New Madison Chancellor Has Deep Christian Roots
A 1992 book laid out a theology of economics.
Rebecca M. Blank, the economist stepping down from the post of U.S. Commerce Secretary to become UW-Madison's next chancellor, is relishing the thought of escaping D.C. for a city as quietly cultured as Wisconsin's capital. The former dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy has a sturdy bipartisan reputation (Republican Gov. Scott Walker hailed her appointment) and friends in a lot of high-profile universities, but a third dimension of her background has so far gone overlooked: her Christian faith.
In 1992, Blank published a book Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life that expounded on discussions held by the United Church of Christ, a protestant denomination, in the late 1980s. The book amounts to a theology of economics. Blank notes that religion is often called upon in the aftermath of economic catastrophes, but, she asks, should it inform Christians' economic habits at all times?
The UCC's answer is yes, and its official prescription for an economic system that would be conducive to Christian values is called the "Ten Marks of a Just Economy." Developed in the 1980s, these guidelines, which are included in Blank's Do Justice book, call for an economy that:
Celebrates and serves the fundamental covenant purpose of human life, which is to love God and neighbor.
Gives all persons access to the basic material necessities of life.
Builds and enhances human communities of dignity and well-being.
Is inclusive, involving all able people in responsible, participatory and economically rewarding activity.
Encourages creativity, skill and diligence.
Assure equality of opportunity.
Reflects God's passion for the poor and disadvantaged, enhancing the life opportunities of the poor, the weak, and groups at the margin of society.
Recognizes the integrity, fullness and sacredness of creation.
Acknowledges the dignity of human beings as made known in Jesus Christ and guarantees the basic human rights necessary to maintain the sacredness of individuals.
Requires and promotes international peace and well-being.
To carry out these ends, the book cautions against excessive military spending, warns of global warming and says that "workplace organizations," such as unions, "can provide one way for workers to be part of the economic decisions that will affect them." According to Blank, one of the worst poisons is an obsession with the very subjects of economics: money and things of material value. "Greed, materialism, and selfishness are all human traits that can emerge when we fear losing that which we now have," she writes. "Those who are among the 'rich' of the world – which means most Americans – must fight against a distortion of values that places things above people."
In a 2009 interview with the progressive Center for American Progress, Blank said of how her Christian faith has influenced her economic thinking:
The work I do as an economist has very much been shaped by some of the commitments that come out of my faith background. I've tried to focus throughout most of my research career on questions about what's happening to people. How does the economy affect what's happening to families and individuals and how do individuals and families, in turn, go back and shape what happens in the economy ... I consider that very closely related to my commitment, as a Christian, to try to look at how people are faring. There's a call within both the Old and the New Testament to care about the widows and the orphans, to use the Old Testament language, which is a little outdated today, but it gives the right sense.
Blank's 1998 book, It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty, argued that both public intervention and partnerships with the private sector are needed to combat poverty in the U.S., where declining wages for low-skill workers and other conditions have made improving the economic conditions of many populations in the country extremely difficult.
Following Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, who left in 2011 to serve as president of Amherst College in Massachusetts, Blank will be the third woman to serve as the Wisconsin school's top administrator.