The third week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The third leg of the journey took the bikers from Boise to Salt Lake City, a total distance of 444 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional focuses especially on the theme of discipleship, of following Jesus in this third week. One way in which we follow Jesus is in the community of disciples. And as the day 16 devotional reads, “You can share everything and take turns doing the heavy work, but without forgiveness the fellowship will never last.” This gets at what differentiates what has been called the “communitarianism” of the early church from the secular visions of a socialist utopia. Only the church can rightly understand the realities of sin and forgiveness and their consequences for social life.

Day 17 quotes 2 Corinthians 2:17, “We do not peddle the word of God for profit.” This is an important verse, because it reminds us of the primacy of spiritual realities to the gospel message. The devotional puts this contrast starkly: “We are not like the giants of the cosmetic industry, pushing chemicals for profit. Rather, we peddle an ancient formula, ‘fragrance of life,’ simply as a celebration of God’s grace.” I appreciate the rhetorical power of this kind of juxtaposition, but I fear that it misses the point. Paul isn’t deriding business and the pursuit of profit in its own proper sphere. Instead, he’s warning against allowing the principles suited for one sphere (business) to invade another (church).

To the extent that it is the successful business leaders who are implicitly understood to embody religious and spiritual discernment and leadership, this text is a much more powerful witness against the church being run as a business than it is against business as a profit-driven venture. Even so, the devotional speaks rightly when it says, “Paul’s point is that we don’t speak of faith to gain our own advantage.”

The week concludes with a trip from Idaho to Utah. The prayer for day 20 notes that “Utah ranks first among all states in proportion of income given to charity by the wealthy. Today thank God for their generosity, and pray that the money will be used wisely and effectively by these charities.”

To get involved in giving to effective charities, visit the Samaritan Guide, and take a look at the charities that are working in Idaho and Utah, including Boise’s SAFE Center and Salt Lake City’s Spiritual Training Program, both rated “excellent” for their Samaritan Guide entries in 2005.

While former Vice President Al Gore mesmerized activists at Netroots Nation this morning with a surprise visit to Austin, Texas, a different kind of conversation about global warming was taking place at the Right Online conference in the same city. The intensity and energy during the global warming session was by far the most passionate of any of the sessions I have attended here. It seems some conservative activists may be undecided about all the scientific data concerning global warming, but they understand some in the environmental and big government movements are using the climate change excitement to chip away at personal and economic freedoms.

Iain Murray
of the Competitive Enterprise Institute was present to discuss the topic with all the attendees. Murray cited the Cornwall Alliance as an important evangelical voice on this issue. He also summed up the failure of cap-and-trade measures in Europe and just how ineffective government spending on global warming has been across the pond.

Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity was very straightforward about not understanding all of the scientific data, but still added some very prudent points. Kerpen contrasted the United States with socialist leaning Western European nations by noting an American approach to finding solutions is best, because we need to be on the right side of the economics, while also being on the right side of the environment. Krepen noted that we need to move away from “socialist regulatory schemes,” adding, “we won’t be the innovators [for long term solutions] if we go down that route.” Krepen understood that if we sacrifice prosperity, we actually sacrifice the ability to achieve the greatest energy breakthroughs through entrepreneurial innovation.

At the end, I spoke briefly about the Acton Institute’s research on this issue and directed the attendees to Dr. Jay Richards’ lecture on global warming, as well as his remarks at Acton University.

Earlier in the day the best speeches were delivered by former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele and Michelle Malkin. Steele had some highly impressive comments on tax reform, wealth creation, and entrepreneurship.

By almost any measure, the first Right Online conference, as part of the Defending the American Dream summit in Austin, TX, has to be judged a success.

The organizers of the event weren’t sure quite what to expect. How many bloggers and new media folks would attend? On the first day the summit organizers had to rely on special support given by the hotel because initially there were not enough lunches available…there were so many more people in attendance than they had expected or even hoped.

Later in September a second Right Online summit will happen in New Jersey, followed by a national summit in Washington, DC on October 10-11.

In a key way the conservative movement is behind the curve, both in comparison with the progressive political movement and the Christian blogging community, but better late than never. While this year’s summits are the first of their kind and scope amongst political conservatism, last year the Acton Institute was a sponsor of GodblogCon, a conference for Christian bloggers and new media professionals and hobbyists. This year we’ll be supporting the fourth annual GodblogCon to be held in Las Vegas, NV on September 20-21.

The Acton Institute is an important bridge between these oft-overlapping constituencies. It’s our hope that through greater involvement with the conservative movement we can bring the importance of religious and moral formation to the forefront of that discussion, and that through our engagement with the Godbloggers we can broaden the influence and profile of religious new media. (Here’s a brief flashback from last year’s GodblogCon that gets at how these two phenomena intersect: “Giuliani and the Godbloggers.”)

As is so often the case, politics gets plenty of mainstream press coverage, while religion gets short shrift. Perhaps we can start to change that from both sides, showing how religion is an important aspect of responsible and comprehensive political coverage, and how religion itself is worthy of more and better press attention. Here’s a sample of old media coverage of this first Right Online summit:

The keynote speaker for the Right Online conference tonight was conservative columnist and political commentator Robert Novak. Talking about his latest book Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, Novak declared that if you want to know why they call him the Prince of Darkness in Washington it’s because he supports limited government, low taxes, and freedom in the economic sphere, and that’s “enough to make you the Prince of Darkness in Washington.”

Novak called Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama a “true and smart politician” for pivoting to the center in the general election campaign. Novak said that chief executive officers of leading industries come away from private meetings with Obama saying they “can live with an Obama presidency.” Novak said recent Democratic presidential candidates couldn’t count on such passive support in previous elections.

Novak also called Ronald Reagan “the only successful president in his lifetime,” and he criticized the Republican minority leadership in Congress. Novak also lavished praise on the fair tax. Novak ended his engaging speech on politics by declaring Calvin Coolidge the other successful 20th century president.

Novak also answered a large number of questions at the end of his address, much more than the usual you may find at a keynote address at a major venue like the one we had here in Austin. Novak is a Roman Catholic convert and called himself “a great believer in prayer.”

One question we didn’t get to ask Novak was how much the support of the religious left, consisting of organizational leaders like Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and Brian McLaren, will be a strength to Obama’s campaign. We can get a sense of how Novak might have answered from a recent column, “McCain’s Evangelical Problem.” McCain is much more reticent to talk about faith while stumping on the campaign trail, and that certainly seems to open additional opportunities for Obama to pick up votes from young, impressionable, and starry-eyed evangelicals. Look for that demographic to be an important swing vote in November.

Update: See also, “McCain’s Lead Among Evangelicals Smaller than Bush’s in ’04.”

An excellent talk by from the Media Research Center, “Understanding and Critiquing Old Media,” opened today’s afternoon session at Austin’s Right Online summit. The speakers clarified some basics about journalism, such as the fact that typically reporters don’t write their own headlines (copy editors do) or that there is an unofficial reporter’s code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists.

A good deal of the talk revolved around consistent forms of bias found in the media, most of which are monitored closely by MRC’s watchblog NewsBusters. An archetypal form of bias by ignorance that exists in the media, often manifesting itself in bias by labeling, has to do with the mainstream coverage of religion.

The signature authority on this form of media bias is GetReligion, whose name is taken from William Schneider’s observation that the press “just doesn’t get religion.” A great example is the most recent GR post on the media’s constant politicization of statements from the pope and other Vatican officials, a theme we’ve long covered in this venue.

These sorts of online outlets represent a huge shift in the conversation about media. The word can now get out if there are errors, intentional or otherwise, in media coverage. Quotes taken out of context can be shown in their original form. Letters to the editor can be posted online whether or not the original source chooses to acknowledge them. New media is an important form of “citizen” journalism.

One question I have is whether or not citizen journalists should recognize and respect the “off the record” phenomenon that is a hallmark of professional journalism. If nothing is ever off the record now, I think there’s a dangerous possibility that such a reality will impoverish public discourse and create an environment of cynicism and opposition. There’s a reason that ability to speak “off the record” arose in the fourth estate and I don’t think we should simply cast it off as an antiquated relic without serious reflection.

One of the other key differences between old and new media is the form that authority, influence, and celebrity take in the latter. See, for instance, New York mag’s “The Microfame Game” and Vanity Fair‘s Blogopticon.

The Sam Adams Alliance hosted a session titled “Samsphere” here in Austin, Texas at the Defending the American Dream conference. After a brief biography of American Founder Samuel Adams, discussions turned to improving networking and message organization for individuals and groups committed to freedom and political liberty.

In a nutshell, the purpose of Samsphere is to network pre-existing bloggers together into single or shared networks. The Sam Adams Alliance also spent much of their discussion focusing on the importance of strengthening the grassroots aspect of community activism. The Chicago based thinktank also promoted their new web project, Blogivists.

Additional discussion was related to comparisons of conservative and libertarian online groups with the grassroots effectiveness of groups such as Daily Kos and MoveOn.org. We also had group discussions about how ideological differences play into the different organizational components of the political right and left, which led into discussions about the motivation and objectives of online activism.

By contrast with the Netroots Nation agenda, there are no sessions devoted to how faith relates to political conservatism. The absence of the faith element in this discussion is a reminder of just how well-positioned and unique the Acton Institute is within the broader community calling for limited government. During the session we were able to connect with a writer from the Reagan Coalition. Also, Erick Erickson from RedState.com dropped by and offered some helpful comments on limited government, election strategy, and organizational technique.

Here’s another new production from Acton Media – The Effective Stewardship Curriculum. The Effective Stewardship Curriculum is a series of five video lessons, geared toward church small groups or other faith-based educational settings exploring how Christians live out the call to be stewards of our talents, the environment, our fellow man, institutions, and our finances.

Expect the curriculum to be available for sale at the end of this summer. A study guide will also be available to help stimulate discussions and explore the ideas presented in the video lessons. A couple of sample pages from the study guide are available on the Effective Stewardship website. A trailer is available right here, but there are also introductory clips to each lesson that are available on the Effective Stewardship website.

It’s not even close to the end of summer but we’re already promoting Acton University 2009! Acton Media has just released a video short promoting Acton University – take a look and see if it looks interesting to you.

Acton University is a truly eye-opening experience filled with lectures and discussions with experienced and knowledgeable experts on economics, religion, and beyond. Find out more about Acton University by visiting the ActonU Website. No materials have been published on Acton University 2009, but you will get a good idea of what topics are covered and who is involved. Also, there is a slide show available online that gives another picture of what AU looks like – take a look!

The PowerBlog is well-represented this weekend at the Defending the American Dream Summit in Austin, Texas. Ray Nothstine and I have made the trek to Texas to engage and learn from a variety of organizations seeking to bring the power of new media to bear on the conservative movement.

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation and RightOnline are the major sponsors of the Texas summit, which features keynote addresses from Barry Goldwater Jr. and Robert Novak, as well as talks by John Fund of the WSJ, Erick Erickson of RedState.com, and Michelle Malkin.

One of the purposes of the summit and a special focus of the Sam Adams Alliance is to get state policy thinktanks in touch with local bloggers, as part of an effort to get tap into the dynamism of grassroots web media. If all politics are local, than new media efforts of thinktanks need to connect to the particular knowledge and insight of state and local bloggers.

Last night the Texas Public Policy Foundation hosted a barbecue social. I talked with David Guenthner, director of Media and Government Relations, and he told me about a tool they had developed, TexasBudgetSource.com, to make government expenditures across the state more transparent. This is a remarkably powerful concept that has the potential to be duplicated in other states to galvanize attention to issues of government spending, accountability, education reform and more.

Also happening across town is the annual Netroots Nation, a large gathering of progressive and liberal new media activists.

In the July 14-15 Italian edition article of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Luca M. Possati examines the crisis of the Italian university system. Where most secular intellectuals blame the Church for its suppression of “academic freedom,” it turns out the real culprit is the vast education and research bureaucracy propagated by the national government.

Possati notes how the different governments have tried to reform public administration in different sectors, but have failed miserably, only creating more public debt, inefficiency, and confusion. The recent university reform, known as the “Moratti reform,” began in the year 2000 and set out to improve Italy’s academic system with the two-cycle degree system of three years each also known as “3+2″. Alas, it only resulted in more obstacles for students and professors, especially those involved in post-graduate and scientific research.

While the article addresses the cause of the problem, it does not seem to offer any practical solutions, besides ending with a meek call for a more flexible labor market in the university. This is a shame, because Possati could have sought guidance from Catholic social teaching, especially the principle of subsidiarity, which would allow for greater decentralization, if not privatization, of the education system. Simply making it easier for the bureaucracy to grow will not solve anything; cutting the bureaucracy and reducing its incentives to grow get closer to the core issue.

To recognize just how big a mess the system is in, take as an example the University La Sapienza in Rome. With 147,000 students, the university is the largest in Europe and one of the oldest, founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 (it’s no longer run by the Church but by the State, as readers will recall). It is also known for its high drop-out rates and endless wait lists and lines. A student can spend months trying to collect all the forms necessary to enroll. Others have to get up at 6am to get a seat for a 10am lesson. Some medical students even get their degrees without sitting through one anatomy lessons because they prefer to study at home.

As a result, the percentage of the Italian population with a university degree is quite low, just 11% of 25-44 year-olds have one. This kind of inefficiency also affects those with higher degrees, frustrating young researchers and forcing them to go abroad to continue their projects. This exodus obviously depresses Italian productivity and results in “brain drain” among the most talented and educated.

It should be no surprise that Catholic and private universities such as LUMSA and LUISS are better off because they govern themselves as small firms with a concern for the quality of their services. These universities have much lower drop-out rates and much more satisfied, education students as a result.

Greater decentralization and privatization of the Italian education system would disproportionately affect the very administrators who have created all the problems in the first place. It may not be a panacea, but it will be a first step in allowing teachers to teach, researchers to research, and students to learn without the ridiculous interference of power-hungry government officials.