Category: News and Events

Over at the Catholic Thing, Scott Walker looks at Climategate and the intolerant groupthink undergirding the “consensus” on global warming. He starts by offering a quote from sociologist Robert Nisbet on “the Enlightenment myth that the Catholic Church brutally oppressed Galileo. Our own time, Nisbet insisted, has seen much worse.”

Galileo, as it turns out, was more concerned about the reaction of fellow scientists than he was about Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition:

Most important for our purposes is Galileo’s fate after his enemies forced the Inquisition to find him “guilty” of Copernican teachings. Though made to take a pro forma oath of recantation, he was not imprisoned. Instead, he was given “house arrest” at his wealthy patron’s estate where he had long conducted most of his research. He lived for years, and far from being daunted or suppressed, he produced some of his most important writings, “was in constant communication with the leading scientific lights of Italy and all Europe,” and had “as many students as he wished” to assist him and continue his work after his death.

Contrast Galileo’s flourishing in the seventeenth century, funded by the private sector, with the situation of scientists in our day. They face governments that grow grander and more controlling by the minute, as well as an academic climate in which the disinterested search for truth withers in the cold glare of skepticism, relativism, and materialism.

In controversies over man-made global warming, there’s the added factor of something that smacks of religious fanaticism. Fr. James Schall and historian Paul Johnson have observed how some strains of environmentalism have religious features: a fall of man, a catalogue of sins, a call to repentance and asceticism (at least for those of us who aren’t ex-Vice Presidents living in Nashville mansions), the promise of salvation, and dire warnings of a secular apocalypse. No wonder the Savonarolas of solar energy are harsh with those who dissent from their calls to repress vices like burning coal or driving an SUV.

Read Scott Walker’s “Galileo Code” here.

Blog author: jwitt
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
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If you’re looking to catch up on the Climategate scandal, one of our interviewees from The Effective Stewardship DVD church curriculum, Steven Hayward, has an excellent summary and analysis here at The Weekly Standard.

Also, our friend Jay Richards has a good piece at today’s Enterprise Blog, which explains why attempts to settle the global warming debate by appeals to scientific consensus merely increase public skepticism.

And looking ahead, Paul Mirengoff of Powerline explains why the global warming lobby won’t need Congress in order to heavily regulate our economy’s energy sector. Hint: Oligarchy of Five

Blog author: ken.larson
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
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The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Those lines begin a William Wordsworth sonnet written in what English Department’s characterize as “The Romantic Age.”

Romance is wonderful. It’s that time in a relationship when faults are unseen. (Later, they may be ignored.) But, if affection is not bolstered by something deeper, the warts start to predominate in one’s memory during the time the lovers are apart.

From Copenhagen we are told by the true believers that climate calamity is at hand despite evidence that everything the matchmaker told us about her when we first were introduced is not true. Lying, cheating, taking bribes. “This couldn’t be the girl you described.”

At Claremont Institute’s Bookstore, Bruce Sanborn, referring to one of Jane Austen’s novel’s plot as a confluence of Shakespeare and Kant writes:

“… in Emma, love suffers the tests of education in order to become reasonable and true. In her character, Emma is like many of us Americans (even at the highest political reaches): she grew up at Hartfield, inexperienced, and educated in refined nonsense “upon new principles and new systems” that bring a person dangerously close to being “screwed out of health and into vanity.” Well intentioned but vain, Emma harms herself and those she stoops to help. The pain of her missteps gradually awakens Emma and helps her bring her feelings into line with reason and virtue. The gentle-farmer-teacher of Donwell, George Knightley (a name that evokes dragons, saints, and knights), also helps. Knightley treats Emma as he does himself, like a human being, able and free to love and reason.”

At another venue, Lisa Schriffen makes an interesting comparison between Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, characterizing both as “brands” that have been packaged and presented in such a way so as to deceive their publics and disguise their lusts for money and power. Those publics are a victim of a version of what used to be called in polite company “putting on airs” but the number of zeros to the left of the decimal point and to the right of the dollar sign should alert us to the ramifications of infatuation whether we’re talking The Green Jacket of Augusta; or more especially The President of the United States.

All of this is to suggest that maybe it’s time to slow down, reappraise, and regroup. After all, it’s Advent: a good time to “bring [our] feelings into line with reason and virtue.”

Oh, and you might want to pick up that dusty Jane Austen novel or — watch the movie with the family.

The well-known evangelical theologian and historian John Stackhouse has added his name to the ranks of Christians who don’t find much to like about the Manhattan Declaration. There is a twist in this case, though. He isn’t complaining about the alliance between evangelicals and Catholics, for example. (Thank you, Lord.)

However, one of Dr. Stackhouse’s major objections is equally perplexing. While he declares himself to be pro-life and pro-traditional marriage, he believes the call to enshrine those positions in the law is “philosophically and politically incoherent” if one is simultaneously calling for religious liberty (which the signers of the Manhattan Declaration do).

Before writing those words, Stackhouse might at least have thought a few moments about who we’re talking about. Robert George is one of the main movers and shakers on this document. And he happens to be a very important political philosopher in the American academy. [UPDATE: Dr. Stackhouse and I have corresponded on this short paragraph. He felt it was needlessly provocative of me to accuse him of failing to think before writing. I concede the point and hereby apologize in the same space. This does not affect the substance of our disagreement.]

Now, disagreeing with Robert George is never evidence that one is wrong. So what if Prof. George is a political philosopher of the top rank? He certainly could be guilty of holding a “philosophically and politically incoherent” view on something. Surely, he could. And perhaps Dr. Stackhouse would be the guy with the right cut in his jib to effectively point that out.

But let’s consider the claim. Does calling for religious liberty mean that one is disqualified from simultaneously attempting to make abortion illegal (to use one of his examples)?

I don’t think so. Let’s take the shortest route to dealing with this claim.

If embracing religious liberty means that we should never attempt to embody moral propositions into the law, then we should not embody religious liberty in the law because it is a moral proposition. A philosophy that leads to THAT result is incoherent. The person who argues for religious liberty AND for other moral propositions in the law is on pretty sound footing in the vast majority of instances.

But if that seems like a cheap shot, we can go further. Why do we value religious liberty? We value religious liberty because we believe human beings possess an inherent dignity that entitles them to certain rights. For a very large number of people, quite likely an absolute majority, our rights come from God. Because God gives us certain rights, it is not the place of the state to abrogate them. But regardless of whether we claim our rights come from God, we have embraced religious liberty as a right. It is in tension with other rights. It is not a trump card. We do not accept any religious claim that would require freedom to kill another human being, for example.

Another right that we believe human beings have is the right to life. It is very easy and requires no recourse to scripture to demonstrate that the unborn child is, indeed, a human being. Given what I’ve said so far, is it at all difficult to understand that one could say religious liberty does not entail a right to be free from legal consequences for killing an unborn child?

No, it isn’t difficult. There is no incoherency in arguing for both religious liberty and for the legal right to life of an unborn child.

I think the country IS discovering its inner Dave Ramsey. The savings rate keeps going up.

People are self-consciously trying to protect themselves from uncertainty. At first, it was to protect against a private sector meltdown. Now, it is an attempt to protect against public sector profligacy.

In both cases, this new found habit of saving keeps the economic motor running slow and low. Government attempts to overcome that instinct are bound to fail. The only thing that will loosen up wallets will be if citizens sense that economic growth has a real basis rather than a “the government commands it so” one.

Blog author: jwitt
Monday, December 7, 2009
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My essay in today’s American Spectator Online looks at why Ben Bernanke should not be confirmed to a second term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve:

Two planks in Bernanke’s recovery strategy: Expand the money supply like a banana republic dictator and throw sackfuls of cash at failed companies with a proven track record of mismanaging their assets. The justification? According to the late John Maynard Keynes, this is supposed to restore the “animal spirits” of the cowed consumer, the benighted creature who foolishly imagines that after a period of prodigality and mismanagement, maybe a country should rediscover its inner Dave Ramsey.

The full essay is here.

I recently gave an interview to the Georgia Family Council (where I worked as a younger fellow) about my book for their website. Here is an excerpt I think might interest readers:

What made you decide to write your book The End of Secularism?

I wrote this book for a few reasons. I detected that the moment might be right for someone to lay out a very rigorous critique of secularism. While it was once plausible to people that secularism might be a good, neutral solution to the “problem” of religious difference, it is more difficult to believe the same today. Secularists embrace a competing orthodoxy and they pursue the fulfillment of it. They like to think of themselves as referees, but they are actually just another team on the field.

In addition, I felt the need to help secularists and Christians to get a better handle on what secularism is and why it is an inferior solution to the separation of church and state rightly understood. We don’t need to evict religion from the public square. We do need to keep the church financially independent of the state — primarily for the good of the church, which I demonstrate through the example of Sweden — but we don’t need to politely excuse our religious beliefs and thoughts when it comes to public debate over values. Religion matters in politics. You can’t get away from it and bad things happen when you try. The Christian faith has been and continues to be hugely influential in encouraging many of the best things about our culture. Christianity is part of why we care about things like liberty, equality, mercy, and the sanctity of life.

Explain what you mean by “secularism” and how has it affected our culture?

The word secular once had a perfectly good meaning. It meant “in the world.” So, by that understanding, the Catholic Church even had secular clergy. But we have transformed the old meaning of “secular” to a new conception which requires that religion retire from the public square. In essence, the idea is that we will all be better off if religion is private, like a hobby. The problem, especially for Christians, is that we believe the resurrection of Christ is a real event in time and space and that if that is true, then it has the potential to affect the way we look at almost everything. And I would argue that influence has been dramatically for the good.

To the extent we embrace secularism, and almost all of us do to some degree, we focus more on material things because that represents reality to us. In America, our materialism mostly manifests as consumeristic and hedonistic pursuits.

Does secularism have an effect on how society views marriage and family?

Unquestionably. If you buy into a purely secular view, marriage is nothing special. It is merely a contract (and not a particularly strong one) that people undergo when they decide to pursue life together for a while. While it can be inconvenient and messy to dissolve that contract, nothing tragic has happened. There has been no violation of any larger law. God’s conception of marriage doesn’t enter in. In fact, maybe marriage is just a cultural artifact that an enlightened, secular government merely needs to tolerate until it can be transitioned away.

Of course, we have seen this kind of change in the way we view marriage. It’s not just the effort to expand the meaning of marriage. The larger problem is that the state no longer values marriage as it once did. There is no bias toward keeping the family together. We no longer have the same concern for how divorce will affect the well-being of children, this despite the wealth of social science evidence chronicling the negative impact.

On the other hand, if you believe marriage represents a special relationship, one ordained by God, then you have a real reason, both as an individual and as a citizen in a political community, to seek to preserve it. This view, long the dominant one in western civilization, reinforces our best instincts about the family. It also happens to be much more humane to children and promotes human flourishing.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 4, 2009
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Heather Wilhelm of the Illinois Policy Institute examines the usefulness of Ayn Rand for political engagement by friends of the market economy in a WSJ op-ed, “Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?” She concludes,

Rand held some insight on the nature of markets and has sold scads of books, but when it comes to shaping today’s mainstream assumptions, she is a terrible marketer: elitist, cold and laser-focused on the supermen and superwomen of the world.

Wilhelm’s picture of Rand underscores the distinction I’ve made between libertarianism as a world-and-life view and as a political philosophy. Rand is clearly of the former type: a Weltanschauunglich libertarian par excellence.

As Wilhelm writes, “For her fans, Rand’s appeal lies in her big-picture, unified, philosophical approach to man’s purpose and the meaning of life.” But this is also her greatest weakness, in that it opposes her to collaboration with those who might share inclinations toward limited government, but do not buy into the comprehensive “blend of atheism, absolutism and ruthless individualism.”

This is a more thorough-going critique of Rand’s viability as a model than simply noting the vigor of her polemic. As Acton Institute president Rev. Robert A. Sirico says, “If you want to offend, Rand accomplishes that. But if you want to convert—well, for instance, who could imagine Rand debating a health-care bill? I wouldn’t want to take an order from her in a restaurant, let alone negotiate a political point.”

Over at First Thoughts, Joe Carter juxtaposes Frank Capra’s George Bailey (of It’s a Wonderful Life) with Rand’s Harold Roark (of Fountainhead). Carter concludes that the two figures represent sharply different visions. Indeed, “Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.”

This is something that Rand and her disciples would find odious. Thus “those who view Roark as a moral model—are not likely to appreciate Wonderful Life. Indeed, the messages are so antithetical that only a schizophrenic personality could truly appreciate both George Bailey and Howard Roark.”

Update: Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward passes along the words of Rand’s “one-time intellectual heir” Nathaniel Branden, as a kind of addendum to Rev. Sirico’s comment:

The luckiest beneficiaries of [Ayn Rand’s] work are the people who read her and never see her, never meet her, never have any reason to deal with her in person. Then they get the best of what she was.

It’s the end of the semester. A degree of giddiness creeps in.

My students and I have been working through the political systems of a variety of nations. Yesterday, we talked about China.

China is a wonderful subject because any professor not completely sold out to Marxist fantasy gains the license to speak judgmentally about Mao’s ridiculous policies of The Great Leap Forward (in which the nation stopped producing food and tried to manufacture steel in backyards) and The Cultural Revolution (in which Mao deputized snotty teenagers to force their elders into self-criticism for improper revolutionary thinking).

But the fun begins to subside as you approach the present day. I was explaining to the students that although the Chinese still have the Communist Party — and it is the only party permitted to operate — the nation has rejected communism. Instead, they engage in a form of state-sponsored capitalism.

I began to say that the U.S. embraces private capitalism versus this state-sponsored capitalism of the Chinese, but then I realized that would be inaccurate. The truth, I realized and said to the students, is that both nations engage in state-sponsored capitalism.

But there is a key difference.

The Chinese government owns companies that make a profit. The United States government only owns companies that lose money.

And that is why they are loaning us money instead of the other way around.

In advance of the Acton Institute’s conference, “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis,” which will be held Thursday, Dec. 3, in Rome, the Zenit news agency interviews Dr. Samuel Gregg, Director of Research.

Recipe for Ending Poverty: Think, Then Act
Scholar Laments Lack of Reflection in Tackling Issue

ROME, NOV. 30, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The recipe for alleviating poverty is not a secret, and yet much of the work being done to help the world’s poor is misdirected, according to one expert on the matter.

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, said this to ZENIT when he was discussing a conference on “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis.” The conference will be hosted Thursday by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

Gregg observed there is plenty of talk about global poverty and yet, he said, it is “striking how much of the conversation is very unreflective.” (more…)