This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Part 2 of my article on Education

This is the second part of my article on education. It's part of a series on politics, with the last several articles dealing with the need for virtue in a republic and how we can rebuild a virtuous society. Click here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Death at Christmas (Repost)

(I posted this last year. Since it got a very strong response, I thought it would be appropriate to repost it this year, updated for the time that's past.)

Eddie died seventeen years ago next week.

He was my father-in-law, a good and faithful man, whom I loved and respected tremendously. I still miss him. He had cancer, and although the prognosis was reasonably good, he didn’t respond to treatment. We got the word that he was near death, and so we had to hustle to leave for Michigan from our home in Connecticut a day earlier than we had planned. We left in the middle of the afternoon during a heavy snowstorm, drove until 1 or 2 in the morning, spent the night in a motel, and drove the rest of the way. When we arrived, Eddie was in a coma, and he died peacefully a few hours later. I remember when we told my 6 year old daughter that Papa Eddie had died, and I remember her tears. I think she was wondering why God didn’t answer her prayers.

She wasn’t the only one.

I wondered why he had to die, and why of all times it had to be just before Christmas.

I found an answer in my favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Two of the verses read:

O come thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave.
O come thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery.

I realized that I had the situation backwards. The real story wasn’t so much that Eddie had died in Advent, but that Christmas is God’s response to death with all its pain, sorrow, and misery. Rather than being upset at the timing of Eddie’s passing, I could take comfort in the message of Advent even as we held his funeral. I was still angry, but not at God. Instead, I was angry at the reality of death, the wrongness of it, even as I could find peace amid my own tears because Jesus does open wide our heavenly home and give us victory o’er the grave.

I have since lost both of my parents. Every time I sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” I think of them, and of Eddie, and I am reminded why Christmas happened. There are still tears, but I know they are temporary, and that sooner than I expect it, right around the corner, we will be reunited, never to be separated. And then there will be no more tears, ever.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

New article on education

The next article in my series on politics is up at the Colson Center. It is the first of two dealing with education and its role in promoting virtue.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

O Christmas Tree

It is the first Sunday in Advent., the season of the Church Year where we think back on the times when people were waiting for the coming of the Messiah, and when we look ahead today His return. Last year in Advent, I posted an article debunking the idea that the date of Christmas was inspired by paganism. This year, in the spirit of debunking other criticisms of Christmas customs, I offer some historical reflections on Christmas trees.

Christmas trees, it is argued, are a remnant of the pagan past. Some sources (of questionable historical value) claim they go back to ancient Egypt, others claim ancient Babylon, still others point to Celtic, Roman or Norse paganism. Some even cite Jer. 10:2-5 as an explicit condemnation of Christmas trees.

Let’s deal with Jeremiah first. Modern translations indicate that what is being discussed here is cutting down a tree in the forest, shaping it with a tool (a chisel or axe), and covering it with gold and silver to make an idol. If there’s any question in your mind about this, I suggest you read the verses IN CONTEXT. Vs. 5 and 8-9 indicate that we are dealing with an idol, and that it is wearing purple clothing, not simply draped with gold and silver ornaments. So no, it isn’t a Christmas tree, and the only way to make it one is to force Christmas trees into a few selected verses taken out of context and using the King James translation since more modern translations won’t support the argument.

So Jeremiah is irrelevant, but what about the idea that Christmas trees come from paganism? People who cite Egypt as a source argue that they worshipped palm trees, and Druids oaks, and then conflate these with evergreens. Sorry, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense since neither palms nor oaks are evergreens.

On the other hand, the ancient Romans used evergreen wreaths to celebrate Saturnalia, and for that reason the early church did not use wreaths or evergreens as decorations. Of course, the church didn’t use candles or incense either for precisely the same reason. Likewise Yule logs were a pagan custom intended to call back the sun on the Winter solstice, and holly and ivy were pagan symbols of fertility; also, the pagan custom of using evergreens as winter decorations continued to be practiced in Scandinavia even after the region converted to Christianity, though the symbolism was reframed in Christian terms (more on that below).

None of this has anything to do with Christmas trees, however.

The earliest Christmas trees date to the mid- to late 1400s or early 1500s AD in Germany and German towns in the Baltic (not Scandinavia). That’s about 700 years since the region had converted to Christianity from paganism.

In fact, the most likely source is the use of a tree to symbolize the “Paradise Tree” in medieval mystery plays dealing with the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. These trees were decorated with apples (later changed to balls) to symbolize the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, as well as wafers to represent the Eucharist. They were placed in people’s houses, and were closely associated with the Christmas season since the name day of Adam and Eve was celebrated on December 24 in many countries.

So the origin of Christmas trees is found in medieval and early modern Christianity, not in paganism, which had not been practiced in the region for many centuries.

But we need to address another question here: what about those practices that do have pagan roots, such as Yule logs, wreaths, and holly? Should Christians avoid them, even if for us they symbolize something totally different—eternal life through Christ—than they symbolized for the pagans who originated the practices?

Missiologists today are big on the idea that we need to contextualize the Gospel, that is, that we want to create indigenous forms of Christianity on the mission field. We want to spread the Gospel, not Western culture. As a result, missionaries are taught to look for the elements in the culture that are there by common grace that provide an entry point for the Gospel, and to encourage a culturally appropriate form of Christianity rather than reproduce Western models of the church.

So here’s the question: if that’s good enough to spread the Gospel to unreached people today, why don’t we think it was appropriate when Christian missionaries did precisely the same thing: taking elements of pagan culture and reinterpreting them to provide an entry point for the Gospel to our pagan ancestors? Why are we so shocked and appalled at ostensible pagan elements that have been reinterpreted in our Christianity, but have no problem when missionaries do parallel things in other cultures? Why do we insist our Christianity be “pure,” but not the Christianity spreading among newly reached peoples?

Whatever elements of paganism may have crept into our expression of Christianity, they were culturally appropriate and necessary in their day, and have been thoroughly baptized, reinterpreted, and Christianized. We have no reason to get hung up by “pagan Christianity,” especially in the Christmas season where the pagan roots of our practices have been greatly exaggerated. The rampant consumerism of our age is a different matter, but that’s a result of our own greed rather than paganism from millennia ago.

Monday, November 19, 2012

New article: Revitalizing the Church

My new article is up at the Colson Center. Although it's in a series on politics, it focuses on the role of the church in creating a culture where republican government can function. In a nutshell, since Jesus tells us we're to be salt (a preservative) and light, if thc culture is corrupt and in darkness, it's because we haven't been doing our job.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Modest Proposal

Obamacare mandates that health insurance companies use 85% of their premiums to pay for health care, allowing only 15% for overhead and reserves. Since lots of people think this is a good idea, I suggest we apply the same reasoning to the government. If we do, we can achieve a major reduction in the deficit without anyone paying higher taxes and without any decrease in services.

How do we do this?

In fiscal 2012, the Federal government spent $451.9 billion on welfare. Since only 30 cents on the dollar goes to recipients of government assistance (in contrast to private charities, where 70 cents of the dollar makes it to the recipients), that means that only $135.57 billion made it to the recipients, with the remainder eaten up by bureaucracy (overhead).

Using the standards of Obamacare, $135.57 billion should be 85% of the total spent on welfare. Doing the math, that means that we should add $23.92 billion for overhead, the 15% of the total that private companies are allowed to have, for a grand total of $159.49 billion. Subtracted from the current amount of $451.9 billion, and you get a savings of  $292.41 billion.

Just think, simply by applying the genius of Obamacare’s health insurance rules to the government, we can shrink the deficit by over a quarter without cutting any services or spending, simply by streamlining bureaucracy and overhead the way the government is demanding private companies do it.

I know, you think it’ll never work because the government has to have more bureaucracy than a private business. But that is to argue that the government can never be as efficient as private business, and if that’s the case, shouldn’t we be looking for private sector solutions to problems rather than adding more bureaucracies and departments to the government?

I say we should have them play by the same rules as the private sector. If we can obtain nearly $300 billion in savings just from welfare, imagine what we could do if we did the same throughout the government!

That would be change we could believe in.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Honor of Reformation Day....

In honor of the 495th anniversary of the 95 Theses, I offer you this excerpt from chapter 2, Martin Luther and the Break with Rome, from The Reformation for Armchair Theologians:
Meanwhile, in Italy ...
To understand the events leading to this break, we must travel south to Rome, where Pope Leo X was building St. Peter’s Basilica. Like any of us faced with financing new construction, Leo approached his bankers for a loan. The Medici bank of Florence, which was owned by Leo’s family, had been the papal bank for some time, though by Leo’s day it had been replaced by the Fugger bank, centered in Augsburg, Germany. The Fugger bank had been founded relatively recently, but it rose rapidly to become the largest bank in the world due to the same silver boom in Germany that had led to the establishment of the University of Wittenberg and the relative prosperity of the Luther family. Jacob Fugger, the head of the bank, approved the loan, but this left Leo with the problem of figuring out how to pay it back. Leo decided that the best approach to handling that problem was to sell off some of the assets in his treasury, specifically, the Treasury of Merits of which he was the custodian. In other words, Leo decided to hold an indulgence sale.
So, what are indulgences? To understand that, we need to know something about Roman Catholic conceptions of sin. According to Catholic theology, every sin you commit results in both eternal and temporal penalties. Eternal penalties affect your relationship with God; they are spiritual and deal with your status in eternity, that is, whether you go to Heaven or Hell. But since a sin against God is also a crime against your neighbor, sins must also be punished in this life, hence the temporal penalties, which are paid in time. When you confess your sins to a priest and he absolves you, that absolution takes away the eternal penalty due to your sins, but leaves the temporal untouched. He then assigns you a penance (a good work) that you can perform that pays the temporal penalty. This may be saying prayers, going on a pilgrimage, etc. These penalties could be pretty hefty; for example, knights fighting at the battle of Hastings in 1066, in a campaign that had been blessed by the Pope, were required to do 10 years of penance for every person they killed in the battle. And this didn't even touch other battles the knight fought in or any extra-curricular activities he might have indulged in. If you die with your temporal debt unpaid, the remainder has to be paid in time in the afterlife, so you go to Purgatory, a doctrine developed in the twelfth century to deal with the problems associated with unpaid temporal penalties. After your temporal penalty is completely paid in Purgatory, then you go to Heaven.
So how do you avoid languishing in Purgatory for who knows how long? There are a couple of possibilities. You could endow a monastery or a church and get priests to say Mass or monks to pray for you. If you pay the expenses, the credit for the time and the Masses goes to your account. This may seem odd, but think of it like this: if you get a speeding ticket, the town doesn't really care if you pay it or someone else does; it just wants its money. The same logic applies here. As long as your temporal debt is paid by someone, it counts. Going on pilgrimage is another good option. Not only do you get credit for the time you spend on the road, but the shrine you're visiting itself conveys a certain number of years of penance depending on its importance.
This is where indulgences came in, particularly in connection with armed, fighting pilgrimages, or as we call them, Crusades. To try to drum up troops to free the Holy Land, the Pope had promised certain unspecified spiritual benefits to all who fought for the faith; the Church then needed to figure out exactly what these benefits were. The doctrines outlined above were elaborated to a large extent to answer this question. The Church eventually decided that going on a Crusade would remit the entire temporal penalty due to sins that had been confessed to a priest and absolved. But since not everyone could go on Crusade—women, the sick, the aged, etc.—and not everyone who wanted to go on Crusade could afford it, it was decided that if you paid the way for someone else to go on Crusade, you would receive the benefits of Crusading yourself. These benefits would be paid to you out of the Treasury of Merits, the collection of good works performed by Christ and the saints above and beyond what was necessary for their own salvation. The Pope was the custodian of this Treasury and could call a Crusade and authorize a withdrawal for the participants. (Not all the Crusades were to the Holy Land: the Reconquistà which drove the Muslims out of Spain actually began before the Crusades proper, and other Crusades were called against the Albigensians in France, pagans in the Baltic, the Hussites in Bohemia, and even the Pope's political rivals.) With the end of the Crusades, the practice of selling indulgences, as these crusading benefits were called, continued. Some were limited indulgences, which paid only for a specific period of time, say, 10 years of penance. Others were plenary indulgences, which paid the whole penalty. Leo's indulgence sale was the latter type.
Leo, of course, was not going to go out hawking indulgences on the streets. The man who was reputed to have said, "God gave us the papacy; let us enjoy it!" was not about to turn himself into a salesman. Instead, he let it be known that for a fee, he would authorize other ecclesiastical authorities to sell plenary indulgences themselves. One person who bought into the scheme was Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, in the Holy Roman Empire. Albrecht wasn’t about to peddle indulgences on the corner any more than the Pope was, so he sub-contracted the indulgences sale to the Dominicans, an order of friars founded in the 13th century to supply the Church with preachers and expert theologians. The Dominicans would sell the indulgences and take a cut of the profits; the rest would go to Albrecht to recoup the money he had paid Leo to hold the indulgence sale; Leo used Albrecht’s money to help pay back the loan he had gotten from the Fugger bank to build St. Peter’s Basilica.
Unfortunately, the Dominicans were not above twisting the theology of indulgences to make more sales. One of them, Johan Tetzel by name, was a master of the hard sell and was generally the sort of person who gave used car salesmen a bad name. He literally would tell his listeners that his indulgences were so good that even if you had violated the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, this would get you off the hook. He told people repentance wasn't necessary for the indulgences to work and that it was a virtual ticket to Heaven regardless of what you had done or would do. And when he couldn’t get any more sales from that, he ratcheted things up a bit more. If you are not worried about yourself, what about your dearly departed mother languishing perhaps for thousands of years in Purgatory? Were you to spend but a few coins on an indulgence, she would be released to go directly into Heaven. After going on about this for a while, Tetzel would end with a little jingle: "As soon as the coin in the coin box rings, another soul from Purgatory springs!" (It rhymes in German, too.) There was no mention that indulgences applied only to sins already committed, confessed to a priest and absolved, only to the temporal penalties due to such sins, etc.

The Indulgence Controversy and the 95 Theses

This indulgence sale upset many people. Among them was Elector Frederick the Wise, the prince of Electoral Saxony and one of the people who elected the Holy Roman Emperor. He opposed the indulgence sale for two basic reasons. First, it meant that money his people were producing in Saxony was being sent out of the country to Mainz and ultimately to Rome, thereby hurting the prosperity of Electoral Saxony. In fact, Frederick suspected the whole thing was a scam designed to enrich Italy at the expense of Germany. Second, in addition to using his revenues from silver mining to build the University of Wittenberg, he had also spent a great deal of it purchasing relics; in fact, he had one of the largest relic collections ever assembled. People went on pilgrimages to view these relics—further enriching Saxony's coffers—and Frederick was afraid that the indulgence sale would hurt business. So Frederick simply banned the Dominicans from his territories; Tetzel and company were forbidden to set foot in Saxony, and thus the indulgence sale had none of the negative consequences that Frederick feared.
This wasn't the end of the matter, however. The University of Wittenberg had picked up a star theologian from the University of Erfurt, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther. He had begun work as a Bachelor lecturer at Wittenberg, then completed his doctorate in theology a few years later. Luther was very proud of that doctorate, and always referred to himself as Herr Dr. Luther. Luther had  new approach to theology based on the insights he gained from his Tower Experience; he and his students had converted the rest of the theological faculty at Wittenberg to his way of thinking. And like Frederick, Luther was also upset about the indulgence sale, though more for theological reasons, and thus he decided to back up his prince by doing what theologians did in the sixteenth century: he challenged the Dominicans to a debate. Debates were the standard academic exercise of the period, more or less like a combination of term papers and exams today. The protocol involved first writing a list of propositions, or theses, in Latin (the language of academia), which the debater was willing to defend against either specified individuals or all comers. He then posted the theses along with information on the time and place of the debate on the University bulletin board. In theological debates, the theses also had to be sent to the person's spiritual superior to be checked for heresy. Luther wrote a series of theses against the abuses of this indulgence sale—ninety-five of them, to be exact—and posted them on the University bulletin board, the church door at Wittenberg. This has often been portrayed as a great act of defiance, as Luther boldly challenging the corruption of the Church. Actually, it was more like an act of conformity. All Luther was doing was following standard procedures for debate in an attempt to defend what he thought was good church doctrine against the abuses of the Dominicans. Although the debate never took place (remember, the Dominicans couldn't enter Saxony), two things came together to make the 95 Theses an enormously controversial event.
First, following standard procedures, Luther sent a copy of the theses to his spiritual superior, who happened to be Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. Like Queen Victoria, he was not amused. Second, some of Luther's students got hold of the theses, thought, "this is really hot stuff," and sent them off to a printer AFTER TRANSLATING THEM INTO GERMAN. Much to everyone's surprise, the 95 Theses became a runaway best seller, with translations following into most European languages. Despite the best efforts of professors since then, this was the only time in history that an academic exercise has generated such an incredible volume of sales. Luther thus unexpectedly found himself at the center of an international controversy over indulgences.
The reason the controversy grew so heated and generated so much interest was that the issues Luther raised went far beyond the details of a particular indulgence sale. Although initially about indulgences, the theological scope of the controversy rapidly expanded. Luther may have been trying to defend good Catholic doctrine against the abuse of the Dominicans, but the way he went about doing this implicitly attacked much of the generally accepted theology of the Catholic Church. Soon questions about indulgences were overshadowed by issues of free will and divine grace, and by the most basic questions of religious authority: how do you settle theological questions? Where do you go to get answers?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reflections on the Superstorm

We in the east coast of the US have just gotten through what has now been labeled superstorm Sandy. The storm, which was 800 miles across (about 1300 km) caused a massive amount of devastation and has taken at least 38 lives in the US and another 69 before it got here. In Connecticut alone, which was only on the periphery of the storm, over 600,000 are without power. During the storm, Manhattan was shut down, and today lower Manhattan is still without power. The subways are flooded, and they estimate it will take four days to pump it out. New Jersey, my home state, was hit especially hard, with 2.4 million people without power and houses lifted from their foundations and deposited on highways. In West Virginia, they had 1-2 feet of snow, and in upstate New York 3 feet.

For those of you not in the US, the superstorm came about because a hurricane merged with a nor’easter (a major storm in the north Atlantic with winds coming from a northeasterly direction) and cold air pulled down from the arctic by the jet stream. It’s pretty much the same set of conditions that created the “perfect storm” of book and movie fame.

The storm was a stark reminder of the power of wind and wave, and the awesome force of nature that dwarfs our abilities to preserve our comfort, our possessions, and even at times our lives. And yet the storm had little to no effect in other parts of the country other than gumming up the air traffic system and closing financial markets. It had even less effect on other countries outside of the Caribbean.

If you pull back and look at this from the perspective of the solar system, there are longstanding storms on Jupiter that are many times larger than our entire planet. What kind of power is at work there? Solar storms are even bigger. And our solar system is a minuscule part of the galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions in the universe.

And what of the God who created the universe, the one who set the planets spinning and the galaxies wheeling in their cosmic dance? What kind of power does He wield?

From a cosmic perspective, earth is less than a speck, and even on an earthly perspective, this superstorm leaves most of the world unaffected. Our lives and our concerns mean a lot to us, but they are less than a breath to the universe.

Except that isn’t how God sees it.

Maybe because we are so insignificant, God places special value on us, gives us special responsibilities in the world, and has forever ennobled humanity by His own incarnation. And so we matter profoundly to God, whose opinion is the only one that matters.

The superstorm should put our lives and our over-inflated sense of power and importance into perspective. It should remind us of how small, weak, and insignificant we are in ourselves, how illusory is our control of nature, and how our powers fade to insignificance in light of the forces of nature and of the cosmos. But it should also make us think of the amazing grace of God, who has placed inestimable value on us. It should remind us of the fact that the power that created the universe is present for us and is working on our behalf. It should also make us realize the wonder of His love and of His calling to us to carry out His purposes in the world. And that should move us to humility, gratitude, and worship.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Recovering Virtue

The next article in my series on Christianity and Politics is up at the Colson Center. This one points toward solutions.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Announcing Portals: Entering Your Neighbor's World

My latest book is out. It's called Portals: Entering Your Neighbor's World. It's a brief introduction to the competing worldviews in America today written at the request of Chuck Colson a few years back. For the full story, click here. The book briefly summarizes seven worldviews using Chuck's four questions (Where did I come from? What's wrong with the world? What's the solution? What's my purpose?), and gives some suggestions about how to use the information in conversations with the people around you.

If there's enough interest, I may expand the book to cover other worldviews. For example, the section on Eastern Religions could be easily broken up into three or more separate chapters. I also plan to do a video series where I teach the worldviews, as well as a follow up video series on holding worldview conversations. Stay tuned here or on the Every Square Inch website for updates. And if you would be interested in hosting a seminar on worldviews, please let me know. Thanks!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Politics and Virtue

The next article in my series on Christianity and Politics is up at the Colson Center. This one is on the importance of virtue in politics, and a not-so-rosy assessment of the state of American culture with respect to both virtue and liberty.

And no, I wasn't in a particularly good mood when I was writing it.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Common Sense Economics

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything specifically for the blog—the start of the new semester and a heavy teaching load has taken its toll, I’m afraid—so I thought it would be a good time to post on a few books I’ve read lately on economics that cut through a lot of the clutter and rhetoric we hear regularly today and that will give you a good grounding in basic economic theory and what works in the real world.

The first book is Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity, by James D. Gwartney, Richard L. Stroup, Dwight R. Lee, and Tawni H. Ferrarini. The book lays out in clear and simple terms key elements of basic economics. (If you think that sounds boring, you need an attitude check: how can you even begin to vote intelligently in an election in which the economy is a major issue if you are clueless about how it works?)

Part one covers Twelve Key Elements of Economics:

  1. Incentives matter.
  2. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
  3. Decisions are made at the margin.
  4. Trade promotes economic progress.
  5. Transaction costs are an obstacle to trade.
  6. Prices bring the choices of buyers and sellers into balance.
  7. Profits direct businesses toward activities that increase wealth.
  8. People earn income by helping others.
  9. Production of goods and services people value, not just jobs, provides the source of high living standards.
  10. Economic progress comes primarily through trade, investment, better ways of doing things, and sound economic institutions.
  11. The “invisible hand” of market prices directs buyers and sellers toward activities that promote the general welfare.
  12. Too often the long-term consequences, or secondary effects, of an action are ignored.

Part two covers Seven Major Sources of Economic Progress:

  1. Legal system: The foundation for economic progress is a legal system that protects privately owned property and enforces contracts in an evenhanded manner.
  2. Competitive markets: Competition promotes the efficient use of resources and provides continuous stimulus for innovative improvements.
  3. Limits on government regulation: Regulatory policies that reduce trade also retard economic growth.
  4. An efficient capital market: To realize its potential, a nation must have a mechanism that channels capital into wealth-creating projects.
  5. Monetary stability: A stable monetary policy is essential for the control of inflation, efficient allocation of investment, and achievement of economic stability.
  6. Low tax rates: People will produce more when they are permitted to keep more of what they earn.
  7. Free trade: A nation progresses by selling goods and services that it can produce at a relatively low cost and buying those that would be costly to produce domestically.

Part three covers Ten Elements of Clear Thinking About Economic Progress and the Role of Government:

  1. Government promotes economic progress by protecting the rights of individuals and supplying a few goods that are difficult to provide through markets.
  2. Allocation through political voting is fundamentally different from market allocation, and economic analysis indicates that the latter is more consistent with economic progress.
  3. The costs of government are not only taxes.
  4. Unless restrained by constitutional rules, special-interest groups will use the democratic political process to fleece taxpayers and consumers.
  5. Unless restrained by constitutional rules, legislators will run budget deficits and spend exclusively.
  6. Government slows economic progress when it becomes heavily involved in providing favors to some at the expense of others.
  7. The net gain to those receiving government transfers is less, and often substantially less, than the amount they receive.
  8. Central planning replaces markets with politics, which wastes resources and retards economic progress.
  9. Competition is just as important in government as in markets.
  10. Constitutional rules that bring the political process and sound economics into harmony will promote economic growth.

Lastly, part four covers Twelve Key Elements of Practical Personal Finance:

  1. Discover your competitive advantage.
  2. Be entrepreneurial. In a market economy, people get ahead by helping others and discovering better ways of doing things.
  3. Use budgeting to help you save regularly and spend your money more effectively.
  4. Don’t finance anything for longer than its useful life.
  5. Two ways to get more out of your money: Avoid credit-card debt and consider purchasing used items.
  6. Begin paying into a “real-world” savings account every month.
  7. Put the power of compound interest to work for you.
  8. Diversify—don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
  9. Indexed equity funds can help you beat the experts without taking excessive risk.
  10. Invest in stocks for long-run objectives, but as the need for money approaches, increase the proportion of bonds.
  11. Beware of investment schemes promising high returns with little or no risk.
  12. Teach your children how to earn money and spend it wisely.

This is a long list of principles, many of which you may already know. For most of us, however, there are important principles to be learned that have huge implications for our personal lives as well as for how we view government policies. (This is an equal opportunity problem—both parties in the U.S. regularly violate key principles outlined in this book.)

I was particularly struck by the discussion of the importance of information and the connection between information and prices. This goes a long way toward explaining why centrally planned economies have never worked.

All in all, this is a short book, easy to understand, that will bring you up to speed quickly on key ideas in economics. Highly recommended.

Next up: books on moral and theological arguments related to economics. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Aristotle and Augustine

My next article on Christianity and Politics is out at the Colson Center. It is about Aristotle, his influence on medieval thinking on politics, and the influence of Augustine and Aristotle on the development of the U.S. Constitution.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Podcast on Elections, Non-Profits, and Separation of Church and State

I'm featured on Breakpoint This Week talking about church and state issues and particularly the Johnson amendment, which is what made it illegal for nonprofits to advocate for candidates in elections: http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/discourse/entry/15/20361

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why You Think the Way You Do hits its sixth printing

My book Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home has just had its sixth printing, bringing the total number of print copies to 9,144. It's also available in e-book form. The next printing will bring the total to over 10,000.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My new E-Book is out

Portals: Entering Your Neighbor's World, my new e-book on comparative worldview, is now available. You can get it at Smashwords for all e-book formats at Smashwords,  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/236946, and at Amazon specifically for Kindle, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009CJEH40The print edition should be out in a couple of weeks.

I wrote this book at the request of Chuck Colson. He wanted me to expand out his worldview grid, writing a page or two on each box of the grid. We had planned to publish it through a few Christian publishers, but they dragged their feet until it became clear that it didn't fit their requirements. It seems that it was too short to be considered an academic book. So I'm self-publishing it under my own imprint, Every Square Inch Publishing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Augustine's The City of God and the Western political tradition

I've got a new article at the Colson Center on Christianity and the development of Western political ideas. This one focuses on the impact of Augustine's The City of God and the problem of corruption in politics.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Racism and Republicans

A friend of mine posted this article by Steve Schneider on Facebook. On one level it is hard to take it seriously: Eastwood’s admittedly bizarre performance at the RNC made no mention implicitly or explicitly about race that I could see. Schneider’s post falls into the familiar theme of accusing anyone who criticizes the President of racism and contributes to the ever increasing list of words and phrases that are now claimed to be code words for race (including cool, Chicago, golf, food stamps, experienced, kitchen cabinet, Obamacare, professor, and now empty chair, among others).

Why in the world would someone look at what Eastwood did and think it was racist? To me, that accusation looks like a cynical attempt to manipulate opinion in the Black community.

Then the answer hit me. As H. M. Tomlinson observed, we see things not as they are but as we are.

While some of the accusations of racism may in fact be cynical, some people genuinely see the world in racial terms, whether because of their education or their experience, and so they naturally assume that everyone else likewise has race as a primary element of their thoughts, words, and actions.

But race is not at the center of everyone’s worldview. I rarely think in terms of racial categories; in fact, I rarely think of race at all. To people who think in racial categories, that statement would probably smack of “white privilege” and would be de facto evidence of a racist attitude. Or the argument could be framed in terms of subconscious racism. Or more simply, it could be argued that I’m lying.

My response? It ain’t necessarily so (to quote Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess”). I would simply ask if you have any evidence of racism beside your assumption that it must be there. If not, then maybe you should consider whether your assumptions about how other people think are correct. Just because race is central to your mental framework doesn’t mean it is to mine. Or to Eastwood’s.

This whole situation is a fine example of postmodernism at work. The postmodernist argues that truth either doesn’t exist or can’t be known, and therefore all viewpoints are equally valid. So from Schneider’s perspective, Eastwood was a racist. From Eastwood’s perspective, he wasn’t. This means that both sides can yell at each other and feel perfectly justified and righteous in their anger, and the rest of us are free to accept whichever side confirms our political position. It’s a win-win—everyone can have the moral high ground while holding the other side in contempt.

It is also a great example of the problem with postmodernism. Both perspectives cannot be true. If you claim Eastwood’s a racist, prove it by what he said or did, not by the intellectual construct you superimpose on his performance. If you can’t, take him at his word that he’s criticizing the president’s policies because he thinks they didn’t work, not because of racism.

The Golden Rule says we are to do onto others what we would have them do onto us. That means that unless you want people to attribute the worst motives to you, don’t do it to them. And if you want people to take your words and arguments at face value, do the same for them.

That’s a lesson people on all sides of the political spectrum need to learn.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Separation of Church and State

I'm taking a break from the series on Christians who changed their world to start a new, shorter series on the impact of Christianity on the development of Western political and economic thought. The first deals with the separation of church and state, which affects a whole lot more than most people realize. Check out the article here.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

David Barton, The Jefferson Lies

I’ve gotten pulled in on the periphery of the controversy surrounding David Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies. I was asked for an evaluation of the book my Jay Richards. I sent him my comments, which were then forwarded with my permission to World magazine. In light of the controversy which followed, I would add a few additional remarks now which I may put in a future post, but for those who are interested, this is what I wrote:

I would like to preface my comments by addressing the key historiographic issue at play in Mr. Barton’s work. There has been a tendency among secularists to argue that the Founding Fathers were all Deists and/or Free Thinkers rather than adherents of historic Christianity, and that they intended religion to be eliminated completely from the public square. Mr. Barton rightly recognizes that this is an untenable reading of the Founders and has worked very hard to document the gross exaggerations and misrepresentations involved in this argument as well as to provide evidence to the contrary. However, in trying to correct the lurch to the left by the secularists, he lurches too far to the right, exaggerating the degree of religious orthodoxy of some of the Founders, the influence of the Bible on the Constitution, and similar matters, while denying in many ways the influence of the Enlightenment. While this reaction is understandable, it is not an appropriate way to deal with the problem. You do not respond to one exaggeration by offering another. This is methodologically inappropriate, rhetorically dangerous, and quite simply intellectually dishonest, whether intentionally or not.
For a balanced approach to the question of religion and the Founders, I strongly recommend Michael Novak’s On Two Wings, which rightly notes the influence of both the Enlightenment and historic Christianity in shaping the American experiment.
Turning to The Jefferson Lies, as a professional historian I found his terminology and explanations in the introduction rather puzzling. He has, to say the least, rather idiosyncratic definitions of Deconstructionism and Poststructuralism that make me doubt whether he actually understands those movements. I would dispute his use of the word “Modernism,” though as the problem he describes is real, as is the tendency to find fault with historic “heroes.” On the other hand, however, it is equally wrong to whitewash historic figures, and the solution is not found in denying the ethical questions raised by their lives but by placing them in their historical context and recognizing the bad with the good. Most historians I know try to do that. The terms “Minimalism” (in this context) and “Academic Collectivism” are unique to Barton. Neither is something I see in academic scholarship, though Barton himself seems guilty of his definition of “Minimalism” in much of his work in this book. In particular, every academic historian I know makes use of primary sources and doesn’t just cite other [modern] historians, contrary to Barton’s claims. In short, Barton is largely setting a straw man argument that has only a marginal resemblance to the way professional historians actually work.
After this rather rocky start, I think Barton did a very good job with his discussion of Sally Hemmings in the first substantive chapter. His conclusions here are convincing, though I would need to run down all his footnotes to be absolutely sure that he is correct. I normally would not have to say that, but his subsequent chapters make me very cautious about even his conclusions here. To put it bluntly, his arguments about Jefferson’s religious views are not at all convincing and are terribly supported. Many of his “facts” on, for example, what he included in his edited Bible are simply false; others, such as the idea of missions work among the Indians, are unsupported and contradicted by other statements of Jefferson; still others are exaggerated to the point of fantasy, such as interpreting his subscription to the hot-press Bible as support for congressional subsidies to put that Bible into every home in America. His conclusions are simply unsupportable.
Jefferson was a Unitarian rationalist who rejected biblical authority in any meaningful sense of the word, and with it, many of the doctrines of historic Christianity. While Barton is correct when he says that many Unitarians held the Scripture in high regard and fashioned their ideas from it (particularly surrounding ethics), it is not accurate to describe them as “evangelicals.” Having a worldview influenced on some points by Scripture does not mean that their worldview was fully shaped by Scripture. Jefferson specifically rejected many aspects of the biblical worldview, including Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection. It is difficult to reconcile that with any form of historic Christianity, much less with evangelicalism. [n.b. Barton doesn't actually claim Jefferson et al. was an evangelical per se, but his association of Jefferson with revivalist movements certainly implies it, and I suspect most of his readers won't realize the difference.]
While I am sympathetic with Mr. Barton’s aims, I am quite disturbed by a number of examples of clearly dishonest reading of texts in this book. As Throckmorton et al. demonstrate in Getting Jefferson Right, Mr. Barton misuses a number of his quotations, cutting them short in some cases and taking them completely out of context in others, to twist their meaning into almost the opposite of what Jefferson intended. Perhaps this was because Mr. Barton wanted so much to prove his point that he had tunnel vision in his reading of Jefferson, but whatever the reason, his use of these quotations qualifies as academic misconduct by almost any standard.
Overall, Getting Jefferson Right is a far more accurate portrayal of Jefferson and a far more honest reading of the evidence than The Jefferson Lies. As someone who has used Mr. Barton’s material before and who respects the work of Wallbuilders, I am very sorry to have to report this conclusion, but the cause of truth is never served by misleading statements and exaggeration. In this case, at least, this is precisely what Mr. Barton has done.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

So let me get this straight 2: more rhetorical questions, this time about Chik-Fil-A

You mock Christians for trying to boycott movies and companies that they find offensive, but you’re good with trying to boycott companies owned by people you disagree with?

You know that attempts to ban books and movies increases sales, but you are surprised when your call to boycott Chik-Fil-A leads to its biggest sales day ever?

When private individuals call for boycotts of movies, it’s an attack on free speech, but when mayors and city council presidents call for banning and shutting down a business in response to something its president says, that’s OK?

You’re all in favor of choice, except for businesses that offend your sensibilities, which need to be shut down so no one can choose to patronize them? If they’re so offensive, why not let them go out of business due to lack of customers?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

So let me get this straight: a series of rhetorical questions

You object to the idea that corporations are people and so have a right to free speech guaranteed by the first amendment, but you are perfectly fine with applying the right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the first amendment only to corporate entities like churches and not to individuals?

You object to people forcing their beliefs on other people, but you are fine with forcing people who believe that contraception is wrong to pay for contraceptives for those who don’t? They don’t prevent you from using contraceptives, but they do object to paying for them, so how is that forcing their beliefs on you rather than the other way around?

The HHS mandate that goes into effect today has a religious exemption so narrowly defined that Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity doesn’t qualify, yet this is supposed to be compatible with the guarantee of free exercise of religion?

Are you kidding me?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Murfreesboro Mosque

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is taking the case of a Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, whose efforts to build a new mosque have been met with opposition, vandalism, and arson. As a Christian who believes in religious liberty, I find this attack on the Islamic Center reprehensible, and so I attached my name to a letter put out by the Becket Fund in support of the Islamic Center's right to build the mosque. Christians are often accused of being for religious liberty for ourselves but no one else. Unfortunately, sometimes the charge is true. I would encourage my fellow Christian believers to take seriously the idea of religious liberty and support the right of other religions to worship in peace without threat of violence or vandalism.

Monday, July 9, 2012

New Article: Robert Boyle

The next article in the series Christians who Changed their World is up. Continuing with the theme of science, this one covers Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In honor of Independence Day

This is an excerpt from my book Why You Think the Way You Do dealing with the worldview of the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the first part of my discussion of the Constitution. If you want the rest, you'll need to get the book!

The American Revolution
The second revolution was in the British colonies in America in 1776. The causes of the American Revolution are many and varied, and historians and politicians argue about them constantly. Although taxation without representation is usually cited as the main reason for the revolution, that issue actually is number seventeen in the Declaration of Independence. One critical element was royal interference with the colonies’ right to govern their own affairs. For example, several colonies had passed laws abolishing slavery, but the monarchy had vetoed them. In some cases, the monarchy changed the terms of government within the colonies to place them under governors appointed by London.
The leaders of the revolution saw these and other actions by the government as violations of their liberty and, in some cases, their property; following the logic of the Glorious Revolution, they therefore had a right to end their allegiance to Britain. In fact, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson indirectly refers to Locke with his appeal to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Locke had property as the third inalienable right, but to Jefferson, the pursuit of the good life, by which he meant a life of virtue, was even more fundamental. Of course, property enabled one to pursue this kind of life and so was also important, but Jefferson wanted the focus to be on virtue. In any event, after the Revolution and a brief period under the Articles of Confederation, the new country adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as the fundamental law of the land.
Enlightenment, Christianity, and the Constitution
The origins of the Constitution and Bill of Rights are also debated hotly, and the issue has become highly politicized. The key point for present purposes is the worldview of the framers. One side argues that they were deists, rationalists, and secularists in the mold of the Enlightenment; the other claims they were orthodox Christians.
There is no question that Enlightenment thought influenced the founders, particularly John Locke’s political thought. And some of the founders were heavily influenced by deism. Probably the most consistent of these was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson went so far as to take a pair of scissors and cut out of the Bible everything he found unreasonable, including all cases of supernatural intervention; he then read the rest for inspiration. At the same time, however, he considered himself a Christian and expressed concerns about divine judgment on the nation—something a consistent deist would not do since God does not intervene in the world. Over, however, in terms of worldview, there is little question Jefferson leaned heavily toward deism. On the other hand, though he penned the Declaration of Independence, he was in Europe during the Constitutional Convention and the passing of the Bill of Rights, so his views are hardly relevant to those documents.
Benjamin Franklin, who is rightly viewed by all sides as one of the least religious of the founders, strongly advocated prayer at the Constitutional Convention: he said that prayer in the Continental Congress during the Revolution had resulted in the protection and guidance of Providence, and urged the Convention to follow that precedent in their own deliberations. (As it turns out, the motion failed because the Convention did not have enough money to hire a minister to lead the prayers.) Franklin thus had some kind of religious belief, and was not a pure deist because he believed that Providence intervened in the world in answer to prayer. The same can be said of George Washington. Several people reported walking in on him when he was on his knees fervently praying. In fact, only a very small minority of the 200 or so people considered Founding Fathers in America could be fairly described as deists or free thinkers.
The rest belonged to a variety of orthodox churches, Congregational, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, and others (though some of the founders who were members of these churches had somewhat unorthodox views). Many were ministers or had divinity degrees. And if you take the time to read what they wrote, both for public and private audiences, it is clear that they thought they were establishing a government based on biblical principles. These include the idea of inalienable rights enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, which as we have seen had roots in medieval theology, limitations on the reach of the federal government to the enumerated powers in the Constitution, checks and balances within the government to prevent human sinfulness from corrupting the government, even representative government, which they saw coming from Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18. To be sure, they very rarely cited chapter and verse from Scripture in their political discussions, but their priorities and overall approach to government was firmly grounded in a Christian worldview.
In fact, a ten year study from the University of Houston examined 15,000 documents (many unrelated to politics) from the founders and determined that 34% of the quotations came from the Bible, the highest of any source. The next highest was Montesquieu at 8.3%, then Blackstone at 7.9%. Locke came in at 2.9%.[1] (Blackstone’s commentaries on the law, which guided even the Supreme Court for over a century, also include a great deal of Scripture and argue that the Bible is the foundation for all law.) Whatever else can be said, it is clear from this study that the intellectual world of the founders was very heavily influenced by Scripture.

[1] Donald Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 136-49.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Question of Immigration

Illegal immigration in the U.S. is a thorny problem. On the one hand, we need to uphold the rule of law and not reward people who flout it—the administration seems to forget that deporting only illegals who are guilty of a crime means deporting all of them. On the other hand, as Christians we need to recognize that God’s Law demands that we welcome aliens and treat them well, though how exactly that applies outside of ancient Israel is another difficult question.
There is a third hand, however, one that is usually ignored in discussions of immigration reform.
I had a student whom I will call E.  She came to me in my office one day very upset. Her family had come here as asylum seekers from a country that I will not name. They plugged into the community, both her parents got jobs, they were involved in service organizations, and they were in all ways exemplary citizens, the kind you want to have in the community.
Then, after they had lived here for years and E had gone through the public school system and started college, the Immigration and Naturalization Service decided they did not meet the qualifications for asylum. They began deportation proceedings; her father was taken into custody and sent into a camp in Florida in preparation for returning him to his home country. Her mother was to follow him later, though E could stay while she was in school.
This whole process took quite a bit of time, and E came to see me on several occasions while it was happening. When her father was sent out of state in preparation for deportation, she said to me: “This wouldn’t be happening if we were Mexicans.”
I don’t like reporting that. It makes me very uncomfortable because it can be seen as anti-Hispanic. That isn’t my intent, but I have to say that she had a point. We tend to see immigration as a Hispanic issue, and there’s no question the majority of illegal immigrants are from Mexico and Latin America. And they have advocates in high places, probably because Hispanics are an important voting bloc in this country, so they don’t get deported.
But I wonder where E’s advocates are. Who is speaking for all those who tried to do the right thing, who followed all the rules and been active in their communities, but for whatever reason have been rejected by the INS? Or for those trying to get visas in the first place who cannot? How do we handle those people with fairness and justice? If we really believe in equal protection under law, why are the advocates of immigration reform silent about these people?
I don’t know what happened to E or to her family. I fear that they are gone.
I don’t have any ideas about how to fix the mess we’ve made of the immigration situation. But I do wish someone would start speaking up for those who are being left out of the discussion.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Scott Sonnon's Recuper8

I posted a while back on the importance of joint mobility work for health. Most of what I know about that subject I learned from Scott Sonnon. Lately, Scott's been doing a lot of work with the tactical community--first responders, military personnel, etc.--on the specific types of fitness that they need. He's come up with a program called Recuper8 that's designed to help them relieve stress after action. It's a simple joint mobility style program that is good for anyone. And what's more, he's giving it away free. I do not get anything from this, and I don't endorse everything Scott says, but this is a great opportunity to get hold of a free downloadable program that can help release tension in the parts of the body where we tend to hold it. There are also a few free bonuses he's giving with it, including a complete book on joint mobility. I encourage you to check it out.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Conservatives, Libertarians, and Progressives on Same Sex Relationships

In several previous blog posts, I talked about some of the different assumptions that I see as underlying conservative and progressive political ideas. I wanted to address what I think will be the final aspect of this issue in this post, adding libertarians into the mix as well. To get at these differences, we’ll at the three groups’ reactions to so-called same sex marriage.
First, a word about libertarians. Libertarians believe that the government should keep out of people’s lives, that they should be left on their own to make their own decisions, and that governmental power should be strictly limited to things like defense, protection of people and property, etc. They are frequently isolationists, arguing against U.S. involvement with other nations militarily or otherwise except for free trade. There is a great deal of overlap with conservative thought, except that conservatives tend to be more open to “foreign entanglements.” And they frequently differ on social policy as well.
Looking at the issue of whether or not homosexual relationships should be accorded the status of marriage, progressives argue that this is an issue of justice and equal rights. They see homosexuals as an oppressed minority, and as such their rights must be protected and extended to equal those of the non-oppressed heterosexual majority. What this means is that their relationships have to be accorded the same status in every way as heterosexuals, which means they have to be allowed to marry.
To date, though some state legislatures have passed laws recognizing same sex relationships as marriages, same sex laws, every time the public has had a chance to fote on the issue, it has failed. The net result is that its progressive advocates have taken to the courts to enforce their vision of society. They have won in some states, even overturning a constitutional amendment in California. Democratic processes and the will of the people matter much less than the presumed human rights of homosexuals to marry whom they will, though it should be noted that whether this is a human right is hardly clear even among groups normally allied with progressives. The European Court of Human Rights rejected the idea that same sex marriage is a human right, for example, and they can hardly be seen as a conservative body.
Libertarians end up in much the same place as progressives with respect to same sex relationships, though for different reasons. For libertarians, the government has no business being involved in marriage at all, and in the name of personal freedom anyone should be allowed to marry whomever they want to regardless of gender. They don’t see this as redressing a historical grievance against an oppressed minority as much as an issue of people’s freedom to live their own lives any way they want to.
Conservatives tend to oppose recognition of same sex relationships as marriage. At this point, the tendency of conservatives to emphasize individual rights over group rights exists in tension with the idea that government exists in part to promote the general welfare. Put simply, conservatives do not believe that recognizing same sex relationships as marriages is good for society.
Conservatives do not see marriage as a purely private relationship. In all cultures, marriage performs a critical public function: it ties mothers and fathers to their children and provides a stable foundation for children to be brought into the world and raised. This is why it is given a privileged position with respect to other kinds of relationships in all cultures throughout human history. Without this public function, the libertarian argument would hold. In light of this role, however, redefining marriage to include same sex relationships makes no sense at all. For more on the definition of marriage, you can read my article at the Colson Center.
In practical terms, it is worth noting that children living with their biological parents do better in a host of areas than children in other types of living arrangements, vindicating the traditional understanding of marriage as the best arrangement for raising children. Conservatives argue that putting the personal desires of adults ahead of the interests of children is bad for society and bodes ill for the future.
Many conservatives, of course, also see homosexual activity as a moral issue, but in my experience most do not favor legislating against it. There are exceptions, but most see it as a matter of private behavior and thus as a place where individual rights should be upheld. Recognizing homosexual relationships as marriages moves them beyond private behavior into the public sphere, however, and at that point the public role of marriage becomes the key issue.
There are other arguments on all sides of this issue, and there’s no way I can cover all of them. The point here is that this issue can illustrate some of the underlying ideas of the different political philosophies. To sum up: progressives tend to frame this in terms of civil rights, which ties in to their emphasis on group identity and their emphasis on the centrality of the state (which in this case defines and bestows rights and benefits); libertarians see this as a matter of personal freedom, which means that the government has no business being involved with it; conservatives believe marriage is something that is foundational to human society, predates governments, and thus cannot be redefined by legislative or judicial fiat (tying into their ideas about limitations on government power), which in this case acts as a counterbalance to individual rights.

Monday, June 4, 2012

New article: Roger Bacon

The fourteenth article in the series "Christians who Changed their World" is up at the Colson Center. This one is on Roger Bacon, the thirteenth century Franciscan whose work in science has made him a figure in fantasy (as a wizard) and science fiction (as a time traveller). My article talks about who he really was and how he fit into the world of his day.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Conservatives and Progressives on Identity and Rights

In my two previous blog posts on political theory (here and here), I explored some of the fundamental ideas that separate conservatives and progressives. Here, I want to examine one other difference and add libertarians into the mix: the question of the relationship between primary identity and rights.
I argued in Conservatives and Progressives redux that conservatives and progressives have fundamentally different concepts of identity: conservatives see identity primarily as an individual matter defined principally by our choices; progressives tend to see identity primarily in terms of membership in a group, typically defined by involuntary, generally immutable characteristics. While there is much more that can be said about this (such as whether some of these “groups” really exist over time or whether the characteristics are in fact immutable), here I want to look at the implications of identity on conceptions of rights.
Conservatives argue that rights are an individual matter, and that true rights are beyond the reach of government. In the language of the Declaration of Independence, we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights—that is, rights that cannot be taken away by government. These rights come to us as individuals, not as members of any particular group. Thus equal protection under law is a vitally important principle to the true conservative.
Progressives acknowledge individual rights but tend to argue primarily in terms of group rights. Membership in a group can give special rights that are conferred on the group by the government, particularly if the group can claim past oppression. These group rights trump individual rights when the two come into conflict. As a result, equal protection under law is not a useful concept to progressives.
As an example, look at hate crimes legislation. A conservative says, if I murder you, it doesn’t matter whether the motive is robbery, a thrill kill, revenge for a perceived wrong, or race; I am guilty of murder, and I should be punished accordingly. A progressive says, no, if the motive is race, it’s more serious, as long as the person is in a protected category. Thus whites that attack blacks are presumed to be guilty of a hate crime, but blacks who target whites are not. Equal protection under law does not apply—some people get more protection than others.
Similarly, affirmative action laws say that members of protected groups have to be given special consideration in hiring or admissions to school. All other things being equal, if it comes down to a choice, the minority gets in and the member of the non-protected group does not. This is usually justified on the grounds that it is a remedy for past discrimination, but the person who is not admitted is not the one who was guilty of discrimination. In other words, to ensure equality, some candidates are given preferences based on race or gender, while others are in effect disadvantaged for the same reasons through no fault of their own.
Unionization is another example. If I want to work for a unionized company, I must join the union whether I want to or not. The union’s rights as an identity group trump my right to free association and to enter into a contract freely with my employer. And what’s more, I have to pay for the privilege of joining the group that I am forced into if I want my job.
All of these are defended on the grounds that without them, we would be back in the bad old days when racial discrimination was rife and when businesses routinely abused their employees. The conservative response is that you do not fix one kind of discrimination by instituting another: violating individual rights is wrong, no matter what the reason and no matter who the victim.
The conflict between group and individual rights can get very complicated. Same sex relationships are a case in point. How do the different groups negotiate the balance between individual rights, group rights, and other social considerations in this case? I will explore this issue in a future article or blog post.

Monday, May 21, 2012

New article: Biblical Succession

My new article is up at the Colson Center. It's about biblical models of succession and is based on a devotional I did at the Centurions graduation this year.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Echoes of Eden

I’ve been away for five of the last six weekends, with the sixth being Easter, and the end of the semester hit this past week, so my blogging has been almost non-existent lately. I have been thinking about different things, though, and so I’d like to put in a bit of theological speculation here.
I have a friend from China whom I’ll call “Faith” (not her real name). She was visiting us at one point and commented that she couldn’t figure out why Americans like to have animals in their houses—it struck her as a strange thing to do. I don’t know if that was just Faith, or if there was something in her cultural background that led her to that conclusion.
She’s not alone. Some Puritan divines thought that having pets was a frivolous waste of resources.
As the owner of an Australian shepherd and two cats, I must admit that there are times when I’m inclined to agree with Faith. I didn’t grow up with normal pets—all of ours were cold-blooded, invertebrates, or rodents. And sometimes, they can be a pain. But I would genuinely miss the animals if they were gone, especially Scooby (our Aussie), who is getting on in years.
So I began wondering about pets. I know they exist in lots of cultures. Dogs are used for hunting and herding; people keep birds and sometimes hunt with them; cats have been used to control vermin and even as guard animals. But even aside from working animals, people around the world keep animals for companionship. Shar Peis were bred to be companions in China, as were Pekinese. Dogs and cats are common pets in all European cultures, and our Compassion International child in India had a pet goat. I know very few young children who aren’t fascinated by animals and want to pet them.
So what is it about animals that so intrigues us?
I think the answer lies in our past and our future.
The Bible tells us that with the fall of humanity into sin, it estranged us from God, from our neighbor, from ourselves, and from nature. The vision the Bible gives us of Eden suggests a place and time where people lived in perfect harmony with the natural world, a harmony that is now broken.
The harmony of Eden is something we long for, and its restoration is promised in Scripture. Isaiah gives us a picture of our eschatological hope, a redeemed world in which:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Is. 11:6-9)
In other words, in the New Heavens and New Earth promised in Scripture, the harmony of nature will be restored. The Gospel of the Kingdom promises no less than Jesus, who is Lord of all, making all things new and restoring and redeeming our broken world to wholeness once again.
In light of this, I suggest that our love for animals is a distant echo of Eden and an anticipation of the redemption of all Creation in Christ. It’s something people are instinctively drawn to, as the image of God in us cries out for its fulfillment in being stewards of God’s Creation.
So I’m sorry, I can’t agree with the Puritan divines on this one. Hopefully, Faith, if she reads this, will understand a little better the charm in having animals. And for those of you who do have pets, I encourage you to see yourself as stewards of Creation before God as you take care of them, and look forward to the day when the harmony of nature is fully restored by Christ.