Thursday, August 31, 2017

Religion and Politics: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Helped Syria’s Assad Regime

In the wake of yet another Syrian massacre of civilians, including families being shot at close-range in their own houses, the New York Times published a report in 2012 that claimed that Russian priests and theologians commiserated with diplomats from Damascus at the opening of an exhibition devoted to Syrian Christianity in a cathedral near the Kremlin. While it is understandable that the Kremlin would not want to lose its “longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East,” it is perhaps less palatable for Christian prelates and doctors of the Russian Orthodox Church to essentially look the other way on atrocities so the Syrian Christians, many of whom are Orthodox, won’t be pushed under the bus in a wave of Islamic fundamentalism that could be unleashed should Assad fall from power. The Syrian Christians were reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition to Assad for fear of being persecuted by the Sunnis should they gain power.

                                     Clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church                                  NYT

The full essay is at "Russian Patriarch Helped Assad."

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Essence of Leadership

In The Essence of Leadership, leadership itself is reformulated in such a way that what emerges—the essence of leadership—is distinct from related phenomena, including management, presiding, and mentoring. This is not to say, however, that leadership bears no relation to strategy—hence the complex concept of strategic leadership, which is not without risks. Leadership itself contains risks, which a focus on the essence of leadership, rather than, for instance, taking leadership as simply about having influence, can arguably minimize. Such risks include the cult of the leader, to which charisma and attributions of heroism are especially susceptible, and the distorting impact of ideology, such as in Burns’ version of transformational leadership. Shaking out the risks and distinguishing leadership as a unique phenomenon are ways of pointing back to the essence of leadership, which applies in virtually any culture. That is, the essence is cross-cultural. Taking comparative religion as a stand-in for cultures, I demonstrate that the essence of leadership can be informed by Taoist, Buddhist, and Judeo-Christian principles.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Christianity and “Social Capitalism”

The SEC charged Ephren Taylor with a fraudulent $11 million Ponzi scheme in April 2012. According to Reuters, “Taylor fraudulently sold $7 million of notes said to bear 12 percent to 20 percent annual interest rates, to fund small businesses such as laundries, juice bars and gas stations.” He “had conducted a multi-city ‘Building Wealth Tour’ in which he spoke to congregations” on the importance of “giving back.” He called himself a “social capitalist.” In actuality, he used the money on himself and his wife’s attempt to become a singer.

The full essay is at "Christianity and 'Social Capitalism'"

See: God's Gold, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

Jonathan Stempel, “SEC Charges Ephren Taylor II ForAllegedly Bilking Churchgoers In $11 Million Ponzi Scheme,” The Huffington Post, April 12, 2012.

Partisan Bishops Castigated Poverty Nuns

In April 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization of women’s religious communities, of having members with “serious doctrinal problems.” Specifically, the Congregation alleged that members of the group had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The Vatican’s use of “radical” to describe the “feminist themes” belies the neutrality of the Holy See on the matter (for the adjective is both unnecessary and pejorative). In other words, if you want to discredit someone’s point of view with which you disagree, simply label it as radical. The labeling says more about the labeler than the actual target. Specifically, the labeling indicates anger and resentment as well as prejudice. The white supremacists in Alabama in the 1960s, for example, labeled the Freedom Riders as radicals. In going after the group of nuns, the Vatican too was being partisan.

According to the New York Times, the Vatican accused the group of “focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping ‘silent’ on abortion” and gay marriage. The traditionalists then firmly in control of the Roman Catholic Church did not attempt to distance the realm of eternity from partisan political issues. In fact, that certain issues were being played over others was itself partisan in nature. The traditionalists had a political reductionism going, wherein abortion had to be regarded as the political issue (with gay marriage playing a distant second). The reductionism is highly dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary. For one thing, Jesus says nothing in the Gospels on the topic. In fact, that he is represented as making statements on the poor suggests that the bishops’ reductionism is misplaced—that any reductionism would have to go the other way. That the bishops undoubtedly believed that they could not be wrong only compounded their error (and false-humble pride).

Furthermore, to treat an emphasis on non-favorited political issues as a doctrinal problem and disagreement on specific pieces of a legislation as a “serious doctrinal problem” is to commit a category mistake: treating political partisanship as religious doctrine. Ultimately, the fallacy (and reductionism discussed above) stems from self-idolatry—the making of oneself (or one’s politics) into a god. The fallacy also involves over-extending the purview of a religious office.

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” This does not include being teachers of public policy or political science. The statements at issue here were most likely those made in support of President Obama’s health-insurance law of 2010, which the U.S. Council of Bishops opposed. Opposing a partisan position on a bill is not necessarily to disagree with religious teachers of faith and morals because one could appeal to elements of the faith and morals to support either side of the specific bill.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell, the executive director of the conference, said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.” A political interpretation is not the same as a moral or religious teaching. In the case of Obama’s health-care legislation, one could apply moral and religious teachings to either partisan side. It is telling that Campbell pointed to the bishops of being mad—a quality that is all too human. Out of anger, the instinct of a bishop is to go to whatever is the basis of his authority, even if it does not apply. The bishops’ effort to reduce a politically partisan difference to one on doctrine is meant to get the adversary on the familiar grounds on which they are used to rendering judgments and using their power. In other words, it is a power-grab to render a particular politically-partisan position as a “doctrinal problem.” We know how to deal with such problems, whereas we are more out on a limb in our ventures into lobbying for particular public policies.

Ultimately, the “investigation” was a front for anger seeking to vanquish a political adversary under the subterfuge of religion and order. Writing a letter to the U.S. Government in support of the president’s health-insurance bill did not violate or challenge the bishops’ doctrinal teaching even if the letter differed politically from the political stance of the bishops. Besides human nature itself, the root of the problem is sourced in the forays (i.e., over-reaching) of religious functionaries into the partisan politics of a government and the further instance that particular partisan stances be adopted by others in the religious organization.

To be sure, being a religious organization does not bar one from politics in so far as one is a citizen of a state. However, to regard particular partisan positions as somehow religious in nature, important, and thus highly obligatory for other officials and members of the organization is dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) and over-reaching as well as indicative of a category mistake concerning domains (i.e., confusing religious with political). It is self-idolatrous to regard one’s ideological partisan position as theological. To force it on others as if it were theirs too just points to the aggression that is used as an agent of self-idolatry. That all of this has come to enjoy the trappings of religious authority that is viewed as legitimate in society speaks to a certain decadence in us all.


Laurie Goodstein, “Vatican Reprimands a Group of U.S. Nuns and Plans Changes,” The New York Times, April 19, 2012.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Catholic Ethical Stance on Greed

Catholic economic, social and political ethics from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World) encyclical in 1965 through the relevant encyclicals of John Paul II are “especially critical of the risks of avarice, acquisitiveness, and waste in consumerist societies, the indifference of many affluent people toward the poor, and the swing of governments away from redistributive taxation, welfare ‘safety nets,’ and foreign aid to poor nations, toward a kind of ‘economic rationalism’ that encourages and enacts hard-heartedness and selfishness.”

Avarice is simply another word for greed, a basic desire for more. This motivation presumes that however much a person has accumulated, it is not sufficient; rather than resting on a good deal having been achieved, it is human nature to instantly view it as insufficient next to a better deal not yet accomplished. The change of perspective from gladness to near indifference is truly remarkable. The quickly-assumed mere default-status of a good deal (e.g., from self-congratulations to the banality of fait accompli) is occasioned by the recognition that even more can potentially be had (on even better terms). A fundamental desire for more is behind this recognition and the ensuing change of perspective on what one already has procured.

Acquisitiveness itself can thus be seen as the value—indeed being an end in itself—behind greed. Within acquisition, or as a further end, is the pleasure that can be obtain by consumption. There is thus a utilitarian, pleasure-maximizing, utility undergirding the value (of acquisitiveness) and motive (of greed). But unlike the ethical utilitarianism of Bentham and Mills, here the maximizing of pleasure is at the individual level, rather than of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Although individualism can be ethically laudable in terms of character or virtue ethics, a focus on the individual can also reduce to hard-heartedness and selfishness. Where pleasure-maximization is centered in, or limited to, oneself, redistribution is viewed negatively. For example, in the context of the stalemate during July 2011 on raising the U.S. Government’s debt ceiling, certain members of Congress refused to go along with an agreement that included ending the Bush tax cuts for individuals making over $200, 000 ($250,000 for couples). At least for some of the wealthy, having more rather than less even when the latter included ample surplus was worth continued stalemate and the related possibility of default of the U.S. Government and global economic turmoil and hardship. Individual pleasure-maximizing at the expense of the public good can thus be viewed in terms of niggardly selfishness at odds with justice as love and benevolence, and thus, furthermore, as being at odds with Catholic ethics.


Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, Vol. 1, Ruth Chadwick, ed. (New York: Academic Press, 1998), p. 486.

On the historical Christian views on the relationship between wealth and greed, and the associated theory of justice as love and benevolence, see: God's Gold, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Has American Catholicism Become Unavoidably Republican?

Putting a religious faith through a particular political ideology can be regarded as artificial because the transcendent is not limited to the confines of particular ideologies. Were it otherwise, the transcendent would not go beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and sensibility. Leaders of religious organizations should thus be particularly careful lest they inadvertently cut transcendence short. Practically speaking, that some members could feel marginalized or leave the organization altogether is a capricious cost that can be avoided. In other words, according to religious criteria, no reason would exist for such marginalization or departures. Unfortunately, religious leaders can easily dismiss this drawback out of a desire to channel the religious through their particular ideologies. I suppose this is a form of idolatry.
In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, a liberal political ideology became associated with Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago after the “started a program against gun violence and opposed Republican health care proposals on the ground that they would strip coverage for the weak and poor.”[1] Alternatively, the Cardinal could have preached against the violence that had plagued parts of the city and for helping the weak and poor. He could have gone to some of the problematic neighborhoods as well as to places where the poor received medical services—even bringing along other clergy to volunteer. Starting a program specifically oriented to guns, and voicing opposition to a political party’s proposal is to step out of the shoes of the fisherman and into the shoes of a legislator. Faithful Catholics in Chicago could legitimately have had a different stance on guns as well as on health policy at the federal level. The Cardinal’s political shoes could easily have made such Catholics uncomfortable going to church and even, particularly sadly, with their Catholic faith. A desire of a religious leader to advance particular political platforms becomes self-centered if it causes members of the religious organization to feel even just uncomfortable.
Visiting a large Catholic church in my hometown outside “Chicagoland” in northern Illinois in 2013, I was amazed at how blatantly Republican the members were; they made no effort to hide their political identification, and it didn’t hurt that the bishop at the time made no secret of his political conservatism. The parish was socially conservative on political issues “down the line.” Even members who were political moderates must have felt uncomfortable there. Indeed, the parish lost considerable members. To be sure, the pastor, who would go on to become bishop of North Dakota, was extremely conservative (and reportedly not very kind). Sadly, “belligerence can acquire a theological justification,” according to Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa writing in La Civilta Cattolica.[2]
The authors look at American evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics as having been “brought together by the same desire for religious influence in the political sphere.”[3] Looked at in the other direction, the desire includes bringing the political sphere into church. The authors warn that the “religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other.”[4] As people of religious faith are subjected to temporal, ideological constraints—even scripts—the faith is artificially circumscribed, as is the body of Christ gathered in fellowship. In fact, the fellowship itself becomes artificially delimited.
In short, the “article warns that conservative American Catholics have strayed dangerously into the deepening political polarization in the United States.”[5] Meanshile, American Unitarian Universalist societies have also contributed to the polarization by becoming virtual liberal camps geared to political activism. I could imagine Unitarian protesters facing off against pro-life Catholic protests with only a street between them as they shout at each other in the name of religion but actually in the sphere of politics—a domain that had become polarized societally by the time Donald Trump was elected U.S. President. The willowing down to ideology brings with it a perspectival narrowness in which even shouting under ostensibly religious auspices does not register as oxymoronic—not to mention as eviscerating any religiousity.  Clearly, it makes no difference whether the ideology is liberal or conservative; the effect is the same. I would even say a presumption to moral and political infallibility also comes with the partiality that is inherent in willowing truth down to a particular ideology. No self-corrective, let alone humbling, feedback loop can operate, so the partisans armed with what they presume is religious truth are unwittingly vulnerable to going too far without realizing it. Even Christian partisans could end up killing rather than loving their enemies without any recognition that they have violated Jesus’s commandment and teachings. That even something as obvious as this could easily be missed ought to be sufficient reason to ward off the temptation to get political and judge fellow religionists accordingly. Yet with an impaired self-corrective feedback loop, resisting the temptation “after the fact” may require nothing short of a miracle.

This book may be helpful for tips on how to sidestep the political: Spiritual Leadership in Business.  See also Christianized Ethical Leadership.

[1] Jason Horowitz, “A Vatican Shot Across the Bow for Hard-Line U.S. Catholics,” The New York Times, August 2, 2017.
[2] Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,” La Civilta Cattolica.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Jason Horowitz, “A Vatican Shot Across the Bow for Hard-Line U.S. Catholics,” The New York Times, August 2, 2017.