Category: General

Two new and intriguing books from Cambridge University Press have crossed my editorial desk recently. Anticipate reviews to appear in the Journal of Markets & Morality sometime next year; but in the meantime I wanted to give them each a plug.

Both draw on the philosophical tradition of the natural law to address contemporary debates in social/political thought. The argument of Christopher Wolfe’s Natural Law Liberalism is summed up in a blurb by Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley: “No one who reads this book should continue to think that natural law is somehow incompatible with liberty, human equality, and limited democratic government.”

Speaking of Notre Dame, Mary Keys is an associate professor of political science there, and she offers a treatise on Aquinas, Aristotle, and the Promise of the Common Good. Her point of departure is the inadequacy of contemporary efforts to articulate a compelling vision of the common good, such as John Rawls (liberal), Michael Sandel (communitarian), and William Galston (pluralist).

Blog author: mvandermaas
Thursday, November 16, 2006
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From time to time, I come across something that forces me to stop, step back, and marvel at the wonder of human creativity. The movie below is one of those things.

Airplanes are so commonplace that we often take them for granted. Here at Acton, many of my colleagues are regularly catching flights to all sorts of points on the globe, and it isn’t unusual for me to hear some grumbling about the airlines and the annoyances that come along with modern air travel. But you won’t hear that from me – I have never lost the fascination with airplanes that I had as a young child, and I treasure the opportunity to fly.

Imagine – I could get onto an airplane today, climb to an altitude over five miles above the surface of the earth at speeds approaching 800 feet per second, all while balanced on a point where the opposing forces of thrust, drag, lift and gravity are in perfect harmony, and all in relative comfort. And in doing so, I would join into an intricate international choreography of aircraft that end up creating the delicate and beautiful patterns that you see above.

Take a moment today to appreciate the gift of liberty that can unleash human creativity. And then take some time to stand in awe of the Creator who our human creativity only dimly reflects.

Blog author: jarmstrong
Thursday, October 19, 2006
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I spent another wonderful day in Washington, D.C. today. It was a gorgeous fall day in every way. I had an opportunity to spend several hours with Rev. Dan Claire, who works with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) and also pastors The Church of the Resurrection, a fine young church on Capital Hill. (I hope to preach there in 2007.) Dan is an unusually gifted Christian leader with a real vision for a missional church in an emerging context. He, and two other ministers who work with him, have seen rapid growth and exciting response to the gospel over the past four years. Dan is also completing a doctoral program in biblical studies at the Catholic University of America, which we toured following lunch. We also visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, one of American Catholicism’s greatest buildings. (It is truly gorgeous and reverential place, though the Marian elements did not move me. Some of the more clearly biblical elements, expressed in various mosaics, are breathtakingly beautiful.)

During the morning hours I made two sight seeing stops. The first was at the National Zoo where I saw the most famous guests in Washington, two panda bears from China who grace the newly opened Asian Trail. Then I found a historical site that few know even exists, the Woodrow Wilson House, located at 2340 S Street NW. This historic home is the only presidential museum in the District. (The 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, is buried in the District, near the National Cathedral.) I am interested in Wilson for several reasons. His presidency, in so many ways, was the first “modern” presidency. Our role in the world changed under his leadership more than under any previous president. I am also interested in Wilson because of his deep devotion to a thoughtful version of Reformed Christianity, of which I feel sure some readers are not aware.

Wilson’s father was a devout Presbyterian minister. At one time Wilson thought that he would pursue the ministry but eventually he chose to become an educator, finally serving as president of Princeton University. After this call he was elected governor of New Jersey. This political turn led to his being elected president in 1912. His ability as a teacher was apparently unique and his students loved him. An introvert, he loved to study and write and was often misjudged because he did not enjoy long conversation and small talk. This hurt his public perception as president, especially following Teddy Roosevelt as he did.

At the Wilson House there is a display that was created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. In that display there is a reference to Woodrow Wilson’s faith. I wrote the quote down in order to keep it. Here is what Wilson wrote:

Never for a moment have I had a doubt about my religious beliefs. There are people who believe only so far as they can understand—that seems to me presumptuous and sets their understanding as the standard of the universe.

Wilson was a historian and college administrator, as well as one of our most gifted presidents. He was a keen intellectual. He was not saying, by the above statement, that he never found problems in his study of the Bible or in his thoughts about Christian faith. It is evident to me that what he meant was that these problems never caused him to have real doubts about his beliefs because he knew his mind was not the final judge of truth in the universe. Not a bad expression of faith at all coming from a serious intellectual, or anyone else for that matter. I think it could be said that Wilson reflected the ancient Christian understanding that one believes in order to understand, not vice versa.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

A brief bit of Herman Bavinck, taken from his Beginselen der psychologie, 2d. ed. (Kampen: Kok, 1923); English translation Foundations of Psychology, trans. trans. Jack Vanden Born (M.C.S. Thesis: Calvin College, 1981). p. 92:

The freedom with which imagination brings forward its creation is, however, not a lawlessness. Unbridled fantasy produces only the outrageous. As fantasy is objectively, albeit indirectly, bound to the elements of the visible world, so it must subjectively be under the control of understanding. It must be led by moral ideas especially. But within these limitations fantasy is a splendid capacity.

See also, “The Morality of Narrative Imagination.”

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
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A while ago, I reported Damon Linker’s turn against his erstwhile colleagues at First Things. Now The New Republic online (free registration required) features an unusually productive and revealing debate between Linker and Atlantic Monthly‘s Ross Douthat on the threat, or lack thereof, posed by “theocons” such as Richard John Neuhaus (and the Acton Institute?).

I especially enjoyed their exchange on the role of religion in historical American social movements, which Douthat got the better of. This passage comes in the context of Douthat’s argument that the use of religious argumentation is hardly unusual in American history and that many political accomplishments that are widely considered beneficial would have been impossible, or at least more difficult, without it:

But the fact remains that the advocates of racial equality didn’t defend their ideals in secular-civic terms–or at least not nearly as often as they defended them in terms of the Christian morality that most of their fellow American shared. And they wouldn’t have succeeded without precisely these kinds of religious appeals, which were crucial to building white American support for black America’s civil rights…. I’m happy to concede that religious believers might benefit, at times, from couching their political arguments in nonreligious terms. But the deal you’re offering, in which religious Americans are supposed to abandon appeals that have the capacity to stir not only the reason of their fellow citizens, but their consciences and souls as well, sounds like a fool’s bargain to me.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, October 5, 2006
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Anyone familiar with the history of conservative thought and politics in the United States knows that there have always been tensions among various strains of the “movement,” not least that between traditional Christians and secular libertarians. See, for example, George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.

(To simplify severely, the Acton Institute can be seen as straddling this tension, often taking up policy positions that are shared by libertarians but hewing to Christian tradition with respect to the existence of objective moral norms, etc.)

It is within this context that one might consider Andrew Sullivan’s new book, The Conservative Soul. In one sense, Sullivan’s views are simply another instance of the ongoing tension between religious conservatives and libertarians. But then Sullivan is a special case because he considers himself Catholic (though hardly a traditional one). He also stretches his connection to conservatism to the breaking point (or past?) by characterizing anyone who accepts the possibility of knowing any truth with certainty as “fundamentalist.”

The basis for my comment is this scathing review by Mark Gauvreau Judge.

Blog author: dphelps
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
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Talk about separation of Church and State.

Ah, Autumn in an even year. The crisp smell of approaching winter, the exploding color on the trees, and the sound of the desperate mad dash for votes. As I was travelling a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a play Flannery O’Connor claimed was “good if you don’t know it, better if you do.” It is the story of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Caterbury who was killed under orders from a jilted King Henry II.

I thought a particular scene does a fine job of laying out the temptation that politcal power can bring, and it seemed to me that what the Tempter says to Thomas in the following passage about power and legacy might shed light on many political aspirations.

TEMPTER
The Chancellorship that you resigned
When you were made Archbishop — that was a mistake
On your part — still may be regained. Think, my Lord,
Power obtained grows to glory,
Life lasting, a permanent possession.
A templed tomb, monument of marble.
Rule over men reckon no madess.

THOMAS
To the man of God what gladness?

TEMPTER
Sadness
Only to those giving love to God alone.
Shall he who held the solid substance
Wander waking with deceitful shadows?
Power is present. Holiness hereafter.

THOMAS
Who then?

TEMPTER
The Chancellor. King and Chancellor.
King commands. Chancellor richly rules.
This is a sentence not taught in the schools.
To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?
Disarm the ruffian, strengthen the laws,
Rule for the good of the better cause,
Dispensing justice make all even,
Is thrive on earth, and perhaps in heaven.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, Beliefnet, in conjunction with Sojourners, is hosting a blog based on Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

One of the key features in the blog’s short tenure to date is a discussion between Jim Wallis and Ralph Reed, former leader of the Christian Coalition. Jim says that Ralph is his “first dialogue partner on God’s Politics,” so perhaps we can expect more to come.

And in case you haven’t seen it, Acton’s Jay Richards reviewed Wallis book in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone magazine.

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
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Received some emails in the past week from the folks at Magnolia Pictures announcing the release of Jesus Camp, which they call a "new, controversial documentary." According to one mailer, "The film follows children at an Evangelical summer camp, as they hone their prophetic gifts and are schooled in how to take back America for Christ."

Disclaimer – I haven’t seen it. Haven’t even been offered comp tickets to attend a screening of it, though I have been asked to promote it, which seems rather odd (and by your reading this, may be too late to avoid). You can see clips of it here and here.

Apparently some "Evangelical leaders" – the emails don’t say which – aren’t happy about it. Maybe they don’t like the portrayal of this Pentecostal summer camp as an American madrassa, as David Byrne (who has seen the film) puts it. In any event, Eamonn Bowles, President of Magnolia Pictures, felt it necessary to release the following statement:

“We’re frankly surprised and a little disheartened by the efforts of prominent members of the evangelical community to clamp down on JESUS CAMP. Whether or not the children and camp depicted in the film represents the ‘mainstream’ of the Evangelical movement is beside the point: they exist, the film documents them, and the subjects feel they’ve been treated fairly. Why a community that’s so quick to attack discrimination from secular Americans would then turn and do the same to other Evangelicals is unexpected, to say the least.”

Christianity Today interviewed the film’s documentrixes. Besides Byrne’s and Bowles’ comments, their interview suggests what might be bugging some conservative evangelicals:

You talk about the range of evangelicals you came across. Would Mike Papantonio [a radio talk-show host who appears throughout the film, and at one point debates Fischer] self-identify as an evangelical? Grady: No, he’s not evangelical. He’s a Methodist, he goes to a mainline church, but he’s quite devoted to his church. [snip] Ewing: . . .While Mike is not officially a born-again Christian, he does echo a lot of the concerns that these gentlemen have, and we thought this was a more creative way to vent those concerns, because he is a Christian. He just thinks that the politicization of the church is going to be the downfall of it, and he doesn’t like that association. So officially, no, he’s not a born-again, but he does, I think, speak very well for the concerns of Christians that don’t like the political nature of the evangelical movement, or at least of the far right part of that movement.

He’s not evangelical – he’s a Methodist. Heh. Will have to remember that one. I think these ladies are being modest about their protagonist. Their own promotional materials say this about Papantonio:

The film also features a counterpoint, in the form of excerpts from Michael Papantonio’s "Ring of Fire" show on NPR’s Air America. Though he frequently takes aim at the fundamentalist Christian movement, Papantonio is an active Methodist who admits that his moral compass comes from his faith.

…a show Mike shares with Bobby Kennedy, where "two of the nation’s most dynamic legal warriors" take on "corporate crooks, polluters, hypocritical preachers and ugly politicians."

First, I doubt evangelical leadership is discriminating against Pentecostals, but rather decrying the exploitation of this group by religious folk like Papantonio and the secular Left. Conservatives may well be frustrated by a portrayal of this group as "mainstream," but since the Body of Christ is pretty diverse anyway, the whole what-is-mainstream-thing is territory in which neither evangelicals nor secular movie makers should tread.

Second, Magnolia clearly has a right to make the film. Pastors also have a right to counsel their flock according to what they know about the film, and the folks in the pews have a right to spend or not spend their family cash as they (prayerfully) see fit.

Third, by their own admission, Jesus Camp was meant to be "controversial." It seems pretty disingenuous for Mr. Bowles to turn around and complain when Evangelicals pan the film, then accuse Christian critics of discriminating against another Christian group.

All that said, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover (and the liner notes). In the case of Jesus Camp, I’m not going to waste my time with it. Recommend you do the same. I also hope/assume that the crack Acton readership will quickly roll in and correct me if I’ve misjudged the picture.

[Don’s other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist]

UPDATE: If it helps, I checked the United Pentecostal Church website and updated the spelling above, though many sites use pente and penta interchangeably. db

Voltaire had a saying: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” or, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”

It’s often repeated, especially in public policy circles, that the perfect the enemy of the good, implying that you should favor the realistic good that can be done rather than the unattainable perfect ideal.

And now you know why. Because “good” beats “perfect” in a Google Fight, and by a rather handy margin.

HT: Seth’s Blog, which compares “unique”, “best”, and “finest”.

Oh, and one more thing. Dark Helmet was wrong when he said, “Evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.” See for yourself.