The book I have selected for this month’s review is Crisis of Responsibility by David Bahnsen. I was briefly tempted to make this an extremely short review, saying simply that Greg Bahnsen, his father, would have been very proud. That really would have been sufficient, but there were a few other things I wanted to say about it. Three things actually.
First, the thesis here, beautifully articulated and ably defended, is something that everyone needs to hear. He touches on many systemic problems in our culture, but the financial crisis illustrated his point in high relief. Evading responsibility is a problem everywhere, but certain circumstances reveal the nature of that problem more clearly.
Playing the victim (closely related to playing the system) is no more endearing when ordinary people do it than when the one percenters do. Crony capitalism from the fat cats is a problem (which Bahnsen certainly recognizes), but so is naked opportunism in the suburbs. Wall Street is a problem, certainly, but the spiritual problem of our discontents is well-entrenched on Main Street as well. Predatory lending was a problem, as Bahnsen notes, but he is also willing to see the problem with predatory borrowing.
The standard conservative line on the lending crisis of 2008 is that the banks, spurred on by idiotic regulations, chased down a bunch of welfare queens in order to give them subprime loans. Then, when they couldn’t pay, the whole thing went blooey.
But Bahnsen looks at the facts, and periodically rubs the reader’s nose in them.
“41 percent of all mortgage defaults took place in California and Florida, states that had mandated nonrecourse financing (meaning, the borrowers could not be held personally liable for a failure to perform on their mortgage loans. In fact, the vast majority of all mortgage defaults came in nonrecourse lending states” (p. 58).
In short, the loans went bad, not because the borrowers were homeless hoboes who were incapable of paying back ridiculous loans, but rather because they were the kind of “respectable” people who wouldn’t make payments they were actually capable of making, but refused to because of something called “strategic default.” “I owe money on a house that isn’t worth what I am paying on it anymore, and I live in a state that will allow me to ignore Psalm 15:4, and I am represented by people who will connive with me in my thievery.” This is the kind of thing Bahnsen is addressing—a refusal to take responsibility within your own appointed domain. The world is full of available scapegoats, but Bahnsen urges everyone to look in the mirror first.
“The conclusion is impossible to ignore: the vast majority of strategic defaults came from people who had the resources to pay (and, in fact, had been given grace and financial assistance) and yet still chose to walk away because they realized there would be virtually no financial repercussions for them personally” (p. 59).
Second, while Bahnsen is very clearly a principled conservative, he is not afraid to highlight ways in which this spiritual plague (and it is a spiritual plague) has infected the right. But he does this deftly—he was no Trump supporter, but he avoids the trap of wild blaming that some #NeverTrump folks have fallen into, while at the same time staying well clear of the victim-populism that has afflicted a number of Trump supporters. I have seen some pretty wild vitriol engendered by Trump on the right, and have seen it going both ways. What Bahnsen argues is plain enough, but he argues like a principled and deeply moral man. It should be impossible for a Trump supporter to read this book, and write him off as a deep-state-supporting, swamp-creature-loving cuckservative. It should be equally impossible for those in the conservative establishment, those who really are compromised, to not see that Bahnsen is really in favor of accountability for everyone everywhere. If we want peace on the right, it will have to be the kind of thing that Bahnsen outlines.
I saw a tweet yesterday that explained the president very well. If you just think of what you are hearing as that which would follow “Donald from Queens, you’re on the air,” everything falls into place. What Trump said yesterday about gun ownership and due process reveals that he does not have a conservative center. The conservative establishment has been right about that. At the same time, in the midst of this culture-wide cafeteria food fight we have going on, a lot of conservative things really are happening—more than usually happens. The peasants with pitchforks have been right about that. But long term, if we want to read the times we are in, we need a lot more judicious and informed people working on it for us. I would nominate people like Bahnsen.
And third, the central point of this book—take responsibility, wherever you are—is a point that will “preach.” I don’t think it will go anywhere apart from preachers of the gospel of Christ. I don’t believe that books like this, however good, are going to do anything by themselves. But if conservative pastors read and internalize this message, and then connect it to the power of the gospel to transform lives, and preach it in that form, the results would be significant. But the tendency is for conservative preachers, those who do preach on cultural and moral issues, simply to preach on the sins being committed in Washington, DC, New York City, Hollywood, and the nearest state capitol. The secular humanists are destroying ‘Merica.
But one of the things that the reconstructionists used to emphasize, back in the day, was that the kind of tyranny we are facing would not be possible if the people generally did not have larceny in their hearts. Bahnsen shows that we do not have a nefarious government inflicting their dirty deeds on an innocent people. What we have is a complicit people demanding, in various ways, a nefarious government. And what we have clamored for, we have certainly gotten.
Bahnsen writes clearly, and with calmness and lucidity. This is a well-written book, and it is not filled with the kind of passionate intensity that might make you suspicious. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But for all the calmness of manner, it still reads like a punch in the mouth.