Evangelicals, housing prices and pure contempt

The NY Times Economix blog posted a piece summarizing some research suggesting that evangelical Christians — a term not defined very precisely — may weather housing bubbles better than most Americans at least in part because their beliefs encourage them to avoid excessive spending and that sort of thing. You can read it here. It’s an intriguing study, surely open to debate about any economic-theological correlation. (Will anyone mention possible analogies with the old Protestant work ethic and its impact on colonial American economic growth?)

But I was struck — no, shocked is a better word — by the tone in several of the comments so far: pure, unabashed contempt served with generous portions of stereotypes and cliches. Even the commenters who raised valid questions about the  study’s conclusions  were obviously holding their noses.

Insert a long sigh of frustration here. Beyond that, no comment.

Faith until the very end


By the time Stacie Davis’ mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the fall of 2005, the disease had advanced past the point of saving her.

As Davis tells her mother’s story, her voice slightly quavers. She knows what cancer can do, both as a daughter and as the nurse manager of oncology at Johnson City Medical Center.

Her mother and family had decided against heroic measures, but sometimes her mother seemed to forget.

“It was like she would say, ‘I’ve got to do something’ – almost like a panic,” Davis said. “I’d remind her that chemotherapy would only make her sicker and end her life sooner.”

Her mother was “a very strong woman, a great believer, very active in the church,” Davis recalled. “She always studied the Scriptures. But as with most people, fear stepped in for a while.”

Eventually, her mother accepted her approaching death and focused on final preparations, right down to what her grandson would wear to her funeral.

“It gave her a lot of peace to know that she had worked out the arrangements,” Davis said.

Both personally and professionally, Davis was intrigued by a study in the March 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. A team of researchers found that patients who were near death with advanced cancer and who drew on their religious faith to help cope with stress were three times more likely to receive intensive life-prolonging medical care than those who weren’t “religious copers.” Most of the patients in the study, which was conducted in New England and Texas, were Christians.

“Many people … assume that more religious patients would be less likely to pursue aggressive end-of-life care (such as mechanical ventilation and cardiopulmonary resuscitation) because they have peace with the idea of death because of faith in God and belief in an afterlife,” wrote the study’s lead author, Dr. Andrea Phelps of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, in an e-mail this week. “Our results show that the influence of religious factors on care at the end-of-life is much more complicated.”

Religious copers were also less likely to have less advance-care planning, such as living wills or do-not-resuscitate orders. (Phelps pointed out that most religious copers did not receive aggressive end-of-life care; they just received it at greater rates than other patients.)

The researchers suggest several reasons for this connection: trust that God could heal them through the treatment or that they are working with God to overcome illness or bring about transformation through suffering.

“Alternatively, religious copers might feel they are abandoning a spiritual calling as they transition from fighting cancer to accepting the limitations of medicine and preparing for death,” they wrote. Other patients pursue life-sustaining treatments because of their belief that only God knows when it’s a patient’s time to die or, out of moral or religious conviction, place high value on prolonging life.

Davis hasn’t noticed a strong connection between a patient’s religion and decisions about life-prolonging therapy.

“What I have seen is that it is really more individualistic, as far as their life experience goes,” she said. “Some people feel like they’re done, and it’s OK. But I’ve had people who thought much more about the separation from a loved one, especially if they were caregivers. It’s feeling like their job is not done.”

Davis sees many deeply religious people decline life-extending treatment.

“They see it almost as a grace thing, like ‘Thy will be done,'” she said. “On the other hand, it’s a struggle for a lot of patients. At times they’re sure they know what God wants them to do, but like anyone they have doubts.”

A more common factor in treatment decisions, she said, is whether or not patients had indicated their wishes in advance.

“With advance directives you see a much calmer environment with the family,” she said. “It gives you a sort of control. People have thought about it and talked about it and have in a way rehearsed their roles.”

Davis’ mother lived until June 2006, long enough to see Davis’ son graduate from high school and celebrate three family birthdays, including her own.

“We wanted to go through the milestones with her,” Davis said. “But terminal patients can detach from this world and start looking forward to the next. We were glad she was there, but she was ready to move on.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 28 March 2009. Image: NIH Consensus Development Program.

AIG meets the Golden Rule. (No, really.)


Is anyone not upset with AIG?

In case you missed it, after receiving $170 billion from the federal government to keep from collapsing, American International Group, the world’s largest insurer, paid $165 million in bonuses to 73 executives.

Whether the AIG executives were callous or just stupid, they look absolutely greedy, especially as tens of thousands of Americans are losing jobs and houses each week. This isn’t how we want our money to be used. So the president publicly scolded the company and Congress voted to tax 90 percent of big bonuses at any firm receiving more than $5 billion in bailout funds.

Bill Greer, an economics professor and vice president for institutional advancement at Milligan College (where I also teach), thinks we have good reason to be angry with AIG. Even so, he doesn’t assume that the lumbering giant is the only side of Wall Street.

“I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people who work in financial institutions are good, honest people,” Greer said this week. “I don’t think the majority are Bernie Madoff,” referring to the trader recently caught as the mastermind of the largest Ponzi-style pyramid scheme in history.

But Greer knows that, as in any profession, over time “a little bit of tunnel vision can develop.” It can happen to anyone. As the old saying goes, if you swing a hammer long enough, the whole world starts to look like a nail.

But the stakes are especially risky in the offices of high finance, where individuals and firms have their fingers on world economic triggers and they deal with other people’s money. When they stop asking too many questions and start making too many assumptions, bad decisions and big trouble won’t be far behind.

“People become numbers,” Greer said. “If I’m working at an investment firm, the fact that I may be managing hundreds of portfolios means I don’t see those faces any longer. There’s an anonymity that lets people make poor decisions with less fear of consequence.”

On the other hand, we can’t separate Wall Street and Main Street. Our decisions shape financial markets just as much as the markets shape us, and Wall Street’s problems aren’t Wall Street’s alone.

“In some ways, it has trickled out to the rest of America,” Greer said. “A lot of people on Wall Street saw an opportunity, but that same door was opened to us. We fed on each other, with our greed. We can gauge it by how little we have saved and how much we have spent over the past several years. We’ve become accustomed to having what we want, when we want it.”

But Greer, who has written and taught on business ethics, sees a silver lining.

“I think this economic downturn is forcing people to rethink their values,” he said. “Too many of us for too long lived beyond our means, did not save money, ran up large levels of consumer debt, and simply lived for today. Now there’s a sudden trend toward saving money. We’re getting our financial houses in order.”

He understands the so-called paradox of thrift – that if Americans save too much, the national economy can suffer – but he thinks it’s time for tightening belts. He’s convinced that living within our means and making money by making real, tangible products instead of trading in wispy financial deals will literally pay off in the long run.

He also thinks it’s time to bring back other ideals – on Main Street as well as Wall Street.

“I’m speaking as someone who teaches at a Christian college, but Christian or not, honesty and integrity are universal values,” he said. “What we do for people ought to be driven by care and compassion for individuals. That would make better decisions.”

He points to Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations, the 18th-century book that laid the theoretical foundation for free-market capitalism. Smith realized that a free-market economy is driven by self interest, but he also knew the market works only when we also have the interests of others in mind.

“Somehow, we need to embrace more and more the fact we make decisions every day that affect other people,” Greer said. “In a lot of ways, the Golden Rule applies very well to the free-market economic system. Treat others as you want to be treated. You go out of business if you don’t.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 21 March 2009.

Prayer, politics and those pesky hot-button issues

Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)

Phil Roe enjoys his new job. The U.S. Representative from Tennessee’s First District, a retired physician, wanted to join the debates in Washington over health care, and here he is. And if politics were baseball, he just moved to the major leagues.

But Thursdays are good days because that’s when he gets out of the Capitol Hill routine. In the evenings he usually flies home to Johnson City for the weekend. Before that, in the mornings, he joins other House members for an hour-long nonpartisan prayer breakfast.

“We all check our politics at the door,” Roe said during a phone conversation this week. “I really try to guard that time. We meet and get our week straightened out.”

Roe came away inspired from last month’s National Prayer Breakfast. President Obama spoke, but Roe was most impressed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Roman Catholicism soon after leaving office in 2007.

“I had never heard him share his faith,” Roe said. “That was the best event I’ve attended (in Washington) so far. I left with my jaw hanging down.”

While his own faith is important — he and his wife, Pam, are members of Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church — Roe favors the language of “values” and “morals” when discussing his work in Congress, perhaps sensing that too much religious vocabulary is easily misunderstood or potentially divisive.

In political office, “you rely on the values you grew up with, (such as) just telling the truth,” he said. “You look at that in the totality of your lifetime.”

But it seems inevitable that such conversations will turn to hot-button topics such as abortion, which Roe adamantly opposes. That issue marked one of his first big Beltway moments.

He delivered a brief anti-abortion speech in the House on Jan. 21, the day between the presidential inauguration and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Afterwards, he was asked to “say a few words to a group of people” the following day. Expecting a relatively small gathering, he found himself addressing more than 200,000 people in the National Mall for the annual pro-life rally.

As an ob-gyn specialist Dr. Roe delivered thousands of babies, and he would like to see abortion debated and put to an up-or-down vote in Congress, but doubts that will happen in the wake of Supreme Court decisions.

He was troubled by last week’s order by President Obama to lift former President Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Roe considers the research unnecessary and the surrounding political drama a distraction. He chooses his words carefully.

“A human embryo is how life begins, and that comes back to one of those core basic values: Do you consider this a human life or not?” he said. “That’s an argument that personally took it off the table for me. Where do you stop on the slippery slope?”

Obama set limits when he signed the federal funding order – prohibiting cloning embryos, for example – but Roe still thinks the president needlessly re-opened a door.

“To show you how creative people are, all the great breakthroughs have occurred with adult or umbilical-cord stem cells,” he said. “Science came right along and made breakthroughs. People feel strongly about the issue, and we didn’t need this.”

Given the current economic crisis and his own conservative politics, it’s no surprise that Roe talks about taxes and government spending in moral terms. He calls his belief in “smaller, leaner, more accountable government” one of his core values. (“My head is spinning with all the spending that goes on here.”)

A member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, he considers it “a moral obligation to take care of the people who make us free.” Low taxes, he said, attract businesses to the state, which ultimately provide new jobs that can help people get out of poverty. And “the worst thing you can do” to people living on a fixed incomes – including the growing numbers of retirees in Northeast Tennessee – is to raise their taxes.

“I can’t do that to them,” he said. “When I was practicing medicine, I knew people who watched their spouses die and struggle to make payments. I would get afghans and apple butter. I have to look these people in the eye.”

Johnson City Press, 14 March 2009.

Squeezed: Ministries may need to do more with less money

foodpantryopen-webFreddi Birdwell’s wake-up call to the new economy came partly in the form of a young single mother at a transitional housing program in Knoxville run by the Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.

The woman and her young child had fled an abusive home, and she was trying to get on her feet, training for a new job and learning to run a household. She was in the final six months of a two-year program.

“She had a job and was doing great,” Birdwell recalled last week. “Then she was laid off and now she can’t find another job. I can only imagine the stress of that, with a child to take care of. We make sure she’s getting food on the table … just trying to Band-Aid it until we can help her with a more permanent solution.”

Stories like this have grown familiar in the past 12 to 18 months, said Birdwell, the community relations and development director for CCET, which is based in Knoxville but has offices in Chattanooga and Jonesborough.

As Northeast Tennessee feels more of the global economic downturn, people who normally walk on financial tightropes are falling into full-blown crisis, and others who were getting by are starting to stagger.

“We’ve absolutely seen a steady increase in the number of individuals and families who face some kind of housing crisis, who are homeless, who need assistance with utilities or food,” Birdwell said. “It was a slow increase for a while, but now that’s starting to pick up.”

Churches, faith-based groups and other charities are scrambling to keep up with the needs. CCET helped more than 17,000 people in the past year, about 15 percent more than the previous year.

“A lot of the people who’ve historically helped are on the edge themselves,” Birdwell said. “People who donated items to our thrift stores and pantries (in the past) now are coming to our stores. They’re one crisis, one job loss, one illness from putting them over the edge.”

Doug Miller, director of missions and media at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Johnson City, sees a similar trend.

“What we’re finding in the last eight to 12 months is that those on the (brink) of poverty are slipping over, and those already in the poverty level are losing the grip they had,” Miller said. “People who were not homeless before are living in their cars now.”

Munsey provides space for the Melting Pot, a ministry of Good Samaritan Ministries that offers free meals to people in need. The number of meals served has mushroomed in the last year, Miller said, from about 150 people per day at the end of the month to more than 200, a 33 percent increase. (More people come at month’s end, presumably when wages or benefits are running low.) Munsey’s own Wednesday-night dinners also attract more people now.

“We’re seeing people who normally don’t come,” Miller said. “A lot have jobs, but if they can get one more meal per week paid for – that’s another $5 or $6. That will pay for gas to get them to work for a week.”

The economic stresses are starting to show in other ways. CCET workers at shelters in Knoxville are reporting more incidents of child and elder abuse and neglect. Birdwell blames the financial uncertainty.

“It’s an on-the-edge kind of thing,” she said, “causing people such stress that they take it out on those around them.”

Despite such accounts, Birdwell and Miller sound optimistic. Miller said the number of volunteers at Munsey and the congregation’s donations for “compassion ministries,” which has expenses as high as $50,000 per year, are holding steady.

Birdwell reported that the CCET fundraising campaign during the last holiday season was more successful than the previous year. CCET operates 22 programs with an annual budget of almost $5 million, supplied by gifts from individuals and organizations, funding from the East Tennessee Diocese and government grants.

But churches, charities and other organizations that offer a safety net to people in need know they face a tough dilemma: The same conditions that make their services more crucial are hitting donors’ wallets too. No one knows how hard the economy will bite into giving, and these ministries may soon be trying to provide more while receiving less.

“We may not want to think about (more poverty),” Miller said, “but we can’t ignore it.”

 (Johnson City, Tenn., Press, 7 March 2009)

What’s next? Give up blogging for Lent?

In case you missed, the Vatican has urged Roman Catholics to give up high-tech for Lent. Call it a digital fast.

So if most Catholics follow this lead, and the Roman Catholic is the largest single denomination in the world and in the U.S., what would be the cultural and economic impact? And we can only speculate what kind of church-state tensions may surface among elected officials who happen to be Roman Catholic. If they follow the Vatican’s lead, their constituents may be out of touch in today’s environment.

But seriously, folks, there’s a serious point being made here. As the Associated Press story reports:

The Church is trying to balance an increasing appreciation of modern communication with a wariness of new media.

In January, the Vatican launched its own YouTube channel, with Pope Benedict XVI welcoming viewers to this ”great family that knows no borders.”

Benedict praised social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace for forging friendships and understanding, but cautioned that online networking could isolate people from real social interaction.

The pope has also warned about what he has called the tendency of entertainment media to trivialize sex and promote violence.

It’s comforting to know the Vatican takes seriously the relationships and implications that rise with the varieties of digital media. If a 40-day fast from high-tech gadgets can jumpstart that conversation among believers, then so be it.