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Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 22, 2006

In a way, the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford recognizes a fact that Ron Sider has written on and I have thought about for a long time. In “A New Take on Tithing,” Claude Rosenberg & Tim Stone write:

Too often, individuals make decisions about how much money to donate to charitable causes on an ad hoc basis. As a result, many people give less money than they can actually afford. If the affluent contributed as much to nonprofits as the authors believe they can, charitable giving in the United States would increase by $100 billion a year – enough to solve many of the world’s most pressing problems.

Sider has previously written: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

The Stanford estimate is about one-third higher than Sider’s estimate with regard to how much extra charitable income there might be if the tithe were rigorously implemented. Part of the difference might be due to the fact that there are somewhat different sets of people under examination. The Stanford estimate is primarily based on “the affluent,” while Sider is talking about “American Christians” in general (clearly there is significant but not complete overlap).

But another aspect of the difference might in fact be the nuance of the Stanford piece’s analysis, and one of its key points: charitable giving should not be based simply on take home pay. Under what they call the “old tithe,” the following seems to be the case, “When people tithe, they typically base the amount they give on their income alone, not on their income and investment assets.”

Of course, assuming that at first the investment asset seed money was take home pay, the tithe would have already been applied to those funds. In essence, the “new tithe” is a double application of the tithe, the second time pertaining to profits earned with money to which the tithe had previously been applied.

Whether or not you think this sort of double tithe is appropriate, the Stanford piece does raise the important question of the responsible stewardship of investment profits. And while at first Sider’s estimate may seem more conservative than the Stanford estimate, if you take into account Sider’s endorsement of a graduated tithe, Sider’s model would end up being much more stringent in terms of its expectations (the graduated tithe is the idea that as income increases, so should the percentage of giving increase, eventually to 100% above a certain threshold).

Some may object that the new double tithe or the graduated tithe, or even the old tithe itself is too legalistic, too stringent, or both. To that I have two things to say.

First, let’s put the level of giving in perspective. Whether or not you think the tithe is a biblical requirement, it is valid as a consistent baseline measure. According to Barna’s research, “The proportion of households that tithe their income to their church – that is, give at least ten percent of their income to that ministry – has dropped by 62% in the past year, from 8% in 2001 to just 3% of adults during 2002.” In addition, “9% of born again Christians tithed their income to churches in 2004,” and “When contributions are examined as a percentage of household income, giving to religious centers represents about 2.2% of gross income.”

Second, even if you agree with Russell Earl Kelly, Ph.D., that the tithe is not a biblical requirement, it is a far more difficult case to make that the tithe is “unbiblical” or anti-Scriptural. The category of adiaphora would apply here, I think. So, for example, the assertion that the New Testament does not explicitly endorse or teach tithing does not necessarily mean that Christians cannot practice it or that it is “wrong” to tithe.

A paper recently published at the National Bureau of Economic Research calls into question some conventional economic wisdom about the effects of certain kinds of legislation. In “The Church vs the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?”, Jonathan Gruber and Daniel M. Hungerman find that when so-called “blue laws” are repealed in any given state, “religious attendance falls, and that church donations and spending fall as well.”

But in addition, “repealing blue laws leads to an increase in drinking and drug use, and that this increase is found only among the initially religious individuals who were affected by the blue laws. The effect is economically significant; for example, the gap in heavy drinking between religious and non religious individuals falls by about half after the laws are repealed.” For more information on the study, check out this article from the CS Monitor, “Maybe ‘blue laws’ weren’t so bad” (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

Richard Morin wrote an op-ed in the WaPo last week (HT: Religion Clause) about this paper, and wonders “why would the elimination of blue laws suddenly provoke such an outburst of sinning among the religious? After all, there are six other days of the week to shop (or drink) until you drop. And it’s not legal to buy cocaine or marijuana on any day of the week.”

Before I paint the broad outlines of an answer, let me point out the potential significance of Gruber and Hungerman’s conclusions. It has long been assumed that laws prohibiting or restricting the sale of certain controversial items (i.e. alcohol, tobacco, drugs) has a net negative effect. Mark Thornton over at published a piece that claims, for example, that “prohibitions have no socially desirable effect.”

Acton’s own Rev. Robert A. Sirico, in an essay on the “sin tax,” wrote that sin taxes, prohibition, and presumably blue laws are each “a different point on the same continuum.” Sirico goes on to cite Paulist priest James Gillis, who said that prohibition of alcohol “was the greatest blow ever given to the temperance movement.”

Gillis writes,

Before prohibition, the people at large were becoming more and more sober. Total abstinence had become the practice, not of a few, but of millions… Under the Volstead Law, drinking became a popular sport. The passage of the law was a psychological blunder, and a moral calamity… The only way to make the country sober is to persuade individual citizens, one by one, to be sober.

It seems, however, according to the NBER paper, that blue laws do have the opposite effect, and in this way can perhaps be distinguished from prohibition. Is there a theological explanation for this? (more…)

A week or so ago I passed along a story about the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of New York’s interpretation of recent legislation to make it illegal for those filing for bankruptcy to tithe, except under very specific circumstances (here’s a good follow-up story).

Well, yesterday Religion Clause (which is, by the way, an excellent blog well worthy of bookmarking), noted that while the aforementioned case had received a great deal of attention, “an equally important case on the issue decided several weeks ago by the Second circuit seems to have gone largely unnoticed.”

In a case decided in late July,

the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that treating some contributions to churches as fraudulent conveyances in bankruptcy does not violate the Free Exercise of Establishment clauses. It went on to interpret various provisions of the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act of 1998. It held that the statute’s shield for charitable donations of up to 15% of a debtor’s annual income applies to aggregate annual transfers, not to individual donations. The court held that in this case, the Church had waived its claim that it should be able to retain amounts donated to it under the 15% limit. Finally it held that on remand the church could raise the statutory defense that donations in excess of 15% “were consistent with the practices of the debtor in making charitable contributions.

Check out Religion Clause for the case details and relevant links.

Religion Clause, which is “devoted to legal and political developments in free exercise of religion and separation of church and state,” is run by Howard M. Friedman, Distinguished University Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Toledo College of Law.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 15, 2006

In today’s Times of London, taking a cue from Blaise Pascal (at least he thinks), Gerard Baker argues, “Unless the sceptics are really, really certain that we’re all going to be OK, we must act now.”

He sums it up this way: “If we believe in global warming and do something about it and it turns out we’re right, then we’re, climatologically speaking, redeemed — if not for ever, at least until some other threat to our existence comes along. If we’re wrong about it, what is the ultimate cost? A world with improved energy efficiency and quite a lot of ugly windmills.”

This is essentially the same argument that Andy Crouch made in an article in Christianity Today in August, 2005, replete with reference to Pascal’s wager.

I responded to Crouch then that “Pascal’s wager is only valid when placed within the context of the eternal and the ultimate. When it is applied to everyday issues, it quickly loses its persuasive power. Crouch’s contention that ‘we have little to lose’ if we exaggerate the threat of global warming displays no recognition of the reality of the future impact of unduly restrictive political policies and environmental regulations.”

You can add Gerard Baker’s contention to Crouch’s, although Baker does note, in agreement with me, I think, that “there is one significant risk that makes this equation slightly different from Pascal’s. There could be high costs of believing in the human role in global warming and being wrong about it. We may have to trade off a lot of economic activity in the next 50 years to lower our carbon emissions.”

Andy and I had more of a back and forth at the time, which are all linked in at this summary piece here.

Many of you have read the series that Stephen Grabill wrote about Protestantism and Natural Law. For those of you who have not read it, but are interested, Stephen wrote an eight part series on the PowerBlog. The following exerpt from the first post points to Stephen’s aim of shifting the debate …

… away from the badly caricatured doctrine of sola scriptura toward a fuller understanding of the biblical theology underlying natural law. As Protestants rediscover the biblical basis for natural law and the doctrinal resources of their own theological traditions, I hope we can recover a sense of our catholicity with the broader and older Christian moral tradition.

You can read the entire series here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, and part 8.

In June, Stephen gave a lecture at the 2006 Acton University where he talked about the same topic. That lecture has now been posted online and is available for your listening pleasure . Please take some time to listen to a great lecture! Other Acton Univeristy lectures are available from the Acton University 2006 archive.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Two pieces on Christianity Today’s website this week are worthy of comment. The first, “Despair Not,” reminds us that “there is something worse than misery and death.” The author Stephen L. Carter interacts with C.S. Lewis’ famous book, The Screwtape Letters, to show that “the terrible tragedies that befall the world work to Satan’s benefit only if we despair. Suffering, as Screwtape reminds his nephew, often strengthens faith. Better to keep people alive, he says, long enough for faith to be worn away. The death of a believer is the last thing the Devil wants.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized the impetus to deny the value of suffering in this life. In his Ethics he wrote of modern nihilism and Western godlessness:

The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking. Every inner development, every process of slow maturing in personal and vocational life, is abruptly broken off. There is no personal destiny and therefore no personal dignity. Serious tensions, inwardly necessary times of waiting, are not endured. This is evident in the domain of work as well as in erotic life. Lasting pain is more feared than death. The value of suffering as the forming of life through the threat of death is disregarded, even ridiculed. The alternatives are health or death. What is quiet, lasting, and essential is discarded as worthless.

The other CT piece is a book review by David Fisher of Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine. The book’s authors argue that “modern medicine… emphasizes the autonomy of the individual and holds up the supreme end of bodily perfection. These goals are not only unattainable, but more importantly, are inconsistent with the Christian faith. The book points out the dangers of society’s worship of and allegiance to medicine for its perceived ability to defeat or forestall death. While our Christian beliefs should protect us from this deification of medicine, the authors remind us that we often fall into the same trap.”

Indeed, the authority and influence of medicine on our lives and behavior can be seen as a kind of scientism, in which science, in this case in the form of medicine, takes on “a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.” Authors Joel Shuman and Brian Volck issue “a call to transformed Christian living, one that emphasizes the importance of viewing medicine through the lens of the larger community of the body of Christ.”

With respect to the worship of health and life in and of itself, or “vitalism,” Bonhoeffer says,

Vitalism ends inevitably in nihilism, in the destruction of all that is natural. In the strict sense, life as such is a nothing, an abyss, a ruin. It is movement without end, without goal, movement into nothingness. It does not rest until it has everything into this annihilating movement. This vitalism is found in both individual and communal life. It arises from the false absolutizing of an insight that is essentially correct, that life, both individual and communal, is not only a means to an end but also and end in itself.

One important and indeed hopeful way to talk about death as an end, in addition to death as a means to an end, or “our entrance into eternal life,” is in this way: as “an end to our sinning.”

From the same issue of Business 2.0 magazine I cited yesterday, check out this article on Adobe Systems, which is touted as having “The greenest office in America.” It just goes to show you that economic efficiency and environmental concerns go hand in hand.

Click on the first link in the piece to get a slideshow of the various improvements which save energy and money at Adobe’s offices. My favorite is the timed outages of garage exhaust fans and outdoor lighting systems (cost: $150, annual savings: $68,000).

As the Cornwall Declaration states, “The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.” The declaration also notes the aspirations to a world in which “advancements in agriculture, industry, and commerce not only minimize pollution and transform most waste products into efficiently used resources but also improve the material conditions of life for people everywhere.”

One final note…these moves profiled in the article are economical enough to motivate companies to cut costs on their own. I don’t think Adobe needed “about $350,000 in energy rebates,” presumably from the government.