Saturday, August 27, 2011

Some Thoughts on Faith, Politics and the Christian Divide

Conventional wisdom teaches that one should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. I have never quite understood this, as I believe human interaction is at its best when people are not afraid to reveal themselves, when we are open to civil discourse and healthy give-and-take on matters of substance. Besides, the weather has never been all that interesting to me. But perhaps this is why I am not invited to many dinner parties.

It is true that mixing faith and politics often results in confusion and misunderstanding. Secular liberals immediately suspect encroachment of the wall separating church and state, failing to distinguish the many varied avenues upon which people approach politics from a faith perspective. They often assume that the only people who mix politics with religion are members of the Christian Right, a group which unfortunately excels at shoving rigid, narrowly-defined views of morality down everyone’s throats. And yet, while conservative Christians have effectively mastered the art of mixing religion in the public square, in my experience, growing up as I did in a mainline protestant denomination, it was often conservatives who complained of “liberal” preachers crossing an invisible line. “Reverend,” the conservative critic would say, “just deal with God and the Bible and keep politics out of the pulpit.”

In reality, most people who complain of mixing religion with politics simply do not agree with the message. When liberal preachers threaten the status quo by speaking prophetically on issues of economic justice and the biblical mandate of caring for the least valued members of society, it can threaten a congregation’s way of life, challenging them in ways that might require a loss in power, money or status. As Robin Meyers, a United Church of Christ pastor, wrote in Saving Jesus from the Church (Harper One, 2009), “Not all preaching can be a healing balm. If we are true to the gospel, some of it will disturb, disorient, and even distress listeners.”

On the other hand, secularists and liberals often criticize conservative preachers when they attempt to influence public policy, however misguided (and biblically incorrect) their positions may be. My problem with the Religious Right is not that it engages in faith-based advocacy, for this is a healthy part of our democracy essential to a vibrant discourse in the public square. My problem is that these so-called Christian voices have a misguided view of Christianity; that what they claim as Christian values and principles are simply not consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus.

American culture and history is dominated by an ethos of individualism. It is perhaps our core cultural value, emphasizing individual rights, individual choice and individual responsibility. We seem to avoid public appeals to the common good, believing concepts of collective effort and community responsibility are threats to freedom. We take pride that we are a nation of “self-made” individuals, people who have succeeded through individual initiative and hard work. This culture of individualism, however, fully embraced by the Religious Right, is often used to legitimate a political and economic system that maximizes rewards for individual “success” and ignores those who are not “successful.” In this line of thinking, we all get what we deserve. The rich are blessed by God; the poor, not so much.

Although individual responsibility is important, as Marcus Borg points out in The Heart of Christianity (Harper San Francisco, 2003), “none of us is really self-made. We also are the product of many factors beyond our control. These include genetic inheritance, affecting both health and intelligence; the family into which we’re born and our upbringing; the quality of education we receive; and a whole host of ‘accidents’ along life’s way – good breaks and bad breaks.” To believe that we all get what we deserve, or that our individual success is entirely attributable to our hard work and effort, “is to ignore the web of relationships and circumstances that shape our lives.”

Understanding that political and economic systems deeply affect people’s lives is crucial to understanding the Bible’s passion for justice. This is what is often missed by many conservative Christians, who fail to see that the essential message of Jesus was that of justice, compassion, and God’s love for humanity. In the Gospel of Mark, the synoptic gospel authored closest to when Jesus actually lived, Jesus spoke of establishing the “Kingdom of God,” a concept full of political meaning. At the time Jesus lived, “kingdom” referred to the dominant political systems of the day, systems ruled by powerful and wealthy elites. The Kingdom of God stood in stark contrast to the Kingdom of Herod and the Kingdom of Caesar. And while the Kingdom of God had both political and religious significance, it is clear that Jesus was speaking about what life would be like if God’s justice replaced the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and domination systems that were then in control. It is why Jesus had so much to say about justice in the here and now, and why his focus was on the poor, the sick, the outcast; why he emphasized love of neighbor and God’s unconditional love for all of humanity.

This is a concept often overlooked by many Christians today, perhaps because, as Marcus Borg has noted, the author of Matthew changed the term “Kingdom of God” to “Kingdom of heaven.” As Matthew was the synoptic gospel most widely read in churches through the centuries, generations of Christians heard Jesus speaking of the Kingdom of heaven, naturally assuming that he was speaking of the afterlife, not about God’s kingdom on earth. This also may explain in part why, in my experience, many Christians, certainly many within the Lutheran tradition, believe that the role of the Church is simply to care for the “inner" life of its members, to save souls and lead its members in prayer and worship. Many of these same Christians believe that the Church should stay silent about the “outer” life and issues confronting society, issues of politics, justice, war and peace. But as Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan has quipped, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.”

The American Christian community consists of an extremely diverse group of people, practices, and beliefs; the same schisms that divide society apply as well to the Christian faith. The media has made a habit of focusing on the outspoken voices of the Christian Right. But I have been far more influenced by a more compassionate brand of Christian clergy, including those who played a leading role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and who would later lead resistance to the Vietnam War. It was preachers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Moore, Jr., and William Sloane Coffin, among others, who spoke prophetically against racism, inequality, and injustice. While these pastors did not ignore the spiritual needs of their congregants, they were equally or more concerned with issues of justice. “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions,” said King. “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

Just as Jesus preached of the Kingdom of God here on earth, so, too, did King and Coffin and other activist preachers involve themselves in the here and now. These pastors realized that Christianity could be a force for good in the world – or a force for bad – depending upon how one viewed and applied Scripture. Their moral vision came straight from the life and teachings of Jesus, the historical, living, breathing Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, who led a ministry of service, healing, helping, liberation and forgiveness. Unfortunately, many Christians over the years have not shared this view of the Gospels, or have selectively chosen to ignore it.

As difficult as it is to believe today, there were a large number of “Christians” prior to the Civil War who contended that the Bible justified slavery. Of course, if one believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God, it is almost understandable. After all, Leviticus 25:44-45; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25 and 4:1; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-19; and 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, each on their face condone, or at least acquiesce in the existence of slavery. It was not until the summer of 1995, 132 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest protestant denomination, apologized for the role it had played in the biblical justification of slavery in the United States. The apology recognized implicitly that those who owned slaves, and those who approved of slavery and racism and segregation, were often self-professed “Christians” who attended Church every Sunday, said grace before every meal, and believed that the Bible justified their racist views.

Fortunately, there were many Christians who understood that the Bible was not always to be taken literally, that it must be understood in its proper context and interpreted in a manner that captures the essential message of God’s unconditional love for humanity. These Christians fought slavery and saw it as morally abhorrent and contrary to the Gospels. The issue of slavery in fact stimulated a major theological debate about the nature of Scripture and its interpretation, a dispute that continues to this day about how the Bible ought to be read, interpreted and applied. English evangelists John Wesley and George Whitfield, among others, argued that the biblical texts used to justify slavery had been overruled by the New Testament principles of love and justice as exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus. This message of justice, ethics, mercy, and compassion, which was also articulated by the Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, would form the basis for the antislavery movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The political battles in Washington and around the nation today make clear that there remain deep divisions between us, including on a spiritual level. The Christian Right continues to be dominated by biblical fundamentalists, who read the Bible unquestioningly, in a vacuum, outside of its historical and literary context. As a result, some on the right oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools, are skeptical of scientific findings on global warming, and oppose full and equal rights for gays and lesbians. Over the past few decades, the Religious Right has combined forces with the anti-tax and laissez-faire capitalist crowd, opposing any and all government policies aimed at lessening the burdens of poverty and unemployment, protecting the environment, or of providing universal access to health care. I am at a loss to identify a biblical mandate for a philosophy of individualism and self-interest. I certainly cannot reconcile such positions with the teachings of Jesus.

I understand, of course, that there may be no Christian answer to complicated matters of public policy, but there are certainly moral, ethical and spiritual values that should inform how Christians think about and address these questions. Much of Jesus’s ministry was about hands on service to those in need – healing the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. But underlying all of his teachings was the pursuit of an all-encompassing justice, that by bearing witness to God’s unconditional love for all of humanity, we may heal and repair a broken world.

For me, Christian advocacy involves giving voice to those on the fringes, the forgotten people who lack money and power, the starving populations of sub-Saharan Africa, the plight of the unemployed, the poor and homeless in our inner cities. It involves challenging the existing power structures, the government, corporations, the military-industrial complex, and the news media to correct injustices. If the Church does not speak prophetically on these matters, then what right does it have to speak with authority on personal issues of morality?

Many on the left and right of the political (and theological) spectrum are often blinded by ideological differences and pre-determined political leanings. How and in what manner we raise taxes, spend federal and state dollars, interact with other nations, protect the environment and grow the economy are complicated issues. Jesus may not have spoken to the precise issues we confront today, and the Bible may not address them precisely. But to Christians I would ask, in what manner does the essence of the Christian faith speak to these issues? Were not the life and teachings of Jesus intently focused on correcting injustice? Does not the Christian faith command its followers to reject complacency and attempt to change conditions for the better?

In her lifetime, Dorothy Day, a Catholic layperson, was considered one of the leading examples of contemporary Catholic activism. A pacifist and a tireless advocate for the poor, she was the founder of The Catholic Worker, a loose collection of houses of hospitality, communal farms, and newspapers that sought to reform society consistent with her vision of Christian justice and compassion. “Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me,” Day once wrote, “I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper.” But even as a child, she asked, “Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” For Day, her Christian faith demanded that she work to improve the lot of humankind.

What we would like to do is change the world – make it a little simpler for people to clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the poor, of the destitute, we can to a certain extent change the world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.
Perhaps President Obama put it best when reflecting personally on his faith in 2010: “[W]hat we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace.”


  1. Mark,

    The flaw in your writing, I have become convinced, is your complete failure to understand conservative thought. You have liberalism nailed down (government rocks!), which is to be expected, but your defense of liberal positions seems reliant, not on articulable reasoning, but on the fact that liberalism is not conservatism, which you then proceed to misrepresent. Your lack of understanding is understandable, given that for most of your life (and mine), you have been bombarded with the liberal philosophy. As debated before, you and I grew up with a liberal media, with exhibit one being the example of Walter Cronkite declaring the Vietnam War lost immediately after our glorious victory against the Tet Offensive. Conservatives, or those with a questioning mind, suspecting that something wasn’t quite right, had to search for the other side of the story; in other words, they had to make an effort to learn, not simply absorb. Conservative thought, however, was not as free and abundant as the Kool-Aid supplied by the main-stream media. The upside for conservatives is that they were exposed to both sides of the argument and more importantly, they were forced, more often than liberals, to justify their positions because the media relentlessly challenged their beliefs.

    This current post and your post of July 30, cements the charge I have made: you have a woeful ignorance of all things conservative and this ignorance prevents you from moving beyond recitation of liberal talking points to a more persuasive style that could actually change opinions. The previous post described the Tea Party as, specifically, “anti-tax” and randomly as Hezbollah suicide bombers, mafia-like, soulless, fundamentalists and radicals. This, despite the common knowledge that the T.E.A. in Tea Party stands for “Taxed Enough Already,” a statement that clearly reflects the belief that taxes are necessary, but currently too high. Is it really, in this day and age, “radical” to believe that taxes should be as low as possible and tax money should be spent constitutionally? And is this an example of your desire to be “open to civil discourse”?

    Having misrepresented the Tea Party (while giving a complete pass, by the way, to the Democratic Party that had a lock on the White House and Congress for two years and could have passed a balanced budget - or any budget for that matter - and addressed the national debt, but chose, instead, to push through, against the will of the American People, a budget busting and unconstitutional government healthcare system) you then turn your sights on the “Christian Right.”

    As a member of the Christian Right, I find your description of me amusing and disturbing at the same time. (Is this what an Israeli feels like when, for example, he watches a movie on the Hizballah (or Tea Party, if you prefer) TV station showing Jews collecting blood from Arab children to make their bread?)

    According to you, I and my kind, have excelled at “shoving rigid, narrowly-defined views of morality down everyone’s throats,” which goes a long way in explaining why out-of-wedlock births and abortions are almost non-existent. Nice dream, but the Religious Right has been failing miserably in teaching liberals morals.

    Of course you cite no evidence for this charge and seem unaware that the “art of mixing religion in the public square” has had a proud tradition in this Christian country since its founding (suggest a stroll through Arlington National Cemetery some time).


  2. You then contradict yourself when you rightly observe that to be true to the gospels, some preaching will “disturb, disorient and even distress listeners.” Yet, you criticize the Christian Right for doing just that. Does not their preaching against any form of non-heterosexual, pre-marital sex, distress you? You can’t have it both ways unless your position is that you are an expert on the teachings of Christ, which it may well be, since you declare that conservative preachers have a misguided view of Christianity and that their teachings are biblically incorrect (again without examples).

    Now I must insist on some citation to back up the silliness of charging that the Religious Right believes that the unfortunate must be cast aside and that the “rich are blessed by God.” I don’t know what’s going on in your church, but every week I am reminded that the church community (collective effort) has a duty to help the less fortunate, and I don’t ever recall a sermon suggesting that if we help the poor we are endangering our freedom. Possibly you’re confusing the conservative belief that the more we break the chains of government dependence, the more free (and prosperous) all of us will be.

    And the evidence that conservative Christians miss Jesus’ message of justice, compassion and God’s love of humanity is . . .? And an example of Christians not understanding the concept of “love thy neighbor” and God’s unconditional love of all is . . .?

    Now I’m no expert on the Lutheran church, so I’ll take your word that your church is preoccupied only with the “inner” life of its members and suggest, if that bothers you, that you might want to convert to Catholicism. Be forewarned though, they may try to shove their rigid, narrowly-defined views on baby killing down your throat. On the plus side, just this morning the church made a special collection for all the those starving to death in the Horn of Africa, and I can state with certainty, without checking, that there are Catholic missionaries there right now doing more good with less money than any bloated bureaucracy could even dream of doing.

    So now we come to the Christian Right being dominated by biblical fundamentalists. Do you even know any fundamentalists? I don’t and I’m a card carrying member of the Christian Right. As for the teaching of evolution in schools, I’m sure there are some religious conservatives who would like it banned, just as there are some godless liberals who would like to teach condom use to third graders, but the vast majority would just like the theory of Intelligent Design taught alongside the much discredited "theory" of evolution. Likewise, the theory of global warming should be balanced with the opposing view, or at least the various frauds associated with global warming research should be discussed. You see conservatives want more information instead of less and more debate instead of recitation of currently approved dogma.

    Now let’s take a look at two unrelated sentences that nevertheless follow each other in your mind:

    “Over the past few decades, the Religious Right has combined forces with the anti-tax and laissez-faire capitalist crowd, opposing any and all government policies aimed at lessening the burdens of poverty and unemployment, protecting the environment, or of providing universal access to health care. I am at a loss to identify a biblical mandate for a philosophy of individualism and self-interest. I certainly cannot reconcile such positions with the teachings of Jesus.”


  3. First, justify that first sentence with facts. Second, the first thought concerns government action, which historically has succeeded in exacerbating most problems it tries to remedy, while the second thought concerns the teachings of Jesus as they pertain to the individual. We’ve gone through this before, but once again, Jesus taught that we as individuals are our brother’s keeper, not that a Roman bureaucrat should seize property and redistribute it in accordance to what he defines as “fair.”

    The theme of your post seems to be that the more religious and the more conservative one is, the less one is concerned with one’s fellow man. Unfortunately, study after study has demonstrated that the exact opposite is true. Religious people give more of their money and time to helping the less fortunate and religious conservatives give more of both (to include blood!) than any other group. This is true at every income bracket, from the very poor to the very rich and the most fun example is to compare Republican and Democrat presidents and vice-presidents (I’ll save you some time, there is no comparison and it is, in some cases, downright shameful).

    Oddly enough, you end your post on the right note after playing the wrong song for 2,000 words. You highlight Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic convert, who was responsible for the creation, as you noted, of dozens of “houses of hospitality” that served the poor. Today there are over 100 such communities in many countries. The pebble tossed in the pond that caused a ripple that reached around the world, was thrown by a devoutly religious individual who saw need and addressed it, independent of government involvement.

    Rich R.

  4. Rich,

    You're right about one thing -- I really don't understand conservative thinking. All I know is that it is not based on fact, it greatly lacks compassion, and it is loaded with contempt and anger for all things "liberal." This is why I have difficulty reconciling the Christian Right with the life and teachings of Jesus, which was based entirely on compassion and God's unconditional love for humanity.

    But go ahead and believe that evolution is a discredited theory and that global warming is a myth. Perhaps you need to spend some time in the South to understand that the Christian Right is totally dominated by biblical fundamentalists, which is precisely why they discredit evolution (because those who take the Bible literally believe that the science of evolution is contradicted by the Genesis creation story). For the record, I have known quite a few fundamentalists over the years, although as with all things concerning religion, the reality is always more complex than the generalizations. But religion and politics is a complicated matter, and may indeed be far too complex a subject to fully explore in a single essay, much less in this comment.

    I am afraid, however, that you have once again missed the essence of my essay, as you are so intent on picking a fight that you are incapable of having a reasoned dialogue.

  5. Mark,

    Asking that your broad statements be backed up with facts or figures or statistics or examples is not picking a fight with you; it is trying to elevate your writing to a level that would appeal to more than just the like-minded. Think about it: When you write that conservative thinking is not based on fact or that it “greatly lacks compassion,” the only thing you’ve accomplished is to set a liberal’s head-a-nodding. But if you write that conservative thinking is not based on fact because . . . – well now you’ve challenged a conservative or someone sitting on the fence (the gutless “moderates”) to confront their beliefs.

    Case in point: You claim conservatives lack compassion while I claim the opposite. The difference, of course, is that I gave the example of studies that show conservatives being more willing to donate time, money and blood, than liberals. Now a liberal reading that must confront the information in some way. Maybe he will surf the net to confirm the studies and then seek to discredit the methodology or attempt to explain the results away, or maybe he will contemplate what exactly the conclusions mean, but in the end, his beliefs are challenged in a good way, regardless of how he resolves it in his head. A conservative reading your post is not likewise challenged; he simply dismisses it as unsupported by . . . anything.

    Far from picking a fight, I desperately want a “reasoned dialogue,” but conservatism being “loaded with contempt and anger for all things ‘liberal’” ain’t reasoned and ain’t dialogue. It simply begs the question, “Why?”

    As far as evolution goes, Darwin provided the criteria by which to discredit his theory: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down."

    Continued advancement in the field of molecular biology and the abundant fossil record of the Cambrian Period, to name just two fields of study, have provided more than enough evidence to not only discredit Darwin, but, at the same time, advance the “theory” of Intelligent Design.

    See what I just did there? I took your unsubstantiated declaration that, “the Christian Right is totally (dude!) dominated by biblical fundamentalists” who believe that evolution is discredited because the bible contradicts it with the Genesis creation story and provided a few facts to support why the fundamentalists (and assorted scientists to include paleontologists) might actually have a reason other than the Bible for believing what they do. And now your liberal readers have, if they dare, some homework to do, because with this information they cannot simply nod their heads in agreement with Mark’s proclamations. Please Mark, give me some homework!

    By the way, we’ve touched on this before: The Big Bang Theory, that all libs love, IS the Genesis Story.

    Now if you’d do me one last favor, since I missed the “essence” of your essay, could you summarize it in one sentence?

    Thank you.

    Rich R.

  6. Rich,

    Let me first correct something you said in your earlier comment – that I “criticize the Christian Right” for preaching in ways that “’disturb, disorient and even distress listeners.’” Actually, what I said was, “My problem with the Religious Right is not that it engages in faith-based advocacy, for this is a healthy part of our democracy essential to a vibrant discourse in the public square. My problem is that these so-called Christian voices have a misguided view of Christianity; that what they claim as Christian values and principles are simply not consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus.” Now, you may disagree theologically with my assessment of the “Christian-like” nature of the Religious Right; indeed, since you identify yourself with the Christian Right, I’m guessing that you believe many of your political views, from supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and enhanced interrogation techniques, to cutting or eliminating welfare programs for the poor, promoting gun rights, dismantling environmental protections, and locking up and deporting all illegal immigrants and their children . . . I could go on . . . are consistent with Christian principles and teachings. I happen to believe otherwise. I believe that Jesus meant what he said when he admonished us to “love your enemies,” to turn the other cheek, to care “for the least of these” our children, and many of the things expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and other New Testament teachings.

    You seem to overlook that I specifically acknowledged that “there may be no Christian answer to complicated matters of public policy,” and I recognized that many policy issues are complicated and not precisely addressed in Biblical texts. I then went on to say that “there are certainly moral, ethical and spiritual values that should inform how Christians think about and address these questions. Much of Jesus’s ministry was about hands on service to those in need – healing the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry” – consistent with your and my view of charity – “But underlying all of his teachings was the pursuit of an all-encompassing justice, that by bearing witness to God’s unconditional love for all of humanity, we may heal and repair a broken world.” This is why I often speak in terms of not only helping others through charitable acts, though this is important, as you have acknowledged, but also in terms of reforming society and correcting systemic injustices. This appears to be where you and I part company.

    You admonish me for not citing statistics or supporting all of my contentions, but you ignore my discussion concerning the ”Kingdom of God” concept that is at the heart of New Testament teachings and which supports the reform efforts of people like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and a whole host of other, for lack of a better term, “non-conservative” Christians. You also ignore my examples of biblical texts being misused historically, mostly by those on the right, in support of slavery and segregation. I used the term “Christian divide” because, as I noted, there were many Christians who came to precisely the opposite conclusion based on their understanding of the messages of justice, compassion, and mercy found in the sayings and teachings of the Hebrew prophets and in the New Testament. The pro-slavery and anti-slavery “Christians” could not both be right; one side was advocating a position more consistent with the teachings and principles of Jesus. On what point here, do you take issue?


  7. Rich (cont'd):

    If there was a flaw in my analysis, it was in failing to acknowledge that the conservative movement in general, and the Christian Right in particular, may simply have a different view of compassion. I think a compassionate society places a high priority on taking care of the poor and the sick, protecting the environment, educating our children, and promoting peace. Based on many of your past comments, I know that you also recognize these things as worthy goals. We simply have different means and methods of achieving those objectives. You and other conservatives believe that the market, left to its own devices, will achieve whatever level of environmental protection is necessary; that private charity alone can and should take care of the poor and the sick; and that education is a good thing, albeit a local concern. Fair enough.

    I, too, believe very strongly in the works of private charity. It is just that private charity alone has never been sufficient to solve the many problems we face as a society. I do not believe that government should provide for everyone's every need. Indeed, I have repeatedly made clear that I believe in the built-in incentives of a capitalist economy that results in a certain degree of inequality. But government has the ability to correct social wrongs in a more comprehensive and sweeping fashion than does private charity. It is the difference between charity and justice. A hungry man needs to eat, and the soup kitchen provides a meal. But Government has the ability to change the conditions of society -- through provisions for better education, job training, drug rehabilitation programs, you name it -- that make it so people need not go hungry. Government doesn't always implement it well, but that is a problem with the implementation or the particular program, not the fundamental concept. I understand you disagree with this, and maybe you think Christian principles are fully consistent with your disdain for collective actions, through democratically enacted laws and government-based programs, to correct injustices.

    I continue to believe that, were Jesus alive today, he would desire that we do both as a society – private acts of charity and hospitality to help those in need, and collective, societal (dare I say governmental) efforts to correct systemic injustices and gross inequities, especially where the private sector and free market is unable to effectively address such issues.


  8. Rich (cont'd):

    Regarding the studies suggesting that conservatives give more to charities than do liberals. You may be referring to an op-ed piece by Bill Kristol, who cites to data from a book by Arthur Brooks (“Who Really Cares”), that households headed by conservatives give 30% more to charities than those headed by liberals, and a similar Google study.

    Rather than take it at face value, several questions come to mind. First, it does not appear that these statistics take into account that more “conservatives” than “liberals” regularly attend church and, thus, give money to their church. Or that the vast majority of money given to churches do not support programs and activities that would qualify as “charity” in the manner I would use the term. For example, Mormons (who tend to be conservative), give 10% of their income to one of the wealthiest churches on earth, and one which does considerably less humanitarian work around than many churches (liberal and conservative) with much less wealth. Indeed, as Kristol notes, "According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do."

    Second, the studies are unclear as to whether economic differences exist between the identified “conservatives” and “liberals”. The wealthier a person is, the better able they are to spend money on charitable activity. Are conservatives richer, and thus able to give more to charity? Maybe, maybe not. But if you spend 80% of your income on basics like food, housing, and transportation, you have less money to give as a percentage of your income. Those who spend only, say, 30% on the basics, like those who are very well off, are free to give a larger percentage to charity. Of course, there are plenty of rich liberals as well as rich conservatives, so this point may be a wash.

    Third, did the studies consider differing volunteer activities in urban vs. rural environments, or the nature of the charitable activity. Are there some volunteer opportunities available in smaller towns that don’t exist in large cities, such as volunteer fire departments (smaller towns typically have volunteer fire departments, while big cities have professional fire departments).

    There are obviously more questions to ask, and the answers are not always clear. It may very well be that, once you control for all of the confounding factors, liberals really are stingier. Maybe this is why they tend to support government action to address societal wrongs. They know the limits of individual charity. Kristol noted that Americans as a whole gave eleven times more of our GNP to charity than the French. But when you consider that the French pay a lot more in taxes to provide many services which are provided by charities in the US, who is really more generous? I do not know what to make of these comparisons. But before we take the studies at face value, one should explore answers to these and other questions.

  9. Mark,

    Excellent response; although, of course, I disagree that government can do more to help the poor than the private sector and suggest “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” by Marvin Olasky, which explores this notion in great detail. I do, however, wholly agree with the guess that liberals give less to charity because they expect government to do the heavy lifting. It is this abdication of personal responsibility that is the hallmark of liberalism.

    And now a proposal:

    If William F. Buckley, Jr., to name just one, had penned a book explaining why he was no longer a brain-dead conservative, I would have snatched it up immediately to test my long-held beliefs against his new-found enlightenment. I would think you would do the same if, say, President Obama tomorrow slapped his forehead and exclaimed, “What was I thinking?” (From my lips to God’s ears!)

    Fortunately, a much better writer, with more experience in life, has done just that. David Mamet, former liberal in good standing, brilliant playwright and screenwriter of one of your favorite movies (and mine), “The Untouchables,” has explained with flawless logic why he has left the fold and I am devouring this book (“The Secret Knowledge”) right now, wishing it were twice as long.

    The proposal is that I will gladly buy you a copy of this book if you agree to underline in red all thoughts/positions/statements that you disagree with AND can demonstrate are false. The hope is, of course, that your pen will lose very little ink and you will be at serious risk of a self-inflicted concussion while exclaiming over and over again, “What was I thinking?”


    Rich R.

  10. Rich,

    I will certainly be happy to read the book. Can't promise to do all the homework, however.