Posts tagged with: America

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped “There is properly no history; only biography.” It’s a line that lends to exaggeration for effect but speaks to the centrality of narrative and story. One of the great books I had the pleasure of reading about in regards to our story of independence is Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. It was fascinating to read about how a group of men came together to defend their property, way of life, and community against the British Crown. Fischer does a good job at pointing out how many of the leaders of the skirmish on the roads to Lexington and Concord were Christian ministers. Ministers were often the most educated in a community and the colonists looked to them first for leadership, especially in a situation so grave where the taking up of arms was considered.

One of the experiences that shaped me deeply in my appreciation for this country was living overseas in Egypt. When you see deep subjugation of people and heartbreaking poverty it humbles you and helps you appreciate the opportunities and blessings freedom can provide. Right now, there is understandably a lot of uncertainty about the future of this country. This includes our massive debt, economic health, prosperity, and certainly the moral order. One of the things I think I try to articulate through some of my writing and talks here at Acton is the importance of getting back to first principles. It is something all of us here at Acton are intentional about focusing on in the work we do. A great example is our discussion about the budget and the proper role of government. It is evident that as government intrusion grows it becomes even more clear that politics and politicians are unable to solve our national ills.

In speaking about America and the story of America, another book that has had a tremendous impact on me and really is an essential story for thinking about what it means to be an American is When Hell Was in Session by Admiral Jeremiah Denton. For some, his story may appear to be one that has faded with time or was more important in a Cold War context. But as Christians know, while believers wouldn’t willingly choose suffering, there is something powerful that happens to us in Christ when we suffer. Denton suffered brutal beatings and mental anguish during his almost eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1965-1973. He had plenty of time to grow in his faith under his communist captors. Under those extreme circumstances, he also came to a deeper understanding about the foundations, ideals, and way of life he was defending as an American and why they were so valuable.

In the colonies during the Revolution a common cry was “There is no king, but King Jesus.” It was certainly a slap at the Crown, but it also showed the revolution was grounded in first principles and freedom flows from God and not from a monarchy, or human power. Scripture declares, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” It of course refers to spiritual liberty and not political liberty. It’s ultimately a majestic reminder that through trials, breakdown of society, and all of our national despair on display so well in Washington and across this land, that our hope and grounding is found in Christ.

Many of the men, many of them not unlike us, afraid for their future and the direction of their colony, nervously huddled together on the Lexington and Concord road with muskets in hand to deliver the “shot heard ’round the world.” They understood that spiritual truth and that God was their hope and anchor. Edward Mote summed up the situation we all face well when he penned the hymn “My Hope is Built.” His simple words: “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

In this week’s Acton Commentary I briefly survey the prospects for urban gardens and farming in the city of Detroit. As Aaron M. Renn wrote in New Geography a few years ago, Detroit represents one of the places where significant urban innovation is possible. “It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit,” writes Renn.

Detroit’s woes are well-known, and migration trends are working against the city. There’s a declining population coupled with declining property values, which equal significantly fewer resources for the city government. Detroit needs to find a way to embrace innovation and attract and retain its people.

In “Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again,” I argue that efforts to turn blighted and abandoned areas into arable and productive land is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. I also briefly touch on how these activities reflect the divine mark of creativity and stewardship placed on human beings. Urban agriculture is no panacea, but to become a vibrant city again, Detroit needs to become an urban garden.

There is some really striking visual evidence of the scale of the possible area that we’re talking about here. Visit Renn’s piece at New Geography for a good overview. Freelancer James D. Griffioen also has done some excellent work documenting trends in “the disappearing city.” (See his work here and here, for instance). You can also take the “Green Zone Walking Tour.”

The community garden at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit.


One of the threats to the many benefits of urban farming is government regulation that stifles such innovation. As Renn notes, this has recently not been a great issue in Detroit. He writes, “It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.”

Unfortunately there’s some evidence at least that this is precisely what might begin happening in the case of urban gardens. In the commentary I highlight the experience of Reit Schumack who is involved with Neighbors Building Brightmoor. New rules passed by the city are stopping some of the programs he’s done to engage students in gardening in open city lots. These rules also “include a ban on bringing in new soil or compost, unless the city grants lot-by-lot permission.” Practically this is disastrous for a burgeoning industry because now a farmer has to deal with the vagaries of an inept, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracy.

New soil is necessary in many cases, though, to fill up the raised beds that must be put up to grow things over vacant lots. As Cornelius Williams says, industrial waste and contamination of the soil can be a major problem, “so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we’re not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We’re growing in soil that we create ourselves.”

These new city rules would severely hamper farmers’ ability to create their own soil. Renn is right: “In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out.” He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. “In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.” Let’s hope that the government doesn’t ever get around to shutting down or stunting the growth of this nascent urban farming movement in Detroit. For more background on these broader questions, see volume 6.1 of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which has articles focusing on urban design, the “New Urbanism,” and a Controversy feature on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”

I also conclude the piece by quoting a classic funk jam from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Here’s that track in full:

United Methodist Salem OregonWe might need an update to the children’s rhyme: “Here is the church, / here is the steeple, / open the doors, / and see all the people.”

Before I got wrapped up in ongoing conversations here, there, and seemingly everywhere about the nation’s budget, I noted that the ripple effects from the economic downturn were beginning to hit churches in a serious way. Christianity Today passes along a piece that speaks to a much more particular phenomenon: the decline of church steeples in America.

There are a number of contributing factors. The economic downturn has affected giving, which has in turn forced churches to make hard decisions about maintenance. In other cases, churches that are most likely to have traditional buildings (including steeples), are losing membership. As Cathy Lynn Grossman writes, “Architects and church planners say today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.” Goodbye, steeple. Goodbye, people.

Some other interesting factors include the potential decline of steeplejacking as a profession. “It’s sad. I’m not doing the same thing my grandfather did. We used to do six to eight steeples a year—painting, repairing, waterproofing, regilding the crosses on top. Now I do one or two a year,” said third-generation steeplejack Jim Phelan. Other churches are leasing their steeple space to serve as cell phone towers, which can bring in tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Speaking of the budget debates, I have asserted the importance of Christian charity in relieving the burdens of the welfare state, and also have argued that the local church needs to be the primary locus of Christian giving. But I’ve also noted that even though Christian charity begins with the local church, it doesn’t end there. A discussion of this point, especially as related to the idea of tithing, is going on over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog.

A number of prominent evangelical leaders in America have issued a statement on the budget fights in the federal government. “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action. Signatories include Ron Sider of ESA, Gideon Strauss of CPJ, Richard Mouw, Michael Gerson, Shane Claiborne, Andy Crouch, and Jim Wallis.

Here are some initial thoughts:

There is very little principle in this statement, which purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” The basic principle communicated is: “We ought to care for the poor because God does.” This is of course laudable and true, as is the commitment to “intergenerational justice,” as long as that is defined as not living today on the backs of the unborn and not code for something else.

But the rest really just consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care. To wit: “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Given the current state of affairs, which the statement acknowledges is a “crisis,” I don’t think it is helpful to energize the grassroots to petition to save particular programs from scrutiny and reform. Things are so bad that everything should be on the table. The situation is not an either/or between social spending and military spending, as Claiborne and Wallis would have it. It’s a both/and, and that includes entitlements.

Which brings me to my next point: There isn’t nearly enough in here about entitlement reform. Social Security must become “sustainable,” but there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the real drivers of huge swaths of our national debt. Non-discretionary spending needs to be scrutinized.

But that’s not all. This call wants to place “effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health” out of bounds. The fact is that many of these programs are busted, and I think it is disingenuous for those who know that to say that we have some kind of moral obligation to keep throwing good money after bad simply out of some vague concern for “the poor.” That is more like a salve for guilty consciences than responsible social action.

The language of the statement doesn’t seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don’t care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.

So what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on. Once we’ve decided what government is for you can start to make some principled decisions about funding priorities…things closest to the core mission of government should get the highest priority, and so on.

And the focus really shouldn’t just be on what government should and shouldn’t do. Many of these leaders are religious leaders. The focus should be on what these other institutions can and should be doing, beyond simply serving as lobbying organizations for governmental programs.

I guess, needless to say, I won’t be signing.

Another election has come and gone, and once again the balance of power has significantly shifted in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across America.  Tuesday’s results are, I suppose, a win for fans of limited government, in that a Republican House of Representatives will make it more difficult for President Obama and his Democrat colleagues in the Congress to enact more of what has been a very statist agenda.  But even with the prospect of divided government on the horizon, we who believe in individual liberty and the principles of classical liberalism still have much to be concerned with.  Perhaps the primary concern is whether or not those Republicans who were swept into office—not due to any real love of the electorate for the Republican Party, but rather due to anxiety over the direction the Democrats have taken the country—will be able to hold to the principles of limited government and individual liberty that so many of them claimed to espouse during the campaign, or whether those principles will be abandoned in a mad pursuit of power.  Forefront in the mind of every lover of liberty should be Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

My sincere hope is that with Americans deeply dissatisfied with both major political parties and finding that the government is either unable or unwilling to solve the major fiscal and social problems that we face, people will begin to re-think their basic assumptions about the role of government in American life.  For decades, the default assumption has been that the government is a force for good and can be a driver of positive social change.   Witness Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, etc.  All of these programs were designed by experts to alleviate some pressing social need, and were assumed to be the right thing to do.  After all, who wouldn’t want to help the poor and elderly to live a fuller, better life?  And yet, as the years went by, all of these programs—though well-intentioned by their creators—have failed to achieve their lofty goals.  The Social Security “trust fund” is devoid of funds and packed with IOUs left by politicians who, over the years, have spent the money promised to seniors on other programs.  Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs have warped the economics of health care, paying doctors less and less and therefore driving up the cost of private insurance in order to make up the difference.  Obamacare is little more than an attempt by the government to solve a cost crisis—created in large part by government intervention—with even more extensive government intervention into the market.  We already know how that story ends.  And as for the Great Society and the War on Poverty, trillions of dollars over the years simply failed to alleviate poverty in America, and in many cases only created deeper, more entrenched social problems.

It is clear by now to anyone who cares to look that massive government intervention into society tends to do more harm than good, no matter how well intentioned the interventionists are.  Government has its place—no arguments for anarchy are to be found here—but the government must be limited to its proper place.  The genius of the American founding came in the limitation of the national government to certain enumerated functions, leaving the people at liberty to take care of the rest of life as they saw fit.  The respect for individual liberty and the acknowledgement that the rights of citizens were not granted by the state but were granted to individuals by God himself provided a firm foundation for the vibrant growth and strength of the United States in the coming centuries.  As a people, we need to realize that the further we move away from those founding principles and the more we cede our liberty to governmental agents in return for a promise of security, the less likely it is that we will remain strong, vibrant, and free.

At the Acton Institute 20th Anniversary Celebration, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico reminded us of the roots of human dignity and the importance of individual liberty during his keynote address:

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The title of this post borrows from a phrase I employ in the conclusion of tomorrow’s Acton Commentary on the prospects for austerity in America after today’s mid-term elections. (I can’t claim to have coined the term, since about 4,270 other instances of the phrase show up in a Google search, but I like it nonetheless.)

Today I’ll simply highlight a few of the relevant stories that I’ve noted on this theme over recent weeks and months.

As Samuelson notes, austerity is by its very nature unpopular. Speaking of the dilemma facing governments, he writes, “Without unpopular spending cuts and tax increases, unmanageable deficits may choke their economies.”

Tomorrow I’ll discuss the treatment of austerity as a leitmotif in the writings of Paul Krugman, who most recently dubbed austerity proponents “moralizers.” The significance of this will be made more clear tomorrow in relation to my commentary, “‘A’ for Austerity: The New Scarlet Letter.”

Acton podcast host Marc Vander Maas was joined by John Pinheiro, Jordan Ballor, and myself to discuss the issue of American Exceptionalism. Click on the link below to listen:

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There has been quite the uptick regarding the topic because of fears that America has lost its greatness. “America’s Destiny Must Be Freedom,” is a commentary I penned in June related to that fear, as well as an overview of America’s freedom narrative. I also hosted an Acton on Tap on American Exceptionalism last August. I addressed the history of the theological roots, the different strains of thought related to American Exceptionalism, and the debate today.

After you listen to the podcast, check out the links below for additional resources related to American Exceptionalism. The sources offer a diversity of thought on the subject.

Acton’s Research Director in the American Spectator:

Europe’s Broken Economies

By Samuel Gregg

During September this year, much of Europe descended into mild chaos. Millions of Spaniards and French went on strike (following, of course, their return from six weeks vacation) against austerity measures introduced by their governments. Across the continent, there are deepening concerns about possible sovereign-debt defaults, stubbornly-high unemployment, Ireland’s renewed banking woes, and the resurgence of right-wing populist parties (often peddling left-wing economic ideas). Indeed, the palpable sense of crisis left many wondering if some European economies have entered a period of chronic decline — one which might eventually reduce Europe to being a bit-player on the world stage.

Obviously we should avoid over-simplification. In Germany and Sweden, for instance, unemployment is declining while economic growth and exports are rising. Not coincidentally, both countries have implemented significant economic reforms over the past ten years. To the audible disappointment of the world’s left-wingers, Sweden is no longer Social Democracy’s poster-child.

Nor can Europe’s present woes be explained in mono-causal terms. Like America, property-bubbles and over-leveraged financial industries played a role in some countries’ meltdowns. But not every European nation presently enduring economic hardship experienced banking crises on the scale experienced by Ireland and Britain.

It will be decades before economists and historians completely diagnose what’s happened to Europe’s economies since 2008. Many, however, will likely conclude that many European countries’ economic culture helped them lurch into seemingly unending crisis.

“Culture” is one of those heavily over-used words. But in sociological and historical terms, “culture” is a way of describing, among other things, the approach to life, the values emphasized, attitudes toward work, the understanding of law, and ultimately the view of science, the arts and religion prevailing in a given society. Over time, these form a type of inheritance that can remain relatively stable in particular historical settings over several generations. (more…)

President Calvin Coolidge called Francis Asbury a “prophet in the wilderness.” He has also been called “the bishop on horseback” and “the prophet of the long road” for his prolific treks across the American frontier.

Francis Asbury statue in Wilmore, Kentucky

The Methodist bishop who was born on August 20, 1745, was the architect of the American Methodist movement. The denomination grew from a few hundred upon his arrival to over 200,000 members at the time of his death. At his death in 1816, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest U.S. denomination. To here about his unique work ethic and more biographic information check out this Acton PowerBlog post in our archives.

When Asbury left England for the colonies he never saw his parents again. Asbury would witness the American Revolution and played a pivotal role in the Second Great Awakening. He joined America’s Westward Expansion by horseback so that none would go without hearing the Good News of Christ. While sailing to the American colonies in 1771 Asbury wrote in his journal:

I will set down a few things that lie on my mind. Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honour? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others so to do.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 13, 2010

You often hear that Europe is much more secular than America. Just take a look at the Netherlands, for instance. How much more secular can you get?

But one place in which this stereotype rings false is in terms of academic institutions. You can pursue (as I currently am) a degree in theology at a European public university. Can you imagine that in the United States?

No, here we have departments of “religious studies” in public colleges and universities (if we cover religion there at all, and to be sure, “theology” and “religion” aren’t identical). My friend Hunter Baker might point to this difference not as secularism in a strict sense, but rather an institutional separation between state and church (for more on his definition of secularism, check out his book, The End of Secularism).

And thus from accounts of the institutional differences between the academic study of religion and theological study in America, you might easily get the impression of a kind of intellectual or academic secularism. After all, to study theology in America, you have to go to a private college or seminary (as I also am currently doing). This perspective from the Chronicle of Higher Education is representative, “The Ethics of Being a Theologian,” in which K.L. Noll writes, in part,

I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.

Meanwhile, in secular Europe, as ENI’s Stephen Brown reports, “European theology faculties warn of shift to religious studies.” Read the rest of Brown’s story after the break.
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