Posts Tagged First Things

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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Torah and Social Justice: Anchoring Prophetic Rhetoric

The Prophet Isaiah, RaphaelI have recently been discussing the ways in which our anti-poverty and “social justice” efforts need to be properly guided, noting that our execution of God’s will is not as simple as robbing the rich or cherry-picking our favorite warm-and-fuzzy verses. At its root, helping others is about sacrifice, and — as I continue to emphasize — sacrifice is fruitless without obedience.

But obedience to what/whom, and with what as a foundation?

In my last post, I argued that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a big piece of the puzzle, and at First Things, Peter Leithart adds to this approach by reminding us that it also has something to do with the Word itself. What is the long-view of Biblical truth in application, and what else should be taken into account when considering our mandate to help the widow and the orphan?

Calling out folks like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, Leithart begins by examining the Biblical bases to which they refer, explaining that much of their rhetoric is based in nothing more than rhetoric. Yes, Israel’s prophets condemned the exploiters of their day, but what was the substance behind their fervor? What was the back story, the underlying foundation, and the overarching goal? Was there anything grounding that rhetoric?

As Leithart explains:

For the prophets, care of the poor is a matter of righteousness or justice, not mercy. Yahweh Himself maintains “justice for the poor” (Psalm 140:12), and rulers (Isaiah 10:2) and people (Ezekiel 22:29) are expected to do the same. Filled with the Spirit, the Messianic Branch will judge the poor with righteousness and act for the afflicted (Isaiah 11:4).

Protection and defense of the poor is embedded in Israel’s defining exodus story: Because Yahweh delivered His people from bondage, Israel is to be a liberating people. And this demand is imprinted on the Mosaic law. From an exhaustive survey of the Old Testament laws on wealth and poverty, David L. Baker concludes that, in comparison with other ancient Near Eastern codes, “Old Testament law is more concerned to ensure that widows and orphans are not abused, nor exploited in law courts or in financial dealings.” As Jesus said, the weighty things of Torah are justice, mercy, and truth (Matthew 23:23).

Leithart then moves ahead with the modern-day application:

That connection with the institutions and practices of Torah is fundamental to grasping what the Bible tells us about justice and poverty—fundamental, and neglected. Unless prophetic rhetoric is anchored in Torah, it Read the rest of this entry »

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Theological Economics: A Third Way of Viewing Markets

CurrencyToday at Common Sense Concept I offer a bit of commentary on a recent piece by Joe Carter over at First Things (“What the Market Needs to Be Moral”).

Here’s an excerpt from Carter’s article:

While we Christians often form our views on such institutions as marriage and the family from our theology, we acquire our understanding of markets from our politics. If we subscribe to a progressive politics, we adopt the Left’s criticism of markets and support for government control over them. If we subscribe to conservative politics, we embrace the Right’s unquestioning allegiance to unfettered markets.

Here’s an excerpt from my response (or “regurgitation,” if you prefer):

For conservatives and libertarians, this does not mean we should toss our political arguments out the window. This does not mean that the public benefits of market efficiency and specialization should be ignored. Instead, it means that at a fundamental level we must ensure that such views are grounded by and consistent with a theological understanding of the market.

As Christians, what is the overall, high-level purpose of the market? How does God see it in terms of its ideal, supreme usefulness? How does God view the market as a natural, organic feature of individual humanity and community interaction? Once we begin to Read the rest of this entry »

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A People Apart: Fertility and Suicide in Israel

Which Countries Are the Happiest? by David P. Goldman

Source: David P. Goldman / First Things

The Gallup World Poll recently posted results to their worldwide happiness survey, in which they rank countries according to overall life satisfaction. You can see the results over at the Forbes website.

The most intriguing commentary I’ve seen on the numbers comes from David P. Goldman over at First Things, who points out some of the more curious rankings:

Finland ranks second in happiness on the Gallup survey, although it has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, at 29 per 100,000 of population, putting it in fourteenth place. Denmark’s alcohol consumption puts in the top 10 at 11.7 liters of pure alcohol equivalent per capital per year; perhaps what makes Danes happy is that they like to drink and, given the country’s generous welfare state, have ample leisure to do so.

But what is most interesting is Goldman’s perspective regarding countries that “love life” versus those that “love death.”

As Goldman explains:

Some years ago I constructed an alternative measure, based on objective variables rather than subject responses to pollsters. I plotted the fertility rate vs. the suicide rate, surmising that people who like having children and don’t like killing themselves must be happy.

As you can see in the graph within Goldman’s post, Israel comes out with the highest Read the rest of this entry »

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A Necessary Distinction: Public Justice vs. Social Justice

ChristianityToday recently conducted a brief interview with Gideon Strauss, the new CEO of The Center for Public Justice. I came across the interview through a post by David T. Koyzis over at First Things.

Koyzis was struck by one of Strauss’ answers regarding how we define justice, and I found it equally refreshing. Strauss was asked to define “justice” and explain how it differs from “public justice” and “social justice.”

He answered with this:

In the biggest sense, justice is when all God’s creatures receive what is due them and contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence. We are called to do justice in every sphere of our lives: how I love and educate my daughters, collaborate with my colleagues, interact with neighbors. Public justice is the political aspect—the work of citizens and political office bearers shaping a public life for the common good. Social justice is the civil society counterpart—nonpolitical organizations that promote justice.

I think Strauss makes very good distinctions here, and I think such distinctions are sorely needed in our public discourse.

I only wish that more Christians were as careful in their use of the terminology. I think it is more often the case that those calling for “social justice” also advocate a partnership with the government Read the rest of this entry »

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