Sunday, May 08, 2011

How Well Do Religion and Economics Mix?

Could faith-based economics be tolerated in a democratic society?

With economic policy once again at the heart of public debate, the dominant debate has been between economics' two heavyweight theories: those of John Maynard Keynes and those of Friedrich Hayek.

Yet with Keynes and Hayek occupying the dominant positions in this debate, it's easy for any alternatives to get squeezed out. Of course, this begs a key question: which of the alternative theories are worthy of consideration, and which should be rejected?

Rarely receiving careful consideration are the so-called faith-based economic theories. While Keynes and Hayek are hotly debated in the university classroom, so-called faith-based theories are relegated to the homeschool classroom.

Yet some theorize that these theories have garnered far more influence than it would seem.

One of these theories is that of Christian Reconstructionism, championed primarily by Gary North. North is something of a recluse. His reclusiveness may have something to do with the detail that his name is on a watchlist of "libertarian theocrats"

(This is an oxymoron if there ever was one, but it's likely entirely lost on the studious "scholars" of the far-left.)

North is a disciple of Rousas John Rushdoony (himself during his life a feirce advocate of home schooling, unsurprisingly). Rushdoony preached an approach to economic political policy that turned an eye to charity, but not with inexhaustible patience for those who would rely on it.

"In the New Testament, Consider what Paul was doing," Rushdoony told a sympathetic interviewer prior to his passing. "Offerings to alleviate the poverty of the saints during the famine in Palestine; counseling that the needy be cared for, but 'He who will not work, let him not eat.'"

"We do know that anyone who became unemployed was given three days income," Rushdooney continued. "After that they found work for him. Another Christian would hire him, but at lower than his normal pay so there would be no incentive to stay under that diaconal care."

That would certainly be an unwelcome shock to those demanding 99 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Rushdooney also invoked the Roman experience with courts to justify the establishment of religious courts. In his view, they simply worked better.

"We know from 1 Corinthians 6 [paraphrase] that Paul said: 'Don't go to the civil courts. They're ungodly. Create your own courts.' And they did," Rushdooney explained. "They were so efficient that after a while pagans were coming to the church courts and saying: 'Adjudicate our problems for us. It takes years to get a case heard in the civil courts and it bankrupts us and then we don't get justice. Would you do it for us?'"

"When Constantine became Emperor, he called in the bishops and he said, 'The courts of the Empire are failing. We have cases that have been in the courts forty years with no justice. I want you men when you go out in the streets to wear the garb of a Roman magistrate by my orders so that the people of Rome and of the Empire will no that they can come to you for justice.'"

Rushdooney declared that when Rome fell, it was only the Christian courts that remained to provide any semblence of justice.

"Then the deacons took care of the sick, the poor, the orphans and the widows, of needy people in general, of captives, because as the Roman Empire began to breakdown, pirates and lawless bands would take men for ransom, hold men captive," Rushdooney explained. "One bishop in the early church ransomed 15,000 captives. When Rome fell, for six centuries, the only courts of Europe were the church courts for arbitration."

"When Rome was gone, the government, the state was gone, but Europe had justice because the church provided it," Rushdooney continued. "This was the pattern through much of the Middle Ages. It was the pattern of the Reformation."

Unlike the Roman courts, which were maintained through taxation by the state, the Christian courts were maintained by voluntary offerings. (Although a clear case exists that these offerings were coerced through social means.)

"There were two offerings taken every Sunday: one for the work of the deacons so that all of the needy were cared for so that apart from crime, the church through these diaconal courts and through various independent Christian agencies provided for the basic government of the community," Rushdooney said.

Courts being a foundational institution of any market (along with governments, markets and financial institutions), a very simple fact of economic life emerges: whomever controls courts can effectively control much of the economy.

Under Christian Reconstructionism, important facets of the economy would effectively be relegated to the Church. But even if religious courts historically out-performed Roman courts, should Christian Reconstructionism be seriously considered?

Absolutely not.

For one thing, Rushdooney's vision of a state based on Christian Reconstructionism is unconstitutional in the United States. In fact, it's unconstitutional in any country that guarantees religious freedom within its foundational law (including in Canada).

For his own part, Rushdooney insisted that a Church-dominated state should not be offensive to non-Christians. Confoundingly, however, the only basis of support he argues for this idea is based on religious scripture. He simply stated: "Our Lord said, 'Occupy until I come.'"

The only way Christian Reconstructionism could become the basis of law in the United States is if these constitutional guarantees of religious freedom were removed through an amendment.

This would extend a dangerous invitation to things like Shariah law. In a properly democratic society, law based on Islam -- or any other religion -- would be just as permissable as law based on Christianity. The only means by which Rushdooney could guarantee that social structures that are every bit as socially destructive as Christian Reconstructionism, if not more, would be to rebuke democracy as the basis of American politics.

So not only could a democratic state not enshrine North and Rushdooney's faith-based economics as the basis of state policy, North and Rushdeooney's Christian Reconstructionism could not accept democracy as the basis of the political regime.

Simply put, there is no room in a democratic and free society for this kind of religious law.

There's certainly plenty of room for alternative economic theories to Keynes and Hayek. But Rousas John Rushdooney and Gary North unequivocally do not provide such an alternative.

Frankly, there's a reason Rushdooney's and North's work have been relegated to homeschooling. Anyone advocating faith-based economics as the answer to any economic dilemma should promptly be sent back to the drawing board.


4 comments:

  1. I'm a Christian and a libertarian, so I read this post with a lot of interest. For the sake of fairness, I hope it will be noted that some of us totally reject Rushdoony, North, and all of the "theonomists." I believe the Bible, and "Christian Reconstructionism" is abhorrent to me. Christians must strive for justice, but social or economic justice is not to be our main concern: Jesus said that, at the moment, His Kingdom is not of this world. It is a heresy to teach that we can bring in the Kingdom by our own efforts. Pat Robertson and others have fallen into this stupid trap, and it makes me grind my teeth. As for the theories of Hayek and Keynes, or Von Mises, these are not essentially spiritual matters: Christians are free to disagree. There is an element of totalitarianism, typical of Calvinism, in Theonomy/Reconstructionism. (BTW, I'm not a Roman Catholic, either; they believe the same stuff, just in different terms.) My favorite Christian "philosopher" is not an economist, but a sociologist: the late Jacques Ellul. His ideas are enough to keep any Christian on his or her toes.

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  2. Frankly, I see Rushdooney as being entirely at odds with libertarianism, 100%. Which is why I noted that "libertarian theocrat" is the biggest oxymoron I've ever heard. It suggests that some of the witch hunters out there don't understand either concept.

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  3. Yes, of course! Rushdoony would have viewed libertarianism as being synonymous with anarchy. Who cares? Who cares what Gary North or Pat Robertson think? Being a Christian and a libertarian can be tricky, but it's possible. One of our Biblical heroes is Gallio, the Roman magistrate who refused to hear the Pharisees' complaints against Paul (Acts 18). As a civil magistrate, he simply refused to be a judge in religious matters. That's common sense. Rushdoony would probably say that Gallio should have obeyed the Pharisees. Hogwash!

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  4. It would be a very different Bible if Gailio had heard the Pharisee's complaint and ruled in their favour. But perhaps Rushdooney imagined a very different Bible than the one that actually exists.

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