For PowerBlog readers around New York City, Rev. Robert A. Sirico will be speaking tonight, Wednesday March 2nd.  The event, Business and Compassion: Rehumanizing Our Economy, is hosted by Heart’s Home, International Center for a Culture of Compassion, and the American Bible Society.  Rev. Sirico is one of four members speaking on a panel.  The event will be from 7:00pm-9:00pm (EST) at the American Bible Society National Headquarters (1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023).  The cost of admission is $15 for students and $30 for general admission.  Any questions regarding tickets and admission can be directed to Heart’s Home.

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.’

Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky has the cover story for the upcoming issue of WORLD magazine, and it’s worth reading in full, “The revival of localism.”

Olasky’s basic narrative focuses on “young men and women who understand that they are Christian pilgrims in this world—but they expect to stay in one place, making friends and being of service, unless and until God moves them on.”

He has a number of salient data points and interesting interviews, including Caleb Stegall, the exemplar of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Economically-speaking an emphasis on localism can easily embrace distributism.

Thus, writes Olasky,

An emphasis on local control of government, local production and consumption of goods, and local culture is popular among young Christians. Their favorite author is often a pre-baby-boom author and Kentucky farmer, 76-year-old Wendell Berry. Berry praises reverence for God and life, the pleasures of good work, good food, and frugality. He says those joys are more likely to be found in healthy rural communities that value small farms and don’t overdose on technology.

But Olasky’s is, I think, a generally accurate assessment, and one that provides a good entry point to ongoing cultural developments. The Acton Institute has lived out this emphasis on decentralization, in one sense, and has from the beginning, by locating itself out of the Beltway by design. Olasky’s piece is sub-titled, “Young conservatives reject lure of Washington, D.C., in favor of a more powerful place-home.”

One shorter term economic driver is only mentioned in passing by Olasky: “…declining property values have crushed many hopes of upward mobility.”

The housing bubble has crushed not only upward mobility but also mobility more generally. The myth of the rootless generation is going to be demolished by the mere fact that anyone who bought a house in the last ten years is generally going to be unable to get out from under it for perhaps the next decade. That’s just about a generation of relatively immobile homeowners.

Yesterday Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s column appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  The opinion piece brought a unique perspective to the discussion on the current protests occurring in Wisconsin.  Patrick McIheran, columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, referred to Rev. Sirico’s article in his column, appearing yesterday, which examined different viewpoints on the union protests in Wisconsin.  McIheran extensively quotes Rev. Sirico throughout his article:

A key principle is that people should be free to join together with others of their choosing — or not. “So far as I can tell,” writes Sirico, “the current practice of public-sector union organizing has little or nothing to do with this principle, so it is right and proper that Catholic social teaching should also recognize this.”

He goes on:

“A one-time member of a Wisconsin union, Stephen J. Haessler, tells me: ‘My previous experience with agency shop as a former member of a WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) local affiliate is instructive. I opposed my dues monies going to endorse pro-choice political candidates, but my opinions and preferences did not matter because dues were automatically deducted from my pay whether I joined the union or not. This was a violation of the principle of the freedom of association.’”

Are unions, he asks, “actually just political machines for coercing workers and extracting money through the political process?” If so, there’s no moral imperative to back their every demand. God does not insist we truckle to de facto auxiliaries of one political side.

Full article here.

Acton on Tap

Carl TruemanDr. Carl Trueman is our guest for Acton on Tap tonight at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids. Be sure to join us and bring a friend if you are within hailing distance of this fine establishment (arrival at 6pm, discussion at 6:30pm).

Dr. Trueman, who teaches church history and serves as academic dean at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, will be giving a brief talk under the title, “An Englishman Abroad: Amateur Reflections on the Current Evangelical Political Scene.” One of Dr. Trueman’s recent books is called Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. In this book Trueman argues that “conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas.”

I have said before that I think that the thesis of Trueman’s book and my own recent work, Ecumenical Babel, are on one level quite complementary. We both see a problem with the politicization of the church’s prophetic voice and social witness. We do differ in the objects of our analysis and therefore in the diagnosis of the problem. Where Dr. Trueman sees conservative cultural and political agendas exerting undue influence on evangelical though in North America, I perceive progressive, even neo-Marxist, ideology at work in the larger mainline ecumenical movement.

So while Dr. Trueman’s point of departure is at some distance from my own, I think our projects in one sense meet in the middle. We are both responding to the phenomenon that Paul Ramsey described in 1967:

…in the United States conservative and liberal religious opinion is the same thing as conservative and liberal secular opinion—with a sharper edge. In short, the polarization of public debate on most issues is simply aided and abetted by the polarization of religious forces.

As for Republocrat, which I reviewed for our own Religion & Liberty, I conclude that Trueman’s “project is not about demonizing capitalism, wealth, or profits on the one hand, or political power on the other. It is about putting the pursuit of profit and power in its proper place.”

Find out more about Republocrat with this video introduction:

Join us tonight if you are able, and if you aren’t we hope to provide some follow-up about the event. My hope is that it will be an example of the kind of principled discussion and vigorous dialogue that should be able to take place between Christians, even on matters as divisive as politics and culture, even in the midst of disagreement.

If you are on Facebook, be sure to check out the event page and follow Acton’s page for details about other events.

Joe Carter wrote a good piece on poverty and Christian charity over at the First Things site with some good quotes from Abraham Kuyper.

Carter writes:

The problem of poverty, at least in America, is not just that it makes it difficult for people to fulfill their material needs, but rather that it blinds us all to what we really need. After all, what the truly destitute—those without food and shelter—need most isn’t a handout or a redistribution of wealth. What they need is for Christians to heed Jesus’ command. As Kuyper points out,

For deeds of love are indispensable. Obviously, the poor man cannot wait until the restoration of our social structure has been completed. Almost certainly he will not live long enough to see that happy day. Nevertheless, he still has to live, he must feed his hungry mouth, and the mouths of his hungry family. Therefore, vigorous help is necessary. However highly I am inclined to praise your willingness to make sacrifices—and this is possible through God’s grace to many of you—nevertheless, the holy art of “giving for Jesus’ sake” ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.

The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God’s work. The government cannot take the place of Christian charity. A loving embrace isn’t given with food stamps. The care of a community isn’t provided with government housing. The face of our Creator can’t be seen on a welfare voucher. What the poor need is not another government program; what they need is for Christians like me to honor our savior.

We can see a similar reflection about the role of the state and love of neighbor in Pope Benedict XVI encyclical Deus Caritas Est where he writes in Paragraph 28

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.

But this of course means that we need to do something and actually get involved in helping the poor–and that is easier said than done. As Carter writes:

Some day I will stand before my Creator and he’ll ask why I didn’t feed my brother when he was hungry or clothe my sister when she was cold. Shall I tell him, “I couldn’t give, Lord, I lived in poverty”?

Unlike the poor widow, I’m rich in possessions and could give out of my wealth. But she gave out of abundance—an obedient heart and love for her neighbor—of which I remain truly impoverished.

Acton On The AirIf you’ve been following the news recently, no doubt you’re aware of the controversy in Wisconsin surrounding Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposals – which include curtailing collective bargaining for state employees – which have led to massive union protests in Madison and the state Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois to try to delay the vote and force changes in the bill.

Last week, a couple of radio shows turned to Acton for insight on the Wisconsin situation. On Monday, Rev. Robert A. Sirico joined guest host Sheila Liaugminas on The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio to discuss how to properly value the work of public employees, Catholic teaching on unions, and some of the problems posed by public sector unions:

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On Tuesday, Acton’s Director of Research, Dr. Samuel Gregg, joined host Al Kresta on Kresta in the Afternoon on Ave Maria Radio to discuss both the Catholic Church’s historic teaching on unions and its response to the present situation:

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In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Acton President and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico publishes a new opinion piece that looks at “the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions” through the lens of Catholic social thought:

Catholic teaching’s pro-union bias

By the Rev. Robert A. Sirico

There is a long-standing bias in Catholic social teaching toward unions, and this dates from the long history of labor struggles for fair wages and safe working conditions. There is a romance associated with this history, and it is bound up with strong moral concerns. And it is not just historical. The Catholic Church played a heroic role in the fall of Communism in Poland through its influence on labor unions that were striking against oppression, which is to say state coercion.

Pope John Paul II, who knew something about the social role of labor unions, also warned about their drift into politics. In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, he wrote: “Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.”

The reality with all public affairs, however, is that conditions change. Just because something is called a union does not make it automatically good and moral. Essential considerations of justice and freedom must be in place. Generally speaking, the long history of unions has been bound up with the right of free association. So far as I can tell, the current practice of public-sector union organizing has little or nothing to do with this principle, so it is right and proper that Catholic social teaching should also recognize this.

This reality comes to mind because of the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions. But the driving force behind the budgetary move has nothing to do with human rights, unless one considers the rights of Wisconsin taxpayers.

The alarming reality of state and federal overspending and debt is something that cannot be denied. Prudent and necessary cuts must be made in the Wisconsin budget, and state employees must be part of that plan. How do public-sector unions fit into this? It is nearly impossible for anyone to work for the public sector without being a member, and unions collect dues, which operate like taxes for most everyone else.

This was not always the case. Public-sector unions emerged after World War II in the wake of the crack-up of many big-city political machines, and they were a convenient way for government employees to extract higher salaries and benefits at public expense.

What does this have to do with the freedom of association? Industrial unions have been on the decline for decades precisely because of the freedom of association. Organizing activity for years has shifted to the public sector, where union political contributions carry a lot of weight. Unions that remain strong are that way because they push against the freedom of association, denying alternatives to workers and taxpayers.

A one-time member of a Wisconsin union, Stephen J. Haessler, tells me: “My previous experience with agency shop as a former member of a WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) local affiliate is instructive. I opposed my dues monies going to endorse pro-choice political candidates, but my opinions and preferences did not matter because dues were automatically deducted from my pay whether I joined the union or not. This was a violation of the principle of the freedom of association.”

Here’s the question Catholics need to ask themselves: Are the unions I support of the same type that are idealized in Catholic social teaching? Or have they changed to the point where they are unions in name only but actually just political machines for coercing workers and extracting money through the political process?

The bias toward unions in Catholic social teaching is rooted in a perception that unions fulfill certain moral conditions. When they fail to do so, the application of moral teaching can change. There is no a priori reason to back every union demand and no reason for Catholics to feel under any doctrinal obligation to do so.

The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, is quoted in a Religion News Service story on the Wisconsin budget and union battles. The wire service story was picked up by, among others, the Huffington Post and Christian Century:

Wisconsin dispute exposes Catholic split on unions

Feb 28, 2011 by Piet Levy

(RNS) The fierce budget battle in Wisconsin that’s pitting unions against Republican Gov. Scott Walker has also pitted the state’s top Roman Catholic bishops against each other in a series of public exchanges over the church’s historic support for unions.

The war of words — however polite — has exposed a longstanding rift between the church’s progressive and conservative wings, reopened in the birthplace of the modern labor movement.

Walker’s budget-repair bill requires public employees to pay more for their pensions and health care, and restricts collective bargaining power for most. The plan has prompted impassioned protests by thousands at the state capitol in Madison, and sent Democratic lawmakers into exile to prevent a vote.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki kicked it off with a statement on Feb. 16 that, quoting Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, said it was “a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth.”

The next day, Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison issued his own statement, emphasizing the church’s neutrality. Within a week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sided with Listecki, praising him for his “clear statement” and making no mention of Morlino’s.

The same day the U.S. bishops sided with Listecki’s pro-union message, Morlino wrote in his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Herald, that he and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference were neutral, even though the Catholic Church has long sided with the rights of unionized workers.

“The question to which the dilemma boils down is rather simple on its face: Is the sacrifice which union members, including school teachers, are called upon to make proportionate to the relative sacrifice called for from all in difficult economic times?” Morlino wrote.

“The teaching of the church allows for persons of good will to disagree as to which horn of this dilemma should be chosen because there would be reasonable justification available for either alternative.”

To be sure, Morlino has emerged as a hero of the Catholic right. In the heat of the 2008 campaign, he blasted vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “stepping on the pope’s turf — and mine” in appealing to church fathers for their support of abortion rights.

In 2009, Morlino fired a female church worker for using male and female imagery for God in her 2003 Master’s thesis.

Morlino argued that unions should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or be too closely linked with them. Conservative Catholic activists soon rushed to Morlino’s defense, with the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Michigan-based Acton Institute praising him as a “model of clarity” in the fractious debate.

“It is also useful to keep in mind that the Catholic position on unions is not an endorsement of all unions, in all places at all times and under every circumstance,” Sirico wrote at Catholicvote.org.

The Rev. Bryan N. Massingale, associate professor of theological ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, doesn’t necessarily see a conflict between Morlino and Listecki — at least from the statements.

“That’s not the way Catholic bishops tend to operate,” he said. “They tend to want to present a unified public voice.”

But Michael Fleet, a political scientist at Marquette, sees it differently.

“Obviously (Morlino) wouldn’t have written (his letter) unless some clarification or reframing was necessary,” he said. “If you think about it, Morlino would write a short letter if he agreed with Listecki, but he wrote a longer letter articulating how (Listecki’s statement) should be understood.”

For their part, priests in Listecki’s archdiocese sided with their archbishop. The Milwaukee Archdiocese Priests Alliance released a statement Feb. 25, that noticeably made no mention of Morlino’s statement in calling for the governor to restore collective bargaining rights for the unions.

I’m blogging a recent piece I did for NRO on National Public Radio funding but first a quick note on the net neutrality debate. House Speaker John Boehner told a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters association, meeting in Nashville over the weekend, that “the last thing we need, in my view, is the FCC serving as Internet traffic controller, and potentially running roughshod over local broadcasters who have been serving their communities with free content for decades.” Amen. See my recent response to the Catholic bishops conference statement on net neutrality here.

Back to you, Corey.

‘Free’ Public Radio Is Anything But

By Bruce Edward Walker

National Public Radio listeners are being inundated with warnings that they soon may have to drive to work every morning without the sonorous intonations of Morning Edition’s Corey Flintoff, Steve Inskeep, and Renée Montagne, and may be forced to drive home without the narrative drone of All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel, Michele Norris, and Melissa Block.

Just this morning, I received a panicked e-mail from the director of broadcasting at an NPR affiliate in my home state, Michigan. You know, one of those state-based public-radio operations that just last October received a portion of George Soros’s $1.8 million Open Society Foundation gift to hire two government reporters in each of the 50 states; one of the same group of radio stations benefiting from the Joan Kroc Foundation’s $200 million endowment in 2003; one of the same stations that host interminable on-air fundraisers at least twice a year.

They are warning that Congress may eliminate taxpayer subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that heaps money on 900 NPR affiliates across the country.

The warnings reek of disingenuousness.

After all, crying poverty is public broadcasting’s modus operandi. If it didn’t do it extremely well, no one would donate during those radiothons, corporations wouldn’t spend huge sums of money to sponsor programming, and “people just like you” wouldn’t forgo paying the cable bill so they could help meet a challenge grant from their neighbors and co-workers.
As an example of how much begging public radio does, Wisconsin Public Radio — a network of 32 stations programmed by seven regional stations – reported that 13 percent of its total budget in 2009 was used for fundraising. Additionally, the network’s website reveals that 25 percent ($1.94 million) of the revenues garnered from listener and corporate donations ($6.25 million and $1.58 million, respectively) are directly allocated to fundraising.

So it came as no surprise when I received the director’s e-mail, which warns, “I believe this is one of the most serious challenges to public broadcasting that we have ever faced.”
Not mentioned in his emotional appeal are the substantial costs American taxpayers are stuck with.

Read more here.

Other Acton essays on funding public broadcasting can be found here and here.