"Is it possible to have a moral conversation about economic policy?"
Sometimes the questions we ask are as important in their own right as the answers we give to them. Often these questions are new and strange. The combination of ideas they present are novel. The perspectives they suggest open new horizons to the mind. Insightful questions challenge us to make new connections and take notice of new information. The question raised by Gerald Zandstra, Program Director of the Acton Institute, is of this type.
The realm of moral conversation seems first and foremost the province of the church. Economic policy is a matter for government. This raises an immediate problem. Our society, and many Christians, strongly affirm Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” Often this is taken to mean that Christians ought not offer a religious perspective in matters of public policy.
"Toward a Free and Virtuous Society," was the conference sponsored by the Acton Institute to address these issues. It provided the setting in which the question of morality, economics, and the role of the church could be considered by future Christian leaders. The sixteen students who participated represented the United States from Philadelphia to San Diego and foreign nations including Kenya and Guatemala. We met under the guidance of a panel of distinguished lecturers from the fields of theology, economics, and public policy. The denominational perspectives spanned the wide range of Western Christian orthodoxy, including Roman Catholic, Evangelical-Pentecostal, Reformed, and Baptist traditions.
The conference was held in the mist-shrouded mountains of the Pacific northwest. The log-cabin conference center at South Bend, Washington proved a haven in the beautiful context of God’s creation. The students who gathered there were free to discuss their significant theological differences. Even more significantly, we affirmed our common commitment to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The starting point of our conversation was the basic Christian doctrine of theological anthropology and the moral structure of Creation. We discussed and debated the concept of natural law and its utility as a common ground in a secular or pluralistic setting. The relationship between freedom and virtue, rights and privileges constituted a major topic of conversation. Lecturers who have advised presidents discussed the role of government and community in helping the poor, the stabilizing effect of limited government, and the rule of law. We were introduced to the controversial subject of globalization. A former economics professor introduced us to the science of economics and its utility in promoting a virtuous society. Finally, we discussed the mandate of the church to help the poor, and her matchless potential for doing so.
The lectures and discussions yielded provocative conclusions:
- Without freedom, it is impossible to have genuine virtue.
- Private property rights are taught by both natural law and Scripture.
- Capitalism, while a human and imperfect arrangement, is the economic system best suited to the moral and theological commitments of orthodox Christianity.
- The most effective way for rich countries to help poor countries is to promote free markets, and the means of participating in them.
- Families, and then the local church or other private institutions, are better suited to helping the poor than is the federal government.
This was no apologetic for a mere social gospel. Rather, it was a recognition that Christ’s mandate for us to be salt and light in society extends to all facets of life, including the economic structure of society. When the church abdicates its moral voice and role, we diminish our capacity to effectively proclaim the gospel of eternal salvation in Christ. If we ignore the physical needs of people around us, we communicate that our faith in Christ is irrelevant to real life. Christians must not tolerate the abridgement of freedom in the name of compelling compassion. Doing so undercuts the inherent dignity of the individual made in God’s image. It also limits our own ability to grow in virtue and to display the love of God for those around us.
"Is it possible to have a moral conversation about economic policy?" I believe that it is, and that it is necessary. As a result, I will not fail to be a Christian voice in that conversation in my church, my denomination, my community, and my nation.
If the assertions and conclusions of this conference move you to thought, if they incite the strong reaction of contrasting views or a deep sense of affirmation of beliefs already held . . .
. . . then I invite you to join the conversation.