Category: Individual Liberty

(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)

“This strange child” is how Hildegard was once described. Born in 1098, she was known to have visions, but kept them private for many years. Her family sent her at the age of 8 for religious education. It was not until the age of 42 that she realized the full extent of her visions and her understanding of religious texts. She sought the advice of St. Bernard and then Pope Eugenius so that her visions would never be seen as anything outside of or against Church teaching.

iconographer: Richard Cannuli

iconographer: Richard Cannuli

Hildegard’s work was some of the most prolific and wide-ranging in church history. She wrote music, plays, theology, and natural history. She also left behind massive correspondence. Besides writing to those who sought prayerful and private advice, she took to task men like Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, the archbishop of Main, and King Henry II of England. She was known to openly approach medical subjects (such as menstruation) and political and religious topics even some men would not discuss.

The 12th century was one of schisms and religious turmoil, and Hildegard was openly critical of those who spoke against the Church. However, the practice of burning heretics, popular at this time, was one Hildegard eschewed: “Do not kill them, for they are God’s image.”

Some feminist theologians of the 20th century have found Hildegard to be “feminist-friendly“, focusing on her apparent disobedience of a local bishop when relocating her convent. However, nothing suggests that Hildegard was anything but a true scholar, a student of science, reason and theology, who sought to work within the Church’s tradition of intellectual endeavor. In 2012, now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared Hildegard of Bingen a “Doctor of the Church”: a title given to certain saints known for their work that leads to new understandings of the Catholic Church’s Faith. It is in the realm of faith, reason, and intellect that Hildegard can be regarded a woman of liberty.

International Women’s Day has been celebrated on March 8 since 1911, when Clara Zetkin, a member of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, proposed the yearly event that has its roots in women’s suffrage. It is good to remember that women have not always enjoyed the right to vote, the right to work in a safe environment and to earn a fair wage. Indeed, many women around the world still do not enjoy such basic rights. However, the website promoting International Women’s Day is disheartening, in that it chooses to focus on controversial – and sometimes tasteless – issues.

iwd_squareFor instance, one video highlights women staging a “topless demonstration” (with full frontal nudity) in Istanbul to protest domestic violence; it’s unclear how nudity helps protect women against violence. Another video uses a supermodel in a piece entitled “Smart is the New Sexy”. However, the video equates attractiveness with doing something about global poverty. Sexy is still sexy, and smart is about being hip and beautiful, apparently. Finally, there is a video from the Council of Commonwealth Societies called ‘Women as Agents of Change”.  This video highlights the importance of a girl’s health, education, opportunities and financial freedom. (more…)

mass_design_groupIn a recent issue of Metropolis Magazine, Thomas de Monchaux tells the story of an amazing lesson about innovation that Americans can learn from Rwandans. This is no surprise, but readers will learn that burdensome government regulations stifle innovation and undermine human flourishing.

De Monchaux recounts the story of Michael Murphy, executive director and co-founder of the Boston-based MASS Design Group, and Alan Ricks, MASS cofounder and COO, attempting to take what they learned from building health care facilitates and hospitals in Rwanda, with minimal building code regulations, and bringing that knowledge to building in the United States. He describes the project in Butaro, Rwanda this way:
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Fourteen members of Congress—including 13 women—sent a letter to the House leadership today asking that conscience rights be included in the upcoming budget bill. They mentioned specific violations of conscience rights, including the HHS Mandate:

“This attack on religious freedom demands immediate congressional action,” the 14 lawmakers wrote. “Nothing short of a full exemption for both nonprofit and for-profit entities will satisfy the demands of the Constitution and common sense.”

The continuing resolution that House appropriators released Monday would not cut off funding for the Affordable Care Act, despite years of conservative pressure to defund the healthcare law. But Tuesday’s letter, led by Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), indicates that fights over the health law could still roil the funding debate.

[. . .]

“Congress cannot ignore the relentless assault on the First Amendment right to religious freedom, and must act before the (Affordable Care Act) provisions are fully enacted in August of this year,” the lawmakers wrote to GOP leaders and appropriators in both chambers.

(Via: Public Catholic)

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that every conservative should read—and heed:

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.

The irony is maddening. America’s poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.

Meanwhile, the record of free enterprise in improving the lives of the poor both here and abroad is spectacular. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less—a traditional poverty measure—has fallen by 80% since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. That achievement is not the result of philanthropy or foreign aid. It occurred because billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.

Some say the solution for conservatives is either to redouble the attacks on big government per se, or give up and try to build a better welfare state. Neither path is correct. Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.

Read more . . .

What do we mean when we talk about “liberty?”

roman-slaveWhile it may appear that we all use the word in the same way, closer examination reveals that Americans have a wide range of meanings for the term. For instance, when those of us at Acton refer to liberty we tend to have in mind the definition we use in our “core principles”: Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one’s nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought.

Other individuals and organizations often define the term in ways that differ, either subtly or radically, from the Acton Institute. Liberty, then, is less an easily definable term than a word used to refer to a range of loosely related concepts. Understanding how “liberty” has been used in the past can therefore help us understand how and why we have different views of it today.

A prime example is political historian Quentin Skinner’s explanation of “neo-Roman liberty.”
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During his address to German students yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered a defense of freedom of speech and religion by saying that in the United States “you have a right to be stupid if you want to be.”

john-kerry“As a country, as a society, we live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance, whatever the religion, and political freedom and political tolerance, whatever the point of view,” Kerry told the students in Berlin, the second stop on his inaugural trip as secretary of state.

“People have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade even though it’s the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another,” he added.

“The reason is, that’s freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid – if you want to be,” he said, prompting laughter. “And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be.

“And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that’s a virtue. I think that’s something worth fighting for,” he added. “The important thing is to have the tolerance to say, you know, you can have a different point of view.”

No one familiar with John Kerry’s career should be surprised that he is snootily dismissive of Americans who hold views different from his own. And perhaps we should be grateful that a man who could have been president of the United States believes in “tolerating” those of us who stupidly oppose infringements on our religious liberties.

Still, as Ken Blackwell says, instead of talking of “tolerance” and how we “tolerate” ideas we think are stupid, Kerry might have told the young Germans about George Washington’s eloquent Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport.

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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Adam-eve-priest-animals-riverIn today’s Acton Commentary, I explore the Christian conception of law as a necessary palliative to the anti-social effects of sin. “Since we do not always govern ourselves as we ought to, in accord with the moral order, there must be some external checks and limits on our behavior,” I write.

In a complementary post over at There is Power in the Blog (the blog of the journal Political Theology), I also explore the theme of “Proper Reverence for Political Authority.” There I draw explicitly on the example of Abraham Kuyper, who sees “the state” as a uniquely post-lapsarian institution, but who also sees social and even political life as a natural expression of human nature.

There’s a wonderful passage in Kuyper’s lecture on Calvinism and politics that gets at what political life might have looked like without sin and the resulting need for coercive restraint: “Had sin not intervened…as a disintegrating force, had not divided humanity into different sections, nothing would have marred or broken the organic unity of our race.” Only in such a case “would the organic unity of our race be realized politically,” in which “one State could embrace all the world.”

But, in fact, sin has intervened, and therefore, as I point out in today’s commentary, “law and legal constraint protect true liberty, and prevent our earthly existence from degenerating into a hellish existence, a libertinism in which our anti-social desires are given full rein.”

And for another worthwhile discussion on “what kind of corporeal or political life men would have professed in the state of innocence,” check out the latest scholia translation and introduction of a text by Francisco Suárez in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

The February issue of Sojourners magazine presents various perspectives on the surge in evangelicalism’s interest in exploring new national and international peace initiatives. For example, The World Evangelical Alliance’s Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Initiative acknowledges “that in our zeal for evangelism, we have often overlooked the biblical mandate to pursue peace. We commit ourselves anew to this mandate within our homes, churches, communities, and among the nations.” Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) promotes itself as an evangelical organization that “consistently campaigns at the grassroots and policy level for a world that is pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-racial justice, pro-sexual integrity and pro-creation care.” “We want Christians to look deeply, act justly, and love radically,” says ESA.

Justice and peace are, of course, themes we can all support. What Christians are there in the world who are pro-war and pro-injustice? Even with these themes, however, is it possible that those who are oppressed and suffering need more than a society that is merely peaceful and where people are acting justly? Because “peace” and “justice” are normally situated in light of negative realities, more often than not, the discourse tends to focus on what we should not do in society instead what allows people to be free to live out their vocation to be human. The solutions offered tend to narrowly focus on lofty hoped for visions that deny trade-offs necessary in a broken world.

Additionally, we find the surprising promotion of a ruling class of elites in government having concentrated decision-making power over those with less money and less political power, rather than considering ways to allow people to make decisions that empower them to seek their own solutions to meeting their needs. We need to do more than “end slavery” or “end poverty.” We need to think more deeply about what it means to be human and how we can put people in positions, in accordance with their design by their Creator, to live well. In other words, we need to focus our attention on human flourishing.

In a 2003 article on human flourishing,” Dr. Edward W. Younkins helps us get a sense of the advantages of focusing on human flourishing: (more…)

In a lengthy interview in the Daily Caller, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg picks up many of the themes in his terrific new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Here’s an excerpt:

Daily Caller: In what ways do you think the U.S. has become like Europe?

Samuel Gregg: If you think about the criteria I just identified, it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.

Daily Caller: What’s so bad about becoming like Europe? It’s not that bad of a place. It’s not like becoming like North Korea, right?

Samuel Gregg: I lived and studied in Europe for several years. So I can report that there is much to like! But even leaving aside many European nations’ apparent willingness to settle for long-term economic stagnation, I would argue that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe. By that, I don’t mean a re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years. Rather I have in mind two things. (more…)