By Bill Moyers
Friday 22 December 2006
The Christian story begins simply: A child is given, a son. He grows up
to be a teacher, sage, healer and prophet. He gains a large following.
To many he is a divine savior; to the rich and powerful he is an enemy.
They put him to death in brutal fashion, befitting his humble beginnings
in peasant Galilee and his birth in a stall thick with the raw odor of
Toward the end of his life, Jesus preached in the Temple to large
crowds, reaching the height of his power. There he told the parable that
likely sealed his fate. He said there was a man who created a prosperous
vineyard and then rented it to some tenants while he went away on a
journey. At harvest time, the owner of vineyard sent a servant to
collect a portion from the tenants, but they beat the servant and sent
him away empty-handed. Another servant came, and they struck him on the
head. Another they killed. Finally, the owner sent his own son to
collect the back payments. "They will respect my son," he thought. But
when the tenants saw the son, and knew him to be the heir, they saw
their chance to take full possession of the harvest. And so they killed
the son, thinking now they would owe nothing from the vineyard to anyone.
The listeners understood the symbolism: God, of course, is the owner of
the vineyard, and the vineyard is Israel or the covenant, or, more
broadly, the whole creation. It is all that God entrusts to the leaders
of his people. And what is in question is their stewardship of this bounty.
In the parable, the "tenants" are the leaders of Israel. They hoard the
fruits of the vineyard for themselves, instead of sharing the fruits as
the covenant teaches, according to God's holy purposes. And the holiest
of God's purposes, ancient tradition taught, is helping the poor, and
the fatherless, and the widow, and the stranger - all who do not have
the resources to live in a manner befitting their dignity as creatures
made in God's image, as children of God.
When he finished the story, Jesus asked the people what the owner of the
vineyard will do when he comes back. "He will kill those tenants and
give the vineyard to others," Jesus tells them. In the Gospel of
Matthew, the people themselves answered: "He will bring those wretches
to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who
will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."
Political dynasties fall from negligent stewardship. One thinks of the
upward redistribution called "tax relief"; of the Iraq invasion sold as
critical to the "War on Terror"; of rising poverty, inequality, crime,
debt, and foreclosure as America spews its bounty on war and a military
so muscle-bound it is like Gulliver. It would be hard to imagine a more
catastrophic failure of stewardship, certainly in the biblical sense of
helping the poor and allocating resources for the health of society.
Once upon a time these errant stewards boasted of restoring a culture of
integrity to politics. They became instead an axis of corruption,
joining corporate power to political ideology to religious
• • •
The story is told of the devil and a companion walking along the
streets. The companion saw a man reach down and pick up the truth from
the sidewalk. "You're finished," the companion said to the devil. "I
just saw that man pick up the truth from the street, and that means you
are finished." The devil smiled and answered, "Don't worry. He's a
human, and in 15 minutes he will have turned the truth into a concept
and no one will know what it is."
>From theories stubbornly followed in defiance of truth on the street
comes ruin. Laissez-faire was never a good idea; in practice it is ruinous.
This is the season to recall Walt Whitman. He wrote in Democratic
Vistas, around 1870:
The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a
more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general
comfort - a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth. As the human
frame, or, indeed, any object in this manifold universe, is best kept
together by the simple miracle of its own cohesion, and the necessity,
exercise and profit thereof, so a great and varied nationality,
occupying millions of square miles, were firmest held and knit by the
principle of the safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling
How prophetic to see anything like that in the aftermath of the Civil
War, in which Whitman had volunteered as a nurse. But in a time of great
upheaval, countered by popular mobilization after mobilization, the
great poet's took hold in the people's imagination. Whitman's liberalism
had neither the cultural elitism of those identified with the term on
the left, nor the laissez-faire extremism of the free-market "liberals"
on the right. Liberalism meant "the safety and endurance of the
aggregate of middling property owners." Its consummation was the New
Deal social compact we inherited from five presidents and from
substantial voting majorities for a generation after the Great
Depression, and the result was the prospect of a fair and just society -
a cohesion - that truly made us a democratic people.
Equality is not an objective that can be achieved but it is a goal worth
fighting for. A more equal society would bring us closer to the
"self-evident truth" of our common humanity. I remember the early 1960s,
when for a season one could imagine progress among the races, a nation
finally accepting immigrants for their value not only to the economy but
to our collective identity, a people sniffing the prospect of progress.
One could look at the person who is different in some particular way -
skin color, language, religion - without feeling fear. America, so long
the exploiter of the black, red, brown, and yellow, was feeling its
oats; we were on our way to becoming the land of opportunity, at last.
Now inequality - especially between wealth and worker - has opened like
an unbridgeable chasm.
Ronald Reagan once described a particular man he knew who was good
steward of resources in the biblical sense. "This is a man," Reagan
said, "who in his own business, before he entered politics, instituted a
profit-sharing plan, before unions had ever thought of it. He put in
health and medical insurance for all his employees. He took 50 percent
of the profits before taxes and set up a retirement program, a pension
plan for all his employees. He sent checks for life to an employee who
was ill and couldn't work. He provided nursing care for the children of
mothers who worked in the stores."
That man was Barry Goldwater, a businessman before he entered politics.
It's incredible how far we have deviated from even the most conservative
understanding of social responsibility. For a generation now Goldwater's
children have done everything they could to destroy the social compact
between workers and employers, and to discredit, defame, and even
destroy anyone who said their course was wrong. Principled conservatism
was turned into an ideological caricature whose cardinal tenet was of
taxation as a form of theft, or, as the libertarian icon Robert Nozick
called it, "force labor." What has happened to us that such
anti-democratic ideas could become a governing theory?
• • •
Of course it's hard to grasp what really motivated this movement. Many
of the new conservative elites profess devotion to the needs of ordinary
people, in contrast with some of their counterparts a hundred years ago
who were often Social Darwinists, and couldn't have been more convinced
that a vast chasm between the rich and poor is the natural state of
things. But after 30 years of conservative revival and a dramatic return
of the discredited "voodoo economics" of the 1980s under George W. Bush,
it's reasonable to follow the old biblical proverb that says by their
fruits you shall know them. By that realistic standard, I think the
Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow's analysis sums it up well: What
it's all about, he simply said, is "the redistribution of wealth in
favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful."
I grew up in East Texas, in a county that once had more slaves than any
other in Texas. It is impossible to forget that as the slave power grew
in the South and King Cotton catapulted the new nation into the global
marketplace, the whole politics of the country was infected with a rule
of property that did not - indeed could not - distinguish the ownership
of things from the ownership of human beings. Drawing from the Hebrew
prophets and the Book of Revelation, the abolitionists simply said this:
the rule of law has become moral anarchy. God's light clarified that the
rule of law had become moral anarchy.
Something was wrong in the very foundation of things, and so the
foundation had to be rebuilt on sounder principles. But no mere
parchment of words divulged the principles that ultimately preserved the
union. They were written in blood - thousands upon thousands upon
thousands of dead Americans. And so by untold sacrifice the rule of law
was righted to exclude human property. Then, of course, the slave power
simply rejected the rule of law and established rule by terror. The
feudal south became the fascist south. It did happen here, to answer
Sinclair Lewis's famous riddle of the 1930s.
What is finally at the root of these reactionary forces that have so
disturbed the social fabric and threatened to undo the republic? If a $4
billion dollar investment in chattel labor was worth the price of civil
war and 600,000 dead in 1860, is it really any wonder that the richest
Americans would not suffer for too long a political consensus that
pushed their share of national income down by a third, and held it there
- about at the level of their counterparts in "socialist" Europe - for a
generation? Make no mistake about it, from the days of the American
Liberty League in 1936 (the group Franklin Roosevelt had in mind with
his crowd-pleasing battle cry, "I welcome their hatred!") they never
gave up on returning to their former glory. They just failed to do it.
Ordinary people had powerful institutions and laws on their side that
thwarted them - unions, churches, and, yes, government programs that
were ratified by large majorities decade after decade.
The scale of the disorder in our national priorities right now is truly
staggering; it approaches moral anarchy. Alexander Hamilton, the
conservative genius of the financial class, warned this could happen.
Speaking to the New York State legislature in 1788, he said:
As riches increase and accumulate in few hands; as luxury prevails in
society; virtue will be in a greater degree considered as only a
graceful appendage of wealth, and the tendency of things will be to
depart from the republican standard. This is the real disposition of
human nature: It is what, neither the honorable member nor myself can
correct. It is common misfortune, that awaits our state constitution, as
well as others.
Conservatives who revere the founding fathers tend to stress the last
point - that there is nothing to be done about this "common misfortune."
It is up to the rest of us, who see the founding fathers not as gods but
as inspired although flawed human beings - the hand that scribbled "All
men are created equal" also stroked the breasts and thighs of a slave
woman, whom he considered his property - to take on "the tendency of
things " to "depart from the republican standard," and hold our country
to its highest, and most humane, ideals.
As stewards of democracy, we, too, have a covenant - with one another.
/Bill Moyers is president of the Schumann Center for Media and
Democracy. The center's senior fellow, Lew Daly, was his accomplice in
this essay, written exclusively for TomPaine.com./