Category: Acton Commentary

Abraham KuyperThis week’s Acton Commentary, “Work, the Curse, and Common Grace,” I examine the doctrine of common grace in the context of our relationship with animals. In particular I use some insights from Abraham Kuyper as appear in the forthcoming translation of his work, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art. (Pre-orders for Wisdom & Wonder are shipping out this week, so you can still be among the first to receive a hardcopy. We’ll be launching the book at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting later this week in San Francisco, and you’ll be able to order the book online beginning next week.)

Kuyper posits that now, after the fall into sin, “we can arrive at the knowledge of things only by observation and analysis. But that is not how it was in paradise.” Adam, by contrast, “immediately perceived the nature of each animal, and expressed his insight into the animal’s nature by giving it a name corresponding to its nature.”

It struck me that another “common grace” kind of reminder of this primal state appears in the narrative of Doctor Dolittle. Dolittle, of course, gains insight into the life of animals in a way that is not available to most other people. While he doesn’t have the direct intuition of Adam, his ability to communicate with animals gives him a unique perspective: “After a while, with the parrot’s help, the Doctor got to learn the language of the animals so well that he could talk to them himself and understand everything they said.”

Dolittle’s home even evokes our picture of the Garden of Eden:

The house he lived in, on the edge of the town, was quite small; but his garden was very large and had a wide lawn and stone seats and weeping-willows hanging over. His sister, Sarah Dolittle, was housekeeper for him; but the Doctor looked after the garden himself.

He was very fond of animals and kept many kinds of pets. Besides the gold-fish in the pond at the bottom of his garden, he had rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar. He had a cow with a calf too, and an old lame horse twenty-five years of age and chickens, and pigeons, and two lambs, and many other animals.

Doolittle has a special calling, it seems, and so he gives up being a “people” doctor and embraces his role as an “animal” doctor. In his relationship with animals Doolittle is a figure of Adam in the garden, and in his role of healing and renewal he evokes the second Adam, Christ.

Word spreads of Dolittle’s abilities, of course, “And so, in a few years’ time, every living thing for miles and miles got to know about John Dolittle, M.D. And the birds who flew to other countries in the winter told the animals in foreign lands of the wonderful doctor of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, who could understand their talk and help them in their troubles. In this way he became famous among the animals all over the world better known even than he had been among the folks of the West Country. And he was happy and liked his life very much.”

In my commentary this week, I used Louisiana as one of the backdrops to shine the light on government greed. I first became fascinated with the political scene in the Pelican State when I moved down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I stayed up late one night in 1996 watching C-Span2 while Woody Jenkins, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, appeared to have his election stolen. I was hooked from that point on.

Former Louisiana governor Earl Long once remarked, “When I die I want to be buried in Louisiana so I can stay active in politics.” Former Congressman Billy Tauzin said of his state: “One half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment.” Former governor Edwin Edwards, who is mentioned in the commentary, has a fascinating book profiling his antics and political corruption in The Last Hayride.

Louisiana has undergone a remarkable transformation and it is covered superbly by Jim Geraghty at National Review in “The Storm Calmer.” The transformation provides wisdom for the nation today. My commentary is printed below.


Government Greed Needs an ‘Occupation’ Too

When it comes to political crookedness and graft, Louisiana is infamous. The New York Times just profiled Edwin Edwards, whose reputation earned him the nickname “Fast Eddie.” The former governor of the Pelican State recently released after a 10-year prison sentence for racketeering naturally wants back in the political ring. A resident displayed the love many still have for the former lawmaker, telling the Times, “We all knew he was going to steal, but he told us he was going to do it.”

Edwards serves as one of the most flagrant examples of government greed, enriching countless cronies along with himself. But he is not alone. The Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on “corporate greed,” but the public sector variety, though it draws less media attention, is equally reprehensible.

Eminent domain abuse, bloated public pensions, deficit spending—which simply generate calls for future tax increases—and a tax code that discourages saving and investing, are just a few examples of government greed. The 19th century British preacher and evangelist Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.’ You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”

His audience was the individual. But Spurgeon’s warning applies to a government demanding more wealth that should remain private and more of the public trust. Government excess and the way in which it mercilessly suctions revenue away from Main Street are alarming indeed. According to The World Bank’s annual Doing Business report, the United States no longer ranks as a top 10 country for starting a business; Rwanda is higher on the list. Half a century ago, business rapidly mobilized to help launch the greatest army of liberation in world history; now the nation’s private sector faces an uncertain future.

Today the Occupy Wall Street movement and its echo chamber in the media denounce corporate America. But a smaller headline in Bloomberg News about Washington edging out San Jose, Calif., as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area raised eyebrows, too. The total compensation package for a federal employee in the beltway now exceeds $126,000. There are many hard working and patriotic federal employees, but as the federal government payroll increasingly coincides with a diminishing private sector, government employees are rapidly moving closer to the 1 percent.

More disturbing perhaps is a quote from the president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who declared, “Wall Street has moved to K Street.” The mammoth increase in federal laws and regulation has generated an upsurge in the number of lobbyists and lawyers to manage the federal government’s far-reaching bureaucratic tentacles.

Greed of all sorts should be denounced. Unique to neither business nor government, its perennial presence illuminates the unchanged heart of humankind. For that reason the Founders understood that the power of government must be limited and virtue magnified. During the benediction at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner last week, Rev. Ren Broekhuizen offered this rightly famous quote from Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” He implored the assembled to mount their own righteous “occupation” of Wall Street, the government, business, and all of society.

Just last week, the 84-year-old former governor Edwin Edwards joked with well wishers and basked in the limelight at a parade during the International Rice Festival in Crowley, La. That same day Gov. Bobby Jindal coasted to reelection against a crowded field with nearly 66 percent of the vote. Jindal’s approval in part stems from sweeping reforms to antiquated laws that bred government greed and corruption. After Katrina and the BP oil spill, it was all the more apparent to Louisianans that the old way of doing things was toxic. Greed and corruption intensify suffering in a time of crisis.

As America faces its current economic crisis, Louisiana’s experience is instructive. Solutions can be found not in centralized power and burdensome regulation, which facilitate and reward government greed, but in framing sensible laws and reinvigorating a culture of virtue in business and government alike.

With Europe’s traditional moral framework – Christianity – under increasing attack, the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches are drawing closer in order to combat the forces of secularism and “Christophobia.” Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse looks at efforts to set aside long held theological disputes and forge a unity of action on social questions. Subscribe to the free weekly ANC and other Acton publications here.


With the Rise of Militant Secularism, Rome and Moscow Make Common Cause

By Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

The European religious press is abuzz over recent developments in Orthodox – Catholic relations that indicate both Churches are moving closer together. The diplomatic centerpiece of the activity would be a meeting of Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kyrill of the Russian Orthodox Church that was first proposed by Pope John Paul II but never realized. Some look to a meeting in 2013 which would mark the 1,700th anniversary of the signing of the Edict of Milan when Constantine lifted the persecution of Christians. It would be the first visit between the Pope of Rome and Patriarch of Moscow in history.

A few short years ago a visit between Pope and Patriarch seemed impossible because of lingering problems between the two Churches as they reasserted territorial claims and began the revival of the faith in post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The relationship grew tense at times and while far from resolved, a spirit of deepening cooperation has nevertheless emerged.  Both Benedict and Kyrill share the conviction that European culture must rediscover its Christian roots to turn back the secularism that threatens moral collapse.

Both men draw from a common moral history: Benedict witnessed the barbarism of Nazi Germany and Kyrill the decades long communist campaign to destroy all religious faith. It informs the central precept in their public ministry that all social policy be predicated on the recognition that every person has inherent dignity and rights bestowed by God, and that the philosophical materialism that grounds modern secularism will subsume the individual into either ideology or the state just as Nazism and Communism did. If Europe continues its secular drift, it is in danger of repeating the barbarism of the last century or of yielding to Islam.

The deepening relationship does not portend a union between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Roman Catholics are more optimistic about unity because they are less aware of the historical animus that exists between Catholics and Orthodox. Nevertheless, while the increasing cooperation shows the gravity of the threat posed by secularism, it also indicates that the sensitive historical exigencies can be addressed in appropriate ways and times and will not derail the more pressing mission.

The cooperation has also caused the Churches to examine assumptions of their own that may prove beneficial in the long run. The meaning of papal supremacy tops the list.

On the Orthodox side the claims to a universal jurisdictional supremacy of the Patriarch of Rome have been rejected since (indeed, was a cause of) the Great Schism of 1054 (see here and here . That said, the Orthodox see the Pope of Rome as the rightful Patriarch of the Church of Rome and could afford him a primacy of honor in a joint council but not jurisdiction.

On the other side, the Orthodox do not have a Magisterium, a centralized Church structure that speaks for all the Orthodox in the world. This has led to some fractious internal wrangling throughout the centuries although doctrine and teaching has remained remarkably consistent.

It will come as no surprise for anyone to know that the Orthodox have difficulties with some of the claims made by the Catholic Church concerning the precise responsibilities and the nature of the authority associated with the Bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church has long recognized this as a basic difference between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds. The rise of militant secularism, however, and the cultural challenges this creates for Orthodox and Catholic Christians alike, have focused everyone’s minds on how they can cooperate to address these issues of ethics and culture.

Protestants have a stake in the outcome as well particularly as attitudes have softened towards Rome due in large part to Pope John Paul II’s exemplary leadership during the collapse of communism in the last century. Protestant ecclesiology has no real place for priest or pope which makes the nature of discussions between them and the Catholics or Orthodox entirely different. Nevertheless, as the soul denying ramifications of secularism become more evident, an increasing number look to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for leadership.

The most visible ambassador for the Orthodox Church is Oxford-educated Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokomansk who runs the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. Observers report that a deep respect and even genuine fondness exists between Hilarion and Benedict which has contributed to the recent thaw.

Both of them note with alarm the increasing attacks on the Christian faith in Europe and on Christians themselves in other parts of the world, a development they term “Christophobia.” Hilarion brought these points forward several years back when he first challenged the European Union for omitting any mention of the Christian roots of European civilization in the EU Constitution. That earned him considerable worldwide notice and he has become increasingly outspoken towards any attempts to silence the Christian testimony or dim the historical memory of Christendom.

From the Orthodox side it is clear that the leadership that deals with the concrete issues that affect the decline of the Christian West is emerging from Moscow. One reason is the sheer size of the renewed Russian Orthodox Church. The deeper reason however, is that the Russians have direct experience with the suffering and death that ensues when the light of the Christian faith is vanquished from culture.

Decades before the fall of Communism was even a conceptual possibility for most people, Pope John Paul II prophesied that the regeneration of Europe would come from Russia. At the time many people thought it was the misguided ramblings of a misguided man. It is looking like he knew more than his critics. We are fortunate to have these two leaders, Benedict and Kyrill, to help guide us through the coming difficulties.

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is an Orthodox priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North and South America. He is president of the American Orthodox Institute and serves on the board of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. He writes frequently on social and cultural issues on his blog

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My commentary this week addresses the demonstrations in New York and in other cities against free enterprise and business. One of the main points I make in this piece is that “lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.” Here is the list of demands by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is in essence a laundry list of devastating economic schemes and handouts. Additionally, the demands are counter to America’s founding principles. The commentary is printed below:

Class Warriors for Big Government

By Ray Nothstine

Acting as unofficial scorekeeper, Sojourners Founder and CEO Jim Wallis recently declared, “There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.” However, many of the class warfare protesters who are taking to the streets to “occupy” Wall Street and American cities are the disgruntled children of well-to-do parents. A quick sampling of video clips from the protests shows students from elite universities like Harvard, George Washington, and Columbia. Such protestors are driven less by genuine economic hardship than by misguided animus toward the market system that has enabled the wealth from which they have benefited.

One such protestor, Robert Stephens, launched into a tantrum about a bank seizing his well-educated parents’ $500,000 home. The claim turned out to be bogus, but he managed to convince sympathetic media outlets that he was the victim of abuse and scorn at the hand of free enterprise. Stephens, a student at the prestigious George Washington School of Law in Washington, is just one of many out-of-touch protestors pointing simplistically to the market as the culprit in the current economic downturn while ignoring other sources of financial dysfunction, such as the crony capitalism of government subsidies to business or government fiscal irresponsibility.

Struggling to make ends meet, most Americans lack the time to tune into protestors who are just as distant from their problems as Washington bureaucratic elites. Ronald Reagan offered these poignant words as he called on his own political party in the 1970s to shed its big-business country club image and to embrace the factory worker, the farmer, and the cop on the beat:

Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government competition with business, frustrated minorities and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by the self-anointed elite.

Excessive taxation, regulation, and centralization of power always save their most vicious bite for the middle class. They are the hardest hit, not the super wealthy, some of whom call for higher taxes and are fawned over by a bloated government with an insatiable appetite for revenue. If there is any class conflict, it will come from the taxpaying class as it tries to tame the avarice of the political class. Most Americans are not very sympathetic to radical protestors because they still believe in an American Dream of limitless potential and opportunity.

While some protestors call for more government—or even the use of force—to restore their version of social justice and utopian economic schemes, lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.

This nation’s founders adopted a system of government emphasizing a separation of powers and federalism to protect private property and the harmony of the Republic. Protestors calling for a dismantling of these ideas, whether it is through the confiscation of another’s property or through massive, centralized power seem alien to most Americans. During his inauguration another American President, Bill Clinton, aptly declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

The virtues and values that have shaped our Republic offer the best for America. One of the wealthiest men of America’s founding era was John Hancock. Yet the man who once quipped, “They [the Crown] have no right to put their hands in my pocket,” was no miser. Often a political foe of the founder known for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, American President John Adams nonetheless wrote, “If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock.” Hancock supported churches, city improvements, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the education of orphans. However, a much greater compliment was bestowed upon him. He was widely known for treating those of modest means with the same respect as those with wealth and power.

History too shows the consequences of regimes that wished to redistribute the wealth of others and make denunciations about greed, especially wrapped within a materialistic, secular worldview. That was class warfare, too, and it ended in blood and wretched poverty.

Writing in today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute:

Jobs & deficits — the moral equation

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Genesis account of creation tells us that from the beginning, humanity was created to work. God puts Adam in the garden to “work and watch over it.” The Scripture provides an insight into our nature: We are all, man and woman, called into this life to find our vocation, the work that is uniquely ours and contributes to the flourishing of the wider community.

This explains why we are naturally so troubled about what appear to be merely economic problems: intractable unemployment and the various schemes put forth by policy makers to spur job creation. But behind the question is the reality that we naturally prefer people to be productive contributors to our economic life.

How we accomplish that is the subject of the debate over our unsustainable budget and debt trajectory. Do we choose those policies that make room for more freedom in the market, unleashing the creative potential of the American worker, business owner and entrepreneur? Or do we default, once more, to political and bureaucratic measures that require heavier burdens of taxation and regulation?

A government that actively sustains poverty by removing natural incentives to work is gravely in the wrong. Such government is without its essential anchor, which is that understanding of humanity as creative and productive.

The super committee created by Congress’ debt-ceiling compromise has begun its work to find $1.5 trillion in federal spending cuts ($2 trillion if the committee accepts the cuts corresponding to President Obama’s proposed stimulus). Even after this reduction, though, the nation’s debt will be unacceptably burdensome.

In 2011, for the first time since World War II, the amount of our total federal debt will surpass annual GDP. This is perilous, because economic capacity begins to be seriously affected when a country’s debt reaches 80 percent of GDP.

The super committee should begin by cutting social programs that perpetuate cycles of poverty. The only way to rise from poverty is to contribute to economic activity — a job is the best poverty program ever devised.

The federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the “War on Poverty” since Lyndon B. Johnson declared it, but we have next to nothing to show for the expense. And the agenda put forward by the religious left devalues the human person, treating the poor as objects of charity rather than as economic contributors.

The federal government does have real obligations to current generations that must be met. But without substantive reform of our largest entitlement programs, the country’s long-term fiscal health cannot be secured.

We cannot leave future generations with the full burden of our debt, which becomes a heavier weight the longer it is left unaddressed.

Congress must remember that economic growth is driven by innovations — by improvements in how the population produces goods and delivers them. The incentives caused by an expanding government run counter to economic growth because they run counter to human nature.

As reform of federal spending is undertaken, all cuts must be made with an eye to freeing citizens of every class to pursue their economic potential — to engage in the kind of dignified work that is essential to our nature, properly understood.

In this week’s Acton News & Commentary, Rev. Gregory Jensen observes that religious communities on both the left and the right can agree that government budgets are “moral documents.” He then offers a novel suggestion for closing budget gaps while offering clergy an opportunity to show solidarity with the poor. Subscribe to the free weekly ANC and other Acton publications here.

Time to End Clergy Tax Breaks?

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

Unless you are a member of the clergy or involved with the finances of a church or temple, you probably don’t know that since 1921 the federal government has subsidized a congregation’s remuneration of its pastor. This happens through the extension of a housing or “parsonage allowance” that makes it possible for an ordained member of the clergy to live “tax-free in a home owned by his or her religious organization or receive a tax-free annual payment to buy or rent a home if the congregation approves.” Originally, this was meant as a way of helping “minimize taxes on clergy members, whose compensation was often meager.”

Recent court cases have extended “the parsonage allowance to an unlimited number of homes, which may be owned either by the religious organization or the clergy member. However unintentionally, in doing this the courts may have opened “the door for the allowance to be applied to multiple homes used by leaders of wealthier ministries.” Among those concerned about the possibility that this will lead to abuse or an unjust situation is Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa). “It’s fair to question,” he says “why a clergy member needs a tax-free allowance for more than one home, and whether tax-exempt churches should subsidize millionaire ministers” (Tax Break for Clergy Questioned).

Yes, there will no doubt be those who abuse the system but when is this not the case? Religion plays a key role in maintaining a free and virtuous society, and an argument can be made that subsidies, such as the housing allowance or non-profit status for religious ministries, are a good thing for society lowering as they do the cost of maintaining a diverse range of religious communities which, in the aggregate, have a positive social effect.

The recently issued document “A Circle of Protection” rightly points out that “Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices.” Christians from both the political left and right can, and should, agree with this. Likewise, I think it would be difficult for me, or any Christian, to deny that “It is the vocation and obligation of the church to speak and act on behalf of those Jesus called ‘the least of these.’” Nor would I, or any thoughtful Christian, deny that such a witness is essential part of “our calling” and that we must “strive to be faithful in carrying out this mission.”

Where some Christians might disagree is with their contention that the federal budget must give a “moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world.” Others, like those involved with Christians for a Sustainable Economy, have done a very good job of criticizing the document’s equating support for government programs with support for people so I won’t repeat those criticisms here. I would however like to make a more general point.

A number of the signatories of “A Circle of Protection” are ordained clergy and/or representatives of various Christian denominations or ministries. Many, and I dare say most, probably benefit personally from the federal housing allowance for clergy. Because they work for religious denominations that are also non-profit corporations, they benefit institutionally from what, in a slightly different context, might be called corporate welfare.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that there is anything necessarily wrong with either the clergy housing allowance or a ministry having non-profit status. As I said above, religious institutions play an important and essential role in fostering a free and virtuous society.

Nor am I calling into question the sincerity of anyone’s faith. But I am mindful of the admonition that we “do no injustice in judgment” by being “partial to the poor” or holding in “honor the person of the mighty.” We are instead to be “righteousness” in our judgments (Lev 19:15, NKJV). I wonder whether or not under such a standard a Christian community can “be faithful in carrying out” its “mission” to speak for those in material need while at the same time accepting for themselves preferential treatment under the tax code. In light of these considerations, perhaps those clergy who are advocating for more government spending would do their share for this cause by voluntarily—and very publicly—returning to the U.S. Treasury an amount equal to their parsonage allowance. Annually.

The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia and is a contributor to the Acton PowerBlog and the American Orthodox Institute’s Observer.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Work and Prayer: Of Coins, Sheep, and Men,” I explore what the parable of the Prodigal Son (when read in conjunction with the parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep) has to teach us about stewardship:

Reading these three stories together teaches us many things about the nature of God’s love for us, such that when we were lost, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV). But the stories also provide models for how we should relate to the different aspects of God’s created order, from the material, to the animal, to the human. In each kind of relationship, humans have a definite role to play. In some cases we are called to work actively to achieve God’s purposes in the world. In other cases, out of respect for human freedom and individual sovereignty, we have to engage in active searching for the lost things of this world by less direct means.

Jan van Hemessen - The Prodigal Son - WGA11358

Does this guy have anything to teach us about stewardship?

The Parable of the Lost Son has been the subject of popularization and cultural expression throughout the centuries (see, for instance, Tissot’s set of paintings on “The Prodigal Son in Modern Life”). In recent decades, films like Legends of the Fall (1994) have drawn at least partial inspiration from the story. In this week’s commentary, I don’t have space to treat the case of the elder brother adequately, but Andrée Seu draws parallels between the elder brother in the 1994 film and the tale of the Prodigal Son.

I also draw on C. S. Lewis’ essay, “Work and Prayer,” which appears in the collection of essays, God in the Dock.