Category: News and Events

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
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Nathan Hale has long been enshrined as a patriotic American icon for his last words before his hanging by the British, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” M. William Phelps, who is the author of the new book The Life and Death of America’s First Spy: Nathan Hale, believes Hale never uttered those exact words. But in Phelps’s view, that wouldn’t in any way take away from the significance and importance of Hale’s legacy. One of the defining projects of any Hale biographer would be to make an attempt at separating the folk-lore from reality, and Phelps does a fine job in this account.

Phelps also focuses on how defining Hale’s Christian faith was in his brief life asserting “even at a young age, he put Christian values before all else.” Phelps describes Hale as a man who enjoyed his scholarly pursuits and friendships at Yale. The picture that is drawn of Hale is a young man who is committed to his faith, to his family, and serving others. In fact, after his graduation from Yale he went on to serve as a teacher in order to better prepare young minds for the world. One of the many moving accounts of Phelps’s book is the wonderful things people say about Hale as a teacher, as a Christian, and as a man of character. An acquaintance noted, “His capacity as a teacher, and the mildness of his mode of instruction, was highly appreciated by Parents & Pupils; his appearance, manners, & temper secured the purest affections of those to whom he was known.” Phelps also makes note of how he impressed people with his ability to express and explain the importance of liberty, and the oppression of the English Crown. His words were magnified even more because he chose them carefully and spoke from the heart.

Hale decided to take a leave of absence from teaching to join Washington’s Army. He was commissioned a lieutenant, and he wrote to his father to say, “A sense of duty urged me to sacrifice everything for my country.” Hale’s father already had five of his eight sons taking up arms against the British. Hale distinguished himself on the battlefield just as he did as a teacher by being focused on sacrifice, service, and his commitment to being a professional officer.

With Washington’s Army in New York, more information was needed about the British troops in the area. Hale enthusiastically volunteered to go undercover to obtain the necessary information. Fellow officers tried to talk him out of it declaring the mission a “death sentence,” and declared that spying was unbecoming of the character of an army officer. Phelps notes:

I.W. Stuart described a spy as a ‘companion of darkness.’ There was no way of dressing the job up to appear less dishonest than it was. ‘If he moved in the light,’ Stuart wrote, ‘it is behind walls, in the shadow of trees, in the loneliness of clefts, under the cover of hills . . . skulking with the owl, the mole, or the Indian.’ One of the problems Nathan faced as a spy was that, on his best day, Nathan Hale was none of those. He embodied the spirit of that compassionate man Asher Wright described: the one who knelt by the bedside of a fellow, a devoted Christian who prayed for a soldier dying next to him in the marsh. He was not an impostor, an actor. However, Nathan’s commitment to the cause overrode any of the hazards. He had made a decision and saw it as his duty as an American soldier to follow through with it.

Phelps in his account also reinforces the fact that a well educated man was needed for the mission in order to procure the proper sketches and notes for General Washington. Hale went behind enemy lines disguised as a Dutch school teacher in farm clothes.

Phelps tries to put to rest the often cited account that Hale was spotted and turned in by a loyalist cousin named Samuel Hale, arguing instead new evidence favors that he was tricked into admitting his spying by a ruthless and savvier British Colonel, named Robert Rogers. In any event, on his way back to the American line, Hale was caught and disclosed the details of his mission and was sentenced to death by hanging the next morning for espionage. Hale was refused the presence of a chaplain and a bible before execution, which he had asked to be granted to him. Several British accounts testify to the immense courage Hale displayed and faced even with the certainty of his earthly demise. He warned the onlookers “to be prepared to meet death in whatever shape it may appear.” A captain in the Continental Army, Hale was only twenty-one when he was executed. Phelps declared of Hale:

Nathan accepted his sentence. He stood proudly, head tilted skyward, posture firm, hands tied behind his back. Then, in a phrase that has been misquoted throughout the centuries and turned into a slogan for patriotism, he said, ‘I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.’ This is perhaps the most often misremembered moment in the Nathan Hale story: What did he say moments before he was executed? The line attributed to him – ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country’ – is only a paraphrase of what Nathan actually said, which was reported in the Independent Chronicle on May 17, 1781, as part of an article many believed William Hull narrated to the reporter. But contemporary scholars and historians have said the apocryphal quote was derived from the popular Revolutionary War play Cato. This poetic line fit with the heroism being created around Nathan’s legacy at the time it became popular decades after his death. His peers wanted him to be remembered not as a failed spy, but as a hero who spoke with patriotic self-worth at the moment of his death. In contrast, the Essex Journal, on February 2, 1777, reported Nathan’s final words as ‘You are shedding the blood of the innocent. If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down, if called to do it, in defence of my injured, bleeding country.’

Hale was left to hang for three days, then cut down and buried in a shallow unmarked grave somewhere “near present-day Third Avenue, between Forty-sixth and Sixty-sixth streets,” according to Phelps. His body was never recovered.

Phelps has crafted a story that helps to make Hale’s life remarkable outside of what he is most assuredly known for, his heroic death. His life confidently testifies to devotion to his Savior first, his country, and liberty. Phelps movingly concludes his biography by asserting:

When the British strung Nathan Hale up and hanged him, they did so to end his influence on the American effort. And yet, at the moment Nathan died on the end of that rope, the British gave birth to a national icon of liberty and patriotism. Nathan was, during his life, a captain in the American Continental Army who was willing to risk everything for the greater good of his country, a solider who was certainly, ill-prepared as a spy, but had a heart that led him to fulfill his duty. Sadly, death made him a martyr, a hero, an American solider to – rightly so – celebrate and honor. Yet he was – and could have been – all those things in life, too.

Acton’s Sam Gregg on Public Discourse:

At the level of government policy, a prominent instance of moral hazard was what some call the “Greenspan doctrine” of 2002. This involved the U.S. Federal Reserve stating that, while it was powerless to prevent the emergence of asset bubbles (such as the dot-com and housing booms), the Federal Reserve would do everything that it could to soften the effects of an imploding bubble. This included providing investors with the option of selling their depreciated assets to the Federal Reserve at a time of crisis. Not surprisingly, the result was a surge in excessive risk-taking by investors confident that, if everything did not proceed as planned, they could recoup their losses at someone else’s expense. In his recent book, Fixing Global Finance (2008), the financial journalist Martin Wolf underlines “the distortions introduced by government guarantees to risk-taking.” These, he writes, “create an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

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For those concerned with a vigorous intellectual engagement of the religious idea with the secular culture, these past 12 months have been a difficult period.

On February 28, 2008, William F. Buckley, Jr. the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement in America, died. Only last month, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, passed away at 90 years old. Cardinal Dulles was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians, a thinker of great subtlety, and a descendent from a veritable American Brahmin dynasty.

Father Richard John Neuhaus

The third in this towering intellectual triumvirate is Father Richard John Neuhaus, who died in New York after an on and off again battle with cancer, about which he had written in his now mini-classic, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning.

This book is unlike any written in our time in that it is a profoundly serious reflection on questions everyone has, issues everyone thinks about in private, but hardly anyone is willing to speak about or perhaps capable of writing about. Fr. Neuhaus confronts it to the point in which we feel discomfort – and he did this on nearly every issue he wrote about in his long writing career.

How will we be held accountable at death for what we did in life? What does mortality mean? What does it mean to face judgment? How should we live with the questions we have about eternity, and what is the impact on culture and responsibility?

In times past we had a greater clarity about these questions than we do today. Today, if we think about death at all, it is only to keep it as far away as possible, to forestall it, to deny it, and pretend that it doesn’t happen to others and will not happen to us.

Fr. Neuhaus wrote the following:

We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word ‘good’ should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good. Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.

Fascinating, provocative, fearless, counter-cultural, and absolutely impossible to ignore. It puts matters of faith at the center, making them impossible to deny. That is the power of Fr. Neuhaus’s mind at work, and it worked for many decades producing an incredible literary legacy. (more…)

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has touched off a row over remarks he made recently concerning the demise of capitalism.

Here’s the context from the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper:

[the Cardinal] made the astonishing claim at a lavish fund-raising dinner at Claridges which secured pledges of hundreds of thousands of pounds for the catholic church. The Cardinal, dressed in his full clerical regalia, said in a speech at the black tie dinner that he had worried whether the dinner should go ahead because of the troubled economic times. But he went on to say that in 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin wall, that “communism had died.” In 2008, he said, “capitalism had died.”

The response from the business community was swift.

Catholic business people surveyed by The Daily Telegraph insisted that there were plenty of good capitalists, who used the process of making money to benefit all of society. The problems came when capitalism was used by a few to enrich themselves to the detriment of everyone else. Sir Tom Farmer, the Scottish billionaire former owner of car parts firm Kwik-Fit, said: “I seriously hope that capitalism is not dead, but I hope that the abuse of capitalism is dead. I hope that is what the Cardinal meant. At the end of the day it is a system that creates wealth – but it has its failings.”

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, was interviewed on Ave Maria Radio today by host Al Kresta and asked about the Cardinal’s remarks.
“There is some great irony here of His Excellency speaking at a lavish fundraising event at which one presumes he is about to ask for money for the renovation of the Cathedral, etcetera,” he told Kresta. “Either the Cardinal is possessed of a great insight that no one in that room and few other people are possessd of, or he is speaking economic lunacy.”

Listen to the interview here.

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Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, January 8, 2009
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First Things has announced that Father Richard John Neuhaus died this morning.

I am hardly qualified to write a eulogy, having never met the man. No doubt others, including one or two Acton colleagues who knew him better, will perform this service admirably. But I feel compelled to offer a few words, as I have long admired Fr. Neuhaus and his vital work, in particular the journal he edited for many years, First Things (FT).

In the mid-1990s, I was a graduate student in history at the University of Pennsylvania. I was surrounded by smart people who, with some exceptions, disagreed profoundly with most of my own views on religion, culture, and public life (to use FT’s trinitarian formula). I am grateful for that interaction and for the intellectual stimulus that Penn provided, but I was also lonely and desperate for some intellectual sustenance from a perspective both more conservative politically and more orthodox theologically. Browsing through the library one day, I came across FT. (How it had taken me so long to discover it, I don’t know.) Under the circumstances, it seemed to be literally a godsend. Social policy, science, academia–it tackled all the contentious issues at the front of my consciousness as an inexperienced but aspiring scholar who needed allies and guides as I sought to make sense of the relationship between faith and reason. It did so at a level of intelligence, clarity, and civility consistently higher than any other publication I’ve ever encountered.

From that day–when I could afford a subscription to only one periodical–to the present, I have been a devoted FT reader. And to no part of the journal have I been more devoted than Fr. Neuhaus’s monthly roundup of religion, culture, and public life, The Public Square. For more than ten years it has provoked me to thought, laughter, and (not very often) disagreement. For Fr. Neuhaus and for the journal he inspired, I am sincerely grateful. I never met him, but I feel that I’ve lost a longtime companion.

Perhaps the most striking theme of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s autobiography My Grandfather’s Son is just how many obstacles Thomas had to overcome to reach the high judicial position he currently holds. Thomas was born into poverty, abandoned by his father, and was raised in the segregated South all before achieving the American Dream. At the same time, it was Thomas’s poverty-stricken circumstances that would help propel him to a world of greater opportunity. Because of his mother’s poverty, when Thomas was seven, he and his brother were sent to live with his grandfather Myers Anderson, a no nonsense and self-disciplined man who announced upon their arrival, “The damn vacation is over.”

While I have never been a big fan of autobiographies, Thomas’s story is one that absolutely needs to be told, if for no other reason than to fully respond to the damaging allegations made by his former colleague Anita Hill. But there is so much here to think about, especially for somebody like myself who attended school at Ole Miss, an institution wrapped in the consciousness of race. In a Southern Studies class in college while discussing the history of lynchings, the professor asked if we could cite examples of any modern day lynchings. I immediately remembered Thomas’s quote about his confirmation hearings being a “high tech lynching” and offered Thomas’s name. Of course I knew this was perhaps the last name the professor wanted to hear, which is why I offered it, thereby getting out in front of and spoiling her liberal moralism of the day. She casually made a snide comment about Thomas and said “that doesn’t count.” I only smiled as I knew I had successfully pointed out that Thomas was in fact one of the few black men allowed to be aggressively attacked by white liberals in academia.

Growing up, his grandfather made sacrifices so Thomas and his brother could attend Catholic schools, this allowed him opportunities he might never have had coming out of the public school system. Thomas later turned his attention to studying for the priesthood. As a seminarian Thomas declared:

It seemed self-evident to both of us that the treatment of blacks in America cried out for the unequivocal condemnation of a righteous institution that proclaimed the inherent equality of all men. Yet the Church remained silent, and its silence haunted me. I have often thought that my life might well have followed a different route had the Church been as adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now.

After leaving seminary, Thomas transferred to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and experimented in left wing politics. Also Thomas found New England to be far less honest about race than in the American South, declaring, “I bristled at the self-righteous sanctimony with which so many of the northerners at Yale glibly discussed the South’s racial problems.” He also pointed out that it was in Boston, not Georgia, that he was first called a deeply offensive racial slur. Thomas left Yale Law School with a negative view of his alma mater. His intention at the time was to return to South Georgia to practice law.

Thomas however ended up on the staff of Missouri Attorney General and former U.S. Senator John Danforth in Jefferson City in 1974. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal Priest, who went on to become a U.S. Senator, would become a life-long mentor and a valuable ally during Thomas’s Supreme Court hearings. The stories Thomas tells of his own drinking problem and financial indebtedness are all fascinating. His first marriage turns out to not be successful, but he goes into little detail, which may be commendable just in keeping a private matter, just that.

Thomas also delves into the Anita Hill fiasco, describing her by his own account as a less than average employee, and somebody who virtually nobody liked. The chaotic nature of the hearings pushed Thomas back even closer to his faith and he noted:

The more hopeless things appeared and the more vulnerable I felt, the more I turned to God’s comforting embrace, and over time my focus became primarily God centered. The words of the Apostle Paul were not far from my mind: ‘Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.’

He decides to end his autobiographical account during the day he is sworn at the U.S. Supreme Court, which might be disappointing to some of the more policy wonkish readers. After reading his unique account I was left with a couple profound thoughts. I had another professor in college who said to the class while we were reading Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy , that the stories were not really believable, but rather bad capitalist propaganda. The novel immediately came back to me after reading Thomas’s account, here is a man who overcame even so much more to rise to the very top of his field. Few stories can better personify the American dream, and very few stories provide better imagery of defying the odds.

Thomas’s book is at times inspiring, sad, yet ultimately triumphant. He had a very fractured relationship with the grandfather who raised him. Not until his grandfather’s death, did he ultimately appreciate the lessons, love, and discipline Myers Anderson taught him. It’s by only reading this book will you understand how somebody with a third grade education taught a Yale Law School graduate and Supreme Court Justice so much about life, and yes even conservatism.

Nicholas Kristof’s Dec. 21 New York Times column was, he says, “a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable.” He quotes Arthur Brooks’ “Who Really Cares” book which shows that conservatives give more to charity than liberals.

The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less money to charity than Republicans — the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.

“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”

Kristof echoes Rev. Robert Sirico’s Dec. 17 Acton commentary “Why We Give” (published on Dec. 23 in the Detroit News) which also looks at Brooks’ work on giving and the deeper theological dimensions of charity.

… the tradition of gift-giving is rooted in the gift that God offers to the world in his Son who comes in the appearance of a frail babe. Likewise, the Magi, the Wise Men, who came from the East, brought the Christ-child exotic gifts to celebrate his Advent.

There is another, perhaps more practical aspect of the giving of gifts that is worth pondering which was brought to the fore by Arthur Brooks, author of the 2006 book “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why it Matters.” Brooks investigated the American habit of giving and what he found surprised some, irritated others and confirmed some suspicions that I have had for some time. Among his findings was that the general profile of the gift-giver is one who has a strong family life and who attends church regularly.

Read more of Rev. Sirico’s column >>>

Catching up on “Revisiting the 1986 economic pastoral”, an article from October in the National Catholic Reporter:

The bishops’ point “that Catholics’ moral life cannot be separated entirely from their economic life has relevance for what we’re going through now,” said Kevin Schmiesing, research fellow for the Acton Institute, a proponent of free markets. “Unless you believe there is no moral component to this, that there’s no failure of responsibility, that there’s no greed at work, that those kinds of moral issues have no impact. … If you’re willing to concede that they do, then I think you can also concede that the bishops have a point.”

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Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
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In “Betrayed by Madoff, Yeshiva U. Adds a Lesson,” the New York Times interviews students and teachers at the New York University which was closely linked to Bernard Madoff, the financier who has been charged by federal prosecutors with orchestrating a $50 billion Ponzi scheme fraud.

In Intermediate Accounting I, undergraduates analyzed how he seemingly tap-danced around the Securities and Exchange Commission. In Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s philosophy of Jewish law course, students pondered whether Jewish values had been distorted to reward material success.

“This overrides everything else,” said Rabbi Blech, who has taught at Yeshiva for 42 years. “It is an opportunity to convey to students that ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism, that it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings.”

The rabbi and some students are also torn by “pressures to achieve material success as well as religious devotion” at a school that combines secular and Jewish studies.

Rabbi Blech, who teaches the philosophy of law course, said he, too, worried that community expectations had steered students away from public-service professions like teaching and toward more lucrative jobs.

“In elevating to a level of demiworship people with big bucks, we have been destroying the values of our future generation,” he said. “We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring.”

Read more …

Today saw the launch of a sharp new look for the Acton Institute website. This new iteration of the website puts content first, with a very uncluttered, fresh look. It also sports some of the latest and greatest in web technology, but I’ll spare you the geekspeak and let you discover all of the bells and whistles for yourself. In case you can’t recall, here’s what the old site looked like:


And for comparison, here’s an “after” screenshot:



We hope that you’ll continue to enjoy the Acton website and the rich collection of articles and resources that it provides.