What I learned in the Master’s

In my master’s degree, I studied international relations. As far as I can judge, the program was very good. Excellent even. It was a very good two years, in which I was challenged like never before. The master’s degree was very difficult for me. I was very curious about international affairs, but I knew almost nothing about international relations theory. The professors assumed that students were at least familiar with the content. I was not. So, I went through the experience of learning to cook and learning to be a culinary critic at the same time. I had to chase a lot. But it was good. The master’s taught me like no previous experience to study on my own.

Looking back, I understand that the program was strongly influenced by a light form of postmodernism. That was very difficult for me. There was a strong rejection of more traditional theories of international relations, such as realism and liberalism. It was all very new to me, but I knew that being a classic realist was not an option well regarded by the professors. I ended up finding a kind of lifeboat in constructivism. I didn’t want to be ashamed of being a realist, but my intuition told me that there was something wrong with postmodernism. It was only after the master’s degree, teaching the theory of international relations and studying several other things, that I understood that postmodernism is really crazy, something deeply twisted.

Constructivism is largely weird also. The most sensible thing I read in international relations was John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. Stephen Walt is an author who also made sense to me in my post-master’s life. In short, I admire my master’s program for its academic excellence, but I find the theories espoused by several of the professors completely flawed.

It was very difficult for me to write my dissertation. I did not have a clear theoretical basis, just the instinct that I did not want to follow a postmodern line and the certainty that a more traditional theory would not be well accepted. I wrote the dissertation without having a very solid theoretical basis. But my research, modesty aside, was still very well done. I researched the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries to Brazil in the 19th century.

It was a topic of personal interest. I was a recently converted Protestant, and I wanted to know more about my history. As they say in Brazil, I joined hunger with the desire to eat. My question, which I was not able to ask so clearly at the time, was whether the presence of missionaries in Brazil, the majority coming from the USA, had affected Brazil-United States relations in any way. Even today, I find it very difficult to analyze causality in such cases, as someone would do in the hard sciences, but I believe that with the information I gathered I can defend that yes, American Protestant missionaries affected Brazil-US relations in many ways. Brazil and the USA were predominantly disinterested in each other in the early 19th century.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this situation changed dramatically, especially on the part of Brazil. The USA started to play a central role in Brazilian foreign policy. It does not seem to me to be the case that the missionaries caused this change, but I believe that their presence in Brazil cooperated, along with other factors, to make this happen. Would Brazil change its foreign policy at the end of the 19th century in one way or another? This is a type of question that, honestly, I’m not interested in answering. But I believe it is clear that the missionaries helped the two countries to become a little more aware of each other.

I faced some opposition from colleagues for choosing this topic. One of the things I heard was that, being a Protestant, I would not have the necessary distance to do a good research. I also heard that missionaries would be little more than tourists, and that they would, therefore, have no chance of affecting relations between the two countries. These were harsh criticisms, which still make me sad when I remember them. I see in these criticisms a certain prejudice against evangelicals that is still present in Brazil, inside and outside academia. Ironically, I did not find the same thing on the part of the professors. On the contrary! Every one of them was always very supportive of my research, and in fact, they found the topic interesting and pertinent.

I would very much like to be able to return to the topic of my research with the head I have today, but I don’t have time for that. To some extent, I would also like to go back to those classes knowing the things I know today. But I also believe that I would not have that much patience. I have a better notion of what I consider epistemologically valid or not. I suppose the master’s degree would be more difficult to take today. Anyway, the master’s degree gave me my first job as a professor: I started teaching international relations when I hadn’t even defended the dissertation, and I did it for eight years. It was a very good eight years. Although I am away from this area, I still like what I learned, and I feel benefited by the time I studied and taught international relations.

On growing up in Brazil, political liberty, and religion

Steve Bishop recently interviewed me for his blog and we talked about my personal background, my Christian faith and my interest in Reformational philosophy, a tradition of thought of which Abraham Kuyper was an early proponent and Herman Dooyeweerd, the main exponent.

Here is a personal part of the interview that might be of interest to NOL readers. I answer a question about what influenced my intellectual development:

Another influence I should mention came from people and events that taught me to mistrust the hubris of political authoritarianism. My Italian granddad was a child during World War II and his family never joined the Fascist party. As a result, they had much less access to food and clothes and suffered a lot during the war. This is part of the reason why he later decided to try something new in Brazil. I grew up hearing his stories about the horrors of war. My other grandfather was older and he had been drafted by the Brazilian Army to join the allied forces and fight the axis powers in Italy. But, before shipping to Europe, in the Army base, he decided he shouldn’t go fight the war, so he had to hide for a few years before amnesty was granted for defectors. When I was born, Brazil was still under the rule of a military junta, but later transitioned to a convoluted period of democratic transition. High inflation was destroying people’s livelihoods. I remember running in front of the “price man” at the supermarket to get products for the previous day’s price before the new tags were placed in them. My father got his salary and would have to immediately spend most of it by stocking up groceries for the entire month. This was very early in my childhood, until age nine or so, but I still have vivid memories of the national currency changing name every six months or so. By college time, I was already immune to the idea that politicians are more enlightened than the rest of us.
Then, when I read books such as The Road to Serfdom or, say, Orwell’s 1984, they helped me conceptualize what I had already noticed intuitively. I had already grasped Lord Acton’s maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If you have, let’s say, an Augustinian view of the potential damage we can cause to fellow human beings if unhampered by checks and balances, then you can easily identify some of the naivete about human nature both right and left on the political spectrum, and that can lead you to the normative point that civil government should be limited in scope.
Further on, I talk about current projects:
In 2018 I delivered the Calihan Lecture at the Acton Institute and applied the notion of sphere sovereignty to interpret the crisis we are facing in the public square. This lecture has recently been published in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Last year I finished a project on the classical liberal background of the anti-revolutionary movement. An article summarising the main findings will come out in the Journal of Church and State in 2021. I didn’t want it to be too controversial and deliberately toned down the argument after the first peer review, but the main point is that Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper fall under the category of “anti-rationalist liberals”, together, of course, with figures such as Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and others who were, together with the anti-revolutionaries, very critical of the “rationalist liberalism” of, say J.S. Mill or the French liberals. As part of this project, I wrote an epilogue to the Portuguese translation of Kuyper’s speech on the social question, a book chapter for a South African publisher on Christian ethics and entrepreneurship in an interventionist economy.

This, of course, alludes to F.A. Hayek’s distinction between two kinds of liberal tradition, one of which he rejected (rationalist liberalism) in order to embrace the other (anti-rationalist liberalism).

On Abraham Kuyper’s Political Liberalism

My article “Abraham Kuyper and Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer as Anti-Rationalist Liberals” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Church & State and will hopefully be in print in 2021.

In this article, I explore F. A. Hayek’s division of pre-1848 liberalism into two contrasting worldviews — rationalist and anti-rationalist. I argue that both Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper, two important Dutch Anti-Revolutionary writers, were anti-rationalist liberals.

Both of them are on the record denouncing “liberalism”, but both refer mostly to French liberalism of the rationalist kind. And both admired Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, cited by Hayek as great exponents of anti-rationalist liberalism.

I hope this article will lead to an interesting conversation as to why the contemporary Kuyperian movement seems to be much more left-wing than the original anti-revolutionaries.

A pre-print version of the article can be viewed on the Oxford Academic website.

 

Brazil, the country of Carnival (?)

Maybe for most English speakers it isn’t even known, but we are in the Carnival week. Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments. I’m unashamedly taking some elements from Wikipedia here to try to explain it. It is basically equivalent to Mardi Gras. Carnival (or Carnaval, as we say it in Portuguese) is a big thing in Brazil. Or maybe not. That’s what this post is about.

Carnival is a Christian feast, at least in its origin. It occurs right before lent. Lent is the forty days that antecede the Passover. The idea was that people would fast (at least to some degree) during the forty days of lent. Therefore, Carnival was the last opportunity for forty days to indulge in some pleasures of the flesh. Carnival literally means “remove meat”, from the Late Latin expression carne levare. “Farewell to meat” is another possible translation. However, carne is not solely meat in Latin; it also refers to the flesh, especially in the Christian association between sin and flesh. Carnaval, therefore, is the feast of the flesh – taken literally or not. At least in Brazil, to my knowledge, the relationship between Carnival, Lent and Passover is little known. I believe that most people just take it to be a major party that happens sometime between February and March.

Brazil is popularly known as the country of Carnival, Samba and Soccer. Of these three, I kind of like the last one. Not so much the first two. To my knowledge, Carnival has always been very popular in Rio de Janeiro, at least since the early 19th century. At that time, it was known as Entrudo, a celebration in which mostly people throw water on one another, like in a water balloon fight. However, there were some improvements: people started throwing some liquids other than water if you know what I mean and that even at strangers. The party was also an opportunity for slaves to poke on their masters. Carnaval eventually became associated with the slaves’ African culture, and I suppose that’s how the Christian origins were somewhat lost. Today, Carnaval in Rio is strongly associated with Samba music.

I haven’t done a very scientific research for this, but to my knowledge, most people in Rio actually don’t like Carnaval. Carnaval is a street party, with all that comes with it: people leave tons of trash behind; people get drunk, and often violent; the music can get really loud and sometimes going on for hours, even into the night. Given the specific nature of the festival, there are people having sex on the street and other things happening as well. It is hard to say this without sounding moralistic, but the thing is that Carnaval ends up being the most anti-libertarian thing one can imagine. If “don’t do onto others what you don’t want to be done onto you” is the golden rule we’re trying to put into practice, Carnaval is the undoing of this.

In the late 19th century, some authorities already realized that the festival was getting out of control and tried to organize it somehow, mostly to no avail. But things really got out of control in the early 20th century. Coming out of the monarchy, Brazilian intellectuals were dedicated to the task of identifying the Brazilian identity. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda made a huge contribution to this with is Roots of Brazil (Raízes do Brasil), in which he said that Brazilians had a hard time understanding and applying the impersonal relationships necessary for a modern capitalistic society. Another major contribution in this conversation was done in 1933 by anthropologist/sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (English: The Masters and the Slaves). In this book, Freyre argued that the Brazilian national identity was the result of miscegenation (both biological and cultural) between masters and slaves.

On the one hand, I want to say that Freyre’s argument was revolutionary because he was saying that Brazilians were not an “inferior race” because of race-mixing. Just the opposite: Brazilian culture was permeated by highly positive elements exactly because of miscegenation. Consider that Freyre was saying that in the 1930s, when race-mixing was still a major taboo in the US, not to mention Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, I believe that Freyre contributed to a movement that gave up trying to “civilize” Brazil.

The topic of civilization is always a polemic one because it implies that some cultures are superior to others. I don’t want to go that way. But I also don’t want to be a cultural relativistic. Some cultures are superior to others in some aspects. There is nothing culturally superior in leaving tons of trash in the streets after a street party. There is nothing culturally superior in imposing your music taste on others. There is nothing superior in imposing your take on sexuality on others.

In the late 19th century, some authorities were trying to organize Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro because things were getting out of control. In the early 20th century, most authorities gave up that enterprise because they decided that Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil) is that “mess”. Instead of trying to correct the bad aspects of Carnaval, they decided to celebrate it as the very essence of Brazilian culture. Eventually, into the 20th century, Carnaval became a great example of panem et circenses policy.

I understand that in the early 21st century more and more people in Brazil are getting sick and tired of Carnaval, and that has some connections with politics. Typically (though definitely not always) people on the left want to celebrate Carnaval. People on the right typically (though definitely not always) don’t want to. Some people on the left are already saying that Bolsonaro’s government represents the taking over of government by Christian fundamentalists. I doubt. They may be right at a very low degree. But for the most part, what is happening is that Brazil is too diverse for a single project of nation to work for everybody. Ironically Gilberto Freyre was right: we are the result of this mixture, and this is not a bad thing. People only need to learn to respect the opinions, tastes and preferences of the other elements in this mix.

Supreme Court hears vital freedom-of-religion case

Today, the Supreme Court heard  the most important case on the intersection of religion and education to arise in decades–Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. A few years back, Montana had passed its first school-choice program, a tax-credit scheme that allowed a small tax credit for donations to scholarship programs that helped kids afford private school.

As in any state, many of Montana’s private schools are religious. Right after the state legislature passed the tax-credit statute, the Montana Department of Revenue promulgated a rule that immediately gutted the program by forbidding students attending religious schools from receiving scholarship money.

The Department based its rule on Montana’s Constitution, which says the legislature can’t “make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies . . . for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school,” etc. Plenty of states have very similar “no-aid” clauses. Revenue claimed that scholarships for religious students under the tax-credit scheme violated the “no-aid” clause.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how bizarre this argument is. These scholarships are funded by private donations–the money never enters a public coffer. Yet Revenue thinks such donations would constitute state aid to religion because the donor gets a tiny tax credit (up to $150) for the donation. Underlying this argument is the strange notion that any money the government declines to collect from you is still the government’s money.  This would mean, for instance, that every charitable donation eligible for a tax deduction would likewise constitute a government appropriation. Revenue’s argument has always looked to me like an extremely weak pretext for blatant discrimination against religious students.

So Kendra Espinoza and a few other parents with kids at religious schools sued the Department of Revenue, claiming, among other things, that Revenue’s rule violated their free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Kendra won at trial, and then lost spectacularly at the Montana Supreme Court. In fact, the Montana Supreme Court did something even worse than the Department of Revenue–it invalidated the entire tax-credit program, such that even students at secular private schools could no longer receive scholarship assistance.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court took up the case, and they heard oral argument today. (My colleagues and I filed an amicus brief with the Court in support of Kendra).

The oral argument transcript shows a Court divided along the typical ideological lines. The liberal justices seemed preoccupied with standing–whether the petitioners had the right to sue. One justice implied that only taxpayers (who have a financial interest because of the tax credit) and schools (who receive the scholarship money) should have the right to sue. This is a weird take, given that families and students are obviously the intended beneficiaries of the scholarship program.

A number of the justices discussed a odd quirk about the Montana Supreme Court’s decision. The basic question they raised is this: since the Montana Supreme Court took the scholarship program away from everyone, are petitioners now being treated equally? But the sole reason the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program was to prevent religious students from receiving scholarship. A government action taken for a discriminatory reason is, well, discriminatory. If the legislature had excluded religious students when it enacted the program, the program would still stand. And if the legislature tried to enact the same program, providing equal treatment to religious and secular students alike, the Court would strike it down. That’s discrimination based on religious status–pretty straightforward.

One justice cited to James Madison’s famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, arguing that the founders wouldn’t have wanted public funds flowing to religious schools like this (again no public funds were flowing to Montana religious schools under this program, but why let accuracy get in the way of a good narrative). That’s a terrible misreading of Madison. The Memorial and Remonstrance was an attack on preferential aid to religion, not to a program that provided public benefits to all groups, including religious ones. The difference is vital. Can the government deny churches police protection, fire protection, sewer connections, electrical service, or any other public benefit on the grounds that the government would be providing indirect public funding to religious institutions? Surely not. In fact, that’s exactly what the Supreme Court said in a recent case called Trinity Lutheran, where Missouri denied a church daycare access to a government program that helped renovate playgrounds.

There is a difference between Trinity Lutheran and this case, arguably, which is that here the money goes more directly to religious indoctrination, not something secular like playground materials. But at bottom, public funding is fungible. Providing police protection and other general public benefits obviously makes it easier for a religious institution to fulfill its religious mission.

This case should be an easy one. The government offered a benefit to all private schools. To include religious schools doesn’t “establish” religion. It just treats religious groups equally, as the Constitution requires.

Politics according to the Bible

Yeah, let’s go for a topic that is generally polemic. What I’m going to present here will not be exhaustive, but at least I believe it’s a fair and honest (although very breathy) treatment on the topic.

First things first, I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I believe it was written by people (very likely all men) who were inspired by God. This means that the Bible is not their book. It’s God’s book. Also, although it was written in contexts and cultures very different from ours today, it is still true because it speaks of things that are eternal. So, with that in mind, here are some things I believe the Bible teaches on politics.

The whole Bible is a story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. God created the World “very good”. However, man fell from this status when he sinned. Sin is to disobey God’s law or to fail to conform to it.  When the first man, Adam, sinned, we all sinned, because Adam was our federal representative. It may sound unfair that we are all punished for something that someone else did, but students of politics shouldn’t be surprised. We suffer (or benefit) from things we didn’t do all the time. In this particular case, God chose Adam as humanity’s representative. God is just. It was a just choice. After Adam fell, Jesus became the federal representative of a part of humanity that God decided to save. This is the “redemption”. The restoration is God reversing the effects of the fall through the church.

The whole Bible story can be summarized as “kingdom through covenant”. A covenant is a solemn agreement between at least two (not necessarily equal) parties, involving promises and sanctions. God made a covenant with Adam. Adam broke that covenant. God made a covenant with Jesus. Jesus fulfilled the covenant. By fulfilling it, Jesus became the king of a people, the church.

Jesus’ covenant was anticipated by some covenants in what we call the Old Testament. Although the theories vary, the point is that God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David somehow anticipate Jesus. This means that in the Old Testament God’s people was mostly one nation, Israel, organized as a nation-state. This nation-state had civil laws. One great mistake is to try to apply these civil laws to any state today. Israel was an anticipation of the real people of God, the church. The church is not a nation-state. It doesn’t have civil laws. Actually, Jesus repeatedly said that his kingdom was not of this world, meaning that it would not be brought by political force.

The fact that Israel was an anticipation of the true church doesn’t mean that all the laws given to Israel are irrelevant today. The moral law given in the 10 commandments is still biding. even the civil laws, although no longer bidding, can be informative. The point is that these laws cannot be enforced by any state. They have to be preached. People must be left free to join. Or not.

What the church can expect from the state? It would certainly be great to live in a country that fully conforms to God’s moral law, but this is not a realistic expectation. The best we can expect is a state that keeps people free to decide whether they want to join the church or not. Other than that, there is a moral law that we all can benefit from: don’t hurt others and don’t pick their stuff without permission.

Trying to enforce God’s kingdom was one of the greatest mistakes Christians committed through the centuries, and I believe many Christians are still doing it today. We want people to be Christians not out of their free choice, but by coercion. Or we want people to externally behave as Christians when they are not. Again: the best we can do is to let people free to decide. And meanwhile, demand that we are also free to practice our religion, no matter what other people think about it.

Intellectuals You Should Know About

I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.

As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.

When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”

Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.

My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.

It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.

What, then, should you read?

In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.

Jared Diamond

Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday: 

  • Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
  • I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!

Paul Collier

Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:

  • Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
  • The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.

I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.

Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.

The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett

to which we should add the “one Horse-woman“, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I’m ashamed to only know as “the wife of Niall Ferguson” (yes, my background is money and history, OK, not politics or religion…).

Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:

Speaking of Ferguson, as I’m a big financial history guy, I am shamelessly squeezing in this prolific writer, professor (well, Senior Fellow at Hoover institution nowadays) and public intellectual:

I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.

Steven Pinker

Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:

  • The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced
  • Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
  • The Language Instinct
  • How the Mind Works
  • The Stuff of Thought

Matt Ridley

Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.

At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”

They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.

Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.

In sum: just bloody read more

Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.

As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.

Above are some amazing thinkers. Drop me a line or tweet me with readings you would add to a list like this.

School choice at the Supreme Court

Another school funding case is knocking at the U.S. Supreme Court’s door. This case, Espinoza v. Walborn, hales from Montana, where the state’s fledgling school-choice program was killed moments after it left the crib. The Court now has a chance to revive it and land a major victory for educational choice across the country.

Montana’s first school-choice law, passed in 2015, took the form of a tax-credit scholarship program. If a taxpayer donated to an approved scholarship organization, she could claim up to $150 of the donation as a tax credit. The scholarship organizations then dished out scholarships to help parents afford to put their kids through private school.

Then the Montana Department of Revenue gutted it. The Department promulgated a rule that none of that scholarship money could go to religious private schools. This basically killed the program, since the vast majority of private schools in Montana–and in most states–are religious schools.

The Department claimed that the state constitution prohibited the scholarship dollars from going to religious schools because of the state ban on indirect public aid to religious schools. This is an absurd argument. The scholarship funds are privately donated dollars–they never touch a public coffer. The fact that someone can claim a tax credit hardly means that the donation becomes “public funds” because of diverted revenue. Such an argument, extended to its logical conclusion, would mean that all money is the government’s, and when it graciously declines to tax us, that extra money of ours is in fact part of the public fisc.

Nonetheless, the government prevailed at the Montana Supreme Court. In fact, the Court did the state one better–they just invalidated the whole tax-credit program, even for the few parents who might use a scholarship to send their kids to a secular school.

It’s a terrible blow to parents in Montana trying to find some genuine variety in education. But it also gives the Supreme Court a chance to right a wrong that has been festering in education policy for well over a century. The Supreme Court should hold that barring religious schools from accessing a neutral and generally available funding program violates the Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The portion of Montana’s state constitution that laid the tax-credit program in an early grave is known as a Blaine Amendment, named after 19th-century Congressman James Blaine. In 1875, Blaine proposed a federal constitutional amendment that would, among other things, prohibit states from funding “sectarian” schools with public money. Blaine’s federal amendment failed, but many states passed state-level amendments to the same effect, and Congress managed to make inclusion of such amendments a condition of statehood for new states entering the union.

The history is clear that these amendments are rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry. As the United States transitioned to a public school system, public schools had a distinctly Protestant flavor (often state-endorsed or even state-forced). Catholic migrants therefore began forming and attending private religious schools of their own. The backlash was fierce, and anti-Catholic sentiment often expressed itself in hostility to Catholic schools. James Blaine’s proposed amendment was a key manifestation of this bigotry.

And the bigotry lives on today. Ironically, however, now opponents of genuine choice in education have retrofitted Blaine Amendments as a partisan weapon to combat vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts. Montana’s law is only the most recent victim. If the Supreme Court doesn’t grant this case and strike down these state laws rooted in religious bigotry, it won’t be the last.

Why Persecute?

Why was religious persecution common in the premodern world? This is the question Noel Johnson and I address in Persecution and Toleration.

Answers that rely on the alleged barbarism of the times or the brutality or narrowed-mindedness of individual churchmen or rulers are unsatisfying. We need to understand why religious dissent was so alarming that political and religious authorities resorted to violent repression.

In Persecution and Toleration, we outline why states often had an incentive to enforce religious conformity.

Suppose the ruler wants to pass a law. The religious authority can choose to legitimate this law or to oppose it. If the religious authority opposes it, the law will be seen as illegitimate, and the ruler will face unrest or opposition in attempting to enforce it. If the religious authority legitimates the law, then compliance with the law will be greater and the law will be enforced at a much lower cost for the ruler. Rulers therefore have a good reason to want legitimacy. Because religious authorities were the most powerful source of legitimacy in the premodern period, it was natural for rulers to rely on religious legitimacy.

Rulers can bargain with religious authorities to obtain legitimacy. One way to do this is to enforce religious conformity. This provides a natural framework for studying religious persecutions.

One insight is that persecutions are necessarily political. The justification for persecution can vary. Secular authorities will persecution in terms of secular arguments. Religious authorities may persecute on religious or doctrinal grounds. But structurally these persecutions will resemble one another.

A second key argument is that some form of religious repression was the default in the premodern world but outright persecution was, in fact, quite rare. The default level of religious repression we characterize as a state of conditional toleration. Religious differences were usually tolerated, but only conditionally. Outright persecution was quite rare. But the threat of persecution played an important role in enforcing religious conformity, restricting dissent and providing states with legitimacy.

How general is our account? Is this story only applicable to Western Europe? Or to monotheistic societies? Can it explain the persecution of Christians in pagan Rome or the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan? And what distinguishes religious persecutions from other persecutions?


To address these concerns, consider the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Historians such as Candida Moss downplay these persecutions (here). Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age — reviewed positively in the New York Times —for example, writes:

“The idea, therefore, of a line of satanically inspired emperors, panting for the blood of the faithful is another Christian myth. As the modern historian Keith Hopkins wrote, ‘the traditional question: “Why were the Christians persecuted?” with all its implications of unjust repression and eventual triumph, should be re-phrased: “Why were the Christians persecuted so little and so late?”

Nixey correctly cautions the reader not to view Christian accounts of the death of martyrs as historical accounts. But her argument is a larger one. To her mind, the persecution of Christians was not a religious persecution. Commenting on the Roman governor Pliny’s decision to persecute some Christians, she writes:

“Pliny’s problem with all of this is not religious. He is not upset because Jupiter has been neglected, or Hera has been slighted: he is upset because the citizens of his province are becoming disgruntled by the Christians’ behaviour . . .”

“. . . Even the locals who were forcing Pliny’s hand might not have been complaining about Christians for religious reasons either: it has been speculated that what was really upsetting them was not theology but butchery. Local tradesmen were angry because this surge of Christian sentiment had led to a drop in the sales of sacrificial meat and their profits were suffering: anti-Christian sentiment caused less by Satan than by a slow trade in sausage-meat.”

Because Christians were punished as pests and social deviants, rather than for reasons conventionally identified as religious, Dixey suggests this was a simple matter of“law and order”. If anything her sympathies appear to be with the Roman governor responsible for prosecuting Christians:

“What should Pliny do with these odd people? Trajan’s reply is brief and to the point. He doesn’t get into theological or legal debates about the legal status of Christianity (to the disappointment of later scholars); nor does he (thus confounding the martyrdom tropes) fulminate against the Christians. He does agree with Pliny that those who are proved to be Christian ‘must be punished’ — though for precisely what charge is unclear. He also adds that ‘in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be’. Roman emperors wanted obedience, not martyrs. They had absolutely no wish to open windows into men’s souls or to control what went on there. That would be a Christian innovation.”

This hardly not exculpates the Romans or implies the persecution of Christians was a myth. Nixey is correct that the Roman authorities were unconcerned with what Christians believed. But she is wrong to suppose that this is the defining characteristic of religious persecution. And the urge to downplay the persecution of Christians suggests other anachronistic instincts are at work. After all, no-one denies that Christians were killed, often horrifically, in the Roman persecutions (for a critical review of Moss’s book, on which Nixey relies, see here).

Theologians were, of course, concerned with wrong beliefs. But the reason why religious dissent became a major concern to both secular and religious authorities in medieval Europe was precisely due to the threat heresy posed to the established social and political order.


Consider another example from medieval Europe. Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium explains the threat heretical movements posed to political order. Focusing on the most revolutionary millennium sects — movements that envisioned the last days as at hand, and took action to herald their coming — Cohn’s text vividly captures both the appeal as well as the radicalism and violence of these movements. Describing the manifesto of the “Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine”, Cohn writes:

“the route to the Millennium leads through massacre and terror. God’s aim is a world free from sin. If sin continues to flourish, divine punishment will surely be visited upon the world; whereas if sin is once abolished, then the world will be ready for the Kingdom of the Saints. The most urgent task of the Brethren of the Yellow Cross is therefore to eliminate sin, which in effect means to eliminate sinners . . . To achieve that end assassination is wholly legitimate: ‘Whoever strikes a wicked man for his evildoing, for instance for blasphemy — if he beats him to death he shall be called a servant of God; for everyone is in duty bound to punish wickedness.’ In particular the Revolutionary calls for the assassination of the reigning Emperor, Maximilian, for whom he had an overwhelming hatred.”

Such beliefs were a threat to all established authority. Church authorities were naturally concerned with monitoring belief and practice. But heresy also posed a potent threat to secular authority.

Of course, many people in medieval society had incorrect and unorthodox religious beliefs. What principally concerned the Church was not ignorance but heresy: obstinately holding beliefs that directly contradicted Church teachings.

Heresy was feared because it was a source of disorder. Religious dissent had the potential to unleash revolutionary violence and social chaos. This was one reason why Martin Luther recanted his earlier support for religious liberty during the Peasant Revolt.

Arguments for enforcing religious conformity went deeper than the fear of revolutionary violence. Such was the importance of the Church to the social and political order that all challenges to Church authority were perceived as threats to society.


Consider the doctrine of apostolic poverty — which emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries as the Commercial Revolution was transforming the European economy increasing urbanization, trade, wealth, inequality and also poverty. Shocked by the growing gap between the rich and the poor, adherents to this doctrine aspired to the simple poverty of Christ’s followers. They lived without property or money and they were critical of the wealth accumulated by the Church.

The fact that the Church was wealthy did not, of course, imply that Churchmen were not devout or dedicated. The problem was, however, that the Church was also a political institution. Many bishoprics were the preserve of the nobility who would jostle to ensure that their younger sons became influential churchmen. These prelates were expected to be the equal of the secular nobles, to entertain lavishly, and to dress splendidly. Taken too far, therefore, apostolic poverty threatened the legitimacy of the Church and its relationship with secular authority.

Through mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, the Church could accommodate these demands and concerns. But groups who directly attacked the legitimacy of the Papacy itself, such as the Waldensians and the Spiritual Franciscans could not be tolerated. The leader of the Spiritual Franciscans, Angelo da Clareno denied that Pope John XXII was pope, a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Church. Precisely because of the threat they posed to the church and state alliance — and not because of their theological beliefs, which were unremarkable — the Spiritual Franciscans had to be repressed.

Were the concerns of the Roman Emperors so different from those of medieval rulers and churchmen? Religion was not a private affair in antiquity. It had political consequences; it mattered for the fate of the Empire. The first Empire-wide persecution of Christians occurred under Decius (r. 249–251). Decius’s response to the political crisis facing the Empire — invasions from both Persia and the Goths — was a revival of the state religion and the imperial cult.

Claiming that Roman persecutions of Christianity were not religious but political, as Moss and Nixey do, is misleading; all persecutions are political. Because it began as a persecuted cult, Christianity as a religion contained many potent arguments against religious persecution. For these reasons, it was probably less predisposed to persecution than many other religions. Nevertheless, the fact that the medieval Church eventually came to persecute dissent points to deep, structural, political economy factors that made religious freedom impossible. It this these factors that are the subject matter of Persecution & Toleration.

Persecution & Toleration

I’m glad to announce that my new book, Persecution & Toleration (with my colleague Noel Johnson) is now available in the UK.  I’m hoping to receive copies next week. The book is available at CUP, although Amazon still has a US release date of April (you can preorder it).

The blurb is below:

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood. Tracing the history of religious persecution from the Fall of Rome to the present-day, Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama provide a novel explanation of the birth of religious liberty. This book treats the subject in an integrative way by combining economic reasoning with historical evidence from medieval and early modern Europe. The authors elucidate the economic and political incentives that shaped the actions of political leaders during periods of state building and economic growth.

‘A profound new argument about the relationship between political power and religion in the making of the modern world. If you want to know where the liberty you currently enjoy, for now, came from, this is the book to read.’ James Robinson, Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict, University of Chicago

‘Johnson and Koyama investigate the fascinating intersection of the state and religion in late medieval and early modern Europe. Rather than enduring patterns of religious toleration or persecution, of liberty or tyranny, they tell a rich history of change and variation in rules, institutions, and societies. This is an important and persuasive book.’ John Joseph Wallis, Mancur Olson Professor of Economics, University of Maryland, College Park

‘Lucidly written, incisively argued, this book shows how religious toleration emerged not only from ideas, but also from institutions which motivated people – especially the powerful – to accept and act on those ideas. A brilliant account of early modern Europe’s transition from identity-based privileges to open markets and impartial governance.’ Sheilagh Ogilvie, University of Cambridge

‘This analysis of the historical process underlying the modern state formation is a fantastic scholarly accomplishment. The implications for the present, in terms of the risks associated to the loss of the core liberal values of modern western states, will not be lost to the careful reader.’ Alberto Bisin, New York University

 

Bad Religion

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of my all-time favorite Christian documents. Written in 1563, mostly by Zacharias Ursinus, the Heidelberg (as it is sometimes called) is composed by 129 questions and answers (the classical format of a catechism), supposed to be studied in 52 Sundays (that is, one year). I believe it is very telling that, being a catechism, the Heidelberg was written thinking mostly about younger people, even children. Ursinus himself was only about 29 years old when he wrote it. Maybe it is a sign of the times we live in that the Heidelberg sounds extremely deep for most readers today.

Throughout its questions and answers, the Heidelberg covers mostly three Christian documents: The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father who art in Heaven…”) and the Apostle’s Creed. The catechism is also divided into three main parts: Our sin and misery (questions 3-11), our redemption and freedom (questions 12-85), our gratitude and obedience (86-129). Probably an easier way to remember this is to say that the Heidelberg is divided into Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. That is also, according to many interpreters, the basic division of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, historically one of the most important books in the Bible.

I mention all these characteristics about the Heidelberg Catechism because I think they are worth commenting on. As I learned from a friend, that is the Gospel: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. As C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, Christians are divided on how exactly this works, but all agree that our relationship with God is strained. That is the guilt. However, in Jesus Christ, we can restart a peaceful relationship with God. That is the grace. This should be followed by a life of gratitude. That is the way the Gospel is good news. If you don’t emphasize these three points you are not really presenting the Biblical gospel. To talk about grace without talking about guilt is nonsense. To talk about guilt and not grace is not good news at all. To talk about guilt and grace but not of gratitude is antinomianism. To talk about gratitude (or obedience) without talking about guilt and especially grace is legalism. But also, notice how unbalanced the three main parts are: Ursinus dedicated way more space for grace and gratitude that he did for guilt.

That’s not accidental. Also, it is very interesting that he talks about the Ten Commandments when he is dealing with gratitude. It didn’t have to be this way. Ursinus could have included the Law when talking about guilt. He could use the law to show how miserable we are for not fulfilling it. But instead, he wanted to show that obeying God is a sign of gratitude. You are free already. Obeying will not make you any more saved. But it is certainly the behavior of a truly restored person.

If you read so far, I should first thank you for your attention, but also say that I am completely unapologetic for speaking so openly on Christian themes. At some point in history, Christians decided to adapt to the modern culture. That was the birth of Christian Liberalism. Modern man, some of them assumed, could no longer believe in stories of gods and miracles. Modern science was able to explain things that societies in the past thought to be supernatural occurrences. The Bible was at worst pure nonsense or at beast a praiseful reflection of the piety of people in the past, but certainly not a supernatural revelation from God. But if you take away the supernatural elements of the Bible, what do you have left? Good morals, some thought. I believe they were wrong.

The social gospel is one consequence of Christian liberalism. The central miracle in the Bible is that Jesus, a mortal man, was dead for three days and resurrected. That is indeed a miracle. Make no mistake: people in the first century knew as well as we do that people don’t come back to life after three days. Maybe they knew it better than we do, for in the 21st century, for many of us, death is not a part of everyday life. For them, it certainly was. Christians have believed through almost two thousand years that Jesus’ death and resurrection have something to do with us being reconciled to God. But if Jesus didn’t resurrect, and no one really heard from God that he is angry, what do we have left? The answer, according to Christian liberals, is social justice. Reform society. I believe that for this, they own society at large an apology, and I will explain why.

I heard from too many people that the reason they don’t go to church is that Christians are hypocrites. “Do as I say, but not as I do”. Maybe they are right. The balance between guilt, grace, and gratitude if fundamental for Christianism to work. Salvation (reestablishing a rightful relationship with God) is by grace, not by works. Say that salvation is by works and you set the board in a way that you are sure to lose. As I already mentioned, I think it is just wonderful that the Heidelberg Catechism talks about the Law of God (The Ten Commandments) when it is discussing gratitude, not guilt, and I believe this is a great lesson for us today.

I say all this today because I believe that political correctness is (at least to a great degree) the bastard son (or daughter) of the social gospel. See the recent Gillette commercial that caused so much controversy, for example. Are they really saying anything wrong? Don’t men behave sometimes in ways that are less than commendable? I believe we do. Especially coming from a Latino culture as I do, I am more than willing to say that men all too often are disrespectful towards women and also towards other men. However, how the people at Gillette know this? If there is no God, or if he didn’t speak, how can you tell what is ethically commendable behavior and what is not?

I am no specialist, but as far as I know, more than enough atheist philosophers are willing to admit that in a sole materialist worldview there are no universal grounds for morality. As the poet said, “if there is no God, then all things are permissible”. It is always important in a conversation like this to explain that I am not saying that atheists cannot be ethical people. That is absolutely not what I am saying. Some of the best people I ever met were atheists. Some of the worst were Christians who were at church every single Sunday. With that explained, what I am saying is that there is no universal guide for human behavior if there is no God and everything just happened by chance. There are particular guides, but not a universal one, and to adhere to them is really a matter of choice.

The way that I see it, people at Gillette want men to feel bad and to change their behavior. They want men to feel guilty and to have gratitude. But where is the grace? I believe that is why this commercial irritated so many people. It makes people at Gillette look self-righteous or legalistic. Or both! But it definitely doesn’t help men to change their ways, supposing that there is something to change. I believe there is. There is a lot to change! But political correctness is not the way to do it.

Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise

Should Flying Spaghetti Monster worshipers be allowed to wear colanders on their heads in drivers’ license photos? Maybe so. Today, four conservative justices hinted that someone might want to bring them a good Free Exercise case soon so they can unseat a long-standing and long-criticized case called Employment Division v. Smith. That case, penned by Justice Scalia, had in turn uprooted several decades-worth of precedent that had built up a robust bulwark of religious rights under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

It’s a funny twist. Liberal justices like Justice William Brennan had built up strong protections under the Free Exercise Clause, such as allowing Amish to pull their children from high school early because of their faith, or allowing Saturday Sabbath worshipers to enjoy certain exceptions to work requirements for unemployment benefits. Then the penultimate conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, dealt a severe blow to those precedents in Smith. Scalia said that religious practices did not merit exemption from generally applicable laws.

Now, the conservative justices want to rethink Smith, while the liberal justices may hang back. Perhaps the shift in the culture wars has caused this parallel shift in jurisprudential alliances. In any case, I think we should welcome reconsideration of Smith.

Scalia’s opinion in Smith raised some legitimate concerns. He argued that if we allowed judges to have a heavy hand in deciding which religious practices deserved special exemptions from the law and which did not, then judges would inevitably engage in subjective judgment calls and descend into the very parochialism that the First Amendment is designed to thwart. He also worried that allowing exemptions from generally applicable law would court anarchy—we would have a legal code peppered with holes for a thousand individualized religious beliefs and practices. Both are legitimate concerns.

Smith did prompt a strong legislative response. Congress and quite a few states thereafter passed Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) that basically revived the pre-Smith law. But legislatures can and do exempt some laws from RFRAs, and many states do not have them.

My primary issue with Justice Scalia’s Smith opinion is that his worry about subjective judgment calls seems to prove too much. Judges are called upon to make these kinds of sensitive and controversial decisions all the time. We rely on things like tenure and salary protection to shelter their independence and impartiality as much as we can, but these kinds of difficult decisions arise in innumerable other contexts. I would prefer a robust and imperfectly enforced Free Exercise Clause to one that does almost nothing at all.

Likewise, the concern about courting anarchy may be overblown. Laws and religious practices usually do not clash in a fundamental way, and under the pre-Smith “compelling interest” test, legislators can still forbid child sacrifice while allowing Muslim police officers to keep their beards. Plus, freedom of speech and many other rights already require exceptions to the scope of otherwise legitimate laws—they just can’t be applied in certain circumstances. The Free Exercise Clause is not unique in that way.

If the Court does confront Smith, it may also have to deal with the Flying Spaghetti Monster problem. That is—the Court may have to address a question which it has mostly avoided: what is a “religion” under the First Amendment. Does the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster count? Should Pastafarians be allowed to wear colanders on their heads in drivers’ license photos while everyone else has to go bareheaded? What about the Church of Diego Maradona, a real church dedicated to the Argentine soccer legend? Clearly, asking a court to define a “religion” raises the same concerns of parochial judgment calls that drove the decision in Smith. But maybe the answer is to let them all in, with perhaps just a low-threshold sincerity requirement. Beyond the occasional colander-clad guy in the DMV line, we haven’t seen a huge number of people adopting faux beliefs just so they can get a religious exemption for smoking dope. But then, there is an International Church of Cannabis that would surely see a surge in conversions if Smith is overturned.

The Left’s Gospel has no Grace

The Protestant Reformation was started in 1517 by Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk who was revolted about the selling of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. The indulgences were on that occasion simply documents sold by Rome that would guarantee access to heaven for those who bought them. Luther understood that the Bible taught something different: salvation is through Christ alone, and can’t be bought or sold. Jesus’ death on the cross was substitutionary: he died in the place of sinners. Those who put their faith (their trust) in this sacrifice are saved from hell. In a nutshell, this is the gospel (the good news) as Luther understood it and as Protestant churches have been understanding it in the past 500 years.

However, for Luther, the Protestant Reformation didn’t begin in 1517. What happened to him in that year was just the culmination of a process that started many years before. Luther was obsessed with the idea of sin. More so than the average person, he understood that as a sinner he could never be considered just by God, no matter how much money he spent on indulgences. The distance between God’s justice and human sin is simply too great. Understandably, instead of loving God, Luther hated him. that’s when he discovered salvation by faith alone. Yes, it is true that our justice can never satisfy God. But it doesn’t have to. We can rely on Jesus’ justice. And that is what for Luther begin the Reformation.

Luther’s idea of salvation by faith alone can easily be mistaken by antinomianism. Antinomianism is the idea that the law has no importance at all, especially for salvation. That is certainly not the case for Luther and other reformers. For them, we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. True faith will always be followed by good works. So, although the good works in themselves do not save, they are part of faith. Nevertheless, Luther’s idea of salvation by faith alone is pretty radical. Can we be sure that faith alone will not fall into antinomianism? Can we be fully confident that this idea will not lead to licentiousness? This debate has been going on for the last 500 years.

In any case, I find it fascinating how the Reformation begin with one unsuspicious monk in an unimportant region of Germany over 500 years ago. The Reformation is part of the modern (re)discovery of the self. Before Luther, other people were trying to reform the Roman Church already. Notoriously, Erasmus was criticizing the excessive pomp of the church and the shortcomings of the official Latin translation of the Bible. However, as important as they could be, these were external things. Luther’s reformation begins as a reform of the self. A someone said, nothing is deeper than a man full of regret. If Luther was simply pointing to the mistakes in the Roman Church, and not to his own sinful nature, his reform wouldn’t produce the change it did.

The problem with the Left, since Rousseau, is that the problems are outside the self. For Rousseau, we are born in chains. Society turns an otherwise noble savage into an egoistic person. For Marx, man is nothing but a soulless homo economicus, trapped into the materialistic engines of history. The New Left believes we are poor victims of advertisement that makes us buy stuff we don’t really need. And that inevitably turns leftists into hypocrites. One can never perform well enough to these standards and is left pointing to the speckle in somebody else’s eye.

Ever since I can remember, one of the most common reasons people give to stay away from churches is the Christians. Churches are full of hypocrites, they say. I can’t really access the veracity of this statement, but one thing I can say is this: salvation by works is a game set to be lost. If your religion says that you obtain salvation by performance, that will inevitably turn you into a hypocrite. Or a cynic. Or both. And will also make you hate anyone outside your religious group.

The problem with the left is that it preaches salvation by works and sets the problems outside the self. The gospel of the left lacks a sense of personal sin and of grace.

Why Christmas materialism is awesome

It has always struck me as odd that capitalism’s usual defenders abandon it when commercialism seems to be on its best behavior. Every year, we religionists love to rail against Christmas materialism. What a terrible curse–people in the marketplace thinking of others’ interests and needs for once.  All the efficiency of the market PLUS good will toward men–why are we complaining, again?

Yet we do. Without fail, twitter feeds and chapel lecterns ring with invectives against Christmas commercialism. The warning voice, though, never seems to strike with precision. The concern seems to be that a focus on stuff gives rise to an idolatrous dethroning of deity.  This religious criticism appears to mimic the secular and progressive criticism that commerce somehow defiles us and strips us of virtues like compassion or solidarity.

I don’t buy either of these criticisms, largely for the same reasons: commerce brings people together, builds trust, and fosters goodwill. These benefits are in addition to the efficiencies that market advocates typically emphasize. And these three aspects of commercial exchange are in special abundance during Christmas.

Perhaps the materialism complaint stumbles at the outset by focusing on the largely mythical human calculator that predominates in economic theory–the man focused only on maximization of personal utility. That portraiture does not explain the fact that so much commerce occurs on behalf of someone else–a reality underscored and amplified during holiday shopping. Thus, Christmas supports Amartya Sen’s critique of the rational-man theory: “The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron.” He’s the one who gives you lotion samples and leftover hotel shampoo in your stocking. But most of us don’t do that. Instead, the market provides a forum for us to express and cultivate virtue. As Deirdre McCloskey says, “In other words, it’s not the case that market capitalism requires or generates loveless people. More like the contrary. Markets and even the much-maligned corporation encourage friendships wider and deeper than the atomism of a full-blown socialist regime.” I think a simple test proves this point. If you walk about a shopping mall during the Christmas holiday (setting aside for a moment your inner misanthrope), how are people behaving? By and large, there is an overpowering sense of goodwill among people engaged in (shudder) holiday materialism. I’d say this is mostly true at any time of year, but we may as well notice this phenomenon when it stands at its apex.

Beyond just the goodwill generated by the act of commerce, the materialism critique seems to ignore the very purpose of the materialistic behavior being condemned. Shouldn’t we celebrate this key example of how commercialism can enhance friendship through gift-giving? If you’re a religious capitalist, what is there not to like here?

A friend pointed out recently that Christmas giving seems fruitless, since the value-for-value gift exchanges offset each other. He concluded we may as well just keep our money. From an efficiency standpoint, it does seem strange to engage in a transaction cost without any expectation that you’ll achieve a pareto-efficient state of affairs. Samuelsonian economics alone can’t really explain why people engage in this ritual. That’s probably because the ritual is not purely economic. It’s about connection, relationship, and opportunity to think beyond ourselves. In other words, at bottom, it really is not about materialism in the shallow, desiccated sense that these Christmas puritans rail against. Commerce can be about compassion and camaraderie–not just self-interested calculation (though there’s nothing wrong with that either).

I don’t think the Babe of Bethlehem would disagree. After all, Jesus, while no aristocrat, was not a severe ascetic by any means–somewhat of a contrast to his cousin, John the Baptist. Perhaps the most poignant example of his view toward extravagant gift-giving occurs when a woman anoints him with an extremely valuable ointment. His disciples complained of the waste, griping that the ointment should’ve been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus defended her: “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me.” In other words, a materialistic act can still be a virtuous one. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of them are. We need, after all, an earthly vehicle by which to exercise heavenly virtue. The market is well-suited for that role. God can be in a market–he’s that good.

Of course, a post about Christmas and materialism must make obligatory mention of Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens was no fan of capitalism, but his reformed villain ironically proves a point about Christmas materialism: it’s the lack of virtue in the individual operating in the market, not the market itself, that desiccates the soul. So perhaps I can end with a simple “Scrooge” test: is Scrooge the guy standing back and pointing the finger, or is Scrooge the person that the finger aims at–the mom who braves the crowded mall to plop her kids on Santa’s lap and wraps gifts until 3:00 AM in the morning?

Merry Liberty Christmas!

Christmas, as I hope everybody (at least in the West) still knows is Jesus’ birthday. I don’t want to spend too much time here talking about how it is very unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25, and how this date was probably just chosen at some point in the late Ancient times/Early Medieval times to Christianize European pagans. The Bible never specifies when Jesus was born (although it does offer some hints), and so, some very devout Christians over history (Puritans, for example) thought that we should not even celebrate Christmas. The gospel according to John doesn’t even talk about Jesus’ birth. In it, Jesus simply appears as a grown man. The same thing happens in Mark’s gospel. Matthew and Luke give accounts of Jesus’ birth, with Luke being more detailed. So, ½ of our gospels don’t seem to be very interested in Jesus’ life before he was about 30 years old. Someone has said (and I think somewhat appropriately) that the gospels are accounts of Jesus passion (his death and resurrection) with long introductions.

But anyways! I don’t think that celebrating Christmas is bad, not at all! I believe it is a good occasion to remember Jesus, the founder of Western civilization. May we like it or not, the West is profoundly linked to Christianity. Christianism begin as little more than a small and persecuted Jewish sect, but eventually became the main religion in Europe (and northern Africa, and the Near East), and from there to the World. Some might say (and I think that sadly they might be right) that today Europe lives in a post-Christian era, but we should not forget that someday in the past to be European and to be Christian were basically synonyms. And I also believe that we, professing Christians or not, should be thankful to Christianity in a number of ways. I am very convinced that it was thanks to Christianity, especially after the Reformation, that we have many of the things that we, as liberty-lovers, are thankful for, such as science, capitalism and lots of individual liberty.

Of course, from the human perspective, the link between Christianism and West is merely accidental. I myself, as a Brazilian, am not sure if I classify as a Westerner. Maybe I am from the far West? It is very clear that for many decades now Christianism is moving to the global south: Latin America, Africa, Asia, and I hope not to be forgetting anyone. And I think that is just beautiful! I don’t believe that there is one essential Christian culture. Instead, I believe that culture is an essential human phenomenon and that Christianism can give a new birth to cultures, just as it does to individuals, bringing forward what they have best and leaving behind the bad stuff.

Sadly, the very places where Christianism is growing the most today are usually also the places where Christians suffer more persecution. Although we tend to connect the first few centuries of Christianism with martyrdom, with people being crucified, thrown to the beasts and the like, the fact is that the 20th century had more martyrs than any other century before. It is also sad for me that most people, including Christians and liberty-lovers, tend to ignore this. In the last few weeks, I heard of at least two churches being closed in China, with all members being taken to jail. I wish that people who care about freedom paid more attention to this. I also wish that people who care about Human Rights did the same. Some people are worried about gay couples not getting wedding cakes from Christian bakers, but they don’t seem to have the same concern about Chinese Christians being thrown in jail just because they are Christians.

Speaking of which, I want to be very honest and say that Marxism (or post-Marxism, or cultural Marxism) can easily become a religion. Marx is a prophet, The Capital is a holy book, the proletariat (or any oppressed minority, for the modern left) is both Messiah and holy people, a future communist utopia is Heaven. I believe that it was a Catholic apologist who said that “the problem with not believing in God is that we start to believe in any dumb thing – including in ourselves”. The problem with Marxism as a religion is the same problem I see with every other religion apart from Biblical Christianity: it is performance driven. It is about what you do. And as so, it can create a slippery slope in your heart. You become self-righteous and judgmental (in a bad way) of people outside your faith-group or even people inside your faith-group who you consider not holy enough. Of course, Christians are not exempt from this either, but I believe we have the right medicine for this.

As much as I believe that the New Left is one of the greatest problems in the West today and that several forms of totalitarianism are one of the main problems elsewhere, I don’t believe that libertarianism or conservatism are in themselves the solution. I became a libertarian (or a conservative-libertarian) because I am first a Christian. My first question was “what the Bible has to say about politics and economics”? I believe that somewhere in the libertarian camp we have the best answer for that. I believe the Bible teaches that very small and simple governments and market freedom are the answer. However, I would say that this is just partly the answer.

The way that I see it, the conflict between the left and the right is very much a conflict between Rousseau and Locke, or a conflict between two kinds of freedom. For Rousseau, you are only free when you are your true inner self. If necessary, the community can make an intervention to force you to become who you truly are. For Locke, you are free when you can make your own choices, regardless if they look good for others. As libertarians like to say, a crime without a victim is not a crime.

I believe this is also a basic conflict between modern western culture and more tradition culture – the conflict between collectivism and individualism. My answer as a Christian (and a libertarian) is that we should not force people to be Christians. That would, at best, produce external conformity – which is actually really bad. My understanding is that, as long as they are not predictably and willfully hurting others, people should be let free to do whatever they want. And I do mean whatever. On the other hand, I don’t think that this is good – or as good as it can be. Ironically, I believe that Rousseau is onto something important: you are only truly free when you are who you are really supposed to be.

One great irony or paradox in Christianism is that you are only truly free when you are a slave to God. Understanding 1st-century slavery helps to get the analogy better. God bought us for a price. We belong to him. However, God is not satisfied with having us as slaves. Instead, he adopts us as sons. That is the (I believe) famous parable of the prodigal son: a son abandons his father and loses all his money. He comes back hoping to become a slave in his father’s house. His father takes him back as a son. So, Jesus gives us a new identity as sons of God. And I do mean sons, and not sons and daughters or children. In the 1st century daughters had no inheritance, but in Christ, we all share of it. So that is our true identity if we walk after Christ. And that is when we are truly free.

I don’t want to force anybody to be Christian. I believe that one of the greatest mistakes in Christian history was exactly that: to force people to become Christian. As I said, religion can easily create a slippery slope in the heart, and Christianism is not necessarily an exception. But while other religions are about what we do, Christianism in its essence has at least the potential to be what has been done for us. And that is truly humbling. And I believe this has important political implications: we pray for all. We hope for the best. We trust in God. We respect others.

So Merry Christmas to all! I hope that this is a time for remembering the birthday boy, and what he did, especially on the cross. And that we can all work for a world freer, where people can become Christians – if they choose so.