Many on the American Right say they’re strong Christians, but have bought into Ayn Rand economics which disdains government help for the poor and needy. Other Christians, like Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, see Jesus’s teachings enshrined in the Constitution’s commitment to the common good, writes Rev. Howard Bess.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, argues in his most recent book, On God’s Side, that a key part of the foundation of the United States is its commitment to the common good for every citizen, a principle found in America’s founding documents including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Wallis does not equate common good with religion’s love of neighbor, but he does believe they have enough kinship that devout religion and a secular government committed to the common good can join together to produce a more just, equitable and peaceful nation.
Mr. Wallis makes his case that modern America has tragically defined itself first by unconstrained personal freedom, and second by the pursuit of wealth without regard to equity, justice or charity. Both of these defining traits have forsaken the common good inherent in the founding documents and in the teachings of Jesus and other great religious leaders.
From Mr. Wallis’s perspective, corporations without soul or conscience have been allowed to gain control of the life of the nation. Corporations have become too big to fail and too powerful to submit to meaningful regulation. The greed that drives American corporate life has produced unimaginable wealth for the rich and nagging poverty for the poor. The American middle-class is shrinking. At one time, the minimum wage was a living wage. Today’s minimum wage must be supplemented by food stamps and subsidized housing.
For me, the argument that is being made by Jim Wallis is convincing. His statistics are overwhelming. The kind of economy that America has developed is not only unjust but it also is unsustainable. If significant economic changes are not made, the plight of the poor can only grow, the middle class will disappear, and wealth will be sequestered by the richest elite. The common good will have suffered an overwhelming defeat.
Is a moral economy possible in a modern capitalist world? Can the common good become a significant factor in the structuring of the American economy? This is a challenge that must be addressed by religious bodies of every kind. It is also the challenge of sensitive Americans who recognize the folly of the present economic structure and the imperative of the common good. Are there enough Americans, religious and non-religious, who care enough about their neighbors to bring about a new economic day?
There is a huge shake-up of the structures of American Christians. Apparently, a new breed of young Christians has decided to take the social agenda of Jesus seriously. Do they dare raise the moral issues that have been presented to America by corporations driven by naked greed?
Through the history of the nation, Americans have confronted glaring social evils. I am awed by the confrontation required to eradicate the evil of slavery. The magnitude of the change that was triggered by emancipation stretches my imagination. Common good demanded to be served and after the bloody Civil War was served.
For the first century and a half in the nation’s history, women were not allowed to vote. Again common good demanded to be served and after a long battle the Nineteenth Amendment was enacted. Similarly, civil rights for all could not be denied. Common good demanded justice and it was achieved, again after a long and painful struggle. Full civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans also appear to be inevitable, as again common good must be served.
Economics is just as much a moral issue as slavery, women’s suffrage, racial equality, and gay rights. For the informed Christian it is now obvious that Jesus protested opulent wealth and unjust labor practices. He identified with the poor and needy. He associated service with greatness, not wealth. Following the lead of Jesus in demanding economic justice, I am not ready to give up on the Jesus way. How? Get information. Call for repentance. Protest. Organize. Get involved.
I serve on the board of a small not-for-profit corporation. We have an executive director and employ social workers. The board has placed a demand on the executive. The corporation shall have no employee who is not paid a living wage, who does not have health insurance for self and family at no cost to the employee, and who has no retirement program.
It is the demand of the common good and a priority of a good neighbor.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]
Be careful whom thou doth quotest. Ayn Rand also warned that the middle class, not the conservative upper class would be the source of new individualist utopia.
The commandments of the Old and the New, mistake dominion and ownership of the earth by Man as an act of supernatural grace. It is the invention of an organized priesthood for the purpose of behavior control.
If the commandments were intended to be universal, honor would have been replaced with respect. Respect thy neighbor as thyself, for both are needed to care for the frail craft you have been given, and the survival of the ship, not the individuals, is the purpose of creation.
The rest is a crock of dreams in a fog of ignorance.
Followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy have told me that there is no such thing as community and all that exists is the interaction of individuals acting only in their self interest. This is not really an economic analysis but a philosophy of preferment of individuals over community to the extent that community and community concerns not only are not legitimate but do not really exist. I think Rand was an interesting thinker but she and her followers have spawned a completely unbalanced perspective on reality. I think the truth is that each of us is a completely autonomous and separate individual while at the same time being equal members of the community of all people. So Rand is maybe half right in her thinking. The economic aspects of community have fascinated me for decades the chief example of which among many is that community creates the economic value of land and natural resources measured in dollars and cents when land rents are paid and purchases of same are made. No individual as an individual per se creates land value but all individuals together in community create the effect of land value. What is most interesting to me about this is that private collection of community created land value is a wholly unearned income and a form of theft from community and every individual in it just as ownership of slaves gave rise to an ‘unearned’ income in the hands of their ‘owners’. Individuals who say they deserve this kind of income and have ‘earned’ it just because they bought the right to collect it merely do not understand their economics or simple morality. Extreme individualism is the excuse for justifying getting something for nothing at the expense of everyone else in this regard. Since such income from private ownership of land and natural resources and other forms of unearned income amount to somewhere up to 40% of GNP this is no small matter. It is no small matter especially since it is the historical root cause of the disparity of wealth over the centuries. I think most of us know where Jesus stood on that issue but I am not so persuaded by that as I am by the fact that all economists agree in principle to the fact that community creates the value of land and natural resources and that it is a form of ‘economic rent’ (actually the original form of it pointed out by the founders of economic thought going back to the French Physiocrats who taught Adam Smith when he sojourned in France for a time) that they all learned about in Economics 101. Randites cannot explain the existence of land values or market in general in their philosophy without stumbling on community so the best they can do is call any such thinking bad name: ‘communism’. Thanks Ayn for the thoughts but you are an unwitting apologists for exploitation and not an economist and of course not a Christian and certainly not a ‘feed my sheep’ kind of Christian.
If Christians want to believe that morality requires that they spend their lives in service to others, they are free to do so in a free society. But where do they get off thinking that it’s their prerogative to force others to do so, which is what govt program do? The idea that we are a collective that should do such things is a precept of communism, as Ayn Rand taught.
And, for what it’s worth, who had done the most for mankind men like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs becoming fabulously rich just working in their own self-interests or Mother Theresa who produced virtually no wealth?
The issue here, as if you care, is that greedy sociopaths are rewriting the traditions of Christianity so that Christians can (a) continue to claim all credit for all that is good about America and thus a disproportionate voice in its current power institutions, but (b) deny that they ever were on the side of the just poor against the unjust rich as part of that goodness.
The 2012 Republican presidential candidates do believe in Ayn Rand’s assumptions – at least in their public pronouncements. Reconciling this with their “Christian” beliefs must require some mental gymnastics – it certainly requires a lot of denial.
Mental gymnastics are not necessary for those whose minds are a stereotypical mush of concepts. Concepts that are so simplistic and “inside the box”, that they are incapable of bumping into each other to form obvious contradictions.
In other words those whose attention spans are so short that their attempt at a logical train of thought peters out before it can be seen to be illogical.
I don’t really understand what this article is about besides including a brief summary about Jim Wallis’ book. It didn’t exactly address the question brought up in the title nor does it properly analyze exactly what Randian economics are. I believe there’s an assumption that we’re subject to an economy that is dictated by Ayn Rand’s philosophy and that the American Right operates according by it. This is, as far as I can understand, not the case. I won’t regurgitate easily attainable facts as to why this is, nor will I endorse a particular view but, again, as I understand it, our economy is strikingly different to Ayn Rand’s ideal conditions.
I appreciate the very much needed call to action, but this is, at least in part, an uninformed critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy and it’s influence on the way our economy functions.
This article is about “Pushing” the Christian fairy tale as the Rev. Howard Bess is allowed to do regularly for some reason.