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.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Michael Novak's Three Legged Stool

The response to my post on Conservatives and Progressives generated a rather long discussion on Facebook as well as a comment here, so some additional explanation of some of the ideas that form the basis of conservatism is in order, particularly because they may help bridge some of the gap with Progressives.

Michael Novak argues that Western liberal democracy is a three-legged stool built on economic freedom, political freedom, and moral restraint. If any one fails, the stool collapses.

If, for example, we lose economic freedom, it will be because someone—business, government, or an alliance between the two—will have taken control of the economy. Once that happens, the same group will inevitably also control the political system. Once that happens, history shows that political freedom also becomes a thing of the past and the rulers become corrupt (i.e. lose moral restraint). If, on the other hand, we lose political freedom, the political class will inevitably take control of the economy to preserve their power, and the problem of corruption will also follow. As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The more interesting case, however, is what happens when moral restraint fails. Moral restraint can fail on a number of levels, any one of which can set the dominoes falling, but in this case, let’s consider unethical behavior in the economic realm.

When businesses, or worse, entire industries lose their ethical moorings, the absence of moral restraint leads inevitably to a crisis in the industry, with potentially catastrophic effects on the economy. At this point, to fill the void created by the lack of moral restraint, the government steps in and “fixes” the problem through additional regulation or a flat out takeover. That action degrades economic freedom and increases government’s authority in areas that didn't have before and thus undermines political freedom as well.

The obvious example is the financial crisis connected to the mortgage industry. Another is the current pay and bonus structure of CEOs, which is completely out of line with economic reality, historical precedents, and reason. While the free market may have led to this situation, it is nonetheless ethically wrong: moral restraint is lacking, and thus this is inviting intervention by the government, which will further undermine economic freedom.

Here’s where things get sticky and lots of finger pointing tends to happen. Progressive see the very real problems created by business, and they want the government to do something about them. Conservatives argue that this is an attack on economic freedom and an unwarranted expansion of government power.  

What conservatives too often ignore is that the free market solutions they prefer only work if there is an ethical foundation that keeps the moral restraint leg from collapsing. The alternative is inevitable and necessary government intervention to deal with the consequences of ethical failure.

This is one reason why Chuck Colson and Robbie George spearheaded the creation of Doing the Right Thing, a six-part ethics curriculum designed to be used in a wide range of settings. Unless we recover our ethical foundations, the entire project of Western liberal democracy is threatened because government will be forced to deal with the problems of the collapse of ethics in the economy and elsewhere in the culture.

Ethical questions are usually considered a feature of social conservatism, but the fact is that free markets only work if there is a solid foundation of ethics. Recognizing this, along with the inevitability of government intervention in the face of ethical failures, may help bridge some of the gap between Conservative and Progressive ideas and programs. At least it should provide some common ground for discussion.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday, February 20, 2012

Conservatives and Progressives

As I see it, the conflict in American politics between political and economic conservatives and progressives boils down to the fact that each starts with different assumptions about human nature and human relations. 

Before getting into the different assumptions, however, two comments should be made up front. First, progressives today used to be known as liberals. I am personally grateful for this change in terminology because as a European historian, I have to explain to my students constantly that in Europe, a liberal is very much like an American conservative: someone who emphasizes personal liberty as expressed in free market economics. This idea is conservative in America because America was founded as a "liberal" country  (as opposed to the conservative monarchists), and so for us it’s the traditional view. The change in term to "progressive" makes this explanation a bit easier.

Second, as an American conservative, this is my best effort at explaining the fundamental assumptions in progressivism based on my observations of their words, their policies, and their practice. If I got it wrong, I would welcome comments. With that said, let's start with conservatives.

For conservatives, economic and personal liberty is at the center of politics. The essential idea here is that people have a right to choose who they want to represent them via elections, and whose businesses and products they want to buy via commerce. The purpose of government is to provide a secure environment where everyone can compete on a level playing field, with the results determined by the market.

This means that conservatives tend to put a lot of focus on the top end of the market, since they believe that all things being equal, the successful earned their way there by providing better goods and services at cheaper prices, thereby creating wealth. This is why they oppose excessive government regulation, subsidies, protectionism, etc.: these distort the market and thus prevent it from operating properly.

Although conservatives emphasize creating an environment that rewards efficiency and innovation, contrary to stereotypes this does not mean that they ignore the poor. They believe that the most effective means for helping them is not through government action, especially at the federal level. Rather, they believe that intermediate agencies (i.e. charitable and service organizations) are better equipped to help people in need than the federal government is.

The reason is simple: intermediate agencies are much closer to those in need and can provide more personalized assistance than a one-size-fits-all federal program can. They also require less bureaucratic oversight and thus are far more efficient than government programs. There are other reasons for supporting the role of intermediate agencies beyond just efficiency, but this will do for now. If you’re interested, I discuss this in my poverty series, particularly in Politics and Government 1.

As an aside, one effect of this attitude toward those in need is that conservatives tend to give more to charity than progressives: they see this as a personal responsibility, rather than part of the role of government. If you don’t believe me, check out the amount of charitable giving of Democratic vs. Republican presidential candidates. It’s an eye-opener.

Progressive politics, formerly known as liberalism, operates from a different set of base line assumptions and priorities. If the focus of conservatives is on promoting market competition and letting those who can outperform the others rise to the top, the focus of progressives is on those who do not succeed, who lack money, power, or prestige, who for any reason are seen as losing out in the current system, whether the poor, racial minorities, LGBT (despite the homosexual community having higher average income than the country as a whole), etc.

The emphasis on the “have nots” leads to two consequences. First, progressive politics is often built on outrage and passion. It’s no accident that most major demonstrations over the past several decades were in support of progressive causes. The Tea Party was such a shock in part because it was an expression of conservative outrage, which didn’t fit the pattern. Second, progressives tend to believe that the current system is broken, and someone needs to step in to redress the wrongs. In practice, that “someone” is nearly always the federal government.

A second assumption that is de facto built into progressive thought is that the world operates as a zero sum game: if someone is getting rich, it must be because someone else is getting poor. Thus disparities of wealth are major problems, and to solve the problem of poverty, wealth has to be redistributed from rich to poor, again by government action.

The reliance on governmental solutions has an important side effect. Progressives often rely on courts or regulations put into place by bureaucrats to promote their agenda rather than advancing it through legislation. Ultimately, I would argue this is an inevitability. Progressivism leads to a technocratic approach to government because its policies require a professional bureaucratic class to run them. Rather than trusting businesses or the market to make appropriate decisions, the progressive puts faith in government as more responsive to the needs of the powerless.

There’s obviously a lot more that could be said about the topic, but for a brief introduction this will do. I do have a few appeals to make, though.

To my conservative friends, please keep in mind that however much we may disagree with the premises, progressives are well-intentioned people trying to deal with real problems. You may disagree with their solutions, but that doesn’t mean you should see them as ill-intentioned or bad people.

To my progressive friends, conservatives care about the same problems you do, but they disagree with you about how to fix them. They aren’t corporate dupes or brainwashed or bigots. They have different starting points than you do and so come to different solutions.

To both, keep in mind that Republican does not necessarily mean conservative, nor Democrat progressive. This isn’t about party—many conservatives, for example, argue that a lot of Republicans are de facto progressives. And watch the stereotypes: Wall Street gives more money to Democrats and President Obama than it does to Republicans, for example, so by that measure the Democrats are the party of Wall Street, not the Republicans. These kinds of things are distractions from the real issues, which involve political and economic philosophy and the solutions to specific problems that grow from them. It would be nice to have an adult conversation about those as part of the political campaign, without caricature, vilification, or stereotyping. 

But I’m not holding my breath.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why You Think the Way You Do available for Logos Bible Software

Zondervan has just announced that my book Why You Think the Way You Do will be included in Reference Bundle 3 for Logos Bible Software. Logos is the premiere Bible software package available today, with lots of study materials and extras that makes it incredibly useful for study, sermon preparation, etc. I am very excited to have my book included in this supplement.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Technological Change and Jobs

My article on Newcomen and Watt raised the obvious question of whether the industrial revolution was necessarily a good thing. After all, it put people out of work, and we all know the horror stories from Dickens and others about the conditions in the factories. This is a fair question, and it deserves an answer.

I don’t want to minimize the abuses that took place in the factories, but factory workers were hardly the majority of people in Britain. Population in the countryside remained pretty constant, though improvements in agriculture meant that the same number of people could feed a larger population. Population was growing, and the surplus from the countryside moved to the cities to work in the new factories. There was also a growing middle class, without which the industrial revolution would have fizzled: someone had to have the money to buy the products! While some goods were exported (resulting in severe damage to local producers in India, incidentally), the first market was domestic.

The point is that contrary to the impression left by Dickens, many more people in Britain benefited from industrialization than lost out from it. There is no question that the rapid change in the economy and in technology created winners and losers, and many jobs were lost or displaced by the new machinery. Of course, other jobs were created in designing, building, and maintaining the machines, but those jobs required skills that most workers did not have. This was a painful transition for many, leading to the rise of various socialist movements and Marxism. But overall, it was a net gain for society.

The workers had friends beside the socialists, however. Wilberforce and others in the Clapham Circle took on the issue of working conditions in the factories and spearheaded legislation to make the factories more humane places to work. Over time, they and others like them (including particularly the early trade unionists, many of whom were also committed Christians) succeeded in reforming labor practices. The efforts of evangelicals helped prevent England from spiraling into the revolutionary movements that swept across Europe in the nineteenth century and promoted improved working conditions and social stability.

What Marx and others like him could not envision is that capitalism could reform itself to address the abuses of the factories and the interests of workers and the lower classes. In particular, they missed out on the power of Christianity as a motivation for social reform. By judging all religion by the state churches he knew, Marx did not understand that religion could produce major reforms in society, rather than just being a prop for an abusive status quo. On the other hand, having lived in England, he most likely had heard of Wilberforce, so he should have known better.

There’s an obvious modern parallel here: we are in the throes of economic and technological change every bit as big as the industrial revolution, with no clear ending in sight. Not long ago, a person could make a good living with a high school diploma at a factory; now, many jobs in the US expect at least a college degree, and some look for advanced degrees beyond that. There is no question that workers are being displaced by machines as well as by increasing international competition. The economics of this situation are a subject for another post, but in light of the experience of the industrial revolution, there are a few points that should be made.

The advent of new technologies has made life better for most people. If you have doubts about that, consider that ten years ago few people had internet access in their homes, wireless was nonexistent, smartphones were science fiction, GPS’s were rare, etc. The average college student today has technologies that the wealthiest couldn’t buy a decade ago. My Android phone probably has more computing power than the computers on the Apollo spacecraft that went to the moon. Just like the industrial revolution, the internet revolution and the associated technologies have made life better for most people in the developed world. It’s easy to forget that fact as we worry about unemployment and underemployment.

This brings up the issue of job displacement, which is as serious a problem today as it was in the industrial revolution. The fact is, new technologies that improve our lives also inevitably lead to changes in employment patterns, and this means there are winners and losers. So how do you deal with this if you are on the losing end of the changes?

Paradoxically, knowledge is less important these days than skills: employers don’t care what you know, they care what you can do. The jobs that will be hot in four years don’t even exist now. So if you are in school or have been displaced from your job, developing flexibility and a marketable skill set are the most important things you can do to prepare yourself for what’s coming. I’m a contrarian here, but I think liberal arts are worth pursuing because of the mental flexibility they foster. A math background helps, too.

I would also recommend starting your own business. Depending on a job in a changing employment situation is at best an iffy proposition. Owning your own business is the only way that you are in control of your income. The internet provides enormous opportunities to start a business with minimal cost that can be used to supplement existing income or even to replace a job. And it’s never been easier to do that. If there’s interest, I may return to this topic in a future post.

New article: Thomas Newcomen and James Watt

The next article in the "Christians who Changed their World" series has posted. The last two articles on Gutenberg and Hugh of St. Victor focused on the theme of attitudes toward work, production, and eliminating drudgery. Continuing on those themes, this one looks at Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, the inventors of the steam engine, and the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Learning People Skills

In a comment on an earlier blog post, a reader expressed interest in suggested reading related to personal growth. While I’m working on other writing projects, I thought this would be a good time to put up some books I’d recommend for developing better people skills. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, improving your ability to connect and communicate with other people will help you in pretty much every part of life. So here are a few suggestions for books to help you build your skills in this area.

  • Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The classic book in the field. Although it was written many decades ago, it still has some of the best advice available for connecting and communicating with people.

  • Terry Felber, Am I Making Myself Clear? A short book that in some ways is the greatest hits of the other books on communication. It summarizes all the key principles in communication, and includes a great chapter on self-talk.
  • Les Giblin, How to Have Confidence and Power in Dealing with People. Another classic. In a lot of ways, I found this book even more practical than Carnegie’s.
  • John C. Maxwell, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect. Explains a number of principles that enable us to go beyond simply communicating to people to establishing a real connection with them. This is critical if you are going to influence people in positive ways.
 Improving your people skills will bear fruit in all your activities, whether in your family, when interviewing, on the job, in your friendships, at church, in evangelism, …. So if you’re looking for a place to put some effort into self-improvement, these books will be a good place to start.

Monday, February 6, 2012

In honor of the Queen Elizabeth II...

Sixty years ago today, Queen Elizabeth II of England got word that her father had died and that she was the new queen. In honor of that event, I am posting part of a chapter from my book, The Reformation for Armchair Theologians (2005), dealing with the birth of the first Queen Elizabeth. (Given the popularity of TV's "The Tudors," I thought something on Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, would also be worthwhile.) It's a fairly long post, but I think you'll enjoy it.

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Henry VIII’s Character

Henry was an interesting and complex character. He was a poet, musician, and patron of humanistic scholarship. He was very well educated himself—for example, he actually wrote a theological treatise refuting Luther, for which he was given the title, “Defender of the Faith,” by the Pope. (Some people think this piece was ghost written by Thomas More, Henry’s close friend at the time. There’s no real evidence that that’s the case, and Henry was certainly capable of writing it. Just because the current royal family couldn’t write a treatise on anything doesn’t mean Henry couldn’t.) But this was only one side of Henry’s personality. There’s a technical term for the other side: he was a macho dude. He was a big, burly man who liked to show off how strong he was. To impress visiting dignitaries, Henry used to have horses brought into the throne room, which he would then wrestle to the ground. And like all macho dudes, he wanted to have sons. Lots of sons. “Big, strapping boys! Like me!” as Gaston says in Beauty and the Beast. So when Catherine got pregnant, there was much rejoicing. She gave birth to a child, and they named it Mary. She did get pregnant a few more times, but the children never came to term. Henry was sure that God was punishing him for his sins, and specifically for marrying his brother’s widow, by not giving him sons.

Like other macho dudes, Henry also had a roving eye, and as king he felt free to indulge himself. He was having an affair with one of the daughters of the Boleyn family, when his eye fell on her younger sister Ann. He decided he wanted to have an affair with her, but she refused unless he married her. This, of course, was a problem, since he was already married to Catherine.

The King’s Great Matter

The combination of disappointment at not having a son and lust for Ann was too much for Henry, and it certainly in his mind outweighed the diplomatic reasons for the marriage. So he sent his chancellor, a cardinal in the Catholic Church named Wolsey, to go to the Pope to annul the marriage on grounds of consanguinity since she was his brother’s widow. (Of course, this argument conveniently ignored the fact that Henry had received a special papal dispensation to marry Catherine in the first place.) Normally, this would not have been much of a problem, except there was an additional complication at this point. The Pope had gotten into a war with the Holy Roman Emperor, with the net result that Imperial forces had captured Rome, making Pope Clement VII the “guest” of Charles V. Clement was thus in no position to allow Henry to annul Charles’s aunt, and so Wolsey was sent home empty handed, ending his career in disgrace.

At this point, with Henry desperate to get out of his marriage, a man by the name of Thomas Cromwell came onto the scene. Cromwell presented a historical argument that the Pope had no legitimate authority over the English church. He argued that after the Romans were driven out, Christianity had reentered Britain from Ireland, whose church was not under papal authority at the time. Only with they Synod of Whitby (664) did England abandon her allegiance to the Celtic church in favor of Rome. That was a mistake, Cromwell argued, and permitted Rome to usurp the legitimate authority of the English king over the English church. That argument was good enough for Henry: he declared himself the head of the Church of England, divorced Catherine, and secretly married Ann, making the marriage public some time later. Cromwell became Lord Chancellor.

Henry was at best a reluctant Protestant. He took advantage of the change to close the monasteries and confiscate their property in the kingdom, yet in general his preference was to stay Catholic in every way possible, except with himself as head of the church. He savagely prosecuted and executed for treason anyone who expressed any doubts about his divorce, but at the same time he also executed mainstream Protestants as heretics. When he was in a reforming mood, he tended toward Lutheranism as less extreme than Reformed Protestantism, but he would inevitably lurch toward Catholicism pretty quickly, turning his back on reforms he had only recently instituted. His heart just wasn’t in it. But it wasn’t his heart that was driving his religious policy. This resulted in a wave of Protestants, known as the Henrican exiles, leaving the kingdom, typically heading toward Reformed territories on the Continent.

Second Verse, ... a Little Bit Worse

Ann got pregnant, and there was much rejoicing. She had a baby, and they named it Elizabeth. At that point, barring another pregnancy, Ann’s days were numbered. She did get pregnant, but failed to carry the child to term. So Cromwell stepped in once more. He arrested a few people, one of them a young lutenist, and tortured them into admitting to having an affair with Ann. She denied it, but her fate was pretty much sealed. Apparently, Henry offered to let her live if she agreed to an annulment; she refused, because that would have made Elizabeth illegitimate and thus ineligible for the throne. So she was condemned to be executed. Ann requested that a French headsman do the job. There were two reasons for this. First, English headsmen were not professionals—one was the town butcher, for example—and they had a very bad track record in terms of accuracy. What you don’t want to happen when you’re being beheaded is for the headsman to miss. Second, the French used swords rather than axes. This meant that you knelt with your head high, and the swordsman took your head off with a single horizontal swipe. With an axe, you put your head down on a chopping block. Ann wasn’t about to bow her head to anyone, so she decided to go with the sword instead. 

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If you want the rest of the story, you'll need to get the book. To quote  Eric Metaxas at the National Prayer Breakfast, no pressure.

For the book: http://www.amazon.com/Reformation-Armchair-Theologians-Glenn-Sunshine/dp/0664228151/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328539232&sr=8-1
For the audio book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Reformation-for-Armchair-Theologians/dp/B002V0FH5K/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1328539232&sr=8-2

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Today Matters

“The secret of your success is determined by your daily agenda.”

This statement sums up John C. Maxwell’s book, Today Matters: 12 Practices to Guarantee Tomorrow’s Success. Maxwell argues that success is built on making good decisions and then following through on those decisions daily with disciplined action. It's not an event, it's a process.

The book is organized around 12 areas where we need to make good decisions and follow through on them:

  1. Today’s ATTITUDE gives me possibilities.
  2. Today’s PRIORITIES give me focus.
  3. Today’s HEALTH gives me strength.
  4. Today’s FAMILY gives me stability.
  5. Today’s THINKING gives me an advantage.
  6. Today’s COMMITMENT gives me tenacity.
  7. Today’s FINANCES give me options.
  8. Today’s FAITH gives me peace.
  9. Today’s RELATIONSHIPS give me fulfillment.
  10. Today’s GENEROSITY gives me significance.
  11. Today’s VALUES give me direction.
  12. Today’s GROWTH gives me potential.

It is worth noting that there are a number of interesting connections between these 12 areas and the 24 character traits identified in positive psychology.

The book includes exercises to help you make decisions and manage them in each of these areas. A month spent on each (remember—it takes 21 days to establish a habit, and I think it’s a good idea to give it a bit more) will pay off tremendously in the long run. Even a week on each would be a good thing, though that might lead to trying to change too many things at once, which is a recipe for failure.

Today Matters is another way of highlighting the principles outlined in The Slight Edge and applying them systematically in a wider range of areas. I highly recommend both books.