Friday, August 23, 2013

the Providence HS prayer for its football players

For this moment, parents laid hands on their son, while we all stood in a circle.

"Lord, I lift up my sons to you and ask that you would put a hedge of protection around them. Protect their spirit, body and mind from any kind of evil or harm. I pray specifically for protection from accidents or injury. Thank you Lord for your many promises of protection. Help them to walk in your ways and in obedience to your will. Keep them safe in all they do and wherever they go. Lord, I put my sons in your hands this day. Guide, protect, and convict them when sin is trying to take room. Strengthen them in battle when Satan attempts to gain a foothold in their hearts. Help me not to live in fear of possible dangers but in the joy and peace of knowing that you are in control. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen."

on President Obama's college speech yesterday...

On President Obama's college speech yesterday...

A great title from a John Ransom article: "Making it Cheaper No Matter What it Costs". This explains the President's approach to health care and now, post-secondary education. (In that, he has a bi-partisan crowd of ignoramuses behind him on this, so he's far from alone.)

I happened to catch part of his speech yesterday on CNN-Radio. What a mess.

First, he talks as if access to college is a primary factor in escaping poverty. This ignores the over-arching impact of K-12 education (without which you ain't going to be successful in college...yo!) and ignores the larger factors of hard work and family structure (although I can see why he wouldn't want to talk about those).

Second, by focusing on consumers only, he completely misses the connection between subsidies and higher overall costs-- as if he can extend the subsidies on something without driving up total costs further.

Third, did you catch the new bureaucracy and rating system he wants to create-- as if that would work. Hilarious.

Is this ignorance or duplicity/rhetoric?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

review of Leithart's "Between Babel and Beast"

Peter Leithart has written a thorough and nuanced book on empire and government from a Biblical perspective. I got a number of nuggets from the book-- from cool observations about a variety of Biblical texts to tweaks of my views on Christian political economy. 

Similar to my book on Christianity and political economy, Leithart has plenty to "offend" a lot of Christians (and non-Christians). His method/approach will bother many of those on the theological Left, although they would enjoy many of his conclusions. Those on the (Religious) Right will appreciate his approach to the Bible, but those motivated by foreign policy interests and what he labels "Americanism" will be challenged. In spreading discomfort, Leithart and I have much in common-- and presumably are in good company together. 

"My reading of Scripture will offend scholars whose political sympathies incline toward the left, but the reading of American history that occupies the latter half of this book will offend Christians whose political sympathies incline toward the right...For a generation, conservative Christians have accepted and taught a one-sidedly rosy view of America's Christian past, and in practice, Christians have confused 'restoring America' with promotion of God's kingdom and His justice." (p. x-xi)

Leithart sees empire as a complex and dynamic concept in the Bible (3). Part 1 lays out what the Bible says about empire as Babel and/or Beast. "Politically, the Bible is a tale of two imperialisms. In response to the rebellious imperialism of Babel, Yahweh calls Abraham...Empires may be Babels that impose a uniform political and cultural pattern...Beasts that devour the saints and drink their blood; or, in some cases, Guardians of the people of God. The Bible is not for or against 'empire' because it does not concede that empire in the singular is a useful category of political analysis." (xi)

Part 2 is devoted to "Americanism" (a phrase he borrows from David Gelernter who identifies it as the "fourth Biblical world religion" [58]): "the fundamental theology of the American order, a quasi-Christian, biblically laced heresy...I love America...but Americanism is different." (xi-xii) Part 3 describes Americanism in practice and expresses concerns about the present and the future as such policies play out through this worldview (xii-xiii).

Leithart describes the origins of Americanism: "Conceived by Luther, gestated by Calvin, he was born of the Puritan parents who begat America. It took three labors to bring him finally to birth-- the English Civil War from which American Puritans escaped, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War...American Christianity, like everything American, is new, a fresh Christian experience and form. It is Christianity unhaunted by Catholic past, Christianity detached from Christendom, the 'first experiment in Protestant social formation'." (57-58)

He gives details on the prominent leaders who saw America as a type of Israel (67) and lays out a handful of references to Moses (69-70; a topic developed in far greater detail by Bruce Feiler). His examples around the time of the Revolution are particularly noteworthy, quoting Jonathan Edwards about America as 'the last great act in the great drama of redemption' and seeing the battles with the French as the last battle that would usher in the millennium's new heaven and earth (72-73). In a word, in eschatological terms: "America is the already...the rest of the world is the not yet" (75).

The Civil War ups the ante further: a nationalistic and eucharistic sacrifice of martyrdom, especially of Stonewall Jackson and President Lincoln (whose death on Good Friday added more fuel to these fires). The War "forged [the country] into a single national unit by the war" and provided martyrs, sacred ground, totem flags, battle hymns, sacred texts, villains and heroes (77-79).

Leithart skewers the isolationist myth of simply modern/recent aspirations to American empire in chapters 5 and 6. Starting with a range of quotes (see, especially, 86-87), he provides this nugget from Mary Baker Eddy: "I believe strictly in the Monroe Doctrine, in our Constitution, and in the laws of God." (94) And then he lays out the many ways in which American pursuit of empire has played out in practice (97-109, 116-135), climaxing with funding the persecution of Christians (137). He also provides a nice little section on economic policy and "corporatism" / crony capitalism (126-128).

Leithart concludes Part II with this: "Christians do not try to check American power because American Christians are usually devotees of Americanism...Americanism is the de facto political theology for most American Christians." (110-111)

Part 3 opens with a useful compare/contrast with Europe (115): "Europe's secularization is its long retreat from Christendom...Americanism is impervious to secularization of the European variety because America was never part of Christendom to begin with. America has no established church to disestablish, no throne to disentangle from altar, and no altar either."

Leithart's conclusion (151-152): "As far as Christians are concerned, the only appropriate response is to repent of being Americanists. American churches need to...stop treating July 4 as a high holy day...the Church not American hegemony fulfills the hopes of Israel...Churches should not teach Christians to hate America, or to hate American power; but we must train disciples to hate injustice and violence even when perpetrated by our fellow citizens...The required repentance is profoundly painful. Americanism is so ingrained in our character, institutions, symbols, and practices that renouncing it will feel like repenting of being American. But the stakes...could not be higher. Unless Americans renounce this heresy, we will remain a Babel...and Babels easily slip or rush into bestiality."

Leithart also has a number of nuggets about particular passages. I look forward to adding his insights to my study notes: Gen 4 (p. 4); Gen 11 (4b-8); Gen 11-12:3 (8b-9, 12); Joseph in Gen 41 (13); end of Gen / begin of Ex (13b-14); II Kings 24-25 (26-29); Acts 2 (38); Rev 13 and Intro (45's FTN 25 and 111); and Rev 1:10, 4:3, 17:3, 21:9-10 (47).

Monday, August 19, 2013

the minimum wage is minimally helpful…

In the Indy Star on Friday...

Later this month, we will observe the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. Dr. Terri Jett recently penned an op-ed for The Star about the protestors’ demands and their contemporary relevance. In particular, she emphasized a significant increase in the minimum wage (to $10.10 per hour) as “a moral imperative” that would be beneficial to less-skilled workers and the economy as a whole.

Jett encouraged her readers to support legislation proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA). The bill would also “index” the minimum wage and provide an arbitrary increase in the minimum wage for restaurant servers. Both provisions are reasonable enough—if one is going to have a minimum wage. But the minimum wage itself is greatly over-rated and vastly inferior to other policies that accomplish the same goals without collateral damage.

Let’s start with the helpful ideas in the legislation. First, “indexing” means to adjust something for the impact of inflation. For example, the tax code is indexed, so that taxpayers don’t drift into higher income tax brackets, simply through the higher cost of living induced by the federal government through inflation. Social Security is also indexed; payments to the elderly are adjusted for higher average costs of living. Likewise, the minimum wage should be indexed. Another benefit of this reform: it would eliminate the need to revisit this tired issue every few years. We don’t argue over giving more money to Grandma every few years. There’s no good reason to sporadically debate the minimum wage either.

Second, the minimum wage is not currently applied to all labor markets. Restaurant servers don’t earn the minimum, but they receive tip income. Other exemptions are far more arbitrary, ranging from babysitters to farmers, from wreath makers to newspaper employees, from the disabled to the seasonally-employed. But if the minimum wage is good policy—for workers and for society—why are there any exceptions at all? In this, the Harkin/Miller proposal lacks coherency or courage.

All that said, the minimum wage is not good policy. Let’s start with the most obvious point: by increasing the cost of hiring less-skilled workers, the policy would help those who keep their jobs, but harm those whose skills would not be rented at the higher, artificial, arbitrary wage floor. (For example, the unemployment rate was 11% in July for those with less than a high school education.) Why is it wise or compassionate to help some less-skilled workers by punishing others in the same, vulnerable category?

And it can’t be good for the economy as a whole. If so, we could simply legislate our way to economic growth and prosperity by increasing the minimum wage to $50 per hour. Again, the policy prescription lacks coherence or courage.

Ironically, given Dr. Jett’s connection of the policy to the goals of the March, a higher minimum wage increases the likelihood of discriminatory outcomes. The policy disproportionately impacts some minority groups, since they are disproportionately among the unskilled. And by increasing the surplus of workers (unemployment), it lowers the cost of engaging in discrimination. If I’m a bigot, it’s comforting to know that there’s a line of workers from whom I can choose—to indulge my odd and unfortunate preferences. (For example, the black teen unemployment rate was 42% in July; for white teens, it was 20%.)

Finally, the minimum wage is poorly-targeted. It increases wages for all minimum wage workers, not just those trying to raise a family on a “living wage”. As such, it points to better policy alternatives. For example, Indiana imposes the highest state income taxes on households at the poverty line. State legislators, concerned about the working poor, should eliminate all taxation on income earned by those in households below the poverty line.

Federal payroll (FICA) taxes cause far more damage. They cost the working poor 15.3% of every dollar earned—for those at the poverty line, more than $3,000 per year. The beauty of these policy reforms is that they do not impose a cost on those we’re trying to help.

The “moral imperative” with public policy begins with good policy analysis and well-targeted policies that maximize benefits and minimize costs, particularly for the vulnerable in our society. As such, the minimum wage is a poor policy for trying to help the poor.

D. Eric Schansberg is Professor of Economics at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review, and the author of Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian’s Guide to Politics and Public Policy.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

kids, Christianity and cultural Christianity

I saw a Facebook post making the following assertion: if no one knew about Christianity until they turned 18, no one would embrace it. The assertion seems potentially reasonable on its face. But it assumes a certain definition of Christianity and relies on a static analysis. Let's take those one at a time.

First, this claim surely assumes a "cultural" (rather than a "religious" form) of Christianity-- and in this, it is probably correct to a large degree. (Note that religious observances and rites can be largely cultural.) In fact, it's not a particularly remarkable claim. To the extent that one eliminates large-scale cultural and other factors-- especially in the more formative years-- it's reasonable to assume that those factors would have diminished influence or would even fail to appear at all. We can imagine this in many realms-- from elements of knowledge to matters of belief (based on knowledge); from religion to arbitrary social norms; from hobbies to inventions.

Second and more interesting: what would it be like to have thoughts of God absent until 18? A few thoughts here.

1.) In a sense, this occurs already to a degree, naturally. Children have a (far?) more limited conception of God in practice. Yes, children can have an impressive, child-like faith. But working out faith as part of one's life is largely an adult journey.

2.) This also occurs in a different direction. Children often walk away from whatever child-like faith they had-- and more often, whatever religious practices they've followed as dependents in a religous household. (This takes us back to the initial confusion between religious belief and cultural practices masquerading as religious belief.) Some young people leave home and then begin to wrestle earnestly with matters of faith and practice-- and find it wanting or decide to go their own way.

3.) But here's the most intriguing possibility-- and I think it gets to the root of the matter: Let's try to do some dynamic analysis. If people were not exposed to Christianity until 18, their first look at it would be much cleaner, unclouded by the cultural counterfeit. As such, the truer version would be more attractive than the current conflation between culture, politics, and religion. If God reveals himself through nature (Rom 1), conscience (Rom 2), the love of faithful believers (Jn 15), etc., then a cleaner look at God might result in more believers. (This is related to the thought that Americans are actually disadvantaged in terms of embracing Christianity-- compared to the prototypical tribesman in Africa.) 

One other thought: If the original hypothesis of pre-18 indoctrination is correct, why would some really smart people (e.g., C.S. Lewis) embrace the faith, often through a relatively intellectual approach? 

Not that I'm any rival to Lewis, but I should probably add my own testimony here. I was raised in a nominal Christian home by parents who divorced-- the sort of background that often leads kids to walk away from a nominal or non-existent faith. My discipleship with Jesus and the empowerment of Holy Spirit started as a teenager and began in earnest when I was 20.

What does this mean for us? For professional skeptics, nothing. For thoughtful skeptics, a call to reconsider the truer forms of Christian faith and practice. For Christian parents, a call to aim for something more than rote memory and behavioral conformity. For the Church, a call to discipleship with Jesus, not just "conversion" or attendance.