Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Spiritual Coffee: Dangers of Nostalgia in Voting - New Film Finishes Chariots of Fire Story of Missionary Eric Liddell - Do Churches Help Solve Social Problems?

I took a short hiatus while I completed a series on recognizing and confronting addictions in the lives of others, but now here's a new installment of Spiritual Coffee with three things to help keep your Christian mind alert and informed. The third link in particular is a very pressing issue for the church, so I took some additional time to comment on it.

(As always, you can look over past installments under the tag Spiritual Coffee.)

Hope in the Ruins: Why Politics Can't Save Our Politics, James K. A. Smith (Comment Magazine)
Rather than dwelling on the present deterioration of ideals and unity in both political parties, take some time to focus on what we want to rebuild and how to get there. One helpful resource for figuring out what that looks like is Smith's review of Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.
"It is hard to imagine a more timely, important, and wise book than Yuval Levin's latest, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. Levin, a Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and founding editor of National Affairs, is one of our most astute political analysts, eschewing from-the-hip punditry for careful work that is nourished by both historical insight and social-scientific rigour. But more importantly, Levin is that rare combination of heart and mind, intellect and soul, who writes with the philosopher's commitment to big ideas but as someone who knows and loves his neighbours."
Among the important points Smith observes:

  1. Both conservatives and liberals are blocked from achieving progress by a misplaced nostalgia for "the way things were." Levin charts out why he believes people on both ideological ends are pursuing a past that cannot be recovered. Each side is trying to return to what they perceive to be their golden years, and yet this is impossible for either side to accomplish. So we get nowhere.
  2. One of the reasons this return to the past is impossible is that often the idealized time that each party wants to get back to was a short time of unsustainable success or prosperity. Many of these cherished seasons were the result of complex social and economic forces developing over decades and they often had consequences that had to be worked out over following decades.
  3. Therefore: A) they are incredibly dependent on a long sequence of many different events, more than any political party can orchestrate; and B) they were never capable of lasting anyway, even at their best, because by their nature they were temporary conditions that a society could not continue to maintain.
One example:
"For example, we longingly look back on the widespread productivity of the postwar era, yielding gainful employment that could sustain a new era of consumption and almost unparalleled prosperity. We pine for the days when a job at GM could buy a family a house in the suburbs and all of the security and stability that came with that (at least for whites, who benefited from the cartel-like cooperation between corporations and unions). "Play it again, Sam!" our politicians bellow. But when you look at the unique constellation of historical contingencies at play you realize this can't happen. The US economy soared in that era in no small part because we were one of the few developed economies whose infrastructure wasn't decimated by World War II. Once Germany and Japan rebuilt, in the 1970s, the US economy experienced the reality of competition that sent us into the malaise that Jimmy Carter named."
Most importantly, Levin's book displays careful thinking about what can be accomplished now, in our current cultural state. I highly recommend Smith's discussion of how Levin deals with the problems of atomization and individualism, and why Levin sees rebuilding neighborhood/community groups and institutions as an essential part of restoring social stability. (Here's some basic explanation of both atomization and individualism for those not familiar with how these terms are being used.)

The Story After "Chariots of Fire", Amy Qin (The New York Times)
A fascinating report on the making of a new film telling the story of how Eric Liddell, the Christian Scotsman and Olympic runner of Chariots of Fire, went on to become a missionary to China like his parents. He was captured during the occupation of China by Japan and held in a Japanese prison camp in 1945, where he died. It is especially encouraging to see this movie being made by a Hong Kong filmmaker and distributed in China.
“The Last Race” is "a Hong Kong-Chinese production that opened in more than 50 Chinese cities last Friday. (It does not yet have a North American release date.) Co-directed by the veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Shin and the Canadian Michael Parker, it focuses on the final years of Liddell’s life, when he was held in a Japanese labor camp in the coastal province of Shandong."
"'It means a lot to me to be able to tell this story of an Olympic champion who came to China and sacrificed so much to help others,’ Mr. Shin, who is also a Christian, said in a recent interview."
Carter analyzes a recent Pew study that showed many people do not believe the church contributes to solving social problems, or that it doesn't contribute much. These numbers are much higher than eight years ago, and he also notes that they are higher even among Christians - meaning that a number of Christians do not even recognize how the church positively impacts society. This excerpt is especially important, and I posted additional comments below to emphasize why:
"There has been no sign that churches are less charitable or engaged in their communities than they were in 2008. What has changed is the attitude and expectations many Americans have about the role of churches. No matter how many “good works” churches engage in—from feeding the homeless to ministering to sex trafficking victims—it won’t be sufficient to offset our opposition to the increasing sexual permissiveness of society. Our refusal to abandon the Biblical ethic on sexuality makes us, in the eyes of many Americans, a social problem to be solved rather than a partner in solving social problems.
 "Unfortunately, when it comes to religious liberty the church has relied too heavily on society recognizing the benefits we provide. For instance, churches and other religious institutions in American [sic] are almost always exempt from federal, state, and local taxes. The justification for this policy is usually that such institutions provide vital charitable benefits to society. But what happens when this argument is no longer perceived to be true?
 "Losing popularity is no great loss. Losing tax-exempt status, however, is a considerable loss, since it poses a direct threat to the religious liberty of churches and Christian institutions. As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in the Supreme Court ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), 'That the power to tax involves the power to destroy; that the power to destroy may defeat and render useless the power to create . . . are propositions not to be denied.' (Unfortunately, even many Christians deny this proposition and are woefully na├»ve about how taxation would affect—if not outright destroy—many charities and ministries.)"

My Take: Here's why this matters so much. The power to tax is the power to destroy because where the government can tax you, it can control what you do by heavily taxing things it doesn't like and giving deductions and exemptions for things it wants to promote. Chief Justice Marshall recognized in 1819 that it is wholly possible for government to destroy certain institutions and organizations by simply making the taxes on what they do so high that the group must fold. Taxes have always been used to promote certain behavior and discourage other behavior. We allow charitable deductions from taxed income because giving to non-profit organizations is generally good for society, so we encourage that giving by not taxing any part of their income that a person gives away to charity.

But if the government can tax the church, then the government can also choose to tax certain activities of the church more highly than others. For instance, a church that refused to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies might be taxed at a higher level on its property, whereas a church that was "open to everyone" (as the government might say) could get a much lower property tax bill. Taking advantage of the taxing power this way, the government could discourage and even strangle something that it is not allowed to directly outlaw. Even where the courts and the Constitution protect religious groups from having to perform marriage ceremonies against their beliefs, if the government can tax them then it can make living by those beliefs extremely costly.

Likewise, the government could offer tax-exempt status for contributions to churches that do the things the government wants churches to do, and refuse to provide it to churches that hold beliefs and practices that the government doesn't like. This would inevitably reduce giving to churches where contributions were not tax exempt: even people who would still give in spite of not getting a tax exemption would be stuck with the fact that they have less money to give now. Instead of giving that money away and paying no taxes on that part of their income, they would now still pay 20-30% of that amount in taxes - meaning that many would have to give less and use the rest to pay the tax. This is why tax-exempt status for churches matters so much. The government cannot punish churches by law for having beliefs different from what government desires, but it can use the taxing power very freely. Where it would be unconstitutional for the government to try to force a church to stop doing something, if churches are not tax-exempt, the government could instead tax what the church does and grind it down.

This is why we should take it seriously when the public and politicians are saying the church doesn't contribute to society or solve social problems, and try to learn how to correct those errors. But more than that, we must persuade our neighbors that freedom to live by your own beliefs is more important for all of us than any particular social cause. For over 225 years this country has lived by the conviction that the government should never have the power to force a person to change his or her beliefs or to prevent that person from living what they believe simply because others don't like it. A tragic consequence of the culture war has been the rise of an attitude that refuses to tolerate the other side's beliefs: a mindset of "us vs. them" that has left us with people thinking there's simply no room for both ways of life. A shocking number of people seem ready to throw out the ideas of freedom of belief and freedom of speech as long as they think they have the upper hand. We must unite against that.

People of all beliefs should agree that having government manipulate what we believe and practice is a much worse evil than having people refuse to agree with your lifestyle. We have to see together that any discussion by politicians and government of taking away tax-exempt status for churches is a direct assault on freedom of religion, with the clear agenda of manipulating religious beliefs and church teachings. If anyone gives the government the power to do that today, the government will have the power to use it against them tomorrow. One of the foundational promises upon which the United States was built was this: there are certain things the government would never have the power to take away from its people. We must remember how precious it is to have a government that has limits on what it can do to you. [The previous paragraphs after the block quote are my own comments. -Anthony]

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