Pete Buttigieg and Proverbs 14:31

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Some of you may recall that Pete Buttigieg quoted scripture on Monday night during the Democratic debate.  He said: “So-called conservative senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage when Scripture says that whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker.” Buttigieg was quoting from Proverbs 14:31, which says “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt asked some evangelical leaders about whether or not Buttigieg used this verse correctly.  Most believed that he did use it correctly, but also could not resist mentioning (or implying) that he is pro-choice and gay.

Here, for example, is Shellnutt on Andrew T. Walker‘s response to Buttigieg:

Andrew T. Walker, senior fellow in Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), tweeted his opposition to Buttigieg’s line: “It never fails to baffle how progressives can appeal to the Bible to arrive at an exact minimum wage ($15, according to Buttigieg), yet ignore, reject, or plead ambiguity on the Bible’s teaching on marriage and abortion.”

This is a strange response.  I don’t think Buttigieg was using the Bible to “arrive at an exact minimum wage” of $15.  He was simply articulating a biblical principle.

Read Shellnutt’s piece here.

Out of the Zoo: “Leave Them Scratching Their Heads”


Marian Wright Edelman speaks at the Messiah College Humanities Symposium

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about what she learned from a recent lecture on campus.  Enjoy! –JF

If you were on Messiah’s campus last Thursday, you may have had the privilege to hear Marian Wright Edelman give the keynote address for Messiah’s 2019 humanities symposium titled “Toward the Common Good: Ending Child Poverty in the U.S.” A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund and has worked tirelessly on behalf of disadvantaged children for many years. She held nothing back Thursday and quickly called her South-Central Pennsylvania audience to action. She repeatedly emphasized that we cannot be satisfied until all of America’s children are lifted out of poverty. Kids only get one childhood, Edelman explained, so we need to be moving with a sense of urgency.

So how do we do that? To put it in a few words, Edelman said good change is done in scuttwork, in the menial but manageable tasks necessary to meet pressing needs. We must be persistent, and cannot be afraid to be a little pushy in our pursuit of meaningful reform. We don’t have to be “big dogs,” to use Edelman’s term, gnawing off the heads of our nation’s problems, but instead we can be “fleas” who keep policymakers scratching until they’ve had enough.

History is painted with buzzing fleas who, in pursuit of a worthwhile cause, pestered and pushed dreams into realities. Suffragettes were fleas who bit and tormented until they got to vote. They marched, lobbied, wrote and rallied until it was easier for the government to comply with their wishes than to keep resisting their efforts.

The Civil Rights movement was full of fleas, too. One flea planted herself in a bus seat, and when she was forced to move others decided to walk to work in protest. Some fleas sat down at lunch counters even though they knew they wouldn’t be served. Nine more young fleas from Arkansas went to a school where they weren’t wanted. More than 200,000 fleas marched up to the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August day in 1963 to listen to Martin Luther King call for change.

Since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year a new swarm of fleas has emerged in the public eye. These fleas, fed up with recurring gun violence in American schools and seeking to make learning a safe endeavor for everyone, started a movement of their own.

Real change is rarely done by the “big dogs” who try to single-handedly tear down injustice, no matter how strong they are or how eloquently they speak; real change is done by the fleas who persist, band together, and don’t go away. Anyone can be a flea, Edelman urged her audience; if we follow the need with a united front, even the smallest of actions can lead to great change.

Remembering and “Misremembering” 1968

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Robert Greene II, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, has a nice piece at Religion & Politics on the way we remember the careers and tragic deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  Both were assassinated in 1968.

A taste:

Public memory is how a nation remembers its past. It’s shown through acts of commemoration such as the dedication of statues, presidential proclamations, or national holidays. Memory can bind together the citizens of a nation through symbolism and pageantry. Conversely, it can also gloss over the legacies of important figures and moments. The deaths of King and Kennedy loom large in any misremembering of 1968. Though the two men had minimal interaction in their lifetimes, and what relationship they had was complicated, their assassinations during the same year marked a turning point. They occurred just prior to the rise of a staunch conservative ascendancy and liberal division that have continued to saturate American politics. King’s death left a hole in the moral leadership of the American left, while Kennedy’s death was the end of the optimism that defined the “Camelot”-style politics of the 1960s. For Americans to properly talk about what the nation is missing without those two figures would mean to fully reckon with the myriad of ways the United States has failed to uphold King’s dream and has ignored the words of Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president.

Read the entire piece here.

Christians are More Likely to Believe Poverty Comes From a Lack of Effort


Are there people in American who live in poverty because they don’t want to work, don’t work hard enough, or made bad choices with their money?  Absolutely.  I know a lot of people who fall into this category.

But poverty is also a structural problem.  It is related to larger economic, racial, social, and cultural forces that have developed over time.

A recent Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation study has found that Christians are more likely than non-Christians “to view poverty as the result of individual failings, especially white evangelical Christians.”

Part of the reason this is true is related to what evangelical historian Mark Noll has called “the scandal of the evangelical mind.”  In other words, evangelical anti-intellectualism has something to do with this.  Evangelicals have failed to understand issues like poverty in terms of historical development and other larger structural issues. The failure to understand these issues in deeper and broader ways ultimately weakens evangelical attempts at trying to address these social problems.

Here is a taste of the Washington Post report on the study:

Helen Rhee, a historian who studies wealth and poverty in Christianity, attributed Christians’ diverging viewpoint first to scripture and second to a theological divide in the early 20th century. At the same time that fundamentalists were splitting from modernists over whether Christians should accept Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, an academic split emerged: premillennialists versus postmillennialists.

The premillennialists think that the “Second Coming of Christ” is nearing, and with it the elevation of believers to heaven and the terrible tribulations of nonbelievers on earth promised in the Book of Revelation. The postmillennialists interpret Revelation differently, and believe that humans will achieve a blessed era of peace on earth, after which Christ will return.

As conservative evangelicals embraced premillennialism and more liberal Christians turned toward postmillennialism, their approach toward aiding the poor changed in accordance with their beliefs. The postmillennialists, who thought it was their responsibility to work toward a better epoch on earth, focused on dismantling harmful economic structures to create a more just world. The premillennialists, who thought the world might end imminently, wanted to save as many souls as possible to spare those individuals from the torment soon to come for nonbelievers.

To the premillennialists, Rhee said, “The world is already lost. Things are going to get worse and worse … The betterment of society is very intangible. You don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not. It’s a very difficult thing to do. You’ve got to just focus on what is important — that is, salvation of the soul. That is, preach the gospel. Evangelism.”

Saving an individual’s soul by correcting his personal behavior will do him far more good than fixing an economic structure, if the world is about to end anyway, Rhee explained. “They are being compassionate.”

That thinking has influenced Christian culture to this day. Mohler, a conservative evangelical, said, “There’s a rightful Christian impulse to consider poverty a moral issue … Evangelicals are absolutely right to look at the personal dimensions. No apology there.”

But he added that the sins that cause a person to be in poverty may be the sins of others, not of the person who is poor, and he said that conservative Christians need to acknowledge that more often. “I think conservative Christians often have a very inadequate understanding of the structural dimension of sin.”

Read the entire piece here.

Helen Rhee‘s argument about premillennialism has some validity.  There is a reason why Noll has a whole chapter on dispensational premillennialism in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  But I think there is an even larger issue here about education, learning, and good Christian thinking.

History Teaches Us That Pollution Hurts Some People More Than Others

Tosco Refinery Fire May Fuel Spiraling Gas Prices

Arica Coleman has a great piece at Time reminding us that pollution does not affect everyone equally. (HT: History News Network)

Here is a taste:

According to Carl A. Zimring in his book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, this phenomenon — defined by former NAACP President Benjamin Chavis in 1992 as, “the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities” — was part and parcel to the construction of race during the post-Civil War era.

In the late 19th century, some subscribed to notions of hygiene that claimed, as Zimring puts it, that “whites were cleaner than non-whites.” Industrialization and migration to urban centers during the period led to overcrowding in northern cities, suffocating pollution and widespread epidemics. Nativists, particularly among the elite class, blamed the problem on the moral depravity of southern and eastern European immigrants, who were considered “less than white.” Yet, some politicians and civic leaders disagreed and focused on developing a sufficient sanitation infrastructure to address waste management, a public health campaign underscored by notions of hygiene to combat disease, and the creation of jobs in sanitation to lower unemployment.

As Zimring notes, the U. S. census shows that between 1870 and 1930 street sanitation work, also known as “dirty work,” was performed primarily by first- and second-generation eastern and southern European immigrants and blacks. Some of these foreign-born individuals, categorized during the early decades of the 20th century as white ethnics (to distinguish them from the native-born Anglo Saxon Protestants), went into the waste-management business while others obtained “cleaner occupations” and left sanitation altogether. With white ethnic categories eliminated from the census after WWII and assistance from the 1944 GI Bill, those occupying the margins of whiteness were granted full integration into white American society, fleeing “dirty jobs and dirty cities” for the clean and white life of suburban America.

In a world of de jure and de facto segregation, this situation meant that blacks, Hispanics and American Indian communities were left to bear much of the environmental burden of the 20th century. As one Chicago lawyer put it, according to Zimring, “Gentlemen, in every great city there must be a part of that city segregated for unpleasant things.” Segregated employment also justified relegating non-white workers to performing the most hazardous jobs in the worst unsanitary conditions, an issue that became central to the civils rights movement during the latter years of the 1960s.

Read the entire piece here.


Perhaps Conservative Evangelicals Need to Consider What it Means to be Pro-Life


Timothy Gloege is a historian based in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the author of Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism.  You may recall that Gloege made a visit to the Author’s Corner back in June 2015.

Over at The Twelve, a blog dedicated to Reformed thinking about the world, Gloege challenges conservative evangelicals to rethink what it means to be “pro-life” when it comes to the issue of abortion.

Here is a taste:

So, here’s my question, and I want you to answer it honestly. What matters more to you: making abortion illegal or reducing the number of procedures that occur each year?

Or let me put it another way. Which is the better society: one in which abortions are illegal and punished when they occur (because they will), or one in which the surgical procedure is legal, but largely unnecessary?

This is more than a rhetorical question. We already know how to decrease the abortion rate: make contraception easy to access. This is low-hanging fruit folks; other fellow pro-life evangelicals have pointed it out.

But there’s another thing we could try. Several studies have noted that the majority of women seeking abortions earn less than the poverty level (that’s about $16,000 annually for a family of two). In fact, while the abortion rate has dropped at other income levels, it has increased among those in poverty.

Correlation may not equal causation, but poverty reduction is a pro-life strategy worth exploring. So why aren’t pro-life advocates the loudest, fiercest advocates for anti-poverty programs in America?

We could easily go further. Why not advocate for a basic income (something arch-conservative economist Milton Freedman suggested years ago)? And throw in a few condoms. It’s a pro-life platform for the masses!

Seriously, why not? What are the risks?

Are we afraid anti-poverty programs will create dependent people? Afraid it will be too expensive? Afraid free birth control will lead to increased sexual activity outside of a committed relationship? We can argue about all that if you want. But let’s hold off.

Just remember: we are talking about reducing abortions. And abortion, you regularly tell me, is no different from murdering innocent children.

Think about that for a second.

Now tell me: do you really believe what you say? If so, isn’t preventing a holocaust worth a compromise in social or economic policy? Shouldn’t we be willing to pay any price?

Read the entire post here.


Did the Founding Fathers Care About Inequality?

Unequal GainsOver at The Atlantic, writer Alana Semuels argues that inequality was not an issue in revolutionary America.

Here is a taste:

…Is it really correct to say that America is built on a foundation of opportunity and economic freedom when that type of equality isn’t mentioned at all?

Not necessarily. The lack of language about equality might not be because the founders didn’t believe it important, but because economic inequality was barely a problem then. In fact, the colonies were among the most egalitarian places on earth at the time they declared independence. In the late 18th century, “incomes were more equally distributed in colonial America than in any other place that can be measured,” authors Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson write, in the recently released book Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700. The richest 1 percent of households held only 8.5 percent of total income in the late 18th century. Today, the richest 1 percent have 20 percent of total income. The Gini coefficient, which measures inequality on a scale from 0 to 1(with 1 being very high inequality) was just 0.367 in New England and the Middle Atlantic. It was 0.57 in Europe, in the late 18th century.

Early on, the colonies provided a level of economic equality that simply wasn’t possible in Europe. For one thing, there was a lot of land available once the colonists started taking it from Native Americans, and—as the game Monopoly shows us—owning property has historically been a good way to get ahead. Colonists were able to profit from the land. They farmed wheat, tobacco, and rice, and fished the seas for cod and hunted whales. With easy access to abundant resources, they sent goods to Europe and profited as a result. At the same time, population growth was slow. That meant those who wanted to work but didn’t own land could always find a job, And those who owned land paid a premium for labor because—with the exception of the South, which had slave labor—those seeking workers had few candidates to choose from. The scarcity of labor created an unintentional redistribution of wealth—inflating the earnings of non-landowners.

Upward mobility was also a lot easier to achieve around the time of the country’s founding, according to Gordon S. Wood, the author of the seminal book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. There were poor people in the early colonies and the Republic, but many fewer than there had been in Europe. About half the population of Britain in the 18th century was on the dole, Wood said. But there were far fewer poor people in America, partly because they couldn’t get there if they were truly impoverished.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Semuels correct?  It seems hard to argue with the fact that inequality among white people was not as great in 1776 as it was in 1876 or 2016.  But there was some degree of inequality in eighteenth-century America and it is definitely worth continued exploration by historians.

Ben Carson, Bear Killings, Welfare, and Faith

I got in late last night and missed Dr. Ben Carson’s appearance on the CNN GOP Town Hall. Earlier today I finally got a chance to see Carson’s answer to a question about faith and the welfare state. It has been making the rounds on social media:

I want to commend Jessica Fuller for this question.  It is the best question on faith and politics that I have heard asked in this primary season.  (And that includes the media and the moderators of debates).

I am partially sympathetic here with Carson.  It is the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor at the local level through voluntary societies such as churches.

But we also live in a broken world.  Sometimes voluntary societies fail. Sometimes the church fails.

Think about the Jim Crow South.  Where was the white church during segregation?  If you read Martin Luther King Jr’s. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or David Chappell’s treatment of the Civil Rights movement in Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow you have to come to grips with the fact that the white church did not do its job. And because it didn’t do its job, the government had to step in and desegregate.  (This is also part of Mark Noll’s argument in God and Race in American Politics: A Short History).

I wonder if the same thing can be said for poverty in America.  Would we need welfare programs if Christians were doing their job?  I’m not sure, but it is certainly something to think about.

I also wonder why caring for the poor always has to be framed in a “big government” vs. “civil society” way.  Yes, the welfare system needs reform.  But why can’t government also be involved in this kind of work?  Carson rattles off a bunch of problems with welfare.  But there are also stories of success.

And then there are the historical problems with Carson’s comments..

First, Carson is right about the Constitution.  The Constitution doesn’t say that it is the government’s job to take care of the poor.  In fact, I am not sure the Constitution says anything about taking care of the poor.

Second, I am sure that the kind of moral community Carson is talking about here was present in the “old days of America.” I have even written about it. (Although I failed to mention the bear-attacks).

But one also has to be cautious when suggesting that back in the good old days everyone cared for one another and there was no self-interest.  It is easy to romanticize this kind of community.  Carson is very nostalgic for a world that only partially existed.

Third,  Carson’s reference to Woodrow Wilson and progressivism comes straight out of the Glenn Beck playbook. In fact, when Beck and his writers attacked me a few years ago I had to deal with rabid Beck fans leaving messages on my office answering machine accusing me of being “Woodrow Wilson.” For Beck, Wilson’s racism is not a problem.  He is a problem for his “big-government” solutions to social issues.

But putting all the blame on Wilson and the Progressive Era fails to recognize that one of the brightest moments in American history–Lincoln freeing the slaves and the Radical Republican Reconstruction plan to bring racial equality to the South in the wake of the Civil War– was an example of an active federal government try legislating morality.

Is John Kasich a Conservative?

kasichThe last time I checked, Ohio governor John Kasich was surging in New Hampshire.  The press has painted him as a moderate Republican because of his views on poverty.  James Rogers, a professor of political science at Texas A&M, is having none of it.  Rogers argues that Kasich may be the most conservative candidate in the GOP field.  In the process Rogers provides a nice little lesson about the meaning of conservatism and the proper interpretation of Matthew 25.

Here is a taste of his recent post at First Things:

The press styles John Kasich as a moderate rather than a conservative Republican. That’s weird. Moderate? Schmoderate! Kasich has a decades-long record as a strong conservative. He stands for an authentic form of American conservatism, one I’d argue is its best and truest form, even if it currently isn’t its numerically largest or most influential form.

There are two basic reasons why reporters—and even some right-wing commentators—don’t understand where Kasich is on the political spectrum, and so label him a moderate out of their own confusion. First, because Kasich is not a right-wing fire eater; he has a conservative temperament. Secondly, because of his positions on poverty and government policy, which not only do not detract from his conservatism, they flow from his bona fide conservatism.

A conservative temperament—empirical, incremental, prudential—is not simply a matter of “style.” While not rejecting government action in knee-jerk fashion, it holds a humble view about government abilities; it’s cautious about unintended consequences.

Read the rest here.