Archived Posts August 2008 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, August 29, 2008

Laura Ingraham, the popular talk radio host, will be in Grand Rapids for an event sponsored by the Acton Institute on September 17. Please make plans to join us for this exciting event. Currently there are still tickets available and you can purchase them online through the Acton Institute here.

The event will take place at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, where Ingraham will speak, followed by a question and answer session. Also, there will be a book signing of her newest book Power to the People, and a dessert reception.

Ingraham is a refreshing conservative voice with great intellectual depth. I have always enjoyed listening to her commentary. Here is an excerpt from Power to the People:

Too often we have believed that “freedom” means that we have no duties or responsibilities to others. That “anything goes” mentality may appear to be empowering, but it is not. Instead, it creates a sense of anarchy that makes most Americans very unhappy.

The Founding Fathers did not risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor so we could become spoiled, pampered, narcissistic and focused solely on our own pleasure. An ordered society was the Founders’ goal — a place where we could live our lives in limitless possibility — but only if we fulfilled our obligations. They wanted us to have the liberty to tap into our creative powers, for our own good and for the good of our countrymen. This is the pathway to true happiness. But that society is only possible if we, the people, have a shared set of values, a common set of beliefs that bind us together. The Founders did not view liberty as a license, but as a sacred responsibility to be used for the good. They understood that liberty cannot be separated from virtue.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, August 29, 2008

Distributism may be a foreign term to many, but it is a movement of some importance in the history of Catholic social and economic thought. Popularized especially in early twentieth-century England by the prolific writers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, distributism has enjoyed mini-resurgences from time to time on both sides of the Atlantic. That it still packs some punch here in the U.S. is demonstrated, for example, by the recent creation of IHS Press. (IHS is not exclusively a distributist outlet, but distributist literature represents a significant portion of their publishing program.)

In a nutshell, distributism envisions an economic order modeled on the guild-dominated economies of medieval Europe. Advocates take Catholic social teaching seriously; indeed, they frequently insist that CST virtually obligates Catholics to support a distributist program. There is much of value in the distributist vision, including criticism of consumerist culture and an emphasis on wide ownership of property and communal cooperation. (See Wikipedia for a fuller, sympathetic treatment of the subject.) In practice, however, many observers believe that implementation of a distributist agenda would mean major regulation of and restrictions to entry to industries and professions, controls on prices and wages, and heavy-handed government involvement in the economy.

There have been few critiques of distributism published in recent years, but the renewed interest it is receiving demands that some attention be paid. Thus, the latest Christian Social Thought Series, from bestselling and award-winning author Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: Beyond Distributism. Order it now at the Acton Book Shoppe.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trooth in education iz teh key 2 LOLearning.

According to Spiked (HT):

Ken Smith, a criminologist at Bucks New University, England, argues that we should chill out and accept the most common spelling mistakes as ‘variant spellings’.

‘University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell’, he argued recently in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Here’s the original piece, “Just spell it like it is.”


My peeves include “loose” instead of “lose.” How wrong.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Anders Chydenius (1729-1803)

The answer of the Nordic philosopher and priest Anders Chydenius (1729-1803) applies equally well to his younger contemporary Malthus as to 21st-century neo-Malthusian paganism:

Would the Great Master, who adorns the valley with flowers and covers the cliff itself with grass and mosses, exhibit such a great mistake in man, his masterpiece, that man should not be able to enrich the globe with as many inhabitants as it can support? That would be a mean thought even in a Pagan, but blasphemy in a Christian, when reading the Almighty’s precept: ‘Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.’

Indeed, the biblical answer to Chydenius question would seem to clearly be, “No.” Remember, after all, you are worth more than many sparrows.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 25, 2008

The eighth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The eighth and penultimate leg of the journey took the bikers from Grand Rapids to St. Catharines, Ontario, a total distance of 410 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,451 miles.

The CRC is a bi-national church, and while the denominational headquarters are located in Grand Rapids, a significant portion of the church’s membership is Canadian. This is something that I’ve always appreciated and is somewhat rare among Protestant denominations that tend to break down along national lines. Even though there is a great deal of cultural affinity between these North American countries, I think the bi-nationality of the CRC adds an element of internationalism that can help offset the natural tendency to identify the church’s interest with a particular national or domestic setting. The gospel is not confined to the US or to North America.

Unfortunately, the day 52 devotion in the “Shifting Gears” devotional falls flat in offering an “internationalist” perspective. It asks, rhetorically I presume, “Why are billions budgeted for defense and border protection, when we can’t come up with the money to supply mosquito nets for Africa? Why do some governments use their national borders as a wall to hide the injustice and persecution occurring within? Why is it so easy for the powerful to cross borders, but not the poor?” There’s no denying there is great injustice on the international scene related to the strictures of immigration and barriers to trade.

But the first question in this series illustrates a presumption that it is the government’s duty to provide mosquito nets for Africa at the expense of national defense. This, quite simply, is a confusion that is endemic to the perspective of progressive Christianity…that the government, and not the church or other institutions of civil society, is primarily responsible for addressing the problem of poverty.

In the words of Jim Wallis, “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.” Wallis is fond of talking about the perceived limits of private and church action. But what are the limits of government action? And why can’t the church do much more beyond mere political advocacy? Ron Sider thinks it can, and I agree. It says a lot about you if you are more willing to put your trust in a secular government than in the church of Christ.

Awhile back I considered the amount of money churches spend on building projects in North America. I discussed a a modest proposal: churches should consider tithing the amount they spend on “themselves” and give a portion of the building fund away to other Christian causes.

These kinds of efforts are catching on. Just this weekend I read a piece about a local church which committed 10% of its $1.1 million building fund to other charity work. I wrote more about this in a 2006 commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship.”

One of the entries in the devotional for this week does the best job I’ve seen so far linking and properly coordinating the physical and spiritual concerns of the gospel. Taking its point of departure in the imagery of physical and spiritual imprisonment, the day 51 devotion concludes, “Enjoy the physical freedom of cycling today, and pray for a deeper, richer understanding of God’s mercy–mercy he shows to all who acknowledge their imprisonment in disobedience and who seek freedom in Christ alone.”

With this issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we introduce a new semi-regular feature section, the Status Quaestionis. Conceived as a complement to our Scholia, the Status Quaestionis features are intended to help us grasp in a more thorough and comprehensive way the state of the scholarly landscape with regard to the modern intersection between religion and economics.

Whereas the Scholia are longer, generally treatise-length works located in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, the Status Quaestionis will typically be shorter, essay-length pieces from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The first installment of the Status Quaestionis features an essay by Sergey Bulgakov (1871–1944), a renowned and influential Russian Orthodox theologian. His essay included in this issue, “The National Economy and the Religious Personality,” first published in 1909 and translated here by Krassen Stanchev, represents the first and in many ways most lasting Orthodox Christian response to the Weber thesis.

Peter Klein, blogging at Organizations and Markets, considers the Bulgakov translation and notes, “Bulgakov, widely regarded as the greatest 20th-century Orthodox theologian, has been attracting increasing interest in recent decades, in both East and West.”

Indeed, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says this of Bulgakov’s contribution in economics:

In his early work he picked up the language of creativity and applied it to civic relations. He proposed understanding business, commerce and, in fact, much of daily life in the context of creativity. In his book The Philosophy of Economy (1912) he said there was no such thing as economic man, homo economicus, which was to say, no set of economic answers that could tell us how society ought to be run. The context was Russia’s first 20th-century attempt to modernise by borrowing economic ideas from the west, and already Bulgakov was arguing, against certain German economists, that pure economics wouldn’t work in Russia.

Williams’ interview, which touches on Bulgakov, Dostoevsky, and the broader history of Russia, is wide-ranging and illuminating, especially given current developments in relations between Russia and former Soviet republics.

In the introduction to his translation, “Sergey Bulgakov and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Krassen Stanchev, who serves as board chairman of the Institute for Market Economics, observes that the “language of creativity” and “personalism” identified by Williams in Bulgakov,

was first outlined by Bulgakov in the essay translated here. The economy is a human destiny; the man is ‘master’ (in Russian this word means both ‘an owner’ and ‘a housekeeper’) of the worldly establishments; not a ruler or dictator but the one who humanizes the world. This concept, to my understanding, is compatible with the most enlightened economic thinking of the twentieth century.

For more on recent developments in the relationship between Orthodox theology and economic thinking, see John Couretas‘ review, “An Orthodox View of Contemporary Economics, Politics, and Culture.”

Also in this issue:

  • Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo considers “The Importance and Contemporary Relevance of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth.”

  • Marek Tracz-Tryniecki explores “Natural Law in Tocqueville’s Thought.”
  • Christopher Todd Meredith examines “The Ethical Basis for Taxation in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas.”
  • José Atilano Pena López and José Manuel Sánchez investigate “Smithian Perspective on the Markets of Beliefs: Public Policies and Religion.”
  • Surendra Arjoon discusses ethics in the corporate culture with “Slippery When Wet: The Real Risk in Business.”
  • Gregory Mellema expounds on “Professional Ethics and Complicity in Wrongdoing.”
  • And a number of excellent reviews of recent books, put together under the direction of our book review editor Kevin Schmiesing.

The editorial and article abstracts of current issues, including my “The State of the Question in Religion and Economics,” are freely available to nonsubscribers (you can sign up for a subscription here, including the very affordable electronic-only access option). And as per our “moving wall” policy of two issues, the most recent publicly-available archived issue is volume 10, number 1 (Spring 2007).

If you are a student or a faculty member at an institution of higher learning, please take the time to recommend that your library subscribe to our journal. If you are in interested layperson or independent scholar, please consider subscribing yourself.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, August 21, 2008

Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism, a political biography published in February, crafts a narrative that largely reinforces popular public images of the late Jesse Helms as a demonizing figure. The author, William A. Link, is a history professor at the University of Florida who notes several times in the preface of his book that Helms represented everything he opposes. Link also says his intention was to write a fair biography of the former Senator from the Tar Heel state. While Link’s biography largely fails this test, his depiction is less hostile and more respectable than many modern liberal academics may have been able to attempt. The author does include significant portions of his biography to depicting the impeccable manners, personal morality, and genteel personality that characterized Jesse Helms.

Probably the most controversial position of Jesse Helms was his opposition to the land mark federal Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 while he was a journalist and television commentator for WRAL radio and television in Raleigh, North Carolina. While not a lawmaker at the time, the controversy is further fueled because Helms never renounced his opposition to the legislation, like some Southern politicians would later do because of a genuine change of heart or perhaps for political survival. Helms always insisted he was not a racist and Link notes that Helms tried to tie his opposition to integration to larger anti-statist arguments against federal intervention. Helms kept his distance from the more radical segregationist groups who opposed integration. At the same time, he attacked the alleged communist influences in Civil Rights groups, and even the personal moral failings of its leaders. Helms felt that good people from both races could come together to solve racial problems without federal intervention. He would take further flak for opposing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and this political ad against quotas.

Link also discusses many commentaries written and read by Helms at WRAL about the dangers of the growing federal government. Helms declared “government could either be man’s servant or master: it could not be both.” Helms also attacked appeasers of communism and would soon emerge as perhaps the most notable elected anti-communist, with the exception of Ronald Reagan.

Trying to decide to run for the United States Senate, a supporter urged Helms to run by saying, “We need you Jesse in order to save the country from liberalism.” In his first Senate campaign Link declares:

Repeating the familiar Viewpoints message, he told voters in 1972 about an expanding and intrusive federal government, the threat of socialism, the excesses of the welfare state, rising crime, deteriorating moral standards – all problems related, he said, to an out of control liberal state. The welfare system, he explained to an audience in the eastern North Carolina tobacco town of Smithfield, was a “mess,” beset by “loafers and parasites.” Helms fashioned a populist appeal that was targeted toward ordinary people and toward the frustrations of white, rural, and small town North Carolinians. His message, Helms said, was directed toward “the person who pulls on his clothes in the morning and grabs his dinner pail and goes off to work.”

In fact, Link notes that Helms was running as a Republican in the 1972 Senate campaign and had recently switched parties. The Republican Party offered little help or resources to Helms. Most of his supporters were Democrats, who had long dominated state politics in North Carolina during this era. Those supporters were admirably dubbed “Jessecrats.” Helms would however benefit greatly from Democratic Presidential Candidate George McGovern’s unpopularity in North Carolina, and a last minute campaign stop by incumbent President Richard Nixon, when it appeared Helms had a chance to win. Helms did win, and while all of his senate races were relatively close, he was always able to hold together a strong and loyal coalition of religious conservatives, white males, and rural and small town voters. Always the underdog, he played up his anti-establishment and anti-liberal crusades, and his political obituary was prematurely written on a number of occasions. (more…)

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, August 21, 2008

It’s still more than a week off, but the US Catholic bishops are out in front, issuing a Labor Day statement this week. Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the (extravagantly titled) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote the statement, which begins as an encomium to the late Msgr. George Higgins, arguably the last of a species once well known in American Catholic life, the labor priest. Fr. Sirico ably described the strengths and weaknesses of Higgins’ career upon his passing six years ago.

Without question, Catholic social teaching affirms the right of workers to organize in defense of their rights and prerogatives. Whether and how effectively contemporary labor unions serve the common good, or even the interests of their members, is debatable. (Consider that this nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, officially supports unlimited access to abortion, a policy difficult to square with the mission of promoting justice for public school teachers.)

It would be hard not to offer some positive words about unions in a Labor Day statement, and Murphy does so, mostly in the context of his praise for Higgins. Nonetheless, Murphy’s remarks are on the whole an excellent reiteration of the Church’s teaching on labor and the economic sphere. He resists the temptation to opine on policy matters, instead restricting his comments to the solid principles of the Church’s social message. Noteworthy, in light of previous statements emanating from Bishop Murphy’s committee (formerly the Social Action Department) is his emphasis on the individual responsibility of Catholics to form their consciences properly and apply the social teaching in their everyday lives; and his lack of emphasis on recourse to government action as the default solution to social problems.

“An informed conscience,” Murphy writes in connection with upcoming political contests,

moves beyond personal feelings and individual popularity. An informed conscience asks first what is right and true. An informed conscience examines the candidates and the issues from the perspective of human life and dignity, the true good of every human person, the true good of society, the common good of us all in our nation and in this world.

At the risk of nitpicking, I note one passage that seems poorly expressed:

The principle of subsidiarity champions the freedom of initiative that allows everyone scope and opportunity to be creative and productive and reap the benefits of hard work and energy. When taken to the extreme, it can become exploitive of others. Yet joined to the principle of solidarity, subsidiarity and all its creative impulses become harnessed to an end that includes the makers of a vibrant economy.

Subsidiarity, to the contrary, cannot be “taken to the extreme.” Embedded in the concept is the assumption that, when individuals or intimate institutions are inadequate to their normal responsibilities, larger or less immediate institutions should provide the support necessary to meet the need. The perception of solidarity as a kind of check on or correction to subsidiarity is a common one. It is more accurate, I think, to view subsidiarity and solidarity as entirely complementary rather than in tension: subsidiarity is the method by which solidarity is practically implemented.

Nitpicking aside, Bishop Murphy’s words are a salutary reminder that our obligation to practice virtue extends to policy debates, workplaces, and voting booths.

Linked on the left-hand side today under the PowerBlog Food For Thought is an item from the Wall Street Journal, “College Presidents Debate Drinking Age.”

At issue is concern over the drinking age in the United States (currently 21) and the binge-drinking phenomenon among under-age college students. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) oppose the movement among many college and university presidents to lower the drinking age to 18.

Here’s a popular version of how the school presidents’ argument goes:

Moana Jagasia, a Duke University sophomore from Singapore, where the drinking age is lower, said reducing the age in the U.S. could be helpful.

“There isn’t that much difference in maturity between 21 and 18,” she said. “If the age is younger, you’re getting exposed to it at a younger age, and you don’t freak out when you get to campus.”

What is true about these sorts of observations is that culture has a lot to do with how people respond to newfound freedoms or possibilities. When children are raised in a household where responsible gun ownership is taught, for instance, it makes sense that gun accidents due to irresponsible gun handling are less likely to occur (compared with homes with guns that don’t teach responsible gun handling). Where the use of alcohol is not a taboo that can become part and parcel of a young-adult “rebellion” experience, it seems less likely that binge drinking will function as a gateway to adulthood.

To address the concerns of MADD, perhaps if the drinking age is lowered, the driving age should be raised. But one thing we should not be afraid of is substantive debate on the prudence of a particular policy like the national drinking age. As the administrators’ and presidents’ movement states, “The Amethyst Initiative supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age.” This is a law that is a perfect example of the government administration of a positive law put in place in a particular time and context.

Thomas Aquinas’ words about the principle of prudence have special bearing on this question, given the biblical allusion he chooses to employ:

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.

Thomas’ warnings about imprudent laws are echoed in the arguments of the presidents’ association. John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the Amethyst Initiative, has said that “college students will drink no matter what, but do so more dangerously when it’s illegal.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 18, 2008

The seventh week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The seventh leg of the journey took the bikers from Madison to Grand Rapids, a total distance of 378 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,041 miles.

This week of the tour ended in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of the major rallies along the tour was held here yesterday. Check out the Sea to Sea webpage for more coverage of that event. Update: Here’s a link to a piece in today’s Grand Rapids Press, “Bike riders know poverty can be a vicious cycle.”

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week keeps the focus on the problem of poverty. Day 43′s devotion reads in part, “This is a major goal of our trip: to raise awareness of God’s presence in many places–in the beauty of the earth and the church, yes, but also among the poor.”

Grand Rapids is home to the denominational headquarters of the CRC as well as main offices of the Acton Institute. But also in Michigan are a host of non-profits and charities that deserve your attention. These include Samaritan Award honorees like Marquette’s Earth Keeper Project of The Cedar Tree Institute (2007 honoree) and Grand Rapids’ own Baxter Wholistic Health Clinic of the Baxter Community Center (2004 honoree).

Indeed, one of the 2008 finalists for the annual Samaritan Award is located in Grand Rapids, Guardian Angels Homes of Faith in Action. All of this year’s ten finalists, including Faith in Action, are profiled in the current issue of WORLD magazine.

As Acton senior fellow and WORLD editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky writes, “All 10 of these faith-based finalists spend money garnered by voluntary contributions, not Washington lobbying: They are compassionate conservatives in the original sense of the term. All 10 emphasize real change in lives, not the passing out of spare change: As it turns out, eight of the finalists this year are rescue missions or rehab centers of various kinds; the other two are a program for developmentally disabled adults and another for women fleeing prostitution and strip clubs.”

Be sure to check out all of the WORLD articles and profiles for more information about the finalists, runners-up, and winner of this year’s Samaritan Award.