Archived Posts October 2009 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, October 30, 2009
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David Bahnsen reflects on last night’s annual dinner:

(Acton’s) co-founder, Father Sirico, is a friend and patriot. He is a scholar in Catholic social thought, and perhaps as good of an orator as I have ever heard. He and I shared the podium at an event I did in Newport Beach earlier in the year. Fortunately for me, I spoke before him that evening! The talk tonight was challenging and inspiring. He reminded us that the greatest victim in this present environment is entrepreneurial courage. We do not have the option to wallow in our pessimism. Defeatism will not protect us from the walls of socialism and redistributionism being built right around us. As Hayek said decades ago, moral courage is needed to tow the line for the cause of freedom and markets. I feel grateful this evening to have an ally in this battle in Father Sirico and the Acton Institute.

The keynote speaker tonight was Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute. His talk forms the basis for my catchy blog title. He carefully walked us through the overwhelming evidence that it is “earned success” that makes people happy. Society is over-loaded with people who have received money via inheritance or the lottery, and sociological and psychological studies have repeatedly affirmed this rather fascinating tenet: People with money who did not earn it are overwhelmingly more likely to say that they are unhappy than people who earned it. Obviously, regardless of the source of one’s prosperity, happiness can not be bought. As people of faith, we know that the human condition is such that mere material comfort can not bring about resolution in what tries men’s souls. But “earned success” – the stimulation of human dignity that achievement and accomplishment represent – does bring about happiness (at least in a statistically significant way).

Read “The Left Doesn’t Want You to Be Happy.”

Brad Green, who teaches theology at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., published a commentary on health care in The Jackson Sun. Green, an alum of Acton’s Toward a Free and Virtuous Society program, is also a co-founder of Augustine School in Jackson.

So, what would Jesus do? Jesus would (and does) command people to repent of their sins, care for the poor, the sick, the lame and the down-trodden. And Christians are commanded to do the same. But is a Christian then obligated to call for increased federal power and a massive expansion of the federal government’s role in controlling or managing America’s health care industry? Probably not.

Such an expansion of federal power is not even legal, since the U.S. Constitution does not grant the federal government such power. What Jesus would not do, it would seem, would be to encourage those in power to break the law without good reason, and the proposals currently being discussed would – if enacted – be illegal since the U.S. Constitution does not grant the Congress the power to enact such legislation.

Those calling for massive federal health care legislation are making two key errors. First, they are being imprudent in naively calling for a radical and dangerous expansion of federal power. Second, and perhaps more serious, they are calling for their elected federal officials to violate the law of the land, and to violate their oath of office, by clearly and unabashedly taking one more step in the destruction of the very Constitution they have sworn to uphold.

Read “What is a Christian to think about health care?”

My latest Acton commentary:

Do at-risk black males need to be emancipated en masse from America’s public school complex? A new study released about high school dropout and incarceration rates among blacks raises the question. Nearly 23 percent of all American black men ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of high school are in jail, prison, or a juvenile justice institution, according to a new report from the Center for Labor Markets at Northeastern University, “Consequences of Dropping Out of High School.”

High school dropouts cost the nation severely. Not only are American taxpayers getting no return on the $8,701 we spend on average per student, each dropout costs us $292,000 over their lifetime in lost earnings, lower taxes paid, and higher spending for social programs like incarceration, health care, and welfare.

Given the many social pathologies plaguing black males in low-income and fatherless households, the best place for at-risk black males is not the dominant failed public school paradigm. Since public schools are forbidden to teach virtue and often reduce children to receptacles of information, expanding private and faith-based options to black parents is the only compelling solution.

The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), England’s chief education inspection agency, recently released a report lauding the attributes of faith schools. The report, “Independent Faith Schools,” examined the quality of formation provided by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religious schools. The inspectors found “pupils demonstrating an excellent understanding of spiritual and moral attributes.” In all the schools visited, “pupils gained a strong sense of identity and of belonging to their faith, their school and to Britain.” In other words, faith-based schools, by simply teaching about religion, are forming their students to be virtuous citizens.

Has America given up on making virtuous citizens out of black males? In England’s faith schools, “good citizenship was considered by all the schools visited to be the duty of a good believer because this honoured the faith,” the report says. In contrast, American public schools have become prisoner factories for at-risk black males. Because producing educated, virtuous citizens is unrelated to funding, the problem cannot be addressed by the simplistic expedient of increasing government allocations to education. The deeper problem is that the American education system seems no longer to value what faith schools in England are recognized for: producing students with good “spiritual, moral, social and cultural understanding.” (more…)

Blog author: ken.larson
Friday, October 30, 2009
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Recently I got a phone call from an engineering manager I’ve known for over ten years. He informed me that he’d been laid off last spring, but before I could offer condolences he added that he’d been hired by another company in the same industry for a consulting assignment.

That temporary work had lasted over six months but was winding down. He hadn’t been a contract “consultant” before and after some additional small talk told me, “… and I’ve discovered something I never knew.” Anticipating a revelation about a new found inner strength, I listened carefully.

“You know,” he began, “when you work as a consultant, you have to pay twice the withholding for Social Security and Medicare that you do when you work for a company.” I told him that wasn’t exactly true and we discussed briefly the labor burden — those costs the employer pays in the U.S. when they hire someone.

The big story these days is employer provided health benefits, but unfortunately that subject overshadows the longer term liability an employer or company faces when they hire employees; and is certainly one of the reasons why many firms increasingly like “contract” agreements. My friend’s take on having to pay a greater amount to Social Security and Medicare was not “exactly true” because the money “contributed” by the employer was always part of his gross wages, but was obscured by the mechanism of the deceit explicit in the government’s term “employer’s contribution.” I have some experience here. I’ve been a business owner and self employed most of my adult life.

You see, the employer by law must add to and pay the government an amount equal to what he withholds for Social Security and Medicare on a full-time employee’s behalf. If you regularly earn $400 a week, you are responsible for sending $30.60 of that amount to the federal government. (And that’s separate from what you may owe for income tax.)

The employee’s Social Security portion is 6.2% of gross wages up to $106,800 a year; and Medicare another 1.45% of gross wages but without a cut off point. For most of us, the combined 7.65% is our “contribution” to the federal retirement and healthcare systems already in place. But it’s not the total “contribution.”

As stated above, an employer or company that hires you is responsible for an equal “contribution” in your name of an additional 7.65% of your gross wage. Many who work for company’s lose sight of the fact that employers must add that cost of having them on the payroll to their cost of hiring us. Put bluntly, our employee has to account for a profit of at least $430.60 a week in order to justify being on a payroll. And because of the federal government’s demand that his and the employer’s “contributions” must be paid weekly, or monthly according to the government’s demands; the system has a tendency to put its own demands on a company’s cash flow. A company has to have enough profitable receipts to be able to “contribute” their one-half of what is demanded for their employee’s government retirement and healthcare system. And believe me, the government wants “their” money first and doesn’t care what other bills an employer has to pay.

My engineer friend was facing the reality of having to be his own employer so to speak and ante up the total 15.3% all on his own. Like most consultants he’d arranged a fee that paid him an amount from which no deductions were taken. At times like these, we’re all small business owners. It’s sobering. Imagine if there was no withholding and all taxpayers had to write a check at the end of the year. How might they choose to act? These government systems managed by Caesar are soon to be bankrupt. I heard someone report recently that Medicare is in arrears by $38 Trillion.

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Fall is typically the season during which the sermons delivered by pastors from church pulpits concern stewardship. In making the case for Christian Stewardship many pastors will visit Genesis and the story of Abel and Cain. Compare and contrast are my favorite means of offering clarity on many subjects so I like the Genesis story of obedience versus selfishness. Many use the Bible to promote the concept of the tithe and if you Google Tithe you’ll come up with a plethora of explanations, indictments and opinions. Generally the percentage of income or produce that we are persuaded God asks of us is ten — 10%.

I can tell you that the tithe is a request that staggers most Christians. Those with work earning $400 a week are not likely to volunteer $40 when the plate is passed on Sunday — yet seemingly ignore the fact that $61.20 was sent to the IRS on their behalf that week.

It’s instructive to remember that the concept of the religious tithe contains a lesson which is not of taxation. It’s argued that all is God’s and all we have comes to us through His Grace. I believe that’s true.

Yet as I sat in the pew recently listening to one of those sermons about “giving” I took a break to recall and pray for my engineer friend’s employment perdicament, I also compared my own hesitation at pledging myself toward a 10% tithe in light of the reality that I was already on the hook to give Caesar 15.3% off the top. Glancing around the sanctuary, the question arose as to whether the bureaucrats at a government office could match our congregation in our common devotion to each other, our Lord; and the missions we support in service to Him.

And it got me realizing that when you compare the two: Caesar and God — 10% is one heck of a deal.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I offered a commentary related to his recently closed environmental symposium in New Orleans. He said this:

For if all life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it … no one doubts that there is a connection and balance among all things animate and inanimate on this third planet from the Sun, and that there is a cost or benefit whenever we tamper with that balance.

Words pleasing to the ear, perhaps. But the Patriarch’s environmental ethic has a hollow core. Writing on the blog of the American Orthodox Institute, I have shown how for nearly 20 years Bartholomew has issued equivocations and evasions on the Orthodox Church’s clear teaching on the sanctity of life. And it goes on. This is from his 2008 book, “Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today” (p. 150):

I also encounter many and diverse issues related to the sanctity of life from birth through death. Those issues range from sensitive matters of sexuality to highly controversial questions like the death penalty. In all such social and moral issues, it is not one or another position that the Orthodox Church seeks to promote in a defensive spirit. Indeed, we would normally refrain from expounding a single rigidly defined dogma on social and moral challenges. Rather, it is the sacredness of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, that the Church at all times seeks to underline.

In stark contrast to this statement, see the Russian Orthodox Church’s clear and unambiguous position in its statement on the Orthodox Church and Society:

The Church has always considered it her duty to protect the most vulnerable and dependent human beings, namely, unborn children. Under no circumstances the Orthodox Church can bless abortion.

Of course, the hollow core of Bartholomew’s environmental ethic leaves the Green Patriarch’s ministry open to all sorts of anti-human vulnerabilities. As Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse, president of AOI, has written in response:

Perhaps the EP’s [Ecumenical Patriarch's] equivocations on abortion explains the affinity with the alarmism of progressive environmentalism. The alarmism is essentially misanthropic (mis-anthropos — hate man); it views the human person as spoiler, rather than part, of the environment. (The language of stewardship is used in progressive apologetics, but the definition of the term is reserved for those who hold to progressive cultural prescriptions.) Malcolm Muggeridge wrote about the misanthropic theme in broader philosophical terms back in 1979: The Great Liberal Death Wish.

Reducing the value of a person to private opinion means that man has no more value than an animal, and viewing man as mere animal is a descent into madness. Human rights activist Wesley J. Smith rightly discerns the barbarous end of this thinking and calls for a new ethic of “human exceptionalism” in Orthodox Advocate For “Human Exceptionalism”. Hopefully other human rights activists will take heed.

Having wrapped up his environmental program, Bartholomew is now preparing for a round of briefings in Washington with Democratic Party leaders and a meeting with President Obama that is being arranged by John Podesta of the Center for American Progress. CAP is also co-sponsoring a speech by Bartholomew with Georgetown University on Nov. 3.

Read A patriarch who, ‘generally speaking, respects human life’ on the Observer blog at AOI.

A bit of background. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
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The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University has announced the launch of a new initiative focused on the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville.

The Tocqueville Program aims “to foster an understanding of the central importance of principles of freedom and equality for democratic government and moral responsibility, as well as for economic and cultural life.”

The program’s first event will be held next month (November 6), and is titled, “What’s Wrong with Tocqueville Studies, and What Can Be Done About It.”

IU professor Elinor Ostrom, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, co-founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

NIV Stewardship Study BibleAhead of it’s “official” release date of Nov. 1, 2009, the NIV Stewardship Study Bible and Effective Stewardship DVD Curriculum can be found on the shelves of most major book retailers around the country.

Zondervan’s release of these foundational resources is the result of a strategic partnership of the Stewardship Council and the Acton Institute working to bring the Biblical message of effective stewardship to bear on the moral and economic climate of our world.

To learn more about these resources go to www.stewardship1000.com.

In my commentary this week, “America’s Uncontrolled Debt and Spending is the Real ‘Waterloo,’” I offer the well known point that debt and spending threatens our liberty and prosperity. It is becoming very evident that it will be up to citizens to demand accountability from their lawmakers, as I mentioned. What has been tried before has not worked.

In terms of liberty, Thomas Jefferson declared, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” What the Founders articulated was that democracy and liberty is not the natural order of things, and that consolidated power moves toward tyranny. The U.S. power structure has borrowed from the income of future generations in an irresponsible and immoral manner, and citizens are culpable as well. What does that mean? I thought U.S. Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) recently articulated the consequences of the crisis very passionately on CNN with journalist John King.

Arnold Kling continued last week’s conversation about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism over at EconLog.

Kling’s analysis is worth reading, and he concludes that the divide between conservatives and libertarians has to do with respect (or lack thereof) for hierarchical authority. Kling does allow for the possibility of a “secular conservative…someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.”

I’m certainly inclined to agree, and I think there are plenty of historical cases of such a “secular” conservatism. The question at issue really is, though, whether there is room for a “religious libertarian.” Kling distinguishes between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives on the basis of their answer to the question of what fuels social progress: movements and leaders, liberty and markets, or religion, respectively.

But it’s not clear to me that any of these options are exclusive. Indeed, one could quite coherently argue that proximate causes of social progress are primarily liberty and markets and that these are means of a common or general sort of divine grace.

The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are. This is a flawed and ultimately untenable position, a development of a particularly closed off and secularized form of Enlightenment rationalism and anthropological arrogance (of course I say this as a Christian believer and as a theologian).

As with so many things, it comes down to a question of first principles. If libertarianism means that any and every human commitment must be subsumed to liberty as an end in itself, then any (other) meaningful religious commitment is excluded.

On the question of respect for authority, we should not be so quick to simply lump all religious adherents, or Christians in particular, into a category that views the state as such as divine. This is a very complicated historiographical and theological question, but the Christian tradition’s ambivalence toward the state is clear. The institution of civil government is most certainly a divine ordinance. This does not amount to a gross or crass blessing of a “divine right of kings” that allows for unlimited or unrestrained use of coercive force in the pursuit of any arbitrary agenda.

Kling’s claim that “the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,” even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin. We are talking about two completely different levels of causality, in a way analogous to my previously noted relation of divine grace to liberty and markets. One need not rule out the other. God works through means.

And as I’ve noted previously, we have to take into account a standard of justice or equity, which whether communicated through the natural law or the Ten Commandments restricts legitimate civil authority (see the claim regarding OT Israel as a constitutional monarchy).

Augustine himself writes,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

Kling’s claim regarding the historical origin of governments and Augustine’s description don’t seem that far off from each other. At least in Augustine’s case, he certainly didn’t think that such an account was any evidence against the existence of God or the legitimacy of just civil government.

graham1 Explaining the realignment of American Southern politics is often a favorite area of study among historians and scholars. A region that was once dominated by yellow dog Democrats, has for the most part continued to expand as a loyal region for the Grand Old Party. Among the earliest and most common narrative among liberal historians and writers is the belief that the realignment in the South had to do with a backlash against desegregation. Steven P. Miller in his new book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South puts considerable emphasis on Graham’s role in desegregation, public evangelicalism, and Graham as a spiritual and political adviser to presidents. Miller argues that Graham played a formidable role in reshaping the political climate of the South.

Early on Miller describes some of the dynamics of Graham’s insistence on holding desegregated crusades in the South, and his relationship with many fellow Southern Baptist ministers who supported segregation. Miller labels Graham a “racial moderate” largely by comparing him to Dr. Martin Luther King. Graham also at various times called for Civil Rights protesters to obey federal court orders and was quick to defend the South as having better racial relations than many places north of Dixie. With quips like, “prejudice is not just a sectional problem,” and, labeling criticism of the South “one of the most popular indoor sports of some Northerners these days,” Graham became an endearing figure to many fellow Southerners. It also allowed him to take fairly progressive positions on race without losing a large part of his Southern audience. Miller notes:

By appealing to law and order but also to such seemingly nonpartisan qualities as neighborly love and spiritual piety, Graham supplied a path upon which moderates could back away from segregationism in a manner acceptable to regional mores.

Graham linked racism as a problem directly related to the absence of God that pointed to the need of regeneration for the individual. True racial reconciliation and integration would require regeneration in the life of an individual. It was a reasoning that also made political sense when Graham would make pronouncements for more gradualism when it came to integrating the Deep South. He understood there were limits to solving segregation through legislation alone. Miller also notes Graham’s forward thinking when he addressed how much segregation stained America’s image abroad in relation to Cold War dynamics.

Another large portion of the book covers Graham’s relationship with political figures and presidents. Graham, a lifelong Democrat, is well known for his close relationship to President Richard Nixon and how his regional leadership in the American South helped Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Graham also had a very good relationship with President Lyndon Johnson and even lent his endorsement to his War on Poverty programs, citing Scripture as a basis for support. While Graham supported many of Johnson’s big government initiatives and his Vietnam policies, he also had harsh criticism for other areas of 1960s liberalism, especially related to judicial activism as it related to school prayer and criminal rights.

Nixon’s political comeback made Graham a serious player within that administration. Graham was criticized by the left for being a court prophet to Nixon, and his reputation would suffer again decades later through the release of tapes where Graham was heard agreeing with Nixon as he railed against all the Jews in the media. Defenses of Nixon late into Watergate proved to be an issue as well, as Graham often called the scandal further proof of a larger national problem that called for personal and national repentance.

An overarching point of Miller’s theme is that Graham gave considerable cover for Southerners to distance themselves from their segregated past. An evangelical understanding of the sins of racism allowed many to declare themselves healed and absolved from past guilt. Graham then criticized forced busing as a desegregation tactic, he further lauded law and order policies, and continually criticized the secularizing of America through the courts. Miller also argues that his close association to Nixon and his vocal pronouncements on many conservative positions, especially social positions and the moral breakdown in society further made the region ripe for change. His public pronouncements and leadership according to Miller, would also help spawn the religious right as a force in American politics.

All of these dynamics helped further fuel the political transition of the Sun Belt South Graham so celebrated through out his life. Miller also appropriately observes a statement about Jimmy Carter by Graham:

‘I would rather have a man in office who is highly qualified to be president who didn’t make much of a religious profession than to have a man who had no qualifications but who made a religious profession.’ The statement, which probably derived in part from a suspicion that Carter’s theology was in reality more liberal than evangelical, emphasized the primary vulnerability of the candidate (inexperience) at the expense of his perceived advantage (spirituality).

The epilogue substantially deals with some of the complexity of Graham’s positions, as he distanced himself from many religious conservatives by separating himself from campaigns in the pro-life movement and by taking no stance on the Equal Rights Amendment. “Now, in the pages of Sojourners, Graham called for “Salt X,” by which he meant ‘total destruction of nuclear arms,'” says Miller. Most conservative evangelicals had already lined up behind Ronald Reagan’s administration who called for more aggressive measures against the Soviets. Graham’s involvement in antinuclear activism didn’t cloud his strong relationship with Reagan however. Reagan, who had a tremendous personal interest in Christian eschatology, often spoke to the evangelist about his views on the topic. Another area of interest in the epilogue is Graham’s close relationship with the Bush family, and President George W. Bush in particular. Graham of course played a significant role in Bush’s conversion narrative. Miller discusses Bush’s repackaging of Graham’s critique on liberalism, through policies called “compassionate conservatism”, and Graham while not openly endorsing Bush in 2000, would drop many clear hints of support for the then Texas Governor.

This book provides a lot background on Graham’s career as an evangelist and as a force in 20th Century American politics. Its academic style makes it less popular for the casual reader. But readers of Civil Rights history, those interested in Graham, and those interested in the topic of faith and politics will find value in this publication. I wish Miller would have provided some more balance by discussing the importance of upward trending incomes in the South and other economic indicators directly related to the rise of the GOP in the region. Miller appropriately concludes though by noting that “Graham’s central theme never altered; the evangelist preached Christ crucified and resurrected, with salvation available through Him available to all who would invite Him into their hearts.” Far beyond any political statements, it is what Graham is known for and will especially be known for when he is called home.