In Illinois, Tax Increases Become an Article of Faith

The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2014 – In Illinois—a state plagued by epic budget woes, a pension crisis, byzantine taxes and the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate—politics is rarely associated with godliness. Four of the past seven governors, most recently Rod Blagojevich, have been sent to prison. Locals will tell you that corruption is practically a sport. But on April 8 more than 500 Illinoisans showed that they, at least, were keeping the faith.

Donning orange T-shirts reading “Faith in Action,” a coalition of religious groups flooded the state capitol in Springfield, singing hymns, shouting “Hallelujah,” and praying for higher taxes on the rich. Their goal: replacing the state’s long-standing flat income tax with a new, progressive “Fair Tax.”

“The gospel tells us that ‘For everyone to whom much is given, much will be required,’ ” Rev. Jason Coulter, a Chicago pastor and board member of the Community Renewal Society (which organized Faith in Action) told me. “I’m called by my faith tradition to speak truth to power when I see injustice being done. And a flat tax is an injustice.”

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Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?

Published in the Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2009

Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but one thing is certain: She had no use for common niceties. A grimly precocious, friendless Rand declared her atheism at age 13. “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s secular sermon-as-novel, boils with revulsion toward the “looters” and “moochers” who consume public funds. Rand scornfully excommunicated followers who disagreed with her, and in 1964 she told Playboy that those who place friends and family first in life are “immoral” and “emotional parasites.”

Shoddy manners aside, 52 years after the release of “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand seems to be roaring back. Sales are surging—Brian Doherty, author of “Radicals for Capitalism” (2007), recently calculated that in one week in late August, “Atlas” sold “67 percent more copies than it did the same week a year before, and 114 percent more than that same week in 2007.” Two buzzed-about Rand biographies hit the shelves this fall, and an “Atlas” cable miniseries is reportedly in the works. Designer Ralph Lauren recently listed Rand as one of his favorite novelists, and CNBC host Rick Santelli, whose on-air antibailout rant inspired hundreds of “tea party” protests across the nation, admitted the same. “I know this may not sound very humanitarian,” he said, “but at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rand-er.”

To many, it doesn’t sound humanitarian at all. To be an “Ayn Rand-er” sounds, as the New York Times recently put it, “angry” and “vulgar.” In its review of the new Rand biographies, the New Republic bemoaned the “cacophony of rage and dread” surrounding Rand’s acolytes. Even in Rand’s heyday, many conservatives shrank from what they saw as her toxic blend of atheism, absolutism and ruthless individualism. “William F. Buckley must be spinning in his grave to hear all this chatter about Rand,” says Jennifer Burns, the author of “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right,” “because it was a goal of his to make Rand an untouchable.”

In this, apparently, Buckley failed. Despite her tendency to lose friends and alienate people, Rand’s guru-status in today’s free-market establishment, detailed in Mr. Doherty’s book, is undeniable. “People who are in influential positions at leading free-market organizations were very likely influenced by her at one point,” says Chip Mellor, head of the libertarian Institute for Justice. And, he notes, with the spike in government spending and wealth-redistribution programs, “the prescience of her writing has been brought home with a vengeance this year.”

But in an age where hope, change and warm-hearted marketing clearly resonate, is revitalizing and glorifying Rand’s acerbic “virtue of selfishness” doing the free-market movement any good? Doubts are starting to emerge. Leonard Liggio, a respected figure in libertarian circles and a guest at Rand’s post-“Atlas Shrugged” New York get-togethers, sees value in Rand but admits she wasn’t a bridge builder. “She used strong, confrontational language, forcing people to react,” he says. “And maybe that’s not the best way to educate people.” Mr. Mellor agrees: “Is Rand’s exact message the best for most audiences today? Probably not.”

Others, however, go further. “Rand has this extremist, intolerant, dogmatic antigovernment stance,” says Brink Lindsey of the libertarian Cato Institute, “and it pushes free-market supporters toward a purist, radical vision that undermines their capacity to get anything done.” The Rev. Robert Sirico, head of the free-market Acton Institute, agrees. “If you want to offend, Rand accomplishes that. But if you want to convert—well, for instance, who could imagine Rand debating a health-care bill? I wouldn’t want to take an order from her in a restaurant, let alone negotiate a political point.”

Rand’s tendency to enrage certain audiences could also be blocking a huge opportunity for proponents of small government. Cato’s Mr. Lindsey, a proponent of what he calls “bleeding-heart libertarianism,” notes that free markets are ultimately the best way to help the poor and disadvantaged. It is a familiar argument and a cogent one. Rand’s insistence on the folly of altruism, however, tends to overshadow and even invalidate this message.

For her fans, Rand’s appeal lies in her big-picture, unified, philosophical approach to man’s purpose and the meaning of life. But ultimately ideas need more than size and a potboiler plot to overtake the dominant, big-government political paradigm. Rand held some insight on the nature of markets and has sold scads of books, but when it comes to shaping today’s mainstream assumptions, she is a terrible marketer: elitist, cold and laser-focused on the supermen and superwomen of the world.

How are free markets best “sold”? A more compelling approach flips Rand’s philosophy on its head, explaining how everyone, especially society’s neediest, benefits from economic liberty. It’s a compelling story about how freedom and prosperity can change lives for the better. And Ayn Rand is of little help in telling it.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Chicago.


Anything Goes:
The Presbyterian Church gets into the 9/11 conspiracy business

Published in The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2006

Presbyterians in America aren’t known for preaching fire and brimstone. “No frenzy, no fanaticism, no skirmishing,” Mark Twain wrote of his mild-mannered denomination in 1866. “You never see any of us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors.”

Now, however — five years after 9/11 — the publishing arm of the Presbyterian Church has decided to heat up the brimstone a notch, releasing its very own 9/11 conspiracy theory: “Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action.”

Written by David Griffin and put out by Westminster John Knox Press, a division of the Presbyterian Publishing Corp., the book argues that 9/11 was a highly orchestrated Bush administration sham. The collapse of the World Trade Center — which, the book says, was brought on by controlled demolitions, not Islamic hijackers — was merely a “false flag” operation, designed to spur wars in the Middle East. The goal: an all-powerful American global empire.

Later sections in the book claim that the U.S. is “demonic” and that, as the leader of the global economy, the U.S. is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions each year. Mr. Griffin believes that the answer to these problems lies in a one-world democratic government. “It would bring the kingdom of God to earth,” Mr. Griffin told me in an interview. “It’s not some pie-in-the-sky, airy-fairy idea.”

What, one might wonder, has all this to do with the Christian faith? Mr. Griffin argues that we should imitate Jesus, who he believes was a political activist who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire. Of course, that would make Jesus’ statement that “my kingdom is not of this world” the original “false flag” operation.

Mr. Griffin is not a Presbyterian, nor, as representatives of the publishing company and the church are quick to point out, does he speak for the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). But is Mr. Griffin, best known for his academic work describing an evolving, nonomnipotent, nonomniscient God, a “well regarded theologian” whose “ideas are worth exploring,” as the Presbyterian publishing corporation insists? Or is he, as I heard from Presbyterian laypeople across the country in response to his book, “irresponsible” and “a total wingnut”?

“Every single Presbyterian I have talked to is offended with the premise of this book,” Toby Brown, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Cuero, Texas, and a vocal dissenter within PCUSA, told me. “And while the publishing company may not officially speak for everyone in the church,” Mr. Brown warns, “they’re certainly affiliated with it — their board of directors is nominated by our church’s General Assembly, which sets policy for the PCUSA. This is outrageous.”

“The people who disagree with me,” Mr. Griffin responds serenely, “are usually people who haven’t read the book. And if they did, they’d change their minds.” Indeed, there are a surprising number of people who share Mr. Griffin’s ideas. “Inside job” Web sites have mushroomed across the Internet, with an apparent growing fan base: According to an August Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, 36% of American respondents said it was likely that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them.”

Davis Perkins, president of the Presbyterian Publishing Corp., told me that Mr. Griffin’s book “advances religious scholarship, stimulates conversation about moral values and inspires faithful living,” fulfilling Presbyterian Publishing’s mission statement — particularly, he notes, the book’s sections on America’s imperial ambitions. With its grim certainty, however, “Christian Faith and the Truth about 9/11” stands out in the Presbyterian publishing catalog, which tends to lean toward “I’m OK, you’re OK” humanism: “Engaging the Bible in a Gendered World,” “Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality,” “The Gospel According to Oprah.” There are zero titles on, say, the impact of radical Islam in a post-9/11 world. “That would be a bit outside of our scope,” Mr. Perkins says.

He refuses to comment on whether the book’s arguments on 9/11 are offensive; other members of the Presbyterian hierarchy are similarly tight-lipped. The exception is the Rev. Joan Gray, the church’s moderator, who oversees the general assembly. “To me personally, and I am sure for the great majority of Presbyterians,” she says, “the idea that the United States government engineered the 9/11 attacks is too over the top to be taken seriously.”

In the foggy world of the PCUSA, clarity like Ms. Gray’s is becoming difficult to find. The church, which has yet to come up with a discernible position on abortion, is plagued with local skirmishes over basic issues like the authority of the Bible and the admission of atheists into the church. Meanwhile, redistributive economic theories, akin to Mr. Griffin’s, make startling appearances on the church’s Web site.

The old adage that “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” seems to apply to the Presbyterian leadership. Whether the parishioners will put up with this sort of moral confusion in the long term remains to be seen. Talks of splits in the PCUSA have circulated for years. According to the Presbyterian Layman, a publication unaffiliated with the church, PCUSA has been losing, on average, about 49,000 members a year. If such a rate continues, “the PCUSA will have zero members by the year 2053.” Mr. Griffin, and the leadership’s “open-mindedness,” may be hastening its demise.


Strange Bedfellows:
Evangelicals learn to love big government

Published in The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2006

When Al Gore’s film on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” arrived in theaters on Wednesday, it had the usual endorsements from Hollywood stars, left-leaning politicians and radical professors. But it also had a blurb from a more surprising figure: Richard Cizik, the vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.

Mr. Cizik has been hobnobbing with an unlikely crowd lately. One day he is in a Newsweek photo spread, clutching a Bible in front of the nation’s Capitol. The next he is posing barefoot in Vanity Fair, looking suspiciously as if he is walking on water. The following week he is chatting up Berkeley professors and joining political powwows with Bono.

With Mr. Cizik’s help, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)—representing 52 member denominations and about 30 million evangelicals—has become one of the most talked-about lobbying groups in the nation. But what are evangelicals lobbying for these days?

Take the Evangelical Climate Initiative, endorsed by Mr. Cizik, which has “put global warming on the evangelical agenda,” according to the NAE’s Washington Insight newsletter. The initiative pushes the government to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. It has been supported by Christian leaders from across the spectrum, including Rick Warren, the author of “The Purpose Driven Life”; Peter Borgdorff, the executive director of the conservative Christian Reformed Church; and Jim Wallis, the editor of the liberal Sojourners magazine.

While alliances like these may raise the eyebrows of a few purists, many evangelical leaders are too busy plotting policy to be bothered—and the environment is just the beginning. “We have a realist strategy,” Mr. Cizik told me. “You go to the gays to pass the AIDS bill. You go to the ACLU to pass the prison-rights bill. You work with your erstwhile opponents to achieve the common good.”

You also, it turns out, expand your notion of what the “common good” is all about. Just ask Ronald Sider. In its April 2000 issue, Christianity Today named Mr. Sider’s “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” (1977) one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Recently rereleased and touted at pulpits across the country—the Presbyterian Church USA encourages its 11,000 congregations to use it—the book rails against the “ghastly injustice” of the free market.

Such clichés are music to the ears of NAE members. The group recently recruited Mr. Sider to co-chair the committee drafting its latest public-policy statement: “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” It’s an ambitious document, proposing moregovernment regulation of health care, an expansion of welfare benefits, more protections for the environment and various efforts to correct “unfair socioeconomic systems.” It also rests on one central assumption: the government can solve all of our problems.

This sweeping agenda stands in stark contrast to earlier evangelical views. During the early part of the 20th century, evangelicals shied away from politics altogether, viewing it as a dirty business. It was only after the social upheaval of the late ’60s that they finally emerged on the Beltway radar screen. Then, evangelicals tended to embrace small-government reforms like tax cuts and the Contract With America.

But the past few years have brought a new liberal breed of evangelical. “Why are these people punting to the federal government?” asks Jay Richards, an evangelical and a research fellow at the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. “You can’t be compassionate with other people’s money. Even worse, they’re not thinking about the consequences of these policies. They’re too busy feeling warm and fuzzy and absorbing liberal ideas.”

And now, these ideas are trickling out of the Beltway. In bulletins from four different Chicago- area churches, parishioners are being asked to write their senators, not a personal check. Groups representing more than 40 denominations have signed on to the public declaration of the so-called ONE campaign, whose mission is to dedicate 1% of the U.S. budget to foreign aid each year. ONE boasts the support of George Clooney, Naomi Watts and, of course, Bono. It’s all very hip, and very vague. “ONE isn’t asking for your money,” the Web site declares. “We’re asking for your voice.” Well, actually, ONE is asking for your money, but the checks go to the IRS rather than directly to charity.

Are evangelicals concerned that they’re putting too much faith in government? “You know,” Mr. Cizik told me, “I don’t hear that very often. I don’t think that’s a huge concern among most people. I think they’re enthusiastic about the progress we’re making.”

In the past, evangelicals managed to progress without Uncle Sam. And today, there are still thousands of Christian charities around the world that use only private funds. That they are generally more effective than government-run programs seems now to be an inconvenient truth.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Chicago.