Archived Posts 2011 | Acton PowerBlog

Civil War gravestones, Vicksburg, Miss.

2011 kicked off the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. At the beginning of 2011, I began seeing articles and news clippings to commemorate the anniversary. While not a professional historian, I took classes on the conflict at Ole Miss and visited memorials and battlefields on my own time. I must give recognition to Dr. James Cooke, emeritus professor of history at the University of Mississippi, for his brilliant and passionate lectures that awakened a greater interest in the subject for me. After reading a lot of anniversary coverage, I noticed unsurprisingly, the topic of faith was neglected.

I thought it would be a good idea to feature a few articles on the Civil War in Religion & Liberty. I asked Mark Summers, a historian from Virginia to pen something on the topic. I have known Summers for over a decade and I knew that he understood the Acton Institute and Religion & Liberty enough to deliver. He is a first class historian and the ideas for the articles were entirely his own.

The first piece, “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War” is a fascinating look at the evangelical revivals that spread through the Confederate ranks. The revivals, and of course the war itself, definitely played a significant role in shaping today’s strong religious vibe in the American South. Summers says himself in the piece,

Prior to the American Revolution, New England had been the “Bible Belt” of America, while church attendance in the South was scant. The Second Great Awakening shifted the culture of Dixie, and America as a whole. The revivals took hold in the “backcountry” amongst the yeoman. Southern evangelism reflected the charismatic and independent character of the Appalachian farmers. Southern yeomen declared their independence from the staid faith of the plantation gentry. While planters dominated politics and business, humbler folk shaped the culture of Southern Sundays.

Summers wrote about the Catholic Church and Catholic soldiers in the Fall 2011 R&L. He primarily focused on Catholics in the North and how the Church was unique from American Protestantism with its ability to stay unified despite the horrific conflict. Those who have studied American Protestant history are well aware that many denominations split along sectional lines and many of the divisions we have today resulted or were exacerbated by the Civil War. Summers notes,

Indeed, it was this unity of the Catholic Church which proved unique among American Christianity. While Protestant denominations split over theological and sectional lines, the Catholic Church stood as the only major church which remained united during the war, even if its congregants fought on opposite sides.

These two articles tell powerful stories about faith in this country during its bloodiest, most heartbreaking period. The country had never seen or experienced such a massive slaughter of life. The pieces authored by Summers tell a story about our own American history but they also tell the story that points to the ancient truth, and that is that God is at work redeeming that which is separated, broken, and in despair. In the words of Isaiah:

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

David Deavel’s review of Mitch Pearlstein’s From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation has been picked up by First Things and Mere Comments. Deavel’s review was published in the Fall 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty.

In his review, Deavel declared:

His [Pearlstein] new book, From Family Fragmentation to America’s Decline, laments this inability of many to climb their way up from the bottom rungs of society. But rather than fixating on the one percent, he focuses on the 33 percent. This is the percent of children living with one parent rather than two. These children, victims of what many call “family fragmentation,” start out with tremendous social and educational deficits that are hard to narrow, nevermind close. These are most often the children for whom upward mobility has stalled. Their economic well-being has led to decline in American competitiveness and also the deeper cleavages of inequality that have been so widely noted.

The fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality has now been finalized and will be heading to print. It is a bit overdue, but this issue is one of our largest ever, and it includes a number of noteworthy features on the special theme issue topic “Modern Christian Social Thought.” As I outline in the editorial for this issue (PDF), 2011 marked a number of significant anniversaries, including the 120th anniversaries of Rerum Novarum and the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam.

We’ll have lots more to say about the contents of this issue as they appear digitally over the following week or so. There’s still time to subscribe to get a hardcopy of the issue and lock in current subscription rates. And if you are affiliated with a school or other institution, please recommend to your librarian an institutional subscription to the journal.

I’m including a PDF of the table of contents of this issue to give you a preview of what’s to come. We’re looking forward to a full new year for the journal, as we hope to launch a new user-friendly website and some other important ways to advance the scholarly conversation. More details will be following in due course. But for now, check out the forthcoming contents of the special issue 14.2, “Modern Christian Social Thought,” as well as a sneak peek at my editorial for the issue (PDF).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 30, 2011

In part 1 of “Secular Theocracy: The Foundations and Folly of Modern Tyranny,” David Theroux of the Independent Institute outlines a history of secularism, tracing the complex relationship between religion and the spheres of society, particularly church and government. “Modern America has become a secular theocracy with a civic religion of national politics (nationalism) occupying the public realm in which government has replaced God,” he argues.

One of the key features necessary to unraveling the knotty problems surrounding the idea of secularism is distinguishing between the separation of church and state on the one hand, and religion and public life on the other. Hunter Baker does an excellent job describing this distinction and its consequences in his book, The End of Secularism. Secularism, as Baker and Theroux use the term, is a far more vigorous concept than the institutional separation of church and civil government. As Baker writes,

Secularism is much more than a formal financial and legal separation of church institutions and state institutions. It is a way of living together in community that emphasizes clean conceptual boundaries over organic beliefs and traditions. Here we come to a critical point. Secularism is not and should not be synonymous with the separation of church and state.

George Weigel recently observed the thirty year anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland. He noted the “weakness” of the tyrannical government, which had to resort to such tactics. “Politics and economics are important,” he writes. But “what drives history over the long haul, however, is culture: what men and women cherish, honor, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives, and their children’s lives, on.”

So what we need to be most concerned about, it seems, is a kind of cultural and conceptual secularism, a secularist worldview, that provides the basis for a more far-reaching and insidious form of secular political tyranny.

Look for part 2 on “Secular Theocracy” from Theroux in January. And in the meantime you can check out a controversy feature in the Journal of Markets & Morality between Hunter Baker and Jonathan Malesic on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” Issue 13.2 of the journal will be publicly available shortly, but you can also get instant access by becoming an electronic subscriber.

In the Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, I wrote about the Christian response to disaster relief, focusing on Hurricane Katrina and the April 2011 tornadoes that decimated communities in the deep South and Joplin, Mo. in May. Included in the story is a contrast of church relief with the federal government response. From the R&L piece:

In Shoal Creek, Ala., a frustrated Carl Brownfield called the federal response “all red tape.” The Birmingham News ran a story on May 10 reporting that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

Why the leeriness to reach out for federal assistance? For one, just read this AP story about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and their effort to collect debts or overpayment checks that were spent years ago by people trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina. One can understand the skepticism to apply for federal assistance and it certainly highlights the mismanagement of taxpayer money at FEMA.

As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have written a lot about disaster response on the PowerBlog and elsewhere. Here is just one post that compares the private sector role to the federal disaster response.

Zelda and TheologyAuthor and editor Jonny Walls has announced his latest work published by Gray Matter Books entitled The Legend of Zelda and Theology.

Zelda is a series of video games celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, originating in 1986 with The Legend of the Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  It revolutionized video games with its adventure elements and exploration.  Each new installment of the series has advanced its complexity and story line.  The Zelda world maintains its own unique mythology consisting of spiritual elements that don’t match any existing religion.  In fact, the story often mentions multiple Gods and Goddesses.  The Triforce object in the game was created by divine beings and grants the owner supernatural powers depending on whether they have good or evil in their heart.  The pieces of the Triforce symbolize wisdom, courage and power.

The Legend of Zelda and Theology examines elements of Zelda’s mythology from a Christian perspective.  Having not read the book yet, I am skeptical as to how it interprets this exotic mythology and back story as a Christian tale.

Christian Post has an article about the book with comments from Jonny Walls.  In the end, the hope “is that readers will understand that [Zelda]’s themes all point to one source – God, the Creator.”

The book is a compilation of essays from various theologians and scholars examining the connection between Zelda and Christian theology.  One of the contributing authors is Rev. Jeremy Smith of Hacking ChristianityHe posted an excerpt of his contributed essay, included below:

As a child, one of my first lessons in ethics came from a chicken in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In the game, there are chickens called cuccos running around and I would laugh at their cries of fear while swatting them with my sword. One day I was showing my brother this hilarity when, unexpectedly, a hundred cuccos stormed on screen pecking mercilessly at me as they flew by. In an unfortunate coincidence, I was down to one or two hearts of life energy at the time and, to my childhood horror, actually died as a result of my cucco torment. It was a harsh lesson: don’t mess with the cucco…or at least don’t mess with them too much.

It’s also a lesson on ethics because the scenario with the cucco is a question of how to use one’s power. The Zelda universe is primarily a story about good v. evil, of course; but more specifically, it is a story about the use of power. One of the iconic artifacts in the Zelda universe is the Triforce: three interlocked triangles who grant the bearer significant power. The protagonist Link thus embarks on the hero’s journey from powerless to merely underpowered compared to the antagonist Ganon.

The ethical considerations of the use of power are a persistent theme in the Zelda series, in general, and Link to the Past, in particular. In engaging this topic, LttP contains numerous references to the Christian journey and the role of power in our everyday lives. Much of Christian theology is about good and evil, certainly, but also the use of power: the power of Christ to break the chains of sin, the power of Christians to overcome injustice and oppression, the restrictions placed on Christians in authority, etc.

Through examining the hero’s journey in this story, the role of power comes to the forefront: what does power do to corrupt or purify one’s desires? We will outline three problems of this particular world that serve as lenses to our own ethical behavior in the analog world.

The latest game in the Zelda series for Nintendo's Wii, Skyward Sword.

Interestingly, the theme of power that Jeremy mentions here relates directly to Lord Acton’s famous quote:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

Zelda is a work of fiction.  Fiction is self referencing, according to Marilynne Robinson’s article in the New York Times article about what literature owes the Bible:

Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.

I’ll definitely be checking out this book, being an avid Zelda fan and a Christian.  As of this writing the book is on Amazon, but it’s not available for order right now.  What do you think?  Is this book something that can help young people who might not know much about Christianity, or is it too much of a stretch?

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fojol Bros. of Merlindia

Customers standing beside the food truck operated by Fojol Brothers of Merlindia, a theatrical, mobile Indian restaurant, serving food at various locations throughout Washington, D.C

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Food Fights and Free Enterprise,” I take a look at the increasing popularity of food trucks in urban settings within the context of Milton Friedman’s observation that “it’s always been true that business is not a friend of a free market.”

As you might imagine, the food truck phenomenon has found opposition from brick and mortar eateries that fear competition from the mobile units. In this they are merely acting from self-interest, trying to influence the local laws and ordinances to favor them. As Friedman says, “It will be in the self-interest of individual businesses to promote a tariff here and a tariff there,” or a specially-designed zoning ordinance here, a tailored regulation there.

Various Christian traditions have recognized the right to food as basic, and there is thus a corresponding right for those who would provide food for others. We therefore ought to respect those who provide us with “our daily bread,” whether it be in the form of traditional restaurants, grocery stores, or food trucks. This means that the prejudice should be in favor of freedom for food trucks to operate and bring daily sustenance to many, or as Lester DeKoster writes, bring food to “God himself, hungering in the hungry.”

One response from brick and mortar restaurants could be to start up their own mobile operations. This would be far more helpful and healthy than trying to get city commissions to disallow them. The relatively lower barriers to entry (e.g. lower capital costs) can make food trucks an ideal start-up enterprise for a culinary entrepreneur. But the mobility and versatility of the food trucks can be a great complement to the stability of a traditional restaurant as well, as many establishments are already finding.

And the complementary relationship between food trucks and sit-down restaurants can work both ways. The food trucks can be a good “first step” into the food service business, and down the line the food truck brands can be well-served by setting up a base of operations with a brick-and-mortar establishment, too.

Earlier this year Michael Kruse put out a request for suggestions for inclusion in a Commissioning Service for Human Vocation. This Advent season it struck me that the Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” or, “The Carol of the Drum,” is rich in vocational theology.

The little drummer boy has no gold, frankincense, or myrrh, no gift “fit to give a King,” so instead he plays his “best for him” on his drum.

The little drummer boy drumming his best is what makes baby Jesus smile. I like to think that each of his children doing his or her best in their daily work, whether drumming or otherwise, makes grown-up Jesus smile, too. What else, in the end, do we have to bring him but what gifts he has given us already? And what else do we have to show him but that we have been faithful with those gifts, playing our “best for him”?

The Canadian teen Sean Quigley has shown the timelessly relevant nature of this carol in an updated version, which has garnered some significant media attention south of the border as well. (For those of you with Spotify, you can check out the version from the Von Trapp family here.)

Says Quigley, “I want to be able to create music as a career and influence people.”

As Abraham Kuyper elaborates in Wisdom & Wonder, music making is an area of cultural creativity that can have significant blessings on individuals and peoples: “The player or singer translates what you yourself can barely stammer, and does so in rich and fulsome chords, and your soul feels liberated.”

Acton President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico asks us to take a breather from the frenzied preparations that lead up to Christmas and reflect on the true meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation. Thanks. to ThePulp.it for linking.

The Magi -- Depicted on a Third Century sarcophagus (Vatican Museums, Rome)

Contemplating Christmas

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

In a Christmas season filled with noble sentiments such as “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” the remembrance of the joys and sanctity of the family, and the deep human desire for tranquility of heart, how is it that this is arguably the period of deepest tension, family strife and exhaustion?

Although I don’t have hard data to prove it, from both personal and pastoral experience I can safely assert that from roughly the last week of November to the first week of January we experience more stress, arguments within families, and grief, than at any other time of the year.

Much of this is no doubt of our own doing: the expectations we have of ourselves to write every card and attend every party and prepare every dish possible. We go too soon from the joyful welcoming of the “meaning of the season’ into crushing obligations the meaning of which we find ourselves simply too tired to contemplate.

Some of this comes from without: the ease and feasibility of travel and communication, the plethora of products and foods rarely enjoyed by previous generations, and the social expectations of business, friends and family.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Our seasonal variation on the philosopher’s wisdom might be, “The un-contemplated Christmas is hardly worth celebrating.”

Rather than descending into the usual rants about how we so often lose the authentic understanding of the season (true enough), would it not be a much more edifying approach to probe deeper the ambiguity, mystery and paradox of Christmas?

The manger contains a hidden proposition of sorts. I have often imagined that were I walking along a Bethlehem back street some 2,000 years ago, and passed by the stable where the infant Jesus lay, there might not have been anything there to catch my attention. I might have been on the way to the marketplace to buy doves for the Temple sacrifice, or perhaps hurrying home with a basket filled with olives, grapes, figs or bread. In any event, it might have taken a chorus of angels or the guidance of a star to distract me from my mundane busyness and the ordinariness of the scene.

The Feast of the Incarnation – which is another way of speaking of the Nativity or Christmas — is all about the Divine Condescension to be “enfleshed” in humanity. The stable would not have been a shrine that night (that would come later). That night it would have been a rather messy, dirty and (at the risk that some inattentive reader will accuse me of blasphemy) smelly place. And that is the point.

Even the shepherds and Magi who were favored with an announcement of the Birth came upon their respective epiphanies precisely from within the context of their usual work: tending sheep and examining the heavens. God found them where they were.

The challenge of Christmas is not to wait for a God who with shouts, trumpets and great fanfare will attract our attention, but to search for the One who comes discretely and must be carefully discerned in the midst of everyday lives.

So, the question I propose is: Where is God at the mall? Where is He at the table of a contentious family holiday argument? Or in the dark quiet room of a daughter standing at her dying mother’s bedside alone this Christmas?  Where is he in the gift-giving? In all the commercialization, so often disconnected from the heart of redemption?

He is there, because He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Dolphus Weary has a remarkable story to tell and certainly very few can add as much insight on the issue of poverty as he does. When you read the interview, now available online in the Fall 2011 R&L, or especially his book I Ain’t Comin’ Back, you realize leaving Mississippi was his one ambition, but God called him back in order to give his life and training for the “least of these.” One of the things Weary likes to ask is “Are you going into a mission field or are you running away from a mission field?” It’s a great question we should all ask ourselves.

Historian Mark Summers returns to offer another piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Last issue, Summers penned “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.” In this this issue he has written an article focusing on Northern Catholics and the Catholic Church during the conflict.

David Deavel has offered a very timely review of Mitch Pearlstein’s, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. Pearlstein focuses on the 33 percent rather than the one percent. Deavel observes:

This is the percent of children living with one parent rather than two. These children, victims of what many call ‘family fragmentation,’ start out with tremendous social and educational deficits that are hard to narrow, nevermind close. These are most often the children for whom upward mobility has stalled. Their economic well-being has led to decline in American competitiveness and also the deeper cleavages of inequality that have been so widely noted.

I reviewed the new biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. by Carl T. Bogus. This book, written by a self-described liberal, is critical of Buckley but works at achieving fairness. If you want to read a comparison of two very different biographies of Buckley, I also reviewed Lee Edwards sympathetic biography of Buckley in the Spring 2010 issue of Religion & Liberty.

The Russian philosopher and writer Vladimir Solovyov is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure this issue. Dylan Pahman has already profiled this piece on the PowerBlog so check out his comments here.

There is more content in the issue and the next interview in R&L will be with Reformation scholar and Refo500 director Herman Selderhuis.

Finally, I just want to say learning from Dolphus Weary’s story was a spiritually enlightening experience. I read his book in one night in preparation for the interview and he is truly humble. While Weary offers a lot of insight, I believe his greatest strength is teaching and leading through example. It’s no wonder many ministries have tried to replicate what he has done and now does in Mississippi. There is something to be said for somebody who remains tied to their roots and is proud of where they come from, especially if where they come from may look hopeless by the world’s standards.