The People Vs The Prophets:
What The Presidential Election Told Our Money
Culture About Evangelical Christianity
"Jesus and Paul spent no energy on trying to clean up the Roman Empire, despite their terrible practices of abandoning infants, pederasty, and gladiator games. Indeed, the people Jesus denounced most harshly, the Pharisees, were some of the most moral people on earth. He did not give us the challenge of imposing our morality on others, but rather of spreading a far more radical message, that God loves sinners. Politics is based on power, and power always causes divisions [while it corrupts what it touches]. It is very difficult indeed to get across a message of love and power at the same time...Sometimes I feel like a liberal among conservatives and sometimes like a conservative among liberals. I have conservative theology--I believe the Bible--but that leads me to 'progressive' opinions about politics, because the Bible has much to say about justice and helping the poor."
Evangelical author Philip Yancey
I was recently invited to submit a white paper for an upcoming symposium of evangelical stewardship leaders. I considered the monumental moral and spiritual challenges we face in helping our political-economy more closely reflect the biblical and traditional values of our faith. I decided to write that we can't really lead our nation in that direction if we're following politicians. I had no more submitted the paper than a full page ad in The Wall Street Journal told me I had chosen a very timely subject. The ad was placed by no less than the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
It featured a large picture of Rev. Graham, who I have greatly admired for at least fifty of my sixty-two years on earth. I can think of very, very few people who have stewarded their time, talent and treasure as faithfully as Rev. Graham. Yet I had to wonder if the ad, which I understand is to appear in several other papers, was the best possible use of the donations of Christians. As I told friends who work in the Graham's ministries, the ad was so blatantly partisan I couldn't imagine it being the idea of Rev. Graham. Yet the Journal contained another article on October 19th that said Rev. Graham and Franklin had met with Governor Romney the previous Friday and Rev. Graham "all but offered his endorsement."
He apparently did even more. The Journal also reported the ministry's website deleted a long-running commentary about Governor Romney's Mormonism being a religious cult. I've often noted the possibly cult-like, and definitely herd-like tendencies, of evangelicalism, particularly when it comes to political economics. So I'm glad we're finally being more graceful toward others. But the church might have more credibility if such decisions are made on theological grounds rather than political grounds. A key biblical value is that Truth is Truth, whether Pilate gets it or not. Truth is rarely as dependable when spoken by politicians. We should be quite hesitant to tie our faith to such.
For example, the Journal's October 12th issue said: "Mitt Romney would likely have raised eyebrows, if not protest, had he said during the Republican primaries that 'no legislation with regard to abortion' would be part of his agenda, that federal regulation is 'essential' or that young illegal immigrants should be able to keep work permits issued by President Barack Obama. But conservative leaders and activists, some of whom have worried about the firmness of Mr. Romney's commitment to their causes earlier this year, say they are unconcerned about those and other recent comments that have brought a more centrist cast to the Republican presidential nominee." Even conservative Christian political strategist Ralph Reed was quoted by the October 9th issue of the Journal as observing: "It will be ironic if the first ticket in history without a Protestant got the biggest share of the evangelical vote in history."
I've long described the ironies in evangelical thinking about political economy. Still, the ad dumbfounded even me. Rev. Graham famously misjudged President Nixon. We might remember that Senator George McGovern, who had studied theology, had been a war hero before denouncing the Vietnam War as immoral. Perhaps reflecting the people's vote for Baal at the foot of Sinai and vote for Barabbas before Pilate, McGovern lost in a landslide to Nixon. Despite Nixon's popularity with the people, which the Gospels remind usually includes a few Pharisees, who the Gospels say "loved money," history will long remember Nixon as one of the more immoral men who occupied the White House. So I've long believed that Rev. Graham, who no one will ever accuse of loving money, even if many evangelical televangelists do, was very wise since Nixon's demise to carefully explain that he might be conservative and a Christian but was not a member of the religious right. Still, Journal surveys often remind our money culture that evangelicals are far more "enthusiastic" about politics than any American voting bloc. .
Paradoxically, I believe it has been Dr. Graham's willingness to transcend politics that has given him such influence with politicians. That parallels my belief that the religious right--which does not include many evangelicals like Yancey, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo and myself--loses considerable political power as conservative politicians can take it for granted. Yes, the religious right greatly influences primaries and local elections. But as indicated by Governor Romney's late move to the center, which is probably his natural home, swing voters who transcend highly partisan positions hold the cards in presidential elections, and therefore in nominating Supreme Court justices, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and so on. The other irony is therefore that the religious right's partisanship, which will likely only be reinforced by Rev. Graham's ad, is likely the primary reason presidential candidates give little more than lip service to social issues. Perhaps you noticed that during speeches and ads to those beyond the religious right, Governor Romney virtually never mentioned abortion and same sex marriage.
Virtually everything was about economics, and growing the economy in particular. When 60 Minutes asked the governor if it was "fair" that he paid a lower tax rate on his twenty million dollar income than the typical American pays, he obliquely replied it is the best way to grow the economy. Yet Jesus pointedly asked "What will it profit you if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?" Rev. Graham's ad did not mention that key biblical value. The ad was very emotional in saying Rev. Graham is approaching his ninety-fourth birthday and this might be his last election. It added: "I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a women. Vote for biblical values this November 6."
I've now asked several ministers across the theological spectrum where the Bible teaches about abortion or same sex marriage and no one can tell me. The ad did not cite its sources either. That's fairly standard fare within evangelical Christianity. Christianity Today has published an article about the Bible being "The Greatest Story Never Read." Peter Wehner, head of public policy at Empower America when I served on its board, has written about our majoring in cultural minors while neglecting what the Bible put in bright neon lights, much of which is about the dangers of riches. They should make religious leaders quite wary of endorsing a mega-wealthy CEO of a Wall Street private equity firm. They should make us even more wary of a running mate who said he entered public service because of atheistic philosopher Ayn Rand, whose fondest hope was for capitalism to replace Christianity as America's religion.
The Bible is quite clear that God didn't think much of a king as the people would him over God (1 S 8:18-20). It also cautions us against putting our trust in any human leader, presumably of either political party, as no human can save us (Ps 146:3). Yet when the people insisted on a king, God lovingly told us that king should not be rich or he would feel better than the people and grow out of touch, a very common complaint about Washington elites (Dt 17:14-17). That is likely a major reason the prophet Samuel preferred the shepherd boy David to Saul, who the people preferred. Solomon went on to tell us that we'll muddle through if when the king is concerned with justice rather than money (Pr 29:4). He also warned that we will be punished if we're in a hurry to grow rich (Pr 28:20).
Few conservative ministers apparently still understand it but revered corporate management consultant Peter Drucker, who once taught theology, once wrote these words. They would have made Rev. Graham's ad far more enriching for Journal readers, not to mention voters and biblical values: "I believe it is socially and morally unforgiveable when managers reap huge profits for themselves but fire workers. As societies, we will pay a heavy price for the contempt this generates among middle managers and workers. In short, whole dimensions of what it means to be a human being and treated as one are not incorporated into the economic calculus of capitalism." The prophet Isaiah cautioned us about such realities regarding some clergy and theologians when he asked: "Is anyone more blind than my servant, more deaf than the messenger I send?" (Is (42:19-20).
The prophet Moses had the owners of fields round the corners so the needy could harvest what grew there. He did the same with the second picking of grapes and olives (Lv 19-9-10). He shut down all economic activity each seventh year for environmental reasons (Ex 23:10) and told people not to work on the Sabbath (Ex 23:12). You couldn't permanently sell property as it was created by and owned by God, not you (Lv 25:13-23 and Dt 8:17). If you made a loan, you had to forgive it each seventh year as bondage can political and economic (Dt 15:1). None of that falls within the efficiency-driven logic of capitalism. It teaches us that we are free to do with our wealth what we want as we "made it" and own it. Note those teachings were Law, not moral suggestions. Of course, Jesus spiritualized such teachings when he told the rich young ruler he had to sell what he had and give it to the poor before he could follow the Spirit. Jesus also said it would be very, very difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God on his own merit, which would presumably be true for those following a rich leader.
I've learned such biblical values sound like "socialism" to conservative Christians, which is why most conservative ministers talk about abortion and marriage. One ministry that is particularly influential with conservative Christian foundations even reviewed a new book recently that is entitled Defending The Free Market. It was written by Father Robert Sirico, founder of The Acton Institute, which recently prepared a stewardship study Bible that was published by the evangelical publishing house Zondervan, which published my first books. I had the privilege of teaching with Father Sirico at Chuck Colson's business forum and saw him again recently. He's a graceful and honorable man. But he's so politically conservative his work has often been published on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, a fact that irritates many of his fellow Catholic theologians as much as Paul Ryan's insensitivity in seeing soup kitchens as photo ops. So it didn't surprise me that the review of Father Sirico's book began: "Socialism has been discredited."
Again, Peter Drucker would be amused by that proclamation. In his book The Pension Fund, Drucker wrote: "If socialism is defined as 'ownership of the means of production'--and this is both the orthodox and rigorous definition--then the United States is the first truly 'Socialist' country [as workers owned most of America's stock through their pension funds]." Drucker clearly understood why Reinhold Niebuhr thought biblical values insist any serious Christian must be a socialist, though not necessarily a statist, or one who believes that secular government alone, rather than God and Godly government, must equitably share the wealth.
Such highly debatable economic teachings by many conservative Christian leaders appeal to our politicized culture. They're why I constantly receive emails from conservative Christians like the one I got last week. It was a newspaper article headlined: "Destroying America from Within." It began: "President Barack Obama has been trying to transform America to become more like a European nation, to be another socialist state. Obama's 'transformation' to socialism is a serious matter, and could very well be the end for America as a free nation and super power." All that might be worth the divisiveness it causes in both church and culture, perhaps even Christian, if it was grounded in reality. But even the pro-Romney forces unwittingly acknowledged it is nonsense. One anti-Obama ad by a super-PAC that ran over and over in my neck of the woods decried the fact that under Obama, the US economy is now ranked seventh in the Global Competitiveness Survey.
What the ad conveniently failed to mention, in the half-truth fashion that has become habit on both sides of American politics, was that five of the six nations ranked ahead of us are the European nations that the president is supposedly trying to emulate. It also failed to mention federal taxes have declined in Obama's first term until they are the lowest since WWII, at 15% of GDP. Those nations, and the non-European exception, are, in order: Switzerland, Singapore, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. Even Singapore is noted for having a government that is quite active in the economic sphere, as is the government of China, which seems to frighten most conservatives who believe in an omnipotent God. The nations just under the US include: the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Belgium, France and Luxembourg. We just associate Europe and socialism with decay as our media always focuses on the negatives, which are primarily in southern Europe these days.
Even the ultra-conservative Forbes magazine has published an article that there is much we might learn from Denmark. It has the happiest people in the world, lower unemployment with more retraining for the unemployed, a higher economic growth rate, a more dynamic business climate for small businesses, higher per capita wealth and much less federal debt related to GDP. Yet its government takes about 50% in taxes of what the average Dane makes while our governments take about 30%. Even evangelical theologian friends have estimated that Moses dictated 23% or more social spending after the needy were provided access to the fields belonging to others (Dt 23:24). President Obama's friend Oprah Winfrey once did a special on Denmark, probably as he and she value gross domestic happiness as much as gross domestic product. If asked where he would like to see our federal taxes in four years, I can imagine Obama saying 18 to 20%, which is where they've been since WWII. But I can't imagine him publicly stating anything as radical as the 8% that anti-taxer Grover Norquist openly seeks when having the GOP sign his famous pledge. That's truly "right wing social engineering" of the experimental and utopian sort.
I obviously don't care for the secularization of Europe, anymore than the secularization of America. As a Lutheran, I understand that Northern Europe is increasingly secular as it prospers. But I also see remnants of the Protestant ethos regarding charity toward neighbor at work. For example, Christian micro-enterprise ministries, like Opportunity International on whose board I served, who are engaged in work among the third world poor know the Scandinavians give multiples of what the US does as official foreign aid. Religious sociologists, like the evangelical Barna Group and Robert Wuthnow who studies the mainline at Princeton, know Americans may go to church a lot more than Europeans do but we also compartmentalize our faith from our daily lives, and particularly our economic lives, just as faithfully.
Peter Drucker might therefore suggest it's time all we Christians grow more humble, as well as less parochial and politicized, so that we might consider the "best practices" of our neighbors around our Creator's world. The Graham ad likely suggests that will probably have to wait until this generation of evangelical leaders die off and the next generation of evangelicals enters the promised land. Until then, we might seriously consider the social exhortations of the ad while balancing them with these two economic quotes. The first is from Peggy Noonan, President Reagan's favorite speech writer who is now a featured writer at The Wall Street Journal: "The other day I met with a Chinese dissident who has served time in jail, and whose husband is in jail in Beijing. I asked her if the longing for democratic principles that has swept the generation of Tiananmen Square has been accompanied by a rise in religious feeling--a new interest in Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity. She thought for a moment and looked at me. 'Among the young, I would say their religion is money,' she said. I nodded and said, 'Oh, that's our religion too.'"
The other quote is from Professor John Schneider of Calvin College, who wrote: “It is possible to envision a time when evangelicals have the ‘consistent Christian perspective tools’ [or holistic economic worldview] they require in this area of life. But it is probably best to expect Christian theology for life under modern high-tech capitalism to come mainly from where it now does--from Jewish, Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran sources, in which traditions exist for relating doctrines of creation to matters of redemption in a modern economic context.” In less academic words, the study of best practices as advocated by management experts like Peter Drucker suggests evangelicals might deepen humanity's compassion for the unborn and such while the rest of us evangelize the evangelicals before they unwittingly evangelize the world for capitalism with sins of commission and omission.
Gary Moore has a degree in political science and is a Sarasota-based investment counselor who has authored many publications and articles on the morality of political-economy and personal finance. He is a registered representative of, and offers securities through, National Planning Corp (NPC), member FINRA/SIPC, but opinions expressed here are his alone. The Financial Seminary and NPC are separate and unrelated. His comments are included in the More Good $ense newsletter in an effort to expand stewardship leaders’ understanding of broader economic issues.