Sunday, October 31, 2004

It Doesn't Always Work


The New York Times > Magazine > Faith at Work

Chuck Ripka is a moneylender -- that is to say, a mortgage banker -- and his institution, the Riverview Community Bank in Otsego, Minn., is a way station for Christ...The bank opened 18 months ago as a ''Christian financial institution,'' with a Bible buried in the foundation and the words ''In God We Trust'' engraved in the cornerstone...

It doesn't always work. I spoke with one employee of the bank, who asked that her name not be used, and she told me that while she had been raised Catholic, she did not consider herself part of the bank's Christian culture. ''You will never find me going into Chuck's office to pray,'' she said. On the other hand, she said that the bank was a ''wonderful'' place to work because ''here the people are all nice -- it's a healthy environment.'' Another employee, a young man who until recently worked at a competing bank, also said that while he hasn't given his soul to Jesus, he liked the wholesome atmosphere of Riverview.

I can understand the appeal of the religious right's vision. I'd like to operate in a healthy environment, where people were fair, decent and compassionate, too. The world is a rough place and could use lots of improvement. But I don't think that personal transformation, whether religious or secular, can do the job.

I believe in Original Sin--"the only Christian doctrine that has knock-down empirical verification." People are not nice and no amount of prayer, meditation or psychotherapy will make them consistently fair, decent or compassionate. To make the world livable we engage in "self-binding" to prevent ourselves from acting on our tainted impulses and costly sentimentalities, like Odysseus who bound himself to the mast to avoid being lured by the Sirens. We bind ourselves through legally enforceable contracts because we know that we cannot trust one another, or ourselves, to keep promises. We vote for taxes to pay for public works and income transfers because we know that left to our own devices we will not be public-spirited or charitable. Only impersonal agencies and coercive regulations can make the world a minimally fair and decent place.

Maybe the real cultural divide isn't between the religious right and the secular left but between cynics like me and optimistic sentimentalists who image that they can make the world more livable by promoting personal responsibility, preaching love, teaching wisdom, strenghening families, supporting grass-roots efforts, running Christian businesses or establishing communes.

4 comments:

MDBritt said...

Very good post and an interesting way of cutting across the normal political/cultural divide to see the world in a new way:

"Maybe the real cultural divide isn't between the religious right and the secular left but between cynics like me and optimistic sentimentalists"

While I wouldn't be quite as cynical as you appear to be about people's public-spiritedness, I too have little faith in any flavor of utopianism - we simply aren't evolved that way. As E.O. Wilson (I think) said of Communism: "Great idea, wrong species."

Mr. Ripka's Bank strikes me as a wonderful attempt to put his ideals into practice. This is and ought always be encouraged. However, let's not be naive: the FDIC and other regulatory agencies will still need to monitor this bank according to the normal standards of due diligence.

If my viewpoint differs from yours it would be in having a certain distrust for the regulators as well. Let us always watch the regulators with the same degree of cynicism as we watch those they would regulate!

H. E. said...

Even given that we're all stinkers, empirically what works best to improve quality of life is transparency--impersonal, formal institutions and explicit, enforceable regulations. I've been reading a lot on the ethics and economics of development--vide. e.g. Stiglitz Globalization and Its Discontents and Easterly The Elusive Quest for Growth that suggests that one of the important differences between affluent countries and developing countries is the extent to which they operate according to formal mechanisms and laws rather than informal arrangements that breed patonage, nepotism and general corruption--recognizing that when it comes to corruption it's a matter of how much.

Reflecting, anti-institutional bias and sentimental utopianism are deep in American culture on both the left and the right, all coming maybe from the religious idea that personal transformation is prior to (and possibly more important than) social improvement. It's not just the religious right, but secularists like, e.g. Dewey promoting education for citizenship, contemporary self-help literature pushing the idea that people can overcome material and social constraints by character improvement, and the whole bit about "think globally, act locally," along with the distrust of bureaucracy, centralization, regulations and social engineering.

MDBritt said...

You've put your finger squarely on it with your comment about transparency. While there are certainly a variety of processes - public and private - that should remain private, the key to a healthy, engaged society is ensuring that open processes make up for the broad norm. There was something else I was going to comment on but Blogger isn't showing me your comments and, as it is late, I'll just have to remember another day...

mean_owen said...

H.E. said:

"Only impersonal agencies and coercive regulations can make the world a minimally fair and decent place"

and

"Reflecting, anti-institutional bias and sentimental utopianism are deep in American culture on both the left and the right"

Having lived in Alabama for a couple of years now, I'm more than inclined to agree with you. This place is about as anti-regulation, anti-government, anti-tax etc. as it could be (and even the churches tend to be of the sort that govern only at the local level.) And it certainly isn't the most "fair and decent place" that I've ever lived, although the barbeque is quite good.