Thursday, May 27, 2010

Jim Wallis Attacks the Tea Party: What are His Arguments?

Jim Wallis thinks Left-wing socialism is Christian but Tea Party libertarianism is not. He wants a debate. Fine, let's have it. I'm ready to debate Jim Wallis anytime. In what follows, I respond to his article. My emphases in bold and my comments are in [square brackets and red.]

"The insurgent Tea Party and its Libertarian philosophy is a political phenomenon, not a religious one. [OK, why is this relevant? Jim doesn't start off most of his articles by saying "Socialism (or Big Government Liberalism or the Welfare State) is a political phenomenon not a religious one. Maybe he should, unless he is trying to transform the Gospel into a political ideology. I think most Christians who support the Tea Party would agree that libertarian political philosophy is not the content of the Christian gospel but they would quite reasonably see Wallis's teachings as implying that Big Government liberalism, if not outright socialism, is the Christian gospel.] Like the Democratic and Republican parties it seeks to challenge, it is a secular movement, not a Christian one. As with both major political parties, people who regard themselves as Christians may be involved in, or sympathetic to, the new Tea Party; but that doesn’t make it “Christian.” [Just as Christian democratic socialist don't make democratic socialism "Christian."] But like the philosophies and policies of the major political parties, the Tea Party can legitimately be examined on the basis of Christian principles -- and it should be. [Agreed.]

Since the Tea Party is getting such national attention, our God’s Politics blog is going to begin a dialogue on this question: Just how Christian is the Tea Party Movement -- and the Libertarian political philosophy that lies behind it? Let me start the dialogue here. And please join in.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that holds individual rights as its supreme value and considers government the major obstacle. It tends to be liberal on cultural and moral issues and conservative on fiscal, economic, and foreign policy. [This is true of some libertarians but not all by any means. Many economic libertarians are actually social conservatives on cultural and moral issues. Libertarianism is an older political philosophy than welfare state liberalism - not a recent "phenomenon" - and it has historically been just one co-belligerent in the conservative coalition in America along with traditional conservatives and social conservatives like me plus neoconservatives and foreign policy hawks. I would see libertarians as allies even though I am not one personally. I do think they are much less dangerous than the socialists in the Democratic coalition Wallis is part of. I'm happy to support smaller government in alliance with libertarians who support moral standards as on the pro-life issue for example.] This “just leave me alone and don’t spend my money” option is growing quickly in American life, as we have seen in the Tea Party movement. [It may be growing but the opposite philosophy currently controls the Presidency, both houses of Congress and at least half of the Supreme Court. So the "take-over" is not exactly imminent.] Libertarianism has been an undercurrent in the Republican Party for some time, [this is an attempt to paint it as less than mainstream despite it majority status among America voters] and has been in the news lately due to the primary election win of Rand Paul as the Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Kentucky. [Typical Democratic talking points - attack Rand Paul - but, will this work any better than the attacks on the Arizona immigration bill which are now backfiring with independent voters?]

. . . snip . . .

Is such a philosophy Christian? In several major aspects of biblical ethics, I would suggest that Libertarianism falls short.

1. The Libertarian enshrinement of individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue. Emphasizing individual rights at the expense of others violates the common good, a central Christian teaching and tradition. [It is somewhat hypocritical to attack libertarians for emphasizing individual rights when you support a liberal philosophy that exalts individual choice on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce and other issues concerning sexual ethics, family matters and the sanctity of human life. Why isn't Wallis attacking the "libertarianism" and "individualism" of the Left on these issues? When he sides with the social conservatives, THEN he will have the right to criticize the libertarians on individualism.] The Christian answer to the question “Are we our brother’s keeper?” is decidedly “Yes.” [Yes, but it is a huge leap to define that "we" as the State rather than us Christians or the Church.] Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. Loving your neighbor is a better Christian response than telling your neighbor to leave you alone. Both compassion and social justice are fundamental Christian commitments, [depends on what you mean by "social justice" here - if you are trying to smuggle in a commitment to socialism, that is not acceptable] and while the Christian community is responsible for living out both, government is also held accountable to the requirements of justice and mercy. Both Christians on the Right and the Left have raised questions about Libertarian abandonment of the most vulnerable — whether that means unborn lives or the poor. [As a pro-lifer, I'd rather take my chances with the Tea Partiers rather than with the supposedly compassionate Democratic Party!]

Just look at the biblical prophets in their condemnation of injustice to the poor, and how they frequently follow those statements by requiring the king (the government) to act justly (a requirement that applied both to the kings of Israel and to foreign potentates). Jeremiah, speaking of King Josiah, said, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well” (Jeremiah 22:16). Amos instructs the courts (the government) to “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts” (Amos 5:15). The prophets hold kings, rulers, judges, and employers accountable to the demands of justice and mercy. [Notice that there is nothing in these verses about socialism or the welfare state or redistribution of wealth. The prophets were talking about justice and the rule of law - major conservative principles. And they were critics of the advent of "big government" under the Kings.]

2. An anti-government ideology just isn’t biblical. In Romans 13, the apostle Paul (not the Kentucky Senate candidate) describes the role and vocation of government; in addition to the church, government also plays a role in God’s plan and purposes. Preserving the social order, punishing evil and rewarding good, and protecting the common good are all prescribed; we are even instructed to pay taxes for those purposes! Sorry, Tea Party. Of course, debating the size and role of government is always a fair and good discussion, and most of us would prefer smart and effective to “big” or “small” government. [It is not anti-government for libertarians to want government to stick to core functions of enforcing justice and national defense rather than intruding into every area of life and replacing the family as the main provider of income to most citizens. Libertarians are not anti-government; they just have a different view of its proper function than Wallis does.]

Revelation 13 depicts the state as a totalitarian beast — a metaphor for Rome, which was persecuting the Christians. This passage serves as a clear warning about the abuse of governmental power. But a power-hungry government is clearly an aberration [one wonders how much history Wallis reads when he throws out an over-generalization like that] and violation of the proper role of government in protecting its citizens and upholding the demands of fairness and justice. To disparage government per se — to see government as the central problem in society — is simply not a biblical position. [As Rom. 13 and Rev. 13 demonstrate, government can be either a servant of the people or an out-of-control monster and the bigger the government is the more of a danger it is. Libertarians don't disagree with that.]

3. The Libertarians’ supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin. [I'm glad Wallis has rediscovered the doctrine of sin all of a sudden! But . . . the Big Government Liberal's supreme confidence in the State is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin.] The exclusive focus on government as the central problem ignores the problems of other social sectors, and in particular, the market. [The typical Big Government liberal exclusive focus on the market as the problem ignores the problems of other sectors, and in particular, the State.] When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest [the market does not have an "interest" because it is not a person - any more than a government office has an interest without someone filling that office who does have "interests." A market is a democratic mechanism for setting prices as opposed to prices being set arbitrarily by bureaucrats on the basis of central planning] without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment — which Christians regard as God’s creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market [again, it is not the market that is sinful and to demonize the only economic system in the world to have lifted the majority of the population out of poverty like this is just irresponsible Marxist propaganda] and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don’t, it’s not government’s role to correct it. [This places all power in the hands of the State. Apparently the Christian view of human nature and sin don't apply to anyone who gets elected or hired as a government bureaucrat. There is a difference between the proper role of government: to ensure the rule of law and uphold justice and the falsely expanded role of government to replace the market and ensure equality of outcomes.]

But such theorizing ignores the practical issues that the public sector has to solve. Should big oil companies like BP simply be allowed to spew oil into the ocean? [No libertarian I've ever met has ever said yes to that -a straw man argument coupled with an appeal to emotion.] And is regulating them really un-American? Do we really want nobody to inspect our meat, make sure our kids’ toys are safe, or police the polluters to keep our air clean? Do we really want owners of restaurants and hotels to be able to decide whom they will or won’t serve, or should liquor store owners also be able to sell alcohol to our kids? Given the reality of sin in all human institutions, doesn’t a political process that provides both accountability and checks and balances make both theological and practical sense? [Once all power is in the hands of the State, there is no check and balance. The key is balance. Some regulation is good but not all. Wallis is just as extreme as the straw man on the other side. ] C.S. Lewis once said that we need democracy not because people are essentially good, but because they often are not. Democratic accountability is essential to preventing the market from becoming a beast of corporate totalitarianism – just as it is essential for the government. [Here we are confusing two very different things: the rule of law and socialist redistribution of wealth by the administrative state. The State should enforce law with regard to corporations and ensure fairness. But it should not appropriate profits arbitrarily for its own purposes. This is a mixed up jumble.] And God’s priorities should determine ours, not the priorities of the Chamber of Commerce. [Wallis can't imagine God and the CoC ever being on the same page on anything! He has really drunk the Kool-Aid.]

4. The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian. “Leave me alone to make my own choices and spend my own money” is a political philosophy that puts those who need help at a real disadvantage. And those who need help are central to any Christian evaluation of political philosophy. “As you have done to the least of these,” says Jesus, “You have done to me.” And “Blessed are those who are just left alone” has still not made the list of Beatitudes. [Most of those in the Tea Party movement have been more influenced by Christianity than by Nietzsche and Darwinand would agree with the need to help the poor and weak. There has never been a Nietzschean libertarian government anywhere in the Western world precisely because of the influence of Christianity, so this is another straw man.] To anticipate the Libertarian response, let me just say that private charity is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of either fairness or justice, let alone compassion. [Private charity is the foundation of the Western world and far more effective, far less corrupt and much more compassionate than government welfare checks. Government to government aid to Third World countries is generally a disaster. World Vision etc. is a much better option.] When the system is designed to protect the privileges of the already strong and make the weak even more defenseless and vulnerable, something is wrong with the system. [But Wallis's real problem with private charity is not that it won't be able to deal with absolute poverty (because it clearly can do so), but rather that it can't erase relative poverty by making the rich poorer and the poor richer until everyone is about the same. Only socialism can do that.]

5. Finally, I am just going to say it. There is something wrong with a political movement like the Tea Party which is almost all white. [First, the Tea Party is not all white. Second, does this mean that Wallis' lily white Episcopal Church must also be racist? Third, this is a dirty and low blow that is an insult to the tens of millions of ordinary middle class Americans who support the Tea Party.] Does that mean every member of the Tea Party is racist? Likely not. [Every member - only likely not?!] But is an undercurrent of white resentment part of the Tea Party ethos, and would there even be a Tea Party if the president of the United States weren’t the first black man to occupy that office? [How does Wallis know that? It is nothing but sheer projection onto the people he hypocritically claims to want to dialogue with. He is saying: "You are a bunch of racist bigots; I have no evidence but I just know it. Now, how about having a nice polite dialogue?" Now who is being prejudiced here?] It’s time we had some honest answers to that question. [Oh, and by the way you are all liars too. Now for the polite dialogue?] And as far as I can tell, Libertarianism has never been much of a multi-cultural movement. Need I say that racism — overt, implied, or even subtle — is not a Christian virtue.

Wallis sure has funny ideas about how to go about having a dialogue. But if you ask me, he would be better off hurling his rocks from a safe distance because he hasn't got much of an argument for his position.


o said...

Tea Part isn't Libertarian, it's anti-waste of our sweat and money (Federal healthcare too), anti-support of sin (abortion, homosexual marriage), anti-government big-brotherism.

Poll them on abortion and homosexual marriage and you'll see that only the Libertarians and the Left think the former are the majority.

I think half are pro-world power and half are isolationist, but all support international strength, unlike what we show today.

russerts said...

I think the key statement is "are we our brothers' keeper?". The real question is, of course, am I my brothers' keeper? The liberal desire is to help people with someone else's money. Reaching into your wallet to help the poor is admirable; reaching into someone else's wallet is criminal.

Barbara said...

I have to agree with O (the commenter, not the president.) Tea Parties aren't libertarian, but they are presenting Libertarians with opportunities to go mainstream. They (libertarians) usually are not NOT socially conservative, although I know many people who are socially conservative and like to call themselves "Libertarian," they are almost never involved in the Libertarian party because its lead issue is the legalization of drugs. And the only time you'll get a Libertarian to be pro-life is if it's his tax dollars that are paying for the abortion.

As to why socially conservative people would call themselves "Libertarian," I note that nearly everyone I know who does this lives in places where being Conservative (and being pro-life, by the way) is anathema among the elites- places like California.

Whenever you get a libertarian candidate for anything, they implode early on with stuff like Debra Medina tripped on (truther conspiracies) or being against the FISA Telecom laws, or the Patriot Act, which makes them look very similar to the Left.

Craig Carter said...

Your comments are very appropriate, in my view. But your thinking is so much more sophisticated than that of Wallis, for whom all conservatives are just selfish, racist, theocrats who want to choke on pollution before they die.

As George Nash recounts in his classic, "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America," the libertarians are only one of five main coalition partners in the conservative movement and have never dominated. Russell Kirk is dismissive of libertarians and rightly so as far as theory goes. But I think that fusionism is necessary as practical politics in a two-party democratic system so I think the coalition needs to hold together. Traditional conservatives and libertarians agree that when government tries to replace the family something is seriously wrong.

I do get angry when I see ordinary, middle-class Americans insulted by the main stream media as racist bigots and Wallis is no better than any of them.

Brad said...

Well done! Carry on.

B said...

Very well stated comprehensive response.