Home > Economics, Faith > I am sorry Kristof, but you can’t have it both ways.

I am sorry Kristof, but you can’t have it both ways.

Here’s the article

The gist is simple: Christians need to spend less time focusing on “moral” issues of abortion and gay marriage and more on “social justice” issues of aiding the “poor” and “needy”. Christians and liberals can unite on these social issues where liberals seemed to have had the upper-hand.

It definitely is an argument that needs to be made and I praise him for at least pointing out how many Christians have already done incredible work in trying to roll back the growing wave of injustice in this world. A bunch of friends (Christians mostly) have been touting this article and while I found its contentions promising I found a couple points a bit trying too hard to be equivocal in its approach.

For instance he writes,

For most of the last century, save-the-worlders were primarily Democrats and liberals. In contrast, many Republicans and religious conservatives denounced government aid programs, with Senator Jesse Helms calling them “money down a rat hole.”

While he could argue that certain believers conflate conservative and Christian positions, that doesn’t seem to be the argument he makes. Instead its a convenient way for him to straw-man Christians in multiple ways by lumping them with conservatives like Jesse Helms. While this makes for excellent rhetorical effect, its also fallacy. While Hitler was a vegetarian this does not translate then that all vegetarians are suddenly fans of eradicating the Jewish race. Likewise, Christians can’t all be clumped as apathetic to social needs in foreign countries just because the party that they commonly are associated with or one its most polarizing leaders does.

He also does a nice little slight of hand here shifting the framework of being opposed to “government aid” as a meaning Christians intentions were not to be save-the-worlders. I think its important to note, because he lauds the organization World Vision later in the piece (which kind of refutes his notion that only secular liberals cared about the world before). Perhaps Christians like myself (although I do not speak for Christians as a whole) think that the proper place of aid is not through the bureaucratic mess we know as the federal government, but more efficiently disbursed through more intimate programs. Certainly this view is not unique to Christians, for example, Nigerian economist James Shikwati.

He writes later interestingly,

A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They’re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda. If secular liberals can give up some of their snootiness, and if evangelicals can retire some of their sanctimony, then we all might succeed together in making greater progress against common enemies of humanity, like illiteracy, human trafficking and maternal mortality.

So I am curious if he writes this, what his problem with Christians is in comparison to liberals. The read I am getting is liberals sneer and Christians give more money and sacrifice more of their time as well as resources. Yet Christians need to learn to hold off on the “sanctimony” and liberals need to sneer a little less? My point is not that Christians have the upper hand on social giving, but why does he even need to make these distinctions in the first place?  (and shouldn’t liberals find this somewhat offensive?) Its certainly a convenient way for him to show how he disagrees vehemently with Christian social positions. I am sorry but this “sanctimony” with issues regarding sex, abortion etc. is also the very “sanctimony” that compels Christians to do missions work in foreign country even without proselytizing.  You can pick and choose what you like, Mr. Kristof thats your prerogative, but Christians are then “sanctimonious” in espousing certain doctrinal positions on BOTH social justice issues and sanctity of life issues.

Overall, this piece is a bit condescending but I can’t totally blame the author. I do think if anything it should compel Christian to make more clear why we serve others in social justice. While feeling good about ourselves and helping others in some sort of Kumbahyah, “We are the World, way is nice and convenient, I find it utterly incomplete. Kristof criticizes the idea of pro-life meaning more than just opposing abortion, I would take it step further and say nobody lives like they are pro-life. Some might tout their record on abortion others might tout their record on helping the sick and poor, but even in the best of us,  our hearts steer us to be pro-“my own life”.

How about this for equivocation: we are all in need of a Savior. This troubled world is a “macrocosm” of our own brokenness and imperfection, but also a reminder of how the Lord’s work on the cross is not only to change the unjust social structures of this world, but the twisted nature of our own hearts. Our conviction ultimately stems from the idea that God paid for sin and injustice on the cross. Our aid to the poor is a direct analogy to the spiritual poverty we have in comparison to the God that is perfect; how fallen we have become in our own selfishness, insecurities and envy. This is not to soften the fact that these people need help; they do. Christians know that “faith without works is dead” and should work to undo these grave injustices. But Christians “do justice” not because we are better than others, but are actively acknowledging that Christ did even more than we could ever do.

Matthew 5:3

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  1. longley
    March 2, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I’m not gonna tackle the majority of this post, but I want to focus on one argument that you make here that I have heard you make before.

    You say: “Perhaps Christians like myself (although I do not speak for Christians as a whole) think that the proper place of aid is not through the bureaucratic mess we know as the federal government, but more efficiently disbursed through more intimate programs.”

    I’m not going to question your personal charitable giving, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind can argue that the total amount of aid delivered right now (within this country or beyond) through the government/your taxes isn’t degrees of magnitude higher than what would be delivered if all giving was left up to the goodness of people’s/businesses’ hearts. So although your personal contribution might be slightly diluted through “bureaucracy,” as a good christian shouldn’t that disappointment be mitigated by the sheer glee you feel for all the people who are getting help that, without government interference, wouldn’t be?

    • March 2, 2010 at 12:19 pm

      Matt, great points and I am glad you are making them. The first being that the aid is not “slightly diluted” but is generally pretty poorly given. Kevin Kim made a good point to me about how I should probably distinguish what types of aid I am criticizing, but the fact of the matter is I don’t think Christians were necessarily the penny-pinchers that Kristof makes them to be in the beginning of the post. If anything, I think many Christians should feel angst at how much is being wasted.

      Now as for magnitude, you might be right there, although I do think you underestimate the sheer funds of private charities (especially the generosity of churches). If anything, I would argue that there should be a strong sense of duty to the “poor, afflicted and needy” and if their needs aren’t being met through these programs that I make sure we find better ways to allocate those funds. I almost think we need to challenge ourselves and say, if we really feel passionately about these topics, should it be satisfactory that we allow most of it to go through the avenues of government? As an economist, I would argue this is not the “Pareto-optimal” solution. As a Christian, I would say I would need to learn how to sacrifice not by coercion but out of desire to demonstrate God’s love demonstrated to me. I don’t take this lightly either, I think right now I am still learning what it means to serve others.

  2. Kevin
    March 2, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Great entry BDK – saw this article and was hoping you would write on it. One point I disagree with:

    “I am sorry but this “sanctimony” with issues regarding sex, abortion etc. is also the very “sanctimony” that compels Christians to do missions work in foreign country even without proselytizing.”

    From the exterior this conclusion may be justified but if we dig a little deeper into the issue we see that there is a substantive difference that differentiates these two forms of “sanctimony”. However, they do have one common theme. First their difference.

    A Christian ethic comprised mostly of blunt prohibitions is of a very different tenor than that espoused and demonstrated by Jesus Christ. The missing motif of the former is the virtue of solidarity. The Christian Right, which is often the loudest proponent of prohibitionist Christian ethics, proscribe moral sanctions that have not been refined by the virtue of solidarity – namely they proscribe rules to populations without appreciating nor understanding the (unforgiving) realities that largely inform the actions of these people. Bluntly put, alarm bells should go off in our heads when we people from rural (largely white) Middle America form the sexual ethics of urban single-parent minorities – there is a fundamental disconnect here. Additionally, it is much easier to pontificate on sexual ethics from the safe confines of your suburban home than develop a visceral understanding of the injustices inflicted upon those living at the margins of society (through foreign missions work, for example). The commonality that joins these two forms of sanctimony is that both act out of self-interest. Social justice liberals would be better served once they begin to recognize that even their most altruistic endeavors remain self-serving in character.

    Lastly, I wholeheartedly agree with the following point you made, namely: “The Lord’s work on the cross is not only to change the unjust social structures of this world, but the twisted nature of our own hearts.” Though it may seem counterintuitive, I think raising the GDP for country XYZ may actually be easier than purifying one’s own ambitions so that such economic development is done with pure intentions.

    Thoughts here are a bit rough, so I look forward to reading your response.

    • March 2, 2010 at 11:37 pm

      “Bluntly put, alarm bells should go off in our heads when we people from rural (largely white) Middle America form the sexual ethics of urban single-parent minorities”

      That is if we think that sexual ethics are mutable and relative. For instance, I would categorically argue having premarital sex and then leaving your girlfriend to fend for herself is morally wrong for men to do. I say this as a Korean-American from suburban America. I don’t think my culture changes the inherent morality or lack thereof in this hypothetical.

      Now, I find arguments from cultural relativism fallacious but I actually don’t think you are saying that either. I do think though that you are right in that many conservatives don’t understand the different struggles a single mother might have to go through in her own cultural context. If anything the Christian’s lack of ability to remain relevant in this context shows how far we have to go.

      • Kevin
        March 3, 2010 at 11:39 am

        Sexual Ethics, within the West, operate under the assumption that both parties have the capacity to exercise full agency. This is not the case within all paradigms, because within poorer communities, agency is disproportionately allocated to men and thus the sexual ethics perscribed by Christians need to take this into consideration. Blunt prohibitions regarding sexual activity fail to do this and this was my primary point in my initial response. That is why i am in favor of Thomistic Virtue Ethics and if we view Kristof’s article through this lense, your claim regarding Christian “sanctimony” is lacking because it this ethical rubric reveals stark constrasts.

  3. March 2, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    excellent post, as always, BDK. I’m surprised that you accept Kristof’s premise that do gooders are always liberals. Conservatives like you and me want to help the poor too, we just don’t think that government is always the best agent for achieving this.

    I also think that getting defensive about Kristof lumping Christians into certain categories and generalizing about them is something of which all people are guilty. I remember hearing this argument marshaled in undergrad:

    “Conservatives are racists because they don’t support affirmative action and think all poor minorities are lazy.” Therein lies the contradiction – liberals themselves are criticizing the conservatives for the same sin that they themselves committed!

    Anyways, keep the great posts rolling. Good luck.

  4. longley
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