“Religious Faith and Political Governance” by Pat Conover

November 6, 20162016 Jubilee Altar

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

 The Call Statement of Seekers says that citizenship matters. This is a sermon concerning  Christian faith grounding for citizenship.

This is the worst presidential campaign I remember and my memory goes back to cheering for Adlai Stevenson against Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

I’m glad Paul, Keith, and Peter are hosting the School of Christian Living Class that provide opportunities to process our feelings and concerns. And yes, I think there is a lot to worry about however the results turn out.

I didn’t like the Lectionary readings for today. The best I can say for them is that they reflect anxiety, fear, and lust for revenge. The theme that God will provide a Judgment Day against all enemies both foreign and domestic seems to mirror a lot of the feelings going around in this election. I take the readings as a problem statement for this sermon.

This sermon takes on an issue that has been identified in several polls as the highest issue of concern for both Republican and Democrat voters: the economic situation in the United States. You can think of this sermon as an unlikely model for the debates and ads the candidates might have had.

In the United States, disparities between the wealth and income of the rich and everyone else has been increasing sharply since the election of Ronald Reagan and the advent of trickle-down economics. For the prior 70 years the disparity between rich and poor had been decreasing. Wealth has flooded uphill, proving that wealth does not obey the law of gravity. 

Between 2009-2012 the income of the top one percent increased by 36.8% and the income of the rest of us slightly decreased. The result is that the top 160,000 families own as much wealth as the poorest 145,000.000 families. Alternatively said, many people with full time employment earn less than a livable wage income. And wealth is about ten times more concentrated than income.

I agree with Joseph Stiglitz in his 2012 book who makes the case that people had begun to be aware that they were experiencing “hard times” because the interlocking economic and political system is unfair, is rigged against them. Stiglitz pointed to a poll that found that two-thirds of Americans supported the Occupy Wall Street Movement. 

Stiglitz went on to write that “U. S. President Barack Obama had promised ‘change you can believe in,’ but he subsequently delivered economic policies that, to many Americans seemed like more of the same.”

My observation of current polling is that two-thirds of eligible voters claim a party identification, with Democrats holding a slight advantage. More importantly, for assessing the opportunity for dramatic positive change, many party affiliated voters were critical of their own party. I’m in that position myself.

With this in mind, and remembering that one-third of the electorate belongs to no party, it seems fair to me to identify this historical moment as chaotic, confused, and distressing. The good news is that such chaos and dissatisfaction signals an opportunity, even a likelihood, for significant change. Will the change be for good or for ill? Will we help shape the change? How can our Christian faith help?

I understand Trump’s core response to this moment to be that elites have rigged the system against the people and the answer is to blow everything up and let him fix it. I understand Clinton’s core response to be like Obama’s: more benefits to ease the pain for those who have been hurt by the system. I think we in Seekers already know some important things about about how to fix the system. Maybe this sermon can at least help Seekers to have better conversations.

People in the United States have elected politicians to change the fundamental economics of the United States many times, and we can do it again. We the people didn’t start the class warfare, as charged by defenders of dominance for the most wealthy. They started it with Ronald Reagan, and they are still winning it big time.

Andrew Jackson broke up the big banks. After the War Between the States, slavery was abolished and we won the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution with its citizenship clause, due process clause, and equal protection clause. We won the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. Women won the right to vote in 1919 and then gained numerous economic rights. We won a wide array of economic and political reforms including the Fair Labor Standards Act and Social Security under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In my lifetime we have won the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Why not take another big step in 2020?  

It seems to me that in radically different ways the core messages of both candidates end up supporting the upper echelons of the upper class. Trump wants to change the tax system to further advantage the most wealthy and do away with regulatory restraints that hinder the upper class from further plundering consumers, workers, and the environment. Clinton wants to engage in federal charity for lower income people by modestly increasing taxes on the most wealthy. Redistributing a small amount of wealth to slightly improve circumstances is not much better than nothing, considering the scale of current wealth strangulation by gigantic banks and gigantic corporations.

I understand that many ultra-wealthy people want to change the system. I understand that only two percent of Republicans earn over $250,000 a year. I understand that a lot of different things need to be fixed and we can’t do them all at once. We can stop Delaware and off-shore banks from supporting money laundering and hiding wealth from taxation. We can follow up on our success in the Jubilee movement a few years ago by stopping vulture capitalists. They bought near worthless debts owed by low income nations and use various various mechanisms to try to force payment in full. The debt was forgiven in principle because the money was given to corrupt local elites who took the money, spent some of it on themselves, hid a lot of it, and then walked out leaving those the loans were meant to help with no benefits and all the debt. At home we can block usury level interest rates for credit card debts, pay day loans, and title loans.

At this point it’s typical for liberal Christians to properly appeal to prophetic voices in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Testament to rally people to political protest. You know that story line already. I agree, but we need a lot more than protest, blaming, and critique.

We can do more than play the blame game. We can do more than pragmatic issue by issue change. We can support a different understanding of what is real about economics and offer a comprehensive vision for reforming economics in the United States and around the world.

Countable trust is the theological aspect of money. (Hold up $20 bill) Money is a symbol constructed for social, political, economic, and legal purposes. I trust that my twenty dollar bill can be exchanged for twenty dollars worth of food the next time I go shopping at Trader Joe’s. The economic aspect of this physical twenty dollar bill is general purchasing power that I trust will be recognized by sellers of goods and services. Taken together, the reality of economics is general trust.

Money is a symbol constructed for social, political, economic, and legal purposes. There is a lot of important policy about creating the money supply in a nation, but I’m not going to comment on that, mostly because I’m not competent to comment on that.

nderstanding the reality of economics as general trust opens up conversation concerning capitalism. The United States has already recognized this reality, in part, by adding a lot of enforceable regulations to free market capitalism to get to what is commonly called mixed capitalism. Good enforceable regulation creates trust which unbridled competition destroys. Recognizing economics as the organization of general trust, based on good rather than bad regulation, makes room for claiming that progressive Christian faith can and should help shape the vision of broad integrated reform. 

John Stuart Mill made the classic statement of Economic Man theory as a basis for free market capitalism. He called Economic Many theory  “an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” In so doing Mill opened the door for those who claim unlimited competition would be good for everyone and then defending unlimited concentration of wealth and political power as somehow good for everyone.

The big problems with Economic Man theory are that it is inaccurate, simplistic, and binds rationality to an idol rather than to what matters most. Mills did not recognize that free market capitalism is an ideology that functions as a religion.

Economic Man theory is inaccurate because it misunderstands how people actually behave. Behavioral economics is well developed and emphasizes actual economic behavior, cognitive biases, irrationality (as defined by efforts to maximize profit), and human cooperation. Here are a couple of questions to help us understand and appreciate what is at stake.

Do you shop at the closest store, the cleanest store, or the store that has the one thing you really want and just buy the rest of your list for the sake of convenience?

Are you willing to take the time, and to spend a lot for transportation, to compare prices at three stores before you decide what to buy at each store? That would amount to six trips rather than one?

And there is no shopping if only one grocery store is reasonably available.

Do you buy locally because you care about the carbon footprint of blueberries flown in from Peru?

Is it irrational that I occasionally travel to North Carolina to buy from a particular family of potters because I like the family, the store, the head potter and the sales people; because I like the story of an unbroken family lineage that has kept alive traditional Colonial pottery to be bought by the masses; because I like their policy of allowing visitors to explore all the pottery, because I remember admiring the efficiency of a mule powered clay grinder.

Economic Man theory is simplistic because it defines a money based economic transaction as buying and selling between two people. This is a vision of buying and selling occurring in one isolated bubble after another. In fact, such singular moments bring together multiple sequences of activity involving multiple actors in multiple circumstances. This reductionistic focus can’t see the reality of money as general trust because it defines economic transactions as merely bartering between two parties. It is also simplistic because it is blind to the complexity of behavioral economics.

In addition, the first assumption of free market capitalism defies the isolation vision of Economic Man theory. In a market there has to be more than one seller if the buyer is to have any freedom other than to buy or not buy. Having options is at the heart of the principle of competition which is supposedly the source of what makes market capitalism a good thing.

The core contradiction within free market capitalism is that unbridled competition destroys markets. Maximizing profit via competition is a direct path to winning and losing. Winners have the resources to maximize competitive advantage and can and do use it to restrict and then destroy competitors. This path to monopolization leaves buyer with no options and thus there is no market.        Such idolatry is exposed for what it is when economists scream, “Don’t you dare impose your pious morality on my freedom and right to become as wealthy as possible.” I smile and reply, “That’s why I don’t trust you.”

Furthermore, sellers do a lot more than providing goods and services to maximize profits. They avoid taxation to improve profits and influence politicians to reduce taxation. They negotiate with politicians to get all sorts of benefits paid for with taxpayer income and with special deals to avoid taxation. Sellers minimize labor costs which diminishes market because people have less money to spend, another fundamental contradiction within free market capitalism. Sellers commonly escape from the costs to society of environmental degradation. Sellers escape from health care costs of workers who are injured and sickened because of unsafe and exploitive working conditions. Escaping the full costs of providing goods and services advantages the seller, and secondarily the buyer, and injures everyone else who are forgotten by focusing on the moment of sale between a buyer and seller.

ore importantly, Economic Man theory asserts how a buyer should behave. By asserting that supposedly rational buyers and sellers should focus only on price for wanted goods and services is economic secularism which treats altruism as a bogus philosophical motive, and treats any intrusion of religion as irrational hogwash. Providing quality goods and services at low prices is a good thing but it isn’t the only good thing, isn’t the best thing. The best thing is to do our selling and buying in support of good lives for ourselves and everyone else.

In elections to come, might we lift up the the values of cooperation rather than competition as a basis for economics. Can we cooperate as workers? Can we cooperate as consumers? Can we cooperate as voters and citizens? Will we invest in political movements that emphasize fairness for all rather than dominance for some?

Trickle up economics begins with appreciating that improved wages, benefits, and working conditions builds market capacity. Similarly, taxation supports government spending which also increases market capacity. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are not burdens on the economy but rather distribute income which increases markets and is especially valuable in sustaining spending during recessions.

Rebuilding trust of all kinds is going to be a big challenge after this election. It is going to require conversations that bridge all kinds of fault lines. It is going to require politeness, tolerance, and a whole lot more to get to mutual understanding and appreciation, recognition of common interests, and a whole lot more friendship. Its going to require forgiving others and asking forgiveness for ourselves. Reciprocal trust is a preferable landmark than profit for reconstructing economic relationships in the United States and around the world.  

When laws are more fair, there will be more respect for laws. When politics are more transparent, there will be more trust of politicians. When we move to one person one vote, rather than one dollar one vote, we will trust democracy more. When we move beyond individual spirituality to appreciating, embracing, and embodying the spiritual values that enhance relationships, we will redirect our culture toward win-win economics rather than win-lose economics. 

Seekers already embraces two prominent standards that would be good for the United States and the world, not just for us. Stewardship is a concept that recognizes that we hold our personal, family, and church wealth as an economic trust.

Calling is at the heart of our community focus: individual callings, mission group callings, and the Call Statement that amounts to our church constitution. Callings are callings to ministries. Ministries support living into and out of meaningful engagements of our lives in diverse sectors of our community, our neighborhood, our work places, our city, our nation, our world. Ministry is about giving our lives away as expressions of our caring, as expressions of our hope for solidarity and not just tolerance across boundary across boundary across boundary. For Seekers, calling is more than maximizing profits or expanding the church budget, is more important than insuring that services are available for members. 

Stewardship and calling place profit in a larger context. Stewardship and calling are two landmarks for guiding paths to here and now salvation in the economic-political-legal-social context of living in the United States, of living in the world.  I look out at you and smile because I know how much we help each other economically, sometimes with money, and often without.

We can do better as a nation as well.

May I have an Amen?   


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"Accepting What Is" by Larry Rawlings
Remembering the Saints