Archive for August, 2012

When Our Journey Is God’s Journey: Paul Ryan, Individualism, and the American Dream

In his speech at the Republican National Convention, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan provided a rare articulation of the true power and importance of the American Dream — an idea that, as of late, has come to either be derided as overly individualistic or exalted as a pseudonym for collectivist entitlement.

Ryan’s view:

College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now. And I hope you understand this too, if you’re feeling left out or passed by: You have not failed, your leaders have failed you.

None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.

Listen to the way we’re spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate.

It’s the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio. When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American Dream. That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.

Yet as romantic and well-put as I take this to be, I fear that many will still fail to connect the dots, claiming that any promotion of “my own path” and “my own journey” will necessarily lead to an atomized world of selfish, isolation-prone hucksters out to exploit others toward achieving their own narrow ends. For these folks, Ryan is promoting the very conditions from which fantastical Marxian crises of history are born.

The truth is that individual liberty lends toward community engagement and the market lends toward social interaction and cooperation—the real kind. The “American Dream” of President Obama—a vision in which caring for the “least of these” is reduced to Read the rest of this entry »

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Rise Up and Walk: Pursuing Justice Beyond Silver and Gold

Silver and Gold, Acts 3I recently took a tour of George Wythe High School in Richmond, Virginia, as part of a seminar on faith, justice, and society at the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. The trip was intended to showcase effective solutions to social problems, and in this, it greatly succeeded, highlighting that any such solutions can only be effective insofar as they take into account the comprehensive needs of the human person.

Short form: Pursuing social justice involves a whole lot more than stringing together an assortment of fleeting causes, awareness campaigns, and t-shirt slogans.

The school had recently emerged from a season of violence and crime, ended in large part through a partnership with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, whose Violence-Free Zone Initiative seeks to restore peace and trust to broken communities by equipping local schools with on-the-ground “Youth Advisors” and partnering with local organizations, churches, and law enforcement.

Rep. Steve Southerland, who also joined the tour, provides a brief account of the trip, including a good summary of how the program has benefited George Wythe High School:

This violence-reduction and high-risk student mentoring program prepares students to learn by equipping them through relationships with the skills and knowledge necessary to overcome violence. The Richmond public schools system has worked in conjunction with CNE to create the Violence-Free Zone. Youth advisors who are affiliated with the Richmond Outreach Center, a local church, and who have overcome similar challenges, work as hall monitors, mediators, character coaches, and trusted friends.  For the 2009-2010 school year, George Wythe reported a 26% decrease in fighting, a 68% decrease in truancy, and a 63% reduction in dropouts since the inception of the Violence-Free Zone program.

We were also able to interact with several Youth Advisers and local pastors who poured out their hearts, telling numerous stories of reconciliation and restoration with students and explaining how, thanks to the people and programs now in place, many conflicts are being defused just as students are seeing greater success and empowerment—personally, academically, and beyond.

These advisors and pastors are people who sacrifice their lives, time, energy, and personal material resources on a daily basis to invest in kids who are yearning for guidance and mentorship, longing for someone who they can trust. These are people who are working to build relationships and restore order so students can learn, develop, and succeed in areas well beyond what we have traditionally designated to the classroom. These are people who look at the problems of the individuals and communities around them at an individual and community level, taking each student’s unique personalities and needs into account and responding with love and grace accordingly.

This is a solution that gets to the heart of things, focusing on people as people and needs as personal and spiritual, not just material. The program doesn’t pretend that trust can be gained with the whip of a bureacurat’s wand, or that relationships can be restored if the right top-down “opportunities” are manufactured. The Violence-Free Zone Initiative is not about throwing money at the status quo and Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviving Character: Diversity, Conformity, and the Moral Life

The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil I recently finished up James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age of Good and Evil, which provides a marvelous critique of American moral education, chronicling our gradual descent from a focus on virtues and eternal truths into a modernistic abyss of slippery and subjective “values clarification.”

Hunter’s diagnosis, from the prologue:

A restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy-making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed.

These “social and cultural conditions,” Hunter believes, have been replaced with Enlightenment-heavy, inclusivist fantasies, believing that morality is “self-evident” in and of itself and all we must do is help individuals “clarify” what is right and wrong for themselves. Anything else is too dogmatic, too sectarian, too potentially offensive.

Particularity is inherently exclusive. It is socially awkward, potentially volatile, offensive to our cosmopolitan sensibilities. By its very nature it cuts against the grain of our dominant code of inclusivity and civility. In our quest to be inclusive and tolerant of particularity, we naturally undermine it. When the particular cultures of conviction are undermined and the structures they inhabit are weakened, the possibility of character itself becomes dubious.

Indeed, there’s something about particularity that scares us, regardless of our own particular beliefs in our own particular moral philosophies. The secular progressive is afraid of the conservative Christian. The conservative Christian is afraid of the Muslim. The Muslim is afraid of the secular progressive. And so we fight for control over the monopoly on the narrative.

So if this inclusivist approach is ineffective and actually undermines the ways in which morality is formed, how is morality actually formed?

Hunter answers:

Morality is always situated—historically situated in the narrative flow of collective memory and aspiration, socially situated within distinct communities, and culturally situated within particular structures of moral reasoning and practice. Character is similarly situated. It develops in relation to moral convictions defined by specific moral, philosophical, or religious truths. Far from being free-floating abstractions, these traditions of moral reasoning are fixed in social habit and routine within social groups and communities. Grounded in this way, ethical ideals carry moral authority. Thus, it is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animate character and make it resilient…

A morality conceptualized without basic links to a living creed and a lived community means that the morality they espouse entails few if any psychic costs; it lacks, in any case, the social and spiritual sanctions that can make morality “binding on our conscience and behavior.” What is more, without the grounding of particular creeds and communities, morality in public life can be advocated only as yawning platitudes—variations of the emotivism that now prevails everywhere. Critics who point to the absolutist quality of this moral pedagogy are not far from the point. Outside the bounds of moral community, morality cannot be authoritative, only authoritarian. In the end, these alternatives [i.e. any modernistic attempts to instill virtue] do not advocate virtue, but at the their best, it is virtue on the cheap.

This, of course, is very much in line with the thesis of this blog. If we want to achieve a just, or as I would prefer, a Read the rest of this entry »

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The Moral Case for a Free Economy: An Interview with Father Robert Sirico

Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, recently released a new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, in which he aims to overturn common stereotypes of capitalism and dig into the real moral implications of free enterprise. Applying his usual wit and theological depth, Fr. Sirico delivers fundamental moral arguments for why capitalism does not , as the narrative goes, promote greed, selfishness, and cruelty, but instead leverages human creativity and generosity. More importantly, Fr. Sirico contemplates how we might use our economic systems to further realize our relationship with God and man.

In this interview with Remnant Culture, Fr. Sirico discusses some of the key topics of his book, including consumerism, Ayn Rand, equality, health care, and the common “caricature” of economic man.

Of course, I encourage you to read the book in full.

One of the most popular arguments Christians make against free enterprise is that it is based on or driven by consumerism. In your book, you argue that consumerism actually makes capitalism “impossible over the long term.” How so?

Of course, we all consume. That is a fact of life. The Christian concern is not with the fact that we have to consume things (as thought we were Gnostics who did not believe in the goodness of the created world), but that we not be consumed by things.

The capitalist cycle depends on people using whatever goods they have to produce something valuable for their neighbors, and making a profit in the process. People then reinvest their profit into expanding their business, and making more profit. It’s a virtuous cycle. If an individual immediately rushes out and spends every last cent he earns today, he would have nothing left over for reinvesting and expanding for tomorrow, and thus there would be no means for sustaining his business, not to mention obtaining daily necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.

In writing about your “undoing” as a leftist, you describe a moment when you realized that the questions you were asking about Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were similar to “the simple queries that the tall nun had posed to our First Holy Communion Class” — questions about who made the world, who God is, and why God made us. Why did studying economics inspire a return to these questions, and why are such questions important for us to consider when contemplating economics?

There is something “underneath” economics.  Economics is not really about money and charts and statistics. It is essentially about human interaction. At the center of each economic transaction stands the human person. When we talk about tax levels or private property or inflation, we are talking about realities that have profound effects on the ways people live their lives, and the ways they interact with each other. When you see that economic conditions influence the decisions people make and alter their lifestyles, you realize that people react negatively to things they view as violating their intrinsic dignity. High tax levels can be immoral not only because of the negative effects they have, but simply because it is immoral to take an inordinate amount of what someone has worked hard to earn. Pope John Paul II has made clear that unemployment is a grave wrong because it jeopardizes the lives of workers and their families.

Studying these economic realities forces you to go back to those basic questions: Who is man? How much may a government justly take from its citizens? What are the limits of government? What are its responsibilities? Much more than numbers are at stake here: intrinsic human dignity, flourishing and rights hang in the balance.

Advocates of free enterprise are often assumed to be robotic devotees of Ayn Rand, the atheist novelist and promoter of a so-called “virtue of selfishness.” Yet you argue that Rand’s beliefs stand in conflict with the very free enterprise system she claimed to support. Where are Christians to find themselves between Randian individualism and Marxist collectivism?

Rand’s theory is self-defeating because it denies the fact that the free market is based on Read the rest of this entry »

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Chick-fil-A Supporters Are Not the One’s “Shoving It in People’s Faces”

Chick-fil-APlenty has been said on the Chick-fil-A controversy, and although I didn’t join the masses in yesterday’s food fest, I think their actions and motivations are being unfairly portrayed by a large swath of observers, including many who come at the marriage issue from their same perspective.

Case in point: this article, which has gained significant traction by arguing that supporting an under-fire business, particularly for biblical reasons, constitutes an undue act of aggression or uncharitableness toward one’s enemies:

But if love for Jesus is at the heart of this “appreciation day”, which I think that is the case, then the church’s response to their perceived persecution should be more like Jesus’ responses when he was persecuted or when he saw others persecuted.

He ate with them, talked peaceably with them, healed them, defended them, and when that didn’t work, he died for them.

For me, “shoving it in their face” just doesn’t seem like the response of the Jesus who said “turn the other cheek.” Even if you disagree vehemently with homosexuality and gay marriage, the response Jesus expects from you towards them and those that would decry your position is clear: love them.

Now, I’m all for eating with our enemies, etc. Of course we should love them. But we are talking about a business that was under attack from all sides, and we are talking about a movement that sought simply to “affirm” that business and support it in a season of ridicule and persecution. I know it’s become en vogue to idealize the bloodied church of Nero’s day as being nobler than America’s air-conditioned church subculture, but are we now also expected to sit silently by as our fellow brothers and sisters are set to flames?

As the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day event page stated:

No one is being asked to make signs, speeches, or openly demonstrate. The goal is simple: Let’s affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick Fil-A on Wednesday, August 1…

…There’s no need for anyone to be angry or engage in a verbal battle. Simply affirm appreciation for a company run by Christian principles by showing up on Wednesday, August 1 or by participating online – tweeting your support or sending a message on Facebook.

From what I’ve observed of yesterday’s goings on, I sense little more than this: affirmation and encouragement. These people aren’t “shoving it in people’s faces.” They are rallying around a company that was elevated as an object of scorn and derision by celebrities, politicians, and cultural elites who wrongly assumed that society would respond by simply rubbing their shoulders and saying “you tell those haters!” Participants see this as “appreciation” (shocker!), as telling Chick-fil-A, “we support you,” and we do so in a world where support for something as age-old and sacred as “man-woman marriage” is routinely accused of being founded in bigotry and hatred.

The irony abounds, from where I sit. Proponents of same-sex marriage continue to paint their ideological opponents as angry, aggressive sandwich tossers, even when it was their own post-modernistic, loosey-goosey, worship-at-the-altar-of-conformity cultural establishment that started this whole mess by persecuting a chicken shack with political threats. Where, when we observe the full scope of these events, does the the bigotry and uncharitable intolerance truly pool and fester?

It was Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s president, who was asked about his views, and it was Cathy’s business that was subsequently discriminated against and threatened by mayors of major cities. Read the rest of this entry »

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