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?