sotuI have a can’t miss prediction: tonight, when President Obama gives his seventh State of the Union address, he will describe the state of the union as “strong.” (I’ve made this prediction on this blog the past two years, so I’m hoping for a trifecta of prescience tonight.)

Admittedly, predicting that the state of our union will be described as “strong” is about as safe a bet as you can make when it comes to politics. Over the last hundred years presidents have described the State of the Union (SOTU) in various ways — Good (Truman), Sound (Carter), Not Good (Ford). But it was Ronald Reagan who started the “strong” trend in 1983 by referring to the SOTU as “Strong, but the economy is troubled.” Since 1983, “strong” has been used to refer to the SOTU in 27 addresses.

Here is how the state of the Union has been described over the past hundred years:
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lanterns1Given the many warnings about the “crisis of Christianity,” the inevitable rise of secularization, and the decline of our public witness (etc.), it may not be all that surprising that the most popular verse of 2014 focuses on the key tension the underlies it all.

According to data compiled by YouVersion, the popular Bible app, that verse is none other than Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

This peculiar position has confounded Christians since the beginning, and serves as the primary focus in Acton’s new film series, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. How are we to be in the world but not of it? How are we to live and engage and create and exchange in our current state of exile? Beyond simply getting a free ticket to heaven, what is our salvation actually for in the here and now?

We can respond to this in a variety of ways, and as Evan Koons notes early on in the series, the more common tendency is to resort to three faulty strategies: fortification (“hunker down!”), domination (“fight, fight, fight!”), or accommodation (“meh, whatevs”).

Each stems from its own set of errors, but all tie in some way to an undue divorce or clumsy conflation of the “sacred” and the “secular.” We embrace one to the detriment of the other, falling prey to our own humanistic imaginations, and in the end, leaning on the very “ways of the world” we are seeking to avoid. We hide; we coerce; we blend in. We embrace God’s message even as we ignore his method.

Yet God has called us to a more mysterious obedience: to hear and heed his voice, to conform to his will and purposes, and in turn, to serve and spread the love of God in all areas. To seek the good of our neighbors, the flourishing of our cities, and the prospering of the nations across all spheres and through all “modes of operation”: our work, families, education, creativity, political involvement, and so on. (more…)

supreme-courtCan prison bureaucrats arbitrarily ban peaceful religious practices?

Whether they should, they certainly have done so. As The Becket Fund points out, many prisons have barred Jewish inmates from wearing yarmulkes, denied Catholics access to the sacraments of communion and confession, and shut down Evangelical Bible studies. Prisons have frequently even banned religious objects, such as rosaries, prayer shawls, and yarmulkes.

In response to these and many other displays of religious suppression, an overwhelmingly bipartisan Congress enacted a landmark civil rights statute, which was signed by President Clinton in 2000: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
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International Justice Mission (IJM) is an NGO working globally to prevent violence, reform corrupt systems, protect and promote rule of law and sustain changes. That’s their mission, summed up in a few brief words.

What it really means is that girls like Suhana are saved. Suhana was forced into India’s sex trade, not once, but twice. IJM did not give up on her. Hear her powerful story.

Blog author: jcarter
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
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How the Supreme Court Reacted to This Town Allowing Politicians Bigger Signs Than Churches
Hans von Spakovsky, The Daily Signal

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, a challenge by a church to a town ordinance regulating signs.

Niger protesters torched 45 churches – police
BBC

At least 10 people have been killed and 45 churches set on fire since protests erupted in Niger over the French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, police say.

How much is a (micro)life worth?
Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist

Rather than asking “What is the value of human life?” Schelling and Carlson asked what we are willing to pay to reduce the risk of premature death by spending money on road safety or hospitals. The value of a life was replaced with the value of a statistical life.

Venezuela’s Bishops Have A Message For Pope Francis on Communism
Monica Showalter, Investor’s Business Daily

In a refreshingly powerful and direct statement, Venezuela’s bishops Monday blamed “Marxist socialism” and “communism” by name for the horrors and chaos gripping their country, according to a story in El Universal.

boy-in-court“Status.” Webster’s defines it as “high position or rank in society.” Yet for many young people, this could not be further from the truth. In the language of social workers and court systems, “dual-status” youths are young people who are involved in the juvenile justice system and child welfare system. Case in point:

She was born to an incarcerated mother. She was repeatedly abused by relatives with whom she spent much of her early life.

By the time she turned 10, she had been sexually abused by an older brother, a pimp, who forced her into prostitution.

She didn’t last long at foster homes and ended up living in group homes in the Northern California area. She ran away from placements dozens of times and continued prostituting herself.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Alicia — whose real name is being withheld to conceal her identity — repeatedly landed in juvenile detention on solicitation or related charges.

One of the biggest problems for these kids are that the adults in their lives who are most positively involved – social workers and probation officers – rarely, if ever, communicated. Even more concerning, probation officers are only involved if and when a child has trouble with the law, and a probation officer’s main concern is to make sure the child doesn’t end up in trouble again … but not necessarily fixing the issue that landed the child in trouble in the first place. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 19, 2015
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Earlier this year, UCLA made available for the first time the audio of a speech from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. given just over a month after the march from Selma to Montgomery. On April 27, 1965, King addressed a number of topics, including debate surrounding the Voting Rights Act.

At one point in the speech, King stops to address a number of “myths” that are often heard and circulated, and one of these is of perennial interest, as it has to do with the interaction between positive law, morality, and culture. We often hear, for instance, that law is downstream from culture, and this is true enough. Thus King admits (starting at around the 33:35 mark) that there is some truth in this kind of view as far as it goes. But this does not mean that there is no place for legislation.

As King puts it,

It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. So while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men. And when you change the habits of men, pretty soon the attitudes and the hearts will be changed. And so there is a need for strong legislation constantly to grapple with the problems we face.

MLK UCLA
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from the film "Ida"

from the film “Ida”

The film industry quite often gets religion wrong. Either the industry completely misunderstands faith (think Noah and the recent Exodus), or the movies are so saccharine that theaters ought to offer diabetes testing for movie-goers on the way out of the theater (Left Behind and anything else Kirk Cameron has been involved with). This is really too bad, because movies are an art form that have the power to move us, to make us think, to ponder more deeply critical questions of our fallen human nature, our relationships with others and with God.

Zelda Caldwell, at Aleteia, has put together a nifty list of ten great religious films you can watch now on Netflix. Each of these has their own merit, and there is a nice range of films included. I’ll note just a few here: (more…)

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Pope Francis and Benedict XVI

Horrific acts of violence and the dangers of free expression have been on everyone’s minds lately. After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the ongoing terrorism by Boko Haram, and countless other attacks and atrocities, many commentators are discussing violence in the name of Islam and limits on free expression. One of these people is Pope Francis, who discussed the Charlie Hebdo attack during a flight to the Philippines. Another, who actually made the remarks almost ten years ago at the University of Regensburg, is Pope Benedict XVI.  Director of Research at Acton, Samuel Gregg, and editor-at-large of National Review Online, Kathryn Jean Lopez, recently discussed Benedict’s Regensburg address, violence in the name of Islam, and free expression.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What do you make of the controversy over Pope Francis’s comments, on the plane ride to the Philippines, about free expression?

Samuel Gregg: The context, of course, was his remarks about the unacceptability of violence in the name of religion. The pope affirmed that such violence is indeed unacceptable. Pope Francis also indicated that he thinks freedom of expression is essential. The difficulty, to my mind, surrounds his comments that freedom of expression cannot be a basis for offending other people with regard to religious matters. We all know that freedom of expression isn’t absolute.

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This post is part of a symposium on vocation between the Patheos Faith and Work Channel and the Patheos Evangelical Channel, and originally appeared at the Oikonomia blog, a resource from the Acton Institute on faith, work, and economics.


3218139011_6c328939cb_bWe’ve seen a renewed focus among Christians on the deeper value, meaning, and significance of our daily work, leading to lots of reflection on how we might “find God in the workplace.” As a result, Christians are becoming ever more attentive to things like vocation and calling, looking for transcendent purpose and value in the world of work, beyond simply funding missionaries or evangelizing co-workers.

Yet for those of us who find ourselves in seasons or careers that seem at odds with our vocation, such revelation can only add to our frustration. “If God has placed a calling on my life in the realm of business, what am I doing here?” we ask. We read or hear stories from stock brokers, garbage collectors, artists, and academics who feel “called by God” to their particular stations, yet when we look our own position, we feel and seenothing of significance. What gives?

If these are questions you’re wrestling with, God may indeed be in the process of moving you on to something else; if so, the process of uncovering those next steps will involve plenty of prayer, counsel, discernment, prudence, and wisdom (a topic for another day). But he may be calling you to simply endure and continue right where you are. In either case, the question remains: How can we persevere in the here and now? (more…)