When Liberals Feared Equality

This piece was posted earlier today at Tikkun Daily.

Late one evening in April 1963, Dick Gregory came crashing through the door of his Chicago apartment – drunk – and was informed by his wife that the president of the United States was looking for him. As Diane McWhorter related in her 2001 book, Carry Me Home, about the drive to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, the comedian returned the phone call to the White House and spoke with John F. Kennedy, who reportedly told him, “Please, don’t go to Birmingham. We’ve got it all solved. Dr. King is wrong, what he’s doing.” Gregory, a celebrity at 30 years old, replied – “Man, I will be there in the morning.”

Kennedy and his aides were hardly the only ones pleading for racial calm in that place, 50 years ago. Birmingham’s liberal white clergy and even its black newspaper had urged Martin Luther King Jr. (who died 45 years ago, on April 4) to jettison plans for a campaign of nonviolent direct action. They feared that an escalation of tactics would only make the segregationists angrier.

It’s not that the city’s men of the cloth were devoted to milder tactics. Christian pastors had looked upon civil rights not as a moral problem, which would rightly claim their attention, but as a political one, which would not; Jewish leaders, opting to sit out the battle of Birmingham, viewed segregation as a “Christian problem” between whites and Negroes, McWhorter notes. The campaign was foundering in early May when King, desperate, resorted to letting schoolchildren join in the civil disobedience (which essentially involved marching without permission).

A month later, Kennedy – who had said publicly that he was “sickened” by televised images of police dogs and fire hoses mowing down children – sent a civil rights bill to Congress. A year after that, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

That struggle for racial justice is often held up as an example of how change is possible. And its stories have helped teach many movements of nonviolent resistance, in countries ranging from the Philippines to Poland to South Africa. But how was change possible at that time?

These days the lack of progress in our politics is a given, and it is usually chalked up to fierce polarization, chiefly between Democrats and Republicans. As today, the national politics of 1963 (certainly on the domestic front) was deeply fractured along ideological lines between liberals and conservatives if not strictly between Democrats and Republicans. Still, change happened – and on the most flammable question, race.

How?

I’ll let that question float for now. And I’ll listen in on conversations this month surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign. …read more

Sightings of Moral Life in the Deficit-Hawk Universe

Jeffrey Polet: An unlikely advocate of single-payer healthcare.

Jeffrey Polet: An unlikely advocate of single-payer healthcare.

After Paul Ryan unveiled another one of his trademark balancing-the-budget-on-the-backs-of-the-poor plans, I found myself asking again, What’s the moral grounding for this fiscal sternness?

I raised that question in an item posted late last month. At the time I noted that while faith-based objections to draconian budget cuts are familiar enough, the moral and religious case in favor of such slashing is less clear. I promised to keep an eye out for real moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books.

In my search for such reasoning, I’ve scanned blogs, checked in on publications catering to fiscal conservatives, and broached the question with friends. I’ve also happily made the acquaintance of Jeff Polet, a scholar, writer, and not-so predictable conservative.

Polet is a political scientist at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and a senior editor of the conservative online journal Front Porch Republic. He provided some evidence for the existence of moral and theological thinking in the deficit-hawk universe. For example, many liberals who speak on budget matters invoke values such as compassion and solidarity. Polet was just as quick to cite other legitimate virtues—temperance and prudence, among them.

“We’re spending money we don’t have,” he told me by phone in an interview I did for Our Sunday Visitor. “The bottom line is that we want a full range of services and we don’t want to pay for them.” He continued, “It’s a combination of greed, intemperance and a kind of luxuriousness. In an older time it would have been called decadence.”

When I asked him who the greedy are, he pointed to “interest groups” that oppose any cuts in programs that affect their constituencies, and fingered the AARP. I’d find it hard to pinpoint the elderly as a glaring source of national greed, not in these plutocratic times, anyway. But let’s stay on this trail.

As I noted previously, perhaps the only well-known moral claim on the fiscal right is a generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. Polet, a Catholic convert, roots the generational concern more deeply and evocatively in Scriptures. He pointed to the familiar biblical motif of inheritance (as in Genesis — “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac”).

“There’s this idea that parents owe their children an inheritance. You don’t take your inheritance and squander it, to the disadvantage of your own progeny,” said Polet, who chairs the political science department at Hope, an ecumenical Christian institution with Calvinist roots. “And that’s what I see us doing,” he added. “We’ve taken the cultural, financial inheritance we’ve been given, and we’ve squandered it in a lot of ways. So the world that we’re giving our children doesn’t seem to be as well-ordered as the world we inherited, certainly not from a financial viewpoint.”

I asked Polet if there might be another way of looking at the moral question of intergenerational solidarity. Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Or does the “well-ordered world” also need to include good schools, a solid infrastructure and a clean environment — which would require public investment now?

All that is part of a balanced way of looking at fiscal obligations, Polet acknowledged. “But if the debt problem gets too out of control, it’s going to make all those other things impossible,” he argued, falling back on a much-debated policy point (that our debt is unsustainable).

The Real Surprise

This will do, as a moral and religious case for fiscal hawkishness (and of course Polet has much more to say in his own writings). I didn’t come across much of that elsewhere—even among theocons, conservative religious types. I was unimpressed, for instance, by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” which barely even try to root policy assertions in moral or theological soil. The same goes for something called Christians for a Sustainable Economy, a largely evangelical ad hoc group that seems more ideological than biblical.

But Polet’s attention to moral and biblical foundations is not really what surprised me. I assumed that at some point I’d run into such thoughts among deficit foes. What I found intriguing were a few of his policy conclusions.

Here’s one: After arguing like many conservatives for scaling back Medicare, Polet added—“At this point, America would be better off going to a single-payer system.” The single payer, of course, would be the government, as national health insurer. He thinks this radical approach might be the only way to control healthcare costs in the future.

Needless to say, principled liberals have been making this particular case for quite some time. But I’ve never heard it from a conservative—maybe not even from a centrist. That gives me hope for a richer and less predictable dialogue on budgets and values. …read more

Father, Son, and Holy Customer

I’m not naturally a fan of looking at life through the lens of business and management. I’m inclined to do the opposite and see business in the light of other things, like faith and values. I’m not enthused by arguments that government should run like a business, that strong families are like corporate teams, or that students are the “customers” of colleges and universities. Something vital gets lost in the translations.

On the other hand, if St. Ignatius Loyola was right—that God and truth can be found “in all things“—then that has to include business. And I’ve taken a growing interest in management thinking on some valuable questions such as how we change and where ideas come from. (That’s aside from the journalistic fun of turning dissimilar phrases on each other, although one has to be careful when milking sacred cash cows.)

In that spirit, I offer here a piece that ran on Tuesday in Forbes online, “What a CEO Can Teach a Pope,” coauthored by Andy Boynton, a friend and dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, and me. The item was this month’s installment of Boynton’s monthly Forbes blog, “Leading with Ideas” (on which I collaborate).

In the days leading up to the election of Pope Francis, Thomas J. Reese, a noted Jesuit priest and scholar at Georgetown University, was widely quoted as saying that the next successor to Saint Peter needs to be “Jesus Christ with an M.B.A.” That’s a colorful way of putting it, and probably not many Roman Catholics would want a Vicar of Christ to talk like a VP of Strategy. It would be more than curious to hear a papal address about the church’s “core competency” or its need to “ideate” and achieve “synergy.”

Still, Reese’s point is well taken. For one thing, many observers say Francis will have to manage the seemingly unmanageable Roman curia, the Catholic Church’s governing body that has served up such media sideshows recently as the case of “the pope’s butler,” who leaked secret Vatican documents, and a corruption scandal at the Vatican bank. But that’s only for starters.

Let’s look at this for a moment the way a CEO would.

These days the marketplace of belief and unbelief is highly competitive. Religious sects, including Pentecostals and indigenous faiths, are proliferating in places like Africa and Latin America. Other movements—notably, the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon—are also gaining traction, especially among young adults, including many nominal Catholics. There are growing numbers of “nones,” people who check off “none of the above” when polled on religious affiliation. A pope, one could say, has to come up with ways of bolstering the church’s share of this dynamic market.

Any multinational organization, let alone one with more than a billion customers, has to figure out how to adapt and innovate. But that’s not what the Catholic Church and many other big institutions are good at. The church does many things well—teaching and reaching out to the poor, to name a couple. Timely innovation is not one of them.

Borrowing a page from an illustrious manager, Catholic leaders might do well to consider that ideas for improving the church are everywhere—not just at meetings of bishops or other likely places. Such was the spirit that Jack Welch brought to American business, particularly to General Electric, in the 1980s. Until then, corporate America shared an animus against any idea or product “not invented here,” placing an exclusive priority on the creation of novel ideas within the boundaries of an organization. People were rewarded with bonuses to the extent that they conjured up such notions.

Welch arrived on the scene and set out a new vision. He originally called it “integrated diversity,” but the approach came to be known, more felicitously, as “boundarylessness.” One result was that GE went looking for ideas in the wide corporate world—”Someone, somewhere has a better idea,” he said—and happily adapted these ideas to its specific needs. As Welch once commented in a documentary, “It’s a badge of honor to have found from Motorola a quality program, from HP a product development program, from Toyota an asset management system.”

Likewise, a Catholic bishop might consider it a badge of honor to get an idea about religious education from the North American Jewish Day School Conference, or an insight into the broader culture from a novel written by an atheist. The Catholic Church has always absorbed such influences to some degree, which is how it has transplanted itself into so many cultural contexts over the past two millennia. But keen observers also note that when it comes to making important decisions, the church, like many other organizations, succumbs to the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Ideas come mainly from within, from top management, and that’s not good.

2,000 Years of Steady Growth

Needless to say, corporations can also learn from the Catholic Church and religious orders such as the Jesuits—about mission, values, and global perspective. But the church does need fresh ideas, and if it’s looking high and low for them, it might as well listen to what concerned people in business management, or recently out of that world, are saying. One of them is Father Tom Doyle, who, in his preordained life, was a consultant with Deloitte & Touche.

To start with, Doyle points out that the church hasn’t exactly been a slow grower, when you take the long view. It began with 12 members—Jesus’ apostles—and now has 1.2 billion adherents around the world. “That’s almost 2,000 years of an annual growth rate of 1 percent,” he told Caitlin Kenney of NPR’s All Things Considered recently, on a light note. “That’s pretty long and pretty incredible growth.”

At the same time, Doyle and others believe the church needs to begin thinking more strategically about its brand, which has suffered in recent years, at least partly because of the sexual abuse scandals. The solution they’re recommending is greater transparency on the part of the institution that emerged last week from the secret conclave.

“This was a huge frustration for all our consultants: a lack of transparency can hurt your brand,” Kenney reported, speaking of Catholic managers and consultants interviewed for her March 6 report. “It can drive away your customers. And as the Catholic Church has recently discovered, this lack of transparency could have much darker implications.” Pointing to the scandals and an erosion of confidence in the church, Kenney added, “People stop trusting that the Catholic Church would tell them the truth.”

For his part, Doyle said he gives the same advice to the church as he would to any company in crisis. “How do you get trust back? You earn it.  You have to earn it, right? And so we’re going to have to err on the side of being more transparent about things than we have in the past.”

Most of all, the church and every big institution would do well to put on its listening ears. Listening to various stakeholders—customers, people all levels of the organization, and others—has become a critical part of strategies for designing products and processes in many (though not enough) companies. And the innovation would go a long way in the Catholic Church as well. In its March 18 issue, the Jesuit magazine America editorialized that the church needs to do a better job listening specifically to five groups: the poor, victims of sexual abuse, women, gays and lesbians, and theologians (with whom the hierarchy has an often-frosty relationship).

Listening—in a large and complex organization—is a lot harder than people think. The church may need to get some help with that, perhaps from sympathetic consultants who could facilitate the conversations with different stakeholders. But the good news is that you probably don’t have to be “Jesus Christ with an M.B.A.” to start the ball rolling. …read more

Fumbling and Fallibility at the Vatican

One of the many questions being asked about Pope Francis is whether he’ll be able to get a handle on the unruly and unpredictable Roman curia, the central administration of the Catholic Church. In the past year, that governing body has delivered such spectacles as the case of the pope’s butler, the so-called “Vatileaks” affair, and a continuing corruption scandal at the highest levels of the Vatican bank. Infighting and skullduggery have made it clear that Vatican politics, like the secular variety, can be all too human and at times brutish.

Partly with that in mind, a number of Vatican experts are saying that the new successor of St. Peter needs to have the skill set of a CEO, to manage the unmanageable. I don’t know if that’s necessary (or sufficient). Pope John Paul II was not especially noted for his managerial brilliance, but he was able to transcend the bureaucracy and project a global presence that overshadowed it. The curia was generally trying to keep up with him, not the other way around.

But now, many are asking an oddly necessary question about the most famously hierarchical organization on earth: Who’s in charge there? John Thavis, a longtime Rome correspondent, digs deeply into the paradox in his new book, The Vatican Diaries (Viking). My review of the memoir appears in the current edition of America magazine, and here it is, in full:

After turning the last pages of The Vatican Diaries, I noticed an Associated Press item that began, “The Vatican praised President Barack Obama’s proposals for curbing gun violence.” The report was based on a radio commentary by the Vatican press secretary, Frederico Lombardi, S.J., on Jan. 19. Those who read John Thavis’s vivid recollections in The Vatican Diaries will have cause to be at least initially skeptical whenever they hear that “the Vatican” said this or that definitively about anything.

Recently retired as the longtime Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service, Thavis argues that the popular image of the Vatican as a monolith, eternally on message, is a myth. On the contrary, it “remains predominantly a world of individuals, most of whom have a surprising amount of freedom to operate—and, therefore, to make mistakes,” he writes.

Re-enter Father Lombardi.

The author tells of an incident when Lombardi, during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Jerusalem in 2009, lashed out at “lies” circulating about the young Joseph Ratzinger in Nazi Germany. “The pope was never in the Hitler Youth, never, never, never!” the Vatican spokesman declared to an incredulous press. The problem was that Ratzinger’s Hitler Youth involvement was a matter of historical record. As Thavis explains, Lombardi (whom he describes otherwise as “a gentle soul with a sharp mind”) had overheard the papal secretary remark offhandedly at breakfast that Ratzinger was never an “active” Hitler Youth member. By lunch, the misconstrued comment had become the Holy See’s “latest media fiasco.”

Thavis points to the “fragmented chain of command in what is arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization,” and he relishes the irony. For him, the fumbling and fallibility humanize the institution. But not even the bureau chief was charmed by another episode he recounts that revealed both bungling and deception.

Thavis unfolds the story in a riveting chapter titled “Cat and Mouse,” about negotiations between Rome and the ultra-traditional Society of St. Pius X. Some at the Vatican sympathized with the breakaway order and saw no need to inform top officials that one of four traditionalist bishops whose excommunications were being lifted as part of a reconciliation effort, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. But most of those who could have averted this particular fiasco—the Williamson affair became one of the biggest religion stories of 2009—were not scheming. They were just snoozing. In the end, the pope admitted publicly that anyone with an Internet connection could have known of the bishop’s bizarre anti-Semitism.

In recent years I haven’t followed Catholic News Service closely, so I’m not sure how much of the book would have been politically incorrect and therefore not publishable in that official news outlet. But I’m guessing Thavis did not often portray Benedict unflatteringly alongside his immediate predecessor, as he does in this memoir.

Here is how the author, with help from Bob Dylan, teases out one contrast at the start of his last chapter, “The Real Benedict”:

The first thing I noticed was the twitching leg. It was dark backstage, but I could make out the slight figure standing at the edge of the platform. He wore a black suit with a white stripe running down the side, and his right leg was jerking up and down involuntarily. It had to be Dylan. And he must be nervous, I thought. Singing for the pope was not an everyday thing.

The performance took place at a Eucharistic congress in Bologna in 1997. Pope John Paul II followed with some reflective riffs on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” evoking the Holy Spirit in motion. Meanwhile, back at the Roman Curia, Cardinal Ratzinger was exuding disapproval, openly disparaging Dylan and other pop icons as “false prophets.” As Thavis writes in another chapter, John Paul traveled to remote lands to be with “tribal dancers in feathered headdresses.” Benedict prefers sitting “in a concert hall filled with dignitaries like himself, listening to Mozart.” John Paul projected a spirit of openness to the wide world. Benedict? Not so much.

Thavis also looks probingly at how the AIDS pandemic has provoked genuine debate within the Vatican about the use of condoms to prevent transmission of the disease. That aside, I was surprised to find little in the book that throws light on global justice issues. During Thavis’s 29 years in Rome, Communism imploded in Eastern Europe, Jesuits and others were massacred in El Salvador, and two popes issued encyclical letters refreshing Catholic social teaching—to mention a few developments. But hardly any of that is recalled in these pages.

Then again, income stratification does not make the most scintillating subject matter for a book subtitled A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. And I’m glad Thavis has offered this rare, perceptive and highly readable glimpse into a power structure that is less in control than many would have us believe. …read more

“What the Hell’s the Presidency for?”

On Monday of this week, the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, formally apologized to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, for what the police did not do in May 1961—protect Lewis and the other young Freedom Riders who arrived at the city’s Greyhound Bus station and were summarily beaten by a white mob. The day before the ceremony (the first time anyone had ever apologized to him for that particular thrashing, the congressman noted), Lewis, Vice President Joe Biden and 5,000 others joined in an annual reenactment of the 50-mile March from Selma, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. On that occasion 48 years ago, state troopers took a less passive approach and brutalized Lewis and others themselves. A few days before the reenactment, President Obama unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks that will stand permanently in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, making her the first African American women to be so honored.

One name that doesn’t figure notably in these various commemorations is that of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But it should. At least that’s my feeling after reading Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power, the latest in his magnificent series of Johnson biographies. The writer makes it clear that Johnson wasn’t just a pragmatic politician who acceded to the prophetic demands for action on civil rights. LBJ made it happen, partly out of a visceral identification with the “dispossessed of the earth,” as Caro puts it.

True, there probably wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 (not that year, anyway) if Parks had lost her nerve on the bus in Montgomery, in 1955, and given up her seat to the white passenger, or if King hadn’t led his nonviolent warriors into the streets of Birmingham in 1963. And the same goes for the Selma marchers and the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court now seems poised to undo). But it’s also true that civil rights legislation was heading nowhere in the administration of the Brothers Kennedy.

JFK and RFK meant well, once they decided to push a bill of that kind. But they didn’t fully grasp what Johnson saw, which is that powerful southern lawmakers would be able to slam the breaks on civil rights, just as they had blocked other liberal domestic reforms ever since the late 1930s. A new strategy was needed to break open the dams of progressive legislation.

Dixie Democrats, in union with sympathetic Republicans, had perfected the art of legislative hostage taking in Congress. They would stall a critical piece of legislation, such as an appropriations bill, or something else that key lawmakers absolutely wanted, until the progressive measure was withdrawn. That’s how they fought off higher minimum wages, expanded unemployment insurance, greater federal aid to education, and other initiatives beginning in the Roosevelt administration (after the early-to-mid-thirties onslaughts of New Deal legislation).

When the Kennedy administration decided to press for a civil rights bill, in June 1963, they sent it up to Capitol Hill along with other must-pass items. Johnson, as vice president, had warned against doing exactly that. He had told Kennedy and his senior aides that they needed to shepherd the other bills through the process, before trotting out civil rights.

Relating a conversation between Johnson and Kennedy confidant Ted Sorensen, Caro writes:

He tried to explain to Sorensen how the Senate works: that when the time came for the vote on cloture [halting a filibuster], you weren’t going to have some of the votes you were promised, because senators who wanted civil rights also wanted—needed, had to have—dams, contracts, public works projects for their states, and those projects required authorization by the different Senate committees involved, and nine of the sixteen committees (and almost all of the important ones) were chaired by southerners or by allies they could count on.

The vice president was ignored as usual—frozen out of the administration’s legislative efforts, partly due to the machinations of RFK, who detested him. The Kennedy people thought they understood legislative realities better than the man who had been “the Master of the Senate,” as Caro dubs him, and they proceeded to play straight into the hands of southern tacticians, who bottled up the civil rights bill. Because of that, Kennedy did not live to see progress on that front.

The general wisdom is that his assassination is what galvanized the country behind his legislative program. And, as shown in The Passage of Power (covering the years 1958-1964), Johnson did move at breakneck speed to capitalize on that momentum. At the same time, he resisted calls to send civil rights to Congress right away, together with other bills deemed necessary—calls issued by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights heroes. Johnson waited. He kept his eye on the hostage takers, realizing that the best way to thwart them was to not hand them any hostages. He let other bills (appropriations, foreign aid, etc.) pass first. Then he mounted his attack. That’s how civil rights became law in the summer of 1964.

Don’t Leave out Lyndon

Caro points out that many have questioned the sincerity of Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. The author says those people should pay closer attention to words he let out during a meeting with governors at the White House (days after the Kennedy assassination), about why they should fight inequality and injustice: “So that we can say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.”

Note the “Johnsons in Johnson City,” Texas, where he grew up. Caro analyzes:

He had lumped them all together—Mexicans, Negroes, Orientals and Johnsons—which meant that, in his own heart at least, he was one of them: one of the poor, one of the scorned, one of the dispossessed of the earth, one of the Johnsons in Johnson City. What was the description he had given on other occasions of the work he had done in his boyhood and young manhood? “Nigger work.” Had he earned a fair wage for it? “I always ordered the egg sandwich, and I always wanted the ham and egg.” Nor was it financial factors alone that accounted for his empathy for the poor, for people of color—for the identification he felt with them. Respect was involved, too—respect denied because of prejudice.

Caro continues, relating what President Johnson said as he further reflected on his experiences as a young man teaching impoverished Mexican American children near San Antonio:

He had “swore then and there that if I ever had the power to help those kids I was going to do it.” And now, he was to say, ‘I’ll let you in on a secret. I have the power.” “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Lyndon Johnson is not known as one of the prophetic personalities of the civil rights era, and shouldn’t be. It was King and others who shaped the vision (in King’s case, of a “beloved community”) and expanded the realm of the possible, which enabled the “Master of the Senate” to work his legislative magic. Still, it’s hard to picture a Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a Voting Rights Act of 1965 without LBJ as well as MLK on history’s stage at that moment. That ought to be recognized more often than it is.

This item was first posted yesterday at Tikkun Daily.

Sequestering the Moral Questions

On the eve of sequestration—the indiscriminate federal budget cuts—various interests are aiming to capture the moral high ground of the debate over government spending. Which raises the question: What exactly is the moral argument for slashing deficits and balancing budgets?

I’m very familiar with moral and religious appeals against budget cuts, particularly those affecting the poor. This week, for example, nearly 100 religious leaders issued a public appeal for Congress and the president to leave anti-poverty programs off the chopping block, declaring—“God calls for protection of poor and vulnerable people.”

Less clear is the moral case in favor of the meat ax. Yes, deficit hawks will deploy the language of moral responsibility, especially with regard to future generations that are allegedly endangered by government spending today. But these appeals are seldom grounded in moral and biblical principles such as solidarity, human dignity, and our collective obligations to “the least of these.” It’s mainly liberals (of a spiritual sort) who trade in such precepts.

On the right, perhaps the most identifiable moral claim is the generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. There’s room for debate about how unreasonable that burden will be, and whether fiscal austerity right now, in the midst of a still-undernourished economy, is a smart way to deal with the problem.

But there are larger questions about the generational argument. For example: Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Do our children also need good schools to get them started on their paths? Are we going to hand them a public infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that isn’t crumbling all around them? And what about environmental protection—one of our most profound obligations to generations yet unborn?

All of that requires public investment now, and has to be balanced with the goal of easing the debt burden.

I’ll keep watch for moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books, and speak with some thoughtful fiscal conservatives on that score. I’ll report on those sightings and conversations before the next partisan crisis—which is due in late March, when the government runs out of money. …read more

Rosa, We Hardly Knew Ye

Rosa Parks and Jeanne Theoharis, author of the first scholarly biography of the civil rights legend.

Nonviolence as a tool of social change has often been underestimated and misunderstood. The British thought Gandhi was nuts when he predicted they would simply pick up and leave India without the Indians firing a shot. Black militants sneered at Martin Luther King’s program of nonviolent direct action. And many southern whites assumed African Americans were too undisciplined to collectively turn the other cheek. Or they reasoned curiously that King’s approach was actually violent because it provoked violence in response.

During this Black History Month, new questions about nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement have bubbled up, thanks to an important new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press), by Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis. Her subject is the presumably quiet, unassuming seamstress who refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger because her feet were tired. But aside from her act of resistance, Parks was not that person, according to Theoharis.

For one thing, Parks often dismissed the fabled narrative about how she remained seated because of her tired feet. “I didn’t move, because I was tired of being pushed around,” she clarified. As Theoharis shows, black radicalism ran deeply in her family, and she came to sympathize with the Black Power movement that challenged King’s ethic of love and nonviolence.

This storied figure of nonviolent struggle always believed in what she called “self protection.” Like most blacks at the time (including King, very early in the movement), Parks and her husband owned guns. But once the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, she knew many whites were wishing it would turn violent. That would give them “an excuse to dramatically crush the protest,” Theoharis relates.

Parks took a both/and approach:

For her, collective power could be found in organized nonviolence, while self-respect, at times, required self-defense: “As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible”…. Parks saw nonviolent direct action and self-defense as interlinked, both key to achieving black rights and maintaining black dignity.

Still, she felt that nonviolent resistance during the bus boycott served as a rebuke to white citizens who regarded blacks as too feckless and “emotional” to carry out such a disciplined strategy. “Parks had delighted in the power of it,” her biographer writes.

The ultimate message about nonviolence is mixed, in the book. Both the author’s narrative and Parks’s own words years later (she died in 2005) suggest a historical revision—a sense that nonviolence was, in the end, not so effective. Here’s Parks:

Dr. King was criticized because he tried to bring about change through the nonviolent movement. It didn’t accomplish what it should have because the white establishment would not accept his philosophy of nonviolence and respond to it positively. When the resistance grew, it created a hostility and bitterness among the younger people, who worked with him in the early days, when there was some hope that change could be accomplished through his means.

This sounds just a little odd to me—as though all hope of racial justice and equality was quickly dashed. There certainly was and remains much unfinished work. But in view of the remarkable social change that took place during the King years, you have to wonder: If he wasn’t successful in effecting change, then who was?

From Montgomery to Cairo

In his Times column on the revised Rosa, Charles M. Blow treated her militancy as a stunning revelation. And it might well be, as far as her children’s-book image goes. Echoing Theoharis, he wrote on February 1, “The Rosa Parks in this book is as much Malcolm X as she is Martin Luther King Jr.”

But does this compelling biography demand a larger retelling of the role of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement? Not really.

What it does is throw light on the distinction between nonviolence as an absolute principle and nonviolence as a useful strategy. As his biographers make clear, King knew that African Americans (and people in general) were far more likely to embrace the tactic than the belief system. In King those two perspectives—the practical and the philosophical—merged. More recently they blended also in the witness of other moral and spiritual figures. These included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who convinced his fellow black South Africans that they and their country had “no future without forgiveness,” and Pope John Paul II, who inspired armless resistance in his native Poland and who spoke of war as an “adventure with no return.”

But it’s fair to say that most who have taken to the streets peacefully—in places ranging from the Philippines to Poland to Egypt—have not been true believers in the gospel of pure nonviolence. They’ve merely delighted “in the power of it.” …read more

Liberty, Justice, and Fr. Sirico

Fr. Robert Sirico on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network)

I first met Father Robert A. Sirico at a conference in western Connecticut 13 years ago. Sirico is a big man who bears a family resemblance to the character Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos—his older brother, actor Tony Sirico, played the part—and his commentaries have frequented the Wall Street Journal and other high-profile media outlets. His writing sparkles, but the talent is marshaled in the service of basically one thing—promoting pure, unbridled capitalism.

At that conference in the summer of 1999, I interviewed Sirico and asked a question that alluded to his “conversion”—the priest had related that as a young man in the 1970s, he led a dissolute, confused (and left-leaning) life, before committing himself ultimately to the Catholic faith of his childhood in Brooklyn. I was thrown off a little when he replied, “Which conversion?” Sirico had also told me about his turn toward free-market thinking (in his twenties), but I hadn’t realized that he saw this change of political perspective in such a religious light.

There were two conversions: to the Lord, and to Lord Acton’s classical liberalism (which came first, chronologically). John Acton was the 19th century English Catholic historian who stressed above all other human values the liberty to “do our duty unhindered by the state [and] by society.” In 1990, Sirico founded the influential and amply funded Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with offices in Rome. The think tank, which he still leads, concerns itself specifically with economic liberty and wealth creation.

What brings this pastor of plenty to my attention again is a superb series last week by Michael Sean Winters in his Distinctly Catholic blog at NCR Today, the valuable daily online offering of the National Catholic Reporter. Winters debated Sirico on January 28 at the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought in Boulder, Colorado, and in his blog, he responded in three parts to Sirico’s 2012 book, stalwartly titled, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy (Regnery Publishing).

Not So Neutral

Sparse reporting on the debate indicates that one of Sirico’s prime contentions was that the market is “morally neutral”—that “the human actors in the market must bring good morals to it.” What’s needed, he said, is individual virtue and “moral transformation,” not government regulation.

This is a refrain often heard from the free-market choir. The logicians in that loft argue that any problems associated with unregulated capitalism must be caused not by the system itself (being morally neutral), but by individuals who lack good values. All too often, the problematic individuals are identified as those who don’t succeed in the marketplace because of alleged moral failings including a dim work ethic. These are, of course, the 47 percent.

Here’s (partly) how Winters countered the notion of morally neutral markets in his second installment:

Let us look at the behavior the market requires. What values does it celebrate? Who are its heroes? The market celebrates the self-made man, not the man who evidences solidarity. The market, drenched in Calvinistic roots, celebrates frugality and thrift, not gratuitousness and generosity. The market requires self-assertiveness, not self-surrender. The market is all about activity and not at all about contemplation. The market evidences competition not cooperation. The morals of the market leave out fully half of the Christian moral framework!

Put that way, the market doesn’t sound very neutral at all.

You’d expect to see a lively critique of Sirico in the liberal National Catholic Reporter. You might not expect the same from a review in First Things, but that’s what Edward Skidelsky has delivered in the January 2013 edition of that unmistakably conservative religious journal. Skidelsky is a young British Anglican (“Anglo-Catholic,” he specifies) moral philosopher who draws significantly on Roman Catholic social teaching. Here’s his final verdict:

Defending the Free Market is, if I may be permitted to speak as a European, a very American book. Only in America has Christianity reached so complete an accord with market imperatives. “The free economy is a dream worthy of our spiritual imaginations,” writes Sirico in his introduction. Perhaps, but it was not the dream of St. Benedict or St. Francis, nor even of Luther and Calvin.

Only in America! (Note the conflicting asides on Calvin in the Winters and Skidelski pieces—I have to agree with the Anglican on that point; see my “Calvinism 2.0”).

Who Laughs Last?

There may be a bit of American Catholic exceptionalism lurking here as well. I’m not saying Catholic opinion has skewed in any appreciable way toward Sirico’s brand of libertarianism. The U.S. Catholic hierarchy, however, has at times given the impression that the primordial biblical issues of peace and the poor aren’t all that pressing, compared to such matters as the minutiae of HHS regulations on access to artificial contraception through private health insurance plans. In that way, leading bishops have helped nurture a sort of social-justice-teaching vacuum, arguably opening up greater space for market fundamentalism, whose Catholic disciples include Sirico and Congressman Paul Ryan. They and others would find little such opportunity in the European Catholic context.

And then there’s the broader skewing of U.S. public policy toward the wealthy over the last few decades, aided by that American Christian “accord with market imperatives” (although Skidelski might be painting with an overly broad brush on that score). These aren’t rough times for those who bless unfettered markets.

My fellow native Brooklynite Robert Sirico is getting panned left and right by thoughtful commentators. But is he also getting the last laugh?

This item was first posted yesterday at Tikkun Daily.

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