Category: News and Events

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North Korea has lately been featured in dozens of news articles about a recent United Nations report on human rights abuses and now thanks to a new photo from NASA. The photo above was just released — taken from the International Space Station. While the surrounding countries are twinkling with light, North Korea is completely blacked out save for a small dot that is Pyongyang.  U.S. News & World Report lists some of the unpleasant facts of life in North Korea, including frequent power outages:

– One-third of children are stunted, due to malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.

– The average life expectancy, 69, has fallen by five years since the early 1980s, according to the blog North Korea Economy Watch. The blog notes that those figures are based on official statistics, so the real numbers could be even lower.

– Inflation may be as high as 100 percent, due to mismanagement of the currency.

– Most workers earn $2 to $3 per month in pay from the government. Some work on the side or sell goods in local markets, earning an extra $10 per month or so.

– Most homes and apartments are heated by open fireplaces burning wood or briquettes. Many lack flush toilets.

– Electric power is sporadic and unreliable, with homes that have electricity often receiving power just a few hours per day. (more…)

bake1I have already weighed in on the recent hubbub over whether bakers, florists, and photographers should be compelled by law to serve ends they deem unethical and in violation of their consciences.

Over at First Things, Eric Teetsel of the Manhattan Declaration offers some helpful embellishment on that last bit — conscience — arguing that Christians ought to be far less blind and arbitrary when it comes to the shape and scope of their stewardship and service.

As for the case at hand (whether to attend or service particular weddings), Teetsel offers the following:

Have you prayed about it? How is the Holy Spirit leading you? Do you feel you can attend the service without compromising your responsibility to be a witness to the Truth? Will attending enable you to continue a Gospel presence in the person’s life? If so, then perhaps you should go…

…Individuals may be led one way or another according to their conscience. One may feel they can provide the service without endorsing or celebrating the event; another may feel the opposite. Religious freedom and the right of conscience preserve the rights of individuals to come to their own conclusions in such circumstances.

Of course not every act of commerce amounts to an assessment of the moral nature of homosexuality. But every so often a creator is asked to use their talents for something their conscience cannot abide. It may be a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony, or a cake in a lewd shape, or a cake celebrating abortion. In those instances, the Bible fails to provide an absolute answer. What is a Christian to do? The answer is a matter of individual conscience. Not whether Christians should or should not do something, but whether they must do something.

Yet when it comes to nearly every case the Christian encounters, that first paragraph is a rather helpful introduction to the types of questions we should be asking. From setting wages and prices, to innovating new products and services, to the ends those outputs elevate, conscience is integral to rightly ordering our efforts. (more…)

HowTheWestWon_FrontCoverSamuel Gregg recently reviewed Rodney Stark’s new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. Gregg begins by pointing out that discussion of Medieval Europe “is invariably understood as a period of unmitigated darkness–so much so that words like “feudal” are used today, even by many well-informed Catholics, as synonyms for backwardness.” How the West Won seeks to analyze as well as dispel common misunderstandings and myths about how the West developed. Stark begins his argument by warning his readers, “This is a remarkably unfashionable book.”

While there are many studies and books making similar points, Gregg explains why How the West Won offers something new:

What makes Stark’s book different from these and other studies are two things. First, he weaves his arguments about pre-Christian Europe, the medieval period, the Crusades, and the development of capitalism (to name just a few) into an account which dissolves many prevailing conceptual divisions between the pre-modern and modern worlds. Many secular-minded people—but also many Christians—will be surprised at the high degree of continuity, for instance, between minds like Saint Albertus Magnus and Sir Isaac Newton. Sometimes this occurs by Stark pointing to evidence that has hitherto escaped most people’s attention. In other instances, it is a question of looking at the same evidence but through a more plausible interpretative lens.

The second distinctive feature of How the West Won is how Stark shows how particular historical myths have less to do with the facts than with efforts to paint Christianity as a backward regressive cultural force. To give just one example, Islamic Spain is regularly portrayed, Stark notes, as an oasis of tolerance compared to a repressive Christendom, despite the undeniable evidence of the widespread and long-term persecution and subjugation of Jews and Christians by the Moors. (more…)

Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal George Pell

Over at Real Clear Religion, Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg discusses Pope Francis’s recent appointment of Cardinal George Pell to “Secretariat of the Economy.” The secretariat has authority over the economic activities of the Vatican City State and the Holy See.

Gregg explains his take on Cardinal Pell and this appointment:

It may well turn out to be the greatest challenge of his priestly life.

You don’t need to watch the Godfather Part III to know that the Catholic Church has struggled for several decades to address some real problems in the management of the Holy See’s finances. Just looking at an organizational chart of the various units involved in some way in administering the Holy See’s resources is enough to make even devout Catholics think that maybe Dan Brown’s novels are onto something.

What’s often called “the Vatican Bank” — it’s more formal title is the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR) — is just one of several institutions that the Holy See has created over the years to manage various resources. In many ways, a far more important structure is the lesser-known “Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See” (APSA), which, as it stated under its governing document, serves “to administer the properties owned by the Holy See in order to provide the funds necessary for the Roman Curia to function.” (more…)

venezuela-protestsWhat’s going on in Venezuela?

A wave of anti-government demonstrations has been sweeping through Venezuela since early February. There have been at least 13 people been killed, 150 injured, and over 500  arrested.

Where exactly is Venezuela?

Venezuela is a country on the northern coast of South America that borders Columbia, Brazil, and Guyana. The Caribbean Sea is along the northern border. The country, which is nearly twice the size of California, is is one of the ten most biodiverse countries on the planet.

What is the cause of the conflict?

The protests began earlier this month when students demanded increased security after a female student alleged she was the victim of an attempted rape. (Venezuela has the fifth highest murder rate in the world and crime plagues many of its urban areas.) The protestors are also concerned about record inflation (official figures suggest yearly inflation in December 2013 stood at 56.2%) and shortages of basic food items. One in four basic goods is currently out of stock, according to the central bank’s monthly scarcity index released Feb. 10. Milk, for example, is reported to have been missing from supermarket shelves for months.
(more…)

facebook_ad_large_1On-demand ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are on the rise, allowing smartphone users to request cab drivers with the touch of a button. But though the services are popular with consumers and drivers alike, they’re finding less favor among their taxi-company competitors and the unions and government bureaucrats who protect them.

Calling for increased regulation, entrance fees, and insurance requirements, competitors are grappling to retain their privileged, insulated status. In Miami-Dade County, an area with particularly onerous restrictions and regulations, Diego Feliciano, president of the South Florida Taxicab Association, argues that the change is bound to “ruin the very thing it’s trying to improve,” all because it threatens the fat cats who pay his salary, and who can afford to jump through the regulatory hoops. “When looking at new technologies,” he writes, “we must also be sure people’s basic civil rights and the safety of the riding public are protected.”

Bringing these petty municipal battles into the limelight, actor Ashton Kutcher, an early investor in Uber, recently appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, decrying “antiquated legislation,” “old-school monopolies,” and “old-school governments” who continue to stand in the way of innovation and consumer demand. In areas like Miami, Kutcher says, there is a “Mafioso mentality” against letting the “new guys” in.

Indeed, as Miami’s Feliciano aptly demonstrates, the protectionist mindset only sees what is, viewing economic activity in static and self-centered terms, and failing to recognize or value the type of opportunity and possibility that comes with increased freedom and ownership. Feliciano claims that he’s interested in “safety” and “basic civil rights,” but the only folks being protected are those with power and pocketbooks. (more…)

scaliaSpeaking on February 14 at a Chicago event celebrating George Washington’s Birthday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s headline remark was his insistence that Chicago-style pizza is “not pizza.” But Scalia focused heavily on the abysmal state of civic education, which not surprisingly, includes law students as well.

Over at the Liberty Law Blog, Josh Blackman, offers some excellent highlights of Scalia’s words from the event. On the relationship between religion and good government, Scalia declared:

Let me make clear that I am not saying that every good American must believe in God. What I am saying, however, is that it is contrary to our founding principles to insist that government be hostile to religion. Or even to insist, as my court, alas, has done, that government cannot favor religion over non-religion.

It is not a matter of believing that God exists, though personally I believe that. It is a matter of believing, as our founders did, that belief in God is very conducive to a successful republic.

(more…)

Radio Free ActonIn this edition of Radio Free Acton, Paul Edwards joins our crew to host a discussion of the crisis in the Ukraine, with perspective provided by Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg, Director of Communications John Couretas, and with an insider’s perspective of current events from an evangelical Christian currently residing near Kiev. (Our friend from Kiev remains anonymous in order to ensure his safety and security.) Paul and his guests discuss the geopolitical context of the crisis, the different forces currently acting on the Ukraine that have brought the situation to the current acute state, and the religious and social undertones that are shaping the contours of Ukrainian society as it copes with the unrest.

You can listen to the podcast via the audio player below.

Eric Prince, founder and former CEO of Blackwater Inc., speaks at the Acton Institute

Eric Prince, founder and former CEO of Blackwater Inc., speaks at the Acton Institute

On Tuesday night, the Acton Institute welcomed Erik Prince to the Mark Murray Auditorium in the Acton Building in Grand Rapids, Michgan. Prince, a west Michigan native, is the founder and former CEO of Blackwater, Inc., the private security firm that became the subject of a great deal of controversy during the Iraq War, and remains so to this day.

Prince’s address shared the title of his book: Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror. He related the story of why he founded Blackwater Inc., how the company grew in response to various national and world events, the role the company played in Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 conflicts, and the public excoriation that both he and his company were subject to at the hands of a hostile press and Congressional investigators after the public soured on the Iraq war effort.

A small group of protestors greeted Prince's arrival at Acton.

A small group of protestors greeted Prince’s arrival at Acton.

Naturally, Prince’s presence at Acton sparked outrage in the local leftist community, as Prince is widely assumed to be a “war criminal” throughout the leftist blogosphere. This led to calls for protest, which were answered by around ten to twelve individuals who stood at the corner of Fulton Street and Sheldon Avenue, peacefully holding their signs. By my observation, it appeared that about 60 percent of the signs were intended to either denounce Prince as a “war criminal” or Acton for even allowing him to speak, with the other 40 percent calling for various leftist economic reforms. Here’s a rather amusing account of the event from a leftist perspective, which notes that at some point the protestors hauled out a bullhorn, but were asked discontinue use of it by the Grand Rapids Police. A more balanced account of the event appears in the Grand Rapids Press.

In the end, this type of protest is the reason why Prince wrote his book, and the reason why he is now speaking out about his experiences. He has largely been tried and convicted in the international court of the leftist blogosphere and punditocracy, and has had relatively little opportunity to share his side of the story. Even then-Senator Barack Obama acknowledged that “Blackwater is getting a bad rap” during a 2008 campaign related trip to Afghanistan, a trip on which his personal security was provided by – you guessed it – Blackwater.

With all this in mind, your best bet is to hear the man out for yourself. The video of Prince’s address and the Q and A that followed is posted below. For a more in-depth examination of the situation, you’d do well to read his book.

wedding1In a recent column for USA Today, Kirsten Powers uses some legislation in the Kansas state legislature as a foray for arguing that, for many Christians, the supposed fight for religious liberty is really just a fight for the “legal right to discriminate.” Pointing to recent efforts to protect a florist, a baker, and a photographer from being sued for their beliefs about marriage, Powers argues that these amount to the homosexual equivalent of Jim Crow laws.

Powers, herself a Christian, reminds us that Jesus calls us “to be servants to all,” which is, of course, correct. Yet, as many have already observed, those involved in these lawsuits have no qualms with serving gay customers. Their conflict, rather, is with the particular ends that such services would support. As Andrew Walker explains at First Things: “What’s at stake in this context is when individuals who provide material and artistic craft for weddings are then forced to take their talents and their creative abilities and use them for purposes that go against their consciences.”

Setting aside any differences over sexual ethics or the particular legislation at hand, it’s worth noting how Powers so decidedly divorces work from religion, and in turn, work from ethics. Are we really to believe that the ends of our economic activity are of no consequence?

Powers writes that most of those planning a wedding would be shocked to learn that their vendors and suppliers had some kind of religious principle or transcendent ethic driving their efforts. “Most people think they just hired a vendor to provide a service,” she writes. “It’s not clear why some Christian vendors are so confused about their role here.” Reinforcing this view, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley is quoted, advising Christians to “leave Jesus out of it” when it comes to discerning the shape of their economic output. Later, in a tweet responding to her critics, Powers still fails to see it. “Of all the pushback I’ve gotten on my column,” she writes, “not one person has explained when Jesus taught that baking a cake is an affirmation of anything.” (more…)