I have a deep and abiding love for liberty—which is why I find myself so often in disagreement with libertarians.
Looking through my back stacks of periodicals the other day I ran across a review in Books & Culture by David Bebbington, “Macaulay in the Dock,” of a recent biography of Thomas Babington Macaulay. The essay takes its point of departure in Lord Acton’s characterization of Macaulay as “one of the greatest of all writers and masters, although I think him utterly base, contemptible and odious.”
As Bebbington writes, “Acton, a towering intellectual of the later 19th century, was at once a strongly ideological Liberal and an entirely faithful Catholic. He considered Macaulay insufficiently liberal, and Acton, as somebody aware of the eternal law of God, felt bound to censure the historian.” It is one of the marks of Lord Acton’s historical approach that he was unwilling to bracket the question of morality from his historical judgment. As Acton contended, “Moral precepts are constant through the ages and not obedient to circumstances.” The historian could not thus proceed as if such a moral order did not exist, or was irrelevant, to the events and actions of the past. In an essay on Acton’s view of the historian, Joseph Altholtz describes Acton’s “ideal of the historian as judge, as the upholder of the moral standard.”
The biography of Macaulay at issue is by Robert E. Sullivan, who Bebbington describes as “also of liberal inclinations; and he, too, is a loyal Catholic with a firm moral outlook. The result is a biography treating Macaulay as base, contemptible, and odious.” So in one sense, argues Bebbington, what we have in Sullivan’s work is an Acton-esque biography of Macaulay, which takes into account and, indeed, passes severe moral judgment on Macaulay.
As Bebbington concludes, the biography “is less history than indictment. Macaulay stands charged with being corrupted by power—not so much his own power, even though he sat in parliament and was twice a government minister, as the power wielded by Victorian Britain.” Macaulay was captured by the triumphalism of an empire at the height of its powers, and thus propagated an imperialistic ethic:
Macaulay pandered to his country’s taste for self-aggrandizement when it was unequivocally the most powerful nation on earth. Most crucially, he sanctioned genocide: “it is in truth more merciful,” wrote Macaulay in an essay of 1838, “to extirpate a hundred thousand human beings at once, and to fill the void with a well-governed population, than to misgovern millions through a long succession of centuries.” Sullivan returns to this judgment again and again, clearly deeply troubled by it. He is outraged that Macaulay has benefited over the intervening period from silence about his “imperial ethic of extermination.” Sullivan will not remain silent.
In this way, Sullivan is seen as taking up Acton’s mantle. For as Bebbington writes, Sullivan’s critical attitude
is very much what Acton might have adopted. Acton famously remarked that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sullivan, who alludes to a version of the dictum at one point without naming Acton, holds it to be true. He also maintains Acton’s principle that the historian must make rigorous moral judgments. For Acton, persecution was an unpardonable crime. In the same way, Sullivan believes that mass murder must be condemned as an execrable evil.
Bebbington proceeds to outline many of the potential pitfalls of such an approach, and how they actually come to fruition in Sullivan’s work: “We do not know what allowance has to be made for conditions in the past.” In Bebbington’s view, Sullivan brings a kind of persecuting zeal to his indictment of Macaulay that “turns his book into a pursuit of his quarry for almost every imaginable misdeed.” Bebbington thus concludes, “Macaulay may have shared in the corruption that Acton attributed to any who exercise power, but he was not as black as he is painted here. He was not base, contemptible, and odious.”
Now it must also be said that Lord Acton characterized Macaulay as such in a letter, and not in a work of historical biography. The application of moral critique need not be pressed to the extreme to become relevant to historical judgment. Even if Sullivan’s work applies such moralizing into excess, however, it is not necessarily an indictment of Lord Acton’s approach, for the abuse of a thing is no argument against its proper use.
Indeed, a more thoroughgoing application of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting tendency of power would apply it to the power the historian exerts as well. This stance of sitting in judgment on the far side of history can turn into a kind of self-righteousness, which corrupts the reliability and the veracity of the historian’s work. This is perhaps why Altholtz describes Acton’s view as “the most noble ideal ever proposed for the historian,” but goes on to say that “it is an ideal that has been rejected, perhaps with grudging respect, by all historians, including myself.” As Scripture makes clear, God is the only one who impeccably judges the hearts and deeds of men: “At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity,” says the Lord (Psalm 75:2 ESV).
The power of the historian in exercising moral judgments may well tend to corrupt and therefore need to be circumscribed. But this is not an argument against all exercise of such power. It does mean, however, that Lord Acton’s twin ideals of moral judgment and objectivity must be held together, or ultimately not at all.
Edmund Burke didn’t really say it, but it still rings true: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. In a test of this maxim, filmmaker Casey Neistat tries to steal his own bike in several locations around New York City and finds that most people do nothing about it—even when it’s done right in front of a police station.
The White House has a plan to mobilize prayer vigils in front of the Supreme Court in defense of Obamacare. It was reported that the administration met with leaders at non-profit organizations and religious officials who support the new health care law. The court takes up the constitutional test of the health care mandate in a couple of weeks. The mandate has now been challenged in 26 states.
Cue the same stale big government religious prophets who confuse statism and centralization of power with real Gospel redemption. This will of course include agency heads of mainline denominations, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and of course a liberal imam and rabbi for religious diversity. Liberal Catholics will no doubt be clamoring for camera time too. Unsurprisingly, the United Methodist lobbying building is hosting “radio row,” where advocates can take to the airwaves to gush over the new unpopular law. Fitting symbolism, given that the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society is woefully out of touch with the beliefs of so many of their own members in the pew.
Let me point you to a few excellent posts that have already addressed the irony of this prayer vigil given the religious conscience violation by the administration. Over at National Review Online, Yuval Levin gets right to crux of the issue with “Pray for the Mandate.” Fr. John Zuhlsdorf pretty much goes off, and appropriately so with his post, “The Obama Administration is organizing…. WHAT?!?”
In popular culture we hear lots of commentary and jokes about fundamentalists or “religious rubes.” They often reside in “flyover country” or the bible belt and are subject to sneers by the “elite.” These rubes, we’re told, frequently pray for greater morality and for a spiritual revival to sweep the country. Who can forget the snickering at the prayer rally organized by Texas Governor Rick Perry for the nation in 2011? Or the giggling by the enlightened when Southern governors or governors of farm states issue prayer calls for rain during droughts? But increasingly, it seems like the real religious rubes are the stale big government apostles whose power and partisanship is baptized by a bureaucracy that to them is omnipotent.
Partisanship and different worldviews are understandable and should be encouraged in our society. But when spiritual leaders are at the bidding of the bureaucracy, and embody an unwillingness to think critically about religious conscience and mandates, inevitably they become more of a religious rube than the ones they find so unenlightening.
Kishore Jayabalan, the Acton Institute’s Rome office director, was interviewed by the Zenit news agency in an article titled, “Is Taxing the Church a Real Solution for Italy?” In the article, Jayabalan discusses the history of the Italian state and its imposition of property taxes on the Roman Catholic Church’s land holdings, residences and non-profit businesses.
Sometimes in the past, particularly under Napoleonic rule and before the Lateran Pacts, the institution of property tax was often a subject of state persecution of the Church in economic terms. Mr. Jayabalan answers critical questions about the reasons behind Italy’s evolving (or rather “revolving”) fiscal policies and historic land expropriations to the Church’s detriment.
The Church has traditionally been exempt from paying ICI [property tax] on non-commercial entities because they serve a social purpose. The old law actually exempted entitles that were ‘predominantly’ non-commercial. The new law exempts simply non-commercial entities, so there will be some re-defining of what is non-commercial or not by the Italian Ministry of the Economy. Jewish, Muslim, and other religious, and for that matter secular, non-profits were also ICI-exempt, so this was not a case of special pleading for the Catholic Church in Italy, even though Catholic institutions dwarf the others numerically…
Of course this is not the first time the Church has been muscled out of land. Napoleon’s massive cash taxes upon his conquest of Italy were designed to force noble families (generally with very close ties to the Church) out of their lands and titles. Napoleon spared the Church the niceties of taxes, choosing to simply expropriate the property. The unification of Italy as well saw Church lands, art and lives lost as the new nation was formed. But even this was nothing new. After all Nero had blamed the Christians for a fire he set to clear some land in downtown Rome, so in the end Sts. Peter and Paul and 900 other Christians were killed for a real estate deal.
To read Jayabalan’s full interview, go here.
Phillip Long is a professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Grace Bible College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and blogs over at Reading Acts. Phil does not normally review this kind of book, but was drawn to it due to Abraham Kuyper’s popularity and his contribution to worldview issues today.
Long shares some good observations and this book and its relevance for Christianity today, particularly those with an aversion to the study of science and the pursuit of a career in art.