Category: Christian Social Thought

Makers of Modern Christian Social Thought Cover Front DraftThe contrast between the treatments by David Bentley Hart and Dylan Pahman of the question of the intrinsic evil of “great personal wealth” this week pretty well established, I think, that in itself wealth is among the things neither forbidden nor absolutely required. In fact, as Pahman puts it at one point, perhaps “Christians should strive to have wealth from which to provide for others.”

But all this is to merely show that wealth isn’t absolutely forbidden. From this it does not follow that we can merely do whatever we want or simply seek to gain as much as we can. Riches do remain a temptation, however, and a powerful one at that.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper expounds in some detail the power of money to corrupt us and turn us away from God. The temptation is unavoidable because of the way in which money can mimic God. As Kuyper puts it, “In money, there rules a power that closely approaches God’s omnipotence, at least insofar as the satisfaction of the needs and wants of one’s outer life is concerned.”

These warnings from Kuyper about the abuse of money and its power to enthrall us come from one of his later works, the first volume of Pro Rege, part of a three-volume series that focuses on restoring the Christian understanding of the lordship of Christ and its implications for all of life (these volumes are also part of the larger Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology).

One of Kuyper’s other works dealing with wealth, poverty, and economics is his earlier speech at the opening of the 1891 Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam. And earlier that same year Pope Leo XIII had promulgated the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum. Together these two texts usher in an era of modern Christian social thought and they sound very similar notes on the challenge represented by “the social question,” or the relationship between labor and capital.
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bible-moneyIn a recent article in Commonweal, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart responds to a rebuttal article written last year by Acton research director Samuel Gregg. Hart say that “on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil.”

What is Hart’s basis for the claim? That he can read the koine Greek. He believe the “actual biblical texts” are “so unambiguous that it is almost comical that anyone can doubt their import.”

Well, Dylan Pahman, an Acton research fellow and managing editor of our Journal of Markets & Morality, most certainly does doubt their import:
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 There are many factors that account for a country’s economic freedom (or lack thereof), but one of the most overlooked is the role of religion.

Can economic freedom be explained by religion, independently of political institutions? That’s the question researchers at an economics think-tank in Germany attempted to answer. Their findings:

We investigate whether religion affects economic freedom. Our cross-sectional dataset includes 137 countries averaged over the period 2001-2010. Simple correlations show that Protestantism is associated with economic freedom, Islam is not, with Catholicism in between. The Protestant ethic requires economic freedom. Our empirical estimates, which include religiosity, political institutions, and other explanatory variables, confirm that Protestantism is most conducive to economic freedom.

The researchers found that there is something to Max Weber’s claim about a Protestant Ethic after all:
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Blog author: jcarter
Thursday, September 29, 2016
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While many Christians have undermined human liberty, says Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research for Acton, a new book of essays shows just how much of our contemporary freedom we owe to the Christian church, Christian thinkers, and Christian practice rather than liberals and liberalism.

Any discussion of freedom and Christianity quickly surfaces the numerous instances in which Christians have undermined human liberty. Reference is invariably made to the various Inquisitions, the witch trials conducted by Puritans, forced conversions, and other instances of intolerance.

A particular strength of this collection of essays is that none of the authors denies that Christians and Christian institutions have on many occasions violated the rightful freedoms of others. This frank acknowledgment, however, is accompanied by an argument that permeates many of the papers: that it was, for the most part, Christianity that provided the moral, theological, and cultural principles upon which Christians and others have drawn to condemn unjust coercion. In other words, people have relied, consciously or otherwise, on Christian resources to identify and correct violations of freedom, including those committed in the name of the Christian faith. This suggests that liberalism by itself did not—and perhaps never could—generate the conceptual tools needed for this type of critique.

Read more . . .

How should Christians address predatory lending that takes advantage of the poor when they are in dire straits? As I’ve argued before, I believe a helpful first step is to get churches and other faith-based organizations involved in providing short-term loans and financial counseling. But sometimes education and sacrificial generosity is not enough to solve the problem, and communities have to pursue other measures.

A prime example is found in Texas where several groups—including an alliance of Baptists and Catholics—worked to defend the poor against the payday loan industry. Deidox Films produced The Ordinance—a documentary which you can watch in its entirety below—that shows what can happen when churches, nonprofits, and individuals join together to protect the vulnerable.

“I have a simple hypothesis,” writes economist Tyler Cowen. “No matter what the media tells you their job is, the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status.”

Cowen believes this explains why people “get so teed off” at the media:

The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close. You hold more of a grudge from the status slights than you get a positive and memorable charge from the status agreements.

In essence, (some) media is insulting your own personal status rankings all the time. You might even say the media is insulting you. Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered. It’s like they get to throw a media pie in your face.

In return you resent the media.

Cowen’s friend and fellow economist Arnold Kling made a similar claim earlier this summer about politics: “a major role of political ideology is to attempt to adjust the relative status of various groups.” One outcome of this is that,
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RatzingerIn a new article for Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research at Acton, talks about the “Regensburg Address” and what it means 10 years later.  Benedict XVI’s speech at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006 “managed to identify the inner pathology that is corroding much of the world, how this malignancy emerged, and what can be done to address it.”

According to Gregg, this speech “showed how a collapse of faith in full-bodied conceptions of reason explains so much of our world’s evident disarray.” But the Roman Pontiff didn’t just pull this idea out of nowhere; this is a concept that has been long featured in Joseph Ratzinger’s writings.   Gregg goes on to explain:

For what is at stake, Ratzinger believes, is nothing less than humanity’s ability to know the truth. And if man is defined as not just the one who knows, but as the one who knows that he knows, any faltering in his confidence that human reason can know truth that is more than empirical not only leads to the dead ends of fideism or sentimentalism. It obliterates man’s very distinctiveness. At the same time, recovering this confidence in reason has never, for Ratzinger, been about turning the clock back to a pre-Enlightenment world. In many ways, it’s about saving modernity from itself by opening its mind to the full grandeur of reason and, ultimately, the First Cause from which all else proceeds.

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