Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Come together

Harvard Law professor William J. Stuntz is provocatively at it again, this time proposing the oddest red-blue coalition imaginable--between the Christian Right and the academic Left. His first column on the subject was much more modest, proposing merely to open lines of communication, given certain unacknowledged similarities between those who take sanctuary in the sanctuary and those who take sanctuary in the faculty club.

I’ll leave it to Ramesh Ponnuru to put the kibosh on Stuntz’s opinions regarding a meeting of minds on abortion. I agree with Ponnuru that that’s a non-starter.

But Stuntz’s other ideas are more plausible. Here’s the nub of one:

The idea that intellectuals could play a large role in poverty policy might sound naive. But intellectuals had a lot to do with the War on Poverty of the 1960s. Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, got the political train rolling. That could happen again. If it did, a lot of evangelical Christians would get on board. Urban ministry is a hot topic in the churches I’ve attended; evangelicals are eager to get behind people and programs that aim to ease the suffering in inner cities. That includes government programs, if they actually accomplish something. In the churches I know, there is real hunger for a politics that is about something nobler than tax cuts and tort reform.

I wrote about Jim Sleeper’s interest in these matters here and have a review essay forthcoming in the Claremont Institute’s Local Liberty, the most recent issue of which is available here. The two books I review are Stephen V. Monsma’s Putting Faith in Partnerships and Stanley Carlson-Thies’s and Dave Donaldson’s A Revolution of Compassion. Taken together, both books demonstrate that, increasingly, evangelical churches are major players in the the world of compassionate social service. So Stuntz is onto something here. Of course, the academic Left either has to get beyond its visceral hatred for President Bush and everything with which he’s associated (like the faith-based initiative) or simply pay closer attention to the good things that churches and faith-based organizations are doing in marginal urban neighborhoods. A professor who happens to work alongside a conservative evangelical tutoring at-risk kids might discover that the latter can read and think at astoundingly high levels; many of the folks in my church, for example, have graduate degrees from what we in Atlanta call the trade school on North Avenue. And the evangelicals might discover that not all professors have horns and tails.

Stuntz also discusses what I called "evangelical internationalism" and even nation-building, which the academic Left--especially folks like Michael Ignatieff--supported, at least when Clintonistas were doing it.

I’ll close with Stuntz’s peroration:

Blair’s popularity in the U.S. captures something important about today’s politics. Left and right have no clear meaning anymore. Which was the more progressive stance a decade ago -- supporting Newt Gingrich’s welfare reform, or supporting the welfare status quo? Which is more progressive today: vouchers for parents of inner-city school children, or keeping public education the way it is? Who should be more committed to fighting fascist Middle Eastern dictators, conservatives or liberals? Should liberals oppose cuts in Medicare and Social Security, even if showering money on the middle-class elderly blocks spending that might improve the lives of the youngest and poorest Americans?

Michael Barone is right (as usual) to call the left’s politics nostalgic. An even better word would be sclerotic. The status quo is pretty good: America is rich, strong, and free, and freedom and democracy are expanding all over the world. But it could be so much better -- especially for those among us who are most vulnerable. The left should aim higher. For that matter, so should the right.

I can think of two groups that would welcome bigger dreams than prescription drug benefits and dividend tax cuts. Academics dream for a living -- we think about ways the world might change, and how the change could happen. And evangelicals believe we live in a world afflicted by sin and filled with wrongs that need righting. I bet both groups would welcome a politics that aimed to right some of those wrongs. I know I would.

Gosh, this Stuntz fella is almost as smart as George W. Bush. They dream some of the same dreams. And like Bush, I suspect he’ll have an easier time with the folks in the church pews than with the folks in the faculty clubs. But I don’t fault him for trying.  

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"The idea that intellectuals could play a large role in poverty policy might sound naive. But intellectuals had a lot to do with the War on Poverty of the 1960s."

This brief statement explains why the religious right and the intelectual left could not become allies on the subject of poverty policy. Look at how the War on Poverty has been fought and how well it’s worked. While the left will never give up on the idea that keeping control of policy in the hands of the government which has proven ineffective, the religious right will never give up on the idea that if it doesn’t work it’s the wrong approach. These two positions simply cannot be brought together.

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