Although many scientists cultivate the popular image of the benevolent, detached savant toiling away for the betterment of mankind, the fact remains that Ph.D.s in physics or genetics are subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us. The image has some currency because there is an element of truth in it: scientists in many fields have contributed in remarkable ways to the material progress of humanity. That contribution should not be underappreciated.
Yet scientists are not immune to temptations to exaggerate, distort, and deceive. And the field of politics, containing as it does the promise of access to power and funding, is the near occasion of sin par excellence.
Various PowerBloggers have detailed the problematic fusing of politics and science in the area of climate change. In the latest issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson do the same for the subject of stem cell research (currently accessible online by subscription only). It’s an outstanding summary of the relatively brief history of the debate, with special attention to the not-usually-praiseworthy role that researchers played in the political arena. “We need to remember the events from 2001 to 2007,” the authors assert, “for the history of the stem-cell debate forms a classic study of what happens when politics and science find each other useful.”
Two morsels from the essay:
Still, before we commiserate too much with America’s stem-cell researchers, so badly taken advantage of, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t just let themselves be used. They rushed to be used. Offered a public platform, they begged to be exploited, and the politicians, newspapers, and television talk shows merely obliged them.
In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.
There are two basic errors that entrap discussants on issues related to environmental stewardship. The first error is that of the uncritical activist, who is always ready to embrace whatever faddish innovation or practice the green intelligentsia casts as the latest solution. The problem with this approach is that in it often results in negative unintended consequences. Call this the error of the “early adopter.”
On the other extreme is that of the reactive critic, who is only too willing to cast scorn upon anything new in the realm of environmental concern (in part due to the over-exuberance of the early adopters). Comfortable in civilized affluence, the conservative anti-conservationist distrusts any claim of stewardship or responsibility that might upset complacency. Call this the error of the “never adopter.”
A characteristic common to both of these extremes is a sort of knee-jerk reaction, either for or against, that is basically un-reflective. Rational argumentation comes in later, if it comes at all, after a side or position has already been chosen. A sounder approach, I believe, is a more thoughtful and reflective environmentalism, a middle way between two extremes, if you will.
This is an approach that appreciates the possibilities for new technologies and innovations, for alternative sources of energy, without prejudice towards any particular project or every prospect in general. It’s an approach to questions of particular policies that values data over nostalgia, effect over sentiment, consequence over intent, even technique over piety. So let’s not uncritically embrace or unthinkingly deride new developments and concerns in the realm of environmental stewardship.
New from Acton Media, this video short titled “How Not to Help the Poor” discusses the root causes of poverty and how even the best of intentions can go wrong in dealing with and trying to help those in need.
This week’s Birth of Freedom Video Short features Susan Wise Bauer, author of The History of the Ancient World. She addresses the question, “How did Christian slave owners justify slavery?”, describing how slave owners operated under a false (prescriptive instead of descriptive) understanding of the New Testament’s teaching concerning slavery.
Remember, if you haven’t seen the other 7 video shorts, you can check out the rest of the series, learn about premieres in your area, and discover more background information at www.thebirthoffreedom.com.
Writing a commentary for the United Methodist News Service, J. Richard Peck encourages readers to heed John Wesley’s advice on economic policy. “In short, Wesley called for higher taxes upon the wealthy and laws that would prohibit the wasting of natural products,” says Peck. He notes that the cure for economic troubles relating to the poor was to repress luxury.
While some of Wesley’s economc advice is certainly sound, especially his views on the danger of debt, his understanding of basic economic principles in a free economy is severely limited. Kenneth J. Collins, a premier scholar and admirer of Wesley in fact notes as much in his book The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace just how far Wesley actually misses the mark. Collins declares:
Arguing ostensibly from a larger theme of proper stewardship, Wesley posited a “zero sum” world in which the maxim, “if the poor have too little it must because the rich have too much,” by and large ruled the day. As such, not only did he fail to recognize how capitalism actually works in a growing economy, even in a mercantilist one, but also his concern for stewardship, of what he called robbing the poor,” often developed upon such petty matters as the size and shape of women’s bonnets (and he forgets that poor workers often made these accessories) or upon his favorite moral foibles of censure, the consumption of alcohol.
The Theology of John Wesley will be reviewed in the upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty.
Curiously, Peck also highlights Wesley’s advice for less reliance upon pharmaceuticals. However Peck does not add that Wesley was at war with some healers or physicians in his own time who were taking advantage of the poor with faulty and expensive cures. Wesley published Primitive Physic, or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases in 1747. He generously distributed copies for free for the poor to fight back against those taking advantage of them. In Wesley’s account there are certainly improvements in medical suggestions, and his tips on healthy living are fairly standard even today. Wesley did not pull these cures and suggestions from thin air, much of his tips came from doctors he trusted. Still there were suggestions like rubbing your head with raw onions for curing baldness and holding a live puppy on the abdomen as a recommendation for intestinal obstruction. The point is that we would not take medical advice from Wesley over more advanced modern medicine, nor should we take economic advice from somebody with little economic understanding. It’s important to note that Wesley’s passionate assistance to the poor is certainly an effort to emulate.
The best advice Methodists can take from Wesley is to be rooted in the Good News he so passionately preached and spread across the globe. When United Methodism as a whole fully recaptures Wesley’s chief suggestion to his followers which was to “preach Jesus Christ and him crucified,” his followers will then again be aligned with the ancient truths.
While efforts to explain the financial crisis will continue for years (historians are still debating the causes of the Great Depression, eight decades later), it seems certain that its genesis cannot be fully understood without some recourse to the moral dimension of human action in the economy. Acton Institute commentators—Jonathan Witt, David Milroy, Sam Gregg—have already weighed in on the question.
Economists have long deplored the poor savings rate in the United States, arguing that our ever-increasing debt load (national and personal) would eventually come back to haunt us. British intellectual Peter Heslam points out that this problem is essentially moral, a failure to value the traditional virtue of thrift.
Hebrew and Christian scriptures support a theology of thrift. Literally, thrift means ‘prosperity’ or ‘well-being’, meanings encompassed in the Hebrew notion of shalom, which is central to the biblical theme of redemption. True, Jesus warned against laying up treasure on earth. But his warning is against greed and miserliness, which undermine thrift.
The only puzzling note Heslam hits is his final exhortation for government to push the sale of bonds. Granted that treasury bonds represent savings on the part of their buyers and granted that this is a better use of income than gambling, the other side of the coin is that bonds represent government borrowing from its people—not a good strategy for decreasing national indebtedness.
Better to put the money into stocks, corporate bonds, even passbook savings and certificates of deposit. This kind of saving is investment, the lifeblood of the market economy.
(The point here dovetails with Jordan Ballor’s endorsement of stewardship, posted as I typed this.)
In the wake of the global financial crisis, stories from the pundit class and blogosphere abound proclaiming the imminent death of the conservative movement. This is part of a longer and broader discussion with roots in the post-Reagan era of American politics. (As you’ll see in my comments below, I’m not so inclined to think that a move toward particular kinds of populism is necessarily a move away from conservatism.)
Writing in the American Conservative earlier this month, Claes G. Ryn argues that our recognition of the corrupting nature of power shouldn’t make us abdicate all forms of government and authority:
Without some people governing others, basic social order could not exist, to say nothing of effecting desirable change. The prejudice against power-seeking has left politics too much to people with the wrong kind of ambition, most of whom desire power as an end in itself. Yet wanting power need not be immoral. Pursuing it can be a means to good.
the old American constitutionalism is inseparable from the moral-spiritual culture that gave it birth. Limited government and liberty were made possible by people who, because of who they were, put checks on their appetites, ran their own lives and communities, and generally behaved in ways conducive to freedom under law. Restoring American constitutionalism would presuppose some kind of resurgence of that old culture. Americans would have to rearrange their priorities and start acting differently, placing more emphasis on family, private groups, and local communities. They would have to want to take back much of the power ceded to politicians far away. Is that likely to happen? If not, the Constitution may not be salvageable.
Ryn discusses what he calls the “coup from within,” where under the guise of conservatism, “People of great ambition who want to exercise the power being abdicated by Americans are trying to make us accept and even welcome the final disappearance of constitutionalism and its culture of modesty and self-restraint.”
I’m not as pessimistic as Ryn about the seemingly inevitable outcome of the crisis and the government interventions and consolidations of power, at least in the economic sphere. He says of those perpetrating the coup, “Their response to the crisis, which they have aggravated, will hasten the crumbling of the American constitutional order. Their prescriptions contain the outlines of tyranny.” He may well be right about that, and Ryn’s concerns shouldn’t be limited to the American scene but apply to the international scene as well. As John Witherspoon said, “A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue.”
But despite all this, common sense folk are realizing again that virtues like frugality, thrift, and self-discipline are necessary parts of a broader view of stewardship. This is in part why the bailout has had difficulty finding any serious measure of popular support…it is a plan that is counter-intuitive on so many levels, and despite the media’s best efforts to sell the bi-partisan scheme, the American citizen isn’t convinced. In fact, the concept of stewardship is a pretty good model for Ryn’s view of the appropriate pursuit of power.
It is certainly an uphill battle to practice traditional virtues against a government and a culture that tells us to spend all we can on credit. We have just about maxed out the credit borrowed from the moral and cultural capital of previous generations. In response to those pushing the expansion of federal and executive power, it’s time to, as Ryn says, “expose their false solutions to what are real problems and to explore by what measures the best of our civilization might, despite daunting odds, be given a new lease on life.”
The impending death of conservatism might just be the kind of big-government conservatism that is virtually indistinguishable from big-government liberalism on the scope and size of the government. If that’s the case, then let us celebrate: “Conservatism is dead. Long live conservatism.”
USA Today has an excellent assessment of the impact of faith-based charities in an October 7 piece titled “Faith-based groups man the front lines.” The gist of the article points out the obvious to those who are still recovering from devastating hurricanes, and that’s that religious charities understand and are committed to the long term need of hurricane victims.
As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have witnessed the commitment and work of Christian churches and charities perform life changing assistance to victims on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They are able to bypass bureaucracy, adding the all important human touch in not only helping rebuild totaled homes, but improve the foundation of one’s life. One of the clear contrasts of faith-based charities verse federal assistance is that it’s simply a lot less discriminating in who they can help. Additionally, they are much better equipped to make decisions on the ground or at the scene by meeting specific needs of those needing help. Instead of only saying “we can do this for you”, they can discern and meet the immediate need.
My father directed the relief efforts at his evangelical church in Pass Christian, Miss. At the church in Pass Christian they had an army of Mennonite, Amish, and evangelical volunteers from the Lancaster County area of Pennsylvania. My dad estimated their labor time consisted of a conservative estimate of $1.3 million, and they donated just over a $1 million in equipment and supplies. This is all from one community in Pennsylvania which was based out of one fairly small church on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Business leaders pitched in as well, as the employer of a construction company in that Pennsylvania community paid his workers through the relief effort.
There are thousands and thousands of inspirational stories from faith groups committed to hurricane relief efforts and this article captures just a couple of them. When you have churches and people driven and influenced by the Lord, there is literally no limit to their service and what they can accomplish. The USA Today article notes:
Shortly after the storm, [Julius] Moll was filling gas in his truck in a nearby town when a neighbor told him about Catholic Charities. The next day, Moll met with Catholic Charities officials who had set up a command post at Jean Lafitte’s Town Hall. They told him they would gut his mother’s house for free. Moll lowered his head and cried.
‘I was overwhelmed,” he says. “It’s unbelievable how people can come in and help you.’
Acton Media’s seventh Birth of Freedom short features Rodney Stark, author of The Victory of Reason. In the video, he discusses the question “Why didn’t China have an industrial revolution before the west?” Although evidence points to the beginnings of an agricultural and industrial revolution in the 10th century, the lack of protection for private property has been a disincentive for innovation and hard work.
Acton Media’s video shorts from The Birth of Freedom are designed to provide additional insight into key issues and ideas in the film. A new short is released each Monday. Check out the rest of the series, learn about premieres in your area, and discover more background information at www.thebirthoffreedom.com.