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An Influence So Subtle…

When a journalist reports on an influence upon events so subtle that it is not visible to the naked eye, he may be exposing something new and important; he may instead be grasping for non-existent straws. As a Wisconsin native and evangelical observer of public affairs, I’m pretty sure a report last week on the New York Times’ “Beliefs” page falls in the second category. Mark Oppenheimer profiles Gary North, a “Christian Reconstructionist” writer and “onetime aide to Representative Ron Paul, a possible 2012 Republican presidential candidate.” The latter description, which appears in the fourth sentence of the story, is true but overplayed; we learn in the 26th sentence that he worked “briefly” as a “speechwriter” for Mr. Paul “in 1976.”

This is, sadly, among the most justified claims in the story. In the same fourth sentence, Mr. North is identified as “the leading proponent of ‘Christian economics,’ which applies biblical principles to economics issues and the free market.” AEI’s Michael Novak and the entire Acton Institute staff apparently were not included in the comparison.

Mr. Oppenheimer’s news hook is the events in my home state of Wisconsin – Gov. Walker’s reforms to public employee unionization and compensation.  We are told that Mr. North “may even have turned up among the antiunion protesters in Madison, Wis., this year” through his intellectual influence on the conservative movement at large. “The deeper one looks into the obsessions of Mr. North … the harder it is to spot his influence in Wisconsin.”  Perhaps it is hard to spot because it doesn’t exist.

The string of “mays” and circumstantial charges are even too much for Mr. Oppenheimer  (or his editors) by the end of his story. “Mr. McVicar [one of the experts interviewed in the story] believes that [another expert] Professor Ingersoll’s attempted connection between Christian economics and the rallies in Madison is a bit tenuous. … ‘heavily qualified’ … but it ‘has the most basic essence of truth,’ given how widely Mr. North’s teachings have been disseminated on the Christian right.” Prof. Ingersoll herself “concedes it is difficult to prove direct connections between Mr. North’s writings and Wisconsin antiunion conservatism. … [A]s Professor Ingersoll cautions, influence does not always announce itself.” Apparently the reality that it is impossible to disprove the unobservable justifies a New York Times story — but it also forces the reporter to spend his closing paragraphs undercutting his own story’s credibility.

If Mr. Oppenheimer had wanted to report a real story about Christians, economics, unions, and Wisconsin, he could have concentrated on the interesting statements by various Catholic bishops in the state. Archbishop Listecki of Milwaukee, on behalf of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, issued a tempered statement that was widely spun as taking sides with the unions.  Bishop Morlino of Madison, in his column for the diocesan newspaper, also addressed the question, citing a cautious word from John Paul 2: “Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.” This same passage was quoted by Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute in an op-ed that ran in the state’s largest daily paper. Finally, in a guest column for the Madison diocesan paper, a local theologian acknowledged that “the specific nature of public sector unions [is] a matter not addressed by the current [papal] teaching with its focus on the private sector.”

This would have been a much more fruitful question for the Times to report on. For starters, it would have been a topic with a perceptible impact on the discussion in Wisconsin. Moreover, there is real intellectual work to be done applying the principles annunciated in the encyclicals, which are directed to private sector unions, to the particular issues of public sector unions. And there is also work undone applying encyclicals written on a global stage to the particular circumstances of the United States. If the Times won’t take up these questions, at least we have forums like the Two Cents blog for such discussions.