Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 30, 2011
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In part 1 of “Secular Theocracy: The Foundations and Folly of Modern Tyranny,” David Theroux of the Independent Institute outlines a history of secularism, tracing the complex relationship between religion and the spheres of society, particularly church and government. “Modern America has become a secular theocracy with a civic religion of national politics (nationalism) occupying the public realm in which government has replaced God,” he argues.

One of the key features necessary to unraveling the knotty problems surrounding the idea of secularism is distinguishing between the separation of church and state on the one hand, and religion and public life on the other. Hunter Baker does an excellent job describing this distinction and its consequences in his book, The End of Secularism. Secularism, as Baker and Theroux use the term, is a far more vigorous concept than the institutional separation of church and civil government. As Baker writes,

Secularism is much more than a formal financial and legal separation of church institutions and state institutions. It is a way of living together in community that emphasizes clean conceptual boundaries over organic beliefs and traditions. Here we come to a critical point. Secularism is not and should not be synonymous with the separation of church and state.

George Weigel recently observed the thirty year anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland. He noted the “weakness” of the tyrannical government, which had to resort to such tactics. “Politics and economics are important,” he writes. But “what drives history over the long haul, however, is culture: what men and women cherish, honor, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives, and their children’s lives, on.”

So what we need to be most concerned about, it seems, is a kind of cultural and conceptual secularism, a secularist worldview, that provides the basis for a more far-reaching and insidious form of secular political tyranny.

Look for part 2 on “Secular Theocracy” from Theroux in January. And in the meantime you can check out a controversy feature in the Journal of Markets & Morality between Hunter Baker and Jonathan Malesic on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” Issue 13.2 of the journal will be publicly available shortly, but you can also get instant access by becoming an electronic subscriber.

In the Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, I wrote about the Christian response to disaster relief, focusing on Hurricane Katrina and the April 2011 tornadoes that decimated communities in the deep South and Joplin, Mo. in May. Included in the story is a contrast of church relief with the federal government response. From the R&L piece:

In Shoal Creek, Ala., a frustrated Carl Brownfield called the federal response “all red tape.” The Birmingham News ran a story on May 10 reporting that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

Why the leeriness to reach out for federal assistance? For one, just read this AP story about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and their effort to collect debts or overpayment checks that were spent years ago by people trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina. One can understand the skepticism to apply for federal assistance and it certainly highlights the mismanagement of taxpayer money at FEMA.

As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have written a lot about disaster response on the PowerBlog and elsewhere. Here is just one post that compares the private sector role to the federal disaster response.

Zelda and TheologyAuthor and editor Jonny Walls has announced his latest work published by Gray Matter Books entitled The Legend of Zelda and Theology.

Zelda is a series of video games celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, originating in 1986 with The Legend of the Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  It revolutionized video games with its adventure elements and exploration.  Each new installment of the series has advanced its complexity and story line.  The Zelda world maintains its own unique mythology consisting of spiritual elements that don’t match any existing religion.  In fact, the story often mentions multiple Gods and Goddesses.  The Triforce object in the game was created by divine beings and grants the owner supernatural powers depending on whether they have good or evil in their heart.  The pieces of the Triforce symbolize wisdom, courage and power.

The Legend of Zelda and Theology examines elements of Zelda’s mythology from a Christian perspective.  Having not read the book yet, I am skeptical as to how it interprets this exotic mythology and back story as a Christian tale.

Christian Post has an article about the book with comments from Jonny Walls.  In the end, the hope “is that readers will understand that [Zelda]’s themes all point to one source – God, the Creator.”

The book is a compilation of essays from various theologians and scholars examining the connection between Zelda and Christian theology.  One of the contributing authors is Rev. Jeremy Smith of Hacking ChristianityHe posted an excerpt of his contributed essay, included below:

As a child, one of my first lessons in ethics came from a chicken in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In the game, there are chickens called cuccos running around and I would laugh at their cries of fear while swatting them with my sword. One day I was showing my brother this hilarity when, unexpectedly, a hundred cuccos stormed on screen pecking mercilessly at me as they flew by. In an unfortunate coincidence, I was down to one or two hearts of life energy at the time and, to my childhood horror, actually died as a result of my cucco torment. It was a harsh lesson: don’t mess with the cucco…or at least don’t mess with them too much.

It’s also a lesson on ethics because the scenario with the cucco is a question of how to use one’s power. The Zelda universe is primarily a story about good v. evil, of course; but more specifically, it is a story about the use of power. One of the iconic artifacts in the Zelda universe is the Triforce: three interlocked triangles who grant the bearer significant power. The protagonist Link thus embarks on the hero’s journey from powerless to merely underpowered compared to the antagonist Ganon.

The ethical considerations of the use of power are a persistent theme in the Zelda series, in general, and Link to the Past, in particular. In engaging this topic, LttP contains numerous references to the Christian journey and the role of power in our everyday lives. Much of Christian theology is about good and evil, certainly, but also the use of power: the power of Christ to break the chains of sin, the power of Christians to overcome injustice and oppression, the restrictions placed on Christians in authority, etc.

Through examining the hero’s journey in this story, the role of power comes to the forefront: what does power do to corrupt or purify one’s desires? We will outline three problems of this particular world that serve as lenses to our own ethical behavior in the analog world.

The latest game in the Zelda series for Nintendo's Wii, Skyward Sword.

Interestingly, the theme of power that Jeremy mentions here relates directly to Lord Acton’s famous quote:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

Zelda is a work of fiction.  Fiction is self referencing, according to Marilynne Robinson’s article in the New York Times article about what literature owes the Bible:

Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.

I’ll definitely be checking out this book, being an avid Zelda fan and a Christian.  As of this writing the book is on Amazon, but it’s not available for order right now.  What do you think?  Is this book something that can help young people who might not know much about Christianity, or is it too much of a stretch?

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
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Fojol Bros. of Merlindia

Customers standing beside the food truck operated by Fojol Brothers of Merlindia, a theatrical, mobile Indian restaurant, serving food at various locations throughout Washington, D.C

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Food Fights and Free Enterprise,” I take a look at the increasing popularity of food trucks in urban settings within the context of Milton Friedman’s observation that “it’s always been true that business is not a friend of a free market.”

As you might imagine, the food truck phenomenon has found opposition from brick and mortar eateries that fear competition from the mobile units. In this they are merely acting from self-interest, trying to influence the local laws and ordinances to favor them. As Friedman says, “It will be in the self-interest of individual businesses to promote a tariff here and a tariff there,” or a specially-designed zoning ordinance here, a tailored regulation there.

Various Christian traditions have recognized the right to food as basic, and there is thus a corresponding right for those who would provide food for others. We therefore ought to respect those who provide us with “our daily bread,” whether it be in the form of traditional restaurants, grocery stores, or food trucks. This means that the prejudice should be in favor of freedom for food trucks to operate and bring daily sustenance to many, or as Lester DeKoster writes, bring food to “God himself, hungering in the hungry.”

One response from brick and mortar restaurants could be to start up their own mobile operations. This would be far more helpful and healthy than trying to get city commissions to disallow them. The relatively lower barriers to entry (e.g. lower capital costs) can make food trucks an ideal start-up enterprise for a culinary entrepreneur. But the mobility and versatility of the food trucks can be a great complement to the stability of a traditional restaurant as well, as many establishments are already finding.

And the complementary relationship between food trucks and sit-down restaurants can work both ways. The food trucks can be a good “first step” into the food service business, and down the line the food truck brands can be well-served by setting up a base of operations with a brick-and-mortar establishment, too.

Earlier this year Michael Kruse put out a request for suggestions for inclusion in a Commissioning Service for Human Vocation. This Advent season it struck me that the Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” or, “The Carol of the Drum,” is rich in vocational theology.

The little drummer boy has no gold, frankincense, or myrrh, no gift “fit to give a King,” so instead he plays his “best for him” on his drum.

The little drummer boy drumming his best is what makes baby Jesus smile. I like to think that each of his children doing his or her best in their daily work, whether drumming or otherwise, makes grown-up Jesus smile, too. What else, in the end, do we have to bring him but what gifts he has given us already? And what else do we have to show him but that we have been faithful with those gifts, playing our “best for him”?

The Canadian teen Sean Quigley has shown the timelessly relevant nature of this carol in an updated version, which has garnered some significant media attention south of the border as well. (For those of you with Spotify, you can check out the version from the Von Trapp family here.)

Says Quigley, “I want to be able to create music as a career and influence people.”

As Abraham Kuyper elaborates in Wisdom & Wonder, music making is an area of cultural creativity that can have significant blessings on individuals and peoples: “The player or singer translates what you yourself can barely stammer, and does so in rich and fulsome chords, and your soul feels liberated.”

Acton President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico asks us to take a breather from the frenzied preparations that lead up to Christmas and reflect on the true meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation. Thanks. to ThePulp.it for linking.

The Magi -- Depicted on a Third Century sarcophagus (Vatican Museums, Rome)

Contemplating Christmas

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

In a Christmas season filled with noble sentiments such as “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” the remembrance of the joys and sanctity of the family, and the deep human desire for tranquility of heart, how is it that this is arguably the period of deepest tension, family strife and exhaustion?

Although I don’t have hard data to prove it, from both personal and pastoral experience I can safely assert that from roughly the last week of November to the first week of January we experience more stress, arguments within families, and grief, than at any other time of the year.

Much of this is no doubt of our own doing: the expectations we have of ourselves to write every card and attend every party and prepare every dish possible. We go too soon from the joyful welcoming of the “meaning of the season’ into crushing obligations the meaning of which we find ourselves simply too tired to contemplate.

Some of this comes from without: the ease and feasibility of travel and communication, the plethora of products and foods rarely enjoyed by previous generations, and the social expectations of business, friends and family.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Our seasonal variation on the philosopher’s wisdom might be, “The un-contemplated Christmas is hardly worth celebrating.”

Rather than descending into the usual rants about how we so often lose the authentic understanding of the season (true enough), would it not be a much more edifying approach to probe deeper the ambiguity, mystery and paradox of Christmas?

The manger contains a hidden proposition of sorts. I have often imagined that were I walking along a Bethlehem back street some 2,000 years ago, and passed by the stable where the infant Jesus lay, there might not have been anything there to catch my attention. I might have been on the way to the marketplace to buy doves for the Temple sacrifice, or perhaps hurrying home with a basket filled with olives, grapes, figs or bread. In any event, it might have taken a chorus of angels or the guidance of a star to distract me from my mundane busyness and the ordinariness of the scene.

The Feast of the Incarnation – which is another way of speaking of the Nativity or Christmas — is all about the Divine Condescension to be “enfleshed” in humanity. The stable would not have been a shrine that night (that would come later). That night it would have been a rather messy, dirty and (at the risk that some inattentive reader will accuse me of blasphemy) smelly place. And that is the point.

Even the shepherds and Magi who were favored with an announcement of the Birth came upon their respective epiphanies precisely from within the context of their usual work: tending sheep and examining the heavens. God found them where they were.

The challenge of Christmas is not to wait for a God who with shouts, trumpets and great fanfare will attract our attention, but to search for the One who comes discretely and must be carefully discerned in the midst of everyday lives.

So, the question I propose is: Where is God at the mall? Where is He at the table of a contentious family holiday argument? Or in the dark quiet room of a daughter standing at her dying mother’s bedside alone this Christmas?  Where is he in the gift-giving? In all the commercialization, so often disconnected from the heart of redemption?

He is there, because He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

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.

The Russian philosopher and writer Vladimir Solovyov is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure this issue. Dylan Pahman has already profiled this piece on the PowerBlog so check out his comments here.

There is more content in the issue and the next interview in R&L will be with Reformation scholar and Refo500 director Herman Selderhuis.

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.

Mats Tunehag has written a blog highlighting the increased popularity and momentum of business as mission throughout the world. He cites an example that probably would not be the first to come to your mind, but is someone we are very familiar with here at Acton. Lady Margaret Thatcher was the recipient of this year’s Faith and Freedom Award. Mr. John O’Sullivan, who accepted the award on her behalf, described it as one that befits Lady Thatcher’s accomplishments in office and following as she tirelessly worked to advance the cause of faith and liberty.

Two things from the blog strike me as significant. One, Lady Thatcher’s remarks quoted in the blog come from 1988. This was well ahead of the current popularity and acceptance of business as mission in Christian circles. Second, is the response made by Jonathan Thornton mentioning Lord Griffiths of Ffastforach as a speech writer for Lady Thatcher. Lord Griffiths has spoken at Acton events and written a monograph. His influence upon economic matters is not insignificant.

For further reading on the topic of Business As Mission, please consider Work: The Meaning Of Your Life by Lester DeKoster and Our Souls At Work, edited by Mark Russell. Russell’s book is listed as the #1 resource from the Work As Worship conference held in Dallas this past November.

Painting by Ivan Kramskoi

Reflecting on the state of Russian philosophy among the intelligentsia of his day (the sectarian, Russian intellectuals “artificially isolated from national life”), Nikolai Berdiaev wrote in 1909,

There seemed every reason to acknowledge Vladimir Solov’ev as our national philosopher and to create a national philosophical tradition around him…. The philosophy of any European country could take pride in a Solov’ev.

That, however, was not the case. Why not? Berdiaev continues,

But the Russian intelligentsia neither read him nor knew him and did not regard him as one of their own. Solov’ev’s philosophy is profound and original, but it does not substantiate socialism. It is alien to both Populism and Marxism and cannot conveniently be turned into a weapon for the struggle against autocracy. Therefore, he did not furnish the intelligentsia with a suitable “world-view”….

The life and thought of Vladimir Solovyov are not easy to simply and accurately assess, but one thing is certain: as Berdiaev notes, “Solov’ev’s philosophy… does not substantiate socialism.”

In the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty, Vladimir Solovyov is profiled in the “In the Liberal Tradition” section. According to the article,

The thought world of Solovyov’s Russia, especially among the upper class of society, contained extremes of atheistic materialism which he set himself against in much of his work, finding favor and criticism in nearly all sectors of Russian society.

He was a man of strong moral and spiritual conviction, and as a consequence, he believed socialism to be “an antithesis” to the Christian faith, writing against it with biting criticism that the Marxist intelligentsia of his day, and afterward, simply could not bear.

Anyone interested may read the full article at our website.

If any scholars may be reading, I would also like to draw attention to a recent call for publications on Orthodox Christian social and economic thought for the Journal of Markets & Morality. Submissions on Solovyov, among others, would be welcome.

The quotes from Nikolai Berdiaev in this post above are taken from his essay “Philosophical Verity and Intelligentsia Truth” in the volume Vekhi, which can be found here.

Blog author: jwitt
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
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My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.

First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.

A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.

Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.

King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.

The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.

Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:

Policy
Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.

Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.

Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:

Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.

Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …

The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.

What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.

I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.

Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.

In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.