Monday, March 2, 2015

The Revolution In Reverse

Jay F. Hein, The Quiet Revolution: An Active Faith That Transforms Lives and Communities

I admit accepting this review book for one quirky reason: the title recollects Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, a book I enjoy and admire. I find the idea of revolutionary Christianity exciting, as the ongoing liberal/conservative divide in contemporary politics overlooks the poor, sick, and imprisoned Jesus calls believers to serve. But it’s hard to imagine a book less similar, a message less concordant, than this book.

Jay F. Hein headed President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives during Bush’s second term. He oversaw government partnerships with religious charities. As you’d imagine, that partnership drew secular outcry, and occasionally still does, as Barack Obama has maintained this office into his administration. But the news eventually abandoned the hue-and-cry when its practice proved uncontroversial and frankly banal.

I’m divided about Hein’s thesis. I generally concur with his insistence that secular government can profitably cooperate without violating the First Amendment. He mentions (rather, name-checks) numerous innovative charitable institutions that pursue general social ends, just coincidentally driven by spiritual motives, which the Bush administration aided. These weren’t proselytizing missions; these were social charities driven by love of God or the gods.

Simultaneously, though, I cannot overlook what Hein doesn’t mention. Dead silence on President Bush’s longstanding refusal to address the processes which make people poor to begin with. Even as Bush chaperoned this new public/faith cooperative into America’s consciousness, it oversaw tax cuts during preparations for war—a combination of elevated spending and truncated revenue unprecedented in American history.

Jay F. Hein
That’s saying nothing about Hein’s relentlessly glowing encomium to President Bush personally. He fleetingly mentions Presidents Clinton and Obama, besides occasional nods to Carter and Reagan, but repeatedly dedicates pages and pages to President Bush and his relationship to OFBCI-funded charities. One needn’t read long to realize, Hein isn’t praising Christian charities, he’s fundamentally praising George W. Bush… and, implicitly, Jay F. Hein.

Hein writes that the Bushes “used their White House platform to show that government can help place problems before the public, but it is only the heroic work of community partners who can solve them.” In other words, despite vibrant praise for President Bush giving heartwarming speeches and showing up to shake occasional hands, he delegated to volunteer charities responsibilities once willingly accepted by professional public servants.

Practically speaking, the OFBCI’s greatest liability wasn’t its partnership with religious charities. Rather, it changed the tone by outsourcing civic responsibility to private organizations, which by definition lack government’s pan-social influence. Hein mentions tweaking tax codes to encourage and reward charitable giving. What about tax codes that tax investment dividends and monetary flips at half the rate of wages? That seems problematic.

Moreover, kicking active responsibility to independent charities redoubles the burden upon private givers. Recall Paul Piff's 2012 report that, despite occasional high-profile philanthropic largess, the poor actually give to charities, as a percentage of income, at nearly twice the rate of wealthy Americans. Moreover, while poor giving largely goes to religious and civic action groups, the rich substantially give to research endowments, higher education, and the arts.

I cannot reconcile Hein’s “cut a check to charity” ethos with Claiborne’s gritty Christianity. Claiborne relinquished his middle-class white birthright to live among Philadelphia’s poorest, most disfranchised denizens. His modern monastery sits between two brothels; desperately poor prostitutes and junkies comprise his core congregants. Claiborne has courage I lack. Hein, by contrast, encourages part-time Christianity. I recall the Parable of the Widow’s Mite.

The worst consequence I imagine is: what if religious charities become too dependent on government money? Even as outsourcing makes America’s poor more dependent on charity, the charities need more government money. This makes charities more compliant to government demands, less likely to challenge injustices—in short, it turns religious activists into government representatives. It makes the church a government bureau.

Shane Claiborne describes one protest: when Philadelphia outlawed sleeping in parks, to criminalize homelessness, his group had a mass sleep-in. The resulting court case overturned the legislation as unconstitutional. Christianity needs that rebellious streak, that Bonhoeffer-like willingness to challenge the powerful in high places. Could Doctor King have defied Alabama law if Alabama signed his paychecks?

The “Quiet Revolution” Jay F. Hein advocates isn’t a revolution in charity, it’s a revolutionary subservience of church to state. When Church and State become entwined, State arguably gains moral heft, but Church becomes a government bureau. This defangs the largest organized body capable of challenging state-based injustice. That means a shrinking of opportunities for everybody who can’t purchase power.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, Kevin. That's why I don't want any church in my state or state in my church. It makes a mess of both. Thanks for the thought-provoking review.