Posts tagged with: virtue

Hear Chuck Colson, Acton’s Michael Miller, Scott Rae, John Stonestreet, and others at the Doing the Right Thing conference on Saturday, May 7, 9am – 1pm, at Christ Church of Oak Brook, Ill. Preview a new ethics curriculum; explore issues of truth, morality, virtue and character; and learn how to educate others to discover the framework to distinguish right from wrong and begin doing the right thing. Cost is $25 (pastors and students free). To register, visit this link.

This event is part of a nationwide tour to preview a six-part curriculum produced by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, “Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics.” This DVD-based series and the live tour events explore topics such as How did we get into this mess?; Is there truth, a moral law we can all know?; If we know what is right, can we do it?; What does it mean to be human?; Ethics in public life; and Ethics in the marketplace.

Event participants will preview extended clips from the video series, hear presentations from leading experts on the topics, and have the opportunity to pre-order the DVD series at a special advance rate in order to begin with others conversations on ethics, morality, virtue, character, truth and issues of right and wrong.

Co-sponsors for the event include the Acton Institute, BreakPoint / Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, WMBI / Moody Radio and WYLL-AM.

Thrift almost seems like a lost virtue among much of our governing class. It is also true of the general population. We don’t have to just look at our staggering public debt, but consumer credit card debt tells the story too. In a past post on the virtue of thrift, Jordan Ballor reminds us that “thrift is one of the things that separates civilized capitalism from savage consumerism.”

When I worked for U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor in Mississippi, we had a lot of second-hand office equipment. The boss was always serious about saving tax dollars. I know there are still representatives out there that take thrift seriously. However, we should also let the illustration provided by Amity Shlaes on Calvin Coolidge over at National Review sink in, especially given some of the lavish entertainment we hear about in Washington:

For Coolidge, no savings was too small to overlook. Recently William Jenney, the archivist for the state of Vermont at the Coolidge homestead, pulled out for me an old looseleaf notebook. It contained the White House housekeeper’s journal of outlays for White House entertainment. The White House, even then, received tens of thousands of visitors a year; the Coolidges hosted Col. Charles Lindbergh and Ignacy Padereweski, the pianist and politician. There were many days when Coolidge shook 2,000 hands. But he also kept an eye on the budget. For 1926, the housekeeper itemized each purchase for each event; the total was $11,667.10. For 1927 she managed to get the amount down to $9,116.39. The president reviewed this and wrote her a note: “To Miss Riley, very fine improvement.”

Shlaes, who has a forthcoming book on Calvin Coolidge coming out soon, was interviewed in Religion & Liberty’s 2009 fall issue. She discusses her book The Forgotten Man and the Great Depression in the interview.

I have also touched on Coolidge on the PowerBlog. In a post titled “Keep Cool with Coolidge,” I linked to a great recording on Coolidge talking about the cost of government spending. Have a listen:

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Over at CNN, Bob Greene has an opinion piece titled “4-star general, 5-star grace.” In it, he retells the story of how White House aide Valerie Jarret confused Four-star Army General Peter Chiarelli for a waiter. Greene said:

Graciousness can pay priceless dividends. And it doesn’t cost a thing. You may have heard the story about what happened between White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and Four-star Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli at a recent Washington dinner. As reported by the website Daily Caller, Jarrett, a longtime Chicago friend of President Obama, was seated at the dinner when a general — later identified as Chiarelli, the No. 2-ranking general in the U.S. Army hierarchy, who was also a guest at the gathering — walked behind her. Chiarelli was in full dress uniform. Jarrett, apparently only seeing Chiarelli’s striped uniform pants, thought that he was a waiter. She asked him to get her a glass of wine. She was said to be mortified as soon as she realized her mistake, and who wouldn’t be? But the instructive part of this tale is what Chiarelli did next. Rather than take offense, or try to make Jarrett feel small for her blunder, the general, in good humor, went and poured her a glass of wine. It was evident that he wanted to defuse the awkward moment, and to let Jarrett know that she should not feel embarrassed.

I suppose the story in and of itself says something about a town that makes a big deal out of the general’s actions. General Chiarelli may not have even felt as if his character was out of the ordinary. I wonder if I would be wrong in saying that these are the type of social graces that were once very common and are still common in many homes and communities. I also once heard a friend remark that “in New York City it’s about how much money you make, Los Angeles is about what you look like, and Washington D.C. is all about who you know.” You get the point.

When I was in college, sometimes I would notice the chancellor walking around campus with a bag picking up trash. I remember cynically wondering if he was doing it so everybody could see him. Maybe I just thought that because I found myself disagreeing with him a lot. And then one day I had to get up early on the weekend, and sure enough, there was the chancellor picking up trash before the sun was even up. It was the worst possible time to try and impress anybody with his actions.

I reviewed Joker One on the PowerBlog a couple of years ago. It is an excellent book and it is essentially about servant leadership and the greater love principle (John 15:13). I commented at the time, which is still true, that the book taught me more about leadership than all my seminary classes on leadership.

The general’s actions serve as a good conversation starter for leading with humility. It also serves as a nice contrast to Senator Barbara Boxer’s attitude on Capital Hill in 2009:

There is a great 18th century hymn “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah” by William Williams. It is, of course, well known today, but the last verse is missing from most modern hymnals. I don’t really know why it is often omitted because it seems most appropriate today. Especially during the Lenten season, it is a powerful reminder of the type of leaders Christians should be. The last verse speaks to the very self-centered and vain world we inhabit:

Musing on my habitation,
Musing on my heav’nly home,
Fills my soul with holy longings:
Come, my Jesus, quickly come;
Vanity is all I see;
Lord, I long to be with Thee!
Lord, I long to be with Thee!

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Following up on my post from earlier this week, “Gritty Entrepreneurship,” fellow PowerBlogger Ken Larson pointed me to a previous issue of InCharacter, the now defunct online publication focused on “everyday virtues.”

The Spring 2009 issue is devoted to “Grit,” defined by Joseph Epstein as “the overcoming of serious obstacles through determined effort.” Sam Schulman says, “Grit is the business of the task of civilization — delaying gratification, defending something bigger than your own family, building a community rather than a household or a campfire.”

Picking up on the false dichotomy between innovation and perseverance, the following is listed as one of the top 10 gritty moments: “December 1879: After more than 10,000 failed experiments, Thomas Edison gives a demonstration of his new incandescent bulb.”

Check out the issue for more on the virtue of “grit.”

I read with considerable attention “Congressional bosses from Hell: Sheila Jackson Lee” in the Daily Caller today. From the article:

Congress was in recess, and the 435 lawmakers who drive the frenetic pace on Capitol Hill were home in their districts glad-handing constituents. For that reason, the door to [Sheila] Jackson Lee’s office was open and the sounds emanating from inside were pleasant laughter and conversation.

‘You could tell when she wasn’t there,’ Stephens said. That was because on a day in which Congress was in session, a different set of sounds often came through closed doors to Jackson Lee’s office: screaming and, many times, crying.

Having worked for a U.S. Congressman, former member Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss), I find some of the congressional staff dynamics and stories both entertaining and troubling. Many of the stories and anecdotes I tell from my time working on a congressional staff are among the most popular for audiences. I also learned a lot of valuable people skills, patience, and greater compassion for helping those in need. In my case, I had the privilege of helping many military veterans with federal issues.

Recently, I attended a social event where some staff of several well known Michigan lawmakers openly unloaded on the arrogance and temperament of their bosses to me in conversations. It did not surprise me. I have heard many similar stories before. It continually reinforces the well known Lord Acton adage about the corrupting nature of power.

I learned a lot from working with and for a congressman and his staff. Many of the lessons I will retain forever. In contrast to the piece in the Daily Caller, here is just one important lesson I pulled from a talk and essay I wrote for Acton on Tap:

The congressman I worked for, Gene Taylor (D-Miss) did help to reinforce something timeless and virtuous.

One day I was dispatched with the duty of locating him in the Rayburn House office building. The reason was simple; the Secretary of the Navy was waiting for him in his office. Some of the staff was panic stricken and mildly embarrassed because they could not ascertain his whereabouts and he was terribly late for the meeting. Congressman Taylor was not frequently attached at the hip with his cellular phone or pager. I remember looking in all the places you would look for a House member in the Rayburn building and not being able to locate him. After I had given up, I preceded to walk up the stairs and found him talking with a maintenance worker in the stairwell.

I told him that the Secretary of the Navy was in his office and he nodded his head and introduced me to his friend, whom he treated like a celebrity, bragging up the individual’s fishing skills. While I did not always agree with the positions or votes he recorded on issues, Gene Taylor always reinforced the significance of treating people the same. He also taught me a valuable life lesson when he told me:

‘You know why I’m friends with the capital police, the maintenance workers, and the common fisherman down at the harbor? It’s because they will continue to be my friends when I am no longer a congressman.’

On Thursday, Acton kicks off the 2011 Acton Lecture Series with an address by Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico entitled “Christian Poverty in an Age of Prosperity.” (If you haven’t done so already, you can register to attend the lecture at this link.) To set the stage for the 2011 series, I’ll be posting video of last year’s lecture series on the Powerblog all week long.

In January of last year, we welcomed Dr. John Pinheiro to the podium to discuss “Virtue and Liberty in the American Founding.” In his lecture, Dr. Pinheiro – associate professor of history and director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College here in Grand Rapids, Michigan - examined the American Founders’ understanding of liberty as rooted in a classical and Christian understanding of virtue. His talk touched on the reasons why George Washington argued that public happiness could be attained without private morality and why John Adams wrote that, “[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My friend John Armstrong examines “How Market Economies Really Work.” Armstrong concludes, “The gospel makes people free and teaches them to be virtuous. This is what is inherently Christian and no economic system can thrive long-term without them.”

He cites a piece by Stellenbosch University economist Stan du Plessis, “How Can You be a Christian and an Economist? The Meaning of the Accra Declaration for Today.” The du Plessis piece was of great help to me in writing the third chapter of my book, Ecumenical Babel, in which I examine the argument of the Accra Confession.

And we were able to distribute hundreds of Accra Confession study kits at last summer’s Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. These kits included a copy of du Plessis’ paper, and you can download a PDF yourself here.

My commentary this week is a simple message about the importance of returning to our founding principles and embracing the liberty granted to all of us as Americans. Independence Day should always serve as a significant reminder of the freedom narrative of this country that has provided so many people with opportunities to flourish and live out their dreams:

America’s Destiny Must Be Freedom

Ralph Waldo Emerson described America as “the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.” Many Americans don’t feel that way as pessimism has replaced a once vibrant optimism about the future. Economic malaise, crippling debt, and a mammoth oil gush in the Gulf Coast are daily reminders of seemingly unmovable obstacles.

Bob Herbert wrote a New York Times column echoing the sentiment of an aimless America titled “When Greatness Slips Away.” While many claim to have the answers to our economic woes and lack of confidence, we would do best to return to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the American Founding, and our freedom narrative. In past crises, they have been sources of American endurance and strength. They can be again.

Those sacred words from the Declaration—“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”—have been an inspiration to billions of people at home and abroad for centuries. Freedom from excessive centralization of power and the right of the citizenry to flourish without undue interference are hallmarks of what it means to be American. And while the federal government has used activism for good at times, most notably for securing civil rights in the American South, it is revealing itself more and more as the obstacle to progress.

Many in the academy and the modern left scoff at what they call the “Horatio Alger myth.” Alger wrote stories such as “Ragged Dick” and “Only an Irish Boy.” He told stories of poor children achieving the American dream through hard work, determination, and virtue. But Alger also depicted an important spiritual component to his impoverished characters. He gave them dignity and natural rights, just as our founding document did. His tales reflected the kind of egalitarianism that asserts that the value and dignity of a destitute human person is equal to that of another born into prominence and prosperity. These ideas grew right out of our religious heritage and founding.

But if Alger’s stories were not myths before, they will be soon. Future generations’ enjoyment of the liberty to flourish is in jeopardy. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, last week called the $13 trillion national debt the “biggest threat to our national security.” Annual interest on the national debt in 2012 will grow larger than the entire defense budget. Currently 43 cents of every federal dollar spent is borrowed.

This kind of dependency is antithetical to our tradition of self-reliance. Pick up any honest textbook about American history and the march of America is about freedom and opportunity. On the day of the invasion of the greatest army of liberation ever assembled, General Dwight D. Eisenhower told his armed forces “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” These men are often called “The Greatest Generation.

Succeeding generations may call our own “the debt generation” as their dreams become enslaved to deficits so colossal that they sap their entrepreneurial spirit, savings, and earning potential.

Big government activists are already using the BP oil spill to double down on their claim that the federal government is too small, even while the federal response is crippled by a multilayered bureaucratic decision making process and excessive regulation. Others say the BP oil spill is the perfect sign that America’s economic and moral might has peaked.

In his 1993 Inaugural address, President Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” It’s a simple yet profound point. Similarly, the primary reason Russell Kirk penned The Roots of American Order in 1974 was to remind his country of the moral bedrock at its base, and to thereby show the way to how it could maintain greatness. In the first chapter, Kirk quotes a passage from the book of Job saying if the nation lacks foundation and order “even the light is like darkness.”

As American citizens pontificate about the future of America this July 4th, they should ask themselves what they can do to curb the contraction of liberty and promote its expansion. It is the citizens, thankfully, who will decide America’s destiny.

When I lived in Hawaii my family visited Punchbowl National Cemetery to see where my grandfather’s high school buddy was buried. He was killed in the Pacific Theatre in World War II. As a child I had two thoughts that day. It was taking a long time to find his grave simply because it was a sea of stones and I remember thinking at the time, I wonder if his family wanted him buried here, so far from home. Did his loved ones ever see his grave?

We can comprehend the price of liberty in the thousands of American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen buried far from home across seas and continents. One of these men, buried at Normandy, is medal of honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. After receiving two denials to land with his men in the first assault waves at Normandy, he was finally granted permission to storm the beaches with his men on D-Day.

Courageous to an almost absurd degree, Roosevelt had a serious heart condition and walked with a cane. The only general to land in the first wave at Normandy, General Omar Bradley later said of Roosevelt’s actions on the beach that day, “It was the greatest single act of courage I witnessed in the war.”

His father, President Theodore Rosevelt, cited courage and honor as being among the chief virtues of the American way of life. Too often in the academy and the political sphere the opposite is true. The student senate at the University of Washington brought dishonor on itself when it blocked a memorial to medal of honor recipient, Marine fighter ace, and an alumnus of the school named Gregory “Pappy” Boyington in 2006. One of the reasons cited: “Many monuments at UW already commemorate rich white men,” driveled one student.

A true example of honor is the Tomb Guard, a special platoon within the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. Honor and respect has everything to do with their ceremonial and almost mystic vigil over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The tomb represents not only all of those who died defending the republic, but also those who sacrificed their identity. The tomb has been guarded continuously and without interruption since the summer of 1937. Part of the creed of the sentinel guard reads:

Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

My favorite thing to do in Arlington is to walk the hallowed grounds in that garden of stones. It is in so many ways the greatest monument to America and her splendor and character. WWII veteran, and Mississippi civil rights hero Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in 1963, is buried there. Grand Rapids, Michigan native and astronaut Roger Chaffee, who died during an Apollo launch pad test, was also laid to rest in Arlington.

I actually left Arlington for a work related trip right before what has been dubbed “Snowpocalypse.” I remember watching the news about how the entire federal government had been shut down, and the area was in disarray. I remember thinking: while the weather was bringing the entire government to a halt, still somewhere things would be exactly the same. Across the Potomac in Arlington a solitary guard would be at his post, meticulously pacing 21 steps, with a rhythmic click of the heels, like an eternal heartbeat for America’s bravest.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Our economic life is concerned with more than just the objective exchange of goods and services. Far from being morally neutral, it is an expression of how we understand our dependence on God and neighbor and is the means by which we fulfill, or not, our obligations toward them. Both for reasons of morality as well as long term economic efficiency, we cannot overlook or minimize the centrality of personal virtue, and of a culture of virtue, to the success of the free market. It is not enough for me to be good; we must be good together. Or at minimum, and whatever our personal moral shortcomings, culturally we must value and reward moral excellence.

Jack Cashill understands this and in his new book, Popes & Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit & Debt, From Aristotle to AIG, he traces the changing moral attitudes towards lending and borrowing in Western culture. From the beginning the author is clear that we cannot separate a conversation about debt and credit, and so the economics of the free market, from a conversation about our personal and cultural moral lives.

Quickly the author takes us through some 25 centuries of social history. Along the way we hear from Dante and Shakespeare. To my delight, The Merchant of Venice has a recurring role in Cashill’s analysis and he uses effectively the changing portrayals of Shylock to illustrate shifting cultural attitudes toward debt.

Aristotle and Aquinas also make an appearance and join a cast that includes Medieval popes, Renaissance Jewish lenders, Protestant Reformers, 19th Century American robber barons and financiers. And of course our favorite villains, the bankers, lenders and borrowers who figure so prominently in the recent economic collapse make an appearance. Though the tone is at time a bit too flippant for my tastes (especially when discussing the Medieval Catholic Church), the text offers a good historical overview of the cultural and moral debate about debt. Throughout the author highlights intimate connection between moral character and economic life.

Cashill locates our current distress in the gradual cultural changes in the “fifty or so years since interest rates” were last at 1 percent. This cultural shift has “had less to do with the behavior” of lenders and more to do with our unwillingness to censure “the behavior of consumers, especially the prodigal” among us. While not minimizing the “downside” of “major investment houses” shifting “from partnerships to corporations” (which both “democratized Wall Street” even as “it diminished long-term loyalty and distanced executives from the consequences of failure”) he locates our moral failure in our growing evermore “dependent on credit.”

Through governmental and private institutions, Western culture is now eager “to oblige its prodigals” and extend to them the credit that allows them to live, for a short time at least, above their means. In addition where once we thought of “prodigals as sinners” today we “think of them as they think of themselves–as victims.” Cashill points out that “the real divide in America today is not between left and right but between those who would sympathize” with the prodigals among us “and those who would not.” While we condemn “predatory lenders” we never even discuss, much less censure, the”predatory borrower” who also played a central role in the collapse of the housing market.

Ideally our willingness to go into debt reflects our confidence in the future and rather than a desire to fulfill momentary desires. For this reason, we should think of debt, as Cashill does (and as Western cultural has historically) as a profoundly moral and is not simply economic question. Because we have lost sight of the necessary connection between virtue and an efficient free market, we now face a widespread lack of confidence in the economy.

Our lack of confidence reflects a more fundamental a lack of trust in the future. To borrow from moral theology, the economic crisis is a crisis of despair; we have lost faith in the goodness of tomorrow.

So how do we reclaim hope in the economic sphere? As Aristotle has it, we must be “liberal.”

Needless to say Aristotelian liberality is markedly different than our contemporary understanding. For Aristotle to be liberal means that we not spend more than we have and then spend only “on the right objects.”

But true liberality can only exist within a living tradition of moral virtue. In our current circumstances we are sorely tempted to settle for merely technical solutions. Yes, these are important but what is needed most is repentance and the cultivation of the cardinal, and dare I say, theological, virtues. Whether this will happen or not depends on how we exercise our personal freedom and the decisions we make as a culture.

In any case Cashill’s work offers us a sound foundation from which to argue in the public square that our economic pursuits must take place within a “culture of life” and this is necessary not only morally but also for the efficient working of the free market.