By / Aug 31

This fall, the Supreme Court will take up a court case that could pose a threat to Roe and Casey precedents which protect the right to an abortion. If Dobbs — the case out of Mississippi — does what the brief field by the state’s attorney general hopes, then abortion will cease to be a federally protected right. Instead, a variety of state legislative positions will go into effect, ranging from complete abolition of abortion to complete protection of access. If this case is successful, the pro-life movement will suddenly be faced not with one fight but with dozens across the country, each unique.

Even with the unique challenges that will face the pro-life movement, there is almost certainly one constant: one of the most commonly cited reasons that women seek an abortion is that they don’t think they can afford a child. Therefore, moving forward, it will be necessary to not only think about making abortion illegal, though that is necessary and vital, but also making it unthinkable. One part of that is ensuring that women do not see a positive pregnancy test as an economic crisis, but for the joy that it is: a new life bearing the image of God. 

Economic instability increases abortion vulnerability

There are a number of reasons that women seek abortions including age, number of previous children, and pressure from their partner. However, the most common reasons given are rooted in socioeconomic concerns, namely that the birth of an additional child is an economic crisis which endangers an already meager financial situation. One study found that over 70% of women who reported receiving an abortion listed money concerns as a reason. Similarly, this is not just a concern in the United States. In countries around the globe, socioeconomic factors are at the top of the list for why women receive an abortion, whether because they think themselves too impoverished to care for one child or to provide for an additional dependent. 

Each year there are hundreds of thousands of abortions (800K+ in 2018) in the United States, and statistically 75% of those abortions will be provided to women who are considered poor or impoverished. Poverty here is defined by the federal poverty level which, in 2020, was an annual income of $17,331 for a family of two or $26,246 for a family of four. While the number seems incredibly low — and it is — the number of individuals who fall into that category is not. There were over 34 million people below the poverty line in 2019. For comparison, that is the equivalent of the entire state of Texas, and an additional 4 million people. In the face of such poverty, the birth of an unexpected child, with all the attending costs — healthcare and insurance, doctor’s visits, milk, formula, time off from work, and diapers (just to name a few) —looks like an insurmountable hurdle. 

In the face of these circumstances, these vulnerable women are preyed upon by an abortion industry that offers them an inhumane answer to their economic uncertainty. They are offered the chance to make it go away, for a price. Because of the Hyde Amendment (and even this is subject to constant renewal), the federal government is barred from providing money through Medicaid to pay for abortion except in specific cases. However, several states allow the state’s contribution of Medicaid funds to pay for the procedure. In those states which allow funding, over half of the abortions were paid for by Medicaid. Further, they are allowed to receive government funds as reimbursements for other medical services provided. That amount, which varies from year to year, has seen an uptick since 2016 and was over $600 million in 2018. Not only does the abortion industry prey upon the most vulnerable in its destruction of life inside the womb, it profits off the economic instability of their mothers, with promises that economic security lies just past the procedure that ends their child’s life and lines the abortion provider’s pockets. 

Countering abortion through poverty measure

Poverty prevention and alleviation is one of the areas where the church has a unique opportunity to prevent abortion vulnerability. Churches often have networks that are already in existence whereby the impoverished can come to them for help in the form of benevolence funds. Further, they can be the hub for connecting abortion vulnerable women to the social services available to them and help to bridge them through difficult financial times. 

Poverty prevention is not a distraction from the work of the gospel but rather a recognition that the care of the poor is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. From the commands to leave crops for them to glean in the Old Testament laws (Lev. 19:9-10), the condemnation of those who unjustly oppress the poor (Is. 3:14-15), or the praise of Jesus for those who have cared for the poor, hungry, and naked (Matt. 25:36-40), the scriptures speak clearly of the Christian’s duty to care for the poor. 

Not only at the local level, but at the state and federal level, measures to alleviate poverty are methods that can decrease the need for abortion. Though politicians and political operatives may argue about the measures that will best correct the crisis that is poverty, there is no doubt that it must be addressed. One recent example is the expansion of the Child Tax Credit that resulted in direct payments to families with children that helped to decrease the number of children living in households that were identified as economically vulnerable. Daniel Williams, in his book The Politics of the Cross, argues that another method is to expand healthcare availability and ensure that the working poor have better wages and improved opportunities. 

The correction of poverty through the alleviation of poverty is a tool that the pro-life community has employed in the past. Again, Daniel Williams, in his history of the pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade, shows that prior to the court’s ruling, pro-life advocates combatted abortion through their advocacy of poverty measures. Since the Roe decision, anti-abortion advocates have focused on overturning the decision and restricting access. This is a needed (and incredibly effective) tool. 

However, the goal is not just to end abortion, but rather to make it unthinkable. While we also need to address the suburban woman sitting in a Southern Baptist pew who is tempted toward abortion, one of the means of helping to make abortion unthinkable is to provide vulnerable women with the tools they need so that an unexpected pregnancy is no longer an economic crisis. Addressing abortion through poverty will not end the practice, and it must be paired with state and federal measures that limit access to the practice. But removing this one concern makes it less likely that the women will fall prey to the predations of the abortion industry. It removes the concern that a woman faces between having another child or feeding the baby she already has. And it clarifies the church’s commitment to serving the least of these.

By / Dec 13

What just happened?

On Tuesday, President Trump and Congressional Democrats came to an agreement on trade with America’s nearest northern and southern neighbors. The House of Representatives agreed to Trump’s plan to amend and replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with a new trilateral trade agreement between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

The Senate is expected to vote to pass the agreement next month.

What is NAFTA?

NAFTA is an initialism for the North American Free Trade Agreement, an agreement signed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States that reduced or eliminated trade barriers in North America. (Since the U.S. and Canada already had a free trade agreement (signed in 1988), NAFTA merely brought Mexico into the trade bloc.) The agreement went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994.

A year earlier, the European Union (EU) created a “single market”—one territory without any internal borders or other regulatory obstacles to the free movement of goods and services. This allowed every country and business in the EU to have access to more than 500 million consumers.

NAFTA was designed to have a similar effect, providing a way to allow the exchange of goods and services to flow more freely across national borders without the artificial restrictions. NAFTA provided for progressive elimination of all tariffs (through 2008) on any goods qualifying as North American. The deal also sought to protect intellectual property, establish dispute-resolution mechanisms, and, through corollary agreements, implement labor and environmental safeguards.

The new agreement has sometimes been referred to as “NAFTA 2.0,” though USMCA is not itself a free trade agreement.

Who benefits from the USMCA?

The primary beneficiaries of the agreement are labor unions, U.S. dairy and wheat farmers, and companies that provide automation for manufacturers (e.g., robot makers).

The agreement will require at least 30% of cars (rising to 40% by 2023) to be made by workers earning $16 an hour. This will force more cars to be produced in the U.S. and Canada since the typical manufacturing wage in Mexico is only about $5 per hour. The agreement also requires Mexico to make it easier for workers to form unions, which will make them less competitive against more productive unionized workers in the U.S. and Canada.

U.S. dairy farmers will also gain greater access to the Canadian market. Because of new restrictions on how much dairy Canada can export, there is the potential for U.S. dairy to gain a greater market share in foreign countries. Canada has also agreed to grade imports from U.S. wheat farmers in a manner no less favorable than it accords Canadian farmers, and to not require a country of origin statement on its quality grade or inspection certificate.

Because the agreement makes human labor in the three countries somewhat more costly, economists predict that companies that create robots and other automation will likely be the long-term beneficiaries.

Who are the biggest losers from the USMCA?

Consumers in all three nations are likely to see prices rise on certain goods.

As the Washington Post notes, economists and auto experts think USMCA is going to cause car prices in the U.S. to “rise and the selection to go down, especially on small cars that used to be produced in Mexico but may not be able to be brought across the border duty-free anymore.”

Because the restrictions on Canadian steel and aluminum also remain in place, businesses that use those materials in manufacturing will pay higher-than-market prices, and their products will be less competitive on the global market.

Workers in Mexico will also lose a competitive advantage because Mexican manufacturers will be required to pay higher wages. 

What will be the effect of USMCA on the economy?

The net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy, while positive, appears to have been relatively modest, concludes the Congressional Research Service. NAFTA accounts for an annual increase in GDP of about 0.1 to 0.5 percent. The primary reason the effect is so negligible is that trade with Canada and Mexico accounts for a small percentage of U.S. GDP.

Because the USMCA carries over many of the same provisions of NAFTA, it is expected to have a similar—though slightly smaller—effect. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates the USMCA will raise U.S. GDP by 0.35% and U.S. employment by 0.12%.

How long does the agreement last?

Unlike NAFTA, which had an indefinite time frame, the USMCA will expire in 16 years (and reviewed after 6 years). The agreement can also be renewed after expiration for another 16 years.

By / Sep 15

For many Americans, religion—particularly Christianity—is intrinsically valuable. We appreciate religiously motivated behavior primarily because it honors God and serves our fellow man.

But an increasing number of our fellow citizens are agnostic about God and skeptical that religion provides much benefit to our neighbors. This summer a Pew Research survey found that while a majority of U.S. adults still say religious institutions contribute either “a great deal” (19 percent) or “some” (38 percent) to solving important social problems, four-in-ten (39 percent) now say religious institutions make little to no contribution in this area. A minority of religious “nones” (38 percent) say religious institutions contribute at least some help to solving social problems, compared with, for example, 65 percent of Protestants who say the same.

This skepticism about religion’s value to society lead researchers Brian and Melissa Grim to conduct a study, recently published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, that shows how religion contributes to the U.S. economy. “Given the division of opinion on religion’s contribution to American society,” say the authors, “this present study seeks to shed light on the topic by making an estimate of religion’s socio-economic value to society. Indeed, we should know if the decline in religion is likely to have negative economic consequences.”

Their study provide three estimates of the value of faith to U.S. society. The first and most conservative estimate takes into account only the revenues of faith-based organizations falling into several sectors (education, healthcare, local congregational activities, charities, media, and food). The second estimate takes into account the fair market value of congregational social services and contribution of businesses with religious roots. Their third, higher-end estimate based on the annual household incomes of America’s religiously affiliated population.

By their most conservative estimate, the economic contribution of the religion sector to the U.S. society is roughly $378 billion a year: healthcare ($161.0 billion), local congregational activities ($83.8 billion), education ($74.0 billion), charities ($44.3 billion), media ($0.9 billion), and food ($14.4 billion).

Their second estimate shows a contribution of about $1.2 trillion. Faith-based healthcare networks contribute $161 billion annually (13.9 percent of the total contribution of religion to the U.S. economy). Congregations contribute about $327 billion annually (28.2 percent), plus an additional $91.3 billion if schools and daycare are taken into account (together making 36.1 percent of the total). Higher education adds $46.8 billion annually (4 percent), charities add $95.2 billion annually (8.2 percent), and businesses add $438 billion annually, slightly more than a third of the total (37.8 percent).

Their third estimate is based on recognition that “many, if not most people of faith, aim to conduct their affairs (to some extent, however imperfectly) guided by and inspired by their religious ideals.” This higher-end estimate is based on the household incomes of religiously affiliated Americans, and places the value of faith to U.S. society at $4.8 trillion annually, or the equivalent of nearly a third of America’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The study discuss the limitations of this type of research but note that it provides a “useful starting point for further studies of the socio-economic contributions of religion.”

By whatever estimate we use, though, the result provides support for the economic benefit of faith on society. “The data are clear,” say the researchers. “Religion is a highly significant sector of the American economy.”

By / Oct 8

The pro-life movement is ordered toward a single end: establishing the conditions, economic and otherwise, so that every baby conceived in America is welcomed into a loving home. Of course, such a state of affairs is too broad, too underdetermined to function meaningfully as a goal. The path between our current situation and there requires seeking changes not only in our country’s laws and governmental structures, but better economic support for single mothers, smoother adoption processes, and a host of other changes that are more cultural than political. Social change is like baking a cake, except without any directions: you need all the right ingredients, but there are no rules about how they will react when mixed together.

It is no wonder, then, that in the face of such complexity, the pro-life movement has emphasized changing laws to restrict access to abortions while simultaneously supporting and counseling single mothers and at-risk women. On the one hand, laws have a broad, general applicability; by constraining the choices of every citizen, legislation (of any kind) has a pervasive and wide social effect, even if that effect is not known immediately and may sometimes be hard to detect. On the other, supporting and counseling women who are considering abortions is the sort of concrete, specific action that is immeasurably more satisfying: one knows one has saved a life and has a story to tell.  Both forms of action are necessary; neither is sufficient.

In between these poles, however, are a host of other incremental, sometimes invisible changes on the way toward the ideal of ending abortion in America. Defunding Planned Parenthood is the change that has received the most attention outside the pro-life world of late. No pro-life organization or individual in the world believes ceasing the steady flow of tax dollars to the organization will end abortions by itself. Defunding is, instead, simply one more element among the vast social complexities that have to be addressed sooner or later. And now seems to be a promising time.

The central rhetorical challenge to defunding Planned Parenthood, however, has been the claim that disadvantaged women will suffer because of the loss of access to crucial health services, and that the variety of alternative providers simply are not large or pervasive enough in American society to make up the difference. Matthew Loftus, for instance, argued that pro-lifers should push to expand Medicaid in order to compensate for what would be lost if Planned Parenthood suffers.

The sentiment at the heart of Loftus’ essay is understandable—but it is one that less careful and more progressive proponents than Loftus have used to undermine the incrementalism that the pro-life community has largely adopted. The notion that we should only defund Planned Parenthood if and when we have sufficient alternatives in place to ensure that no one experiences a gap in services is a tempting ideal, but not one anyone should reasonably accept.

When wrongs are baked into a culture, people who otherwise have no stake in those misdeeds become entangled in them through no fault of their own, frequently by enjoying—even unwittingly—the benefits those misdeeds momentarily provide. The undoing of such wrongs inevitably causes suffering, and invariably those who are least guilty will suffer most. But the responsibility for such collateral damage falls on the original wrongdoers, not those who seek the remedy. And the likelihood of such suffering should in no way prevent us from seeking justice in the first place. If we outlawed pornography in this country, countless people would be out of work, and many of them would be women at risk of greater social harms. But there is no obligation on us as a society to allow such products to be made until everyone in the industry has another job.

The notion that there is no form of suffering our society should accept in the unwinding of gravely evil moral systems is a reverse form of moral perfectionism and idealism. There is a disparity, to be sure, in my writing this: I will not bear the defunding of Planned Parenthood the way many of my neighbors might. But there are wrongs we must end and there are sorrows and sufferings we must allow—allow but not intend, accept but not choose. No one really believes in a moral idealism that refuses to countenance any consequent harms in the pursuit of our preferred goods: but it is a convenient position for critics of the pro-life community to adopt in order to ensure that nothing ever happens. “We need to change hearts and minds, not laws” is a refrain that is often on the lips of the sort of pro-lifer who thanks God they’re not like those extreme people who hold up signs and go to rallies. But while it is true that the ideal demands such a widespread and deep renewal, pro-lifers have learned to be incrementalists well—which means changing laws and fighting political battles. The refrain that we should only defund Planned Parenthood if we ensure no one loses out is itself simply another form of this lofty moral idealism, one which Loftus’ essay comes near to even if he doesn’t embrace it outright.

The unwillingness on the part of many progressives to countenance the thought of allowing any harms to anyone, even those currently disadvantaged, is itself one of the strongest and most pervasive reasons for the perpetuation of the unjust system of abortion that has throttled our country. By enmeshing abortion within a network of distributing health care (but not as much as advertised!), Planned Parenthood advocates are able to weaponize the very victims they exploit in order to ensure they can continue to do wrongs. The idea that such an unjust system could be unwound without any suffering among its beneficiaries—those who are at the top of the system, and their “clients”—is simply fanciful. It is as probable as the proposition that slavery could have been destroyed without the suffering of both the slaveholders and those doubly unfortunate men and women who had to learn to make their own way in a strange new world.

Indeed, avoiding accepting even the possibility of our own suffering and harm is at the heart of our country’s most pressing social problems. Refusing to countenance the possibility that America could be attacked again on 9/11 helped justify a regime of torture that itself was a gross stain on the American conscience and character. Our police forces have often so heroically and willingly become vulnerable in the face of danger so that the rest of us have not. But the militarized forces that approached the people of Ferguson made it clear that they would not accept the risk of loss and show their faces, faces that are necessary for reminding the society that they are our own police officers, even if they do not look like us. There cost of maintaining the pretense of invulnerability is far higher than most people realize. The cost of being vulnerable is one most people refuse to even consider.

Which is why Loftus may be right that it should be Medicaid programs and American tax-dollars to compensate for the burden at-risk women might fall under. It has a strong rhetorical force, and it appropriately seeks to shift the cost of bringing justice toward those who are best able to bear it. The strong help the weak, after all. And critics will simply say that the willingness to accept social harms simply endorses a so-called “war on women.”

But as I said, the injustices that arise in unwinding an unjust situation are not those any pro-lifer seeks or wants. But the actual, present evils of dismembering human beings in the womb are gravely disproportionate to the possible—not even actual, but only theoretical and based on people’s best guesses and predictions—disruption of services to those women who seek them. Again, torture is the appropriate analogue: the extreme situation of a war or a possible threat to American safety under no circumstances justifies torturing human persons.

And I am skeptical about the efficacy of Loftus’ proposal: nature abhors a vacuum, but political communities might need one if they are to rediscover and rebuild the social and moral ties which those who are at risk need to reverse their fortunes. But this kind of argument, and the overoptimistic claims by pro-lifers that no women will be affected if Planned Parenthood is defunded, should not obscure the more fundamental and basic fact that in the face of such gross moral evils we should unhesitatingly accept the burdens such actions might impose, even if those who are most disadvantaged have to bear them hardest.

Justice in an imperfect world demands that someone lose out. When people benefit from unjust systems, any remedy demands some kind of compensatory loss, either from them or from someone else. The necessity of suffering for the sake of bringing the just to an imperfect world is an ineradicable feature of the moral universe, and we avoid it or downplay it at the cost of our own clarity. We may struggle to articulate any rational basis for which wrongs we will allow and which we cannot abide, but we simply cannot fall prey to the kind of moral idealism that only pursues justice under the conditions that no one suffer for it.

By / Mar 4

ISIS is a theological movement grounded in a very specific kind of Muslim eschatology.

In his groundbreaking analysis in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood argues that ISIS “has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission . . .

One must read Wood’s lengthy piece in its entirety to grasp the fullness of ISIS’s view of itself as the key inducer of the final days, but that this is its theological position is indisputable.

Wood notes that its eschatological schema “allows us to predict some of the group’s actions,” including its theological disdain for national borders (which violate their understanding of an Islamic caliphate). He addresses issues of Western military intervention and suggests that some form of such might be needed. However, Wood concludes that

". . . the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma … It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model."

ISIS is being as provocative as it can be precisely because it wants to bring about the end of days according to its understanding of Islamic teaching. It wants the West to attack and destroy it in order to bring about Allah’s triumph in history.

This version of Islam, right or wrong, is a major part of what is incentivizing ISIS’s campaign of brutality and terror. Its belief in the rectitude of the restoration of the “caliphate” – Islamic control of territory once governed by Muslims – is the other major factor.

The eschatological motivation of ISIS has received some interest in the mainstream press. Writing in Reuters, Mariam Karouny reports that those ISIS believes its efforts were

" . . . all foretold in 7th Century prophecies. From the first outbreak of the crisis in the southern city of Deraa to apocalyptic forecasts of a Middle East soaked in blood, many combatants on both sides of the conflict say its path was set 1,400 years ago in the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and his followers."

With respect to how this should effect America’s response to ISIS, recognizing that its fighters welcome death and are eager to invite combat with the West should inform strategic deliberations by U.S. policymakers and military planners.

But what our strategy should be is distinct from the purpose of this paper. Rather, it is to make clear that while interpretations of the Koran and the Haddith vary, the Islamists are not stupid. Their grasp of the theology and eschatology contained in their sacred writings is not primitive but thorough. Let us not patronize them with palaver that ISIS is merely about jobs or opportunity; a good economy in, say, Iraq would not opiate its purveyors of violence.

There is little doubt that some ISIS terrorists are inspired both by the dream of money and power as much as by their religious beliefs. Omer Taspinar of the National War College and Johns Hopkins University contends that “Since poverty and ignorance often provide a breeding ground for radicalism, socioeconomic development appears compelling as an effective antidote.”

Granted: offer a poor boy whose future looks bleak money and a gun and the promise of big things, and there’s a good chance he’ll follow you. But to reduce ISIS’s appeal to issues of macho youthfulness, despair, lack of economic opportunity or similar causes is to dismiss the most obvious and most deeply- rooted reasons for its attractiveness to so many: Its religious teachings.

The leadership of the radical Islamists, most particularly those in ISIS, has a sophisticated grasp of the teachings of its holy books that transcends anything to do with economics or education or a lack of opportunity.

For example, the recently revealed “Jihad Johnny,” Mohammed Emwazi, was raised in London, received a degree in computer technology from Britain’s University of Westminster and came from a well-to-do family.

Writing several years ago in The New York Times, Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey note that Emwazi’s background is not atypical:

We examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners. We found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators’ educational levels is available – the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002 – 53 percent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52 percent of Americans have been to college. The terrorists in our study thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans.

Yet there remain those who think religion is really not at issue. Business columnist Loren Thompson, writing in FORBES, even goes so far as to say flatly that “the ISIS fight isn’t about Islam.” Instead, he says,

"It appears that every culture produces large numbers of young males who can be mobilized in the pursuit of millenarian philosophies, not because of the specific content of the vision, but because young men yearn for power and status and resources (not to mention mates). If we focus too closely on the Islamic features of what ISIS leaders propound, we will miss the underlying motivational dynamics that explain why such movements have similar success at recruiting even when they espouse completely opposite ideas."

In other words, the young men who are drawn to ISIS are driven not by theology but by – what, hormones? “We can argue about what needs gave male violence value in evolution, but attaching its worst manifestations to one religion is misleading,” says Thompson.

No one (that I know of) suggests that religious-based violence is unique to Islam. But the violence that characterizes radical Islamists is drawn not from “male evolution” but from their interpretation of the Koran.

Are many of ISIS’s front-line soldiers young men compacted together by factors apart from religious faith? Yes. Some of those factors include cultural humiliation, relative poverty, and so forth. But they are also imbued with faith in a holy war and their part in accelerating the final apocalypse. And, without dispute, those who lead the movement are driven by their Islamic eschatology.

“In DC the idea that there is anything worth believing in outside of post-modernist nihilism and cynicism simply does not compute. DC tells us ISIS was born because they lack jobs – and yet many members are upper-class professionals,” writes a retired artillerist who served in Afghanistan in While overstated, he gets at a key issue: Secularists simply have great difficulty grasping that religion actually motivates behavior.

We see this mindset at work here at home, albeit non-violently. It angers the aggressive Left and mystifies their passive secularist allies – those who assume that the echo chamber of the liberal commentariat is the repository of all wisdom – that Christians want to live-out their faith at work as well as within their homes or the four walls of their churches. Thus, bakers and florists are fined and police officials fired for refusing to compromise their religiously-driven moral convictions when it comes to homosexuality.

But back to ISIS: From northeastern Nigeria to Libya to Syria to Paris, the actions of radical Islamists are incentivized by what they believe about God and his plan for the world. To deny this, to reduce everything to the temporal and material, speaks to a very conscious contempt for and misunderstanding of the power of religious commitment on the part of many in the Western elites.

This contempt is a commentary on the culture of our time, one whose anti-theism or at least religious ignorance is affecting the public dialog if not national action. Such an attitude will leave policymakers surprised and unprepared as they deal with Islamism worldwide. No jobs program will suffice.

By / Mar 12

Conservative evangelicals stand in a particularly momentous position in the U.S. as various pressing domestic crises, conservative values, and sacred obligations converge over the issue of caring for our neighbors. This issue has taken on a greater significance as people have become more aware of wealth inequality and the lack of social mobility in our country. Our concern appears in the common refrain that the American Dream is no longer achievable for many Americans. One of the most popular “solutions” to this problem is universal preschool, which is designed to equip students to excel in school and then in the workforce.

Recently, New York Mayor de Blasio has announced plans to expand pre-kindergarten (beginning at age 4) in the city by selling bonds and taking money from charter schools. This isn’t a surprise, since universal pre-K has been one of de Blasio’s signature policies since before his election. He’s hardly the most notable politician advocating universal pre-K. Last year, President Obama announced an initiative to push for universal preschool, and when he did, conservatives roundly objected, pointing out the tremendous cost for an already over-budget federal government and the studies which have demonstrated the weaknesses in the Head Start Program.

There is a lot to criticize in Obama’s plan; it will increase our debt and will not likely improve the problem of social mobility, at least according to the research. But on the other hand, the status quo is unacceptable. As it stands, the “accident of birth is the greatest source of inequality,” according to Nobel prize-winning economist, James Heckman. And while we may object to efforts to create an “equality of outcomes,” such a dramatic disparity in opportunities for flourishing as we find between the poor and middle and upper class children is destructive.

While the rest of the country debates the effectiveness of Head Start and the tragedy of a calcified underclass, in Waco, Texas, a small Christian ministry has been sacrificially and willfully working to address generational poverty in their area by providing intensive, high quality, early childhood intervention (ECI) to the “least of these.” Their work is a model of how local churches can take up the needs of their specific communities in profoundly personal, humane, cost-effective, and gospel-driven ways which are fundamentally inaccessible for the State.

If the church in North America was to direct their benevolence resources into programs like Talitha Koum, they would effectively address (though not “solve”—nothing is that easy) nearly every major social ill which plagues our country while preventing the expansion of the federal budget. Of course, I understand the tremendous cost to the kind of project I’m describing, but when the crisis is properly understood, when we grasp what is at stake, the opportunity is astounding.

Researchers have identified a web of conditions which strongly predict whether or not a child born in poverty will succeed in moving out of poverty. Most of these conditions are related: family structure, racial and economic segregation, school quality, and social capital.

Rather than summarize the data which demonstrates how dramatically these conditions affect children, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario for a child born into a poor community.

You are born to a single mother who was herself born and raised by a single mother. Like most poor communities, there is high crime, low performing schools, and little engagement with private institutions (e.g., churches, nonprofits). Since your mother did not have a good parenting role model in her own mother, she lacks important parenting skills and knowledge. In part because of her own high levels of stress brought on by poverty, she struggles to provide you with the nurture and comfort a baby needs to bond and be sheltered from the negative influence of living in poverty. As a result, your home environment is unstructured, violent, loud, and uncertain.

From your earliest years, your brain is wired for a world of chaos. You are never taught self-control or delayed gratification, habits which your mother was never taught as a child either. She is less likely to read to you, and the number of words you hear will be drastically lower than your middle-class peers. If you are lucky, your mother has enough resources and skills to get you signed up for government assistance so that you have basic health care and food and perhaps you can begin attending a Head Start program when you are three. But by then you are already far behind your peers. You cannot self-regulate well enough in class to learn basic skills, which means when you enter kindergarten you are even further behind.

When you reach adulthood, you are less likely to have completed high school, more likely to be a single mother or have spent time in jail (for males), less likely to have a good job, and more likely to have health problems than your peers. Thankfully, at this point, a number of churches in your surrounding areas have good GED and job training programs which they devote considerable resources to, but since you are an adult, it takes a lot more effort for you to develop these skills. Odds are, your children’s childhoods will look a lot like your own.

Many pundits have correctly identified family structure as one of the main predictors of social mobility: If you are born to a set of parents who stay together, you are much more likely to be able to achieve your social goals. And so there has been a push by conservatives to stress the importance of marriage, and rightfully so. However, for people born into generational poverty, being told that marriage is important isn’t enough. They need deep, cultural, communal, and cognitive support that will equip them with the skills, habits and social capital necessary to get married for life and raise children in a healthy environment. And to be effective, these interventions need to begin at the earliest stages — 8 weeks old at the latest — when the brain begins to learn about the world, setting the neural pathways which will shape that child for life.

That is why President Obama and many others have been urging a dramatic expansion of preschool. Based on the research conducted by Dr. Heckman, advocates of universal preschool claim that for every one dollar spent on early childhood intervention, society saves eight dollars down the road in services like incarceration, increased healthcare costs, education, and entitlement spending. Even more appealing for conservatives, ECI was shown in Heckman’s work to be positively correlated with a variety of core social issues:

  • Reduction in criminal participation later in life
  • Increases in educational achievement in minorities and children in adverse home environments (poverty, single parents, etc.)
  • Reduction in disparity between black-white incarceration rates by increasing the likelihood that black students complete more years of schooling (which lowers the probability of incarceration)
  • Raises in future wages
  • Increases in college attendance
  • Increases in economic returns from their education
  • Lowered rates of teenage pregnancy (since teen pregnancies among the poor account for a significant portion of abortions, this also should reduce abortion rates)
  • Mothers who give more cognitive and emotional stimulation for their children—which prepares them to be successful
  • Reductions in race and income gaps

But there are problems with this miracle solution proposed by Obama. As I mentioned in the beginning, Head Start programs have shown only very modest benefits, hardly the kind of dramatically life-altering benefits promised in Heckman’s research. Proponents of the programs respond that Head Start has had such modest results because it is underfunded; the programs Heckman studied were much higher quality and cost a lot more. Where Head Start will cost around $8,000 per year per student, the Perry study which produced Heckman’s much touted results cost closer to $20,000.

Ideally, voluntary, early childhood interventions would be run by local organizations, ones that can keep costs down, better meet the needs of particular communities, and build more meaningful relationships with disadvantaged youths and their families. This is the model of ECI at Talitha Koum.

Begun by a very small church with several women dedicated to ministering to the poor in Waco, Talitha Koum is a “mental health therapeutic nursery.” They focus their efforts on the most needy families in the area—those who typically do not qualify for government assistance because they lack the resources or skills to apply. Beginning at eight weeks old, the children are cared for eight hours a day in small classrooms (six kids and two teachers per class) until they are ready for kindergarten. After they graduate from the program, they are paired with a local mentor who promises to help the child navigate life until they go to college or find good, full-time work. They would like to add a third leg to their work: in-home visits by licensed nurses, but it will require more funding. Currently, the foundation spends about $17,000 per child, per year—less than the Perry school but still a lot more than the proposed universal preschools.

When I visited with Susan Crowley and Donna Losak, two of the founders of Talitha Koum, I was struck by all the ways they were able to provide personal care for the children that would simply be foreign or impossible for most government programs. For example, when I asked about what qualifications teachers needed to work there, Crowley informed me that the most important characteristic they look for in teachers is a deep love for the children. They also require a bachelors degree of some kind and provide them with thorough training, but love is the necessary quality. As a private, local ministry, they also can adjust their practices based on the latest research. They can meet the spiritual needs of the kids because they are not a state agency. The children never have to lose care because their mother or father failed to fill out the appropriate paperwork or failed to look for work. At the same time, parents are encouraged to come to weekly parenting classes, where they are fed, and cared for, and encouraged. The result of this is that the workers at Talitha Koum have fostered deep, trusting relationships with these mothers, allowing them to minister to them and their children more personally and effectively.

One of Crowley’s mantras during my visit was that if the church would simply commit to caring for the needs of the most needy and vulnerable in our country for the first five years of their lives, we would have a profound impact on generational poverty. If local churches worked together to offer early childhood intervention programs, like what Talitha Koum has been doing in Waco, they would be more cost effective than the proposed state programs, but they also would be caring for the needy in more meaningful, intimate, spiritual and personal ways. And through this, they will be able to better proclaim the Gospel.

It seems inevitable that our country will try to combat generational poverty and all its great harms by investing heavily in early childhood intervention. We already see signs of the State moving towards such programs with President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address and Mayor de Blasio’s expanded pre-K. Tragically and despite enormous costs, de Blasio’s pre-K initiative in New York will most likely have very modest results, particularly since it begins intervention at age four, so late in the child’s mental development. The question for the church is, will we allow the state to take the initiative, or will we take up this task and engender the kind of deep, redemptive healing that the state can only dream of?

By / Jan 7

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18

In the first article in this series we began exploring five tools for applying biblical principles to all of life, including how we approach work and economics.

Personal vision is the first of the five tools, or mental models, we want to discuss. It starts with understanding who God has created you to be, and what he has called you to do.

The Basis of Personal Vision

King David writes in Psalm 139:13-14, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

A closer look at the original Hebrew text for this passage tells us that we are created with great reverence, heart-felt interest and respect. We are unique, set apart and marvelous in God’s eyes.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Not only are we uniquely made, but God has created and equipped each of us to do something very special. Our salvation is not just a bus ticket to heaven, but an invitation to participate in God’s redemptive plan to rescue humanity and the physical universe. N.T. Wright, in his book The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, puts it this way:

Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion…The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and post-modernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom.

The Purpose of Personal Vision

Discovering your personal vision helps you understand who you are in Christ, your talents and your comparative advantages. It helps you know how to create the greatest value for yourself, your family, your church, your community and your work for the glory of God. A personal vision should do many things, including:

• Motivate us.

• Give us great purpose.

• Give us direction.

• Be something that matters to us.

• Lead us to the right strategy.

• Serve us and the common good.

Our personal vision is the clearest description of our calling, what God has made us to do in this life. It should constantly remind us of the unique way in which God has chosen us to fit into his great plan of redemption.

In fact, one of the great joys of being a Christian is that you have the confidence of knowing that you personally fit into this great plan. While the specifics of our lives and callings may vary, we share a common purpose: to bring the principles of God’s kingdom to bear in every area of life. Our personal vision ties us to this common scriptural goal.

Unfortunately, many Christians live lives devoid of a personal vision, or embrace one given to them by the culture – one that is incompatible with the call God has placed on their lives.

Without a vision from God we perish, as Proverbs 29:18 points out. We become fatigued in our walk with God and we become demoralized, living with no sense of purpose. Discovering and developing a personal vision for your life is an issue of great importance.

In my next article I will share some practical ideas to help you discover and develop your personal vision.


Five tools for thinking biblically about faith, work and economics

This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.