The VDB Report
A Personal Look at FAITH AND POLITICS
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.