Category: General

Jim Wallis, the author, public theologian, speaker, and international commentator behind the Christian Left’s Circle of Protection, was in Grand Rapids last night, and I went to hear him speak. Wallis was presented as the latest in a long line of progressive luminaries to speak (or play their guitars) at the Fountain Street Chruch: Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, U2, and the Ramones have all appeared on the same dais. He was introduced to speak about “where we are going together so that we can keep our eyes on the prize.”

That’s a pretty hip list, and Wallis considers himself a pretty hip guy, so I was genuinely surprised to enter the nave and find a sea of grey heads. Even the handful of Occupy Grand Rapids protesters were in their forties and fifties. Well I’m here for his lecture, I reminded myself, not to draw conclusions from his demographics before he even speaks.

Wallis started off with baseball — a promising place to start — telling the audience, “Baseball, following teams like Detroit, it builds character.” (Detroit missed out on the World Series a few days ago when it ran up against the indomitable Texas Rangers.) I was hoping to hear him expound on this theme in the rest of the talk, but he moved on to his core message: that with respect to Christ’s words in Matthew 25:40, the budget is a moral document.

Then he addressed the handful of forty- and fifty-something Occupy Grand Rapids protesters, and spoke about hope. “Hope,” he said “is not a feeling. Hope is a choice we make based on faith.” His lesson for the protesters was the same, he said, was the same one he had learnt from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa during apartheid: that “hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”

Both were very true statements on the nature of hope, and the secular, materialist world desperately needs to hear them. But hope is a theological virtue, and Wallis applied it only to the material world.

I understand that he was speaking to a wide audience in a Unitarian church, but the faith he spoke of — the faith that undergirds his hope in this world and the next — is a supernatural faith. Without talk of hope in the City of God, the lecture lacked a fundamental coherence that no anecdote about Desmond Tutu, Elizabeth Warren, or President Obama could supply. It lacked even a discussion of the character that the Tigers’ season might have instilled in the audience. (It is possible that part went right over my head, since I’m a Rangers fan and the experts have picked us to win in 6 games.)

The lack of any transcendent meaning in the talk may have been why the youth of today weren’t there. Times are hard, employment is scare, it’s a bad time to be graduating college and looking for a job. But young people don’t have time to go hear someone tell them that if they hope for more from this life, they’ll get it. Wallis should stay away from that message anyway, since Joel Osteen delivers it better.

Someone looking for a gathering of energized youth in Grand Rapids should come in June for Acton University. That’s a gathering based on true hope, and the attendees (with an average age probably 40 years lower than in Fountain Street Church crowd) gather from scores of countries to discuss economic growth motivated and guided by a transcendent faith. Until Wallis’s message goes a little deeper, he continue to expect audiences that just want to be told they’ve lived a benignant life.

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg’s reaction to last night’s GOP presidential debate is up at NRO’s The Corner. Like most people who saw the debate, he didn’t like the childish bickering, of which he says “the trivializing effects upon serious discussion are hard to deny.”

“There were, however, two useful moments,” he says:

One was several candidates’ efforts to put the contemporary disease of identity politics in its appropriate place (i.e., the grave).

The second was a number of candidates’ willingness to make the hard-to-hear but nevertheless accurate observation that the best way to address the slump in housing prices in places likeNevadais to allow the housing market to stabilize under its own volition. No matter how noble the intentions, government mortgage-relief programs have proved economically ineffective, and, in many instances they are deeply unjust. Who knows? If GOP presidential candidates are willing to make this point, maybe some of them will eventually dare to talk seriously about entitlement reform.

Hope springs eternal!

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg tackles the question of religious liberty in Islamic states this morning, over at The American Spectator. In a piece titled “The Arab Spring’s Forgotten Freedom,” Gregg describes the tensions between Christians seeking religious freedom in the Middle East and the Islamic states they inhabit, and then looks hopefully to the source of a resolution.

For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.

These trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.

Gregg points out that the Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted since 1900 (when it was about 20 percent) for ethnic and for political reasons.

Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.

First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That’s one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state’s capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.

Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God’s nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn’t so problematic for such a Divinity’s adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.

If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.”

Gregg sees hope, however, in thinkers like Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol, whose recent book Islam Without Extremes makes the Islamic case for religious freedom. Though most Western religious thinkers do little to plead the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, Gregg thinks the central cause of the persecution, and thus the ultimate solution, is to be found in Islamic thought.

In the end, non-Muslims can’t resolve Islam’s religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable — and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.

Mustafa Akyol happens to be speaking today at a luncheon hosted by the Cato Institute. Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren will be providing commentary. If you are in Washington, D.C., you won’t want to miss it!

I can always find common ground with the Distributists I meet. We want to replace the government-corporate cronyism that characterizes so much of our current economic system. And we want our culture to raise up young people with the skills, virtues and freedom to accumulate productive capital and invest it in ways that promote human flourishing for themselves and others.

But then there’s the question of centralized political power in the economy. Sometimes when Distributism is described, you get the sense that Distributism and one of its leading early proponents, Hilaire Belloc, have always been committed to a largely grass roots, bottom-up strategy of change. But Belloc himself painted a different picture in An Essay on the Restoration of Property:

We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. The effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice. (P.29)

So when I have a conversation with Distributists, the first thing I like to clear up is what they mean by Distributism. Do they merely want people and companies to model best-Distributist practices voluntarily, so as to propagate Distributist ideas and behaviors in a free marketplace of ideas? Do they just want to get the federal government out of the job of picking winners and losers in the economy? Or do they also want to vote in politicians who will arrogate to the federal government expanded powers to seize and redistribute private property and keep it more evenly distributed?

Until those questions are cleared up, the opportunities for muddle and fog are just too great to bother wading in.

Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property, (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2002).

There are no more Christian churches in Afghanistan — not a single public house of Christian worship is left standing. In other news, NATO success against the Taliban may have been intentionally exaggerated, although we already knew that progress in that country is… slow. It’s no surprise, of course, that the United States hasn’t been able to establish self government-in-a-box in a country where, according to the State Department, religious liberty has declined measurably even in the last year.

Religious liberty must be at the heart of any free society, because if it is not protected, all other defenses are sure to fall. The abuses of Christians in Afghanistan violate not only their rights of conscience, but also their rights of property and even of free movement — their churches are seized and they are imprisoned. Contracts with Christians are not enforced, converts to Christianity are openly persecuted, and Afghan politicians approve of all of this.

We should not expect that in ten years our diplomats could have effected a constitutional transformation of Afghanistan. Liberty “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” as Lord Acton said, “from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered” in Western Europe. (He delivered that address in 1877, so you’ll want to update the numbers.)

But a backslide is cause for concern. It suggests that there is something wrong with the conception of human freedom that is motivating our efforts.

Blog author: kspence
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Acton director of research Samuel Gregg offers his thoughts on last night’s GOP Roundtable in this NRO Symposium. Gregg thinks the debate offered an important alternative to the government-driven economy talk that fills the news every other night of the week.

In a week in which two American economists from the non-Keynesian side of the ledger received the Nobel Prize for Economics, last night’s GOP debate gave us some insight into the depth and character of the various candidates’ free-market commitments and the different policy priorities which flow from the various forms of those commitments.

But if the ideas were strong, they were a reminder of separation between our free market ideals and our considerably less free economy:

For the most part, the candidates focused upon the institutional background that either impedes or facilitates economic growth: the regulatory environment, tax levels, trade policy, monetary policy, etc. Listening to the responses was a salutary reminder of the gap betweenAmerica’s free-market aspirations and rhetoric, and the rather different Eurosclerotic economic reality that has slowly envelopedAmerica– and not just over the past three years, but over several decades.

The only way we’re really going to get our economy going, is by addressing entitlements.

The surprising omission was substantial discussion of the issue of welfare reform and the related question of America’s public debt. While Obamacare was continually criticized because of its costs, that’s only part of the picture. Substantive entitlement reform is indispensable if we want to significantly reduce the spending and deficits that threaten to suck the life out of America’s economy. Addressing this subject is of course very politically risky because far too many Americans are more attached to the welfare state than they care to admit. But if fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to tackle this issue, then who will?

The green tech firm Solyndra secured at $535 million federal loan guarantee in 2009 and was touted as an example of a promising green future. A month ago, the company went bankrupt. Here are the top five lessons we should learn from Solyndra’s collapse.

5. Both sides of the aisle are involved. Republican support of federal “investment” is routine — in fact, the DOE program that made Solyndra’s loan was approved by President Bush. It is true that Solyndra’s original application to the Bush era loan program was denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but then stimulus bill was passed, with Republican support in the Senate.

4. Stimulus tends to be wasted, and gigantic stimulus is wasted gigantically. The DOE guaranteed loan program’s budget was almost doubled by the stimulus bill, and it became more a money-shoveling operation than a subsidized bank. As Steven F. Hayward wrote in The Weekly Standard, “More than one DOE staffer told me at the time that they didn’t know how they were going to be able to spend all the stimulus money being thrown at the department.”

(Personally, I thought the stimulus bill was great — stimulus money disbursed by the NIH funded my part time job in a lab through college and a lot of the fancy equipment I got to use, but it’s unclear how that use of public money accomplished the Congress’s goal.)

3. Government money turns businesses into consumers, not producers. The Washington Post reported that Solyndra began spending money wildly once it received the DOE loan. “After we got the loan guarantee, they were just spending money left and right,” said a former engineer at the company. And as the Energy Department found itself disbursing money rather than “investing” it, businesses that wanted that money adjusted their efforts accordingly. Investing decisions are made based on a company’s product: can it sell enough to profit its investors? Free money is passed out with considerably less forethought.

Businesses that are serious about getting their share of government cheese (especially businesses like Solyndra for whom the government loan is four or five times the amount of a private investment) turn their focus away from producing something in a financially sustainable way, and become as dependent on government as the clients of the Roman Senate.

2. This story is applicable to the rest of green jobs. Solar trade groups have been defending federal support of the industry, saying for example “You can’t judge an industry by the bankruptcy of one company.” But though Solyndra had its personal demons — its chief competitive advantage evaporated, for instance, when the price of polysilicone fell 85 percent — there’s nothing to distinguish the main faults of this loan deal from any other the DOE might make. These types of disbursals, whichever bureau they come from and whomever they go to, encourage consumption instead of production.

1. Entrepreneurs drive economic growth. Government subsidies pervert the natural incentives of a free market, which is why they’re a bad way to create jobs. They also pervert the nature of work, and in that way violate the Christian vocation. As I explained in an Acton Commentary, the government commodifies workers when it buys jobs, because it strips them of the dignity of productive work and treats them like so many votes to be bought.