September 6, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, September 6, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Labor Day report: An alarming number of American men neither working nor seeking work
Yesterday was Labor Day, and in the United States it has been a federal holiday since 1894. This points to the importance of labor in terms of the American society, and it also points to the importance of labor in the Christian worldview. However, most Americans taking the day off yesterday—and most Americans did—probably didn’t give a great deal of thought to the worldview implications of the holiday, much less to the history that brought the holiday into being.
If you go back to the late 19th century, the emergence of Labor Day, first in a handful of states, and then by act of the United States Congress, was a recognition of the growing power of labor in the United States. Now that meant, in one sense, organized labor, the labor unions that began in the late 19th century and reached the very height of their influence at about the midpoint of the 20th century.Show Full Transcript
But we also see that without those who are working, society is impossible. We look across societies throughout time and we come to understand this human labor—yes it does mean physical labor, but beyond that the entire contribution of the labor force—is necessary for a healthy society and for a healthy civilization. The historic origins of Labor Day pointed to the emergence of an industrial economy, an economy that required millions and millions of Americans, the vast majority of them men, to enter into the workplace and especially into the factories and other industrial arenas of the now-expanding American economy.
There was also the realization that labor itself represented a very potent political force in this country, leading democratically to the emergence of the labor unions and their vast influence. We fast-forward to the early decades of the 21st century, and it is clear that fewer Americans, not only in terms of numbers but in terms of percentage of the population, are actually entering into the kind of labor that was very much celebrated and honored in terms of Labor Day in 1894. But labor does continue. Work has been transformed throughout the centuries, but work stands at the very center of a working society. The recognition of that is also very important.
The holiday, taking a day off, was considered to be in 1894 if not well remembered today a gift to organized labor, to those who have entered into the workplace and are part of the workforce—a day off in order to celebrate their achievements and contribution to society. But the Christian worldview points a great deal deeper than this. The Christian worldview points to the fact that we were, as made in God’s image, made as laborers. Even in terms of the Ten Commandments, when we reach the Sabbath command, we are told, “Six days you shall labor,” and that is in contrast to the seventh day in which we are given the divine example even in creation, six days of creation and then the divine rest. Now when we consider this we come to understand that our responsibility, as the Christian worldview makes clear, is to amplify and dignify the glory of God in every arena of life. And that means that Christians, driven by a biblical worldview, have a far more fundamental and urgent reason to honor labor and to honor work.
In very specific terms, the Bible honors work and labor, reminding us that the worker is worthy of his hire. The Bible similarly in contrast condemns and identifies as sin laziness and sloth. In the New Testament, we read that a man who will not provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever in terms of responsibility and witness. In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, there are numerous exhortations to work, and there is the reminder that the one who will not work should not eat.
Now consider therefore the article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal just as we went into the weekend by Nicholas Eberstadt entitled,
“The Idle Army.”
Eberstadt’s idle army as he identifies in this article is represented by millions of American men who should be working but are not; they should be in the workforce, but they are missing. He’s talking here not just about American men who aren’t working, but most urgently about missing millions of American men, who are able-bodied and able to work, who are between the ages of 25 and 54. Those should be the peak years of workforce involvement in terms of American men. He writes,
“This is arguably a crisis, but it is hardly ever discussed in the public square. Received wisdom holds that the U.S. is at or near ‘full employment’”—something we continue to hear from government and in particular from the Obama Administration.
“Most readers have probably heard this, perhaps from the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, who said in a speech last week that “it is a remarkable, and perhaps underappreciated, achievement that the economy has returned to near-full employment in a relatively short time after the Great Recession,” speaking of the recession that began in 2007 and 2008.
But as Nicholas Eberstadt makes very clear, this now represents full employment only if you consider millions and millions of American men not working as the norm. That is a significant and very dangerous redefinition of full employment. Eberstadt makes the point very clear when he writes,
“Near-full employment? In 2015 the work rate (the ratio of employment to population) for American males age 25 to 54 was 84.4%.”
As Eberstadt sadly notes, that’s an even lower workforce involvement than was true on the tail end of the United States Great Depression in the early 20th century. He says,
“Benchmarked against 1965, when American men were at genuine full employment, the ‘male jobs deficit’ in 2015 would be nearly 10 million, even after taking into account an older population and more adults in college.”
Eberstadt’s point is really, really important, and never more so than in Christian worldview terms. If you take American men in the year 2015—that’s the last full year in which records are available—and you take out those under age 25, you take out those over age 54, you take out those who are in college or full-time higher education, and you take out those who are physically unable to work, and you still have a jobs deficit in terms of American males of at least 10 million. That’s over 10 million American males who could be working and should be working but who are not working and the government doesn’t even consider anymore, having moved them into a category that is never existed before. This is how Eberstadt describes it,
“Until roughly the outbreak of World War II, working-age American men fell into basically two categories: either holding a paid job or unemployed. There was no “third way” for able-bodied males. Today there is one: neither working nor seeking work—that is, men who are outside the labor force altogether. Unlike in the past, the U.S. is now evidently rich enough to carry them, after a fashion. The no-work life hardly consigns these men to destitution.”
Now what Eberstadt is describing is a society that has created the economic possibility for millions and millions of American men not to work but also to continue to eat. Now when Americans think about the welfare system, we understand that there is a responsibility on the society at large, a responsibility that at some level has to be fulfilled by government to make certain that people do not starve. But when you take that to the next level and institutionalize it to create a third way of living between being unemployed and employed, there is something very seriously wrong here, especially as noted by this missing army of American men who are not working and are not trying to work. Eberstadt writes,
“This is at least somewhat true throughout the affluent West, but the U.S. has led the pack. Not even in dysfunctional Greece or “lost generation” Japan has the male flight from work proceeded with such alacrity. The paradox is that Americans—those who do have jobs—are still among the rich world’s hardest-working people. No other developed society puts in such long hours, and at the same time supports such a large share of younger men neither holding jobs nor seeking them.”
Now here’s the paradox that Eberstadt describes: it’s a paradox in which well over 100 million Americans are working harder than ever before. Those who are working are working longer and they’re working harder than any previous point in American history that can be documented by such statistics. But at the same time, the other side of the paradox is that over 10 million American males who could be working and should be working are no longer even seeking to work. They have permanently exited the workforce, and it is working Americans who are making that possible by subsidizing other Americans not working. In prophetic terms, Eberstadt writes,
“In short, the American male’s postwar flight from work is a grave social ill. Strangely, nearly everyone—the news media, major political parties, intellectuals, business leaders, policy makers—has managed to overlook it. The urgency of the moment is to bring this invisible crisis out of the shadows.”
Universal Basic Income? How theology intersects work, dignity, and the economy
A related development on the same theme, MIT Technology Review ran a major article on Universal Basic Income. That’s the idea that is gaining traction in the United States and in many other Western nations that suggests that every single inhabitant of a civilization is due a certain amount of income just as a basic right. It’s an interesting idea and one that has attracted interest across the political spectrum, but not evenly. Those on the left see it as a way of empowering those who do not work by giving them money regardless of whether they work or not. But on the other hand, there are some conservatives, or at least more libertarians, who have looked at the situation and decided that if this is the way to kill all those wasteful government programs, then so be it.
What makes this article particularly interesting is that it has appeared in MIT Technology Review. That’s not a place you usually find this kind of political discourse. David H. Freedman is the author of the article, and he makes clear that the idea of Universal Basic Income sounds good.
“It’s a great idea, until you look closely.”
Now as he makes very evident in his article, the problem is that the very idea of Universal Basic Income breaks down, especially in a very large society such as the United States. It might work at one level in a smaller, more unitary society such as Scandinavian nations, but in the United States with over 300 million people it’s hard to imagine how it could work. Just to state the most obvious problem, we can simply shorthand it by calling it reality. If everyone is presumably due a universal basic income regardless of whether he or she works, if everyone then stopped working, there would be no income whatsoever. There would be no productivity, and the entire economy would simply grind to a halt. It would be a recipe for universal poverty.
But assuming, as most who are the proponents of this idea would presume, most people who can work will continue to work in order to supplement and add to that basic income, there’s still a huge problem. The problem is recognized even in the MIT Technology Review. It would incentivize people not to work. In economic terms, that’s called a perverse incentive, and it would lead to very dangerous effects. It would actually undermine the entire project of the economy. But it does show just how much interest there is in somehow making it possible for human beings to exist at some level without work.
The idea of a universal basic income has been adopted especially by the European left as a way of updating communism and Karl Marx’s idea that somehow you could end up with everyone having something even if no one seems to be producing anything.
The Bible dignifies many different kinds of work: work inside the home and work outside the home. The Bible very much validates the fact that human beings made in God’s image should work, and furthermore that we will instinctively want to work. That “want to” is explained in the biblical worldview by the fact that God has made us in his image and has given us not only the ability but the hunger to work.
It’s no accident that we find certain fulfillment in our work we can find in no other dimension of life. It’s also why we come to understand that idleness as contrasted with work is a problem. Now this is not to say that we should not enjoy leisure, but leisure should not characterize one’s general contribution of life. That contribution, again dignified very specifically in Scripture in so many different ways, is to be measured by what we add to rather than what we take from the society around us. That is at least a part of what it means genuinely to love our neighbor. It’s probably true that very few Americans thought anything about these issues on Labor Day, but upon reflection, they should have.
How should evangelicals remember Mother Teresa, declared a saint by the Catholic church on Sunday?
Next, on Sunday, Mother Teresa of Calcutta officially became a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Behind this are numerous issues that are absolutely filled with theological and worldview significance. The woman who became known to the world as Mother Teresa of Calcutta was actually born an Albania in 1910. Her birthplace is now a part of Macedonia. She died, of course, in 1997, and between her birth and her death, she became a Roman Catholic nun and spent decades working in the darkest neighborhoods of Calcutta. As CNN reported,
“Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun who devoted her life to helping India’s poor, has been declared a saint in a canonization Mass held by Pope Francis in the Vatican. Pope Francis delivered the formula for the canonization of the Albanian-born nun — known as the ‘saint of the gutters’ — before huge crowds of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on Sunday morning. Applause broke out before he completed the formula of canonization, in which he declared ‘Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint.’”
India, we should note, changed the name of the city from being called Calcutta to Kolkata in order to be consistent with the Bengali pronunciation. However, the Roman Catholic Church continues to refer to Mother Teresa as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa became known especially to citizens of Great Britain and the United States largely through the efforts of BBC journalist Malcom Muggeridge. In the 1970s, he visited Mother Teresa there in Calcutta and produced a film known as Something Beautiful for God. Through his effort, Mother Teresa became something of a household name, not only among Roman Catholics, but many others as well. She formed an order known as the Missionaries of Charity that not only sponsored her ministry there in Calcutta, especially to the dying, but similar efforts in many other cities and places around the world.
Mother Teresa’s popularity worldwide was also boosted a great deal by her relationship with Pope John Paul II, with whom she not only shared a friendship, but it was John Paul II who after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997 accelerated the process whereby the very popular nun could become a saint of the Roman Catholic Church—something that also happened, we should note, to Pope John Paul II himself.
The process of the Roman Catholic Church declaring Mother Teresa to be a saint began in 1999, again just two years after her death. She was beatified by action of the church in the year 2003, and on Sunday she was canonized officially declared to be a saint. That’s just 19 years after her death, something near a record in terms of the modern Roman Catholic Church.
That points to the fact that there was such popular support in that church for declaring Mother Teresa a saint. Many American evangelicals came especially to know Mother Teresa in her 1994 address to the national prayer breakfast in Washington D.C., a prayer breakfast that was attended by then-President Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and his wife Tipper Gore, stalwarts of the Democratic Party, and stalwartly committed to abortion rights and to abortion as an issue. Mother Teresa then bravely turned to the President of the United States and the Vice President and stated,
“I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is Abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we can accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love. And we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus even gave his life to love us. So the mother who is thinking of abortion should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans or her free time to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts.”
Again, staring down the President and the First Lady, the Vice President and his wife, Mother Teresa said,
“Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love but to use violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
President Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, was there, and she described the response to Mother Teresa’s message.
“Well, silence. Cool, deep silence in the cool, round cavern for just about 1.3 seconds. And then applause started on the right hand side of the room, and spread, and deepened, and now the room was swept with people applauding, and they would not stop for what I believe was five or six minutes. As they clapped they began to stand, in another wave from the right of the room to the center and the left.”
Noonan then concluded,
“But not everyone applauded. The president and first lady, seated within a few feet of Mother Teresa on the dais, were not applauding. Nor were the vice president and Mrs. Gore. They looked like seated statues at Madame Tussaud’s. They glistened in the lights and moved not a muscle, looking at the speaker in a determinedly semi-pleasant way.”
That was a moment of very rare moral courage. But the public event that took place in Vatican City on Sunday was not just about recognizing Mother Teresa’s moral courage or her service to the poor and the dying, it was rather the official declaration of the fact that Mother Teresa is now a saint of the Roman Catholic Church and is thus to be venerated. And for evangelicals this raises a host of very important issues. Even Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio recognizes the singularity of the Roman Catholic Church on this issue when he wrote,
“No other Christian denomination posits this notion of an individual in heaven mediating between God and humanity.”
Drawing from the official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic dictionary describes the veneration of saints in these terms:
“Honor paid to the saints who, by their intercession and example and in their possession of God, minister to human sanctification, helping the faithful grow in Christian virtue. Venerating the saints does not detract from the glory given to God, since whatever good they possess is a gift from his bounty. They reflect the divine perfections, and their supernatural qualities result from the graces Christ merited for them by the Cross. In the language of the Church’s liturgy, the saints are venerated as sanctuaries of the Trinity, as adopted children of the Father, brethren of Christ, faithful members of his Mystical Body, and temples of the Holy Spirit.”
The most dangerous word in all of that from a theological perspective is the word intercession. In the Roman Catholic Church, this has a very long tradition, going back to Origen amongst the earliest of the church fathers, who was the first to explicitly argue for the veneration of the saints and what he described as the efficacious prayers of the saints and intercession. Pope Leo I in the fifth century declared that these saints had the opportunity to intercede by obtaining the mercy of God for us, that is for believers, by their prayers. But evangelical Christians recognize that the moment you begin talking about the saints interceding in heaven, you have already entered into not only unchartered territory, but you have entered into territory that is profoundly beyond Scripture and in many ways directly contrary to it.
We are told in Scripture that there is one mediator between God and man, and that is Jesus Christ our Lord. The Roman Catholic Church is a bit unclear at times in terms of its official teaching as to how the prayers of the saints are to operate in intercession. There is some language about prayers to the saints and others about prayers through the saints, but it’s interesting that even official Roman Catholic documents do use the expression of praying to the saints. Indeed, the canonization of Mother Teresa as a saint required what was declared to be proof that at least two major miracles had happened resulting by prayers, prayers that it is now claimed were responded to by her intercession.
As the reformer Martin Luther made very clear, the Scripture abundantly cites the communion of the saints, which includes all believers throughout all of Christian history, past, present, and future. There is no reference whatsoever in Scripture to the special category of saints who are somehow to be beatified and then canonized as saints and to whom prayers are to be offered. It’s one thing for the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to use this kind of language, and of course there’s no official act of the church more public than that service that took place in Vatican City on Sunday.
But in the level of popular Catholic piety, the situation is even more theologically problematic. Because there is no question that millions and millions of Catholics around the world see the saints not only as objects of their veneration, but also they see the Saints as genuinely serving a mediatorial function, interceding for them.
Evangelical Christians operating out of a biblical worldview and submissive to biblical authority understand that moral courage is indeed rare, and wherever it is found it is to be honored. But the declaration of saints in the theology of the Roman Catholic Church is not only a step too far, it is an act that contradicts the Scripture and an act that subverts biblical Christology. From a biblical perspective, there’s hardly anything more dangerous than that.