Posts Tagged wealth

American Idealism and Economic Opportunity for the Glory of God

flag, crossFrench Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote that Americans “are the least materialist among the modern peoples which have attained the industrial stage.”

Drawing on this sentiment, George Weigel argues that although materialism may reign in America more than it once did, “there remains a link between money-making and idealism in these United States that is distinctive, and perhaps even unique.”

Pointing to President Calvin Coolidge (no fan of materialism), Weigel emphasizes that Coolidge’s famous line—“the chief business of the American people is business”—shouldn’t be taken by itself. For Coolidge, and for most Americans (even today), promoting the dignity-conferring effects of business is part of a larger, deeper idealism.

As Weigel explains:

As for wealth, consider Silent Cal’s remarks at the end of the same speech: “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element in all of civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists…”

And that, I suggest, is why Americans respond positively to presidential aspirants who lift up a vision of American possibility—prosperity linked to creativity, responsibility, and generosity—rather than candidates who play class-warfare politics, in whatever partisan form.

Weigel then explains how the market economy supports such idealism (emphasis added):

A robust economy is not only an economic imperative; it is a moral and cultural imperative. A robust economy makes honorable work possible for all who wish to be responsible for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. And work, according to Blessed John Paul II in the 1983 encyclical Laborem Exercens, is an expression of our participation in God’s sustaining “creation” of the world.

A robust economy makes possible the empowerment of the underprivileged—the true “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social doctrine, according to John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—even as it helps conserve public resources by making the resort to welfare less necessary.

A robust economy is essential in supporting one telling sign of America’s enduring generosity and idealism: the remarkable philanthropy of the American people. Americans, these days, give some $300 billion a year to charitable organizations, including religious institutions that fund vast networks of education, health care, and social service serving people in real need. There is simply nothing like this anywhere else in the Western world; if you doubt that, go to Europe or Canada, where the tradition of the benign, caretaker state (the contemporary version of the benign, caretaker monarch) has severely eroded charitable instincts—meaning giving.

Yet many of today’s Christians will shrug at any talk of an “American ideal,” and in some sense, rightly so. Our ultimate aim should be a Christian ideal, and we have a natural disposition to self-construct the latter for purposes of satisfying the former. But while we should be careful to make such a distinction, we should also recognize that a careful concern for the Gospel demands a careful concern for culture and country. Catholic social teaching aside, Weigel’s “vision of American possibility” fits quite nicely into the most generic understandings of Christian mission.

But we must dig deeper, even still, for just as American idealism has been watered down by self-centered post-modern thinking, so has our Christian idealism.

Even more fundamentally, the Christian should be concerned with the glory of God—an overarching, not-of-this-world notion that shatters our convenient cultural obsessions with “individualism” and “collectivism” and pushes us toward a different orientation altogether. Living a life focused on lifting up the King of Kings in all things will mean producing plenty of fruits that fit the current categories—responsibility, self-control, hard work, sacrifice—but I fear that we’re getting to a point where we can’t discern the fresh from the rotten from the poisonous. This is why the market, like any institution, needs to be analyzed first and foremost by how well it enables and empowers transformation at the root of individual worship. Otherwise, the byproducts we’re seeking will soon be replaced by nothing more than hollow do-gooderism cloaked in the lingo of the church.

Pro-market Christians can and should tout the market as the best mechanism for Read the rest of this entry »

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An Equality of Human Dignity: Charles Murray, Bill Maher and Materialism

Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, has been making waves. In the book, Murray argues that America has, over the past 50 years, experienced a new class divide between what he calls an “upper middle class” and “lower middle class.”

I have yet to finish the book (more reactions will surely come), but in observing Murray’s exchanges throughout the media, I’ve been struck by the left’s reactions to his thesis, particularly their rejection of his belief that social decay might just kinda sorta have social causes (as opposed to purely economic ones).

This week at Values & Capitalism, I examine this view, using Bill Maher’s recent interview with Murray as an example:



Maher aptly demonstrates the materialistic assumptions of his progressive worldview, assuming every social problem is linked to some kind of economic inequality.

Here’s an excerpt of my response:

Yet even if Maher were persuaded on this particular data, I trust he’d only get more creative with the numbers, for who can deny the unstoppable, exploitative power of bourgeois prosperity? For Maher and other progressives, this is not about data; it’s about an underlying faith in the evil of economic inequality and the transcendent power of material equilibrium.

Material. Material. Material.

Skyrocketing divorce rates? Follow the money. Absent fathers? Move that money around! Obesity epidemic? Give more funding to public schools. Widespread theft and burglary? Heck, have we tried more government coupons?

Such an outlook ignores what drives us as humans and what makes us prosper. If Maher really wants to repair our cultural divide, he should move beyond Read the rest of this entry »

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For Unto Whom Much Is Given, Less Shall Be Required

President Obama recently spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, during which he furthered his usual conflation of Christian charity with progressive policies.

From the speech:

[W]hen I talk about shared responsibility, it’s because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.

Such “shared responsibility” can, of course, make economic sense—e.g., if rich folks aren’t already paying their “fair share,” if we actually can increase government revenues by further squeezing the rich, if government revenues are actually being used in ways that help poor/middle-class families, etc.

But particularly after a State of the Union address in which the President promised to ramp up spending across the board, it is ever more difficult to swallow the notion that spelunking the pockets of the rich will somehow alleviate the plight of “ordinary Americans.” Let us remember: This is a President whose solution for economic collapse is to inflate skill-heavy industries such as energy and high-tech manufacturing (the uneducated poor are likely unenthusiastic). This is a President whose solution for inflated tuition costs is doubling the number of minimum-wage work study jobs. You can tax the rich all you want, but until you cut your blind addiction to counterproductive spending, such an approach will make little “economic sense.”

But it gets worse. Obama then moves to argue that forced economic redistribution also makes spiritual sense:

But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required’… To answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” … Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need.

Setting aside the President’s peculiar tendency to use “I am my brother’s keeper” as an imperative for Christian service (“I really do know what happened to Abel!”), he is falling prey the most typical of progressive tendencies: (1) confusing Jesus’ call of radical obedience to God with a call of radical obedience to the State, and (2) debasing Jesus’ parables to be wholly materialistic in their scope.

God requires plenty from us, but he wants us to obey him, not the arbitrary dictates of political rulers. Just as he gives us much more than stuff, he also expects us to do much more than give our stuff away (or have it seized away). I have commented on these errors time and time again.

The irony is that the society in which an equality of outcomes is an overarching policy aim is the society in which the people “to whom much is given” start dropping like flies. When the moralistic bureaucrats on top of the hill try to determine how much has been given to whom and how much is too much, God is quickly reduced from being our ultimate source and guide to a mere excuse for government meddling. When leaders like Obama pretend that Jesus was/is encouraging us to blindly submit our resources to a massive inefficient bureaucracy, being a bond slave of Christ becomes no different than being a robot for Read the rest of this entry »

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Occupy Yourselves: Targeting the Evil, Greedy 100%

The attitudes and actions of the Occupy Wall Street protesters have inspired many others to join the streets in outrage, leaving those of us at home to wonder what the point of it all may be.

And let me assure you: there is indeed a point.

I’ve been struck by the moral arrogance that permeates the crowds — a sort of pretentious, self-absorbed judgmentalism, self-anointed to invade the souls of the rich and expose their moral failings. Such supposed vice, we are told, must be stopped, and it is these brave oracles of materialism and greed who shall stand in its way.

There are, of course, a few problems with this. One is that “ending corporate greed” requires privy knowledge of who is greedy and who is not. We can certainly trust the discernment of the guy smoking pot in the sleeping bag next to the sewer drain, but even if he gets it right, how might we convince Mr. Fat-Cat Richiebottoms to alter his moral outlook?

“Just take his money away,” they’ll say.

Yet if I threw Billy Goodheart’s “Everyone is greedy but me!” sign in the garbage, my hunch is that his ability to produce quality picketing art would only improve. There he’d be, the very next day, with the same attitudes, the same platitudes, and the same distasteful propensity to blame the Man.

Reality alert: You cannot change the world by blaming others, and you cannot change moral behavior by yelling.

With particular precision, David Brooks sums up the issue nicely:

If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent. This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.

And problems do abound. Yes, there are structural issues with the status quo. Yes, corporatism is out of control (which is not the same as “capitalism,” mind you). Yes, banks and businesses were/are reckless. Yes, people were/are greedy. You woke up on the right planet.

The question is, “What can we do about it?”

In a free society, one thing we can control is our own lives. If we don’t want to be beholden to greedy misers or enslaved to high-interest credit cards, we can say “no.” If we don’t want to be tied to 10 years of student-loan debt that we can’t afford, we can go to a trade school or demonstrate some basic upfront frugality. If we’re looking for our dream job and can’t find it, we can continue to increase our skills and standing, no matter how frustrating the process may be.

If, however, we are trying to “be the change we want to see in the world” by sleeping in a gutter for weeks on end, we should be prepared to receive our prize.

What we need is what John Witherspoon once called a “return to duty” — an introspective moment that leads us to “hearken the rod” rather than disdain it, to return to Read the rest of this entry »

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PovertyCure: Focus on Human Potential, Not Despair

I’ve written about PovertyCure in the past, but in the months since, their mission has taken significant shape. Thus, I thought it fitting to give their efforts an additional plug.

You can start by watching their promotional video, which sums up their approach quite effectively.

Share and distribute as you will:

The newly expanded web site contains a variety of valuable media resources, along with a mission statement and list of key issues that are strikingly on-target. Overall, it’s refreshing to see an anti-poverty campaign so unabashedly centered on human potential rather than human despair — one that seeks to build on truths we know rather than merely pacify or tame social chaos in the immediate.

At the center of all this must be the individual — the sacred human person whose plan and purpose in life needs locomotion, not bandaids. If we see fundamental change on that level, the rest will Read the rest of this entry »

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What Would Jesus Take: The Fundamental Confusion of the Christian Left

With embarrassing clarity, Lawrence O’Donnell recently illuminated the fundamental confusion among many left-leaning Christians: the belief that God is a God of coercion.

Watch this:

The attack is centered around a rant by Rush Limbaugh, who recently accused the Left of using Jesus as a prop for defending specific progressive policies and pet projects. Jim Wallis has demonstrated such a tendency with his legalistic “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign, but for Rush, it all comes down to a different question: “What Would Jesus Take?”

O’Donnell’s answer is as clear as can be: “Everything. Not 35%. Not 39.6%. 100%.” Jesus did not come to make a way. He came to make you pay up.

Although Rush lacks plenty of tact in his delivery (surprise, surprise), his conclusion is spot on: Jesus did not come to force us into submission — not with an elbow, a fist, or a bolt of lightening. His love is 100% coercion-free.

To prove it isn’t, O’Donnell trots out the Read the rest of this entry »

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Anti-Capitalism Christians: Confusion or Hypocrisy?

capitalism, Christianity, values, American, free market, Public Religion Research InstituteAccording to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, “a plurality of Americans believe capitalism [is] at odds with Christian values.” Among Christians in the U.S., “only 38% believe capitalism and the free market are consistent with Christian values while 46% believe the two are at odds.”

This week at Common Sense Concept, I weigh in on the results, noting first that the news is not all that surprising:

Christians are well aware that greed and selfishness are absolute sins, and we are constantly told — albeit falsely — that such sins are the very drivers of capitalism. With pro-capitalism folks like Ayn Rand affirming such myths, it’s no wonder that Christians defer to the stereotype. Such a fundamental misunderstanding comes about for a variety of reasons, but from my experience, it’s typically rooted in one or more of the following: (1) an overly simplistic and all-encompassing view of greed, (2) a materialistic view of wealth, (3) a failure to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest, and (4) a belief that God has something against material inequality.

Yet there is indeed something peculiar about all this. Most particularly: How do these Christians sleep at night if they are actively supporting a fundamentally un-Christian system?

Are they all homeless?

It is on this question that I focus the bulk of my critique:

Of the 46% of Christians who believe capitalism is “at odds” or “inconsistent” with Christian values, how many are themselves actively engaged in the capitalist system? Of the 61% of Americans who believe regulation is necessary to ensure “ethical” business activity, how many truly believe they need to be regulated in order to ethically trade an apple for an orange? Of the 55% of white evangelical Protestants who believe that income inequality is “one of the biggest problems in the country,” how many have a higher income than someone else? Indeed, if any of these folks are simply working in America today, aren’t they profiting from, indeed encouraging, the very capitalistic system that opposes their religious convictions?

Or, in shorter form:

Just as the anti-communism Christian should probably avoid the role of communist dictator or violent proletariat rebel, the anti-capitalism Christian should probably avoid the role of capitalist.

My guess is that most of these Christians are actually at peace with the capitalistic system as it plays out in their own personal lives, and I would wager that the disconnect has more to do with Read the rest of this entry »

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Intergenerational Justice: What Is the Church’s Role?

Up until now, I have avoided any in-depth discussion about the Center for Public Justice’s Call for Intergenerational Justice, a document which “demand[s] that Washington end our ongoing budget deficits.” The document was signed by a variety of Christian leaders from across the political spectrum, and was designed to “start of a biblically grounded movement in which grandparents, grandchildren and everyone in between can join hands to promote a just solution to our debt crisis.”

The Call has garnered both praise and criticism, with much of the latter coming from friend-of-the-blog Jordan Ballor. To discuss their disagreements, Gideon Strauss of CPJ recently joined Ballor for a discussion at the Acton Institute. This week, Common Sense Concept took the conversation a step further by hosting a panel on the Christian’s role in the budget crisis. Included on the panel were Strauss, Ballor, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Ryan Streeter, and Pastor Jonathan Merritt.

Catch the conversation here:


The discussion is engaging across the board, and as Daniel Suhr has noted in his recap, there is plenty of room for consensus.

But as an evangelical, I’d like to focus specifically on Pastor Merritt’s concers, particularly his (mis)perception of how conservatives and libertarians view poverty solutions — a misunderstanding that permeates evangelicalism at large.

Merritt, himself a self-proclaimed conservative, begins his response by countering Ballor’s claim that the Call does not do enough as far as “putting the church on the hook.” In an initially shocking statement, Merritt says that he’s tired of putting the church on the hook, wrongly assuming that Ballor wants the church to ramp up its political involvement. Going further, Merritt Read the rest of this entry »

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It Takes a Market: Hillary Clinton, Milton Friedman, and the Family

family, market, grocery, shoppingThis week at Common Sense Concept, I use Hillary Clinton’s popular premise as a launching pad for discussion about the role of family and the subsequent role of the market in enabling it.

First, here’s my quick re-cap of Clinton’s view, which is not particularly unique in the scope of human history:

Clinton’s main argument is that we need a society which meets all the needs of all its children (“Just imagine, bro!”). For Clinton, however, such ends are not to be reached by encouraging freedom, instilling dignity, or teaching the importance of self-government and charity. Instead, children are only to reach their ultimate state of nirvana if the State becomes the family itself. After all, much like those other pesky private institutions — churches, schools, businesses…that kind of thing — the private family simply cannot be trusted (fascism alert).

To illuminate the errors within such a view, I lean on economist Milton Friedman, whose widely circulated exchange on the distribution of income vs. wealth provides some good insights.

Here’s Friedman in his own words:

The thing that is amazing that people don’t really recognize is the extent to which the market system has in fact encouraged people and enabled people to work hard and sacrifice — in what I must confess I often regard as an irrational way — for the benefit of their children. One of the most curious things to me in observation is that almost all people value the utility their children will get from consumption higher than their own.

As for where I stand, I take a view quite similar to that I made in my recent post on WALL-E vs. the Jetsons:

When the material needs are met by utilizing the proper socio-political framework, we can then more easily progress as a society toward a proper spiritual orientation. If we take a different path, and attempt to Read the rest of this entry »

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Scarcity vs. Nonscarcity: Why Do Christians Struggle with Economics?

Half empty plate, scarcity, nonscarcity, economicsIn a recent post at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Jeffrey Tucker tries to explain why modern religious people have such a hard time grappling with economics. (“Why Religious People Struggle with Economics”)

Indeed, although the discipline was originally systemized by Catholics in the 15th and 16th centuries (as Tucker duly notes), today’s Christians — whether Protestant or Catholic, progressive or conservative — often fail miserably in their attempts to comment on the subject. This, after all, is why I started this blog in the first place.

For Tucker, the roots of the problem go much deeper than a lack of mere knowledge:

It’s not just that the writers, as thoughtful as they might otherwise be on all matters of faith and morals, do not know anything about economic theory. The problem is even more foundational: the widespread tendency is to deny the validity of the science itself. It is treated as some kind of pseudoscience invented to thwart the achievement of social justice or the realization of the perfectly moral utopia of faith. They therefore dismiss the entire discipline as forgettable and maybe even evil. It’s almost as if the entire subject is outside their field of intellectual vision.

The issue, then, is recognizing the difference between the realms of scarcity and nonscarcity, a topic that I have discussed on several occasions (here, here, and here):

If one exists, lives, and thinks primarily in the realm of the nonscarce good, the problems associated with scarcity — the realm that concerns economics — will always be elusive. To be sure, it might seem strange to think of things such as grace, ideas, prayers, and images as goods, but this term merely describes something that is desired by people. (There are also things we might describe as nongoods, which are things that no one wants.) So it is not really a point of controversy to use this term. What really requires explanation is Read the rest of this entry »

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