Monday, September 29, 2008

Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt as examples

In light of the current situation, with our politicians seeking to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they can't be trusted, and our economic "leaders" on Wall Street and elsewhere doing everything in their power to once again prove that they can't be trusted; we need leadership, whether political or otherwise, that's willing to point out that a combination of public and private malfeasance has given us what we have today.

In years past, we have had leaders, imperfect as they were, who nonetheless understood that strong measures were necessary to overcome the excesses that they had to confront. In the case of Teddy Roosevelt, the great Republican president who gave us both our national parks and who broke the "trusts" that held a stranglehold on American commerce, he confronted moneyed interests by breaking up the "Robber Barons" that essentially gave America a new slavery as pernicious as the one we supposedly eradicated in the mid 1800's.

His answer to this economic tyranny was to establish an equally strong federal power that stood as an antagonist, correcting and controlling the most rapacious impulses that these corporate interests clearly exhibited in the years preceding his administration.

Was he jingoistic? Yes. Did he advocate for American imperialism? Yes. Are these wrong for someone claiming the mantle of "Christian"? Yes. Does this tarnish his legacy? Yes. Does this tarnish his legacy any more than any other president? No. He was an American president. That was his job. Nothing more. Nothing less. To the degree he "used" Christian terminology and imagery to advantage American interests over and against what Christ actually declared His mission for His church, every political leader (Roosevelt included) should be judged.

Nonetheless, was he wise in his dealings with business interests in the time in which he lived? Yes, he was. He understood that concentrated power (whether political or economic) uncorrected is inherently dangerous and leads inexorably to tyranny. He understood this as a Lincoln Republican. Modern Republicans do not seem to understand this anymore. They see corporate interests as being essentially good, in the way that modern liberals see governmental agencies under Democrats (of course!) as being essentially good.

Teddy Roosevelt knew better. He was a Republican in the Lincoln mold. He understood that each and every human was impacted by a duality of impulses, both positive and negative.

A generation later, his cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was confronted with not only corporate malfeasance, but fascism and communism abroad, and the same at home, if left untended. The second Roosevelt decided, in his upper class way, to attend to working class needs. He recognized that democratic capitalism, if it was to survive in any way, needed to be regulated in a responsible way. He inaugurated public works programs to give millions work when nothing else was available. He established social security, which we now assume as a right.

These two examples of aristocratic leaders who nonetheless saw that the greater public good was best served by meeting the needs of the working class and those most at risk gives us an example for today. Sadly, in the last few days, we see nary an example so far of anyone who embodies that spirit. Maybe they're out there. I'm sure they are. But they aren't being heard. And now is when they need most to be heard.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Augustinian "democrat"?

In the first post I described in basic terms what I meant by Augustinian. And since that seems to lead inexorably towards some form of conservatism, and to which, of a type, I admit I hold to, this post is dedicated to explaining why I've chosen to use the ideologically loaded term "democrat." Obviously, in the modern American context, "democrat" usually means someone who holds to an ideology which presupposes a modernist and materialist viewpoint which automatically negates any religious and/or spiritual content guiding the various views which shape and impact public policy. It is in two directions that my concerns lie. On the left, my concern is that there is a reality of antagonism towards any religious belief, especially of those who espouse any type of orthodoxy, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim (I specify these three major religions because they are each monotheistic, thus exclusive (in their traditional form) in their truth claims). On the right, my concern is that there has been an assumption that to be "on God's side" is to be a conservative in the modern cultural context of America, which has meant, by and large, being a Republican. Yet, if we were to look first and foremost to what the writers of scripture wrote, both in the Hebrew writings (OT) and the New Testament writings, we would see a concern for issues that would both overlap and contradict both of the major political ideologies driving our modern political discourse. Modern liberals love the Hebrew prophets' concern for the poor and outcasts of society and they likewise love the moral imperative of Jesus' commands in his sermon on the mount. But if Jesus says he's the only way, then that's just not a passage we're going to preach on, or if we have to, then we'll need to redefine it so that "his way (of doing things) is the only way" therefore ordaining whatever political palliative we've declared sacrosanct. And by the way, this is true too of modern conservatives! They're just as theologically "liberal" as their cultural antagonists, even if they're much more culturally conservative in their policy pronouncements. Whenever we "use" Jesus for our political ends, we inevitably devalue his atoning work in order to emphasize his exemplary work. That's not to say that Christ as example is unimportant. It is. Eternally so! Yet many moral teachers have provided comparable examples of moral behavior for us to follow. That's why in popular "spirituality" Jesus is one of many avatars of ascended humans, such as Gandhi, Krishna, Mohammad, Moses, and so on, who have "shown the way" to ultimate reality. As an aside, the issue of working together with others from different religious traditions, even though disagreeing deeply on fundamental issues, is worth considering. But that's a separate discussion. The problem with focusing primarily on Jesus as example to the exclusion of his atoning work is that we evacuate any power from his example. If God is righteous, if God requires perfect obedience in order to be in right relationship with him, if God requires a sacrifice to pay for not being in right relationship with him, then God is one who would both require perfect obedience and a perfect sacrifice. Guess what? Jesus fills the bill. He obeys. He pays.
This whole concept is offensive to any modern ideologue. Any of them, whether liberal of conservative, will gladly take the moral teachings (up to a point). But the particularity of Christ will ALWAYS be offensive to anyone seeking to make Christ a means to an end and not the end of our means.
So, what does any of this have to do with being a small "d" democrat? After all, I'm writing this in order to defend the term over and against other competing terms that might go well with Augustinian. We've already seen how conservative might go well. Even liberal might work, depending upon which meaning you attach to the term, historical (better) or modern (worse) American.
When I think of the term democrat, I think of the meaning that adhered to the ancient Greeks; I think of the term as it applied to the earliest Americans, which saw in the term a breaking down of old hierarchical divisions inherited from old allegiances from the old country. The term democrat means that each person is equal before the law. The term democrat means that the old dividing walls of class hostility are removed. The term democrat means that each of us is seen as standing equally just and unjust before the bar of justice. The term democrat means that every human institution is equally infiltrated by human fallenness, whether individual (most favored by modern conservatives) or corporate (whether economic, through the owners of capital or union bosses, or government corruption).
Thus, in this understanding of democrat as well as Augustinian, my hope is to provide a prism which sheds a more accurate light of both our human condition and our commonality which that theological and anthropological reality declare.
I believe that this understanding has political and public policy consequences. That's why this site exists.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

An Augustinian Democrat?

What does it mean to be an Augustinian Democrat? Since the term starts with Augustinian, I'll explain what that means and why I've chosen it as the modifier of democrat. To be Augustinian is to say something particular about at least two issues; first, about anthropology or the nature of the human condition, and second, it speaks a particular word about theology, or about who and what God is. To be Augustinian is to have a high regard for the 'awe'ful sovereignty of God, especially in His dealings with mankind. The human side of that equation concerns itself with understanding accurately what it means to be human in our current state. Saint Augustine understood humans to be magnificent creations in their original estate, yet subsequently fundamentally broken. As image bearers of God's own visage, we share moral qualities that elevate us to nearly god-like stature, yet because of our fall from innocence, we now inherit and perpetuate a sinful nature that is continually at odds, not only with God and His revealed will, but also with other humans, the rest of nature, and even ourselves. This diagnosis of our human predicament, both theologically and anthropolically, is, at first blush, a seemingly 'conservative' argument, and in once sense, of course, it is. This underlying anthropology is what lies behind many of my conclusions regarding public policy issues. Yet, this very anthropology, which is actually fundamentally theologically 'conservative' nonetheless leads me towards decisions that quite often appear to be 'liberal' or 'progressive' in the current cultural context. Part of the difficulty in describing these terms adequately is that even though the terminology may be the same, their meanings have changed substantially and may in fact mean something fundamentally different than what they did in different cultural contexts and what is now intended when used. To be 'conservative' theologically is something altogether different than to be conservative culturally or even ideologically. And even within these various domains of conservatism, the term means something different depending upon the time and place of its use. To be ideologically conservative in 1789 America (or England more so!) is something radically different than to be conservative in 2008 America. And of course, since we do live in present day America, even modern conservatism is a contested term, as to what content should adhere to being conservative, being fought out in various journals, blogs, and talk shows. For the sake of clarity, my 'conservatism' is theological more than cultural or ideological, and is born out of the Augustinian tradition exemplified by the Protestant reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther. If you look to their grid of theology and anthropology, you will see my starting point for how I reach my conclusions. Now, it should be added, that even they are fallible humans and are not deserving of uncritical obedience. Yet I believe that they got two key doctrines correct; God and man. The first consequence of this understanding was obviously on man's relationship with God. That's why I adhere so strongly to a reformational view on salvation. Because they got God and man right, they therefore understood much more clearly what was at stake in how we are to be right with God. It is in this area that I am the most conservative. I believe firmly that they got soteriology (salvation doctrine) right because they got anthropology (the doctrine of humankind) and theology (the doctrine fo God) right. The question now becomes, if these views of God and the human condition have impacted the view of salvation, could they impact other views as well? Here is where we enter the political domain. And it is here I hope to explicate what I mean by using the term 'democrat' and why I choose to use it. In the next post I hope to better explain that.