Category: News and Events

in-the-land2In what is another book that points to America’s cultural divide, Gina Welch decides to go undercover at the late Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. An atheist, Yale and University of Virginia liberal graduate from Berkeley, California, Welch declares her undercover ruse was needed to better understand evangelicals.

In the Land of Believers, Welch decides to fake conversion, become baptized in the church, immerse herself in classes, and even goes to Alaska on a mission trip to evangelize the residents of Anchorage. But an exposé of apish Christian neanderthals never emerges. What does emerge is the authentic depth to the people she writes about deeply contrasted with her counterfeit self, and to a degree a larger secular culture that lacks authenticity. The relationships that emerge for her at Thomas Road are heartwarming and sincere. Her friends and acquaintances at Thomas Road even offer to get her a job teaching at Liberty University. They are sincerely concerned with her life and well being.

Evangelicalism is widely diverse, and members of Thomas Road represent a brand of Christian fundamentalism far different than that practiced by many evangelicals. Falwell of course was a favorite whipping boy not just among the secular left, but by many evangelicals as well. This point is often unknown by those unfamiliar with evangelicalism. In my evangelical seminary, Falwell bashing was standard fare. But the Southern Baptist Church, despite theological differences one may have with that denomination, has faithfully served as a giant thorn in the side of religious pluralism and moral decay. While some protestant denominations seek to better reflect a secular world in the name of relevancy, Southern Baptists stand against this dangerous stream.

One aspect Welch touched on nicely in her account was addressing the anti-intellectual streak of some believers at Thomas Road and also questioning the effectiveness of some of the ways the Gospel was presented to non-believers. But this was of course not a book about theological debates, but more about a church community. And the book slowly devolves more and more into an inner struggle, where the author feels guiltier about the illusion she has crafted. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the hurt she will dole out when her friends and fellow members find out she is a fraud and has been aping belief to write about their lives. Adding to the compassion and sincerity of her subjects, when after a year she finally tells two of her closest church member friends she is a fake, one who is a pastor, and she is going to write a book about them, they only offer forgiveness and grace.

Welch comes out of her undercover episode as she did when she came in, as an unbeliever. She of course has a more open mind now, and is able to have friendships with evangelicals. Bridging the cultural divide is one of the stated purposes of her account.

Welch also makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about evangelicals and pokes fun at their prayer language and beliefs. There was one statement she made though that caught my attention, although she meant it somewhat derisively. It was one of the few statements I highlighted in my reading of the book when she said “Evangelicals are a little obsessed with the crucifixion.” She offers up examples about their “obsession” with the cross which includes The Passion of the Christ film and animated preaching on the crucifixion. Last week I was talking to Jordan Ballor, a colleague here at Acton, about an individual who live tweeted their abortion, and we were discussing the sadness of the situation. After a long silence Ballor said, “but this is the world that God has seen fit to redeem.” Welch even provides a quote from a young preacher who says “We are never more like Jesus when we are forgiving the unforgivable.”

The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” If we ever wonder if God has abandoned us, if we wonder if God loves and adores us we only have to look to the cross of Christ. In our many dark nights of despair and anguish we are awakened with the truth that God has made us acceptable in Christ. The reconciliation of God and humanity is perhaps the most vivid and basic theme of Scripture.

While Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple is a much more entertaining account in the undercover evangelical sagas, Welch’s account has value as well. Welch befriends a little girl on her missionary trip to Alaska and even reads a salvation tract to her, albeit reluctantly. The girl professes faith and later comes up to Welch and says she is going to write about God and draw a picture of her new friend, who is Welch. This account is rife with contrast and the greatest contrast of all is Welch’s unbelief with a childlike faith that Jesus commands of us. This is well depicted when Welch writes about several children and their openness to the Gospel. While Welch’s judgment, skepticism, and unbelief is at the forefront of this account, perhaps she is unaware just how much she presents the Gospel through her many contrasts of faith and unbelief, and an emptiness that encompasses a life outside of the Triune God.

Riffing off of Lord Acton’s quote on liberty and good government, I came up with an analogy that was well-received at last month’s inaugural Acton on Tap.

In his essay, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Acton said the following:

Now Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together; but they do not necessarily go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

I tried to think of an image or analogy that captured what Acton meant by “good government.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I came up with a sports analogy.

Fans of various sports, basketball for instance, know that the best games are typically the ones in which you do not notice the referees. Yes, the referees are there, making calls when appropriate. But they do not become the center of attention. They are not the ones putting the ball in the hoop. They are not making a spectacle of themselves. They go about their duties and are at their best when they are not noticed. The referees are not the center of attention; instead, the focus is on the players and the game.

"Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." (Westminster Shorter Catechism)

'Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.'

Good government is like that. It protects liberty as its highest end, but it is a liberty that is used in pursuit of other ends, what Acton calls “the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” Foremost among these is religion, and they are ultimately oriented to and subsumed under what the Westminster divines identified as man’s chief end: “to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”

In this analogy, good government is like the referee that calls a fair game and does so in a way that does not produce a slanted playing field, or favor one team over the other. Good government is at its best when it is not the focus and is not grandstanding for attention.

Keep that in mind over the next month while you’re watching the NCAA tournament (and hopefully watching the seemingly-perennial Final Four run from the Michigan State Spartans, this year’s Big 10 co-champs). And be sure to mark your calendars for the next Acton on Tap, Tuesday, March 31, featuring Rudy Carrasco.

The control of wealth is the control over human life. So if a centrally planned economy decides how wealth is to be created and how it is to be distributed, then they really have a control over human life.

That’s from Arnold Beichman, the journalist and scholar, who died Feb. 17 at the age of 96. The Heritage Foundation InsiderOnline Blog retrieved the quote from a 2004 article in a Columbia College alumni magazine. There was also this:

Centrally planned societies, Beichman says, are essentially fascist. “Even with computers, you can’t plan, because the human being does not allow himself to be planned. Today he smokes cigarettes; tomorrow he’s off cigarettes. How do you plan for that? Today he drinks vodka, tomorrow he drinks white wine. How do you plan for that? … It’s the open, the market society, that will determine what is made and what is sold and what is bought.”

Almost nothing is more common in sports than to hear a sportscaster going on about how some athlete is a fine young man or young woman. How they work hard, sacrificed for their sport, are respected by their teammates, and volunteer with children. We enjoy the thrill of athletic competition and rejoice in a game well played or a move perfectly executed, and it is natural that we hope these athletes are as excellent off the field as on.

We want heroes like Eric Lidell of “Chariots of Fire” fame, who overcame insurmountable odds in athletics and live heroic lives of sacrifice as well. But as we regularly witness in college and professional sports, and, recently, the Olympics these fine, young athletes are too often, unfortunately, not fine young men and women.

We have almost come to expect this from professional, and increasingly, college sports, but somehow the Olympics maintained its luster. Yet as the Winter Olympics came to an end on Sunday, more stories about lewd and vulgar behavior continue to emerge. From reports of supplying Olympic Village with over 100,000 condoms to racy photographs and admissions of wild nights and pornographic addiction, one lesson seems apparent: Don’t let your babies grow up to be Olympians.

Sports are often said to build character. They can and do. They teach hard work, patience, self-denial, and teamwork. But, especially in a sports-obsessed culture like ours, they also have the tendency to breed narcissism. Athletes become privileged entertainers who have been coddled and told they are special from the moment they showed prowess. They are adored, their misdeeds overlooked. It starts small, but those misdeeds can become a way of life as much as the sports themselves.

We want our sports stars to be role models, but instead they are increasingly purveyors of cultural decadence, selfishness, and a distraction from the serious moral challenges of living a life of real virtue and heroism. When Charles Barkley declared that he was not a role model, he was right. In his inimitable way, he was trying to tell us something: Find your real heroes elsewhere.

Yes, to become a professional or Olympic athlete requires great dedication and sacrifice, but it doesn’t really matter much unless those traits transfer into other areas of life. Instead, sacrifice and self-denial seem to be limited to one’s own search for glory.

The moral crisis that pervades sports is part of a larger social breakdown that is compounded by a culture that is afraid to speak about truth and virtue—much less moral evil and sin. Moral relativism has become the norm and freedom means doing what you want instead of submitting to some higher standard (at least outside of the sports arena). Authentic pursuit of virtue has been replaced by mere volunteerism and fashionable political activism, and the idea that young men and women should strive for moral excellence and self-control is viewed cynically. The 100,000 condoms for Olympians are emblematic of the message given to young people in a myriad of ways: They are expected to act like animals, unable to control themselves. But they are not animals—they can control themselves, and many do.

This may sound like a curmudgeonly grumbling about young people just having fun. I wish it were so. It would be less of a problem if entertainers—whether Olympic athletes or actors and rock stars—did not play such a central role in shaping our culture. Our post-industrialist, highly technological culture is dominated by entertainment. But the entertainers are barbarians within the gates, and their behavior is emulated by young, adoring fans who see that moral virtue and steady character are not requisite for athletic and social success.

This has long term consequences for our freedom. George Washington warned that a free society required a virtuous people with maturity and self-control. Liberty is not the property of adolescents unable to control their passions. Yet American cultural life is increasingly described by what Diane West called “the death of the grown up.”

We want our athletes to be heroes, but we also glorify an adolescent culture that follows its whims. The two are mutually exclusive. C.S. Lewis described the problem decades ago: “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst, we castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

http://www.acton.org/commentary/577_olympians_behaving_badly.php

In the Orange County Register, Senior Editorial Writer Alan Bock reviews the Acton Institute book, “Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” (Available in the Acton Bookshoppe for the bargain price of $6).

Environmental Stewardship
The book might be viewed as an extended rebuttal to a famous 1967 Science magazine article by Lynn White that contended that the biblical injunction for people to have “dominion” over the Earth led to an arrogant view toward the environment that led to widespread environmental despoliation. The proper religious attitude toward the Earth, the authors argue, is one of stewardship, which includes using Earth’s resources to improve the lot of humankind, but doing so with an attitude of responsibility and even love, taking care not to destroy what cannot be replaced. Mistakes certainly have been made along the way, but these have resulted from an imperfect understanding of the requirements of stewardship – often by people who were not motivated by religious attitudes – rather than biblically decreed arrogance.

The perhaps counterintuitive but, on reflection, logical thread running through the three essays – along with a statement called the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship promulgated in 1999 by an interfaith group meeting in Connecticut – is that achieving a certain level of wealth in a society seems to be a prerequisite to effective environmental stewardship. A secondary theme is that a system of private property and relatively free markets is the most effective way to achieve both societal wealth and environmental protection and improvement.

Read the entire review on the OC Register site.

Blog author: ken.larson
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
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On February 25th, while Barack Obama chatted about ObamaCare with members of Congress, the Federal Department of Education – lead by its cabinet level chief Arne Duncan who’s also from Chicago – prepped for release to the public his and his boss’s second assault on our freedom; this time a scheme to further intrude on your child’s education. As an announcement from two think tanks put it: “generationally important Tenth Amendment issues [were] opened on two fronts—the prospect of centralizing health care and education policy.” And that’s pretty much what’s going on, but using expressions like “two fronts” assumes a great deal from the average reader or listener these days. That’s because such expressions harken back to historical events the facts on which the general populace is thin. Doubt me? Ask anyone under 40 why Hitler shouldn’t have invaded The Soviet Union.

I’ve only recently discovered the long history of the federal government’s intrusion into education in the United States. (Readers who are more astute with that history need to bear with me on this.) The Office of Education was begun in 1869. Are you surprised? For those of you who might not pass a history test, that’s four years after The U.S. Civil War ended. In Europe in those days, what we know as Germany was called Prussia and it was a kingdom. Recall that kingdoms were commonplace back then. The United States had only eliminated our “kingdom connection” one-hundred years earlier. How time flies.

According to my source, the first commissioner of education — Henry Barnard — put the case for his new department in these terms: “In Prussia the Minister of Education is one of the most important ministers of the State. The Department of Instruction is organized as carefully as that of War or the Treasury, and is intended to act on every district and family in the kingdom.” Barnard went on to bemoan that, “No serious responsibility in respect to public education [in the U.S.] rests anywhere.” Just so you understand the impact of Bernard’s Prussian love affair: Kindergarten is a German word.

It’s coincidental that when you Google “U.S. Office of Education” you pull up some stories about Indian Affairs. Anyone who has watched a movie about our wild west knows what the government did for Indians, so it’s not much of a surprise to be living with what its done to learning. A real cynic might see some relationship with “Indian Gaming” that proliferates around the country and school charter treaties that let groups of parents delude themselves into thinking public education under new management will teach Billy and Susie their cyphers; or how to behave while mom tries to go it alone after throwing dad out of the house, or visa versa. As both pursue the net income that will allow them to pay their cable bill and keep the ESPN option, they leave educating the kids to the public school; and hope for the best.

What Obama and Duncan are trying to do with RTT – the acronym for Race To The Top – needs as much scrutiny as the “health care” ruse they’re foisting, and folks would be well served to dig deeper. Schools are supposed to be locally run and guided by school boards and parents. But Obama has announced that $900 million more – more than already pumped out with the “stimulus” bill – will be made available for education. I’ve watched as even Catholic school administrators drool at the money pile. It’s intoxicating. But like government healthcare, it comes at a price: Control. And in education control is spelled c-u-r-r-i-c-u-l-u-m. And its synonym is accreditation. Neither should be the government’s business in a free society.

Too few of us are aware of the history of education in The United States of America. In his 2001 best selling biography John Adams, author David McCullough offers glimpses of colonial schooling in his portraits of life in New England. Young John Adams is taught initially to read at home, then attends a “dame school – lessons for a handful of children in the kitchen of a neighbor, with heavy reliance on The New England Primer… But later at the tiny local schoolhouse, [he is] subjected to a lackluster ‘churl’ of a teacher who paid him no attention.” And so we are told young Adams lost all interest. When his father heard of the boy’s dislike for the teacher and desire to go to another school, he enrolled him “the next day in a private school down the road where… he made a dramatic turn and began studying in earnest.” Adams goes on to enter Harvard and, as the phrase goes, the rest is history.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute has just announced findings of its latest study, reporting that over 50% of elected politicians do not know the three branches of the federal government or their responsibilities under The Constitution of the United States. Do you? And these pols include college graduates. Do you honestly think it’s much better among those passing through high school – Hello-OOOOO – and then voting?

If you want to make your own example of public school failure beyond civic literacy, take a look at this Civil War era letter home from a home schooled farmer’s son and compare it to the last email or Twit you received from your son or daughter, or the stuff they receive from their friends. More convincing: take a sober look at the stuff you get at work from associates or hear on radio news.

American taxpayers in 2010 are being charged $667 billion by state and federal taxing authorities to “educate” around 50 million K-12 students. That’s over $12,000 per student, and doesn’t include the additional $900 million Obama wants to throw at the problem. The result has been a public that doesn’t even know when its government is neglecting or stomping on the law of the land.

Mr. Barnard would be pleased–Danke sehr!–but you don’t have to be. Not all may be able to spell STOP; but they can still yell it. And that time has come.

Saturday February 27 was the second anniversary of the death of the conservative giant William F. Buckley, Jr. I first saw Buckley in person when Ole Miss hosted Firing Line in 1997. I read National Review in High School even though I admit I did not always understand some of his words at that age. It was a wonderful reminder of the importance of  intellectualism and conservatism, and that I still had a lot to learn. The political left too had to respect Buckley’s brand of conservatism because of the seriousness of those ideas. It didn’t hurt that he was charming, gracious, and extremely generous.

After his death, Buckley was publicly honored with the Faith & Freedom Award by the Acton Institute at its annual dinner. He had long been a friend of Acton and Rev. Robert Sirico. Kate O’Beirne accepted the award on his behalf. It was a very touching evening and one we still remember well. The media department, with most of the leg work coming from Tabitha Blanski, produced this tribute video in honor of Buckley. It premiered at the 2008 Acton Annual Dinner. It is available publicly and on the Powerblog for the first time. The tribute is well worth the view.

Nina Shea

Nina Shea

In the next issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Nina Shea. The issue focuses on religious persecution with special attention on the ten year anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. A feature article for this issue written by Mark Tooley is also forthcoming. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington D.C. In regards to Shea, the portion of the interview below is exclusively for readers of the Powerblog. In this portion of the interview Shea discusses Egyptian Copts, Sudan, President Barack Obama’s record on religious freedom and Iranian dissidents. Below is a short bio of Shea:

Nina Shea has served as an international human-rights lawyer for over twenty years. She joined the Hudson Institute as a senior fellow in November 2006, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. For the ten years prior to joining Hudson, She worked at Freedom House, where she directed the Center for Religious Freedom, which she had founded in 1986.

Since 1999, Shea has served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency. She has been appointed as a U.S. delegate to the United Nation’s main human rights body by both Republican and Democratic administrations. She recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.
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Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, February 26, 2010
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No, that’s not the new Bruce Willis movie. That’s the spectacle we’re witnessing now of general strikes in Greece in response to proposed austerity measures designed to keep the country from the fiscal abyss — and maybe dragging down other European Union members with it. But Americans shouldn’t be too smug. Despite some very substantial differences in political culture and economic vitality, the United States is showing early signs of the mass hysteria, the widespread delirium tremens that sets in when the omni-competent welfare state begins to renege on its promises. If the root problems underlying the Greek debacle include reckless spending, a bloated and self serving bureaucracy, a heavy tax burden, and a complete political failure to face up to reality, then how is California any different in this respect?

Writing in the February issue of Reason magazine, Steven Greenhut offers a lengthy and detailed account of the rapid expansion of the California state payroll and how elected officials and public employee unions work hand in glove to make themselves very comfortable at the expense of taxpayers:

People who are supposed to serve the public have become a privileged elite that exploits political power for financial gain and special perks. Because of its political power, this interest group has rigged the game so there are few meaningful checks on its demands. Government employees now receive far higher pay, benefits, and pensions than the vast majority of Americans working in the private sector. Even when they are incompetent or abusive, they can be fired only after a long process and only for the most grievous offenses.

Too strong? Well, look at where it’s led the Golden State. Here’s California Attorney General Jerry Brown earlier this month: “California is deeply in debt. You could say that it’s bankrupt.” Is it one step closer to insolvency with this week’s postponement of a bond sale? (more…)

actononairVatican Radio in Rome turned to Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Instituto Acton, for comment on a recent Italian court ruling which held three Google executives criminally responsible for a YouTube video depicting a teenager with Downs Syndrome being bullied. Vatican Radio’s short article on the matter is here; the audio is available via the audio player below.

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