Category: General

Forever known for his signature, the American Founding Father John Hancock (1737-93) was also staunch opponent of unnecessary or excessive taxation. “They have no right [The Crown] to put their hands in my pocket,” Hancock said. He strongly believed even after the American Revolution, that Congress, like Parliament, could use taxes as a form of tyranny.

As Governor of Massachusetts, Hancock sided with the people over and against over zealous tax appropriators and collectors. Hancock argued farmers and tradesmen would never be able to pay their taxes if their land and property were confiscated. He barred government officials from imprisoning farmers too poor to pay taxes. In addition to his views on taxes, Hancock supported cuts in government spending.

Hancock inherited a substantial amount of wealth from merchant trading, a business started by his uncle known as the “House of Hancock.” Hancock’s father, a minister, died when he was just a child. He was raised by his wealthy uncle and aunt. Their wealth gave him a first class education.

Hancock went on to increase the assets and income of his uncle’s business, when he took control of the enterprise. He was quite possibly the richest man in the American Colonies. Hancock enjoyed owning the finest home, attire, furniture, coaches, and wines. As a fault, he could even show a comical attachment to material possessions from time to time. He once organized a military party to challenge the British during the revolutionary war, his part in the conflict was only to last a few weeks and was close to his home, still he galloped to battle with six carriages behind him carrying his finest warrior apparel and the finest French wines. Patriot Generals poked fun at his unnecessary show of pomp and pageantry. Still he fretted, when he realized he was missing a pair of imported leather boots.

While his wealth was immense, so was his generosity. Hundreds of colonists depended on his business for their economic livelihood. In addition, he helped his own ambitious employees start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. He gave lavishly to local churches, charities, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the schooling of orphans. Hancock also spent his own wealth on public works and aesthetic improvements for the city of Boston.

His enormous popularity was in fact, to a large degree, due to his substantial giving. Hancock was also known for treating others with the characteristics of Christian principles. He treated those of modest means with the same respect as those who had access to wealth and power. Several authors have affectionately referred to him “As a man of the people.” A German officer who fought for the British was astounded at the way he befriended and talked to the very poorest citizens of Boston. (more…)

Blog author: eschansberg
Saturday, March 15, 2008
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The title of Curtis White’s provocative but flawed essay in Harpers

As an intro to his primary topic (politics), White has some provocative things to say about the contemporary (American) understanding of our “beliefs”…

The most bewildering and yet revealing gesture of a truly fundamental American theology takes place when an individual stands forth and proclaims, “This is my belief”. Making such a simple and familiar statement implies at least three important things. First, it implies that I have a right to my belief. Whether this right is God-given, one of the laws of nature, or simply something we wrangled politically out of the process of constitution-making, it is something we believe we have. Second, my statement carries with it the expectation that you ought to respect my belief, or at least my right to it, even if my belief makes no sense to you at all. Third, and most important, my belief doesn’t have to make sense in order to carry legitimacy.

And now to how this relates to politics…

On the basis of this belief I not only will claim the right to order my own life but also will feel free, without embarrassment, to enforce my belief universally through the election of politicians and through the sponsorship of legislation…

What we require of belief is not that it make sense but that it be sincere. This is so even for our more secular convictions….Clearly, this is not the spirituality of a centralized orthodoxy. It is a sort of workshop spirituality that you can get with a cereal-box top and five dollars. And yet in our culture, to suggest that such belief is not deserving of respect makes people anxious…

Consequently, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that our truest belief is the credo of heresy itself. It is heresy without an orthodoxy. It is heresy as an orthodoxy. The entitlement to belief is the right of each to his own heresy….For Nietzsche, European nihilism was the failure of any form of belief (a condition that church attendance in Europe presently testifies to). But American nihilism is something different. Our nihilism is our capacity to believe in everything and anything all at once. It’s all good!…

Once reduced to the status of a commodity, our anything-goes, do-it-yourself spirituality cannot have very much to say about the more directly nihilistic conviction that we should all be free to do whatever we like as well, each of us pursuing our right to our isolated happinesses. Worse yet: for that form of legal individual known as the corporation, the pursuit of happiness can mean fishing with factory trawlers, clear-cutting forests, and spreading toxins across the countryside with all the zeal of a child sprinkling candies on a cupcake.

Let me jump in here by saying that White is correct insofar as he goes. But it’s odd to point out corporations (and in a part I excised, “social morality” interest groups) without pointing to the role of special interest groups in politics– rather than corporations or concerned citizens per se.

And now, White goes with a relatively obscure but effective Biblical reference. Among other things, this gives him the title to his essay…

Aren’t these the false gods that Isaiah and Jeremiah confronted, the cults of the “hot air gods”? The gods that couldn’t scare birds from a cucumber patch? Belief of every kind and cult, self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of every degree, all flourish. And yet God is abandoned. For first and foremost, “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18). And that is the problem that we ought to have at heart: our richness of belief masks a culture that is grotesquely unjust.

“Grotesquely unjust”…Preach it, brother! Given the differences in our worldviews and his limited training in political economy and economics, I don’t think we point to the same set of policy issues. In any case, he’s right on the proverbial nose with his critique…

White does see some good news:

A more positive way of looking at the situation I have described is to say that through the concept of religious freedom, American political culture has succeeded in mediating the competing claims of true religion and idolatry. If it has not purged the hatred from this distinction, it has at least prohibited most of the violence. And if there is wisdom in this, it is less the wisdom of benevolence than the pragmatism of imperial policing….

But then he gets silly on us…

Capitalism has been so successful in this orchestration of reality that it has even created the illusion that, in spite of every fact, the Market works for all of us, or will eventually. In spite of the fact that the poor are ever greater in number, and that education, health care, and retirement are ever more inaccessible, the majority of Americans persist in believing (with all the obliviousness of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss) that our economic system is “the best of all possible worlds”. This is a form of wishful and magical thinking no stranger than the belief that a statue of the Madonna can cry.

Here, White reveals his bias and ignorance– or his “wishful and magical thinking” (if he prefers). He’s pointing the finger at the Market. But all three of these realms are largely controlled by the Government! And in each of those, it is clear that Government involvement has caused vast damage to the poor. I love it when people blame “capitalism” to embrace government– when government is so heavily involved already!

His last three words are “the Market God”. But White is blind to his own idolatry– a blind critique of markets (not that some critique is not available to him) and a blind, idolatrous embrace of “the Government God”.

Robert George in the November 2007 issue of Touchstone on democracy, Catholic social teaching, and the confusion of means and ends…

Catholicism…preaches democratic ideals and promotes democratic institutions in the political sphere….

This teaching is put forth not as a mere prudential matter…but as a matter of justice in the dealings of human beings with one another. At is core is the idea that of all systems of political governance, democracy best comports with the foundational anthropological and moral truth that every human being, as a creature fashioned in the very image and likeness of God, possesses a profound, inherent, and equal dignity.

The principle of basic human equality demands not only that the interests of all be taken into account, without discrimination, in distributing the benefits and burdens of common life, but also that all competent adults have a voice in deciding between options for political choice…

Democracy, however, is fundamentally a means rather than an end in itself….[T]he common good of political society is fundamentally an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good.

In this respect, the common good of political society is unlike the common life of the family and the koinonia of the church. The point of political society is provided by the ends or purposes it serves. The state, whether constituted democratically or otherwise, is fundamentally a means to those ends; it is in no sense an end in itself.

By contrast, the family and the church, though they may also be means to many valuable ends, are not mere means….

From there, George continues by repeating John Paul II’s caution against idolatry toward government and democracy– as well as his warning that unjust ends accomplished through democracy are ungodly. Despite the common reference to polling results– and although majority vote may legitimize a viewpoint in the secular realm– the right-ness of something cannot be determined by such a criterion.

The subtitle of Damon Root’s article in Reason– food for thought for Dems (and GOP’ers) and a history lesson on an important but obscure figure, Moorfield Storey

With Republicans apparently uninterested in pleasing the libertarian segments of their coalition, some liberals and libertarians—Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas, former Democratic National Committee press secretary Terry Michael, and Reason contributor Matt Welch among them—have suggested an alternative: the libertarian Democrat, the sort of liberal who favors both free speech and free trade, both the right to bare pornography and the right to bear arms.

It’s far from clear, however, that the Democratic Party has room for candidates who favor a smaller, less intrusive government. But it did once. The Democratic Party actually has a very distinguished libertarian legacy, one that combined principled anti-imperialism, respect for economic liberty, and a firm commitment to civil rights. If the would-be libertarian Democrats are looking for a historical model, they should consider the Boston attorney Moorfield Storey (1845–1929).

A fierce critic of imperialism and militarism…An advocate of free trade, freedom of contract, and the gold standard…An individualist and anti-racist, Storey was the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he argued and won the group’s first major Supreme Court victory, Buchanan v. Warley (1917), a decision that relied on property rights to strike down a residential segregation law….

To read more, click here:

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
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At 93% Muslim—Orthodox churches account for most of the rest—Azerbaijan is the sort of country that tends to lack what some have called “reciprocity,” meaning that Christians enjoy the same freedom relative to the Muslim majority as Muslims do in Christian-majority nations. Amidst the justifiable attention and worry religious liberty advocates have lately devoted to the problem (see our own John Couretas on Turkey), it is good to note instances of progress. Such a story emerges this week from the former Soviet republic, where the pope’s representative was on hand to mark the opening of the country’s first Roman Catholic church.

This is not to say that Azerbaijan has become a paragon of religious liberty (see this summary), but permission to erect a place of public worship is at least a step in the right direction.

Speaking of the history of morality and moral judgments in historiography, Alister MacIntyre makes a pointed observation about a complementary distinction that arises between what might be called “intellectual” and “social” history:

Abstract changes in moral concepts are always embodied in real, particular events. There is a history yet to be written in which the Medici princes, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Frederick the Great and Napoleon, Walpole and Wilberforce, Jefferson and Robespierre are understood as expressing their actions, often partially and in a variety of different ways, the very same conceptual changes which at the level of philosophical theory are articulated by Machiavelli and Hobbes, by Diderot and Condorcet, by Hume and Adam Smith and Kant. There ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorizing, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions, the other only by theories. Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.

After Virtue, 2d ed., p. 61

See also: Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History (1906).

Blog author: jspalink
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
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Vote for Acton - Bloggers ChoiceHelp Acton do well in the 2008 Blogger’s Choice Awards by submitting a vote or two for Acton. We’re nominated in the following categories (you may vote for Acton in each if you’d like or if you feel we deserve it):

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Voting for a blog does require registration, but it doesn’t take long to do. I’ll occasionally post reminders about this here so that those of you who would rather wait for a rainy day will remember to vote for Acton.

In case you’re still not convinced – here are a few reasons why I think we’re the best:

1) We recently updated the look and feel of the PowerBlog – its now much easier to read and connects better with www.acton.org – the main Acton Institute website.

2) Our content is fantastic. If you look over at our tag cloud (showing our most recently covered topics) you can see that we write on everything from environmental stewardship to bible and theology; christianity to economics; socialism to business and society.

3) For those of you interested in design, this page is valid XHTML 1.0 Strict, baby. Unless we have a youTube video embedded on the page. Then it doesn’t validate.

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
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Over at the OrthodoxNet.org blog, editor Chris Banescu had an entertaining exchange in the comment boxes with a writer who asserted that “capitalism can be just as infected with materialism and the concomitant need to tyrannize as communism.”

Here is Chris’ response:

Capitalism is really not an ideology. It simply describes reality, like mathematics and economics describe reality. It’s a word that explains how free human beings interact voluntarily with one another to exchange value and how they invest the excess of the fruits of their labors to produce more or gain more value. It is value and morally neutral.

You are positing your argument from the Marxist and leftist ideological point of view that made up this bogeyman they called “capitalism” as if it was some alien force dreamed up by rich to oppress the poor. That is a lie. You should know better than that.

On the other hand you are right that materialism is a moral failure, but that is the fault of the moral choice of individuals and groups, not the fault of capitalism. That’s like saying that it’s the fault of mathematics when someone does a wrong addition or multiplication, or the fault of accounting when someone embezzles money from their employer and writes down the incorrect cash register total.

When man deposits his money in a bank and requires interest payments, he is practicing capitalism!

When he buys food, clothing, furniture, medicine, etc.. from someone who produced it, he is practicing capitalism!

When he expects to be paid a fair salary for the work that he’s doing, he is practicing capitalism!

When he is the beneficiary of any retirement or pension fund, he is practicing capitalism!

When he buys property and hopes value will increase, he is practicing capitalism!

When he lends money to someone else and wants interest in return, he is practicing capitalism!

When he invents something new and unique and wants to sell it to someone else for a profit, he is practicing capitalism!

When he is the beneficiary of any government program providing social assistance, he directly benefits from others who practiced capitalism and created the profits the gov’t can now use and distribute to those in need!

When Churches and Synagogues get donations from people who first had to work and earn it, they are the beneficiaries of capitalism.

Even communists and socialists rely on capitalism to actually produce anything of value and generate the value and returns that fund and fuel their governments.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
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Zenit News Service’s Father John Flynn, LC, offers an extremely perceptive analysis of a seemingly expanding culture of fear. He manages to tie together climate change hysteria, current electoral politics, and the pope’s recent encyclical. Its conclusion:

A world without God is a world without hope …. Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised at the fear-ridden state of modern society. Along with science, humanity needs to rediscover its faith in God if it is to heal the deeper sources of its fears.

Some of the most extensive discussion of a very extensively discussed subject here in the U.S.—religion and politics—occurs at the Pew Forum. The online proceedings of an early December conference on the subject were just brought to my attention. Of particular interest is the transcript of the presentation by John Green. Green, who cooperated with Acton years ago on our survey of economics in seminaries, is arguably the most respected and most widely quoted authority on religion and electoral behavior. Personally, I approach the whole polling industry with a large dose of skepticism, but with all the requisite caveats in place, Green’s work is indeed among the best in the business.

The transcript, with full Q&A, gets rather lengthy, so I’ll focus on a couple points. One is that it is remarkable how the distinction between “active” or “churchgoing” and less active, non-regular churchgoers has assumed preeminence in analysis of religion and politics. Green suggests that the distinction may not be as politically significant this year (and he may be right, although I think that depends greatly on which two candidates end up with the nominations). Yet the difference has clearly become a focus of investigation, a significant (and positive) change from the days when most analysts approached the subject with the blunt categories of “evangelical Protestant,” “mainline Protestant,” and “Catholic.”

The second is that EJ Dionne, with whom I frequently disagree, makes some of the most salient and incisive points. The section begins here. A sampling:

I believe, and this will be a controversial statement, that the era of the religious right is over. Now, as Bill Clinton would say, I suppose that depends on what the meaning of the words “religious right” is, but I believe the religious right, viewed as a conservative political movement within the Republican party that rose from 1978 or 1980, is breaking up, in significant part because the evangelical community itself is changing and also because the issues confronting the country are changing. Again, I’m not predicting that this group will suddenly shift overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party, but I think we’re going to see a very different style of politics in the coming years.

If you put untroubled and troubled skeptics together, that’s 26% of the electorate. So if anyone wonders why Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and all those folks have sold so many books, 26% is a very significant number of Americans. If you combine that 26% with the reluctant believers group, that is over a majority. It is simply not true that if you go out and say how religious you are and talk about it all the time, you are automatically appealing to a majority of the electorate.

But also, I think Huckabee is very interesting because Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who does have strongly conservative positions on the social issues, has actually been broadening the evangelical agenda. He speaks critically of Wall Street; he has linked his Christian commitment to a concern for the poor and their access to education and health care. I think Huckabee may understand better than most politicians how much the religious conversation is changing within his own evangelical community. I think the most interesting criticism of Mike Huckabee came from Fred Thompson, who called him a pro-life liberal. There are, indeed, times when Mike Huckabee sounds a little bit like our friend Jim Wallis.

There are also fascinating differences by state, and I had a long list of these, and I won’t belabor you with them, but I actually once took apart the 2004 exit polls to look at how the religious question played state-by-state. You’ll find that the religion gap barely exists in Louisiana; is enormous in Minnesota and Washington State; and that California was the only state in which Bush failed to secure a majority among weekly churchgoers. Now, all these may have demographic explanations. In Louisiana, the Democratic share among regular church attenders was boosted by African Americans and, to some degree, Cajun Catholics. Minnesota and Washington have relatively small African-American populations, and in California the Democratic vote is boosted by Latino Protestants.