Somehow today I found myself on the website of The Claremont Institute, a right wing thinktank. I was reading there a book(s) review by Christopher D. Levenick. He is a writer for The Claremont Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, which is another right-wing think tank. (For context, it was recently revealed that American Enterprise Institute was offering $10,000 to scientists who would write articles challenging global warming, so you know the kind of "thinking" they do.)
In any case Levenick was reviewing five books by progressive articles: A review of Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, by Jimmy Carter; The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, by Michael Lerner; Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future, by Robin Meyers; The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate, by Dan Wakefield; and God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis. In one brief article he managed to review, dismiss, and dispatch them all.
Here is a quote that caught my eye:
Take the Religious Left's approach to poverty. To their great credit, these writers are dead serious about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Unfortunately, however, they perceive this obligation as primarily and properly the work of government. Carter speaks for the group when he alleges that "[i]n efforts to reach out to the poor, alleviate suffering, provide homes for the homeless...government office-holders and not church members were more likely to assume responsibility and be able to fulfill the benevolent missions." Little acknowledgment is made of the private sector's role in creating affluence, or of the fact that a zealous redistribution of present assets will inhibit the creation of future wealth. Yet these errors of practical economics are of less consequence than the grave theological misapprehension beneath them. The challenge and the burden of almsgiving are and ought to be personal. Christian charity does not consist of petitioning the state to redress economic grievances. Rather, it calls upon the individual believer to comfort the afflicted. An ethic geared primarily toward government undermines the crucial sense of personal responsibility for the least of one's brethren. True charity, like true faith, must be voluntary if it is to be efficacious."The challenge and burden of almsgiving are and ought to be personal." Has Levenick never heard of the biblical prophets? They were not addressing their scathing words of criticism to individuals but to the state, and they were calling on the state to act with justice towards the poor.
But beyond the shallow understanding of Judeo-Christian tradition, Levenick betrays a naive understanding of human nature. Out of the goodness of their hearts individuals, of course, should contribute financially for the well-being of others. And in a perfect Garden of Eden universe there would be no great disparities of wealth because those who have benefited and prospered the most would willingly and voluntarily level the playing field themselves. But we don't live in the Garden of Eden. We live in a world where many are happily selfish and where political and philosophical systems celebrate this selfishness as God's will and nature's destiny. It's social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest.
The worldview that Levinick pines for was the reality of America during the Industrial Revolution and the days of robber barons and children working in sweatshops. The government played a minimal role in the lives of everyday Americans and companies were free to take and plunder and exploit. For many Americans charity was all that stood between them and extreme poverty. It wasn't enough.
And it all came crashing down in the Great Depression, when all but the very wealthy suffered greatly. It was a defining moment in American history when a collective national decision was made to vastly increase the size and scope of the government in order to make sure that there was a check on unbridled corporate power and a social safety net that protected all Americans from the ravages of deep poverty. It wasn't perfect, and in subsequent years the safety net was further expanded in the form of Welfare (which also wasn't perfect), but it was an enormous evolutionary advance in thinking from the idea that charity is a matter of personal choice. And it was a move made necessary because many (most?) of us will not willingly choose to care and give enough to make a difference in our world.
Now, we are experiencing another enormous shift in the balance of power in our world with the expansion of the reach of global corporations to follow the "bottom line" and create and destroy jobs at will all around the globe, while at the same time corporate CEO's and executives are raking in obscene sums of money. Personal charity can't begin to make a dent in the incredible needs of dislocated workers, not to mention the environmental damage being done. Nor can it address the corruption of companies like Enron or the practices of companies that hide their wealth "offshore" so they can avoid paying taxes.
Human nature is often not pretty. And the only real check on all of this brutish behavior is a strong government that answers to the people. We need our government to protect us from the crimes of corporations. We need our government to redistribute wealth, to expect and require that those who have benefited the most will contribute to the poorest among us. Because they will not freely choose to do it. We need our government to call on all of us to make sacrifices for the good of the country, the environment, and the world.
I have no illusions that government is immune to the same corrupting influences as companies. It too is made up of individuals who can be incredibly incompetent and/or corrupt. The current Administration is a perfect case study. But that is why our founding fathers created three co-equal branches of government, because they took seriously the reality of human nature. We need the branches of our government to do their jobs and check and and challenge one another.
But we need our entire government to do for us what no one of us can do as individuals, alone or collectively. And it's precisely because we know what happens when we rely just on the charity of individuals. You would think that a conservative would know this.