This week, Acton’s research director Samuel Gregg appeared on EWTN’s The Abundant Life for an interview titled, “Socialism: Threat to Freedom.” In the course of an hour, he discusses the philosophical origins of socialism, its various manifestations, and the manner in which its modern expressions are slowly eroding our liberties in America and Western Europe. The interview, conducted by Johnnette Benkovic, may be found at The Abundant Life’s Web site.
Riffing off of Lord Acton’s quote on liberty and good government, I came up with an analogy that was well-received at last month’s inaugural Acton on Tap.
In his essay, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Acton said the following:
Now Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together; but they do not necessarily go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
I tried to think of an image or analogy that captured what Acton meant by “good government.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I came up with a sports analogy.
Fans of various sports, basketball for instance, know that the best games are typically the ones in which you do not notice the referees. Yes, the referees are there, making calls when appropriate. But they do not become the center of attention. They are not the ones putting the ball in the hoop. They are not making a spectacle of themselves. They go about their duties and are at their best when they are not noticed. The referees are not the center of attention; instead, the focus is on the players and the game.
In this analogy, good government is like the referee that calls a fair game and does so in a way that does not produce a slanted playing field, or favor one team over the other. Good government is at its best when it is not the focus and is not grandstanding for attention.
Keep that in mind over the next month while you’re watching the NCAA tournament (and hopefully watching the seemingly-perennial Final Four run from the Michigan State Spartans, this year’s Big 10 co-champs). And be sure to mark your calendars for the next Acton on Tap, Tuesday, March 31, featuring Rudy Carrasco.
The topic for the evening will be “The End of Liberty” and will draw on Lord Acton’s claims about the relationship between politics and liberty. Discussion leader Jordan Ballor, associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, will start it off by briefly discussing how politics and liberty relate to human beings’ greatest ends.
Here’s some Food for Thought from Lord Acton: Liberty and good government do not exclude each other, and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.
Where: Derby Station (formerly Graydon’s Crossing). 2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506. (Thursday special: $2.50 pints). No admission fee or registration required.
When: Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6:00 p.m. (casual start). 6:30 p.m.: Jordan speaks!
About Jordan Ballor:
He graduated in 2004 with a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in systematic theology from Calvin, with a thesis entitled, “Barth, Brunner, and Natural Theology in Bonhoeffer’s Middle Period (1931-1939).” His previous degrees include a Master of Theological Studies (2004-Calvin Theological Seminary) and a Bachelor of Arts in English (2000-Michigan State University/Honors College).
Jordan serves as associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. His scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC).
Revive is a word commonly associated with the efforts that paramedics and other medical personnel make when someone has stopped breathing. Whether that’s due to slipping beneath the pond ice or being pulled under by a nasty California rip tide, the consequences of inaction will be fatal.
So it’s an appropriate word for Hillsdale College to use in titling their townhall last Saturday – “Reviving The Constitution” – that was broadcast online from the Michigan college’s Washington D.C. annex, The Kirby Center.
A hat tip for their extraordinary effort.
“Through teaching the principles and practices of American constitutionalism,” Hillsdale’s Kirby Center “seeks to inspire all Americans to act worthy of the blessings of liberty.” And that’s a needed ingredient these days if our body politic is to avoid what can seem like its last gasps amid the Obama presidency.
The online presentation coincided with so many parallel themes that The ACTON Institute supports that I will not recite them here. But as a student who lived during the years following WWII and graduated from the kind of schools most Americans attend I will tell you that some of the information presented on Saturday shocked me. Nothing more so than the history of The Progressive Movement in America and the extent to which their heresy has permeated our civic life since the early parts of the last century.
Whether it’s Woodrow Wilson’s claim that Thomas Jefferson’s words in The Declaration of Independence, “and of Nature’s God” was an afterthought; or Wilson’s plea that “All progressives ask or desire… is … to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; [and the] recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine,” and “accountable,” according to Wilson, “to Darwin, not to Newton” – there is no denying that the 28th President was a man other than what’s advertised in the tomes of Houghton-Mifflin that sit in the classrooms of almost all the public schools in this nation. The “reader” that Hillsdale supplies participants to the townhall made that most clear.
It’s not hard to see how Wilson’s contortion, blended with a rejection of Newton’s “laws” became for theologians what we have experienced as the “living” Bible; and the Relativism that has taken places like Wilson’s Princeton University, originally founded as a divinity training ground for the country, and mainline Christian churches; and planted the seeds for our nation’s institutional collapse. The result: we’re currently living with a country on life support.
But there’s a plan at work. And like anything involving individual freedom, it will take our individual efforts. It’s like the verse from Luke 4:23 “And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.”
I strongly suggest you thoroughly review the five lectures and Q&A sessions. The message Hillsdale College is sending and our continued efforts at ACTON will save your civic soul.
As we begin the New Year, I find myself thinking about books that fill the conservative armamentarium for resisting the left-liberal onslaught on the past handful of years. I’ve omitted some categories, like military and foreign policy, because they are outside my areas of expertise and don’t apply as much to the Acton mission, anyway. Here are my recommendations:
Common Sense Economics by James Gwartney, Richard Stroup, and Dwight Lee — Dr. Gwartney taught the first economics class I ever took as a university student and made a permanent impression. Socialism has looked like wishing-makes-it-so madness ever since I sat under the powerfully logical lectures of this confident professor.
The Role of Government:
Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics by P.J. O’Rourke — Though this book is billed as an economics book, I think of it as having broader philosophical and practical lessons to teach about the way government works in healthy societies and how it creates pathology in unhealthy ones. It has the trademark O’Rourke humor, but the moral of the story is deadly serious.
Bi-Partisan Hope (if such a thing exists):
Re-Inventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler — One of the worst parts of the decline of the New Democrat movement in America is that it took the kind of thinking in Re-Inventing Government with it. The authors argue that government is not very good at actually, you know, doing stuff. It would be better for the government to privatize as much as possible and take advantage of market incentives where it can. The central insight, which I love, is that the age of monolithic government bureaucracies should quickly pass in favor of lean government which focuses on entrepreneurial policy where it makes sense for government to intervene. The logic of Re-Inventing Government could easily support new ideas about public schooling where government might fund education, but wouldn’t have to run schools.
The Party of Death by Ramesh Ponnuru — The author documents the slide of the American left into an almost soulless devotion to abortion laissez faire and an accompanying disinterest in maintaining the sanctity of life in other areas. This book did not get the attention it deserved in a year dominated by news about Iraq. Ponnuru is one of the most articulate and rhetorically powerful defenders of the sanctity of life writing during the last ten years.
Religion and Money:
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem by Jay Richards — Evangelicals, especially younger evangelicals, have been increasingly squishy on free-market economics of late. This has been so much so that different organizations, like the Acton Institute, Heritage, and AEI have undertaken initiatives to reach out to them on matters of economic policy. Jay Richards (a think tank vet of Discovery, Acton, and Heritage) has written a book tailor-made for this audience. I’ve had the privilege of hearing him discuss these matters and he is highly persuasive.
Christianity and Whatever Historical Awfulness You Care to Name:
God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark — Stark is legendary in my old grad program for once telling a socialist student “Listen to me. Marx is doo-doo.” In this book, he takes on the old and busted claim that the Crusades were a purely evil enterprise. I recommend this one because it is his latest, but he has written several other fantastic volumes on the intersection of faith, history, and society. For the Glory of God is particularly notable.
*Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism.
It’s not too late to order The Call of the Entrepreneur and The Birth of Freedom for stocking stuffers. An eye-opening report by Patrick Courrielche at Big Hollywood makes for a fine motivator. Some excerpts:
Enter Howard Zinn – an author, professor and American historian – who, with the help of Hollywood and the History Channel, intends to change the way our pre-K through high school children learn American history [beginning with “a new documentary, entitled The People Speak, to be aired December 13th at 8pm on the History Channel.”]. …
Zinn has spent a lifetime teaching college students about the evils of capitalism, the promise of Marxism, and his version of American history – a history that has, in his view, been kept from students. …
Perhaps due to their one-sided perspective of America’s past, Zinn’s history books have largely been limited to colleges and universities, until now. In the press release announcing the broadcast, HISTORY introduced a partnership with VOICES Of A People’s History Of The United States, a nonprofit led by Zinn that bares the same name as his companion book, to help get his special brand of history into classrooms. …
Brian Jones, a New York teacher and actor, is a board member of VOICES and has also played the lead in Zinn’s play Marx in SoHo. … he extols the benefits of this one man play as a tool to introduce people to Marx’s ideas….
Jones is also a regular contributor to Socialist Worker, International Socialist Review, and speaks regularly on the beneficial principles of Marxism, including this year at the 2009 Socialism Conference. He recently gave a speech on the failure of capitalism, proclaiming that “Marx is back.”
Sarah Knopp, a Los Angeles high school teacher, is also on Zinn’s Teacher Advisory Board. Like Jones, Knopp is also a regular contributor to International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, is an active member in The International Socialist Organization, and was also a speaker at the 2009 Socialist Conference. …
Then there is Jesse Sharkey, a schoolteacher in Chicago. Sharkey is another of Zinn’s Teacher Advisory Board Members and … a contributor to— Socialist Worker.
This is the group that the History Channel is working with “to develop enhanced, co-branded curriculums for a countrywide educational initiative.” …
I am not advocating that we spare our kids the harsh truths of American history, but I am suggesting, given Zinn’s far-left political affiliation, this project is designed to breakdown our vulnerable children’s views of American principles so that they can be built back up in a socialist vision. …
It is not surprising to me that there are groups sympathetic to Marx’s ideas throughout our country. What is surprising is that the most powerful persuasion machine in the world (Hollywood) and the History Channel would provide Zinn such a prominent soapbox to stealthily build a case for a destructive ideology to our children, and as a result mainstream his ideas with the magic of cool music, graphics, and celebrity. Groups that push Marx’s philosophy are like a virtual organism that will not die off even when stung by the undeniable historical evidence showing human behavior makes such a system unsustainable. If we let this virtual organism into our grade schools, it will take decades for our kids to unlearn the ideology.
… When a reporter asked Zinn, “In writing A People’s History, what were you calling for? A quiet revolution?” Zinn responded: “A quiet revolution is a good way of putting it. From the bottom up. Not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives. It would be a democratic socialism.”
Counter bad documentaries with good ones. And if you want to do more at this gift-giving time of the year, consider helping the Acton Institute in its ongoing struggle to promote the free and virtuous society.
Machiavelli’s succinct and semi-diabolical advice to the prince is one of the most enduring works of political philosophy in the world. This man, writing in a time roughly contemporaneous with the Reformation, was less concerned with seeking the will of God than with winning at all costs. I wrote about him in my book The End of Secularism.
He is famous for advising the prince that it is important to appear honest, humane, religious, faithful, and charitable, but that it is equally important the prince be ready to abandon any of those attributes when opportunity presents itself. The prince should not worry about whether he will gain a bad reputation for deception, because, as Machiavelli suggests, there are always ordinary people willing to be deceived and the world is FULL of ordinary people.
The primary thrust of the book is advice about how to gain principalities and to maintain control of them. Many things work to a prince’s advantage, such as traditions of servitude and customs that reinforce the reign of a prince. But there is one thing that puts sand in the princely engine and grinds things to a halt. That thing is a tradition of liberty. If a people are accustomed to liberty, Machiavelli writes, then they will never stop trying to regain it. Even if they haven’t had it for a hundred years, the ancestral memory of liberty will be overpoweringly strong. It may be so strong that no manipulative device of the prince will be able to defeat it and he may have no other option than to destroy such a city.
Might I suggest to you that on Tuesday night we saw Americans in New Jersey and Virginia issue notice that they are not prepared to trade their liberty for hyper-statism and that they are not ready to become Europeans, always more subservient to the state than we have been, instead of free citizens of a great republic? The tradition of liberty is one of the greatest weapons we have in this struggle.
When William F. Buckley thought about the possible triumph of the United States in the Cold War, he imagined that American children would someday be thankful that “the blood of their fathers ran strong.” Let our blood, too, run strong with the cherished memory of our past and present liberty.
In connection with the worldwide celebrations of the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009, the Acton Institute BookShoppe recently made available a limited stock of the hard-to-find Light for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty (Eerdmans, 2004). In this brief and accessible work, Lester DeKoster examines the interaction between the Word proclaimed and the development of Western civilization.
“Preached from off the pulpits for which the Church is divinely made and sustained, God’s biblical Word takes incarnation in human selves and behavior, creating the community long known in the West as the City. Calvinist pulpits implanted the Word even now flourishing in the great democratic achievements of the Western world,” argues DeKoster.
And in the wake of Reformation Day this past weekend, check out some reflections at Mere Comments, which include even more recommended sources for study of the Reformation.
Finally, while it’s often the case that the blogosphere breaks news before the official announcements are made, I can report that the Meeter Center’s Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL) is now publicly available. The PRDL is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly initiatives, and corporate documentation projects.
The PRDL editorial board includes representatives from institutions from North America and Europe: Dr. Richard A. Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary); Jordan J. Ballor (University of Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester (Calvin Theological Seminary); Lugene Schemper (ex officio/Calvin College & Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton Theological Seminary).
Several writers have exposed the alarming decay of important military history programs on college campuses. Two great articles worthy of mention are John J. Miller’s “Sounding Taps” and Justin Ewers “Why Don’t More Colleges Teach Military History?” David J. Koon at The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy has contributed an important piece titled “Retreat, But No Surrender for Military History,” which takes the view that military history might be poised for a comeback. Koon explains:
Just as surrender seemed imminent, military history has gathered unconventional reinforcements—less well-known colleges and, of all things, war and violence. These, along with broad student interest and an academy that now listens when military historians speak, may have positioned military history to climb out of the trenches and regain the field.
In his article I was glad to see him quote Dr. Andrew Wiest of the University of Southern Mississippi. I had the privilege of sitting in on a few of Dr. Wiest’s classes on Vietnam during a trip to Hattiesburg, Miss. a few years ago. One of things I really enjoyed is that he brought in veterans of that conflict to tell their stories. On the PowerBlog I have often made contributions on the important relationship between the U.S. Armed Forces and the strong tie to liberty. Additionally, I have told the faith stories of courageous veterans like Robinson Risner and Donovan Campbell.
The story of America and its freedom is intertwined with our first defenders, the farmers, merchants, and even clergy who took up arms in defense of liberty on the road to Lexington and Concord. Indeed, continued study of military history is important in a free and virtuous society.
Commemorating America’s independence, the people at the rally were treated to a recitation of the Declaration of Independence, a lesson in the history of American liberty, and the reading of a letter from an auto dealer shut down as part of the government’s bailout of the big three carmakers. I spoke on behalf of the Acton Institute about the balance between virtue and limited government.
Virtue makes limited government possible. There is evil in the world and there is good that needs to be done. We have governments to make it possible for us to live together, and we do need the law to protect us from chaos, but we are able to live free of tyranny because virtue tells us to live up to our responsibilities.
Aristotle once said, “I have gained this by philosophy: to do without being commanded that which others do only from fear of the law.” Philosophia means the love of wisdom. When put into practice, this is virtue. Virtue lets us care for our families and neighbors, respect the wellbeing of other people, and live within our means without being forced to do so by the law.
Virtue is a potent force. The more that we are virtuous, the more we can be free. Limiting government from an institutional angle might be difficult for the time being due to politics. We can take actions now, though, that limit the need for government by doing good, avoiding evil, and encouraging others to do the same.
If we can do that, then America can see another 234 years of being known as the land of the free and the home of the brave, the just, the virtuous.