Alan Wolfe is Boston College’s man on religion and public life. In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review he addresses several books dealing with religion and the American founding. Wolfe’s conclusion:
Religion is so important to our country, and the founding fathers were so unusual in their blending of statecraft and political philosophy, that no one treatment of faith and founding will ever be definitive. Still, these three books present irrefutable evidence that our greatest leaders and thinkers knew where the work of God stopped and the need for human creativity began. We often want to believe that history moves forward. When we compare the role of religion in politics at our founding to its role today, we just might conclude otherwise.
The whacking of the so-called religious right is no surprise. Wolfe, an unreconstructed man of the left, has been carrying on about that for years. Not really surprising either is the theologically illiterate bifurcation of “the work of God” and “human creativity.” Wolfe, a thoroughly secularized Jew who says he has not a religious bone in his body, has written book upon book explaining why what appears to be Christian faith in this country is but a thin veneer of Christianity’s accommodation to his version of the American Way of Life. Of course he considers this to be a very good thing. What does still have the capacity to surprise a little, even after all this time, is that Alan Wolfe is director of BC’s center for religion and public life.
The center is named for Geoffrey Boisi, a financier who has led in bankrolling Boston College in its impressive effort to become the institutional center for an alternative Catholicism in this country. BC has skillfully exploited the financial woes of the Boston Archdiocese by picking up some of its choice real estate, including what was the cardinal’s residence and related offices. BC’s very progressive theology faculty, now taking over also the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, would seem to be aimed at guaranteeing that, whatever the redirections of the Church in the years ahead, BC will remain the redoubt of the revolution presumably mandated by Vatican II. Boston College is, in short, a supportive ambiance for Alan Wolfe’s project of reconstructing religion, including Catholicism, in the image of American liberalism.
Charles Murray has a new book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State , that nobody who has thought seriously about poverty in American can ignore. Some of the responses are drearily predictable.
For instance, Cecilio Morales, a liberal political journalist in Washington writing in the Jesuit weekly America , does not so much review the book as react with a long and sustained sneer . According to Morales, Murray “removes the veil that has hidden the vision behind conservative policymaking ever since a Californian B-movie actor was ushered into the White House 25 years ago. That the result is breathtaking should be no surprise. This American Enterprise Institute political scientist has a history as a rhetorical bomb-thrower. In his book Losing Ground (1984), he argued that the social programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society not only failed to help the poor, but made things worse. Murray’s words became the mantra of Reaganites, of the second wave ‘revolutionaries’ led by Newton Leroy Gingrich in the congressional election sweep of 1994 and the defining historical view of the drafters of the law that ended public assistance entitlements for the poor in 1996.”
It is understandable that those who still refer to Ronald Reagan as a B-movie actor and hold to the faith that there was nothing wrong with Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty that could not have been remedied by several trillion more dollars will detest Murray’s new book. The charming irony, however, is that Charles Murray is proposing something not entirely unlike favored liberal proposals of the past: namely, a guaranteed annual income, sometimes proposed in the form of a negative income tax. In 1972, George McGovern was depicted as a flaming lefty radical for suggesting that the best way to help the poor not to be poor is to give them money.
Here is Murray’s short statement of his proposal, which he calls, quite simply, the Plan:
America’s population is wealthier than any in history. Every year the American government redistributes more than a trillion dollars of that wealth to provide for retirement, health care, and the alleviation of poverty. We still have millions of people without comfortable retirements, without adequate health care, and living in poverty. Only a government can spend so much money so ineffectually. The solution is to give the money to the people.
Every citizen, says Murray, should at age twenty-one be given an annual income of $10,000 to be deposited in a bank account in his or her name. The only mandate in spending the money is that part of it should go for a health care plan, with the individual choosing between a plan that provides routine or only catastrophic care. The plan would not make everybody rich, but it would guarantee that nobody would be involuntarily poor as poverty is presently defined.
Murray carefully goes through the numbers-crunching, contending that in a short time his plan would cost less than all the money transfers of existing government programs. Murray, who calls himself a libertarian, is assiduously attentive to the social, moral, and cultural consequences of his proposal, all of which, he argues, would be benign in terms of encouraging individual responsibility and communal solidarity.
Murray calls his book a “thought experiment” and admits that it has no chance of political implementation at present. But he is confident that the time will come:
Once enough people recognize these realities, the way will be open for reform. What was clear to the Founders will once again become clear to a future generation: The greatness of the American project was that it set out to let everyone live life as each person saw fit, as long as each accorded the same freedom to everyone else.
America could not reach that goal as long as the fatal flaw of slavery persisted. When the goal came into sight in the 1960s, we lost our focus and then lost ground. Sometime in the 21st century it will become possible to take up the task again, more expansively than the Founders could have dreamed but seeking the same end: taking our lives back into our own hands¯ ours as individuals, ours as families, and ours as communities.
Mind you, I’m not endorsing Murray’s plan. I do endorse the careful reading of his lucid and bold argument. The law of unintended consequences works overtime in the field of public policy, as witness Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” and Murray’s proposal is no exception. But people who are genuinely concerned about the poor, and especially about the urban underclass, cannot afford not to engage the provocative tract that is In Our Hands .
In addition to which :
Nobody questions the stature of Richard Pipes as an expert on the history of Russia. But Daniel Mahoney, who has written influentially on the thought of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, explains why Pipes neglects the ideological factor in the dreadful history of the “evil empire.” This is among the many lively arguments engaged in the May issue of First Things . Isn’t it time you subscribed ?