Tuesday, December 12, 2006

God's Politics, Part One

The other day I followed Nato’s counsel and bought ‘God’s Politics’ by Jim Wallis. I bought it at the bookshop next door to the music shop where I previously bought ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Taking the Long Way’, thus doing my best to give that small part of the world entirely the wrong idea about where I stand. I have only been able to take the book in small doses, but I promise I will keep going to the end.

Jim has a little credo at the end of the introduction which I can pretty much agree with, if I carefully fail to notice all the button pressing.1

We believe that poverty- caring for the poor and vulnerable- is a religious issue. Do the candidate’s budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries?

We believe that the environment- caring for God’s creation- is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it?

We believe that war- and our call to be peacemakers- is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ policies pursue ‘wars of choice’ or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats?

We believe that truth-telling is a religious issue. Do the candidates tell the truth in justifying war and in other foreign and domestic policies?

We believe that human rights- respecting the image of God in every person- is a religious issue. How do the candidates propose to change the attitudes and policies that led to the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners?

We believe that our response to terrorism is a religious issue. Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies?

We believe that a consistent ethic of human life is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ positions on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS- and other pandemics- and genocide around the world obey the biblical injunction to choose life?
(God’s Politics, pp. xxix-xxx)

Marco has already noticed what is wrong with this list. It is just like the grab bag of environmental problems presented to us by the media. There is no attempt at prioritisation. The rhetoric a candidate uses is placed as a dot point of equal significance to their position on abortion, HIV/AIDS, genocide, etc. In a fallen world, clearly all candidates will have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In order to judge between them, we need to rank the issues Wallis lists. We need a spiritual Lomborg2 to do an ethical cost/benefit analysis and decide which are really worth worrying about and which can be placed to one side.

At the beginning of the next chapter, Jim Wallis nominates the two issues that he sees as the most important. He hasn’t justified his nomination yet, but I hope he will later. His two most important issues are:

* Poverty reduction

* The war

I agree with Jim about the importance of reducing poverty, but I think there is good evidence that the policies he advocates don’t work. I may be blinded by spin, but I think that the ‘welfare to work’ policies Clinton was forced to sign by the Republicans have been a success in reducing domestic poverty over the past decade, and that the surest path to reducing poverty globally is free movement of goods and people, which the Republicans are stronger on than the Democrats.

Obviously, I disagree with Jim (and with the Pope, sadly) about the war.

Anyway, back in 17th century Transylvania, ‘God’s Politics’ had a slightly different meaning. We all think of Transylvania from the movies, as a sort of dark and superstitious generic Eastern European sort of place. But (I’ve only just learned this) in the late 16th century it was practically the most tolerant and progressive country in all of Europe. Its princes, vassals of the Ottoman Empire, were among the first Reformed3 rulers in Europe and extended toleration to their Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant subjects, including many extremist sects persecuted most everywhere else. Transylvania became a teensy bit less tolerant over time, and became unstuck when Prince György II Rákóczi invaded Poland in 1656.

..the aim was no less than for Rákóczi to seize the throne of Poland-Lithuania to promote the cause of Protestantism, as Istvan Bathóri had once done. Rákóczi went against all precedent for a vassal of the Turkish Sultan in pursuing his crazy campaigns in Poland without any authorisation from Constantinople, and he persisted in the face first of strong warnings from the Ottomans and then of catastrophic defeats at the hands of Polish, Tartar, and Turkish armies. He died of battle wounds in 1660, his death preventing him from witnessing the complete humiliation of the principality by the Ottomans. Historians have been puzzled by the apparently suicidal foreign and military policies of a prince who was clearly intelligent and effective, but Rákóczi was motivated by religious zeal. The princely Court resounded as it had done for half a century with sermons proclaiming that Transylvania was the Israel of its day, destined to lead God’s Protestant people all over Europe to victory against false religion whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Muslim. In this story Rákóczi was cast as King David, who might usher in a golden age for humanity. The preacher at his funeral called him ‘Israel’s illuminating candle.’
(Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, p.463)

Er, I’m not sure what my point is. But there must be some sort of lesson to be learned from this.

1: I could add two or three more dot points that immediately leapt to mind, but I won’t now.

2: NB: Catholics have one of these, called ‘The Pope’. He clearly said that ‘wars of choice’ were bad, but the whole ‘culture of death’ was very bad.

3: Using the word in its technical sense, as a sub-group of Protestantism including, but not limited to, Calvinism.


Marco said...

I admire your determination to read books that go so much against the way you think. I can really only stomach it if it is done in a comedic way.

winstoninabox said...

To be fair to Jim I think it's a bit harsh to criticize him for not prioritizing his list. I find it refreshing that there is a list to speak of at all. That he didn't go far enough may prove in the future to have been circumspect and prudent.

Let's look at a issue central to Da' Clamster - abortion. Now Dr. Clam, I too have a belief that future technologies will reduce this issue to insignificance. So what should policy makers be putting their time into now? Arguing themselves into circles about the moral rights and wrongs of this? Or should they be supporting the technologies that will alleviate the problem? Obviously I think the later.

There is no need to be bogged down in the moral issue of abortion, nor even morally prioritizing it against other issues. Abortions's shelf life expires when science eliminates the issue itself. Fighting the real problems of society shouldn't be hamstrung by the egos of moralists fighting for a higher ground that science will dig out from under them.

And so almost every issue on this list has a Gordian solution that need not have a moral imperative backing it. When people are living lives free from base difficulties, then they'll find the image of God within each person (the issue I think most morally worthy) seems so much more accessible.

Dr. Clam said...

Can I take this to mean you are going to read Jim's book, too, winston? :)

I find this sort of thing kind of refreshing as well (which is why I don't deserve Marco's admiration), but you gotta admit that the lack of prioritisation makes the credo useless for its *stated* purpose, which is enabling a decision to be made between two candidates on Christian principles. (It remains perfectly adequate for its *unstated* purpose, which is to lay into George W. Bush with a bit of 4 x 2.)

I guess the Lomborg analogy is not really appropriate, in that in using this sort of list to make a decision about candidates we're not really interested in how soluble the issues are, but what they tell us about the candidate.

For each of Jim's issues we ought to ask:

*How bad is this moral failing?

*How much do candidate X and Y suffer from this moral failing?

*What is the attitude of X and Y to this moral failing? That is, would they agree with us that it was a moral failing, and that they ought to be doing better, or would they reject our characterisation? (e.g., 'What do you mean, genocide is bad? Elect us, and we promise to nuke those towel-heads until they glow.')

winstoninabox said...

I hadn't picked up on the list's use being to choose between different candidates. My mistake.

But even so, if Jim had prioritized the lists, they would just be his priorities. It would probably be more useful for the reader if they took the grab bag and applied their own priorities in the manner you have suggested, before going to the ballot box.

Marco said...

How can you find it refreshing. The mental image of him laying into Bush with a 4*2 is more refreshing than reading things like that. Anything without watertight logic and with assumed political bias like that is rejected by my brain. Pushing myself beyond my comfort zone and continuing to read it is less preferable than booking myself in for unnecessary root canal surgery.

Dr. Clam said...

I should address the other main point you raise in your first comment, winston.

I made an argument for scientific advance as a source of optimism with respect to abortion when I was thirty, but my argument turned out to hinge on acceptance of a particular philosophical position. I thought this position was blindingly self-evident, but it only was to me! Without the proper ideology, science will not necessarily favour the good. Instead, it can be an instrument of dehumanisation and oppression. Science is one of those pointy things. Advances in science and technology will make it easier for us to be lying weasels, wage pre-emptive wars on governments that don't suck, and disfigure the human soul in a thousand new and different ways. Marco has argued convincingly that advances in tehcnology will enable abortion to be further normalised, through 'home abortion kits'. A few years ago our parliamentarians voted unanimously against the introduction of therapeutic cloning: this year, they have voted by a convincing majority for the Let Scientists Go Crazy Ape Bonkers Bill (2006). So while I would like to share your sense of triumphant technological advance, I can't quite...

Dr. Clam said...

I guess I have always had a weakness for that sort of prophetic rhetoric, Marco. And, more broadly, so many people who provide soundbites or quotes for the papers either don't believe in anything, or are very careful not to let on what it is they do believe in- so it is refreshing to have anyone stand up and proclaim what they believe.

winstoninabox said...

It's always easy to feel down about the nasty things that can/will be developed. But remember that for every nasty thing developed, there are many more positive advances forthcoming.

Marco is probably right - there will be home abortion kits. But really how many will be sold when in the rose-colored Star Trekian future everyone has access to high-tech tax-free prophylactics, or a safe, reversible, inoculation against parasitic invasion of the humanoid kind. Couple this with adult education available through the Internet, and I'd like to believe that abortion, while never disappearing, will at least be greatly diminished.

Now what could forestall this? The producers of the hereto uninvented home abortion kit snapping up patents of these rival technologies, or successfully lobby against them. But really the nature of technology is now - irrepressible!

Dr. Clam said...

Here's an example of the sort of thing that bugs Jim Wallis, I think. I wasn't too disturbed by this particular apocalyptic vision until I got to the byline...

The Messenger said...

If you like Dr Clam check this http://godgracepolitics.blogspot.com/