Category: News and Events

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, March 28, 2008

Russian emigre philosopher Georgy Fedotov (1888-1951) proposed two basic principles for all of the freedoms by which modern democracy lives. First, and most valuable, there are the freedoms of “conviction” — in speech, in print, and in organized social activity. These freedoms, Fedotov asserted, developed out of the freedom of faith. The other principle of freedom “defends the individual from the arbitrary will of the state (which is independent of questions of conscience and thought) — freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment, from insult, plundering and coercion on the part of the organs of power … ”

In an ideal world, all of these freedoms would be present. But Fedotov also cautioned that “freedom is the late, refined flower of culture.”

For the flower to bloom, the roots need to be watered. A free society, from the ground up, requires a respect for the rule of law, a judiciary and police force that aren’t easily bought, a political culture that knows how to rid itself of corruption, and a vigorous free press to keep the pols and bureaucrats honest. I would also add a liberal measure of economic freedom and property rights that secure wealth from the “arbitrary” plunder of the government.

All of which gets us back to Russia. In an interview this week in the Financial Times, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev pledged to root out the “legal nihilism” that plagues his country. Excerpt:

[Medvedev's] starting point is his legal background – he is, he says, “perhaps too much of a lawyer”. Meticulous and precise, he sees almost every issue through the prism of legal thinking. But behind the occasionally laboured language lies a deeper goal. Mr Medvedev says he wants to do what no Russian leader has done before: embed the rule of law in Russian society.

“It is a monumental task,” he agrees, switching momentarily to English. “Russia is a country where people don’t like to observe the law. It is, as they say, a country of legal nihilism.”

The pledge to overcome “legal nihilism” became a central part of Mr Medvedev’s low-key election campaign. It seems a restatement of Mr Putin’s own promise eight years ago to establish a “dictatorship of laws”, although critics say Mr Putin delivered too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Even today, Russians quote the 19th-century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s aphorism that “the severity of Russian laws is alleviated by the lack of obligation to fulfill them”. The result is a society plagued by endemic corruption, arbitrary use of the law by the state against individuals or companies – and by companies against each other – and a judiciary that has never known genuine independence.

To paraphrase, all democracy is local. One of the strengths of the American democratic tradition is its intensely local nature. Most Americans’ experience with democracy happens when they vote for a judge, attend a school board meeting, or run afoul of the local traffic cop. If democracy doesn’t work at this level, it doesn’t work at all. As Medvedev pointed out to his interviewers: “When a citizen gives a bribe to the traffic police, it probably does not enter his head that he is committing a crime … People should think about this.”

But bribing a cop is a moral issue, just as much as it is, if not exactly a political crime, then a seemingly simple act of convenience. Morality cannot be legislated, but it can be taught and for this we need the Church and the family and those other neighborhood groups, charities, and small businesses, that act as civic training grounds and make up a healthy community. Edmund Burke called these “the little platoons” of society. (more…)

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Rep. Peter Hoekstra discusses the impending release of Fitna, a short film highly critical of Islam, by Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament. Hoekstra:

Radical jihadists are prepared to use violence against individuals to stop them from exercising their free speech rights. In some countries, converting a Muslim to another faith is a crime punishable by death. While Muslim clerics are free to preach and proselytize in the West, some Muslim nations severely restrict or forbid other faiths to do so. In addition, moderate Muslims around the world have been deemed apostates and enemies by radical jihadists.

Radical jihadists believe representative government is un-Islamic, and urge Muslims who live in democracies not to exercise their right to vote. The reason is not hard to understand: When given a choice, most Muslims reject the extreme approach to Islam. This was recently demonstrated in Iraq’s Anbar Province, which went from an al-Qaeda stronghold to an area supporting the U.S.-led coalition. This happened because the populace came to intensely dislike the fanatical ways of the radicals, which included cutting off fingers of anyone caught smoking a cigarette, 4 p.m. curfews, beatings and beheadings. There also were forced marriages between foreign-born al Qaeda fighters and local Sunni women.

Read all of “Islam and Free Speech” here.

A large crowd packed into St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids yesterday to hear Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s presentation on “The Rise and Eventual Downfall of the Religious Left.” This is a political movement, he said, that “exalts social transformation over personal charity, and social activism above the need for evangelization of the human soul.” (He also took time to critique the Religious Right.)

An audio recording of Rev. Sirico’s Acton Lecture Series presentation is available on the Acton Web site here.

Rev. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, began by pointing to a “series of signs” that often characterize the Religious Left today:

1) A tendency to believe that the Kingdom of God is not something essentially eschatological; it is a state of being that can and should be achieved on earth through human effort.

2) A loathing of the economically successful rooted in the assumption that wealth is generally unjustly acquired even and especially if it has been accumulated through market means.

3) A conviction that the cause of material inequality is due to injustice that must be rectified, usually by a forced redistribution of the wealth.

4) A reliable bias against commerce and the merchant classes, their products, their marketing, and their cultural presence.

5) A fixation on government programs that purport to do good for others and a pronounced preference for public policy (that is political) solutions instead of voluntary individual or communal efforts.

6) A judgment that unless physical states of social well being are realized, issues such as faith and morals are somehow invalidated.

7) An attachment to the idea that the natural environment represents a source of moral light in the world that is darkened by the activities of human beings.

Rev. Sirico will be discussing the Religious Left on Friday, March 14, on Ave Maria Radio at 4 p.m. with host Al Kresta. (The originally scheduled debate with Jim Wallis is being rescheduled at Wallis’ request). Pick up a live stream for Ave Maria Radio here. (Update: Audio of this interview is available for download in .mp3 format here.)

I’ve been on record more than once regarding my own doubts and criticisms of the precise political pronouncements made by various church groups, especially offices and branches seemingly representing the institutional church. So when I see something sensible and good coming from these same sources, it’s only right and fair that I acknowledge and celebrate them.

Here are two items worthy of notice:

The first is from the newsletter of the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action (OSJHA) of the Christian Reformed Church, which linked to an article, “Can Violence Ever Lead to Peace?” In this piece Paul Kortenhoven explores how “the use of violence in reaction to an extremely violent attack by an extremely violent rebel force simply stopped them. Along with the British stance in Sierra Leone, this also was a main catalyst for peace.”

I have to say I was pretty surprised to see an explicit acknowledgment of the positive role that military and coercive intervention can play as a backdrop for lasting peace. Kortenhoven’s piece is the diametric opposite of what IRD’s Mark Tooley has called in another context the attitude of “pseudo-pacifist academics and antiwar activists.”

It’s an article that takes seriously the complexities involved in answering such questions as, “How, in a world of such strife, are Christians to build peace? How should we think about war? And how do we talk to one another about these issues with open hearts and minds in patience, love and humility?”

The second item of note comes from the ecumenical world, where at the end of last month leaders of WARC “called for the lifting of the United States’ economic embargo against Cuba in the interest of justice and right relationships.”

Unfortunately, this position shouldn’t be construed as part of a broader agenda pursuing economic liberty and international openness, linked as it is to the overall “covenanting for justice” outlook of the 2004 Accra, Ghana meeting. How can you decry embargoes and at the same time militate against “neoliberal economic globalization”? Your guess is as good as mine, but at least on the issue of the Cuba embargo, WARC leaders are in the neighborhood of a prudent approach.

Beyond this, I do have a word of concern as well as praise. Regardless of the rightness of the positions espoused above, there is the methodological and eccelsiological issue of whether these are the appropriate groups to be campaigning for such things. That is, should the institutional church, which the ecumenical clearly fancies itself as representing, be speaking so clearly and particularly on prudential policy matters?

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Tuesday, March 11, 2008
A victimless crime?

Via Hugh Hewitt, here are Carol Platt Liebau’s thoughts on the prostitution scandal now engulfing New York Governor Eliot Spitzer:

The whole idea, pioneered by you-know-who and enabled by you-know-who-else, is that illicit sexual behavior and the scandals resulting therefrom can be brazened out by the insistence that they are irrelevant to the discharge of public duties. As I argue in my book, it’s all part of a new ethical calculus concluding that — uniquely in the constellation of virtues — sexual morality is a subjective and purely personal matter that’s of relevance only to “religious” people (or else prurient and “judgmental” ones), even when it impacts the public.

All of us are human, all of us are sinners, no one is perfect. Certainly, there but for the grace of God go any of us. But that doesn’t mean that there should be no standards. In particular, it’s unfortunate if and when public officials conclude that sexual behavior that’s deeply disgraceful (not to mention illegal) doesn’t merit resignation. It degrades our culture, makes others complicit in condoning conduct that shouldn’t be condoned, and normalizes behavior that’s wrong.

As has become the norm, there are also plenty of voices (here’s one) decrying the fact that Spitzer may be forced to resign over a sexual indiscretion, that the worst he’s guilty of his hypocrisy, and that prostitution is essentially a “victimless crime.” It remains to be seen whether or not Spitzer will step down as a result of the scandal, but in the meantime Jordan Ballor offers some food for thought in this post, which looks at the differing standards that seem to apply to business and church leaders on the one hand and governmental officials on the other when sexual indiscretions are revealed. And be sure to take a look at the David Hess essay that Jordan references in his post as well.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Should Spitzer step down, or is his indiscretion not that serious?

When I lived in Philadelphia, Pa. as young boy, I always wondered why they called it the city of “Brotherly Love,” especially since some of the neighbors seemed so mean. The name “Philadelphia” is mentioned in Revelation 3:7. William Penn gave the city that name so as to serve as a reminder of the importance of religious liberty, peace, and an optimistic spirit. “We must give the liberty we seek,” said Penn.

Some of my family roots hail from the city simply known as Philly. Crime has long been an epidemic, where even relatives of mine have been victims of violent crimes. Philadelphia elected a a new mayor named Michael Nutter, a former city councilman. Nutter was sworn on January 7 of this year. David Whelan writes about Philadelphia and its fiscal mess in an article titled A Philly Tax Cutter for City Journal. Whelan believes while crime receives most of the attention, lasting repair and reform for the city is dependent on economic improvement.

Whelan points out how Philadelphia, with its unpopular business-privilege tax, is not friendly to entrepreneurs. Nutter has long championed a reduction or outright repeal of the business-privilege tax. Whelan notes of Philadelphia’s tax burden:

Philadelphia continues to have the nation’s second-highest individual tax burden after New York City. Philadelphia Forward cites a study finding that a typical city resident’s total tax burden from state and local taxes is 14 percent, compared with 9 percent in the nearby suburbs. For businesses, it’s way worse—roughly nine times what businesses pay in other large American cities or nearby suburbs. Defenders say that Philadelphia has been a victim of the same deindustrializing forces facing other densely populated, older cities. Yet it has adapted poorly. Even the mild-mannered Federal Reserve has spoken out against Philly’s taxes, calling them “onerous” and an “incentive to leave.”

Philadelphia was of course the first capital of this nation. States and individuals, many of them merchants, came together to cast aside the tyranny and taxation of the English Crown. It will be interesting to see if “A Philly Tax Cutter” who campaigned as a reformer can help reform Philadelphia’s hostility towards business and entrepreneurs.

Speaking of Chuck Colson, he’s participating in a debate sponsored by the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia tonight at 7:00 PM (Eastern). The proposed resolution is: “Religion should have no place in politics or government.”

Arguing the affirmative are Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Jacques Berlinerblau, Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization, Georgetown University. Taking the negative are Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries and Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., Senior Pastor of Hope Christian Church.

Like Colson, Jackson has co-authored a new book, his with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Personal Faith, Public Policy.

The debate will be webcast live and archived on the Miller Center’s web site (linked above), and will be broadcast on PBS analog and digital channels nationwide (check local listings for details).

Related: “Private Faith and Public Politics”

As part of our participation in the blog tour for Chuck Colson’s book The Faith, we got to submit a question for Chuck to answer. Here’s our exclusive Q&A:

PowerBlog: You talk about the history of the faith and tradition in your book a great deal. What do North American evangelicals stand to gain from examining more closely their own history and traditions? In what sense ought Protestantism be understood as “catholic”? Part of that great Christian tradition has to do with the witnesses to the faith, which you survey in the book. What do the concepts of martyrdom and suffering have to do with a Western context where most Christians live comfortably and without the threat of persecution?

Colson: “All true Christians confess the creed: we believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church. Protestantism of course distinguishes itself from the Roman Church doctrine, but regards itself as part of the one body of Christ, one holy catholic apostolic church.

It is crucial that Christians understand history and tradition. Just look at how America was founded in the midst of a Great Awakening led by George Whitfield, who had been greatly influenced by the Wesley Awakening and by Wesley himself. Look at the role of Jonathan Edwards, not only in shaping the early structures of American society but in producing some of the great writings that is part of our own heritage, both as Americans and as Christians. The Encyclopedia Britannica said that Edwards was the greatest mind produced in the western hemisphere. We also need to understand the history of revivalism and how it profoundly affected the shaping of American society and culture. Christianity’s role in bringing educational institutions to the new world is indispensable.

On the subject of martyrdom and suffering, we’ve had some, but precious little. We’ve lived in a largely contained and protected environment. And that may be one of the reasons why secularism is advancing so rapidly even in the church.”

Be sure to check out the rest of the blog tour, along with all of the other Q&As to come. Next up today: The Dawn Treader. Also, be sure to raise questions in the comments section below. The word is that Chuck will be answering some of the questions raised in the comments throughout the blog tour. (Be sure to comment and raise questions at other stops on the tour, if you find the topics raised there to be of more interest.)

Last week, I had the pleasure to attend one of the Acton Institute’s seminars here in Rome. Located at the campus of the Pontifical University of Regina Apostolorum, the seminar drew more than 100 religious and lay persons from all over the world. It was apparent that the topic was not only an interesting one, but also a personal one for many in the room. The presentations dealt with the papal encyclical Populorum Progressio forty years later. Asking the pertinent question of whether or not progress has failed the developing world, each presentation dealt with a different aspect of the theory and the praxis of this topic.

Acton’s own Michael Miller opened the seminar with a few thoughts on Populorum Progressio and society today. Referring to the enhanced living conditions of the developing world, Mr. Miller mentioned the advances of progress. However, he was not blind to the failures felt in the past few decades. Too often the focus is on poverty, but he believes the focus needs to be on wealth. We know what makes people poor, we need to study what makes people rich. Another example Mr. Miller used is the idea of population control to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. Calling to mind the words of Pope John Paul II, man’s best resource is man himself.

This idea of human resources and their importance to development was a key aspect of the next speaker’s presentation. Fr. Thomas Williams, Legionary of Christ priest and teacher at Regina Apostolorum, theorized about the necessity and effects of development. He reasoned that a way to understand development and progress is to understand their nature. Delving into the papal documents from recent history, Fr. Williams gave an excellent exegesis of their meaning. Paul VI wrote, six years after Populorum Progressio, that development cannot be measured by mere economic growth, but also as an improvement for the very being of the human person. But many critics of Christianity say that Christians are anti-wealth, anti-progress. While Christians love the poor, they do not promulgate poverty. Similarly, they love the sick but hate sickness, love the sinner but hate the sin. The difficulty arises when the human person is secondary to economic success; when wealth becomes the supreme good at the cost of human dignity. This attitude of greed leads to avarice. However, Pope Paul VI comments that both rich and poor fall prey to this vice. He adds that just as the Ancient philosophers loved leisure because it led to contemplation, Christians love prosperity because it leads to time for prayer. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 3, 2008

The PowerBlog has been selected as one of the host blogs for Chuck Colson’s blog tour, promoting his new book, The Faith. It’s an honor to be included among other luminaries of the blogosphere like The Dawn Treader, Challies.com, and Tall Skinny Kiwi.

A bit about the book:

In their powerful new book The Faith, Charles Colson and Harold Fickett identify the unshakable tenets of the faith that Christians have believed through the centuries—truths that offer a ground for faith in uncertain times, hope and joy for those who despair, and reconciliation for a world at war with God and itself.

We’ve been slated in the #2 position, although things are a bit backed up since Chuck was busy last week at the National Pastors Convention. You can check out more details about that event at the Zondervan Blog.

In 2006 Colson was the featured speaker and recipient of the Faith & Freedom award at the Acton Institute’s annual dinner. Another of his recent books, God & Government, is also worth a look.

After the break is the schedule for the blog tour, which I’ll update with more specific links as the tour progresses. While the start might be delayed, the order is likely to remain the same. Each of the participants was able to submit an exclusive question for Chuck to answer. (more…)