There once was a time when Paul Krugman, by his own admission, wasn’t particularly active in public debate about policy issues confronting the country and the world.
But for the last decade or so, no one would accuse the Nobel Prize winner in economics, who teaches at Princeton and contributes twice-weekly columns for the New York Times, of being unopinionated.
No one has to work hard to determine where Krugman stands, based on his economic philosophy and technical expertise, on a host of contentious public policy issues.
So it was a genuine change of pace when he stepped back from taking sides and wrote the column “A Tale of Two Moralities.”
Responding affirmatively to President Obama’s plea for Americans to “expand our moral imaginations,” Krugman suggested that this would require more than policy tinkering:
“But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.”
He described rather fairly and accurately the two moralities that divide us.
“One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate,” he wrote.
“The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty,” said Krugman.
As he sees it, “there’s no middle ground between these views.” He calls, therefore, not for a middle road for both sides to follow but rather an agreement to follow a set of “certain ground rules” that avoids violence and resolves conflicts by the rule of law.
Paul Krugman concedes that an appeal to reason through accepted means of persuasion is not going to work at this stage of our American democracy. All we can do is agree to disagree with some minimal civility.
Another Paul, long ago, faced the challenge of fundamental divisions among people sharing the same space.
The Apostle wrote to a divided Corinthian church, which he had been instrumental in founding, about the received reports of “quarrels among you.” Some members of the Corinthian community identified themselves with one leader or another, which probably meant that they also toed the line on the differing ideologies and moral philosophies of those leaders.
That Paul was writing to deal with those divisions.
And like his contemporary namesake, this ancient Paul invested no hope in appeals to reason or persuasion.
But he did not settle just for ground rules and an appeal to the rule of law. Instead, having the advantage of common authority among all the parties, Paul wrote: “By the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I appeal to all of you to be in agreement and that there be no division among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
True, there might still be arguments about what the Gospel of Jesus Christ entailed, even if that Gospel appeared to be foolishness to the rest of the world. But there could and should be unity in the Corinthian Christian community about the meaning and power of the cross – of the giving up of self for the sake of others in the service of God’s reign in an inclusive community of love.
Our modern American community doesn’t have an equivalent authority. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights and all the other amendments only provide the framework and the foundational rules and principles by means of which the many and usually divided voices of “we the people” can govern ourselves.
So Paul of Princeton may be correct in his assessment and counsel about how to deal with our national and civic divisions.
But that leaves the question of how Christians today participate in our American democracy, with some guidance from Paul of Tarsus who addressed the church in Corinth.
My sense is that we followers of Jesus aren’t just divided by our loyalties to lesser leaders and factions of Christianity itself, but that we are even more divided by the “tale of two moralities.” We are even more divided as Christians by our loyalty to the lesser gods of particular political and economic ideologies than we are to Jesus Christ, to the cross of Jesus Christ and all that it represents, and to his proclamation of the Reign of God.
Loyalty to what should be our common authority as disciples of Jesus have political and economic and social implications and consequences in a civil polity in which the people rule.
But we will never find even a semblance of unity on those matters so long as our greater loyalties are to lesser gods.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.