Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
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You often hear that Europe is much more secular than America. Just take a look at the Netherlands, for instance. How much more secular can you get?

But one place in which this stereotype rings false is in terms of academic institutions. You can pursue (as I currently am) a degree in theology at a European public university. Can you imagine that in the United States?

No, here we have departments of “religious studies” in public colleges and universities (if we cover religion there at all, and to be sure, “theology” and “religion” aren’t identical). My friend Hunter Baker might point to this difference not as secularism in a strict sense, but rather an institutional separation between state and church (for more on his definition of secularism, check out his book, The End of Secularism).

And thus from accounts of the institutional differences between the academic study of religion and theological study in America, you might easily get the impression of a kind of intellectual or academic secularism. After all, to study theology in America, you have to go to a private college or seminary (as I also am currently doing). This perspective from the Chronicle of Higher Education is representative, “The Ethics of Being a Theologian,” in which K.L. Noll writes, in part,

I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.

Meanwhile, in secular Europe, as ENI’s Stephen Brown reports, “European theology faculties warn of shift to religious studies.” Read the rest of Brown’s story after the break.
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Join us in Grand Rapids on Thursday for the next Acton Lecture Series with Jordan Ballor, Research Fellow and Executive Editor, Journal of Markets & Morality. The lecture should be of interest to anyone whose church is a member or observer of ecumenical organizations.

Lecture description: On the heels of the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 18-27) , and in anticipation of the eleventh General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (Stuttgart, Germany, July 20-27), Jordan J. Ballor takes a look at recent developments in the public witness of the mainline ecumenical movement. Focusing especially the question of economic globalization, Ballor responds to ecumenical pronouncements, subjecting the movement’s witness in its various forms to a thoroughgoing ecclesiastical, ethical, and economic critique.

Register for “Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Appraisal” here.

Time and place:

Thursday, July 15th
Cassard Conference Room
Waters Building, 161 Ottawa Avenue NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

11:45 Registration, 12:00pm Lecture Begins

While you’re at it, listen to this interview with host Paul Edwards, of the Detroit-based Paul Edwards Program, about the ecumenical movement and Ballor’s new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Click on the audio icon below.

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Blog author: jballor
Monday, July 12, 2010
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Some of the assumptions built into the mainstream international aid and development movement are puzzling. Among them is the faulty assumption that the comparison that matters most is how the developing world is doing in relation to the developed. Not surprisingly, this kind of comparison tends to make the gains in developing countries seem small, inscrutable, or nonexistent, and end up reinforcing the myth that progress is never achieved.

What’s more important than how a country like Zambia is doing in comparison with a country like Belgium is instead how Zambia of today is doing compared with Zambia of 3, 5, 10, or 20 years ago. The comparison that’s most important is to how bad things have been and how they are relative to now, not how things there are versus here.

You see the outworking of this first kind of comparison, however, in the paradigms adopted by aid and development experts. As Stephane Fitch writes, the other model of comparison (not between developed and developing nations, which among other things feeds envy and despair, but rather between how it was and how it is now in a particular place) can inspire surprising gains from seemingly modest proposals. In a recent issue of Forbes, Fitch writes about the work of F.K. Day, a bicycle company executive who has done extensive work in Zambia.

As Fitch writes, Day complains that “World Bank types…tend to favor (and fund) paved roads and train tracks.” They tend to favor (and fund) those things they assume to be marks of development and progress, based on comparison with the existence of those things in the developed nations. But more important for a country like Zambia than paved roads, train tracks, or even internet access and affordable laptops, are simple and reliable means of short-range transportation: bicycles. In this case, bicycles that don’t, in Day’s words, “suck,” mean much more for the typical Zambian farmer or weaver than a paved road or WiFi service. His charity produces bikes that are much more reliable, sturdier, and appropriate for the Zambian terrain.

Fitch describes Day’s vision:

Through his World Bicycle Relief charity the ponytailed entrepreneur hopes to put millions of sub-Saharan Africans aboard special heavy-duty bikes designed to withstand the continent’s rugged roads while carrying 200 pounds of cargo–enough for a weaver to bring his rugs, or a farmer to tote his produce, to market. Moreover, he aims to promote a self-sustaining bicycle economy with regional operations assembling the bikes and area mechanics trained to repair them.

Sometimes you need to walk before you can run, and pedal before you can press down on the accelerator. This is as true for an individual as it is for a national economy.
Day is focusing on encouraging and fostering entrepreneurship and sustainability (e.g. profitability), and he does so with an explicit acknowledgment of the power of markets to transform lives: “You can have all the goodwill in the world,” he says, “but if what you do isn’t driven by the invisible hand of Adam Smith, you’re doomed to fail.”

That’s another way of saying that good intentions are no substitute for sound economics, and the wedding of both is what you see in Day’s work. And that’s what we’re all about here at the Acton Institute. As Fitch concludes, “It’s amazing too how a charity with a small budget ($2.5 million) and a staff of 24, including 19 in Zambia, can change thousands of lives, two wheels at a time.”

For more information on Day’s charity, his brand of “ponytail capitalism,” and the “bicycle economy” he’s trying to build in Zambia, check out the Forbes slideshow.

Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg joins guest host Paul G. Kengor on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon. In this June 28 segment, Kengor asks, “When we talk as Catholics about elevation of the poor and service to those who are less fortunate, we often talk about subsidiarity and social justice. What do those terms mean in the context of Catholic social teaching?”

Listen to “Subsidiarity and Social Justice. What do those terms really mean?” by clicking on the audio player icon below.

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Samuel Gregg has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Read his Acton commentaries here. And his PowerBlog post: “What is the USCCB’s problem with subsidiarity?”

Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Grove City College, a four-year, private Christian liberal arts college in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He is executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, a Grove City College think-tank/policy center, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

On his blog Koinonia, Rev. Gregory Jensen thoughtfully reviews a 2008 lecture given at Acton University by Kishore Jayabalan. (One of the neat things about downloading AU lectures is that you can then listen to them just about anywhere, including the car.) Rev. Jensen, who also blogs and writes for Acton, notes how Jayabalan’s talk contrasts “the sectarian approach with a catholic one.”

Another long drive last week gave me a chance to listen to an excellent lecture on the tradition of Catholic social encyclicals. The lecturer, Kishore Jayabalan (director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office) made a distinction between a Catholic and a sectarian approach to the surrounding culture.

While it is important for us as Christian to distinguish truth from error, Jayabalan argues that a sectarian approach limits itself to what is wrong with others. Whether from the right or the left, sectarianism is an ideology masquerading as Christian theology. Again this is not to say that Christians ought should refrain from pointing out where we disagree with the culture–we should but a purely negative approach is not only insufficient it contradicts the very tradition that we would defend. Let me explain.

Life as a disciple of Christ necessarily places us in a tension with not only the fallen world, but also with ourselves. As the late Fr Alexander Schmemmann never tired of repeating, it is this fallen world that God loves and for which His Son suffered and died on the Cross. And it is this fallen world that rises with Christ and will at the end of time not be obliterated but transfigured into the New Heaven and the New Earth.

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful” (Rev 21:1-5)

To be sure, Jesus condemns “the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” to “the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” and so to “the second death” (v.8 j) but this does not undo the eschatological fulfillment of creation that is described at length in subsequent verses (vv. 9-27; 22:1-5). Indeed it is those who, because of their works (see, Rev 22:12) are unwilling to say Maranatha! “Come Lord Jesus!” and so will not “take the water of life freely” that are condemned (see, Rev 22:17). To borrow from one of the more obscure writers of the early Church the sixth century Latin father, Apringius of Beja, “The Holy Spirit and the Church call all to come to salvation” (Tractate on the Apocalypse, 22:17 quoted on ACCS, NT vol XII: Revelation, p. 406).

The pastoral–and spiritual–failure of sectarianism is that, unlike Christ, it fails to balance “harsh sayings…with the easy and appealing words so that watchfulness is encouraged” (Venerable Bede, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 21.8 quoted on ACCS, NT vol XII: Revelation, p. 361). Underneath this, indeed underneath all my willingness to judge, to condemn, to withhold forgiveness, is a watchfulness that is not encouraging but suspicious and distrustful. If in the immediate this is directed toward my neighbor it ultimately finds its roots in my own lack of faith in God and trust in the providential working of His grace in your life and mine.

We can, as Jayabalan did, contrast the sectarian approach with a catholic one. While sectarianism often takes a negative tone, what is central is not negativity as such. The sectarian Christian seeks to limit God’s grace to an elite group. That this elite group is eventually a group of one person–the sectarian himself–is ignored or overlooked.

A catholic approach, on the other hand, does not simply criticize what is wrong, it affirms what is good, and true, and just, and beautiful. If sectarianism seeks to tear down, a catholic approach seeks to build up. Sectarianism seeks an ever narrow “purity,” the catholic an ever more expansive wholeness. Again, this doesn’t mean that a catholic approach refrains from pointing out error, but it does so in a way that is both charitable and fearless.

For the sectarian mind, life presents no real dilemmas–only an unending series of enemies, of dragons who can never, quite, be slain. Put another way, sectarianism is a mode of despair.

Read Fr. Gregory’s entire post, “Sectarian or Catholic? Thoughts From Another Long Drive” on his blog, Koinonia.

Judith Dean, currently an international economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, has a worthwhile exploration of the relationship between Christian faith and economic research (HT). It’s up at the InterVarsity site for the Following Christ conference and is titled, “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research.”

There’s a lot of good, challenging, and insightful stuff here. As always, read it in full. But here’s a bit that’s especially incisive:

Especially for those working in government policy making bodies, there is a role for advocating change where policies are seen as creating results which are intolerable from the Christian standpoint, or where the economic system fails to address problems which a Christian cannot ignore. Large groups of such advocates already exist, quite often centered around specific issues. Though these groups may include economists, they are quite often made up of non-economists who care deeply about a particular problem (e.g. R. Sider, J. Wallis, and T. Campolo, who all have written about poverty issues). Some of these groups zealously advocate particular solutions to what they view as egregious injustices in the economy. Yet, lacking economic understanding, they fail to see that their proposals themselves are sometimes flawed.

Here the Christian economist’s expertise may be called upon to inform these “advocate groups” about the nature of the problem and the implications of different solutions. Many Christians want to be better informed in order to become better advocates. Yet they do no know where to go to get information. Sound economic reasoning which is made accessible to a non-professional audience is sorely needed. It is odd indeed that most contemporary Christian writing on economic issues for the general public is done by theologians or sociologists.

Note here the vigorous sense of Christian advocacy in the public square, and how it is to be informed by solid economic, social, and historical research. Note too that the advocacy described is generally not that which ought to be pursued by the institutional church, but by Christians organizing themselves organically in civil society.

As a theologian often writing on economic and public policy matters, I heartily endorse Dean’s call for more sustained, careful, and intentional engagement of Christian economists on these matters.

Read “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research” and leave a comment below.

actononairActon President Rev. Robert A. Sirico took to the airwaves on the Great Voice of the Great Lakes this morning, joining host Frank Beckmann on News/Talk 760 WJR in Detroit to talk about an event he will be speaking at in the Motor City next week, and also shedding some light on the current state of affairs in China, where he is currently traveling; audio of the segment is available via the audio player below.

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, Kevin Schmiesing looks at the exchange between Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and Sen. Tom Coburn over the interpretation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Elena Kagan’s Revealing Commerce Clause Evasion

by Kevin E. Schmiesing Ph.D.

Many Americans have a vague sense that the United States has drifted far from its constitutional origins. Every once in a while, something happens that prods us to recognize just how far we’ve gone.

Such was the case last week, during the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. One of the most widely circulated C-Span video clips was Senator Tom Coburn’s insistent question as to whether the Constitution’s commerce clause permitted Congress to pass a hypothetical law dictating that all Americans must eat a prescribed number of fruits and vegetables every day.

Kagan was clever enough to understand that what Coburn was really asking was, “Is it possible to justify the continued expansion of congressional powers—in particular recent health care reform legislation—on the basis of the authority granted by the commerce clause?” Kagan replied that the fruits and vegetables measure would be “dumb” law. She didn’t dare suggest that it would be unconstitutional, however, for she rightly recognized that she would be backing herself into a judicial corner. How many laws might she have to strike down as Supreme Court justice if she followed a “strict” interpretation of the Constitution?

Thus we’ve come to a point at which a Supreme Court nominee cannot bring herself to condemn a manifestly totalitarian law, because doing so would be utterly inconsistent with federal jurisprudence over the last 80 years. Kagan’s response shines a spotlight on the fact that the Constitution exercises little restraint upon the activities of our national government. This is dangerous territory.

There are rearguard actions from time to time. The Court invalidated campaign finance reform early this year, judging it to be a violation of first amendment rights—for which the justices were upbraided by President Obama on national television during a State of the Union Address. Yet, by and large, Congress acts with impunity to intervene in our economic affairs, usually justifying itself (in those rare cases when it feels the need to do so) by recourse to the commerce clause.

Perhaps it’s worth revisiting that passage from our founding document, on which millions of pages of federal regulation have been piled. Can it support such weight?

Congress shall have power, it says, “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” That’s it. The original purpose of this directive with respect to commerce “among the several States” was to ensure that there would be no interstate trade barriers. The formation of a vibrant national economy, the framers correctly understood, could not very well proceed when Ohio and Michigan erected tariffs against each other. So, the intent of the commerce clause was to protect the principle of free trade within the United States, leaving other financial and mercantile regulatory authority to each state.

Taking the Constitution seriously is important because the document forms the basis for the rule of law in this country. By ratifying it, the states and the citizens thereof affirmed the truth of a great paradox: Enacting limitations on ourselves is the only way to guarantee lasting and genuine freedom. It was a profoundly moral endeavor. The Christian notion of sin lay at the heart of many Americans’ belief that the tendency toward corruption and aggrandizement in government officials—and the potentially destructive whims of democratic majorities themselves—must be guarded against not only by promotion of personal virtue but also by legal instruments such as constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances.

For the most part, the Supreme Court honored the intent of the commerce clause until the 1930s, when the force of public sentiment and political pressure stemming from the Great Depression began to pry the lid off, loosing its potential as a Pandora’s box of federal government programs reaching into every corner of American life. In 1942, the Court defended a production quota on wheat set by the Department of Agriculture, upholding the prosecution of an Ohio farmer for growing too much. When he used his excess, the decision explained, he wouldn’t be buying that amount on the market. His flouting of the law thus affected interstate commerce.

Quod erat demonstrandum: The government can tell you what and how much to grow. Why can it not also tell you that you must purchase health insurance (and therefore what kind, and from which approved vendors)? And why can’t it tell you what and how much you may eat?

Our hope lies in our belief that, when a law is “dumb” enough, nine fellow Americans on the Supreme Court will have the good sense to strike it down. But we will be dependent on their sense alone. Although they will invoke the Constitution as a fig leaf for whatever judgment they render, we know the truth: Its value as a curb on government action—and therefore as a safeguard of freedom—was all-but-destroyed long ago.

Via the Volokh Conspiracy:

Mario Rizzo and Gerald O’Driscoll point to dueling letters to the editor from 1932 in The London Times by John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek on whether government spending can help cure contemporary economic woes. The letters, unearthed by Richard Ebeling, show that today’s debates over economic policy are, in many respects, a rerun of the debates of the 1930s.

Everything old is new again! Related: Fear the Boom and Bust

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
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Some may recall that before BP’s recent disaster (public relations and otherwise), there was a period of rebranding the company from ‘British Petroleum’ to ‘Beyond Petroleum.’

Beyond Petroleum

I’ve long argued that the opportunities afforded us by the use of fossil fuels are best spent seeking long-term sustainable and reliable sources of energy. These sources must include, and indeed in the nearer term be largely based upon, nuclear energy.

Two recent items underscore this: 1) the question of waste and what to do about it (HT); and 2) what waste actually is and is not. Says Hillsdale College econ prof Gary Wolfram, “95 percent of the used nuclear fuel could be recycled.”