Category: General

Blog author: jarmstrong
posted by on Thursday, June 8, 2006

Social and political theory is widely and, quite often, grossly misunderstood. What we call conservatism today, at least in several very important ways, was once called federalism, or classical liberalism. A central idea of this federalism was that the state should be built from below, not from above. Numerous orthodox Christian thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, have explained and defended classical liberalism over the course of the past two or three centuries.

It is in this sense that Pope Benedict XVI is also a classical liberal, as was the Dutch giant Abraham Kuyper, when it comes to the philosophy of the state (See also my March 31 blog post on Deus Caritas Est).

Emil Brunner (1889–1966)

One of the leading twentieth-century Protestant defenders of classical liberalism was Emil Brunner (1889–1966), the Swiss Reformed theologian. Drawn to religious socialism as a young man, Emil Brunner had a profound change of mind after seeing the damage of World War I. In his book Justice and the Social Order he argued that the modern state—with its totalitarian, atheistic and collectivist tendencies—should be opposed by a rigorous social ethic that grows out of Reformed, biblical and personalistic commitments. To hear Brunner’s arguments now makes him sound like an intellectual proponent of major portions of the modern conservative movement, at least on the academic side.

Brunner further argued that “the state [must be] built up from below.” And since God has ordained certain “orders of creation” these orders are part of his preserving (common) grace for organizing human life. Acton’s site further notes that Brunner wrote: “[that] these orders include human communities in the ‘economic, technical, purely social, and intellectual spheres.’” Brunner further argued that community does not equal state, a position in contrast to the arguments routinely advanced today by modern liberals like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton.

Brunner believed community existed apart from the state. As a noteworthy example, he argued that the family was the “primal community” whose “rights take absolute precedence” over every other institution. And between the family and the state, Brunner reasoned, there must be a number of “intermediate links” that God ordained for varying purposes. The state has two primary responsibilities to these “links.” First, it should never usurp them. Second, it should positively preserve and protect them. This approach severely limits the state’s legitimate authority. This, then, is why modern conservatives are actually closer to classical liberalism than are modern liberals, who promote the state as the primary means for solving social problems.

Next time you want to start after-dinner conversations about politics tell your guests that you have decided to become a “classical liberal.” Then watch what happens. Maybe everyone would learn something valuable if we actually considered the real meaning of some very old, and very noble, terms that we assume we understand.

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."

I blogged last week on the ongoing dispute between China and the Vatican. Another demographic giant with tremendous economic potential—and some religious freedom issues—is India. ZENIT reports on Pope Benedict’s address to the new Indian ambassador to the Holy See (May 18 daily dispatch).

The pope took the opportunity to make a pointed comment on the subject:

The disturbing signs of religious intolerance which have troubled some regions of the nation, including the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom, must be firmly rejected as not only unconstitutional, but also as contrary to the highest ideals of India’s founding fathers, who believed in a nation of peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance between different religions and ethnic groups.

The problem of religious oppression in India is different from—and not as severe—as it is in China. But where Christians live in fear of violence, there is obviously room for improvement. For more details on the state of the matter in India, see the 2006 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, May 12, 2006

Over at the Alabama Policy Institute, Gary Palmer takes on University of Alabama law professor Susan Pace Hamill and her assertion that Christians have an obligation to pay higher taxes. In “No Biblical Mandate for Higher Taxes,” Palmer examines her “theocratic tax inquisition.”

In one article directed at Christians in Alabama, Professor Hamill contends that to be truly pro-life you must also support paying higher taxes to give the government more money to provide more government programs for the poor. She contends that because we are all fallen beings with “…inescapable greedy tendencies…a pro-life community cannot rely on charity to meet these standards and must compel taxation.”

Read the full article here.

And here’s a quote from Hamill’s recent “Tax Policy Offends Christian Values.”

Federal law must force us to pay taxes to meet these common needs because nobody pays their fair share voluntarily. Due to our inescapable greedy tendencies resulting from the Fall of humankind, charitable giving cannot replace adequate tax revenues. An “A+” in charity will never average an “F” in justice to a “C.”

The biblical messages, “to whom much is given, much more is required”, and, wealth can only be held with a “light grip” require the tax burden to be moderately progressive. This is not socialistic confiscation.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, May 5, 2006

“There is a time for everything, / and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to tear and a time to mend, / a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7 NIV).

On April 19, 1963, writing from the jail in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the following words:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

King was responding to what he called the “white moderate” who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” King concluded that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

This reminds me of an exchange that took place in 1933 between theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. Earlier in the year, the Nazis had passed the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums), which contained the so-called Aryan clauses.

This section of the law required that any civil servant of non-Aryan descent be “retired” or “dismissed.” That summer, the German Christian (or Deutsche Christen [DC]) party of the state church would go on to win a huge victory in the church elections. (more…)

Blog author: bsikma
posted by on Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Ota Benga

Sometimes the spirit of an age prevails with such force that it moves the highest pinnacles of cultural influence to support the grossest indignities.

Consider the early 1900s. During this time, the prevailing zeitgeist of Darwinism gave rise to the tragic dehumanization of a Pygmy named Ota Benga. What follows are a few salient points from Cynthia Crossen’s story as published in The Wall Street Journal’s Déjà vu column “How Pygmy Ota Benga Ended Up in Bronx Zoo As Darwinism Dawned” on February 6, 2006. It is also available here.

Ms. Crossen tells the story of how, in 1903, Ota was bought in Africa, brought to the United States, and in 1904 became part of a living display of the stages of evolution at the St. Louis World’s Fair. After the fair and a string of events, he found himself in the monkey cages at the Bronx Zoo.

The New York Times noted, “It is probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply. … If he did it isn’t likely that he was very proud of himself when he woke in the morning and found himself under the same roof with the orangutans and monkeys.”

The Rev. James Gordon of the Colored Baptist Minster’s Conference rejected the Times’ opinion. “Our race is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings with souls.”

But the Times brushed aside the criticism: “It is absurd to moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering. … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.” The director of the zoo didn’t get it either, saying, “He has one of the best rooms in the primate house.”

In 1916 Ota stole a revolver and shot himself. “Evidently he felt that he would rather die than work for a living,” the director offhandedly observed.

I believe that Ms. Crossen’s story calls us back as a society to affirm the basic worth of the human person. Religion, when rightly understood and practiced, can inform other disciplines, such as law, economics, or journalism, of this principle. Our economic model should embrace this affirmation, and will therefore fit with what we know of the motivations of the human person, as a being created to live in freedom and love, to own and to offer up, to create and cooperate, to lead and serve. Without this understanding, we—all of us—could mistakenly believe ourselves to be just the best primates in the zoo.

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Monday, May 1, 2006

Today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker:

Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being”.

For the rest of this encyclical, Laborem Exercens, click here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, April 24, 2006

While doing research for my upcoming lecture at the Drexel University Libraries’ Scholarly Commmunication Symposium, I ran across this excellent book by Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: Free Press, 1997). Dr. Murray at that time was a professor at MIT and is now at Georgia Tech.

One of the interesting things that Dr. Murray discusses is the necessary element of what she calls “moral physics” in narrative worlds. She writes, “Stories have to have an equivalent ‘moral physics,’ which indicates what consequences attach to actions, who is rewarded, who is punished, how fair the world is. By moral physics I mean not only right and wrong but also what kinds of stories make sense in this world, how bad a loss characters are allowed to suffer, and what weight is attached to those losses.”

This observation reminds me of Agent Smith’s speech to Morpheus in the first installment of the Matrix trilogy. While rhapsodizing about the origins of the Matrix, Smith relates this tale:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

I think Murray’s analysis is reflected in Smith’s character, and that this is a representation of the moral realities that objectively exist in our world.

The moral order is, after all, objectively real. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.”

There are normative limits then to the imaginative creation of fictional narratives. In the same way that even an anti-metaphysician is still a metaphysician of a kind, attempts to create amoral or anti-moral worlds are still grounded in the moral order.

This is in part because, as Murray rightly notes, “When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely ‘suspend’ a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience.” The creative faculty, the active imagination, is not insulated and cannot be isolated from human moral faculties.

Related items:

Jordan Ballor, “The Matrix Anthrophology,” Acton Institute PowerBlog (August 26, 2005).

John Bolt, “The Necessity of Narrative Imagination for Preaching,” in Reading and Hearing the Word: From Text to Sermon: Essays in Honor of John H. Stek, ed. Arie C. Leder (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary/CRC Publications, 1998), pp. 203-217.

Vigen Guroian, Rallying The Really Human Things: Moral Imagination In Politics, Literature & Everyday Life (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005).

Peter J. Schakel, “Irrigating Deserts with Moral Imagination,” Religion & Liberty (Winter 2006).

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Maximilien Robespierre

The name Robespierre is synonymous with terror and mass murder. But the author of The Terror that accompanied the French Revolution was also the prototype of the revolutionary leader who would become all too familiar in the 20th Century. Robespierre loosed the hordes of hell on his people, utterly convinced that he was preserving the purity of his political movement. In the current City Journal, John Kekes offers a fascinating analysis of Robespierre, the man, and those who have since adopted his method. “Why Robespierre Chose Terror” also looks at the way “reasonable” people filter ideologies by subjecting them to a healthy skepticism:

An ideology is a worldview that makes sense of prevailing political conditions and suggests ways of improving them. Typical ideologies include among their elements a metaphysical outlook that provides a God’s-eye view of the world, a theory about human nature, a system of values whose realization will supposedly ensure human well-being, an explanation of why the actual state of affairs falls short of perfection, and a set of policies intended to close the gap between the actual and ideal. This last component—commitment to a political program and its implementation—is what distinguishes ideologies from religious, personal, aesthetic, or philosophical systems of belief. Ideologies aim to transform society. Other systems of belief do not involve such a commitment; if they do, they become ideological.

In the course of history, many different and incompatible ideologies have held sway, all of them essentially speculative interpretations that go beyond undeniable facts and simple truths. Resting on fallible hypotheses about matters that transcend the existing state of knowledge, they are especially prone to wishful, self-deceiving, anxious, or self-serving thinking—to unchecked flights of fantasy and imagination. Reasonable people therefore regard ideologies, including their own, with robust skepticism and demand of them conformity to elementary standards of reason: logical consistency, the explanation of indisputable and relevant facts, responsiveness to new evidence and serious criticism, and recognition that the success or failure of policies derived from them counts as confirming or disconfirming evidence.

As Kekes points out, the first object of terror for the revolutionary ideologue is often his own people.

But the chief reason that people followed [Robespierre] was fear. No one was safe, and people hastened to testify by words and deeds that they were loyal, enthusiastic supporters. Robespierre wielded his power over life and death as arbitrarily as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did. Arbitrariness is the key to terror: if there are no rules, justifications, or reasons, then everyone is at risk. People can try to minimize the risk only by outdoing others in toeing the line. Dictators understand that, and it explains much of the “spontaneous demonstrations” and public adulation that they extract from the duped and terrified people at their mercy.

A pretty fair definition of political freedom might begin with — the freedom from fear of one’s rulers.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, April 4, 2006

A former editor at First Things, Damon Linker, has written a piece for The New Republic, which attacks, among others, his former boss, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Linker claims that Neuhaus is a “theocon,” who wants to merge religious authority and political power.

Rick Garnett at Mirror of Justice has all the details, including links to blog discussions and his previous post, criticizing Linker’s argument.

I’ve read First Things for years and, in my judgment, the truth lies with Linker’s critics.

The resemblance is uncanny.

Who said liberation theology was dead?