27 April 2014

God and mammon, and the tragedy of trying to serve both

I really haven’t had much contact with the conventional Anglo-American religious right since my willing submersion in the world of the apostolic alternative right – Romanist anarchists, Orthodox personalists, existentialists, Tory radicals, crunchy cons and so forth – so it was a bit of a culture shock to come across a particular conservative evangelical blog which idolises libertarian ideologues such as Thomas Sowell and Bill Easterly, and seems to take for granted that Christian ethics demands ‘distinguish[ing] between the deserving and undeserving poor’ (when it clearly does no such thing – one of the clearest of Jesus’s commands in the Gospel of S. Luke was to ‘give to every man that asketh of thee’, not to give him the third degree to see if he is worthy of what you are deigning in your magnanimity to bequeath to him). Naturally, he prefaces all of this with the standard bromides that being a Christian ‘transcends mere partisan politics’ and does not mean subscribing to a party line – before going on to do just that, asserting baldly against the ‘trendy lefty social justice’ Christians that ‘capitalism is not the enemy’, that ‘we know’ only capitalism produces ‘programmes and policies that actually work’ to lift people out of poverty, and then proceeding to enlist the aid of that intellectual giant Bono (lead singer of U2) in support of his argument.

Accusing ‘lefty social justice’ Christians of being ‘trendy’ whilst saying Bono’s now one of the cool kids. Oy. That’s the problem with this sort of right-wing Protestantism: the parody writes itself; I really couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to.

To be clear, I admit to being a ‘lefty’ on economic issues not because it’s the ‘trendy’ thing to be, but because I believe that the most consistent interpretation of the Gospels and of the consensus of the Holy Fathers – in particular S. Basil the Great and S. John Chrysostom, two of the most voluble on the subject – tends to support an oikonomía which would be considered, in modern parlance, ‘left’-of-centre. And it would be utterly ludicrous to claim that the Patristic view of justice is confined merely to the realm of secular legal procedure – Patristic justice is not only legal, but social. (And then, not only social, but natural; and at that not only natural, but divine.) Though a faithful and right-believing Christian should never, ever be content with being so labelled, she must be a ‘social justice’ Christian wherever the term is opposed to the mere procedural ‘justice’ of the saeculum which has ever been the plaything of the rich and powerful.

How sad and impotent a thing the Protestant right has become! To be perfectly clear, there are indeed aspects of Mr Muehlenberg’s ‘platform’ that I can sympathise with. He doesn’t want to see government money being used to prop up corrupt régimes, nor does he want to see it being used to promote anti-natal policies in ‘developing countries’. Neither do I. But he can’t see that the problem isn’t just the (in this case, Australian) government which is to blame here! Aid policies are shaped by the same lobbies and special interests which dictate domestic economic policies, and there is big money to be made in promoting anti-natal policies in the ‘developing world’ (with all of the pharmaceutical and surgical goods and logistics to be won in contracts at a significant profit). Likewise, corruption pays, if a given corporation can spend enough to make a relationship with a corrupt government work. Mr Muehlenberg can repeat until he’s blue in the face that ‘capitalism isn’t the enemy’ – but on a lot of the substantive issues he cares so much about, the invisible hand can’t seem to get enough of stabbing his causes in the back.

The same goes with neoconservative Romanists, it must be said. Markets and morals, says the Acton Institute. Why not serve both God and mammon, they ask. But (to give just one example) the acolytes of Robert Sirico put so much emphasis on defending Microsoft (qua Microsoft, with all of its monopoly power intact) as a force for good in the world whilst Bill Gates himself plans to implement anti-natal policies on an international scale, using money which has been essentially throttled from his might-have-been competitors through the government-enforced leverage of the patent system. Can any consistent Romanist see this, and not laugh (or cry, or both)? The Acton Institute attacks Christians who point out the injustices of multinational corporations using legal proceduralism in this way to thwart a shallower-graded distribution of productive property – and takes no position on how the maldistribution they defend contributes to moral crises which (one hopes, one dearly hopes!) they decry.

It is truly unfortunate that there are those amongst my right-believing brothers and sisters who, along with Muehlenberg and Sirico, are beginning to place their faith in the novelties of ‘what works’, using standards of ‘what works’ which date back only three hundred years or less. They have traded the eternal and infallible conciliar vision of the Fathers for the disembodied, rootless and materialistic mind of the market. Thankfully, there has been some decent, Patristically-grounded criticism of the collaboration of S. Vladimir’s with the Acton Institute (also, here).

The bigger irony is that if you start asking the question of ‘what works’, you are beginning to engage in a theological exercise. ‘What works’ to feed the multitudes, according to the Gospel? The disciples asked Our Lord to send the starving masses back to their hometowns to buy food. Likewise, it strikes me that the Easterly-Sowell-Sirico crowd would have had Christ tell the multitudes to stop being such lazy, shiftless, greedy bums and go out and sell stuff, or get jobs working for the Herodians, the Romans and the Sadducees (you know, the job creators!). In each of the Gospels Our Lord does not see it that way. But what does He know, right? He was only following that ‘trendy lefty social justice’ S. John the Forerunner fellow.


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  2. As someone who considers himself both a lefty on economic issues and a theologically conservative Evangelical, it does sadden me to see that American Evangelicalism, which Muehlenburg is a part of despite living in Australia, is married to free market capitalism even if there are many aspects of it which seem quite unchristian (Muehlenburg is a former atheist leftist radical so some of his views may be an over-reaction against his former views). There is one Evangelical website which claims to be centered around the Gospel but only invites economic libertarian voices whenever it discusses economic issues instead of inviting a variety of voices. It is interesting though that this marriage is largely an American phenomenon since the Evangelicals in the UK and Australia overall are much more lefty than American Evangelicals. I've seen British and Australian Evangelicals defend universal health care in front of American Evangelicals and speak out in favor of foreign aid, protection for the environment, and even labor unions. At the same time, however, they remain socially conservative. There also seems to be a growing concern for social justice among theologically conservative American evangelicals including some prominent voices (such as Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian).

    BTW, I've enjoyed reading many of your blog posts. I'm glad to see that there are others who are economically lefty and socially conservative.

  3. Hello lau300!

    Very glad you are enjoying my blog! It's very heartening to hear that the Wilberforce and Salvation Army tendencies in Evangelicalism never really died, and seem to be coming back! Though my own instincts are not low-church and never really have been, I would certainly welcome and gladly work with Evangelical strains in promoting a more human-scale, distributist-style economy.

    Very glad to have you reading! All the best,

  4. Actually, I've seen one Evangelical writing an article arguing for distributism on a Reformed website. He also believes Evangelicals (though he specifically refers to Reformed Christians) can learn a great deal from Catholic social teaching.


    By the way, what do you see as the main difference between Distributism and Guild Socialism? It seems to me the two systems would in practice result in similar economic outcomes.