Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary, recently addressed a meeting of Evangelical leaders held at Wheaton College and has released a reconstruction of his remarks. It is an interesting address which spends four paragraphs explicitly addressing questions of economics and economic policy.
This section begins by rightly noting that, “It is very hard to read the Bible and ignore God’s heart for the poor and the vulnerable.” In the Catholic tradition there has been a sustained reflection on this issue using the language of a preferential option for the poor (See ‘The Poor as Neighbors: Option & Respect’) and Labberton’s call for Evangelicals to reflect in a similar way is most welcome.
When Labberton later states, “Long before free market capitalism had developed, the God of Israel, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, was shown to bend toward mercy, with justice for the poor.”, there is potential for confusion.
While the preferential option for the poor is indeed an essential and distinct part of the Christian tradition it is wrong to paint it in opposition to free markets. Last week I sought to outline an argument for the essential consonance of the broadly liberal tradition, including free market economics, with the Christian tradition (See ‘Is economics an ideology?’). Just as the preferential option for the poor is the product of the sustained reflection of Christians on their scripture, tradition, and experience so too are free markets and the institutions, ethics, and law which undergird them (See Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law for a rich sampling of this tradition).
The maintenance of the important distinction between the preferential option for the poor as an ethical imperative and markets as an essential institution of a just social order keeps us thinking clearly and from making the sorts of mistakes that I believe Labberton makes in his concluding paragraph on economics,
When white evangelicals in prominent and wealthy places speak about what is fair and beneficial for society, but then pass laws and tax changes that create more national indebtedness and elevate the top 1% even higher—while cutting services and provisions for children, the disabled, and the poor that are castigated as disgusting “entitlements”—one has to ask how this is reconciled with being followers of Jesus. The complexities of social support for the vulnerable in our society certainly can and should be debated, but when the instigators of change are serving elite interests and disregarding the 99%, it is very hard to recognize the influence of the gospel narrative on compassion, let alone justice.
It is difficult to evaluate this paragraph without knowing about which particular laws or tax changes Labberton is referring to. National indebtedness is certainly not something to be pursued for its own sake and I am not aware of any law or tax policy that pursues it as such. Christians have long struggled with and reflected on questions of credit and under which circumstances and when it is morally justified (See On Exchange and Usury and On Righteousness, Oaths, and Usury). What is clear is that a simple acceptance or rejection of the use of credit as such is unwise.
Similarly I am unaware of any law designed explicitly to enrich the ‘1%’. Samuel Gregg, the Acton Institute’s Director of Research, has rightly condemned the injustice of ‘Crony Capitalism’ which,
… involves dislodging the workings of free exchange within a framework of property rights and rule of law—what is generally understood to be a free market. These arrangements are gradually replaced by “political markets.”
This is a perennial problem which early free market theorists fought against (See ‘The Law’) and continue to analyze (See ‘Rent Seeking’).
Labberton acknowledges that, “…complexities of social support for the vulnerable in our society certainly can and should be debated…”, but uses very loaded and hostile language to describe critics of the current welfare state. It should be noted that our largest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, are not means tested and flow not only to the poor but to the ‘1%’! Poverty is a complex social problem and bringing the marginalized towards the center of our social, religious, and economic life requires the pairing of our good intentions with sound economics (See ‘Redistribution’).
Economics should be the concern of serious Christians but Labberton’s address brings more heat than light to the issue. For some light I would heartily recommend Victor Claar and Robin Klay’s Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices.