Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The egalitarian absolute

I. Egalitarian Assumptions

The culture wars have many fronts, and on the face of it liberalism presents a rather ragtag alliance. It seems to be nothing more than a loose coalition of special-interest groups vying for entitlements of one kind or another. But upon closer inspection, there is a common thread running through the varied and perennial liberal/conservative debates. To pull this thread, let's begin by running through a representative statement of liberal ideals.

1. Equal rights for racial minorities. No racial profiling.

2. Equal rights for women. No "sexist" language. Abortion on demand.

3. Equal rights for sodomites, bisexuals, and transsexuals in employment, housing, mar-riage, adoption and ordination.

4. Equal rights for minors. No corporal punishment, parental consent or even parental notification (for abortion, contraception). Kids should be free to sue or divorce their parents.

5. Equal rights for citizens and foreign nationals. No distinction between human rights and civil rights. International law trumps national sovereignty.

6. Equal rights for fauna and flora. No "speciesism." No pet "ownership." The common good of the ecosystem trumps the survival or prosperity of the human race.

7. Equal access to goods and services, viz., public housing, transportation. Elimination of regressive taxes (e.g., sales tax) or tax breaks for the rich. Massive foreign aid to poor Third World nations.

8. Equal access to education, viz., free tuition, racial quotas, bilingual education, forced bussing, and elimination of competitive standards.

9. Equal access to health care, viz., health insurance, contraception, euthanasia, needle-exchange, medical Marihuana, &c.

10. Equal access to the best legal representation. Demographically equitable sentencing. The world court trumps national sovereignty.

On the one hand, this list is intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. On the other hand, not all liberals would necessarily push such a radical agenda, but this is the general goal or basic drift of liberal ideology, even if approached incrementally. It is further along in Europe and the UK than in the US.

So what's the common thread? One only has to run through the platform to answer the question. To be sure, there's a sense in which I built the answer into the way in which I phrased the ideals, but I think this is a logical way of classifying liberal ideals.

We might call it the egalitarian absolute. The guiding idea is that human beings, or all living beings, are equal in principle, and for this reason, every effort must be made to make them equal in practice. The same standards, opportunities and outcomes apply to one and all. Equality is the rallying cry that unites political and theological liberals.

Many different tributaries feed into and issue out of egalitarian ethics, including , Dar-winism, socialism, secularism, feminism, Buddhism, the Sixties counterculture, Native American spirituality, Wiccan religion, animal rights, deep ecology, queer theory, the Communist Manifesto, the Humanist Manifestos I-II, the UN conventions and declarations on human rights, women's rights, children's rights, K. Marx, P. Singer, A. Naess, J. Goodall, R. Reuther, Green Peace, the Green Party, ALF, ELF, PETA, &c.

A logical corollary to the egalitarian absolute is a totalitarian regime, for only the force of law can impose such uniformity of opportunity and outcome. The regime must control all educational and economic resources in order to smooth out social inequities. Thus, the state or global regime supplants the church and the natural family, as a kind of extended parody of both. Social programs supplant word and sacrament, bureaucrats supplant pastors and parents.

The egalitarian absolute is somewhat neutral on the precise mechanism of implementing its program. The effect is socialistic, but that can be powered by either democracy and capitalism or autocracy and collectivism. Yet the tendency is towards one-world government.

Now, it is an old debater's trick that he can always win the debate as long as he can define the terms of the debate, for that puts the opposing side on the defensive by placing the onus on the opposing side.

And this tactic has achieved some level of success in the debate between liberals and conservatives. For what we usually see is that the conservative affirms the basic principle of general equity, but denies its application in this or that particular case. And this always situates the conservative in a weakened as well as generally and gradually losing position. Instead of challenging the underlying premise, he is left trying to challenge the results or limit its application on a piecemeal basis, while the liberal can naturally ask why, if the premise is sound, it should not be carried to its logical extreme.

II. Inter-Evangelical/Egalitarian Assumptions

Why have Christian conservatives been so slow to perceive and confront this tactic head on? There are, I suppose, several reasons.

1. I suspect that many Christian simply fail to see how individual controversies over, say, the ordination of women or homosexuals or war and peace figure in a more sweeping social program.

2. There are some egalitarian elements in Christian theology. We believe that all men are sinners, in equal need of divine grace, and that the grace of God is distributed without respect to outward distinctions of race, sex, and social class. A Calvinist would say that grace is particular, but not on those grounds, for election is unconditional.

We believe that all men are entitled to equal justice. We believe that the Great Commission (Mt 28:19), in fulfillment of the Lord's covenant with Abraham, presages and promises a diverse church of the redeemed, drawn from every tribe and tongue, people and nation, sharing alike in a universal priesthood and kingdom (Rev 5:9-10).

Frequent appeal is also made to Gal 3:28. However, Paul doesn't say that the respective groups are "equal," but rather, "one" in Christ. Equality and unity are not interchangeable concepts, and it is question-begging when egalitarians casually substitute equality for unity in exegeting this passage.

3. Many conservatives feel a collective burden of guilt for past discrimination insofar as the Church has often been on the side of the establishment and status quo. As over against that, it should not be forgotten that the Church has as often been in the vanguard of providing for the poor and needy. Still, even if judged by its own standards, there is some blame to be laid at its own doorstep.

4. When conservatives oppose various elements and initiatives of the egalitarian agenda, it makes us appear ungenerous. If we talk about tax cuts and free trade while liberals talk about the poor and needy, the comparison is inevitably unbecoming to us. Of course, many conservatives would say that tax cuts and free trade help the poor and needy. But even if true, that often gets lost in the debate.

III. Internal Critique

How, then, should the Church respond to the egalitarian absolute? I would suggest a two-pronged approach. To begin with, it is a useful exercise to challenge the egalitarian absolute on its own stated grounds.

1. To say that everyone is equal in principle, in consequence of which every effort must be made to equalize everyone in practice is, at first glance, an appealing idea with a plausible inference, but does the premise or the conclusions really withstand serious scrutiny?

To begin with, we must ask, equal with respect to what? On the face of it, there are natural differences between men and women—as well as natural inequities between individuals of the same gender. Some men are smarter and more ambitious than others. They are naturally more successful than the less industrious or intelligent.

So is this claim much more than stirring rhetoric or a sentimental slogan? Do egalitarians believe in the egalitarian absolute because they know it to be true, or because they want it to be true?

2. Does the worldview of the average egalitarian justify the egalitarian absolute? What is the source and standard of this moral imperative? Certainly the liberal platform, in all its particulars, cannot be justified by appeal to divine revelation. But if the Bible does not underwrite such social engineering, then what does?

Is it nature? But surely there's a great deal in the animal kingdom that presents a highly hierarchical and ruthlessly competitive aspect. Nature is far from equitable or charitable or forgiving in her distribution of opportunities and advantages.

In addition, the average egalitarian subscribes to naturalistic evolution. But on such a plastic view of human nature, there's no prior reason why one race might not be superior to another—just as some dog-breeds are smarter or swifter or braver than others. To be sure, many Darwinians wax indignant when natural selection, the struggle for existence, and survival of the fittest is extended to Social Darwinism; but, if so, they should shift their ire and fire from the conclusion to the premise. Just consider all the furor that erupted when two Harvard professors (Richard Herrnstein & Charles Murray) published The Bell Curve: Intelligence & Class Structure in American Life.

In Scripture, by contrast, humanity has a common point of origin and historic identity throughout time and space. That's what makes it mankind.

3. Furthermore, many egalitarians embrace some postmodern form of cultural or moral relativism. So there's an odd disconnect between their denial of moral absolutes and univer-sal norms and their absolutist agenda and sweeping public policy initiatives.

4. Another irony is that egalitarians wish to retain hierarchical social structures, but merely promote their social mascots to the top jobs. In other words, they think that women, homosexuals, racial minorities, &c., should occupy all the traditional positions of power, viz., bishop, president, senator, general, governor, quarterback, CEO, and so on. So they still believe that some people (or people-groups) should have power over other people (or people-groups). Thus the egalitarian absolute is superficially equitable, but fundamentally elitist inasmuch as it fails to challenge institutionalized forms of social stratification. For a truly egalitarian society would be a truly classless society.

The reason for this central contradiction is, in part, that a decentralized government or dismantled power-structure cannot serve as an instrument of social promotion or social redemption. So the basic tension between egalitarian ends and means is irreconcilable, for it takes a chain-of-command to defeat a chain-of-command.

That accounts for the elitist fist within the egalitarian glove, for feminism must employ masculine means to further feminist ends. It retains and exploits a command-structure by promoting women in the chain-of-command as magistrates and judges, bishops and gen-erals. Such paternalistic tokenism is a parody of male and federal headship. Egalitarianism is parasitic on hierarchical prerogatives. Egalitarianism is just a code word for feminism, because it imposes a maternal problem-solving strategy on both sexes. Feminism is misogyny, for feminism despises feminine traits in favor of masculine traits.

You can see this in the gender gap. Women are more likely to vote for big government and social programs because the State becomes the father-figure and surrogate husband. The default mode of feminism is a desexed brand of male headship and federal headship.

The contrast between matriarchal and patriarchal strategies plays out in many domains. In jurisprudence, retributive punishment is paternal, remedial—maternal. In theology, Cal-vinism is patriarchal, universalism—matriarchal. In ethics, deontology (command ethics) is patriarchal, utilitarianism (the common good)—matriarchal. In economics, capitalism is patriarchal, socialism—matriarchal.

There's a reason that God made two different genders. They are complementary. Natural masculine and feminine virtues degenerate into unnatural vices when they are isolated and absolutized.

Another reason is less high-minded. And that has to do with the seduction of power. The revolutionary rails against the establishment, not because he really prefers anarchy to ar-istocracy, but because the aristocracy is a glass ceiling in the way of his own ambitions, and he must dethrone the old incumbents before he can move up the social ladder. And it is evident that many egalitarians are power-hungry and relish all the perks of power. They like to throw their weight around and issue orders and be fawned over and have the butler bring them their slippers. They like long titles and stretched limos, they like big offices and fancy letterhead.

5. A hidden premise of the egalitarian absolute is the unquestioned assumption that the fundamental unit of comparison is the group rather than the individual. This is the basis of identity politics. But is this assumption necessary or even meaningful? Why should I venture any universal opinion on the relative equality of one block of humanity over against another? Does it make any sense to say that all Italian restaurants are essentially equal, or that Italian restaurants are equal to Chinese restaurants?

Wouldn't it make more sense to say, for example, that some blacks are smarter than some whites, or vice versa, and that many fall somewhere in the middle? What intellectual merit is there in venturing such sweeping comparisons about respective people-groups? Shouldn't any broad comparisons be carefully grounded in inductive evidence instead of a priori stipulations?

6. And even if we grant that the standard of comparison should be the social unit, that leaves open the question of what social unit. Why not, for instance, choose the family as the natural and irreducible unit of society and build on that basis? For that matter, a Christian might well regard the spiritual family of the Church as just as basic as the natural family. So why not organize social ethics around kirk and kin? Why not take kirk and kin as the primary and positive social institutions, with the state as a secondary and conservative institution?

7. Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to grant that everyone is equal in principle, whatever exactly that's supposed to mean, one of the striking omissions of the egalitarian absolute is the absence of any emphasis on individual initiative and personal responsibility. For even assuming the premise, it hardly follows that the state should force equality of opportunity or outcome. To say that the state should not enforce inequality (e.g. Jim Crow laws) does not imply that the state should enforce equality. The duty of government is not to coerce equality, but to defend us from coercion.

8. Indeed, there quickly comes a point at which egalitarian principle clashes with egalitarian practice. For isn't there something inherently paternalistic, sexist and racist about saying that the government must save individuals from the consequences of their own lifestyle choices? Isn't there at point at which, if you really believe in the essential equality of all people and people-groups, that a given group must assume the initiative and responsibility for its individual, communal and national destiny?

Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but isn't there an ironic sense in which, if you closed your eyes, the egalitarian would sound just like the hooded white supremacist with his benevolent noblesse oblige about the white man's burden?

9. The egalitarian exhibits a love/hate relationship with big government. He loves the welfare state, but hates the police, armed forces, FBI, CIA, &c. He loves Big Mamma, but hates Big Brother. He loves a maternal state, but fears the intrusion into his zone of privacy. Momma can make the bed, but Momma can't look under the bed. Isn't there something deeply schizophrenic about this attitude?

10. The egalitarian absolute represents a paradigm-shift from a paternal to a maternal model of social relations. What are the stereotypical differences between men and women? Men are naturally ambitious, adventurous, aggressive, competitive, confrontational and daring whereas women are naturally nurturing, cooperative, conciliatory, domestic, deferential and risk-aversive. Women favor people over principle and mercy over justice, whereas men generally reverse the priorities. Women like to talk, but men like to act.

IV. External Critique

Finally, something needs to be said about the egalitarian absolute from a Christian per-spective.

1. In Christian ethics, my social obligations are concentric. I don't owe your mother and father the same debt of honor I owe my mother and father. I don't owe your wife the same debt of love I owe my wife. I don't owe your sons and daughters the same support as I owe my own. Neighbor love is an element of Christian ethics, but there are priorities.

It is immoral to seize the assets of responsible wage-earners and redistribute their income, especially to subsidize irresponsible behavior. The breadwinner has a primary obligation to support himself and his family. By contrast, the egalitarian absolute operates with a polygamous, wife-swapping, hippie-style kibbutz-code in which all social relationship are leveled out and rendered interchangeable.

2. Equal treatment is only obligatory in the case of equal claim. Inequality, per se, is not unjust, but only unjust when equal rights are denied—when I'm denied something to which I'm entitled. But equality is not entitlement. A householder and a house burglar do not have equal claim on the furniture.

Put another way, Christian ethics upholds equal treatment all other things being equal. By elevating equality to the only standard of reference, the egalitarian charges the Christian with a double standard. But this is a straw man argument inasmuch as the Christian was never operating with such a simplistic criterion.

3. Much of the egalitarian appeal rests on a palpably fallacious overgeneralization. Because the word "discrimination" is frequently used in invidious cases, the word itself has picked up a negative connotation. Then egalitarian then universalizes that odious connotation in every case, without further argument.

But some forms of discrimination are good. Moral discrimination adjudicates between right and wrong. Rational discrimination adjudicates between truth and falsehood. Dis-crimination against hiring child molesters as Sunday school teachers is a good thing.

4. In Christian ethics, there are priority-structures. Sabbath-keeping is obligatory, but saving life is a higher obligation that supercedes the lower when the come into conflict.

But for the egalitarian, equality is the one and only priority. This result in an obsession with hypocrisy and personal motives, for hypocrisy is the original sin—to be avoided at all cost (not that egalitarians are any less hypocritical in practice than the rest of us).

This fixation loses all sense of moral proportion. There are worse things than hypocrisy. It is better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than not to do it at all. Although hy-pocrisy is a sin in the hypocrite, his subjectively evil action may be objectively good and beneficial to a second party. Even a hypocrite can give good advice (Mt 23:3).

For example, if I had to choose between a brilliant brain surgeon who happened to be a cad, and a virtuous surgeon with a hand tremor, I'd opt for the former, even if that were "unfair" to the latter.

To take another comparison, even if our foreign policy were hypocritical, a double standard might still serve the common good if it protected the public. Diplomatic consistency doesn't trump elementary public safety and national security. Moreover, the state should not be consistent in continuing a foolish or failed policy of the past.

In addition, it is not morally inconsistent for party A to change if party B changes. A supports B when B supports A. But A opposes B when B ceases to support A and instead opposes A. An egalitarian brands this change of policy as hypocritical because he can only keep on idea in his head at a time—the idea of sheer, unconditional equality. But, in the nature of the case, any social relationship involves a two-way reciprocity that allows for or even demands a mutual adjustment if one party no longer hold up his end of the bargain.

5. In Christian ethics, the rule of law is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Justice, and not a system of justice, is the principle at stake. What makes a fair trial fair is the acquittal of the innocent, and the conviction and punishment of the guilty. Put another way, the moral law (of God) is prior to the rule of law, and hence, the moral law is prior to the state.

6. The Egalitarian Absolute frames the entire debate in terms of human rights, according to which every individual is autonomous bearer of certain inalienable rights. And this, in turn, leads to the reductio ad absurdum of saying that I even have a right to do wrong.

Now, the Bible has a great deal to say about right and wrong, but next to nothing about human rights. Rather, the Bible says that there is a right and wrong way to treat other persons, whether in relation to our duty before God or to our fellow man. So a Bible-believing Christian could just as well scrap the whole framework of natural rights, which was an Enlightenment construct, and recast the entire debate by returning to a version of divine command theory—based on the revelation of the moral law in Scripture.

7. God established kirk and kin as the central social institutions. This goes back to the creation ordinances (Gen 1:26-2:3). Although both institutions have a vertical (Godward) and horizontal (manward direction), the church accentuates the vertical aspect whereas the family, the horizontal.

Kirk and kin have a positive role to play in human affairs inasmuch as they offer substantive directives and directions in shaping our personal, corporate and religious life and thought, as well as a supplying a concrete forum for their free exercise. By contrast, the state has an essentially negative role to play (Rom 13:1-7) inasmuch as its mandate is to ensure the freedom of family and liberty of the church to discharge their God-given duties (e.g., work, worship, marriage, child-rearing, dominion).

8. Our Lord drew a distinction between the political and religious spheres (Mt 22:21). The state should be as large as necessary to fulfill its assigned function, but no larger. When the state assumes a more positive role, it oversteps its mandate, encroaching on the proper prerogatives of kirk and kin. Not only is the state unable to fill that role, but in so doing, hinders kirk and kin from doing the job that only they can do.

Although it is not the role of the state to make life unfair, neither is it the role of the state of make life fair. And it is not the duty of the state to shield individuals from the unhappy consequences of their foolish behavior. Just as the state shouldn't be in the business of issuing bulletproof vests to bank-robbers, or gas-masks to bioterrorists, it is not the duty of the state to spread a safety net (e.g., abortion, drug treatment) for reckless and immoral lifestyle choices.

9. None of this is intended to deny the charitable impulse. But charity should be voluntary and vested in kirk and kin. Most wage-earners need most of the money they make to live on and support their family. Only they know how much they can afford to donate. If the tax burden were lowered or even eliminated (in favor of user-fees or fee-for-service), charitable giving would rise. And wage-earners are also entitled to exercise moral dis-crimination in how they share the remainder of their earnings.

10. Although social injustice is a secondary source of some social ills, it is more symp-tomatic than causal, for the primary origin of injustice and decadence is sin. Law can re-strain evil, but only grace can heal an evil heart. The state can never be the organ of cultural renewal and social redemption.

11. One of the motives underlying the egalitarian absolute is a vicarious form of works-righteousness. If you can't be good, you can do good, and if you can't do good, you can feel good. And the way that liberals feel good about themselves is to be very charitable with everyone else's money. They are constantly casting about for some new cause, some social mascot to adopt. They are professional busybodies. Everyone's business is their business. The egalitarian absolute has its historic origin in Christian socialism, which was the political wing of Victorian Broad-churchism. Egalitarianism is a Christian heresy.

When faith goes into eclipse, it often exchanges traditional theology for political ideology. Its utopian outlook is a profane parody of Christian redemption and eschatology. Salvation by works restores an earthly Eden. The social Gospel is the ghost of dead dogma—just as Marxism is secular Messianism.

12. Another motive is desperate wishful thinking. If you're a secularist, then there is no divine redemption, no escape from the inhumanity of man. If history is any judge, the logical lesson to draw is that that human problems are humanly insoluble.

But man cannot live without hope. Despair has no future. As a consequence, humanism resorts to make-believe and wishful thinking. It posits the perfectibility of man by a blind leap of faith. This must be possible because the alternative is too depressing to contemplate. No amount of evidence can overturn this postulate. However many the atrocities, however often the social programs fail or worsen the problem, the humanist clings to his utopian vision.

In the name of human rights, process trumps principle and the means become an end in itself—even when innocent men, women and children are ground up like so much ham-burger in the cogs and wheels of the political machinery. The only heaven is heaven on earth, and political purgatory is the appointed way to paradise.

This is why the egalitarian politicizes every moral and religious issue. Man must rule himself and save himself. Ultimately, there is no zone of privacy. Politics expands the public sector to invade and pervade every sphere of life. There is no life outside of politics. This is a throwback to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Athens and Sparta. But even they didn't subscribe to the welfare state.

Christian theology is both more pessimistic and optimistic. The Christian is a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. This is true whether you're an amil or postmil, but a postmil situates moral progress within the unfolding of the church age. The Christian doesn't trust in horsemen and chariots to advance the kingdom, but in the Holy One of Israel (Isa 31:1), exalted at the right hand of power, from whence he governs the church and the world (Eph 1:20-23).

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