Archived Posts January 2011 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, January 31, 2011

Peter Wehner on Commentary Magazine’s Contentions blog looks at the recent joint statement on civility from Jim Wallis and Chuck Colson:

… what is worth noting, I think, is that Wallis (as opposed to Colson) has repeatedly violated his commitment to civility. For example, in 2007, Wallis said: “I believe that Dick Cheney is a liar; that Donald Rumsfeld is also a liar; and that George W. Bush was, and is, clueless about how to be the president of the United States. They have shamed our beloved nation in the world by this [Iraq] war and the shameful way they have fought it.”

Americans and Iraqis died “because of their lies, incompetence, and corruption.” Wallis went on to say he favors investigations of the top officials of the Bush administration on “official deception, war crimes, and corruption charges.” And if they were found guilty of these “high crimes,” Wallis wrote, “I believe they should spend the rest of their lives in prison. … Deliberately lying about going to war should not be forgiven.”

As I showed here, these statements are slanderous. Given that, how does Wallis square what he wrote with his counsel not to resort to “personal attack, falsely impugning others’ motives, [and] assaulting their character”?

More recently, Wallis strongly implied that the Tea Party movement was animated by racism. Is this the kind of thing Wallis has in mind when he cautions us against “demonizing our opponents,” which in turn “poisons the public square”?

These episodes are not isolated ones. Wallis recently accused World magazine’s Marvin Olasky of being a liar — a claim Wallis had to retract after Olasky provided indisputable evidence that it was Olasky, not Wallis, who was telling the truth.

My point here isn’t so much to call attention to the hypocrisy of Wallis, though that’s worth taking into account. Nor is it to argue that Wallis, based on his shrill outbursts, should never be able to make the case for civility in public discourse, though it would help if Wallis were to acknowledge his complicity in what he now decries.

Read the whole thing at Contentions.

Ronald Reagan is in the news quite a bit these days. President Barack Obama is even trying to model himself after the popular president, as this piece in Time points out. Reagan’s centennial birthday is February 6. The Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library Centennial homepage is the essential site for information on the celebration.

On February 17, those in the Grand Rapids area should plan on attending Acton on Tap at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids for a discussion about the faith of Ronald Reagan and its impact in America and the world. The discussion starts promptly at 6:30 p.m., plan on arriving a little earlier for a good seat. My commentary from last week is a good primer for the event. Paul Kengor also has an excellent piece in USA Today about Reagan and his faith.

Here is a description of the event from the Facebook event page:

February of 2011 marks Ronald Reagan’s centennial birthday. At the end of last year, President Barack Obama said he was reading Lou Cannon’s biography of the popular president, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Many commentators have speculated that President Obama is studying the popular president in order to strengthen his connection with the American people. Join us as Acton’s Ray Nothstine leads a discussion about Ronald Reagan’s America, his faith, and the relevancy of his life and presidency for today.

On Thursday, Acton kicks off the 2011 Acton Lecture Series with an address by Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico entitled “Christian Poverty in an Age of Prosperity.” (If you haven’t done so already, you can register to attend the lecture at this link.) To set the stage for the 2011 series, I’ll be posting video of last year’s lecture series on the Powerblog all week long.

In January of last year, we welcomed Dr. John Pinheiro to the podium to discuss “Virtue and Liberty in the American Founding.” In his lecture, Dr. Pinheiro – associate professor of history and director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College here in Grand Rapids, Michigan - examined the American Founders’ understanding of liberty as rooted in a classical and Christian understanding of virtue. His talk touched on the reasons why George Washington argued that public happiness could be attained without private morality and why John Adams wrote that, “[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”

In yesterday’s edition of the Grand Rapids Press, editorial page editor Ed Golder reflects on the implications of the historically-high levels of government spending, the deficit, and debt.

Most impressively, Golder notes where the government is actually spending money, and it is largely not in the areas of discretionary spending that so many politicians like to talk about. Golder writes,

Neither party is forthrightly honest about what needs to be done. Making the necessary cuts touches on very large and politically sacrosanct programs. About one fifth of federal spending, for instance, is defense. Can we seriously tackle the budget without looking at some prized weapons programs?

And the biggest category of spending, the one growing at the fastest rate, is entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and health insurance for children.

We may have to accept the idea that rich people will pay more than poorer people for medical coverage. We will almost certainly, given life expectancies, have to work longer before receiving Social Security benefits.

Reform of defense spending is important. But the real key is entitlement reform. I’ve often thought that one lasting legacy of the Bush era (beyond the wars and the Great Recession) is found in his insistence on bringing to the national discussion the issue of entitlement reform, particularly Social Security. He wasn’t successful, but it did show some principled political courage to make Social Security reform a major policy goal of his administration.

Golder also relates this entertaining little anecdote:

Speaking to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids Monday, financial forecaster Jason Trennert, was asked by an audience member to handicap Washington’s ability to make meaningful headway in tackling the debt. He wryly quoted theologian Augustine of Hippo, who famously quipped, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”

In other words: Sure, we’ll reform. Tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s here. Heck, tomorrow may be yesterday at this point.

That’s one other legacy of the Bush era that we are living with, the legacy of the mantra, “Lord, make me thrifty, but not yet.” That goes for the politician as well as for the citizen.

Golder rightly concludes by pointing to the need for leadership on these pressing fiscal issues. We’ve gotten to this place largely because of a lack of political leadership. “Our leaders have to talk frankly about what needs to be done – programs that will be cut, individual sacrifices that will have to be made,” writes Golder.

Instead of statesmen we’ve been electing those who could bring home the most pork for their districts and constituencies, damn the consequences. That needs to change, and it begins in the renewal of leadership in other spheres of social life, including the family, business, charity, education, and so on.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My commentary this week is about the deeper truths of Ronald Reagan’s witness, words, and deeds. Reagan has been in the news a lot, and will continue to be as we approach his centennial birthday. A great place to visit for all things concerning the Reagan centennial is the Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library Centennial homepage. President Obama even weighed in on Reagan, heaping praise on the popular president in USA Today.

It’s essential to look at what makes his words and ideas so important today. In my piece, I wrote that “It’s not the policies that point to Reagan’s greatness but his principles. His ideas are timeless because they evoke deeper truths about man, his relationship to the state, and most importantly, his Creator.”

Admiration of Reagan by people of faith has always been a paradox to some. He was the only divorced president. Reagan hardly ever attended Sunday services during his presidency and Nancy Reagan was known to consult an astrologer. Despite the mocking, in all the years I’ve studied Reagan, it’s clear his faith was the bedrock of his life.

One of his deeper interests was the book of Revelation and biblical prophecy, a topic he also liked to discuss with Billy Graham. This points to his optimism and the very fact that his believed that God has a descriptive plan for mankind after this world. Reagan biographers tell stories of embarrassed aides looking on as evangelical pastors laid hands on him and prayed for Reagan as he was moved to tears.

The attempt on his life can’t be underestimated in terms of impacting his life and faith. After he was shot, he declared, “Whatever time I have left is for God.” The meetings with New York’s Terence Cardinal Cooke and Mother Theresa after the assassination attempt were very emotional events in his life. He has been described as a “man of incessant prayer” and his daughter Patti said if she wanted to draw her father out “she would talk about God.” There are just too many fascinating anecdotes for this post. A good book on the topic of his faith is Paul Kengor’s, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life.

I think it is true too that Reagan has almost been mythologized by many conservatives and proponents of limited government. Certainly, imperfections in his policies and character were evident and part of his history. I think the principles and the deeper truths of what he was communicating will always make his legacy enduring, especially as moral relativism becomes more pervasive.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Two more thoughtful reviews of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness are in. Ross Emmett says that, “those concerned about the role of the church in the world today can learn a lot by reading and reflecting on Ballor’s excellent critique of the ecumenical movement’s political economy.” And in the new issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, Thomas Sieger Derr agrees with Jordan that the ecumenical movement should be “appropriately circumspect in its ethical pronouncements on specific matters of public policy.”

And, on his blog, Hunter Baker (he’s a PowerBlogger, too) chats with Jordan about Babel. Here it is in full:

Baker: Writing a book is serious undertaking that requires a lot of motivation. What was it that inspired you to write Ecumenical Babel?

Ballor: A number of years ago I first became closely aware of the kinds of advocacy that was going on by officials at ecumenical organizations. In the meantime, while pursuing graduate work and various duties at the Acton Institute, I kept an eye on ecumenical affairs, and when the 2010 Uniting General Council of the soon-to-be-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was announced I had the idea to write something engaging the social teaching of the various ecumenical groups. The WCRC was going to be formed at a meeting here in Grand Rapids at Calvin College, so I thought that this was an event that was perfect for the launch of a project that would later become Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness. (The less-colorful working title was Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Engagement.) As I say in the book, given my denominational background, including my current membership in the Christian Reformed Church (a member denomination of the WCRC), I have a real theological as well as spiritual interest in ecumenism, which I believe is of utmost importance in contemporary Christian life. The real promise and challenge of authentic ecumenism is undermined to a great extent by the kinds of frivolous and downright irresponsible pronouncements coming out of the mainline ecumenical groups, and this is a tragic state of affairs that I feel needs some ongoing response. Building on a line of criticism I find in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ramsey, and Ernest Lefever, Ecumenical Babel is an opening statement in what I hope will be a renewed conversation.

Part of your argument, as I understand it, is a complaint against the practice of left-wing economics tied to the Christian faith. You would prefer that denominational confabs leave matters of economic policy undeclared and advert to prudence, instead. Is that a fair representation? And if so, does your book cut into the efforts of many Christian thinkers to encourage the integration of faith with a variety of fields?

It is a fair representation, provided that it is balanced with my similar discomfort at particularly right-wing economics coming from pulpits as well as denominational and ecumenical offices. What I hope is that my book interrupts the efforts of many Christians to bring their faith to bear on public life in a facile and superficial way. I do believe that the Christian faith is relevant for all of human life. It is a vigorous and comprehensive faith. As Jesus says, he has come that we may have life “to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). I take this to refer to the “bigness,” the comprehensiveness and complexity, of the Christian life in this fallen world. But it is typically not the case that there is a single Christian position on particular economic or political questions, and I find that there is all too often a kind of ideological imposition on the church and its social witness. This happens both on the left and the right, but in this case I focus particularly on the ecumenical movement where the problem is largely left-wing brands of economic and political ideology. Carl Trueman has written a book, Republocrat, that focuses on a rather different context, that is, socially and theologically conservative or confessional Presbyterianism in the United States, where he finds the problem to be an unduly close connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Insofar as our objects of critique are different (and indeed our sensibilities are rather different regarding the prudential questions of economic and politics), then our respective criticisms are on one level quite radically opposed. But this opposition is particularly in the application, not in the principle, which is that we both write against the ideological interpretation of the Christian faith along particular economic or political lines.

This book was published by the Acton Institute where you have worked for a number of years now. In a nutshell, can you make their case for “religion and liberty”? And can you tie that mission to your book’s message?

The focus of the Acton Institute is to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue. The thesis, you might say, is that true freedom is only possible and realized within the context of virtue, the kind of virtue you get from a biblical account of God and his creation. The two must go together; you don’t get lasting or vigorous freedom in society without a virtuous people, and you don’t get a virtuous people without the institutional and structural freedoms that minimally allow, and maximally promote, such virtue. My book’s message relates to this in that it engages a particular set of voices that undermines this rather tenuous balance that holds freedom and virtue in harmony. The mainline ecumenical movement has been advocating for decades now for a kind of social, political, and economic transformation that I think would have deleterious consequences, and they have done so in a way that overreaches the mandates and responsibilities of the Christian churches as institutions in social life. One of the founding motivations for the Acton Institute was to present religious leaders with some introduction to economic ideas, so that their proclamation of the Gospel might be informed by some familiarity with what is involved with entrepreneurship, vocation, and business. The recent statements of the mainline ecumenical movement display the kind of ignorance of economics and un-nuanced rejection of economic realities that the Acton Institute has been working to dispel for the last two decades.

Finally, this book is the first publication of a renewed Christian’s Library Press, which was purchased and put back to work by Acton. Why did Acton buy the press? And what are Acton’s plans for the press going forward?

The Acton Institute’s acquisition of Christian’s Library Press was part of the institute’s reception of the literary and intellectual estate of Lester DeKoster, who passed away in 2009. Along with DeKoster’s books, notes, and unpublished manuscripts, the Acton Institute became the steward, you might say, of the publishing imprint that DeKoster began with his friend Gerard Berghoef and their families in 1979. Over the following decades Christian’s Library Press put out a number of important and valuable books on stewardship, discipleship, and Christian leadership that got some significant, albeit limited, circulation in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. One of the things Acton is committed to doing with CLP is to update and bring some of these texts back into circulation, introducing some of them for the first time to the broader evangelical world. So, for instance, we published DeKoster’s book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in a second edition last year. This is a little book that captures well, in an accessible and popular way, a core understanding of the value of work and its meaning in the Christian life. Moving forward we have plans to expand the imprint as we make available some of the CLP backlist in new editions as well as publishing new books in the broad area of Protestant social thought.

Lord Acton: “There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success.”


Billy Graham says he “would have steered clear of politics”
By Chris Herlinger

New York, 25 January (ENInews)–American evangelist Billy Graham – who has been called “the pastor for presidents” for having met and prayed with every U.S. president in the last six decades, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama — has publicly acknowledged regret at sometimes crossing the line between ministry and politics.

In an online question and answer with the American evangelical magazine Christianity Today, Graham, 92, said he “would have steered clear of politics” – without specifically mentioning his friendship with the late Richard M. Nixon and defending the scandal-ridden president during the Watergate era.

Graham is also said to be close to former President George W. Bush.

Graham told the magazine in a 21 January web post: “I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to.”

“But looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now,” said Graham, who has rarely been in seen public in recent years due to his increasingly frail health.

Among those critical of Graham for his closeness to those in power, including Nixon, was the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In a 1969 essay, “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court,” Niebuhr warned that the “establishment religion” espoused by Graham risked becoming a vocation practiced by “high priests in the cult of complacency and self-sufficiency.”

“Perhaps those who accept invitations to preach in the White House should reflect on this,” Niebuhr wrote, “for they stand in danger of joining the same company.”

As for other regrets, Graham said in his q-and-a that he would have spent “more time at home with my family, and I’d study more and preach less.”

Asked about the success of the American and global evangelical movement, Graham said he was “grateful for the evangelical resurgence we’ve seen across the world in the last half-century or so. It truly has been God’s doing.”

But he warned that “success is always dangerous, and we need to be alert and avoid becoming the victims of our own success. Will we influence the world for Christ, or will the world influence us?”

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When we think of rule of law failure, countries like Zimbabwe and Somalia come to mind. But as Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg points out in his latest piece over at Public Discourse, rule of law can also be subtly eroded in wealthy countries. The negative consequences for risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and long term investment, he says, can be far-reaching.

Risk is an inherent part of the workings of market economies. But Gregg notes that’s not the same thing as uncertainty:

Measurable risks are . . . no deterrent to the making of economic choices. If we take them seriously, they help us to calibrate our economic choices to be consistent with our responsibilities, resources, and opportunities. The same measurements also allow us to distinguish between prudent risk takers and the reckless, and reward them appropriately. Uncertainty, by contrast, involves those risks that cannot be quantified. It can occur either because of the sheer complexity of a given situation or because the subject matter cannot be reasonably measured. As long as a situation of uncertainty persists, it will deter many people from even considering whether to take economic risks.

Uncertainty in America, according to Gregg, is being magnified by the sheer complexity of laws such as the United States Internal Revenue Code:

A tax code of this size and complexity which is subject to so many sources of potentially conflicting official and semi-official explanations is bound to embody significant contradictions, and offers considerable scope for arbitrary decision-making. Uncertainty is the result. It’s also valid to claim that the same tax code may well be impossible for large numbers of honest law-abiding citizens to understand and comply with—not to mention difficult for conscientious civil servants to administer justly. As a result, many people may unintentionally violate the law or simply choose to forgo making any number of potentially wealth-creating opportunities for fear of violating the law.

Another example is the thousands upon thousands of pages of legislation being passed by Congress every year. As Gregg writes:

Then there are the rule-of-law problems associated with the sheer volume of law that directly shapes American economic life. The 2010 healthcare reform legislation, for instance, amounted to 2,700 pages. Not far behind it in length was the 2010 financial overhaul act: a mere 2,300 pages. More than a few legislators have confessed to never having read either piece of legislation in its entirety. Nor should we assume any great familiarity on their part with the thousands of pages of legislation which these acts superseded, integrated, or reinterpreted. The possibility that many laws governing healthcare and financial services have subsequently been rendered unclear, inconsistent, and impossible to comprehend is high.

These erosions of rule of law, Gregg says, result in large incentives not to take risks and not to make long-term investments. It also encourages entrepreneurs to look elsewhere for a more friendly, stable and comprehensible legal environment.

Read the piece in its entirety at Public Discourse.

There was a good deal of discussion in the media over “unfair” executive compensation, especially in light of the bonuses, golden parachutes, and other forms of remuneration received by CEOs during the bailout.

I have yet to hear much complaint about CEOs being underpaid, though.

But this might change as it becomes apparent that under-compensation of executives might well be a way to wriggle out of higher payroll tax liability. Consider the case of CPA David Watson, who “incurred the wrath of the IRS by only paying himself $24,000 a year and declaring the rest of his take profit.” The Slashdot piece makes the compelling conceptual connection between Watson’s case and that of “the much ballyhooed $1 Executive club like Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt.”

The outcome of this? According to a WSJ overview of the Watson case, “Pay can vary—but it can’t be too low.”

I think if we follow the golden rule we’ll get a golden mean for the golden parachute so that it won’t strangle the golden goose.

I’ve issued a call for publication for a special issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality to appear in the Fall of 2011 (14.2). The details are below, and you can download and circulate a PDF as well.


Call for Publication: Modern Christian Social Thought

In recognition of a number of significant anniversaries occurring this year, the Journal of Markets & Morality invites submissions for a special theme issue, “Modern Christian Social Thought” (vol. 14, no. 2). The year 2011 marks the 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the encyclical from Leo XIII in 1891 that inaugurated the subsequent social encyclical tradition. 2011 also marks the 20th anniversary of John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, which was promulgated at the centenary of Rerum Novarum.

This year is also the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress in Amsterdam, which has become well-known as a representative of the trend of European social congresses in the last half of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries. Abraham Kuyper, the noted Dutch theologian and statesmen, gave the opening address at this First Social Congress, a speech that set the tone for addressing the “social question” in light of Christian ethical reflection.

In recognition of these important events and their bearing for the course of Christian social thought over the last century and beyond, the journal welcomes submissions focusing on aspects of social thought in the various traditions, both within the Reformed or Roman Catholic tradition as well as in comparative and constructive dialogue between the two. This issue will include a new translation of a selection by Abraham Kuyper. The journal also welcomes proposals for translation other important sources related to the issue’s theme that have not been widely available previously in English. We also welcome submissions focusing on social thought in other Christian traditions, particularly Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox, in the modern era (from roughly 1850 to today).

The special theme issue, “Modern Christian Social Thought,” will appear in the Fall of 2011, and article submissions must be received by August 1, 2011, in order to proceed through the review process in a timely manner.

Queries are welcomed, as are submissions by international scholars and graduate students.

Please direct all correspondence and submissions to:

Jordan J. Ballor
Executive Editor
Journal of Markets & Morality
jballor@acton.org

About the journal:

The Journal of Markets & Morality is a peer-reviewed academic journal published twice a year–in the Spring and Fall. The journal promotes intellectual exploration of the relationship between economics and morality from both social science and theological perspectives. It seeks to bring together theologians, philosophers, economists, and other scholars for dialogue concerning the morality of the marketplace.

Submission guidelines, subscription information, and digital archives are available at: http://www.marketsandmorality.com/