How many divisions has the pope?

I believe that climate change is one of the biggest threats to human civilization of our time, if not the biggest. So in that sense I’m glad that Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical will apparently be a strong endorsement of our responsibility to address it.

Still, I find the excitement around this encyclical to be a bit odd. There seems to be an assumption that this will somehow be a game-changer in galvanizing support for climate action. But if there’s one thing we know about American politics at least, it’s that Catholics’ political behavior is, in general, not detectably different from non-Catholics. Catholic voters as a group vote pretty much the same as the general electorate, and there is no cohesive ideological stance shared by Catholics as such. Among politicians, liberal Catholics like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi freely disregard the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and abortion, while conservative Catholics like Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan ignore its views on the environment and economic justice. Everyone’s a cafeteria Catholic, essentially.

Now, people have come up with various ways to nuance this or have deployed subtle arguments about why it’s OK to disagree with the church or the pope on some issues, while others are non-negotiable. Which, as part of an intra-Catholic debate seems totally legitimate. But it also reinforces the point that people will emphasize the parts of the church’s teaching that line up with their preexisting political commitments. Liberals will talk a lot about social justice and the environment, while conservatives will keep emphasizing gay marriage and abortion. What I don’t see a lot of evidence for is that people are going to change their mind on a big issue like climate change based on what the pope says.

Of course I could be wrong, and in this case I hope I am!

Abusus non tollit usum

Christians who are understandably disillusioned with the Christian Right’s approach to politics sometimes draw what is–I think–an improper lesson from it. That is, since the Christian Right wants to use political power to implement an intolerant or destructive agenda, they infer that the problem is political power as such. Christian blogger Benjamin Corey seems to head in this direction in this otherwise sensible post criticizing the Right’s language of “taking back” the country.

Corey says:

If there ever was a time to talk about “taking the country back” it was the time of Jesus– but that wasn’t anything he was concerned with. Jesus spent his time rejecting political power and instead, invested into building an other-worldly Kingdom where the power-rejectors are actually the greatest. Jesus saw his Kingdom, not political rule, as being the solution to all the ills of earth.

Changing the world via political power will always be a future invitation that never fully materializes. But changing the world through investing in God’s Kingdom? That’s an invitation you can accept and experience right now.

And this is why Christians on both sides of the political coin often get sidetracked: whether we realize it intellectually or not, we have grown to see government and political power as being the answer to the world’s problems– instead of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish.

The problem here, as I see it, is that some problems actually do require the use of government and political power. For example, Social Security has kept millions of senior citizens and disabled people from falling into poverty, minimum wage laws ensure that workers’ earnings don’t fall below a certain level, environmental laws set minimum standards for clean air and water, the Affordable Care Act has significantly reduced the number of people without health insurance, etc.

Now, I fully agree that none of these efforts, singly or collectively, has ushered in the Kingdom of God. But does that mean they aren’t important or were somehow not worth doing? That hardly follows, and it’s a weird sort of ethics, Christian or otherwise, that would be indifferent to such outcomes.

What seems to be driving a lot of this anti-political sentiment is a form of Christian pacifism wedded to what I consider to be a shallow analysis of political power. That is, people who have embraced a certain strain of Anabaptist-influenced pacifism sometimes conclude that all political power is inherently coercive in a bad sense and thus something that Christians should eschew. The problem is that social arrangements are always already structured by power (and thus “coercive” if you like).  So “opting out” of politics simply leaves those existing–and often unjust–power relations in place. The only way to change them, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued decades ago, is by an application of countervailing power. This doesn’t mean violence necessarily, but it does mean something more than sweet reason. (I’m not a pacifist myself, but there are meaningful distinctions to be drawn between “violence,” “power,” “coercion,” etc.)

Ironically, the progressive-pacifist analysis of government and power ends up looking a lot like that of right-wing libertarians, who regard any use of government to address social inequities as illegitimate “coercion.” This is probably a tip off that something’s gone wrong here. Political power is certainly prone to abuse. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a proper use.

Odds and ends for a Friday

I realize I’m exactly the type of person you’d expect to like a Sufjan Stevens album, but nonetheless–the new album is really good!

Evangelical Christian groups are working on a statement of theological concern regarding factory farming. I’m no longer a vegetarian (and feel vaguely guilty about it), but I’m all for any efforts to reform how we treat the animals we raise for food.

There’s been some good stuff published to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some pieces I found of particular interest were this on why we should mark the surrender of the Confederacy with a national holiday, this one on how the issues that split the country still drive our politics and this one on the surprising divergence of Grant’s and Lee’s reputations after the war.

Yesterday was also the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians of every stripe, who often jostle to claim him as one of their own. But Bonhoeffer was far from a plaster saint and clearly recognized his own complicity in evil. Which, if anything, makes him more relevant for us.

Ready for Hillary?

Recent reading

More #content partly repurposed from my Goodreads page…

The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, Rowan Williams

The former archbishop of Canterbury explores the theological underpinnings of Lewis’s beloved fantasy series with his customary erudition and pastoral heart. Williams also does a nice job responding to some recent critics of the series (e.g., Philip Pullman). The purpose of the Narnia books, Williams contends, is to be an intellectual and imaginative “mouthwash” that allows us to encounter the Christian message anew. Probably the best indicator of the book’s success is that it immediately made me want to re-read the Narnia books.

On Niebuhr: A Theological Study, Langdon Gilkey

A clear and engaging exposition of Niebuhr’s theology from a former student (and accomplished theologian in his own right). Gilkey argues that Niebuhr is a more coherent and compelling theologian than he’s often given credit for (as opposed to being a social critic who festooned a largely secular ethical system with pious language). The final chapter helpfully delves into some of Niebuhr’s presuppositions and shows that he remained very much a modernist, despite his strident criticisms of the liberal Protestantism of his day. I came away from this with a renewed appreciation of Niebuhr as a religious thinker.

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt

A comprehensive argument for the right to choose an abortion as essential for women’s full equality. It seems increasingly common for people to call for a “third way” on abortion beyond the extremes of “pro-life” and “pro-choice”; Pollitt, however, compels us to look closely at the concrete effects of various efforts to limit abortion and whether they are driven more by a desire to stigmatize or shame women who have abortions for the “wrong” reasons. She also notes repeatedly that many of the people who oppose legal abortion also oppose policies (e.g., widespread access to birth control, comprehensive sex education, and government support for families) that would do the most to reduce its prevalence. I probably still fall somewhat into the “mushy middle” this book is aimed at, but it definitely nudged me in a more steadfastly pro-choice direction.

Party spirit

The fact is that democracy requires not only the organization of political parties, but also a certain degree of mutual respect or at least tolerance. Whenever the followers of one political party persuade themselves that the future of the nation is not safe with the opposition in power, it becomes fairly certain that the nation’s future is not safe, no matter which party rules. For such political acrimony endangers the nation’s health more than any specific political policies.

–Reinhold Niebuhr, “Democracy and the Party Spirit,” from Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr

These words were originally published in 1954, but it’s hardly much of a stretch to apply them today. Niebuhr thought that “party spirit” in 1954 was more of a problem on the Right than on the Left–as President Eisenhower was trying to manage his party’s radical right flank, who were busy looking for Communists under every bed. And similarly today, there’s no shortage of rhetoric coming from the Right about America’s imminent descent into a socialist hellscape (see Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent speech announcing his presidential campaign, to take just one pertinent example). The main difference now seems to be that the radical right flank accounts for the vast majority of the G.O.P.

But then, I’m a Democrat, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Barack Obama and American henotheism

The response in some quarters to President Obama’s (frankly rather anodyne) remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast has been dispiriting, if sadly predictable. The right-wing outrage machine has (once again) deemed him an apologist for Islamist terrorism and an enemy of true Christianity and Western civilization. (How they square this with his actual record is beyond me.)

More sober commentators have made much of the “Niebuhrian” (as in Reinhold) spirit of the president’s comments. Obama recognizes that no religion has a monopoly on violence, and no society is beyond using faith to justify its crimes. As Niebuhr pointed out again and again, even our best efforts are tainted with self-interest. Humility and self-criticism are indispensable, even while they shouldn’t paralyze us in pursuing justice.

This has been a persistent theme of Obama’s public statements since the beginning of his presidency. He famously named Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers, and there has been no shortage of attempts to look at his policies through a Niebuhrian lens.

The reaction to Obama’s speech from some elements of the Right, however, puts me more in the mind of Reinhold’s brother Helmut Richard. In his justly famous analysis of “radical monotheism,” the younger Niebuhr brother distinguished monotheism in its highest form from what he called “henotheism.” As theologian Douglas Ottati has summarized Niebuhr’s analysis, henotheism “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends.” In a henotheistic scheme, God is used to prop up the values of the group, rather than calling people to a truly universal ethic.

When people can’t abide self-criticism or acknowledge that Christianity has been used to justify despicable evil (from the Crusades to pogroms against Jews to slavery and Jim Crow, and much besides), henotheism is at work. Christianity becomes the religion of our tribe, rather than a faith in the God who, as Obama’s favorite president put it, “has His own purposes.” The reaction to Obama’s rather mild comments says a lot more about the operative theology of much American Christianity than it does about him.

Extremists for love and justice

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love–“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice–“Let  justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ–“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist–“Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist–“I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist–“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

These words are still powerful and challenging considering how quickly we deploy “extremist” as a term of opprobrium. Islamist terrorists are “extremists”; right-wing congressmen are “extremists”; left-wing environmentalists are “extremists.” Using “extremist” as an inherent term of abuse shifts the grounds of the debate, making the the “moderates” sound reasonable by definition and suggesting that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. But as we well know, King had some harsh words for those he called the “white moderates”–the clergy and other respectable citizens who, while they may have been sympathetic to the aims of the civil rights movement, were uncomfortable with anything that seemed to create “conflict.” They preferred orderly, incremental change that didn’t involve disruptive measures like civil disobedience. But as King’s roll call of “extremists” demonstrates, sometimes conflict–even bloody conflict–is unavoidable in order to unmask the violence and injustice that simmer and fester beneath the surface of an apparently “peaceful” social order.

I also find King’s words personally challenging because I am, by temperament, a conservative person who prefers orderly, incremental change. I’m deeply skeptical of revolutions and Manichean crusades. And yet–some cases do seem to call for a certain black-and-white thinking. Certainly the systematic oppression of black people in the South (and elsewhere in America) was such a case. (Or even more clear-cut, the case of chattel slavery.) A preference for order and incrementalism, as King points out, is often a luxury of the privileged.

Needless to say, I don’t have a good answer to the question of when “extremism” is called for. But surely one essential task is to listen attentively to the voices of those who are pushed to the margins our society–those who most keenly pay the price to prop up the existing order. Examples aren’t particularly hard to come by these days–whether it be the unemployed and hungry, those incarcerated in a nightmarish prison system, or the victims of police brutality. Attending to such people is a quintessentially Christian set of priorities–Matthew 25 priorities you might say. Any social order that rests on the systematic disenfranchisement, impoverishment, or devaluing of some segment of its population, whatever other virtues it may have, falls far short of what justice–at least as the Bible defines justice–requires.

The case for American social democracy–4: final thoughts

(Previous posts: here, here, and here.)

My summary can’t do justice to Kenworthy’s book, largely because it leaves out the impressive array of data he uses to buttress his arguments. I’m hardly a data-wonk, but in most cases the evidence he presents is clear and fairly persuasive in showing how the policies he favors can ameliorate the problems of economic stagnation and inequality. He’s also fair and level-headed in addressing objections, and generally un-dogmatic about his conclusions.

There are still things to argue with in this book, though. One of the more interesting arguments, to me anyway, is whether liberals/leftists/social democrats should agree with Kenworthy in accepting a future consisting in large part of relatively low-wage service jobs “cushioned” by generous government spending and services, or whether they should work toward reestablishing, in some form, the high-wage industrial model of the mid-20th century. I don’t know the answer to this, but in support of Kenworthy’s position, I think it’s fair to say that no one has yet come up with a way of recreating that model, despite it being the object of a lot of nostalgia on the center-left.

I’d also liked to have seen more discussion of the “intangible” aspects of work–its meaning, the extent to which it engages our capacities and creativity, whether it allows for some degree of autonomy and self-direction, etc. Making sure everyone has sufficient material resources is absolutely a prerequisite for a decent society, but a good society should also allow for everyone, to the extent possible, to exercise their distinctively human capabilities. That doesn’t have happen through paid labor, but given that many people spend a large chunk of their waking hours at work, making it more fulfilling should be on the agenda.

All that said, however, I’m inclined to support most if not all of Kenworthy’s policy prescriptions. Most of them are good ideas on their own merits, even if they may not be sufficient to solve the problems he identifies. I also consider it a mark in this agenda’s favor that it wouldn’t require an unlikely and radical break with past progress, but its natural continuation. If nothing else, it certainly gives the center-left plenty to do in the years to come.

The case for American social democracy–3: how do we get there?

(See previous posts: here and here.)

Observers of 21st-century American politics might be forgiven for thinking that the policies Kenworthy proposes are so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming. After all, the resurgent radical right bitterly opposes much of the existing welfare state, much less new programs. And haven’t the Democrats largely embraced corporate centrism and deficit-fetishism?

Surprisingly, perhaps, Kenworthy thinks the long-term trend of American social policy is toward providing more services, and once programs are adopted, they are very hard to undo. Simply put, the economic trends producing insecurity, lack of opportunity, and uneven economic gains are likely to continue, if not worsen. Policy makers will try to solve these problems, and the kinds of programs that exist here and abroad have a proven track record of helping. So, at least sometimes, they will succeed in expanding or implementing these programs.

He’s not unaware of the obstacles to these kinds of reforms, but argues that, on balance and over time (the next 50 years or so), many of these policies are likely to be enacted. He points out, for instance, that although many polls show that Americans are opposed to “big government” in theory, they largely support individual programs like Social Security and Medicare. And once a policy is adopted and has been in effect, support tends to go up.

Given yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, it might be worth focusing on the role of money in politics. This ruling lifted a cap on the total amount someone could contribute during a particular period, while leaving intact limits on contributions to individual candidates. It’s another step down the same path as the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling, which prohibited limits on independent spending by corporations and unions.

For many folks on the left, the ever-expanding role of money in politics is one of the most powerful obstacles to progressive reform, if not the most powerful. Kenworthy is aware of this, but argues that the role of money in determining political outcomes is overstated:

Even if money totals continue to favor Republicans, it’s unclear how much that will matter. There are diminishing returns to money in influencing election outcomes: when a lot is already being spent, additional amounts have limited impact. The Democrats had less money in 2012, yet they were competitive in the presidential, House, and Senate elections. (p. 163)

In general, he says, the “history of campaign finance in national elections in the past four decades is one of each party and its backers seeking new ways to raise and spend large amounts of money in spite of existing regulations” (p. 163). If this pattern continues, Democrats will find new ways to offset Republicans’ advantages arising from a changed legal and regulatory landscape.

But to many on the left this misses the point: even if Democrats can continue to be electorally competitive, hasn’t the influence of big money pushed them to the right and led them to promote policies that favor the rich? A common story is that over the last several decades the influence of liberals in the party has waned, while corporatist, “third-way” Democrats have triumphed.

Kenworthy considers this objection and responds by showing that, in fact, patterns of voting on economic issues by Democratic legislators at the federal level do not show a shift to the center. If anything, the pattern since 1950 shows a slight shift to the left (see p. 164). (This is partly due to the exodus of conservative southern lawmakers from the party in the wake of civil rights, but even if you factor them out, the pattern holds.) He concedes, however, that focusing exclusively on voting could be misleading since many important policy-shaping decisions are made before a proposal even comes up for a vote. It’s possible that if we could measure this we’d see that the influence of campaign contributions has successfully moved policy to the right. (This strikes me as a fairly significant caveat.)

Nonetheless, the Democrats, while historically more of a centrist than a true leftist party, remain electorally competitive, and the Democratic Party has historically been the main vehicle for implementing progressive economic policies. It’s also worth noting, anecdotally, that in the last few years there seems to have been at least a slight shift toward a more “populist” economic posture among Democrats, which isn’t what you’d expect if big-moneyed interests were all-powerful.

Another major obstacle that many liberals and Democrats would highlight is influence of a more radical and intransigent faction of the right on the GOP (i.e. the tea party). Kenworthy admits that the current GOP and its anti-government rhetoric pose a problem for a social democratic program like his. But he we can expect that the party will move back to the center. Reasons for this would be if the GOP loses an otherwise winnable election and the increasing importance of working-class whites as a Republican constituency. (In fact, last year’s government shutdown fiasco seems to already have provided something of a moderating influence.)  Over time, he thinks, the GOP will find its way back to the middle and come to more closely resemble center-right parties in Western Europe. Its focus will then be not so much on how much the government does, but how it does it.

These claims will probably strike different readers as having varying degrees of probability, and some of the discussion does strike me as a bit Pollyanna-ish. But Kenworthy goes on to point out that, even since the 70s, headway has been made on a number of fronts (e.g., expansions in the EITC, expansions in unemployment insurance, expanded Medicaid access, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and others). Indeed, the Affordable Care Act, for all its problems, is probably the single largest expansion of the welfare state since LBJ’s Great Society and shows that significant progress is still possible.

Next: Final thoughts

The case for American social democracy–2: objections and alternatives

(See previous post.)

After discussing the problems he’s concerned with and his proposed solutions, Kenworthy considers a number of objections to his program, both from the “right” and the “left” (broadly speaking).

For instance, one of the most obvious objections is: how are we going to pay for all this? Kenworthy estimates that the policies he’s outlined would require an additional 10 percent of GDP in expenditures. He thinks this can be accomplished through a combination of tax measures–most significantly a national consumption tax, or value-added tax, similar to those of many European countries, along with modest increases in the income tax rate for high earners, an end to the mortgage interest deduction, a carbon tax, and a few other measures.

He argues that American liberals have been overly focused on making the income tax more progressive, whereas what should really matter to the left is that the post-tax-and-transfer distribution is progressive. This requires a tax base broad enough to finance the programs he’s identified.

He goes on to rebut claims that big government is bad for economic growth, innovation, and employment, marshaling data showing that these are all compatible with the kind of robust social-welfare state he’s advocating. He also argues that such a state is consistent with economic freedom, as conservatives often define it, noting that some social democratic countries have relatively light regulation (including of the labor market). He calls this “competition with cushions”–in essence, you want a dynamic market economy to generate wealth and jobs, but one whose rough edges are smoothed by redistribution and the provision of public goods. The Nordic model shows that this is possible in the real world.

These are mostly objections from the right. Alternative proposals from the left that Kenworthy considers include putting the brakes on globalization, re-industrializing the economy, and revitalizing unions. As I’ve already mentioned, Kenworthy doesn’t think these are, for the most part, either plausible or desirable goals. For instance, globalization (which means both liberalized trade and increased immigration) has arguably helped lift hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people out of poverty. It would be ironic, to say the least, if the American left made policies that would prevent this the centerpiece of its domestic social justice platform. Regarding industrialism and unions, given recent trends, Kenworthy sees little prospect for returning to the mid-20th-century model of high levels of industrial employment and strong private-sector unions.

He goes on to consider other “left” alternatives to his proposals, such as ensuring a high wage floor (vs. a lower wage floor with after-the-fact redistribution) and a basic universal income grant. As far as wages go, as noted earlier, he thinks the minimum wage should certainly be higher, but increasing it enough to make it a primary means of increasing incomes at the lower end would likely reduce employment. He goes on to emphasize that public goods and services can be a means of increasing people’s standard of living, even with relatively low wages. Similarly, he worries that a UBI would reduce employment and weaken support for other social programs.

To summarize, Kenworthy thinks that the Nordic model shows that we can have the dynamic, high-growth economy favored by the right and still ensure economic fairness via the redistributionist policies favored by the left. This puts him at odds, at least to some extent, with both sides of the spectrum. Though I suspect he’d find much more opposition from the right than the left to most of his proposals.

Next post: How do we get there?