Faith Seeking Understanding debate, which featured Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine and Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. Drawing a diverse crowd of students, alumni, faculty and staff, as well as members of the local community, the debate was the opening event in FSU’s three-day series, “The State, Society and Marketplace.”
For all the hyperpolarized back-and-forth that has recently defined these types of conversations in American society, the discussion was remarkably civil, apolitical and constructive. Though the two men clearly represented very different responses to this question, the tone of the evening was marked by mutual respect and understanding. In the spirit of Saint Anselm’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding,” Brooks explained, “We are doing theology here—seeking God’s face in the everyday.”
Wallis and Brooks both focused their initial statements on Christ’s words in the final verses of Matthew 25, when Jesus explains, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Mt. 25:42-3, 45; NIV).
In light of these words, Wallis argued the free market system is not, in itself, enough to bring justice to the poor and the needy of the world. Quoting Adam Smith, he explained, “When there's no ethical sensibility, the market ends up devouring every other sector and finally ends up devouring itself.”
"Profit isn't enough," Wallis argued, to incentivize justice. There must be increased regulations on financial sectors, aid programs for the poor, and increased accountability for all sectors involved in the market. “A nation is not judged by its gross national product, but by how it treats the most vulnerable in its society. This is not how Democrats, Republicans, Wall Street or Washington D.C. think.”
Brooks, on the other hand, pointed out that in his opinion, Christ’s words tell us not necessarily how, specifically, to behave, but to “be careful” when we make policies that affect the poor. He stressed the system that most effectively lifts the poor out of poverty is, in fact, the free enterprise system, and the wealth inequality we see in our society is at its root a problem of unequal opportunity, and of flawed culture. “We need to give the bottom 20% of our society more access to the free enterprise system through entrepreneurship,” he argued, rather than over-regulate the top of the system. Culturally, we need to promote a society that values "earned success” rather than one that detaches rewards from labor. Finally, Brooks stressed the personal accountability of the consumer—that the blame for our flawed system extends to“Washington, Wall Street and Main Street.”
Wallis and Brooks, who have been involved in a series of these debates supported by Values & Capitalism, both agreed that solving cultural issues such as high divorce rates and failing public schools among the bottom 20% are crucial to remedying problems of what Brooks called “opportunity inequality,” though they disagreed on how we might go about doing so. But similarly to many of the talking points during the debate, even when they disagreed on the specifics, this was something both men clearly understood: they were two devoted Christ-followers seeking the most compassionate way to care for “the least of these” through economic policy.