On October 29th, the Acton Institute was pleased to welcome author and National Review Senior Editor Jay Nordlinger to the Mark Murray Auditorium as part of the 2015 Acton Lecture Series. Nordlinger’s address shared the title of his latest book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators, which examines the varied fates of the children of some of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators. We’re pleased to present the video of Nordlinger’s talk here on the PowerBlog.
One common thought many people have about conversion is that a person who has undergone the experience is wholly different before and after. Surely this is true in the order of grace, in that a man goes from darkness into light, from sin into being made cleansed. Yet, the personality remains the same even if it becomes reordered and redirected, sometimes astonishingly so. Such was the case with Peter, and with Paul, with Augustine and more contemporaneously, with my good friend Chuck Colson who slipped into eternity Saturday, April 21, at 3:12 p.m.
I first came to know about Chuck Colson in the same way millions of others did: in the role he played as one of the “Watergate Seven” and described as President Nixon’s ”hard man,” willing to get done what needed to be done. Shortly after the events surrounding the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, I heard of his conversion to the Christian faith and read his now classic journey in “Born Again.” Never did I think I would come to meet this man, much less to eventually count him as a colleague and good personal friend.
After Kris Mauren and I founded the Acton Institute 1990, I invited Chuck to come to Grand Rapids. He addressed our second annual dinner (the first dinner speaker was William F. Buckley, Jr. who died in 2008). I became instant friends with Chuck and with his lovely wife Patty. In taking the podium that evening in downtown Grand Rapids, Chuck expressed his amazement in words that I would hear him use many times over the years. He said that when he received my invitation he was intrigued by the idea of a Catholic priest starting up an institution in the midst of the Protestant Reformed “Vatican” of West Michigan. Some years later I had the great pleasure of inviting Chuck and Patty to visit the real Vatican and speak at a Church-sponsored conference there and meet Pope John Paul II.
Over the years Chuck and I shared many platforms and press conferences, vacations and dinners, and worked closely in causes near and dear to each of our hearts. One of the most memorable was to help with the launch of the Manhattan Declaration in defense of Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty.
Others will write extensive biographies of Chuck Colson delineating his numerous accomplishments, and deservedly so. I simply would like to express my admiration for a man whose witness to the reality of Jesus Christ and his redemptive power was an inspiration for me to be a better priest and a better Christian. The authenticity of Chuck Colson’s conversion and the integrity of his life were evident to any honest observer. One fact stands out, to my mind, namely that notwithstanding the profundity of Chuck’s spiritual transformation, the core of who he was remained and was purified and redirected. Chuck became God’s “hard man,” seeing to it that things got done that needed doing. Prison Fellowship is evidence of that, as is Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the Manhattan Declaration – and the numerous other activities Chuck initiated, inspired or so generously supported over the years.
At one event Chuck began his remarks with some words he borrowed from the author of Amazing Grace, John Newton: “… I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior.” And now, may that loving Savior receive into his eternal embrace the soul of that sinner he so cleansed and redeemed with so great a love. The world is a better place, and I am a better person, for the life of Chuck Colson.
Dolphus Weary has a remarkable story to tell and certainly very few can add as much insight on the issue of poverty as he does. When you read the interview, now available online in the Fall 2011 R&L, or especially his book I Ain’t Comin’ Back, you realize leaving Mississippi was his one ambition, but God called him back in order to give his life and training for the “least of these.” One of the things Weary likes to ask is “Are you going into a mission field or are you running away from a mission field?” It’s a great question we should all ask ourselves.
Historian Mark Summers returns to offer another piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Last issue, Summers penned “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.” In this this issue he has written an article focusing on Northern Catholics and the Catholic Church during the conflict.
David Deavel has offered a very timely review of Mitch Pearlstein’s, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. Pearlstein focuses on the 33 percent rather than the one percent. Deavel observes:
This is the percent of children living with one parent rather than two. These children, victims of what many call ‘family fragmentation,’ start out with tremendous social and educational deficits that are hard to narrow, nevermind close. These are most often the children for whom upward mobility has stalled. Their economic well-being has led to decline in American competitiveness and also the deeper cleavages of inequality that have been so widely noted.
I reviewed the new biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. by Carl T. Bogus. This book, written by a self-described liberal, is critical of Buckley but works at achieving fairness. If you want to read a comparison of two very different biographies of Buckley, I also reviewed Lee Edwards sympathetic biography of Buckley in the Spring 2010 issue of Religion & Liberty.
Finally, I just want to say learning from Dolphus Weary’s story was a spiritually enlightening experience. I read his book in one night in preparation for the interview and he is truly humble. While Weary offers a lot of insight, I believe his greatest strength is teaching and leading through example. It’s no wonder many ministries have tried to replicate what he has done and now does in Mississippi. There is something to be said for somebody who remains tied to their roots and is proud of where they come from, especially if where they come from may look hopeless by the world’s standards.
A recent Rasmussen poll reflects what many are feeling in this country, a deep disconnect with Washington and its leaders. According to the polling firm,
The number of voters who feel the government has the consent of the governed – a foundational principle, contained in the Declaration of Independence – is down from 23% in early May and has fallen to its lowest level measured yet.
Seventeen percent of likely U.S. voters think the government has the consent of the governed and Congress has a record low approval rating with only 6 percent ranking their performance as “excellent” or “good.”
The problem is exacerbated by the massive concentration of power in the Beltway. The model of federalism put forth by the Founders seems like a dim memory. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neil famously declared “All politics is local.” The quote has a wide breadth of meaning for elected officials at all levels of government. But concentrated power is raising the partisan stakes as the jostling for entrenched power gets uglier. So much so, that politicians are now calling concerned citizens sounding the alarm on federal spending “terrorists.” Not only is the virtue of self-restraint dismissed when it comes to spending, but it is similarly dismissed when it comes to rhetoric.
Below is an August 1 clip that aired on ABC World News Tonight that speaks to this disconnect, especially felt by middle America or as some dismiss simply as “Flyover Country.” It is making the famous quip by William F. Buckley that “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than I would be by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University” all the more relevant.
This piece was originally written for the Breakpoint blog. Crossposted with their permission.
Christians have a deep ambivalence about Ayn Rand that probably draws as deeply from the facts of her biography as from her famous novels. When the refugee from the old Soviet Union met the Catholic William F. Buckley, she said, “You are too intelligent to believe in God.” Her atheism was militant. Rand’s holy symbol was the dollar sign. Ultimately, Buckley gave Whittaker Chambers the job of writing the National Review essay on Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged that effectively read her and the Objectivists out of the conservative movement. The review characterized Rand’s message as, “To a gas chamber, go!” Chambers thought Rand’s philosophy led to the extinction of the less fit.
In truth, the great Chambers (his Witness is one of the five finest books I’ve ever read) probably treated Rand’s work unfairly. Though Rand certainly made no secret of her contempt for those unable or unwilling to engage in true exchange of economic value, she was right to tell interviewers that she was no totalitarian because of her abhorrence for the use of force. She did not believe in compulsion. Instead, she wanted a world in which a man stood or fell on his productivity. Rand saw production as the one great life affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth. He must labor and produce. This was Rand’s bedrock and explains why she had such contempt for those who try to gain wealth through political arrangements. She saw this parasitism on every point of the economic spectrum from the beggar to the bureaucrat to the purveyor of crony corporatism.
The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology is on human worth. Christians affirm the inherent and very high value of individuals because of their creation in the image of God. Rand values human beings only for their achievements. A person who does not offer value is a leech, a “second rater.”
Atlas Shrugged, the film, is well worth seeing, both because of the challenge posed by Rand’s worldview and because it avoids the pedantic speech-making of the overly long novel. Rand doesn’t trust her story to get her philosophy across. The novel struggles under the weight of her desire to teach. Thanks to the constraints of the film medium, we learn through the development of the characters and the plot. As a result, the tale comes through quite clearly and simply.
The story proceeds from a fascinating premise: what if the most able were to go on strike and take their gifts away from the broader society (like Lebron taking his from Cleveland!)? These talented individuals stop producing because society (in the form of government) has begun to take their contribution for granted and seeks to control the conditions under which they live, work, and create.
Government action occurs under the rubric of equity, but these people who “move the world” — as one conversation in the film expresses — do not understand what claim the government has to order their lives or to confiscate the fruits of their labor. The villains of the piece are not so much any welfare class as much as corporatists who want to link their companies to government arrangements so as to assure profit without the need for strong performance. They go on about loyalty and public service, but it is a mask for mediocrity and greed. The heroes (Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggert) want to make money, but they are virtuous because they give obvious value for every cent they earn.
The underlying moral is that we must not make too great a claim to control the inventors and entrepreneurs lest we frustrate them into inactivity. Though we think we gain by taxing and regulating their efforts, there is a strong possibility that we will lose a great deal more by blocking the creative impulse and inspiring a parasitic ethic of entitlement.
Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all severely problematic for a variety of good reasons. But one might compare her political and economic thought to chemotherapy, which is basically a form of poison designed to achieve a positive outcome. You don’t want to take it if you can avoid it. You hope the circumstances in which you would use it don’t arise. However, in an age of statism, it is a message that may need to be heard. Not so much in the hopes that it will prevail as much as to see it arrest movement in a particular direction which will end badly if it continues.
John Couretas reminded me that I put up a short note about Jeremy Lott’s life of William F. Buckley, but never returned to give the overall review. Please forgive the oversight! I have combined elements of the first post with additional thoughts to create a whole and to prevent the need to look back to the original post.
And here it is:
The Thomas Nelson company sent me AmSpec alumnus Jeremy Lott’s William F. Buckley. Lott brings attention to some under appreciated territory. His hook is that Bill Buckley was more or less a prophet. His aim is to show how Buckley’s faith influenced his life and his politics.
Only nine pages in the reader is treated to the following quote by JFK in response to a Harvard speaker who crowed that the school had never graduated either an Alger Hiss or a McCarthy. JFK roared, “How dare you couple the name of a great American patriot with the name of a traitor!” (Whatever happened to the Kennedys?)
The book is a quick read and is absolutely packed with interesting information about WFB. I say that as a person who has been reading Buckley and reading about him for many years. Lott’s book (titled William F. Buckley) gets past the half dozen or so anecdotes we’ve all heard and shares lots of great stuff about Buckley as a thinker and controversialist.
A few interesting features:
• Lott compares Buckley’s charges made in God and Man at Yale with the recent experiences of a Yale student (Deepthink!). Perhaps unsurprisingly, but humorously, the recent student utterly vindicates young Buckley’s concerns about his alma mater.
• We get a great moment in which Buckley protested Khrushchev’s visit to America by renting a hall and giving a rousing speech. He told the crowd not to despair because of the moral resources Americans had that the Soviets didn’t and added that the Soviet leader, “is not aware that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us . . . In the end we will bury him.” Further reading reveals that Buckley believed we had a strategic advantage over the Soviets in our belief in God and an afterlife. For the other side, the life they were living was all they had, so how could they risk total annihilation?
• We learn that WFB could well have become the senator for New York instead of his brother, Jim, who served one term. After Robert Kennedy was shot, Buckley decided to stand down in favor of Jim. What might that chamber have been like with the most eloquent and cutting Buckley on the floor????
The book is highly satisfying and extremely well done. I am impressed that an evangelical publishing company has offered the best biography since WFB’s death. We would expect it from ISI or Regnery. Of course, we all await the authorized volume someday to come from Sam Tanenhaus who was so successful in his treatment of Whittaker Chambers’ life.
Religion & Liberty’s issue featuring an interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr. is now available online. Acton also published Solzhenitsyn & the Modern World by Ericson in 1994. It was a joy to have Ericson sit down with us in the Acton office to talk about Solzhenitsyn, his work, his life, and his legacy.
The issue also includes an excellent essay on the federalist and anti-federalist debate by Dr. John Pinheiro, a historian at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. Pinheiro points out in the piece that the anti-federalists are important for understanding the balance between liberty and order in our Republic. He also adds that the anti-federalists are essential reading “if Americans hope to restore a sane balance between state and federal power.”