her religiously-based position on certain social issues.

Why did our founding fathers describe man as “being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”? And why were the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation under God” added eventually to our currency and our pledge of allegiance, respectively? It was because they realized that only in recognizing man as having been created in God’s own image as a species set apart could America grow and prosper.  It was this common Christian heritage that allowed the state to grow in the first place.  While not all of America’s founding fathers were necessarily practicing Christians, they understood that for the American experiment to succeed it must at the very least be founded on Christian principles; on both faith and reason. They understood the transformative nature of Christ’s teachings and the dignity and truth which they expounded to human beings.

This is not to say, of course, that the United States only has room for Christianity as a system of belief.  Religious freedom is a necessary condition for a just and prosperous society.  As Pope Benedict XVI said in his World Day of Peace address this past New Year’s, “Where religious freedom is acknowledged the dignity of the human person is respected at its roots and through a sincere search for truth and good, moral conscience and institutions are strengthened.  For this religious freedom is a privileged path to peace.”

But while religious freedom is necessary for peace, it is never an excuse for inaction.  Christians often feel the need to separate their religious beliefs from their political views so as not to “impose” their beliefs on others, but this separation is contrary to the Gospel message.  Because acceptance of the Gospel and the subsequent sharing of the Gospel go hand-in-hand, a Christian who is content to confine his faith to the walls of his own home may be a Christian by name, but he is an atheist by practice.

Christianity is more than a moral code. It is by its nature both transformative and truth-seeking. And if Christianity is meant to transform our lives and to expound truth (whether that truth is culturally attractive or not), then it becomes necessary that we allow our faith to inform our politics.  It offers the lens of a true enlightenment, through which we can understand the meaning and purpose of political action in the first place.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
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The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has announced a debate later this fall between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler. They’ll take opposing positions on the question, “Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?” The debate is slated for October 27, 2011 at 7:00 pm, and you can find more details at the Henry Center website. This is a really important question the answer to which really turns on some important definitions.

I would take the “yes” or the “no” position depending on how you define social justice and church. If by social justice you mean what Wallis usually means, something along the lines of redistribution of material wealth by government coercion, then I would take the negative. If you also mean the church to refer to the church as an institution, then again, I would take the negative, particularly if by social justice you mean a political program to engineer a state of affairs in which all have equal shares.

But if by social justice you mean a state of affairs in which each is rendered what is due by the appropriate parties, then the church does have a role to play (even if it is not a primary or “essential” part of the church’s mission). In the sense of the institutional church, it seems that the role is to pursue its primary responsibilities of proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and exercising church discipline. That’s the way in which the institutional church promotes social justice, by doing its appointed task as part of the variegated social order. It would be hard to say in that regard that social justice is an essential part of the institutional church’s mission. It would rather be more like a secondary consequence or effect.

If we consider the church as an organism, however, consisting of all the individual members in their particular callings and offices, then promoting social justice becomes more clearly central. Promoting social justice would presumably be more consciously central for some callings than for others, at least in terms of the legal and political rules of the game. But each member of the congregation is called to manifest justice in their own dealings with others. They are, in fact, called to grow in the virtue of justice as an individual Christian.

What I’ve found, though, is that progressive and transformationalist Christians are often very quick to dismiss the kinds of distinctions I’m talking about here, and pursue in rather simplistic and straightforward way the pursuit of their vision of the right social order. Questions about the limits of the institutional church’s authority and responsibility are of little interest; whatever authority or structure that can be used must be pressed into service in promoting social justice. Nevermind if doing so in fact undermines rather than promotes a truly just society. This is why in my book Ecumenical Babel I note that the distinction between church as institution and church as organism is so important for reform and renewal of the church’s social witness.

In this regard, the exchange between Calvin Seminary professor Calvin Van Reken and denominational leader Peter Vander Meulen is instructive. In examining this exchange, you see Van Reken make precisely the kinds of distinctions I endorse here in addressing the question of “The Church’s Role and Social Justice.” You also see Vander Meulen run roughshod over such nuance in “The Church and Social Justice.” Van Reken’s essay on “The Mission of a Local Church,” wherein he identifies the ministries of “mercy,” as they are sometimes called to be a secondary calling of the church, is also helpful.

I should add that to the extent the institutional church has a role in promoting social justice directly in material terms, it follows that there are particular responsibilities that adhere to different offices. In this case, the role of the deacon would be that which has primary responsibility (rather than say the preaching pastor or teaching elder).

Mark Tooley has an excellent write up over at FrontPage about religious left figures staging martyr like arrests in defense of tax increases, unsustainable deficit spending, and the welfare state. Here are some details provided by Tooley:

Religious Left officials on July 28 successfully sought arrest for “faithful civil disobedience” in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to protest any consideration of limits on the Welfare and Entitlement State. They were also demanding tax increases. Unlike more courageous and spiritually insightful fellow believers imprisoned in Iran, China, and North Korea, these U.S. activist prelates were presumably arrested, booked, bonded and released back to their nearby air-conditioned offices in time for posting fresh news releases.

Arrestees included United Methodism’s chief lobbyist Jim Winkler; former United Church of Christ President Paul Sherry; and multi-faceted Bob Edgar, himself an ordained United Methodist, former NCC general secretary, former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, and now chief of the liberal advocacy group Common Cause, the secular chief organizer of the “prayer” witness at the U.S. Capitol.

In a previous post, I pointed out the fact that just one example of government becoming so mammoth is that it now has self-appointed clergy over a flock of bureaucracy. They are declaring the bureaucracy sacred. Tooley’s use of “photo-Op” and “martyrdom” in the title of the piece is entirely appropriate and fully exposes the sadness and hollowness of staging civil disobedience for a broken and bankrupt bureaucracy.

For these mostly white and aging baby boomers, trying to recreate the courage of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is foremost. However, it will never be actualized by defending a broken system and by looking to the failed policies of the past. One of the strengths of Dr. Martin Luther King was borrowing from the richness of the American narrative history of freedom and Scripture and using it to expose the weakness of a bankrupt system of injustice that was of the past. Bankrupt is bankrupt.

At least from their perspective, these budget busting pastors will keep evangelizing and suffering for more government as faithfully as those who toil for the souls of the lost in mission fields.

I was listening to news radio and heard an update in which the senate majority leader Harry Reid gave his interpretation of events on the debt ceiling negotiation. The part that really got my attention was where he insisted that further committee work would go after those “millionaires and billionaires.”

I wondered, “What is he really saying?” Let’s begin with millionaires and billionaires. Is Reid charging them with having committed some evil? If a person had made a lot of money by force or fraud, then I would agree that disapproval and punishment might be merited. Can we confidently say that rich people, as a class, have committed evils which make them suitable subjects of a public official’s desire to punish?

Why is he so angry? Why does he make these people sound like bad people? Is it the fact that they have quite a bit of money? I suspect he does, too. Indeed, it has been noted that Reid has become a somewhat wealthy man while holding office. Does he impute ill motives or actions to himself by virtue of his possession of resources well above the average?

What if we do think that having a lot of wealth is a sign of moral weakness? Perhaps we believe that having much more money than is needed to live (even live comfortably) represents a bad choice. Even if we think that, does that mean we invest the government with the moral right to appropriate that wealth as needed so as to operate without hard debates about limits on spending? Maybe our only right is the right to have our own opinion of how wealthy people should spend their money.

I think Harry Reid needs to think more about why he’s so morally exercised. Follow the conclusions of that anger and maybe we’ll get down to basic principles. Once we get there we can have a legitimate discussion.

Acton On The AirOver the past few weeks, Kishore Jayabalan – Director of Acton’s Rome office – has been called upon a couple of times to comment on Italian and American budget negotiations for Vatican Radio. On Saturday, Jayabalan discussed the then-ongoing US budget negotiations:

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Kishore also made an appearance on Vatican Radio to discuss Italy’s debt issues back on the 13th of July, making the point that while austerity would be required, economic growth would be a necessity as well for Italy to solve its debt issues:

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In a recent Reuters opinion column, Mark Thoma faults academic economists for their failure to predict the housing crash. He says their failure can be attributed to the disconnect between academia and economic forecasters. I don’t agree with Thoma, but I do think he gets it right when he says the failure of modern day economics,

May have something to do with the desire among economists to become more of a science – a heavy focus on theory and math is the result.

During the classical period, economics was closely linked to psychology. In the early 20th century, neoclassical economics veered from the study of psychology as economists sought to reshape the discipline as a natural science.

Modern neoclassical economics draws influence dating back to René Descartes. According to Dr. Robert Nelson’s review of Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street by Tomas Sedlack, Cartesian thought encouraged a belief that mathematical equations are equivalent to religious truths. The economic man is seen as,

 ‘A mechanical construct that works on infallible mathematical principles, … and economists are [therefore] capable of explaining even his innermost motives’ through mathematical methods.

Philosophical implications suggest modern economics is essentially attempting to reduce individuals to numbers. Economic models that operate in a perfect abstract framework with absolute assumptions conflict with the unpredictable and sometimes irrational behavior of human nature. This may explain why data forecasting without a full picture of the human person is not sufficient in predicting major market failures like the housing crash.

Karen Ho takes an anthropological approach to the financial crisis in her 2008 book  Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. As an anthropology graduate from Princeton, Ho is hired to work at an investment bank and writes about the corporate culture on Wall Street prior to the housing collapse. Homogenous recruitment, constant downsizing, high risk/high reward job liquidity, short-sighted bonuses, and deception of shareholder value were among many behaviors she observed. Such irrational and risky behavior should have been a red flag for any economist, shedding light on a major incentive problem.

Though it can be argued that the separation between modern economics and behavioral economics is necessary for empirical data and analysis, some economists want to see the gap close. According to Sedlack, modern economics should deemphasize the role of mathematics. Math is only the tip of the ice berg; it is vital, but not sufficient in economics. Nelson quoted him saying,

‘Below the mathematics lie much more fundamental issues’ of institutions, culture, and basic belief — even of religion. These issues do not readily lend themselves to mathematical methods.

Some human desires simply cannot be fulfilled by economic objects. A price value cannot be placed on the community, family, knowledge of God and so on. It is impossible to commodify or quantify these desires into an economic model. Richard Neuhaus famously said,

To attribute everything to the economic factor is to perpetuate the terrible lie of the Marxists. In addition to the economic is the political and, most important, the cultural. At the heart of the cultural is the moral and spiritual.

The number one failure of modern economics is an understanding of the human person that is incomplete. Economists must draw on anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology to better understand what drives human behavior and decision making. Forecasters will never be able to predict the future the way they would like, but social studies coupled with empirical economic analysis may help economists better understand the why questions that numbers cannot explain.

Immigration is never a light topic to discuss, and even the proposition of a solution to the effects caused by immigration might well be considered radical. The idea of a harmonious multicultural society is idealistic, but in reality, is very difficult to achieve.

When looking at the advantages and disadvantages of immigration, relative to the nation receiving immigrants, the economy is a concern that often comes up. In a recent IEA (Institute of Economic Affairs) paper, Nobel Prize winner Professor Gary Becker proposes a way in which the economy and the government of the country receiving immigrants could benefit. He believes that governments should sell the right to immigrate. Becker says, “The government should set a price each year and anyone would be accepted, aside from obvious cases such as potential terrorists, criminals and people who are very sick and who would be immediately a big burden to the health system.”

Becker uses the United States as a model for how the solution might play out. The U.S. has been admitting about one million legal immigrants a year. He says, “At a price of $50,000 per immigrant, let’s suppose this would attract one million immigrants.” At a 5 per cent interest rate, it has a present value of roughly $1 trillion. Of course, different countries could charge different rates, and the option of offering loans to those who couldn’t pay the amount up-front is a possibility. Through this solution, Becker believes a country would get immigrants who are young, skilled, and have the greatest commitment to the country.

Becker’s use of the United States as an example seems to suggest it is experiencing a revenue problem. But in fact, the government has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

Immigration is not a new concept; it has been taking place since the dawn of time. Since the early days of Christianity, the welcoming of others has been encouraged.  In an interview with Thomas C. Oden in Religion & Liberty,” Oden notes, “Ancient Christian writers knew that all Christians were being called to receive strangers and travelers hospitably.” But this does not get to the question of whether the stranger is entering under lawful pretences. These two viewpoints often conflict. Oden goes on to say, “They conflict dramatically between those who would emphasize the hospitality in an absolute way, and those who would emphasize the moral requirement of following the law as a part of a just social order, including the duty to respect legal borders.” So even among late and present day Christians, there is great contrast in opinions regarding this issue.

But among Christians, policy makers, and all people for that matter, the key component to any decision should be based on human dignity. Becker’s proposal works to boost the revenue of countries, but seems to take lightly the rights of the immigrants themselves.  Sure, they will be accepted into the country and may eventually enjoy the same benefits as a natural-born citizen, but under the proposal, they are treated more as a commodity than a human being.

Although Becker’s proposal would work to moderate the illegal immigration problem, by offering a viable option for immigrants to enter legally, it does not address the cultural differences and religious factors that often play a large role in the discontent surrounding immigration. Germany, for example, has expressed great concern over the large influx of Muslim immigrants (coming mainly from Turkey) entering its borders. The predominant religion in Germany has long been Christianity, although church attendance rates have experienced a rather steady decline. The Turkish immigrants have proven to be very devout in their Islamic faith, which has made Germany question how strongly it wants to hold onto its Christian roots. These religious differences have fueled much of the debate which still continues.

The topic of immigration raises many questions about how it should be handled. Not every country holds the same stake in each issue surrounding immigration (culture, religion, economics, etc.), but each decision made should be premised on the dignity of the human person first. Becker’s proposal seemingly focuses on a solution based solely on revenue concerns. By doing this he fails to recognize immigrants who immigrate for humanitarian reasons (lack of resources, economic oppression, etc.)  For people yearning for freedom, having to pay a considerable amount to enter a county doesn’t exactly fit within the mantra of liberty. Use of the free market is in many cases a good thing, but when its use undermines the very freedom it attempts to foster, it is violating its own principles. This does not mean the immigration system should not be revised; restructuring the legal immigration system in the U.S. and other countries would help a great deal. But, in order for these changes to be truly positive, they should first and foremost be based on the dignity of the human person.

 

George Weigel writes on National Review Online, “something quite remarkable has become unmistakably clear across the Atlantic: Ireland—where the constitution begins, ‘In the name of the Most Holy Trinity’—has become the most stridently anti-Catholic country in the Western world.”

While he calls the Irish prime minister’s recent anti-Catholic tirade what it is—calumnious—Weigel also acknowledges that the Church in Irelandis in a bad way. He goes so far as to say

Apostolic visitations of the principal Irish dioceses and seminaries have been undertaken, on Vatican orders, by bishops from theUnited States, Canada, and Great Britain; their reports, one understands, have been blunt and unsparing.

What has not happened, and what ought to happen sooner rather than later, is a wholesale replacement of the Irish hierarchy, coupled with a dramatic reduction in the number of Irish dioceses…. The Vatican, not ordinarily given to dramatic change, might well consider clearing the Irish bench comprehensively and bringing in bishops, of whatever national origin, who can rebuild the Irish Church by preaching the Gospel without compromise—and who know how to fight the soft totalitarianism of European secularists.

Why this atrophy of the Church in Ireland? Weigel looks at Erin’s recent history and that of three other nations—Spain, Portugal, and Quebec—that share a formerly vibrant faith which has all but disappeared in the last fifty years.

In each of these cases, the state, through the agency of an authoritarian government, deliberately delayed the nation’s confrontation with modernity. In each of these cases, the Catholic Church was closely allied to state power (or, in the case of Quebec, to the power of the dominant Liberal party). In each of these cases, Catholic intellectual life withered, largely untouched by the mid-20th-century Catholic renaissance in biblical, historical, philosophical, and theological studies that paved the way toward the Second Vatican Council.

A free society cannot exist without strong intellectual underpinnings, and paradoxically, because of state support of the Church in those four countries, freedom’s intellectual foundations have withered. Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Quebec must serve as warnings for the rest of Christendom:

This, then, is the blunt fact that must be faced by bishops, priests, and lay Catholics who want to build the Church of Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI — the Church of a New Evangelization — out of the wreckage of the recent Irish past: In Ireland, as in the other three cases, the Church’s close relationship with secular power reinforced internal patterns of clericalism and irresponsibility that put young people at risk, that impeded the proclamation of the Gospel, and that made the Church in these places easy prey for the secularist cultural (and political) wolves, once they emerged on the scene.

Over at ThinkChristian, I take the opportunity to sketch “what a comprehensive Christian response to the crisis of public and private debt might look like.” I focus “on five main areas: the individual, familial, ecclesial, economic, and political.” This is a brief and preliminary set of questions and observations.

But even so, I think even just provisional attempts to evaluate our values shows us that “the problems we face are far more than political – and far deeper than merely political solutions can hope to solve.”

Blog author: kspence
Monday, August 1, 2011
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It looks like Congress will vote later today or this evening to raise the debt ceiling and avert a possible default by the United States Treasury. How the debt ceiling compromise will fair when measured against Acton’s Principles for Budget Reform it is too early to know, but one thing is certain: if the deal contains a single budget cut for even the most ineffective of social programs, we’ll hear screams of protest from Jim Wallis and his Circle of Protection.

Already parts of Washington are “livid over the extent of the deal’s domestic spending cuts, as well as the absence of any immediate tax hikes on wealthier Americans.” Coalitions that have a confused idea of the common good won’t like a debt deal that threatens to reflect economic realities and truths about the human person—and this plan doesn’t even have the support of many important conservatives.

As Jim Wallis explained the progressive Christian’s view of the debt negotiations:

Our country is in the midst of a clash between two competing moral visions, between those who believe in the common good, and those who believe individual good is the only good. A war has been declared on the poor…

Wallis reveals here a fundamental misunderstanding of the common good, and thus of politics. To Circle of Protection and its allies, the common good is achieved by higher taxation of the wealthy and redistribution of wealth: as everyone gets his check on the first of the month, justice is served. What redistributionists don’t understand is that simply running all the money through a common mill doesn’t mean you’re serving the common good. A large administrative state is not a sign of flourishing communal society.

An idea of the common good must be grounded in a correct vision of human nature, and the class warfare lens through which Wallis views the world distorts by materialism his perception. What is called the common good is in fact the common advantage, and belief in the common advantage is indeed belief that “individual good is the only good.”

Government for the sake of the common good requires a free citizenry, because without the freedom to make choices of moral consequence, a people cannot do good. Thus, taking the means of private charity and redistributing it for the sake of material equality is not practicing government for the common good.