Reactions from religious communities to last week’s jobs speech from President Obama are running the political gamut, as one might expect. Over at Think Christian, my piece has garnered some rather vociferous response.

And at the Faith in Public Life blog, Jessica Barba Brown compiles some responses that focus on “the need for serious job-creation legislation.” The problem here is that while a society with opportunities for employment for all is seen as a moral imperative, the primary agent responsible for creating those jobs is viewed as the government rather than actors in the market.

The faith in government evident here is really just astonishing. Politicians promising jobs is just another example of making grandiose promises that they can’t hope to fulfill. It’s really just telling us what we want to hear (or at least what they think we want to hear), rather than what we need to hear.

It’s true of course that work is an essential part of what it means to be human. But it is a serious confusion of our social life to think that government is the institution primarily responsible for providing work. Rev. Kevin DeYoung addressed the question cogently last week, “Daddy, where do jobs come from?” The answer, as you might suspect, is not the government (at least it shouldn’t be!).

And Cal Thomas’ piece from yesterday is also worth noting: “If we want government to become smaller and perform within its constitutional boundaries, we are going to have to expect less from it and more from ourselves.”

For more on the real moral imperative of work in our lives, I highly recommend Lester DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective.

Writing in today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute:

Jobs & deficits — the moral equation

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Genesis account of creation tells us that from the beginning, humanity was created to work. God puts Adam in the garden to “work and watch over it.” The Scripture provides an insight into our nature: We are all, man and woman, called into this life to find our vocation, the work that is uniquely ours and contributes to the flourishing of the wider community.

This explains why we are naturally so troubled about what appear to be merely economic problems: intractable unemployment and the various schemes put forth by policy makers to spur job creation. But behind the question is the reality that we naturally prefer people to be productive contributors to our economic life.

How we accomplish that is the subject of the debate over our unsustainable budget and debt trajectory. Do we choose those policies that make room for more freedom in the market, unleashing the creative potential of the American worker, business owner and entrepreneur? Or do we default, once more, to political and bureaucratic measures that require heavier burdens of taxation and regulation?

A government that actively sustains poverty by removing natural incentives to work is gravely in the wrong. Such government is without its essential anchor, which is that understanding of humanity as creative and productive.

The super committee created by Congress’ debt-ceiling compromise has begun its work to find $1.5 trillion in federal spending cuts ($2 trillion if the committee accepts the cuts corresponding to President Obama’s proposed stimulus). Even after this reduction, though, the nation’s debt will be unacceptably burdensome.

In 2011, for the first time since World War II, the amount of our total federal debt will surpass annual GDP. This is perilous, because economic capacity begins to be seriously affected when a country’s debt reaches 80 percent of GDP.

The super committee should begin by cutting social programs that perpetuate cycles of poverty. The only way to rise from poverty is to contribute to economic activity — a job is the best poverty program ever devised.

The federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the “War on Poverty” since Lyndon B. Johnson declared it, but we have next to nothing to show for the expense. And the agenda put forward by the religious left devalues the human person, treating the poor as objects of charity rather than as economic contributors.

The federal government does have real obligations to current generations that must be met. But without substantive reform of our largest entitlement programs, the country’s long-term fiscal health cannot be secured.

We cannot leave future generations with the full burden of our debt, which becomes a heavier weight the longer it is left unaddressed.

Congress must remember that economic growth is driven by innovations — by improvements in how the population produces goods and delivers them. The incentives caused by an expanding government run counter to economic growth because they run counter to human nature.

As reform of federal spending is undertaken, all cuts must be made with an eye to freeing citizens of every class to pursue their economic potential — to engage in the kind of dignified work that is essential to our nature, properly understood.

In this week’s Acton News & Commentary, Rev. Gregory Jensen observes that religious communities on both the left and the right can agree that government budgets are “moral documents.” He then offers a novel suggestion for closing budget gaps while offering clergy an opportunity to show solidarity with the poor. Subscribe to the free weekly ANC and other Acton publications here.

Time to End Clergy Tax Breaks?

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

Unless you are a member of the clergy or involved with the finances of a church or temple, you probably don’t know that since 1921 the federal government has subsidized a congregation’s remuneration of its pastor. This happens through the extension of a housing or “parsonage allowance” that makes it possible for an ordained member of the clergy to live “tax-free in a home owned by his or her religious organization or receive a tax-free annual payment to buy or rent a home if the congregation approves.” Originally, this was meant as a way of helping “minimize taxes on clergy members, whose compensation was often meager.”

Recent court cases have extended “the parsonage allowance to an unlimited number of homes, which may be owned either by the religious organization or the clergy member. However unintentionally, in doing this the courts may have opened “the door for the allowance to be applied to multiple homes used by leaders of wealthier ministries.” Among those concerned about the possibility that this will lead to abuse or an unjust situation is Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa). “It’s fair to question,” he says “why a clergy member needs a tax-free allowance for more than one home, and whether tax-exempt churches should subsidize millionaire ministers” (Tax Break for Clergy Questioned).

Yes, there will no doubt be those who abuse the system but when is this not the case? Religion plays a key role in maintaining a free and virtuous society, and an argument can be made that subsidies, such as the housing allowance or non-profit status for religious ministries, are a good thing for society lowering as they do the cost of maintaining a diverse range of religious communities which, in the aggregate, have a positive social effect.

The recently issued document “A Circle of Protection” rightly points out that “Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices.” Christians from both the political left and right can, and should, agree with this. Likewise, I think it would be difficult for me, or any Christian, to deny that “It is the vocation and obligation of the church to speak and act on behalf of those Jesus called ‘the least of these.’” Nor would I, or any thoughtful Christian, deny that such a witness is essential part of “our calling” and that we must “strive to be faithful in carrying out this mission.”

Where some Christians might disagree is with their contention that the federal budget must give a “moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world.” Others, like those involved with Christians for a Sustainable Economy, have done a very good job of criticizing the document’s equating support for government programs with support for people so I won’t repeat those criticisms here. I would however like to make a more general point.

A number of the signatories of “A Circle of Protection” are ordained clergy and/or representatives of various Christian denominations or ministries. Many, and I dare say most, probably benefit personally from the federal housing allowance for clergy. Because they work for religious denominations that are also non-profit corporations, they benefit institutionally from what, in a slightly different context, might be called corporate welfare.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that there is anything necessarily wrong with either the clergy housing allowance or a ministry having non-profit status. As I said above, religious institutions play an important and essential role in fostering a free and virtuous society.

Nor am I calling into question the sincerity of anyone’s faith. But I am mindful of the admonition that we “do no injustice in judgment” by being “partial to the poor” or holding in “honor the person of the mighty.” We are instead to be “righteousness” in our judgments (Lev 19:15, NKJV). I wonder whether or not under such a standard a Christian community can “be faithful in carrying out” its “mission” to speak for those in material need while at the same time accepting for themselves preferential treatment under the tax code. In light of these considerations, perhaps those clergy who are advocating for more government spending would do their share for this cause by voluntarily—and very publicly—returning to the U.S. Treasury an amount equal to their parsonage allowance. Annually.

The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia and is a contributor to the Acton PowerBlog and the American Orthodox Institute’s Observer.

Acton’s tireless director of research Samuel Gregg has a post up at NRO’s The Corner in reaction to yesterday’s bad poverty numbers (46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line now—2.6 million more than last year). Gregg is ultimately not surprised about the increase, because not only does the American welfare state produce long term dependence on governmental support, but the huge debt incurred by poverty programs tends to slow economic growth.

It is now surely clear that the trillions of dollars expended on welfare programs since the not-so-glorious days of the 1960s have not apparently made much of a dent in significantly changing the ratio of Americans in poverty.

In some instances, America’s welfare apparatus may have prevented some people (especially the elderly) from falling into abject poverty. There is, however, very little evidence that it has helped millions of people out of relative poverty. There is also plenty of data to indicate that many welfare programs have produced intergenerational dependency on the state—a point that even Bill Clinton seemed to have grasped by the mid-1990s.

Gregg then warns against the temptation to double down on government-as-the-answer, arguing that we don’t have the fiscal leeway to experiment as we did in the 1960s.

We need to keep these serious failures of America’s welfare state in mind because these new poverty numbers will almost certainly be used as an argument by some people of good will (as well as those whose motives are far less noble) to resist any reductions in welfare spending, despite America’s far-from-healthy debt and deficit situation. Yet the sheer size of government spending on entitlement programs (by far the biggest item in the federal government’s budget) makes cuts in these areas inescapable if—I repeat, if—our political masters are serious about wanting to balance the government’s books.

Indeed, such cuts are assuming an ever-increasing urgency in light of the studies which continue to appear indicating that crushing levels of public and government debt run the risk of significantly impeding growth. That’s worrying, not least because a slowdown in growth will hurt those in poverty far more than the wealthy. Strong growth rates are one of the most powerful antidotes to poverty – just ask anyone living in mainland China or India. More welfare spending is simply not the answer.

Full post here.

Mark your calendar! As announced earlier this year, Dr. Hunter Baker is the recipient of the 2011 Novak Award. Hunter will deliver the 11th annual Calihan Lecture and receive this year’s Novak Award on October 5, 2011 at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. Hunter’s presentation will conclude a day-long conference, “Whole Life Discipleship: Integrating Faith, Economics, & Work,” which will consist of two other lectures and a panel discussion. For more information or to register to attend, please see the event page or the press release.

President Obama wants his American Jobs Act passed immediately. You know this already—he made sure he delivered that message in his speech: “Pass this jobs plan right away” was his refrain. President Obama has definitely not read the Federalist Papers in a while. If he had, he would not be encouraging Congress to pass half-a-trillion dollars of new spending at a moment’s notice.

Congress is not a quick-strike team, and the Senate especially is not designed to be a rapidly responsive body. James Madison explained in Federalist #62 that it is to be slow and deliberative, because “mutable government” is ineffective and dangerous.

What indeed are all the repealing, explaining, and amending laws, which fill and disgrace our voluminous codes [under the Articles of Confederation], but so many monuments of deficient wisdom; so many impeachments exhibited by each succeeding against each preceding session; so many admonitions to the people, of the value of those aids which may be expected from a well-constituted senate?…

To trace the mischievous effects of a mutable government would fill a volume…. It poisons the blessing of liberty.

The president’s urgency is understandable—he wants desperately to help the economy, and it could use help. It was announced today that the poverty rate is higher than it has been in 28 years, that the median household income has fallen, and that the number of people with health insurance has fallen. In his jobs speech, the president asked Congress to put political games aside, saying,

The next election is 14 months away. And the people who sent us here—the people who hired us to work for them—they don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months. Some of them are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck, even day to day. They need help, and they need it now.

The irony may be painful, but President Obama was begging assistance from a body designed to fail him. And if Congress does pass something, the rich will be much more able to take advantage of the unintended consequences of the bill—as Madison put it:

Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people.

Nobody actually expects relief for the poor from the Jobs Act, because economic growth isn’t generated by money taken out of the hands of productive businesses and entrepreneurs. (Google “cost of stimulus jobs” for a dark laugh.) It takes time to build up a business that contributes to the economy—Americans don’t really believe that 20th century progressives discovered the secret of warp speed, government-catalyzed growth.

In the mean time, who takes care of those who live “week to week” and “day to day?” Private institutions, of course (see Acton’s Principles for Budget Reform): churches and local charities and other groups that are equipped to provide assistance in less than 14 months. As Bruce Walker explained in an Acton Commentary last Christmas,

If one relies on government programs to help the poor, how can one be blamed for asserting “I gave at the office” rather than ponying up at the Salvation Army drum or the church collection basket, or buying a Christmas goose for the laid-off father of the family at the end of the block?

It’s getting too easy to pick on this administration.

Director of Research Samuel Gregg is among those reacting to last night’s CNN/Tea Party Debate on National Review Online. His first point is that “when CNN hosts a Tea Party–sponsored debate, you know we’re not in 2008 anymore.” Gregg’s take is that the debate was a lot more mainstream than the network wanted us to think, and that the economic questions raised and debated are going to be the central issues of the 2012 election:

Almost all of the candidates demonstrated their ability to raise sharp questions about the present administration’s specific policies but also about the basic philosophy informing those positions. The question running through my mind was how the president was going to provide convincing (let alone coherent) responses to the critiques I heard of policies ranging from Obamacare, to his administration’s not-so-subtle association with some of America’s worst examples of crony capitalism, to the ramping up of deficit spending that has produced so few tangible results in terms of employment and growth.

Gregg doesn’t see the Tea Party’s influence declining anytime soon:

It was also revealing that the economic questions asked at this forum closely mirrored many of the issues raised at the previous debates. This suggests that all the talk about the Tea Party’s running out of steam since 2010 seems less convincing than ever. Whether the Republican party likes it or not, the Tea Party is still galvanizing American conservatives and also, perhaps more importantly, independents. And that spells deep trouble for the Left in 2012.

Director of Research Samuel Gregg has written a special report for the American Spectator about Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to Germany. The recent World Youth Day in Spain may have looked like a bigger challenge for Benedict, but Gregg says that Germany, while its economy looks good, is facing rough seas ahead.

Germany finds itself propping up a political experiment (otherwise known as the euro) that’s tottering under the weight of its internal contradictions. As the German tabloid Bild put it: “Will we finally have to pay for all of Europe?”

Looking beyond the present, however, grave challenges lie ahead for Germany—not all of which are economic.

Germanyhas, for instance, one of Western Europe’s worst birthrates. That spells trouble for Germany’s future productivity and its welfare state. A second issue is Germany’s struggle with the questions of immigration and non-assimilated Muslim minorities and the subsequently-inevitable always-awkward debates about what it means to be German in modern Europe.

And the institution whose clarity of thought and moral influence should be guiding the country as it faces those issues—the German Church—is weakened.

On the surface, the German Church’s problems are manifested in the large numbers of German Catholics who say they’ve left the church in recent years (the very liberal Protestant German churches are shedding members even faster). Then there are the sex abuse scandals which emerged when ugly stories began circulating about what had really gone on in a now not-so-prestigious Berlin-based Jesuit school in the 1970s and ’80s.

There is, however, another dimension to German Catholicism’s present problems: a story of the follies of accommodation to whatever counts as “modern” or “contemporary” at any given moment.

The German Church has become heavily bureaucratized (and staffed by many unbelievers), and its response to Vatican II has been less to engage with modernity and more to accommodate it. The Church has lowered its focus, Gregg says, to two worldly concerns:

The first is power within the structures of German Catholicism because (sotto voce) “we all know” life is really about acquiring power rather than knowing truth. The second is upon changing Catholicism to make the Church look much more like “the world” because (sotto voce) “we all know” the fullness of divine truth is “out there” rather than in the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

Gregg does not despair, however, for

Younger bishops, priests and laity are far less worried about upsetting those tenured theologians who aren’t sure if Christ is God but who are absolutely convinced no sin could possibly be mortal. The epicenter of German Catholic life is shifting away from what Benedict once called “the spent and tired” bureaucracy and is increasingly with what he describes as initiatives that “come from within, from the joy of young people.”

And that, perhaps, is what Benedict will bring to the German Church: a sense of the joy of living a full Christian life, a message that contrasts sharply with the Götterdämmerung of a fading generation of Catholics in perpetual rebellion against anything which suggests modernity doesn’t have all the answers. And in the contest of hope versus despair, we all know who ultimately wins.

Five years ago today, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a talk titled “Faith, Reason and the University” at the University of Regensburg in Germany. The lecture set off a firestorm of controversy concerning Christian-Muslim relations. On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reflects, noting that calling it “one of this century’s pivotal speeches is probably an understatement.”

Gregg says that the reaction to the pope’s speech “underscored most Western intellectuals’ sheer ineptness when writing about religion.” More seriously:

… Regensburg shattered the inconsequential niceties that had hitherto typified most Catholic-Muslim discussions. Instead of producing more happy-talk, Benedict indicated that such conversations could no longer avoid more substantial, more difficult questions: most notably, how Christianity and Islam understand God’s nature. Regensburg reminded us that it matters whether God is essentially Logos (Divine Reason) or Voluntas (Pure Will). The first understanding facilitates civilizational development, true freedom, and a complete understanding of reason. The second sows the seeds of decline, oppression, and unreason.

But perhaps above all, Regensburg asked the West to look itself in the mirror and consider whether some of its inner demons reflected the fact that it, like the Islamic world, was undergoing an inner crisis: one which was reducing Christian faith to subjective opinion, natural reason to the merely measurable, and love to sentimental humanitarianism. The West, Benedict suggested, was in the process of a closing of its own mind.

Read “Benedict at Regensburg: Why It Still Matters” on NRO.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, September 12, 2011
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The folks over at Think Christian asked me to write up a response to President Obama’s jobs speech from last Thursday. That response is now up over at the TC site, “The misplaced faith of Obama’s job speech.”

I took special note of President Obama’s invocation of a couple lines from JFK: “Our problems are man-made – therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.” I found this quote, used in this context, to be particularly illuminating. It illustrates perfectly, I think, an idolatrous view of human ability, particularly of human politics.

So when you add the formula, “Man can be as big as he wants,” to the president’s derision of “some rigid idea about what government could or could not do,” and you’ve got an equation that results in government as big as we want.

In some ways then the question really does come down to this: How big of a government do we really want? We’ve been electing politicians for decades that have been promising us things that could only be accomplished by massive expansions in government. If we want truth-tellers in politics, as Thomas Friedman rightly urges, then citizens have to demand them, and hold ourselves to the maxim, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”