Posts tagged with: liberty

What do we mean when we talk about “liberty?”

roman-slaveWhile it may appear that we all use the word in the same way, closer examination reveals that Americans have a wide range of meanings for the term. For instance, when those of us at Acton refer to liberty we tend to have in mind the definition we use in our “core principles”: Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one’s nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought.

Other individuals and organizations often define the term in ways that differ, either subtly or radically, from the Acton Institute. Liberty, then, is less an easily definable term than a word used to refer to a range of loosely related concepts. Understanding how “liberty” has been used in the past can therefore help us understand how and why we have different views of it today.

A prime example is political historian Quentin Skinner’s explanation of “neo-Roman liberty.”
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Coolidge and pitching great Walter Johnson.

Coolidge and pitching great Walter Johnson.

Calvin Coolidge is ripe for national recognition and his wisdom is being sought out perhaps now more than ever. If you’re a voracious reader of commentary and columns you’ve noticed his common sense adages are being unearthed at a rapid pace. Most of the credit and recognition for the Coolidge revival goes to Amity Shlaes. Her newly released and splendid biography Coolidge can’t be recommended enough. (Full review on the PowerBlog forthcoming)

Coolidge was the last president to oversee federal budget surpluses for every year in office. He cut taxes and government while preaching the wisdom of the American Founders. He was dismissed by many intellectual contemporaries and most historians ignored him or discounted him as some sort of throwback that came to power by luck. A mere placeholder in between the more important Progressive and New Deal eras. But as our spending and debt crisis continues to spiral out of control, America is starving for economic heroes. There is so little courage in Washington to make the tough choices and address the crisis directly. The spending binge has become a mockery of America’s foundations and ideals.

However, This fiscal insanity, debt, and rapid centralization of power is magnifying Coolidge’s heroics. His words and deeds are really timeless though, and deeply rooted in America’s Founding. The principles and lessons only need to be put into practice. Below is a great excerpt from the introduction of Shlaes’s biography:

Our great presidential heroes have often been war leaders, generals, and commanders. That seems natural to us. The big personalities of some presidents have drawn attention, hostile or friendly: Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt. There are plenty of personal events in Coolidge’s life, many of them sad, but he was principally a man of work. Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism, harder to appreciate.

Benedict ResignsToday, Acton’s Rome office and the world were stunned by what the Dean of the College of Cardinals said was a “bolt out of the blue”: just after midday Benedict XVI informed the public that he would be stepping down as the Catholic Church’s pontiff and one of the world’s preeminent moral and spiritual leaders, effective on February 28. He will be the first pope to abdicate voluntarily the Seat of St. Peter in nearly 600 years. The last one to resign was Gregory XII in 1415 as part of deal to end the great Western Schism.

(You can read and listen to the latest reports issued by the Vatican Radio (also here and here) and the Catholic News Service of the US Bishops Conference).

Pope Benedict XVI, a disciplined, humble and soft-spoken German, is certainly not known for Roman caprice nor does he have a flare for the dramatic. Notwithstanding, he surprised us all in a brief statement issued in perfect Latin (translated below) at the end of a consistory held in the Apostolic Palace for causes of canonizations: (more…)

Gadsden_flag.svgAmerica, for the obvious reasons, holds strong ties to Europe. But it is a country that has primarily been associated with a distinctness and separation from the turmoil and practices of the continent. In his farewell address, George Washington famously warned Americans about remaining separate from European influence and declared, “History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Class strife, conflict, and instability already long characterized the European fabric at the time of the American Revolution. Likewise, many American colonists already thought of themselves as free and distinct before the revolt. At the time of the revolution, some 400 wealthy noble families controlled Great Britain. America had an aristocracy for sure, but it was much more merit based than Europe. It embodied a more egalitarian spirit, local communities were culturally connected and would have been suspicious of attempts at centralization. So obviously countless problems ignited and there was a fanning of flames when the Crown started making decrees and commands of the American colonists.

I have a copy of Sam Gregg’s Becoming Europe, which is next on my reading list. The recent calls for gun control and the curtailing of 2nd Amendment Rights out of Washington immediately reminded me more of the American – European divide. I’d point you to Gregg’s work for the formative economic study on our evolution towards European democratic socialism, but I want to make a few short observations on the topic, which might be beneficial to expand on after I read Becoming Europe. (more…)

Registration is now open for Acton University, planned for June 18-21, 2013. Courses for this year’s conference (subject to change) include Theology of Work, Social Entrepreneurship, Rise and Fall of the European Social Market, Fertility’s Impact on the World Economy, and Islam, Markets and the Free Society. (A full course listing can be seen here.)

If you’re new to Acton, or would like to share the Acton University experience with someone, please enjoy Acton Institute Presents: Acton University.

Jefferson_Memorial_StatueIf we asked many of our fellow Americans today “What is the purpose of government?,” undoubtedly, we might be barraged with some vexing or comical answers. But I’m not one to believe that a good deal of our citizens can’t answer this question quite intelligibly. Still, I don’t think it would be enough to embody a healthy republic. It is time for our country to ask these basic questions again. It seems as if the looming chaos of our current national mismanagement demands it.

It was a common belief among the American framers that the purpose of government is simply to secure our rights from God. Unfortunately, I think this is largely forgotten now. That much is evident, given the legislative demands we see today, especially in our nation’s capital. Government overreach is the rule, not the exception. Today we see action taken by the government more oriented toward curtailing our liberties. Instead of natural law, we are inundated with legal positivism, especially when characterized by executive orders contrary to our Constitution. Attacks on the Bill of Rights and the current attacks we are seeing on the 2nd Amendment, is really a fundamental argument against the idea of self-government. In his first Presidential Inaugural Address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson declared,

Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

The idea that humans can govern themselves was a radical notion in 1776. Jefferson eloquently stated,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .

President Ronald Reagan in 1981, would echo Jefferson’s articulation of self government in his Inaugural Address, while facing the monuments to America’s Founders:

From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

We as a people need to again ask those fundamental questions about our capability for self government. When it comes to the 2nd Amendment or the entirety of our Bill of Rights, should we trust a government that is already hedging and placing limits on trusting us, when in fact, it was entirely meant to be the other way around?

It’s that time of year: we’re making resolutions to get on the treadmill, join the gym, eat an apple every day. And yet, Americans are getting fatter and fatter. Is it the government’s fault? Dr. Jenna Robinson, at The Freeman, believes so. The food pyramid, farm subsidies: it’s all failing us.

In the 1990s, American women blindly gobbled up low-fat Snackwells desserts masquerading as sensible treats. After all, Snackwells cookies met government standards: they were low in fat and contained “safe” sugar. Parents send their kids to school assuming school lunch contains healthy fruits and vegetables—never stopping to ask what their kids are actually eating each day.

Government recommendations also dissuade private nutrition groups from attempting to compete with “official” advice. Consider Dr. Atkins’ critical reception when he wrote Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution; although a best-seller, it was panned by the nutrition establishment. The USDA’s Agricultural Resource Service still warns that the diet started out as a “gimmick” and hedges on whether it’s ultimately “worthwhile or worthless.”

Over the years, government recommendations have contributed to the replacement of lard with trans-fats (the latter of which are now considered deadly), the substitution of butter for margarine and back to butter again, and conflicting recommendations about eggs, orange juice, vitamins, certain types of fish, and the temperature at which it’s safe to eat meat. Is it any wonder that Americans are no closer to their health goals?
Blog author: rnothstine
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
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American soldiers on D-Day, June 1944.

American soldiers on D-Day, June 1944.

The history of America is filled with heroic tales of courage and sacrifice. At the outset of World War II, most of the world was under tyranny. Sixteen million Americans served the country during World War II. Four hundred thousand of those Americans died in the war. They made history at places like Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Salerno, Normandy, and the Ardennes. Most of the men who freed the world from Nazi and Imperialist Japanese aggression have now passed from this earth. But while almost 1,000 veterans of the conflict die a day, there are still about a million living in this country.

The “Honor Flight” documentary is an incredibly moving film about a few of these men from the Midwest. It captures American history and pride, and their trip to visit some of our nation’s monuments in Washington. And for many of them, this will be a last day of tribute that they will remember in their lives.

A recurring theme throughout the film is that many veterans did not talk about their experiences when they came home from the war. This fact was touched upon in a previous PowerBlog post about Marine veteran E.B. Sledge, who was a great writer and author of With the Old Breed. Admiral Chester Nimitz paid tribute to Americans like Sledge when he said of the men who took Iwo Jima, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Fortunately over the last couple of decades there have been a number of popular books, films, and new museums that have raised awareness of this war and its importance for liberty around the world for a new generation. There are great places like the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and the book and film Band of Brothers, which tells the riveting and heroic story of “Easy Company” and their combat experience in Europe. “Honor Flight” is another important tribute that raises the awareness of the heroics of many of these men and the sacrifices they made for America and the world.

The goal of the Honor Flight program is to help “every single veteran in America, willing and able of getting on a plane or a bus, visit their memorial.” Since it is at no cost to the veteran a lot of money has to be raised. This film touches on some of the monumental fundraising efforts that made this trip possible.

Featured in this film are the stories of Harvey Kurz, Orville Lemke, Julian Plaster, and Joe Demler. These are humble men. Almost humorously, the film features footage of Kurz, holding down a job and bagging groceries at his local Pick n’ Save. Kurz, of course, is probably at least in his late 80s. Demler, also known as “the human skeleton,” wasted away to 70 pounds in a German POW camp during the conflict.

What is so amazing about this film is the way it brings veterans and families together to reap so many memories and moments of joy. So many men are reunited and given a worthy and tremendous tribute. They share stories for the first time and take us back to a time when the world was at war and American blood was shed on the soil, beaches, skies, and oceans across the world. This film is worth seeing and while many have come before “Honor Flight” to give World War II veterans their due and tell their story, this is a reminder of just how many we are losing and that they are indeed “The Greatest Generation.”

Acton’s Director of Media, Michael Matheson Miller, discusses the current state of American thought on state, Church, family and liberty in Legatus Magazine. He focuses on the work of two Frenchmen: Alexis de Tocqueville and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Many of the differences can be boiled down to what we mean by community. Rousseau’s vision of community is what the sociologist Robert Nisbet called the “political community.” For Rousseau, the two main elements of society are the individual and the state. All other groups — including the Church — are viewed as inhibiting individual freedom and detracting from political community that is found in the state.

Tocqueville’s vision of community, on the other hand, is not reduced to the “political community” but instead means a wide variety of associations, different levels of groups, and layers of authority. Society is not made up of autonomous individuals and an omnicompetent state, but is a diverse group of overlapping associations like families, churches, schools, and mutual-aid societies.

Read “Community, liberty and freedom” in Legatus here.

Arabic icon of St. John of Damascus

Today (Dec. 4) is commemorated an important, though sometimes little-known, saint: St. John of Damascus. Not only is he important to Church history as a theologian, hymnographer, liturgist, and defender of Orthodoxy, but he is also important, I believe, to the history of liberty.

In a series of decrees from 726-729, the Roman (Byzantine) emperor Leo III the Isaurian declared that the making and veneration of religious icons, such as the one to the right, be banned as idolatrous and that all icons be removed from churches and destroyed. The Christian practice of making icons dates back to decorations of the catacombs in the early Church as well as illuminations in manuscripts of the Scriptures; indeed, many icons can be found in manuscripts of the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures and several icons have even been uncovered in the ruins of synagogues.

Naturally, most Christians of the time protested. Patriarch Germanos I of Constantinople was forced to resign and was replaced by Anastasios, who supported the emperor’s program. This began what is known as the iconoclastic controversy. It spanned over 100 years, and the iconoclasts in the Roman (Byzantine) empire martyred literally thousands of the Orthodox who peacefully resisted and destroyed countless works of sacred art that would be priceless today. Whatever one’s understanding of the place of icons in the Church today, this controversy was a clear abuse of government power that resulted in great tragedy. (more…)