Category: Acton Commentary

In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Acton President and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico publishes a new opinion piece that looks at “the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions” through the lens of Catholic social thought:

Catholic teaching’s pro-union bias

By the Rev. Robert A. Sirico

There is a long-standing bias in Catholic social teaching toward unions, and this dates from the long history of labor struggles for fair wages and safe working conditions. There is a romance associated with this history, and it is bound up with strong moral concerns. And it is not just historical. The Catholic Church played a heroic role in the fall of Communism in Poland through its influence on labor unions that were striking against oppression, which is to say state coercion.

Pope John Paul II, who knew something about the social role of labor unions, also warned about their drift into politics. In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, he wrote: “Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.”

The reality with all public affairs, however, is that conditions change. Just because something is called a union does not make it automatically good and moral. Essential considerations of justice and freedom must be in place. Generally speaking, the long history of unions has been bound up with the right of free association. So far as I can tell, the current practice of public-sector union organizing has little or nothing to do with this principle, so it is right and proper that Catholic social teaching should also recognize this.

This reality comes to mind because of the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions. But the driving force behind the budgetary move has nothing to do with human rights, unless one considers the rights of Wisconsin taxpayers.

The alarming reality of state and federal overspending and debt is something that cannot be denied. Prudent and necessary cuts must be made in the Wisconsin budget, and state employees must be part of that plan. How do public-sector unions fit into this? It is nearly impossible for anyone to work for the public sector without being a member, and unions collect dues, which operate like taxes for most everyone else.

This was not always the case. Public-sector unions emerged after World War II in the wake of the crack-up of many big-city political machines, and they were a convenient way for government employees to extract higher salaries and benefits at public expense.

What does this have to do with the freedom of association? Industrial unions have been on the decline for decades precisely because of the freedom of association. Organizing activity for years has shifted to the public sector, where union political contributions carry a lot of weight. Unions that remain strong are that way because they push against the freedom of association, denying alternatives to workers and taxpayers.

A one-time member of a Wisconsin union, Stephen J. Haessler, tells me: “My previous experience with agency shop as a former member of a WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) local affiliate is instructive. I opposed my dues monies going to endorse pro-choice political candidates, but my opinions and preferences did not matter because dues were automatically deducted from my pay whether I joined the union or not. This was a violation of the principle of the freedom of association.”

Here’s the question Catholics need to ask themselves: Are the unions I support of the same type that are idealized in Catholic social teaching? Or have they changed to the point where they are unions in name only but actually just political machines for coercing workers and extracting money through the political process?

The bias toward unions in Catholic social teaching is rooted in a perception that unions fulfill certain moral conditions. When they fail to do so, the application of moral teaching can change. There is no a priori reason to back every union demand and no reason for Catholics to feel under any doctrinal obligation to do so.

The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

I’m blogging a recent piece I did for NRO on National Public Radio funding but first a quick note on the net neutrality debate. House Speaker John Boehner told a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters association, meeting in Nashville over the weekend, that “the last thing we need, in my view, is the FCC serving as Internet traffic controller, and potentially running roughshod over local broadcasters who have been serving their communities with free content for decades.” Amen. See my recent response to the Catholic bishops conference statement on net neutrality here.

Back to you, Corey.

‘Free’ Public Radio Is Anything But

By Bruce Edward Walker

National Public Radio listeners are being inundated with warnings that they soon may have to drive to work every morning without the sonorous intonations of Morning Edition’s Corey Flintoff, Steve Inskeep, and Renée Montagne, and may be forced to drive home without the narrative drone of All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel, Michele Norris, and Melissa Block.

Just this morning, I received a panicked e-mail from the director of broadcasting at an NPR affiliate in my home state, Michigan. You know, one of those state-based public-radio operations that just last October received a portion of George Soros’s $1.8 million Open Society Foundation gift to hire two government reporters in each of the 50 states; one of the same group of radio stations benefiting from the Joan Kroc Foundation’s $200 million endowment in 2003; one of the same stations that host interminable on-air fundraisers at least twice a year.

They are warning that Congress may eliminate taxpayer subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that heaps money on 900 NPR affiliates across the country.

The warnings reek of disingenuousness.

After all, crying poverty is public broadcasting’s modus operandi. If it didn’t do it extremely well, no one would donate during those radiothons, corporations wouldn’t spend huge sums of money to sponsor programming, and “people just like you” wouldn’t forgo paying the cable bill so they could help meet a challenge grant from their neighbors and co-workers.
As an example of how much begging public radio does, Wisconsin Public Radio — a network of 32 stations programmed by seven regional stations – reported that 13 percent of its total budget in 2009 was used for fundraising. Additionally, the network’s website reveals that 25 percent ($1.94 million) of the revenues garnered from listener and corporate donations ($6.25 million and $1.58 million, respectively) are directly allocated to fundraising.

So it came as no surprise when I received the director’s e-mail, which warns, “I believe this is one of the most serious challenges to public broadcasting that we have ever faced.”
Not mentioned in his emotional appeal are the substantial costs American taxpayers are stuck with.

Read more here.

Other Acton essays on funding public broadcasting can be found here and here.

In light of the recent events in Wisconsin and the statement published by the state’s Catholic bishops, we’re republishing this 2005 article from the Acton Commentary archives:

Voluntary Association and Union Politics

By Charles W. Baird

The 50th anniversary celebration of the AFL-CIO in Chicago has been marred by internecine strife. The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have broken away from the Federation, reducing its membership by 25 percent. At least three other unions – UNITE-HERE (textile and hotel workers), UFCW (grocery workers), and LIUNA (construction workers) – representing another 15 percent of AFL-CIO members, may join the exodus. The dissidents call themselves the Change to Win Coalition (CWC).

The issue behind the split is the survival of the American union movement in the private sector. In 2004 only 7.9 percent of private sector workers were union members. By comparison, in 1900–before any union-friendly legislation had been enacted–the figure was 7 percent. Private sector unionism is on the verge of irrelevance, and union leaders are trying to figure out what to do about it. There are two principal approaches – politics and organizing. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO since 1995, believes the solution to the problem lies in spending union money to buy the favor of politicians who will in return change the law to make it more difficult for private sector workers to remain union-free. Sweeney has been following that strategy since 1995 to no avail. Andy Stern, president of the SEIU and prime mover of the CWC, says that to survive and grow unions must pay attention to recruiting new members.

Stern has the more logical approach. To survive and grow, businesses must constantly recruit and maintain new customers and congregations must recruit and maintain new members. Why should unions be any different?

There is a deeper problem that unions must confront. Since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Catholic social teaching has supported labor unions as part of a general defense of freedom of association. This defense has not extended, however, to unions that are coercive or politically partisan. Freedom of association has two parts. First, each person is free to associate with any other willing person or persons for any purposes that do not trespass against the rights of any third parties. Second–and this is implied by the first–each person is free to decline to associate with any person or persons no matter how fervently those others may desire the association. American unions, formed and operated under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), are not voluntary.

The NLRA forbids workers individually to decide whether a union represents them, imposes union fees on workers to pay for representation they do not want, forces employers to bargain with unions, and permits workers who choose not to work at terms offered by an employer to prevent other workers, who are willing to do so, from working.

My approval of Stern’s desire to recruit new members applies only to recruiting activities that are themselves based on freedom of association. Peaceful persuasion is fine, coercion is not. Lately some unions have turned to blackmail of employers through so-called “corporate campaigns” to force employers to give them monopoly bargaining privileges over employees who want to remain union-free. For example, efforts to organize workers at Wal-Mart by peaceful persuasion have consistently failed as evidenced by the failure of unions to win majority votes in every Wal-Mart representation election that has been held. Now those same unions are trying to bring community pressure on Wal-Mart to force its workers into monopoly bargaining arrangements.

John Paul II took a firm stand against Sweeney’s strategy of relying on politics to save unions in his Laborem Exercens (1981, n. 20). “The role of unions is not to play politics…. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subject to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.” Sweeney’s goal of controlling the Democratic Party through the AFL-CIO has always been at odds with the popes’ emphasis on the common good.

Stern’s strategy has the better hope of arresting the private sector decline of unions. In order for unions to continue to be a relevant force in pursuing workers’ rights, organized labor must rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Workers’ interests need to be contextualized within the globalization of competition, which is a necessary condition for sustained real economic growth in both developed and developing economies. Labor unions should not be immune from the challenge to constantly respond to their constituencies and changes in the marketplace.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”

I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”

A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”

What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”

But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”

Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.

Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:

Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”

These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.

As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, published a new column today in the Detroit News:

‘Social Justice’ is a complex concept

Rev. Robert Sirico: Faith and Policy

A column by Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a Catholic writer for the Washington Post, makes the claim that “Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth.” He went on to say that “there can be no disagreement” that unions, the government and private charities should all have a role in fighting a trend that has “concentrated” money into the hands of the few. In this conjecture Stevens-Arroyo confused the ends with potential means.

What Stevens-Arroyo is promoting is an attenuated and truncated vision of “social justice” that has fostered a great deal of injustice throughout the world. This path, he should know, has been decisively repudiated by the Church.

He also betrays a strange split in thinking common to those on the religious left, who are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism. Yet, they seem to think that the key to happiness is giving people more stuff — by enlisting the coercive power of government. This perverse way of thinking holds that “social justice” demands that we take money from those who have earned it and give it to those who have less of it. That’s not social justice; that’s materialism.

A friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what makes people truly happy is a system that “facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition.” That’s the market economy.

The incredible growth of economies in places like China and India isn’t happening because wealth was being shifted around, but because wealth is being created.

What happens when wealth is “redistributed” is obvious now.

We’re seeing the train wreck of the “social assistance state” in Europe.

In his 1991 social encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” Pope John Paul II warned that a bloated state “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concerns for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” I call that prophetic.

Let’s also be clear that the Church’s teaching condemns the idolatry of money and material goods.

The Church finds another way, neither condemning market activities nor exalting them beyond their rightful place in the grand scheme of things. It asks us to work for the highest good and to contribute as we can our time, talents and wealth that we have earned for the betterment of the world. The Church also demands that we build just systems of trade that enable the poor to be the agents of their own betterment.

So let’s drop these false notions about what constitutes the Church’s understanding of social justice.

A system that pits the haves against the have-nots, with politicians and bureaucrats acting as referees, should be rejected by anyone sincerely interested in building a just social order.

Blog author: abradley
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
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My latest for Acton Commentary. I’m also adding a couple of videos from Hotep and the Institute for Justice.

Let the Hustlers Hustle

By Anthony Bradley

If necessity is the mother of invention, then there is nothing worse than quenching the entrepreneurial spirit of people seeking to improve their situation by imposing arbitrary third-party constraints. America’s unemployment problems linger because hustlers cannot hustle.

For many, “hustling” connotes business activity that is shady, or even illegal. But in the black community it is common to use the term to describe the entrepreneurial spirit that drives people to take risks to meet one’s needs and to provide legitimate services through creative enterprise in the marketplace. The latter view is the one taken by indie Hip-Hop mogul Hotep, who has created Hustler University as an effort to redeem hustling as a way to create space for economic empowerment. Clients include the NAACP, the Urban League, Clemson University, the National Education Association, Illinois Public Schools, and Morehouse College.

Hotep defines a “hustler” as “an enterprising person determined to succeed, [a] go-getter.” Participants in Hustler University are exposed to the idea that human beings were made to be innovative and creative and “to manifest our dreams into creation,” says Hotep. Among the Hustler’s 10 Commandments that Hotep aims to teach today’s entrepreneur are the aphorisms “your network is your networth,” “the early bird gets the worm,” and success is “where opportunity meets preparation.”

Hotep offers helpful direction, but for independent-minded hustlers to succeed and thereby benefit both themselves and their communities, they need an environment that provides them opportunities to work freely. While there are many factors that keep entrepreneurial spirit dormant such as laziness, the absence of mentors, and skill deficiencies, one of the greatest obstacles is the mass of regulations generated by federal, state, and local governments.

The Institute for Justice recently released a report describing how government regulations prevent entrepreneurs from taking off. In Houston, for example, hustling a mobile food truck business is nearly impossible. For starters, a would-be mobile food entrepreneur must obtain a license from the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services. Potential hustlers must submit, in-person, two sets of plans that satisfy a 28-point checklist. During the government truck inspection, the vendor must provide extensive documentation including an itinerary and route list. He is required to pay $560 in fees, which includes $200 for the installation of an electronic tracking device. Operators must also disclose their menu, including every ingredient used as well as its origin, and how each dish is prepared. Even worse, a form must be filled out for each ingredient. This is just a sampling of the regulations in one city. Similarly daunting tangles of red tape exist in every jurisdiction in America, preventing entrepreneurs from starting and maintaining small businesses.

It’s clear that this regulatory regime especially hurts small businesses, the primary source of new jobs. Mark Crain, William E. Simon Professor of Political Economy at Lafayette College, conducted a study several years ago describing the disproportional burden imposed by federal regulations on small business. Crain found that firms with fewer than 20 employees spend 45 percent more per employee complying with federal regulations than do larger firms. Small firms spend 67 percent more per employee on tax compliance than larger firms do, and, compared to the largest companies, more than 4 times as much ($3200 vs. $700) per employee to comply with environmental regulations.

The black unemployment rate currently (January 2011) stands at 15.7 percent. Hispanics are a little better at 11.9, but both lag whites at 8 percent. The last thing we need are burdensome government regulations preventing hustlers from hustling. Whether intentionally job-killing or not, these types of government regulations dampen the entrepreneurial spirit of people who are trying to improve their situation and make contributions to the civic good by providing services that people need. Based on employment figures, these regulations arguably affect blacks and Hispanics disproportionately.

If America is really serious about addressing abysmal unemployment rates, federal, state, and local governments would do well to take the handcuffs off of hustlers and free them from the regulations that keep them from creating wealth. In other words, get government out of the way and let the hustlers hustle!

Stephen Grabill and I follow up on the Lausanne Congress in this week’s Acton Commentary:

After Cape Town: Still Learning to Talk About Business and Ministry

By Brett Elder and Stephen Grabill

The Cape Town Commitment — a document that flows out of the Third Lausanne Congress on Global Evangelization held in Cape Town, South Africa, this past October — has generated a great deal of discussion since its release last week. Prior documents and declarations proceeding from the previous two Lausanne Congress gatherings (such as the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, and the 1989 Manila Manifesto) have been embraced as a sort of social encyclical and common rallying point for the evangelical church — broadly defined — around the world.

Last fall, we sat with rapt attention in the multiplex session on “Workplace Ministry” in Cape Town. It was during this insightful session that we were humbly reminded that one of the shortcomings of the Manila Manifesto was the glaring omission of the business community in the cause for global evangelization. Here we were apprised of the secular-sacred divide that has plagued the Christian church for centuries. Mark Greene, of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and other distinguished speakers and panelists described eloquently the main reasons why, historically speaking, “ministry” and “business” have frequently operated in hermetically sealed compartments. The bottom line is that the evangelical church has yet to integrate ministry and business or harness its potential synergy in significant ways for the cause of global evangelization.

The sad reality for far too many in the church is that “ministry” is sacred and “business” is secular. You do not have to be a theologian to grasp the logical conclusions that follow and that perpetuate these bifurcated realms. Christian discipleship is reduced to one form or another of ministry effort and all ministry is done through the institution of the local church or a nationally or globally oriented parachurch organization. Therefore, all those serious about ministry will be drawn to spend as much time as possible in the “ministry” world. Perhaps one can even take some of that ministry into the “secular” workplace and redeem it? Perhaps Bible studies or personal evangelism efforts will help redeem that space?

When we relegate work (which God ordained before the fall) to the “secular” realm we cede territory that is squarely a part of God’s kingdom design. This separation has profound consequences. In fact, from a biblical vantage point, what we commonly refer to as “ministry” is no more sacred than “business” — God is the author and designer of all of life. That means that reflecting God’s image in our business activity is indeed a sacred calling and one worthy of a lifetime of intentional effort. It is most certainly not a necessary evil. We commend the framers of the Cape Town Commitment for very clear language that charts a fuller, more robust trajectory for evangelism and discipleship; thereby inviting the remaining 98 percent of the Christian community who do not serve in formal ecclesiastical roles to understand their vocation as “ministry.” We all must reflect God’s image as we employ our unique areas of giftedness in service to our neighbor, the kingdom, and the world around us. (more…)

The following is my latest article for Acton Commentary:

Stewardship and the Human Vocation to Work

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

Paying the bills and contributing to the collection basket are laudable. But Christian stewardship is significantly more than these; like prayer, fasting, and the sacraments, it is an essential part of our Christian life. More than what we say, the way we use our time, talent and treasure, reveals what we value, how we understand ourselves as men and women of faith, and what we believe it means to be human.

It is this last point that I want to focus on here. What does it mean to be human? Maybe this is a strange place to begin, but before we are Christians, we are human. Before any of us are baptized or make a commitment to Jesus Christ, we are human. We can only be Christian because we are human and the importance of our shared humanity should not be minimized; we are saved and made one in Christ precisely because God took on our humanity. He becomes as we are, in the frequently repeated phrase of the fathers, so that we might become as He is.

Salvation, justification, sanctification, deification—whatever terms we use for the mystery of our New Life in Christ—all presuppose not only divine grace poured out by the Holy Spirit but also a common humanity that we share not only with each other, but most importantly with Jesus Christ the God-Man. Too often in the early years of my own spiritual life and like many young Christians I saw the Gospel as an escape from the shared human nature and struggle. I was wrong.

As I’ve grown older, if not wiser, I’ve come to appreciate the argument made by St. Irenaeus. He said that the whole of human life is recapitulated in Jesus Christ who is Himself the first born of the new creation (see Colossians 1:15). Irenaeus also says that whatever in our humanity is not assumed by Christ is not healed by Him. Extending this argument we see that is our shared humanity that keeps us from living as strangers to each other and to God.

Scripture tells us that the human vocation is written not simply in its sacred pages but in creation as well.   When the Church fathers read Genesis they saw our First Parents as both an icon of the Most Holy Trinity and as the goal of creation. It is for us, for the whole human family, that God creates; even as later it will be for us that He becomes Man in Jesus Christ.

Viewing humanity in light of the Incarnation, the fathers see humanity as the point at which the Uncreated and created meet. To be human is to be the place of communion between God and the cosmos. We are both a microcosm and a macrocosm; we are the creation in miniature even as we also contain the whole creation in ourselves. Is it any wonder then that after turning his mind and heart to God, King David says of us all: “What is man that you care for Him?” (Ps 8:4)

We also hear in Genesis the divine command to our First Parents to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1:28). This refers not simply to procreation, to the begetting and raising of children in marriage, it also has a more general application. To be human is to be productive and profitable and to make of the creation a fit home for the human family. In a word, the primordial vocation of the human person is to work.

Work in Genesis means much more than what we tend to think, living as we do on the other side of Adam’s transgression. In first verses of Genesis, we see God as an artisan. As the potter forms clay into vessels both beautiful and useful, so too God takes the unformed matter of the universe and shapes it into creatures beautiful and good, animate and inanimate (see Isaiah 29:16 and Rom 9:20-23). The goodness and beauty are not an abstraction, but the characteristics of a cosmos that is a fitting home for man. God creates something beautiful and good for us. He then charges us to continue that work of shaping creation as a beautiful, good and fitting home for the whole human family.

So the anthropological foundation upon which stewardship rests is this: After God and in God, we are to be as God for the creation and one another. We are called by God to exercise our gifts and abilities to shape the material world as well as the social and cultural world according to the Gospel and for the needs of the human family. Yes this requires technical skill but it is not simply a functional task. Rather it is one which, from beginning to end, is to be characterized by beauty and goodness.

Before all else, to be a steward is to commit oneself personally and generously to using the gifts of time, talents and treasure God has given each of us the capacity to help to create a good and beautiful home fit for the human family. But how we use our gifts is not only an expression of our original vocation. Because of Adam’s transgression our work is often frustrating and marred by want and conflict. Though sin has sullied our vocation, it has not been undone. If anything, one of the great sorrows of human life is the myriad ways in which our original vocation is so often left unfulfilled—stillborn and even aborted by human selfishness and material want.

To be what it is, work must itself be redeemed; it must be work in Christ since it is only in Christ that we can transcend the consequences of sin. And in Christ, our stewardship becomes not only an expression of our shared human vocation, but our personal assent to Christ and His desire to redeem human work, creativity and ingenuity.

The Detroit News today published a new column by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute:

Civility, not just after tragedy

The Rev. Robert Sirico

The tragic shootings in Tucson that left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded and a score of others dead or wounded have sparked a national discussion about how we conduct our public discourse.

This is something we should all welcome, in an age of instantaneous media and its often vitriolic political and social debate.

For those of us who are Christians, our guide should always be to speak the truth in love. That is, we witness to the truths that are revealed to us by the Lord, without shying away from critical issues or glossing over important differences we have with others. This is especially important in an era of globalization and the need for greater interfaith relations, where words or phrases can so easily be misunderstood. And it’s possible to have this dialogue in a reasonable and respectful fashion.

Yet, I find it not a little strange that many of the voices calling now for civility and temperance in our political discourse were, not long ago, either silent in the face of hateful language or participants.

I speak, of course, of the religious left, which was so much a part of the “Bush derangement syndrome” in recent years and, with the rise of the tea party movement, seems to have shifted its fire in that direction.

Take, for example, the Rev. Jim Wallis, the self-appointed chaplain to the Democratic National Committee, who in recent weeks has become an apostle of civility. This is the same man who said this in response to the “shellacking” that the Democrats got in November: “There was very little values-narrative in this election. And there was almost no attention to the faith community and its concerns.”

Really? This was true of those millions of Americans who were pushing back against out-of-control government spending, ruinous debt, an intrusive and badly flawed health care bill, and a general sense that our nation was losing its moral bearings?

Remember, if you will, the invective and hate hurled at former President George W. Bush over the Hurricane Katrina response. Entertainer Kanye West famously said at the time that Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”

Where was the hue and cry from the liberal pastors and priests over West’s outrage? In fact, former Sen. Bill Frist, a physician, said the Bush administration funding for AIDS relief and malaria eradication programs for Africa probably saved 10 million lives worldwide.

Following the election of Bush in 2000, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for a “civil rights explosion.” He stood in front of the Supreme Court and vowed to “take to the streets right now, we will delegitimize Bush, discredit him, do whatever it takes, but never accept him.” I had my differences with Bush on a number of important issues. But he endured eight years of attacks, some of them vile, like this and the “social justice” ministers said nothing about it.

We all need to raise the level of public discourse, and not just as it applies to our political favorites. The Christian’s calling is to purify the heart, because it is the seat of the passions. And all actions begin there.

St. John Chrysostom, in a famous homily on fasting, warned us not to be too legalistic in its observance. More important than the foods we are abstaining from are our actions and the “disgraceful and abusive words” which we sometime use to “chew up and consume one another.” In this he echoes the words of Jesus Christ, who taught us that “what goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean” (Matthew 15:11).

The point here is to remind us that our words have weight and effect. Yes, let’s proclaim the truth, and do it in a civil and even a loving fashion. That’s the civility that both the left and the right deserve.

My commentary this week is about the deeper truths of Ronald Reagan’s witness, words, and deeds. Reagan has been in the news a lot, and will continue to be as we approach his centennial birthday. A great place to visit for all things concerning the Reagan centennial is the Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library Centennial homepage. President Obama even weighed in on Reagan, heaping praise on the popular president in USA Today.

It’s essential to look at what makes his words and ideas so important today. In my piece, I wrote that “It’s not the policies that point to Reagan’s greatness but his principles. His ideas are timeless because they evoke deeper truths about man, his relationship to the state, and most importantly, his Creator.”

Admiration of Reagan by people of faith has always been a paradox to some. He was the only divorced president. Reagan hardly ever attended Sunday services during his presidency and Nancy Reagan was known to consult an astrologer. Despite the mocking, in all the years I’ve studied Reagan, it’s clear his faith was the bedrock of his life.

One of his deeper interests was the book of Revelation and biblical prophecy, a topic he also liked to discuss with Billy Graham. This points to his optimism and the very fact that his believed that God has a descriptive plan for mankind after this world. Reagan biographers tell stories of embarrassed aides looking on as evangelical pastors laid hands on him and prayed for Reagan as he was moved to tears.

The attempt on his life can’t be underestimated in terms of impacting his life and faith. After he was shot, he declared, “Whatever time I have left is for God.” The meetings with New York’s Terence Cardinal Cooke and Mother Theresa after the assassination attempt were very emotional events in his life. He has been described as a “man of incessant prayer” and his daughter Patti said if she wanted to draw her father out “she would talk about God.” There are just too many fascinating anecdotes for this post. A good book on the topic of his faith is Paul Kengor’s, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life.

I think it is true too that Reagan has almost been mythologized by many conservatives and proponents of limited government. Certainly, imperfections in his policies and character were evident and part of his history. I think the principles and the deeper truths of what he was communicating will always make his legacy enduring, especially as moral relativism becomes more pervasive.