Writing at the intersection of religious faith and politics is difficult. These are the twin topics, neither of which are to be discussed in polite company. Normal op-ed length tends to require a writer to engage in over generalizations that frequently obscure more than they reveal. Having attempted to write at this intersection makes me painfully aware of these facts. So, it is with some sympathy that I critique Joseph Loconte's recent NYT piece. However, at some point, sympathy must give way to criticism.
Loconte makes several claims in this short piece, and it is important to consider the underlying commitments that lead him to read circumstances as he does. First, he is firmly committed to Lockean liberalism, a form of liberalism rooted in the 17th century and John Locke. The political philosophy of Locke is based upon a very strong sense of human autonomy and individualism. Those who hold this philosophy would concur with the definition of person given by the 6th-century philosopher, Boethius: "an individual substance of a rational nature." Second, Loconte seems clearly committed to the omnipresent magic of Adam Smith's invisible hand. In other words, he believes that free markets, left completely to themselves, will inherently work to maximize the good of all. Loconte's critique of those who disagree with him comes, then, from one whose perspective takes these things utterly for granted. However, as a person of faith, I find both problematic.
First, from a Christian perspective, it is difficult to accept Lockean liberalism as uncritically as does Loconte. Perhaps we can make that clear by reflecting on the notion of "human dignity" that Loconte deploys in his essay. He calls it a God-given aspect of all human beings. It is as if God created humans and then decided to bestow upon them this thing call "dignity." However, within the Christian tradition, humans are understood to have dignity as a consequence of having been created in the divine image. "Dignity" is not some extrinsic quality, but rather an inherent aspect of bearing the image of God. As soon as we accept this, the central tenet of Lockean liberalism can no longer stand, for the image of God we bear is first and foremost our relationality. And, the relationship we are to have with each other is to love the other as we love ourselves.
The rallying cry of so many conservatives--that we are all to strive for independence--is simply mistaken from a biblical perspective. Loconte's "dignity" is the dignity that attaches to human autonomy, but the biblical sense of dignity is embodied in "care for the least of these." To suggest, as does Loconte, that religious conservatives were right to engage governments, etc. to stop oppression around the world and then to deny that religious progressives can do the same with regard to programs for the poor is simply incoherent once separated from a decidedly unbiblical notion of individualism.
Second, free markets simply do not work in ways that protect the poor and marginalized. This is empirically evident, and comes as no surprise to the religious who recognize the human tendency to pursue selfish interests. Even "enlightened self-interest" exudes the exclusionary vapors so damaging to the "least of these." Markets ought to be free consistent with a rich sense of accountability for those on the margins. And, this means that those structures that organize our public life (governments, for one) are subject to appeal from the religious on religious grounds for the purposes of building adequate protections for the "least of these."
At the end of the day, Mr. Loconte and I are both men of faith-he of faith in Lockean liberalism and free markets and I in the affirmation of the world's great religious traditions that we all flourish most and best when the interests of the most vulnerable are given high priority.
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