Archive for January, 2011

Ecumenism and Economics

Posted in Uncategorized on 01/04/2011 by rossemmett

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social WitnessEcumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness by Jordan J. Ballor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ballor explores the history of social economic statements by three ecumenical councils — the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches — in light of two issues: a) the relation between the church statements and their underlying dependence on a particular view of political economy; and b) the question, for whom does the council speak? A third issue — the question of what it means for an ecumenical council to make such statements in a democratic society, both for the society and for Christ’s church, lies behind much of his discussion.

On the first issue, I have little to add to Ballor’s commentary, because I largely agree with it. The three ecumenical councils all treat the basic human problem as one of evil structures and institutions — reliance of markets allowing corporations to gain both economic and political power which enables the oppression of the poor and the elevation of the rich. The world exists, it seems, in a zero-sum condition; in order to fix inequity (which seems the be the surest sign, if not the definition, of the presence of sin) we must reverse the course of economic takings and ensure that all policy decisions are done for the direct benefit of the poor (oh, and of course, the earth — a late addition to the argument). Ballor correctly points out that the veracity of the ecumenical council statements all depends, not on their theological and moral bases, but instead on the extent to which the world actually lines up with the underlying political economy. Both Ballor and I argue that it does not: the world is not zero-sum, not even close, and that increased reliance on markets over the past twenty years has significantly improved the lot of everyone, most especially the poor of the world (see “The Age of Milton Friedman” by Andrei Shleifer in the Journal of Economic Literature for a brief summary of the argument).

I expect Ballor would agree with me that another erroneous aspect of the ecumenical councils’ statements does not, however, stem just from their adoption of a seriously flawed political economy. For the argument that the basic human problem is one of evil structures is also deeply flawed. I will not say that institutions are morally neutral — the rules of the game can often be made for evil purposes and lead to tragic consequences. But locating evil in institutions opens one to the Rousseauian notion that all we need is the perfect set of institutions in order to have a perfect human society (and the line between perfect and tragic is quite thin, isn’t it?!). Orthodox Christianity in all its versions has resisted that mistake, even while accepting in different ways that human sinfulness permeates our institutional life.

I’m more interested in Ballor’s examination of the question, for whom and to whom do the ecumenical councils speak? In a sense, he argues that the two aspects of this question are collapsed into one: the council statements are NOT made “of the church, by the church and for the church” but rather by an elite within church governing bodies to themselves or those like them. (One could go farther here and argue that my comment reveals the underlying problem Christianity has with democracy). Consider this: Christianity has expanded rapidly over the past thirty years in exactly the same places that what the ecumenical councils sarcastically call “neoliberalism” has expanded, and in both spiritual and economic terms, the poor are better off. But if you judged their economic and spiritual state by the ecumenical councils’ statements, they are still poor and oppressed by evil structures. A cynical economist might say — thank God for the evil of the market, which has clothed the naked and fed the hungry! All I’ll say is, go read some of “Aunt” Deirdre McCloskey’s work!

Back to the main point: Ballor’s analysis suggests that the ecumenical councils face a dilemma. Either they are the church, in which case they should stop making statements and figure out how to help cloth the naked and feed the poor themselves, or at least help Christians sort through general principles that can inform how we ourselves participate in solving social and economic problems, leaving the actual policy formulations to the hustling and higgling of politics and markets. Or they are just an interest group with a moral agenda — something like the Sierra Club or Mothers Against Drunk Driving — operating in a democratic society, in which case they cannot appeal to some special moral authority, and will end up looking just like any interest group.

If Ballor is right, and he is, then one of the things economists need to do is start examining the work of the ecumenical councils not as reflections of theological truth but instead as the creation through political action of a common benefit for the councils’ members, at the expense of others in society. Such rent-seeking behavior can usefully be examined using theories already in use in public choice theory. Frankly, I do not believe that economics can explain everything, but I am confident that it can explain the actions of this type of rent-seeking behavior, and if the councils have reduced themselves to interest groups, then we should use economics to explain their actions!

In his conclusion, Ballor does call the councils to take up for themselves tasks that churches cannot do for themselves (p. 110); namely, to help Christians work through issues like the relations among wealth, value and work. In this regard, Ballor echoes themes that are common themes of the Acton Institute: the fundamental dignity of the human person, the recovery of the natural law tradition, and the principle of subsidiarity, both in society and in the church.

Those concerned about the role of the church in the world today can learn a lot by reading and reflecting on Ballor’s excellent critique of the ecumenical movement’s political economy.

View all my reviews


Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom

Posted in American religion with tags , , , , , , , on 01/03/2011 by rossemmett

The Myth of American Religious FreedomThe Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given that Sehat follows in the same tradition of American intellectual historiography that I do, you will not be surprised to find that I found his argument compelling, even if I would quibble over some things. A healthy civil society, he argues, “preserves a disorderly space that provides a buffer between the power of the state and the freedom of individuals and serves as a breeding ground for the contentious politics that are a healthy part of modern democracies” (p. 285, my emphasis). In this sense, his book is a defense of the notion that America has had a health civil society throughout its history.

But the notion that America’s religious history has been a “breeding ground” for contentious politics undercuts both the myths about religious liberty held by conservatives and liberals. Sehat argues that American history has neither been a gradual decline away from a Christian nation (the myth of the Right) nor a nation that from the beginning protected politics from the incursion of religious controls (the myth of the Left). Sehat traces the tension and debate over what religious freedom means from Virginia to the Moral Majority (most of his emphasis, I might say, is on pre-20th century episodes).

I particularly enjoyed Sehat’s account of colonial Virginia in the early chapters, and the debates among the abolitionists in the second part. His account of the creation of a “moral establishment” in the early 19th century is compelling: “Moral establishmentarians … dismissed the assertion that religious liberty entailed freedom from religion in public life. They asserted instead that it required the freedom of believers to bring their religion into public life to establish an ordered society” (p. 155, emphasis in original). A common moral code escaped the constitutional constraint on religious activity in the public sphere, but simultaneously allowed coercion by the dominant religion; a point made well by Tocqueville and J.S. Mill. In a sense, that conundrum — how could America be both free of religious involvement in political life and at the same time dominated by a particular religious perspective that ended up exercising moral and political control — is the impetus behind Sehat’s book.

I would encourage those who read Sehat’s book to also read Hugh Heclo’s Christianity and American Democracy. What Heclo’s book lacks in historical detail, Sehat provides; and what Sehat lacks in philosophical nuance, Heclo provides!

View all my reviews

Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace: A review

Posted in American religion with tags , , , , on 01/02/2011 by rossemmett

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites UsAmerican Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read Huch Heclo’s Christianity and American Democracy, which is better that Putnam and Campbell’s book as an examination of the relationship between Christianity and political life in America. And you should know that although Putnam and Campbell talk about “religion,” they actually almost always mean “Christianity,” and Protestantism in particular (see pp. 30-31 for their recognition of this point). They do use some non-Christian religious examples, but not many.

Where American Grace succeeds is in its discussion of the social side of religious life and how it both knits us together and divides us. I actually expected Putnam to connect this aspect of religious life to the development of social capital more than he did. Isn’t religious participation one of those things that overcomes the “bowling alone” problem? He treats the issue at such a general level that it is difficult to relate it to how social capital is actually developed, expanded, sustained or eroded through the current movements in religious life.

So, on the whole, I was disappointed with the book, and thought Heclo saw deeper into the dilemma of American religious life today.

View all my reviews