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January 2010 Archives

January 9, 2010

The House and Senate Abortion Provisions

As I understand it—and this is a serious qualification, because I’m not sure I do—the principal difference between the treatment of abortion in the House and Senate healthcare bills is this: the House Bill would prohibit government funding of health insurance policies that cover abortion, while the Senate Bill would allow the coverage but require anyone who wants the coverage as part of a government-subsidized policy to make separate premium payments for the basic policy and for the abortion coverage. It would be a terrible thing for the government to fund abortions, which argues decisively for the House approach.

But I think it’s worth speculating about the likely effect of the Senate approach, should it become part of the final legislation.  In theory, the Senate approach would serve as a referendum on Americans’ views on abortion. Those who hold to the old Mario Cuomo position of claiming to be pro-life personally but in favor of keeping abortion legal would presumably decline the coverage (and the politicians among them might well get asked about this in political debates). Those who are adamantly pro-choice might opt for the coverage even if it is highly unlikely they would ever have an abortion. My guess is that coverage decisions would show that pro-choice enthusiasm is less widespread than its advocates like to suggest.
But unless it’s prohibited, many employers, under relentless pressure from pro choice groups, might make it very easy to choose the abortion coverage. They might well do all the processing for their employees, so that the employee never has to sign the separate check that adds abortion to a government-subsidized health insurance policy.

January 18, 2010

Tithes and Offerings--Skeel

At the end of each year I wonder whether I and my family’s giving for the year fully reflects the Bible’s teachings. It isn’t so much the question of how much to give that I puzzle over. While the New Testament doesn’t specify the amount we should give, it strongly suggests we should give at least as much as the ten percent tithe (before-tax, not after-tax, income) called for in the Old Testament.

More puzzling for me is which giving should count. Our principal giving should be to our church, of course. But should we think of giving to other Christian organizations—say a crisis pregnancy center or a Christian magazine or a soup kitchen-- as part of our giving or not? I tend to finesse this a little by directing a substantial majority of my giving to the church, while also giving to these other Christian organizations. It seems to me that the work they are doing is also a crucial part of the church’s mission, even if the particular organization is not directly involved in worship. 

But perhaps I’m wrong about this. I can imagine that some might take the view that Biblical giving only includes giving to the church, since this is the center of worship. It seems to me that this narrower view has at least one surprising implication: if outside Biblical giving does not include giving for charities that operate outside of the church, this implies that the role of these charities is likely to be limited and that much of the funding for social services will need to come from elsewhere. The government is the most likely source. Those who hold to a narrow view of Biblical giving should therefore also favor a generous, government-funded social safety net. I wonder if most do.

January 24, 2010

Obama's Populist Turn--Skeel

It’s hard not to think of Franklin Roosevelt (Roosevelt-and-water, perhaps) as President Obama criticizes the Wall Street banks, welcomes Paul Volcker (who argues that the banks should be partially broken up) back into his inner circle, and condemns the Supreme Court’s new campaign finance decision as a threat to democracy. Roosevelt did break up the banks (a successful reform), and he wanted to “pack” the Supreme Court with new New Deal friendly justices (a disaster).

I think the President’s bank proposals will be much more difficult for Republicans to simply reject than healthcare. If the tax were called a “penalty for bigness” instead, and designed to force the too-big-to-fail banks to slim down, it would fit perfectly with a commitment to competition in the marketplace. The proposal to “break up” the banks—actually to prohibit deposit taking banks from owning hedge funds and the like—is more debatable, but is also defensible. I would reduce the ability of deposit taking banks, which enjoy a government guaranty, to gamble with the taxpayer’s money.  If the President were to go one step further, and abandon his proposed resolution authority (with would mean more bailouts in the future), he would have a package that Republicans ought to support. And if they didn’t, they could be the ones on the wrong side of the current populist outrage in the fall.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the populist turn will amount to more than just words. In my view, a key indicator is the future of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, whose fingerprints are all over the bailouts, especially AIG. If the President is serious about reform, he will replace Geithner with a Treasury Secretary who is less committed to Wall Street and bailouts. If Geithner remains, it is unlikely that the new populism will achieve its promise.

God and Disasters--Skeel

James Wood had an interesting op-ed (here) in yesterday’s New York Times. Wood, as many readers may know, is a critic and novelist who was raised in an evangelical household but rejected the faith. He argues that that Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the earthquake in Haiti was a punishment suggests that “God is punitive and interventionist,” and that President Obama’s suggestion that “there but for the grace of God” we would have been the ones devastated makes God “as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent.”

Although Wood is being a little unfair both to Christianity and to President Obama, I do think he wisely points out the dangers of trying to identify God’s will in a disaster. Jesus himself warned about this.  Referring to eighteen people who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell, Jesus said “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” The real moral, Jesus said, is that we all need to repent. (Luke 13:4).

I think the President’s comments would have been entirely appropriate if he had just worded them a little differently.  The President emphasized “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.”  If he had omitted the statement “but for the grace of God,” and emphasized that our common humanity is grounded in the fact that we are together made in God’s image, his words would have touched on the most important contribution Christianity offers in a terrible crisis: a reason to reach out in love.