A delegate at last week’s Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches held at Calvin College urged the newly formed group to consider moving its headquarters out of the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. Citing the costs associated with travel to and from the Swiss city, as well as those incurred during visits to the headquarters, Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, asked the WCRC to move its offices to the global south.

This would be a show of solidarity as well as of acknowledgment of the shifting movement of the center of global Christianity to the southern Hemisphere. According to ENI, Granberg-Michaelson “questioned how the Reformed grouping could talk of promoting global justice, when it had its headquarters in a place of ‘significant economic privilege.'”

There’s a lot going on in this call, and more than I can comment on here. But I will say that I think this is a move that ought to be considered, but not primarily for the reasons Granberg-Michaelson raises (although there are some valid concerns there as well).

In my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, I argue that one of the distinctive features of the ecumenical movement over the last two decades or so is what I call the ecumenical-industrial complex, “in which the ecumenical movement is promoted, through the media and political engagement, as an end in itself rather than as a church in service to others.”

Anything that can serve to mitigate some of the group think that goes on in the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva is something to be applauded, I think.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, June 28, 2010
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Gizmodo has an intriguing post about attempts to regulate and even criminalize photography. As Wendy McIlroy reports, “In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.” She goes on to detail some of the exceptions and caveats, noting,

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.

It is simply amazing the level of accountability and transparency that can now be achieved because of technological advancement. Certainly the Founders didn’t imagine that video recordings would ever exist, much less become important sources of evidence in legal cases.

Are there any compelling reasons that the burden of proof should be on the photographer rather than the law enforcement officer in these kinds of situations? McIlroy continues, observing “recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent.”

Merely using a camera certainly doesn’t entitle you to do anything you want and expect protection under the First Amendment. But in clearly non-aggressive instances, where police are acting in public and there is the clear potential for recorded data to be used as exculpatory or convicting evidence, the public’s right to accountability and transparency should be respected. Again, writes McIlroy, “Cameras have become the most effective weapon that ordinary people have to protect against and to expose police abuse. And the police want it to stop.”

It’s of course understandable why officers wouldn’t like being recorded, any more than the average person would like to be recorded when doing their jobs. But the job of a law enforcement official isn’t the same as that of an accountant, an editor, or a janitor. It’s a public service position, and one that acts officially and with government sanction in public.

Maybe in our technological age law enforcement officials should increasingly expect to be recorded. Or at least always act as if what they are doing is subject to public scrutiny.

At MercatorNet, Sheila Liaugminas looks at the bank regulation push — enshrined in another 2,000 page document that few of the legislators behind this effort will actually read. In “Social Order on the Surface” she recalls an Acton conference where she heard this from Rev. Robert A. Sirico:

Politicians are not our leaders in a rightly ordered society, they are our followers … Not all views of culture are equal. but we can’t engage socially on our disagreements because everything becomes political … There is no legislature that can govern the human heart … A correct understanding of who the human person is is important to social ordering. Man is prior to the state. You can’t have a ‘common good’ if the good of the individual is not taken into consideration first.

Liaugminas also links to Research Director Samuel Gregg’s recent journal article “Smith versus Keynes: Economics and Political Economy in the Post-Crisis Era” in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

“Statism is expanding in the U.S. right now under the guise of ‘the common good,'” Laugminas said. “Acton is only one institute engaging the debate about how Washington is handling the moral and ‘economic dimension of human reality,’ but we’d better pay attention.”

Advancing the “common good” behind the banner of statism has turned out to be an exercise in reckless selfishness and rapidly advancing insecurity. Where the gospel of redistribution of wealth was advertised as a way to ensure social equality, it now threatens to impoverish great masses of those who bought into the glittering promises. And promises are still being made. Recall President Obama telling Joe the Plumber that “spreading the wealth around” would be good for everybody (see video above).

Culture matters, much more so than politics. In “End of the European Siesta?,” Guy Sorman on City Journal explains why the financial fix for Europe’s debt problems are really superficial and temporary. Europe, he contends, needs to throw off the socialist ideologies — now embedded in cultural attitudes — that are at odds with its founding free market philosophy.

… the European Union is based on a free market. It was so conceived in political philosophy and in economics, and the only possible way to govern it is in accordance with such economic freedom. Yet all the national governments, even those of the right, have in fact created gigantic welfare states inspired by socialist ideology.

The fact is that, at the origins of Europe, Jean Monnet, a Cognac entrepreneur with strong American connections, concluded that European governments had never succeeded and would never succeed in making Europe a zone of peace and prosperity. He thus replaced the diplomatic engine with an economic engine: free trade and the spirit of enterprise, he envisioned, would generate “concrete areas of solidarity” that would eliminate war and poverty.

The “fatal drift” away from economic freedom, Sorman explains, inevitably led to the EU project going off the rails. Is America headed down the same path? Is the culture of free enterprise, for so long integral to what it means to be an American, now in permanent decline? More from Sorman on Europe:

Unfortunately, the national governments thought it possible to reap the economic benefits of a free Europe and the electoral delights of socialism. By “socialism,” I mean the unlimited growth of the welfare state—the accumulation of entitlements and jobs protected by the state. This de facto socialism, this sedimentation of electoral promises and acquired rights, grew in Europe at a much faster rate than did the economy or the population. It could thus only be financed by loans, which seemed risk-free, since the euro appeared “strong.” The euro’s strength drove its holders into a frenzy: suddenly, anything could be bought on credit. The result was a remarkably homogeneous indebtedness in all the countries of Europe, on the order of 100 percent of national wealth—ranging between Germany’s 91 percent and the Greeks’ 133 percent (a relatively modest difference), all reflecting a common socialist drift. Germany, Greece, Spain, and France differ less in their levels of debt or modes of administration, which are in fact quite similar, than in their debtors’ capacities to repay. All European states are run socialist-style, in contradiction with the European Union’s free-market principles. Some will be more able than others to deal with defaults, but all have drifted off course.

How shall we explain this fatal drift? The true cause lies in ideology. Socialism dominates minds across Europe, whereas liberalism—which has retained its original free-market meaning in Europe—is under attack in the academy, in the media, and among intellectuals generally. In Europe, to support the market against the state, to recommend modesty on the part of the state, is taken for an “American” perversion. And socialist ideology is sufficiently engrained that it’s almost impossible for a non-suicidal politician to win election without promising still more public “solidarity” and still less individual risk. These welfare states, through their financial cost and the erosion of ethical responsibility that they foster, have smothered economic growth in Europe. We are the continent of decline, albeit decline with solidarity.

Christianity Today looks at the way the State Department has recently begun using the phrase “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion.” The Obama Administration sees these phrases as more or less equivalent.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the shift in language. In a December speech at Georgetown University, she used “freedom of worship” three times but “freedom of religion” not at all. While addressing senators in January, she referred to “freedom of worship” four times and “freedom of religion” once when quoting an earlier Obama speech.

[…]

The State Department does acknowledge that worship is just one component of religion, said spokesperson Andy Laine. “However, the terms ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘freedom of worship’ have often been used interchangeably through U.S. history, and policymakers in this administration will sometimes do likewise.”

But “the softened message” is probably meant for the Muslim world, according to Carl Esbeck, professor of law at the University of Missouri. He told CT that Obama, “seeking to repair relations fractured by 9/11, is telling Islamic countries that America is not interfering with their internal matters.”

Reporter Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra also interviewed Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. She sees something much more troubling about the “freedom of worship” language. (Read an interview with Shea in the current issue of Religion & Liberty).

Freedom of worship means the right to pray within the confines of a place of worship or to privately believe, said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and member of the commission. “It excludes the right to raise your children in your faith; the right to have religious literature; the right to meet with co-religionists; the right to raise funds; the right to appoint or elect your religious leaders, and to carry out charitable activities, to evangelize, [and] to have religious education or seminary training.”

Read “Freedom of Worship’ Worries” on the Web site of Christianity Today.

This week’s Acton Commentary. Benjamin B. Phillips is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston Campus. This commentary was based on an article in the Journal of Markets & Morality (Vol. 12, No. 2).

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Evangelicals and Global Warming

By Benjamin Phillips

Since 2005, evangelicals have divided into two roughly opposing camps over the question of anthropogenic global warming. Official statements of the Southern Baptist Convention through its resolution process, its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the Cornwall Alliance have typically rejected the theory of anthropogenic global warming and catastrophic climate change predictions. They assert that it is more likely that global warming will be moderate and have moderate or even helpful effects on the environment over all. They also argue that the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is unlikely to have significant impact on global warming. These groups have focused primarily on the impact of climate-change policy on developing economies and the poor. On the other side, the Evangelical Environmental Network, through its Evangelical Climate Initiative and (as it seems) the SBECI have affirmed the existence and danger of anthropogenic global warming and have called for action to prevent it.

Despite conflict among evangelicals over the existence of anthropogenic global warming, there has been a great deal of consensus on the theological basis for addressing environmental degradation. Most evangelical statements appeal to the fact that God is the creator of the world as a basis for understanding the value of nonhuman creation, and many note that God is its owner. Virtually every evangelical statement on the environment and climate change acknowledges that God has commissioned humanity with the responsibility of stewardship/dominion over the earth and that the execution of this responsibility has been perverted by sin, with negative impact on the environment. Evangelicals have also, almost without exception, affirmed the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor as an important factor in considering environmental policy.

(more…)

In preparing for an Acton University lecture last week on Christianity and Government (you can listen to it here)

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I was reflecting on some of the core differences between a Christian vision of government in comparison to modern, secular visions.

While there is no single Christian vision of government and good Christians can disagree on a host of topics, one of the things that sets apart the Christian vision is a robust vision of the good life and integrated human flourishing directed toward certain ends that are fitting to man as a rational and free creature with an everlasting destiny.

The Christian idea of the good life is one of the reasons why for Christians, politics and the state, while necessary and ordained by God, are just not that important in the way they are to many ancients and modern visions.

Many critics say this is because the Church is focused on otherworldly matters. But this is insufficient. While it is true that the main concern of Christianity is eternal salvation, the Church is very concerned with living in this world—but its vision of the good life is found first in relationship with God, and then in the Church, families, and other associations in the place or places in which a person finds himself. This contrasts with certain ancient visions, or those influenced by the thought of Rousseau, which tend to see a plurality of associations as a dividing force and see man becoming integrated in and through the larger “community” of the state, thus making the state and politics central to life.

For Christians the purpose of politics is to create peace and order under which men can live out their freedoms, their responsibilities, and pursue an integrated vision of the good life. Politics is necessary and important, but by no means sufficient, primary, or the end of life–even life here on earth.

This is the vision of medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and the Reformed theologian, Johannes Althusius, who wrote that “politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.” He called this “symbiotics” and said that “the end of the political symbiotic man is holy, just, comfortable, and happy symbiosis…”

This is why Christians today need to be concerned with the revival of community, private charity, mutual aid societies, strong families, and vibrant churches. But it is also why we must beware of finding community in the state, but I’ll leave that for another post.

For those interested you can find Althusius’ Politica at Liberty Fund, and Acton colleague, Jordan Ballor discusses Althusius’ contribution in his new book Ecumenical Babel just out from Christians Library Press and available at the Acton Book Shop.

In the most recent edition of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg has an article in which he argues that the ongoing financial and economic crisis has raised serious questions about the credibility and usefulness of much mainstream contemporary economics. Drawing partly on his recent book, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (2010), Gregg suggests that much mainstream economics after Keynes became gradually dominated by a fixation upon econometrics that has threatened at times to reduce economics to a poor cousin of mathematics. As Gregg writes:

Since John Maynard Keynes’s time, mainstream economics has undergone a steady process of mathematization and immersion in abstraction. One need only glance through their nearest copy of the American Economic Review and observe the plethora of algebra that is now central to most mainstream economists’ argumentation. (p.445)

Gregg suggests that this partly reflected an unhealthy relationship between parts of the economics profession and the trend to government economic planning that accelerated after World War II. In this connection, Gregg notes:

The postwar “new economics” helped to support the belief that the state could “manage” the economy and therefore facilitated expectations that governments should attempt to do so. Governmental institutions committed to interventionist policies wanted macroeconomic research that added empirical credibility to such proposals. . . . A form of collusion consequently developed between the postwar economics profession and states pursuing interventionist strategies. (p.454)

In the second part of the article, Gregg makes the case for a re-look at the type of political economy pursued by Adam Smith: i.e., one committed to a fuller appreciation of reality.

Economists wishing to re-engage economics in a wider discussion about the truth of human reality could thus do worse than return to the writings of Adam Smith. Here one finds a truly synthetic approach to comprehending not just the economic dimension of human reality, but also how that economic component fits into a fuller picture of human reality—one that is committed to treating moral virtues as real to the same extent as the forces of entrepreneurship and peaceful free exchange, not to mention institutions such as the rule of law that are the very stuff of modern flourishing economies. Returning to Smith does not imply wholesale abandonment of all the tools and methods developed in a range of different schools of economic thought since 1776. It does, however, suggest that efforts to quarantine economic science from normative considerations or even knowledge of the basic moral goods knowable by human reason ought to be themselves viewed as unreasonable and unscientific. (p.463)

Read Gregg’s “Smith versus Keynes: Economics and Political Economy in the Post-Crisis Era” in its entirety in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

Last week’s Acton Commentary, “Unity or Unanimity at Reformed Council?” was picked up by a number of news outlets, including the Detroit News and the Holland Sentinel. The latter paper published a response to the piece by Jeffrey Japinga, “Intersection of economics and faith is valid subject for church council.”

I think Japinga misreads me, and in doing so (perhaps unintentionally) ends up agreeing with me. He thinks that I oppose the Accra Confession because “what it says disagrees with the conclusions of the Acton Institute.” I do disagree with the Confession on those grounds, to be sure. But that Accra and Acton conflict on economic questions is really the least of my concern in opposing the Accra Confession.

My greatest problem with the Accra Confession is that it proposes to make its own position a matter of confessional integrity. When Japinga compares the confession to the Acton Institute’s core principles, for instance, he’s making a number of category mistakes. The Acton Institute is a nonprofit educational and research organization, a think tank. The World Communion of Reformed Churches purports to be a global institutional representation of the Christian church.

Can you see the difference? It is the job of organizations like Acton to engage in debates in the public square about political policy, prudential and particular concerns, in this case economic. This isn’t the primary task of the institutional church, however.

What I really want at the WCRC is the “kind of open, healthy discussion” Japinga celebrates. I don’t really desire to expel what I consider to be the voices of liberation theology and neo-Marxist ideology from the WCRC. That’s not in danger of happening any time soon and my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, describes some of the reasons why.

My real concern is to see that voices that view globalization as having good aspects as well as bad, as the Accra Confession most certainly does not, are not excluded from the Reformed ecumenical discussion. I believe the adoption of the Accra statement as a confessional standard would do just that and serve to silence dissent and undermine intellectual diversity. It would turn an economic ideology (one that also happens to be false) into an article of the Reformed ecumenical faith.

As Ernest W. Lefever writes, “Taking sides and not taking sides both have moral and political pitfalls. But supporting the wrong side is the worst of all options.”

We’ve posted a dozen or so AU 2010 lectures in our online store and expect to be putting up many more in the days ahead. They’re priced at $1.99 and transactions are through a secure server at the Acton Institute Digital Downloads page. Check back often. Here’s what available now:

– Thoughts on Human Dignity – Rev. Robert A. Sirico – June 15, 2010

— Centralization and Civil Society – Dr. Daniel Mahoney – June 16, 2010

— The Federalist Debate: Balancing Liberty and Order – Dr. John Pinheiro – June 16, 2010

— Alexis de Tocqueville: Philosopher of Civil Society – Dr. Daniel Mahoney – June 16, 2010

— Christian Poverty in an Age of Prosperity – Rev. Robert A. Sirico – June 16, 2010

— Medieval Economics: The Untold Story – Jeffrey Tucker – June 16, 2010

— Cultural Decay in Free and Planned Economies – Dr. Jonathan Witt – June 16, 2010

— The Ecumenical Movement and Economics: A Critique – Jordan Ballor – June 16, 2010

— Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching – Rev. Raymond de Souza – June 17, 2010

— Social and Economic Context of the New Testament – Dr. Stephen Grabill – June 16, 2010

— The Emergent Church – Dr. Anthony Bradley – June 17, 2010

— Stewardship, Generosity, and Charitable Giving – Brett Elder – June 17, 2010

— The New Deal and the Great Society: Moral and Economic Failure – Klay & Claar – June 17, 2010

At Public Discourse, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg examines why many European governments are so hesitant to engage in much needed but painful economic reforms – especially reforms that involve diminishing the size of expansive welfare states. The causes are many, but in “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State,” Gregg zeroes in on a potentially damaging linkage between democratic systems of government and the growth of large welfare states that seek to provide economic security to ever increasing numbers of people. Substantive economic reform becomes extremely difficulty in these circumstances. Gregg writes:

No doubt, this reflects a disinclination of many European politicians—on the left and right—to concede that the post-war European effort to use the state to provide as much economic security as possible has encountered an immovable obstacle in the form of economic reality. Yet it is arguable—albeit highly politically incorrect to suggest—that it also reflects the workings of a potentially deadly nexus between democracy (or a certain culture of democracy) and the welfare state.

One justification for democracy is that it provides us with ways of aligning government policies with the citizenry’s requirements and of holding governments accountable when their decisions do not accord with the majority’s wishes. But what happens when some citizens begin viewing these mechanisms as a means for encouraging elected officials to use the state to provide them with whatever they want, such as apparently limitless economic security? And what happens when many elected officials believe it is their responsibility to provide the demanded security, or, more cynically, regard welfare programs as a useful tool to create constituencies that can be relied upon to vote for them?

Read more of “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State” on Public Discourse.