The National Debt: A Guide for the Perplexed (and Alarmed)

Since coming back to the US, I have been surprised how often the national debt comes up in conversations about most any political topic.  In discussions about inequality, for instance, I hear that we can hardly trust the government to address inequality given its own financial incompetence, and that if there is financial injustice about, surely the greatest injustice is the government’s systematic stealing from our children and grandchildren, whom we are saddling with an intolerable burden of debt.  The theme of the travesty and looming catastrophe of US government debt has fueled the rise of the Tea Party, and played a role in the ridiculous fiscal standoffs in Congress over the past couple years.  Of course, it is an important fiscal concern that both parties should be attentive to, but this is not usually how one hears it discussed—i.e., in the context of particular policies for fiscal responsibility.  Rather, it is used as a universal putdown—a way of claiming, no matter what the particular point is under discussion, that the government cannot be trusted because its debt is both irresponsible and immoral, and that only a radical overhaul (one might almost say “overthrow” from some of the rhetoric) of our government can save us from imminent disaster.

As someone who used to be something of a national debt alarmist myself, I thought it might be helpful to put the issue in the proper context.  The following is an expanded form of a little explanation I gave to a friend on the question after a political discussion last week.

1) Use real numbers
For one thing, inflation is generally ignored.  All you have to do is yell out $16 trillion—an obviously immense sum—and point proven, right?  “Over the last forty years, the debt has risen from $500 billion to $16 trillion—our debt is spiraling out of control.”  Adjust for inflation, though, and it’s only risen from $2.4 trillion to $16.8 trillion.  Obviously, however, that’s still a pretty substantial increase.  That’s why it’s important to: Read More


Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 2—Overview of the Way of the Cross

 

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I am spiritually blind.  Conservative Christian and blind. I am one of the many who followed the broad path and said to Jesus “I will follow you” but did “not sit down first and count the cost” (Luke 14:28). . . . I am the rich young ruler Jesus addressed.  I have a car, several computers, lawn sprinklers, a tiled shower, a full pantry, air conditioning, a nice outdoor deck, plenty of books, and I’ve spent years sincerely trying to figure out theological questions—“Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) (3).

So Doug Jones opens chapter 1 of Dismissing Jesus, “Overview of the Way of the Cross” (see Pt. 1 of my review here).  It is a jarring opening, but an effective one.  It shows us at that whatever this book is going to be, it is not going to be an arrogant diatribe, but a personal confession.  If we feel our consciences pricked along the way, then, we can infer, the author speaks from a pricked conscience as well, and we are anything but alone.

This is a good thing, since the language of “blindness,” which dominates in this first section of the book, would otherwise (and no doubt, still will) raise a lot of hackles. Now, while I have concerns about this language, it is clearly Scriptural.  As Jones points out, “But when Scripture addresses God’s people, it portrays spiritual blindness as rather normal.  It’s regular, common, cutting across Old and New Testaments. . . . [A series of passages are cited.] Blindness everywhere. God’s people have a high probability of blindness” (4).  Moreover, as Jones goes on to show
throughout, the very things that we American Christians have in abundance—wealth, power, security—are those things that most conspire to produce spiritual blindness.  And sometimes, the more convinced we are that we are not blind, the more likely we are to be. At the very least, the accusation of blindness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but should prompt us to sit up and listen, and take a good look at Scripture and our own lifestyles and attitudes.  Few of us should come away from the exercise without discovering massive blind spots, if not outright blindness. Read More


Post-Apocalyptic Musings

I penned my ponderous essay, “Why I Won’t Be Voting,” last week, in hopes that, having lobbed it into cyberspace, I could then quietly retreat again from all things election-related.  Sure, I was planning to get up in the wee hours of the morning to watch election returns, but that was for mere entertainment value…like watching the Olympics, which also only comes around every four years. I had intended to strictly steer clear of Facebook on the day of and the day after the election, to avoid being swamped in hysteria.  Unfortunately, my family was out of town, and, feeling socially isolated, I couldn’t resist puttering about and listening in.  I beheld many strange and wonderful things, from the comical—people seriously contemplating emigrating to Canada (why only now, not in 2008? They’ve survived the last four years alright, haven’t they?  And how exactly do they expect to find Canada less “socialist” than Obamerica?)—to the disturbing—people suggesting that Obama supporters might warrant church discipline.  Mixed in, usually in linked articles rather than on Facebook itself, were a number of profound and thoughtful observations.

Having wallowed about for a day or two now in the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions to the reactions, I find myself, despite my best intentions, ready to weigh in with my own two cents.  The first cent is political, the second theological.

 

1. What took me the most by surprise about the election was the surprise at the result.  I mean, sure I knew that people on the Right seemed mostly optimistic, and unrealistically so.  But I had figured that it was the understandable brave face that everyone puts on when they go into battle, or when their team has a big game.  Everyone wants to think that their side has a legitimate shot even when outgunned, and even when they have their doubts, they don’t share them with others—that just dampens the team spirit.  But when defeat comes, you bow your head, say, “I knew it was an uphill battle,” shake hands, and move on.  Right?  Not the Right.  

The reactions witnessed on the blogosphere, the media, and in social media yesterday were those of stunned incomprehension.  It became clear that all the brash boasting had not been mere posturing, but sincere belief—sincere belief that despite the weakness, sliminess, and general dislikeableness of their candidate, that despite all the polls, the math, the expert predictions, their candidate was really going to win.  Indeed, not only win, but many believed, trounce.  In the end, it really wasn’t even that close, and it matched up almost perfectly to what the polls were predicting. Hard facts won.  Delusions lost.

 

This reaction disturbed me, because it confirmed the Right’s steady journey away from reality that we have witnessed over the past few years.  Somewhere along the way—I’m not sure when it happened—conservatives in America reached the conclusion that “the mainstream media” was not to be trusted.  It was hopelessly tainted by liberal bias.  Once this idea sunk in, the normal means of testing claims and forming judgments became useless.  Anything that any respectable source of information or opinion said could be automatically discounted; indeed, not only could we legitimately doubt these claims, but we could generally assume that the opposite was the case.  Around the same time, the Right reached the conclusion that scientists as a whole were gained by the same liberal bias.  They were probably part of some conspiracy seeking for one world government.  Anything they said could also be discounted, and indeed, the opposite assumed to be the case.  So engrained have these habits become that the Right has begun to think of these biases as accepted facts.  “Everyone knows” global warming is a hoax.  “Everyone knows” the media is biased.  These are just facts of life, right?  Now, once you have determined that both expert scientific opinion and nearly all respected forms of journalism are unreliable and even openly deceptive, what are you to conclude?  That truth is elusive and we can’t really know anything?  No, that truth is certain and unchangeable and is what you want it to be.  Personal impressions begin to trump all other considerations.  I recall a revealing moment a couple years ago when a Republican congressman ranted to Ben Bernanke about how inflation was spiraling out of control.  Bernanke calmly pointed out that according to all relevant data, the inflation rate was actually at its lowest in years, less than 2 percent.  The congressman responded that he and his constituents, given their impressions, would beg to differ.  The same attitude was manifest in the bizarrely exaggerated claims throughout the campaign about how bad the economy was, how Obama had wrecked America, and how he was the worst president ever.  Sure, there were things to complain about, but it was hard to see how a sober evaluation of the data bore out any of these conclusions.  And yet the odd thing was that they were presented not as opinions—”Well, from where we’re standing, Obama seems like the worst president we’ve ever had”—but as simple facts, which any rational person ought to accept.  

“Any rational person”—ay, there’s the rub.  Of course, in any partisan conflict, it is common for people to begin to think of their opponents as somehow stupid or irrational.  But the Right has made this way of thinking its trademark.  In the “War on Terror” this attitude allowed conservatives to convince themselves that Muslims were filled with an irrational and implacable hatred of America.  Any discussion with them was useless, because they were incapable of rational discourse or human sympathy…they were, in essence, sub-human.  Once such a conclusion had been reached, any argument they made, however reasonable, could be dismissed as a mere ploy. 

Tuesday night revealed that now, conservatives have reached the same conclusion about their fellow Americans who disagree with them.  Obama’s slap-in-the-face victory should have served as a wake-up call, a reminder that there was a real world out there beyond their fantasies, and ignoring it wasn’t going to get them anywhere.  It was time for conservatives to take a good hard look in the mirror and say, “Gosh, we’re not very attractive anymore.  I wonder why?”  It was time for them to recognize that the majority of the country felt differently than them about Obama and its policies, and if they wanted to continue to claim to love America, they’d better find a way to accept this fact, and recognize that living in a society means accepting policies you don’t always like.  Some, to their credit, have done so, and hopefully more will in the weeks and months ahead. For many leading conservatives however, confronted with the awful truth that they’ve been living in the Matrix, and there’s a real world out there to face up to, the response has been to retreat into the comfort of fantasy land, only now with a more militant edge.

 

The new rallying-cry of the Right is Romney’s appalling and much-maligned “Forty-seven percent” remarks.  Conservatives are preparing to raise that as their banner (even while having the gall to accuse Obama of inciting “class warfare”!), adjusting the number slightly upward to 51%.  It doesn’t matter that most people considered the moral sensibilities behind Romney’s remarks reprehensible.  Nor does it matter that it was pointed out on all sides that they bore no relationship to the facts.  It was simply not true that anything like 51% or 47% of the American people were freeloading off the largesse of Obama, nor that those who were freeloading were generally Obama supporters.  But that didn’t matter.  Because this fantasy provided an explanation to help rationalize what had happened.  The reason the Right didn’t win was because it couldn’t win.  It was hopeless.  Why?  Because a majority of the American people were now in the pay of the enemy.  They were bribed.  They didn’t give a hoot about the Constitution or the future of their country, so long as they received a never-ending supply of free stuff without ever having to work for it.  Rush Limbaugh declared that it was hard to win when you were running against Santa Claus.  Of course, this is pure fantasy from a statistical standpoint.  Over half of Obama’s votes came from people earning more than $50,000 a year, a demographic that did side with Romney, but by a narrow margin (53%-45%).  Not only that, but the group most likely to vote for Romney (by a 55%-44% margin) were retirees.  Freeloaders, feeding from the public trough of Medicare and Social Security, right?  

But the purpose of the narrative was not to describe facts.  It was to help make sense of what otherwise seemed inexplicable.  For so thoroughly had the Right equated their vision of the world with truth that the revelation that most did not share their vision could only be explained by positing that these voters were evil or irrational.  Even better, such an explanation provided an excuse.  Republicans need not blame themselves for their failures, when scapegoats were so near at hand.  If 52% of the population were lazy and greedy and cared nothing about the direction of the country, then there was nothing the Right could’ve done.  

A chasm of mutual incomprehension, in short, has opened up in American society.  I had hoped that the election would provide an opportunity for self-examination, for taking stock, for righting this sinking ship of a decadent society.  But on the contrary, it has seemed to only confirm the determination of conservatives to live in a separate parallel world, one in which they represent the true American and can write off a majority of their fellow citizens.  Needless to say, if conservatives want to put forward a vision for America, it will have to be a vision for all Americans, a vision that can include them, their hopes, fears, and aspirations.  By seemingly resigning themselves to the fact that they are and will be a minority, arrayed against a morally decadent majority incapable of judgment, the Right seems to be preparing for an age of factional strife in which a victorious minority can impose its will on the people.  And even for those of us who think that many conservative values would, on the whole, be good for America, that is a frightful prospect.  

 

We are at a crossroads, with three paths before us.  1) Conservatives can accept that they are a minority, and retreat, yielding the field of American public policy to the victors, and go into hiding as the prophesied doom approaches. 2) Conservatives can turn militant, harden their platform into one of racial and class warfare and hope their chance comes to impose it upon an unwilling majority.  3) Conservatives can recognize that they live in a divided country, with different values, different understandings of the good, and different views about how to reach it, and then try to figure out how to negotiate these differences, sticking to their principles while accepting the need to make compromises in practice, as the price of continued life together.   

I hope and pray there are enough now willing to take the third option, and if so, I would try and console them with the thought that the divisions are not half so great as they imagine.  Obama is not a raving socialist, nor are American liberals particularly liberal.  They are a tad to the left on a political spectrum that is, by global and historical standards, quite narrow indeed.  If we cannot figure out how to talk to people who share, in fact, most of our basic cultural and political assumptions, then we have lost the power of speech altogether.  Such a call to learn to live life together is not a call to compromise with evil.  First of all, I do not think it self-evidently obvious that the 51% who voted for Obama are evil—they had many good reasons, not least of which was the atrociously insincere candidate the Republicans put forward.  But even if they were (and to be sure, some elements of the Democratic agenda, particularly among the most fervent pro-choice advocates, are evil), we mustn’t forget that we can only combat evil if we attempt to understand it. Just as we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why a Muslim suicide bomber would want to kill American civilians, we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why many Americans would want four more years of Obama.  Comforting ourselves with the fairy tale that they just want Santa Claus will not get us anywhere. 

 

 

2. Now, some theology. 

I was troubled yesterday by the inundation of my Facebook feed with Christian brothers and sisters seeking solace and comfort in God in a time of trial.  Let’s remember, they said, that God will never leave us nor forsake us.  Let’s remember that Jesus is the King, and no earthly election can change that.  Let’s remember that God is in control, and he is working his purposes out, mysterious though they may seem.  

Why should this trouble me?  Why would I be bothered at such fine and Scriptural sentiments?  Well, two reasons.  First is the “methinks the lady doth protest too much” consideration.  To clasp your hands to your chest, hyperventilate, and repeat over and over, “I’m fine.  I’m fine.  I know it’s all going to be all right.  It’s going to be all right” is generally a sign that you are not fine, and you don’t really think it’s going to be all right.  Many folks yesterday seemed to speak as if they’d just lost a close relative and needed to find comfort in God in a time of such bewilderment and distress.  I would rather them seek comfort in God than elsewhere, but if such comfort was needed, it suggests that many had a rather mixed up set of priorities (not to mention a tenuous grip on reality, since, as I said above, an Obama victory was almost a foregone conclusion).  Second, and related, was the fact that only a Romney loss seemed to call for meditation on the discontinuity between God’s kingdom and our politics.  In the lead up to the election, we heard little enough from Christians on the right about the need to keep things in perspective and remember that the result of the election is a fairly small thing in God’s eyes, and will not obstruct the progress of his kingdom.  On the contrary, we were repeatedly told how much hinged upon it.  A Romney victory, it seems, would have been taken as visible proof that God was at work—here was God’s grace and his government made manifest.  Only a Romney defeat called for the sentiment that God moves in mysterious ways—his hand was now hidden, and we must simply trust.  

Again, I’m glad that many Christians came to that conclusion, but I would ask them to remember that God’s hand is always more or less hidden, that he always moves in mysterious ways, and that whichever of these two candidates had won, it would not have been the visible manifestation of his gracious rule.  If it takes a Democratic victory to keep Christians from immanentizing the eschaton, and remind them that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, then let’s have a few more such victories.  

 

Perhaps more troubling, though, was the determination of some to persist nonetheless in discerning God’s hand of eschatological judgment made visible in the election.  For these, Obama’s victory was not to be met with a humble acknowledgment “God moves in mysterious ways, and we’ll trust him, although we don’t know what he’s up to.”  They did know what he was up to—judgment.  Doug Wilson, after offering the standard reassurances that Jesus was Lord, and was in control even if we didn’t know why, immediately contradicted this agnosticism, declaring, “Given the wickedness of key elements in Obama’s agenda . . . we know that whatever the Lord is doing, it is for judgment and not for blessing.”  We can know the will of the Lord in this case, and it was his will to judge this nation.  Of course, Scripture gives us conflicting guidance when it comes to such attempts at prophetic discernment.  We have cases like Job and the Tower of Siloam where we are taught clearly that we must not attempt to divine the Lord’s will in the vicissitudes of history—in particularly, we must not equate particular tragedies with acts of divine wrath and judgment.  On the other hand, in the prophets, we find countless examples of just such equations—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, the whole lot of them, have little hesitation in saying, “This Assyrian invasion is the Lord’s punishment.  This pestilence is the Lord’s punishment.”  How do we reconcile this?  I would tentatively suggest that the reconciliation is found in the fact that these are precisely prophets doing this.  The ability to discern God’s hand in history is the definition of the gift of prophecy, and it is a gift that has, I would argue, ceased (although we can certainly debate that).  This doesn’t mean we can make no attempts at discernment, but they must usually be highly tentative (there are times, of course, when discernment is important and possible—e.g., Germany in 1933—but they are rare), and they do not carry prescriptive weight. 

This last point is key.  If we know exactly what God is doing in particular events in history, then we can know exactly whose side we should be on.  We can know what actions are for cursing and which are for blessing.  And we can, on this basis, tell Christians exactly how they should respond to these circumstances.  We are no longer left with the murky compass of prudence, but should be able to perceive all things clearly in the light of God’s judgment.  The implication of remarks like Wilson’s, it would seem, is that we can know that those who voted for Obama were helping call down God’s curse upon us.  

And in fact, Wilson draws precisely this conclusion—”Professing Christians who voted for Obama were either confusedly or rebelliously heaping up judgment for all of us.”  Every “principled vote,” he says, offered in faith before the Lord, should be respected, “even if the vote cast differed from our own.”  But he apparently has in mind votes for a third party vs. votes for Romney, since he goes on to classify all votes for Obama under the heading of unprincipled votes.  Now, if I can know that a professing Christian is heaping up judgment for the rest of us, how should I be expected to treat that Christian?  Will I want to live together with him in love and seek to understand him, or will I try to distance myself from him?  It is hard to see how this kind of rhetoric can square with the doctrine of Christian liberty, or how it can be expected to have any effect other than intensifying divisions among Christians and rendering mutual understanding increasingly impossible.  It is the theological equivalent of what the commentators at Fox News are doing—consigning all Obama voters to the realm of wickedness and irrationality, instead of trying to understand them.   

Many Christians are clearly of the opinion that if pastors were doing their job right (including a more vigorous use of church discipline), there would not be many Obama supporters in the church.  One friend wrote

“we need to be serious about our Christianity.  It’s not hard to see why President Obama was reelected.  He won 43% of the Protestant vote, and 50% of the Catholic vote.  I’ve got to ask – how can you be a Christian and vote for a blood-thirsty, baby-killing, free sex-loving agenda?  How can you?  I’ll tell you how – because our pastors and our churches have failed.  They’ve not only failed to boldly proclaim the Gospel (which condemns both murder and free sex, as well as a host of other immoralities), but because they’ve failed to hold their congregations accountable.  This is where a free and open membership has destroyed the church.  Pastors must be serious about their obligation to Christ and His Church.  What are the keys for, after all?  If your members are in sin and are unwilling to repent, then they must be excommunicated. I’m not saying our churches can’t be full of sinners.  They are, they must be, and they always will be.  But our churches should be full of repentant sinners. 

Faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom, this suggests, requires a particular affiliation in the earthly kingdom, and this needs to be policed by the ministers of Christ’s kingdom.  You couldn’t find a much better example of why Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine is necessary.  

 

Now, my beef with this is of course not that faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom never has anything to do with worldly politics.  Obviously, I think it has a great deal to do with it, and there are times when a Christian’s duties should be clear.  But even when they are clear (e.g., end the slave trade, protect the needy, resist abortion), the means to those ends are not always clear.  In the present case, we have not been given a candidate who makes any plausible claim to stand for Christian principles.  What we are left with is a prudential decision between two candidates who are likely to do a good deal of harm, in which we try to decide which will do the least harm.  We should not consider it remotely obvious, in this circumstance, that one was the Christian choice, and that everyone who voted otherwise was a servant of wickedness or incapable of discernment.  After all, as Steve Holmes has pointed out in a helpful essay, the large majority of Christians outside the US hoped for an Obama victory.  Is that because all of them, too, are waiting for Santa Claus, or are heaping up God’s judgment on us?  Really?  It’s time for us to stop hiding in the ghetto, man up, and face the arduous task of persuasion and debate in a world where our own perspective is not the only plausible one, where we will meet disagreement at every turn, and no doubt find ourselves surprised to discover that it is, from time to time, intelligent disagreement.

 

(In addition to Holmes’s essay just linked, I recommend, for further reading, Matthew Tuininga’s reflectionsa piece published by the Atlantic yesterday, and Peter Leithart’s butt-kicking prognosis at First Things.)

(UPDATE: See also this astonishingly trenchant analysis by Alastair Roberts of the differences between the way British Christians and American Christians approach politics, which resonates with a great deal of my own observations after more than three years here in the UK.)


Liberty, Libertarianism, and Christian Ethics

A curious feature of American Christianity, rarely shared by Christians in other nations and cultures, is its propensity toward libertarianism, a philosophy that, at first glance, would seem to be intrinsically inimical to Christian teaching.  Where libertarianism tends to put the individual, his preferences, and his interests first and foremost, Christianity has always insisted that man is social, man is meant for community, and ought to put the interests of others first.  Where libertarianism exalts the value of unrestricted free choice, on the basis of individual preferences and interests, Christianity is committed to a strong view of objective moral norms which condition our freedom, rendering many choices unacceptable on the basis that they are in fact harmful both to the community and the individual.  Clearly a Christian cannot coherently be libertarian in this extreme sense.

For many American Christians, then, their libertarianism is of a pragmatic sort.  The argument, they will say, is not that the individual should in fact be ultimate, or that any exercise of free choice is good and lawful—on the contrary, individualism is harmful, and many free choices are very bad ones, and deserve censure.  Rather, the argument is merely that the restriction of choice by the tool of government coercion will do more harm than good.  Government simply should not be trusted with the enforcement of these moral norms, because law is a blunt instrument that will suppress legitimate freedoms along with illegitimate ones, and power corrupts, so it is not safe to entrust this duty to fallen men.  Better to allow individuals to make free decisions that might sometimes be harmful than give police power to the state to repress such actions.  Such a pragmatic libertarian logic, as I mentioned recently, seems to have traditionally undergirded the right of free speech—people will say lots of harmful, offensive, and unwise things, but giving the government power to suppress such statements will be much worse than living with the collateral damage of this liberty.  Likewise, some Christians may argue that yes, stockpiling excessive wealth is a bad thing, and ought to be used for charity, but we can’t trust the government with deciding what constitutes “excessive wealth.”

 

Fair enough.  Of course, we might object that many American Christians apply this logic selectively, declaring themselves all in favor of government suppression of vice on abortion, marriage, or anything that falls under the heading “family values.”  Or we might point out that if the argument is going to be pragmatic, then we must be committed to a serious empirical investigation of whether the suppression of a given liberty (e.g., stockpiling excessive wealth) really does do more harm than judicious legal restriction would do.  (This, incidentally, would yield something like more classical conservatism, which is genuinely committed to limited government, but also to a firm rule of law in those areas where liberty proves harmful.)  But let’s leave those objections aside for now, and allow the basic logic.  Now, according to this logic, if certain exercises of freedom are in fact harmful or morally objectionable, but civil authority should not be brought to bear in restraining them, then it would seem to follow that all other, non-coercive means should be brought to bear as fully as possible in restraining them.  I alluded to this in my discussion of Limbaugh and free speech.  If we are agreed that seditious or slanderous speech is a bad thing, but that we shouldn’t give government the power to suppress it, then it should fall to us, as responsible citizens, moral people committed to truth, and good Christians, to oppose such speech to the fullest of our ability.  We should use our own freedom of speech to denounce it, we should withdraw our support from those engaged in such wicked speech, should seek to leave them socially and economically isolated.  The fact that nowadays the right to “freedom of speech” is invoked to give any kind of speech immunity from criticism, to imply that those denouncing it are virtually fascists, is clear evidence that in this realm, the pragmatic justification has given way to an ideological one, that the idea that strong moral norms still individual freedom is being jettisoned.  The seductive logic of full-blown libertarianism has subverted the attempted pragmatic compromise.   

The same thing, I suggest, has happened to American Christians, particularly on issues such as economic ethics.  A serious Christian, attentive to the teaching of the Bible and the Christian ethical tradition, would recognize that much of what we as individuals like to do with our money is morally vicious and socially harmful—we greedily stockpile far more than we need, and withhold excess resources from those who urgently need them, we covet material pleasures of every description, we deceive and rip people off in order to come out on top in our exchanges, we pay people the lowest wage we can get by with, pocketing all the extra profit, etc.  Logically, then, a Christian “pragmatic libertarian,” while convinced that employing government power to restrain such things would do more harm than good, ought to be committed to opposing them by every other means.  Ministers should denounce such sins from the pulpit, and individual Christians should oppose them whenever they saw them.  Christian ethicists should write and speak about the dangers of wealth and greed, and seek to establish, in the absence of legal guidelines, moral guidelines for discerning a just wage and a just price, for when too much is too much.  Christians should be committed to bring non-coercive social pressures to bear, for instance boycotts, protests, etc., to seek to restrain such vices.  Right?  And yet, in my experience, we find the opposite.  In fact, whenever such moral pressures and objections are brought to bear, the reaction is no less indignant than if legal force were being used.  Not only must Wal-Mart be legally permitted to pay its workers a minuscule wage, but Christians should not be so “Pharisaical” as to critique it on moral grounds.  Rather than welcoming moral guidance on issues of economic ethics, most Christians balk at it as an intolerable restriction on freedom, and woe betide the pastor who dares to address such questions.  Instead of reasoning, “sure, there’s a such thing as excessive wealth, but the government shouldn’t be trusted to draw the line,” we are told that any attempt to draw the line is oppressive.  “How dare you judge me?” instinctively says the Christian with five cars and three houses.  But of course, this confusion—of moral judgment with genuine tyranny—is the same that modern libertine secularism routinely makes, when it decries the moral claims of Christianity as fascistic, treating any statement of disapproval as tantamount to a restriction of freedom, and hence demanding an immunity from any statement of criticism.  The homosexual rights lobby has gone from asking for civil liberty to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to sexuality, and the Christian Right has gone from demanding immunity from redistributive taxation to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to wealth.  

 

My suspicion, of course, is that this is no coincidence, and that in fact the “pragmatic libertarian” position, as I have called it, is inherently unstable, logically incapable, by its starting point in individual rights, of sustaining genuine social norms.  But for those who don’t want to accept that conclusion, let’s at least see an attempt at consistency—if you don’t want the government dealing with vice and injustice, then at least step up to the plate and be willing to deal with it yourself.


A Snapshot of America

More than ever today, we hear handwringing among the press, politicians, and pollsters, about how America is “headed in the wrong direction,” and eager finger-pointing over who is to blame.  Naturally, we assume that it is our politicians (especially the ones on the other side of the aisle, of course) who are responsible for the general national malaise.  But how much of it, I can’t help but wonder, is due simply to the steady inebriation of our senses with electronic media, and abandonment of reading?  One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to be sobered by the following statistics (taken from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows):

1150: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends online (on a computer)

49: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends reading any form of print publication.  

2,272: number of texts per month the average American teen sends (that’s 75 per day)

153: hours per month the average American spends in front of the TV (still rising despite increased internet usage)

Unsurprisingly, Americans outstrip Europeans by a long shot, spending 50% more time surfing the Net and three times as much time in front of the TV. 

(These figures are all from 2009, I should add, and are most likely considerably worse now, as they had been getting worse at a rapid pace through 2009.)

And consider that, as of 2006, 42% of those watching over 35 hours of TV programming a week (the national average) also used the Net for over 30 hours a week, for a total of over 65 hours per week, nearly 2/3 of their waking hours.