Category: Acton Commentary

The Hunger Games TrilogyIn today’s Acton Commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” I examine the themes of faith and freedom expressed in Suzanne Collins’ enormously popular trilogy. The film version of the first book hit the theaters this past weekend, and along with the release has come a spate of commentary critical of various aspects of Collins’ work.

As for faith and freedom, it turns out there’s precious little of either in Panem. But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing, as I argue in today’s piece: “If Panem is what a world without faith and freedom looks like, then Collins’ books are a cautionary tale about the spiritual, moral, and political dangers of materialism, hedonism, and oppression.”

Last week I was also privileged to participate in a collection of pieces at the Values & Capitalism website related to “The Hunger Games.” I provide an alternate ending (along with some explanation here) at the V&C site, where you can also check out the numerous other worthy reflections on Collins’ work.

Why do people so readily assume the worst about the religious motives of their fellow citizens? Why do we let partisanship take precedence over implementing policy solutions? In his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and attempts to show the way forward to mutual understanding. In his review of Haidt’s book, Anthony Bradley writes in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Mar. 21) that,”In one sense Haidt is not saying anything that religious leaders and economists haven’t been saying for centuries, namely, that at the root of our understanding of politics are fundamental beliefs about human nature and definitions of morality. In recent decades, Americans have increasingly turned to psychologists as experts on morality and human action.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement began to be implemented in 1994, the United States has raised farm subsidies by 300 percent and Mexican corn growers complain that they have little hope of competing in this protected market. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 29) Anthony Bradley writes that, “U.S. government farm subsidies create the conditions for the oppression and poor health care of Mexican migrant workers in ways that make those subsidies nothing less than immoral.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.


After 50-plus years of social unraveling, many reformers still see the “therapeutic model” as a cure for what ails American society. Or would a return to the classical virtues, as a means of healing first the person and then the culture, be the way of renewal? Rev. Gregory Jensen offers some thoughts in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 22), spurred by the reading of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Overcoming the Merely Therapeutic: Human Excellence and the Moral Life

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue that for many young adults in America, the spiritual life is understood in moralistic terms. But where orthodox (and Orthodox) Christianity focus on the necessity of “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers …” — many teenagers don’t see it that way. They, Smith and Lundquist say, worship “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

My pastoral experience suggests that adherence to this model of the spiritual life is common not just among teenagers but also their parents and even their grandparents. Given Philip Rieff’s observations about the triumph of the therapeutic in Western culture, this should come as no surprise. Therapeutic and medicinal imagery are dominant in our culture. That Christians have uncritically, and in my view unwisely, adopted this language is unfortunate but again not a surprise.

This is not to reject the use of medicinal or therapeutic imagery in conversations about either the spiritual or cultural lives. These metaphors have deep biblical and even pre-Christian roots. No, the problem occurs when such imagery comes to dominate at the expense of other, equally valid, ways of speaking about human experience (as for example the juridical model of salvation).

This brings me to Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012). Murray’s work offers a response to the increasingly unbalanced use of therapeutic imagery. His book is provocative but this is not a bad thing; it is a call to the reader to re-examine the cultural and personal foundations of human thriving and to see them as fundamentally moral undertakings.

Looking at the American scene, he singles out four virtues as essential both personally and socially for “the feasibility of the American project”: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Until very recently (Murray not wholly arbitrarily indentified Nov. 21, 1963, as the “single day” that demarcates “the transition between eras”) these four virtues were the common cultural inheritance and personal project of the vast majority of Americans. Whatever were their differences in religion, education, wealth or geography, most Americans lived lives built on a respect for hard work, honesty, marriage and family life and religious faith.  Both social institutions (public schools being chief among them) and popular culture – Murray draws examples from movies and television — likewise supported the virtues that made American “civic culture” not only possible but “exceptional.”

Since November, 1963, however, American civil society has been “unraveling.” As a culture Murray says we are “coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” More and more the historically key virtues of American civil society are only those of the new upper class. These same virtues are no longer forming the daily lives of the lower class, that is of working class or blue collar Americans. As a result we see two increasingly different Americas. But again, the difference is not racial or ethnic or even economic but social, a difference in the values by which members of both group live their lives.

The social problems facing Americans now are the fruit of this “cultural inequality.” Switching from descriptive social scientist to advocate, Murray says that we must do something about it:   “That ‘something’ has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.”

Instead of more “government assistance” we need a widespread cultural “validation of the values and standards” that once made American civil society so exceptional. How? Well, Murray says the “best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

Murray’s book is about virtue and we know that the virtuous life requires balance. I can’t cultivate one virtue at the expense of the others. Temperance cannot matter to me more than Fortitude or Justice more than Prudence. St. John Chrysostom said that more priests have fallen from compassion than lust. This, or so it seems to me, is the pastoral analogy to Murray’s social critique. We have fallen because we have given ourselves over to an unwise compassion. True compassion suffers with others and so helps us understand how we can alleviate their pain. Unwise compassion is about sentiment; it is about feeling good about myself. True compassion comforts and ennobles the other person; false compassion is merely one more expression of my addiction to pleasure and my willingness to take my pleasure no matter what the cost to self or others.

When as Americans we talk about poverty, its cause and its consequences, we do so primarily not in moral terms — save insofar as some would advocate for the government to “do something to help the poor,” or to “win the war” on drugs or poverty or whatever — but medically, therapeutically.  But a medical model divorced from morality is not only ineffective but destructive. It is so because it is anthropologically unsound and so a gentle cruelty.

The traditional model of salvation assumes a personal commitment to the ascetical life. As classically understood in both the Christian Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West (and even I would suggest among many of the heirs of the Reformation), the healing I am promised in Jesus Christ requires from me ascetical struggle. This is why today Roman Catholics and many Protestant and Evangelical Christians are celebrating Ash Wednesday and why next week Orthodox Christians will begin the season of the Great Fast. Asceticism does not add to the work of Christ. Rather it prepares me to receive again Jesus Christ and to deepen my relationship with Him.

Physical discipline does not exhaust the content of the ascetical life. In addition to spiritual disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving, asceticism has an intellectual aim; it teaches me to understand my desires in light of the Gospel. I need to repent of, and struggle against, those that are sinful. Important though repentance is, it is more important still that I come to see more clearly even my legitimate desires in light of what God wants from me.

Seen in this way, asceticism is an essential component of a life open in love to our neighbor. This is how we understand that our actions, if thoughtless, may impose a cost to our neighbor. This is how we will heal the human heart scarred by sin and so in turn the broken social ties that Murray identifies. In short, I cannot love you unless I am willing to lay aside even my otherwise legitimate plans and projects.  Whether in the physical, moral or cultural realms, real healing requires an understanding of both the ends of human life and the means appropriate to those ends.

Acton On The AirA couple of Acton radio appearances to let you know about: First of all, Acton’s Director of Research Dr. Samuel Gregg joined host Al Kresta yesterday to discuss the modern papacy on Kresta in the Afternoon. He focused on the social and political thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. You can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:

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Additionally, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Matheson Miller provided some additional commentary on the controversy surrounding the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate decision on America’s Radio News, which you can listen to below:

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Acton On The AirKishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome Office, was called upon this morning by America’s Morning News to weigh in with the view from Rome on the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate that most employers – including religious institutions – provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs as part of health care coverage. He did so, and you can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:

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Previous Acton commentary on the mandate decision:
Audio: Dr. Donald Condit on the Trampling of Conscience Protections
Jayabalan: Obamacare vs. the Catholic Bishops
Dr. Samuel Gregg: Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism

In my commentary this week, I reflect on the unemployment rate of many newly separated military veterans of our Armed Forces. The grim jobs outlook affects our reservists and National Guard forces too. As You Were, a book I reviewed on the PowerBlog in late 2009, touched on this topic quite a bit.

My first job out of college was working on veterans issues for former Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) I was able to meet and get to know combat veterans from battles like Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir and Khe Sanh. It was a rewarding and educational experience.

I suspect we will hear more from Washington about how to solve this problem with additional centralized government action. But we already have real commitments and promises to veterans that must be honored and a debt of $15 trillion and growing that is staring down at us. My commentary is printed below in its entirety.


Playing Politics with Unemployed Veterans

Getting the U.S. economy back on a path to solid growth and the job creation engine jumpstarted is dominating the headlines, talk shows and policy debates in Washington right now. Many of the legislative prescriptions focus on the dismal unemployment woes of newly separated military veterans, whose rates outpace the civilian population. The troubling figures reveal a persistently bleak and stagnant economy.

National unemployment currently hovers around 9 percent, while unemployment for veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is more than 13 percent. Veterans in the age group of 18-24 are worse off, with an unemployment rate of 30 percent. Dead last in the Union is Michigan, where 30 percent of all former service members are unemployed.

These numbers may only get more discouraging as defense budget cuts push more and more from the active duty ranks into a weak job market.

Federal legislation passed at the end of last year seeks to address the problem with tax credits for companies who hire veterans. The measure could help some, but tax incentives like these generally offer no substantial improvement for removing people from the unemployment rolls.

Better immediate solutions would be omitting special licenses and training required by states to work in certain fields. There is no reason a combat medic in Iraq should not be able to work as an emergency medical technician. Many already have more training than their civilian counterparts do.

In his election-year State of the Union address, President Barack Obama painted a vision of a post-WWII society where triumphant veterans came back and created the strongest economy in the world. In his words, they understood that they were “part of something larger.” Part of that “something larger” after the defeat of fascism was a growing free economy, but they also faced a long twilight struggle against the spread of communism.

To restore prosperity today, President Obama called for a “common purpose” to rally behind. But the obvious common purpose, the reduction of the staggering national debt, was largely ignored by the commander-in-chief during his address. For the unemployed, all Americans, and a free economy, the debt is the largest obstacle to restoring prosperity and reawakening the most expansive economy the world has ever seen. The failure of the American government to live within its means threatens to eviscerate the promises made to America’s veterans. It is a classic case of one moral failing leading to another.

The “something larger” greeting veterans when they come home today is a national debt of more than $15 trillion and an economy burdened by more and more regulations. The White House has already requested a debt ceiling increase to a whopping $16.4 trillion dollars. So great is the obstacle, and so serious is the threat, Indiana’s governor Mitch Daniels dubbed it “the new Red Menace.”

The threat to veterans is substantial. Although veterans’ benefits are justly generous, the government’s fiscal crisis has put those guarantees at risk. Last year, for the first time, some in Washington talked about the necessity of trimming promised pensions and health benefits for military retirees. Politicians are playing politics with veterans when they talk of reducing promised benefits with one side of their mouth and say they are creating jobs for veterans with the other.

Older military retirees can remember a time when they counted on the promise of free health care for life. Many sacrificed more lucrative private sector careers, nonpayment for overtime, and additional time with their family because of patriotism and promised security. Now they pay premiums for their care.

Thomas Jefferson warned of the moral pitfalls and decay of debt when he said, “The earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation.” Profligate spending in the past undermines our capacity to honor present commitments.

With their skills, work ethic, and patriotism, veterans have the ability to overcome the challenges confronting them. Most businesses and companies want to hire veterans. All they need is some assurance that their prospects going forward will not be dimmed by burdensome regulation or economic instability stemming from federal fiscal irresponsibility.

Washington does not understand there is little to be done in terms of a prescriptive policy to cure veteran unemployment. The oft forgotten Calvin Coolidge once warned, “Unsound economic conditions are not conducive to sound legislation.”

The best cure is still a market unleashed from needless regulation and spending policies that reflect a moral and rational resolve. In the end, a federal government that is broke can do little for veterans who earned and are entitled to benefits already promised.