Category: Acton Commentary

My contribution to this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

TV Bias Book Not Ready for Primetime

By Bruce Edward Walker

Reading Ben Shapiro’s Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV is similar to time traveling through the pages of a TV Guide. Dozens of television series from the past 50 years are dissected through Shapiro’s conservative lens – or, at least, what passes for Shapiro’s brand of conservatism – to reveal his perception that the television industry is – gasp! – overrun by social liberalism.

Trouble is, Shapiro finds signs of liberalism in nearly everything he’s viewed on the boob tube, and wields this bias indiscriminately against programming that may or may not possess a “liberal agenda.” His book may or may not be retaliation for a rejection the young author received for having his Hollywood aspirations dashed after producers vetting his background discovered Shapiro has authored a syndicated conservative column since his Harvard Law School days. This anecdote prefaces his lengthy jeremiad against the liberal establishment in the television industry.

When reading Primetime Propaganda, one is reminded of Harvard University professor Irving Babbitt who railed so much against Jean Jacques Rousseau that his students speculated he checked under his bed each evening to ensure the French philosopher wasn’t hiding there.

Like Kevin McCarthy warning against the Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Charlton Heston discovering the little crackers in Soylent Green are made from people, Shapiro casts himself as a lone voice crying in the wilderness about the prevalence of liberalism in television, portentously outlining the thesis for his work:

After reading Primetime Propaganda, you’ll be awakened to what’s really going on behind the small screen, and you’ll be stunned to learn that you’ve been targeted by a generations of television creators and programmers for political conversion. You’ll find out that the box in your living room has been invading your mind, subtly shaping your opinions, pushing you to certain sociopolitical conclusions for years.

That Hollywood is predominantly liberal is no surprise to anyone and there are plenty of examples to support this. But that doesn’t prevent Shapiro from hammering as hard as he can to fit pegs of all shapes into an ill-defined liberal hole. Such an approach amounts to nothing more than buckshot as he fails from the outset of his enterprise to define adequately the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” Read without this crucial critical perspective, I suppose anything that offends the author’s sensibilities is deemed the former and anything he enjoys must fall into the latter realm. However, Shapiro confesses to enjoying such programs as Friends and The Simpsons, which he also classifies as promoting social liberalism. Apparently, he reconciles this inconsistency by possessing immunity to the sociopolitical mind control to which the rest of us without Harvard Law degrees are susceptible.

Further, Shapiro takes the too easy path in many instances to declare programs such as All in the Family as liberal indoctrination. On this in particular, I beg to differ. The 1970s program was indeed created by liberal producer Norman Lear and featured the outspoken activist actor Rob Reiner in a featured role, but to malign the program for this and its admittedly intermittent liberal subject matter is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Lear’s All in the Family might have accomplished more for the civil rights movement than any number of protests, documentaries, and marches simply by creating a lovable, bigoted curmudgeon whom viewers loved despite his innumerable prejudices. Shapiro writes that the program made fun of blue-collar conservatives through its depiction of a racist dockworker. If an unreformed Archie Bunker represents the type of conservatism Shapiro advocates, I’ll take a pass. The under-30 Shapiro may not recall the rampant racism of the early 1970s, but this writer certainly does.

By listening to Archie Bunker’s stridently offensive and indefensible rants, millions of 1970s television viewers – some possessing similar if not identical views – witnessed the absurdity of his intolerance, and warmed to the black Lionel Jefferson and Italian house-husband Frank Lorenzo far more quickly than did Archie. This may not adhere to Shapiro’s version of conservatism, but it certainly tracks with conservative Judeo-Christian principles of loving one’s neighbor regardless of race, creed, or color.

Additionally, viewers also witnessed the hypocrisy of Rob Reiner’s avowedly counterculture character, Michael “Meathead” Stivic, who mooches off his in-laws and behaves chauvinistically toward his wife. In at least one episode, Stivic was revealed to be as intolerant in his countercultural views as Archie was in his bigotry. I hardly perceive of this as an affront to conservative values.

It’s undeniable that television programming is antithetical to many true conservative values, as it repeatedly attacks Judeo-Christian traditions, attacks religious beliefs at seemingly every opportunity, and promotes statist policies and alternative lifestyles. But what’s called for isn’t Shapiro’s broad-brushed approach but a far more incisive analysis of the television industry’s promotion of secular liberalism.

In today’s Detroit News, Acton communications intern Elise Amyx offers a piece on farm subsidies. She looks at how Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow described this government support as “risk management protection” for farmers.

Stabenow, chairwoman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, conceded to the soybean farmers that “it’s wonderful that farming is prosperous now.” But she pointed to droughts in the South and the floods in the Midwest as proof that “you still face the same risk that farmers have always to deal with.” Some agribusinesses get paid seven digits to not farm areas of their farm in the name of “risk management,” but what sort of business person doesn’t take risks?

There is no doubt that farming is a difficult, volatile business filled with risk and uncertainty, but so are many other industries that do not receive any government handouts. Too many farmers view the government as a savior, who will reduce risk, create certainty and save the day if something bad happens. This is a dangerously dependent position to be in, and it is morally problematic when it comes at the expense of everyone else.

The glaring injustices built into farm subsidy policies explain why so many on both the political right and left routinely describe them as immoral.

Read Elise Amyx’s “Farming subsidies often do more harm than good” in the Detroit News.

My contribution to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton email newsletter here.

Protect the Poor, Not Poverty Programs

By John Couretas

One of the disturbing aspects of the liberal/progressive faith campaign known as the Circle of Protection is that its organizers have such little regard – indeed are blind to — the innate freedom of the human person.

Their campaign, which has published “A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor,” equates the welfare of the “least of these” in American society to the amount of assistance they receive from the government — a bizarre view from a community that trades in spiritual verities. Circle of Protection supporters see people locked into their circumstances, stratified into masses permanently in a one-down position, thrown into a class struggle where the life saving protection of “powerful lobbies” is nowhere to be found. And while they argue that budgets are moral documents, their metrics for this fiscal morality are all in dollars and cents.

Not only does the Circle of Protection group appear to be oblivious to the power of private charity and church-based outreach to the needy, but they seem to have no hope for the poor outside of bureaucratic remedies. This is a view of the human person not as a composite of flesh and spirit, but as a case number, a statistic and a passive victim of the daily challenges and troubles that life brings.

In response to the Circle of Protection campaign, another faith group has formed with a very different outlook on the budget and debt debates that will consume the political energy of the country in the months ahead. Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) argue for policies that are focused less on protecting poverty programs and more on protecting the poor (I am a supporter). In a letter to President Obama, CASE wrote:

We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.

This is what Fr. Peter-Michael Preble was getting at when he observed that “… the present government programs do nothing but enslave the poor of this country to the programs and do nothing to break the cycle of poverty in this country.” This is not, he added, an argument to eliminate all government assistance but rather for “a safety net and not a lifestyle.”

In discussing the relative merits of the Circle of Protection and the Christians for a Sustainable Economy campaign, Michael Gerson wrote that “the Circle’s approach is more urgent.” Arguing against “disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable,” he asserted that “public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt.”

It’s a big and growing “sliver.” According to a Heritage Foundation study of welfare spending, of the 70-odd means-tested programs run by the federal government, “almost all of them have received generous increases in their funding since President Obama took office.” The president’s 2011 budget will increase spending on welfare programs by 42 percent over President Bush’s last year in office. Analyst Katherine Bradley observed that “total spending on the welfare state (including state spending) will rise to $953 billion in 2011.”

Instead of more billions for failed poverty programs, CASE argues that “all Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.” Underlying this is a belief that the human person is able to freely and creatively anticipate what life may bring, rather than wait around for a caseworker or a Washington lobbyist to intervene.

That freedom explains why some people, even in difficult economic times, can move up the income scale despite assertions that they are among the “most vulnerable.” A U.S. Treasury study showed that “nearly 58 percent of the households that were in the lowest income quintile (the lowest 20 percent) in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of the households in the second-lowest quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005.” In an analysis of income inequality and social mobility, economist Thomas Sowell wrote that there is a confusion “between what is happening to statistical categories over time and what is happening to flesh-and-blood individuals over time, as they move from one statistical category to another.”

Income mobility is debated endlessly by economists, but it is the existential reality for countless Americans who have ever strived for something better — or suffered a setback in their hopes. Yet the one sure thing that will stifle this mobility is an economy in decline, with job creation slowed, and encumbered by ever higher federal budget deficits and debt. And that’s what we’ll get more of if the Circle of Protection’s prescriptions for a “moral budget” hold sway.

When economic systems break down, as they are now unraveling in some European welfare states, those who will be hurt first and hardest will be the poor, the working family living from paycheck to paycheck, the pensioner – those operating at the margins. If we fail to come to grips with the reality of our potentially ruinous fiscal trajectory, we will all learn, as other countries are now learning, what “truly vulnerable” means.

The debate over the separation of church and state as well as religion’s role in politics has been intense and ongoing for years. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Tony Oleck seeks to add clarity to the debate. In his commentary, Oleck balances the desires of the Founding Fathers with what it means to be a Christian. Get Acton News and Commentary every Wednesday in your email inbox. Click here to sign up today.

Controversial Christianity: Understanding Faith and Politics

By Tony Oleck

As the race for the 2012 party nominations for president heats up, the question of religion and its place in politics surfaces yet again.  Whether the controversy is over mosques or Mormonism, religion permeates much of today’s political talk, despite various pleas for a “separation of church and state” from both the secular and religious worlds.  But what does the separation of church and state truly mean?

While many use the phrase to refer to a complete isolation of religion from politics, history tells us that the most famous advocate of this principle in America, Thomas Jefferson, may have had a different idea of what a “wall of separation between church and state” really meant.  In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson writes:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship. . . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church & state.

What Jefferson sought to prevent was state intervention into religious affairs. And the separation of church and state, as our founding fathers understood the phrase, meant the avoidance of a church-state.  A church that acts as or controls the state is not in accordance with Christ’s message, but a church that informs the state is.  If the role of the state is to allow for and to promote the freedom and well-being of its citizens, then it has only to benefit from the Christian understandings of truth, freedom and God’s undying love for the world.

I am reminded of something a former English teacher once told me about religion and politics.  “It’s like when I go to get my car fixed,” he said, “I don’t determine which mechanic to go to by what religion he practices.”  While I would agree, I tend to take the leadership and future of my country a little bit more seriously than whether or not my radio works.  Granted, a candidate should never be excluded from office for solely religious purposes, but a Christian nevertheless need not feel ashamed for supporting a particular candidate because of his or her religiously-based position on certain social issues.

Why did our founding fathers describe man as “being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”? And why were the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation under God” added eventually to our currency and our pledge of allegiance, respectively? It was because they realized that only in recognizing man as having been created in God’s own image as a species set apart could America grow and prosper.  It was this common Christian heritage that allowed the state to grow in the first place.  While not all of America’s founding fathers were necessarily practicing Christians, they understood that for the American experiment to succeed it must at the very least be founded on Christian principles; on both faith and reason. They understood the transformative nature of Christ’s teachings and the dignity and truth which they expounded to human beings.

This is not to say, of course, that the United States only has room for Christianity as a system of belief.  Religious freedom is a necessary condition for a just and prosperous society.  As Pope Benedict XVI said in his World Day of Peace address this past New Year’s, “Where religious freedom is acknowledged the dignity of the human person is respected at its roots and through a sincere search for truth and good, moral conscience and institutions are strengthened.  For this religious freedom is a privileged path to peace.”

But while religious freedom is necessary for peace, it is never an excuse for inaction.  Christians often feel the need to separate their religious beliefs from their political views so as not to “impose” their beliefs on others, but this separation is contrary to the Gospel message.  Because acceptance of the Gospel and the subsequent sharing of the Gospel go hand-in-hand, a Christian who is content to confine his faith to the walls of his own home may be a Christian by name, but he is an atheist by practice.

Christianity is more than a moral code. It is by its nature both transformative and truth-seeking. And if Christianity is meant to transform our lives and to expound truth (whether that truth is culturally attractive or not), then it becomes necessary that we allow our faith to inform our politics.  It offers the lens of a true enlightenment, through which we can understand the meaning and purpose of political action in the first place.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Commodifying Compassion,” I look at the instinct to judge a society’s commitment to charity by the level of material expenditure, particularly by the government. One of the things I think is true in this conversation is that our material commitments do show something about our spiritual concerns. So I can agree with Brian McLaren, then, that “America’s Greatest Deficit is Spiritual, Not Merely Financial.”

But where I can’t go with him is to the conclusion that changing levels of material assistance by definition has some kind of spiritual consequence or cause. Thus, even while McLaren writes that we need to “face our basic spirituality deficit,” he still judges the “compassion deficit” in terms of cutting material “services to the poor, the elderly, the sick, minorities, and to children.”

Over at The French Revolution, David French asked pointedly in this regard, “Does more spending equal more compassion?” He focuses particularly on the “how” question of social spending:

All too often it seems that the religious left virtually takes for granted that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent fighting poverty and funding education (to take two examples) represent money well spent and that cutting that funding is “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” or “sacrificing our children’s future.”

French makes some very good points, particularly about the cultural (rather than merely material) aspects of poverty.

But in my piece this week I also focus on the “who” and the “why” questions of material assistance. I contend, “An EBT card issued by a government official shouldn’t be judged to be the same as a ‘cup of cold water’ given by a Christian in the name of Jesus Christ.” I also conclude by examining what the case of the widow’s offering (Luke 21:1-4 NIV) teaches us.

Blog author: ehilton
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
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Imagine this:  a teacher tells her high school students that they are going to enjoy a chocolate cake, while learning about food distribution and economics.  (As a former high school teacher, I assure you, most of the students heard nothing past the word, “cake”.)

The teacher then divides the students into three groups.  In her class of 30 students, one group is made up of 4 students, a second group is 10 students and the third group is 16.  The teacher then sets the cake before them, and announces that she will divide the cake according to food distribution norms among “first, second and third world countries”.

The group of four students will then enjoy half the cake.  The second group of students will get about three-quarters of the remaining cake, and the smallest piece will go to the group of 16 students.  Of course, protests will follow, along with a discussion of how unfair it all is.

The goal of the teacher will be, of course, to see if the students with the most cake will share their cake with the other two groups.  If they don’t, that choice will be discussed as well.  The students will come away with the idea that everyone will have an equal piece of cake if only those with more share what they have.

This is a noble lesson, and we should of course share what we have, regardless of how much that is.  (After all, Scripture doesn’t encourage only the rich to tithe.)  Unfortunately, the lesson is wrong:  it’s based on the idea that there is only one cake, and we can’t possibly get any more.

I have to admit, that as a teacher, I used lessons similar to this one.  And never once, did I or any of my students suggest a most obvious answer:  bake another cake.

We have the same problem, writ large, in today’s economic outlook:  poor nations are poor because rich nations are hoarding what they have and not sharing.  If only the rich nations would “share the cake”, everyone would have enough.  It also reinforces the notion that poor countries have to sit around and wait for some noble rich nation to divvy up cake for them; they couldn’t possibly create one on their own.  That type of paternalistic attitude is both dangerous and wrong.  The “cake game” also supports the erroneous notion that large groups of poor people are going to take stuff from richer folks; therefore, we need to reduce the numbers of poor people in order to keep our “cake”.

This “zero-sum game” fallacy is only one problem with today’s economic policies, but it is a deeply-entrenched one.  We all need to know that there isn’t just one “cake”, and that by enabling people to create their own food sources, create their own wealth and create their own stable economies, it won’t cost us our “cake”.  We will, in fact, all have more cake – and what better reason to celebrate?

Blog author: ehilton
Thursday, June 23, 2011
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It is nice to know that we here at Acton have friends in high places.  This article at Catholic Exchange by George Weigel points out that Blessed John Paul II had some keen insights into what makes economic life flourish:

“John Paul taught that what the Church proposes is not simply the free society, but the free and virtuous society.

It takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to make free politics and free economics work toward genuine human flourishing.

Democracy and the market are not machines that can run by themselves, so a vibrant public moral-cultural life is essential to disciplining both the market and democratic politics.

In fact, in the Catholic vision of the tripartite free and virtuous society—democratic polity, free economy, vibrant moral-cultural sector—it’s the latter that’s most important over the long haul. The habits of heart and mind of a people are the best defense against their allowing their political and economic liberties to become self-destructive.”

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
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My Acton Commentary for this week tries to explain the differences between Christian proponents and opponents of Republican budget proposals:

A Circle of Exchange is Better Than a Circle of Protection

Strife over the budget in Washington continues, with religious leaders and organizations weighing in on both sides. The positions of Christian participants in this battle are as intractable as the secular combatants and for the same reason: A fundamental difference of outlook concerning the role of government and the effect of government programs.

This clash has been reflected in recent debates among Christian leaders and organizations. A group of Catholic professors charged that John Boehner (and by implication every Catholic who agrees with his budgetary priorities) dissents from Church doctrine by favoring cuts to welfare programs. Fr. Robert Sirico, George Weigel, and others responded by challenging the view that Democratic domestic policy aligns neatly with the Catholic social teaching. Boehner’s Catholic critics were among those who issued an ecumenical statement calling for a “Circle of Protection” around “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”

Advocates of sustained or increased government poverty programs insist that such programs genuinely do help the poor. The Circle of Protection signatories insist, “Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.” To its credit, this statement implicitly recognizes that there may be inefficiencies and abuses in such programs. Yet, the idea that decreased spending could actually be a path to making poverty programs more effective does not, apparently, enter the realm of possibility.

In the midst of the Boehner controversy, a writer at the Catholic blog Vox Nova asked, “Can anybody possibly argue that the Boehner budget protects the poor?” The writer avows that the pairing of tax cuts for higher income earners with spending cuts to “programs that help the poor and people of limited means” is incontrovertibly inimical to Catholic social teaching.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Defenders of government welfare programs not only cannot conceive of the possibility that government programs actually harm rather than help the people they target; they cannot conceive of the possibility that anyone else could conceive of the possibility. Those of us who sincerely believe that such programs are harmful are baffled at what we perceive to be stubborn resistance to the facts of the matter: Spending for programs related to the War on Poverty has increased 13-fold since Lyndon Johnson inaugurated them, without appreciable positive effect. Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est (2005) that we need “a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.” It is hard to see how Medicaid and the food stamp program fit this model.

Opponents of Republican budget proposals fail to recognize the tension within their own view. The Vox Nova blogger recognizes that the deficit crisis was caused in part by a “collapse in revenue.” The Circle of Protection statement deserves praise, too, for its insistence that “A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth. Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.” Unfortunately, the statement signers do not see that the vibrant economy they rightly desire as an antidote to poverty might be stifled by other pieces of the program they advocate.

What unemployed and impoverished people really need is not government handouts, but access to, and the capacity and inducement to engage, the market economy—as Pope John Paul II put it, to “enter the circle of exchange.” Government policy should be encouraging companies to hire and potential employees to be hired. Yet, to take but one example of recent counter productivity, economists have shown that extending unemployment benefits beyond a certain length of time correlates with higher unemployment rates. If a safety net becomes too comfortable, people are inclined to remain in it. Welfare program advocates deny this vehemently—everyone wants to work, they say; they just need the chance—but statistical evidence and a realistic understanding of human nature contradict them. It could be that the perfect job is not available; maybe finding work means picking up and moving, or taking a cut in pay, or training to acquire a new skill. People faced with these situations deserve our compassion and assistance. But if we minimize the incentive to do what is necessary to find employment, we do neither the out-of-work individual nor the overall economy any favors.

On point number seven of the Circle of Protection statement, we can all agree: “As believers, we turn to God with prayer and fasting, to ask for guidance as our nation makes decisions about our priorities as a people.” Budget decisions are indeed moral acts. Whether morality points us toward expansion of poverty reduction programs or toward thorough revision—even reduction—of them, is another question. It is a good thing that Christians are engaged in this debate, for its outcome will have far-reaching repercussions for the poor, and for all of us.

My contribution for this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Inner-city education fails without the church

By Anthony Bradley

As Congress moves toward reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the problem is not that the Department of Education is not doing enough but that it suffers from an acute case of what psychologists call “organizational narcissism.” If they really wish to address America’s inner-city public school crisis, federal education officials must look beyond the boundaries of their own agencies and recognize the crucial role of churches.

Steven Churchill, of the Center for Organizational Design, explains that organizations can have a grandiose sense of self-importance and an inflated judgment of their own accomplishments, leading to “an unreal, self-defeating preoccupation with the company’s own image.” For example, even with overwhelming evidence that, other than family support, church involvement is the most consistent predictor of academic success for inner-city children, the organizational narcissism of the education industry prevents it from tapping into the resources of black and Latino churches.

In 2008, President Obama rightly acknowledged that, “There is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child’s education from day one.” This is an indisputable truth. What should baffle every American citizen is that the role of inner-city ethnic churches is oddly missing from the Obama administration’s education reform vision.

A series of 2010 studies in Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education (JNE), one of America’s oldest continuous academic journals focusing on black people, reported how church involvement increases education success in inner-cities. In “Faith in the Inner City: The Urban Black Church and Students’ Educational Outcomes,” Dr. Brian Barrett, an education professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, describes the unique contributions black churches play in cultivating successful students in the inner-cities. He observed that “religious socialization reinforces attitudes, outlooks, behaviors, and practices … particularly through individuals’ commitment to and adoption of the goals and expectations of the group” that are conducive to “positive educational outcomes.”  In fact, back in 2009 Barrett reported that for black inner-city youth who reported attending religious services often, the black/white achievement gap “was eliminated.”

Barrett reports that one of the most important advantages of inner-city churches is that they provide “a community where Black students are valued, both for their academic success and, more broadly, as human beings and members of society with promise, with talents to contribute, and from whom success is to be expected.” Churches also affirm inner-city youth as trusted members of a community that celebrates academic success, and the practices that produce it, which overrides the low expectations communicated at school. Additionally, Barrett highlights the ways in which black churches, because they are equipped to deal with families, are effective at sustaining and encouraging parental educational involvement from the heart as well as providing contexts where youth can have regular contact with other adults for role-modeling and mentoring.

Barrett is not alone. In another JNE study of 4,273 black students titled, “How Religious, Social, and Cultural Capital Factors Influence Educational Aspirations of African American Adolescents,” Hussain Al-Fadhli and Thomas Kersen, sociology professors at Jackson State University, report that “family and religious social capital are the most potent predictors for positive student college aspirations.” These scholars explain that “students who attend church and believe religion is important may be more likely to interact with more adults who can help them with their school work and even provide guidance about their futures goals and plans.” The authors conclude that students with an “active religious life, involved parents, and active social life have greater opportunities and choices in the future.”

Since W.E.B. DuBois wrote in the 1890s about the black church, dozens of studies confirm this truth: Low-income black kids will not achieve academic success without strong families and the church. Strengthening these institutions, however, is beyond the expertise of any government agency or education program or policy. Using President Obama’s phrasing, if parents need to be involved in a child’s education from day one, in the inner-city the church must be involved beginning on day two. Without thriving and healthy inner-city churches, low-performing schools are simply cultivating the next generation of crime and welfare statistics. We owe it to children to place them in contexts that are sustainable and effective.

In this week’s Acton Commentary I briefly survey the prospects for urban gardens and farming in the city of Detroit. As Aaron M. Renn wrote in New Geography a few years ago, Detroit represents one of the places where significant urban innovation is possible. “It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit,” writes Renn.

Detroit’s woes are well-known, and migration trends are working against the city. There’s a declining population coupled with declining property values, which equal significantly fewer resources for the city government. Detroit needs to find a way to embrace innovation and attract and retain its people.

In “Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again,” I argue that efforts to turn blighted and abandoned areas into arable and productive land is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. I also briefly touch on how these activities reflect the divine mark of creativity and stewardship placed on human beings. Urban agriculture is no panacea, but to become a vibrant city again, Detroit needs to become an urban garden.

There is some really striking visual evidence of the scale of the possible area that we’re talking about here. Visit Renn’s piece at New Geography for a good overview. Freelancer James D. Griffioen also has done some excellent work documenting trends in “the disappearing city.” (See his work here and here, for instance). You can also take the “Green Zone Walking Tour.”

The community garden at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit.


One of the threats to the many benefits of urban farming is government regulation that stifles such innovation. As Renn notes, this has recently not been a great issue in Detroit. He writes, “It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.”

Unfortunately there’s some evidence at least that this is precisely what might begin happening in the case of urban gardens. In the commentary I highlight the experience of Reit Schumack who is involved with Neighbors Building Brightmoor. New rules passed by the city are stopping some of the programs he’s done to engage students in gardening in open city lots. These rules also “include a ban on bringing in new soil or compost, unless the city grants lot-by-lot permission.” Practically this is disastrous for a burgeoning industry because now a farmer has to deal with the vagaries of an inept, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracy.

New soil is necessary in many cases, though, to fill up the raised beds that must be put up to grow things over vacant lots. As Cornelius Williams says, industrial waste and contamination of the soil can be a major problem, “so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we’re not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We’re growing in soil that we create ourselves.”

These new city rules would severely hamper farmers’ ability to create their own soil. Renn is right: “In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out.” He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. “In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.” Let’s hope that the government doesn’t ever get around to shutting down or stunting the growth of this nascent urban farming movement in Detroit. For more background on these broader questions, see volume 6.1 of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which has articles focusing on urban design, the “New Urbanism,” and a Controversy feature on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”

I also conclude the piece by quoting a classic funk jam from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Here’s that track in full: