Archive for category Religion

Post-Election Reminder: Politics Is Not Where Life Happens

Russ Roberts, economist, Cafe HayekLast week at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I offered some suggestions as to what a newly elected President Obama might do if he wishes to unify the country and restore American confidence —  namely, affirm the value that each person brings to the table, male or female, rich or poor, and “appeal to more than material welfare,” as President Coolidge once did.

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I discuss how we as Christians should respond after the election—but regardless of what the President does or doesn’t do.

For this, I rely heavily on economist Russ Roberts, who recently reminded us that politics isn’t “where life happens,” and thus, we should remember that our best opportunity to sell a political ideology of individual liberty is by building and cultivating the very communities and institutions — the “voluntary emergent orders” — we seek to protect.

As Roberts writes:

My other source of cheer is to remember that politics is not where life happens. Policies affect our lives, but we have much to do outside that world. Yesterday I helped my youngest son learn Python, learned some Talmud, played with my photographs on Lightroom, had dinner with my wife, and went shopping with my oldest son for his first nice blazer. Lots of satisfactions there. Nothing to do with politics.

Toward the end of the campaign, I saw an ad where Obama looked into the camera and said something like “look at my policies and those of my opponent and decide which one is best for you.” Those of us who believe in voluntary emergent order and civil society as a way to make the world a better place, reject Obama’s calculus. We believe that our policies aren’t just good for ourselves but allow everyone to reach their potential and serve others through the marketplace and the communities we choose to join and build. That’s a world I want not just for my children to but for your children, too. Being nice to your neighbor helps your neighbor imagine the possibility that the policies we pursue are not just about ourselves.

My response:

For both the Christian and the Jew, this “voluntary emergent order” begins with loving God and loving neighbor. We certainly need to make clear the state’s persistent attempts to intrude and subvert that order, but throughout such a struggle, particularly after a battle as aggressive and exhausting as this past election, we would do well to re-energize ourselves when it comes to pursuing the very callings and Read the rest of this entry »

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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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Bono Abandons Babel?

U2 singerThere’s been a bit of buzz over Bono’s recent remarks about the positive role of markets in reducing global poverty and spurring economic development (HT):

The Irish singer and co-founder of ONE, a campaigning group that fights poverty and disease in Africa, said it had been “a humbling thing for me” to realize the importance of capitalism and entrepreneurialism in philanthropy, particularly as someone who “got into this as a righteous anger activist with all the cliches.”

“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”

I’m a bit skeptical about the broader significance of these remarks on Bono’s activism, but I do think they’re illuminating. Over at the Acton Institute, I argue that Bono’s new humbled attitude is precisely what we need in our attempts to improve economic development:

Although I’m not overly confident that Bono’s sudden self-awareness is enough to radically shift his aid efforts away from fostering dependency, this small admission helps illuminate one of our key obstacles to doing good in the world: overzealousness paired with overconfidence.

Bono describes his realization as a “humbling thing,” and “humbling” is precisely what the foreign aid experts and economic planners could use. As Friedrich Hayek famously wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” As the story of the Tower of Babel well confirms, man has a natural disposition to think he knows more than he knows and can construct beyond what he can construct—all to make a name for himself. The juice of righteous anger is a powerful enabler, and once it’s pumping through our veins it takes even less time for our human tendencies to escalate. After all, we’re only out to deliver humanity to heaven’s doorstep.

Such overconfidence in our own designs can be particularly destructive in the realm of economics, a science that’s in a constant battle over whether it should seek to explain human action, control it, or bypass it altogether. Such planners find a perfect match in eager activists such as Bono. “We can build your tower to heaven,” they’ll say, “and you can make a name for yourself. If only the right policy buttons are pushed and the right economic equilibrium is arranged, the world can be set to rights.”

Of all people, Christians should be aware of the deeper spiritual questions we should be asking, cautious not to be wise in our own eyes:

The economic engineer’s intrusion goes well beyond barging into more natural and effective social institutions. For in doing so, he treats dignified man and the unpredictable, invaluable relationships in which he engages as the mere mingling of predictable pieces in a larger static game. Such an intrusion should cause great alarm for those of us seeking restoration among the suffering. For how can we hope to improve conditions for the human person if we skip past what it means to be a human person? For the Christian in particular, God instructs each of us to do what the Lord wills. Are we really to Read the rest of this entry »

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Russell Moore on the Pastor and Politics

Dr. Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is one of the clearest voices on the intersection of religion and politics. In a recent forum on the relationship between ministry and politics, my good friend Andrew Walker interviewed Dr. Moore on the subject, focusing specifically on how we should think about these issues in the context of the upcoming presidential election.

Dr. Moore offers plenty to chew on for Christians from all perspectives, but I find his challenges to the Religious Right most prescient.

Key takeaway: Politics is important, but not ultimate. We have responsibility, but in exercising that responsibility, Christians can also have tranquility. Other topics include political authority, political submission, Christian identity, natural rights, and how we engage with other Christians and non-Christians in the public sphere. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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Free Markets as a Fruit of the Gospel

fruit merchantIn our discussions of the pros and cons of various socio-economic models, Christians have a common tendency to forget what should be our more fundamental aim: spreading the message of salvation through Jesus Christ and living as Christ would have us live.

In a recent post, Doug Wilson helps us remember (HT), noting that we should stop critiquing such systems in and of themselves—i.e. separated from the reality of sin and the project of salvation—and focus instead on how they impact each individual when it comes to realizing the life-giving freedom Christ has made possible.

As Wilson explains it:

I have written many times that free markets are for a free people, and that only a free people can sustain them. But slaves to sin cannot be a free people. And the only way to be liberated from slavery to sin is through the gospel that brings new life.

Another problem is that when slaves to sin spiral down into the civic slavery that is their natural civic condition, their masters will also be slaves to sin, albeit usually somewhat shrewder — at least for a short while. At some point the whole thing blows up for everybody, but the bottom line is that sin is the fundamental set of chains. You cannot hope to be enslaved by them, and yet be free in any sense that matters anywhere else.

Hayek, Friedman, and von Mises cannot keep people loving the freedom of markets any more than the wisest geologist who ever lived could have kept Cain from hitting Abel with that rock. Knowledge of the world is not the same thing as knowledge of the human heart.

…Other foolish observers within the Christian tradition have seen that this is true, and concluded that the problem lies with Hayek, et al. “We need to have values other than free market values, etc.” This is to say that since sinners cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, we need to haul out the chains of compassionate statism. Make ‘em do compassionate stuff and everything….

There is no salvation without a savior, and Jesus is the only savior. And how will they hear without a preacher? What we need is the gospel, what we need is a reformation, what we need is revival.

But although our political systems and economic models can’t produce revival by themselves, they do make a difference in how we interact and what we pursue. This is where our discussions need to begin.

The damaging impacts of top-down control are a bit easier for Christians to understand when we observe various governments shutting down churches and persecuting Christians in the streets on the basis of their faith, but what about when the government shuts down, redirects, or prohibits a variety of our day-to-day economic activities? When the government seizes an industry or moves money around to fund Entrepreneur X instead of Entrepreneur Y, What might such a government be preventing or distorting in terms of Christian initiative, creativity, and collaboration? Are we always to assume the Bureaucrat Z is the preferred oracle of Jehovah?

Fundamentally, we must reject the materialistic, deterministic worldviews of self-anointed economic planners of all varieties. If Christians are serious about spreading the truth, we should go about offering the 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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Economic Issues and Generational Divides at the 2012 Values Voter Summit

I recently attended the 2012 Values Voter Summit put on by the Family Research Council, where I had the opportunity to (re)connect with like-minded friends and re-evaluate the state of social conservatism in modern America.

In the latest Values & Capitalism podcast, I join my good friends Andrew Walker and host RJ Moeller to chat about the event. Topics include: religious-right (re)branding, generational divides in American conservatism, and the relevance of economic issues to social conservatism.

You can listen to the interview here, or by clicking the play button below:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

RJ manages his own blog and writes for Acculturated and PJ Media. He is also a co-blogger with me at Values & Capitalism and has an unhealthy obsession with Chipotle. You can review all of his V&C posts and podcasts here.

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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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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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