RDPulpit: No Time for Lukewarm Economic Reform

So, as a matter of conscience, I keep trying to put my finger on what is so off-putting to me about the Washington policy consensus or “governing agenda” as the centrists so grandly refer to it. I am speaking, of course, of the mildly progressive governing agenda that many ostensibly progressive religious folks have become heavily invested in: a soupçon of policy change here, a dollop of personal behavioral change there, and the festering wounds of the nation will have been magically healed.

What grates about the centrists, I have concluded, is not their sheer windbaggery but the small-change nature of what they have in mind in relation to the big-change agenda that the predator class was able to push through during the past four decades.

I mean, really: those guys played for keeps and still do play for keeps. During their triumphant ride in the policy saddle—roughly from 1975 up until right now—they managed to convince an awful lot of people that a return to open Social Darwinism would be a really good thing for American society. The ascent of the strongest is, after all, the essence of they Hayek-Friedman-Reagan-Rubin economic doctrine. Backed by their think tanks, their various councils on competitiveness, a compliant media, and a lot of lobbying and campaign cash, they pushed through the free-trading, deregulating, low-taxing regime that they insisted would be the engine of wealth creation for all of us.

The scope of this engineered ideological departure from New Deal principles, and the consequent capacity of the predator elite to work its will within and upon government, is the reason why I have so little patience with religious leaders who continue to bring trifling ideas for fixing poverty without looking at the bigger picture of domination by the strong. Contemporary faith leaders who were to find themselves fully possessed of Walter Brueggemann’s prophetic imagination would not settle for a dash of this and a dollop of that. They would recall the rabble-rouser whom Johann Baptist Metz called the “Jesus of dangerous memory”: the Galilean insurrectionist who didn’t ask the bankers in the Temple courtyard to give back just a little to the impoverished Judean peasants. No, he drove them out of the courtyard altogether, apparently believing that extortionate banking and the Reign of God are incompatible concepts.

I despair of those inside-the-beltway religious leaders who reject radical reform of the corrupt money-driven system on the grounds that it’s “not practical” or “not feasible” to envision a systematic and militant pushback against the money power in Washington. Neither was it practical or feasible to overthrow the Jim Crow system (a system, let it be noted, which like the money power maintained its tight grip upon the Democratic Party right through the 1950s and early 1960s). Unlike Martin King and Ella Baker and James Lawson and so many other civil rights heroes who made a way where there was no way, today’s religious trimmers and equivocators appear unwilling to name the system and oppose it with all their moral being. Apparently they do not want to be ridiculed in the Washington circles of influence they so yearn to enter. How pathetic, and also (I say this as a Christian): how un-Christlike.

As a few astute commentators have pointed out, it is precisely the fastidiousness of the faux progressives among today’s spiritual power brokers that prevents them from joining forces with clear-sighted activists within the secular Left. Were they to do so, and do so in much the same way that a significant part of American religious leadership got itself behind labor organizing in the 1930s and civil rights organizing in the 1960s, I believe we could see a 21st-century movement for economic democratization that would rank alongside of those other big transformative movements.

But no: unless I am missing something, I do not hear the anti-poverty paladins in DC calling for comprehensive foreclosure protection, direct control of the zombie banks, elimination of various tax treats for the super-wealthy, single-payer health care reform, and rollbacks on predatory lending at every level (not just mortgage lending but credit cards and “payday” lenders and student loan sharking—which is perhaps the single most egregious arena of continuing lender abuse).

Why is it essential for religious leaders to demand radical structural change? Well, for one thing, because unless there’s a popular pushback against the rule of big money, and unless that pushback has a vibrant moral and spiritual center, the predators are going to win. They are going to retain their power to fleece the rest of us all over again.

One illustration: already the biggest bankers are making a push to eliminate the “mark-to-market” accounting rule that currently won’t allow them to just make up numbers in order to assign a book value to dubious assets. And according to Floyd Norris in the New York Times, they fully expect to get the relief they seek on mark-to-market from the Democrats.

Second illustration: according to a new and well-documented report produced by Essential Information and the Consumer Education Foundation (“Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America”), the big finance/insurance/accounting players spent a whopping $5.1 billion over the past ten years and employed over 2000 different lobbyists in order to have their way with us: to strip away consumer-friendly regulations, limit government oversight, and generally pave the way for the orgy of speculation and phony derivatives trading that has just led to the massive collapse that hurts everyone but that hurts the poor most of all.

This Wall Street-Washington cabal is still ascendant, and it very much includes respected Democratic insiders like Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, the man who gives our new President his daily economic briefing.

As the preface to “Sold Out” puts it:

In most of the United States you can go to jail for stealing a loaf of bread. But if you have paid off Washington, you can steal the life savings, livelihoods, homes and dreams of an entire nation, and you will be allowed to live in the fancy homes you own, drive multiple cars, and throw million-dollar birthday parties… So long as the Money Industry remains in charge of the federal agencies and keeps our elected officials in its deep pockets, nothing will change.

So to repeat: religious leaders who say they are on the side of the poor and the working folks but who aren’t talking all the time about this cancer—and working hard to excise it from our governance system—cannot be taken seriously.

That sounds harsh and it is harsh. And I am not saying it will be easy for religious types who want to be Washington insiders to learn to be this clear or this outspoken about the real source of the suffering in this country. But as long as they lack the will to speak truth to power in this way, they need to get off their little anti-poverty soapboxes and stop pretending to be disciples of the Galilean upstart who shook things up two millennia ago.

These times are apocalyptic times in the strict etymological sense that the lid has now been opened on the way our government really works to cosset the powerful while keeping the weak at perpetual disadvantage. And just as in the Apocalypse that was vouchsafed to St. John, the continuing unjust oppression of God’s poor people in these United States raises a fateful question for all witnesses who lay claim to be representing “God’s politics”: will they take a clear stand for the oppressed, or will they duck the hard stuff for the sake of their personal comfort and safety?

May they be spared having to hear the Son of Man’s chilling words:

Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth… Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.