Thursday, July 19, 2012

The US could use more faithful Christians who follow the Bible, uphold the Constitution, support innovation in entrepreneurial business, and promote the dignity of work

English: It is really a nice building. I took ...
English: It is really a nice building. I took it when I was in the united states of america. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Could the US could really use more faithful Christians who follow the Bible, uphold the Constitution, support innovation in entrepreneurial  business, and promote the dignity of work? Isn't that what many conservatives in the US claim to be? And do we need more of them?

My answers are "possibly yes", "yes", and "it depends on whether or not you agree that the public national face of conservatism as it is currently represented fits the description given".

Faithful Christians who follow the Bible

I am not arguing here for the conversion of the secular irreligious, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and the like to Christianity. I am suggesting a conversion of many who already identify with Christianity in getting over the parochial view of the Bible and recognize that the consistent and dominant theme isn't about personal salvation of one's soul in some off-world paradise, nor about a particular culture's views on purity, but is instead clearly focused on the callousness of those with too much conventional (i..e. "worldly") power and wealth.

This is not some new revelation, but it seems to be something that is heavily resisted. Those who feel blessed in some way are prone to vanity, arrogance, and either becoming oblivious or abusive toward the stranger, the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the otherwise disenfranchised. The model used in the Hebrew scripture was in fact Israel, both as a people and as a nation, who became perpetually complacent and fell into worshiping the idols of worldly status, prestige, and success (represented by the actual physical idols of their neighboring cultures).

The prophets of Hebrew scripture railed against such indifference toward or outright oppression of the less fortunate and the sin of thinking that God's blessings were rewards for such hardened hearts, or worse, that such rewards were in fact deserved by these people even though much of it had come from theft, corruption, extortion, bribery, usury, and shady business practices. The Psalms themselves are filled with the laments of those crushed by such attitudes on the part of the elites.

If you turn to new "new" scriptures of the early Christian communities, it gets worse, because Jesus clearly mandates caring for the poor, the sick, the prisoner, and so on as a high priority, part of the commandments to love God and cherish one's neighbor, which he recognized as the basis for the Torah and the words of the prophets. The Acts of the Apostles talks about the communal living and sharing of the first Christians and warned against special treatment of their better off members. And the book of James, brother of Jesus, continues the themes found in the Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels. Nor does the apostle Paul let people off of the hook on these matters.

Let's be clear. The Bible doesn't teach economic individualism and competition. It doesn't teach a "sink or swim" libertarianism. It is in direct opposition to the notions of Objectivism and the Ayn Rand school of thought about a minority of wealthy producers and a majority of poor parasites. It supports hard work under fair conditions when one is able, and it supports people being responsible for themselves in areas of personal conduct. But it also teaches being responsible for others and it doesn't give litmus tests for being worthy of support.

Yes, we could use more of this.

Who uphold the Constitution

It's funny, but listening to some folks talk about politics in the US you might never realize that the following is actually the basis of the Constitution, a distillation of its purpose and principles:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In fact, sometimes it seems as though folks read it like this:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves those who work hard enough to achieve it or who inherit status and wealth and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
To be fair, I am not suggesting anyone actually supports this rendition, only that you might get that impression from how they discuss the political nature of the social issues of the day. I do think that the majority of Americans do want what is best for their fellow citizens and believe that their particular platforms and policies are the way to achieve this goal. I do not despise nor disparage their good faith, and I am sick of how readily so many people will in fact do just that with regard to their political opponents.

But please, let's keep in mind that the founders did not say that capitalism and private industry in a minimally regulated free market was the best or only way to achieve the goals laid out in the preamble of the Constitution. Nor let us forget that justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare are not somehow ranked lower than common defense or the blessing of liberty. These things are central to the whole meaning of the Constitution and of the government it call into being.

And this government is not some evil, conspiratorial bogeyman that it is the enemy of people and of their liberty. The government is selected from, elected through, and empowered by "we the people"; or as President Lincoln described it "government of the people, by the people, for the people". This is the primary instrument through which all of the goals of the Constitution are to be sought, established, and protected. Everything else, from private industry to charitable organizations, are secondary. These secondary sources may be commissioned by the government in fulfilling its obligations or may choose to assist with such goals voluntarily and independently, but the government, we the people, are forever charged with ensuring that these obligations are adequately and appropriately met.

Thus the government reflects us--our priorities and our choices. If the becomes corrupt or fails to follow through on its obligations, this is the fault of the people. Such a government cannot function properly without the observance, participation, and support of its citizens. Cynicism, obliviousness, demagoguery in the political body and an ideology built around disdain for civic responsibilities such as fair and adequate taxation is poison to a democratic republic.

And let there be no doubt that both major parties are willing to use government to advance their own ideologies, even if conservatives decry the over-reach of the federal system. Increasing and decreasing regulations and restrictions, tax breaks and tax increases, increases and decreases in government spending, these are all part of the system of our governance to promote or inhibit different outcomes in our society. The only difference between political parties is who these changes help or harm.

Do we give tax breaks to the wealthy and endorse corporate welfare for older and politically well-connected industries such as those extracting fossil fuels in the hopes this will lead to domestic job growth, or do we instead give such breaks to the working poor and working class, to small grassroots start-ups by the working and middle classes, and to new industries such as green technology? Or do we hedge our bets by supporting both?

Do we increase or decrease regulations on financial trades and holdings? Do we think that there should be limits to wealth disparity for the health of our economy, our political system, and social fabric, which requires taxing more kinds of assets at much higher rates? Or do we think that there should be limits on the social safety nets for the same reasons, which requires a more regressive system of taxation and public spending?

And here, again, when faced with these questions and the obligations toward promoting justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare, what of those lessons from Bible about the poor, the sick, the stranger, and the prisoner? What of the historical lessons of the effects of regressive politics and economics on the health of nations? Do we seriously accept these requirements of establishing justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare for all of our citizens? Or do we draw a line of between those who we consider worthy and those we consider unworthy of these things, making them into privileges rather than rightful expectations of citizenship?

To take one example, for nearly one hundred years advances in promoting the general welfare, such as the Social Security Act, the creation of Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act, have been opposed by those who are generally in favor of personal liberties over public responsibilities (especially on taxes for the very wealthy) and defense spending over education, health care, and public works. The specter of some kind of socialist take-over is included for political purposes harkening to the Cold War era, but this is generally more like the icing on the opposition cake.

This example is instructive because it reflects the shaping of different priorities. To say that any particular concern mentioned, such as defense, or education, or personal liberty, is inherently wrong-headed or unimportant is absurd. But the order we place them in, and our reasons for doing do, are essential. This example is also instructive because these progressive moves towards promoting the general welfare are become widely accepted and very helpful after the initial opposition is overcome.

So what is ordering your priorities? 

Who support innovation in entrepreneurial business

Except for those who have become stuck in the psuedo-conservative fringe-evangelical bubble reality in which evolution and global warming are sinister conspiracies, the reality is that we have a challenge as a nation and as a species. Our current consumptive habits are obliterating habitats and ecological zones along with thousands of species, polluting our air, earth, and water, and causing epidemics of illnesses that come from being sedentary, obese, over-stimulated, and narcissistic. As we spread this "way of life" around the world, the levels of consumption continue to explode.

Not only is this pattern self-destructive, it is lionized and made into a goal to which every citizen should aspire. Bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger living in every area -- conspicuous consumption on steroids, just work a little harder and it can all be yours. We are glorifying that which underlies our economic instability and inequality, our social malaise and immobility, and our political destructiveness. We are fueling conditions that worsen mental, physical, and emotional health, including increased reliance on legal and illegal drugs. The personal, social, and financial costs are debilitating and unsustainable.

There are new ideas out there or waiting to be plucked for living  very well in small spaces in which we reconnect with our neighbors and local communities, for public transportation, for renewable and sustainable energy, for using less to do more and repairing rather than replacing, to name but a few areas ripe for innovations to meet the challenges mentioned. If one really belies in entrepreneurs using innovation to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, then why deny the existence of these challenges or throw obstacles in the paths of those ready to take on those challenges?

Other than the aforementioned un-reality bubble in which some people live one could also look to political maneuvering and posturing or financial ties of politicians to industries threatened by such innovation. But whatever the reason, this kind of reaction supports the worst aspects of capitalism over the best parts of it. It would make an interesting political ad, "Why do these politicians oppose the entrepreneurial spirit and recovery of our economy through innovation?"

Going back to the Biblical angle, being good stewards of creation, living humbly and modestly, taking care of each other, and leaving a habitable world and sustainable society are key values which can guide decisions in the world of business as well. Again, what values are ordering your priorities?

Who promote the dignity of work?

There are those who think that taking away the social safety net will encourage more people to work because the poor are taking it easy and living comfortably off of the government dole. Cue the stereotypes of the welfare queen. And yet apart from partisan groups who start with such presumptions, the reality of those who work with and study the lives of the poor tell a different story. People struggle to get by, even with food stamps or public housing. There are those who do work, and work hard, and yet still need assistance from charities or government programs. People become disheartened and discouraged when they cannot support themselves or their families through meaningful work.

It is also true that people work harder when they have the proper incentives, but it turns out that once you can support yourself with basic dignity (which is basically the difference between relative and absolute poverty, having insufficient food, shelter, etc to survive vs. having insufficient means to live with basic dignity in society and occasionally dipping into unsustainability) and live somewhat comfortably, it is not more money but personal growth, mastery of skills, completion of meaningful challenges, and expression of creativity that drive people.

So no, just giving people money or vouchers for basic needs like food, housing, and health care isn't enough to lift or keep them out of poverty. But letting them starve, live in squatting conditions or run-down housing, and get sick from preventable illnesses isn't going to lift them out of poverty either. Yet the latter is the response of the more brutal forms of the Objectivist Libertarianism gaining increasing currency in US Conservatism. Ensuring that there is adequate work with adequate salary and benefits is a start to fighting poverty, but this won't happen if private industry has no motivation to do so.

This means that either government must give private industry motivations for hiring and training such workers, or it needs to be the employer of last resort. This was done during the run up to the Second World War, during which government became an even bigger employer either directly or through supporting industries vital to the war effort through government spending. And when more people are working, not only does that increase self-respect but it means more people with disposable income who are predisposed to spend most or all of that income and thereby boost a consumer-based economy. If private industry cannot or will not provide adequate employment, then providing for the basis for liberty, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare still falls to we the people.

More than that, there needs to be a cultural shift in the social landscape to valuing work as being about more than profits, that it is instead about dignity, creativity, facing challenges, and providing a sense of purpose and value to how we employ our productivity. Thus profitability would shift from being about making more money just to "be rich" or to sustain the goals of living larger and extreme conspicuous consumption toward providing these alternative sources of productivity and value. Companies would respond to this shift in priorities and markets.

This involves more than last-resort safety nets and jobs programs, it must also involve education, social awareness, and rethinking the purpose of business. And yes, you can find support for this in the Bible as well in the calls for the dignity and fair treatment of everyone in society, of honest dealings, of the value of productive and communally beneficial work, and in the meaning acts such as the celebration of Jubilee.

So could the US use more of this?

Yes, the United Sates could use more of this kind of thinking and compassion. Whether or not it is associated with Christianity and Biblical values (other faiths also support identical or similar values and many secular ideologies agree with them) or of the conservative claims of promoting innovative entrepreneurs and the dignity of work (which technically are also championed by liberals and progressives), yes, any nation could benefit from a healthy form of government that sees beyond fear, greed, and ignorance; a government of, by, and for the people; a government which maintains a healthy and respectful relationship with its citizens and sees their safety, liberty, and especially there welfare as their top priorities. Such a government and its people must always remember that safety is an illusion without liberty and that liberty is an illusion without welfare.

It might seem that there is a great deal of common ground available to American citizens beyond the political rhetoric which divides them. Rhetoric which eviscerates empathy by making failures personal rather than structural for the poor (i.e., it's all their fault they are poor) and structural rather personal for rich (it's government's fault they don't produce jobs). Rhetoric which blunts compassion by setting up such standards for being worthy of sympathy and then painting the poor or disadvantaged as weak or immoral free-loaders. This division serves those who benefit from keeping the political, economic, and social situation as it is, which is an increasingly small number of very connected and wealthy people, those who are scared of change, and those who benefit from pandering to both. The Bible has quite a bit to say about such things, and more self-professed Christians in the US could stand to read about that.

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