Category Archives: Mitt Romney

Following the Example of FDR: The Common Man’s President

Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the American presidency because he connected with the ordinary American. While the presidents preceding him – especially Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – tended to emphasize the things that government could not do, along with the necessary virtue of patience, FDR approached the Great Depression with a determination to make changes that would actually help people – right away. He was not only the president who spoke directly to the people in his famous fireside chats; he also presided over the most productive Hundred Days (the first three months after a president’s inauguration) in the history of Congress.

There are all sorts of things that can be said in evaluation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The President’s policy was hardly Keynsian (he was motivated more by the simple desire to put people to work than to stimulate the economy) and yet it expanded the reach of the federal government in breathtaking ways. FDR’s approach to the Constitution was cavalier and destructive of the nation’s legal (and ultimately cultural and political) infrastructure, though he was prevented from achieving his worst designs relative to the Supreme Court (about which I hope to write more next week). Economically it was World War II that ended the Great Depression, not the New Deal, and yet the New Deal may well have saved America from revolution. Many of FDR’s policies are widely supported even by conservatives today. Others were thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court already during the 1930s.

But one thing that made FDR a great president – as his admirer, consistent supporter, and eventually conscious emulator Ronald Reagan appreciated – was that he knew how to speak to and represent ordinary, hard-working Americans without pandering to base desires. For instance, in November 1935 Roosevelt spoke at a homecoming rally at Georgia Tech in Atlanta:

I realize that gentlemen in well-warmed and well-stocked clubs will discourse on the expenses of Government and the suffering that they are going through because their Government is spending money on work relief. Some of these same gentlemen tell me that a dole would be more economical than work relief. That is true. But the men who tell me that have, unfortunately, too little contact with the true America to realize that … most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, which in this case is honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral degradation. I propose to build that barrier high and keep it high.

Note how FDR – like the recent Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – criticized dependency on the federal government. But notice also how – profoundly unlike Romney – he did it in a way that was perceived as respectful and helpful to the people who were most in need.

Or take Roosevelt’s speech at the 1936 Democratic convention, only a few months before the greatest landslide election in American history (until Johnson’s even greater victory in 1964):

Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for. For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.

These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution….

Governments can err. Presidents do make mistakes. But the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

Americans didn’t vote for FDR by massive margins because they wanted handouts. They – especially southern Evangelicals (black and white alike) – voted for FDR by massive margins because they knew he would stand for them against the sorts of people who were not terribly concerned about their welfare. While they, like most contemporary Americans, may not have understood the ins and outs of economics or fiscal policy, they could appreciate the significance of having a president willing to err on the side of compassion.

Conservatives need to learn how to communicate this way. To be sure, American voters are much  more sensitive today about the dangers of a government that is too “warm-hearted,” living in a “spirit of charity” that results in its own destruction. They are not looking for another New Deal (and they did not – in general – like Obamacare). But they still need political leaders who care about them and who know how to communicate that concern. A conservatism that fails to meet this need forfeits the right to govern, especially in a time as economically uncertain as the present day.

Advertisements

What conservative surprise about Obama’s re-election says about conservatives

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2

How many Evangelical pastors will give thanks for President Obama this Sunday, even as they intercede with God to give the president wisdom and an understanding of justice in his second term as President of the United States? How many Evangelicals will give thanks for all people – all Americans – even after they have just re-elected Barack Obama to a position of authority in this country?

It is far too soon after election day to offer up any objective or balanced interpretation of the significance of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, the future of the Republican Party, or the viability of conservatism in American politics. Pundits and theorists will declare the election to be a clear verdict that the Republican Party has veered too hard to the right and that the Tea Party was like a millstone around Mitt Romney’s neck, not to mention the direct cause of the Republican Party’s failure to retake control of the Senate. Others will try to tease out just what missteps by Romney and other Republicans were most fatal. And of course, there will be a lot of talk about demographics: the old, white, male Republican Party simply cannot win without finding ways to gain the support of younger voters, Latinos, and women.

These are all discussions that Republicans and conservatives need to have. But over and above all of these questions the most striking thing about last night’s election may well be that it took conservatives entirely by surprise. Although the polling and analysis of the mainstream media turned out to be right, numerous leading conservative writers predicted with absolute confidence in the days leading up to the election that despite what the polls said Romney would win. The polls were biased in their methodology, they said, and polls have no ability to capture enthusiasm or energy. Politics is about much more than statistics and predictive models; what matters is what is happening on the ground. Americans are discouraged about the economy and too many don’t like Obamacare. Democratic voters are discouraged and fewer would go to the polls than in 2008.

All wrong. The best conservative minds in the country were out of touch with the sentiments of most Americans and with the reality on the ground. Even after it was clear that President Obama had won many conservatives refused to believe it because they had been told this would not happen. They could not understand why people would vote for Obama and thought that in the end their man – Mitt Romney – represented the spirit of America. But again, it turns out that they were wrong. As Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard:

[Obama] did one thing that surprised the Romney campaign, Republicans, and political writers, myself included.  He and his campaign delivered a massive turnout by Democratic voters who were supposed to be unenthusiastic, dispirited, and less inclined than Republicans to go to the polls.  By voting in droves, they offset the increased Republican turnout.

Last night the conservative John Ziegler offered an explanation in a column on the Huffington Post, suggesting that many conservatives have become so isolated in the bubble of their own intellectual worldview that they simply tell themselves and their followers what they want to hear, regardless of reality. In many ways this is understandable, he argued, because the mainstream media is openly biased towards the left (if you don’t believe that you were not watching MSNBC last night; there is no way Fox News leans more to the right than MSNBC does to the left). But conservatives failed to distinguish the liberal media from the science and data of polling.

In another post Ziegler got at a deeper reason why conservatives were so taken by surprise:

Conservatives like to think that there is a “silent majority” out there that the media/pollsters will suddenly show up on Election Day. There is very little evidence that this actually exists. The 2010 election deludes conservatives because they don’t seem to realize that in presidential elections the turnout is much higher, especially in the states that actually matter. Republicans only have “tides” in low turnout elections. When the “low info” voters get to the polls, Democrats simply can’t be blown out in the key states. I never understood why conservative commentators couldn’t understand that Obama’s turnout would be just fine in the states which would actually decide the election.

Although conservative strategists have long known that white voters are a shrinking demographic, history told them that whites are far more likely to vote than are blacks or Latinos, especially in a poor economy with high unemployment. And while many conservatives have long been warning that the Republican Party is doomed if it fails to win over a substantial number of Hispanics, the rhetoric of the GOP’s primary season was if anything more harsh on illegal immigration than ever before. In 2004 President Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote. In 2008 John McCain won only 31%. Last night Romney’s portion fell to around 27%. Twenty-seven percent of the fastest growing demographic in the United States.

The main point I want to make, however, has less to do with demographics and more to do with 1 Timothy 2:1-2. As I have argued before on this blog, if conservatives are going to earn the right to guide this country politically they have to figure out how to lead by persuasion, not simply by power politics. There is no moral authority in conducting brilliant strategic campaigns and hoping your opponents have low turnout. If you can’t make conservative political theory make sense to millions of hard working Christian immigrants who just so happen to be part of the fastest growing demographic in the country you don’t deserve to win regardless of how skillful you are politically. Your politics have to demonstrate a spirit of solidarity and affirmation toward all people – not simply those who are already like you. You have to learn to speak for all Americans, not just the people you judge to be real Americans.

Former George W. Bush political director Matt Schlapp is quoted as making precisely this point in an analysis offered by Politico:

Hispanics continue to grow in importance, and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: It is simply the right thing to do, and it’s mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments… It’s about simple math and basic moral decency.

Do conservatives get this? Do Christian conservatives in particular accept this as part of their moral duty? Will we continue to view every political divide through the lens of a culture war, writing off entire ethnic or economic groups as part of the other side needing to be defeated rather than engaging them as fellow citizens who might have something to tell us about their own welfare, let alone the welfare of this country?

Note, my point is not to criticize conservatism nor is it to criticize Christian political theology. On the contrary, it is that in a democratic society any political perspective loses its moral credibility if it ceases to take seriously the need to treat other perspectives with dignity and respect. If we can’t explain our moral and political judgments to those who disagree with us even while they often share our faith, if we don’t trust them even while we demand that they trust us, why should we expect them to cede to us any moral or political leadership?

Again, do conservatives get this? I’m not sure. In the National Review Kevin Williamson writes:

The lessons of Ohio are that Barack Obama is a skillful demagogue, that the ancients were wise to number envy among the deadly sins, and that offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This is what Oakeshott had in mind when he wrote that liberty was something that many people simply are not equipped to “enjoy as an opportunity rather than suffer as a burden.”

So according to Williamson Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% were right all along. Most Americans are just greedy and selfish and there is nothing we can do about it.

Or take Matthew Schmitz’s comments on the First Thoughts blog:

Gallup’s recent polling finds slightly more than half of Americans identifying as prolife, and while support for gay marriage continues to increase, the issue motivates far more conservative than liberal voters. There’s a large intensity gap that should continue to tip the issue to the right for some time even if current trends hold.

Hmm … where have I heard that sort of logic before. Most don’t agree with our perspective but we care more so we can defeat them at the polls even if we cannot persuade them.

These comments do not sound like the expressions of lessons learned. They sound like a continued refusal to recognize that the American people, in a free and fair election, chose President Obama to continue to lead this country over the Republican Mitt Romney, chose Democrats to serve as United States senators in states thought to be solidly conservative, and endorsed same-sex marriage despite strong campaigns to prevent it.

Conservatives can view this data as a simple condemnation of their opponents and pat themselves on the back for standing for the truth even as their country (as they see it) falls apart. Or they can take it as a sharp rebuke that calls them to begin again the hard work of re-engaging the American people, hearing and taking seriously their concerns even as they try to make sense of how conservatism might best help address those concerns. The American people are open to persuasion, I firmly believe. Few people really think this country is on a sustainable path to prosperity. But if conservatives are ever going to lead it in a different direction, they will have to do a better job persuading the rest of the country that they actually deserve it.

When we enter the polling booth are we still Christians?

In his latest article at the Daily Caller Brian Lee asks whether or not it matters if a president has orthodox Christian faith or not. Lee answers the question by comparing the Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney to America’s first three presidents: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. His conclusion, on the basis of sound historical scholarship and the rejection of wishful thinking, is that these towering figures, the beloved Founding Fathers, give us plenty of evidence to demonstrate that they were not orthodox Christians. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams explicitly denied cardinal tenants of the Christian faith, while there is no evidence that George Washington ever participated in the Lord’s Supper in his life.

Lee concludes,

[I]n God’s providence, the men who shaped our nation’s founding and served as its heads of state for the first 20 years of its existence managed to accomplish great things, despite their apparent rejection of God’s saving work in Christ. What does this tell us?

The work of statecraft is not the work of salvation.

That’s a relatively mild point to make, but given how many Christians seem to assume they can only support political causes or candidates that are explicitly Christian, it is a necessary one. If your primary concern in today’s election is to vote for a professing Christian then there is far more evidence in Barack Obama’s favor than there is for Mitt Romney or for Washington, Adams, or Jefferson (if they were alive and running). Yet Lee’s point reminds us that we are not going to the polls to choose the leader of the spiritual kingdom, or even the ultimate Lord of the political kingdom. Rather, we are choosing the President of the United States for the next four years.

Yet Lee’s point is not, and this needs to be emphasized, that we should leave our Christian faith, or the authority of Scripture, outside of the polling booth. He writes,

Surely, Christian faith, and all that it entails — confessing the truth of God’s Law, one’s own sin and the saving work of Christ — informs one’s view of the civil magistrate and the just execution of its highest office.

In a previous article, arguing that pastors should not politicize from the pulpit, Lee made this point even more clearly:

In our hyper-politicized age, the line between religious and political speech is an exceedingly difficult one to draw. Teaching on the morality of war and peace, on social issues including marriage, life, and finance are inherently political…. One care barely open one’s mouth on a moral question of the day without giving political offense, and no one would suggest God’s word has nothing to say on these matters.

Lee’s point is crucial. The advocates of the two kingdoms doctrine, from the beginning of its history, have consistently argued that civil magistrates are obligated to rule according to the principles of justice as revealed in natural law and Scripture. Martin Luther, despite caricatures of the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine that are largely based on a distorted version of the doctrine from the Nazi era, raised the standards for Christian statesmanship so high that he insisted that a Christian prince will be a “rare bird in heaven.”

This might surprise critics of the two kingdoms doctrine, and in fact, it may surprise some of its most vocal proponents, some of whom seem to view the two kingdoms perspective as a “movement” designed to isolate religion and politics from one another rather than as a theological distinction intended to guide and qualify Christian political engagement. The two kingdoms doctrine is not a movement, it is not the possession of a few self-appointed spokesmen (myself included), and it does not require pastors to be silent on what Scripture says that is relevant to politics and civil government, let alone Christians to bracket off their Christian faith when they go to the polling booth.

In fact, despite appearances in some of the polemics that rage across the Internet, I think most Reformed people get this. Most of them embrace the substance of the two kingdoms doctrine as a reminder that the kingdom of God proclaimed in Scripture is never to be confused with cultural and political institutions that nevertheless are ordained by God and hold legitimate claims over Christians in this life. I’ve tried to demonstrate this over the past few months by identifying numerous theologians who invoke the two kingdoms distinction in their writing (i.e., John Bolt, Richard Phillips, Justin Taylor).

(Election Day in Philadelphia, 1815)

This week I received a mailing from a Presbyterian church in Atlanta in which the pastor, who I’m quite confident would not identify himself as part of any sort of “two kingdoms” movement, offered his congregation pastoral advice regarding today’s election. The pastor carefully reminded the congregation that government is ordained by God to rule in accord with justice, but he warned the congregation not to conflate Christ’s spiritual kingdom with the political earthly kingdom. Why not? Because when we conflate the two kingdoms we tend to assume that politicians and states have the obligation of using their coercive power to advance the spiritual cause of the kingdom of God. Worse, we fall into the danger of identifying America as God’s special nation, analogous to Israel. The pastor went on, however, to remind the congregation that Scripture does teach us standards of justice that government is bound to respect and defend, such as the sanctity of life and of the institution of marriage, and that they should keep these standards in mind when voting.

Most Reformed Christians agree with this I think. We might put things somewhat differently, we might highlight different biblical principles of justice, and we might hedge our reminders in more or less qualified language. But nearly all of us agree that pastors should avoid politicking from the pulpit even while they should not refrain from speaking to us the whole counsel of God. They should not extrapolate from Scripture simplistic guidance for contemporary American politics that was never intended by the divine or human authors, but they should call us to put on the mind of Christ, using the wisdom and revelation God has given us as we take our opportunity to help ensure that the government God appointed to punish the evil and reward the good does in fact keep that mandate. They should remind us, in good two kingdoms fashion, to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, that all these other things may be added unto us.

Why are Evangelicals fudging on the gospel to promote Mitt Romney?

On Sunday in the Aquila Report Bill Evans made some interesting claims concerning Mormonism in his attempt to persuade readers that there is a Christian position in the upcoming presidential election – a position that requires voting for Mitt Romney.

Evans writes:

While Mormons are not Christians in the traditional creedal sense of the term, I also have little doubt that there are Mormons who are looking in faith to Christ for salvation. In addition, the argument can be made that Mormons are closer to biblical truth on some issues than many liberal Protestants.

Scott Clark has a thoughtful analysis of Evans’s claim at the Heidelblog so I won’t offer that here. What strikes me is how so many Christian conservatives, from Bill Evans to Billy Graham, feel the need to soften their criticism of Mormonism in order to justify voting for Romney.

Part of what puts Evans, at least, in this position, may be his off-handed dismissal of the two kingdoms perspective. Christians who do not conflate the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world have less trouble justifying voting for a candidate who approximates their understanding of justice regardless of his or her religion. To be sure, they do give up the right to claim their perspective on the election as the Christian one, a concession Evans is loath to make.

For a much better perspective on the upcoming election – one grounded in the two kingdoms perspective – see Richard Phillips’s article published by the Aquila Report yesterday. Phillips argues that the church should proclaim the political principles taught in Scripture but should avoid entanglements in politics itself. Why?

The first [reason] is the doctrine known as the spirituality of the Church, which means that the Church is an institution of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and His spiritual reign, and as such should avoid distracting itself by entanglements in the secular realm of politics (see John 18:37).

I have no problem with a Christian making an argument that people ought to vote for a particular candidate for various reasons informed by the Christian tradition. But I don’t think we should dilute our understanding of Christianity or the gospel to do so. Compromising Christ’s lordship for (the possibility of) four years of Republican possession of the White House doesn’t strike me as being the best trade.

Romney and Obama largely ignore the most important issues

Amid all the drama of the presidential debates it is striking to notice what issues garner little attention, whether from questioners or from the candidates. When the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare it was widely suggested that it had turned the 2012 presidential campaign into a battle over the future of health care. That has hardly been the case. Likewise the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate suggested that the unsustainable path of welfare, pension, and entitlement spending on which the United States (like the rest of the rich world) is set should be a focal point of the debate. That hasn’t happened either. For Romney, the focus has been jobs, jobs, jobs. For Obama the tactic has been to make voters think Romney will be the rich man’s president.

The main reason for Romney’s focus on the economy (and Obama’s focus on Romney) is obvious. There is no better ground from which to make voters look past the areas in which they disagree with you than to convince them that you will lead the nation to prosperity and economic health. When unemployment has been hovering around 8% for as long as it has, this political strategy is a no-brainer.

And yet the fact remains that the growing debt of the United States – and the unsustainability of its commitments in the form of health care and pensions to an aging population – is the single greatest threat to the future prosperity of this country. Despite Romney’s rhetoric, the deficit and debt cannot be fixed by closing tax loopholes and restoring the nation to econ0mic prosperity, and despite Obama’s suggestions, increasing taxes on the rich and decreasing military spending will not solve the problem either. Nor are those conservatives right who blame the problem on things like Medicaid, or provision for the poor.

The reason why the United States is on an unsustainable spending path is because of its commitments to the middle class and to the wealthy. The problem is not the redistribution of wealth to the poor, but the redistribution of wealth to those who don’t need it. Consider the picture as portrayed by The Economist:

In the rich world the cronyism is better-hidden. One reason why Wall Street accounts for a disproportionate share of the wealthy is the implicit subsidy given to too-big-to-fail banks. From doctors to lawyers, many high-paying professions are full of unnecessary restrictive practices. And then there is the most unfair transfer of all—misdirected welfare spending. Social spending is often less about helping the poor than giving goodies to the relatively wealthy.

That picture is quite general, but in another article The Economist outlines the problem more concretely:

For all the conservatives’ insinuations of loafers living on handouts, America spends less than half as much as the average OECD country on cash transfers for people of working age. At the same time benefits in kind, such as state provision of education, health care and housing, gobble up a large and growing share of America’s budget. But according to the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, over half of all entitlement spending flows to the elderly and around 40% is spent on health care. The poor do not get much of a look-in. Around 10% of the total goes to the richest fifth of Americans, almost 60% to the middle three-fifths and only 30% to the poorest fifth.

If you combine tax expenditures and entitlements, America’s efforts at redistribution look even more perverse. The government lavishes more dollars overall on the top fifth of the income distribution than the bottom fifth. As Irwin Garfinkel, Lee Rainwater and Timothy Smeeding point out in “Wealth and Welfare States”, a book comparing America’s safety net with those of other countries, the federal government “spends” four times as much on subsidising housing for the richest 20% of Americans (via the mortgage-interest deduction) than it spends on public housing for the poorest fifth.

For all of Obama’s criticisms, on this point Romney is on to something. As The Economist notes, most of the deductions and loopholes Romney wants to eliminate not only reduce the efficiency of the tax system but currently favor the wealthy.

But Americans who are seriously concerned about the future fiscal health of the country might want to ask themselves, why do the richest Americans need housing subsidies? Why should programs like Medicare, or on the state level, like public education, offer expensive benefits to those who don’t even need them? Why should retirees begin to reap public benefits when they are still healthy enough to work (because the retirement age of such programs is based on the life expectancy of several decades ago)? Why does the government transfer massive wealth from the young (in the form of debt, because they don’t have it) to the old (in the form of pensions and health care, whether or not they need it)? And why does a system that directs more public spending to the middle class and to the wealthy lead conservatives to bear so much resentment to those who actually depend on a certain measure of government support?

In short, Americans should not buy into the assumption that big government is the result of care for the poor, nor should they take seriously the rhetoric that the United States government has unfairly favored the poor over against the rich. The interference of the government in the economy, government tax policy and regulation, and the close ties between money and legislation has consistently skewed the free market in favor of the wealthy and the powerful, even as it has sought to provide a minimal safety net for the poor. We should be able to talk about this problem – and the sustainability of our current track – without our conversations devolving into class warfare. As The Economist concludes,

The second lesson is that governments can narrow inequality without large-scale redistribution or an ever growing state. The 20th century’s most dramatic reductions in income gaps took place when governments, by and large, were smaller than they are today. Large, rigid welfare states proved unsustainable. But there was also a successful progressive prescription for reducing income gaps and boosting mobility by attacking crony capitalism, investing in the young (especially by broadening access to education) and creating a safety net for the poorest (particularly through unemployment insurance and pension schemes). Worryingly, governments in some of the countries where inequality has risen most seem to have forgotten that.

[Note: this post is the sequel to yesterday’s post on inequality.]

Can a Christian vote in good conscience for Mitt Romney?

In an article on the Aquila Report in August  Jason Cunningham made a case as to why Christians should not vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Throughout his piece Cunningham makes numerous assumptions that dictate his ultimate conclusion, but we need to question these assumptions.

For instance, Cunningham writes,

Leaving aside the fact that by any historical definition Romney is not a “conservative,” or why we would want to ‘conserve’ any aspect of the political environment today …

Cunningham claims to leave aside these questions but the very fact that he raises the latter one is astonishing. Does Cunningham really think there is no aspect of the political environment today that is worth preserving? Does he really think that Romney stands for nothing positive? Presumably not. Presumably this statement just reflects rhetorical frustration with Romney and the conservative movement today. On the other hand, perhaps Cunningham’s criteria for assessing American politics is what is the problem here:

… the political environment of the moment does not set our standard for leadership, God does. Why do we look to Scripture for our standard of leadership both in home and church but leave civil government to pragmatics and compromise?  Said another way, we eagerly support candidates for political office that would be easily dismissed and disqualified in other institutions.

We look to Scripture for our standard of leadership in the church because the church is ordained by God and derives its authority from Scripture. But things get complicated when we consider the family or the state, institutions grounded in creation and in the Noahic Covenant, not in Scripture. To be sure, Scripture teaches standards of justice and righteousness for leadership in the family and the state. But while these standards are rarely met, we do not exclude from institutional leadership those who fail perfectly to meet them.

For instance, Scripture calls a husband to serve his wife and to sacrifice himself for her after the example of Christ and his love for the church. No nonbeliever can meet this standard. But we do not as a result say that nonbelievers may not marry. In fact, we encourage them to marry, both for their sake and for the sake of our society. The alternative would be nothing less than disastrous socially, economically, and morally.

The state is really not so different. Scripture calls a political ruler to submit himself or herself to Christ’s lordship, and to serve their people in a manner consistent with justice and righteousness. But no person perfectly meets this standard, and certainly no nonbeliever can meet this standard. Should we therefore say that nonbelievers cannot hold political office? Was the constitution wrong to declare that there should be no religious test for such office?

Cunningham would respond here by distinguishing what God may bring about by his providence and what Christians should support:

There is a big difference between God using wicked pagan rulers for His purposes and God’s people ‘asking’ for one by casting their vote for a known pagan, anti-Christ worshipper. The prophet Habakkuk was incredulous at the thought of God using the Babylonians to punish them but it appears in the case of America, we are self-consciously asking God for Babylon to rule over us. The only place we find Israel asking for a king is in their disobedience and lack of faith by wanting to be ‘like the other nations’. Peace and freedom are by-products of obedience, faithfulness, and repentance, and these will not be accomplished by asking God to give us Cyrus over Nebuchadnezzar.

It is obvious here that Cunningham views America as being in a situation analogous to ancient Israel, and he therefore expects us to evaluate our leadership on the same basis as an Israelite was supposed to evaluate his or her leadership: the Torah. He seems to think that the goal of Christians should be to establish our own political nation in which nonbelievers are excluded from positions of political authority. As he puts it,

If Christians demanded more from their candidates and withheld their votes from those that do not seek to uphold righteousness according to God’s law, the bar would be raised and the doors opened for true Christian statesmen to take office.

But is the gospel call upon Christians really to take over the nations, working hard to ensure that only we attain positions of political power, or is it to serve them, witnessing to the love of Christ by seeking the welfare of our neighbors in the city in which we live? As Jesus himself said, “The kings of the nations exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). Paul describes pagan civil government as appointed by God for our “good,” to carry out wrath on those who do wrong. He commands Christians to pray for those in political office, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Peter reminds Christians that their obligations to “every human institution” are fulfilled in the call to serve, using our freedom as an opportunity for service, and keeping our conduct honorable such that we will not be a scandal to the nations, but that they will rather glorify God for our good works (1 Peter 2:12-17).

In his commentary on Jeremiah 29:7 John Calvin comments on Jeremiah’s exhortation to the Jews in exile to view Babylon as their own country, praying for and contributing to its peace and prosperity. Declaring that Christians are to think similarly of their own governments he writes, “they ought to have deemed their union [with Babylon] such as though they were of the same body. For by saying that their peace would be in the peace of Babylon he intimates that they could not be considered as a separate people until the time of seventy years was completed.”

The criteria by which we are to evaluate political candidates are not found in the Old Testament laws concerning Israel. They are found in the call of Jeremiah and of the New Testament to serve our neighbors by seeking their good. If we have the opportunity to choose political rulers, we should choose those who will do justice for all, enabling all to live in peace and quiet.

Under certain circumstances, this might involve voting for Christians. But in other circumstances, it is possible that a non-Christian might achieve these ends more effectively. The point is, we should choose the candidate who is most likely to contribute to justice and peace. Refusing to vote for any candidate who is not perfect hardly serves this end. It leads, rather, to political apathy, division, and gridlock. Christians who insist that they will only participate in the political process if they can choose godly Christian leaders are not displaying an attitude of love and service to their neighbors. They are displaying the desire to lord it over them.

Cunningham asks, “Why do we look to Scripture for our standard of leadership both in home and church but leave civil government to pragmatics and compromise?” We are open to pragmatics and compromise in political affairs because love for our neighbors demands this openness. A servant does not insist on his own way. Rather, a servant pays attention to the “political circumstances of the moment” and seeks to emulate the way of God by serving his neighbor in a manner appropriate to those circumstances.

There may be perfectly good reasons not to vote for Mitt Romney in November. But the fact that he is a Mormon is not one of them.

[Note: this post is re-blogged – with a few minor changes – from August 27, in response to the request of some readers for my thoughts on this subject.]

Is the Republican Party losing credibility at just the time its conservatism is most needed?

In a sharply critical article at the Atlantic Conor Friedersdorf (HT: Evan Donovan) argued last month that the Republican Party has lost itself in a world of fantasy and fiction such that it is unable any longer to arbitrate between what is true and what is false. Friedersdorf exaggerates the problem, as well as the degree to which the problem is uniquely Republican, of course, and much of what he complains about is more the result of trends in modern media and democracy than anything else.

Even with those qualifications, however, there is no question that Friedersdorf is on to something in his basic point. The Republican Party has a credibility problem. Or to perhaps put it more accurately, the Republican base has a credibility problem.

Friedersdorf illustrates his point,

National Review’s readers have been exposed to the argument that President Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy in a “Grand Jihad” against America; in Forbes, Dinesh D’Souza set forth the thesis that Obama’s every action is explained by a Kenyan anti-colonial ideology that overwhelms all else. I mention those magazines not because they’re worthless, but because both publish good stuff, and employ a lot of talented people who are more than smart enough to see through this nonsense….

A bit farther toward the fringes you’ve got the birthers.

Just now, the GOP nominee was exposed as believing, or pandering to donors who believe, that the 47 percent of Americans who vote Democratic are the same 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes. That is demonstrably false, but many on the right have lined up behind his remarks, and started to shame co-ideologues who dared to criticize the Republican standard-bearer.

He goes on,

The civil war the right needs is one waged against the hucksters, whether they’re in the marketplace of ideas or the marketplace itself. Victory would mean establishing norms that would’ve made Roger Ailes too ashamed to air all those months of Glenn Beck; that would’ve made the Claremont Institute mortified to give Rush Limbaugh a statesmanship award …

Yes, there will always be hucksters. And spending all one’s time fighting them is a foolish enterprise.

On the right today, they are so numerous, prominent and shameless, their pathologies so ingrained in right-wing media and politics, their wealth so corrupting to young talent, and their pathologies so seldom challenged by those who know better, that Republicans are operating at a persistent information disadvantage. (Too many believe even their own bullshit.)

Now let me say again that I don’t believe the Democrats are in any better shape. What’s more, for all of its flaws and weaknesses, the conservative movement is only growing in credibility when it comes to its basic diagnosis of the American (or western style) welfare state. Even a prestigious British magazine like The Economist has recognized that Paul Ryan’s honesty and candor about the federal debt and about the way in which he proposes to solve it is a breath of fresh air for American politics (whether or not the American people are open to Ryan’s solutions). And numerous Republican governors (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie) have worked out their conservative principles in ways that have helped their states thrive. For numerous reasons, in fact, on the state level the Republican Party should be considered a great success. One need only think of California to get a sense of the alternative.

All that said, however, when it comes to national politics – when it comes to the way many Republicans talk about President Obama or the Democratic Party, and when one listens to their proposals for the way in which this country could realistically (and with anything approaching a consensus) move forward – there is something missing. When even Mitt Romney, a man known for his political moderation, pragmatism, and good business sense, goes off the rails pandering to conservative fantasy, and threatening the viability of his campaign among independents in the process, something is wrong.

Even if the world of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ron Paul was the real world of facts and common sense, what good would it do us if these men cannot communicate their vision in a way that actually makes sense to the country? It is not enough simply to have your principles and be sure you are right. You have to be able to make the case to your fellow citizens that your diagnosis of the country’s problems is the right one, and that your solutions could actually work, could actually make us all better off. You have to be able to convince the hard working common man (and woman) – whether white or black or Hispanic or Asian – that you can make his or her life better. Ronald Reagan did that. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did that. The Republicans of our day are not doing it.

The tragedy of it all is that given the problems our country is facing right now, and given the inability of the Democratic Party to come to grips with the dead-end road down which its blue welfare state liberalism is taking the country, we have never needed a robust, coherent, and plausible conservative alternative more than we do now.

You didn’t build that, which is why I’m not concerned about the poor. A two-party problem.

Over at First Things Robert George, whose conservative credentials are not remotely in doubt, suggests that President Obama got a bit of a “bum rap” in the criticism over his “You didn’t build that” rhetoric. While George gratuitously qualifies his defense of Obama so as to clarify to his conservative readers that he utterly rejects Obama’s big governmentism and so thinks that Obama deserved the criticism anyway, his begrudging concession to the president makes a substantive point.

[E]xamined in context, I don’t think it is correct to interpret the “that” in “you didn’t build that” as referring to businesses.

Here, I believe, the President is telling the truth in saying that by “that” he meant the infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that makes it possible for businesses to flourish, but which businesses do not themselves provide.

And of course, Obama is right. Government does far more to shape the context for productive business than many if his critics would like to admit, and even if they might wish things were different, in the real world of American politics and governance there are few sharp lines between the free market and political power.

Take, for instance, the Washington Post‘s recent report that one of the main reasons Obama has as much of an eight point lead over Mitt Romney in the absolutely vital state of Ohio is that the president has showered the state with the blessings of federal patronage in the past four years. To be sure, Ohio is no doubt a very meritorious state, and surely no president would ever use his political clout to sway the merit-based procedure of determining what states or business should receive government grants, loans or tax breaks. Yet, as the Post begins its report,

After President Obama pledged in March to create up to 15 manufacturing centers nationwide, the first federal grant went to a place at the heart of his affections: Ohio.

When the Obama administration awarded tax credits to promote clean energy, the $125 million taken home by Ohio companies was nearly four times the average that went to other states.

And when a Cleveland dairy owner wanted to make more ricotta cheese, he won what was then the largest loan in the history of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

And what about the Fed? In another recent article the Washington Post describes how Ben Bernanke has radically increased the role of the Federal Reserve in bolstering and guiding the U.S. economy.

In what might be his final years as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben S. Bernanke is transforming the U.S. central bank, seeking to shed its reclusive habits and make it a constant presence in bolstering the economy. The new approach would make the Fed’s policies more responsive to the needs of the economy — and likely more forceful, because what the Fed is planning to do would be much clearer….

Bernanke has already pushed the Fed far along this path. The central bank this month pledged to stimulate the economy until it no longer needs the help, an unprecedented promise to intervene for years. That’s a big change from the Fed’s usual role as a curb on inflation and buffer against financial crises.

That may have a calming effect on the economy, as the article notes, but it also threatens to politicize the Fed and possibly to increase the likelihood of inflation. Micromanaging the free market, as economic theorists know, is fraught with danger. And according to what principles will the Fed operate? Those of the Democrats or the Republicans? Keynes or the Austrian School?

Unfortunately the problem is not simply with the current administration, the current Federal Reserve chairman, or the Democratic Party. As Joel Kotkin wrote over a month ago, both parties are beholden to Wall Street and to big business, and the common man to whom Ronald Reagan was so committed finds himself with no advocate in the 2012 presidential campaign.

In a sane world, one would expect Republicans to run against this consolidation of power, that has taxpayers propping up banks that invest vast amounts in backing the campaigns of the lawmakers who levy those taxes. The party would appeal to grassroots capitalists, investors, small banks and their customers who feel excluded from the Washington-sanctioned insiders’ game. The popular appeal is there. The Tea Party, of course, began as a response against TARP.

Instead, the partynominated a Wall Street patrician, Mitt Romney, whose idea of populism seems to be donning a well-pressed pair of jeans and a work shirt.

Romney himself is so clueless as to be touting his strong fund-raising with big finance. His top contributors list reads something like a rogue’s gallery from the 2008 crash: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Citicorp, and Barclays. If Obama’s Hollywood friends wanted to find a perfect candidate to play the role of out-of-touch-Wall Street grandee, they could do worse than casting Mitt….

Who loses in this battle of the oligarchs? Everyone who depends on the markets to accurately give information, and to provide fundamental services, like fairly priced credit.

And who wins? The politically well-situated, who can profit from credit and regulatory policies whether those are implemented by Republicans or Democrats.

Of course, there are those who believe the significant shift within the conservative movement of our time has been from traditionalist conservatism towards an infatuation with the utopian benefits a free market might bring, but as Joe Knippenburg points out (responding to David Brooks), the Republican Party has always been controlled more by the interests of business and economics than it has by thoughtful conservatism, whether of the traditionalist stripe or of the libertarian version.

In electoral politics, the business-oriented guys have always had the upper hand. The traditionalists … have never been major players in partisan politics.  They’ve always been more noticeable in various “ivory towers,” like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the editorial offices of First Things (if I may be so bold)….

In day to day politics, the pressing (the unsustainable size of government) crowds out the important (the state of our souls and our civil society). We should not stint in reminding our friends, colleagues, and fellow political disputants of what’s really important. But we have to recognize that the failure adequately and responsibly to address our pressing problem puts what we really care about at risk as well.

But Knippenburg is also wise enough to recognize that the Republican Party’s version of economic prosperity doesn’t always help the little guy and it is certainly not winning the hearts and minds of the working class.

A substantial majority (70 percent) of white working class Americans thinks that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy…. Connected with working class doubts about fairness is a conviction held by almost half (47 percent) that the American Dream once held true, but does no more… One might ask why those people who mistrust the fairness of markets and society at large don’t turn to government to make things right. Surely they’re tempted to do so. And surely Barack Obama wants them to do so. Their hesitation for the moment might be due as much to the likelihood that government just seems to them to present unfairness in another guise.

But Republicans have to come up with a compelling way of talking about the opportunities provided by the marketplace. To be sure, they can offer a celebration of freedom and a critque of government intervention as “crony capitalism,”  but I’m not sure how far that goes with a working class person who doesn’t see an obvious path to prosperity for himself and his family.

I wish I had a magic bullet here, but I don’t. We have to recognize that in our economy, the opportunities for those who lack skills are very limited.

It’s easy to criticize government for being too big or for interfering with the economy too much. It’s even easier to criticize the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Everything gets a lot harder when we recognize that the Republican Party is not offering very persuasive solutions, and in many ways it is simply another part of the problem.

Mitt Romney’s Stupid Comments About the 47%

As I sat down today to write the second part of my discussion of the theology of property in the Christian tradition I was sidetracked by the highly relevant story of Mitt Romney’s comments regarding the 47% of Americans who pay no income taxes, who are dependent on the federal government, who vote for Obama, and about whom Mitt Romney does not care. As Romney put it in the most horrifying part of the statement:

And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax… my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives….

What? As numerous commentators all over the Internet have already pointed out, many of these people are the Republican Party’s staunchest supporters and the most likely people to vote for Mitt Romney. Most of them are either the elderly or young couples with children who benefit from the Republican tax cuts and tax credits of the past two decades. Many of the rest of them are the unemployed who are so disillusioned with how the economy has performed under Obama’s watch. And while it is true that they pay no income tax, they do pay all sorts of other federal, state, and local taxes. Most of them are and always have been very hard workers, and they have taken no less responsibility or care for their lives than have the 53% who are better off financially.

These were stupid, destructive comments, and Romney has nothing to gain and everything to lose by them.

I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives …

This comment is at the level of Barack Obama’s declaration a while back that the people who vote Republican are those who “cling to their guns and religion.” It conveys an arrogant, derisive, and woefully ignorant attitude toward many of the people who make up middle America. It is not the kind of language you want to hear from someone seeking to be elected President of the United States.

Let me be clear. I actually believe in many of the policies Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand for. I think most of you know who I am voting for. I believe taxes should be low, dependence on government should be reduced, and government regulation should be minimized so that a free economy can do its job of creating wealth for hard working Americans.

But we have no hope of enacting these policies if we run around shouting out rhetoric about the lazy poor, or claiming that government has no right to tax me in order to ensure that the needs of the poor are met.

That’s why I’m so disappointed with Romney’s comments, and that’s why I write posts chastising conservatives for their views of the poor and of government’s responsibility regarding the poor. Because it’s not enough, if you want to lead a country, to throw out rhetoric that feeds resentment but fails to provide a vision for your country that is both just and balanced. Conservatives can criticize socialism and class warfare all they want, but if they run to the opposite extreme, abandoning any responsibility for the poor and waging a class war of their own, in my opinion, they forfeit their right to claim leadership of the country.

Let’s stop the anti-Mormon talk: our call is to serve our neighbors, not to lord it over them

In an article on the Aquila Report on Saturday Jason Cunningham made a case as to why Christians should not vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Throughout his piece Cunningham makes numerous assumptions that dictate his ultimate conclusion, but we need to question these assumptions.

For instnace, Cunningham writes,

Leaving aside the fact that by any historical definition Romney is not a “conservative,” or why we would want to ‘conserve’ any aspect of the political environment today …

Cunningham claims to leave aside these questions but the very fact that he raises the latter one is astonishing. Does Cunningham really think there is no aspect of the political environment today that is worth preserving? Does he really think that Romney stands for nothing positive? Presumably not. Presumably this statement just reflects rhetorical frustration with Romney and the conservative movement today. On the other hand, perhaps Cunningham’s criteria for assessing American politics is what is the problem here:

… the political environment of the moment does not set our standard for leadership, God does. Why do we look to Scripture for our standard of leadership both in home and church but leave civil government to pragmatics and compromise?  Said another way, we eagerly support candidates for political office that would be easily dismissed and disqualified in other institutions.

We look to Scripture for our standard of leadership in the church because the church is ordained by God and derives its authority from Scripture. But things get complicated when we consider the family or the state, institutions grounded in creation and in the Noahic Covenant, not in Scripture. To be sure, Scripture teaches standards of justice and righteousness for leadership in the family and the state. But while these standards are rarely met, we do not exclude from institutional leadership those who fail perfectly to meet them.

For instance, Scripture calls a husband to serve his wife and to sacrifice himself for her after the example of Christ and his love for the church. No nonbeliever can meet this standard. But we do not as a result say that nonbelievers may not marry. In fact, we encourage them to marry, both for their sake and for the sake of our society. The alternative would be nothing less than disastrous socially, economically, and morally.

The state is really not so different. Scripture calls a political ruler to submit himself or herself to Christ’s lordship, and to serve their people in a manner consistent with justice and righteousness. But no person perfectly meets this standard, and certainly no nonbeliever can meet this standard. Should we therefore say that nonbelievers cannot hold political office? Was the constitution wrong to declare that there should be no religious test for such office?

Cunningham would respond here by distinguishing what God may bring about by his providence and what Christians should support:

There is a big difference between God using wicked pagan rulers for His purposes and God’s people ‘asking’ for one by casting their vote for a known pagan, anti-Christ worshipper. The prophet Habakkuk was incredulous at the thought of God using the Babylonians to punish them but it appears in the case of America, we are self-consciously asking God for Babylon to rule over us. The only place we find Israel asking for a king is in their disobedience and lack of faith by wanting to be ‘like the other nations’. Peace and freedom are by-products of obedience, faithfulness, and repentance, and these will not be accomplished by asking God to give us Cyrus over Nebuchadnezzar.

It is obvious here that Cunningham views America as being in a situation analogous to ancient Israel, and he therefore expects us to evaluate our leadership on the same basis as an Israelite was supposed to evaluate his or her leadership: the Torah. He seems to think that the goal of Christians should be to establish our own political nation in which nonbelievers are excluded from positions of political authority. As he puts it,

If Christians demanded more from their candidates and withheld their votes from those that do not seek to uphold righteousness according to God’s law, the bar would be raised and the doors opened for true Christian statesmen to take office.

But is the gospel call upon Christians really to take over the nations, working hard to ensure that only we attain positions of political power, or is it to serve them, witnessing to the love of Christ by seeking the welfare of our neighbors in the city in which we live? As Jesus himself said, “The kings of the nations exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). Paul describes pagan civil government as appointed by God for our “good,” to carry out wrath on those who do wrong. He commands Christians to pray for those in political office, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Peter reminds Christians that their obligations to “every human institution” are fulfilled in the call to serve, using our freedom as an opportunity for service, and keeping our conduct honorable such that we will not be a scandal to the nations, but that they will rather glorify God for our good works (1 Peter 2:12-17).

The criteria by which we are to evaluate political candidates are not found in the Old Testament laws concerning Israel. They are found in the call of the New Testament to serve our neighbors by seeking their good. If we have the opportunity to choose political rulers, we should choose those who will do justice for all, enabling all to live in peace and quiet.

Under certain circumstances, this might involve voting for Christians. But in other circumstances, it is possible that a non-Christian might achieve these ends more effectively. The point is, we should choose the candidate who is most likely to contribute to justice and peace. Refusing to vote for any candidate who is not perfect hardly serves this end. It leads, rather, to political apathy and division. Christians who insist that they will only participate in the political process if they can choose godly Christian leaders are not displaying an attitude of love and service to their neighbors. They are displaying the desire to lord it over them.

Cunningham asks, “Why do we look to Scripture for our standard of leadership both in home and church but leave civil government to pragmatics and compromise?” We are open to pragmatics and compromise in political affairs because love for our neighbors demands this openness. A servant does not insist on his own way. Rather, a servant pays attention to the “political circumstances of the moment” and seeks to emulate the way of God by serving his neighbor in a manner appropriate to those circumstances.

There may be perfectly good reasons not to vote for Mitt Romney in November. But the fact that he is a Mormon is not one of them.

%d bloggers like this: