Category Archives: Equality
When I recently asked a class of undergraduates at Oglethorpe University if any of them thought there were “no meaningful differences between men and women,” two female students raised their hands. When I pointed to the obvious reproductive differences between males and females, which give young women the unique ability to conceive and bear children, they looked at me as if I had committed an act of hurtful bigotry. “It’s just not fair to put people in a box like that,” one of them offered. The other pointed out that not everyone has the unambiguous experience of feeling male or female. Gender, she observed, is complicated.
The context was a discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that early nineteenth-century Americans recognized that women and men are equal, but that they also believed that women and men naturally serve different gender roles. I was attempting to elicit from my students the obvious recognition that while we may not hold the same assumptions about gender roles as did Americans during the 1800s, even we in the twenty-first century recognize that there are some basic physical differences between women and men—differences that have important social implications for the way we order society.
This observation is still too radical for some. The problem is not that they fail to appreciate the facts about human genitalia, which any three-year-old could explain to them. The sticking point, rather, is in that word “meaningful.” There may be physical differences between males and females, they concede, but those differences are not universal, nor are they determinative of anything. Gender is entirely socially constructed. It is the product of nurture, not nature, and to associate biological sex differences with gender is merely to promote the systemic injustices of gender inequality.
The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.
Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.
The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.
But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.
But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.
It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.
As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.
Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?
What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.
We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.
Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.
The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.
At a first read, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision declaring same-sex marriage to be a fundamental right, follows a logic that is breathtaking in its simplicity.
Whether you find this logic exhilarating, depressing, or irrelevant does not depend on what you think of gay and lesbian people, or how they should be treated. I firmly believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unconscionable; we should treat each person in accord with the human dignity that stems from her or his creation in the image of God. I have zero sympathy with anyone who thinks their Christian faith ordinarily requires them to refrain from serving, living near, befriending, or otherwise loving gay and lesbian people (though this should not, as a matter of freedom of conscience, require Christians to participate in or celebrate gay weddings). The media and political drama notwithstanding, I believe most Christians agree with me.
And yet I, along with most Christians, not to mention Muslims, Hindus, and many other people of good will, find the Supreme Court’s decision deeply troubling.
Read the rest of this article at Canon and Culture.
In his well-known book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert P. Kraynak argues that Christianity is inherently illiberal and undemocratic. Nowhere does Scripture prescribe democracy or speak of human rights, Kraynak points out, let alone call for a separation of religion and politics. And while the Bible affirms the dignity of every single human being by virtue of her creation in the image of God, the image of God is conceived in primarily spiritual terms, in which obedience to God is more essential than liberty.
This spiritual view of the image of God, Kraynak argues, implies that human dignity is relative to degrees of human perfection. A more faithful person has more dignity – is higher in the hierarchy of value – than a less faithful person. Similarly, a man is naturally superior to a woman.
Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute. The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promotes hierarchies because it understands reality in terms of the ‘image of God’ which is a type of reflected glory – a reflection of something more perfect in something less perfect. Hence, dignity exists in degrees of perfection rather than in abstract qualities. The dignity or glory possessed by something made in the image of a more perfect being carries moral claims of deference, reciprocal obligation, and duty rather than equality, freedom and rights. (60)
To be sure, Kraynak admits, the New Testament undermines all such hierarchies by asserting the fundamental equality of all persons in Christ, so relegating social and political hierarchies to secondary status. Still, this very relegation, this very separation between the spiritual and earthly cities, means such inequalities can be tolerated as long as spiritual equality is preserved. This is in sharp contrast to liberal democracy, which insists on social and political equality.
Kraynak thinks that the early Christian theological tradition only accentuated the Bible’s hierarchical tendencies insofar as it was infused with Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of the world. According to such Greek philosophical notions, the natural universe is “a hierarchy of beings, ascending from lower to higher substances in an order of rational perfection” (73). The understanding of the universe as a chain of being was integrated with Augustine’s orthodox doctrines of the two cities and of predestination to create a thoroughly hierarchical understanding of both church and society. Thus,
In general, traditional Christians were illiberal and undemocratic because they conceived of God’s created universe as a hierarchy of being and thought that institutions should promote rational and spiritual perfection. (73)
Kraynak admits that the Reformation undermined the church’s hierarchicalism and rejected systematic Neoplatonism, but he claims that in their doctrines of the two kingdoms and predestination Luther and Calvin maintained the theological commitments that lie at the heart of Christianity’s illiberalism. For Kraynak that is not a bad thing. Christianity is not inherently democratic, he maintains, and Christians have been wrong to imagine it so.
It is true, of course, that classic Christian political theology consistently distinguishes between the kingdom of God and earthly political structures (a distinction that has been variously labeled as the two cities, the two kingdoms, the two governments, the two jurisdictions, the two powers, the two swords, etc.). It is also true that this distinction makes Christian political theology a species of political realism. Politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. We must tolerate sin and injustice because only God can set things right. Our task is to maintain a general degree of peace, justice, and order.
But this doctrine does not make Christianity inherently illiberal. True, the toleration of the status quo has all too often meant the defense of oppressive gender relations, slavery, and tyranny, but this is hardly the thrust of the New Testament. In acknowledging the prophetic roles of women in the church, in maintaining the essential equality and consequent moral reciprocity between master and slave, in calling political authorities to submission to Christ, and in relativizing the spiritual priority of marriage and the family, the apostles set in motion an ethical trajectory that challenged all rigid conservative notions of the way things ought to be. (Paul called each person to be content with the situation in which he found himself, of course, but he also called slaves to seek their freedom, if possible, and he insisted that it is good for a Christian woman to devote herself to the service of Christ and the church rather than to marry and raise children.)
In my view, therefore, Christians have rightly identified equality, along with liberty, as an essential part of the gospel of Christ. This does not mean equality without difference, but it does suggest that Christians should aspire to forms of equality much more substantive than is implied by the bare minimum of political realism.
What about the doctrine of predestination? My friend and teacher Timothy P. Jackson insists that the doctrine of predestination leads Christians constantly to create distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, distinctions that fall all too easily into the oppression of or apathy toward the ‘other.’ The only way to overcome this temptation, he insists, is to eliminate any distinction between the saved and the damned.
The objection has to be taken seriously. No doubt Christians have used the distinction between the saved and the damned, the elect and the reprobate, in just such nefarious ways. But in my view such misuses of the doctrine of predestination actually rely on a caricature of it – one common enough that it is proclaimed by some Christians as the teaching of Scripture (thus rendering plausibility to Jackson’s objection). In this caricature God wills the judgment of the reprobate, and thus no matter what such persons do in their lives, they cannot escape it.
That is not the Christian doctrine of predestination as it has been articulated by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. Christian theologians have generally distinguished between the revealed and normative will of God, on the one hand, and his divine sovereignty, which is hidden and mysterious, on the other.
The distinction amounts essentially to this. God desires that all people be saved just as he desires that all people act lovingly and justly. This is a genuine desire on God’s part. The one who is love does indeed love all persons made in his image, and he does good to the just and the unjust alike. It was out of love for the world that he sent his son to suffer as the lamb of God, the one who is the propitiation not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.
But this does not deny the fact that as the sovereign Lord, God does, in some mysterious way, govern all that occurs. This governance does not take place on the ordinary plane of causality. Without dictating the actions of angels or human beings, God nevertheless governs them according to his sovereignty (or his decretive will). While hating evil and injustice, and while desiring the good for all people, he nevertheless ordains all things according to his purposes. This is not a doctrine that arises from philosophical logic but from faith. It is not a doctrine that we seek to explore to its depths, as Calvin pointed out, but one that we accept based on the recognition that God is entirely different from us, and cannot be measured by our notions of scientific or philosophical causality. Indeed, he cannot really be known or understood at all, apart from his revelation in Christ.
Christians are therefore called to conform to Christ in their attitudes towards all persons, laying down their lives in humility and service. Any other ethical use of the doctrine of predestination is ideological and self-serving.
None of this requires that Christianity is inherently liberal of course, let alone democratic. That would depend both on what is meant by liberalism and what is meant by democracy. But it does suggest that Christianity is not inherently illiberal or undemocratic. Perhaps we can agree on that.
I’m currently teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of a course designed to familiarize students with some of the leading ideas and figures that have shaped western civilization. The scope of the class is sweeping, but it provides the opportunity to compare three broad perspectives that have shaped the West: the Greek (i.e., Aristotle); the Christian (i.e., Augustine, Aquinas, etc.); and the Enlightenment (i.e., Locke, Rousseau, etc.).
In a time when many assume that the teachings of Christianity can be jettisoned by western society without much loss to a liberal, democratic society, I think students are somewhat surprised to discover just how thoroughly religious and elitist was Aristotle’s vision of society. Along with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was the leading pagan philosopher before Christianity came on the scene; his work on the good life, on ethics, and on politics represents some of the best the Greeks had to offer.
Take, for instance, Aristotle’s conviction that for human beings all things are to be directed towards one ultimate Good, that Good being happiness. Aristotle is by no means unique in his judgment that since ‘man’ is a social animal, and the city is greater than the individual, the science or discipline of the Good must be that of politics. The purpose of politics is to educate and train human beings in the virtues necessary to attain to the Good. Laws are measured by the degree to which they command virtue and forbid vice.
All of this may seem true to a certain extent. But my students – college sophomores – are quick to point out that if virtue and the good life are so important, it hardly makes sense to hand over their direction to the political authorities. Who is a politician, let alone a philosopher, to decide what is the good life, to tell me how to educate my children, to guide me in following the appropriate virtues? The modern instinct, in short, is to argue that if something is so important, that is precisely why it should not be subject to political control.
Aristotle’s ethics appear all the more troubling when it becomes evident just how elitist it is. Aristotle’s virtues presuppose a level of education and wealth that, as my students point out, seems utopian. But of course, Aristotle was not a utopian, and he did not think the ethics he was outlining was for the masses, the ‘slavish’ and the ‘bestial.’ On the contrary, Aristotle’s ethics was designed for that small sliver of human beings at the top of society, the citizens. The entire way of life of these citizens, their ability to study wisdom or to participate in politics, depended on the vast majority of human beings working for them as slaves. The latter were not expected to participate in any full sense in the good life.
It’s not that Aristotle was trying to justify oppression or the greed of the powerful. On the contrary, his virtues of liberality and magnificence outline the generosity and public devotion of the (wealthy) virtuous man. This man is not too concerned about acquiring wealth. He avoids shady trades like commerce and usury. His wealth – ideally self-sustaining – is simply a means to the end of doing good to others. The virtuous man will be paternalistic and do good to his inferiors – women, slaves, etc. Prudence never leads one to act unjustly.
Still, we are left with the unalterable conviction that Aristotle’s vision of society gives far too much authority to the politicians and describes the common good with far too much deference to the elites. In contrast to this it is fascinating to observe how Christianity was such a game-changer in the ancient world. Here is a religion that declares that every individual’s unqualified religious loyalty is to a man crucified and allegedly raised from the dead in Palestine. No Caesar or governor has the right or authority to dictate how a person worships or what a person teaches concerning the truth. Christians, as individuals and as congregations called out from the world, will follow their convictions regarding the good life no matter what the king or the city decrees.
It is no wonder that many sociologists and historians have found in Christianity the origin of the separation of church and state. Politics is no longer the ultimate, authoritative discipline, let alone the ultimate reference point for true community. Civil governments are merely temporal authorities with a limited, secular task.
But that’s not all. In the midst of a world whose philosophers and moralists speak only to the elites, and in which citizenship is a matter only for the few, the apostles of Christ address wives as well as husbands, children as well as parents, slaves as well as masters. They describe these socially unequal relationships in terms of equal obligations to mutual Christlike service and submission, declaring them to be eschatologically null and void ‘in Christ Jesus.’ They describe every Christian, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, as being a citizen in the one city that matters.
It is no wonder that many historians and sociologists have found in Christianity the origin of a meaningful concept of the individual, not to mention the seed of the idea of individual human rights. Each person, regardless of social status, now has the obligation of a direct, responsible allegiance to Jesus Christ. Each believer has an important place as a citizen in Christ’s body, possessing an inalienable Christian liberty.
The early church was a long way from modern political liberalism, of course, and the two are not the same thing. Political liberalism – the tradition of democracy and human rights – has been successfully transmitted to thoroughly pagan societies like Japan. But there should be no doubt that Christianity laid the intellectual foundations that made modern political liberalism possible. And there is also good reason to be skeptical of claims that Christianity can be entirely jettisoned without undermining political liberalism itself. As my friend Tim Jackson likes to say, political liberalism may not be ‘Christianity translated into politics’ but it is certainly the ‘stepchild of Christianity.’ If you’re in doubt about that, go read Aristotle.
It’s the Fourth of July, and millions of Americans will spend the day at picnics, parties, and parades, all to be capped off with impressive displays of fireworks around the country. Most of them probably don’t know all that much about what happened on this date 237 years ago, but they do know that our colonial forefathers not only declared their independence, but successfully overthrew their British rulers in the most successful revolution in world history.
Despite the many problems America has experienced over the years, and the daunting legal, economic, social, and political crises we face today, the experiment has succeeded beyond any of the founding fathers’ wildest dreams.
Americans often use their liberty for destructive and immoral ends; but few of us would trade that liberty because it also allows us to worship as our conscience dictates, to build and provide for our families, and to pursue meaningful vocations and careers.
Americans often turn equality into a perniciously destructive force, overthrowing the very distinctions that make human life together possible; but few of us would trade that equality because it is the foundation for our basic dignity and security, the ideal that assures us that no one is going to enslave us, confiscate our property, or prevent us from saying whatever it is that we feel the need to say.
Americans have managed democracy and self-government in shockingly short-sighted, foolish, and misguided ways; but few of us would trade liberal democracy for a king or for the rule of experts. We are, when it is all said and done, doing surprisingly well. Most of us would rather live in this time and place than in any other, and a good portion of those who argue otherwise don’t really mean it.
This country is freer, safer, stronger, and more prosperous than any country in the history of the world, and by no means should we take that for granted.
If you’re in doubt about that, read this morning’s news. While we look back to our successful revolution more than two centuries ago, Egyptians – whose nation is the bellwether for the entire Arab world – wake up to find their revolution of last year – which resulted in the first democratically elected government in Egypt’s history – toppled in counter-revolution. The Arab Spring, which filled western democrats and Muslim Islamists alike with such hope, continues to slide into chaos. We are assured by the Egyptian military that there will be fair elections and democracy will be maintained. But who will be able to govern? And who will be able to solve the economic and social problems that President Morsi’s government was not able to solve? What leader can possibly maintain democratic legitimacy if his power is grounded in the military overthrow of the previous democratically elected leader?
Americans love to get excited about revolution and democracy. It’s in our blood. The explicitly stated foreign policy of the last two administrations has been to export democracy and freedom around the world. Whenever we see a foreign people overthrow tyranny, our heart goes out to them. But it is easy for us to forget that far more often than not, revolution and rebellion ends in failure, chaos, or worse. For every American Revolution there is the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, both of which culminated in mass murder, totalitarianism, and international conflict. Even as I write, revolution and internal conflict rips apart countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in all of which America has a hand. What’s more, much as we Americans would not trade our liberty and equality, the citizens of those countries would give much for a modicum of order and security. Look further around the globe and you will find the vast majority of men, women, and children living without political voice, religious liberty, or freedom of movement and association at best, while experiencing massive inequality, economic hopelessness, poverty, and war at worst.
It turns out then, that for all of our problems, and for all of the ‘culture wars’ that divide us as Americans, to live in a country that was birthed in revolution, that is free, equal, safe, powerful, and prosperous – and all at the same time – is a rare privilege indeed.
Happy Independence Day.
Conservatives are handling Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election in quite different ways. For some, the election is evidence of the fact that everything Romney said about the 47% was true. Roughly half of Americans are dependent on the federal government, have no desire to transcend this dependency, and will therefore always vote Democrat. There is nothing conservatives can do about it.
In a polemical piece that is filled with solid insights Brad Littlejohn reflects on the absurdity of this view:
It doesn’t matter that most people considered the moral sensibilities behind Romney’s remarks reprehensible. Nor does it matter that it was pointed out on all sides that they bore no relationship to the facts. It was simply not true that anything like 51% or 47% of the American people were freeloading off the largesse of Obama, nor that those who were freeloading were generally Obama supporters. But that didn’t matter. Because this fantasy provided an explanation to help rationalize what had happened. The reason the Right didn’t win was because it couldn’t win. It was hopeless. Why? Because a majority of the American people were now in the pay of the enemy. They were bribed. They didn’t give a hoot about the Constitution or the future of their country, so long as they received a never-ending supply of free stuff without ever having to work for it. Rush Limbaugh declared that it was hard to win when you were running against Santa Claus. Of course, this is pure fantasy from a statistical standpoint. Over half of Obama’s votes came from people earning more than $50,000 a year, a demographic that did side with Romney, but by a narrow margin (53%-45%). Not only that, but the group most likely to vote for Romney (by a 55%-44% margin) were retirees. Freeloaders, feeding from the public trough of Medicare and Social Security, right?
A chasm of mutual incomprehension, in short, has opened up in American society. I had hoped that the election would provide an opportunity for self-examination, for taking stock, for righting this sinking ship of a decadent society. But on the contrary, it has seemed to only confirm the determination of conservatives to live in a separate parallel world, one in which they represent the true American and can write off a majority of their fellow citizens. Needless to say, if conservatives want to put forward a vision for America, it will have to be a vision for all Americans, a vision that can include them, their hopes, fears, and aspirations. By seemingly resigning themselves to the fact that they are and will be a minority, arrayed against a morally decadent majority incapable of judgment, the Right seems to be preparing for an age of factional strife in which a victorious minority can impose its will on the people. And even for those of us who think that many conservative values would, on the whole, be good for America, that is a frightful prospect.
Littlejohn playfully entitles his post “Post-Apocalyptic Musings,” providing a theological analysis of the election from the perspective of the two kingdoms doctrine. Read the whole thing here.
Thankfully, many thoughtful conservatives are taking stock and refusing to go down the road that Littlejohn rightly rejects. In the Washington Post Michael Gerson writes,
Some conservatives have reacted in the tradition of Cicero: “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!”Rush Limbaugh concluded, “We’ve lost the country,” which he described as a “country of children.” “There is no hope,” Ann Coulter said. And Bill O’Reilly: “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”
As a matter of strategy, it is generally not a good idea to express disdain for an electorate one hopes to eventually influence.
Gerson tries to put the election in perspective (Jay Cost does a fuller job here). But he does see it as a call for a more hopeful, aspirational conservatism, a conservatism that doesn’t duck the hard issues in the name of standing on principle.
This is the conservative task over the next few years: not to preserve a rigid ideology but to reconstruct a political appeal along improved but principled lines….
The right will always stand for nationalism and patriotism. But during the Republican primaries, those commitments were expressed as the exclusion of outsiders — in self-deportation and the building of walls. The tone was nasty and small. Apart from moral objections, this approach is no longer politically sustainable….
The alternative is a vision of American identity preserved by the assimilating power of American ideals…. [I]t is more advisable than ever to make public arguments about morality in aspirational rather than judgmental ways.
The Romney campaign was a vast machine with one moving part, its economic critique. The next Republican campaign will need to be capable of complex adjustments of ideology, policy and rhetoric. And it will need one more thing: a candidate with a genuine, creative passion for inclusion.
What might this look like? People will legitimately disagree, but one factor in conservatives’ favor is that, as the pragmatist Walter Russell Mead is constantly arguing and demonstrating (see especially Mead’s series of essays beginning with this one), the blue welfare state model of American government and society is indeed falling apart. Conservative ideas are more necessary now than ever before. And yet conservatives have to take seriously trends that greatly concern most Americans: growing inequality, declining economic mobility, and lack of opportunity. There is a lot more resonance between conservative ideals and the inclinations of most Americans than the negative rhetoric so many are currently falling into suggests.
Take, for instance, The Economist‘s new briefing on poverty in America. The briefing points out that poverty in America is higher than in virtually every single rich county in the world today. Part of the reason for this, it suggests, is that for all American conservatives’ complaints about the welfare state and too much spending on the poor, American society in general leans to the right on this point:
America is unusually reluctant, compared with other rich countries, about giving cash transfers to the poor. The country has a long-standing political aversion to anything that seems to “reward” being poor; instead, it fights poverty using a progressive, if somewhat paternalistic, tax code…. America is not blind nor indifferent to the problems of poverty, even if its rich and poor increasingly live separate lives in separate neighbourhoods, and with different social mores. The poor are helped by a number of programmes, some of them now creaking under the strain.
This should help give some perspective. Contrary to some of the rhetoric, most Americans, Democrat or Republican, do not aspire to be on welfare. To be sure, they do believe in a safety net and in the responsibility of government to ensure a genuine equality of opportunity. These convictions may sometimes give rise to misguided assumptions about policy but they are not morally reprehensible. And I don’t think most conservatives have abandoned these commitments either. They simply need to get back to the work of figuring out how their principles can achieve these ends in a way that makes sense to the rest of the country.
Note also what the Economist says about the close links between social and moral decline and poverty:
Then there is deteriorating family structure among the poor. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then working on Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty”, warned of the breakdown in family structure among black families. A quarter were headed by women, he wrote in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”, and nearly a quarter of black children were, in the language of the time, “illegitimate”. Today the unmarried birth rate for Americans averaged across all ethnicities is higher than that, at almost 41%. For white women who did not finish high school, that proportion rises to over 60%.
Most poor children live in single-parent homes, and most families that are poor lack married parents. More than a third of families like Ms Hamilton’s—headed by a single mother, with no husband present—are poor, compared with fewer than one in fourteen families with married parents. Back in 1999 Isabel Sawhill, a poverty scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, warned of “a bifurcation in children’s life prospects that threatens to divide the US into a society of haves and have-nots”—a bifurcation driven largely by the immense difference in life prospects between children born to rich or poor and to married or unmarried parents.
Again, it’s not hard to see why conservatives have something to offer on this point. If anything, the media and the academy are increasingly waking up to the importance of marriage and the family for American prosperity and equality. By channeling their insights into rhetoric and policy that is aspirational and inclusive rather than negative, conservatives may discover that their concerns still do resonate with most Americans.
This country was built on traditional values like faith and family, hard work and responsibility. Its prosperity depends on the free market and small government. Its best politicians have always emphasized liberty, equality, opportunity, and the American dream. I don’t think any of this has ultimately changed (if you doubt that just consider what Europeans, or even Canadians, think of us), though at points it is certainly under tremendous stress. Rather than write off half the country conservatives should take stock, put the 2012 election behind them, and get back to the hard work of helping constructively to shape the vision of the whole country moving forward. The real work of serving your country, after all, does not take place just once every four years. It’s the stuff of life. (Plug: James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World)
Calvin’s Geneva had one of the most participatory political systems in 16th Century Europe. A substantive portion of the city’s population was able to vote in civic elections or on substantive policy changes. Elections were meaningful and could bring real change. For instance, it was through victory at the polls in 1555 that Calvin and his followers consolidated their hold over the city in a way that ensured the longstanding legacy of Calvin’s version of the Reformation.
But Geneva was no democracy. The magistrates of the city were responsible to enact and enforce policies that were for the good of the city but not necessarily reflective of anything like a popular will. One of their primary tasks was to guide the city in matters of religion, virtue, education, and health, to ensure that Geneva would be godly and that God would bless it. Within this mindset unconstrained public debate was not considered to be a good thing. Myriads of people were hauled before the Geneva council over the years to be rebuked or punished for their abuse of speech, whether against the city government or against the theology of its famous reformer. Heresy, blasphemy, false worship, and slander were all crimes regularly punished by the state.
From the perspective of virtually all early Reformed thinkers this made plenty of sense. Calvin and his contemporaries did indeed speak in terms of rights, and they had ideas of religious liberty and Christian freedom. But they had no concept of a right to do wrong. Freedom of religion meant the freedom to practice the true religion, while freedom of speech meant at best the freedom to speak in a way that promoted the welfare of the city or of the true religion.
Over the years the Reformed and the Puritans steadily moved closer towards the rights and freedoms we so value today. Puritan New England gradually loosened the ties between church and state, and it was there in Boston that the American Revolution began. But the Puritans and their heirs nevertheless maintained many of the assumptions about politics and freedom that once guided 16th Century Geneva. New England was the bastion of the Federalist Party that conceived of the future of America in terms of the rule of enlightened and virtuous elites chosen freely by a deferential public. This was the party of John Adams, under whom a Federalist Congress sought to curb the freedom of the press through the infamous legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
But post-Revolutionary America was no longer following the ideals of Puritan New England. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson’s election heralded a Republican revolution after the Revolution, a revolution that carried public opinion to its truly eminent place in American society and politics, insisting on political equality carried to its fullest logical extent. Jeffersonian democracy came to define America, sweeping the Federalist party and its outmoded understanding of politics into the dustbin of history.
In his magisterial history of the early American republic, Empire of Liberty, Gordon S Wood describes the way in which the debates about the Sedition Act and the freedom of the press changed America forever.
The Sedition Act of 1793 marked a crucial point in the development of the American idea of public opinion. Its passage provoked a debate that went far beyond the issue of freedom of speech or freedom of the press; it eventually involved the very nature of America’s intellectual life … and in the process it undermined the foundations of the elitist eighteenth century classical world on which the Founders had stood….
In the debate over the sedition law the Republican libertarian theorists … rejected both the old common law restrictions on the liberty of the press and the new legal recognition of the distinction between truth and falsity of opinion that the Federalists had incorporated into the Sedition Act. While the Federalists clung to the eighteenth century’s conception that ‘truths’ were constant and universal and capable of being discovered by enlightened and reasonable men, the Republican libertarians argued that opinions about government and governors were many and diverse and their truth could not be determined simply by individual judges and juries, no matter how reasonable such men were….
The Federalists were dumfounded. ‘How … could the rights of the people require a liberty to utter falsehood?’ they asked. ‘How could it be right to do wrong… People needed to know the ‘criterion by which we may determine with certainty, who are right, and who are wrong.'”
The Republicans, Wood points out, rejected the old assumption that the truth was the monopoly of the “educated and aristocratic few.” The elites used knowledge just as easily to manipulate and oppress as to guide and promote, Republicans reasoned, and freedom of speech and opinion was ultimately a far better means of promoting the truth than the restrictions of the past.
In making this argument Republicans frequently pointed to the relatively novel yet highly successful experiment in freedom of religion and religious diversity in the United States. If the Puritans and their Calvinist forbears had emphasized the truths of human depravity and the necessity of magisterial or clerical control over matters of education and opinion, Republican minded Christians were more likely to highlight the importance of freedom for religious liberty and genuine Christianity. If the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God was once seen as something the state should use all of its powers to promote in its subjects, now the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God was seen as the basis for a free citizenry to give guidance to the state.
Although the Republican vision for America was so successful that virtually no American would question its basic premises today, the old debates endure in more subtle form. Today, ironically, the conservatives are those often thought of as liberals, those who bemoan the decline of the old authoritative media embodied in the Big Three of NBC, ABC, and CBS nightly news, and those who insist on the promotion and maintenance of a centralized system of public education. The true liberals are those who are conservative on so many other issues, those who applaud the democratization of American media and promote charter schools and vouchers as a way of bringing liberty to public education. At the root of these public debates are continuing conflicts over the appropriate relation between educated, enlightened elites and the broader public.
A similar debate plays out in the church. On the one hand are those who want pastors and clergy to tell their parishioners exactly how to live, what to think, and how to vote. They want pastors to do much more than simply teach Scripture and allow Christians individually and collectively to work out its implications for all of life. They want a church that carefully molds and enforces Christian public opinion and practice, and Christians who are obedient and mindful of the myriad of agreed-upon rules and commandments. On the other hand are those who wish their pastors would make sure that when they say “Thus sayeth the Lord” they are actually communicating the teaching of Scripture rather than their own “enlightened” opinion. The point of Christian discipleship, these people point out, is to form people who develop and practice wisdom and virtue by putting on the mind of Christ and conforming to the image of their Lord.
Of course, most thoughtful Americans and most thoughtful Christians realize that both ideas, carried to an extreme, are dangerous. Democratic equality and libertarian freedom are full of pitfalls, and it remains unclear whether or not American democracy can survive the people’s tendency to call government to do more for them than it can possibly do. Radical libertarian freedom in the area of sexual morality has spawned a social revolution whose costs are obvious but whose full tragedy remains to be determined.
On the other hand, virtually none of us would tolerate the sort of authoritarianism that was common fare in the churches and states of the past. We recognize that life is truly blessed when we have the freedom and equality to walk in the wisdom and virtue that God has given us, regardless of what our ‘betters’ may think. We are not eager to turn back the clock and abandon American democracy even as we continue to appreciate the decisive importance of solid education and the clear preaching and teaching of the word of Christ.
We are very much American Christians. That has its pitfalls, but in this respect at least, I think, it is a good thing.
In an interesting article featured last week in the Aquila Report Rebecca VanDoodewaard argued that Christian business owners and churches should consider making an extra effort to hire male clerks to fulfill jobs often satisfied by female secretaries. VanDoodewaard clarified that she does not have a problem with women working. But, she says, “we can easily fall into the trap of going along unthinkingly with our culture because evaluation of a societal norm can be uncomfortable.”
She goes on to offer several reasons, a couple of which relate closely to the roles and interrelationships of men and women.
1. In this economy, the role of clerk would give men a job. I know that it is controversial to give a man job priority over a woman, but let’s face it: in spite all the feminism, men are still the primary breadwinners in families, and they should be (I Tim. 5:8). What about single women, you ask? As primary breadwinners, shouldn’t they have jobs, too? Of course. But there are women working as secretaries whose income supplements their husband’s. I’m not saying that they don’t need the money, I’m not saying they should not work. I’m saying that where a man could support himself and maybe a wife with the job that is simply supplementing a married woman’s household income, then the man should get the job, competence being equal. No, this is not politically correct. But it would enable more men to provide for themselves and their wives.
4. Replacing secretaries with clerks would also reduce the opportunity for work place adultery. Secretary jokes are standard in our world because people know it’s a reality. We know women whose husbands have left them for their secretaries. Think about it: having a woman who is not your wife helping you day in, day out opens up a huge avenue for emotional entanglements which often lead to physical ones. A clerk, while not removing the sin in your heart, will remove the opportunity, and that’s half the battle (Matt. 5:28-30).
I have written on this blog before about the danger of viewing the problem of lust and adultery as a problem that is to be solved by reducing the social interactions between men and women. And in an excellent response to VanDoodewaard’s article Rachel Miller points out that the ordinary workplace is already far too integrated for VanDoodewaard’s proposal to make much sense in most circumstances. But Miller also raises excellent questions about the level of paternalism required in VanDoodewaard’s approach.
I am greatly disturbed by Mrs. VanDoodewaard’s belief that women in secretarial jobs are “simply supplementing” the household income. She does note that the income may be needed, but she goes on to say that men should be hired preferentially, all other factors being equal…
How exactly should businesses go about determining if woman is working to “simply supplement” her husband’s income or working because without her income there wouldn’t be food on the table or a roof over their heads or clothes on their backs? …
While I’m sure there are women who are working for purely selfish reasons, the majority of women who work low-paying, secretarial jobs are working to help provide for their families. What does Mrs. VanDoodewaard suggest these women do instead? In the current economy, two incomes are often a necessity, not a luxury.
These are excellent points. Should employers be probing prospective employees about their marital status, relationships with their husbands, or their family finances? Rarely are two job candidates entirely equal. Just how high up the list of job criteria should gender and marital circumstances be?
I wholeheartedly affirm the importance of encouraging mothers to focus their best time and energy on raising and teaching their children (Titus 2:5; 1 Timothy 2:15). There is no doubt that children do best when both Dad and Mom are not distracted by full-time jobs that leave only the marginal hours for the family. And especially in the early years there is no question that a mother is capable of the kind of nurture that no one else can provide.
But I also think that the sorts of questions VanDoodewaard is raising are best answered by each particular woman and her husband rather than by the paternalistic second-guessing of prospective employers. It is somewhat denigrating of the dignity of a woman who has thought long and hard about whether to seek employment and come to a difficult decision on the matter only to have to answer to the probing of an employer who does not even know her. And who is he to think he is the judge?
Yet aside from the invasive and paternalistic nature of these sorts of questions VanDoodewaard’s argument comes up against a further obstacle that Christians need to take very seriously. Her proposals are not simply politically incorrect and counter-cultural; they seem to be illegal. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer –
(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Now Christians and business people might find this law unnecessarily obtrusive. Some might believe that the law goes beyond the proper authority of the federal government, or that it prevents them from using their employment opportunities to shape society as they desire – whether in terms of religion, race, gender, or whatever. But it does remain the law of the land, designed to secure a measure of justice in part for women who wish not to be subject to the sort of paternalism VanDoodewaard urges us to consider. Unless the law forces us to disobey the commandments of God, which is not the case in this situation, we need to obey it.