Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Christian Lobbying II

It's sad to say that the abortion rights* group that Doug discusses below is supported by many parts of the mainline Protestant establishment, including my denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA. It's pretty well documented that dissatisfaction with the Washington political activities of agencies of the mainline denominations has been a source of great tension between the members in the pew and the denominational leadership. Currently, the added strains of fights over ordination standards are actually tearing the Episcopal and Presbyterian USA churches apart, with denominational leaders and individual congregations fighting over who controls church property if a congregation attempts to leave.

Believe it or not, there's a lot of economics behind all of this: principal/agent problems in hierarchies, rent seeking in non-profit organizations, optimal size of organizations, public choice issues about voting rules, and (in work I have done with two of my FSU colleagues) issues about the effects of organization rules that attempt to keep members from leaving. Our research has found that these rules are really quite counterproductive, even to the home organization.

As an economist who has studied these issues, I don't understand why Episcopal and Presbyterian leaders think it is a good idea to spend resources to make it harder for congregations to go their own way. Theologically speaking, when the world could only be made a better place by Christians putting more resources into orphanages, shelters, food relief, and so forth, the sight of us burning up such resources suing each other in (church and even secular) courts to determine who gets to keep the silver communion plates must be making Satan laugh out loud. My main hope now is that revolutions in communication and information will make these denominational lobbying groups as extinct as dinosaurs in the era of blogs and Facebook.

* I use this term specifically because it was actually used prior to the adoption of the more faith-friendly sounding term "reproductive choice".

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Christian Lobbying

Last weekend someone who I admire very much spoke on justice and the value of the United Methodist Church having a lobbying office in Washington, DC. The idea behind the lobby is to exercise the collective United Methodist Church’s desire to construct a just society. That sounds wonderful, but, my I believe my friend and I have divergent opinions about the value of the lobby. Over the next three weeks before winter break I will attempt to articulate my opposing stance.

With a quick count of the General Board of Society and Religion the United Methodist Church employs 23 people at their site in Washington, DC. These people work in premiere office space located across the street from the Supreme Court. With those jobs located in Washington and the expensive office space what other projects could the United Methodist Church use those resources towards? Possibly orphanages or digging clean water wells or constructing community halls and recreation centers?

Seemingly lobbies exist for every type of interest group possible in Washington, DC. In addition to there being multiple church lobbies in addition to the United Methodist Church there are other political lobby groups that advocate for the same outcomes. How much are we simply duplicating the efforts of other lobby groups?

Finally, something that troubles me very significantly is my lack of knowledge about who to contact. The United Methodist Church supports with the money received from collection plates around the country an organization called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice which is yet another Washington, DC lobby for Pro-Choice. I do not want any money that I give to the church to be associated with the finance of such a lobbying organization. But, who do I contact? My search on the web has turned up no leadership on the General Board that look like they would be the right contact. This is particularly frustrating because if people in the church do have grievances who should they contact? Who are “they” that decide what the United Methodist Church supports? This is a hopeful post, perhaps you have that information.

Until this weekend I did not know that the United Methodist Church allocated resources towards the costs of lobbying the federal government. Please share your opinion on this matter.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Should We Want?

Many people have taken note of the popularity of what is sometimes called “The Prosperity Gospel” in modern Christianity. It makes many of us from traditional Protestant backgrounds nervous. It tends to come from pastors in non-denominational churches. It reminds us of the Janis Joplin song, “O Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz” (written by Joplin, McClure and Neuwirth):

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

On the other hand, maybe we “frozen chosen” are missing something. It’s true that Jesus warned his followers not to worry about how they were dressed, or what they would eat, but he was by this same token obviously concerned about the fact that his followers were worried about what they had to wear and what they had to eat. Jesus was concerned, and not dismissive, about the daily life of his flock, about what they brought to God in prayer, and part of his theme of a great upheaval in which the least would become the greatest was that God cared about the petitions of his people. Jesus might be uncomfortable with a prayer for a Mercedes to compete with a Porsche, but what about a single Mom who desperately needs a better car to go to work to support her family. Why shouldn’t she pray for help? But, where do we draw the line between a reliable used Corolla and a new Porsche? What does God want us to want? This is both a religious and an economic question, as preferences are the basis for the microeconomic study of choice. If our economy responds to what people want, what does God want us to want?

In reading the Psalms recently, I have come across a cycle of seven Psalms (19 – 25, all listed as being from David) that, in addition to the many other things they talk about, seem to contain a complete cycle about our wants, or more specifically, how to pray about our wants.

PSALM 19 (“The heavens declare the glory of God…”) is a Psalm of praise to God. But it closes with a prayer for how we construct our wants. It’s a famous prayer: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer."

PSALM 20 (“May the Lord answer you when you are in distress…”) is a petition to God, including, in verse 4, “May he give you the desire of your heart, and make all of your plans succeed.”

PSALM 21 (“O Lord, the king rejoices in your strength..”) is also a Psalm of praise, but an unusual one. David is praising God for the blessings he has given him. Specifically, we see in verse 2: “You have granted him the desire of his heart.”

PSALM 22 (“O God, My God, Why have you forsaken me…”) is the Psalm Jesus recited on the cross, and it is hard to imagine anything more different than Psalm 21. “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer.”

PSALM 23 Pretty much needs no introduction.

PSALM 24 (“The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it…”) Is a call for us to recognize the glory and wonder of God, and to consider what it means to come into his holy place.

PSALM 25 (“To you,O Lord, I lift up my soul..”) is a complex prayer for God to forgive our sins but also to set us right.

These Psalms cover a lot of ground, but let’s isolate the cycle of what it says about what we want.

In Psalm 19, we are to told to pray that the things we desire will be acceptable to God. Psalm 20 looks the most like a Psalm of the prosperity Gospel (“may he give you the desires of your heart; may he make all of your plans succeed”). But this call to granting our wishes in prayer follows the instruction in Psalm 19 that these desires be acceptable to God.

It is Psalm 21 that the cycle begins to take on the form of a narrative, perhaps of David’s own life. Praising God is a good thing. But read Psalm 21 closely, and see if you don’t agree that David is slipping across a boundary into pride. He seems almost to be praising God because God has bought him the Mercedes chariot. We see the same language as Psalm 20, in a different context: “You have granted him [David, the king] the desire of his heart.” We hope that these desires have been formed in David’s own instructions in Psalms 19-20. But look at the list in Psalm 21: “rich blessings,” “a crown of pure gold,” “victories,” “splendor and majesties.” It must be nice to be the King. The problem of course, and we know this from the story of David, it all comes crashing down. In Psalm 22, David cries out to God, but God does not answer. The Mercedes has been totaled, the gold has been pawned, and God does not answer.

The rehabilitation of David’s relationships with the “desires of his heart” begins in Psalm 23. It is a radical transformation: simply “I shall not want.” Then, Psalm 24 follows with not a single reference to any of David’s personal wanting at all. Psalm 24 is entirely a celebration of who God is, with no reference at all of what he has done in terms of answering the desires of our heart. The only reference to the “desires of our heart” is that we are informed that only those with “a pure heart” may stand in God’s holy place. But how do we get such a pure heart? By prayers such as those in Psalm 25: “Show me your ways,” “Teach me your paths.” And finally, in Psalm 25 we get a prayer with the P word: “instruct” the man who fears the Lord, and “He will spend his days in prosperity.”

Pray that the desires of my heart are acceptable to God. Ask him for instruction. Don’t want for wants sake. Celebrate the blessings all around me, not the Mercedes chariots. Then petition God for the transformed desires of my heart. He will answer. This is the Prosperity Gospel.