A Manifesto:  Important Events That Shaped My Political Views – Howard Ahmanson

As I reflect upon the beginnings of my present political views, I believe that three specific events shaped my way of thinking.

  1. The first was my conversion to Christianity.
  2. The second was my introduction to ‘Reconstructionism’ and my subsequent move beyond it.
  3. The third was my exposure to the writings of Francis Fukuyama.

As a child, I attended Sunday School and parochial school, and I learned a lot of the flow of Biblical history.  I also learned lots of Bible stories, and that Jesus cared particularly for the poor and the hurting.  But I do not call this experience ‘Christian’, because no one taught me why I should believe that Jesus wasGod, and that He was the begotten Son, who was made man, who died and rose again from the dead, and that this event was necessary for our salvation.

Because my parents were not believers in Christ as we would understand it, I didn’t believe in Him either.

Then at the age of 23 I was set on the right path by some college friends, one of whom gave me a youth-oriented explanation of the Epistle to the Romans which was entitled How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious by Fritz Ridenour.  I thought this sounded like me.

Within a few weeks, I declared that I believed that Jesus Christ was Lord and risen from the dead.  So I became an adult convert, defining the term ‘adult’ rather broadly as it applied to me at 23.

I.   The first major event that repoliticized [I use the word ‘repoliticized’ because I had had strong political opinions at a younger age, outlined in the Addendum.  When I discovered the spiritual world, I lost interest in politics for a while] me after I became a Christian was the Orange County Rescue Mission affair.  In the 1970s the leadership of the city of Santa Ana ran the Rescue Mission out of downtown.  They used ‘eminent domain for public purpose’ to do so [long before Kelo, there was Berman vs Parker, 1954.]

And when the Rescue Mission was looking for another place to land, the local residents’ groups – Latino and not rich, by the way – fought them.  Rob Martin, who later worked for me but at that time was working for the Mission, met with them, unrolled a map of the City of Santa Ana, and declared, “Show me one place in the city that you won’t fight me!”  They responded, “If we lose, we win” because, I suppose, they can rally the troops to avenge a defeat.  Here are some of the principles that I learned:

A.    Government is government is government, at all levels.  It’s fine to worry about centralization of affairs in Sacramento or Washington, but unjust government can happen at any level, and is of concern.  Local injustice is, I’ll admit, a lesser evil, only because you don’t have to run as far to get out!  But if larger fiscal, political, and cultural incentives are getting all local governments to behave the same way [as is the case] central intervention may be needed.

B.    If we are going to love the ‘local’, we have to accept that our view of local government IS our view of government, regardless of what we think about one particular level of government, the federal.  There’s a big difference between howling about ‘big government’ versus howling about ‘big federal or state government.’ And I wish the people who support big government at the local level would be honest about it, and not try to bait and switch ‘small government’ rhetoric to ‘anti-centralization’.

C.    NIMBYs are not necessarily rich.  They may not even be homeowners.  Most of us have a resistance to change.  In America, homeowners are rhetorically allowed to justify this by an appeal to ‘property values’ and William Fischel writes about why this is so.  But Fischel fails to see the non-economic aspect of resistance to change.  Also, tenants believe that conservation of their existing housing is better than building new housing.

D.    As a Christian, I do not practice philanthropy to give back to ‘society’.  I practice philanthropy to give back to God, and the objects of my philanthropy are mostly chosen because “God so loved the world” and there are things that He cares about.  Some He’s called me personally to more than others; but he has called other people to have interests in the things I myself can’t personally prioritize.  I think part of the reason we got in trouble with the Roman Empire is the Romans figured this out, and didn’t like it.  Just like atheist regimes in our own time don’t like private philanthropy.

E.    Margaret Thatcher was wrong; there is such a thing as society, but it plays a smaller role than most people think.  ‘Society’ does not ordain the state or the church.  It ordains manners, customs, and languages.  By ‘manners’ I mean those customs we share that we believe to be binding on our cultural group but not on everyone on the planet; whereas ‘morals’ are what we believe are binding on all humans.  Japanese and Koreans have a shoe fetish and take their shoes off indoors; they do not consider us immoral because we don’t, but they consider us [rightly] immoral when we don’t follow their practice in their territory.

F.    As I illustrate below, too often ‘the community’ tends to become ‘the more powerful within the community’, or, on the local level, those with more time on their hands!

G.    Christians are supposed to have a special concern for the poor and the ‘marginalized’.  Well, very few individuals have enough power to marginalize anyone.  People are marginalized BY societies and communities.

H.    Bob Lupton, in Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life, provides a counterbalance as to how as a Christian witness we need to be concerned about ‘communities’ as well as individuals, and making ‘communities’ prosper too.  The CCDA idea of gentrification would be a gentrification that also benefited those who were already present and did not drive them out.

I.     I have a hard time thinking that people who have lower incomes than myself are ‘less worthy’ and should be excluded by public policy.  That doesn’t mean that people are not responsible for their own choices:  they are.

II.    The Influence of Rushdoony and Reconstructionism.

As a new Christian, I was desperate to connect the new truths I was learning about God and His Kingdom to the world as I already knew it.  If God is the Maker and Lord of all, they should certainly connect.

After a few months of confusion and frustration, I did discover two famous authors who didn’t agree with each other on a number of things.  But where they did agree, I still hold their views strongly.  Each had a vision for the faith and all of reality.  They were C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer.

A few years later, I discovered the rather controversial works of R. J. Rushdoony and Gary North.

Even Lewis and Schaeffer had not provided enough answers to the questions that were of deep interest to me:  What is the meaning of inherited wealth, or wealth by the grace of God, in a culture that assumes all people of wealth to be meritocratic entrepreneurs?  Was inherited wealth even right?

Four essays written by Gary North in the period 1979-83 are still formative in my philosophy of philanthropy.  And I regard myself as somewhat of a Post-Reconstructionist, owing a lot to R. J. Rushdoony.  However, I have since come to see their weaknesses.

A.     Their biggest failure was that they failed to understand virtue issues [being a certain type of person in your habits] as well as the following of rules.  Jesus preached no brand new ethics, as C. S. Lewis agrees, but He reemphasized the issue of virtue and character [“a good tree bears good fruit, a bad tree bears bad fruit” over against a culture that was moving toward a rule-based ethic.]  Islam exaggerates the failing of the Pharisees with its outward rule-based ethic.

I do not look for the Old Testament civil code to be enacted in toto.  But can we admit that parts of our civil law do draw on it?  And that this is nothing to be ashamed of and does not violate the ‘separation of church and state’?

B.     I rely on a concept called the ‘two tables of the law.’ The first 3½ [I think it’s 2½ for Catholics] commandments have to do with our relationship to God and how to worship Him.  This is none of the government’s business.  The second 6 ½ have to do with how we treat each other.  This is what law is supposed to be about.  Strip everything from the law that has anything to do with morality, and all you get is tax benefits for crony capitalists.  The laws against murder, wife-beating, robbery, and deception are just as ‘religious’ as laws against sodomy, adultery, euthanasia, and abortion were.  For explanations of how people choose which ‘religious’ laws should be enforced or supported, I recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.  This view leads to my odd view that ‘prayer in public schools’ is not something I can support, even in principle, whereas laws punishing adulterers [but reform divorce law first!] are not something I advocate [they being outside the Overton Window –look it up – today] but not something I would be against in theory.  [The reform of divorce itself is probably outside the Overton Window now.]

It should be noticed that a third sort of morality, as C. S. Lewis points out, is/are the things within ourselves.  So there is an area of morality that has to do with making ourselves more capable of doing right in the other two tables. Government has no interest in this [I call it the Undertable] as regards law; it does have some where it gets involved in education, prisons, or the military.

III.     The Influence of Francis Fukuyama.

My interest in the thinking and ideas of political scientist, economist, and author Francis Fukuyama was stimulated when I read his 1992 book, The Great Disruption.  There he provided several diagrams indicating the source and nature of norms.  Today I posit five kingdoms of authority based on his diagrams, of which the state is only one.

A.     I also derived ideas from his pair of books, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay.  He writes about the three important functions of a state, but only modern liberal democracy has really fulfilled all three.  In order to remember all three I’ve had to parallel them to the three offices of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King:

  1. The strong state, strong enough to keep order and to keep things together. [King]
  2. The rule of law, rather than the ever changing will of a ruling elite; essential if any long term projects are to be considered; you want to know that what is not against the law at the beginning of a project will not be ‘against the law’ at the end. [‘Levite’ not ‘Priest’: I will not concede a priestly role to the State of any kind!]
  3. Openness to criticism and discussion, through freedom of political speech and of the press, and probably also through elections [Prophet]

Note that the last touches on a classification I learned from Fareed Zakaria: besides liberal democracy and illiberal autocracy, it is also possible to have:

Illiberal democracy, an order in which the elective majority supposedly rules, but there are few limits on what the government is allowed to do or decree;

Liberal autocracy, an order in which a monarch or a few rule, but constitutional constraints [and a system that upholds them!] on what the autocratic government can do.

I think the Athenian democracy leaned toward being an illiberal democracy, whereas the ideal Hebrew commonwealth of the Torah, so beloved of Rushdoony and the Puritans, [not sure that it ever worked like it was supposed to] would have been sort of a liberal autocracy.  There were no elections, but the government wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things.

B.    Also in his Political Order, Fukuyama points out that apart from vigilance ALL forms of government will tend to drift in the direction of what he calls ‘patrimonialism’ which is sort of a fancy word for cronyism, or the advantage or benefit of the most powerful groups.  I think in his second volume he loses sight, a bit, of the fact that the bureaucracy is not pure and unselfish, but a class interest in its own right alongside the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ and the ‘middle class’ and all that.  Another important book about American political culture [and a frightening one] is Stealth Democracy by John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse.  I have summarized it on Blue Kennel and will not repeat it here.

And once again, I would add to Fukuyama’s Political Order series the belief that ALL levels of government are The State.  City Hall is The State.  Despite its private covenant origins, the Home Owners Association [and 80% of those who live in new houses in America live under this] is The State.  And what applies to The State applies to them.  They are not some kind of ‘civil society’ or ‘mediating institution.’  They are The State, and must be seen as such.

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