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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

The Real Economic Solution

Apprehension over the global economic crisis overshadowed every other issue for Americans, according to Pew Research. Yet amid the growing wave of bank failures, layoffs, home foreclosures, and shrinking retirement accounts, Americans remain optimistic. Why? Because they have “confidence that the government still possesses the power to fix the economy.”

The unending succession of government buyouts, bailouts, and handouts has given confidence even to the adult entertainment industry to carry a tin cup to Congress. You read that right. Porn moguls Larry Flint and Joe Francis want $5 billion from Uncle Sam to help their industry through the economic slump. And with passage of another economic stimulus package, is it any wonder that the State looms as Savior for the porn industry? That might explain another phenomenon.

In times of national crises, like the 9/11 attacks, there is usually a spike in church attendance. Not this time. According to the Gallup organization, church attendance remained flat, around 40 percent, even during the month of December.

Well, contrary to the public trust, our government lacks revenues, now and in the future, to fill all those tin cups—not to mention those needed for social security and Medicare—and attempting to print enough paper to do so would cause a meltdown of the U.S. Treasury presses.

More fundamentally, the government cannot “fix the economy” because it cannot address what got us here in the first place: greed, self-indulgence, consumerism, and instant gratification from Main Street to Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue.

While our current fiscal situation is disturbing, it shouldn’t be surprising.

Our children attend schools where prayer and displays of the Ten Commandments are forbidden, and we wonder why lying, cheating, and stealing among young people are on the upsurge.

Vaunted Ivy League institutions have gutted ethics courses from college curricula, only to have their best and brightest students graduate to become the architects of Enron and WorldCom.

Expressions of our Christian heritage are being removed from the public square by anti-religious forces intent on striking “God” from our currency, while moral bankruptcy leads to a subprime mortgage debacle threatening the collapse of our economy.

Jewish author Kevin Abrams once warned, “Remove the Bible as the constellation that guides the American Ship of State and the whole edifice of American civilization collapses.” It is a matter of cause and effect. Better regulations and tighter oversight might have delayed or lessened our current economic condition, but they wouldn’t have prevented the moral “credit crunch” that caused it.

As some folks look to the State to fix this and similar problems, others in unexpected quarters are beginning to look elsewhere.

Matthew Parris is a U.K. writer and self-described atheist whose worldview has been shaken. On a recent return to Africa, Parris came to the unsettling conclusion that it is not money or governmental aid that Africa needs, but missionaries—Christian missionaries.

In arresting candor, Parris explains, “I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts.”

For years Parris believed that only material aid mattered. Religious faith, insomuch as it motivated the work, was a practical good, nothing more. Uneasily, he began to recognize the difference that faith made not only in the lives of the helpers, but also in the lives of those being helped: “Their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world—a directness in their dealings with others—that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.”

While pop-atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens write invectives against God and religion for every malady that plagues mankind, Matthew Parris writes, “In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Parris braves atheism, but his conclusion that “Africa needs God” is a gnawing reminder that his worldview is in mortal conflict with reality. And Parris seems to know it.

Over 200 years ago, a promising young politician came to the same conclusion.

In the late 18th century, England dominated the world in military might and commercial wealth. Yet Britain also led the world in another area: slave trade.

Commerce in human trafficking was but the most egregious example of moral decay that included pressed labor, child labor, open prostitution, hazardous factories, and workhouses in crowded cities where crime was rampant and the grinding conditions of poverty, hunger and disease were largely ignored by the privileged classes. As Dickens aptly wrote, it was the best of times and worst of times.

In this milieu, a young parliamentarian named, William Wilberforce, realized what Matthew Parris did centuries later: England needed God.

William Wilberforce entered the public scene spiritually adrift. But after a gradual conversion, he reclaimed the Christian faith of his childhood and set about on “two great objects”, inextricably linked: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners” (or, what might be called today, the “reformation of morality”).

Wilberforce understood that the fight against slavery couldn’t be waged solely in the halls of Parliament; it also had to be fought in the hearts and minds of the people. For as long as society was indifferent to the plights of the children, the poor and the disadvantaged, it lacked the moral fiber to rise up against an evil upon which the whole economy and, in the minds of many, national security, depended. Without a return to traditional Christian morals, he reasoned, any victories for abolition would be short-lived, offset by other types of injustice.

As a community organizer, Wilberforce marshaled resources to combat the corrosive influences of pornography, prostitution, and corrupt business practices. As the leader of the Clapham Circle, he helped establish dozens of charities, like the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. As a parliamentarian, he fought for prison reform, safe factory conditions, and the humane treatment of animals.

With the help of his Clapham friends, Wilberforce lifted the culture out of its moral malaise, winning victory after victory in social reforms. Together, they helped make compassion, charity and virtuous living fashionable in a society long distinguished for its indifference to social injustice. Meanwhile, their goal to end slavery was beset with obstacles and setbacks that constantly threatened defeat.

It would take two decades, fighting against the grain of popular opinion and political interests, for slave trade to be abolished, and another three decades to close the dark chapter on British history with passage of the Emancipation Bill.

Today, a 50-year struggle would be unimaginable. Raised on fast food and TV, where the thorniest problems are solved in a 30-minute program, if not a 30-second commercial, we’ve come to expect, demand quick fixes for everything from bad breath to the War on Terror. Any problem older than last week’s news strains our patience. We are a nation of people trusting that there is no challenge a little technology and political will can’t solve.

William Wilberforce knew better. England had become a country where, as Wilberforce wrote, “God is forgotten. His providence is explained away . . . He visits us with chastisements, but we are not contrite.”

Moral amnesia enabled slave trade to become interwoven in the socioeconomic fabric of Britain, making abolition beyond the reach of technical innovation or government intervention.” What was needed was an awakening—sea change of social conscience that only God through his everlasting word could bring about.

Our current economic crisis is a challenge (or chastisement) no less daunting than the one Wilberforce faced. To people for whom happiness is no longer a right to pursue, but a condition that the State must provide us, market health is as important to the collective psyche as was slave trade to the British.

As people look to the new administration to deliver us from financial upheaval, they would do well to consider William Wilberforce and his two great objects. As was true for 18th-century England and 21st-century Africa, our most pressing need is not for another economic stimulus, but for spiritual renewal. More than ever, we need God!

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)