Posts tagged with: politics

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
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I was asked for my initial reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the handsomely redesigned Think Christian posted them last night, “Jobs, Steve Jobs, and the State of the Union.”

As I point out, the president’s protectionist posturing is belied by the realities experienced by companies like Apple. The president is essentially telling companies: Ask not what you can do for your company, but what your company can do for America. My contention is that “in casting global trade in terms of a simple win/lose proposition, the president missed a wonderful opportunity to show that Americans need not be made better off at the expense of other countries.”

The president also provided the latest instance of the yearly bi-partisan political ritual, in which the commander-in-chief is transformed into the cheerleader-in-chief, praising the American dream to high heaven and extolling the virtues of the American work ethic. The state of our union is always strong, it seems. “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win,” said the president. He also claimed the priority of “the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”

That the government’s attempts to underwrite this promise has played a large role in putting us in the dire fiscal straits we face today was a concern absent from the president’s speech. That the biggest threat to continued flourishing in this country is a spendthrift federal government continues to be ignored, while more and more promises about what government can and must do are made.

Anyone who would put foreigners to work is unpatriotic, it seems. Anyone who would point out the very real problems facing America are equally erroneous: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says the president.

Mark Twain said that patriotism is “supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” And as Christians, we know that our ultimate purpose is not to promote our own individual (or national) interests at the expense of others. A government that uses trade and tax policies as a club to bring other nation’s to heel is little deserving of support.

Perhaps the best way we can support our country in this time of trial is to call our governmental leaders to account. As the president’s speech also made clear, we are entering the prime time of election season, and there’s no better way to hold politicians accountable than at the polls.

Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, has launched a new Center for Leadership which university alumnus Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., lauds as a project that “roots young men and women in virtue, forms them as leaders, and grounds them in sound philosophical thought.”

David Schmiesing, who directs the center and is also vice president of student life at Steubenville, said, “This is our most explicit and focused effort yet to train leaders for the Church and world.”

One of the resources provided to students through the Center is the university’s distinguished speakers series with the likes of Virtuous Leadership author Alexandre Havard and Acton Institute president and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico, who is on the center’s board of advisors. Rev. Sirico spoke there on character, virtue, competence and vocation.

From the article by NCR writer Joseph Pronechen:

“We have a chance to speak with and meet with different distinguished speakers who have been all around the world studying incredible things,” said leadership student Camille Mica. “Getting the opportunity to talk with these speakers with such incredible credentials, I’ve learned a lot from them and been very encouraged and strengthened by their words and message and example.”

Though the leadership center will have a global outlook, Schmiesing noted that, ultimately, all leadership is local.

“If Catholic leaders don’t lead in their families, then all the other leadership is not going to be effective,” he said. “Leadership in the family is essential and applies to men and women. We’re teaching students in the center the skills, knowledge, virtues that will help them to be more effective in their families and then flow out to the churches, then to occupations.”

David Schmiesing is the brother of Acton Research Fellow Kevin Schmiesing.

Read “Training Leaders in Christian Virtue” on the website of the National Catholic Register.

A quick news and analysis digest here on the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling by the Supreme Court yesterday. Congratulations and thank you to the Becket Fund. To watch a two-hour Federalist Society panel discussion recorded in November on what is informally known as the Ministerial Exception case, visit YouTube.

Beckett Fund: Supreme Court Sides with Church 9-0 in Landmark First Amendment Ruling — Becket Fund wins greatest Supreme Court religious liberty decision in decades

The unanimous decision adopted the Becket Fund’s arguments, saying that religious groups should be free from government interference when they choose their leaders. The church, Hosanna-Tabor, was represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Professor Douglas Laycock, University of Virginia Law School. For years, churches have relied on a “ministerial exception” which protects them from employment discrimination lawsuits by their ministers.

“The message of today’s opinion is clear: The government can’t tell a church who should be teaching its religious message,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy National Litigation Director at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “This is a huge victory for religious freedom and a rebuke to the government, which was trying to regulate how churches select their ministers.”

The Court rejected the government’s extremely narrow understanding of the constitutional protection for religious liberty, stating: “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

“This is a huge win for religious liberty,” said Professor Doug Laycock.  “The Court has unanimously confirmed the right of churches to select their own ministers and religious leaders.”

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Douglas Laycock, CNN:
Huge win for religious liberty at the Supreme Court

(CNN) – Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision holding that ministers cannot sue their churches for employment discrimination was a huge win for religious liberty. It was unanimous, it was sweeping and it was unqualified.

This decision was about separation of church and state in its most fundamental sense. Churches do not run the government, select government leaders, or set criteria for choosing government leaders.

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Emily Belz, WORLD: Church’s authority ‘alone’

The high court has never ruled on the ministerial exception before, a standard created in the lower courts, and the opinion shied away from defining who qualifies as a “minister,” saying simply that the teacher in question, a commissioned minister at the Lutheran church school, qualified.

“We are reluctant … to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” Roberts wrote in the decision. Kagan and Alito, in their concurring opinion, wrote that the “title” of minister “is neither necessary nor sufficient,” given the variety of religions in the United States, but rather courts must defer to the religious organization’s evaluation of the employee’s role.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in favor of the teacher, saying she did not qualify as a minister because she spent more minutes of the day teaching secular subjects than religious subjects. The Supreme Court scoffed at that idea. “The issue before us … is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch,” Roberts wrote.

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Matthew J. Franck, First Things: What Comes After Hosanna-Tabor

There may be a straw in the wind in yesterday’s ruling, with respect to the Obama administration’s determination to compel the coverage of contraceptive and abortifacient drugs in health insurance policies, even ones for religious institutions. The only “religious exception” offered so far by the Department of Health and Human Services to its contraceptive coverage mandate is an exemption so narrow, for religious organizations that employ and serve only their own co-religionists, that even the ministry of Jesus would not qualify. It is as though the Obama administration is staffed by people who have never encountered the ministry to the world that is so common among religious folk—especially but not uniquely among Christians.

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Mark L. Rienzi, National Catholic Register: Religious Liberty 9, President Obama 0

Such an emphatic rejection of the administration’s crabbed view of religious liberty is likely to have broader consequences. The administration has aggressively used its narrow view of religious liberty in other contexts. For example, when issuing recent regulations to require all employers to pay for contraceptives, sterilizations and drugs that likely cause abortions, the administration issued the narrowest conscience clause in history — one that would exclude a Catholic hospital simply because it is willing to serve Jewish patients.

When attempting to explain its historically narrow protection for conscience, the administration echoed its arguments from the Hosanna-Tabor case, saying the clause is only meant to protect a church from being forced to offer the drugs to employees in “certain religious positions.” The administration argued that its clause sought only to protect “the unique relationship between a house of worship and its employees in ministerial positions.” Given the government’s stingy view of who counts as “ministerial,” it is clear the administration does not think the First Amendment provides much protection for religion.

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Thomas Messner, Heritage Foundation: Supreme Court Decision in Hosanna-Tabor a Major Win for Religious Freedom

First, the ruling unambiguously affirms the vital constitutional doctrine known as the “ministerial exception.”

Second, the Court expressly agreed with every federal court of appeals to have considered the question that the ministerial exception “is not limited to the head of a religious congregation.”

Third, the Court clarified that the protections of the ministerial exception are not limited to cases where a religious group fires a minister only for a religious reason.

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Thomas Berg, Mirror of Justice: More on Hosanna-Tabor

… although the majority is case-specific on who counts as a minister, three justices–including Elena Kagan!–endorse a broader definition.  Thomas would defer heavily to the religious organization’s characterization of an employee as a minister.  And Alito and Kagan say that ordained or “commissioned” status isn’t crucial, that the question is about religiously-significant functions (listing several of them), and that “the constitutional protection of religious teachers is not somehow diminished when they take on secular functions in addition to their religious ones.

What matters is that respondent played an important role as an instrument of her church’s religious message and as a leader of its worship activities.” (Concurrence at 8)  I can imagine imagine teachers in many Christian schools satisfying that test, and also many employees in many religious social services who explicitly communicate religious messages along with the services they provide.  With three justices explicitly taking the broader approach, all you need is a couple more (Roberts and Scalia, most likely) for a majority.  Hosanna-Tabor doesn’t give us a full-fledged broad definition for a “minister,” but it makes the route to such a definition much easier.

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Wall Street Journal editorial: Hosannas for the Court

As in so many of its policies, the Obama Administration’s position reflected both its default preference for government control and its secular indifference to American religious sensibilities. This has become obvious in the contraceptive and surgical sterilization mandates the Administration is trying to impose on Catholic charities and hospitals. In this case the Justice Department’s opinion was so radical that it might have provoked the broad and unanimous Court ruling.

Hosanna-Tabor is an important reminder that the core religious freedoms guarded by the First Amendment were not to protect the public from religion, but to protect religion from government. The case is arguably among the most important religious liberty cases in a half century, and the concurrence of Justices across the ideological spectrum will be felt for years. Hallelujah.

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With media attention focused on the Republican presidential primaries and how the race could change as it moves South, I thought it would be good to add an update to my 2007 post, “The Spirit of 76: Reagan Style.” The Mark Levin Show linked to the piece yesterday, helping to motivate me to add a few additional thoughts and highlight a newer article on that race.

In my original post, I noted the deep influence former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms had on rescuing Reagan and in turn rescuing conservatism,

Tom Ellis and then Senator Jesse Helms helped resurrect Reagan’s campaign from the dead. By spearheading a grassroots movement and focusing on Reagan’s conservative credentials, it led to a shocking upset in the Tar Heel State. Reagan’s victory meant it was the first time a sitting president had been defeated in a primary of a state where he actively campaigned. Many more primary victories for Reagan would follow.

John Dodd, president of The Jesse Helms Center, elaborated on this in a 2011 piece in the Carolina Journal. Dodd explains,

Ignoring the Washington, D.C., professionals who wanted to feature Reagan’s resume, Helms focused on Reagan’s conservative views and the difference those views would make in the way the United States made decisions on national defense, control of the Panama Canal, and relations with the USSR.

In North Carolina, with the considerable help of his political ally Tom Ellis, Helms proved that voters cared much more about these issues than the Reagan operatives realized. Following Helms’ lead, the Reagan campaign won seven more primaries in May and three in June.

Very few have understood the power of grassroots politics and his electorate more than Jesse Helms. Having the pulse of his own state, he knew it was the power of conservatism and its ideas that could transform a presidential race that already seemed over. In my Spirit of 76 post, I added,

That Republican presidential candidates try to emulate Reagan only adds to his glory, but also creates an unrealistic expectation for themselves. But If conservatism is ever going to be revolutionary, anti-establishment, and popular again, the country and candidates will have to recapture some of the Spirit of 76.

While we have discussed Mitt Romney’s Mormonism extensively on the PowerBlog, it’s quite probable that his association with private equity firms could be a bigger issue in the South, where states like the Carolinas suffer higher unemployment than Iowa or New Hampshire. How he defends his record and articulates a vision for a free-market resurgence will be critical. I suspect statements where Romney has said he understands what it’s like to fear getting a pink slip may not help him in his endeavor. Helms understood that authenticity and conservative ideas were critical to electoral success, not pandering, where suspicion is often magnified in many Southern states.

Acton On The AirJordan Ballor is a busy man. He serves as a research fellow here at Acton, as well as being the executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. As if those duties don’t keep him busy enough, he also finds time to do the occasional radio interview, in this case on 101.5 WORD FM in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, discussing how Christians should react to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

For some additional perspectives on the issue, check out this Think Christian piece arguing that OWS is the appropriate Christian response to income inequality, and Dylan Pahman’s PowerBlog response to a Sojurner’s post arguing that OWS represents a “new Pentecost.”

To listen to the interview, use the audio player below:

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Jordan’s original article, “How Christians Ought to ‘Occupy’ Wall Street (and All Streets),” is over at the Evangelical Portal at Patheos.

On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reacts to musings by conservative writers David Brooks and Michael Gerson about Rick Santorum’s political rise in the GOP primaries and how his social views might be expressed in government policy. Would a President Santorum usher in a smaller but more “transformational” role for the state in addressing social ills? Gregg:

On the one hand, self-described compassionate conservatives understand there is no such thing as morally neutral laws or morally indifferent government policies. At some level (even quite remote), all laws and policies embody some type of moral logic (which is either coherent or incoherent). Thus they cannot help but shape — for better and worse — a society’s moral culture. That’s just one reason among many why the legal treatment of issues like abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and marriage matters, and why they can’t, as some libertarians claim, be simply relegated to the private sphere.

At the same time, it seems to me that many compassionate conservatives don’t fully appreciate the moral, social, and legal urgency of reducing the state’s size and reach, instead of primarily focusing upon streamlining government’s role.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “The Problem with Compassionate Conservatism” on NRO.

Václav Havel

Václav Havel, playwright, anti-Communist dissident and former president of the Czech Republic, died yesterday at the age of 75. There has been an outpouring of tributes to the great man today. In light of that, I’d like to point PowerBlog readers to the September-October 1998 issue of Religion & Liberty and the article “Living Responsibly: Václav Havel’s View” by Edward E. Ericson.

Ericson says that Havel offers a particularly penetrating analysis of our times based on the understanding that, in Havel’s words, “we are going through a great departure from God which has no parallel in history.” It is no coincidence that, Havel adds, that “the first atheistic civilization” has produced the bloodiest century in history.

In 1998, Ericson wrote that Havel could not be described as a believer but admitted to “an affinity for Christian sentiment” and that he tries “to live in the spirit of Christian morality.” Yet Havel’s understanding of Christianity’s formative work in building what is today Europe was deep. He praised the “blending of classical, Christian, and Jewish elements” that has created “the most dynamic civilization of the last millennium.” The news report linked above said that Havel spent his last moments in the company of his wife, Dagmar Havlova, and a Catholic nun.

Ericson:

According to Havel, ordinary people everywhere can live in the truth only by embracing the “notion of human responsibility.” Responsibility is “that fundamental point from which all identity grows and by which it stands or falls; it is the foundation, the root, the center of gravity, the constructional principle or axis of identity.” Thus, Havel declares, “I am responsible for the state of the world,” and he means a “responsibility not only to the world but also ‘for the world,’ as though I myself were to be judged for how the world turns out.” Citing Dostoevsky’s spiritual dictum that all are responsible for all, he points to that “‘higher’ responsibility, which grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere ‘above us,’ in … an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is liable.”

Read “Living Responsibly: Václav Havel’s View” by Edward E. Ericson.

Attend Acton University 2012 where Ericson will lecture on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Acton On The AirActon Research Fellow Jordan Ballor – who also serves as Executive Editor of the Journal of Markets and Morality – took to the airwaves in the Houston, Texas area last night to discuss the ecumenical movement, his book, Ecumenical Babel, and Christian social thought with the hosts of A Show of Faith on News Talk 1070 AM.

To listen to the interview, use the audio player below:

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On Tuesday, Acton’s president, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, joined three other prominent Catholic thinkers for a roundtable discussion of the U.S. bishops’ 1986 letter “Economic Justice for All.” Georgetown Univeristy’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs sponsored the discussion, and Berkley Center director Tom Banchoff moderated the proceedings.

The discussion, held on the left-leaning document’s 25th anniversary, addressed its legacy. Fr. Sirico’s contention was that the bishops “exceed[ed] their authority in an area where they lack competency,” in a way that, in hindsight, is “frankly embarrassing.” “Bishops should be bishops, not managers, not policy-makers,” he said, and noted that in the case of “Economic Justice for All,” it wasn’t even necessarily the bishops themselves who produced the silly economic arguments in the first place, but they had signed the letter.

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat agreed with that assessment, adding a point that Acton’s been making for 20 years: “Well-meaning public policy isn’t effective public policy.”

Catholic News Service article here, and Georgetown Vox Populi blog post.

Glenn Barkan, retired dean of Aquinas College’s School of Arts and Sciences here in Grand Rapids, had a piece worth reading in the local paper over the weekend related the current trend (fad?) toward buying local. In “What’s the point of buying local?” Barkan cogently addresses three levels of the case for localism in a way that shows that the movement need not have the economic, environmental, or ethical high ground.

At the economic level, Barkan asks, “Does the local stuff taste better than the imported stuff?” This is essentially a question about competitive advantage. This is the economic idea that some locations, given geographic, cultural, or other features, are better places to produce certain things than other places. Try as one might, it is difficult to grow mangoes in Michigan.

But one of the arguments against large-scale (statewide, national, or global) trade is that there are large environmental consequences. To this point, Barkan writes, “Following this thread means that most decisions which in the past were made on a variety of criteria will now be made only upon the criteria of consuming resources in transportation. How can I keep my carbon footprint small? No more Swiss chocolate, Italian cheese or French wine. Is this what we want?” I think that is what many of the localists in fact do want. It is somehow immoral for me, living in Michigan, to consume mangoes grown in Mexico.

What these kinds of considerations lead to is the moral claim that, in Barkan’s case, for instance, “I have some sort of moral obligation to buy Granny Smith apples from Michigan, and not from Washington.” To this Barkan responds that one mark of moral calculation is discerning where needs really lie: “If I had to choose between making a purchase which provided an income for a very needy family in Alabama, or a less needy family in Kent County, I think I would choose the former.” And better yet, given the relative wealth of even the poor in America on a global scale, we might say that poor workers in the developing world need trade more than the relatively poor in America.

An article in the Spring issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality makes the implications of these kinds of considerations quite well. In “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect,” Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow write in the context of wealth redistribution, “a lower-middle-class worker by Massachusetts standards may be a net beneficiary of income redistribution at the Commonwealth definition of society but is likely to be a net contributor at the national definition. They most certainly would lose the vast majority of their income if the world were used as the definition of society.”

The payoff for Barkan is that “a soul is a soul. Whether it is a Kent county soul, or one from California, or Ghana. I choose to have my purchasing decision do the most good for the most needy. Regardless of localism.”

Or as economist Victor Claar put it, “we should treat people as people, no matter where they happen to live. We are all created in the image of God. I find it distressing that we protect relatively affluent Americans when we should give everybody an opportunity to do something they can do well, at a low cost, in a high quality way.”

A person’s a person, no matter how far.