Friday, February 25, 2011

What's Wrong with Liberalism?

“What’s Wrong with Conservatism?” was the title of my previous blog posting. As promised, here is a look at the other side.

As many of you know, last year I published a book under the title The Limits of Liberalism (LoL). While LoL is primarily about theological liberalism rather than social or political liberalism, which is my main concern in this posting, there are definite overlaps.
In short, in whatever context they are being considered, liberals tend to have too high an opinion of human nature and are thereby are often “guilty” of pride and misplaced optimism. In the political sphere, those attitudes lead, among other things, to an over-emphasis on the role of government to solve the problems in human society.
One of the more important quotes in LoL is found under the title of the eighth chapter, “The Limits of Liberalism’s Understanding of Sin.” Chris Hedges, a former journalist for the New York Times, writes in his book now titled When Atheism Becomes Religion (2009), “We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin” (p. 13).
(Hedges, pictured on the right, is the author of several books, the latest being Death of the Liberal Class, 2010, a hard hitting book which I have not read much of yet, and I have questions about what I have read.)
Liberals talk a lot about social problems, and may even talk about “social sin,” but they tend to think that with enough human effort those societal sins can be overcome. And make no mistake about it: there have been many social ills that have been largely overcome by the work of those who can rightfully be called liberals. Slavery has been abolished as has such evils as child labor and the exploitation of adult workers, as well as the male dominance of women to a large degree. But can government create an ideal society?
As I write in LoL, “Back in the 1960s, one of my revered seminary professors made what I thought were rather snide remarks about President Johnson’s attempts to create a ‘great society’ in the United States” (p. 208). Dr. Rust saw Johnson’s liberal policies as evidence of hubris, which the dictionary defines as “overbearing pride or presumption,” and he may well have been right.
Liberals tend to see education and the creation of a positive social environment as cures for the ills of society. Moreover, according to social and political liberals it is the role of government to provide that education and to create that desired social environment. And, again, make no mistake about it: education and eradicating negative social conditions are very important.
But problems remain. I also remember Dr. Rust emphasizing that if you educate a sinner what you get is an educated sinner who will then be able to sin more ingeniously. And he was probably right. Doesn’t it seem as though the greatest “sins” of our times have been committed by well-educated, well-heeled, and well-placed people of power?
Partly because of their overly optimistic view of human nature, liberals tend to place too much emphasis on legislation and government spending to solve social problems and to bring about desired social change. They often fail to place adequate stress upon personal responsibility.
So perhaps the main thing wrong with liberalism is, indeed, its failure to recognize the problem of sin, which among other things means innate self-centeredness, and which is the major root of personal and public problems which no government program can eradicate.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What’s Wrong with Conservatism?

Recently I received an e-mail from a woman asking me to explain “what the qualifications are that label a person a ‘Right Wing Conservative.’”
In my response I said that I do not have any different understanding of “right wing” or “conservative” than from what can be found in any standard dictionary. But I went on to share the self-description given by the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Here is what they say on their website:
Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institution—a think tank—whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
Most of that sounds quite good, doesn't it? Certainly there is a lot that we want and need to conserve. So what’s wrong with conservatism? Or why would I criticize those who claim to be conservatives?
One online dictionary gives this as the first definition of conservative: “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” So think about it. Conservatives generally want to preserve existing conditions and to limit change—unless it means going back to things as they used to be.
But consider some conservative positions from the past, positions which were (or are) all on “the wrong side of history.” (And I am not implying that these are, or would have been, positions supported by the Heritage Foundation, except for the last example given.)
It was the conservatives (the loyalists) who supported King George III of England rather than seek independence for the Colonies in the 1770s.
It was the conservatives who wanted to maintain slavery in this country in the 1860s (and in the decades before).
It was the conservatives who wanted to keep women from having the right to vote in the 1910s (and in the preceding decades).
In the twentieth century, it was the conservatives who opposed Social Security and then Medicare and Medicaid for the elderly and the needy.
In 2010 it was the conservatives who opposed universal health care so that at least most of the 50,000,000 Americans who did not have health care insurance would be able to have it.
Conservatives have wanted to conserve much that is good, and for that I commend them. But conservatives have also opposed much that is good, and that is why I criticize them.
So what is a “right-wing” conservative? On the Heritage Foundation website, they make this appeal for new members (and for funding): “Become a Member: Donate to Heritage – Join Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and more than 710,000 conservatives in fighting liberals and advancing conservative principles as a Heritage Foundation member.”
From this I think it can be said that right-wing conservatives are people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity who see their mission as “fighting liberals.” And much of the rhetoric of those and other right-wing talk-radio hosts, as well as of many who extol them, seems repulsive to those of us who long for a civil society.
Note: I plan to post “What’s Wrong with Liberalism?” next.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Pacifism of "Hannah's Child"

Stanley Hauerwas is a most colorful person, and last month I had the joy of seeing him again and of chatting some with him. I also purchased his latest book, which he graciously autographed. The book is Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010), the title coming from the fact that Hauerwas was born after his mother prayed a prayer similar to that of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in the Old Testament. That fact also significantly shaped his life.

In 2001, Time magazine pronounced Hauerwas (b. 1940) the “best theologian in America.” Upon hearing that news, Hauerwas quipped, “‘Best’ is not a theological category.” (One of my Thinking Friends reminded me of that after I posted my list of “top ten” Christians, and I replied that Hauerwas was probably right.) 
Hauerwas is a theologian, but even more he is a Christian ethicist. Since 1984 he has taught theological ethics at Duke University. He is also the author of numerous books, mostly in the field of Christian ethics. One of his most significant books is The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (1983).

Last fall, esteemed blogger Bill Tammeus posted “Pondering Pacifism Today” on his weblog. (As many of you in the Kansas City area know, Tammeus is the former Faith columnist for the Kansas City Star and now writes a daily (!) blog called “Faith Matters.”) In his Nov. 11 posting, he makes reference to Hannah’s Child and to having heard Hauerwas speak in Kansas City last year.
After stating that “Hauerwas identifies himself as a pacifist,” which he has clearly done for a long time now, Tammeus then writes, “I wanted Hauerwas in his memoir to explain clearly why he’s chosen pacifism. He doesn’t. And I contend that it’s not painfully obvious why those of us who are followers of the Prince of Peace should automatically adopt pacifism as our position.”
It is true that Hauerwas doesn’t explain much about why he is a pacifist in Hannah’s Child. But he does state clearly, “I am a pacifist because John Howard Yoder convinced me that nonviolence and Christianity are inseparable” (p. 60). Then later he writes, “Yoder forced me to recognize that nonviolence is not a recommendation, an ideal, that Jesus suggested we might try to live up to. Rather, nonviolence is constitutive of God’s refusal to redeem coercively” (p. 118).

John Howard Yoder (1927-97) was an outstanding Mennonite theologian, the author of The Politics of Jesus (1972), and widely known as a radical Christian pacifist. He is also known for being a mentor of Stanley Hauerwas. They were faculty members at the same time at Notre Dame before Hauerwas moved to Duke.

Yoder’s pacifism, which was so influential on Hauerwas, is set forth, among other places, in The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (2009), edited by Glen Harold Stassen and two others. That was the book Yoder was working on when he suddenly passed away the day after his 70th birthday. Stassen, a friend whom I also chatted with at the Society of Christian Ethics meeting in New Orleans last month, wrote the introduction, which is subtitled “John H. Yoder’s Christological Peacemaking Ethic.”
You might not be convinced to be a pacifist if you study Yoder’s writings. But Hauerwas became a pacifist largely because of Yoder’s influence. So I recommend that Mr. Tammeus and others who have similar doubts about Christian pacifism read Yoder’s work. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What about Global Warming?

While dealing with controversial matters, such as gun control last time, here is another subject worth considering: what should we think, and do, about global warming?
The other night I listened again to the Mark Levin Show on my way home from Kansas City. Among other things, Levin (b. 1957) made fun of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for having to close early and open late recently after a heavy snowfall in Washington, D.C.
The EPA, as you know, is the government agency that deals with various environmental matters, including climate change. But Levin was positive that the recent D.C. snowstorm was a clear indication that there’s no such thing as global warming. He charged that the endeavor to reduce greenhouse gases and other environment-friendly activities are just part of “the leftist agenda,” which is pursued regardless of what we are experiencing.
Levin even went so far as to say he was forming a group called Americans for Carbon Dioxide. Why? "If we can warm up the world some," he said, “it’ll reduce our use of fossil fuels” and also it will help those who are “suffering through the snowiest January in history” (which seems to have been the case for New York).
More recently, there has been a huge snow storm/blizzard move across the nation. So many people, no doubt, think this is a strange time to talk about global warming. But that is not necessarily so.
According to the National Climatic Data Center, “the 2010 Northern Hemisphere combined global land and ocean surface temperature was the warmest year on record.” And according to the National Geographic website, “Scientists now believe that most of the planet’s warming in the last few decades has been due to our emissions of greenhouse gases [mainly carbon dioxide].” 
(The National Geographic Society is one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions in the world. It was founded in 1888 and now has about 8.5 million members. Its motto is “Inspiring people to care about the planet.” I have long liked the National Geographic magazine, and now I am particularly interested in the work done at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., as my oldest granddaughter is a fulltime employee there.)
I don’t know about you, but I am more inclined to believe what I hear from the EPA, National Geographic Society, and the World Health Organization (WHO) than from a ranting talk-radio host such as Mr. Levin.
But why bring up this topic of global warming? Why is it so important? Here is just one very important reason: the WHO says, “The global warming that has occurred since the 1970s was causing over 140,000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004.” At this point, most of those deaths are in the poorer countries of the world, but should be not be concerned about them?
People like Mark Levin may make fun of the problem and say it is just part of the “liberal agenda” and so is of no concern. But global warming is not only a political issue. It is a human issue, a matter of life and death. And it will, unfortunately, likely become more and more of a life and death issue in the years ahead.