Would Jesus Support Asset Sales?

The role of the Almighty in political debate

by Gordon Campbell

Americans have a tendency to cast their politics in religious terms, far more readily than we do. The world for instance, now knows quite a lot about US President Barack Obama’s rationale for recently throwing his weight in support of gay marriage. Sure, Obama cited conversations he’d had with U.S. troops, his family and his staff but basically, the Bible made him do it. In particular, Obama cited Matthew 7:12, and the Golden Rule passage about treating others in the same way you’d want to be treated. As the Washington Post noted, this wasn’t the first time that Obama has used his Protestant heritage to justify his political agenda :

In his address at the National Prayer Breakfast this year, he credited his faith for inspiring policies as diverse as funding for medical research and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. “Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper [and] caring for the poor and those in need,” Obama said, are values “that have defined my own faith journey.”

Right. This readiness of Americans to sprinkle religious pixie dust on their political decisions is nothing new. All part of their sense that the United States operates under a divine plan intent on promoting its ultimate wellbeing. This year, the Republican nominee for the Presidency belongs to a sect that actually believes Jesus Christ appeared on US soil, shortly after the Resurrection. True to form, the opponents of gay marriage have also framed their response to Obama in terms of God’s alleged preferences on the matter. North Carolina for instance has just passed a [state] constitutional amendment outlawing the practice, which a local lobby group described in these terms :

“We are not anti-gay, we are pro-marriage,” said Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of the group. “And the point—the whole point—is simply that you don’t rewrite the nature of God’s design for marriage based on the demands of a group of adults.”

No debate is possible : God says so, that’s why. While invoking the Bible has more commonly been a trait of conservative politicians – who seem remarkably confident that God disapproves of high taxation, Big Government and socialised healthcare – the American left has also started to cite the Bible not only to denounce income inequality and the lack of adequate housing/healthcare for the poor, but in support of environmental action and funding for inner city schools.
The Washington Post has traced the evolution of this trend :

There was a time not long ago when the discussion of religion in politics centered on liberal causes — think of the civil rights movement, or opposition to the war in Vietnam. When the religious right exploded onto the political scene in the late 1970s, however, many Democrats concluded that the introduction of religion into political discussion was a conservative act.

As they shied away from religious references, that assumption became self-fulfilling. By 2004, the meaning of words such as “morality” and “Christianity” had become so one-sided that exit polls for that year’s presidential election used the phrase “moral values” as shorthand for a circumscribed category of conservative concerns such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage….

Not any more. God is back, and He’s trending liberal at least part of the time:

….They began to remind voters — and one another — that issues such as education, health care and protecting the environment reflected strongly held values as well. In 2006, Democrats won back control of Congress with the help of a new cast of candidates who spoke easily about their faith and beliefs.

No group was more galvanized than Catholic Democrats, who were tired of Catholic leaders telling them they were bad Catholics or dis-inviting them from events at Catholic institutions. A group of young Catholic activists formed an organization called Catholics United, in part to hold politicians accountable on the issues they saw Catholic leaders largely ignoring. In 2007, they ran ads on Christian radio in the districts of members of Congress who opposed abortion and voted against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. “He says he’s pro-life, but for the second time in a month he’s voted against health-care for kids,” said the ad’s female narrator. “That’s not pro-life.”

In New Zealand of course. we tend to be more humble about this sort of thing. We claim this is God’s Own Country, but don’t tend to think that looking after New Zealand is a 24/7 job for the Almighty. Nor, in our political debates do we tend to overtly frame the issues in terms of religious ethics and do our best to avoid divisive conflicts over abortion and contraception altogether while shunting problematic questions (eg alcohol reform) into the parliamentary arena of individual conscience votes whenever we can. When it comes to the religious fundamentalism found in the UIs and parts of Australia, New Zealand seems to got off rather lightly.

Overall that’s been a big advantage, but it does have a few drawbacks. Shorn of their moral dimension, policies tend to be analysed in terms of their marketability, more than in terms of who gains from particular policies, and who bears the brunt. Not that the Bible would be much help, anyway, since the moral precepts of the Christian tradition tend to be notoriously elastic on the economy. The younger Christ who tried to throw the money-changers out of the temple for instance, grew up to say that the poor will always be with us, and offering plenty of opportunities for virtuous solicitude.

And all very well to talk about rendering to Caesar what is rightfully Caesar’s, and to God what’s rightfully His but – apart from clearly indicating that taxation is not theft – that saying really begs the question as to who should rightfully get what. More recently, God’s current chief executive on Earth – aka Pope Benedict XVI, seemed to be a bit more forthright about that. In fact, he appeared to be to be denouncing the evils of the free market in his 2010 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. But read the relevant paragraph from the encyclical closely. Is he, really?

36. Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.

The Church has always held that economic action is not to be regarded as something opposed to society. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so. It must be remembered that the market does not exist in the pure state. It is shaped by the cultural configurations which define it and give it direction. Economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. Instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful ones. But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.

In other words, the Pope is making a “guns don’t kill people, people do” kind of argument. The left will focus on Benedict’s interesting phrase “justice through re-distribution” but the rest of the passage steadily pedals way from the implications. Evidently realising that a straightforward endorsement of wealth re-distribution might sound a bit too …socialist, the Pope was at pains to argue that the free market is only a tool, and it all depends on ‘individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility” whether things get out of hand. Unfortunately, the Pope didn’t say much more about how to achieve his theoretically benign form of the free market economy while avoiding the usual version, which isn’t very benign at all.

Talk about slippery. Obama is just the same. He may have signalled that he now believes access to gay marriage is a moral right but then said – almost in the next breath – that it shouldn’t be a right that the federal government defends, but one that is best left to the states to (a) acknowledge and (b) protect. Yet in North Carolina and many other parts of the Union, the states are plainly not inclined to do that. Because God says so, that’s why.

God and the US Constitution have fallen out before, of course. Notably over Supreme Court interpretations of constitutional rights on schools integration (in 1954) and on abortion (Roe vs Wade, 1973). In both cases, God – as embodied by the conservative political positions of the day – was forced to backtrack, and give ground to different views on secular rights that arguably, also offered a more spiritually nuanced position. On the question of gay rights, there are solid grounds for claiming sexual orientation to be a condition (akin to race and gender) that is immutable, and thus protected from discrimination by the US Constitution. God and states’ rights can only get you so far, as Dahlia Lithwick recently pointed out :

.State power has important constitutional limitations. The Supreme Court recognized, in its landmark 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia that the “right to marry is of fundamental importance for all individuals” and “one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness.” After Loving, marriage is deemed a “fundamental freedom” protected by the Constitution, and states cannot deny an individual of this basic right without an exceedingly good reason. If it’s not a good enough reason for a state to prohibit someone from getting married because he committed a crime or failed to pay child support, then it’s clearly not enough that he happens to be gay.

The wider point remains : since religion has tended to be invoked primarily by conservatives, this has fed the assumption that the only truly “moral’ positions on contentious issues are those taken by conservatives. More often, this has merely provided bigotry with a moral gravitas that it doesn’t deserve, while enabling the religious Establishment to virtually limit their public commentary to the allegedly “ moral” issues like contraception and abortion – while all but ignoring the morality manifested in the structure of the economy.

On the economy, the lack of a competing moral dimension has meant that the state of the economy has tended to be treated as an end in itself. Economic ‘efficiency’ has become a fetish, and balancing the budget treated as an imperative, independent of its possible social purpose. A form of economic determinism (expressed in the language of There Is No Alternative) has done its best to remove any sense of moral agency from the spending options that government is actually choosing to pursue.

In that respect, the language of Parliament may soon change. If the MMP threshold is lowered in the wake of the current MMP review, we could well be seeing Colin Craig’s Conservative Party in Parliament, after 2014. For marketing reasons, Craig is trying his best to claim that his party isn’t a religious party, even though it contains more than a few remnants of Peter Dunne’s ill-fated flirtation with the religious fringe in 2002. With Craig and Co in Parliament, we will have to learn to cope with more of the US language of sanctified politics. It shouldn’t be all that much of a stretch. After all, the Act Party has already brought in the fruitcake ideas from the secular American right into our Parliament, so it seems hardly surprising if the Conservatives didn’t bring in the evangelical wing of the same movement.

In any case, conservative parties have always talked about the moral habits of the poor –ie welfare as an alleged “lifestyle choice” – while leaving the moral habits of the wealthy and the implications of corporate welfare well alone. (What good has accrued to society from the last round of tax cuts?) Asset sales, we are told, will provide opportunities to investors beyond those that currently exist on the stock market. In moral terms, does meeting this need for variety among stock market speculators really outweigh the options of (a) retaining the assets and related dividends in order to pursue “justice through re-distribution” or (b) using all the dividends to reduce debt in the longer term or (c) retiring the debt burden via higher taxes?

One thing will be a bit novel about all this. Moral stances on political issues – like wisdom about the economy – should no longer be seen in future, as the almost exclusive province of conservative politicians.