Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Religion and Democracy: What is a Religious Issue?

A reader (Tim Bartik) posts in a comment: 
But what are examples of political issues that you think UU values do not dicate positions. For example, one of the burning issues of our time is whether overall federal spending as a share of GDP should be significantly reduced or increased, or should be stabilized. This is closely related to issues such as what the federal government policy should be about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and health care more generally. Do you think UU principles lead to specific political positions on these issues, or do you think that UUs might be able to take varied liberal vs. conservative positions on these issues, as long as they are guided by the principles of respecting individual worth and dignity, etc. ?
"Overall federal spending as a share of GDP" is a re-framing of important issues of religious value in terms which obscures what is really at stake.  

A question of religious values is "are we taking care of the needs of the people in our society?"  Or have we drawn a line somewhere and said to ourselves that we are not going to be concerned with what happens to people beyond this line?  A religious value question is whether we consign the elderly poor and the poor and disabled to lives teetering on the very edge of survival?  (Isn't the average monthly benefit under SS something like $1200 per month?)  There is a looming crisis ahead because our retirements systems (pensions, savings, Social Security) will not provide a decent life for many poor and working class elders in the future.  We made a decision that we would cover elders' health care spending -- will we keep that commitment or have we reached a point that we say that we are indifferent to some people's needs.  And the nation has always been grudging in our support for the health care of the poor.  We allow the state of Mississippi to design the policies by which they deliver health care to the black and poor in their state.  Everyone knows that the result is going to be very poor health outcomes; we are institutionally indifferent to the human beings.  

A proposal to "block grant Medicaid spending to the states" and limit its growth at such a rate to hit some agreed upon target number of federal spending vs. GDP is a further institutionalization of that indifference.  

The care of the elderly, the disabled, the poor are religious issues.  Even, "Inherent worth and dignity"is too abstract a phrase to describe what is at stake. 

Our religious values should goad us, as a matter of conscience, to pierce the veil of such abstractions.

Reader Tim seems to imagine "worth and dignity" as constraints on a free choice of liberal and conservative policy positions.  You can decide what percentage makes sense to you, as long as you still respect "worth and dignity".  In contrast, I think "worth and dignity" ought to drive policy.  How much will it cost to preserve the practical worth and dignity of each and all?


Tim Bartik said...


You still haven't provided an example of a political issue for which you think there is NOT a UU-derived position. I think it would help the debate if you would do so.

Personally, not that it is crucial to this debate, I am not in favor of block-granting Medicaid, and think that over time it would be wise and humane to increase federal spending as a percent of GDP, given the aging of the population and rising health care costs. However, I have some doubts as to whether my position should necessarily receive an endorsement as the only possible ethical position from a UU perspective.

For example, I could imagine someone saying that they want to help the elderly poor more, but want to save money by means-testing Social Security and Medicare. That is not my position, but I don't quite see how it is fundamentally inconsistent with UU values. And someone with such a position may believe it is consistent with the federal government share of GDP in the long-run being somewhat lower than it is today. Whether that would be so would depend on some empirical details such as the exact design of the means-testing, and assumptions about how such means-testing might affect the growth rate of health care costs.

Part of my concern is that I do not think it is the comparative advantage of religion to take positions that are crucial dependent on empirical parameters that are disputed. You might say that the devil is in the details, and it is not clear to me how much time religion should spend with the devil of empirical details. I would rather religion clearly state such empirical issues as what inherent worth and dignity means for different individuals, and how it includes the right to decent health care and retirement for all. There may be a variety of ways to achieve those goals that are quite consistent with radically different government policies, IF you are willing to make various assumptions about the "devilish" empirical details. As an economist, I think some empirical findings are more supported than others, but I think religion must be cautious about getting too much into the weeds of program-specific positions.

Tom Schade said...

I don't think that there are any policy areas which should be exempt from religious values-based scrutiny. Of course, there are multiple ways to design programs and policies which will have different effects.

I resist framing the discussion as "these questions are ones where religion is relevant and those questions are ones where religion is irrelevant. That is where UUs are at right now. The demand of politically conservative UU's has been "you can't talk THAT about here."

In the 1960's, there were members of the UU church I went to as a child, who solemnly swore that talk about the Civil Rights movement in church was an infringement of their right to have opinions that had nothing to do with church or religion.

I seems that you would like to have some area set aside for economists to determine what is empirically best. Sorry, I don't agree, even though I am interested in what economists know.

Tim Bartik said...

Perhaps my writing is unclear. I don't think that there are "some area set aside for economists to determine what is empirically best".

I'm simply saying that the world is complicated. People may agree on an ethical goal, and disagree on the best way to achieve that goal. And the argument on what the empirical evidence shows can get quite geeky.

I think there should be vigorous debates over the best means to achieve some goals from a wide variety of perspectives, not simply those of economists.

However, I wonder whether church is the best place to have some aspects of these debates. The church has some other vital functions in which the church has a comparative advantage. For example, the church has a crucial function in getting people to combine thoughts and feelings about how to best live in right relations with other people and with the world. I'm concerned that too much digression into policy geekery can distract the church from more important roles in which the church has a comparative advantage.

Joel Monka said...

The problem, at least in the debates I've personally gotten into, is how UU's frame the question. As an example, never once have I heard the question, "Is the "living wage" the best way to help the poor?", or "Do you think the "living wage" would be effective?". The presumption is that "Living Wage" (or whatever the topic is)is already proven fact, and the only question is whether you're standing on the side of love or not. You spoke of showing our work- I'm never allowed to show my work. I would start, "The living wage would be counterproductive; it would make things worse, be..." and get cut off by choruses of "Yeah, yeah, you've got yours and don't give a damn about anyone else."

I don't have any positions that are not the result of long hours of research and thought, and all are consistent with my religious values. But nobody seems to want to discuss the efficacy or impact of a policy or program, they only want to know whether the concept gives them warm fuzzies.