The New York Times Magazine recently alerted us to a “return to religion” among intellectuals. It struck me as odd that this august publication has finally gotten around to noticing this trend. This trend, however, could be reassuring because, if the intellectuals have hopped onto a bandwagon, then a strong chance exists that all the toots and whistles on that particular bandwagon will have been refashioned so that the toots whistle and the whistles toot.
Look at the recent intellectual fashions: it is not two years since serious analysts regarded Central and Eastern Europe as places where the communist system reflected the organic will of the people. About that time it was also fashionable to regard Nicaragua as a font of profound spiritual change; after all, the Sandinistas numbered among their comandantes a couple of priests.
This was also the time when Ronald Reagan was denounced by intellectuals for his alleged clumsiness and bellicosity when he made a moving speech in Berlin urging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Wall.
But in 1989, when those self-same intellectuals least experienced it, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and with it began the collapse of the worst tyranny that has ever plagued humanity and all of humanity’s enterprises – a tyranny that, not coincidentally, tried to kill off every vestige of religion and spirituality that it could not twist to its own ends.
As we know now, communism could not kill off either. Every faith communism has attacked has prevailed. Surely God Almighty works in history no matter what the intellectuals say.
A Different “Manifesto” Triumphs in Eastern Europe
What a joy it was for me when, last June, clacking along in an old socialist rail car from Prague to Budapest with a group of American journalists, we came to the environs of the Hungarian capital, the scene of so much bravery in the face of repression for this past half-century. There, silhouetted in the distance like a mighty fortress, was a great cathedral – Cardinal Mindszentsy’s cathedral – outliving the great Christian leader’s tormentors, an eternal reproach to the hubris that produced them.
The next day, I sat with Hungary’s new president, Arpad Goncz, once imprisoned for his dissident activity, now a living testament to the biblical assurance that the last will be first, that the enslaved will be free. We did not really talk, the two of us, about the temporal versus the spiritual – the latter was so overwhelmingly evident that we felt no need to remark upon it. We talked instead about Soviet and American foreign policy.
Make no mistake, President Goncz told me, Hungarians are the beneficiaries of the Gorbachev era. But, like a great sailor, a great “harnesser of the wind,” Gorbachev is reacting to history, not directing it. Much more than that, President Goncz added, his countrymen were beneficiaries of the Reagan era. They, along with other “middle Europeans,” as he refers to them, were liberated by two Reagan salients in the 1980s.
First, Ronald Reagan made it possible for the West to win in the marketplace; though only minimal, deregulation and tax-cutting gave such a boost to the American economy that communist nations couldn’t hope to compete. Second, Reagan made it impossible for the Soviets to keep up militarily by placing Pershing II missiles in West Germany and by his singular persistence in promoting the Strategic Defense initiative.
What? Central and Eastern Europe liberated by a combination of crass capitalism and macho militarism? When I reported back to my American companions what the Hungarian president said, they reacted in disbelief, as if I had teased or even coerced this sort of repugnant Reaganism out of one of Hungary’s national heroes. How unlike anything these journalists – themselves candidates for a New York Times Magazine profile – had ever advocated at home.
No Union Between Christianity and Marxism
Indeed, I reflected afterwards, How unlike anything I had heard championed by American church leaders, many of whom for years have toiled, like alchemists of old, trying to meld Christianity with Marxism.
These American churchmen – so pathetically eager to deconstruct their own heritage that now even Christopher Columbus is regarded as an imperialist serpent in a native American Paradise – little resemble the Protestant clergy I had encountered several days before in Berlin, men who now filled the cabinet of the interim East German government.
Some of these officials, whose churches only months before were used as channels of anti-communist revolution, may have participated in the anti-Pershing peace movement of the 1980s, which was partially orchestrated by the Kremlin and the Hoenecker regime, but this merely demonstrates how the anti-authoritarianism of that movement backfired on the communists.
In truth, most of the real anti-war activists in the Soviet bloc were just as opposed to Russian warheads, and, significantly, they were more determined to exorcise Karl Marx than to embrace him.
Anti-Marxism is even more pronounced in the Polish Church. I once spent the day in the village of Lowice, where the anti-communist graffiti – Red Army, go home! – was surpassed only by traditional religious trappings. In such a climate communism could not hope to endure.
Now, if you’re one of those who still imagine that Christianity and Marxism might be united, you could contend that the Red Army by no means represents Marxist philosophy at its purest. If you wish to belabor that point, I urge you to do it with a Polish priest, a Polish villager, a Polish intellectual. Indeed, go to the town square of Lowice blindfolded, spin around, and buttonhole the first Pole you meet. Tell him that Marx was just updating the Gospels; I dare you.
The Solidarity government, largely made up of Catholic intellectuals, has dedicated itself to applying the free market economics of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Michael Novak with an enthusiasm I also witnessed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Nowhere, to the apparent dismay of some of my American companions, was anyone interested in a union between Christianity and Marxism or in some sort of “Third Way,” or halfway house between Marxism and capitalism constructed in equal parts by Karl Marx and Adam Smith.
Liberation Theology: The Old vs. the New
So here is a theology that has liberated millions, a perfectly traditional theology that recognizes God, not the state, as the prepolitical source of rights and freedoms. It is, in effect, a new kind of “liberation theology” for the world, based on faith and the free market.
But in pre-1989 Central and Eastern Europe, the regimes of Earl Hoenecker, Janos Kadar and Gustav Husak were actually funding and supplying weapons to Central American guerillas whose dictatorial aims were furthered by believers in the old socialist “liberation theology.”
This brand of theology was very much the intellectual fashion in North as well as Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. In Nicaragua, the communist regime even tried to appropriate Christian symbols, like the crucifix, which in its “new” form became a Sandinista soldier with a gun. It also organized a flimsy movement called “Inglesia Popular,” a liberationist claque that fortunately never proved as popular as the traditional church.
Sandinista Interior Minister Tomas Borge, surely one of the most diabolical thugs in this hemisphere, even tried to link Jesus of Nazareth with his guerilla politics in a book of tortured meditations that admirers in upstate New York rushed into print. The Barabas temptation, 20th century style!
When in last year’s elections the Sandinistas proved themselves as popular as their rump church, their norteamericano allies flew into paroxysms of hysteria. Yet the humiliated and defeated and defeated Marxist president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, is still welcomed to New York’s Riverside Church as a venerated speaker. Does anyone ask him about the mass graves of Sandinista opponents now reportedly being unearthed in his hapless country? No, these leftover “liberationists” flock to touch the hem of his bloody garment.
Am I too hard on the old liberationists? Of course, there are those attracted to the movement who eschew violence and truly minister to the poor and oppressed in Latin America. But it is difficult to imagine a more perfect test case for the old liberation theology than Nicaragua, where the regime imposed what was hailed as a purer form of socialism than had been tried in the Soviet bloc. This was to be the “grand experiment.”
Even before it became evident that the experiment had failed miserably, the liberationists found ways to evade the truth. They did so primarily by buying into the socialist critique that holds the developed world, particularly the United States, accountable for the misery of the underdeveloped world.
They also glided over the vast empirical evidence that socialism invariably requires coercion in order to achieve its redistributionist objectives. The history of socialism has amply demonstrated that, when milder forms of coercion fail, then more violent forms follow.
Some of the better liberationists turned their gaze from Sandinista violence and marched off to Central America to set up their “base camps” where they fed and doctored the poor, but they still flagellated themselves for being North Americans and preached a communalism that didn’t work in Jamestown or Plymouth Colony.
Faith and Politics
Not long ago, I worked in Washington D.C., where every aspect of one’s daily life is shot through with politics. One Sunday, I sought refuge in nearby Alexandria’s Christ Church, where you can still see the pews of Robert E Lee and George Washington. It was a special day for this historic church; Virginia’s suffragan bishop was visiting.
Can you imagine the desolation I felt when he launched into a sermon on why we need gun control laws? As a journalist, I am tempted to throw up my hands sometimes! But I have been to Central and Eastern Europe, to Russia and to the Baltic States – I have seen a faith that liberates as opposed to a bogus one that enslaves.
One Sunday I found myself in a dingy Warsaw hotel room, trying to make sense of the keys on an old Polish typewriter, and attempting to write about the deep apprehension so many Poles, habituated to the incentiveless society, feel as they step determinedly into the “cold bath” of a free market economy. I switched on the television, and there to my surprise, was Robert Schuller preaching. Just the prescription for poor Poland!
As I remember, he was quoting John Wesley: “Make as much money as you can. Save as much money as you can. Give a way as much money as you can.” How foreign these words sound to us in our contemporary culture. All the pundits tell us that we have been living through an era of arrant greed, never mind that in the past few years we were allowed only a marginal drop in our tax rates. But because of the very hegemony of those pundits, ridiculously well paid pundits at that, Schuller’s message Wesleyan message continues to sound foreign.
The Last Refuge of the “Coercive Utopians”
Somewhere along the line, corresponding to the rise of secular faith in the almighty state, politicized churchmen latched onto the notion that people cannot discover for themselves unless coerced by the state. As a result, we have a school system that graduates people who do not know the half century in which the Civil War was fought, or where Mexico is; a school system that is so inadequate that former Education Secretary William Bennet suggested that parents should get their money back; a school system that, according to National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney, may be described as a “tyrannical machine.”
As a result, we have also seen a War on Poverty, fought unsuccessfully along socialist lines, which has produced a permanent underclass and done incalculable damage to the black family. We have mobilized for a War on Drugs, already showing more perverse results on our inner city streets … We have so deputed government at all levels that we have forgotten how to do it ourselves, and we react with astonishment when the legislative and judicial branches fail to show the omniscience and omnipotence we expected.
Globally, what we are seeing is the collapse of the “coercive utopians,” much more dramatically, of course, where socialism has been tried. They seemed to be getting this heresy, and it is a heresy, out of their system in Central and Eastern Europe, in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Yet oddly enough, we seem even more keenly interested in it here, where Washington D.C., undeterred by the current Republican administration, has rediscovered the joy of regulating. This is a Washington, mind you, that cannot balance a budget, but wants desperately to regulate the institutions in which you have your checking and savings accounts.
Not long ago, two California professors, one a political scientist and one a “social ecologists,” submitted an article to the Orange County Register that actually argued that planet earth could no longer afford to allow development in the poorest regions. What with the hole in the ozone and all that, claimed these professors, we simply cannot allow people facing imminent starvation to benefit from refrigeration.
As editorial and commentary director of the Register, I could not in good conscience accept such an article, but I was tempted to do so in order to publicize a stark confession of an attitude that has been commonly concealed by anti-development intellectuals. Again: it is the attitude that the least among us, the marginalized, the poor, should remain in their desperate condition so that they might be denied any entrepreneurial hopes, because if they succeed they will be too much like us.
It ought to be pointed out that these intellectuals might have a point if their apocalyptic scenarios were realistic. But, although my fellow journalists are eager to assure us that “no respectable scientist” disagrees that the sky is falling, or that the earth is warming, or that the ozone is depleting, it just isn’t true. Many respectable scientists do disagree and are eager to debunk such theories.
But more and more Christians, Jews and other religious believers are jumping uncritically on the environmentalist bandwagon. One individual, a professed Christian, recently wrote me with the admonition that neither Godless environmentalism nor Godless economics could save our world. It happens that I agree with that formulation. But my admonisher betrayed a willingness to suspend the natural, God-created laws of economics in order to save creation.
So much for Christian humility, which is reflected by the millions of volitional decisions and voluntary transactions that ordinary, talented people engage in every day in hopes of improving their own and their families’ lives.
A Free Market Revolution
Just before the collapse of socialism in the Soviet bloc, Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger wrote a marvelous book about the newly industrializing countries of East Asia. These ‘little tigers,” or “little dragons” as they are sometimes called, are a part of a free market revolution and, as Berger documents, they are defeating poverty at an amazing rate.
Compare them to the Third World nations that have tried socialism for the last three decades and you will find that none of the latter have grown, and indeed, that most of them have moved backward. In Central and Eastern Europe last spring, I heard East Asia described everywhere as a model for post-communist aspirations.
Similarly, in Latin America, Hernando de Soto now an adviser to Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori, has discovered the Promethean energy of a vast “informal sector,” a kind of underground economy. Who comprises this informal sector? Why, all the poor Indians, handymen, street vendors, campesinos, who have long suffered under the mercantilist system of political permits, red tape and economic regulations. They simply started ignoring the law and doing business with one another. One might say they had no choice but to develop a market based on free choices.
Throughout the southern hemisphere political leaders are finally acknowledging the truth of de Soto’s studies and are working to unleash the tremendous energy of the informal sector. Already the Berger/de Soto view of this newly enterprising world bids to change world history more than Marx ever did. And what is the animating spirit behind this development? Doubtless, it is sat least an inchoate understanding of a few fundamentals central to our religious traditions.
These newly enterprising people, from Bangkok to Bogota, take the commandment to mean more than merely to procreate, but to engage in profitable business. They take the lovely metaphorical language of “throwing bread upon the water” to mean they should become entrepreneurs, by testing new products and services in their approximate marketplaces.
They understand the reference to the “lilies of the field” to embolden them to take risks, never trading freedom for security. They comprehend that if they are truly “created in the image of God,” then they are to create, not redistribute.
This free market revolution, now rapidly causing borders to vanish around the world, can be nothing less than Providential. Let us hope that we will have enough wisdom not to replace the Almighty God with economic theory, nor faith with ideology, and that the New York Times Magazine will have the grace to notice.
Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal of Hillsdale College. Subscriptions are free upon request. Write: IMPRIMIS, Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI 49242.