“Governments should protect the people,” John declared, pounding the table for emphasis. “I’m tired of hearing about Americans struggling to make ends meet. I wish there were enough jobs and money for the whole world, but that’s a pipe dream. The hard reality is that we need a government that will protect Americans and American jobs. That’s what government is for.”
Alex was already shaking his head. “You just don’t get it. That kind of protectionism will destroy us.”
He pointed out the window to the small store across the street. “You see that? That’s a great little business. What if we could create four more? Or ten? Or a hundred? Think about all the jobs that would mean. We need to do more than protect existing jobs, we need to create more jobs. And to do that, we have to be fully and freely involved in the global economy.”
He hesitated briefly and then said, “And, we need to support the banks so we have enough money to invest in these new businesses.”
John and Alex both jumped slightly at this outburst from the third person at the table. Visibly agitated, Tom glared at Alex. “You want to give even more power to government and the banks? That’s insane! They’re the ones who got us into this mess to begin with.”
He took a deep breath before continuing, “You’re both missing the point anyway,” he said. “Our problem is that we’re too focused on money and jobs in the first place. It’s not a question of how many jobs we need, but what kind of people we should be. Jobs, governments, banks, all of that is secondary. We need them, of course. But they can distract from the real task of living fully human lives.”
He looked sadly out the window at the bustling city street. “We need to get back to simpler ways: less government, less busyness, more humanity.”
What is government for? What does government have to do with business? And, how does any of this matter for life and ministry today?
These are some of the questions that I’ve been chewing on since attending John Pinheiro‘s paper at Acton University on “The Political Economy of the American Founding.” The point of Dr. Pinheiro’s paper was that economic realities lay at the heart of early American history. And, I was fascinated to see how economic factors drove so much of the story. You really can’t understand the American Revolution, the development of the Constitution, or the factors leading up to the American Civil War, without understanding the economic dynamics at work.
But, as I listened to the lecture, I was struck by how competing views on government and economics are really competing views of human flourishing. That is, they are really arguments about what true human living looks like, what factors are necessary to sustain it, and what role (if any) government has in promoting those factors.
3 Views on Politics, Economics, and Human Flourishing
Consider the fictional conversation above. One one level, it was a discussion of government and economic policy. But, as Tom argued, these should be means to a greater end. So, their perspectives were really just different views of the goal, the means, and the proper relation between them. And, these three views have been with us for a while.
John (John Adams) argued for a form of mercantilism, the dominant economic model of the British Empire. On this view, wealth is a relatively fixed commodity, and everyone (individuals and nations) compete over this finite wealth. So, the role of government is to establish economic policies that will keep as much wealth as possible within the nation to promote the well-being of its own citizens. So, in this model, human flourishing requires wealth, and the government promotes human flourishing by increasing their share of the world’s limited resources.
Alex (Alexander Hamilton) offers a perspective more influenced by Adam Smith, who argued for economic policy based on creating wealth through the astute investment of capital. For Smith, wealth is not finite, but can be increased through economic policy. As in mercantilism, this approach believes that human flourishing requires wealth and that governments should, therefore, work to increase the wealth of its citizens. But, it has a different view of how governments should do this. Rather than establishing protectionistic policies aimed at retaining wealth, this view promotes open policies aimed at creating wealth.
Tom (Thomas Jefferson) represented the approach of the French physiocrats. They were much less concerned with creating or even retaining wealth. Instead, they focused on promoting the kind of living that would produce free and virtuous citizens, their view of human flourishing. And, for many of these thinkers, the best way to do this was through simple, agrarian, productive living. The growth of urban industrialism and wealth-oriented business practices were problems to be countered, not positive developments to be protected or (heaven forbid) increased. So, on this view, human flourishing does not require wealth creation. Instead, human flourishing requires stable, productive living. The role of government, then, is to make whatever policies necessary to facilitate such living, and nothing more. .
Idealism, Greed, and Human Flourishing
I don’t want to go into which of these is right, or even what it means for an economic system to be “right.” But, to each of these systems I want to say “yes” and “no.” On the one hand, I’m deeply sympathetic with Jefferson’s notion of a simple life that focuses more on becoming the right kind of person than on creating and/or protecting the right amount of wealth. Jefferson’s ideal appeals to me: the simple farmer, intimately tied to the land, unencumbered by governments, banks, and big businesses, and growing into human flourishing in small, local communities. But, at the same time, Jefferson’s ideal seems overly idealized. Most of the “simple farmers” I know work far too hard and rarely know if they’re going to have enough money to make it to the end of the season. And, that’s just in America. Move outside this country, and the life of the simple farmer is even more difficult. When you spend all day just trying to get enough food to survive, it’s difficult to find much time for human flourishing. Jefferson’s view of the simple life was probably colored by his experience as a wealthy plantation owner. It’s easy to say that wealth-creation is unnecessary when you already have more than you need. And it’s easy to tell government to get out of the way, when you already have the resources necessary to do what you want.
So, on the other hand, I also appreciate the goal of wealth creation promoted by the other two views. “Wealth” and “greed” are not synonymous. If we define “wealth” as the material goods that promote and sustain human flourishing, then we can see that wealth itself is not the problem, and promoting wealth can be helpful, even necessary, for promoting human flourishing. But, there are problems here as well. First, both of these systems can easily make wealth an end in itself. This isn’t necessary to these systems, but so much attention gets paid to increasing the wealth of a country and its citizens, that the broader questions of human flourishing easily get lost. If asked, I’m sure they would say, “Well, of course all of this wealth is for human flourishing.” But, by sidelining human flourishing and focusing on wealth creation, they’ve made a fundamental mistake that disorients the entire system. And, when that happens, both end up promoting greed. As I said earlier, wealth and greed are not the same. But, a system focused on wealth creation as an end in itself can only encourage greed as the system strives for “more,” either by taking from others (mercantilism) or by creating more (Smith). Either way, separated from a higher goal, wealth-creation lapses into a constant drive for more that can never be satisfied. And, as a result, both tend to promote competition over cooperation. Rather than highlighting human flourishing as the cooperative production of human communities, wealth-creation untethered from a higher goal creates the perfect context for the most destructive forms of economic competition.
All three of these systems, then, have something valuable to say about how government, economics, and human flourishing relate to one another. But, each manifests some limitations as well. And, they’ve been competing for primacy in American identity from the very beginning. There was no “winner” in the debate among the Founding Fathers. Instead, they compromised by including elements of each in our founding documents and policies. So, like me, many Americans have a conflicted, and possibly contradictory, view of these issues.
Two Fundamental Questions
In the end, I found this all to be very helpful in highlighting the need to press beyond discussions of economics and governmental practices to more fundamental questions:
- What is human flourishing?
- What factors are necessary to promote and sustain human flourishing?
These are core questions that should interest any human, but especially those of us involved in Christian ministry, because they’re the same questions that we’re asking. Only when we’ve offered our answers to these questions will we be in any position to have meaningful discussions about the best economic and political policies and practices for fostering them.
So there is a sense in which the Christian faith is both conservative and progressive, and another sense in which it is neither. The Christian faith is inescapably political, but must not allow itself to be coopted by secular and unbelieving partisanship. But to reject partisanship is to reject compromises with secularists who want to hook up with an evangelical voting block.
- Rachel Held Evans comments on the future of evangelicalism from the perspective of a twenty-something.
I grew up in evangelicalism, spent most of my twenties arguing with it, and as I approach my 30th birthday, am ready to rebuild and move forward in my faith. While I can’t address these questions on behalf of all young evangelicals, I can speak from my own perspective, which I suspect is fairly common.
- Chaplin Mike argues that Christians are addicted to answers.
Christians are addicted to “answers.” For some reason, we think the ultimate favor we can do for the world is to explain the ways of God.
- Stuart offers a nice summary of the buzz surrounding the discovery of biblical scrolls and lead codices, possibly dating to the 1st century. And James McGrath has a nice roundup of links.
- You can win a copy of the Common English Bible over at Near Emmaus.
- “Of the 5.9 million brackets filled out in the ESPN Tournament Challenge, only two accurately predicted the Final Four (Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, Connecticut and Kentucky).” (HT)
- And, here’s a list of the 15 best James Bond deaths.
I was going to include some links about what’s going on in Egypt in today’s Flotsam and Jetsam, but there were too many. So, here are some of the more interesting resources I’ve come across recently.
To start things off, here’s a video of a Saudi girl explaining what she thinks Mubarak should do.
Some other interesting resources.
- And, here’s a chart of what it looks like when a country turns off the internet.
Here are a few good links from the last couple of days:
- Daniel Kirk has some interesting thoughts on how ancient people listened to texts and the difference this can make for biblical studies.
- Brian LePort offers his own list of 10 Personal Must Reads.
- Mike Bird has posted two papers on N.T. Wright’s work, which he’ll be presenting at the upcoming ETS and IBR meetings.
- SAET interviews R. Scott Clark on politics and theology.
- Scot McKnight discusses two recent books on the Gospel, but still thinks that our understanding of the Gospel is fuzzy.
- If you’re wondering why some people think that ETS is being taken over by Southern Baptists, check out this list of people from Southern Baptist Seminary who are presenting papers at this year’s annual conference.
- Diglot is giving away a copy of Fred Lapham’s Peter: The Man, The Myth, & The Writings – A Study of Early Petrine Text and Tradition.
- Collin Hansen has a nice summary of the recent discussion about how to translate “faith of Christ” in Galatians 2:16.
- And, here’s a list of 10 More Great Speeches in History.
- Ben Myers offers a very nice roundup of articles that have recently been posted over at the ABC Religion and Ethics portal, including articles by John Milbank, Rowan Williams, and Stanley Hauerwas.
- This month’s issue of Atlantic Monthly discusses “The End of Men” and the idea that “women are dominating society as never before.” Another article asks “Are Fathers Necessary?” arguing that they’re not as essential as we think.
- Joe Carter offers a crash course in evangelical views of eschatology.
- Halden offers some more reflections on Rowan Williams’s recent address to the Lutheran World Federation Assembly. And, that same assembly has issued a statement calling on Lutherans to express regret for the past actions against Anapabtists.
- A Washington Post article considers whether the Tea Party is biblical.
- Matt Flannagan has posted the third of this 3-part series on epistemology, this time dealing with what happens when authorities clash.
- And, here’s a list of Eight Reasons Some Churches Do Not Grow.
- Larry Hurtado has started a new blog. He’s already posted a couple of videos that look interesting. This one should definitely be worth following. (HT Near Emmaus)
- New Leaven has an interesting discussion of whether Jesus really suffered, or whether he actually had a pretty cushy life compared to the kinds of suffering experienced by other people.
- NPR considers a claim that Plato hid a secret musical code inside his written works indicating that Plato was actually a closet Pythagorean.
- Parchment and Pen has begun a series on the Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archeology.
- ERB has some good review this week including Mark Shaw’s Global Awakening: How 20th Century Revivals Triggered A Christian Revolution, Greg Boyd’s Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now, and Jürgen Moltman’s Sun of Righteousness Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth.
- The New York Times reports on the rise of the religious left and the significance that this has for political discourse today.
- Mark Goodacre has been adding quite a few resources over at NT Gateway.
- Richard Beck asks why social scientists haven’t paid more attention to the impact that trintiarian beliefs may (or my not) have on the actual lives of Christians.
- Jim West reports a study indicating that people read slower on e-readers like the Kindle and iPad, but like them better than traditional books anyway. Apparently speed isn’t everything.
- N.T. Wright has a fantastic review of Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, explaining Ward’s basic thesis that each of the seven Narnia books are “themed” after one of the seven planets in the medieval cosmology. (HT Euangelion)
- Evangelical Textual Criticism announces a plan to collect resources in NT textual criticism and make them available through the blog.
- Sects and Violence makes some interesting comments about what it’s like to be a Bible scholar at a time when everyone thinks they’re a Bible scholar. (HT Scotteriology)
- Brian offers a bit of a “coming out” statement on why he decided not to be politically affiliated with a particular party any more.
- Salmon Rushdie and Elie Wiesel discuss modern challenges to freedom of speech, with Rushdie arguing that “we are in danger of losing the battle for freedom of speech.”
- And, I couldn’t resist posting Jim West’s comment on Fox TV: “Fox really is to TV what BP is to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Several of us from the ThM program got together last night to discuss James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (thanks to Pat for the hospitality!). I thought the discussion was very interesting, and Brian’s contributions were invaluable.
I won’t rehash all the particulars of the book since I’ve posted links before to good reviews and discussions of the book here and here. One thing that really stood out to me, though, as I was looking over things again before the meeting was Chuck Colson’s response to the book and how badly he seems to have missed Hunter’s point. In his response to Hunter, Colson comments, “I don’t think that the differences are that great.” Instead, they are “more apparent than real.” And he specifically identifies this point of connection in the idea that “Changing people’s beliefs and influencing elites are not mutually exclusive.” And here he demonstrates that he just did not understand the heart of Hunter’s argument.
As I read the book, there are three basic moves in Hunter’s argument, and Colson grasped two of them. First, Hunter contends that evangelicals get culture change wrong because we misunderstand culture. We are implicit idealists, thinking that culture is really about what people think and believe. Hunter contends instead that ideas are important, but that it is really the institutional structures of a society that provide the context in which ideas can have a sustainable impact. So, a crude summary could be: culture = ideas + institutions. And, this works for Colson. Though he wants to affirm the importance of worldviews (i.e. ideas), he’s very aware that institutions are critical in promoting and sustaining these worldviews. That’s why he devotes so much attention to social/institutional change.
Hunter’s second point is that the implicit idealism in our view of culture means that we think the best way to change culture is to change how people think. Instead, he argues that cultures only change through a top-down process driven by overlapping networks of elite power and influence. Just changing what the average person thinks won’t affect long-term cultural change because that leaves unchanged these elite networks that really exert long-term influence. In other words, you can affect short term popular change in a culture by appealing to the average person, but long term cultural change always involves these elite powers structures. And, Colson thinks they’re on the same basic page here as well. Although Colson’s efforts are largely geared toward changing culture by informing and influencing the worldviews of average people, he is very aware of the power and importance of cultural elites. If there’s one thing Colson understands, it’s how social/political power works in this country.
So, Colson seems to think that he and Hunter are on the same basic page here. Evangelicals can change culture, they just need to do a better job engaging cultural institutions and the elites who control them. The problem is that this misses the third, critical, and (in my opinion) most interesting move in Hunter’s argument. Hunter acknowledges that it’s possible to change culture in this way—though he also contends that it is difficult if not impossible to do this through intentional action, that attempts to change culture intentionally like this always have unintended consequences, and that it takes generations before you can really see if culture has really changed. But, Hunter contends that the only way to bring about cultural change like this is by becoming complicit in the broken power structures that make it all possible. And, this is exactly what he thinks both the Christian Right and Christian Left have done. By embracing power politics in seeking to accomplish meaningful change, they have been coopted by worldly power structures that are antithetical to Gospel/Kingdom values.
So from a Hunterian perspective, Colson is right that you can accomplish (at least limited) cultural change. But, when we focus on change as the goal, we inevitably become part of the very problems that we’re trying to fix. As an alternative, Hunter offers his idea of faithful presence. Rather than trying to change the world, we should see to live faithful Kingdom lives in the world, seeking to foster human flourishing both within the Kingdom community and without. Whether the world changes as a result is entirely up to God. That’s not our job.
So, Hunter and Colson really are on completely opposite sides of this discussion; the differences are not “more apparent than real.” Colson summarizes the goal as “Changing people’s beliefs and influencing elites,” which is a great summary of exactly what Hunter thinks we should not be doing.
Pat found some more good resources on James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World that should be helpful if you’re trying to figure out what all the talk is about. And, if you’re a ThM student and you want to attend the discussion on Hunter’s book at Pat’s house coming up on May 27th, these will be helpful as well. (Remember to email Billy and let him know if you’re planning to attend.)
- Here’s an eleven page distillation by Hunter of his book that he presented to the Trinity Forum in 2002.
- Here is a lecture that Hunter gave at the University of Montana titled “Public Service and the Idea of a Changing World,” and a seminar that he led there on “On the Priority of Culture to Politics.
- And, here’s Hunter’s response in CT to Colson’s and Crouch’s interaction with his book.