Jim Henry - for TC #259

Jim Stumm remarks (TC #258, p. 5) that my "political preferences don't seem to be entirely consistent". They aren't. There are points I want to reply to in several Connectors' pages in #258. But before I do that I think it might help (me, as well as y'all) to clarify my political positions and explain why they aren't (yet) consistent. Part of the reason I subscribed to The Connection is that my political ideas are in flux lately. After the things I've learned in the last 2-3 years, the solid libertarian political convictions I had when I was in high school and college seem, if not outright wrong, at least less certain than they did awhile ago. I hope to learn from these debates in TC in such a way that I can develop my political ideas, and figure out a mature, consistent political philosophy.

Autobiography usually begins with family history, and rightly. My Henry ancestors were among the only white Republicans in Georgia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My grandfather, James Henry, was one of several people around the state who reorganized the Republican party in 1964 during Barry Goldwater's Presidential campaign. This was a more or less "libertarian" Republican party; not based on "what's good for business is good for the country" or on moral renewal, but mainly on repealing stupid laws and returning control of various matters to state and local governments and to the people. Those are the basic political ideas I absorbed from my father and grandfather before I started reading political philosophy and economics on my own in my teens. (My mother's family was Democrat in party loyalty, like nearly everybody else in Georgia at the time, but mostly not politically active.)

Both my father's and mother's families were Baptist. The Baptist churches are mainly decentralist, individualistic, and anti-authoritarian. Every Baptist congregation is independent in church government from others, and every Baptist Christian is theoretically independent in interpreting the Bible for himself. Children, and adult converts, are necessarily dependent at first on teaching from experienced Christians, but the Baptist ideal is an adult Christian who has studied the Bible for himself and come up with (more or less) the same theological conclusions as the other people in his congregation. Growing up in Baptist churches that I attended with my parents, I learned a lot of true things, but didn't have a sound epistemological grounding for knowing that they were true and why. At first I just passively accepted them; later, I consciously decided to act on these truths, was baptized and became a Christian.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was living with my parents and brother next door to my Henry grandparents, down the road from other relations. We were involved in several political campaigns, most of them local (county commission, school board, state representative). I did door-to-door canvassing for several candidates in different races, telephoned voters on election days, and so forth. I home-schooled during my high school years, and studied economics and political philosophy on my own; I read stuff by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, et alia. During those years I developed a political philosophy more consistently libertarian than that of my father and grandfather. I considered becoming active in the Libertian Party, and I voted for Libertarian candidates in a couple of elections where I was not happy with the Republican nominee. But I realized before long that with our election system, working through one of the major parties is nearly the only practical way to get political proposals implemented. (Or you could get appointed to the Supreme Court and invent a new constitutional right. But I digress.) So I determined to remain active in the Republican party, investigate candidates' positions in the primary stage of each election, and try to get the more libertarian candidate nominated.

I continued being politically active in my college years - I campaigned for Lamar Alexander for President in 1996, for instance - but since I graduated from college and started working full time, I have not found time to be very politically active, except for going to the county party organization's meetings several times each year.

My weak epistemological grounding for what I believed about God and his Son, my wide reading in authors with a wide varieties of beliefs and non-beliefs, and my utterly slack prayer life led to natural results - I stopped being sure of the truths I had learned (as well as of some wrong ideas I had learned). This was a gradual process; I wasn't fully aware of it. Through sheer cowardice and hypocrisy I kept going to church with my parents. (Brian, somewhat more honest, got out of going to church whenever he could, but did not openly say to our parents that he was no longer a Christian until some years later.) I was never an atheist, but I was agnostic - unsure of whether God exists, and near despair in doubting whether humans can know one way or another. Then, in March 1994, I became a Christian again. I had a certainty of the basic teachings of Christianity some while before I had the courage to act on that certainty, confessing I had been a churchgoing non-believer for awhile, and saying I wanted to obey Christ and not just believe he exists henceforth.

I can explain why I believe that God exists, and why I believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, in philosophical and theological terms. And I intend to do so, either later in this piece, or next issue, depending on whether I run out of room and have to serialize this incoherent autobiography. But I don't know that I can explain how I came to believe these things when I did - what was the psychological process of going from doubt to certainty - in terms that would make sense to an atheist or agnostic. I can point out books I read - mainly by C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and some other apologists - that were the main sources of the philosophical side of my religious ideas. But the chronology doesn't fit: I had aready read most of Lewis' apologetic works, and several of Chesterton's, years before I became fully agnostic, then became a Christian again. Faith (the "evidence of things not seen") is a gift of God. It was God who enabled me to believe in him again.

So, in 1994 I was a Christian again; but though I was still going to a Baptist church, I was not specifically a Baptist. I had a lot of friends in this church, it was very near home, and I had no strong reason to go anywhere else; but I observed that there were a lot of different types of Christian churches, and they seemed to teach somewhat different things. It bothered me already, but not a lot yet. I told myself I would keep going to the Baptist church where I had become a Christian while I was living in Stockbridge, but when I moved away, I would study the different Christian churches and figure out what their differences were, how much those differences mattered, and where I should be long-term.

So after I moved away, in late 1998, I visited several churches of different Christian denominations near my apartment in Lilburn. I read a lot of history and theology, and it soon became obvious to me that my first job was to evaluate the claim of the Catholic Church to be the church founded by Christ, with unbroken continuity in teaching and practice since his apostles. The more I studied Catholic teaching, the more sense it made; but I hung up for a while on the chief point. The Church claims that its teaching is infallible: that God prevents its official teachers (the bishops collectively and the bishop of Rome individually) from teaching as certainly true, anything that was not present (explicitly or implicitly) in what Christ taught to his apostles. "This would be very cool if it were true," I thought, "but is it true? And how can I know if it is?" I saw clearly that if there is no human teaching authority that is helped in such a way by God, then there is no way of knowing certainly any truth in the supernatural realm, except that God exists.

Again: I can explain why I believe that the Church teaches infallibly, but I can't explain how I went, in one afternoon, from thinking "Is this true?" to "Yes, it is true, and I need to act on it right away."

This will seem like a digression from theme of my inconsistent political ideas to most of you, but it isn't. When I accepted the Church as the teaching authority left on Earth by Christ, and started studying its teachings even more seriously, I found that I had to study the Church's social teaching, and take it into account in rebuilding my political philosophy. Two years after I was received into the Church, I have just barely started that process - there's been a lot going on in my life and I haven't given this full-time thought. And that is why my "political preferences don't seem to be entirely consistent". My political ideas are a mix of various strata; for instance, the decentralism I absorbed by listening to my elders, the passion against our twisted drug laws I developed in college, and the Distributism I have tentatively advocated since becoming Catholic. I am still in the process of figuring out what in my political beliefs is consistent with what the Church teaches. This is not a straightforward process because the official teaching of the Church mostly touches general princples and is silent about most implementation issues. Non-offical teaching of particular Catholic thinkers does get into specific policies, but orthodox Catholics can and do disagree on some issues of how Church teaching applies to their society's problems.

For instance, in the instances that Jim Stumm cites, I think externality taxes on lawns and paved areas might be a good idea. This follows from things I have learned recently about how lawns and paved areas affect microclimate, water tables, and so forth, and from the Catholic imperative to stewardship of the Earth. This distances me further from libertarianism, or anyway from most libertarians, who mostly don't seem to take environmental issues very seriously. On the other hand I want to avoid socialist extremes; because socialism, when implemented, has caused awful damage to the natural environment as well as the humans subject to the regime. If that experience weren't enough (some people can still kid themselves "We'll get it right next time"), the Church has condemned socialism, and has been doing so since long before its economic failure was obvious. At the same time, it is important to improve the distribution of wealth - not in the draconian socialist manner, confiscating nearly all of large fortunes and dividing it up among everyone with less than the mean wealth - but by helping destitute people become merely poor, helping poor people to become middle class, helping middle-class people with a run of bad luck (sickness leading to loss of work, for instance) avoid becoming poor. Thus my proposals to increase home ownership. People who own their homes outright have a buffer to help them get through hard economic times; at least they don't have to worry about getting evicted. And one family that owns a home is in a position to help out another, friends or relations, who get into economic trouble and are evicted from their apartment. As for reconciling the different proposals: take either as an abolute imperative and they're irreconcilable, but we can compromise them to some degree. Maybe the 100% homestead exemption only applies to properties of an acre or less, or homes with meadows or gardens and gravel parking lots instead of lawns and paved driveways. An externality tax on lawns and parking lots would mostly fall on real estate development and rental businesses: business and industrial parks, shopping centers, etc. That would lead to slightly higher retail prices, but mainly it would lead to such business owners adopting land management policies that are less hurtful to their neighbors in terms of diminishing the region's water supply, etc.

I haven't enough room left this issue to describe the evidence of God's existence. That and some other extended comments will have to wait till next issue.

Jim Henry
Lilburn, Georgia
http://www.pobox.com/~jimhenry
jimhenry@pobox.com


This first appeared in The Connection #259.

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