Category: News and Events

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
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You often hear that Europe is much more secular than America. Just take a look at the Netherlands, for instance. How much more secular can you get?

But one place in which this stereotype rings false is in terms of academic institutions. You can pursue (as I currently am) a degree in theology at a European public university. Can you imagine that in the United States?

No, here we have departments of “religious studies” in public colleges and universities (if we cover religion there at all, and to be sure, “theology” and “religion” aren’t identical). My friend Hunter Baker might point to this difference not as secularism in a strict sense, but rather an institutional separation between state and church (for more on his definition of secularism, check out his book, The End of Secularism).

And thus from accounts of the institutional differences between the academic study of religion and theological study in America, you might easily get the impression of a kind of intellectual or academic secularism. After all, to study theology in America, you have to go to a private college or seminary (as I also am currently doing). This perspective from the Chronicle of Higher Education is representative, “The Ethics of Being a Theologian,” in which K.L. Noll writes, in part,

I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.

Meanwhile, in secular Europe, as ENI’s Stephen Brown reports, “European theology faculties warn of shift to religious studies.” Read the rest of Brown’s story after the break.
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Join us in Grand Rapids on Thursday for the next Acton Lecture Series with Jordan Ballor, Research Fellow and Executive Editor, Journal of Markets & Morality. The lecture should be of interest to anyone whose church is a member or observer of ecumenical organizations.

Lecture description: On the heels of the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 18-27) , and in anticipation of the eleventh General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (Stuttgart, Germany, July 20-27), Jordan J. Ballor takes a look at recent developments in the public witness of the mainline ecumenical movement. Focusing especially the question of economic globalization, Ballor responds to ecumenical pronouncements, subjecting the movement’s witness in its various forms to a thoroughgoing ecclesiastical, ethical, and economic critique.

Register for “Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Appraisal” here.

Time and place:

Thursday, July 15th
Cassard Conference Room
Waters Building, 161 Ottawa Avenue NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

11:45 Registration, 12:00pm Lecture Begins

While you’re at it, listen to this interview with host Paul Edwards, of the Detroit-based Paul Edwards Program, about the ecumenical movement and Ballor’s new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Click on the audio icon below.

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Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg joins guest host Paul G. Kengor on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon. In this June 28 segment, Kengor asks, “When we talk as Catholics about elevation of the poor and service to those who are less fortunate, we often talk about subsidiarity and social justice. What do those terms mean in the context of Catholic social teaching?”

Listen to “Subsidiarity and Social Justice. What do those terms really mean?” by clicking on the audio player icon below.

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Samuel Gregg has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Read his Acton commentaries here. And his PowerBlog post: “What is the USCCB’s problem with subsidiarity?”

Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Grove City College, a four-year, private Christian liberal arts college in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He is executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, a Grove City College think-tank/policy center, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

Judith Dean, currently an international economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, has a worthwhile exploration of the relationship between Christian faith and economic research (HT). It’s up at the InterVarsity site for the Following Christ conference and is titled, “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research.”

There’s a lot of good, challenging, and insightful stuff here. As always, read it in full. But here’s a bit that’s especially incisive:

Especially for those working in government policy making bodies, there is a role for advocating change where policies are seen as creating results which are intolerable from the Christian standpoint, or where the economic system fails to address problems which a Christian cannot ignore. Large groups of such advocates already exist, quite often centered around specific issues. Though these groups may include economists, they are quite often made up of non-economists who care deeply about a particular problem (e.g. R. Sider, J. Wallis, and T. Campolo, who all have written about poverty issues). Some of these groups zealously advocate particular solutions to what they view as egregious injustices in the economy. Yet, lacking economic understanding, they fail to see that their proposals themselves are sometimes flawed.

Here the Christian economist’s expertise may be called upon to inform these “advocate groups” about the nature of the problem and the implications of different solutions. Many Christians want to be better informed in order to become better advocates. Yet they do no know where to go to get information. Sound economic reasoning which is made accessible to a non-professional audience is sorely needed. It is odd indeed that most contemporary Christian writing on economic issues for the general public is done by theologians or sociologists.

Note here the vigorous sense of Christian advocacy in the public square, and how it is to be informed by solid economic, social, and historical research. Note too that the advocacy described is generally not that which ought to be pursued by the institutional church, but by Christians organizing themselves organically in civil society.

As a theologian often writing on economic and public policy matters, I heartily endorse Dean’s call for more sustained, careful, and intentional engagement of Christian economists on these matters.

Read “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research” and leave a comment below.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Kevin Schmiesing looks at the exchange between Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and Sen. Tom Coburn over the interpretation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Elena Kagan’s Revealing Commerce Clause Evasion

by Kevin E. Schmiesing Ph.D.

Many Americans have a vague sense that the United States has drifted far from its constitutional origins. Every once in a while, something happens that prods us to recognize just how far we’ve gone.

Such was the case last week, during the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. One of the most widely circulated C-Span video clips was Senator Tom Coburn’s insistent question as to whether the Constitution’s commerce clause permitted Congress to pass a hypothetical law dictating that all Americans must eat a prescribed number of fruits and vegetables every day.

Kagan was clever enough to understand that what Coburn was really asking was, “Is it possible to justify the continued expansion of congressional powers—in particular recent health care reform legislation—on the basis of the authority granted by the commerce clause?” Kagan replied that the fruits and vegetables measure would be “dumb” law. She didn’t dare suggest that it would be unconstitutional, however, for she rightly recognized that she would be backing herself into a judicial corner. How many laws might she have to strike down as Supreme Court justice if she followed a “strict” interpretation of the Constitution?

Thus we’ve come to a point at which a Supreme Court nominee cannot bring herself to condemn a manifestly totalitarian law, because doing so would be utterly inconsistent with federal jurisprudence over the last 80 years. Kagan’s response shines a spotlight on the fact that the Constitution exercises little restraint upon the activities of our national government. This is dangerous territory.

There are rearguard actions from time to time. The Court invalidated campaign finance reform early this year, judging it to be a violation of first amendment rights—for which the justices were upbraided by President Obama on national television during a State of the Union Address. Yet, by and large, Congress acts with impunity to intervene in our economic affairs, usually justifying itself (in those rare cases when it feels the need to do so) by recourse to the commerce clause.

Perhaps it’s worth revisiting that passage from our founding document, on which millions of pages of federal regulation have been piled. Can it support such weight?

Congress shall have power, it says, “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” That’s it. The original purpose of this directive with respect to commerce “among the several States” was to ensure that there would be no interstate trade barriers. The formation of a vibrant national economy, the framers correctly understood, could not very well proceed when Ohio and Michigan erected tariffs against each other. So, the intent of the commerce clause was to protect the principle of free trade within the United States, leaving other financial and mercantile regulatory authority to each state.

Taking the Constitution seriously is important because the document forms the basis for the rule of law in this country. By ratifying it, the states and the citizens thereof affirmed the truth of a great paradox: Enacting limitations on ourselves is the only way to guarantee lasting and genuine freedom. It was a profoundly moral endeavor. The Christian notion of sin lay at the heart of many Americans’ belief that the tendency toward corruption and aggrandizement in government officials—and the potentially destructive whims of democratic majorities themselves—must be guarded against not only by promotion of personal virtue but also by legal instruments such as constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances.

For the most part, the Supreme Court honored the intent of the commerce clause until the 1930s, when the force of public sentiment and political pressure stemming from the Great Depression began to pry the lid off, loosing its potential as a Pandora’s box of federal government programs reaching into every corner of American life. In 1942, the Court defended a production quota on wheat set by the Department of Agriculture, upholding the prosecution of an Ohio farmer for growing too much. When he used his excess, the decision explained, he wouldn’t be buying that amount on the market. His flouting of the law thus affected interstate commerce.

Quod erat demonstrandum: The government can tell you what and how much to grow. Why can it not also tell you that you must purchase health insurance (and therefore what kind, and from which approved vendors)? And why can’t it tell you what and how much you may eat?

Our hope lies in our belief that, when a law is “dumb” enough, nine fellow Americans on the Supreme Court will have the good sense to strike it down. But we will be dependent on their sense alone. Although they will invoke the Constitution as a fig leaf for whatever judgment they render, we know the truth: Its value as a curb on government action—and therefore as a safeguard of freedom—was all-but-destroyed long ago.

Via the Volokh Conspiracy:

Mario Rizzo and Gerald O’Driscoll point to dueling letters to the editor from 1932 in The London Times by John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek on whether government spending can help cure contemporary economic woes. The letters, unearthed by Richard Ebeling, show that today’s debates over economic policy are, in many respects, a rerun of the debates of the 1930s.

Everything old is new again! Related: Fear the Boom and Bust

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
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Some may recall that before BP’s recent disaster (public relations and otherwise), there was a period of rebranding the company from ‘British Petroleum’ to ‘Beyond Petroleum.’

Beyond Petroleum

I’ve long argued that the opportunities afforded us by the use of fossil fuels are best spent seeking long-term sustainable and reliable sources of energy. These sources must include, and indeed in the nearer term be largely based upon, nuclear energy.

Two recent items underscore this: 1) the question of waste and what to do about it (HT); and 2) what waste actually is and is not. Says Hillsdale College econ prof Gary Wolfram, “95 percent of the used nuclear fuel could be recycled.”

My commentary this week is a simple message about the importance of returning to our founding principles and embracing the liberty granted to all of us as Americans. Independence Day should always serve as a significant reminder of the freedom narrative of this country that has provided so many people with opportunities to flourish and live out their dreams:

America’s Destiny Must Be Freedom

Ralph Waldo Emerson described America as “the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.” Many Americans don’t feel that way as pessimism has replaced a once vibrant optimism about the future. Economic malaise, crippling debt, and a mammoth oil gush in the Gulf Coast are daily reminders of seemingly unmovable obstacles.

Bob Herbert wrote a New York Times column echoing the sentiment of an aimless America titled “When Greatness Slips Away.” While many claim to have the answers to our economic woes and lack of confidence, we would do best to return to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the American Founding, and our freedom narrative. In past crises, they have been sources of American endurance and strength. They can be again.

Those sacred words from the Declaration—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—have been an inspiration to billions of people at home and abroad for centuries. Freedom from excessive centralization of power and the right of the citizenry to flourish without undue interference are hallmarks of what it means to be American. And while the federal government has used activism for good at times, most notably for securing civil rights in the American South, it is revealing itself more and more as the obstacle to progress.

Many in the academy and the modern left scoff at what they call the “Horatio Alger myth.” Alger wrote stories such as “Ragged Dick” and “Only an Irish Boy.” He told stories of poor children achieving the American dream through hard work, determination, and virtue. But Alger also depicted an important spiritual component to his impoverished characters. He gave them dignity and natural rights, just as our founding document did. His tales reflected the kind of egalitarianism that asserts that the value and dignity of a destitute human person is equal to that of another born into prominence and prosperity. These ideas grew right out of our religious heritage and founding.

But if Alger’s stories were not myths before, they will be soon. Future generations’ enjoyment of the liberty to flourish is in jeopardy. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, last week called the $13 trillion national debt the “biggest threat to our national security.” Annual interest on the national debt in 2012 will grow larger than the entire defense budget. Currently 43 cents of every federal dollar spent is borrowed.

This kind of dependency is antithetical to our tradition of self-reliance. Pick up any honest textbook about American history and the march of America is about freedom and opportunity. On the day of the invasion of the greatest army of liberation ever assembled, General Dwight D. Eisenhower told his armed forces “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” These men are often called “The Greatest Generation.

Succeeding generations may call our own “the debt generation” as their dreams become enslaved to deficits so colossal that they sap their entrepreneurial spirit, savings, and earning potential.

Big government activists are already using the BP oil spill to double down on their claim that the federal government is too small, even while the federal response is crippled by a multilayered bureaucratic decision making process and excessive regulation. Others say the BP oil spill is the perfect sign that America’s economic and moral might has peaked.

In his 1993 Inaugural address, President Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” It’s a simple yet profound point. Similarly, the primary reason Russell Kirk penned The Roots of American Order in 1974 was to remind his country of the moral bedrock at its base, and to thereby show the way to how it could maintain greatness. In the first chapter, Kirk quotes a passage from the book of Job saying if the nation lacks foundation and order “even the light is like darkness.”

As American citizens pontificate about the future of America this July 4th, they should ask themselves what they can do to curb the contraction of liberty and promote its expansion. It is the citizens, thankfully, who will decide America’s destiny.

Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg contributed the article here, one of two Acton commentaries published today. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary to receive new essays, book announcements and the latest news about Acton events.

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Money, Deficits, and the Devil: A Cautionary Tale

By Samuel Gregg D.Phil.

Sometimes the best economists aren’t economists.

One of the most famous plays in Western history was penned by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). His two-part drama, Faust, is considered one of the greatest works of German literature. This complicated and sometimes disturbing text tells the story of a young scholar, Faust, who enters into a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles. In return for Mephistopheles’ services to help him realize his ambitions, Faust wagers the devil his soul.

Throughout the play, Faust asks Mephistopheles to help him achieve several ostensibly good ends. But each time he summons up the devil’s power, Faust gets more than he bargains for. In one scene, for example, Faust finds himself living as the landlord of a prosperous estate. His tranquility is disturbed only by an elderly couple who holds a freehold enclave on Faust’s land. Faust asks Mephistopheles to displace them. The devil fulfils his request, but in a way unanticipated by Faust: the elderly couple’s house is incinerated and the couple murdered.

At the beginning of part two, however, the play makes a surprising excursion into economics. Accompanied by Mephistopheles, Faust attends the court of a ruler whose empire is facing financial ruin because of profligate government spending. Rather than urging the emperor to be more fiscally responsible, Mephistopheles—disguised, revealingly, as a court jester—suggests a different approach, one with disturbing parallels to our own age.

Noting that the empire’s currency is gold, Mephistopheles maintains there is surely plenty of undiscovered gold underneath the earth belonging to the emperor. Thus, he argues, the emperor can issue promissory notes for the value of this yet-to-be-found gold, thereby generating fresh monetary resources for the government and solving its debt problems.

Not surprisingly, the emperor and his treasurer are delighted with this idea. It means the monarch can avoid making hard economic choices while simultaneously providing the empire with desperately needed currency. Mephistopheles subsequently deluges the court with paper money, and Faust is praised by emperor and commoner alike.

The results, however, are not what are expected. First, the issuance of paper money does not solve the emperor’s spending problems. Instead the ruler and his court become even more extravagant, knowing they can always print more paper money to cover their ever-growing expenses. Second, the devil has subtly but fundamentally changed the basis of the empire’s currency. Instead of being rooted in the solidity offered by a tangible and valued asset, the currency is now based on flimsy paper promises. Thus long-term monetary stability and powerful restraints on extravagant government spending are sacrificed for short-term gain.

Goethe finished writing the second part of Faust in 1832. Modern economics was then only emerging from its infancy. Yet Goethe’s insights go to the heart of some of our most intractable long-term economic problems.

One concerns the impact of fiat money. Technically speaking, fiat money is a currency that a government declares to be legal tender, even though it has no intrinsic value. Throughout history, fiat money has been the exception rather than the rule. Most currencies have been based on physical commodities, particularly gold. By contrast fiat money is ultimately based upon enough people having faith that a given currency will be accepted for the purpose of economic transactions.

Such faith, however, is easily shaken. The euro’s recent tribulations are a good example of what happens when people begin losing their faith in a fiat currency. The expression “as good as gold” underscores the confidence people have always attached to commodity-backed currencies, especially in difficult economic times.

The second problem concerns the temptation faced by governments as they struggle to solve their deficit problems. In 2009, America’s federal government posted a $1.4 trillion deficit. That’s 10 percent of U.S gross domestic product, a level not witnessed since World War II. Given a choice between cutting spending, borrowing, or inflating the money-supply, the third option appeals to many politicians. Moreover, like Goethe’s emperor, it’s exactly what many Western governments did between 1945 and 1980: short-term relief was bought at the expense of long-term fiscal stability.

But perhaps the biggest lesson from Goethe’s Faust is that self-deception is intrinsic to all foolish acts. Whenever governments choose comforting economic illusions over difficult economic truths, then, like Mephistopheles, they will employ dubious means such as state-engineered inflation or public-sector indebtedness to make ill-conceived economic policies seem less burdensome to those who will in the long term eventually have to pay the price.

There is, some might say, something demonic about that.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, the prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.


Daniel Mahoney, professor of political science at Assumption College and lecturer at this year’s Acton University, (find his lectures here) wrote an excellent review in City Journalof Thomas Sowell’s new book, Intellectuals and Society. Sowell argues against the hyper-rationalist tradition of modern intellectuals whose theories tend to be divorced from reality and hostile to tradition and what Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge” of everyday people. As Mahoney notes, this has been a recurring theme of Sowell’s work throughout the years beginning with his fine book A Conflict of Visions. Mahoney writes:

Sowell, it’s true, denies being an intellectual, and we must take him at his word. He renews the critique of “literary politics” first limned by Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France and Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the Revolution. Burke and Tocqueville both observed a new intellectual type: thinkers inebriated by revolution and the dream of a radically new social order, and dismissive of the inherited wisdom of the past. Burke and Tocqueville didn’t hesitate to denounce injustice when they saw it, whether British oppression of Indians and the Irish or chattel slavery in America. But their critiques drew on the best traditions of Western civilization. They avoided the “rationalist” illusion that the world could be created anew. In this spirit, Sowell refuses to judge ideas by their supposed good intentions, but rather by their effects on human beings.

Read the entire review here.