Presidential Campaign Poster from 1900.

Jordan Ballor and I are hosting an Acton on Tap on Thursday October 28 at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids. The event starts promptly at 6:30 p.m. If you are in the Grand Rapids area and like humor, politics, and fellowship, please plan on attending. Here is our description from the event page:
On the eve of mid-term elections, Jordan J. Ballor and Ray Nothstine of the Acton Institute discuss the role of politics in contemporary American life, especially in relationship to the Christian view of government, social and political activism by churches and Christian organizations, and trends in the economy and political discourse. Join us for a discussion that will put the political in its place in relation to our broader social life together.

The description of course does not quite give justice to the event. I have stories about the infamous Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, Father Damien of Molokai, my former boss Congressman Gene Taylor, tea parties, former political consultant Lee Atwater, and Methodist Founder John Wesley. Do you see a connection? I don’t either. But it will make a lot more sense if you are in attendance tomorrow night.

Blog author: abradley
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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Published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly email newsletter from the Acton Institute here.

Barack von Bismarck

By Anthony Bradley

The November congressional elections are not so much a referendum on the Obama administration as a check on whether President Barack Obama’s implementation of a Bismarckian vision of government will continue.

Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister/German chancellor from 1862 to 1890, is the father of the welfare state. He advanced the vision that government should serve as a social services institution by taking earned wealth from the rich and from businesses to deliver services to those who are not as advantaged. Bismarck’s Kulturkampf campaign intended both to keep radical socialists at bay and undermine the church’s role in meeting the needs of local citizens by positioning government to be the primary source of social services. He initiated the ideal of an ever-expanding, beneficent government, which was subsequently imported to the United States in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, expanded further with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and currently drives the policies of the Obama administration. Barack Obama is not a 19th-century socialist, but his agenda is unquestionably Bismarckian.

The Iron Chancellor

In 1891, William Dawson, in Bismarck and State Socialism, explained that Bismarck believed it was the duty of the state to promote the welfare of all its members. On November 22, 1888, in response to Germany’s 1873 economic crisis, Bismarck proclaimed, “I regard it as the duty of the State to endeavor to ameliorate existing economic evils.” In Bismarck-like fashion, commenting on America’s economic crisis, President Obama declared in January 2009 that,  “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the cycle that are crippling our economy—where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending; where inability to lend and borrow stops growth and leads to even less credit.” In a Bismarckian world, “only” government can set the national economy right.

Regarding universal health insurance, on March 15th, 1884, Bismarck asked, “Is it the duty of the State, or is it not, to provide for its helpless citizens?” He answered, “I maintain that it is its duty.” It is the duty of the state to “the seek the cheapest form of insurance, and, not aiming at profit for itself, must keep primarily in view the benefit for the poor and needy.” Similarly, under the federal healthcare reform law, Congress forbids health insurance companies from raising insurance premiums until insurers submit to Obamacare officials “a justification for an unreasonable premium increase prior to the implementation of the increase.” In effect, government determines health insurance premiums.

On unemployment, Bismarck believed that government is ultimately responsible for finding jobs for those unemployed through no fault of their own, those lacking opportunity to work and thus prohibited from properly sustaining themselves. On March 15, 1884 Bismarck exclaimed, “If an establishment employing twenty thousand or more workpeople were to be ruined . . . we could not allow these men to hunger”—even if it means creating government jobs for national infrastructure improvements. “In such cases we build railways,” says Bismarck. “We carry out improvements which otherwise would be left to private initiative.” Likewise, in July, President Obama proclaimed, “I believe it’s critical we extend unemployment insurance for several more months, so that Americans who’ve been laid off through no fault of their own get the support they need to provide for their families and can maintain their health insurance until they’re rehired.” Then, in September, President Obama announced a six-year, $50 billion infrastructure proposal “to rebuild 150,000 miles of our roads,” “maintain 4,000 miles of our railways,” and “restore 150 miles of runways.” To keep America working, Obama is channeling Bismarck’s vision of government as creator of jobs.

By the 1890s, for several reasons, Germany was forced to abandon many of Bismarck’s specific reforms. However, Bismarck’s method of using of government as the ultimate provider of social services paid for by the earned wealth of others is the modus operandi of the Obama administration. The outcome of contests for congressional seats will determine whether the nation continues down the path chosen by Barack Obama, but blazed long ago by the visionary of the omnicompetent state, Otto von Bismarck.

Published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly email newsletter from the Acton Institute here.

Juan Williams’ Firing Might Produce Desired Results

By Bruce Edward Walker

It was a tough few days last week in Radio Wobegone. And it promises to get tougher in the days, weeks and months ahead. The base of operations for Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk is in serious hot water.

National Public Radio dismissed newsman Juan Williams for an on-air discussion he conducted with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in which Williams confessed discomfort when observing fellow airline passengers dressed in Muslim garb. Although the conversation occurred on another network, NPR’s reaction was swift: Williams was fired, and a hailstorm ensued.

Imagine if HBO’s Bill Maher had made a similar confession: That, as an atheist, he was disturbed to see Lake Wobegone’s Pastor Inkfist boarding a plane, wearing Lutheran clerical garb. Oh, wait, Maher takes potshots at clergy, church and religion, in general, whenever his lips are moving. True, the ABC Network fired Maher shortly after 9/11 – but his remarks were far more egregiously offensive than Williams’.

Perhaps an unfair analogy, since Maher is ostensibly a comic and Williams a newsman, but it does present a comparative basis on how thin-skinned and politically correct the suits at NPR have become. When it serves their purposes, that is.

You see, I don’t believe Williams’ comments caused his firing. His words only granted cover for his firing, a move long-desired by NPR’s leadership in light of Williams’ too-often straying from the leftwing party line. Whatever the reason, it is NPR’s method that is especially deplorable. One would be more inclined to understand the executives’ decision if only they would have considered their actions in relation to the dignity that their employees deserve. Pope Leo XIII, writing in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, provided a perfect vaccine against NPR’s current public relations debacle.

Leo wrote: “Should it happen that either a master or a workman believes himself injured, nothing would be more desirable than that a committee should be appointed, composed of reliable and capable members of the association, whose duty would be, conformably with the rules of the association, to settle the dispute.” In other words, Leo called for employers to demonstrate a basic level of respect for the people who comprise their company. Dismissing Williams out-of-hand without following such simple advice has left NPR open for legitimate negative criticism.

It has also raised the issue of cutting government subsidies for the entire Corporation for Public Broadcasting enterprise. And it’s about time. Although relatively miniscule compared to other government-financed boondoggles, NPR should be allowed to sink or swim based on its own merits in the marketplace. Massive public fundraisers as well as corporate donations and sponsors foot the majority of NPR’s bills already. Liberal fat cat George Soros recently bequeathed $1.8 million of his personal fortune to NPR for the hiring of state-based reporters.

Indeed, NPR’s existence as a government-funded entity is an affront not only to secular free-market principles, but to Judeo-Christian views on subsidiarity as well. Succinctly stated, providing public monies to a direct competitor of private industry is morally wrong.

Williams, fortunately, was able to land on his feet. Fox News Network hired the revered analyst in the wake of his firing. NPR, however, may not be so lucky.

NPR’s hubris may yet be its undoing as a freeloader on the public dole. We can only hope.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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Very often it is difficult to see in any concrete way how our work really means anything at all. The drudgery of the daily routine can be numbing, sometimes literally depending on your working conditions. What is the purpose, the end of our work?

How can we properly value that aspect of our vocations that involve daily work? How can you and I, in the words of the manager in the movie Elf, “make work your favorite”?
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The Hastert Center at Wheaton College will host a debate tomorrow night between Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, on the question, “Does Capitalism Have a Soul?” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson will moderate.

In framing the debate, Dr. Seth Norton, Hastert Center director, notes in the press release:

“It’s a good chance to compare different visions of capitalism and market economies, and to discuss the role of government in those economies. There is a lot of debate on these issues in secular venues, but this is a chance to hear two people who have a spiritual common denominator address complicated issues related to economic systems, and that’s a rare event.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public.

One of the interesting things you learn when you start working at the Acton Institute is that the brother of Acton Institute co-founder and president Rev. Robert A. Sirico is an actor.  A pretty famous actor, actually.  And eventually it sinks in that Father Sirico’s brother Tony is, in fact, Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos.

Now, if you know anything about Paulie Walnuts, you know that he’s a pretty tough character: a gangster with few scruples about engaging in all manner of violence and mayhem and who regularly curses a blue streak.  And if you know anything about Tony Sirico, you know that—as his younger brother Robert has said on a few occasions—he doesn’t have to act much to play the roles that he has played.  So you can imagine that there was a touch of anxiety from certain quarters here at Acton when it was learned that Tony had been invited to introduce his brother’s keynote address at the 20th Anniversary Dinner that was held last Thursday at the JW Marriott Hotel here in Grand Rapids.

Well, we’re pleased to report that Tony successfully restrained his “French” in his introduction of his brother – “a real priest.”  Here’s the video:

We’ll have more highlights from the dinner this week, so stay tuned to the PowerBlog!

There were a few stories from the Grand Rapids Press over the weekend that form data points pointing toward some depressing trends: a decline in charitable giving (especially to churches), supplanting of private charity by government welfare, and the attempt to suppress explicit Christian identity.

Here’s a list with some brief annotations:

  • “Study reveals church giving at lowest point since Great Depression” (10/23/10): This is really a damning first sentence: “…congregations have waning influence among charitable causes because their focus now seems to be on institutional maintenance rather than spreading the gospel and healing the world.” For various reasons, people seem to increasingly see places other than their local congregations as the place where their charitable dollars ought to go. Overall, I think this is probably a bad thing, but it does show that there is some basic accountability inherent in the donor/charity relationship. That may not be the best way of characterizing the relationship between the individual member and the local congregation, but it at least has to be seen as an element of it.

  • “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason” (10/23/10): As the headline states, there’s no good reason that state aid by government should be supplanting the help given by private local and regional organizations.
  • “Should it be illegal to post ad seeking Christian roommate?” (10/22/10): What business does the government have regulating postings on a church bulletin board? The Alliance Defense Fund is helping out with the woman’s defense, and the words used by their counsel represents the case pretty well: “absurd” and “insane.”

David Bahnsen, writing on The Bahnsen Viewpoint, has a great report on last night’s Acton dinner:

“Good news – the President has announced a reduction of the government work force by one million people (20%). Bad news – the cuts were ordered by President Raul Castro in Cuba.”

So began the 20th anniversary dinner of The Acton Institute tonight in Grand Rapids, MI. Acton co-founder, Kris Alan Mauren loosened up the crowd with the aforementioned joke which served the dual purpose of making me laugh, and disturbing me deeply. But of course, the fact that Canada, Germany, France, England, China, and even Cuba are currently moving the ball in the opposite direction that we are here in the United States is now common knowledge. and as Kris said, it reinforces why the stakes are so high right now for lovers of liberty.

The event itself was a delight, as always. Kate O’ Beirne was a fantastic master of ceremonies. She is a national treasure. Richard DeVos, the co-founder of Amway and one of the wealthiest men in America, was awarded the Faith and Freedom Award. His testimony was extraordinary. Humble. Visionary. Principled. Devout follower of Christ. 600 people came tonight to celebrate the organization that, the more involved with I get, the more excited I am to see what they represent. Acton’s mission is almost exactly identical to the ruling passion in my life: the intersection of markets and morality. Acton is so much more than a think tank (though they surely do feature the great intellects in the fields of religion and economics). But they also are an activist and educational organization, producing content in a variety of media that literally challenge the presuppositions people bring to the subjects of work, calling, wealth, freedom, and virtue. They are producing DVD’s that are viewed by millions of people, and are revolutionary in terms of content and message. My commercial for the organization could go on and on, but just go to their website and see for yourself all they are doing.

The video vignette from their new documentary, “Poverty Cure”, was powerful. “How can you know what causes poverty if you do not know what causes wealth?” Acton’s approach to the great social ills of our day is extremely contrarian to the right and the left. They do not advocate a cold “eat what you cook” kind of capitalism, and they certainly do not advocate the dependency-creating solutions of the left. They know that free markets open up the widest lanes to a society that can create and sustain real alleviation of poverty. As an African priest put it in the video clip tonight describing the solutions they pursue in their own village: “We do not aim to create job-seekers; we aim to create job-makers”. Thoughtful, sensible, and deeply compassionate. But not an iota of coercion or redistribution.

As always, Father Sirico’s keynote address was remarkable. In describing the necessity of a perspective that understands the dignity of man he said, “If we don’t get the anthropology right, we get nothing right. Human beings are a composite of heaven and of earth. It is the ultimate tragedy when we decide to try and dichotomize the two.” What he means, of course, is understanding the theological principle that man is created in the image of God, yet not God; man is a part of the created order, yet possesses a dignity and ability to reason that no other part of creation does. Understanding these things is the very first step in understanding economics. To reduce economics to mathematical abstractions is to give way to the worst kind of moral relativism.

Much more here.

Also, Bahnsen tips us off about an event he is organizing in Southern California in February:

Yours Truly, Father Sirico, Jay Richards, Andrew Sandlin, and Dinesh D’Souza will all appear TOGETHER in my hometown of Newport Beach, CA on February 25 & 26 of 2011. The Virtue of Prosperity: The Moral Implications of Wealth and Work – coming soon. The promotional materials are at the printer, and the web page will be up shortly. I am producing the event (and speaking at it), but am working with my friends at CCL and Acton. After hearing Father Sirico tonight, I am glad I will be speaking Friday (and he Saturday). He would upstage some of the great orators and preachers of the last three centuries.

News from the Acton Institute:

Grand Rapids, Mich. (October 22, 2010) – The Acton Institute won first place in the Ethics and Values category in the 2010 Templeton Freedom Awards for Excellence in Promoting Liberty competition. The award, managed by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, recognized Acton for its production of film documentaries that “communicate the principles and values of individual liberty and a free society.”

Atlas cited Acton for “first-rate documentaries designed to communicate the importance of virtue, limited government, and free enterprise to general audiences. They have impressed the judges through two of their very successful documentaries, The Call of the Entrepreneur and The Birth of Freedom,” which have “attracted attention from U.S. media, public policy institutes around the world, and even education ministers in Eastern Europe.”

This is the fourth Templeton Freedom award for Acton. The Institute also won an award in 2007 in the Free Market Solutions to Poverty category for its “Don’t Just Care, Think!” campaign; in 2005 in the Excellence in Promoting Liberty category for its Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conferences; and in 2004 in the Ethics and Values category for “its extensive body of work on the moral defense of the free market.”

Acton shared the 2010 Ethics & Values award with the Centro de Divulgación del Conocimiento Económico para la Libertad (CEDICE) in Venezuela which won for its initiative, “A Country of Owners.” The project promotes awareness in Venezuelans of one of the most basic human rights, which is the right to own property. The purpose of “A Country of Owners” is to encourage ideas and actions in favor of individual private property through educational activities. The initiative has been called “a courageous and timely response to the events in Venezuela” as well as a “beacon in the growing darkness of Venezuela.”

Exceptional think tanks from 10 countries have been recognized by the 2010 Templeton Freedom Awards for Excellence in Promoting Liberty for their accomplishments in advancing freedom. Representing three continents, the 16 recipients were chosen from over 132 applications from 48 countries by an independent panel of expert judges.
Named after the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, the Templeton Freedom Award was established in 2003 and is the largest international prize program that celebrates think tank contributions to the understanding of freedom. The Templeton Freedom Awards program has awarded more than $1.5 million in prizes and grants in the past 7 years. This year’s awards program grants a $10,000 prize to each winner.

The Awards include eight different categories including Free Market Solutions to Poverty, Social Entrepreneurship, Ethics and Values, Student Outreach, Initiative in Public Relations, Innovative Media, and Awards for Special Achievement by a University-based Center and by a Young Institute.

The Atlas Economic Research Foundation has supported a worldwide network of independent think tanks that promote a society of free and responsible individuals for nearly three decades. Atlas, based in Washington, currently works with more than 400 partners in 84 countries. More than half of these organizations were assisted in their formative years by Atlas through financial support or advisory services.

I remember my first Acton event in 2002, a “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society” conference that I attended as a graduate student.

There are a number of things I remember quite clearly, but perhaps most striking was an occasion when someone said something to the effect that those with wealth are able to do more for the Kingdom of God than the poor. This is basically the same view that was once articulated in John Stossel’s special TV program on greed, that Michael Milkin had done more for the poor than Mother Theresa. To this I responded with the example of the widow’s mite (Mark 12; Luke 21). Fr. Sirico then proceeded to correct the mistaken view in a quite, shall we say, pointed fashion.

The lesson: God doesn’t need your money as such. He wants your obedience. He can turn two minas into millions if he so desires, just as he fed thousands with two loaves and some fish. Don’t let your concern about effectiveness and quantitative analysis distract you from the reality that we are called to be obedient and faithful, sine qua non.

Tonight the Acton Institute is hosting its twentieth anniversary Annual Dinnner. Share your favorite Acton memory from the first twenty years below.

Update: It was a great night all the way around. David Bahnsen passes along his reflections on the dinner: “The Liberty to do what we ought.”