Conservative Theology

October 23, 2008

Religion and Politics / A Short Critique of Niebuhr

JB

I was very impressed (if you couldn't already tell) with Niebuhr's discussion of theology in politics.  However, I think that Niebuhr was lacking in a few areas:

  • While Niebuhr talked a lot about irony in history/politics, he failed to talk adequately about the fact that many government programs simply do the opposite of the intention.  Irony means that what you do to get ahead ultimately contributes to your problems.  However, there are many situations and policies which not only contribute to problems, they fail even to solve the problem that they were set out to do.
  • Niebuhr seemed to think that the government was the sole source of unity for a people.  What he left out was that leadership can come from many sources.  Likewise, the president and other national politicians have sway with the bully pulpit that doesn't have to involve governmental action.
  • Niebuhr seemed unaware of the ability for capitalism to accomplish social equity in and of itself.

I think these were the mistakes that led Niebuhr to being a democratic socialist, rather than a democratic capitalist.  What gives democratic capitalists a bad name is that we often tend to emphasize the role of government (which should be very little) but neglect to point out that there should be a strong role for non-governmental parties to play a regulatory role through informational campaigns and the like. 

The third point - capitalism's ability to accomplish social equity - was probably not knowable to Niebuhr, but Sowell's Basic Economics makes a good case that capitalism can accomplish social equality faster than just about any policy.  If the government is supporting a business, then it doesn't have any incentive to hire the best workers - it doesn't cost the people in charge anything to be racist, sexist, whatever.  But when running a business, if you don't hire the best person, that costs you money, and if the guy down the street hires him instead of you, it may mean that you go out of business.

Many conservatives have made the mistake of saying that capitalism makes greed good.  I believe that those espousing this should be shot.  Greed is not good.  However, capitalism at least makes greed less harmful to the rest of society.  It is still totally self-destructive, and if completely unchecked, could lead to societal harm, but in the normal case, free market capitalism restricts the negative impact of greed on society.  All societies have greed, it just hurts less in capitalistic countries, because we don't give our greedy people governmental authority (if we did we would no longer be capitalistic!)

October 21, 2008

Religion and Politics / Niebuhr's The Irony of American History - Summary and Quotes

JB

I just finished reading Niebuhr's The Irony of American History.  It's a fascinating read.  Basically, Niebuhr's point is that history can be understood much better if we reintroduce the concept of "original sin".  Basically, he criticizes the Communist view of history by criticizing their doctrine of sin/evil.  They place "evil" entirely onto the property system.  Therefore, by removing the property system, they have removed "evil".  Likewise, liberal democracies have tried to remove evil through education - thus their doctrin of sin/evil is based on a lack of understanding and education.  Therefore, by educating everyone to the largest extent possible, and through technological and scientific innovation, we can irradicate evil.

Niebuhr criticizes both of these by saying that the correct doctrine of sin is the traditional conception of "original sin" - that is, sin is a permanent part of each and every one of us.  It can't be externalized on any other entity.  Therefore, any view of history or governmental system which is based upon an externalization of sin is bound to fail.  He says that the reason America has not failed where other people have is simply because we don't hold our bad doctrines as closely as others :)

Anyway, I've put together a collection of quotes for you from the book.  Happy reading!  Most of these are at least somewhat peripheral to the main arguments, but all have powerful insights.


p.23 - But these reservations of Christian realism in our culture cannot obscure the fact that, next to pretensions, we are (according to our traditional theory) the most innocent nation on earth.  The irony of our situation lies in the fact that we could not be virtuous (in the sense of practicing the virtues which are implicit in meeting our vast world responsibilities) if we were really as innocent as we pretend to be.

p.29 - For we have thus far sought to solve all our problems by the expansion of our economy.  This expansion cannot go on forever and ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice in terms which will not differ too greatly from those which the wisest nations of Europe have been forced to use.

p.38 - No powerful nation in history has ever been more reluctant to acknowledge the position it has achieved in the world than we.  The moral advantage lies in the fact that we do not have a strong lust of power, though we are quickly aquiring the pride of power which always accompanies its possession...we have been so deluded by the concept of our innocency that we are ill prepared to deal with the temptations of power which now assail us.

p.39 - All nations, unlike some individuals, lack the capacity to prefer a noble death to a morally ambiguous survival.

p.52 - ...the descent from Puritansism to Yankeeism in America was a fairly rapid one.  Prosperity which had been sought in the service of God was now sought for its own sake. [Niebuhr then compares Deuteronomy 6:18 with Deuteronomy 8:7-17, which he had thought had been overlooked]

p.59 - But it cannot be denied that a bourgeois society is in the process of experiencing the law of diminishing returns in the relation of technics [technology] and efficiency to the cultural life.  The pursuit of culture requires certain margins of physical security and comfort; but the extension of the margins does not guarantee the further development of cultural values.  It may lead to a preoccupation with the margins and obsession with the creature comforts.

p.59 - Television may represent a threat to our culture analogous to the threat of atomic weapons to our civilization.

p.59-60 - Yet we cannot deny the indictment that we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms; and are not fully aware of the limits of this approach.  The constant multiplication of our high school and college enrollments has not had the effect of making us the most "intelligent" nation, whether we measure intelligence in terms of social wisdom, aesthetic discrimination, spritual serenity or any other basic human achievement.  It may have mad us technically the most proficient nation, thereby proving that technical efficiency is more easily achieved in purely quantitative terms than any other value of culture....No national culture has been as assiduous as our own in trying to press the wisdom of the social and political sciences, indeed of all the humanities, into the limits of the natural sciences...the result is frequently a preoccupation with the minutiae which obscures the grand and tragic outlines of contemporary history, and offers vapid solutions for profound problems.

p.63 - Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.  Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

p.74 - ...a strong America is less completely master of its own destiny than was a comparatively weak America...The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast webb of history.....[to] hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire.

p.78 - The institution of monarchy, shorn of its absolute power, was found to possess virtues which neither the proponents nor the opponents of its original form anticipated.  It became the symbol of the continuing will and unity of a nation as distinguished from the momentary will, embodied in specific governments.

p.88 - ...modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.  It is a drama in which fragmentary meanings can be discerned within a penumbra of mystery; and in which specific duties and responsibilities can be undertaken within a vast web of relations which are beyond our powers...  [discussing two opposing views of man - overemphasis of spirit vs overemphasis of nature] man as the spectator and manager of history imagines himself to be freer of the drama he beholds than he really is; and man as the creature of history is too simply reduced to the status of a creature of nature, and all of his contacts to the ultimate are destroyed.

p.107 - There is an element of truth in each position which becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too consistently.

p.116 - However, even the most grievous injustices of the feudal world are not as responsible for the abject poverty of its agrarian poor as the low efficiency of its economy.

p.133 - [quoting someone else] "For American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself."

p.158 - Divine jealousy is aroused by man's refusal to observe the limits of his freedom.

p.159 - ...Israel, the righteous nation, [is reminded] of the judgment which waits on human pretension.  The great nation, Babylon, is warned that its confidence in the security of its power will be refuted by history.

p.160 - Christ is crucified by the priests of the purest religion of his day and by the minions of the justest, the Roman Law.

October 17, 2008

Religion and Politics / Christianity and Conservatism, Pt 2

Economic Classes

JB

We've heard a lot about the "middle class" in pretty much every election.  However, I don't think that the "middle class" is a distinction that Christians should be in the habit of making.  There are two reasons for this - the Christian view of classes and the economics of the United States.

Let's start with the Christian view of classes.  Here are some verses (certainly not exhaustive), I'll simply list them out and then I'll discuss their implications:

Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Collossians - "Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord....Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven..."

2 Thessolonians 3:10 - "For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."

James 2:2-7 - "For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or, "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?"

2 Corinthians 9:11 - "You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God."

Luke 6 - "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."

Luke 12 - The rich fool

Luke 16 - The story of Lazarus (sorry, not going to copy it)

Luke 18 - Rich young ruler

Luke 19 - Zaccaeus

In the gospels, especially Luke's, it appears that Jesus really has it in for the rich.  This is somewhat true.  In Luke 6, there is a clear distinction between what happens to the rich vs the poor when the Kingdom comes.  However, as Luke develops, I think the story gets more nuanced.  It isn't just that every rich person is bad and will be punished and every poor person is good and will be rewarded.  I think Luke 12 epitomizes the problem with the rich - it is not their income, it is the fact that they store it up so no one else can use it, and then it becomes worthless to them when they die.

In the story of Lazarus, it was pretty clear that the rich man had been ignoring Lazarus who basically lived on his doorstep.

In Luke 19, you actually have a rich person who is lauded by Jesus.  Note that he does not get lauded by Jesus for becoming poor - he only gives away half of his possessions.  But what he does do is (a) move from stinginess to generosity, and (b) repent for any possible wrongdoing he has done to the poor. (just as a note - parts of this story are unclear, as I may blog on in the future, but these two points appear to be what elicits Jesus' response no matter what the rest of the story means). 

Note that although Jesus asked the Rich Young Ruler to give away all of his posessions, he is clearly fine with Zaccaeus only giving half. 

So here's what I get from the gospel message:

  • The rich should be generous, and quick to repay for wrongdoing
  • The rich should employ their wealth to good use, and not just keep it socked away
  • When the Kingdom comes, your wealth will be of no use to you, and might even be a disadvantage

Now, if you imagine further on, the early Christian community has to figure out how to live out these sayings.  Thus, the apostles further develop the theology of economic classes along the sames lines as Jesus.

Paul is an interesting study - for he says both that there is no difference, and that we should each be faithful in our differening positions. 

So here are my take-aways from all of this:

  • Your status as a Christian should be in no way modified by your wealth status - therefore, we should not have economic classes within Christianity - "have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?"
  • This lack of class within Christianity does not mean that there is an equality of economic distribution.  That is, some in the community have more wealth than others.  There is nowhere condemned, nor is it called upon to be righted.  Likewise with authority.
  • Those with wealth have additional responsibilities with regards to their wealth, including the need to be generous (generosity is expected of the rich, and it is a special tribute if it is of the poor).  God gives us riches for the express purpose of being generous with them.
  • The poor have a responsibility to work and be productive, at least as far as they are able
  • Envy is regarded in even lower terms than being rich - while being rich is not in and of itself a sin, envy is (sorry, didn't have space for all the massive references against envy - try Mark 7:21-22 for starters). 

It is clear that Christianity is not the introduction of or the calling for equality of outcomes, but of equality of personhood - recognizing the full image of God in each person.

Therefore, as Christians, I do not believe that we should recognize economic class, but rather economic income ranges.  That is to say, as Christians, we are all in this boat together.  We shouldn't consider ourselves a distinct group from the "rich" or the "poor" - we may have a joining economic location, but that is so little of a reason for division.  Instead we need to recognize that God's grace is for everyone, and that God has removed the distinctions (actually, they were probably never there to begin with).

There are in fact economically disadvantaged people, but again, they are not a class.  We should in no way be treating them as a class.  Note that this is the same thing that annoys me with the race-baiters - they continually want to divide us up into classes, and start class warfare between the groups.  This is not the way Christ taught. 

Likewise, because Christ never taught the equalization of assets, there is never any reason at all to care about the "gap" between the rich and the poor.  The gap is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that the needs of the poor are taken care of.  It makes no difference whatsoever, from a Christian standpoint, it is the standard of living of the poor, not the gap between the poor and the rich, that is our concern.

Now, the economic issue.  The fact is that "the poor" is not a static group of people in the United States.  Maybe in other countries, but certainly not here.  When people talk of "the rich" and "the poor" in the country, in many cases they are talking about the exact same people - just in different phases of their lives.  If I start out working at $30,000 a year, get a mortgage on a new house, and save 10% per year, and have an annual raise of 3%, then I will start my work life being "poor" (no savings or assets and $30,000 a year), and at age 65 be "rich" ($103,000 per year, $245,000 in savings, and probably a $100,000 house, plus other assets - this would actually be a lot more if you converted the house payment into savings after the house was paid off). 

So, when we look at the "poor" and the "rich", we may just be looking at the "young" and the "old".  This gets especially amusing when you hear politicians engage in class warfare about how the "rich" should be paying "their fair share", followed by saying that we need to be protecting our senior citizen's retirement accounts - THESE ARE THE SAME PEOPLE THEY WERE TRYING TO STEAL MONEY FROM IN THE PREVIOUS SENTENCE!

Note that none of those numbers assume that anything special happened in someone's life.  Also, $30,000 is a perfectly livable income (at least in Middle America) for a starting family, and is achievable at just about any job in the US with two incomes, and still many for just one.  Calling such households "poor" is a huuge stretch, especially when you remember that many of our "poor" are living at about the same living standards as the rich are in Jesus' day.

But not only that, in America, there is often opportunity.  And many people take it.

For more on the economics of social mobility, I encourage you to check out Thomas Sowell's three-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3).  Here are some quotes from them:

If this is a class-ridden society denying "access" to upward mobility to those at the bottom, why is it that immigrants can come here at the bottom and then rise to the top?

One obvious reason is that many poor immigrants come here with very different ambitions and values from that of poor Americans born into our welfare state and imbued with notions growing out of attitudes of dependency and resentments of other people's success.

The fundamental reason that many people do not rise is not that class barriers prevent it but that they do not develop the skills, values and attitudes which cause people to rise.

The liberal welfare state means they don't have to and liberal multiculturalism says they don't need to change their values because one culture is just as good as another. In other words, liberalism is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

...

Many comparisons of "classes" are in fact comparisons of people in different income brackets — but most Americans move up from the lowest 20 percent to the highest 20 percent over time.

Yet those who are obsessed with classes treat people in different brackets as if they were classes permanently stuck in those brackets.

The New York Times series even makes a big deal about disparities in income and lifestyle between the rich and the super-rich. But it is hard to get worked up over the fact that some poor devil has to make do flying his old propeller-driven plane, while someone further up the income scale flies around a mile or two higher in his twin-engine luxury jet.

Only if you have overdosed on disparities are you likely to wax indignant over things like that.

...

Sometimes it seems as if liberals have a genius for producing an unending stream of ideas that are counterproductive for the poor, whom they claim to be helping. Few of these notions are more counterproductive than the idea of "menial work" or "dead-end jobs."

Think about it: Why do employers pay people to do "menial" work? Because the work has to be done. What useful purpose is served by stigmatizing work that someone is going to have to do anyway?

Is emptying bed pans in a hospital menial work? What would happen if bed pans didn't get emptied? Let people stop emptying bed pans for a month and there would be bigger problems than if sociologists stopped working for a year.

...

The real chumps are those who refuse to start at the bottom for "chump change." Liberals who encourage such attitudes may think of themselves as friends of the poor but they do more harm than enemies.

So, as a Christian, I reject class distinctions and especially class envy, but fully embrace the need for those with wealth to be generous (note that taxes aren't the same thing as "generosity" - the Bible is just as forceful about the need to give from a good heart as it is for tgiving itself), especially to the poor.  Also, there is a bottom requirement to receive help - you must work if you are able.  Interestingly, you see the same values reflected in Conservatism - the red state/blue state divide of the 2004 election matches almost perfectly with the top and bottom of the "generosity index" - meaning that conservative states tend to reflect the responsibilities of the rich - to give more. 

The system of class warfare and envy is anti-Christian and leaves everyone in poverty.  The system of generosity and peace with your fellow man is the system described by the New Testament, and by most measures it appears to be one which offers a very high standard of living even to its poor, and provides the mechanisms to allow the poor to rise out of their poverty.

October 12, 2008

Religion and Politics / Conservatism and Christianity

Pt. 1: Christian Social Justice

JB

Many people think that conservatism is somehow against the principles of Jesus.  That loving your neighbor, giving, and social justice are antithetical to free markets and conservative forms of government.  So, I'm going to spell out the reasons, theologically and practically, why you should be conservative.  In fact, I'm going to show why even theologies centered around social justice are more compatible with conservatism than liberalism.

So, in this first post, I'm going to cover some social justice issues that I think make conservatism a better choice for socially conscious Christians.

Can Righteousness be Outsourced?

The first question to consider is whether or not righteousness can be outsourced.  I would contend that, on a general basis (with many exceptions), righteousness cannot be outsourced.  Even more so, I would also argue that helping out your neighbor is a specific act of righteousness which you should never outsource to others.  If your neighbor is in need, then it is your job to help them.  Liberalism allows us to simply outsource the helping of others to the government.  Therefore, we don't have to bother with it ourselves.  We don't have to do the messy job of helping the poor, the downtrodden, or worst of all, the sick.  We can leave that to the government.  They will do the work of Jesus themselves, and we don't have to worry about a thing.

Can Social Justice Happen Without Jesus?

So, let's say that we decide to outsource our righteousness to someone else.  Which would you rather outsource it to?

  1. A person who carries out the work of social justice in the name of Jesus, who ministers to the person's soul as well as to their body
  2. A person who only ministers to the person's physical needs, and ignores their spiritual ones, or worse, treats spiritual problems as if they were psychological

I don't know about you, but I would pick the first person.  But, now, remember, the government (or at least congress) is not allowed to encourage any sort of spirituality or religion with its laws.  Therefore, by outsourcing to the government specifically, I have already rules out the most effective and comprehensive means of administering social justice!  If you decide to outsource social justice to the American government, you are in fact saying that faith plays no part whatsoever in the reconciliation of social justice.  Using the government might make some sense (assuming we were fine with outsourcing righteousness) if we lived in a theocratic state (note - I am not advocating this), but since we live in a theologically-neutral state, outsourcing to the government is simply counter-productive, because it cannot by its very nature address the spiritual problems that go along with the social problems (and which often lie at the root).

What do you get when you raise someone out of poverty without helping them spiritually?  A materialist consumptionist.

What do you get when you give health care to someone without healing their soul?  A heartbroken nation.

What do you get when you regulate businesses without teaching spiritual values?  Loopholes, and people who will leverage them to further their own greed.

If you, like me, believe that the physical problems that people have are real, but are overshadowed by the even larger spiritual needs of our nation, then why would you even think to outsource the righteousness of the nation to a group who cannot, by their own proclaimed nature, perform the most important tasks?

What About Sin?

One of the problems with outsourcing righteousness, is this - what happens when the organization you outsource righteousness to becomes corrupt?  If you believe in original sin, then this means that all people are capable of sin and corruption, whether government or non-government.  Therefore, what do you do when the government itself, intentionally or accidentally, becomes itself the problem?  Note that simply not keeping up with changing societal parameters can move a given policy from being helpful to being hurtful, so not only do we have to trust the members of the government not be corrupt, we also have to trust them to stay on top of things.

If we outsource righteousness to a non-government agency, then, if it becomes corrupt or out-of-touch, we can simply stop outsourcing to them, and outsource to someone else.  However, if we outsource to the government, here's what we've done:

  • Transferred the responsibility of being righteous to a group which cannot acknowledge God
  • Hoped that the ones who aren't allowed to acknowledge God don't themselves become sinful or even accidentally create social injustices
  • Left ourselves with no other alternatives, since the government has already forcibly confiscated our money and used it to promote its own agenda
  • Transferred and concentrated money and power to those who have the easiest capability to construct social injustices, and have (historically speaking) been the ones most likely to abuse it

So, if you outsource righteousness to the government, there is a very good chance that, not only will they be incapable of ministering spiritually to those in need, they will wind up perpetuating more social injustice, and be in a better position to do so because you just gave them all of your money.

Personally, I think we should try to minimize our outsourcing of righteousness and help each other on a daily basis.  This would be a lot easier if a third of our labor didn't already go to ineffective government programs.  In a later post, we'll also talk about the practical economic reasons why the "social justice" agenda of the liberals actually tend to produce more poverty, even in the short run.

October 12, 2008

Religion and Politics / Moral Accounting in the Culture of Life

Many people do not understand the moral accounting of pro-life politics.  By "moral accounting" I mean the way in which people decide whether or not a given policy is an overall good or bad policy.

Let's take the issue of condoms.  Many pro-choice proponents are completely unaware of why pro-life proponents are not in favor of condoms.  Pro-choice proponents see condoms as an easy way of preventing pregnancies among teenagers, and are confounded as to why pro-life proponents don't encourage them as well, since, at least according to pro-choice theory, this would reduce the overall birth rate.

The problem with this view is twofold.  One reason often given is that condoms don't decrease the incidence of pregnancy - the incidence of sex is usually increased with condom promotion so much that it negates any benefit. 

I don't know if that statistic is true or not, but that is not the real, underlying reason.

The real reason is that pro-life is part of a bigger worldview - what I will call the "culture of life".  The "culture of life" generally has the following set of views:

  • Abortion is bad - absolutely or nearly so
  • Babies are good - absolutely or nearly so
  • Sex outside of marriage is bad - absolutely
  • Sex inside of marriage is good - absolutely

Many (but not all) pro-choicers have a nearly-opposite set of views:

  • Abortion is not a moral absolute
  • Babies are good only if the parents want them and are in a social location to take care of them and are not in an overpopulated area
  • Because of the above, babies for teenagers are bad - absolutely or nearly so
  • Sex is always good provided everyone consents

So, let's look at the moral accounting that occurs with condoms and teenagers.

Situation 1: If teenager A has sex with teenager B outside of marriage without condoms, you get a baby.

Situation 2: If teenager A has sex with teenager B outside of marriage with condoms, you are less likely to get a baby.

For the pro-life proponent, situation 1 is clearly better.  They have sex outside of marriage (which is a negative) but they get a baby (which is a positive).  In situation 2, they have sex outside of marriage (which is negative) but it isn't offset by the positive of having a baby.  Therefore, pro-life proponents don't like funding condoms for teenagers, because, by pro-life moral accounting, it actually makes the situation worse - you get only the bad - no good. 

In addition, conservatives tend to view moral choices as independent, not situational.  Therefore, the moral choice of sex is independent of the moral choice of abortion.  Therefore, promoting or restricting condom use is independent of the choices about abortion - you only get into the sex morality. 

Therefore, condoms only promote the moral problems associated with sex outside of marriage, because they (a) encourage more of it, (b) remove the possible redemptive part of it [the baby], and (c) view it as an independent moral choice from abortion.

In addition, many with the "culture of life" worldview take the view that sex itself is a sacred institution.  Therefore condoms promote an additional problem in that, not only do they remove the good side of out-of-wedlock sex, they also cheapen the act of sex itself, and with it the institution of marriage.

Without condoms, and with a baby, even sex outside of marriage is much more likely to lead to marriage, thus redeeming the original act.  Promoting condom usage is likely to remove this redemption, and leave the ones having sex outside of marriage both without the either redeeming part of the equation.

Thus, while most pro-life proponents don't want to outlaw condoms, we aren't in favor of promoting them to unmarried teens, either.