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Ponzi Schemes and Public Pension Funds: The Reckoning is Coming

Talk about Ponzi schemes. The New York Times published an excellent article yesterday on the terrible state of public pension funds across the country.

While Americans are typically earning less than 1 percent interest on their savings accounts and watching their 401(k) balances yo-yo along with the stock market, most public pension funds are still betting they will earn annual returns of 7 to 8 percent over the long haul, a practice that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently called “indefensible.”

Now public pension funds across the country are facing a painful reckoning.

Local governments across the United States are something like $3 trillion short based on pensions and similar long-term commitments. Programs established based on the false assumption that the market would always perform at a high level are discovering that they have to choose between breaking those promises and pillaging the other services of government to pay them. But the first step in the process is honesty and openness about the dire state of affairs. And it turns out, that step may also be the most difficult:

Public retirement systems from Alaska to Maine are running into the same dilemma as they struggle to lower their assumed rates of return in light of very low interest rates and unpredictable stock prices.

They are facing opposition from public-sector unions, which fear that increased pension costs to taxpayers will further feed the push to cut retirement benefits for public workers.

Yes, there is an interest group here, and it is a powerful one. It just so happens that it is made up of the people who run our governments. And they do not want government to adjust its “laughable” and “absolutely hysterical” (Bloomberg’s terms) estimates of return because this will wake up the public to the real costs of these programs. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted this problem a long time ago. Thankfully, in states like Wisconsin the public-sector unions have discovered that for all the support of the mainstream media for their cause, the broader public gets what’s at stake. Governor Walker will probably win reelection on the back of his public sector reforms despite the best efforts of the unions to defeat him.

Walter Russell Mead continues to offer his excellent yet pragmatic analysis:

We’ve been warning readers for some time at Via Meadia that the politicians and union leaders in this country have been engaged in a systemic lie of epic proportions. How big and ugly is the lie?

Very. Private pension funds assume a standard of 4.8 percent return on their pension funds. As the Times notes, governments also use various tricky accounting loopholes not available to private companies to hide their liabilities. As far as we can make out at Via Meadia, if you tried to run a private pension fund the way unions and government-appointed trustees run public ones, you could go to jail for fraud.

But while lies can win elections, they can’t pay bills, and as the unsustainable commitments to municipal and state pensions come due, services will be cuts, taxes raised and benefits to retirees will be slashed as reality sets in.

America is fortunate enough to be able to watch the example of what happens when we avoid reality play out before our very eyes.

Today we are seeing what happens when Big Lies come unglued: all over Europe people who believed those sweet delicious stories politicians told them about their pensions and their futures are waking up to one horrible shock after another. Somehow we’ve come to the point in this country also where it’s considered “liberal” and “progressive” to lie like rats to the voters and to government workers about how solid their futures are.

Where there is denial about the problem, however, it is not the government employees or the middle class who will suffer most. It is precisely those that a liberal safety net is designed to protect.

Listen up, blues. The mother of all wedge issues is knocking on your door: when the pension crunch comes, who will you throw to the wolves: the retirees, the unions and the producers of government services — or the schoolchildren, the poor and the consumers of government services?

We should care about this not primarily as an instance of the age-old American struggle between the right and the left, but because when things go bad, it is the poor and the weak – not the guilty – who are likely to suffer most. We can all pad our coffers as much as we want, but when the bill comes due and we are left with our false promises and commitments, we are accountable not only for our lies and our abuses, but for all the tragic effects that bankruptcy and default brings upon those who can afford it least. These are the people government was ordained to protect. As citizens, it is our responsible to keep it accountable.

More Basic than the Culture Wars: when communities collapse

In a recent article on his Via Media blog, Walter Russell Mead highlights a development getting little attention in the mainstream media: the collapse of the once great city of Detroit amid decades of economic transition, incompetent management, and corrupt government.

The latest scandal, which leaves even hardened observers of the abysmal Democratic machine that has run the city into the ground bemused, involves a real estate firm which gave the felonious mayor massages, golf outings, trips in chartered jets and other perks as this enemy of the people went about his hypocritical business of pretending to care about the poor while robbing them blind. The firm, apparently run by a sleazy low class crook named by the reprehensible Kilpatrick to be the Treasurer of what was left of Detroit’s finances, used Detroit pension funds to buy a couple of California strip malls. Title to the properties was never transferred to the pension funds, and they seem to be out $3.1 million.

Mead wonders why this story has received so little attention.

I honestly don’t know why there is so little national outrage about this despicable crew and the terrible damage they have done. The ultimate victims of the crime are Detroit’s poor and the middle class and lower middle class, mostly African-American municipal workers who may face serious financial losses in old age.

As he points out, this is a catastrophe that transcends the divide between left and right, and it should be taken seriously by concerned Americans of both political parties.

There is something profoundly wrong with an American political culture that accepts chronic misgovernment in major cities as OK. It is not OK; the people who do these things may call themselves liberal Democrats and wear the mantle of defenders of the poor, but over and over their actions place them among the most cold blooded enemies and oppressors of the weak.

American cities have been festering pits of graft and bad governance since at least the early 19th century, but there is a difference between the “honest graft” of Tammany Hall and the nihilistic destruction practiced by some of today’s urban machines. Today’s situation, in which some city machines are so dysfunctional that the parasite is literally killing the host (and not just in Detroit), is new and, again, the most vulnerable in our society suffer the worst consequences. Minority children are the greatest ultimate victims of this loathsome corruption: they attend horrible schools and grow up in decaying, unsafe urban landscapes where there is no growth, no jobs and no opportunity for the young.

To be sure, Detroit is a city that has long been run by the Democratic Party alone. But as Mead points out, the culprits in Detroit use party and political theory as a cover, not as guide. Today the great tragedy takes place in the Democrats’ backyard. Tomorrow it might show up in that of the Republicans.

The lead article posted by the Drudge Report this morning shows just how bad things have become in Detroit. Posted in Bloomberg, the article explains:

Detroit whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

This step may not be unprecedented but it is certainly not normal. For people and businesses in the areas that will lose their funding, the results are disastrous.

A single, broken streetlight on the northeast side brings fear to Cynthia Perry, 55. It hasn’t worked for six years, Perry said in an interview on the darkened sidewalk where she walks from her garage to her house entrance.

“I’m afraid coming in at night,” she said. “I’m not going to seclude myself in the house and never go anywhere.”

Jamahl Makled, 40, said he’s owned businesses in southwest Detroit for about two decades, most recently cell-phone stores. He said they’ve have been burglarized more than a dozen times.

“In the dark, criminals are comfortable,” Makled said. “It’s not good for the economy and the safety of the residents.”

Of course, most of us can’t do anything about the problems in the city of Detroit, even if we were interested enough to follow the details of the story. But colossal messes like Detroit should remind us that there are elements of justice and basic governance even more important to daily life than the hot-points of the culture wars. These are elements that transcend party and ideology and have to do with essential principles of accountability, common sense, and order. The main reason why we need to approach politics in a spirit of love and cooperation – rather than bitterness and conquest – is because at the most basic level, we need to keep our communities running. That, not inaugurating the kingdom of God, is the primary task of government.

How we are losing one another for the sake of ourselves: the death of civil society

Sociologists have been writing for years about the weakening of the bonds of association and community that once tied Americans together. My own doctoral adviser Steven Tipton coauthored the classic book Habits of the Heart, followed by its sequel The Good Society, to explore just this theme. As Robert Bellah, Tipton, and their other coauthors emphasized, Americans have long struggled to preserve community, virtue, and common institutions in a nation grounded on a faith in individual rights. Historically, in American history, individual rights nearly always trump group rights. My concerns are necessarily more important than our concerns.

The paradox is that the more weight we put on individuals, the more we need an enormously powerful government to ensure that those individuals rights are preserved. Someone has to prevent any other group or association from interfering with the individual, and ultimately that someone has to be Big Brother. The expansion of individual freedoms therefore goes hand and hand with the extended reach of the state.

In recent years this dynamic has led to growing conflict between government and religious communities. Note I did not say between government and religion. As long as religion is practiced individualistically, government cares little about what you do. Where religion is threatened is in its associational forms. Joseph Knippenburg writes in Christianity Today:

Examples of this intractable conflict come swiftly to mind. World Vision has defended its religious hiring rights against an employee lawsuit. Catholic Charities of Boston has abandoned its adoption placement services rather than submit to a state requirement to place children in same-sex households. The Supreme Court has affirmed the power of Hastings College of the Law to compel its chapter of the Christian Legal Society to consider non-Christian leadership candidates. Only months ago, the Obama administration failed (thanks, ironically, to the same Supreme Court) in its bid to force a Lutheran school to retain a teacher who had violated its teachings on conflict resolution. And the administration continues to defend its policy of mandating that all employers—with only the narrowest exemption for houses of worship—purchase health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.

Knippenburg makes this point in a review of a book by Stephen V. Monsma,Pluralism and Freedom: Faith Based Organizations in a Democratic Society.He goes on,

According to Monsma, both conservatives and liberals devote their attention primarily to the relationship between the (believing or unbelieving) individual and the government. Conservatives see “big government” as shrinking the realm of individual choice, while liberals expect government power to protect and expand that realm. (Consider their vigorous defense of the contraceptive mandate as safeguarding women’s rights.) But Monsma contends that neither side has an adequate theoretical framework for comprehending “the host of intermediary social structures—families, neighborhoods, religious congregations, associations, and nonprofit service organizations—that lie between the individual and the government.”

Darryl Hart makes a similar point in a criticism of Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Noting Bell’s defense of social conservatism based on the Declaration of Independence and its doctrine of individual rights, Hart explains,

The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions.

Sometimes individual rights trumps these lesser authorities and institutions in ways that people approve of. In other cases the consequences are more dire.

But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits… In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.

In fact, most Americans care deeply about the civil institutions threatened by this trend, whether families, churches, communities, schools, or any other institution that makes life worth living. Even those who do not seem to care most definitely do care once these institutions fall apart. No one wants to live in a neighborhood with broken marriages, corrupt churches, and failing schools. No one wants to receive their livelihood in a monthly paycheck from Uncle Sam, particularly if that paycheck is accompanied by a set of regulations thicker than your old-fashioned phonebook.

As we wrestle with what it means to be loving neighbors in a world we share in common with people of many religions and many political persuasions, we would do well to think long and hard about the importance of our common bonds of association and our civil institutions. This is a point at which we can appeal to our neighbors for the advancement of our common good in a manner that makes sense to them because it has to do with what it means to be human, and with what it means to be human together. Again, as Knippenburg points out,

Structural pluralism can make an additional pitch to more secular-minded citizens. Consistent with the view that faith and church membership can’t be compelled, structural pluralists have to be neutral toward the kinds of associations human beings form. I can’t claim for my local Christian homeschooling group any status that I’m not willing to extend to my secular homeschooling neighbors, let alone to Jewish day schools, Catholic and other Christian schools, and charter and other public schools. In other words, there is a common ground that Christians can find with their secular fellows …

Of course, to take this approach we have to appreciate our common human solidarity with those among whom we live, whether they are Christians or not. But as far as I can tell, that is precisely what it means to love our neighbors and to promote the welfare of the city in which we live.

The reason money is so powerful in American politics is not because we don’t regulate it properly. It’s because of big government.

Virtually everybody agrees that money is far too influential in American politics and policy. No one really likes how much of a role money plays in primaries and electoral campaigns, and people are even more disgusted at the way in which lobbyists for a myriad of interests and organizations shape and muddle the work of both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. For this reason, one constantly encounters calls for campaign finance reform, or for greater restrictions against lobbyists. Defenders of free speech are rightly wary about this. How can one legitimately prevent someone from using his resources to speak as loudly and as clearly as possible on an issue of concern? For all the complaints of the politicians and pundits, the Supreme Court was right to overturn campaign finance reform.

In fact, the power of lobbyists is probably a much greater problem than that of campaign finance. And when Barack Obama was swept into the White House amid an inspiring call for change we can believe in, he promised to deal with it. As the Washington Post points out,

More than any president before him, Obama pledged to change the political culture that has fueled the influence of lobbyists. He barred recent lobbyists from joining his administration and banned them from advisory boards throughout the executive branch. The president went so far as to forbid what had been staples of political interaction — federal employees could no longer accept free admission to receptions and conferences sponsored by lobbying groups.

Unfortunately, Obama has not kept his pledge.

The visitor logs for Jan. 17 — one of the most recent days available — show that the lobbying industry Obama has vowed to constrain is a regular presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave… The White House visitor records make it clear that Obama’s senior officials are granting that access to some of K Street’s most influential representatives. In many cases, those lobbyists have long-standing connections to the president or his aides. Republican lobbyists coming to visit are rare, while Democratic lobbyists are common, whether they are representing corporate clients or liberal causes.

The thing is, this isn’t really Obama’s fault. The reason why lobbyists (and money) have grown to play such a decisive role in American politics and policy is not because of lack of regulation; it is because government is so big. Simply put, the stakes are so high in Washington D.C., that individuals and organizations with money simply will find a way to influence what goes on there. It will be impossible to stamp that out.

I’m not making this up. In their fascinating book Winner-Take-All-Politics Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson describe how money came to play such a big role in American politics, arguing that Washington has turned its back on the middle class and placing the blame on both the Republican and the Democratic parties.

Hacker and Pierson point out that in 1970 money was not nearly the factor in American politics that it has become. What changed? From the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt to that of Lyndon B. Johnson, labor unions allied with the Democratic Party met considerable success in having their agenda regarding a variety of reforms enacted in Congress. Government grew significantly during this time, as the New Deal and the Great Society expanded its commitment to caring for the poor, labor, and the middle class, and to manipulating the economy to ensure constant prosperity and full employment. The 1960s were a golden era in terms of American equality and the progress of the middle class. Wages were high, jobs were secure, virtually everyone was happy.

Unfortunately all of this progress was built on a foundation of regulation and economic manipulation that was taking its toll on business, industry, and finance. It was only during the mid 1970s – when the economy was beginning to feel the inflation and economic strain of the policies of the previous decade – that leaders in these sectors realized the importance of organizing to defend their interests. Largely successful in derailing the agenda of the Carter administration despite solid Democratic control of all branches of government, these forces orchestrated tax cuts and massive deregulation under President Reagan. They stymied modest reform efforts and furthered deregulation under President Clinton while increasing their control over both the Republican Party and the conservative wing of the Democratic Party (represented by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, as well as John Kerry and Charles Schumer).

Hacker and Pierson’s reading of this story leans left. They fail to take seriously the popular conservative backlash against these developments as represented by the Tea Party (although the Tea Party admittedly emerged as a significant player in American politics only after this book was written), focusing almost entirely on the Obama administration as the hope for the middle class.

Nevertheless, Hacker and Pierson are surprisingly silent on the lesson their own story tells. The mobilization of business, finance, and industry – which they blame for the role of money in American politics – was largely a reaction to the growth of the federal government between the 1930s and 1960s into areas it had once left unregulated. The emergence of money-power in that sense is a defensive reaction to big government rather than an orchestrated attempt to use government to advance moneyed interests.

This is not true simply for matters relating to the economy. It is worth noting that the Christian Right emerged as a powerful political force – and Evangelicalism became disturbingly politicized – at just the same time. Why? Because government was extending its power into areas Evangelical Christians once thought untouchable, and because the growth of government meant that far too much was at stake to leave politics to the world. Here too is an example of how the politicization of American society corresponds directly to the growth of American government.

The question is, given the growth of government, could things have turned out any other way? Power breeds struggle and corruption. When you have a centralized government spending trillions of dollars to regulate and manipulate the largest and most dynamic economy in the world, people with money will find a way to make sure that what that government does is compatible with their own interests. You can try to stamp out the problem in one place, through one set of laws, but the interests will quickly find another pressure point.

Most Americans – whether Democrats or Republicans – agree that money should not be so influential in American politics. This is a point of basic consensus. It would be helpful if we could start having a conversation about the way in which our growing government has made this inevitable. Big government has some advantages, but it also carries tremendous costs which Americans have never really taken seriously. It’s about time we started talking about it.

Minorities might be saving America in more ways than one.

The story is in all the major papers today. For the first time in American history, the majority of births are to non-Hispanic whites. I have already commented recently on how non-whites are preserving Christian orthodoxy as well as traditional Christian teachings regarding marriage. Slate notes that African Americans are viewed all around as the key voting group in the effort to reestablish traditional marriage in Maryland. The conservative National Review quotes one black pastor, Dwight McKissic, commenting on Obama’s decision to support same-sex marriage, “The moral impact of this decision is equal to the military impact of al-Qaeda when they attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11.”

Reverend McKissic notes all the problems the black community faces: “divorce, out-of-wedlock birth, absentee fathers.” Same-sex marriage will exacerbate the problems, he argues. It will have a “devastating effect on families.” The president “slapped history in the face” by “going against natural law.”

But non-whites are having just as great of an impact on American demographics. In an age when industrialized countries around the world are struggling with the economic and fiscal implications of plummeting birth rates and aging populations, immigrants are maintaining America’s demographic health. As the New York Times puts it,

the fact that the country is getting a burst of births from nonwhites is a huge advantage, argues Dowell Myers, professor of policy, planning and demography at the University of Southern California. European societies with low levels of immigration now have young populations that are too small to support larger aging ones, exacerbating problems with the economy.

“If the U.S. depended on white births alone, we’d be dead,” Mr. Myers said. “Without the contributions from all these other groups, we would become too top-heavy with old people.”

The need for a vibrant economy to support the growing portion of the federal budget that goes towards health care, support for retirees, and the safety net has never been greater. Liberals often complain that America spends far too much on defense and far too little on care for the needy, but according to a vivid graph posted on NPR (which you should definitely look at), spending on defense has been steadily falling – from 51.7% in 1962, to 29.7% in 1987, to 22.6% in 2011 – while spending in health and welfare has been rising almost as dramatically (For instance, in the same years support for the poor has increased from 5.8% to 7.2% to 12.6%; Medicare has risen from 0 to 13.1%).

Someone has to pay for all of this of course, and that burden falls on the youth of the future. For that reason, a high birthrate among minorities is very good news, although one wonders about the social tension that would be created if the United States found itself in the situation of having a predominantly non-white work force pay for the comfortable retirement of mostly white senior citizens.

Whatever the case, one would hope that a healthy immigrant ethic would help Americans give up their seeming belief that they should receive everything from the government while paying nothing. As George Will vividly portrayed the problem in a recent Washington Post column:

Campaigning recently at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Romney warned students about their burden from the national debt, but when he took questions, the first questioner had something else on her peculiar mind: “So you’re all for like, ‘Yay, freedom,’ and all this stuff and ‘Yay, like, pursuit of happiness.’ You know what would make me happy? Free birth control.”

If this is how American youth think these days, we are in trouble. The burden they (or we) are facing is far greater than most people realize.

Fiscal conservatism seems to work for Germany and social justice needs to work

I am not an economist nor do I have any expertise whatsoever in the world of finance. My comments on these matters should therefore be taken worth a grain of salt. But I can’t help but notice how well Germany is doing compared to the rest of Europe. Americans love to compare themselves with Europe, particularly when discussing the merits of various social positions or of the welfare state. But within Europe itself, fiscally conservative Germany is the only thing keeping the Eurozone from recession.

There is all sorts of talk about the longstanding tension between the German and French visions for the EU. And Francois Hollande, the new French president, has vowed to confront Angela Merkel and the German “austerity” model by promoting public spending driven “growth” as a way out of the current economic crisis. But why should anyone listen to the French? France is not doing well at all, and if current trends continue, it will go the way of Greece, Spain, and Italy. True, the United Kingdom is an example of the reality that austerity bites in the short-run too. But in the long-run it seems quite clear which model works best.

One thing that is clear is that economic prosperity matters. We could have the most just social welfare system in the world on paper, and if the country cannot afford it and the economy cannot sustain it, the poor will be much worse off. That doesn’t mean we should cast off the poor and turn to laissez-faire economics. But it does suggest that what works matters just as much as what sounds right. This is one of the reasons why American Christians are rightly skeptical when their pastors claim the authority to speak on fiscal and economic policy. This is clearly an area in which human experience and wisdom – natural law if you will – has significant authority. Rather than shout economic and political orthodoxies at one another, and use the pulpit to do so, we should work together to figure out what works best, and what works best for all.

The natural law is not what you think it is – and you need it.

Evangelicals often don’t make very good public arguments. That is one of the lessons to be learned from the recent debate over gay marriage. Evangelicals are traditionally marked  by their commitment to the authority of Scripture for all of life, and this laudable commitment often leads them to present Scripture as the foundation for all of their social and political positions. Catholics, on the other hand, tend to rely much more on natural law, although they also appeal to Scripture. To see the stark contrast, compare the Roman Catholic statement on abortion with that of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is not hard to see which statement is more persuasive, even for Christians.

One of the reasons so many people are skeptical about natural law is because they think of it as an airtight rational system akin to the medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas at best, or to the humanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment at worst. In the case of the former, people are skeptical that anything can ever really be proven by the rigorous use of reason and logic without the support of Scripture. In the case of the latter, people note that natural law is often used as a means of escaping God’s will for human beings rather than following it. Now I have no desire to criticize Thomas Aquinas’s view of natural law. I actually find it quite cogent and helpful. But here I am dealing with Evangelical perceptions, not with Thomas’s actual theory.

In contrast to the Thomist and Enlightenment versions, John Calvin’s approach to natural law is often viewed as insignificant and less than helpful. Although Calvin invoked natural law almost constantly, he never developed a theory of natural law. He seemed to treat it more as a set of intuitions based on human experience than as a rational edifice of argument and theory. As a result, many Evangelicals assume that his use of the concept is a medieval holdover rather than an active part of the reformer’s theology.

But natural law did play a major role in Calvin’s theology, and we should not mistake his lack of a theoretical development of the concept with the lack of a substantive view of it. Like most theologians, Calvin grounded his view of natural law in Paul’s statement that the law is written on the hearts of the Gentiles. As such, he believed it played a major role in the civil affairs of all peoples in all places, and he regularly appealed to the laws of pagan nations or pagan philosophers to justify his political or social arguments. He believed that natural law was the true standard of rule for political governments.

What I want to suggest here is that Calvin’s lack of a theoretical development of natural law theory may actually be a strength rather than a weakness. If it is precisely the theoretical and rationalistic nature of many natural law arguments that make most people skeptical of them, a version of natural law that emphasizes human experience, intuition, and consensus should strike us somewhat differently. After all, in the real political debates of our day, are not these the points of common ground on which people often come together? Take abortion for instance. It is one thing to hear someone tell you that God has forbade abortion, or to hear someone offer a philosophical argument against it. It is another thing to watch an ultrasound, see the evidence that a fetus feels pain, or view pictures of tiny aborted babies. Or take marriage. Whose argument is based on theoretical top-down reasoning and whose is based on centuries of human experience? Here too, experience, intuition, and human consensus are bastions of common sense.

The point is not that people will always agree with us. The point, rather, is that in this way they will actually understand us, something that has to happen before they can actually be persuaded. People who are skeptical about appeals to written revelation or philosophical argument will actually listen when we demonstrate to them that the views we are advocating will actually help them – personally, socially, economically, and politically. When we appeal to the lessons of history and to the evidence of the social sciences, they might find that the positions we are defending actually have a basis in reality. They might even find us to be reliable citizens, known to genuinely care about the interests of all.

As we enter an age of increasing pluralism, Christians need to come to grips with the fact that Scripture’s authority is no longer widely accepted. We also need to recognize the dangers of a natural ethic based on humanistic rationalism. But we could surely use more of a paradigm for social and political engagement that urges us to love our neighbors by building common ground with them on the problems that we face together. More often than not, on the issues that really matter, this approach will be productive rather than harmful to our common good. It would certainly help to puncture the myth of liberal elitism that says Evangelicals are trying to mold America into a theocracy.

Paul says in Romans 2 that God’s law is written on the hearts of human beings, and all of history and human experience points to the continuing reality of this common grace. God’s commandments are not arbitrary, abstract and isolated from the requirements of human flourishing. On the contrary, they are grounded in the very order of creation as it works itself out economically, socially, and politically. We need to start acting like we believe this truth by reaching out to our neighbors with the confidence that because we live in the world God has created, God’s will actually does reflect the way in which life is lived most healthily and productively. Showing this to people – even people who do not share our faith – will do a world of good for our common life together.

[Note: the original version of this article has been edited.]

Why we should vote against arguments based on Christian revelation for the sake of the common good

The current presidential campaign could be viewed as a culture war. One candidate self-consciously stands for Christianity and regularly justifies his policies based on the teachings of Jesus. The other candidate would be the first ever American president who is not a Christian and this candidate is manifestly reluctant to allow divine revelation to shape his political rhetoric. As Christians, it seems clear, we should stand for our faith. As one thoughtful Christian once said to me, we desperately need more politicians who have the courage to stand up and say, we should do _____ because it is what God commands, and Jesus is Lord!

But of course, despite the way American politics is often portrayed, appeals to Christian revelation as the basis for policy are common across the political spectrum, and judging by the history of the Christian tradition and its centuries of wisdom in political theology, neither the right nor the left can claim consistently to reflect the teachings of Christianity. Of course, what renders religious rhetoric so problematic in politics is that it is often not easy to tell how Christian teaching should be applied to politics at all. Should the government force us to hold all things in common, to sell our possessions and give to the poor? Should the government punish all sexual immorality? Should the government allow slavery? We could go on and on. Who is to arbitrate between Christians who take different positions on these issues? And are the disagreements really the result of one side seeking to take Scripture seriously while the other is not? Usually the use of Scripture is far more selective than that – on both sides.

Of course, I am not arguing that there is no Christian view of politics. If I thought that, it would be a little odd for me to pursue a dissertation and career in political theology. My point, rather, is that Christian political theology itself calls us to view politics as the arena for arguments and actions that appeal to and foster the common good. Grounded as it is in power and the threat of violent coercion, politics is not the place to try and work out the teachings of Jesus for the kingdom of God.

In that light, Michael Gerson describes the differing approaches to politics represented by President Obama and Mitt Romney:

the most interesting element of the Liberty address was its main argument. Romney claimed that culture is the key to civilizational success — and that American culture is shaped by Jewish and Christian values such as the priority of the individual, personal responsibility and the dignity of work. These values, in turn, are strengthened in religious institutions and traditional families. Agree or disagree, Romney set out a sophisticated case for cultural conservatism: that liberal public institutions depend on virtues and values shaped in conservative social institutions.

Contrast this to the way President Obama has often approached social issues. He justified his recent switch on gay marriage, in part, as the direct application of Christian teaching. “When we think about our faith,” he said, “the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.” In 2008, he justified his support for civil unions by saying: “If people find that controversial, then I would justrefer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” During this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Obama justified raising taxes on the rich by contending it “coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’ ”

Agree or disagree with the policies Obama recommends, his arguments can’t be called sophisticated. They are the liberal political application of a “What Would Jesus Do?” wristband. In a mirror reflection of the religious right, Obama has a tendency to engage in partisan proof texting — which is divisive in service to any ideology. Saying “I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount” is a claim of divine authority that short-circuits democratic debate. Even when Obama changes his political views, Jesus somehow comes around to agreeing with him.

Of course, many conservative Christians would immediately argue that Obama is not a real Christian and that he is misusing Christian revelation. But that is hardly a charitable interpretation of the president’s life and rhetoric. I strongly doubt the president is lying through his teeth, and there are plenty of people who hold his views and who are sincerely trying to follow Jesus’ teachings as they understand them. They may be wrong, but that does not mean they are not sincere.

The reality is that Christianity does contain far more radical teachings regarding property and relief for the poor than most conservative Christians are willing to admit, its teaching on sexual morality is far clearer than liberals are willing to acknowledge, and none of this should be the basis for the politics of the common good. I have already made this argument repeatedly during the past few days in relation to marriage. Now let me make it in relation to the government’s role in providing for the poor.

The Obama administration has recently packaged its appeal to women voters by illustrating the important role of government policy and provision in the life of an ordinary woman – Julia. It then contrasts this picture with Romney’s policies, showing how much women would lose under a President Romney. All policy details aside, note the implications of the illustration. As Ross Douthat writes for the New York Times:

All propaganda invites snark and parody, and the story of Julia is ripe for it. She’s an everywoman only by the standards of the liberal upper middle class: She works as a Web designer, has her first child in her early 30s (the average first-time American mother is in her mid-20s), and spends her golden years as a “volunteer at a community garden.” (It will not surprise you to learn that the cartoon Julia looks Caucasian.)

What’s more, she seems to have no meaningful relationships apart from her bond with the Obama White House: no friends or siblings or extended family, no husband (“Julia decides to have a child,” is all the slide show says), a son who disappears once school starts and parents who only matter because Obamacare grants her the privilege of staying on their health care plan until she’s 26. This lends the whole production a curiously patriarchal quality, with Obama as a beneficent Daddy Warbucks and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan co-starring as the wicked uncles threatening to steal Julia’s inheritance.

Douthat goes on to make a case against what he sees as the policy flaws of the Obama administration:

the slide show’s vision of the individual’s relationship to the state seems designed to vindicate every conservative critique of the Obama-era Democratic Party. The liberalism of “the Life of Julia” doesn’t envision government spending the way an older liberalism did — as a backstop for otherwise self-sufficient working families, providing insurance against job loss, decrepitude and catastrophic illness. It offers a more sweeping vision of government’s place in society, in which the individual depends on the state at every stage of life, and no decision — personal, educational, entrepreneurial, sexual — can be contemplated without the promise that it will be somehow subsidized by Washington.

At the her.meneutics blog Gina Dalfonzo offers a similar criticism about the Obama administration’s portrayal of women:

But the result is that Julia’s life is just a little too revealing about modern mores, especially when we see birth control but not a partner, and later a pregnancy (which she carefully “decides” upon, of course) but not a father. These foundational areas of Julia’s life are so completely in her own hands that, apparently, there is no one else qualified or permitted to make these decisions with her.

In fact, Julia demonstrates a certain erroneous view of women that has seeped into the culture: The strong, empowered woman is one who does everything by herself—even if that version of independence leads, paradoxically, to dependence on government. But how many of us really live like that? How many of us want to live like that?

Remember, Romney, Douthat, and Dalfonzo are arguing against policies grounded in appeals to Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus. In response, they are appealing to a conception of the common good that they believe has widespread currency. It’s not that they necessarily reject the teachings of Jesus. It’s that they think government’s role is to preserve peace and order in such a way as to free people to follow or reject those teachings of their own volition. There is great wisdom here. Quoting Scripture or appealing to the teachings of Jesus is not the same thing as doing politics as Christians should do it.

Catholic Social Teaching: A Case Study for Evangelicals

The Aquila Report has published an article by me on the decades-old struggle over the political significance of Roman Catholic social teaching. Here is a teaser, but I hope you’ll read the rest of the article on the Aquila Report:

Many Evangelicals are not very familiar with Catholic social teaching, though they do tend to like conservative Catholic leaders like Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. Yet it is worth paying attention to what makes Catholic conservatives like Ryan tick, as well as to what brings them criticism from left-leaning Catholics. Not only does the tradition of Catholic social teaching have an immense amount of wisdom to teach us; there is always much to learn from watching how politicians and pundits try to turn theological principles into concrete proposals of policy.
Ryan described the way in which Catholic theology shaped his budget plan in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Particularly noteworthy was his appeal to two very important principles of Catholic social thought, generally endorsed by both conservatives and liberals.
On the principle of subsidiarity:
Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.
“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society … where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.
Read the rest here.

Should the PCA be part of the National Association of Evangelicals?

An ongoing point of controversy in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is whether or not the denomination should maintain its membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Wes White has posted the text of an overture from one presbytery requesting that the General Assembly (which will meet in June) withdraw from the NAE. However, he has also posted the response of the Interchurch Relations Committee, which is recommending that the PCA not withdraw.

The arguments both ways are interesting, and they seem to revolve to a significant extent around the NAE’s perceived advocacy of policies and positions designed to curb global warming. As the Interchurch Relations Committee notes, however, the NAE’s position on creation care is actually quite nuanced, quite good, and avoids any position on global warming. That a former leader within the NAE, Richard Cizik, was and is highly involved in an effort to raise awareness about global warming does not mean that the NAE shared Cizik’s views.

Why should the PCA be involved in an association like the NAE at all? Interestingly, the presbytery requesting withdrawal does so on the basis of a two kingdoms type logic:

The PCA does not need a voice in Washington championing political concerns that would not even be permitted as a subject of discussion before its councils, let alone be adopted as positions.

Yet the Interchurch Relations Committee’s response questions the assumptions behind this claim and refuses to allow potentially controversial political issues to distract from the broader reasons for PCA membership in the NAE.

Through its participation in the NAE the PCA has contacts with other evangelical Christian denominations, organizations, individuals, and ministries, shares in the mercy ministries of the World Relief Commission, participates in world evangelization, and has a greater voice and influence in civic engagement through the NAE Office of Governmental Affairs in Washington D.C.

Membership in the NAE helps Presbyterians maintain the broader unity of Christ’s church:

We believe that “the catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, and the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Westminster Confession of Faith XXV-1). We do not believe that Presbyterian-Reformed believers are the only Christians or that the PCA is the only legitimate expression of the Church. (“This scriptural doctrine of Presbytery is necessary for the perfection of the order of the visible Church, but is not essential to its existence” Book of Church Order, 1-7). Fellowship and cooperation with other evangelical Christians is consistent with our theology.

Finally, the NAE’s political work is actually helpful and pertinent to the mission of the church:

The NAE’s presence in Washington and other venues champions such concerns as the defense of marriage as being between one man and one woman, the liberty of evangelical military chaplains freely to preach, teach, and practice the Gospel and biblical truth, the liberty of evangelical campus ministries, not only speaking out against abortion but actually reducing the number of abortions in America, seeking to reduce international sexual trafficking of women and children, promoting religious liberty in areas where Christians are persecuted, imprisoned or enslaved. Surely, such issues are not off limits for discussion or actions in PCA church courts.

I think all of these are excellent points, and there is much more in the committee’s response worth reading. The church does have an obligation before Christ to maintain unity – both informal and formal – with all churches faithful to the Gospel of Christ. Furthermore, the church does have the obligation of proclaiming to civil governments both God’s judgment and the Gospel when matters of basic justice are in view. The two kingdoms doctrine qualifies how the church should go about doing this, but it does not mean the church should remain silent before civil government. All of the classic Reformed two kingdoms advocates, from Calvin on, argued that the two kingdoms must interact and even cooperate together on matters of common concern. One need not be a theocrat to hold this position. And on that note, the NAE’s basic statement on the implications of the Gospel for politics is excellent, and anyone interested in these matters should read it.

That said, none of this justifies the PCA or the NAE or any other ecclesiastical body being involved in partisan politics or the nitty-gritty work of policy, let alone speaking out on matters that are inherently prudential. My concern about the NAE is that on various issues it crosses just this line. In its recent statement on nuclear weapons the NAE made numerous prudential determinations beyond the authority of the church, let alone the consensus of the denominations and individuals who make up the NAE. And while the NAE’s statement on immigration is somewhat better, its advocacy of particular policies of immigration reform is alarming and hardly represents the legitimate function of the church.

What all of this means is that there are excellent reasons for the PCA to be a part of the NAE but there are also good reasons for it to be concerned. The PCA should use its influence to curb the NAE’s problematic actions, reminding it that its influence is entirely dependent on its faithfulness to the Gospel and its representativeness of the denominations that form it. And the NAE should not take its influence or the membership of the PCA for granted. This stuff matters. The integrity of the church’s gospel witness is at stake.

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