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The New Economy

Debt, deficits, and American morals

Behind the impasse in Washington over debt and deficits lies a moral, even religious, problem. How should a Christian respond to the economic debate?

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As a conservative at heart, I've supported Republican causes much of my life. But Ms. Rand was no conservative. In her words, she was a “radical for capitalism.” After three decades on Wall Street, where this pernicious brand of corporate elitism ran amok before the Great Recession, I've grown increasingly worried for the health of our republic. I now believe her philosophy has been a major factor in America's tax policies, excessive CEO compensation, and increasing concentration of wealth among the affluent.

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Very few Americans today know who Rand was, much less the sway her ideas now hold over today's tea party, and by extension the Republican Party, and by further extension, our economy. Rand's tome "Atlas Shrugged" has been cited by the Library of Congress as the second most influential book in America, just after the Bible. The Economist magazine has said her individualism and antigovernment philosophy shaped Reaganomics, primarily through former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who literally sat at Rand's feet for years.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, who has headed the GOP effort to cut entitlement spending, requires his staff to read "Atlas Shrugged." Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a fan of Rand's thinking. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have preached her gospel on right-wing radio and television. Even many leaders of the religious right (Chuck Colson excepted) have tried to integrate her thought with that of Christ, as diametrically opposed as they are.

The irony is that Rand wanted to be remembered as "the greatest enemy of religion ever," which may be why local tea party groups have disbanded rather than support the goals of socially conservative Christians. Her ideas may have shaped Reaganomics, but she fought the Reagan candidacy because she rejected his Calvinistic vision of America being a "city on a hill." She also rejected Nobel laureate economist F.A. Hayek, a champion of libertarians, because he argued that government might help stimulate an economy during a depression.

So today's impasse between the welfare-statists (who think our government should maintain full care for the boomers, even if it bankrupts the nation) and the tea party activists (who apparently think our needy and elderly should just get jobs) deepens as America sinks into European-style secularism.

In more religious times, the teachings of Christ Jesus helped unite most of us by providing a third way: each of us caring for our neighbors, particularly those in need, in a loving, voluntary manner. Yet should some decline that moral responsibility, as Rand did, Christ suggested the law of Moses would remain a moral necessity, since the poor will be always with us. That law required the affluent to round the corners of square fields and leave the second picking of grapes for the poor.

With the secularization of America, that moderate way -- rendering "to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" -- has nearly disappeared. True, Americans practice more charity than other nationalities. But studies by Empty Tomb, a Christian service and research group, and others indicate that most religious giving is simply tax-deductible contributions for the upkeep of our churches and other institutions. America's official foreign aid is among the very lowest as a percentage of income among the developed nations. So while the needy have a voice in the Democrats and the affluent have a voice in the Republicans, Christ’s middle way has disappeared as the middle class has shrunk.

My hope is that public frustration with both parties during the debt-limit debate will galvanize citizens to consider a third way movement based on a spirituality that transcends political labels and speaks truth to all power, not simply to the other side of the aisle. That's what Tocqueville observed when Americans were happier and had more confidence, even faith, in the future.

I don’t pretend to know what God wants for America, and I don’t advocate a theocracy. But it might be time for us Christians to think about a return to an ethic where loving one's neighbors, even one's enemies, is the norm.

Gary Moore is the author of five books on the morality of political-economy and the founder of The Financial Seminary, a Sarasota, Fla., ministry aiming to reintegrate moral thought into economics and finance.

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