Category: News and Events

Blog author: sgregg
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
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The Detroit News published my commentary on Catholics and health care reform in today’s newspaper. A slightly longer version of the article will appear in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary:

Catholic America is about as divided about health care reform as the rest of the country. But there are a small number of non-negotiables for Catholics that principally concern any provisions that facilitate or encourage the intentional termination of innocent human life or diminish existing conscience exemptions.

These issues dwarf everything else for Catholics who take their church’s teaching seriously when applied to the health care legislation. No matter how good the rest of the legislation might be in widening access to affordable health care, it is a principle of Catholic faith and natural law that you cannot do evil so good may come from it. St. Paul insisted upon this almost 2,000 years ago (Romans 3:8), and it is constantly affirmed by Scripture, tradition and centuries of magisterial teaching.

For this reason, much of the Catholic contribution to the health care debate, especially that of Catholic bishops, has focused on these issues. But imagine the health care legislation involved a massive expansion of government involvement that didn’t promote abortion or other non-negotiables. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation?

The answer is no. Catholic moral teaching has held that the realization of good ends (such as making health care more affordable and accessible) mostly falls into the realm of prudential judgment. The church has always recognized that faithful Catholics can disagree about such matters.

Read the entire article here.

Working as we do here at the intersection between economics and theology, the relationship between various kinds of classically liberal, libertarian, Austrian, and other economic modifiers and religion in general and Christianity in particular is in constant view. Sometimes the conversation is friendly, sometimes not so much. Sometimes the differences are less apparent, sometimes more.

Once in awhile a piece will appear on the Acton site or from an Acton writer that brings this discussion to the fore. Last week’s commentary by Anthony Bradley is a great example. Responses to his piece varied, but on a number of fronts his juxtaposition of the external coercive regulation of government and the internal moral guidance of religious faith was attacked.

Some equated religion with government, with the former being “merely unelected.” Others resorted to long critiques of the idea that religion and libertarianism have anything in common, engaging not only the substance of the issues but also delving into rhetorically questionable sidetracks, although some charitably noted, “At no point did Bradley seem to advocate the use of state force to promote Christianity.”

A few recent exchanges over at the First Thoughts blog contribute directly and helpfully to this conversation. Hunter Baker, an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and a contributor here at the PowerBlog, posted an excerpt from “a plenary panel session on the question of whether libertarians and social conservatives can get along.” Baker calls the two groups “co-belligerents in the cause of liberty.” Baker’s comments were inspired in part by an earlier piece appearing in Religion & Liberty, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?”

Joe Carter responded by highlighting a piece by Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” (PDF) which Carter calls “the greatest political essay on conservatism and libertarianism of the last thirty years—if not of the twentieth century.” In this acerbic and far-ranging essay, Kirk calls libertarians “the little sour remnant” and contends that beyond a shared opposition to collectivism, conservatives and libertarians have nothing in common.

There is no doubt some truth both to Baker’s and to Kirk’s claims. The question has in part to do with a definition of terms and the corresponding identification of those to whom “conservative” and “libertarian” refer. We must of course recognize that those who self-identify as libertarian or classical liberals are not a uniform party, and the same is true for religious or “social” conservatives. There are at least a half dozen or so schools or varieties of libertarianism, and there is diffusion and disagreement on any number of principles and concrete issues.

Arnold Kling makes a helpful distinction between “civil societarians” and other “strands” of libertarianism. My own way of parsing the terms is to distinguish broadly between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view (Weltanschauung). The former is much more limited in scope than the latter.

For the former, liberty is man’s highest political end. But it is not man’s highest end. Politics and its ends are means towards other, more diverse social and more important theological ends.

For those whose libertarianism is an all-encompassing ideology, as Kirk says, for whom there is a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle–that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of civil social order, and indeed of human existence,” there can be little if any room for a competing and alternative system of faith and life, e.g. Christianity.

As Lord Acton said,

Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should 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.

That little modifier “political” makes all the difference. Lord Acton limits liberty as the “highest political end,” but immediately proceeds to relate and subsume politics to other spheres of life.

Kirk proceeds to point out some of the specific differences between the two worldviews, including the attitudes toward the existence of the State as well as moral duties and positive rights.

It is only in this latter sense of libertarianism as a worldview, as a competitor with and alternative to other worldviews (including Marxism and Christianity), that Kirk’s conclusion can be judged entirely accurate: “When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis—but not until then.”

In his book Elements of Justice (reviewed in the Journal of Markets & Morality here), University of Arizona philosophy and economics professor David Schmidtz introduces the idea of desert not simply as a compensatory notion, but also as including a promissory aspect. That is, what we deserve isn’t always about only what we have done. There might be a real sense in which what we do after an opportunity provides a kind of retroactive justification for having been given a chance.

There has been a flurry of negative reaction to the naming of President Obama as the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Even those in the mainstream media, considered by many to be rabidly pro-Obama, have noted that the committee must have been attempting to reward intentions rather than results.

Speaking of the concept of desert, Schmidtz writes that “what it needs to be in human affairs” is “a message of hope that is at the same time life’s greatest moral challenge.” It seems patently obvious that Obama does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize according to any kind of compensatory calculus. The only even apparently viable justification, even if inadequate in the case of a prize like this, is promissory.

Others have noted what it might look like if potential starts becoming a valuable part of award formula. While the committee awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics this year to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, Greg Mankiw made the case for the potential and promise present in a first-year econ grad student.

More seriously, Francis Beckwith points out how the concept of “potential” fails to be applied where it is most deserved: in the case of the unborn.

shales-rl1The new issue of Religion & Liberty features an interview titled “Debating the Depression” with noted columnist and author Amity Shlaes. Shlaes does a superb job at reminding us about some of the consequences associated with massive government spending and regulation. First and foremost among these consequences is the burden of debt and taxes we are heaping upon future generations. This kind of expansion, without the means to pay for it, will sadly have a negative impact upon the quality of life of future Americans.

Another tremendous contribution comes from Grand Rapids orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald P. Condit. Religion & Liberty has published an excerpt from his Acton monograph, A Christian Prescription for Health Care Reform. As we have seen, health care is an issue that inspires passion, activism, and tremendous debate, and it’s impossible to have a holistic understanding of this topic outside of a moral framework. The Acton Institute has been at the forefront when it comes to examining the moral implications related to our health care issues.

If you missed the book reviews that have already been previewed on the PowerBlog, we have a review of two books on Byzantium from Religion & Liberty’s Executive Editor John Couretas. I reviewed Dr. Jay Richard’s book Money, Greed, and God. I stated in the review some thoughts, which are essential for defending and expanding the influence of free markets:

Richards understands that for capitalism or free markets to succeed and flourish they must have a moral framework and hold a moral value for the believer. Even if one is, however, not a person of faith, it’s hard to argue against a need for a moral component for business and industry given the current economic crisis.

There is more content in the issue, including commentary on Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Lester DeKoster was profiled for the “In the Liberal Tradition” this issue. DeKoster was first and foremost a Christian man of faith, who while serving our Lord, defended the Church against Marxist liberation theologies. Which was just one of his many accomplishments.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
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From the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 to Augustine’s City of God, the civitas is an enormously pervasive and rich biblical and theological theme. On the contemporary scene there area number of indications that evangelicals are looking more deeply and critically at engagement with the “city” as a social, political, ethical, and theological reality. This is part of the explicit vision of The King’s College in New York City, for instance, where Acton research fellow Anthony Bradley is currently a visiting professor of theology. At Houston Baptist University, the publication aptly named The City, “featuring leading voices in Christian academia and elsewhere on the critical issues of the times.”

North of the border, the Canadian think-tank Cardus has long examined the issues surrounding Christian cultural engagement, particularly within the dynamic matrix of what we call “cities.” Recently Cardus published critical perspectives from Darryl Hart and Nelson Kloosterman, “The Gospel and the City: What’s a Believer To Do?”

For a number of years now the Acton Institute has produced specialized conferences focused on the more specialized call to move “Toward a Free and Virtuous City.” The most recent installment of the “City FAVS” took place last month in Weehawken, New Jersey, and featured Dr. Bradley, Rudy Carrasco, Acton president Rev. Robert A. Sirico, and Michael Lee of Georgetown University.

As the Lord said to Jonah of that ancient capital, “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

drdog-2In August, the Wall Street Journal Europe published an article exploring the difference in health care received by domesticated animals and humans. (see “Man Vs. Mutt: Who Gets the Better Treatment?” in WSJ Europe, August 8, 2009) The editorialist, Theodore Dalrymple (pen name for outspoken British physician and NHS critic, Dr. Anthony Daniels) argued that dogs and other human pets in his country receive much better routine and critical healthcare than humans: their treatment is “much more pleasant than British humans have to endure.”

Dalrymple outlines just why this is so: pets in the U.K. actually have it better than their owners since: a) they receive immediate treatment with no waitlists or postponed operations “(and) not because hamsters come first”; b) there is no fear that somehow they are being denied the proper treatment for economic reasons: there is “no tension, no feeling that one more patient will bring the whole system to collapse…; (no one is) terrified that someone is getting more out of the system than they.”; and c) pets in veterinary facilities have more options and flexibility for choosing a healthcare practitioner: “if you don’t like him, you can pick up your leash and go elsewhere.”

British humans, on the other hand, have to deal with navigating the rapids and swells of NHS bureaucracy, which requires the skills of a “white-water canoeist”. They must also endure interminable wait-times for prostheses and life-improving operations. Often they receive sub-standard administrative services, nursing assistance and meal provisions.

As President Obama continues to promote a Europeanization of the American healthcare model, the WSJ Europe editorialist beckons us to listen to such howling in the twilight of the Old Continent’s rapidly aging nationalized healthcare systems. Part of this howling is caused in the less dignified forms of public health services and treatment of human patients. Yet, there is plenty of loud barking over the mismanagement and abuse within nationalized healthcare across Western Europe, particularly in terms of mishandling budgets and sources of revenue. (more…)

Last week Rick Warren’s church hosted the fourth Saddleback Civil Forum. This time the forum focused on reconciliation, particularly on the roles of the church and the government in promoting and fostering reconciliation after crime and conflict.

The forum included special guests Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Miroslav Volf, a prominent theologian and native of Croatia.

One of the things that typically happens in the course of tyranny and genocide is that the church’s social witness is either sidelined and marginalized or simply subsumed under governmental control. President Kagame said that during the Rwandan genocide, the government and the church “were almost one and the same.” This severely hampered the church’s ability to act as a critical and mediating institution between the government and its individual citizens.

We featured the book, As We Forgive, on a past series of posts here on the PowerBlog when we asked, “What social conditions promote reconciliation?” This book is a powerful exploration of concrete cases of restorative justice at work in Rwanda after the genocide.

In a guest post on the PowerBlog, author Catherine Claire Larson described the essential role that economic institutions play in reconciliation. In describing ministries that work to promote micro-finance, Larson writes that “by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration.”

The inspiration for Larson’s book, a documentary film of the same name, premiered on PBS earlier this year.

I also explored different Christian views of the government’s role in promoting restorative justice in a law review essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF).

That the government has some positive role to play in promoting restorative justice rings true in a number of concrete cases. Of course the state must respect the vital role that other institutions, like the church, must play. But sometimes punishment can be a means toward restoration.

Chef Jeff, a prominent personality on the Food Network, was in Grand Rapids earlier this year to discuss how his time in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and make positive changes to promote social well-being.

“In prison, it was the first time in my life I ever read a book. The first time in my life that someone told me that I was smart. The first time someone told me I had potential,” he said.

As Chef Jeff puts it, “Prison saved my life.”

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, September 28, 2009
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From a report in today’s Washington Times:

… brace yourselves for a deluge of nuisance taxes, sin taxes and “fees,” limited only by the imagination of revenue-starved governors, mayors and legislators. Raising fees and nuisance taxes amounts to nothing more than “tax adventurism,” said Jonathan Williams of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonpartisan organization of state legislators. Governors and legislators “often raise taxes and increase fees during tough budget times before resorting to hiking broad-based income and sales taxes,” said Mr. Williams, who co-authored the recent book, “Rich States, Poor States.”

Among the nuisances: car-rental taxes and hotel taxes, the “Amazon” tax on Internet purchases, cameras catching speeders and people running red lights, bridge and toll taxes, increased fees for marriage licenses and dog tags, etc.

The report noted that “although cigarette taxes were raised 57 times between 2003 and 2007, the tax increases met revenue projections only 16 times … ”

Says Muhtar Kent, chief executive officer of Coca-Cola Co., about calls to impose soda and fat taxes: “I have never seen it work where a government tells people what to eat and what to drink. If it worked, the Soviet Union would still be around.”

Several writers have exposed the alarming decay of important military history programs on college campuses. Two great articles worthy of mention are John J. Miller’s “Sounding Taps” and Justin Ewers “Why Don’t More Colleges Teach Military History?” David J. Koon at The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy has contributed an important piece titled “Retreat, But No Surrender for Military History,” which takes the view that military history might be poised for a comeback. Koon explains:

Just as surrender seemed imminent, military history has gathered unconventional reinforcements—less well-known colleges and, of all things, war and violence. These, along with broad student interest and an academy that now listens when military historians speak, may have positioned military history to climb out of the trenches and regain the field.

In his article I was glad to see him quote Dr. Andrew Wiest of the University of Southern Mississippi. I had the privilege of sitting in on a few of Dr. Wiest’s classes on Vietnam during a trip to Hattiesburg, Miss. a few years ago. One of things I really enjoyed is that he brought in veterans of that conflict to tell their stories. On the PowerBlog I have often made contributions on the important relationship between the U.S. Armed Forces and the strong tie to liberty. Additionally, I have told the faith stories of courageous veterans like Robinson Risner and Donovan Campbell.

The story of America and its freedom is intertwined with our first defenders, the farmers, merchants, and even clergy who took up arms in defense of liberty on the road to Lexington and Concord. Indeed, continued study of military history is important in a free and virtuous society.

Blog author: rnothstine
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
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Rev. Robert Sirico delivered a sermon titled “Whistling Past the Graveyard” at Mars Hill mega-church in Grand Rapids, Mich on September 20. You can listen to his sermon in its entirety by clicking on the sermon title above. Mars Hill was founded by Rob Bell in 1999.

Rev. Sirico addressed Christology, mortality, atonement theology, and the problem of evil. In his remarks Rev. Sirico declared:

And the vision of that hill, there on Golgotha’s bloody mount, is the answer to the riddle of human existence. There in the crucified Christ, we see one who not only suffers for us…but he suffers with us. He enters our grief, our solitude, our pain. And because the one who is suffering so is innocent, he has the capacity to subsume into himself, into his divine person, all of humanity’s suffering, all the history of limitation and death.