In the June issue of Reason Magazine, Ezra Levant details his long and unnecessary struggle with Canadian human rights watchdogs over charges that he insulted a Muslim extremist, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. This sorry episode also cost Levant, the former publisher of Canada’s Western Standard magazine, about $100,000. Read “The Internet Saved My Life: How I beat Canada’s ‘human rights’ censors.” (HT: RealClearPolitics). Levant sums it up this way:

The investigation vividly illustrated how Canada’s provincial and national human rights commissions (HRCs), created in the 1970s to police discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services, have been hijacked as weapons against speech that offends members of minority groups. My eventual victory over this censorious assault suggests that Western governments will find it increasingly difficult in the age of the Internet to continue undermining human rights in the name of defending them.

In a Religion & Liberty review of “Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns” by Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), I talked about the archbishop’s critique of human rights laws and how they should be properly understood by Christians.

In the essay “Orthodoxy and Human Rights,” Anastasios takes a critical view of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, and the later development of these declarations into exhaustive lists of economic, social, and political rights. Anastasios makes an important distinction between rights declarations, and their enforcement through legal and political forms of coercion, and Christianity’s preferred method of persuasion and faith. “Declarations basically stress outward compliance,” he says, “while the gospel insists on inner acceptance, on spiritual rebirth, and on transformation.”

Anastasios reminds us of Christianity’s contribution to the development of political liberty. “Human rights documents,” he says, “presuppose the Christian legacy, which is not only a system of thought and a worldview that took shape through the contributions of the Christian and Greek spirit, but also a tradition of self-criticism and repentance.” Those words should be hung from banners everywhere new constitutions and declarations are being drafted.

(more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, May 4, 2009

Last week Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, made the case for “ethical” populism. Speaking of the Tea Party phenomenon, he writes,

the tea parties are not based on the cold wonkery of budget data. They are based on an “ethical populism.” The protesters are homeowners who didn’t walk away from their mortgages, small business owners who don’t want corporate welfare and bankers who kept their heads during the frenzy and don’t need bailouts. They were the people who were doing the important things right — and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.

There are of course many variations on a theme, ranging from Brooks’ “ethical” populism, to Dreher’s “crunchy” conservatism, to blatant political pandering.

But the challenge for conservatism, so often understood to be an elitist political philosophy focused on privilege, is to properly deal with populist phenomena. So this week’s PBR question is: “What is wrong with populism?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, May 4, 2009

This month’s Christianity Today features a cover package devoted to the challenge faced by non-profit ministries amidst the recent economic downturn. The lengthy analysis defies any easy or simplistic summary of the state of Christian charity. There are examples of ministries that are scaling back as well as those who are enjoying donations at increased levels.

Compassion International and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are cited as those bucking the conventional logic that giving to charities decreases during a recession. “So far, many parachurch ministries are not facing the same income declines as other organizations. In fact, some are forging ahead with bold initiatives that seemingly defy the dour economic tone,” writes John W. Kennedy.

At the same time, Prison Fellowship laid of 40 staffers in January as part of a 12% budget reduction. And in a more recent move, International Aid, based in Spring Lake, Michigan, announced the resignation of Myles Fish as president and CEO. Following a sharp decline in donations, the agreement for Fish to resign is part of a larger restructuring plan to deal with decreased income.

Fish reported that revenue fell by about $600,000 in December of 2008. “People are perhaps more focused on the needs of the local agencies than the international ones,” he said.

So while the results reported by CT might well give us a less pessimistic perspective on the landscape of Christian giving, it also seems true that the economic downturn is changing not only spending habits but also giving patterns. Charities with more marginal loyalties are more likely to suffer than those with a “family-like link,” and there also appears to be a correlative move toward local rather than international needs.

This may not be all bad. I’m not in principle against voluntary wealth transfers between citizens in richer and poorer nations, and I support the work of groups like Compassion International and Five Talents. But the ability for givers to be significantly involved in keeping tabs on the oversight and administration of an agency is usually reduced as the focus moves away from local involvement.

Writing on the Big Hollywood blog, Dallas Jenkins asks the question: “Why are Christian Movies So Bad?” Jenkins, a filmmaker and the son of “Left Behind” novelist Jerry Jenkins, points to a number of telling reasons for the glaring deficit in artistic accomplishment, what you might call the dreck factor, that is evident in so many films aimed at the faithful. Jenkins’ critique points to something we’ve been talking about at Acton for some time: the need for conservatives to understand and master the art of narrative, not just the rhetorical skills that have served them so well in politics and policy. Jenkins says:

The problem is that everyone knows good art should always put story and character above message. Message films are rarely exciting. So by their very nature, most Christian films aren’t going to be very good because they have to fall within certain message-based parameters. And because the Christian audience is so glad to get a “safe, redeeming, faith-based message,” even at the expense of great art, they don’t demand higher artistic standards. So aspiring filmmakers who are Christians have little need to perfect their craft, and Christian investors have little need to spend a lot of money because the message is going to be most important anyway. Add in the fact that the average heartland Christian couldn’t care less what a critic thinks — if anything, they assume they’ll feel the opposite of a movie critic — and you’ve got even less incentive for Christian filmmakers to be obsessed with quality.

Or, as producer Samuel Goldwyn has often been quoted as saying, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Does the left make “message” movies? Sure, all of the time (think of just about any George Clooney picture). And these agit-prop productions frequently bomb. But Jenkins is is correct in pointing out that generally speaking the cultural right still hasn’t mastered even the rudiments of cinema storytelling. This is a grave problem because America’s chief myth making industries — feature films, television entertainment, book publishing, popular music — are largely the province of the cultural left. Then again, if you’re in that camp, you could plausibly argue that, “We’re just better at this stuff.”

The power of narrative lies in its ability to reach the whole person, the heart and the head. It begins by creating an effect on the emotions — moving a person — and can register indelibly in human memory. Thus, narrative can serve as a powerful means of communicating ideas, but not primarily in message form. It works at a deeper level, sometimes tapping into the mythic consciousness of an entire people. That is why narrative is essential for political mass movements; once you get the hearts and the minds of the people excited, you can then move their feet in the direction you want them to go. Most recently, this political narrative form has been used artfully by candidate and now President Barack Obama (see “Obama and the Moral Imagination”). (more…)

Blog author: rsirico
posted by on Friday, May 1, 2009

For those following the University of Notre Dame controversy, this moving article over at First Things poses a compelling question at the end – a question that each member of the Board of Notre Dame (meeting today) ought to ask themselves:

There have been many things written about the honors to be extended to President Obama. I’d like to ask this of Fr. John Jenkins, the Notre Dame president: Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama—the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?

Read Lacy Dodd’s “Notre Dame, My Mother,” at First Things.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, April 30, 2009

roose3Brown University student Kevin Roose has written a largely sympathetic and often amusing outsider’s account on the spiritual lives and struggles of conservative evangelical students at Liberty University. Roose, who took a semester off at Brown, decided to enroll at Liberty posing as an evangelical for his book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Possibly setting out to write an expose of sorts on Liberty’s quirky Southern Baptist fundamentalism and the students efforts there to gear up for the culture wars, he unsurprisingly finds a much more complex story to tell.

Complex because Liberty students, like most evangelical Christians struggle with temptation, relationships, and the trials that go with being an authentic believer living in a fallen world. In regards to Roose’s own preconceived notions or stereotypes, listen to his own words:

All in all, the Liberty students I’ve met are a lot more socially adjusted than I expected. They’re not rabid, frothing fundamentalists who spend their days sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and penning angry missives to the ACLU. Maybe I’m getting a skewed sample, but the ones I’ve met have been funny, articulate, and decidedly non-crazy.

In fact, Roose’s account does a good job of demolishing the left’s stereotypes of places like Liberty, a school where you can probably find some absurd stereotypes about Ivy League schools. Roose, by a twist of fate, actually ends up conducting the last print interview of Liberty’s president Jerry Falwell before his unexpected death a few days following Roose’s hour long sit down session with Falwell. This is where the author who was once a foe of Falwell because of his many public statements, decides Falwell is more “complex” and points out a good deal of his compassion in the pages of his book. While he still disagrees with Fallwell’s brand of ministry and politics, Roose can’t but help admire his authenticity:

Realizing that Dr. Falwell isn’t a fraud – as troubling a notion as that is – has helped me solve one of the great mysteries of this semester. For months now, I’ve been puzzled by the thousands of good, kind-hearted believers at Liberty who follow a man who seems, to my mind, to be almost unredeemable. They like him, I’m learning, because he’s a straight shooter. In a half century of preaching, Dr. Falwell has said some outrageous things, and he’s angered Christians and non-Christians alike, but he’s never revealed himself as a hypocrite. He’s never been caught in sexual sin, and he’s been transparent in his financial dealings as you could reasonably expect. And in the world of televangelism, a world filled to the brim with hucksters and charlatans and Elmer Gantry – type swindlers, a little sincerity goes a long way.

The book is a great account if one is looking for funny tales and anecdotes about evangelism, the Liberty dating scene, the teaching of young earth creationism, and Christian fundamentalism in general. There are also spiritual lessons to be learned. I believe each reader will pull different lessons and truths from this account.

I’ve noticed the Emergent Church movement has embraced Roose’s book and Roose himself calls the Emergent Church, “A growing brand of evangelicalism that de-emphasizes political issues like abortion and gay marriage and seeks to return to a more spiritual form of Christianity.” This of course is a wildly sympathetic view of the Emergent Church, because some evangelicals who question the practice of de-emphasizing substitutionary atonement, hell, and doctrines like justification by faith would definitely disagree with the idea that the Emergent Church is a “return to a more spiritual form of Christianity.”

At any rate I can relate to some of what Roose experiences from my own seminary experience. Although I came in as a believer and graduated as a believer I bristled at some of the legalism associated with a Wesleyan Holiness school and worked to tame my tongue around others. Sometimes I felt like I was trapped in the endless mandatory spiritual formation in the small groups that accompanied many courses. There were many a days I felt like an outsider. But when I had problems with a decision made by the administration or from all the busy work that at times seemed unbecoming of a graduate student, I was buoyed, like Roose, from knowing and being in fellowship with some great Christians in my seminary community.

While I’m a conservative evangelical, like many evangelicals I’ve been both amused and frustrated with an element of fundamentalism. Sometimes its rigidity can appear like an eternal plague of locusts, causing me to flee wherever it lands. But if this book reinforced anything for me, it’s a very basic truth, and that is as an evangelical I love God’s people and I grieve for lost souls. I found myself wanting to minister to the troubled souls described in Roose’s book, and of course Roose himself. According to this AP article he even thinks about joining a church.

Since leaving seminary, like so many others, I’ve struggled with areas of ministry, but one thing I think I’ve always been blessed with is an ability to preach and exhort God’s Word. I can remember sitting in preaching class and my professor said, “You have to preach John 3:16 every sermon. You might have to use different passages and find different ways to say it, but the central message should be a John 3:16 one.” I agree and when I look out on a deeply troubled and complex world, it’s important to see people as the image bearers of God, and that they were created for fellowship with the Triune God, and there is no love like God’s love. And ultimately the toils and trials of this world have already been decided by the victory of Christ over sin and death. And that is indeed news worth sharing.

In “The Real Culture War Is Over Capitalism,” Arthur C. Brooks argues in the Wall Street Journal that the “major cultural schism” in America today divides those who support capitalism and, on the other side, those who favor socialism. He makes a strong case for the moral foundations of free enterprise and entrepreneurship and points to the recent “tea parties” as evidence that Americans still favor the market economy. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, says Americans are revolting against “absurdities” like the bailout of General Motors that will be financed with ballooning budget deficits and trillions in new federal debt. He writes:

… the tea parties are not based on the cold wonkery of budget data. They are based on an “ethical populism.” The protesters are homeowners who didn’t walk away from their mortgages, small business owners who don’t want corporate welfare and bankers who kept their heads during the frenzy and don’t need bailouts. They were the people who were doing the important things right — and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.

Voices in the media, academia, and the government will dismiss this ethical populism as a fringe movement — maybe even dangerous extremism. In truth, free markets, limited government, and entrepreneurship are still a majoritarian taste. In March 2009, the Pew Research Center asked people if we are better off “in a free market economy even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time.” Fully 70% agreed, versus 20% who disagreed.

He also points out that the government has been increasingly “exempting” Americans from paying taxes, an intentional strategy to create a larger class of government-dependent citizens.

My colleague Adam Lerrick showed in [the Wall Street Journal] last year that the percentage of American adults who have no federal income-tax liability will rise to 49% from 40% under Mr. Obama’s tax plan. Another 11% will pay less than 5% of their income in federal income taxes and less than $1,000 in total.

To put a modern twist on the old axiom, a man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart; a man who is still a socialist at 40 either has no head, or pays no taxes. Social Democrats are working to create a society where the majority are net recipients of the “sharing economy.” They are fighting a culture war of attrition with economic tools. Defenders of capitalism risk getting caught flat-footed with increasingly antiquated arguments that free enterprise is a Main Street pocketbook issue. Progressives are working relentlessly to see that it is not.

Read the “The Culture of Charity,” the Spring 2007 interview with Brooks in Acton’s Religion & Liberty. Watch a 16-minute video interview with Brooks recorded at the Acton Grand Rapids office in May 2008

Blog author: brittany.hunter
posted by on Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What’s behind the extremely high unemployment rates in black communities? Anthony Bradley traces the root of the problem to declining educational achievement. “Sadly, because of America’s exploding government program menu, the virtue of ‘getting an education’ has all but been eliminated in low-income black neighborhoods,” he writes.

Read the commentary at the Acton Institute website and share your thoughts below.

“America has been cashing checks on the promise of future Social Security checks, and on the promise of an endlessly robust housing market,” writes Jonathan Witt in his commentary this week. “But somewhere along the way, too many of us stopped funding the checking account with its principal asset: young adults who work hard, pay into the Social Security system, and buy homes for the families they themselves intend to raise.”

Read the commentary at the Acton Institute website and participate in the discussion below.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, April 28, 2009

No, conservative and Christian are not synonymous, but in the context of the cultural impact of Hollywood, there’s a lot of overlap. For Christians interested in engaging this field by pursuing both technical and moral excellence, there is an outstanding organization called Act One.