Category: Public Policy

Here’s the text of a letter sent this morning to the editor at Woman’s Day magazine (don’t ask why I was reading Woman’s Day. I read whatever happens to be sitting in the rack next to our commode):

Paula Spencer’s commentary on the Pledge of Allegiance (“Pledging Allegiance,” September 1, 2007) sounds incredibly McCarthy-esque. Are we to now believe that having qualms about mandatory recitation of the Pledge constitutes an un-American activity?

Spencer dismisses the many reasons that one might object to the Pledge in the context of public schools. These schools are, after all, institutional arms of the government itself, and attendance is mandatory (unless one can afford private or parochial options). A cynic might suggest that when combined with an obligatory recitation of allegiance to the nation, such education runs the risk of becoming indoctrination for the purposes of social control. As to whether nationalism can be such “a bad thing,” consider Germany in the 1930s.

There are also religious reasons why a person might feel compelled to abstain from pledging to a physical object (the flag). For Christians, whose citizenship is finally in heaven and whose ultimate loyalty is due to God alone, concerns about idolatry might compel a person to conscientiously refrain from making such a pledge. Indeed, those two little words “under God” which have occasioned such controversy in recent days are perhaps the only elements of the Pledge that make it even permissible for Christians to profess allegiance to any particular nation.

Patriotism too often can morph into xenophobia and nationalism. Whatever your views of the Pledge, I would think that the educational potential contained in having a “conversation with your child about your family’s approach to the Pledge” would be the sort of engaged parenting that your publication ought to praise and endorse rather than disdain.

The free exercise of religion, not to mention the freedom of speech and independent thought, are thoroughly American. A coerced, perfunctory, and unreflective patriotism is no true patriotism at all.

Jordan J. Ballor
Associate Editor
Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty

As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “The nation will always claim a portion of man’s loyalties. Since it usually claims too large a portion, it is necessary that other communities compete with it.”

By my way of thinking, for Christians the Church ought to be that community of primary loyalty (for Niebuhr, it’s the class: “There is no reason why a class which is fated by its condition of life to aspire after an equalitarian society should not have a high moral claim upon the loyalty of its members”).

It seems to me that American churches have a particularly hard time separating out what elements of their worship and piety are merely the trappings of civil religion and which are the indispensable elements of catholicity.

At the recreation center where my wife plays softball, and which is explicitly supported by the denomination, players, coaches, and umpires only pause to pray after the national anthem has been played. In itself its a small thing, perhaps even unimportant, but when combined with all the other similar elements (American flags near the pulpit, for example), it raises in my mind the perennial questions about ultimate loyalties and the proclivity for Christian denominations, particularly Protestants, to align themselves along national boundaries.

See also: “Which of These is More Offensive?”

Blog author: rnothstine
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? – James 2:1-4

In today’s society it may seem a little odd that a politician might actually be averse to showing favoritism, as James discusses at the beginning of this chapter. At one time I worked for a U.S. Congressman from Mississippi named Gene Taylor. One day I was dispatched with the duty of locating him in the Rayburn House office building. The reason was simple; the Secretary of the Navy was waiting for him in his office. Some of the staff was panic stricken and mildly embarrassed because they could not ascertain his whereabouts. Congressman Taylor was not frequently attached at the hip with his cellular phone or pager. I remember looking in all the places you would look for a House member in the Rayburn building and not being able to locate him. After I had given up, I preceded to walk up the stairs and found him talking with a maintenance worker in the stairwell.

I told him that the Secretary of the Navy was in his office and he nodded his head and introduced me to his friend, whom he treated like a celebrity, bragging up the individual’s fishing skills. While I did not always agree with the positions or votes he recorded on issues, Gene Taylor always reinforced the significance of treating people the same. He also taught me a valuable life lesson when he told me: “You know why I’m friends with the capital police, the maintenance workers, and the common fisherman down at the harbor? It’s because they will continue to be my friends when I am no longer a congressman.”

The words of James specifically refer to the behavior of the Church and its members. One of the reasons the Free Methodist Church was born in America was over the issue of the Methodist Episcopal Church and their practice of selling and renting pews. The poor were therefore relegated to the back of the congregation, and there was a call for free seats for all. Favoritism can be one of the hardest sins to overcome because it’s so entrenched in the Church just like it is in society. Matthew Henry, an English clergyman who was active in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, appropriately notes, “In matters of religion, rich and poor stand upon a level; no man’s riches set him in the least nearer to God, nor does any man’s poverty set him at a distance from God.”

It’s hard to be an authentic Christian in an unauthentic world, and that is why we look and lean on the power of Christ. One of the most beautiful characteristics of the incarnate Christ is that he was humbled so that we were made high. In the words of Isaiah, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Charles Spurgeon, the famed British Reformed preacher, himself noted, “He became poor from his riches, that our poverty might become rich out of his poverty.”

My local library is apparently having a problem with youth gangs who are using the public computers to access social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook. The hooligans are defacing each others sites, sending threatening messages, and causing other kinds of trouble.

From the Wyoming Advance, “A place that should be safe for children has seen graffiti, assaults, loud and vulgar language, patron intimidation, public sexual encounters, carving gang symbols in furniture, and more.”

What is the library to do? “As a solution, KDL has employed a part-time security guard who interacts with youths and is on-duty during key teen use times. They are also poised to install filters that limit access to social networking sites on all but six of the 40 library computers in an effort to quell the problems.”

That raises some first amendment questions, of course. The GR Press reports that the ban on some social networking sites will go through a six-month trial period.

“It is only a trial,” Martha Smart, KDL director, said. “It’s very important to provide freedom of access to information for the public. We want to protect people’s First Amendment rights.”

Here’s an idea: why not simply play some classical music instead of banning social networking sites? (HT)

“Transit workers are installing speakers this week to pump classical music from Seattle’s KING-FM into the Tacoma Mall Transit Center. The tactic is designed to disperse young criminals who make drug deals at the bus stop or use public transportation to circulate between the mall and other trouble-prone places.” Let’s just hope they don’t add any Wagner to the playlist.

Update: Still on the case, Tim Disselkoen summarizes the reactions of a KDL spokesperson: “Garrison said the library has acceptable use policies in place regarding the Internet, and Mish said they work to educate youth about cyber-bullying, online predators, and other potential areas of concern. While KDL has declined to block all access to the social networking sites, parents can restrict their children’s access to such sites through their library cards.”

The theme of the role of the libraries not acting in loco parentis has come up in a couple different quotes from library officials. “If parents are concerned about the use at the library, we can block children’s Internet use,” Garrison said. “We can block the total Internet, we cannot block certain access.” The story concludes, “But KDL officials have said acting in the role of parents is not a duty libraries perform.”

Readings in Social Ethics: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book I, Chapter XIV, “Care for the Needy,” pp. 256-59. References below are to page number.

  • Bucer praises the deacon as an office of the institutional church and an artifact of the early church, commending it to reestablishment in the evangelical churches: “it was their principal duty to keep a list of all of Christ’s needy in the churches, to be acquainted with the life and character of each, and to give to individuals from the common offerings of the faithful whatever would suffice for them to live properly and devoutly. For those who, when they are able to do so, refuse to seek the necessities of life by their own industry and labors should be excluded from the churches” (256-57).

  • Since deacons are to be the primary means by which the church cares for the poor, individual almsgiving is discouraged. Bucer provides a fourfold justification for this judgment: “For when each person wishes to distribute his own alms for himself, there is violated, first of all, the institution of the Holy Spirit and the legitimate communion of the saints. Secondly, alms due to the least of Christ’s brethren, and therefore to Christ himself, are more often given to the unworthy than to the worthy. Nor can every single individual know and investigate each of the poor who happen to encounter him; for those who are least worthy are much better instructed at begging, indeed, extorting, the alms which should be dispensed to the poor alone. Furthermore, when everyone gives alms by his own hand, it is with great difficulty that he will exclude from his heart a desire for the appreciation and praise of men; and when he receives this empty reward from men, a real and sure one is not to be expected from God. Finally, since it is obvious that those who voluntarily give themselves over to beggary are men prone to every crime, what else do those people who foster them do but sustain and support very harmful pests of society” (257-58). There is a sense of the need for specialization and professionalization of the work of charity here. Precisely because individuals could not do all the work needed to make charitable giving effective and appropriate, deacons are appointed to take up the task, as representatives of the institutional church.
  • The church needs to be an example to the world and should not be put to shame by greater love and charity being shown outside of rather than inside the church: “And indeed we must be ashamed and grieve when the right care of the poor has already been restored in very may regions which still serve Antichrist, whereas the very ones who glory in the reception of the gospel and the Kingdom of Christ, although they are not unaware how necessary this practice is, and how much it is a part of the salutary religion of Christ, still fail to reestablish it” (258).
Blog author: jballor
Monday, July 30, 2007

Last week I linked to this R&L item, “The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story.” And two weeks ago, I discussed the relationship between environmental stewardship and economics.

You may recall that the first story featured in Acton’s Call of the Entrepreneur documentary is that of Brad Morgan, a Michigan dairy farmer. Faced with huge costs to dispose of cow refuse, Morgan’s entrepreneurial vision took hold: “His innovative solution to manure disposal, turning it into high quality compost for a variety of purposes, led to the formation of Morgan Composting in 1996, and more than ten years later the business is still going strong.”

Two news items sparked my curiosity as I opened my Sunday paper this week related to these themes of narrative and stewardship. One of the strengths of good stories is their perennial applicability. Narratives that speak to the human condition in a fundamental way will always be relevant, even if the particulars change. With that, I pass on these news items.

First, in “Turkey manure isn’t waste, it’s poultry power,” Ken Kolker and Susie Fair of the Grand Rapids Press write, “The biggest dairy farms in Michigan generate more sewage than the city of Lansing.

With livestock farms getting bigger than ever, all that manure poses a growing threat to the environment, sometimes running off into streams and lakes.”

The piece doesn’t mention Morgan Composting, but it’s clear that Moran’s entrepreneurial vision and practice of stewardship is being duplicated by other farmers facing the problem of waste disposal:

Turkey farmer Harley Sietsema plans next year to start building a turkey-litter-to-electricity plant in Howard City — the state’s first poultry power operation.

A similar plant opened recently on Scenic View Dairy farm in Fennville — manure from cows is heated and churned in enormous tanks, producing methane that powers generators.

A manure-to-electricity plant is expected to open in about a month at den Dulk Dairy in Ravenna.

The 1.2 million turkeys on Sietsema’s farms in Ottawa and Muskegon counties produce 10,000 to 12,000 tons of poultry litter a year.

Three tons of litter — which also contains bedding materials such as sunflower hulls, wood chips and alfalfa stems — is equal in energy production to a ton of coal, but it does not produce polluting carbon dioxide.

Slow-burning litter will heat a boiler, producing steam that drives a generator.

Sietsema plans to use the power to run his farms, saving him $300,000 a year.

And then there’s this piece from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Garbage in, profit out”:

Waste Management Inc., heeding the proverb that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, is spending $3.5 million to poke holes and run pipes to help the Spruce Ridge landfill expel gases that soon will run three electrical generators.

The project is part of a $350 million investment to be made by Waste Management over the next five years to turn 60 landfills across the country into sites for creating renewable energy.

These projects are examples of searches for alternative sources of energy, specifically from biomass, that results from the reduction or recycling of waste products.

These stories just reiterate the connection between sound economics and stewardship of the earth. Or, in the words of the Cornwall Declaration (PDF), “We aspire to a world in which advancements in agriculture, industry, and commerce not only minimize pollution and transform most waste products into efficiently used resources but also improve the material conditions of life for people everywhere.”

I wrote a few comments explaining why John Edwards’ recent poverty tour may serve as good rhetoric but, in the end, demonstrates very poor economic thinking. His ideas essentially represent the failed “war on poverty” initiatives that came out of LBJ’s “Great Society” foolishness. It’s a 2007 remix of a few old, tired, played out ideologies. The programs didn’t work in the 70s and 80s and they won’t work if Edwards becomes president. Edwards wants to raise the minimum wage to nearly $9.50/hour. Where does Edwards expect that money to come from? In the long run, these ideas eventually hurt the poor as we witnessed before Congress overhauled welfare in 1996.

You can read my comments at the Detroit News as well an extended version of the same editorial here at the Acton Institute.

Ray Nothstine’s Acton commentary on the the ethanol boom and its impact on the poor was published today in the Christian Science Monitor as, “The unintended consequences of the ethanol quick fix.” His timely article was also picked up by a slew of other newspapers and Web sites, including the Bakersfield Californian, the Fresno Bee and the Atlantic City Press.