Sunday, December 7, 2008

Seeking Justice in the City; Seeking Justice in the Soul

The twentieth century scholar of political philosophy Leo Strauss famously noted that ``no bloody or unbloody change of society can eradicate the evil in man: as long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy and hatred. [Strauss, Leo. The City and Man. University Of Chicago Press, 1978] A more apt description of the world the Christian of the modern era finds himself in is hard to come by. The modern era has seen virtually every form of government imaginable, monarchies of varying degrees, dictatorships of every flavor imaginable, oligarchies, republics, kleptocracies, and democracies. Representing every possible political and social ideology, none of these regimes have managed to fundamentally change the human person. After all is said and done, evil still lurks in the heart of every man.

Recognizing that this evil exists offends us as Christians. Seeing evil done violates our sense of justice. ``Its just not right,'' we say to ourselves. We become saddened and disappointed. Sometimes we despair. But sometimes we try to fix things and make them right. This last response is the driver for finding new modes of government by the Christian. But the cardinal problem is not the mode of government, but what lies in the hearts of both the governed and governors. Malice, evil and hatred are not problems that political science can conquer. Political science may be able to manage the consequences of evil, injustice, to a greater or lesser extent but political science can never root out malice, evil and hatred from the human condition.

So this desire by the Christian to bring injustice to an end can never be fulfilled. At best it can only be given a taste of justice if a mode of government can be found that manages evil to a great extent. Far more likely, however, is that it will be frustrated. And at worst, if a particularly poor mode of government is attempted, it will result in far more injustice. When the last of these obtains, the mode of government which is an attempt to make society into a flourishing and complete whole, only succeeds in making a society less of what it ought to be.

This same struggle goes on in our very souls. As Christians we sense that we are somehow not complete. We long to be made whole. We desire to have an abundant life, to act in a fashion worthy of creatures made in the image and likeness of God. And, through the grace of God, we can begin to approach such a mode of being. The difficult part, however, is that this process will not be made complete until judgment day. Until then we will be frustrated by our own thoughts, words, actions and choices. We will also be frustrated by events outside of our control. We must struggle through a world that is fundamentally broken by the bad choices of thousands of generations.

This desire to be made whole sometimes lead to frustration, especially in light of Orthodox teachings about God. The prayers sung by the priest during the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom present a challenge to the Christian whose longing remains unfulfilled. The Prayer of the First Antiphon reveals God in the plenitude of His power.

O Lord our God, whose might is incomparable, whose glory is incomprehensible, whose mercy is infinite, and whose love of man is ineffable, do thou thyself, O Master, in thy tenderheartedness look down upon us and upon this holy house, and grant us and those who pray with us thy rich mercies and compassion.
Then in the Prayer of the Second Antiphon, the relationship of the Christian to God is revealed. 
O thou who hast bestowed on us these common and accordant prayers, and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy name, thou wilt grant their requests, fulfil even now the requests of thy servants as is expedient for them, granting us in this present age the knowledge of thy truth, and in that to come, life eternal. 
In the divine liturgy, God is first revealed as being a good God of infinite mercy and then Man is revealed as the object of Gods mercy and that God grants the requests of Christians, as may be expedient for them.

That teaching, at least for me, is a hard teaching. To know that God will grant all of our prayers, all of of our hopes and dreams, but only inasmuch as they are expedient for us as individuals, inasmuch as they are appropriate for us fulfilling our purpose in the divine economy, is to know that there there is a certain sense in which we live in the best of all possible worlds. In this world, whatever struggles and challenges we are presently going through as Christians, those challenges and struggles are the exact challenges and struggles that God in his infinite wisdom and immeasurable mercy sees most likely to bring us to perfection as human beings created in His image and likeness. The frustrated longing we feel to create justice is sometimes unfulfilled because either the way we would bring this justice about is not proper or the `just' end that we seek is not so just after all. Our longing to be fulfilled in these situations is simply not part of Gods plan and is not to be.

There is clearly a danger that this view can lead to despair, especially when our present struggles and challenges seem almost too much to bear. But it need not. As human beings, we have to face that we are not always cognizant of Gods plan. Outside of an angelic visitation or direct experience of God, we cannot know with certainty whether our attempts to bring about justice will conclude in the end that we seek. We do not know if God is testing our resolve. We do not know if God is throwing up obstacles to get us to switch our course. We can only pray and hope and seek to become more fully the image and likeness of God, to become closer to the perfect man. And there come times when we must accept that those things which we long for will not be given to us. For me, those are the hardest times of all, when I must recognize that this longing inside of me is going to remain unfulfilled in this life and I must be content to wait until the next to be made whole.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thoughts on Vampires and Salvation

I have a confession to make. I am a sucker for vampire movies, especially ones that take a more traditional view of the undead. (I am also a sucker for zombie movies, but that is neither here nor there to the subject at hand.) I have always found it fascinating that in most variations on the vampire legend the question of eternal damnation becomes separated from the question of the will. Outside of a few rather interesting treatments, one does not choose to become a vampire but is made into a vampire unwillingly. While the plot arc of many vampire movies revolves around the salvation of a soul through choice, that choice is almost always made by a third party hero who chooses to save the victim and quite frequently who does so through some sort of self sacrifice. Salvation, in most forms of the vampire mythos, becomes a passive act outside of the will of the person whose soul is imperiled. Rather the soul becomes a mere trophy in a cosmic battle of good and evil.

I am not a vampire purist. I do not hold that there is any one true vampire fable by which all others should be judged in terms of how vampires are created, are capable of being killed, and so on and so forth. Two popular treatments do bother me: Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Series. But it is not the lore contained within those so much as the way that vampires are made into heroes rather than villains. I do prefer the old fashioned treatments but some takes on the myth such as Richard Matheson's I am Legend were certainly done well and offered quite a bit of food for thought as explorations of what it means to be human. But as of the immediate present, I am not interested in exploring what it means to be human so much as what it means for a human to find salvation.

The interesting thing to me about the traditional myth of the vampire is how it seems to have morphed in the popular imagination from being a punishment, originally some evil doers were damned to roam the earth after death as penalty for heinous sins committed while alive, to being a state conferred by seeming chance as a particular vampire becomes enamored of a particular victim and chooses to make that victim into a vampire. In the oldest folk tales, becoming a vampire may not have been a choice, but it was at least the result of choices that were made by the person who would later become a vampire. By the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, even that element of choice had disappeared. By the time movie studies started adapting vampire myths, becoming a vampire became something almost mechanical, a victim was bitten once or thrice --depending on which novel, story or film-- and that was that, the victim became a vampire. The only real choices involved were the choices of the hero fighting against the creatures of the night to save their victims not only from death but from eternal damnation.

I would argue that this mechanical view of the workings of some sort of anti-grace is at least somewhat the result of a quasi-Calvinistic view of the world. In this system of strict double predestination, souls are chosen to be one of the elect or one of the damned from the dawn of time and the choices one makes have no role in bringing about one's salvation or damnation but only reflect the choice that has already been made by God. Similarly in vampiric lore, the choice is made not by the victim but by either the progeny of the devil himself (the vampire) or by the agent of God (the hero). The vampire and the hero lock in combat over the soul of the victim. The victim has no say, no choice. Whichever side is stronger in a test of wills wins the soul. The modern myth of the vampire is a akin in many ways to a deistic, dualistic Calvinism. On the one hand, the vampires have free reign of the world (at least at night) and have superhuman power and untold wealth. On the other hand, the heroes are very human, have limited resources and only have access to grace through relics (crosses, holy water, and things of this nature) which act in a very mechanistic fashion. The vampire myth is usually devoid of miracles, angels and saints. Humans are almost entirely alone in a world controlled by evil.

In some ways, I think this view is a product of industrialized society where most people feel trapped by circumstances. One cannot control where one is born or what resources one has while either growing up or making one's way in the world. Iit is true that there are some Ross Perots and Bill Clintons that are born into relative poverty and become massively wealthy or politically powerful (or both). But for the most part people born into families without the means to send them to college will not go to college and remain in the same social and economic status into which they were born. Without having connections in business and industry, it is difficult to find a good paying job. Without the means to spend four year or more earning a degree, it is difficult to get any job. Where people end up in life often seems predetermined. For many, it is hard to see how choices matter at all. Because of this, it is easy for most people to identify with the victim of the vampire. While we long to be able to make the choices of the hero, we feel trapped by a world controlled by powerful creatures of evil and that our only hope is to be rescued by a hero who has the agency and will that we lack.

Many people tend to approach religion the same way. Taking the view that our very salvation is entirely out of our control, many go through the motions of life waiting for a hero to pull them out of their existential misery. What they do does not seem to have any real meaning as the choices they make seem ultimately outside of their control. The world seems to them to more the playground of evil. God, if a God exists, does not get involved but lets the devil rule the world with only the odd hero or heroine with the strength of will to resist. And those that do resist usually end up being sacrificed in some way. The final destination of their souls seem to them to be outside of their own control and, most likely, will be beaten down by the forces of evil. Heroes, after all, are in short supply in world run by the evil and the powerful.

Such a view, of course, is far afield of the doctrine of the soul taught by the oldest and most ancient forms of Christianity. (Although, one could make the argument that it is very close to some of the views of a few different early groups of heretics.) Not only does orthodox Christianity hold that the God along with the angels and saints take an active interest in the world, but it also teaches the moral agency of every person who is created in the image and likeness of God. The apostle Paul used the word synergoi (1 Corinthians 3:9, usually translated as `fellow workers') to describe Christians in relationship to God. In the orthodox Christian world view, all people are (or at least have the potentiality to be) the hero of the vampire movie rather than the victim. 

If we find ourselves as the victim of the vampire waiting to be saved through the agency of someone else, it is only because we refuse to make our own choices not because we are unable to make our own choices. This is not to say that Christianity does not teach that we do not need divine grace in order to work out our salvation. Working out our salvation according to the Gospel rests upon the facts of the incarnation, crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension of the God-made-man Jesus Christ. But grace does not appear in our lives as an action hero physically battling the forces of darkness to save our souls. Rather, it is this grace that allows us to make the choices that lead us to being that very hero as a fellow worker of the Divine. Unlike the victim in a vampire movie that lies waiting to be bitten or for the hero to drive a stake through the vampire's heart, we have the choice to either accept or reject the advances of the vampire. We cannot choose whether or not evil is present in our lives be we can choose whether or not we will actively take part in that evil or whether or not we will try to stand our ground in the cosmic battle for justice in our souls.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Thanksgiving Reflection

In his last sermon before his death Father Alexander Schmemman made a very bold claim, ``Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.'' Bold as this claim may be soteriologically, it is far bolder as an insight into human nature. For we all, by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God, are created with the capacity to be thankful. We all have the ability to receive the blessings we are given with gratitude, to look those who provide us with the things we want and need in the eye and be thankful. Sometimes we give voice to our thanks. Sometimes we do not. Either way, receiving what we have been given thankfully is something that happens in our hearts and souls, not in our words or deeds. When the words and deeds do come it is because of what first happens in our hearts. If they do not come, it doesn't necessarily mean that our hearts are hard. (Although, it may mean just that.) It may just mean that we are unable or unwilling to express the interior gratitude that we feel.

But one of the amazing things about the human condition is that we can change who we are. While we are all created in the image of God, we are also creatures with souls and bodies whose thoughts, words, and deeds affect who we are in our hearts. Our choices shape us no less certainly than the breath of God that first animated each of us in our mother's womb. When we center our minds on the virtues, our words are virtuous and predispose us to act virtuously. When we center our minds on vice, our words are harsh, spiteful, envious, lustful and predispose us to act shamefully in a manner unbecoming creatures who were created in the image of God.

Over time these choices that we make shape us and mold us for good or for ill. The third century Christian mystic Origen of Alexandria observed that ``The sun, by one and the same power of its heat, melts wax indeed, but dries up and hardens mud: not that its power operates one way upon mud, and in another way upon wax; but that the qualities of mud and wax are different, although according to nature they are one thing, both being from the earth.'' This wondrous capacity for choice can bake our hearts like hardened mud in the heat of the sun or soften our hearts like molten wax in those same rays of warmth. How we all choose to use our capacity as the children of God determines whether we have a heart of mud or a heart of wax. How we direct our thoughts, what words we say, what actions we take all shape us and determine just what our interior disposition is.

This interior disposition is entirely the difference between heaven and hell. For the rays of invisible light that are the energies of God are inescapable. God is present everywhere and in all things. God does not punish the sinful by hiding Himself nor reward the blessed by gracing them with His presence. Rather, as Doctor Alexander Kalomiros states in his essay River of Fire, the ``attitude of the logical creatures toward this unceasing grace and love is the difference between paradise and hell.'' For those creatures ``who love God are happy with Him, those who hate Him are extremely miserable by being obliged to live in His presence, and there is no place where one can escape the loving omnipresence of God.'' In this life in a world that has been corrupted by generations of bad choices, we can never perfectly experience the love of God. But we can taste it. We can catch glimpses of it here and there. To those who make their hearts into wax, this is joy. To those who make their hearts into mud, this is horror. Come judgment day, this foretaste will be amplified by the removal of all corruption. Doctor Kalimiros continues:
The Light of Truth, God's Energy, God's grace which will fall on men unhindered by corrupt conditions in the Day of Judgment, will be the same to all men. There will be no distinction whatever. All the difference lies in those who receive, not in Him Who gives. The sun shines on healthy and diseased eyes alike, without any distinction. Healthy eyes enjoy light and because of it see clearly the beauty which surrounds them. Diseased eyes feel pain, they hurt, suffer, and want to hide from this same light which brings such great happiness to those who have healthy eyes.
So to repeat the words of Father Schmemman, ``Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.'' Being thankful tells us that our hearts are not completely hard. Being thankful tells us that we are still capable of receiving love. Allowing this inner gratitude to bubble up out of our hearts and into words and deeds shapes us into new creatures more likely to accept love from not only God but also from our brothers and sisters. Embracing this thankfulness is not only our very salvation but gives us a taste of heaven in this life. To be thankful is to become more fully the likeness of Deity itself, to be join into the ecstatic union with the Godhead in this life.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Inherent Unfairness of a Flat Tax

In the 2008 US election cycle, one of the largest policy distinctions was between the John McCain's proposal to keep the top marginal income tax rate either at current levels or to cut it further and Barrack Obama's plan to increase the top tax bracket. Obama's plan raised hackles in some quarters and met with the criticism that his tax proposal was essentially socialist, being an income redistribution engine designed to spread the wealth of those who worked hard to get where they are to those who haven't worked so hard. Many commentators have claimed that this state of affairs is claimed to be unjust. But a system of marginal tax brackets, the bedrock of income tax system in the US for almost as long as the US has had a federal income tax, was not pulled out of thin air or implemented to punish those who are successful. Rather, the marginal tax in the US stems from a basic principle of economics, the concept of diminishing marginal utility that is shared by every school of economics from Austrian to Neo-Classical save for the minority of schools that stick to a labor based theory of price setting such as the Marxist and Neo-Ricardian schools. As such, to claim that a marginal system of taxation is inherently unjust is to both undermine the basis of modern economic theory and, if that theory is correct, argue against the premise that the the income tax system should model the way the world actually works.

The background of the criticism of Obama's plan is that the US tax code is overly complicated, obtuse, perplexing and in need of reform. No one seriously disputes this. But time and again, the idea also surfaces that that in order for an income tax to be fair, it must be a flat tax, that the same tax rate (and not merely the same tax system) must be equally applied to everyone subject to it. If someone paying tax on x dollars pays a lower effective rate than someone paying taxes on x + n  dollars, the argument goes, this is unfair. Worse yet, the opponents of a system of marginal tax brackets argue, the tax is not only unfair, but it stifles the economy of the country as a whole because the tax code ends up punishing success. If working harder to make more money results paying a higher tax rate, those who would work harder may be demotivated to do with the net effect that most workers work less hard and productivity suffers. 

But the assessment of a marginal tax system as being inherently unfair ignores its basis in modern economic theory. The US tax system is built on system of marginal tax brackets because of the principle of marginal utility. This principle underlies supply/demand price theory upon which free markets are predicated. The principle is not a complicated one. The idea is that the first unit of a given good does not have the same value to the consumer as subsequent units of a good. While in most cases the value of additional units decrease, there are some situations where the additional value increases. (The decreases are usually in situations where the consumer approaches a tipping point. For example a person with one dollar who needs ten dollars to buy a particular good may not value an single additional dollar very highly until that person gets to nine dollars.)

The traditional textbook explanation, created by economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, deals with bags of grain. Imagine a pioneer with five bags of grain. The first is used by him as sustenance. Without the calories present in one bag of grain, he would starve to death. The second bag  is also consumed by him so that he might not just live but also have the strength to work. While it is important for the pioneer to work, it is secondary to survival. The third bag is used as feed for other livestock so that the pioneer might have variation in diet. While important, it is less important than either having the strength to work or to survival itself. With the fourth bag, the pioneer makes whiskey which has certain uses but is less important than the product of the bags that were already consumed. With the fifth bag, the pioneer feeds some pet parakeets. Now if the pioneer had to give up a bag of grain, he would not curtail all the purposes to which he put the grain. He won't eat less, stop feeding the chickens or stop making whiskey. Rather he would choose to give up the use which was least valuable to him, feeding the parakeets. This is the principle of decreasing marginal utility, that for most things, every additional unit is less valuable to the owner than the subsequent unit.

But what happens if the grain of the pioneer is being taxed per bag? It is clear that any tax on that first bag will be far more injurious to the pioneer than the tax on subsequent bags of grain because if the farmer had only one bag, the tax would affect his very ability to stay alive. A tax on the second bag, while still very injurious in that it affects the pioneer's very ability to work, is not as harmful as a tax on the first bag. A tax on the third bag is less injurious still and by the time we get to the fifth bag, any tax on the grain becomes a very small amount of injury to the one paying the taxes. Now, even if the tax on the fifth bag of grain were exorbitantly high, it would be less injurious to the pioneer than any amount of tax on the first bag of grain. 

The US tax system is structured to reflect this truth of the value of income to the earner. Most US taxpayers pay close to no tax on their first ten thousand dollars of income. For the 2008 tax year, even a single person with no dependents and no deductions pays only 10% on the first eight thousand dollars of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) which doesn't include the standard deduction or any non-taxable income such as pre-tax FICA, retirement and health care contributions. This is because this is the income that is needed for mere survival. A person making slightly more money will then pay 10% tax on that first eight thousand dollars of AGI and 15% tax on AGI between eight and thirty-two thousand dollars. So the money needed not to just survive but needed to buy necessary to work and the like is taxed at a slightly higher rate. AGI above thirty-two thousand dollars but below seventy-eight thousand dollars, the money needed not just to live or to work but to have a pleasant life, is taxed a bit higher at 25%. And so we go through all the tax brackets until we get to the highest at AGI earned above three hundred and fifty-seven thousand dollars, money which is certainly not required for the necessities of life but which goes to making life more pleasurable, which gets taxed at the highest rate of 35%. To claim that there is some inequality in this money being taxed at the same level as the lowest tax bracket is to claim that it harms the tax payer to lose 35% of every dollar earned well above three hundred and fifty some thousand dollars as it does to lose 10% of the first eight thousand dollars earned. Such is a ludicrous allegation, especially since someone making enough money to be in this tax bracket still only pays 10% on that first eight thousand dollars of AGI. After all, no matter what one's AGI is, one pays the same amount of tax on every dollar within a given tax bracket.

But some might still disagree over this assessment of fairness. But consider that the principle of marginal utility is what underlies the demand curve in the Austrian school of economics and what underlies the indifference curve which in turn underlies the demand curve in Neoclassical schools of economics. Given that the demand curve is half of what determines equilibrium prices in a free market, the allegation that the principle of marginal returns leads to injustice is akin to the claim that free market economics is either fundamentally unjust or somehow does not model reality. But clearly most proponents of a flat tax reject the ideas that the free market does not work or is inherently unjust. Rather they assume that the free market model is predicated on the way that human beings actually behave. If so, the principle of marginal utility is fundamental to human nature and the claim that a tax system based upon this principle is unfair is to claim that human nature ought to be different than what it is. It is perhaps illustrative that most of the countries in the present day that use a flat tax are former Soviet Bloc nations such as Albania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine. Most of these countries retain large vestiges of their socialist past and have not yet made full market reforms in many areas. 

One thing that the above mentioned countries with flat taxes do have in common is a phenomenal economic growth rate which may seem to support the assertion by flat tax proponents that a flat tax leads to higher economic growth. The problem, however, is that these countries are not moving from a marginal tax system to a flat-tax system but, rather, are moving to market systems with a flat tax on income from a state owned system of production where the state confiscated virtually all wealth and ran virtually all industry. An increase in productivity, then, is hard to tie specifically to a flat-tax rather than market reforms in general and the new possibility of large numbers of people earning money. Further, if a flat-tax lead to an increase in economic productivity, one would expect that those times in recent US history where the tax code was the flattest would have seen the largest percentage increases in productivity in the US. But the history of the eighties and nineties belies this. In real GDP per capita, the Clinton and Reagan administrations saw similar increases and the increases in both were dwarfed by those under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Given that the tax code was the flattest, and taxes in general far lower, during the Reagan administration, one would expect the Reagan administration to have presided over the largest increase in productivity. But it did not, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations did. The historical numbers seem to indicate that the flatness of income tax has little to no effect on the over all economy. What it does greatly affect is the ability of the government to finance itself. Both the budget deficit and the national debt soared under the Reagan tax cuts.

The way that there is no apparent relationship between the flatness of income tax productivity in the US can be easily be explained by the principle of marginal utility. It may be true that paying higher taxes on incomes in higher brackets might lead workers to view each additional dollar of income as less valuable. But the principle of marginal utility suggests that rational economic agents will already view each additional dollar in income as less valuable than the previous dollar of income. It is not clear that the decrease in utility of additional dollars of income in a marginal income tax system is any more demotivating than reality itself. The fact of the matter is that most workers have always felt that additionally earned dollars, even though less valued than previously earned dollars, have been worth pursuing. A proper marginal tax system will never reach the 100% tax rate and, consequently, always allow a earner to be better off by earning one additional dollar, even if they move to the next tax bracket. 

So in conclusion we see that a tax system built upon marginal tax brackets as presently used in the US is the most just in that it harms each individual taxpayer the least. It taxes the income needed the least the most and it taxes the income needed the most the least. To claim that this state of affairs is unfair is to allege that one of the fundamental suppositions behind setting prices in a free market is likewise unfair. Further, the claim that a marginal tax system hampers US productivity simply is not justified by the history of increases in real GDP in recent US history relative to the increases and decreases in the flatness of the US tax system. Why this is so is explained by the principle of marginal utility, workers are already expecting less value in each additional dollar earned. The two largest arguments for a flat tax, then, fail to be persuasive on either the basis of economic theory or the empirical data from the economic history of the US. Rather, the US should maintain its present tax system based on marginal brackets with tax reform being applied to those areas that really do need to be reformed: confusing, byzantine regulations; perverse incentives; tax brackets that disproportionately affect the upper-middle class. Ronald Reagan's goal of a tax return that can be filled out on a single post-card sized form is possible with a marginal tax system. The only thing that makes a marginal system different from a flat system in that regard is the use of a look up table rather (if I make x dollars, I pay y taxes) rather than multiplying x dollars by y percent.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Does the One of the Most Religious Countries in the World Have One of the Most Liberal Abortion Policies in the World?

Recently I was on the campus of the Catholic University of America and walked past a display of 4,000 small flags each set about a foot apart on some green space. A sign near by stated that each flag represented one of the four thousand children aborted by their mothers in the US every day. That number is a hard number to comprehend without such an image right before one's eyes. But it also brings up an interesting paradox. The United States is clearly one of the most religious nations in the western world by almost any measure, yet our abortion policies are more liberal than almost anywhere else in the developed world. But this paradox is not a contradiction. The status quo of such liberal abortion laws benefits both of the two major political parties in the US by helping to energize their respective bases which disincentivizes both parties from taking any practical action by either reforming abortion laws or taking pragmatic steps to reduce the perceived need for abortions despite what their respective party platforms might say.

The Republican Party's behavior on abortion exemplifies the behavior of the king's first son in one of Jesus' parables of the two sons in the vineyard. When asked to go work in the vineyard, the second son ``answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.'' Outlawing abortion has a been a plank of the Republican party platform since the Supreme Court first overturned a blanket ban of abortions in Roe v. Wade. Since then, the Republican Party has controlled the presidency for twenty years, both houses of Congress for ten years, the majority of Supreme Court justices for sixteen years, and the trifecta of Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court for four years. Yet not only has Roe v. Wade not been overturned but no federal law has been passed to put any limits on abortions within the guidelines available for doing such under Roe v. Wade. Outside of policy set within the executive branch, for example whether or not abortions can be performed by US Military hospitals, there has been virtually no change with regards to US policy with regards to abortion since Roe v. Wade was decided regardless of how many branches of government that the GOP has controlled.

However much the Republican Party might fit the parable of the two sons, the Democratic Party is certainly not its counterpart. Unlike the `good son' of the parable who ``said, I will not: but afterward he repented and went,'' the Democratic has consistently said that it is categorically behind a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. Despite the refrain from many Democratic politicians that they want to make abortion safe, legal and rare, almost all of the Democratic effort on the abortion issue has focused on the legal aspect. Factions within the Democratic Party, such as Democrats For Life of American (DFLA), have consistently tried to get legislation to the table to put into place policies that would reduce the number of abortions without making it illegal but have not been able to get any traction within their own party. For that matter, they've not even been able to get any traction within the Republican Party. One would expect an internal faction that disagrees with an important plank of its own party to be marginalized but it is not so clear as to why the policies that DFLA would like to see enacted as law don't get any consideration from across the aisle.

The political advantage gained by the Democratic Party in unequivocally supporting a woman's right to choose is obvious. In the last two election cycles, South Dakota, one of the most conservative states in the union, emphatically voted down two different attempts at instituting an almost complete statewide ban on abortion. There is a very large segment of the population that supports the legality of abortion and the Democratic Party has been trying to tap into that population ever since Roe v. Wade was decided. One can speculate that the party leadership thinks this segment of support is so important that it is unwilling to entertain policies such as the 95-10 initiative put forth by DFLA as any positive action in attempting to reduce the number of abortions might be construed on the part of some pro-abortion groups as the Democratic Party getting soft on the issue.

But what is harder to explicate is why the Republican Party has not used the power that it had to attempt to limit abortions so far as it can. As an acquaintance of mine acutely observed in a casual discussion, the GOP has taken an all or nothing approach to the subject and are entirely unwilling to compromise. One would have thought that, at minimum, that the GOP would have sought out European style policies that restrict late term abortions save in exceptional circumstances such as the life of the mother so that the US was no longer the only nation in the western world that has virtually no restrictions on abortions. While exact numbers are hard to come by, the best estimates put the rate of third trimester abortions at 1.4% of all abortions meaning that a ban on late term abortions save for when the health of the mother was in question might prevent thousands of abortions every year. Or failing that, one would have expected them to at least reach out to DFLA to implement policies designed to reduce abortions even if they are not banned. But the fact of the matter is that, save for a few administrative policies dictated by the executive branch, there has been no positive action by the Republican Party. The consequence is that although the national abortion rate has fallen every year since its peak in 1992, there has been no significant difference in the reduction of abortions with regards to which party has controlled the White House, Congress or the Supreme Court.

The conclusion that I am tempted to draw from the present state of affairs is that the leadership of the GOP believes that it benefits from the status quo and, therefore, places no importance on the anti-abortion plank of the party platform. If the GOP were able to get a constitutional amendment passed that outlawed abortion or if the GOP were able to bring US abortion policies in line with those of the western world, the GOP would lose the time, energy and support of a large number of single issue voters. So long as the preachers and pastors of the religious right continue to conflate with supporting Democratic candidates with death itself, the GOP reaps very large gain from very little investment. This brings to mind the way operatives like Jack Abramoff would refer to his lobbying clients as troglodytes while taking vast sums of money from them and doing little in return. But at least with Abramoff, he was only cashing in on the hopes of his clients to make money. Today's GOP is exploiting the desire of the religious right to save the lives of innocents.

One can argue that the Republican Party has been active at the state level in the battle to prohibit abortion because US law is not only legislated at the federal level. Over three-fifths of US states have some sort of limitation on late term abortions in line with European legislation (although some of these bans are unenforceable because they are contrary to the Roe v. Wade). One of the most misunderstood facts about Roe v. Wade is that the decision does not make the practice of banning abortion unconstitutional; it makes the unconditional banning of abortion prior to the point of viability of the fetus unconstitutional. Nevertheless even where abortion is limited by law, those laws are seldom enforced and even if they were strictly enforced, relative freedom of travel in the US merely makes abortions in states where there is a ban slightly more difficult to obtain as travel to another state is required. So long as abortion without limitation is legal within the US in some state, banning abortions at the state level is effectively meaningless from the perspective of attempting to stop abortions as a whole.

The silver lining in the dark cloud of the two major parties in the US exploiting the status quo for their own benefit is that the number of abortions performed every year in the US has been in constant decline since its peak as mentioned above. While the Democratic and Republican Parties are jockeying for position, the rest of the US is slowly coming to understand that abortion is not the only option. The mood of the country seems to be changing. Whereas in the eighties, hit movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dirty Dancing presented abortion to be the best (or even only) choice to young, unwed women, today's films aimed at youth like Knocked Up and Juno celebrate the choice of young women who find themselves pregnant and decide to carry the pregnancy to full term. So perhaps there is hope that as the new generation comes of age and enters political life that those who really believe in life will work to transform both parties. Somewhere between the extremes of abortion being legal for any reason at any time and abortion never being legal at any place for any reason, there is room for both sides to come together to work out something better than what we have now. Few, after all, would argue that abortion is a good thing. Even those who argue that abortion should be completely unrestricted concede that a world where there was no need to have an abortion would be a better place.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gay Marriage and Arguing Religious Points from Non-Religious Premises

One of the interesting aspects of the recent Connecticut Supreme Court case Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health (Kerrigan) was the way that part of the argument against allowing gay marriage consisted of the religious doctrine that marriage is exclusively a relationship between one man and one woman and that this argument was attempted to be presented in non-religious terms. On the one hand it is tempting to brand such attempts as trojan horses which are entirely subterfuges designed to get particular religious views into the public discourse. But on the other hand, regardless of whether or not the argument is being presented entirely for religious reasons, it is the argument itself that must be considered rather than the motivations of the people putting forth the argument. In this particular case, the claims of the biological argument put forth by Patricia and Wesley Galloway in an amicus curiae brief and written into the dissenting opinion by Justice Peter Zarella clearly show some of the limits of attempts to argue for religious doctrine on the basis of non-religious premises.

In Kerrigan, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned Connecticut's civil union statute because of its language explicitly defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the case was the fact that some of the third parties filing amicus briefs argued on the basis of biology rather than religion that gay marriage was not part of the social, historical and legal traditions upon which US law is based. (This view was recently spotlighted in the New York Times article Using Biology, Not Religion, to Argue Against Same-Sex Marriage by Ray Rivera and Christine Stewart.) The secular argument argument put forth is perhaps most concisely expressed by Justice Zarella in his dissent. 
The latter conclusion [that marriage is defined exclusively as being between one man and one woman is inherently discriminatory against gays and lesbians] is based primarily on the majority’s unsupported assumptions that the essence of marriage is a loving, committed relationship between two adults and that the sole reason that marriage has been limited to one man and one woman is society’s moral disapproval of or irrational animus toward gay persons. Indeed, the majority fails, during the entire course of its page opinion, even to identify, much less to discuss, the actual purpose of the marriage laws, even though this is the first, critical step in any equal protection analysis. I conclude, to the contrary, that, because the long-standing, fundamental purpose of our marriage laws is to privilege and regulate procreative conduct, those laws do not classify on the basis of sexual orientation and that persons who wish to enter into a same sex marriage are not similarly situated to persons who wish to enter into a traditional marriage. The ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its basis in biology, not bigotry. If the state no longer has an interest in the regulation of procreation, then that is a decision for the legislature or the people of the state and not this court. [Zarella, P., Dissenting Opinion in Kerrigan et. al. v. Commissioner of Public Health ]
It is tempting in some ways to simply dismiss this argument as sophistry of sorts, to claim that Zarella one of the religionists that the Islamic philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi would describe as ``convinced of the validity of their own religion beyond any doubt, hold the opinion that they should defend it before others, show it to be fair and free it of suspicion, and ward off their adversaries from it, by using any chance thing'' [al-Farabi, Abu Nasr, The Enumeration of the Sciences, tr. Najjar Fauzi, M. in Medieval Political Philosophy ed. Lerner, Ralph and Mahdi, Muhsin, p. 30.]. Such dialectic theologians, al-Farabi, says, ``would not disdain to use falsehood, sophistry, confounding, and contentiousness'' because they divide non-believers into two groups: enemies and the simple minded. With regards to enemies, ``it is admissible to use falsehood and sophistry to ward him off''' and with regards to the simple minded, ``it is admissible to use falsehood and sophistry to make man seek his well-being.'' And, to be fair, I am not altogether convinced that Justice Zarella might not belong in that general category of believers that would use any means necessary.

But on the other hand, I think there is some value in investigating Zarella's claim on its own merits. First, regardless of any motives that may or may not lie underneath the way that Zarella put forth the argument, whether it is true or not doesn't really depend on those motives but on the argument itself. While I will concede that there are times when motives do have something to add to a discussion of a particular topic, I am not convinced that this is one of those times. Second, I think that examining this particular argument illustrates something interesting about a topic I have touched on earlier, what methods (if any) are appropriate for a Christian to bring their values and beliefs into public discourse. (See the article An Argument for Allowing Religion to Influence the Secular State.) Consequently, I do not think it prudent to immediately lump Zarella in with the groups like the more fundamentalist intelligent design cabals that seeks to use intelligent design as a way to get young earth creationism into public schools.

So, let's examine Zarella's twin claims that ``the long-standing, fundamental purpose of our marriage laws is to privilege and regulate procreative conduct'' and that the ``ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its basis in biology.'' These two claims have similar shortcomings. They conflate the part with the whole in inflating one aspect of the traditional view of marriage into its sole purpose. They neglect that from the  biological and historical perspectives, the redefinition of marriage as between one man and one woman is a relatively late breaking idea in public discourse. They do not consider that marriage was a social understanding long before it was a legal arrangement and, consequently, the legalities of marriage will always trail the social understanding of marriage.

Through most of human existence, and even through most of human history, monogamy was relatively rare. Most societies were built on a polygamous social structure and, while some eras stood out for being predominantly monogamous, we can not realy say that biology teaches us us that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. At best, biology can teach us that marriage is the union of at least one man and at least one woman. The teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman would have to wait until various religions and schools of philosophy made popular the notion that the household built around a single man and a single woman was the atomic unit of society. But even then, procreation did not always play an essential role in the theology. For example, in the creation story in the second chapter of the book of Genesis states that woman was created as a helpmate for man to create a new unity without specifying that the purpose of that unity is reproduction. Consequently, it isn't clear that procreation is the sole or even the primary purpose of marriage so much as companionship.

But by the advent of Aristotle, who argued that the nuclear family was the atomic unit of the city precisely because it takes both man and woman to procreate, things had changed a bit. But even in Aristotle, procreation is not the sole purpose of marriage. For Aristotle, the household needs the unique natural talents of both men and women in order to prosper. While it is true that procreation is certainly an element of the relationship between husband and wife, it certainly is not clear that this is the purpose for which marriage regulations were created in ancient Greece. During this same era, Judaism certainly began to develop a consistent philosophy of the central role of family and, by the time Christianity arrived on the scene, it found itself the heir to two very strong natural law traditions that put procreation very close to the center of the marriage relationship. Consequently, we cannot unequivocally side with Justice Zarella that biology informs the ancient definition of marriage. It certainly did to some extent inasmuch as biology influenced the understanding of religion and philosophy of just what it meant to be human. But even there, biology does not put a quantitative limit on the understanding of marriage or even suggest that a marriage where procreation is not possible is not valid. Nor does the history of marriage suggest that laws concerning what it means to be married came about because of issues of procreation.

The other problem with Zarella's view is that in the modern era, procreation has long ceased to be tied to marriage. On the one hand, widespread use of birth control, and even voluntary sterility, has made procreation a chosen option rather than a probable outcome for married couples. At present, it is entirely unremarkable in most of the US for a married couple to never concieve. On the other hand, an increasing use of artificial means of conception has eliminated the need for man and woman to come together within sexual union at all in order to produce progeny. Not only are single parents unremarkable in this day and age but single parents who are not parents through sexual union are unremarkable. Consequently, we must conclude that western society has largely decided that reproduction is neither the exclusive domain of marriage nor the reason for which marriage exists.

The outcome of this is that Zarella will find few individuals who do not share his views that are convinced by his argument. The reason is simple. When attempting to convince the other justices of his view, he did not rely on that which is (a) self-evident, (b) in-evidence, or (c) the conclusion of a demonstration built on premises that fit one of those three criteria. Rather, Zarella began from an interpretation of history that was arguable at best and tried to impose the lessons of that history upon those who did not subscribe to his view. This is exactly the wrong way to go about bringing religion into public discourse and it is no surprise to me that Zarella was unable to convince the other justices of the Supreme Court of Connecticut.

To argue for the imposition of this or that religious belief in the public forum, the place to start is with premises that are accepted by all (or at least most). As mentioned above, in a country where it is thought by increasing numbers of people that it is both normal to be childless in marriage if one should so choose and normal to have children outside of the bounds of marriage, arguing that the biology of procreation is the primary purpose of marriage is going to fall flat. Consequently, someone who wants to make the argument against gay marriage needs a different starting point. Just what that starting point might be, I do not know. A culture whose unique identity began with a document declaring three inalienable rights of `life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' does not seem to have a lot of room for opponents of gay marriage to bring a coherent argument into the public discourse. (For an argument about how US views of liberty bring about legal gay marriage as its end see Gay Marriage as One of the Many Ends of Modernism and as an Examination of the Tension Between Church and State.)

The best candidate I can think of is a long term project to put the family back at the center of society rather than the individual. This project would not start with arguing biology in court cases on individual rights. Rather, it would start with trying to change the way people look at society itself. If one could get the majority of Americans to view their families rather than themselves as the fundamental building block of society, then one would have room to argue for a specific definition of marriage that put concerns about procreation at the center of its purpose. But even then there is a problem. To argue that procreation is at the center of marriage does require the nuclear family to be the fundamental building block of society but it is not clear to me that the former necessarily follows from the latter. A family centered society is a precondition for the development of the argument but is not in and of itself sufficient to entail the necessity of the conclusion of the argument.

In the end, my advice to those who want to formulate public policy based on religious principles that only a minority of Americans share is to get busy educating the next generation. Before a nation is ready to accept a minority religious view, it must first have its collective mind changed on secular principles which lead to that same view. While admittedly this approach can be taken by extremists who don't really care about whether or not their views are true in the eyes of secularists, I think it will result in a more vigorous and honest public discourse if all the parties involved get the premises that actually underly their views out on the table for examination. An honest and open dialog is not only a good mechanism towards moving towards a better understanding of truth, it is also a good way to engage fellow citizens as persons. Having these discussions is not only educational but is also unifying in that it increases the bonds of friendship between citizens.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Is it Really a Choice? The Libertarian Myths of Choice and Coercion as Applied to Labor and the Social Contract

One of the aspects of Libertarianism that is frequently difficult for the uninitiated to wrap their heads around is the notion of inviolable rights of Libertarianism (life, liberty, property) being negative rights and not positive rights. For example, the right to property is not a right to own a certain amount of property, or even any property at all. Rather, it is a right of an individual not to not have others take any property that has been justly acquired. The view that all rights are negative rights leads to counter-intuitive judgements such as the assertion that to-work or not-to-work is a choice of the individual regardless of whether or not there are any actual jobs. But intuitiveness aside, the most interesting aspect of considering choice in this fashion is that it seems to lead to an inconsistency with regards to the way that Libertarians view governments such as the US that compel the paying of taxes. It can be argued that, as the US is a government based on Social Contract theory which most Libertarians accept, the Libertarian can choose not to accept the contract and, consequently, nothing that the US government does to a particular Libertarian can be construed as coercion so long as the Libertarian has the ability to decline accepting the contract.

Negative rights are most easily construed by considering that such rights are freedoms ``from'' something, not freedoms ``to'' do something. The classic Libertarian example of this is a person starving to death still has the right to life. The right to life does not entail some third party coming along to provide aid to a person in dire need. Rather, the right to life simply entails no third party will take another's life and that no third party will steal the food of someone and cause them to starve to death. Additionally, negative rights are seen by Libertarians as things that can be given up by the right holder. For example, a person who is starving to death and has food may freely exchange that food to a third party in exchange for money no matter how perverse the outcome for the staving person. According to Libertarians, individuals always have the capacity to contract exceptions to their rights with other individuals. In this way both wage labor and civil government become possible in Libertarianism. In wage labor, individuals part with the output of their labor in exchange for money. In civil government, individuals give up certain freedoms in exchange for security. In both cases, the giving up of rights needs to be voluntary or else the exchange is a violation of an individual's rights.

Now, in part because because I am a Christian and in part because I am something of an Aristotelean, I would argue that the right to work is a positive right. I believe that there is both something mystical and something very natural about labor. A human being who does not have the opportunity to engage in labor to some extent lacks some of the externalities that are needed to be fully human. But that claim is neither here nor there to the Libertarian. Regardless of the fact that human beings need food and shelter to survive and labor is the chief mechanism by which those things can be attained, the Libertarian holds that the right to work is a negative right, individuals can choose to work or not to work but they have no right ``to'' be given a job. If there are no jobs available and an individual has no capital to start a business, Libertarian holds that neither society nor any other individual has an obligation to give that individual food or shelter as the choice to work is always a choice regardless of external circumstances.

One might expect a similar outlook on civil government in Libertarian circles. But for the most part, Libertarianism seems to take the opposite approach and assert that when any state which infringes any of the rights held to be inviolable by the Libertarian, there is coercion involved. But under Social Contract theory, individuals are not coerced into giving up certain freedoms in exchange for security. To argue that any particular government is coercive, is to argue that there is no real choice involved in the social contract. But it seems to me that if an individual is truly free to reject all job offers but still have a choice with regards to whether or not to work, then an individual also has to be free free to reject all present states and still have a choice with regards to living under coercion or not. After all, any state that allows its residents to freely leave cannot be said to impose itself through force on those very residents. As freedoms are negative rights it follows that no individual has a positive right to a particular form of government. Further, Libertarians allow the giving up of rights through contracts, so long as individuals are free to walk away from the social contract, by permanently leaving the country for example, that government cannot be said to be coercive to the Libertarian any more than an employer who refuses to offer a job to someone who is unemployed and starving to death.

So we must conclude that Libertarian has no ground to brand as coercive any state as unjust except for those states which deny their populace the ability to leave its boundaries. In the Libertarian view, the North Korean would certainly be an unjust regime. A country such as Singapore, where one can be arrested for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, would be a just regime because its citizens are free to reject the social contract by emigrating elsewhere. Someone who wants to be a member of a banned religious movement in Singapore does not have a positive right to do so from the Libertarian perspective but a negative right to do so. That right, the right to join certain religious movements, is a right that is voluntarily given up by the Singaporean and a right that can be taken back by a decision on the part of the individual Singaporean to rescind the social contract by emigrating elsewhere.

Now let's be clear, this judgement that a repressive state can be entirely just seems to me to be absurd. (Libertarianism doesn't lead any room for shades of grey. Either a state infringes on inviolable human rights or it does not.) But notice where the absurdity comes from, the view that particular human rights are negative. The problem is not my application of all human rights being negative rights rather than positive rights but the very assertion that all human rights are negative rights. After all, the Libertarian conclusion about wage labor being truly free is no less absurd. It just is not as obvious because at present, jobs are relatively abundant in the US. There are relatively few people in the US starving to death or even suffering a significant case of malnutrition so we do not see, like we did during the Great Depression, widespread hunger and significant numbers of people dying from starvation. Part of this, undoubtedly, is from government funded relief programs and part of this, undoubtedly, is also due to the superior financial condition of the country. But when push comes to shove, if it can be truly said that workers have a choice about whether to work or not in any nation where their food and shelter is not guaranteed then to be consistent we also have to apply that metric to civil liberties and conclude that any any regime which allows its subjects to leave cannot be unjust.

Libertarians, then, if they hold to their view of all human freedoms being negative rights and accept Social Contract theory, have no basis on which to criticize the US government for being coercive. At best, they can critique the US system on a practical level and say that `the US government would do well to build more freedoms into the law.' And I, for one, would actually agree with that limited statement. But few Libertarians restrict themselves to this more limited critique of the US. Instead, most Libertarians claim that because the US infringes on key individual freedoms that Libertarians hold as inviolable, the US is a coercive regime and, as such, is inherently unjust. In doing so, the Libertarian is inconsistent. For the Libertarian to be consistent, either some theory of politics other than the social contract needs to be adopted or it must be conceded that at least some human rights are positive rights. And as for me, I adopt the latter.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Unchristianness of Libertarianism

The United States of America is, and always has been, a land of contradictions with regards to the marketplace of ideas. The US public is very fond at holding contradictory views of one sort or the other. One good example is the number of Christians, both liberal and conservative, that hold to Libertarianism as a political philosophy without recognition that the core principles of Libertarianism run contrary to the core principles of Christianity. While it may be true that ethical praxis that some Libertarians attach to their philosophy does not directly contradict the ethical praxis of Christianity as epitomized in the Golden Rule, the fact is that Christianity is far more than adherence to the Golden Rule and at a fundamental level, the tenets of Christianity are contradicted by the tenets of Libertarianism. Be this as it may, Christianity certainly has a different role for freedom. Rather than material freedom being an inviolable human right as in Libertarianism, moral freedom alone is a necessary but mitigated good subservient to other goods in Christian anthropology. Further, Libertarianism holds that any state which violates inviolable human rights such as political liberty is inherently unjust. But this tenet of Libertarianism contradicts not only the anthropology of Christianity but also what little political philosophy is explicitly stated in the New Testament.

Libertarianism tends to mean slightly different things to different people. Within the confines of this essay, I will follow Robert Nozick in defining Libertarianism as adherence to four principles but I will also add a fifth. The four principles Nozick applies to Libertarianism are:(1) every human person has an inviolable right to life; (2) Every human person has an inviolable right to freedom; (3) Every human person has an inviolable right to property; (4) Any government that infringes on any of these rights is inherently unjust. The principle I would add is: (5) a state that minimizes infringement on these inviolable human rights is both possible and a goal worth pursuing as it's attainment would be an improvement over any state that regularly violates any of these human rights.

Christianity also means different things to different people. And, in fact, the what it means to be Christian is a far more controversial topic than what it means to be Libertarian. Those who self identify as Christians span a large spectrum of beliefs ranging from the very liberal to the very conservative with regards to deciding the role of Holy Writ in the Christian Experience, exactly which works of the New Testament qualify as Scripture, and what (if anything) outside of the Bible can be considered a valid part of Christianity. For the purposes of this essay, I will only consider forms of Christianity that can trace themselves through history to the apostolic age with an unbroken succession. I will defer the above questions to the traditional answers of those forms of Christianity.

Some who would claim that Libertarianism and Christianity are compatible do so with the claim that there is nothing that is in Libertarianism that contradicts the either the three key commandments of the Gospels (The Golden Rule, The New Commandment to love each other as Christ has He loved his followers, and the exhortation to love God above all else) or the Decalogue. Let's assume that this is the case even though it is arguable that both the Golden Rule and the New Commandment is not compatible with the principles of Libertarianism. But the question remains of whether or not these three key commandments and the Decalogue are the only principles of Christianity. I would argue that Christianity is larger than it's praxis, the exercise of its moral teachings. After all, few would argue that Buddhism and Islam are compatible with Christianity on the basis that the five-fold path and the Five Pillars respectively are compatible with the Golden Rule and the Decalogue. Christianity also includes a distinct anthropology which implies a distinct political philosophy which includes the inherent justice of regimes which violate the human rights accorded by the Libertarian as inviolable.

Freedom, after all, is not the summum bonum of Christianity. Christianity does not even accord freedom as an inviolable right. Rather some freedoms (not all freedoms) are presented as a necessary efficient cause to finding the full and abundant life which Jesus of Nazareth claimed to bring to his followers. A writing attributed by Saint Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, probably mistakenly, to Saint Anthony the Great puts the matter succinctly, ``Regard as free not those whose status makes them outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct.'' [Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Phillip and Ware, Kallistos (tr.), The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by Saint Nikodimis of the Holy Mountan and Saint Makarios of Corinth Volume I. Faber and Faber, London. 1979. p. 332.] The point is that Christianity does not view physical and political freedom as necessary conditions for the human person to attain the fullness of humanity. Rather these sorts of freedoms are akin to physical exercise, of some limited value (I Corinthians 7:21, I Timothy 4:8), but certainly not ends unto themselves and certainly not inviolable rights.

But could not one argue that if Christianity sees some value in freedom that the Libertarian view of maximal human freedom does not contradict this? One could, but then one would be wrong. There are many things compatible with Christianity in limited degree that are contrary to Christianity when sought for their own ends: the sex act, consumption of alcohol, physical exercise. All of these things are good insofar as they serve as means to a virtuous end and not as ends into themselves. For example, the sex act is only good when it serves to unite husband and wife into a unity. To say that the sex act is an inviolable human right and its maximization leads to a human being made more human is to distort its value as part of what it means to be human. The consumption of alcohol is good when used medicinally or to celebrate special events such as the wedding at Cana. But the consumption of alcohol is neither an inviolable right nor something that the Christian should seek to maximize. So too, freedom.

Presented as such, this leads to a rather obvious objection. If material and political freedom are not necessary for an abundant life, does it not follow that Christianity allows use of humans beings as means to some ends (as living tools) rather than treating them as ends unto themselves? To some extent, yes, this conclusion is justified. But let us consider this conclusion in light of the fact that wage labor does the same thing. The capitalist uses workers as means to make a profit. The difference between slavery and wage labor (with respect to using human beings as means to an end rather than treating them as ends unto themselves) is not a difference of kind but a difference in extent. One can argue that the slave has no choice but to work while the wage laborer chooses to work, but this choice is illusory unless the wage laborer either lives in a society where material needs are guaranteed or one views the choice to die of starvation or exposure as a rational choice. It is, in effect, the same choice as the slave has to either work or be beaten or killed.

There is also a fundamental contradiction between the way that Christianity and Libertarianism view the injustice of a state that infringes on life, liberty or property. The Libertarian views such such states as inherently unjust because of this infringement. The classical Christian view does concede that there is a sense in which all governments are unjust but it also goes on to say that government is a just response to a irrational situation. Augustine of Hippo noted that the cosmos consists of a rational order where the higher rules over the lower: rationality rules over irrationality; God rules over man; the intellect rules over the passions. When this natural order is upset, as when man usurps the role of God and rules over other men, it is fair to say that there is a sense in which an injustice occurs. But this injustice is seen as a rational action for an irrational state of being, the fallen nature of mankind. Inasmuch as humanity imperfectly reflects the image and likeness of God, civil government is justified so long as it keeps temporal order. In other words, the Christian could concede that something akin to Libertarianism would be the ideal form of government in an world absent the fall from Paradise but that human nature as it is in the world requires a different sort of government.

While it took until Augustine to fully develop this view, it is also present in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote that civil government exists in order to keep temporal order (Romans 13). Consequently, inasmuch as a government is able to keep civil order, it is justified in the mind of the Christian regardless of whether or not it respects the rights that the Libertarian sees as unjust. What the Libertarian sees as an argument to justify the regime, the Christian can only see as a mistaken argument about what the best regime might consist of. In a way this parallels the difference between classical and modern political philosophy. Most classical philosophy took government as a given and argued about its best form. Most moderns argue that government needs a sound basis in order to be valid. The view presented in the Bible, and held to by most Christians through most of history is the former, that we can argue about the best form of government but that all governments are both inherently unjust in a certain sense but fully justified in another so far as they keep civil order.

This view of course will immediately raise a in the minds of most people. On the one hand, if all governments are inherently unjust in a certain sense, does that mean that we have to hold that Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin had just regimes? As much as it pains me to concede that this question must have an affirmative answer, it does. But is a very qualified affirmative answer. Inasmuch as these regimes did keep civil order, they were just. But it is clear that much of the disorder of the Stalinist and Hitlerian eras was perpetrated by the state. And it must also be said that inasmuch as the state perpetuated civil disorder, they were also unjust. Unlike some qualities, justice is not a binary property. Instead it exists on a spectrum.

The astute reader may also find another objection in the above distinction between arguing for the state's validity and arguing for the best form government given a pre-existent state. We live in a democracy, so is it not possible that a Christian could believe that Libertarianism is the best form of government and pursue democratic channels to make the US a more Libertarian society? This is certainly a possibility and many Christians hold this very belief. But it must be said that, as argued above, the tenets of Libertarianism do contradict key tenets of Christianity. Libertarianism takes a view of liberty that is exaggerated from the point of view of the Christian. Libertarianism also, by not taking into account the fallen nature of humanity, levels the charge of being inherently unjust at regimes that the Christian sees as inherently just. Consequently, the Christian Libertarian is being pulled in two different directions by two different, incompatible systems of belief. As such, the Christian Libertarian exemplifies the American tradition of holding to contradictory beliefs. At least in that sense, Christian Libertarians are true Americans.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Gay Marriage as One of the Many Ends of Modernism and as an Examination of the Tension Between Church and State

In 1776 when the founding fathers of the the United States of America drafted a Declaration of Independence, they inserted a truly revolutionary assertion, ``We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'' Written at a time when modernism was flowering throughout the western world and the order of old Europe was beginning to melt away, it makes explicit a radically transformative idea: that the individual is the irreducible particle of society. Prior to the modern era, the atomic unit of society was considered to be the family or some extension thereof such as the clan or the tribe or, in a few notable cases, some sort of religious grouping such as the Church or the Umma. But in all cases, society was founded on what was thought to be the smallest unit capable of effectively reproducing society. Unlike oak trees where a a single acorn, given enough time and all requisite material needs, can repopulate a forest, human beings need a male and a female to come together in sexual union to reproduce. For this reason, among others, marriage between a man and woman has held a special place in every ancient and medieval society throughout recorded history. In such societies talk about a same-sex union on par with marriage would have been an abusurdity. A gay couple, incapable of sexual reproduction, is unable to reproduce society. But when, as in modernism, the atomic unit is the individual and reproduction is no longer seen as an essential part of what makes society a society, it follows that what makes the relationship between man and woman called marriage unique is no longer an important consideration. Rather than the reproduction of society, what lies at the core is the an individual's life, the freedom of an individual to do as he or she pleases and the ability of an individual to pursue that which makes him or her happy.

In a world where ``nothing new is under the sun'' the emergence of gay marriage as an innovation is nothing short of astounding. While homosexual acts and relationships have certainly been recorded, and even tolerated, by various societies in both the ancient and medieval eras, there is no historical evidence that any society before the modern era accepted the life long commitment between two people of the same sex as moral, legal or economic equivalent to marriage. Admittedly, ancient Greece and Rome did have something of a tradition of pederastry. After all, Parmenides apparently kept Zeno as his paidakai well into Zeno's middle age. It is also true that various cults used homosexual acts as part of their rituals and in some ancient cultures ritual sodomy of the conquered by the conquerors was widespread. But none of these homosexual relationships or acts of homosexual behavior, whether consensual or not, are ever portrayed in the written record as anything approaching the relationship of marriage.

The largest reason for this, I suggest, is the understanding of most societies that reproduction was both vital to its own continuance and an understanding that this continuance was an unequivocal good. Religious prohibitions against homosexual behavior, regardless of context, occur in the Holy Writ of most religions. In some religions, such as Judaism, these prohibitions occur alongside prohibitions against various forms of birth control such as coitus interruptus. The most obvious inference is that reproduction was seen as an essential part of marriage and, in turn, marriage and family was seen as essential to the survival of society. By the Hellenistic era, this view was given the most clear voice by Aristotle. Just as an acorn is required to develop into an oak tree, a family of husband and wife is necessary to develop into society. Just as an oak tree reaches its fullest potential in a forest, humanity reaches it's fullest potential in society. Society, then, is the final end of what begins in the family.

This view, explicitly or implicitly, has driven most of the western world's understanding of marriage up through the modern era. It wasn't until the dawn of the modern era that the family, or one of its various extensions, was replaced by the individual as the irreducible unit of society. In modernism society no longer exists to continue itself, but rather is created by the agreement of various individuals out of self interest in that society will help the individual survive (Hobbes) and live a more pleasant life (Locke). No longer is society a necessity for the development of the human person. Rather society is contingent choice made by individuals. Once society becomes an option rather than a necessity, the sort of relationship that reproduces becomes an option rather than a necessity; the type of union of between man and woman that ends in reproduction becomes optional.

We see this change not just in regards to the way marriage is viewed with regards to gay people, but also with regards to the way that marriage between members of the opposite sex are viewed. Procreation within marriage has become a question of preference rather than being seen as a essential part of what it means to be married. Marriage itself becomes an option to the adult member of society rather than an expectation for most members of society. Marriages have become easier to dissolve and the expectation that people will remain married long enough to raise children to adulthood has dissolved. No longer having the meaning that it once did, marriage becomes something new, a commitment arrived at entirely for reasons of romantic love, which has as its basis the idea of society as a collection of individuals rather than a unity of human nature. Once one has accepted the modern understanding of society, gay marriage will eventually follow as there is no basis within the modern understanding of society itself by which one can reject the idea of two people of the same sex marrying each other. Any opposition must come from an older (or different) understanding of society, one that does not accept the individual as the atomic unity of society.

In the US, the most widespread view of the family rather than the individual as the atomic unit of society is that offered by Christianity. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of religion that most forms of Christianity firmly resist the implications of atomic individualism such as gay marriage. Aside from the language in the letter of Saint Paul to the Romans that echos the language of natural law used by Aristotle, Christianity's anthropology is rooted in the idea of the completion of the human person in the unity of male and female as a symbol of the way that Christ and the Church will be united on the last day. If anything is surprising about the relationship between Christianity and gay marriage, it is the increasing number of Christian denominations that have embraced the practice. These Christian sects that have embraced the idea of marriage between two people of the same sex, it would seem, have embraced the idea of human liberty being the highest human good.

But that Christianity, with some exceptions, has an anthropology fundamentally opposed to accepting any relationship between two people of the same sex as fundamentally equivalent to marriage says nothing about the how Christians should view the acceptance of such relationships by the state. Unlike some religions, the most ancient, and most ingrained, political philosophy espoused by Christianity, to render unto God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, implies that Church and State are two very separate entities. There is no clear and indisputable imperative within Christianity to form the state into the likeness of the Church. When Christianity first became an official state religion in the late Roman era, it was only because the Roman empire had first become Christian. And even then, it was not until much later that Christian norms began to become the law of the land. Speaking of this dichotomous early Christian political philosophy, Remi Brague wrote, ``the cities of God and the cities of the devil are two sorts of comportment, not two political entities; the city of men is to be guided by moral rules, at times inscribed in the law, but their organization does not derive from a religious law.'' [Brague, Remi. The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea. Trans. Cochrane, Lydia. The University of Chicago Press. 2007. p. 37.] While conflating the `cities of men' with the `cities of the devil' probably errs in being too Augustinian, Brague's central point that Church and State were not only considered to be two separate entities, but were considered to be two separate kinds of entities cannot be overstated.

This analysis gives rise to a question of no small importance. What relevance does the way that the state runs its affairs have to Christianity? Rather than offering this as a rhetorical question with an implied answer of `nothing (or `everything) as various groups would have, I think it important to notice that neither the Christian scriptures nor the oldest traditions of Christianity directly address this question. Rather than being a question with an obvious, unequivocal answer, it is a question fraught with nuance and shades of gray. Further, even if the question is answered with some sort of affirmative, it then leads to the inverse question. What relevance does the opinion of Christianity have to the state in a liberal democracy like the US? While the answer to this question is probably not as clear cut as many secularists would like, it is certainly more clear cut than the former question. As discussed above, regardless of what Christians may think, the moral and political liberalism that underlies the US constitution ends with no sound reason by which gay marriage can be rejected as illicit. To deprive same-sex couples of seeking out marriage would be to deny them the pursuit of happiness on their own terms.

Monday, April 28, 2008

America, the Frightened Fortress

Fortress America, one of the safest places on the globe with respect to external military threat, is presently embarked on a foreign policy overtly based on the notion that its very existence is imperiled by foreign enemies. Whether because the political leaders of the US truly believe that grave, existential threats imperil the nation or whether this is merely an appeal to those Americans who believe they are persecuted, one cannot deny that large segments of the US do feel threatened even though decades have passed since the US has faced any foreign enemy capable of inflicting serious harm by force of arms. Rather, the most serious threats to the safety of US come from within from homegrown terrorist and radical groups and a policy of exporting American soldiers to other countries where they make easy targets for those few groups that do want to kill Americans. The solution is difficult, if not impracticable. When a large segment of the population that makes decisions based on fear in a nation whose leaders are freely elected public officials, the only tenable solution is to offer a stronger, more powerful narrative in the marketplace of ideas.

This feeling, that of being insecure, that affects so many US citizens is somewhat baffling to me. Unlike other countries, like Israel, the US is bordered by friendly nations, counts most (if not all) of the most powerful countries in the world as its military allies, and has a military apparatus capable of reducing any other nation on earth to rubble. So I find it exceedingly odd to see sentiments expressed by American politicians, preachers, pundits, and citizens that could have come from the lips of an Israeli. In a recent interview with Israeli Novelist Jeffrey Grossman in The Atlantic, Grossman gave voice to part of Israel's existential dilemma, ``Our army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss'' [Goldberg, Jeffrey. Unforgiven. The Atlantic Monthly. May, 2008. Vol. 30. Nbr. 4. pp32-51. p.37]. In a country where only half of the bordering nations recognize their right to exist in a region where the popular sentiment seems to be remove Israel from the map, such a statement is made in the context of a very real threat. Yet, this statement could easily have been made by an American. Despite the fact that there is presently no country in the world that poses a serious military threat to the US and despite the fact that the US possesses the atom bomb and a delivery system capable of delivering it anywhere on the planet, large numbers of US citizens live their lives in the fear that an attack by foreign enemies is imminent.

But in reality, the largest threat by violence faced by Americans is other Americans. In the FBI 2002/2005 report on terrorism states that from 2002 to 2005, the overwhelming majority of terrorist incidents were perpetuated by domestic rather than foreign terrorists. It is not those outside our borders that threaten us but those inside our borders.

Twenty three of the 24 recorded terrorist incidents were perpetrated by domestic terrorists. With the exception of a white supremacist’s firebombing of a synagogue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, all of the domestic terrorist incidents were committed by special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements. The acts committed by these extremists typically targeted materials and facilities rather than persons. The sole international terrorist incident in the United States recorded for this period involved an attack at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, which claimed the lives of two victims. [FBI. Terrorism 2002/2005.]
Yet it is events of 9/11 and a handful of terrorist plots attributed to individuals allegedly associated with al-Quaeda that stands out in the minds of many Americans who somehow forget the long history of terrorism committed by Americans on their own: Eric Rudolf's bombing of the Olympics, Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murray Federal building in Oklahoma City, Theodore Kaczynski's mail bombings, the as yet uncaught culprit behind the Anthrax mailings in 2001.

Yet, 9/11 looms in political discourse in the US in a way that these domestic threats do not. A large part of this is undoubtedly the sheer magnitude of death that resulted from this heinous crime and the shock of removing a sizable landmark from the New York City skyline. But that the victims of Osama bin Laden's plot to fly airplanes into skyscrapers exceeded Timothy McVeigh's plot to build a truck bomb by an order of magnitude has more to do with the McVeigh's relative lack of access to funds and people willing to take part in a suicide attack. Were McVeigh a billionaire like Osama bin Laden, it is not unforeseeable that he could have constructed a plot as large and as damaging as 9/11. Further, 9/11 was a rather exceptional even that will not repeated in our lifetimes. Now that US citizens understand what could result from a plane being hijacked, never again will airline passengers allow a few men armed with razor blades to take over a plane. What is more important to focus on is that, despite his stated intent and the fact that he remains at large with apparent freedom of movement through the mountains that divide Afghanistan from Pakistan, Osama bin Laden has been either unable or unwilling to organize another attack on American soil since 2001 while various domestic groups have launched dozens.

Part of the view that US is under continued threat undoubtedly comes from the American experience. In large part the US was settled by those who fled religious and political persecutions. It is fair to say that the American experience, and the American religious experience, has been formed among other factors by the traditions of those who were killed for who they were and what they believed. From those who were raised in the Anabaptist tradition, persecuted in Europe both by other Protestants and by Roman Catholics, to the Puritans and Roman Catholics, quite a few of the original 13 colonies were settled by those fleeing persecution. Even though American style Christianity is now the dominant form of religion in the country and our very constitution warrants freedom of conscience, large numbers of Christians in the US believe that they are a persecuted minority and it is precisely these Americans who make up the largest group of those most likely to express fear of foreign attack and be willing ``to fight them over there so that we do not have to fight them here.'' Clearly, not all Christians in the US are maintain this belief. But many do and those that do seem to be controlling most of the discourse over war and terrorism in the US in this post 9/11 world.

This view is fundamentally paradoxical. On the one hand, it tends to lead to a Hobbesian style of political theory where the government is given the power to tread over virtually every other right in the name of security. But on the other hand, it sets up an inherent distrust of that very government which wants to take away the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Part of the dilemma can be seen in some of the very groups resorting to force of arms to act out their ideology: white supremacists and Christian extremists are both groups that argue that the US has very real foreign enemies capable of doing very real harm to the US and yet they are the ones attacking their fellow citizens, or even their own government. By promoting the message of fear, these groups are feeding the authoritarian trend in US politics that will lead to the very thing that these groups fear.

Worse, this situation is presently being exacerbated by politicians that appeal to fear. A good example is Hillary Clinton's `3 AM' television ad that tries to lock the viewer into thinking that his or her sleeping children are under immanent and immediate hostile threat. Ads like this serve only to reinforce the fear that is already far too widespread in US culture. We watch talking heads on the television explain how dire the current threats to the US are. We hear the radio addresses of the Bush '43 administration that talks about how the war on terror is a threat to our very existence. We hear justice department officials and members of the US Congress argue that it is necessary that we lay down our right to privacy so that the government can protect us from immediate danger. We hear these messages for one reason alone, regardless of whether the politicians in question believe it is the truth, it works. When people are scared, or even only subconsciously nervous, they turn to those who make them feel safe. An incumbent politician is easily able to position his or herself as the protector in a time of grave peril and create an astonishingly powerful image in the minds of voters. A challenger who is rejoining that it just is not true, that the danger just is not as grave as the incumbent portrays it, even if correct, is unable to compete with the powerful image of the would be protector. And in a society where ideas are formed freely in the marketplace, the power of an image is sometimes far more important than whether or not that image is accurate.

On the Science Progress blog, admittedly in a very different context, Chris Mooney made the very same point regarding the persuasive power of the narrative and images in the marketplace of ideas.

From Michael Crichton’s State of Fear to Stein’s Expelled, there is nothing to prevent the most awful, misleading drivel from reaching and influencing mass audiences. There are no standards. There is no filter. And the truth is not just automatically going to win in the competition of ideas when the playing field tilts against it. [Mooney, Chris. Hearts and Minds. Science Progress. Accessed April 27, 2008.]
The key observation Mooney makes is that ``the truth is not just automatically going to win in the competition of ideas.'' Various ideas bounce around in the heads of the American public and the ones that are true are not necessarily going to win simply because they are true. Rather, the ideas that win will do so because they are powerful images that tell a compelling narrative.

So, in the end, our best hope is for a generation of politicians, pundits, preachers and journalists capable of telling the American story from a position of strength rather than from a position of fear. Those who would use the rhetoric of America being under siege need to be crowded out of the marketplace of ideas by a powerful narrative of a strong US which at present has no enemies capable doing it serious military harm. With strong allies along our northern and southern borders and oceans to the east and to the west, those few countries and organizations that do want to do the US harm face a large logistical problem of even getting to the US, let alone doing serious harm when they get here. We have no real reason to fear for our very existence. And while the future is always uncertain and we may someday once again face a military foe who does threaten our way of life as Americans, for the present, in the words of Walt Kelly, `we have met the enemy and he is us.'