Christian Democratic Communities and Teleological States: A Response to God’s Economy

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Lew Daly’s book, God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State, is something of an odd masterpiece, a brilliant revisionist study of the idea of church-state partnerships in the struggle for social justice and collective goods. I say “revisionist” thinking primarily in terms of my own–and Daly’s–American context; in societies where the legacy of established churches remain, the available language for talking about the various means of providing for the poor (whether that language be legalistic, political, or simply economic) is much broader than is the case in the United States, where the separation of church and state–as well as a fairly individualistic Protestantism, both mainline and evangelical–have long been (and to a degree, still are) the dominant paradigms. So Daly’s arguments about the long evolution of different arguments about how church’s can and should supplement the state (or vice versa!) in providing welfare and protection to the needy will likely not seem quite so “revisionist” to those schooled in, or experience with, Catholic social teachings, Dutch Calvinist social pluralism, and the like. But to this reader, at least, they were fantastically eye-opening.

In a book so broad, it is difficult to pick out and summarize any one of its many fascinating claims–but, since book reviews oblige one to do so, I’ll try (guided significantly by his precis, here). Among other things, Daly argues that the “compassionate conservative” vision of “faith-based initiatives,” the effort by the Bush administration to extend the provisioning of essential welfare resources through the agency of various disparate religious organizations, was hardly an original idea, but was in fact yet another development in an ongoing argument which extends back to, and took its original form in the wake of, the French Revolution. In the (most people would say admirable) efforts of the leaders of the revolution to end the numerous and often horrific abuses which the ancien régime had visited upon the French people–abuses which were often harshly tied up in the land and industries which the church and hereditary aristocrats controlled and employed to their own undemocratic ends–the French radicals went too far; they insisted upon, in contrast to the multiple modes of life and association which characterized traditional France, the existence of only one, uniform “corporation”: the French nation itself. There could be no other communal property, no other citizen attachments, nothing. The aim was egalitarian (the worth of such an aim being something upon which the readers of Front Porch Republic will likely disagree). The result, however, was not; the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy did not disappear (as they almost never do), but the ability of all others to build for themselves communities that could help them sustain mutually enriching lives was seriously compromised. This was a radical individualism, which in particular left the poor (or those who worked in less-than prestigious professions, or who lived in less-than powerful parts of the country) unable to organize and effectively support and defend their ways of life. As these same individualistic ideas spread throughout Europe and America along with the Industrial Revolution, there appeared in response strong critics of French revolutionary fervor. Daly focuses in particular upon Catholic social and Dutch anti-revolutionary thinkers, both of whom, in different ways, emphasized the crucial role that the Christian religion must play in bringing security to those who, in the modern era, lacked such. The argument, from that point on, was and has been a continuing legal, political, and economic tug-of-war, with one side–the side taken by both advocates of a secularist state and supporters of an untrammeled capitalist market–seeing politically organized charitable and church groups as their common enemy, while the other side strives to advance the argument for social pluralism and libertas ecclesiae, the freedom for churches to do God’s work amongst the poor.

The book is powerful, provocative, and filled with eminently-arguable theses. (For example, in the foreword to the book, E.J. Dionne, while strongly praising Daly’s work, take serious issue with him over his rather extensive claims regarding the influence Catholic and social democratic thought had on the New Deal.) So let me pick out one of the book’s many strands of thought: leaving aside the question of just how one determines in the first place the extent and nature of the egalitarian support which social justice demands the poor receive to enable them to be full-fledged members of the community, what does Daly have to say about the role (and the inter-relationship) which churches, local communities, and the central state have in providing such justice?

In what I thought to be a particular insightful section of the book, Daly reflects upon the mid-1900s rediscovery of “social capital” as a term of analysis when thinking about community. About this, he writes:

John DiIulio and other social scientists have made significant efforts to [consider the role of religious providers in terms of social capital]. [Robert] Putnam himself…[has] argued that “nearly half of America’s stock of social capital,” as measured by membership, philanthropy, and volunteerism, “is religious or religiously affiliated.” Or, as John DiIulio terms it, roughly half of our social capital is really “spiritual capital.” Yet when Putnam specifies that “houses of worship” spend $15-20 billion annually on social services, it should also be clear that the scale of spiritual capital (at least by this one measure of involvement) barely touches the magnitude of social needs: $15-20 billion equals approximately $350 annually for every person near or below the poverty line as of 2007. In gross comparative terms, the total spiritual capital of the nation amounts to less that 20 percent of the total “poverty gap” in the United States–the amount by which impoverished people fall below the poverty line, which totaled $107 billion in 2001. This is to say nothing of the tens of millions of people who live near the poverty line on low-wage pay or go through their days only one medical crisis or one corporate merger away from plunging downward to the bottom rungs of the income ladder….

[E]ven if the “faith factor” is definitively proven [to be effective in responding to the needs of poor individuals and families] with further comprehensive research (perhaps leading politicians to prioritize faith-based services beyond current efforts to “level the playing field”), this does nothing to rectify what is obviously a more fundamental problem: the deficient scale of faith-based welfare (indeed of all welfare combined) in a country with growing poverty and increasing downward wage pressures affecting tens of millions of households above the poverty line….What social assistance should accomplish and by what means, and how the cost should be borne, assuming that more should be done, is…a larger question, not just of welfare policy, but of “public purpose,” or what [Abraham] Kuyper and his scattered American followers call “public justice” (pp. 190-191).

Public justice calls for more and better aid to be given to the suffering among us, but it cannot (and, speaking both realistically and politically, will not) be given along convention welfare state lines. I would argue that the long and not-yet (perhaps never-to-be) concluded debate over paying for and providing health care in the United States is a fine example of such: despite many serious attempts to introduce more localism or more communitarianism (or both) into the reforms proposed, in the end the result was perhaps predictable from the beginning: a merging of state and corporate power to accomplish much needed, but still philosophically regrettable, ends. What will have to happen to truly expand upon the vision of faith-based initiatives–the vision of Christian aid being sufficient to satisfying both the human and the communal needs of all needy people in any given polity–is a “re-engineering of the [whole] social safety net along pluralist lines….from the perspective of families and communities, and from a religious perspective, restricting the state while ignoring what is happening in society is not genuine pluralism but simply a faith-based alliance with liberal anti-statism” (pp. 192-193). Seeking to cut back on welfare, and encouraging–whether legally or monetarily or both–churches to take up the slack, while not seeking at the same time to seriously repair a socio-economic order which continues to prize an ultimately unforgiving and rapacious individualism above all, is no way to be true to those principles of compassion and justice to which God calls the believer. A more comprehensive approach to welfare–what Daly calls, in reference to many policies which exist in Western European states, “Christian Democratic welfare policy”–is what is needed: a welfare policy that orients the whole of society, in its many different (and much in need of defense!) parts, around a common restorative goal. To quote Daly again:

Put simply, the faith-based initiative embodies a pluralist vision of societal restoration, based on legal recognition of the real personality of social groups–most importantly families and their churches and communities–coupled with requisite public provisioning for their security and special needs if this autonomy is infringed or reduced by other centers of power, whether public or private. In its fullness this vision encompasses a mandate of stopping or mitigating the impact of all institutions or organized powers that threaten the “tie-beams and anchors of the social structure,” or “God-willed community,” as Kuyper put it (pg 193).

Daly’s conclusion is, ultimately, a hopeful one–that the introduction of a constitutional and procedural language in American politics for seeing welfare delivered and supplemented by locally grounded faith-based organizations is a step towards the kind of pluralistic re-imagining which is necessary for social or public justice to be achieved. Christians are called to help the poor; the best way to help them is to enable them to find and defend dignified ways of family and communal life; the scale of the need in regards to such is massive, and cannot at present be provided by churches alone–but to leave churches out of the matter entirely is to fail to acknowledge the critique, authority, and dignity which local religious bodies can provide; hence, the development of church-state partnerships is a crucial step forward in the filling of a gap in our thinking about the needs of the poor which extends back to the original, violent separating of the individual from the communities of faith and security which they once knew.

I wish I could share in Daly’s optimism, but I do not. Not because I do not find his analysis of this–as well as many other–strands of the argument persuasive; on the contrary, I do, and like Adam Webb says in his consideration of the book, I am fully supportive of Daly’s proposals. But Adam also touches on what I think to be the crucial issue. He observes that “plural sovereignty is grounded on a telos,” and that if we want to make subsidiarity into something more than Michael Walzer’s (admirable from the communitarian point of view, but limited insofar as the Christian one goes) “spheres of justice,” then we must have a “more rigorous–and universal–underlying view of human purpose, human dignity, and the practices that secure them.” We must, in other worlds, be able to collectively conceive of an end for welfare, or else doing justice for the poor will be indistinguishable from endlessly providing them with one or another different egalitarian program. Let me be clear: I think that many of those egalitarian programs are valuable, and usually are much better–when it comes to keeping families and neighborhoods intact–than nothing. But on their own they will only incidentally provide space for the development of truly democratic communities, of communities of capable, responsible, active, compassionate citizens and human beings…and sometimes, tragically, will become, as Daly notes in his critique of the welfare state, an active obstacle to such. What is needed is for the state to become, as Daly’s title puts it, a “Caring State”….and for the state to care, it must believe in something. It needs a civil religion–and certainly a more robust one that the United States has at present.

Most of those who take the idea of civil religion at all seriously in our hyper-pluralistic and individualistic age probably already agree that America’s civil religion, to the extent that it has one, has been tainted by a Christianity Lite, or “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” as some prefer to call it. I’m on record as believing that, to whatever extent such a self-regarding, non-judgmental, atheological civil religion has captivated the country, that…well, there could be worse fates. A civil religion which is tolerant, pragmatic, open-minded, decent, and merciful, is to be much preferred over one that is none of those things. But that is a civil religion too well-suited to our meritocratic age; it has no real notion of suffering or sacrifice, and hence has no need of grace. If your religion–or at least your concept of the moral norms of the civil order–lacks a notion of grace, it therefore also lacks a notion of gifts; all it can say is that some people are lucky, not that some people are blessed. And with that slips away the notion of a blessed–or, as Martin Luther King preferred, a “beloved”–community, one in which the members’ feeling for and service towards one another reflects something larger, adds up to something larger. The simple principles of social justice and welfare without the teleological notions of adding up and gifting and blessing which the concepts of subsidiarity and “sphere sovereignty” (Catholic and Kuyperian terms, respectively) introduce can never fulfill their own–often unstated, and these days perhaps mostly forgotten–aspirations. It also makes them an easy target for libertarian-minded Christians, who wish to reject the aims of welfare entirely, or prefer to piously speak of freeing the churches to handle social welfare, without giving any thought to the pluralistic reality which–at least insofar as Daly thinks and hopes–faith-based initiatives hint at. But with America’s current civil religion, such hints will not be enough.

Rod Dreher touches on this point, tangentially, in his thoughts about Phillip Blond’s recent visit to the U.S., and the connection which “Red Toryism” might have to subsidiarian and localist reforms of the welfare state. While he was cheered by Blond’s diagnosis of our present condition, and applauded his solutions, he doubted their applicability: “[F]or [Red Toryism] to be true, people have to not only be virtuous, but to agree on what virtue is….What the poor need is not a politician, but a preacher….We are stuck being governed by a procedural liberalism because we cannot agree on what constitutes ‘the good life.’ Moreover, in our liberal/libertarian political settlement, we no longer even consider that a concept of the good life can be arrived at through political discussion. In a heterogeneous, culturally pluralistic society like ours, it’s not enough to point to the Christian tradition….[T]he radical transformation of our political and social life that Blond envisions will not take place through politics, but requires religious conversion.” I can’t disagree with Rod’s concerns. Indeed, I would extend them to Blond’s proposals themselves–if they are to be taken serious, if they are to be understood as contributing, in their own way, to same kind of Christian democratic project that Daly thinks may be enabled through faith-based initiatives, then they must remain teleological; they must maintain their religious point. Which means that the most important component of Red Toryism, like the most important component of Bush’s original faith-based idea, is the religious worldview behind them, and the ability to elaborate that worldview. For Bush, that worldview was essentially unexamined, as DiIulio’s own experience with the Bush administration proved. For Blond, that worldview is hopefully closer to the surface. The “Radical Orthodoxy” of John Milbank and others may seem, at first glace, an odd addition to the ongoing argument which Daly has traced, what were their talk of “traditionalist socialism” or “socialism by grace”. But a worldview that can provide an telos for the caring state like this one–“an associationist communitarianism, which combines left egalitarianism with conservatism about cultural and ethical values”–is something to be taken seriously.

Who knows? Perhaps, after Obama in America, after (perhaps) Cameron in Great Britain, Daly may have enough material to write an additional chapter to his impressive book. But in the meantime, he has given us plenty to debate about, all the same.

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