Archived Posts December 2010 » Page 3 of 4 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Thursday, December 16, 2010

In “Human Nature and Capitalism” on AEI’s The American, Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner look at three different “pictures” of what it means to be human and point to the one, foundational understanding that has undergirded the flourishing American culture of democratic capitalism:

“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, in Federalist Paper No. 51, “no government would be necessary.” But Madison and the other founders knew men were not angels and would never become angels. They believed instead that human nature was mixed, a combination of virtue and vice, nobility and corruption. People were swayed by both reason and passion, capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. The founders’ assumption was that within every human heart, let alone among different individuals, are competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents.

This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.

And they draw a parallel to institutions of government where democracy, with all of its flaws, also works itself out to be the most fitting form of government under this model of human nature. When I engage with critics of the market economy, I use the following Churchill quote but substitute “market economy” for “democracy.” Valid, I think, because we have some disastrous experience with political systems that do not operate in concert with a more or less open market.

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. — Winston Churchill (House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)

Brooks and Wehner:

… our “picture of human nature” determines, in large measure, the institutions we design. For example, the architects of our government carefully studied history and every conceivable political arrangement that had been devised up to their time. In the course of their analysis, they made fundamental judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government with it in mind.

What is true for creating political institutions is also true for economic ones. They, too, proceed from understanding human behavior.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this matter. The model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one embraces (free-market capitalism versus socialism) to the political system one supports (democracy versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Like a ship about to begin a long voyage, a navigational mistake at the outset can lead a crew to go badly astray, shipwreck, and run aground. To use another metaphor, this time from the world of medicine: A physician cannot treat an illness before diagnosing it correctly; diagnosing incorrectly can make things far worse than they might otherwise be.

Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behavior, you will see more of that behavior.

A free market can also better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.

Read the full article on The American.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, December 16, 2010

In this week’s commentary I say that part of the reason less money is being given to local churches is that it is reflective of a broader trend of distrust towards institutions.

Commentary magazine’s blog contentions has some more recent data confirming this overall shift. The post summarizes the December issue of AEI’s “Political Report” (PDF), which focuses especially on trust in the government. It finds that “contemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep” and that, for instance, “Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991.”

But more broadly and inline with what I point to in this week’s commentary, we find that this lack of confidence in the government is not exception to the general loss of institutional faith. Indeed,

The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.

No doubt this applies to “big religion” as well. My friend John H. Armstrong has examined whether and why “young doubters” are leaving the church in seemingly greater numbers. And we can see how all this has negative implications for denominations and super-denominational structures (like the mainline ecumenical groups). As I argue in Ecumenical Babel, this means that many of these institutions might well be ripe for reform, in part because that is their only avenue for survival.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Increasingly the Nativity tends to be associated with the political, as the crèche and other overtly religious symbols are banished from the public square by public pressure or the courts. To some that communicates a baby savior with so little power he can’t even defeat the secular legal authorities who seek his removal. If God is out there, “He must be pretty weak,” could be a common refrain today.

Likewise in some churches the Nativity is seen as an activity for the children, rolled out for December performances as adults become detached from the spiritual and deeper theological significance. For too many of us, it takes on a fairy tale image. A new study by The Barna Group points to the obvious: American Christians are less theologically literate today than in the past.

There are economic consequences to the dechristianizing of the West as well. The drive and obsession for more stuff and gifts often seeks to fill a void opened by the loss of the Nativity and its meaning. Perhaps, the same could be said about the demise of fiscal sanity in Washington as well. Outrageous debt and deficit spending certainly says something about a level of national emptiness that some believe can be filled if government only spends more. There are polls now that suggest that young people do not have the same kind of optimism as their parents did about future success in life and their opportunity to prosper.

As so much seems to be crumbling around us, and yes, the loss of the Nativity in the public square serves as a symbol of that. It is, however, so insignificant when weighed against our inheritance.

Bethlehem, where Christ was born, literally means “House of Bread,” a good birthplace for somebody who came to us as “The Bread of Life.” “The Bread of Heaven came down to earth to feed the hungry,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The Incarnation of our Lord holds a level of mystery and is perplexing even to the wise. Martin Luther admitted that the works and vast wonder of this Incarnation would not be fully comprehended until “the blessed day of our redemption.”

Still, God appeared as an infant so tender and mild. Some might say Christ is weak for appearing as a baby in the manner that He did. But an overriding message of the manger is that God is merciful, nobody is afraid of an infant. The Wise Men came to the Nativity to worship the Wisest of Men (Matthew 2:11). The birth of Christ is about the Light of the World conquering fear, darkness, and despair.

On Christmas Eve in 1968 Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis:

The broadcast from Apollo 8 was the largest viewed television broadcast ever at that time. The dramatic footage from earth from a brand new vantage point captivated viewers across the globe. Likewise, seeing our life and this world anew draws on the remarkable power and promise of the Incarnation of our Lord. It has changed everything. It delivers the promise that God has and will restore everything in the manner in which it was intended. In the words of Isaiah 60: 19 & 20:

The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Video: Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police across central Athens on Wednesday, smashing cars and hurling gasoline bombs during a nationwide labour protest against the government’s latest austerity measures. The former Development Minister Costis Hatzidakis was attacked by protesters outside a luxury hotel. He was escorted, bleeding from the scene as his attackers yelled “thieves” at him. Source: Russia Today

In the Greek daily Kathimerini, Alexis Papachelas writes:

There are no easy answers and, to make matters worse, we still have no idea about how the global crisis will affect Europe in early 2011.

The Greek government chose a course of treatment for the economy that is much like shock therapy, meaning that it tried to squeeze as many changes as possible into a short period of time.

If this strategy is successful, the government will have a strong card to play when it has to deal with its European peers and market forces in the case that debt restructuring is offered as a solution. If, however, the strategy fails, the shock therapy may turn into that extra bit of force that breaks the valve on the pressure cooker that is Greek society.

Read Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s new essay on Public Discourse titled, “Socialism and Solidarity.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Steve Connor in The Independent (HT: RealClearReligion) speculates about some happenings at the Vatican with regard to genetically-modified (GM) food. It’s important to note, as is the case in this article, that things that happen in various committees and study groups at the Vatican do not by default have some kind of papal endorsement.

To wit:

A leaked document from a group of scientists linked to Rome has set a hare running about the possible endorsement of GM technology by the Pope. The document, from scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, suggested that there is a moral duty to adopt GM technology in order to combat hunger.

Connor’s larger point is more chastened and more accurate, however. “Intriguingly, although the debate over GM crops has died down in Britain for the moment, something tells me it is set once more to become one of the most contentious scientific issues of our time – and one where both sides will invoke morality to justify their position,” he concludes.

I’m generally in favor of allowing GM food, with the caveat that animals have a different moral status than do plants. I sketch out a case in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” More recently you can see an Acton Commentary from earlier this year, “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods.”

I also should note that the use of GM foods to patent certain seeds, which then naturally circulate to non GM cropland, raises a whole host of issues related to property rights that are quite complex and can’t be dealt with here. I will say, though, that it’s not obvious to me why farmers shouldn’t have the rights to keep their crops from being exposed to GM seeds if they don’t want them to be and further how in the case of such involuntary exposure the responsibility to mitigate lies with the non GM crop farmer.

In today’s Acton Commentary I argue that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.”

I note some statistics that show that American Christians are increasingly looking beyond their local congregations and churches as outlets for their charitable giving, in spite of the fact that giving to religiously affiliated and religiously focused charities is increasing.

What it comes down to, I think, is that in large part Christians don’t trust their local congregations to spend the money in a way that is responsible and in accord with the Gospel mandate. They see other nonprofits and para-church organizations as doing the real work of Christian charity. I believe the key to reversing this perception is to revitalize and reform the office of deacon in the Christian church. This will help us in myriad ways, not least of which is properly dividing the labor, so to speak, between the responsibilities to proclaim the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline, as well as to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).

Consider the words of the Twelve at the original institution of the diaconate:

It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.

I cite The Deacons Handbook: A Manual for Stewardship in the piece, and the insights from this book by Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef are worth examining in more detail. While the book is currently out of print, Christian’s Library Press is planning to release an updated second edition of The Deacons Handbook in 2011.

In the meantime, first editions of the The Elders Handbook and The Believers Handbook are available for purchase, and you can also check out a sample of The Deacons Handbook at Scribd.

With Berghoef and DeKoster I say, “Dream, deacon!”

And once you’ve given as you feel you should to your local congregation, please consider supporting the Acton Institute with your year-end gift.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, December 13, 2010

Jordan’s post on hunger raises a timely question, on a day when First Lady Michelle Obama was on hand to watch the president sign the $4.5 billion “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” at a Washington elementary school. Despite the media coverage and White House spin that points to this in part as a hunger fighting piece of legislation, the measure is really about obesity. Because in America, the real problem with food is superabundance and waste, not scarcity and hunger.

As Bloomberg noted today:

Almost 20 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds were considered obese in 2007-2008, according to a study by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obese children are more likely to have health issues like Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure according to the CDC.

A study published last year estimated the cost of treating obesity-related ailments in 2008 at $147 billion. The study, noted the Washington Post, “compared medical costs for normal-weight people to those for obese people, suggests that curbing the obesity epidemic is key not only to ensuring a healthier future for Americans, but also to reining in health costs.”

The Centers for Disease Control helpfully suggests that schools should be located “within walking distance of students’ homes and making it easier for people to get access to healthful foods.” Of course, these tips largely will be ignored, as will most other nanny state directives on eating healthy diets and exercising that have been around for decades. Walking to school? That’s what minivans are for.

Now, you can argue that poor people are consuming too much bad food. You can argue that government farm subsidies foster production of the wrong kinds of food. All that is debatable and subject to honest differences of opinions as to causes and solutions. What doesn’t seem obvious is that millions of Americans are going hungry. This is what we get constantly from the religious left and the U.S. hunger lobby, which sees expansive government welfare programs as the inevitable answer. (more…)

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes in a new piece that “while moral beliefs have an important impact upon economic life, the manner in which they are given institutional expression also matters. This is illustrated by the different ways in which people’s responsibilities to those in need—what might be called the good of solidarity—are given political and economic form.”

Excerpt:

… the rather modest welfare and labor-market reforms presently being implemented in Spain, Greece and France have sparked considerable moral indignation (and not just from welfare recipients) despite widespread acknowledgment that such reforms are inevitable. Obviously there are many whose negative reaction is partly driven by consciousness that such reforms mean that the days of not-very-demanding jobs for life may be numbered. Nevertheless it’s also true that many Western Europeans genuinely believe the good of solidarity is threatened by efforts to move beyond the present and economically unsustainable status quo, precisely because of the state-oriented institutional expression given by Europeans to the surely uncontroversial proposition that we are our brother’s keeper.

While Americans are often regarded as more individualistic than Western Europeans, this perception is partly driven by the different economic and institutional expressions that Americans have often given to the idea of concern for neighbor. This was among one of the distinguishing features of America that struck the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited the United States between 1831 and 1832. The emergence of social and economic problems, Tocqueville noted, did not elicit demands from Americans for the government to “just do something.” Indeed, Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state’s all-pervasive presence in his native France.

Tocqueville quickly realized, however, that this “absence” of the state was not symptomatic of a callous disregard by Americans towards their fellow citizens in need. Though Americans tended, Tocqueville noted, to dress up their assistance to others in the language of enlightened self-interest, he observed that Americans usually expressed the value of helping those in need through the habits and institutions of free and voluntary association. In short, Tocqueville wrote, Americans banded together to try and resolve social and economic problems through voluntary associations. Some of these associations (like churches) had a more-or-less permanent presence in American society. Others lasted only as long as a particular economic or social problem persisted. As a consequence, the same pressures for centralized top-down government-led solutions and all their economic implications that prevailed in France were not present in the young American republic.

Read all of “Socialism and Solidarity” on the Public Discourse website.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, December 13, 2010

In an otherwise fine piece focusing on innovative techniques used by food banks to increase efficiency, while at the same time improving service and the recognition of the dignity of those they serve, Bread for the World president David Beckmann uses the opportunity to throw a dose of pessimism into the mix.

“We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger,” said Beckmann, co-recipient of the 2010 World Food Prize. “Christian people need to change the politics of hunger as well.”

Well. So what if “we can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger”? Does that mean that we have to make governmental lobbying our primary focus? How about using the opportunity to praise best practices and improvements in the way food banks are run? How about talking about the important and indispensable role that food banks play?

It might just be that framing the problem as political by definition minimizes the role that private charity and local giving play. The emphasis all too easily becomes one of lobbying and advocacy rather than taking practical steps to address hunger in local contexts.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this. But I think we can see right where the “politics of hunger” mindset leads. Here’s an example from my local area: “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason.”

Here in West Michigan local food bank officials point not to decrease in demand or need, but instead toward “increased state food assistance and accessibility.”

While local food banks are seeing their usage numbers decline, “We have continued to set records every month (for the food assistance program) for the past 18 months, said Edward Woods, communications director for the state Department of Human Services (DHS). “Recovery funds (federal stimulus) did increase the amount of food assistance by nearly 14 percent.”

If changing the politics of hunger means that fewer people use food banks and food pantries in favor of government welfare then I have no interest in changing the politics of hunger. Instead I want to see hunger de-politicized.

All too often discussion about charitable causes end up downplaying direct charitable giving and activity with calls for political activism and advocacy. Jim Wallis, for instance, has said “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

Instead of talking about what food banks can’t do and what Christians can’t do, I like the observation from Ron Sider about the untapped potential of Christians to act on their own through their own institutions without resorting to government advocacy.

Sider says, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Obviously evangelism shouldn’t be a “leftover” priority, but you get the point. Christians and churches can and should do more, and calls to change the “politics” of hunger, poverty, and a host of other issues let us off the hook too easily.