Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, August 3, 2007

Michael Gerson’s “What Matters About Romney’s Religion” in today’s Washington Post:

There is a long tradition of American leaders who believe that religion is so personal it shouldn’t even affect their private lives. But this rigid separation between religious conviction and public policy lies outside the main current of American history. Abraham Lincoln’s theology, while hardly orthodox, was not his “own private affair.” “Nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness,” he asserted, “was sent into the world to be trodden on.” Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that to find the source of our rights, “it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given.”

And this:

… religious convictions on the topic of anthropology — the nature and value of men and women — have profoundly and positively influenced American history. Many of the greatest advances toward the protection of minority rights, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, came in part because people of faith pushed for them. And religious men and women made those efforts because they were convinced that all human beings — not just all believers — are created in God’s image.

Read the entire article.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 3, 2007

Chuck Colson locates the perennial problem of human unhappiness with the inability to perceive where happiness truly comes from. There’s the economic argument that while “increased prosperity can’t make you happy, it can, ironically, contribute to unhappiness,” an argument which Colson says, “doesn’t tell us anything about what makes people happy in the first place. Thus, it can’t tell us why increased prosperity doesn’t translate into increased happiness.”

As I’ve noted before, the economic argument is helpful for locating a source of our unhappiness: our fallen, selfish nature. Colson is addressing the ontological question of where happiness comes from. The economic argument is addressing the epistemological question of where humans think happiness comes from. The two answers are related and complementary.

And Colson is ultimately right. As long as humans look only to material concerns for the questions of happiness, we’re doomed to miss the mark. A new monograph from the IEA, Happiness, Economics and Public Policy, underscores this, concluding that “measured happiness does not appear to be related to public spending, violent crime, property crime, sexual equality, disability, life expectancy or unemployment.”

“The stark fact is that, as Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod demonstrate, the difficulties in measuring society’s happiness are insurmountable, and policymakers should not claim that they can control and increase happiness through public policy decisions.”

For more on happiness (subjective well-being) research, check out the World Database of Happiness (HT: the evangelical outpost).

The speaker for the Seventeenth Acton Institute Annual Dinner is former Estonian Prime Minister, Dr. Mart Laar. One of the economic reforms Laar implemented in Estonia was a flat tax. After what was described as a brilliant economic turnaround, other countries have followed Estonia’s lead on flat tax policies and free market policies in general. Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, and Macedonia also have flat taxes for income.

The country of Bulgaria is now introducing a flat tax rate of 10 percent. This rate will be a dramatic drop from their current rate of taxing income which ranges between 20-24 percent. Bulgaria will certainly see a spike in economic growth and foreign investment.

If you value a level of fairness and simplification when it comes to income taxes you will surely appreciate a flat tax with low marginal rates. In fact, most anything would be better than the current outdated federal income tax ogre, which discourages saving, investing, and greater freedom from federal bureaucratic control.

Lawmakers in Western Europe and the United States have largely ignored the benefits of flat taxes that have benefited Eastern European nations. They would rather entrench themselves in the power the current tax code provides them. It is there they can continue to micromanage a tax-and-spend economy, along with the lives of their citizens, while continuing the politics of class warfare.

One of the most important moral components for tax law should be property rights, meaning freedom for the individual to keep more of his or her income and capital. In addition, people of faith understand the need of helping those most who need our financial, spiritual, and physical help. The freedom to develop the best use of our income and capital is increasingly becoming a historic ideal. It was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who said “Make all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”

Remember also, massive and out of control federal spending is the root of much of the tax problem in this country.

I remember a few years back Steve Forbes saying on the presidential campaign trail, “Some people in Washington say we can’t afford the tax cut [that comes from a flat tax], well maybe we can no longer afford the politicians.”

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Thursday, August 2, 2007

Dr. Jay Richards made an appearance on the Steve Deace show yesterday on central Iowa’s 50,000 watt blowtorch of a radio station, WHO in Des Moines. The topic of conversation was climate change, and you can listen to the interview by clicking right here (3.2 mb mp3 file).

More: Jay also put in an appearance on Knucklehead Radio today on the same topic. You can listen to that one right here (2.5 mb mp3 file).

I have argued for many years now that free markets are intrinsically good. I have tried to engage this issue with Christians but many are either not interested or do not see any importance in the pursuit. I know markets can become bad masters when people lack virtue. I also know that the alternatives to free markets have littered the twentieth century with more death than any single cause in human history. (Think socialism, fascism and Marxism.) And representative democracy, a republic of just laws, is not perfect either but it sure beats the alternatives. Shared power is always better than control by the one or the few. Social engineering and economic planning by an elite and powerful few strips us of both human dignity and true freedom.

Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, is the author of a new book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics, that has a significant bearing on how we should think about the political side of economic concerns in America. Professor Caplan concludes, in words that are not at all comforting to me personally, that most Americans cast their votes on the basis of irrational biases about economics. This, he reasons, is why candidates who oppose free markets, free trade, profits and immigration win. Sadly, I am quite sure that he is right about this point.

Creators Syndicate writer John Stossel, in reviewing the professor’s new book, says: "People tend to acquire wrong opinions about economic policy packaged in worldviews they inherited while growing up." Since people resist, and often strongly, having their own worldview challenged or changed they will vote for those candidates who make them feel good. Stossel concludes that this means "They will vote irrationally." I have long sensed that this was true on an intuitive level but the professor’s argument tends to fortify what I had only sensed but not quite had a handle on how to argue my case well. Simply put, most voters see no compelling reason to vote otherwise since their choices in elections bear no direct consequence on their lives, at least as they understand their lives. Gloomily Stossel concludes, "When irrationality is free, people will indulge their biases." (more…)

In his review of Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) in the Claremont Review of Books, Randy Barnett highlights some of the same features of the US political structure as particularly unique that Lord Acton emphasized. In conclusion Barnett writes of our Constitution:

It is counter-majoritarian by design. Precisely because the founders feared majoritarian fecklessness and abuse, they inserted the veto points to which Levinson objects. Most people today—whether left, right, or libertarian—still fear majoritarian rule. They believe they have more to fear from their political opponents gaining power than they have to gain from putting their friends in office. Indeed, many Americans revere the Constitution precisely because of its counter-majoritarianism—the checks and balances adopted by the founders.

Or in the words of Lord Acton, “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”

Here are some other relevant observations from Lord Acton on democracy, federalism, and the Constitution:

For it is a most striking thing that the views of pure democracy…were almost entirely unrepresented in [the American] convention.

Democracy generally monopolizes and concentrates power.

Federalism is the best curb on democracy. [It] assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.

Federalism: The only barrier to Democracy.

Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.

The great novelty of the American Constitution was that it imposed checks on the representatives of the people.

The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.

Barnett notes too the resistance to advocating the American form of federalist democracy for other nations.

“While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret,” he writes.

Today brings disturbing news of new consensus that seems to be developing:

Modern women want men who are keen on recycling rather than good at making wisecracks, a survey said.

The poll for men’s magazine Nuts said going green is now the main way to a woman’s heart, with a “good sense of humour” coming in second.

Oh great – a clean, tidy, and humorless future. Thanks, ladies. Thanks a lot.

Readings in Social Ethics: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15. References below are to page number.

  • Giving aid to the needy in the church is a manifestation of an attribute of the church, for “without it there can be no true communion of saints” (307).

  • What the church and its representatives are and are not responsible for: “First, they [deacons] should investigate how many really indigent persons live in each church and for whom it is equitable for the church to provide the necessities of life. For the churches of Christ must exclude from their communion those who, when they can sustain themselves by their own powers, neglect this and live inordinately, accepting borrowed food (II Thess. 3:6); it is certainly not the duty of the church to foster such people in their godless idleness” (307).
  • The responsibility of subsidiarity: “Thus if any needy persons belong to anyone’s circle, either by blood or marriage or by any other special relationship or particular custom, it is certainly their duty, if they have the means of the Lord, to provide for their own the necessities of life and spare the churches in order that they may have more to nourish and assist those who have no home or family who would want to or could help them” (307).
  • The wealthy nobility has a responsibility to the society. Citing past examples of such praiseworthy behavior: “Pious princes and men of wealth established homes and hospitals, some to nourish and care for the needy who were in good health, some for infants, others for orphans, still others for the aged infirm, others for those laboring under various forms of sickness, and some for pilgrims and displaced persons” (310).
  • The drive to bypass the church and provide alms personally and individually is a result of sin: “Finally, since from our nature, depraved and always rebellious against God, we continually compromise the instructions and precepts of God, and according to our desires and misdirected judgments, are always eager to follow paths and ways other than what God has prescribed, however holy the care of the poor is, there will be some who will refuse to put their alms for the poor into a common fund, and say that they prefer to provide for the poor by their personal generosity if it seems good to them to do so. Their arrogance will have to be countered both by Your Majesty’s law and through the discipline of the Church; by a law which imposes a double offering to the Lord’s fund, if anyone is caught giving anything privately to the needy; by the discipline of the Church, so / that if anyone puts nothing into the Lord’s fund, he should be admonished of his duty from the Word of God by the ministers of the churches, and if he should resolutely despise this admonition, he should be held a heathen and a publican” (311-12).
  • By this Bucer means that the Church must be the primary instrument of charity and must be the recipient of all due offerings. But this does not mean that charity cannot be done individually above and beyond the giving to the Church. It simply means that offerings to the Church may not be neglected in favor of individual giving: “No man’s hand is closed by this law, to interfere with his opening it to whatever poor persons he can and will provide for” (312).
  • The mere necessities of life are not enough. The Church must give so that those in poverty can be educated, married, and flourish as productive and respected contributors to society: “Nor is it sufficient for the kindness of Christians to give food, shelter, and clothing to those in extreme need…. For it hardly suffices for the churches of Christ that their people should merely be alive but it must also be provided for them that they live to the Lord for a certain and mutual usefulness among each other and within the State and Church” (315).

Next week: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830).

The boy crisis is not a myth. David Von Drehle’s article, “The Myth About Boys,” in this week’s Time Magazine argues that the boy crisis of the 1990s has leveled off and is now improving. Not exactly. This assessment, however, is completely dependent on one’s moral framework. Boys are still in crisis, regardless of what feminists and other women, like some published in the Washington Post, are saying. It’s a crisis of morality. The ongoing crisis will have dire consequences because the market produces whatever men want, good or bad. Immoral men, immoral market. It’s that simple. The real issue is “what kind of men are we forming,” not “what bad things aren’t men doing.” Tragically, 90 percent of boys raised in the church will abandon it by the time they turn 20-years-old, so there is much work to be done.

“Statistics collected over two decades,” says Von Drehle, “show an alarming decline in the performance of America’s boys–in some respects, a virtual free fall. Boys were doing poorly in school, abusing drugs, committing violent crimes and engaging in promiscuous sex.”

Von Drehle offers the following as good news against previous reports:

The juvenile crime rate in 2005 (the most recent year cited in the report) was down by two-thirds from its peak in 1993. The number of high school senior boys using illegal drugs has fallen by almost half compared with the number in 1980. Fewer than half of all high school boys and girls in 2005 were sexually active. For the boys, that’s a decrease of 10 percentage points from the early 1990s.

Boys who are having sex report that they are more responsible about it: 7 in 10 are using condoms, compared with about half in 1993. Women now outnumber men in college by a ratio of 4 to 3, and admissions officers at liberal-arts colleges are struggling to find enough males to keep their classes close to gender parities. Today, 1 in 5 boys is obese. The percentage of young men between 16 and 19 who neither work nor attend school has fallen by about a quarter since 1984.

How does this debunk the crisis? If your moral compass is the lowest common denominator and the basis of comparison is “not-as-bad-as-the-past” (or “animals”) the Von Drehle story might be convincing. However, boys are still falling behind in school, having sex outside of marriage, obese, abusing drugs, committing suicide, overcrowding the criminal justice system, fatherless, and receiving little to no moral formation during critical decision-making years.

To make matters worse, Christianity has become a religion primarily for women, as reported by David Murrow author of Why Men Hate Going To Church and who also started “Church for Men” to address the crisis:

• As many as 90 percent of the boys who are being raised in church will abandon it by their 20th birthday. Many of these boys will never return.
• The typical U.S. Congregation draws an adult crowd that’s 61% female, 39% male.
• On any given Sunday there are 13 million more adult women than men in America’s churches.
• This Sunday almost 25 percent of married, churchgoing women will worship without their husbands.
• Midweek activities often draw 70 to 80 percent female participants.
• The majority of church employees are women (except for ordained clergy, who are overwhelmingly male).

All these stats about the boy crisis and Christianity are far worse in the black community as a focus developing strong black men has been abandoned to produce “women of power.” You’ll be hard pressed to find a black church in America full of black men. Black America is experiencing the fruit of intense focus on black girls in the 70s, 80s, and 90s: black women are in college and many black men are in jail and/or fathering children outside of marriage.

If our nation continues to fail to form boys into men who live in absolute pursuit of the good and fight against evil–that is, men of dignity, honor, valor, courage, conviction, passion, and men with the highest morals–the future of our nation is questionable. Here are two huge consequences:

(1) Men with low morals create an immoral marketplace and culture: strip clubs, college athletes hiring strippers for their drunken parties, porn, misogynistic hip hop, politicians hiring “madams,” corrupt business practice, athletes who run dog fighting outfits out of their homes, athletes willing to cheat with “performance enhancers”, drug abuse, contexts for drunkenness, sexualized and crassly violent video games, and so on, exists because men create the demand and want to consume low-hanging, immoral fruit.

(2) Cycles of fatherlessness, divorce, and broken families will never cease if men are not formed and shaped by those institutions that have traditionally and successfully created some of the most amazing husbands, fathers, attackers of evil, and champions of justice in world history. Boys raised without strong fathers are generally clueless about what it means to be a man and wreak havoc on society trying to figure out often leaving behind a trail of destruction, pain, and perpetual brokenness. Masculinity is bestowed from one man to another in a larger community of men. Without strong communities of morally grounded men, boys will not be formed for the good.

Boys are still in crisis. They are not as bad as past jacked-up men, or as bad as animals, but surely we all have higher moral standards than that to hold men to, don’t we?

Here’s the text of a letter sent this morning to the editor at Woman’s Day magazine (don’t ask why I was reading Woman’s Day. I read whatever happens to be sitting in the rack next to our commode):

Paula Spencer’s commentary on the Pledge of Allegiance (“Pledging Allegiance,” September 1, 2007) sounds incredibly McCarthy-esque. Are we to now believe that having qualms about mandatory recitation of the Pledge constitutes an un-American activity?

Spencer dismisses the many reasons that one might object to the Pledge in the context of public schools. These schools are, after all, institutional arms of the government itself, and attendance is mandatory (unless one can afford private or parochial options). A cynic might suggest that when combined with an obligatory recitation of allegiance to the nation, such education runs the risk of becoming indoctrination for the purposes of social control. As to whether nationalism can be such “a bad thing,” consider Germany in the 1930s.

There are also religious reasons why a person might feel compelled to abstain from pledging to a physical object (the flag). For Christians, whose citizenship is finally in heaven and whose ultimate loyalty is due to God alone, concerns about idolatry might compel a person to conscientiously refrain from making such a pledge. Indeed, those two little words “under God” which have occasioned such controversy in recent days are perhaps the only elements of the Pledge that make it even permissible for Christians to profess allegiance to any particular nation.

Patriotism too often can morph into xenophobia and nationalism. Whatever your views of the Pledge, I would think that the educational potential contained in having a “conversation with your child about your family’s approach to the Pledge” would be the sort of engaged parenting that your publication ought to praise and endorse rather than disdain.

The free exercise of religion, not to mention the freedom of speech and independent thought, are thoroughly American. A coerced, perfunctory, and unreflective patriotism is no true patriotism at all.

Jordan J. Ballor
Associate Editor
Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty

As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “The nation will always claim a portion of man’s loyalties. Since it usually claims too large a portion, it is necessary that other communities compete with it.”

By my way of thinking, for Christians the Church ought to be that community of primary loyalty (for Niebuhr, it’s the class: “There is no reason why a class which is fated by its condition of life to aspire after an equalitarian society should not have a high moral claim upon the loyalty of its members”).

It seems to me that American churches have a particularly hard time separating out what elements of their worship and piety are merely the trappings of civil religion and which are the indispensable elements of catholicity.

At the recreation center where my wife plays softball, and which is explicitly supported by the denomination, players, coaches, and umpires only pause to pray after the national anthem has been played. In itself its a small thing, perhaps even unimportant, but when combined with all the other similar elements (American flags near the pulpit, for example), it raises in my mind the perennial questions about ultimate loyalties and the proclivity for Christian denominations, particularly Protestants, to align themselves along national boundaries.

See also: “Which of These is More Offensive?”