Wednesday, March 04, 2009
... is not necessarily my friend.
At RealClear Politics is an article by Bradford Wilcox, sociologist from the University of Virginia (!), whose thesis is that the economic policies of Barack Obama are taking "the United States down the secular path already trod by Europe." This sounds little different than what scores of other theocratic pundits have been saying all along, but Wilcox is unusually frank in explaining exactly what he means. In doing so, he offers a valuable glimpse at why religious opponents of Barack Obama are anything but intellectual allies in the battle to save freedom in America.
Revealingly, Wilcox seems unconcerned with the fact that these policies, violating individual rights, are immoral and that, furthermore, being immoral, they are impractical, and will make our nation less prosperous. (This latter occurs because such policies are attempts to replace the thinking millions of selfish, reasoning minds with the wisdom of a few government bureaucrats.) Such a concern might have led him to attempt to defend the capitalistic elements of our economy on the grounds that they are better at alleviating suffering on the part of the general populace than central planning ever has been.
Rather, it is whom the suffering turn to that has him concerned:
One unremarked and unintended consequence of Barack Obama's audacious plans for the expansion of government -- especially in health care, education, and the environment -- is that the nanny state he is seeking to build will likely crowd out religious institutions in America. [bold added]He elaborates on this later.
Why is this significant for the vitality of religion in America? A recent study of 33 countries around the world by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde, political scientists at the University of Washington, indicates that there is an inverse relationship between state welfare spending and religiosity. Specifically, they found that countries with larger welfare states had markedly lower levels of religious attendance, had higher rates of citizens indicating no religious affiliation whatsoever, and their people took less comfort in religion in general. ...More to the point -- and setting aside the caveat that correlation is not the same thing as causation -- this means that a large nanny state is a Bad Thing to Wilcox because people won't be turning to churches during moments of vulnerability.
... By contrast, countries with a history of limited government -- from the United States to the Philippines -- have markedly higher levels of religiosity. The link between religion and the welfare state remains robust even after Gill and Lundsgaarde control for socioeconomic factors such as urbanization, region, and literacy. The bottom line: as government grows, people's reliance on God seems to diminish. [bold added]
But other individuals only turn to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques when their needs for social or material security are not being met by the market or state. In an environment characterized by ordinary levels of social or economic insecurity, many of these individuals will turn to local congregations for social, economic, and emotional support. At times of high insecurity, such as the current recession, religious demand goes even higher. Witness, for instance, press accounts chronicling the recent boom in churchgoing among Americans hit hard by the recession. Of course, many of those who initially turn to the church around the corner for instrumental reasons often end up developing an intrinsic appreciation for the spiritual and moral goods found in their local congregation. [bold added]One cannot help but wonder whether commentators like Wilcox would be similarly critical of, say, a President McCain greatly enlarging government aid to religious organizations along the lines of George W. Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiative. The fact that Wilcox once praised (p.15) the FBCI for its "signal role in returning religion to a central place as an object of study and reflection in the American academy," suggests the contrary.
But why extrapolate from one theocratic academic when we now have decades of evidence that the conservative movement has degenerated into a rival claimant to the left for government power over the individual? As C. Bradley Thomspon puts it:
Conservative intellectuals and Republican politicians no longer hold their noses and reluctantly accept the welfare state as an unfortunate political reality, as a "necessary evil" about which they can do little but compromise. No: Today's conservatives and their compassionate leader, George W. Bush, will go down in history as the first Republicans to openly and explicitly advocate a conservative welfare state as a "positive good."Conservatives like Wilcox are not opponents of the welfare state as such. They merely oppose secular welfare states.
As we have seen, the policies of compassionate conservatives and neoconservatives merge to promote a shared common end: the violation of individual rights for the sake of "general welfare" and for the "needs" of the "less fortunate." Not only have conservatives and Republicans abandoned any semblance of a principled moral opposition to the welfare state, they now fully embrace it morally and politically.
Perhaps this explains why one thing that never entered Wilcox's discussion was the mountains of evidence that central planning of any kind -- including the confiscation and redistribution of wealth on a massive scale -- cannot lead to prosperity. Central planning will lead to more suffering. What better way to get people to fill the pews on Sunday?
I will close by quoting from Ayn Rand's essay, "Requiem for Man", in which she comments on Populorum Progressio, a papal encyclical by Pope Paul VI.
If concern for human poverty and suffering were one's primary motive, one would seek to discover their cause. One would not fall to ask: Why did some nations develop, while others did not? Why have some nations achieved material abundance, while others have remained stagnant in subhuman misery? History and, specifically, the unprecedented prosperity-explosion of the nineteenth century, would give an immediate answer: capitalism is the only system that enables
men to produce abundance -- and the key to capitalism is individual freedom. (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pp. 308-309)
PS: The irony of Wilcox hailing from the university founded by Thomas Jefferson himself -- unelectable today due to his views on the separation of church and state, as well as for his deism -- is compounded tenfold when one also considers that he served as President at a time when there was no welfare state in America.