Russell and Duenes

Archive for February 2013

Welfare Guards Against Social Malaise

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justicebrennanSo said Justice Brennan in Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 265 (1970). In Goldberg, the Court was deciding whether a person on welfare was entitled to an administrative, evidentiary hearing prior to the termination of his or her welfare benefits. Id. at 255. Certain New York residents who were receiving AFDC benefits “alleged that the New York State and New York City officials administering these programs terminated, or were about to terminate, such aid without prior notice and hearing, thereby denying them due process of law.” Id. at 256. The state of New York at the time had no provision for giving someone a hearing prior to a determination that the person’s welfare benefits were going to be cut off. Id. at 256-57. The Court ultimately held that welfare recipients are entitled to such an evidentiary hearing. Id. at 261. One of the Court’s main rationale’s for its holding was that welfare recipients are generally in desperate straits and cannot afford to have their welfare benefits cut off while the state takes the time to decide whether the recipient is, in fact, entitled to the benefits. Id. at 264. I do not generally disagree with the Court’s rationale that those receiving welfare are in a desperate situation, and often cannot afford to be cut off.

Yet I found myself having trouble with these words by Justice Brennan:

“The constitutional challenge cannot be answered by an argument that public assistance benefits are “a ‘privilege’ and not a ‘right.’ . . . From its founding the Nation’s basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty. This perception, against the background of our traditions, has significantly influenced the development of the contemporary public assistance system. Welfare, by meeting the basic demands of subsistence, can help bring within the reach of the poor the same opportunities that are available to others to participate meaningfully in the life of the community. At the same time, welfare guards against the societal malaise that may flow from a widespread sense of unjustified frustration and insecurity. Public assistance, then, is not mere charity, but a means to ‘promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’ The same governmental interests that counsel the provision of welfare, counsel as well its uninterrupted provision to those eligible to receive it.” Id. at 262, 264-65.

I would not say that Justice Brennan was the first one to argue this line, but his words certainly have helped plant the notion in many Americans’ minds that welfare is a “right” and not a “privilege.” Id. at 262. Yet how did it become so? And how are we changed as human beings when we come to see welfare as a “right?” As a kind of property interest to which we are entitled?

Further, I think Justice Brennan’s assertions about what welfare actually produces amongst its recipients – at least in a general sense – are not the case at all. Does welfare, as currently administered in our nation “foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders?” Id. at 265.  Or does it dehumanize and paralyze them instead? Doubtless many people are poor due to “forces not within [their] control,” as Justice Brennan says. Id. Yet I wonder if one of those “forces” that has made so many people dependent on the government has been the paternalistic government welfare policies themselves. For example, can one account for the urban underclass we see in our major cities simply by attributing it all to “racism?” I think not. IT’s complex, to be sure, but why are there so many missing fathers and broken families in our urban centers, both of which are primary factors in causing poverty? It’s beyond their control, yes, but surely the causes underneath it matter. And when a culture and nation cannot speak about them honestly, then the problem will remain intractable.

Does welfare by and large “bring within the reach of the poor the same opportunities that are available to others to participate meaningfully in the life of the community?” Id. Again, it certainly may do this, and clearly does, in many specific cases. But is this the overall effect of our welfare policies? Is it even the intent of such policies, stated or not?

Can welfare be said to “guard[] against the societal malaise that may flow from a widespread sense of unjustified frustration and insecurity.” Id. Or does welfare seem to foster such malaise, frustration and insecurity in its recipients?

Whatever the answers, Justice Brennan’s sentiments, and others like them, have rooted in our minds the idea that government-sponsored welfare is indispensable if we are going to “help people,” that government welfare in particular is part of the “social contract,” and is therefore a “right” or “entitlement,” and not a gift or privilege or something that could be – to some extent at least – better accomplished by other means. I think the shift to this understanding of welfare has had devastating consequences, many of which are outlined by Anthony Esolen’s piece here.



Written by Michael Duenes

February 27, 2013 at 7:38 am

Frederick Douglass’s Response to the Dred Scott Decision

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For my Constitutional History class, we are now reading articles about the Dred Scott decision, and one of the authors, Paul Finkelman, reproduced Frederick Douglass’s response to the decision. I thought it worth passing along.

“The Supreme Court of the United States is not the only power in this world. It is very great, but the Supreme Court of the Almighty is greater. Judge Taney can do many things, but he cannot perform impossibilities. He cannot bale out the ocean, annihilate this firm old earth, or pluck the silvery star of liberty from our Northern sky. He may decide and decide again; but he cannot reverse the decision of the Most High. He cannot change the essential nature of things–making evil good, and good, evil.”

Paul Finkelman, The Dred Scott Case, Slavery and the Politics of Law, 20 Hamline L. Rev. 1, 40 (1996)


Written by Michael Duenes

February 25, 2013 at 9:28 pm

My Refuge and My Fortress, My God in Whom I Trust

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“I will say to the LORD: ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.” – Psalm 91:2

Psalm 34 was my Scripture memorization for January, and this month it is Psalm 91. I have always found comfort and strength in the first two verses: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.'” So I thought I’d peruse the Scriptural language of “refuge.”

In the Old Testament law, God provided “cities of refuge,” where “the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there.” (Num. 35:11). No doubt these were intended to be a tangible evidence of God’s provision for His people, as a refuge for them.

“Blessed are all who take refuge in [God].” (Psalm 2:12). The LORD is a refuge for the poor. (Psalm 14:6). God is a savior to those who seek refuge at God’s right hand. (Psalm 17:7). “[God] is a shield for all those who take refuge in Him.” (Psalm 18:30). God delivers His people from the ensnaring nets of their enemies, because they take refuge in Him. (Psalm 31:4). “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind!” (Psalm 31:19). “None of those who take refuge in the LORD will be condemned.” (Psalm 34:22). The LORD “delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.” (Psalm 37:40). “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1). “You, [O LORD], have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.” (Psalm 61:3). “Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.” (Psalm 71:3). “I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” (Psalm 73:28). It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” (Psalm 118:8-9). “[The LORD] is my steadfast love and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me.” (Psalm 1442). “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.” (Nahum 1:7). “[W]e who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” (Hebrews 6:18).

Those who take refuge in lesser things – political rulers, money, fame, human strength or military might – are always disappointed in the end. Every day we have need of a refuge, a strong fortress in which to hide ourselves, and in which to be protected against the storms of life. God says, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower, the righteous runs into it and is safe.” Let us therefore run for refuge into the strong tower that is the Lord, and there find safety and salvation.


Written by Michael Duenes

February 24, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Posted in Duenes, Reflections

The Sequester, Entitlements, and “The Least of These”

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esolenWhen someone close to me once asked why I was generally opposed to our current welfare state, I told him it had little, if anything, to do with “taking my tax money.” If the government could take my tax money, give it to others as welfare payments and programs, and produce virtuous and thriving people, I’d gladly hand over the money. The problem with the welfare state has never finally been the money, but the effect the money has on human flourishing in every area of life, from spirituality, to the economy, to sexuality, to marriage, to parenting, to cities, to prisons, to community life, to human relationships in general. The issue has never been: “The welfare state hasn’t hurt your pocketbook, so it shouldn’t be a problem for you.” Rather, the issue is: What does it mean to love my neighbor as myself, and to do unto others as you would have them do unto you? The issue is: What do justice, mercy and the love of God require? For far too many U.S. citizens, good intentions and feeling like we’re “doing something” are quite good enough.

Touchstone contributor, Anthony Esolen, provides a more articulate and pointed answer to the question, “what’s wrong with the welfare state?” than I could have given to my interlocutor, and you can read the whole thing in his brief piece over at The Public Discourse, entitled “The Least of These.” The power of Esolen’s piece is in its presentation as if out of the mouth of the young urban male toward whom our current government entitlement policies are aimed. Esolen writes:

One group [i.e., the government] profits, in power, from the profligacy of the other, which it “rewards” with money confiscated from the general public. They thus gain millions of publicly funded jobs to manage the people whom their policies have corrupted, and they move far away from those people, assuaging their consciences by voting correctly and holding correct opinions. Their hands do not get dirty. What, on the dreadful day of doom, will that boy in Philadelphia say to the rich who have ignored him, or worse, who have profited by his confusion?

In Esolen’s telling, the young male recounts to the government what he truly needed, and what he got instead. Esolen thus lays bare the crucial human issues bound up in our welfare state, and as such, his thoughts deserve serious consideration. To that end, I could not recommend a more succinct and penetrating account than Esolen’s.


Written by Michael Duenes

February 22, 2013 at 9:49 am

Wondering About the Schools

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Math OlympicsTo none of my readers’ surprise, I spend a lot of time thinking about education, and about Christian education in particular. Such thoughts lead me to wonder.

I wonder how many of my Christian friends whose kids are in public schools genuinely desire an explicitly Christian education for their children, but are unable to provide it. That is, they cannot afford a private Christian school, and homeschooling is not feasible, given our current economy. To these friends, the words of Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson hit home: “I have sympathy . . . with Catholic citizens who are compelled by law to pay taxes for public schools, and also feel constrained by conscience and discipline to support other schools for their own children.” Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing Tp., 330 U.S. 1, 18 (1947).

Then I wonder how many of my Christian friends and acquaintances have their children in public schools because they genuinely believe that a public school education will be a better education than the private Christian educations available to them, whether at a Christian school or by homeschooling. In other words, these Christians would send their kids to a private Christian school, or would homeschool them, if they thought doing so would provide a superior overall education for their children. Undoubtedly there are many mediocre or worse Christian schools open for business, and some parents simply do not have the wherewithal to successfully carry off the homeschooling enterprise. Yet I wonder how sub-standard the Christian education has to be before it becomes a larger detriment to a Christian student than are the public schools with their official agnosticism, their politicized historicism, their overt sexualization, and their unwarranted scientism, to name just a few of the larger public school deficiencies.

I further wonder how many Christian parents have their children in public schools because it is simply the least hassle. Don’t get me wrong, I do not discount this. I have three healthy, energetic (sometimes hyper) boys. I know what it would mean for them to be out of the house during the middle of the day. In my mind I picture a Christian family that is really pressed to the limit. The stresses coming from jobs, from children, from bills to pay, from laundry to do, from housework and yardwork, from extracurricular commitments, from church commitments, from relationships in general, simply cause some Christians to reason: “You know, I just want my kids out of the house for a few hours where I don’t have to worry about them. They’re at school, they’re learning, they have responsible and competent teachers, they’re making friends, and they are ‘out of my hair’ during the day so that I can simply get some things done and not be overwhelmed. And we’ll work out the spiritual kinks at home.” I just wonder for how many Christians this is truly what is going on.

Finally, I wonder how many Christian parents keep their kids in public schools for almost entirely non-academic reasons. That is, they intentionally want their kids in public schools because they believe that their children are meant to be “salt and light” in the schools, because they want to befriend non-Christians and be a Christian light to other parents who they will come to know through the public school relational network, because they fear that Christians will be ghetto-ized, irrelevant and unable to effectively reach others for Christ if Christians abandon the public schools, because they don’t want their kid to end up “weird,” or simply because their kid is a great athlete and they want him or her to play public school sports. Other non-academic motivations could be adduced. But I wonder.

And I wonder, if we’re being honest with ourselves, how much Christian conversion is going on because Christians remain in the public schools, and if the number of converts to Christ outweighs the number of Christian kids who have abandoned their parents’ faith because they were “converted” to secular agnosticism or some kind of non-biblical “spirituality” through the influence of the public schools. I wonder how many Christian parents believe that it’s a crap-shoot as to whether their child will grow up to be a believer, no matter what they do as parents. I wonder what the effect on people, on our institutions, on our culture and society would be if Christians, on a large scale, pulled their kids out of public schools, and educated them, with great rigor, with an explicitly Christian education, so that they might learn to think and act in more robustly Christian ways. I wonder if we’d actually “ghetto-ize” ourselves, if we’d become “irrelevant,” or if we’d be abandoning God’s saving purposes. Or I wonder if we might, as Talbot School of Theology is doing, train and equip Christian men and women to think faithfully, excellently, Christianly and rigorously, such that these men and women go out, as they are doing even now, and influence not only individuals, but institutions, for Christ. I wonder, on balance, which one will lead to more conversions to Christ.

I just wonder.


Written by Michael Duenes

February 19, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Posted in Duenes, Education