The VDB Report: Faith and Politics

The VDB Report
By Hendrik van der Breggen

I've been thinking about faith and politics lately. I have been spurred to think about these matters because I attended the recent Providence University College lecture series which featured the Hon. Rev. Bill Blaikie, a United-Church-minister-turned-MP-and-MLA plus able defender of "social gospel." Mr. Blaikie's overall lecture series was titled "God, Government, and Gospel: Christians and Politics." Individual lectures were titled "The Naked Public Square vs. the Naked Marketplace," "Market Fundamentalism: Idolatry and Inequality," and "Top Ten Scriptures for Faith and Public Life." There was also a panel discussion and Q&A. Having this highly respected parliamentarian speak at Providence was a coup for Providence, and the organizers of this lecture series are to be congratulated. Mr. Blaikie's talks were insightful and caring, and I encourage Philosophy Foosballers to learn from Mr. Blaikie's work. (Blaikie's book The Blaikie Report is available in the Providence Bookstore. More info about the lecture series can be found here.)

Here is what I've been thinking. There is a very real concern about the autonomy of the world's market economy, which Blaikie calls "the naked marketplace." According to Blaikie, the marketplace is morally naked, i.e., there is an absence of biblical values in the market economy, though there was at one time a biblical moral framework, as presupposed by Rev. Adam Smith in his famous book Wealth of Nations (1776). According to Blaikie, the market's emphasis on short-term contracts, individual self-fulfillment, and technical efficiency creates a "market mentality," and this market mentality eats away at the moral framework that Smith required for capitalism to function properly. Blaikie calls blind adherence to markets "market idolatry." The result: unjust economic practices and unjust social structures. To rectify these injustices, Blaikie sees an important role for a strong social-democratic government.

I agree that there are some unjust economic practices and unjust social structures, and I agree that there is generally an absence of biblical values in the market; therefore I think that criticism and correction of such injustices are appropriate. So I found myself sharing some important common ground with Blaikie (though we might disagree on the prevalence or extent of the injustices and on the nature of the political solutions).

But I also found myself wondering about several important questions (this wonder was triggered when Blaikie mentioned in passing that there are always people coming to politicians for various government spending favours, and when Prov's communication and media professor observed that though we often blame media for its sensational news coverage, the media tends to reflect or respond to what the larger population finds interesting). Here are my questions: In our growing desire to embrace government solutions to social problems, is there an unnoticed shuffling of a general human moral problem—concerning greed and desire for power—from one human social structure to another human social structure? If the market can become an idol, cannot the government—even a democratic government—become an idol too? In the general absence of biblical values in our society, what keeps us from shifting from a market fundamentalism to a government fundamentalism?

These questions are important, it seems to me, because the social structures of a society, whether they are marketplace structures or government structures, are spawned by the hearts and minds of the people who constitute society—and therefore will tend to reflect those hearts and minds. Significantly, in post-Christian Canada the many people who constitute government along with the many people who purport to hold government to account share values that tend not to be biblical moral values.

Two days after the Providence lecture series, while I was listening to the radio during my morning drive to Providence, I heard a fellow from Ottawa's National House of Prayer say this: "[I]t's not the system that's broke, but rather the people inside that need help. Our problem is moral, not economical."

I would venture to say that the problem is both moral and economical—and spiritual. Just as there is an absence of biblical values in the many people who govern society via markets (e.g., large corporations, consumers) and so unjust socio-economic structures tend to emerge, there is also an absence of biblical values in the many people who would wish to govern the markets via government (e.g., politicians, voters) and so unjust governance also tends to emerge.

How then do we transform people spiritually to hold biblical values? Enter: the Gospel.

I asked Mr. Blaikie about the role of the Gospel in personal transformation of a society's individual members, and he responded that basically the Gospel is a given in his understanding of the social gospel. He mentioned (if I remember correctly) that he came from a church where people would testify to how God saved them from their "personal demons" such as, say, alcoholism. Mr. Blaikie also remarked that he never saw any capitalist CEOs come to church and testify about their repentance from the sin of greed. I didn't pursue my question further, because I thought Mr. Blaikie's answer was a good one (and I'm not a quick thinker). But over the past few days I've been thinking (slowly but surely). It turns out that I am one of those people who had an alcohol "demon" (and other demons) and I've testified in church to God's deliverance from such personal demons. Like Blaikie, in the churches I attended I didn't see any CEOs confess and repent from their greed. I would add, though, that I also didn't see any politicians and government bureaucrats stand up and confess and repent from their sins of power-mongering, misspending of government funds, or general abuse of the people's trust.

I don't wish to come across as cynical. I'm sure that there are decent and honourable politicians who strive to do politics for the common good. Bill Blaikie is certainly one of them, and I would add Vic Toews and others to my list. But I'm also sure that there are decent and honourable capitalists who strive to do business for the common good too. Some businessmen and businesswomen associated with Providence quickly come to mind.  (On the topic of business for the common good, a helpful video discussion is "Ethics in the Marketplace," which is part 5 of Charles Colson and Robert George's Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics.  A helpful book on this topic is Kenman Wong and Scott Rae's Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace.)

My point is this: We must be careful to diagnose problems correctly. If social structural problems are unjust and require social structural solutions, then I say "Amen!" to such solutions (though we might argue about the best way to administer the solution). But as far as external social solutions go, I think they never really can go far enough.

Allow me to be personal here (once again). I tend toward introspection. I think that the philosophical quip "know thyself" is important. Significantly, in my personal life I have found that my very ability to discern the good plus be motivated to do good (especially when it's not in my apparent self-interest) was enhanced not by a social solution, but by soul surgery. I grew up with social gospel. But it wasn't until (at age 30) I accepted that Jesus is truly God in the flesh, that Jesus died on the cross to reconcile the sinful world to God, and that Jesus actually resurrected to show that death and sin do not have the last word—it wasn't until I realized this message was true—that my heart and mind were renewed and I became more concerned about others than about myself. Some would use the words "spiritual awakening" or "born again" to describe my experience.

In other words, I've been thinking this: In our embrace of what's true and good in the social gospel, let's be sure that we never forget to continually embrace what's true and good in the Gospel message that centers on Jesus' life, death, and bodily resurrection. Take some time to reread John 3:16 (and maybe read theologian Michael Wittmer's book Don't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough). I'm quite sure that without the Gospel up close and personal, the social gospel withers. I'm quite sure too that with the Gospel up close and personal—that is, in the hearts and minds of the larger population—the appropriately social dimensions of the Gospel will flourish in a democratically governed society as they morally ought.

What do Philosophy Foosballers think?

- Dr. V

P.S. When it comes to discussions of faith and politics, we should keep in mind that the proclamation of the life-transforming and eternally-significant Gospel message of salvation from sin through Christ requires religious freedom. This is a freedom that includes freedom of speech. As noted a couple of weeks ago by Philosophy Foosball Club blogmaster Ryan Turnbull, the issue of freedom of speech concerning religious matters is presently before the Supreme Court of Canada. I think it's important to realize that such freedom includes the freedom to evangelize—i.e., the freedom to share, explain, intellectually defend one's faith—a freedom that sometimes requires stating (respectfully) some uncomfortable truths about sin. Regardless of whether the sin is stereotypically a concern of Christians on the political left (e.g. sin having to do with social inequality, unfair economic distribution, environmental abuse) or stereotypically a concern of Christians on the political right (e.g. sin having to do with abortion, embryonic stem cell research, sex), we should pray that religious freedom prevails. We should not pray that our government engages in evangelism; we should pray that our government protects the freedom to evangelize—i.e., our freedom to carry out Christ's great commission in all of the dimensions of life.


Theophilus said...

Thanks for this essay. I have been thinking about this as well. It seems correct to me to say that the social gospel proponents are shifting the concern of the Christian to unjust social structures instead of sin, and this seems backwards to me. I would really be encouraged if I heard more from the social gospel movement about individual sin which occurs naturally as a result of the Fall. Also, they seem to think that if there is a social problem there must be a solution and that this solution can be enacted by the government. I think this view should be included in logic textbooks as a fallacy.

I also want to say that Mr. Blaikie's description of the market seems to miss the mark. As I see it, the market ties us together in a web of interactions and loyalties and helps us to enter into a moral community. These market interactions are upheld and guaranteed by the state which acts as an impartial judge according to a law which it has fixed and this allows to enter into our relations with each other with confidence.

The "social-democratic government" what I think we can just call the planned economy, is a great threat to this community because it replaces the people with whom we interact with and whom we can have gratitude towards and hold grudges against with a nameless and faceless state. It cannot be thanked, for it has no apparatus with which to receive thanks; and cannot be sued, for it is itself the judge of what is just and unjust. If it sees fit to behave irresponsibly and in opposition to the good of those who enter into interaction with it it cannot be called to account.

So I see two dangers: one is the erosion of a moral community of people who freely interact with each other for their own good and thereby form loyalties and friendships and the second is the lack of accountability that occurs when the state replaces all of our personal interactions with each other. (I must add that if the laws of the state are just and not used as means to accomplish programs important to their current enforcers, we avoid the problem of the greedy, power-mongering politician, as well as the problem of the totalitarian leader).

Theophilus said...

I should add that my defense of the market is not a description of what always happens in the market in modern Canada or in America especially with the rise of gigantic corporations which seem as little accountable to us as the government. (Also, on my account, we ought to view corporations as persons, so as to ensure their accountability to those they interact with before the law.)

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thank you, Landon Oakes (a.k.a. Theophilus), for your comments. I appreciate your usual good sense and philosophical insight. Yes, I agree that we should develop a new fallacy for the logic textbooks. We will have to think of a good name for the fallacy, i.e., a catchy name that accurately describes the mistake but does so without risk of personal insult to those who commit it (so we can avoid law suits). (Yes, the parenthetical remark was supposed to be humorous.) How about fallacy of hasty appeal to government? Landon, on behalf of the Philosophy Foosball Club, I hereby invite you to return to Providence to complete your degree! Best regards.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Here's an interesting story of how spiritual transformation can change an evil industry from the inside out: From Playboy pornographer to Christian pastor. (Kind of reminds me of the story of John Newton, the slave-trader-turned-pastor and author of "Amazing Grace.")

Nicholas Greco said...

Dr. van der Breggen,

Thank you for the well-written exploration of the true problems that might be inherent in Canadian society, apart from Capitalism or "market idolatry." I also appreciate the mention (I'm that media prof who called Blaikie--and others--out on the notion that the media is to blame for everything).

I think that I would take a simpler approach to things. I agree that the Gospel of Christ is what is required to fix things, and I understand the notion that systems in disrepair are simply symptoms of a greater problem.

I suppose, in my cursory thinking on the subject matter here, I don't mind the notion of a "social gospel" on the part of government. I suppose that this is a lesser evil, a kind of "move towards morality," if you will forgive my perhaps crude way of putting it.

In any case, I'm not sure that anything I'm saying is particularly thoughtful, but I thought I would throw my hat in the proverbial ring. Socialism, as a system, might be considered more moral (HA! I can't wait for that to be quoted by the media!) than capitalism, or the market. As one who is constantly tempted by market, and extremely susceptible to capitalist desire (through advertising, etc.), I understand the need (that I have) for this sort of system--or at least a move toward this sort of system.

One final thing: the "social" is about working for the good of all, at the expense of all. "Capital" or "market" is about the self.

I didn't find the above anywhere; I made it up from scratch. And I might not be right. Thanks for posting, nonetheless.

Jordan said...

Thank you very much for putting together this essay, Dr. V. I very much wanted to be at this year's Lecture Series. It's the first one in 4 years that I have missed.

Rather than offering my own half-baked thoughts, on the questions you have raised, I'll recommend a book that I think you would find very relevant and insightful (at least I did) when thinking about these topics.

The book is James Davison Hunter's "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World."

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Dr. Greco (Nicholas),

Thanks for your thoughts about Gospel, social gospel, capitalism, and socialism. I agree that capitalism has its problems (e.g., its tendency to overemphasize self-interest, creation of phony "needs," promotion of people as "consumers," exploitation of people and environment), but I think the problems arise at root from the morals (or lack of morals) of those who constitute the major players in the markets (i.e., the people who own/run businesses and the people who buy goods and services). On the other hand, I think that socialism is attractive primarily because of the moral values that are imposed onto the governing socialist structure that's being considered. Without those moral values in place at the roots (i.e., in the hearts and minds of those who shape the social system and those who hold its players accountable), we've again got (another) corrupt system. I'm inclined to think that whether one has political leanings towards capitalism or socialism (or some place in between), the key is to use government as a God-given tool to encourage a social system that reflects fundamental moral values AND to promote conditions that allow the Gospel to be promoted, so people—the governed (employees/ consumers/ voters) and the governors (whether business owners, CEOs, media elite, city councilors, MLAs, MPs, or Supreme Court Justices)—will have transformed hearts and minds that seek the good of others, not just self. I suspect that we're not really having a very great difference of view here.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Mr. Ross (Jordan),

Thanks for recommending James Davison Hunter's book. I've heard of the book, and I like much (not all) of what I've heard -- I especially like the notion of "faithful presence." I like to think of faithful presence as living out one's life as a salting influence in one's spheres of influence. I wonder if I capture some of Hunter's notion in the following excerpt (pasted below) from some of my lecture notes in my ethics course? I like to think that I do (especially if we keep in mind that Hunter's elite social networks and cultural institutions presuppose the moral formation of the key actors involved in producing those networks and institutions). Of course, I'll have to check out Hunter's book. At any rate, thanks for the book recommendation. I hope that you and your new bride are doing well!

Best regards,

Here is the excerpt:

Christians and "Secular Ethics"

At this juncture, I should emphasize that ethics can to a very large extent be done in the absence of reference to God. Such a study of ethics is basically a study of God's general ethical revelation for which an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God has good reasons which can to a large extent be understood in human or "secular" terms, i.e., solely in terms of earthly human welfare and flourishing, or the moral principles/ values may simply be seen or intuited (via rational insight) as true.

So how should Christians do ethics in the non-Christian, public square? I'll close this section on theological ethics with some comments from the Christian historian, lawyer, philosopher, and theologian John Warwick Montgomery (from his The Shaping of America [Bethany House 1981], 155):

"Our task in a secular society is not to force the society, come what may, into the framework of God's Kingdom, but rather to bring it as close as we can to divine standards consistent with effective Gospel preachment to the unbeliever.

"We should actively strive to legislate all revelational standards whose societal importance can be demonstrated [via good, publicly accessible reasons] to our fellow citizens, and where we are unsuccessful in legislating them we should do all in our power to create a climate of opinion in which they will eventually become acceptable."

I would add (and I think Montgomery would agree): And where we can’t demonstrate the social importance, we shouldn’t impose (because imposing may push people away from the Gospel).

It seems to me that the creation of a climate of opinion in which God's ethics become more acceptable to our society requires us to show the superiority of God's ethics in two ways: (1) by living our lives in accordance with God's ethics; and (2) by giving (insofar as it is possible) "secular" reasons for why God's ethics are superior to competing moral principles and theories. In so doing, we can be "salt" and "light" to a morally deteriorating world. (Salt keeps meat from rotting, and light keeps the darkness at bay.)

Of course, #1 should be done always and wherever we are. We can do #2 at home, work, school, church, discussion with friends, letters to editors and MPs. Also, we should encourage young people (who are relevantly gifted) to serve God as culture-shapers: lawyers, teachers, reporters, writers, moviemakers, artists, etc. Also, we should encourage young people to work as researchers/ thinkers who “translate” God’s moral law into “secular” terms to show its superiority and beauty and goodness—i.e., its relevance to human flourishing and the amelioration of human suffering.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.S. (for Jordan): James Davison Hunter would probably think that with Montgomery's quote I'm emphasizing the political realm too much. I like to think that I'm emphasizing the merely public realm, while also keeping in mind that being a salting influence in the public realm includes, but is not exhausted by, being a salting influence in the political realm.

P.P.S. Charles Colson, of whom Hunter is critical, has a thoughtful reply to Hunter here.

Jordan said...

Thanks for that link to Colson's reponse, Dr. V. Having read Hunter's book closely (though fallibly), I think Colson's critique is off the mark in some places, but it's always good to read responses from authors who are critiqued in another author's books (Andy Crouch has also responded to Hunter's critique of him).

This ongoing conversation you have begun with your essay is very thought-provoking. It is leading me to wonder about things like the relationship between individualism and Christianity, and the relationship between individualism and morality.

I am also led to think about whether sin is located only in individual human hearts, or whether it is also sometimes located in social and political systems and cultural institutions (and if so, whether it is legitimate to reduce the sin located in these institutions and systems to the sin of the individuals in them).

As an aside, isn't it remarkable how ideas are intertwined?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Jordan,

Yes, it is remarkable how ideas are intertwined. I suspect that when it comes to individualism and (political) collectivism, there is a continuum and Christianity fits somewhere in the middle. I would hope that Christians can argue (with gentleness and respect, of course) about exactly where in the middle.

Regarding sin, I think the creation is fallen due to the misuse of the creature's freedom, with sin's effects being manifested in the creation. Therefore, I'm inclined not to locate sin per se in social and political systems and cultural institutions; rather, I'm inclined to think that these systems and institutions, insofar as they are human creations, are tainted by or reflect the sin of those who create them. So I'm also inclined not to reduce the effects of sin manifested in these systems and institutions to the individuals in them. These effects are real, but I think that social and political systems and cultural institutions, insofar as they are bad, arise from and reflect the sin of people. People need to be changed (e.g., by the Gospel) and, if an institution is bad because it reflects or promotes sin (e.g. an institution such as slavery or human trafficking), then the institution should be changed (or ended). Both sorts of change are needed—and they are intertwined. Gospel without social action is dead; social action without Gospel is blind; moreover, social action without Gospel withers.

(For whatever is good in my last quip, I give thanks to Immanuel Kant, James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus the Son of God. Of course, the responsibility of the mistakenness of the quip, if it’s mistaken, is all mine.)

I suppose that what I want to maintain is a distinction between sin and sin's effects. Sin lurks in the human heart, whereas sin's effects stomp all over the hearts and minds and bodies of others.

(I seem to be on a roll with the quips, so I’ll stop before I make a huge blunder, or blunder even further.)

Thanks for the discussion, Jordan.

P.S. Now that there are two Lecoka coffee shops in Steinbach, our chances of crossing paths for coffee have been reduced. If I don’t see you soon, I wish you and Alexandra a Merry Christmas!