Category: Publications

Working Class Bulwark by Jacob BurckAs I noted last week, my review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic appears in the current issue of The City, a fine publication produced by Houston Baptist University.

Eberstadt provides an important service in bringing home the fiscal realities of the spending crisis facing the American government. But Yuval Levin’s brief reply was, for me, the high point of the book, as it emphasized the indispensability of the so-called “third sector” in social analysis. Eberstadt’s case is helpful for drawing sharp lines, but it’s also worth taking a step back to appreciate the real complexity of the situation.

This is in part why I find any dichotomous breakdown of the situation, whether it pits “makers” against “takers” or the proletariat against the bourgeosie, to be insufficient.

When you have a fuller picture of society than is provided through merely political lenses, it becomes far more difficult to determine who is really a maker and who is really a taker. Or as Joseph Sunde puts it in his review,

The moment we disregard the value in varying social and institutional relationships—beginning with a holistic disregard of the distinct responsibilities of the government vs. the business vs. the school vs. the church vs. the father vs. the daughter vs. the grandmother—is the moment we should expect to see “dependency” become warped toward a one-sided “entitlement archipelago” that serves the self, and little else.

As for the complexity of modern society, Herman Bavinck describes things this way, in a manner that helpfully complicates any simple oppositional narrative:

Current society displays in every respect the greatest inequality and the richest diversity, far greater inequality and diversity than its opponents usually imagine. For they divide society actually into only two classes: the filthy rich and the dirt poor, the superpowerful and the powerless, the abusers and the abused, tyrants and slaves. But the real society, the society that lives and breathes, does not look at all like that; the diversity is far greater, so great that no one can form a complete picture of it. The filthy rich constitute a very small minority, and of these people, membership along a continuum proceeds down to the bottom not by a big leap but rather in terms of a gradual slope in various degrees and in various stages.

For more on these matters, I highlight Bavinck’s insight and the phenomenon of natural diversity, particularly in economic terms, in a recent paper, “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity.”

Jonathan Mayhew

The American minister Jonathan Mayhew (October 8, 1720 – July 9, 1766) is credited with coining the phrase “No taxation without representation.”

My review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic appears in the current issue of The City (currently available in print).

Eberstadt makes some important points about the sustainability of our society given current trends in our national polity. The most salient feature, contends Eberstadt, is that “the United States is at the verge of a symbolic threshold: the point at which more than half of all American households receive, and accept, transfer benefits from the government.” This Calvin & Hobbes cartoon captures the basic idea pretty well.

One possible response to the upside-down nature of a society with more takers than makers is to re-examine the link between taxation and representation. As I wrote in an Acton Commentary late last year,

“No taxation without representation” was a slogan taken up and popularized by this nation’s Founders, and this idea became an important animating principle of the American Revolution. But that was also an era when landowners had the primary responsibilities in civic life; theirs was the land that was taxed and so theirs too were the rights to vote and be represented. Thus went the logic. But the question that faces us now, nearly two and a half centuries later, is the flip side of the Revolutionary slogan: To what extent should there be representation without taxation?

In his review of Becoming Europe Theodore Dalrymple raises this same issue with respect to the problems that Gregg traces: “There is a simple conceptual solution to this corrupt and corrupting tendency: a constitutional change such that there should be no representation without taxation. After all, to allow people who are economically dependent on the government to vote is like allowing the CEOs of banks to fix their own remuneration.”
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justpoliticsIn the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty (22.3), I review Just Politics by Ronald Sider (read the full review here). While the book has much to commend it, my review ultimately ends up being critical. I do not believe it succeeds in constructing a solid social framework for Evangelicals comparable to Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, as is its stated goal. I write,

Just Politics may be a guide in the same sense that a field guide to birds can rightly be called a guide, but it does not succeed at being “a methodology”—like, for example, the scientific method—as is its stated goal. Or more to the point, unlike the Roman Catholic framework of subsidiarity, solidarity, and natural law or the neo-Calvinist framework of sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace, Sider’s framework (Part 3 of the book and the vast majority, nearly 140 pages) resembles more the things one would hang upon a framework than a framework itself.

Among the many things Sider highlights in field-guide-to-birds style (between “Starvation” and “Capital Punishment”) is this peculiarity under the category of the sanctity of human life:

Smoking

Smoking kills an estimated 438,000 Americans every year. Around the world, the death toll from smoking rises to 5 million each year.

The social costs are enormous. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that smoking costs the nation $75.5 billion each year in medical bills and $92 billion in low productivity. Lung cancer snatches fathers and mothers away prematurely.

Given the devastation caused by smoking tobacco, it is especially ironic that senator Jesse Helms, long heralded as one of the great pro-life supporters, strongly supported government funding to send American tobacco to developing countries under our “Food for Peace” program.

Christians must insist that the sanctity of human life applies to everyone, including people seduced by clever cigarette advertising. Christians must work for effective laws that prevent tobacco advertisements, forbid smoking in most public buildings and facilities, and educate the public on the dangers of smoking. American experience over the last thirty years demonstrates that this mix of government programs can reduce smoking and the deaths it causes.

I find the above statement both challenging and confusing. Let me explain…. (more…)

Angola Inmates in the Auto Body Shop.

Angola Inmates in the Auto Body Shop.

When I drove into Angola, La., to interview Warden Burl Cain and tour the prison grounds, I wasn’t nervous about talking with the inmates. I had already read multiple accounts calling Angola “perhaps the safest place in America.” The only thing I was a little nervous about was being an Ole Miss football partisan amidst a possible sea of LSU football fans. Even for such an egregious sin in Louisiana, at Angola, I was extended grace and hospitality. It made sense though, because above all else, Angola is a place of contradictions. People are locked away, most of them forever, but I saw and felt genuine hope and compassion. Historically, it was well known as one of the most brutal and violent prisons, but I felt much safer and at home inside the prison than I did in Baton Rouge. I met inmates who had committed horrible crimes, but had equal or more theological and biblical knowledge than I do, a seminary graduate.

I met thoughtful and reflective people who crave authenticity. You can tell a transformation had occurred and honestly the realness of many of the inmates I met was convicting for my own faith and life. Angola can’t but help change you and a big reason for that is Warden Burl Cain. I interview him in this issue of R&L. Cain is helping to encourage and foster the growth of men the rest of the world have long given up on.

There is a lot of great content in this issue. Wesley Gant contributes an essay titled “The Perfectibility Thesis — Still the Great Political Divide.” It’s an excellent overview of ideological divides and the aim and purpose of government. Dylan Pahman offers a review of Ronald J. Sider’s Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement. I review Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year by Charles Bracelen Flood.

The “In the Liberal Tradition” tribute honor this issue belongs to President Calvin Coolidge. During his inaugural address today, President Obama challenged Americans to live up to the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. A great study of those meaning and ideals was offered by Coolidge on the 150th anniversary of the founding document. There is more content in this issue, and the next issue will feature an interview with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk.

Update: Rev. Jensen has posted part 2 of his review. You can read it here.

Rev. Gregory Jensen, who writes at the Koinonia blog, recently reviewed Rev. Robert Sirico and Jeff Sandefer’s new book A Field Guide for the Hero’s Journey.

This is what he had to say about it:

Prudence along with justice, temperance and courage, is a cardinal virtue. Unfortunately as contemporary Western culture has become more secularized it has formed generations of men and women who are deaf to the music of human virtue.  Many of us embrace a vision of human life that counsel spontaneity not habit as the mark of a life well and fully lived.  And since any discussion of virtue necessarily brings with it a discussion of tradition such a conversation is an affront to the atomistic individualism that is at the center of contemporary culture.

And as I read [Hero’s Journey] something unexpected and wonderful happened—I began to see myself in a new light. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 14, 2013
By

Field Guide to the Hero's JourneyIn the current Acton Commentary, I take a look at the common temptation to consider ourselves as somehow uniquely beyond the mundane obligations of the moral order. I do so through the lens of the hero of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, and a particular moral dilemma he faces.

I read through A Field Guide for the Hero’s Journey last week, and was struck by the significance given to this insight in chapter 3, “The Importance of Setting Guardrails.” In a short essay, “The Road Not Taken,” Jeff Sandefer discusses his relationship with Jeff Skilling, and how he “watched Skilling’s meteoric success at Enron, and saw him acquire enough money and power to make the need for ethical guardrails seem old fashioned.”

Sandefer, who teaches in and founded the Acton MBA in Entrepreneurship program, draws a couple of pedagogical lessons from Skilling’s case:

After watching the rise and fall of Enron, and the corrupting influence of money and power, I started encouraging my students to make a list of “I will nots”–actions like cheating on a spouse or embezzling money–the lines that they promise never to cross, no matter the temptations.

I also encourage my students to write a “letter to self,” with advice to themselves, to be opened whenever they might be tempted to cross such a line, and seal it and place it in a safe place, to be opened when needed, as it surely will be. Because the more success you have, the more likely it is that the letter and ethical guardrails will be needed.

There are opinions about heroic or virtuoso morality, such as those espoused by Nietzsche or Machiavelli, that would place the heroic figure beyond mundane moral categories, beyond the good and evil of common folk. But truly heroic morality is mundane, precisely because the great and powerful are not exempt from the basic obligations of the moral order. As Lord Acton put it, “If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases.”

Rev. Robert Sirico’s essay in chapter 3 of A Field Guide for the Hero’s Journey takes a look at the complementary idea that it is as important how we behave when no one (other than God) is looking as when we are in the public eye. I recommend checking out this fine book for inspiring insight into how “anyone can do great things, can live a life that’s remarkable, purposeful, excellent, and yes, even heroic.”

mobile-cover

Alan Wallace, editorial writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune, reviewed Sam Gregg’s new book Becoming Europe.

In his article, “Where America is, where it’s going,” Wallace notes that:

Americans increasingly say their nation‘s becoming more like Europe; the Acton Institute‘s research director, [Sam Gregg] tackles that trend and its dangers, which he thinks are greater than many of them realize. He explores the “Europeanization” of the United States via the welfare state, debt, government‘s share of GDP, crony capitalism, taxation, labor regulations, public-sector unionization, an aging population and what the publisher calls “the emergence of an ossifying political class” more concerned with self-preservation than with economic reform. Gregg also examines the role played by the values and institutions that inform our economic culture and priorities. He says America isn‘t Europe yet and sees a path to recovery in what distinguishes our economic culture, but warns that the more European the U.S. becomes, the harder that trend will be to reverse.

Read the entire article here. Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future will be available on Tuesday, January 8. You can pre-order the hardcover or Kindle version here.

Warden Burl Cain (photo by Erin Oswalt)

Warden Burl Cain (photo by Erin Oswalt)

In the next issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In September of 2012, I made a trip down to Angola, La. to tour the prison and interview the warden. I authored a commentary in October that touched on some of my experiences visiting the inmates and prison staff.

Cain is the longest serving warden in the history of the penitentiary, a position he has held since 1995. The prison is more commonly known as “Angola.” Cain is the most well known prison official in the country. He is the subject of the book Cain’s Redemption and has been featured in documentaries and numerous television programs.

Cain is well known for his work as reformer of prison culture and his promotion of moral rehabilitation. He serves on the board of Prison Fellowship, a ministry founded by Chuck Colson. Below is an excerpt from the forthcoming interview:
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Christian’s Library Press has released the third book in their Work & Economics series, Flourishing Churches and Communities: A Pentecostal Primer on Faith, Work, and Economics for Spirit-Empowered Discipleship by Charlie Self. Dr. Self is director of PhD studies in Bible and theology and associate professor of church history at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri.

Previous books in the series were Flourishing Faith by Chad Brand and How God Makes the World A Better Place by David Wright.

While Pentecostal Christianity is just over a century old its impact in that time as an evangelistic force for Christ has been astonishing. One foundational scriptural understanding of the Pentecostal movement is that the Spirit empowers us to carry out the work of the gospel.

Regarding Flourishing Churches and Communities, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary President, Dr. Byron Klaus says:

“Dr. Self offers a clear witness to theological reflection that portrays the Pentecostal tradition in light of twenty-first-century realities. This volume clearly affirms that the empowerment of the Spirit, focusing on the continuing  redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, also can infuse our communities to prosper when we acknowledge Christ’s kingdom rule over all of creation.”

This book is available online from Christian’s Library Press here. Additionally, the Kindle edition is available here.

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
By

G. K. Chesterton
(one of the founding fathers of distributism)

Today at Ethika Politika, in response to a few writers who have offered, in my estimate, less-than-charitable characterizations of capitalism, I ask the question, “Which Capitalism?” (also the title of my article). I ask this in seriousness, because often the free economy that people bemoan bears little resemblance to the one that many Christians support. In particular, I ask, “Which Capitalism?” in reference to the following from Pope John Paul II, who outlines in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (no. 42) two different forms of capitalism as follows:

The first is “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” that “is the victorious social system” since the fall of the Soviet Union and that “should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society.” The second is “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.”

All three of the authors I take issue with are Roman Catholic and two of them have voiced their support for distributism as an alternative to capitalism. However, I ask with all sincerity, “[S]hould not distributists be asking whether distributism is a form of capitalism, rather than setting it up as an alternative to capitalism?” Given the high praise given by Pope John Paul II to capitalism, rightly understood as the free economy, ought not distributists simply be arguing that they, perhaps, have some valuable insights for supporters of capitalism, rather than opposing distributism to capitalism, uncharitably understood? (more…)