Posts tagged with: civil society

Blog author: John MacDhubhain
posted by on Thursday, July 26, 2012

Last night, I went to see the newest “Batman” movie with my fellow Acton interns. I thought it was a great movie, and I recommend seeing it and reading Jordan Ballor’s review of it. I also want to echo some of the themes that Jordan discussed in his piece.

After the movie was done, it turned out that the people who had parked behind me were in need of a jump for their car. I didn’t know these people, but I did see that they needed help. And so I did something that people obsessed with government or with markets should think is impossible: I gave them a jump. No one forced me to do it. No one paid me to do it. I just did it, because it was the right thing to do.

The episode sort of represented many of the things that have been annoying me recently about my fellow libertarians (there may also be some guilty conservatives). I think they put far too much emphasis on having a market based solution to nearly every social problem. Yet giving someone a jump seems to defy traditional money-chasing impulses. There simply are things which we do not rely on a market to provide. (more…)

Don’t blame the culture wars for the recent debates about contraception, says Phillip W. De Vous in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Apr. 4), the real culprit is statism. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
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The Think Tanks and Civil Society Program at the University of Pennsylvania this morning released its “2011 Global Go To Think Tanks Rankings” and associated trends analysis. The full report will be posted here soon.

The Acton Institute was ranked No. 12 globally on the “Top Thirty Social Policy Think Tanks” (the same ranking as in the 2010 survey) and No. 39 on the “Top Fifty Think Tanks in the United States” ranking (up eight places).

James McGann, the director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, said the genesis of the rankings project “developed from a series of requests from donors and journalists to produce national, regional, and international lists of the preeminent think tanks. Our ongoing efforts with respect to the rankings are now defined by our drive to understand the role of think tanks in governments and civil societies globally, so that we can help to improve their capacity and performance.”

McGann said that the rankings process “relies on a shared definition of public policy research, analysis, and engagement organizations, a detailed set of selection criteria, and an increasingly open and transparent nomination and selection process. Particularly with this year’s improvements, we believe this process to have tremendous utility for think tanks, policymakers, donors, and the public. We are especially pleased with the increased participation from developing and BRICS countries, which allows us to bring special attention to the important work they are doing, often under a set of circumstances with a set of obstacles all their own.”

The BRIC countries include Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The number of think tanks operating out of these five countries increased by more than 100 percent between 2008 and 2011, from 419 to 985 think tanks, according to the report. China and India have the second and third most think tanks, respectively. In total, 425 think tanks are listed as based in China. The United States leads with 1,815.

Congratulations to the Washington-based Brookings Institution for earning the distinction of “Top Think Tank in the World” for 2011.

From Penn:

Launched in 2006, Penn’s “Global ‘Go-To Think Tank’ Rankings” annual report has become an authoritative source for the top public policy research institutes in the world. James G. McGann, assistant director of Penn’s International Relations Program, directs the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program at Penn. This year the report focuses on the rise of the G20 countries and the role of think tanks in the Arab Spring and other global trends.

This year’s ranking report is based on a 2011 worldwide survey of more than 1,500 policy makers, scholars, journalists, current and former think-tank executives, public and private donors, intergovernmental agencies and academic institutions. Approximately 5,300 think tanks were nominated for inclusion in 30 category rankings.

About the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program:

As part of the International Relations Program at the University of Pennsylvania, the TTCSP conducts research on the role policy institutes play in governments and civil societies around the world. TTCSP was established in 1989. TTCSP maintains a database and network of over 6500 think tanks in 213 countries. Often referred to as the “think tank’s think tank,” TTCSP examines the evolving role and character of public policy research organizations. Over the last 25 years, the Program has developed and led a series of global initiatives that have helped bridge the gap between knowledge and policy in critical policy areas such as international peace and security, globalization and governance, international economics, environment, information and society, poverty alleviation, and health. These international collaborative efforts are designed to establish regional and international networks of policy institutes and communities that improve policy making as well as strengthen democratic institutions and civil societies around the world. TTCSP works with leading scholars and practitioners from think tanks and universities in a variety of collaborative efforts and programs and maintains the world’s leading research database and directory of think tanks. TTCSP produces the annual Global Go-To Think Tank Index that ranks world’s leading think tanks with the help of a panel of over 1500 peer institutions and experts from the print and electronic media, academia, public and private donor institutions and policymakers.

Current events in India have left the country wrestling with an important question: What is civil society and what does it consist of? These are not easy questions to answer as definitions of civil society can greatly vary.

According to a story on the Wall Street Journal’s  India Real Time section, “…political demonstrators have demanded greater civil society involvement in the governing country…” While many throughout India are trying to define a civil society and who represents it, the Journal cited a definition by Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute:

Samuel Gregg, … notes that up to around the 18th century, the term “civil society” was used to distinguish the realm of the secular from the realm of the church, but then underwent a shift. India Real Time made a stab at defining the term “civil society” from his work as comprising those “intermediate associations” of society – academic, cultural, religious or charitable – that are separate from the family, and from the institutions of the state and the market. Mr. Gregg calls such associations “little platoons” that draw “people out of their immediate family without subsuming them into the state” and that have “the capacity to assist people to look towards those higher ends of truth, beauty, and the good.”

This definition effectively covers charities, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, civic associations like local Residents’ Welfare Associations, social movements, traders’ associations, social service initiatives, faith-based groups and so on.

Click here to read to full article.

Acton University has been full of thought provoking lectures and stimulating discussion. It is easy to see why the attendees wish the conference was much longer. There are many interesting lectures, one just wishes he or she could attend all of them.

Yesterday Dr. John Bolt, of Calvin Theological Seminary, taught a course titled “Centralization and Civil Society.” Bolt’s course paid special attention to Alexis de Tocqueville and his contributions to defining a civil society. As one can imagine, by bringing Tocqueville into his lecture, Bolt discussed the role of religion and the sense of community in the United States.

Bolt explained that America is self-reliant; however, this self-reliance didn’t come through reflection. The American people didn’t wake up one day and decide they wanted to be more self-reliant. Instead, Bolt explains that America’s self-reliance is habitual. Furthermore, Bolt discussed how Tocqueville demonstrated that America can afford to be self-reliant and individualistic because it was founded on Christian principles and that liberty exists in the United States because of religion and Christian principles.

The dinner lecture was a real treat last night. The Acton Institute has always promoted entrepreneurship and what it means to intertwine faith with entrepreneurship. A panel of successful entrepreneurs shared their insight on how business can promote the common good. Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children and Alliance for School Choice and chairman of the Windquest group, articulated how she finds joy in enterprises that make a difference in other people’s lives. She believes that enterprise is a vehicle we use and invest our God given talents in.

According to Mark Murray, president of Meijer, Inc., entrepreneurs need to be servant leaders. In order to succeed they must remain rooted in integrity. Murray explained how the values found in Christianity, such as humility, are not only applicable but needed in business. Furthermore, we are all created in the mage and likeness of God. We are called to use our God given gifts and express our creativity. Murray believes we put our talents and creativity to use through work, and the development of the human capacity is promoted through business.

Stewardship was highlighted by John Kennedy, president and CEO of Autocam. We are all temporary custodians of everything and have to do the best with the assets we are given. Furthermore, Kennedy said that we must remember people and employees are all assets and leaders must discover the gifts of their employees and how those gifts can most help the enterprise. Not only are employees assets, but so is capital. Entrepreneurs are called to be stewards of both their employees and capital and use all they are given to the fullest extent, and by doing this entrepreneurs demonstrate their appreciation for all God has given and blessed them with.

While there are flawed business leaders who are not examples of how businesses contribute to the common good, Acton University attendees witnessed what it really means to be called to entrepreneurship. When the calling of entrepreneurship is accepted and founded in Christian principles, the entrepreneur is a tool to create and promote the common good.

This week’s commentary by Rev. Gregory Jensen. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.

Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society

Privacy in our culture has come to serve not a deepening of community life but an ever deeper sense of social isolation.  Even otherwise laudable behavior is increasingly justified not by the goodness of what is done but by the modern sense of privacy.  Even among those who ought to know better, the Gospel is presented in terms that are almost wholly personal without any sense of its public character and demands.   Our sense of isolation from each other has become so profound that even to suggest that there is a human nature and that true happiness is only possible when we live in conformity to our nature, is seen a provocation and an assault on the radical autonomy of the individual.  

Paradoxically, when privacy is in the service of isolation it is also the source of what Peggy Noonan (The Eyes Have It) describes as our increasingly "exhibitionist culture."  She writes that more and more we "know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know.”  While technology has a role to play here, Noonan sees the cause as rooted in the loss of what I would call the right sense of personal privacy.  Lose this, Noonan says, and "we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God."  And with this loss comes as well the loss of a truly civil society.  "We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. “ 

Not that the modern sense of privacy is all bad.  Without privacy, without a door I can close (and the trust that you will respect that closed door) I cannot from time to time withdraw into solitude.  Rightly understood, privacy is the functional expression of solitude.

Solitude as a discipline of the spiritual life is both the antithesis and the cure for culture’s wild and destructive vacillations between isolation and exhibition.   Privacy serves, or rather should serve, those moments in my life when — like Jesus — I withdraw from the ebb and flow of daily life "to a quiet place" to pray (see Luke 9:10).  It is in these moments of recollection that I am able to restore myself and to re-evaluate and, if need be, correct how I go about meeting the myriad personal and professional demands of life.  And so just as privacy serves solitude, solitude in turn serves my wholesome involvement in the broader society.   

What critics, and even defenders, of the free market and democracy often forget is that both institutions are rooted in the solitude that privacy defends.   Neither social isolation — which sees my neighbor as a threat to my dignity — nor exhibitionism — which in the final analysis is merely another form of lust –is a sound anthropological foundation for a free market economy, democracy, or a civil society. So where ought we then to look?  

Rodney Stark (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) is correct when he argues that Western culture owes much of its success to Christianity in general and monastic life in particular.  Monasticism is a life of disciplined solitude in the service of community; it is also part of the shared cultural and spiritual patrimony of the Christian West and East.   As such it represents not only our best cultural self, it also can serve as a meeting place for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians as we work to respond to an increasingly secular and fragmented culture at home and the threats of Islamism worldwide. 

Though we need not ourselves be monks or nuns (though I think we do well to promote and encourage monastic life within our respective Christian communities), this should not stop us from seeing in monastic life a rich source of anthropological wisdom with which to respond to our culture’s deformed, and deforming, view of the relationship between the person and society.   Most importantly, among these is an inconvenient truth that even Christians are likely to overlook.   

Important as they are, economic activity, scientific research and even public policy shaped by the Gospel are insufficient.  True human freedom — personal and political — is a divine gift and so always outside our control.  Though he was not a monk, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), gives voice to a central monastic insight for our time.  In his monograph, “Prayer and Holiness,” he writes that, "The man who does not pray remains a slave, enclosed in the complex mechanisms of the natural world and of the movements of his own passions by which he is dominated even more than by the world outside."  Individualism and exhibitionism, to say nothing of the brutishness and violence that are common in all areas of contemporary culture, are the symptoms of our servitude.   

In response to this self-imposed slavery and for the sake of a truly humane and civil society, we must cultivate in ourselves a right sense of privacy and so of solitude and community life. Monasticism is a tangible sign that such a life of solitude and of civic engagement is possible. It reminds us as well that we must place our great material and cultural wealth and technological prowess at the service of something greater than our own comfort or economic success.  

Judith Dean, currently an international economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, has a worthwhile exploration of the relationship between Christian faith and economic research (HT). It’s up at the InterVarsity site for the Following Christ conference and is titled, “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research.”

There’s a lot of good, challenging, and insightful stuff here. As always, read it in full. But here’s a bit that’s especially incisive:

Especially for those working in government policy making bodies, there is a role for advocating change where policies are seen as creating results which are intolerable from the Christian standpoint, or where the economic system fails to address problems which a Christian cannot ignore. Large groups of such advocates already exist, quite often centered around specific issues. Though these groups may include economists, they are quite often made up of non-economists who care deeply about a particular problem (e.g. R. Sider, J. Wallis, and T. Campolo, who all have written about poverty issues). Some of these groups zealously advocate particular solutions to what they view as egregious injustices in the economy. Yet, lacking economic understanding, they fail to see that their proposals themselves are sometimes flawed.

Here the Christian economist’s expertise may be called upon to inform these “advocate groups” about the nature of the problem and the implications of different solutions. Many Christians want to be better informed in order to become better advocates. Yet they do no know where to go to get information. Sound economic reasoning which is made accessible to a non-professional audience is sorely needed. It is odd indeed that most contemporary Christian writing on economic issues for the general public is done by theologians or sociologists.

Note here the vigorous sense of Christian advocacy in the public square, and how it is to be informed by solid economic, social, and historical research. Note too that the advocacy described is generally not that which ought to be pursued by the institutional church, but by Christians organizing themselves organically in civil society.

As a theologian often writing on economic and public policy matters, I heartily endorse Dean’s call for more sustained, careful, and intentional engagement of Christian economists on these matters.

Read “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research” and leave a comment below.

For many Protestant Churches across the world, Sunday was a tribute to Martin Luther and the Reformation. October 31st marks the anniversary date when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. K. Konnie Kang of the Los Angeles Times, wrote a piece titled, “Protestants celebrate their heritage, the Reformation”. Kang also featured a quote that simply explains Protestant theology from the Rev. Nathan P. Feldmeth, who is a professor of medieval and Reformation history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Feldmeth declared:

“The Reformation was about the centrality of Christ in the life of the individual and centrality of the word of God in worship. At the heart of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith — meaning people are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by good deeds.”

Most people, at least those who are minimally knowledgeable of theology, understand basic Reformation theology. Some however, may not be aware of how the Protestant Reformation heavily influenced civil and religious liberty. I know it’s not taught in the public schools anymore, because I was never aware of this until I learned it on my own.

The pastor at the church I attended Sunday in Grand Rapids briefly talked about how the doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture alone) is directly related to the ideas and concept of the American Constitution. While Protestants interpret scripture through Christian tradition, for the reformers scripture trumps the decrees and councils of men. Likewise, for the American Founders at least, the U.S. Constitution is above any human official, elected or not.

Luther’s doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” also heavily influenced the emergence of representative democracy. In addition, the Presbyterian style of church government further set the stage for individual rights and liberties. Responsibility for the governance of the church is not just for the clergy , but laity as well. This model of church government, where elders serve as leaders can be contrasted with the episcopal style of church government, which better reflects a monarchy. King James I of Great Britain rightly predicted, “If bishops go, so will the king.” At its very heart, it expresses a belief that humans in their depravity cannot set themselves above the law of God, no matter their office.

When Martin Luther declared his “conscience was captive to the word of God” it had political repercussions. Luther’s protest showcased a primary debate about ultimate authority, and where this authority stems from. The legacy and impact of the Reformation directly affect our society today, especially in relation to government, human rights, and religious and political freedoms.

“Is American higher education doing its duty to prepare the next generation to keep America free?” Apparently not, according to researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy (UConnDPP), in a study commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s (ISI) National Civic Literacy Program.

In a survey of 14,000 freshman and seniors at 50 colleges and universities across the country, every school scored poorly. Also, college seniors, sadly, scored little better than freshman. The average senior score was a failing 53.2%; the average freshman score was 51.7%. In fact, no school scored higher than a D+. The top ten school are listed below:

1. Harvard University 69.56%
2. Grove City College (PA) 67.26
3. Washington & Lee University (VA) 66.98
4. Yale University 65.85
5. Brown University 65.64
6. University of Virginia 65.28
7. Wheaton College (IL) 64.98
8. University of Pennsylvania 63.49
9. Duke University 63.41
10. Bowdoin College (ME) 62.86

A link to the rankings of the fifty schools in the survey are found here. My alma mater, Ole Miss, scored 36th, and Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI ranked 21st.

Some shocking or not so shocking analysis is quoted below, directly taken from the American Civic Literacy Website. You can also examine the entire website for a treasure trove of facts, findings, and analysis.

Students were asked 60 multiple-choice questions to measure their knowledge in four subject areas: America’s history, government, international relations, and market economy. The disappointing results were published in the fall of 2006 in The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions.

The website declares, “This report is not designed to tear down American higher education, but to hold it accountable.” After taking the quiz myself, I scored a 93.33 %, which is 56 out of 60. You can take the quiz here, and see how you measure up against American college students.

In an appropriate quote also taken from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute website, John Quincy Adams, then a state senator, praised the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock:

Among the sentiments of most powerful operation upon the human heart, and most highly honorable to the human character, are those of veneration for our forefathers and of love for our posterity. They form the connecting links between the selfish and the social passions,” he said. “Respect for his ancestors excites in the breast of man, interest in their history, attachment to their characters, concern for their errors, involuntary pride in their virtues. Love for his posterity spurs him to exertion for their support, stimulates him to virtue for their example and fills him with the tenderest solicitude for their welfare.

I’m leaving tomorrow to attend the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and hosted at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The conference runs from July 8-14, and will “take a deeper look at topics such as spontaneous order, social development, and public choice, considering them in both a historical context and in light of issues today.”

Seminar faculty include Randy Barnett of Boston University (Law), Stephen Davies of Manchester Metropolitan University (History), Sandy Ikeda of SUNY-Purchase (Economics), David Schmidtz of the University of Arizona (Philosophy), and Jeremy Shearmur of the Australian National University (Philosophy).

I’ve been doing some prepatory reading over the last few weeks, as much as I could from the suggested readings for the seminar. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my experiences from the conference with the PowerBlog audience. Look for postings on a regular basis next week. I hope to have daily summaries for you.