Posts Tagged culture

Affirm the Sacred: Sign the Manhattan Declaration

My friends at the Manhattan Declaration recently unveiled an attractive new web site, along with some valuable tools for spreading their message (1, 2, 3).

For those not already familiar with the project, the Manhattan Declaration is a proclamation seeking to “build a movement of Catholic, Evangelical, and Eastern Orthodox Christians who will stand together alongside other men and women of goodwill to advance the sanctity of life, rebuild and revitalize the marriage culture, and protect religious liberty.”

Read the full text of the Declaration here. Sign it here.

Remnant Culture has consistently sought to draw attention to the fundamental drivers of human flourishing from a Christian perspective. In illustrating the strong connections between issues like life, marriage, and religious liberty and the broader concerns of the church and society at large, whether religious, cultural, social, economic, or political, the Manhattan Declaration provides a way for Christians to affirm and proclaim the fundamentals of human flourishing. Read the rest of this entry »

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Four Theses on Conservatism and Cultural Restoration

conservatismI’ve been writing more and more about how we might repair and restore a faltering conservative imagination. Last week, my good friend Matt Anderson posted a compelling series on this very topic, offering four distinct theses aimed specifically at social conservatives (1, 2, 3, 4). His reactions come, partially, in response (or relation) to this year’s Values Voter Summit, where I had the pleasure of hearing Matt talk on a subject quite similar alongside Chris Marlink, Eric Teetsel, Andrew Walker, and Owen Strachan.

Given that I view economic issues as being more or less interconnected with the “social” ones, Anderson’s offering is still deeply relevant for conservatives of all stripes and emphases, particularly those who believe, more broadly, that ground-up spiritual and cultural restoration should be our primary aim.

I encourage you to read each thesis in its entirety. Some key excerpts and quick responses are provided below.

Thesis #1: To Sow or to Reap

My first thesis is that social conservatives are entering a time for sowing new cultural seeds rather than reaping their cultural fruits. As folks have recently pointed out, you can’t fight a culture war if you haven’t got a culture. And by and large, social conservatives haven’t got much in that department to pass along to the children. What they do have has been cobbled together by imitating mainstream America and borrowing from Nashville. The net effect is that social conservatives are trying, desperately, to reap legal fruit despite neglecting the difficult work of sowing and nurturing cultural seeds.

…if there is such a thing as cultural flourishing and decline, then we need to carefully discriminate where we are in those seasons and allocate our time and resources accordingly. To do otherwise would be rather imprudent, no? That means redirecting attention, efforts, and (yes) funding away from the particularly urgent political concerns toward seemingly frivolous long term cultural efforts. By way of hypothesis, I suspect it is easy for Christians to raise money for either political causes at home or missions and social-justice causes overseas. But a library, conservatory, or an art studio—institutions that will form the backbone of any permanent culture?

This is a central theme here at Remnant Culture. Culture runs upstream from politics, and cultural formation is a difficult, tedious process of truth-wielding and truth-telling— one that is particularly difficult and tedious when politics is so persistently playing the imposter with “quick-and-fast” pseudo-solutions. Nevertheless, and here redundancy is ever-justified, culture runs upstream from politics. Let us not forget it, lest we fail to beget it (just call me the “rhyme czar”).

Thesis #2: End the Hostilities Against Elites

Consider this bit by Rick Santorum from this year’s Values Voter Summit, which both stunned and saddened me…

…First, the rampant populism fuels a sense of grievance against elites. It’s class warfare, only the classes are divided along prestige lines rather than economic ones… [C]lass resentment—even if its against the “creatives” or the media or academics—will necessarily limit conservatism’s appeal and so unnecessarily throttle its cultural impact.

Second, this sort of statement emboldens conservatives in the wrong places. It’s one thing to highlight conservatism’s populist character and to emphasize the church and family as the wellspring of cultural renewal…But to cut away elites altogether creates the misguided confidence that as long as we get the numbers on our side, things are going well.

Third, it ironically points toward a lack of confidence in our ability to argue persuasively for our positions. If our cause is just and our understanding of human nature is true, then if we motor along doing our thing elites will eventually come around.

Yes, yes, and yes. If we’re going to impact the culture, we can’t write off and demonize elite institutions, nay, elite people, who have some of the most significant cultural influence. Further, as Anderson goes on to mention, posing our predicament as such will likely give those conservatives who do choose to pursue such arenas an attitude of fear or “infiltration.” This will not help us in reaching healthy, long-view cultural development, and will likely result in ideas and art that are forced and combative rather than profound and beautiful (do you need examples?).

Thesis #3: Recover Intellectual Creativity

Having neglected our traditionalist conservative heritage (or having never received it to begin with), social conservatives have also tended to “repeat formulas” rather than reload the “intellectual ammunition.” While there are occasional bright spots—First Things, Public Discourse, Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru—they don’t get much air time at places like the Values Voter Summit. By and large, the mainstream of social conservatism tends to be relatively intellectually stagnant and formulaic. Which isn’t, if you catch my drift, a sign of its health.

Some of that stems from, I think, the culture war mentality that has pervaded the mainstream of the movement. One of the hidden yet potentially devastating costs of a culture war mentality is that it locks people into a framework and keeps them pursuing the particular questions that emerge from within it. If the point of our efforts is winning, then questioning our own presuppositions is out of bounds. That may be fine for a while, and it may raise more money and ensure that folks are on the team, but eventually intellectual stagnation will set in. It has to: the only way to avoid it is to question our fundamental commitments even while we are holding on to them.

Anderson begins by referencing David Brooks’ recent piece on the conservative mind, drawing (correctly) on Brooks’ critique of conservative “formulas” and his promotion of a more hearty, intellectual vision. Again, Anderson is primarily interested in critiquing the social conservative movement as it relates to traditional conservatism, but as I recently argued in connection to the same Brooks piece, economic conservatives have a bridge to build here as well (though its certainly different than the one Brooks attempts at). For conservatives, recovering intellectual creativity will mean restoring a robust, holistic conservative imagination that ties its social and the economic strains together by grounding them in Kirk’s “enduring moral order.” We should be winning on intellectual creativity, depth, and romanticism, hands down.

Thesis 4: Recover Our Confidence

Here, the “culture war” mentality really does a number on our Read the rest of this entry »

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Christian Values Are the Problem: Sacred Truth vs. Cultural Moralism

valuesIn a response to a mother whose 16-year-old daughter has “given up believing in God,” Albert Mohler provides a marvelous critique of the mother’s initial premise: that she had tried to raise her family “under the same strong Christian values that [she] grew up with.”

Mohler’s most basic point: “Christian values” will never be enough:

Christian values are the problem. Hell will be filled with people who were avidly committed to Christian values. Christian values cannot save anyone and never will. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a Christian value, and a comfortability with Christian values can blind sinners to their need for the gospel.

This one sentence may not accurately communicate this mother’s understanding, but it appears to be perfectly consistent with the larger context of her question and the source of the advice she sought.

Parents who raise their children with nothing more than Christian values should not be surprised when their children abandon those values. If the child or young person does not have a firm commitment to Christ and to the truth of the Christian faith, values will have no binding authority, and we should not expect that they would. Most of our neighbors have some commitment to Christian values, but what they desperately need is salvation from their sins. This does not come by Christian values, no matter how fervently held. Salvation comes only by the gospel of Jesus Christ…

… Human beings are natural-born moralists, and moralism is the most potent of all the false gospels. The language of “values” is the language of moralism and cultural Protestantism — what the Germans called Kulturprotestantismus. This is the religion that produces cultural Christians, and cultural Christianity soon dissipates into atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of non-belief. Cultural Christianity is the great denomination of moralism, and far too many church folk fail to recognize that their own religion is only cultural Christianity — not the genuine Christian faith.

This connects quite well with James Davison Hunter’s thesis in his book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, albeit toward slightly broader ends.

For Hunter, focusing on sacred truths — or, in Mohler’s case, salvation through Christ — is the best approach not just for retaining belief in God, but for achieving a moral and virtuous society filled with individuals of strong character:

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…

This destruction occurs simultaneously with the rise of “values.” Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. They are substitutes for revelation, imperatives that have dissolved into a range of possibilities. The very word “value” signifies the reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable. Both values and “lifestyle”—a way of living that reflects the accumulation of one’s values—bespeak a world in which nothing is sacred. Neither word carries the weight of conviction; the commitment to truths made sacred…

…Whatever benefits such a fluid and temporary moral universe may offer, they fail to lessen our dismay when we witness random and senseless violence; our outrage when we see open displays of corruption; our indignation when we observe a flouting of basic standards of decency; and our sadness as we watch callousness when compassion and mercy cry out. But why should we be surprised? When the self is stripped of moral anchoring, there is nothing to which the will is bound to submit, nothing innate to keep it in check. There is no compelling reason to be Read the rest of this entry »

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Honey, You Didn’t Build That: How to Destroy Individualism in Your Children (and Society)

Although a bit cheesy and overacted—intentionally, to be sure—this latest satire on Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line is actually quite effective (HT).

Watch the video here:



It’s effective, I think, because it shows how the underlying truth of Obama’s more basic claim — that we don’t create things all by ourselves and we all rely on various relationships and social institutions — isn’t enough to save Obama’s remarks from themselves.

Surely, everything these parents say to their daughter is true. Without the trees, the popsicle-stick manufacturer, and her local school, this girl wouldn’t have had the opportunity to build what she build. This is, after all, a basic market/cooperation argument if you take out all of the manipulative government activity sleeping in Obama’s assumptions. The problem is: What this girl accomplished was worth celebrating, and it was neither the time nor place to start slandering and belittling her success—that is, unless these parents truly believed that what she did wasn’t really all that profound.

In closing, the Dad says: “It’s important to destroy their sense of individualism while they’re still young.” And this gets at the deeper root of why Obama said what he did: he has a bigger faith in top-down, collective action than bottom-up individual empowerment (I’ve discussed this previously). The individualism of all human persons 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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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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Get Personal: Restoring Individualism to Gospel-Worthy Conduct

Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance, Duane LitfinIn his new book, Word versus Deed, Duane Litfin contemplates how Christians are to be Christians at a time when the church seems bent toward what I might call representation without proclamation (and vice versa, though to a lesser extent, methinks). “Today some are emphasizing deeds at the expense of words, while others hold fast to ‘talking’ and forsake the doing,” Litfin writes. “This is an imbalance that must be righted.”

The book covers a range of topics, but for the moment I want to focus on an interrelated “imbalance” that Litfin briefly notes in his chapter on “gospel-worthy conduct” (i.e. the “doing” piece). Litfin encourages us to think of such conduct as being “lived out in five distinguishable circles of application”: personal life, family, God’s people, society at large, and the natural world.

These are all good “circles” for us to think about, yet we must also take care to order them properly. For example, as Litfin duly notes, the church has, as of late, begun to shift its focus directly to the social realm, ignoring the “personal life” or “private dimension” altogether—a faulty either-or approach that will not bode well if the church has any hopes of transforming the social sphere toward the heart of God.

According to Litfin, this switch has happened for the following reasons (quoted directly from the book):

  1. Our time and place in history is stamped with the radical individualism of the Enlightenment. In reacting against this imbalance some may be inclined to move directly, and perhaps too quickly, to the social and corporate implications of the gospel, bypassing the individual realm entirely.
  2. In certain Christian circles the personal dimensions of Christian living—issues of sexual morality, personal honesty, worldliness, etc.—seem to be as far as the demands of the gospel ever reach. These issues are stressed constantly but little is heard of the social implications of the gospel. Such a perceived imbalance undoubtedly prompts others to leapfrog these “overworked” private matters on their way to broader social concerns.
  3. Any emphasis on issues of personal holiness in the Christian life appears for some to be an embarrassment. They tend to write off such concerns as the unwarranted obsession of pietists.

These realities have largely shaped the focus of Remnant Culture (thus my focus on “Radical Individualism”). From Shane Claiborne to David Platt (in varying degrees, to be sure) we are consistently sold on the idea that misaligned, Enlightenment-style individualism is the only kind there is, and the only way the American church will get past it is by bloodying itself on a self-constructed altar to abstract social goods. Under this perspective, anything that might result in individual advancement or recognition, regardless of what is driving it, must be too individual-oriented, and thus we are told to compensate by injecting our actions with impulsive socially conscious do-gooderism. We may still be trying to push Christians toward obedience to God (Platt certainly is), but we will continuously miss the mark if we “leapfrog” past the messy, complicated subject of (1) what this all means at a personal, individual level, and (2) how that translates into the social dimension holistically (i.e. encompassing all of the circles Litfin mentions).

The fundamental problem with the American church is not that we are too focused on our private lives and need to go on more mission trips or curb our incomes at a certain level. It’s that we are not recognizing that our private lives need to be broken by God’s grace and our social responsibilities need to be rightly ordered in turn. We want a quick-fix answer for everything—as nearly every observer of the West will recognize—but such an orientation does not stop at the electronic store check-out line; it drags itself into every element of our vocation-building and world-changing, prodding us to skip pass complicated questions of individual purity and purpose and jump straight to easy-and-convenient “social” arguments, whether we’re talking about sexuality, mega-church management, or global poverty.

We need to take a step back and make sure our hearts and our deeds are on the right path, and that means doing a lot of difficult work at the individual level. We need to cry out, as David did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We need to pause and pray, asking Read the rest of this entry »

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Imagination Station: Grounding Church Innovation in Tradition

church, innovation, imaginationI have written previously on how Christians should embrace an entrepreneurial spirit in pursuing God’s will (here and here), grounding their innovations and risk-taking in a holistic Biblical worldview and executing their callings through active fellowship and spiritual discernment.

Over at Faith & Leadership, James K.A. Smith provides some related thoughts on Christian innovation, paying specific attention to the role of individual church bodies. For Smith, “good culture making” comes from a properly oriented Christian imagination, and such imaginations are most reliably fostered and achieved through “intentional, historic, liturgical forms.”

First, Smith’s survey of modern evangelicalism:

The entrepreneurial independence of evangelical spirituality leaves room for all kinds of congregational startups that require little if any institutional support. Catering to increasingly specialized “niche” audiences, these startups are not beholden to liturgical forms or institutional legacies. Indeed, many proudly announce their desire to “reinvent church.”

Clearly, the cultural labor of restoration requires imaginative innovation. Good culture making requires that we imagine the world other than as it is — which means seeing through the status-quo stories we have been told and instead envisioning kingdom come. Yes, we need new energy, new strategies, new initiatives, new organizations, even new institutions.

But if we hope to put the world to rights, we need to think differently and act differently and build institutions that foster such action.

Next, his solution:

If our cultural work is going to be restorative – if it is going to put the world to rights – then we need imaginations that have been shaped by a vision for how things ought to be. Our innovation and invention and creativity will need to be bathed in an eschatological vision of what the world is made for, what it’s called to be — what the prophets often described as shalom. Innovation for justice and shalom requires that we be regularly immersed in the story of God reconciling all things to himself.

That immersion happens most powerfully in worship — in intentional, historic, liturgical forms that “carry” the Christian story in ways that sink into our bones and become part of us. This is why the unfettered, undisciplined “reinvention” of the church actually undercuts our ability to carry out innovative, restorative culture making. The story cannot shape us, cannot become part of us, in a church that is constantly reinventing itself.

I certainly agree that “unfettered, undisciplined ‘reinvention’ of the church” diminishes our ability to “carry out innovative, restorative culturing,” but I’m curious as to how we might start (re)defining standards for Christian worship in modern evangelicalism—how we are to pick and choose “intentional, historic, liturgical forms” and how we are to gauge the success of any Read the rest of this entry »

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Tougher Questions for Dogmatic Secularists

Al Gore, prophet, secularismThe presidential election is nearly a year away, and the race to secure the GOP nomination is already in full swing. Yet despite a rather hum-drum assortment of candidates, media pundits everywhere are bewildered to once again behold that most quizzical of creatures: the conservative Christian.

Aside from the now-infamous “submission” question lobbed at Michele Bachmann during a recent debate, Ryan Lizza’s hatchet job on the Congresswoman serves as Exhibit A. Using a mix of hyperbole, misrepresentation, and pretentious grandstanding, Lizza drags Bachmann’s supposed politico-theological skeletons out of the closet in an attempt to “inform” the rest of us of this perplexing woman and her confounding beliefs.

The result? Another fault-ridden portrayal of the “extremists” who just so happen to make up about half of the country (anti-gay marriage, anti-evolution, anti-”science,” yadda yadda yadda). As usual, the folks who are supposed to be schooling us on what politicians really believe (“keepin ‘em honest!”) display an uncanny knack for being completely oblivious to Christian culture and digging only where they want and only when they’re in the mood to play “pretend.” (see Joe Carter’s full-throttle takedown of the piece here).

For Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, Lizza’s piece is a different kind of Exhibit A. “Enlightening,” he calls it, for its illumination of Bachmann’s batty side, namely, her “spiritual and political mentors” who believe “homosexuality is an abomination” (gasp!) and who preach “the literal ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible” (as opposed to the inerrancy of An Inconvenient Truth).

“This year’s Republican primary season offers us an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life — and to get over them,” says Keller. “We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans [i.e. the editorial staff of The New York Times].”

We must press these candidates in the areas where they might go too far, Keller says. It’s fine and dandy if such folks believe in silly things like transubstantiation (a doctrine Keller calls “baggage”…seriously), but when they believe in the authority of the Bible and the supremacy of God in public life, ya’ll better hold on to your trousers, cause it’s time to defend our democracy:

…I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon…or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country. It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history — in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.” I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises. And I care a lot if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.

Wait, “divine instructions” as in, like, divine instructions, or divine instructions as in a copy of the IPCC report?

(“Prophet Gore…Paging Prophet Gore…”)

Where was I? Oh yeah: those kooky, Bible-believing weirdos.

To help us unlock the “mysteries” of such peculiar people, Keller provides Read the rest of this entry »

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Fair Trade as a Non-Solution: A Christian Response to Price Manipulation

Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, Victor Claar, Acton Institute, coffeeFair trade products have become increasingly popular, particularly in churches and various Christian communities. To investigate the merits of this approach, economist and friend of the blog Victor Claar recently wrote Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

This week at Common Sense Concept, I review Claar’s book and echo the key criticisms therein.

A significant part of the book — and a big part of its significance — is its objective examination of coffee markets and the fair trade scheme as a whole:

Given that coffee is perhaps the most popular of fair-trade commodities, Claar focuses his attention there, providing an initial overview of the coffee market itself, followed by a discussion of fair trade strategies as commonly applied. Here, we learn a few important things: (1) coffee is easy to grow, (2) its price is inelastic, and (3) the “market appeal” of one’s beans is essential for success. Additionally, and most importantly, (!!!) demand is dropping while supply is rising. “Simply put,” Claar explains, “coffee growers are poor because there is too much coffee.”

From there, Claar dives into analysis, considering each detail as it relates to common Christian concerns. I’ve read plenty of books that critique fair trade in general terms, but Claar’s views on the proper Christian response are a unique addition to the discussion.

Overall, Claar views such schemes as a means for reinforcing barriers rather than removing them:

Instead of imposing our top-down plans on our neighbors across the globe, Claar suggests that we “work to make trade freer for everyone in our global community: a level playing field for all.” Although it might lack the punch, trendiness, convenience, and immediate satisfaction of buying the right pack of coffee beans at the right socially-conscious grocery store, it actually works (e.g. the 20th century).

To read the full review, click here.

Read the rest of this entry »

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