Archived Posts September 2007 - Page 3 of 5 | Acton PowerBlog

It’s perhaps serendipitous that I’m beginning to read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values on the same day that the first Values Voter Debate is going to be held in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

You might think of the so-called V2 debate as an answer to Jim Wallis’ Presidential Forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty, which featured leading Democratic presidential candidates (although Wallis’ promotional materials promised a similar event including Republican candidates, such a forum has yet to materialize. The V2 organizers also say that all Democratic candidates have refused a similar event).

It would be easy to focus on the many differences between the two events, not least of which is the fact that the high-profile Democratic contenders were eager to attend the CNN-sponsored Sojourners event, while the leading GOP candidates are not participating in the V2 debate.

But instead let’s focus on what is similar, and it’s the only word that’s shared in the two titles: “Values.” Here’s what Himmelfarb says about the shift from the language of virtues to values,

“Values” brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative, that they are mere customs and conventions, that they have a purely instrumental, utilitarian purpose, and that they are peculiar to specific individuals and societies. (And, in the current intellectual climate, to specific classes, races, and sexes.)

So long as morality was couched in the language of “virtue,” it had a firm, resolute character…. But for a particular people at a particular time, the word “virtue” carried with it a sense of gravity and authority, as “values” does not.

Himmelfarb traces the genesis of “values” language into the modern context through influence of Nietzsche and Max Weber. The rest of the book explores the consequences of this shift, and I look forward to reading it.

We might quibble with Himmelfarb about particular details, but I think it’s pretty indisputable that there has been a shift in moral claims. She writes,

It was not until the present century that morality became so thoroughly relativized and subjectified that virtues ceased to be “virtues” and became “values.” This transmutation is the great philosophical revolution of modernity, no less momentous than the earlier revolt of the “Moderns” against the “Ancients”–modern science and learning against classical philosophy.

Now whether or not such moral relativism is an entirely novel phenomenon in human history, or merely whether this is its first major and successful foray into Western civilization, I think Himmelfarb’s basic point stands.

It will be interesting to see how political debates like the one tonight and over the course of the next year bear out her distinction between “values” and “virtues.” I suspect that we’ll see far more of the former than the latter.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, September 17, 2007
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Here’s a justly famous quote from C. S. Lewis on why the danger posed by a nanny government can be much more oppressive than that posed by the consolidation of economic power:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

That’s taken from his essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” and it speaks well to the difference between political and economic power. While Lewis is writing within the context of government power in the administration of criminal justice, just think about how perceptive Lewis’ observation is when applied to the ever-expanding reach government regulation via so-called “sin” taxes.

Progressives are right to be concerned about the conflation of those two sorts of power, but I think they are wrong to be reflexively more suspicious of economic power than political power.

Here’s a PCWorld piece wondering whether the “green” trend in information technology is a fad or a fixture, “Green IT: Popularity Due to Savings or Morals?” One beef I have with the piece is that it presupposes a conflict between “morality” and “efficiency” concerns. Isn’t it a part of morality to be concerned with waste and economic stewardship?

These need not be contrasted in such a way, as is evident by the words of Brian Cobb, senior vice president for enterprise systems management and IT at Fannie Mae and a presenter at IMW: “In IT, we have a responsibility to be as efficient as possible.” Surely at some level that responsibility has an explicitly moral component, even if it is cast in purely utilitarian terms.

What we have at play often are competing moral claims, not explicitly moral vs. immoral/amoral claims. To present the case otherwise is a rhetorical choice that skews the argument, whether intentionally or not.

So here’s a brief tip for the article’s author Johanna Ambrosio: You don’t need to oppose environmental stewardship and economic responsibility.

Whenever an ex-president releases a new book there is considerable buzz in the media. When Bill Clinton released a new book in Chicago this week the buzz was more than considerable. President Clinton’s new book, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World (Knopf 2007), is sure to provoke good and important discussion. My hope is that those who love him, as well as those who despise him for whatever reason, will take a long look at his central argument (even it they refuse to buy his book). The argument he makes is simple and he uses stories to make it—each of us can make an important difference in the world, a much greater difference than we’ve ever imagined. (more…)

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from supporters of climate change alarmism, it’s this: Science = consensus, and consensus = TRUTH.

Well, it appears that science and truth have taken another hit:

A new analysis of peer-reviewed literature reveals that more than 500 scientists have published evidence refuting at least one element of current man-made global warming scares. More than 300 of the scientists found evidence that 1) a natural moderate 1,500-year climate cycle has produced more than a dozen global warmings similar to ours since the last Ice Age and/or that 2) our Modern Warming is linked strongly to variations in the sun’s irradiance.

Via Henry Payne at Planet Gore.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, I examine the (non)necessity of promoting a democratic government in post-invasion Iraq. I haven’t written much on Iraq in this or any other venue, for a number of reasons. But this piece is one that I’ve been waiting to write for a long time, and was really only waiting for the proper occasion. That prompting came a few weeks ago when U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra from Holland, MI said, “The mission for us is not to establish a democracy in Iraq, but to make the region secure and stable.”

This piece appeared earlier in the Orange County Register, “Iraq: Democracy not required,” which garnered this response, “Democracy without liberty? I think not” (see also the 2003 Acton Commentary, “Success in Iraq: Guaranteed Property Rights as a Precondition for Democracy”).

Here are some links that have been floating around my inbox that are related to some of the points brought up in this week’s commentary. First and most directly relevant, from Christianity Today, “Bush’s ‘Theological Perspective.’”

Next, here is a link to an H-Net review of a recent book on civil society in post-war Germany, particularly the “Heidelberg Action Group,” whose founding manifesto “challenged socialist ideologies that stressed the role of a strong state and the primacy of national interest. They envisioned a form of socialism focused upon the realization of individual freedom and the creation of autonomous and self-reliant persons.”

And finally I’d like to point you to a review in the Claremont Review of Books by Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett on a book that argues for a greater “democratization” of the American constitution. It may come as a surprise to some, but our Constitution was initially and still remains to a large extent “counter-majoritarian.”

And related to foreign policy in particular, Barnett notes the curiousity that “It has become de rigueur among American constitutional law scholars to refrain from recommending our particular form of government to others when advocating democracy around the world. While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret.”

Update: See “The Ottoman Swede,” by Roger Cohen, which says in part, “distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state will react in the first instance to liberty by trying to get free of each other rather than trying to imagine a liberal democracy,” and “The Road to Partition,” by David Brooks. See also these two Marketplace pieces (here and here) with the normally rather disagreeable Robert Reich, discussing in part his new book Supercapitalism.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
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U.S. Marines pray over a fallen soldier

“Foxhole conversions are not real Christian conversions,” and, “It is virtually impossible for Christians to serve in the military and remain faithful.” These are the words of a professor I experienced in seminary. It always seemed odd to me a professor at a Wesleyan – Arminian seminary wanted to keep people outside of saving grace. But quotes like these can be attributed to a fear in associating religion with the affairs of state. In addition, it is also the belief that the mixing of any form of national service and faith is entirely corrupt.

There have been several high profile publications of late that have dealt with spirituality on the battlefield. Many books and articles have dealt with faith and heroics, spiritual revivals, and spiritual warfare on the front. Faith of the American Soldier, by Stephen Mansfield, and A Table in The Presence, by Lt. Cary Cash, are two that immediately come to mind. But spiritual themes are also covered in the saltier and more profane, Generation Kill, authored by Evan Wright, which chronicled the initial invasion into Iraq by Marines. Religious revivals and accounts of war of course are not new. Spiritual revival heavily influenced many of the soldiers in the Union and Confederate Army during the American Civil War.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. has a piece for National Review Online titled “God Bless and Semper Fi”. Smith says in the piece:

As I’ve said before: though some members of Congress might cavalierly suggest U.S. soldiers and Marines are “cold-blooded killers,” the very nature of their work — something few Americans fully grasp — demands they be some of the world’s most moral men if they are going to be effective at what they do. That doesn’t mean soldiers are perfect. But it does mean many of them have been forced to face God in a way most of us have not, and it’s often reflected in their characters and unconscious behavior.

Second: Combat soldiers and Marines prayed openly and unashamedly, as did their officers. Not all of them mind you, but a noticeable number. Even the ones who cursed, pardon the cliché and the reference, like sailors.

The next quote may make sense for those who have lived in the Middle East. Having lived in Cairo myself, what the author says is plausible:

I’m convinced this openly expressed spirituality is one of the reasons Army and Marine officers seem to be making greater headway in terms of ground-zero diplomacy with sheiks and tribal elders than the rank-and-file civilian diplomats. The Iraqis simply trust American soldiers, their word, and their sincerity, because of their spirituality.

Oftentimes the caricatures of the mixing of faith and nationalism are entirely overblown. The view by some in the religious left and other camps, that some U.S. soldiers think of themselves as modern day Christian Crusaders fighting the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan is in fact grossly exaggerated. U.S. military chaplains are extremely mindful of Church and state roles, which can be more complex in a military setting, than say a local church. I remember covering an event held by the far left Institute on Progressive Christianity for The Institute on Religion and Democracy. During this conference a participant expressed the belief that the Pentagon was forming its foreign policy from the book of Revelation. In fairness to the IPC, their speaker downplayed the belief Pentagon officials were using rapture and apocalyptic teachings as a guide. A link to the IRD article can be found here.

When my brother was serving in Iraq, a Marine from his unit was awarded the Silver Star for his combat leadership. As a reservist, Dennis Woullard was also a an associate Baptist Minister on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at the time. I wrote him a letter, telling him I was praying for him and was proud of the unit. Woullard wrote back, downplaying his own heroics and praising the men who served under him. It was the typical response from a U.S. Marine.

For Marines and other service men and women, faith is so often an integral part of the psychology and survival of combat. Making sense of violence, evil, and death is magnified on the battlefield. It was Confederate General Robert E. Lee, when recalling the battle of Fredericksburg, who declared, “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
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One of the speakers in the afternoon yesterday at the Maranatha Christian Writers’ Conference was Bruce Umpstead of the Amy Foundation. He spoke a bit about the Amy Writing Awards, which recognize “creative, skillful writing that presents in a sensitive, thought-provoking manner the biblical position on issues affecting the world today.” Check out some of the winning pieces from the last few years here.

He also showed us his Amy Foundation blog, “The Best Christian Journalism on the Web,” whose title speaks for itself. The blog has been added to our blogroll on the left and is recommended to your perusal.

In my Sunday School class, we finished Exodus last week. Between books, I often do miscellaneous lessons or a topical study. So, before we start Numbers next week, I did the only thing on my miscellaneous docket: a book review of Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now.

Now, why would I bother to read Osteen’s book (I already have, more or less, my best life now!)—and why would I devote the time to talk about it in my class? First, a dear friend of mine gave it to me and my wife for Christmas. That’s probably not an uncommon gift to receive, but it is noteworthy because he’s a Southern Baptist minister (not exactly Joel’s usual audience). Moreover, he credits Osteen’s ministry with important changes in his own preaching—in terms of both style and substance.

Second, Hank Hanegraaff is not a big fan of Joel’s, strongly critiquing him on the handful of occasions when I’ve heard him speak on the topic. In particular, he’s labeled him as a “Word of Faith” (WoF) minister who preaches a “prosperity (health & wealth) gospel”. I have tremendous respect for Hank’s ministry through the Christian Research Institute. (CRI’s review of Osteen’s book is not a hatchet job by any means, but I disagree with some of the conclusions.)

So, how do I resolve the views of these two men? Well, for starters, I decided to read Osteen for myself! (Keep in mind that I have never seen/heard Joel in action. For better and for worse, this is only a book report!) (more…)

Some notes from a talk by Sally E. Stuart, author of The Christian Writers Market Guide:

  • Publisher blogs are increasingly prevalent (for example, IVP).

  • Authors are sometimes expected to provide fully developed marketing plans.
  • “Secular” has become a pejorative term, now the preferred term is “General.”
  • There is a move toward digital publication and dissemination, due to competition, postage, printing costs.
  • Christian booksellers are facing stiff competition with decreasing margins, in part because Christian books are becoming popular in mainstream outlets like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Wal-Mart.
  • Only 44% of Protestants read Christian magazines, which themselves only make up 21% of the magazine reading of the average Protestant.
  • Christian publishing is the only publishing segment that has been growing in recent years (it is roughly 5-10 percent of the overall market).