“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

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.

…read more

Read Thy Enemy

Ross Douth

I flipped through some of the expected commentary about what to read in the New Year, but one column that nudged me was Ross Douthat’s in the Times, “How to Read in 2013.” The conservative pundit issued a moderate challenge: “Consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share.” He made a point of using what he referred to as that fusty word, “subscription.” Reading all of a magazine, Douthat explained, is a better way of grappling with its ideas than plucking this or that item from its web site.

So, if you wait for National Review to arrive in your mailbox, or inbox, make sure you also get The Nation or The New Republic, Douthat suggested. Or, if The New Yorker is your blend of tea, think about subscribing also to The Weekly Standard.

“And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme,” he advised. “There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.”

The December 29 column has led me to take stock of my own reading. Like most members of our species, I am attracted to ideas and information that confirm my positions and worldview. There are names for that in the social sciences literature—“confirmation bias” and “pattern bias” come to mind.

Although I prefer the left-leaning MSNBC, I do go to the conservative channels. But for me, watching The O’Reilly Factor or some other Fox News productions is like eating a vegetable I don’t care much for—without the consolation that it’s good for me. I find more appetizing the (online) offerings of National Review and especially The American Conservative but tend to pick and choose among them. I usually pass up the antigovernment and free-market screeds. More palatable to me are pieces that tap into my culturally conservative sentiments, which I wear less on my sleeve than I used to.

Taking up the Douthat challenge, I’m not sure if I’ll actually take out a new subscription to a politically conservative journal this year (or a liberal one, for that matter). But I’ll add to my New Year’s resolutions an intention to regularly sit down in the periodical room of a Boston College library and read The Weekly Standard or The American Spectator cover to cover.

At the same time, I’ll make an effort to read books and articles outside the political-theological-philosophical complex. I’m already starting to crowd out that resolution, though, with items piling in my Amazon cart. I’m eagerly awaiting the February release of Jeffrey Frank’s Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, about Eisenhower and Nixon.

Douthat’s column has evidently touched a chord with many readers, and I’m glad for that. But is he putting his finger on the most glaring oversight in our politics today? Would that be the failure of liberals to read conservatives and vice versa? Or would it be that too few people in general are listening to the least of these, to the weak and vulnerable?

At one time—prior to Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic The Other America—the poor were invisible. Now they are simply inaudible. They’re seen waiting at bus stops and standing behind fast food counters, but seldom heard in our public debates. And I wouldn’t expect to hear their voices all that clearly in the pages of The Weekly Standard. But maybe I’ll be surprised. …read more

Cliff Deal: An Answer to Whose Prayers?

Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black

While surfing cable channels during the fiscal-cliff clatter of New Year’s Eve afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder about one news ticker in particular: “Senate Chaplain Prays for Fiscal Cliff Deal.” Did the chaplain believe that God has a position on whether there should be a deal before midnight January 1, as distinct from an agreement that would surely materialize some days or weeks after going off the cliff? And if the divine will were to cut so finely, how would he, who is not divine, know?

Then I looked up the story behind the ticker, which did more justice to the prayer offered up by Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black.

A former Navy chaplain and Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Black didn’t exactly go over the theological cliff by invoking God’s endorsement of the Biden-McConnell plan. The chaplain gazed at the edge. He asked God to “lift them”—lawmakers—“from the darkness and hopelessness” of those hours at the fiscal cliff. “May they take the tide that leads to fortune, rather than risk a national voyage bound in shadows and in miseries,” he intoned.

Other than perhaps the good reverend, whose prayers were answered by the deal struck before midnight and approved later by the Senate and House?

It’s in the nature of a political compromise that there’s no simple answer to that question. But among those who might be a bit relieved are the hard-working, low-earning Americans who receive so-called “refundables” at tax time. That’s a word you probably didn’t see in the news tickers.

This particular story goes back to the Bush tax cuts—which were not quite as lopsided as many liberals believe. While these packages delivered the greatest goodies to the rich, they also included expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor and the child tax credit. Both of those are refundable, meaning that the government will cut you a check if you qualify but don’t earn enough to pay federal income taxes. The Obama administration further expanded the refundable credits in 2009.

Set to expire at the start of 2013, the credits were tucked into the final cliff-averting agreement. That’s big, especially if you earn a small income.

The mother of all refundables, the Earned Income Tax Credit, can deliver a few thousand dollars a year to hard-pressed workers and their families. Kathy A. Saile, who handles domestic policy issues for the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, recently gave me a view of this from down below the middle class. She previously served as a case manager at a homeless shelter in Phoenix, where many of the residents commuted to jobs, in some cases two or three of them. Saile told me in a telephone conversation in November that this credit alone often “made the difference between families staying in the shelter and getting on their feet” and into their own apartments.

Referring also to the refundable per-child credit, she noted: “The Church has always been a strong supporter of these tax credits, because they’re pro-work, and they’re pro-family, and they help get people out of poverty.”

True, but clambering out of poverty will also be a little harder for many people, in another respect. Cliff negotiators choose not to salvage the payroll tax cuts enacted during Obama’s first term, cuts that kept hundreds of dollars in the pockets of struggling workers. And that is one reason why the deal is a mixed blessing for those Americans who are always dangling precariously off the cliff. …read more

Heschel’s Prophets, and Ours

Some forty years ago, in one of his last public appearances, the celebrated Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said in an NBC television interview that “one of the saddest things about contemporary life in America is that the prophets are unknown.” He was referring to the ancient Hebrew prophets, who proclaimed the divine truth and yet were often “grossly inaccurate” because they concerned themselves with meaning, not facts, as Heschel had written. The rabbi spoke prophetically in that interview—which is to say, not very accurately.

Heschel died a few months later on December 23, 1972. But he lived to see and help usher in what he surely knew was one of the most prophetic moments in American history.

His timeless study, The Prophets, was published in late 1962, and it ushered out the soothing spiritual happy talk of the ‘50s. The Polish-born mystic wrote admiringly that the biblical prophet is “strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.” Hypersensitive to social injustice, the prophet reminds us that “few are guilty, but all are responsible,” Heschel declared.

The book was read widely in civil rights circles. In his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the prophet Amos—“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a might stream.” King used a translation barely known at the time but common today—Heschel’s translation. The standard rendering had been “judgment” rather than “justice.”

King and Heschel had first met in January of that year at a conference on religion and race, in Chicago, and the two became fast friends. In 1965, they and others locked arms in the first row of the march from Selma to Montgomery—a lasting image of that whole struggle. Afterward, Heschel remarked, “I felt like my legs were praying.”

By then, with his surfeit of white, wavy hair and his conspicuous white beard, Heschel looked as well as sounded the part of an Old Testament prophet. And within a year he was waging prophesy on another front, as co-leader of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, a collection of kindred spirits emanating from New York City, where Heschel taught at the Jewish Theology Seminary.

This prophetic club included, among others, the otherworldly Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and the swashbuckling liberal Protestant minister William Sloane Coffin, and the group persuaded King to ramp up his antiwar activism. Heschel struck the spiritual high notes when he preached at a 1968 mobilization in Washington about “the agony of God in Vietnam.” He declared: “God’s voice is shaking heaven and earth, and man does not hear the faintest sound.”

Devolving Prophecy

In the late ‘60s, young radicals imitated this style of prophetic denunciation; leaders of the secular New Left often spoke self-referentially of a “prophetic minority.” The counter-cultural stance took on a conservative hue in the late ‘70s, with the ascending religious New Right. Fundamentalist leader Jerry Falwell often credited King with his conversion to a political and confrontational faith.

In a way, much of politics today has gone prophetic. The vilification of one’s opponents, the overstatements about a “war on religion” or a “war on women,” the jeremiads against the one percent or the 47 percent, have come to be expected. (Outside of the religious right, it is largely in secular politics that one sees this skewing of prophetic discourse.) Do we really need more prophets uttering their “strange certainties” and speaking “one octave too high,” as Heschel affectionately wrote of the biblical prophets?

The rabbi would say yes, but he’d have in mind a different prophetic style.

He, King, and company usually found a way to join prophecy with civility, denunciation with doubt. This isn’t like walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s much harder. Heschel said in his old-world way (as related by his biographer, Edward K. Kaplan), “Better to throw oneself alive into a burning furnace than to embarrass a human being in public.” King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, pleaded with his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth.”

They did sail over the top at times, as when King, appearing with Heschel at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in 1967, branded America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” But that’s what prophets do. In their realm, unreasonableness is no vice, particularly when seeking to “strengthen the weak hands,” as the prophet Isaiah said in regard to the lowly and oppressed.

And that was Heschel’s prophetic calling—not so much to take the right stands, but to stand in the right places. …read more

Even Less Moral

Niebuhr on Time’s cover, March 8, 1948

In December 1932, a 40-year-old theology professor who had recently left his Michigan pastorate drew nationwide attention with his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two sentences into the introduction, the author, Reinhold Niebuhr, was already walking back the title, saying the distinction it suggested was too unqualified. Reflecting on his classic work of social ethics three decades later, Niebuhr wrote that a better encapsulation of his thesis would have been, “Not So Moral Man and Even Less Moral Society.” By then he had become one of the principal definers of 20th century American liberalism.

The notion behind the title was that while individuals might be able to muster sympathy “for their kind,” human groups and societies have little such capacity for self-transcendence. It might have been the least emphatic argument of this unsettlingly unsentimental book, which can be as startling today as it was 80 years ago, in the throes of the Great Depression.

Niebuhr wrote Moral Man in a time arguably not unlike our own, when both economic and political power had concentrated in fewer hands. The wealthiest Americans had succeeded in making government “more pliant to their needs,” he argued. But the professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary did not unleash his brash analytical power on plutocrats alone. He aimed squarely at his fellow liberals, who believed in the efficacy of moral suasion and rational argument, and who imagined that “men of power will immediately check their exactions and pretensions in society, as soon as they have been apprised by the social scientists that their actions and attitudes are anti-social.” Niebuhr’s intent was to disabuse them of these illusions.

One essay in this volume that seems to especially evoke our situation today is titled, “The Ethical Attitudes of the Privileged Classes.”

The attitudes have largely to do with economic inequalities. The chapter starts with a bow to the truism that such gaps are inevitable and stem partly from different levels of talent and skill. Niebuhr’s clear-eyed view of human nature and destiny could hardly make him suppose that inequality, along with a fair bit of misery, is unnatural. But he quickly adds that personal attributes never explain extraordinary degrees of wealth inequality. These are due chiefly to “disproportions of power,” he says, alluding in part to money’s grip on politics.

For Niebuhr, the task of plutocracy or government by the wealthy is to justify this power and privilege. Plutocrats do so by identifying their special interests with the general good. “Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold,” he observes.

Such thinking requires a certain amount of self-deception, according to Niebuhr. But he says it also involves hypocrisy—in that the privileged often salute one thing (the good of all) and engineer something else (narrow self-interests). He continues:

The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful or meritorious functions. As long as society regards special rewards for important services as ethically just and socially necessary … it is always possible for social privilege to justify itself, at least in its own eyes, in terms of social function, which it renders. If the argument is to be plausible … it must be proved or assumed that the underprivileged classes would not have the capacity for rendering the same service if given the same opportunity. This assumption is invariably made by privileged classes.

As Niebuhr further limns this mind, he points to its understanding that the masses of people are economically unfit not simply because of their lesser intellects or purported lack of opportunity. They are also seen as succumbing to character flaws, namely their inclination toward what the Puritans (his spiritual ancestors in the Calvinist fold) styled as “laziness and improvidence.”

Plutocracy Revisited

Niebuhr’s analysis echoes in current debates. For instance, Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats, notes a tendency among the super rich to “confuse their own self-interests with the common good.” Niebuhr’s plutocrat, though at times a cardboard figure, finds voice in billionaire activists such as Leon Cooperman (quoted in Freeland’s book), who wrote a open letter a year ago to President Obama, enumerating services rendered by his class: “As a group we employ many millions of taxpaying people … fill store shelves at Christmas … and keep the wheels of commerce and progress … moving.”

The “special rewards” today might include Wall Street bailouts, preferential tax rates for capital gains, and the carried-interest loophole that withers tax bills for hedge fund managers like Cooperman. “Specious proofs” abound with the notion, for example, that half of all Americans will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” as Mitt Romney declared in his famous behind-closed-doors remarks about the 47 percent.

Yet few commentators would match Niebuhr’s unrelievedly unsentimental view.

Most decent people would hope to see different parties and factions engage in good-faith dialogue about the common good. Niebuhr would say: Don’t count on it. Because he saw reason as largely subservient to self-interests, he felt that relations between groups must always be “predominantly political rather than ethical,” meaning that those who favor greater equality should rely on sheer power and political mobilization, not just cogent arguments and appeals to conscience. The clear message: Expect little from conversations with plutocrats.

Among the many who found little uplift in Niebuhr’s critique was Niebuhr himself. “All this is rather tragic,” he said at the end of the book. He was speaking of unpalatable means toward the goal of greater equality, such as appealing to raw emotion and even resentment.

At times it’s hard to tell if Niebuhr is endorsing such behavior or trying to whip up an air of crisis. He certainly preferred loftier means such as civil discourse—provided they were effective. But a word he used favorably in this context is “coercion,” directed at the powerful, by the people through their government; he also saw an eternal need for power blocs such as labor unions and the pressures they apply. This would be “class warfare” by today’s squeamish standards.

Niebuhr Now

Moral Man and Immoral Society was Niebuhr’s first major work. At the time, many readers and reviewers (including his fellow liberal Protestant clergy) were understandably alarmed by what they saw as his cynicism, and Niebuhr’s response was characteristically defiant. Gradually, however, he gave a little more due to the possibilities of grace and goodness in political life. He also turned a scornful eye to self-righteousness on the left as well as right.

At the same time, Niebuhr applied his thoughts about the “brutal character of all human collectives” to an increasingly dangerous world. He inspired many a liberal Cold Warrior—and a latter-day adherent, Barack Obama, who calls Niebuhr his favorite philosopher. In recent decades the Niebuhr brigades have arguably been filled with neoconservatives more than liberals, animated by their interpretation of Niebuhrian realism, the idea that the search for perfect justice is dangerously utopian.

Still, Niebuhr was always a creature of the left. He cofounded the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 and opposed the Vietnam War, which was still raging when he died in 1971. And he remained a sober prognosticator of the human condition. He often said that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine was Original Sin, which he found more steadily reliable than any belief in human perfectibility.

With his acute sense of tragedy and paradox, Niebuhr would not put full faith in grand designs of economic justice (if those existed today). But he would also doubt there could be even proximate justice, apart from a confrontation with privilege and an unabashed plying of worldly power. …read more

The Shrinking Thanksgiving Basket

In some ideological quarters, it has become popular to assert that government should have scarcely a role in responding to the needs of the poor. The message has been pretty straightforward. Government: bad. Private charity: good. But now a new breed of critic is arguing further that the charities, too—even the worthiest of them—ought to be held in suspicion.

One of the more credible promoters of this view is Robert D. Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (HarperOne). Lupton is not just a true believer in the anti-government gospel, but also a charitable doer. He is founder and president of FCS Urban Ministries (Focused Community Strategies), an evangelical Christian community development agency in Atlanta’s inner city. His book, originally released a year ago, has now appeared in paperback—just in time for Thanksgiving.

During the holidays, the news cycles turn predictably toward stories about the deserving poor and the good causes that serve them well. Lupton and his publicists want the media to crank out a strikingly different story.

“In the United States, there’s a growing scandal that we both refuse to see and actively perpetuate,” he declares at the start of the book. “What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.”

The author points to such basic examples of charity as soup kitchens, clothing drives, and church-sponsored service trips. These are usually counter-productive, he asserts, because they breed dependency and “destroy personal initiative” as well as family structures.

The argument is familiar enough, when it comes to government social programs. But the follow-up is usually that private charities are the way to go, because they’re more responsive to local needs, or because they don’t use taxpayer money (although they often do). Lupton doesn’t go there.

He does allow that some charitable work is nontoxic and necessary—disaster relief being his chief example. And he speaks up for “community development,” including job placement and affordable housing in cooperation with for-profit developers. This aspect of his argument is reasonable, though not very interesting: Such efforts have become commonplace among private service organizations.

Beyond that, charity encourages “ever-growing handout lines,” Lupton writes. He calls for shuttering food pantries and replacing them with food coops that sell shares to the poor; canceling the clothing drives and setting up thrift stores. In his view, such draconian measures are in order because the poor will just use their Thanksgiving baskets and secondhand socks to bolster what he terms their “lifestyle poverty,” their thriftless, workless ways.

Lupton seems to believe that the American poor are almost unique in this way. For example, he puts in a good word for micro-lending projects in the Third World, but then questions their applicability to the United States. And the reason he gives is that in our country, “the welfare system has fostered generations of dependency and has severely eroded the work ethic.” The American poor “assume that their subsistence is guaranteed” because of public and private largesse, so they don’t exercise personal responsibility.

I’ve ceased being surprised by things people say about the poor and the lower 47 percent of the economy. But part of what strikes me about Lupton’s critique is his lack of any discernible interest in the demographics of poverty—the facts, in other words.

The Poor Are Not One Group

For those pesky details, I called up Candy Hill (whom I quote in the November 18 edition of Our Sunday Visitor). She is senior vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, a national umbrella organization.

To start with, Hill told me that many who knock on the doors of local Catholic Charities do so for the very first time. And they usually come looking for food. Typically, they have lost a job, suffered an illness, or faced some other crisis. They can put off paying the utility bill or mortgage but cannot go long without eating. “We see them because they’re hungry,” she says, adding that elderly people on fixed incomes are also familiar faces at soup kitchens.

According to Hill, these people form a sizeable swath of charity recipients—the suddenly and temporarily poor. Lending them a hand doesn’t make them dependent. It usually gets them back on their feet.

A second subgroup consists of those with lifelong disabilities and impairments. “We help them reach their full potential,” said Hill, alluding to such efforts as job training for the tasks they’re able to perform, but Catholic Charities does so “with the understanding that they’ll never be totally independent.” They’ll always need help from both government and charities.

The third type of recipient cited by Hill is the chronically poor, in need of continual services. On the surface, they supply Lupton with his dependency thesis, although he draws little distinction between them and others in the fluid ranks of the poor. And they’re a distinct minority: Approximately 25 percent of those in poverty have been poor for three years or longer, according to a plethora of studies cited by Catholic Charities.

For these people, Catholic Charities offers what Hill described as a “continuum of care,” in which case workers evaluate their needs at various stages. Some typical services include job training, parenting classes, rental assistance, and prescription drugs for chronic illnesses.

But she is reluctant to assign even these cases to Lupton’s all-encompassing category of “lifestyle poverty.” She notes, for example, that a growing number of the long-term poor are living in homeless shelters and holding down jobs, sometimes two or three—their wages too low for rent. “They’re some of the hardest working people I know,” said Hill, who previously headed Catholic Charities of Monroe County in Michigan.

Contrary to the impression given by Lupton, charities that work with these people aren’t flush with cash. Contributions have continued to dip throughout the fragile economic recovery. As Hill points out, food pantries nationwide have been cutting back on bread loaves, soup cans, and other items tossed into food bags, even as the need rises with many families trying to scrape together a holiday meal.

Now, Lupton is offering one more reason, and not a particularly good one, to shrink those Thanksgiving baskets even further.

TheoPol will skip Thanksgiving week and return on Thursday November 29.

 

 

css.php