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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Wrestling with Regulation
distributed 2/25/11 - ©2011

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Wendy Beth Oliver, of Seattle, Washington. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

I find it fascinating -- and very frustrating -- to observe the complete disconnect that often happens as our society debates important issues. When various sides have completely different assumptions and goals, they end up talking past each other, and there's almost no constructive discussion.

I'm seeing that happen around a number of issues that involve government regulation, and most specifically in this winter's hot-button debates about the Environmental Protection Agency and its enforcement of the Clean Air Act. There are at least two political camps, and their statements about regulation never intersect.

It brings to mind what I learned in high school geometry about "skew" lines -- two lines that are not parallel and do not intersect. Think of two airplanes, one flying north, and the other headed west, at two different altitudes. In the air, we're very glad that their paths don't collide. But in political and ethical conversation, "skewed" discussions mean that we don't have any point of contact or shared principles to anchor our conversation.

The issues around regulation and the role of government are huge and complex. I don't claim to be offering comprehensive insights today as I enter into that realm. What I offer today are my own thoughts, research and wrestling as I try to steer clear of a knee-jerk liberal approach to these questions.

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A recent action alert from a major denomination calls for support of the EPA. It has some excellent information, and a good form letter that can be personalized and emailed to your Senators (please do!).

But the start of the alert misinterprets why the conflict about the Clean Air Act is so heated. It says, "Many Americans, not entirely familiar with the relationship between the release of gases like CO2 in the atmosphere and climate change, are apprehensive about governmental regulation of industry."

If that is the case, then our task is to educate those "many Americans" about the science of climate change. That's exactly what many of us good progressive types have been trying to do for a very long time, and it has been largely ineffective in influencing those we most want to reach.

It is becoming clear to me that the sharp division about the role of government has to be taken seriously. Indeed -- while it is bad organizing to say so in an action alert! -- the denomination appeal could have said, "Many Americans are opposed to most governmental regulation of industry, and see little cause for the government to deal with climate change, no matter what the science says."

In that case, our most urgent moral debate is about the legitimacy of regulation, not the science of global warming. When we take on that topic, we have a point of contact so that those with differing views can have a serious, and potentially fruitful, conversation.

To be charitable, most people probably want the government to promote the common good. But the differences in understanding that common good can be stark. Two examples make that clear.

  • One side stresses sustainability and ecological health as the hallmark of public good: "At all levels of citizen participation eco-fundamentalists should act so as to assure that the powers of taxation, public spending, government regulation and litigation are deployed to promote sustainability." Other progressive voices affirm regulation in support of social justice factors, along with sustainability.
  • Another side looks at the common good almost entirely in terms of economic measures and opportunity: "federal, state, and local governments would do well to take the handcuffs off of hustlers [entrepreneurs] and free them from the regulations that keep them from creating wealth. In other words, get government out of the way and let the hustlers hustle!"

The limited government side -- represented in the Acton Institute quote above -- often refers to Genesis 1 as they make the theological assertion "that human beings were made to be innovative and creative and 'to manifest our dreams into creation'." I try to take that assertion seriously, but my theological perspective makes me add an essential critique. The Priestly writers of Genesis 1 also give us the seemingly endless laws and regulations of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Human initiative and creativity are gifts from God, but they can only be used in the context of appropriate constraints.

A New Testament theology might point to a strong rejection of "the Law", but only by affirming that we who are in Christ have so internalized love and justice that we will go beyond the letter of the law. Christian freedom is not a license to do whatever we want, or to seek our own selfish opportunity. Freedom in the New Testament is the means by which we dedicate ourselves completely to the service of God and the embodiment of God's realm of peace and justice.

The question of regulation gets into messy theological ground. It is precisely the sort of religious issue where careful discussion in churches can be very helpful in elevating public discourse. A few months ago, a Sojourner's article by Jim Wallis asked, "Can libertarianism be reconciled with Christian faith?" An article in response, by Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, does a respectful job of bringing the theme of human sinfulness to bear on both free-market individualism and powerful government. Tooley's article could be a fruitful springboard for a sermon or class that looks theologically at both of the opposing sides.

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Regulation is a complicated and divisive issue, and it is one that must be addressed if we are going to make any headway on today's most urgent questions of public policy. I'm convinced that churches can enrich our public debate by clarifying the theological foundations of our ethical positions.

From my perspective, faithful churches will affirm that good stewardship goes beyond job creation and wealth-building, to encompass social justice and ecological health. Churches can enlighten us, not only about the science of climate change, but also about the essential regulatory role of government in preserving God's creation.

Once we have thought through those issues -- once we are clear about our values -- then we can be as bold and blunt in our advocacy as Robert Reich was in a recent column. "We could have millions more jobs tomorrow if we eviscerated all health and safety regulations and allowed our air to turn yellow and our rivers and lakes to become fetid sinkholes. But that would be dumb."

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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