The release of Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty “discussion draft” last week marks another milestone in a long, painstaking, and necessary project: the development of a non-toxic policy agenda on which the next Republican presidential nominee can run.
Zooming out, we see Republicans, like Tiktaalik, slowly transitioning out of the primordial soup of supply-side dogma. There was Rep. Dave Camp’s comprehensive tax reform proposal. It’s revenue neutral and maintains progressivity. Relatedly, Ryan takes care to insist his own proposal is “not a tax cut.” It’s true the conservative movement didn’t exactly leap for joy at Camp’s proposal—and there’s a myriad of reasons to doubt that the GOP could ever muster the courage to eliminate as many loopholes and deductions as it would take to reconcile the math of the Ryan budget.
But the larger point is this: a net tax reduction for the rich is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right.
Climbing down the income ladder, Ryan, in presenting his anti-poverty plan, with its devolution to states and consolidation of public assistance spending, noted that “this is not a budget-cutting exercise.” Yes, there’s the matter of reconciling these reforms with the harsh math of the Ryan budget. And the “accountability standards” to which states and local agencies would be held smells an awful lot to me like the anti-poverty version of No Child Left Behind.
But—and again—the larger point is this: a net reduction in spending on the poor and vulnerable is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right.
The recovery from “The 47 percent” and “You built that” will remain a tough slog over the next 18 months. However, the momentum is clearly in the direction of rational reform. The Tea Party era—in which “conservatism” for all practical purposes stood for an unholy alliance of plutocracy and Dixie revanchism—is clearly coming to a close.
Just how the all the manic energy of the last five years will be brought into the fold of a plausible governing agenda remains to be seen. The Room to Grow agenda represents the seedbed of ideas that might eventually become an appealing campaign platform. I like, in particular, Andrew Kelly’s ideas on higher-ed and job training, and Carrie Lukas’s emphasis on fiscal reforms that improve work-life balance.
Broadly speaking, the “reformocon” carriage is an interesting one, fraught with tension but full of possibility: that of the nontechnocratic wonk; of superintendence of the welfare state in a pro-market direction. Of bottom-up or middle-out reforms that issue from the top. The idea of a Medicare premium support system is qualitatively different than, say, Ronald Reagan’s original position on Medicare. But if the arrow is pointing in a rightward direction, can each faction of the right buy into it? Can you sell the idea of “reform” to people on a steady diet of Mark Levin, Ted Cruz, and Sarah Palin? Personally, I think the right would be better off it admitted—no, more than admitted—that “spontaneous order” does not and will not ever lead to a safety net or social insurance for the elderly.
But perhaps I worry too much. One of my themes in this space is the belief that the Tea Party was a cultural temper tantrum more than a granular programmatic shift. It may turn out that tea partiers can be lead to the water of an essentially neoconservative domestic agenda more easily than anyone currently imagines.
At first glance, I thought my informal bet—that a red-state governor will soon claim he stood up to the Obama administration over the formation of health exchanges, despite knowing full well that his or her constituents wouldn’t be eligible for tax subsidies—had died a quick death.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal:
A number of states are scrambling to show that they—not the federal government—are or will soon be operating their insurance exchanges under the 2010 health law, in light of two court decisions this week.
The efforts are aimed at ensuring that millions of consumers who get insurance through the exchanges would be able to retain their federal tax credits if courts ultimately rule against the Obama administration.
The rest of the story, however, doesn’t bear out this picture of “scrambling.” It’s true that a few of the states mentioned—Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico—have Republican governors. And while Arkansas is bona fide red state, it has a Democratic governor. So we’re not talking here about the likes of Rick Perry or Sam Brownback “scrambling” to secure tax credit eligibility on behalf of their states. That’s to be expected. If such governors were willing to forgo expanded Medicaid money, I don’t see why they’d be in a rush to protect health exchange subsidies, either.
There’s a golden political opportunity in the offing, it seems to me. The aforementioned Perry; or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal; or New Jersey’s Chris Christie; or Ohio’s John Kasich—one or all of these potential presidential contenders could appeal to their party’s base by making a fresh case that they refused federal blackmail. At the very least, they could ensure the Gruber-gate story has legs for weeks to come.
Mind you, I’m not saying I’m prepared to believe them. (One would think the argument would already have been made at some point over the last two years.) But this whole rotten enterprise is an exercise in post hoc opportunism. This is the next logical step.
A few more thoughts on Gruber-gate:
1. It seems the exponents of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling on Obamacare subsidies have moved from the position that the ACA passively fails to authorize tax credits through federal exchanges to the idea that it actively prohibits them. That’s pretty astonishing.
2. A second clip featuring Gruber surfaced in which the MIT economist said the same thing he did in the first video. I don’t know what more to add to my reaction to the initial revelation. It seems to me that Gruber did not “misspeak” on either occasion; he believed residents of states that hadn’t set up exchanges would miss out on subsidies until such time as the federal exchanges came online. It’s plausible, too, that he was encouraging states to cooperate with the law in order to score consulting contracts. One could see why he’d be loath to admit this now.
3. There’s another meme that’s about to be set loose: that it took “guts” for Republicans not to set up Obamacare exchanges, that is, accept the bribe of federal money. It’s only a matter of time before a Republican governor says he interpreted Obamacare in this fashion all along. Perhaps one with presidential aspirations—say, Rick Perry. I’ll take bets on who it will be, and when.
Putting aside the fact that no one thought the states wouldn’t want to run the exchanges themselves (indeed, Senators were demanding that option for their states), the exchange provisions simply do not work in the same way as Medicaid. Unlike the ACA’s Medicaid provisions, the exchange provisions have a federal fallback: Medicaid is use it or lose it; the exchanges are do it, or the feds step in and do it for you. In other words, this isn’t Medicaid; it’s the Clean Air Act (CAA). If a state decides not to create its own implementation plan under the CAA, its citizens do not lose the benefit of the federal program—the feds run it. The same goes for the ACA’s exchanges and so it would be nonsensical to deprive citizens in federal-exchange states of the subsidies. More importantly, if we are going to compare apples to oranges, the ACA’s Medicaid provisions have an explicit provision stating that if the state declines to participate, it loses the program funds (this was the provision at issue in NFIB v. Sebelius in 2012). The ACA’s subsidy provisions, in contrast, have no such provision, strong evidence that the subsidies were was not intended to be forfeited if the states did not participate. If the challengers are going to insist on strict textual arguments, this is exclusio unius 101: the rule of interpretation that provides that where Congress includes a specific provision in one part of the statute but does not include an analogous provision elsewhere, that omission is assumed intentional.”
This wiki entry on the Clean Air Act seems apposite:
Although the 1990 Clean Air Act is a federal law covering the entire country, the states do much of the work to carry out the Act. The EPA has allowed the individual states to elect responsibility for compliance with and regulation of the CAA within their own borders in exchange for funding. For example, a state air pollution agency holds a hearing on a permit application by a power or chemical plant or fines a company for violating air pollution limits. However, election is not mandatory and in some cases states have chosen to not accept responsibility for enforcement of the act and force the EPA to assume those duties.
Again: I can’t believe this contest is even necessary. Sigh. Carry on.
Conservative economist Scott Sumner offers up a desperately needed example of intellectual honesty on l’affaire Gruber. (For those who haven’t been keeping score at home: Some libertarians last night released a video of Obamacare “architect” Jonathan Gruber in 2012 seemingly affirming the reasoning of the D.C. Circuit Court’s ruling on the legality of offering healthcare subsidies via exchange.)
Sumner actually watched the video and noticed Gruber’s remarks were taken out of context (context: what a concept!):
That seems to suggest he agrees with the recent court ruling. But he actually disagrees with the ruling. Indeed he seems to regard the ruling as ludicrous. That doesn’t look good. Until you realize that the quote was taken out of context, and that the comments immediately preceding the quote tells a very different story: “Yes, so these health insurance exchanges . . . will be these new shopping places and they’ll be the place that people go to get their subsidies for health insurance. In the law it says if the states don’t provide them the federal backstop will. The federal government has been sort of slow in putting up its backstop in part because I think they want to sort of squeeze the states to do it.”
That seems to imply the federal backstops would provide health subsidies. So how can we reconcile these two statements? I believe Gruber was trying to say that the federal government was being slow in setting up the exchanges, because until they did so, those states without state exchanges would get no subsidy. Once the federal exchanges were set up, they would all get the subsidy.
What I don’t understand is why commenters were providing me with the quote on top, but not the second quote, which provides important context.
The cherry-picking of off-the-cuff remarks isn’t the worst thing about this absurdist drama. Take a step back: Michael Cannon, the Cato mastermind, basically went on a fishing expedition to find someone with standing in the Halbig case. His lightbulb: the average citizen has standing! And now this bombshell video: the Gruber remarks were the first and so far only piece of documentary evidence I’ve seen that anyone actually believed subsidies weren’t intended to be offered via the federal exchanges. This evidence was discovered two years after the lawsuit was filed.
We already had a murder charge without a body; now we have a smoking gun with all its bullets. I’m sorry. We’re not in the realm of reasonable disagreement. The charitable explanation is that this stuff is pure unmitigated cuckoo cockamamie BS. The cynical explanation, per Sumner:
BTW, which of the following two statements represents the conservative view on the role of the courts?
A. The courts should interpret the laws passed by the duly elected members of Congress, and should not be substituting their own views. Original intent is what matters. Unelected judges should not set policy.
B. Yay!! the courts have just gutted the ACA, which was an awful law passed by Congress.
I used to think it was A; now I wonder if it is B.
You’ll pardon me if I don’t find this behavior—this abusive legal chicanery—the least bit “conservative.”
Decades ago, a few friends and I were listening to Not For Kids Only, an album of Appalachian folk songs recorded for charity by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. An older brother entered the scene, barking, “What’re you guys listening to? This stuff’s for kids!” My friend, who, it should be noted, was quite stoned, retorted, “No! It says right here—‘not’ for kids only.’ ”
I thought of my old buddy, bless his heart, when I learned of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling—its “ringing affirmation … of the rule of law,” according to the reliably florid Charles C.W. Cooke—on Obamacare’s insurance-exchange subsidies.
The right’s chortling reaction, in sum: It says right here — “Exchanges established by the State”!
I’d sincerely like to imagine that Cato’s Michael Cannon was stoned when he discovered this quirk in the text of the Affordable Care Act. But I’m afraid it’s a lot easier to imagine the pinkie ring and prideful guffawing of Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil.
I didn’t think “They’re going to make you buy broccoli next” could be topped.
Oh, was I wrong.
The two judges who comprised a majority of the D.C. Circuit panel argued that the government failed to provide evidence that the authors of the law did not intend to funnel subsidies through state exchanges only. Well, why would such evidence exist—if, as seems exceedingly likely, it never occurred to anyone that the subsidies were so structured until Cannon announced his discovery? “It was a carrot dangled in front of states, just like the promise of more Medicaid money,” the plaintiffs speculated. If so, then why the backstop of a federal exchange? What’s the point of the thing if not to convey subsidies to eligible customers? Much to the dismay of supporters of the ACA, there was no Plan B after the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. And so the money remains unspent.
There’s no getting around the fact that those who drafted the law are guilty of a linguistic oversight. In a sane world, the matter would have been dispatched through a technical corrections bill, much as President Clinton and Congress ironed out a kink in U.S. Code that granted citizenship to those born abroad and one of whose parents was a U.S. citizen. Before the correction, the government granted citizenship only to those whose fathers were citizens.
But we’re not living in a sane world right now. We’re living in the world of massive resistance.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m hardly a fan of Obamacare. I’m with those who champion a cheaper and cleaner method of achieving universal coverage. I suppose it could be argued that the Halbig case is one way of getting there. But when its mastermind heads the “Anti-Universal Coverage Club,” I kind of doubt it.
Michael Tanner recently—but before the shocker primary in suburban Richmond—lamented that the tea party’s influence was waning because it had strayed from its core mission:
Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original Tea Party was motivated by an opposition to Big Government. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most influential groups, was “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Tea Party’s core issues were the skyrocketing national debt and opposition to Obamacare.
Social issues were not part of the platform. In fact, Jenny Beth Martin, leader of the Tea Party Patriots told the New York Times, “When people ask about [social issues], we say, ‘Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well.’ We have to be diligent and stay on message.”
Tanner is one of an unfortunate many who took the tea party at face value. As I’ve been arguing for years, economic issues, for tea partiers, are inseparable from social ones. It’s the (largely) Protestant version of the seamless garment: capitalism is part of God’s blueprint for human society, just like traditional marriage and heteronormativity. Ironically echoing the atheist Ayn Rand, this worldview values capitalism not merely as an instrumental good, a man’s-estate-reliever, but as a moral imperative.
Research by David E. Campbell and Robert Putnam and long-form reporting by Jill Lepore have lent empirical weight to my intuition that the tea party is a religious movement by proxy. Ed Kilgore put it bluntly: “scratch a ‘fiscal conservative’ and you’ll find a culture-warrior of one sort or another right under the surface.”
Along comes David Brat, professor of economics and slayer of the dragon Rep. Eric Cantor, to bring the argument into sharp relief. The parsing of Brat’s academic writings and theological-economic beliefs has become a cottage industry. The Washington Post called Brat’s primary election an indication of a “rise in the crossroads of religion and economics.”
At first blush, Brat seems to draw from the tradition of thinkers like Wilhelm Roepke, who believed that, to properly function, markets depend on bourgeois virtues. As Brat once put it: “If markets are bad … that means people are bad.” There’s an interesting wrinkle to Brat’s fusionism, however. Where proponents of what can only loosely be called “Christian economics,” such as R.C. Sproul, Jr., tease out capitalist principles from the Bible, Brat teases out a biblical influence on secular economic writing. As Kevin Roose writes:
In one unpublished paper from 2005, “Adam Smith’s God: The End of Economics,” (Word doc here), which I accessed through a Google Scholar search, Brat makes the case that even though Adam Smith (the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations) is thought of as one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, his “invisible hand” theory should properly be seen in the context of Christian moral philosophy.
“In fact, [Smith’s] system really retains most of the fundamental features of the Judeo-Christian system,” Brat writes. “On paper he places Stoic reason above Christian revelation. But on the other hand, he chooses the Christian God over the Stoic God. And in the end, his choice of virtues and ends take a decidedly Christian turn.”
In a sense, Brat’s brand of Protestant-ethic revivalism completes a circle: now, not only can Christians find Adam Smith in the Bible, they can find the Bible in Adam Smith too!
If you look at the arc of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s last three years of service in Congress, it begins, in 2011, with an ambitious insider’s game to undermine the Speaker of the House. Cantor was the tea party whisperer; he was their not-so-secret champion; he was the guy—“Yes, it’s probably an accurate conclusion”—who stood between John Boehner and a “grand bargain” on fiscal policy with the Great Satan.
Unrest within the House Republican conference boiled over in January 2013 with a hapless attempt to oust Boehner from the speakership (including three votes for Cantor). It was at this point, as symbolized by his loud and clearly irritated voice vote for Boehner to retain his position, that Cantor seemed to have recoiled from his game of sabotage. Sure, just days before, Cantor split with Boehner on the vote to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. Yet, from that point until now, Cantor played the role of dutiful deputy. Maybe it was simply another tack: play nice until the next GOP wave, wait for Boehner to step aside, and smoothly ascend to the speakership.
I’d like to think, however, that Cantor was growing tired of the decrepit state of the GOP governing agenda in the wake of a resounding repudiation of Mitt Romney. At a party retreat earlier this year, he recognized the need for the party to appeal beyond the ranks of small-business owners and entrepreneurs and substantively address middle-class anxieties.
What I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have said we’re about, is, we want to create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody. And we need to focus our efforts as conservatives, as Republicans, on putting forth our conservative solutions, so that they can help solve the problems for so many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunity that we have.
Add that to Cantor’s gestures toward some kind of constructive movement toward immigration reform, and we’ve got a sad and stunning moment in our politics: a conservative leader who ended, limply, where he should have begun. He rode the tea party tiger and discovered, too late, that he and his party might have profited from more bull sessions with Yuval Levin.
That’s a pity.
I know nothing of Prof. Dave Brat. But I know he is a political novice and, as he’s cheered tonight by the likes of Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, I can’t help but suspect he will be yet another useless crank in a still-troubled caucus.
And here you thought I was being all #slatepitch-y: In February, I argued that President Obama shouldn’t get too uptight about Democrats losing the Senate; and, more, that the dead-end ideological fealty required to control Congress is, paradoxically (but only seemingly), what prevents Republicans from being a true national party; and, finally, that a Congress fully under Republican control will make a fat target for Hillary Clinton.
Zeke J. Miller reports in Time that GOP moneybags, as well as potential Republican presidential candidates currently serving as governor, share the latter concern:
Behind closed doors and in private conversations with reporters and donors, GOPers eyeing the White House in 2016 are privately signaling they wouldn’t mind seeing the party fall short in this year’s midterm elections. For all the benefits of a strong showing in 2014 after resounding defeat in 2012, senior political advisers to some of the top Republican presidential aspirants believe winning the Senate might be the worst thing that could happen.
The opinion is most strongly held by Republican governors, who are hoping to rise above the Washington political fray. Already the central theme adopted by governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin is their ability to cut through partisan gridlock to lead their states. A dysfunctional Washington hamstrung by ideological division accentuates their core argument.
Others are taking a ride on my hobbyhorse. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently conveyed the similarly glass-half-empty sentiments of “Republican umbrella carriers” who “worry that success in 2014 will mask the real, structural problems that Republicans need to fix before 2016. Namely, that the party doesn’t stand for much more than standing against President Obama. As important, the GOP heads into 2016 with a brand that has been deeply tarnished and not easily repaired.”
The redoubtable Charlie Cook himself added:
This is so true. If Republicans do gain a Senate majority, which they may very well do in November, and manage to pick up eight or more House seats, it will be because of who they are not, not because of who they are. They aren’t in Obama’s party, and they aren’t in the party that unilaterally passed the Affordable Care Act, which, like the president, is unpopular. Republicans may win a bunch of races without measurably improving their party’s “brand” and without making any clear progress among minority, young, moderate, and female voters. The fact that midterm electorates are generally older, whiter, and more conservative than their counterparts in presidential elections exacerbates the difference between the world of 2014 and the one that will exist in 2016. The Republicans can win in 2014 without having fixed their problems.
Granted, Cook and Walter are not making precisely the same argument as mine, though I of course agree that a win in 2014 might give the GOP “false hope.” I go a bit further: I believe Republicans, or at least a good portion of those who matter, know full well that the party has a problem going into 2016, quite apart from what happens this fall. The crux of it is this: there’s nothing they can do to change it in the near term. The adjustments they need to make in order to recapture the White House—find some way to deal with undocumented immigrants; give up on tax cuts for the wealthy; acknowledge the painful trade-offs of any serious Obamacare alternative—would jeopardize their grip on Congress.
It’s possible that Republican leaders are merely biding their time until the Senate is in hand. Why rock the boat when you can win by default? I suspect, however, that the truth is more inconvenient: Rocking the boat will be no easier in 2016 than it is now.
Ross Douthat affectionately calls out me and Rod Dreher for applauding Patrick Deneen’s moral-economic brief against Hobby Lobby and other big-box retail chains. He laments that the paleo/crunchy-con mentality tends toward self-marginalization.
Speaking only for myself, I actually agree with Ross.
I’m not Catholic. I’m not a traditionalist (if I were, I’d have a lot of explaining to do regarding that infatuation with Keith Richards). When asked to describe my politics, lately I call myself a good-government Bush 41 conservative. (I maintain that H.W. was inferior to Reagan as a communicator and politician—obviously—but at least as great, and maybe even better, a president. I think his leadership during the meltdown of the Soviet empire was brilliant, and I’d take Dick Darman over Grover Norquist every day of the week. Sue me!)
All that said, I fear I’ve muddied the waters on where I agree with Deneen, and where I part ways with him (as well as, I’m going to presume, Dreher).
I am taken with Deneen’s argument that there is an uninterrupted continuum between the Founding (“progressive” in a Baconian sense) and the present; that classical liberals and modern liberals are both liberals. If there’s anything remotely distinctive about my blogging here and at U.S. News since ’10, I hope it’s been a counterweight to the despair of both moral traditionalists like Deneen and Dreher and market purists-slash-declinists like Kevin Williamson. My gravamen, my conceit, my shtick is this: Government has grown alongside our continental economy. There is not a hydraulic relationship (one goes up, the other goes down) between markets and government. If our capitalists were smart, they’d favor effective social insurance alongside free enterprise. Etc.
While I sympathize, somewhat, with Deneen’s aesthetic recoil from Hobby Lobby and strip malls and big boxes, I don’t get nearly as exercised about such things as he does. In any case, I don’t think there’s much that can be done practically to change it at the level of policymaking. I’m all for traditionalists and orthodox believers bringing their beliefs to bear in the marketplace. To the extent that I used the Hobby Lobby case as a springboard for my last post, it was only tangentially about contraception and religious liberty. My beef is not with religious conservatives participating in modern capitalism; it is with those who conflate modern capitalism and the Constitution with Judeo-Christianity. I have a beef with them because this conflation, I believe, is one of the main drivers of our current antigovernment ferocity, the rampant and irrational fears of inflation, and the counterproductive fear over short-term budget deficits.
I could be wrong about that.
In any case, I don’t think I made this point clear in my post on Hobby Lobby (which, for the record, I had never heard of before it became news).
While I’m at it, I might as well spell out what I think about the particulars of said case. On that score, I’ll associate myself with Yuval Levin’s recent post in NRO’s Corner. He writes that conservatives:
take the arrangement of rights and liberties at the core of the liberal-democratic understanding of society to exist in the service of sustaining the space in which society thrives, rather than of taking society “forward” and away from its roots. There is room in that space for different parts of society to sustain quite different ways of living, and room for people to debate our broader society’s social and political course – which can take different directions at different times in response to different circumstances. Liberty is not the yearned-for endpoint of that story, when we will be free at last from the burdens of the past. Liberty is what exists in that space now, what allows for different people (and groups of people) to pursue different paths and debate different options, and what allows society to address its problems in various ways as they arise. Liberty is not what we’re progressing toward but what we are conserving.
Here, Levin calls to mind Garry Wills’s distinction between the progressive-liberal “order of justice” and the “order of convenience.” To sum up a complex essay, Wills believed it should not be the aim of the state to dispense “raw justice” (Chesterton’s phrase), but rather to facilitate convenience (in the John Calhoun sense of the word—to “convene” or “concur” or bring about social peace). Sounding a lot like Burke and Nisbet, Wills wrote:
For if the state arises out of man’s social instinct, then the state destroys its own roots when it denies free scope to the other forms of social life. The state, when it is made the source of justice, must be equally and instantly available to all citizens; and, in achieving this, in sweeping away the confusion of claims raised by families, economic orders, educational conventions, codes of conduct, natural gradations of privilege, the Liberal leaves society atomized, each man isolated, with all the weight of political power coming unintercepted upon him. The higher forms of organization do not grow out of and strengthen the lower, but counter and erase them. This is what happened under the Order of Justice from the time when Plato pitted the state against the family to the modern breakdown of divided jurisdiction in the centralized state. …
The state, as extending throughout all other levels of social solidarity, must have a certain neutrality towards them all, and as the order-enforcing agent, it must take upon itself a certain negative, punitive function. This neutral and negative aspect of the state will be perverted, and become a positive push—as life-giving, rather than life-preserving—if the other forms of spontaneous activity wither; or if the state officials try to use their power to call up a positive vision of their own; or if politics is considered the all-inclusive area of man’s achievement of excellence. …
A proper order of convenience would be able to accommodate Hobby Lobby’s religious objections. On this matter and others, the Obama administration seeks an order of justice. I hope, in this case, that it loses.
Every Sunday, the rector of my church appends a brief note of spiritual guidance to the weekly bulletin. Recently, he noted that whereas “the world” encourages individuals to satisfy their desires, the Scriptures teach that we’re often to deny those desires.
That generality—“the world.”
I get it. I appreciate the New Testament connotation of the “world” as distinct from the church and its principles and disciplines. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right. “The world,” depending on where you live and which tradition you may or may not have been raised in, says a lot of different things. American consumerist culture, on the other hand, very definitely does encourage us—entice us, seduce us—to satisfy our desires. That culture is now global and, on balance, I think material human welfare is vastly better for it.
Thinking holistically of the human person, however, consumerism, with its valorization of individual choice and autonomy, is spiritually problematic.
And so it’s a great and terrible irony that the church—I should specify, a large segment of the conservative Protestant church—has invited “the world” into the church. It has embedded its economic imperatives into its doctrines. Indeed, it has elevated the marketplace into a thing affirmed and designed by God himself.
With characteristic brilliance, Patrick Deneen shone a klieg light on this “delicious irony,” with his post on the Hobby Lobby contraception case currently before the Supreme Court. A self-styled “religious corporation” seeks
to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.
Deneen of course is a conservative Catholic. I’ve yet to come across a rejoinder from a conservative Protestant arguing against Deneen’s contention that there is, or should be, a “separation of church and economy.” If no one has written it yet, someone will soon. For this is an unfortunate, ahistorical, heretical bedrock belief of the conservative base: the American economy is God’s economy. Any attempt to regulate it is contrary to the God-breathed Constitution. It is atheistic, humanistic, and tyrannical.
This could be the greatest trick the devil ever played.