Sam Gregg marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Alexis de Tocqueville whose great work “Democracy in America” warned about the dangers of a comfortable servility. “The American Republic,” Tocqueville wrote, “will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

Read the commentary at the Acton website and comment on it here.

In this piece John Pisciotta, a professor of economics at Baylor University, offers a number of sound reasons for getting rid of earmarks on appropriations bills, including their tendency to invite corruption. “Those who seek them are tempted to skirt the law to win favor with a legislator so as to be graced with an earmark,” he writes. “We should not be surprised that a handful of former members of Congress now receive free room and board at federal prisons.”

Read the commentary at the Acton website and comment on it here.

Kevin Allen, host of The Illumined Heart podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, interviews writer, attorney, and college professor Chris Banescu, an Orthodox Christian, about the economic, moral and spiritual issues surrounding the market economy. Kevin asks: Does the capitalist system serve “the best interests of Christians living the life of the Beatitudes?”

Listen to Chris Banescu on Orthodox Christianity and Capitalism:

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Read “A Primer on Capitalism” on Chris’ personal Web site.

He is also the author of two articles on home schooling (here and here) for Acton Commentary.

Blog author: rnothstine
Monday, April 20, 2009
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patriots-day Patriots’ Day commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. It is officially celebrated in Massachusetts and Maine, and is now observed on the third Monday in April to allow for a three day weekend.

Patriots’ Day is also the day upon which the Boston Marathon is held and the Boston Red Sox are always scheduled to play at home with the only official A.M. start in Major League Baseball.

My Patriots’ Day post last year references an excellent book that studies the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord titled Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. This is a terrific account that can’t be recommended too often. I can think of no other book that does a better job of capturing the intensity, seriousness, and overt bravery of the men who took up arms against the British Crown.

The history of colonial American militias is in fact unique. All the men who took up arms that day may not have been able to envision a final outcome or even a final political solution for their grievances, but they knew they were living in a historic time of change. The idea that rights were bestowed not by man but by God had already taken root in the colonies. Furthermore, if government was empowered, it’s purpose in empowerment was to protect the people not to subject them. It’s important to remember Patriots’ Day and ask ourselves about its relevance today.

This year April 6th marked the 15th anniversary of beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. Catherin Claire Larson, a senior writer and editor at Prison Fellowship Ministries, has written a new book called As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, which focuses on how such wounds opened up fifteen years ago are being healed today. (Larson’s book is inspired by the award-winning film of the same name, which debuted in April 2008. Comment carried an interview with Laura Waters Hinson, the driving force behind the documentary film.)

Larson writes,

Rwanda’s wounds … are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates. In the everyday business of life—purchasing corrugated metal for roofing, burying bananas in the ground to make urwagwa, and hauling harvested sorghum to the market—survivors commonly meet the eyes of people who shatter their former lives. How can they live together? This is not a philosophical question, but a practical one that confronts Rwandans daily.

Indeed, this question is one that impacts all of us who are called to forgive those who trespass against us just as we hope to be forgiven.

In recognition of the Rwandan genocide, Larson is conducting a blog tour to commemorate the anniversary, and the PowerBlog is honored to be the second stop on the tour over the next 100 days. Larson has already made a visit to the Dawn Treader blog and discussed the costly nature of forgiveness.

Larson’s book is a deeply moving exploration of the political, religious, and civil aspects of sin and forgiveness, told from within the context of Rwandan society. You can look forward to a full review of her book later this week.

For our stop on the As We Forgive blog tour, we’ll be exploring some of the social aspects of reconciliation, especially as related to the Rwandan situation, throughout the week. The government’s role in both the initiation of the genocide and the practice of reconciliation is an important theme in Larson’s book. One of Larson’ subjects, a Hutu man named Saveri, notes on the former point, “What brought us the conviction to commit genocide was the indoctrination of divisive ideas by bad government.” But Larson also touches on the role government can play in promoting reconciliation.

There are important theological, religious, and spiritual aspects to forgiveness as well, and the church as an institution and other ministries have important influences on the ability of a society to heal after such terrible crimes committed by neighbor against neighbor.

So too are there important economic realities at work, as a team of Acton Institute staffers found on their own recent trip to Rwanda. Larson writes, for instance, of the redemptive nature of some form of work or economic restitution as both symbolic acts of repentance and concrete acts of economic interdependence. Larson writes of Saveri’s involvement in the work of a group of volunteers who prepare the sorghum harvest for one of the surviving victims of the genocide:

Within the gate, the work itself was monotonous and dragged on from morning into the afternoon. Yet even so, it held a strange beauty. The deep crimson of the kernels, the smell of the burning fire, the way the bodies of the men and women swayed as they tossed and shook the baskets, and of course, the percussion of labor. The scene took on a symphonic quality, as the rhythmic thud of the pestle pole marked a beat and the swish of the kernels tossed up in the baskets settled into the offbeat, survivors and perpetrators creating the point and counterpoint to reconciliation’s song.

As we look forward to discussing Larson’s book and the political, economic, and religious aspects of forgiveness and reconciliation in more detail, this week’s PBR question is: “What social conditions promote reconciliation?”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, April 17, 2009
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This Sunday I’ll be giving a talk at Fountain Street Church on the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His unfinished Ethics is a tantalizing work, full of insights and conundrums. Here’s what he writes in the essay, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” with regard to the church’s engagement in social justice:

Who actually says that all worldly problems should and can be solved? Perhaps to God the unsolved condition of these problems may be more important than their solution, namely, as a pointer to the human fall and to God’s redemption. Human problems are perhaps so entangled, so wrongly posed, that they are in fact really impossible to solve. (The problem of the poor and the rich can never be solved in any other way than leaving it unsolved.)

This kind of perspective flies in the face of the arrogance of so much of the contemporary transformationalist social justice movement among Christians. It allows us to see the possibility that the brokenness of the world is not meant to be solved in the end by anything other than God’s own redemptive work in Jesus Christ. It provides a boundary against any kind of post-millennial triumphalism.

One of the charities my wife and I make a point to support is Compassion International. There are a great number of things that could be said about the work of this ministry. But I want to point out a piece by Tim Glenn, Compassion International’s U.S. Advocacy Director, called “Why We Can’t End Poverty.” In this post you’ll find none of the high-handed presumption that the only thing keeping us from “making poverty history” is our political will to do so: our governments just aren’t giving enough.

Instead, Glenn discusses the end of poverty within a framework that agrees with that presented by Bonhoeffer above. “I don’t think we’re called to end poverty. I do think we’re called to be obedient to God’s command,” writes Glenn. “I think God allows poverty so that His glory may be shown … through His people doing His work … obeying that command.”

The First Amendment rights of religious groups are under assault in the public square. As Kevin Schmiesing reminds us in today’s Acton Commentary, “History’s tyrants recognized the progression that some of us have forgotten: Where people are free to act according their conscience, they will demand the right to determine their political destiny.”

Read the commentary at the Acton Website and comment on it here.

Blog author: eschansberg
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
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Just in time for April 1st and April 15th, let’s talk about taxes.

On April 1st, the excise tax on cigarettes was increased dramatically—from $.39 to $1.01 per pack. It’s fitting that this occurred on April Fools’ Day, since it served to break President Obama’s campaign pledge not to increase “any form of” taxes on any family making less than $250,000 per year.

Independent of breaking a campaign promise, such a tax is attractive for non-smokers since the costs are imposed on other people and it reduces a harmful behavior.

But the tax is troubling on several levels. First, what are the limits to the government’s paternalism in the consumption of a legal product? Second, to the extent that people reduce their smoking, this will undermine state tax revenues based on tobacco (by an estimated $1 billion)—in a time of already strained budgets. Third, taxes reduce economic activity and jobs, by definition—not a good idea during a recession.

But I want to focus on one final aspect: since smokers are disproportionately low-income, is it fair to increase taxes in such a regressive manner on the poor? And if Democrats are seen as defenders of the poor, why are they increasing their taxes? These are great questions—and ones that should be asked more often, because the government imposes all sorts of taxes on the poor.

Many of these burdens are indirect. Corporate income taxes are borne by consumers as higher prices; property taxes are borne by tenants as higher rent. Environmental regulations and “card-check” legislation would increase costs for firms and thus, increase prices for consumers and drive away jobs overseas. A wide variety of trade restrictions on food and clothing serve to dramatically increase the basic costs of living.

But here’s the biggie: federal payroll taxes. Lower-income families rarely pay any significant federal “income tax”—the tax on income that we celebrate on April 15th. And they face modest state and county income taxes. Meanwhile, they’re hammered by the 15.3% federal payroll tax on income. Every dollar earned by the lower and middle classes is exposed to payroll taxes; there are no deductions or exemptions.

A family at the poverty line is nowhere near paying federal income taxes—and in many states, will not pay state income taxes either. (Unfortunately, a working poor family in Indiana pays hundreds of dollars per year.) Even an upper-middle income family like mine loses more than twice as much money to federal payroll taxes—compared to federal, state, and county income taxes combined!

It’s amazing that payroll taxes receive so little attention given the staggering burden they place on workers, especially those in the lower and middle classes. Why are they ignored? Two reasons. First, half of their burden is hidden as the employer’s share of the tax. (Don’t be fooled; we pay that half too—in the form of lower wages and compensation. Do you think gas stations pay the gas tax for you?) Second, because it is withheld from our paychecks and we never file a 1040, we tend to overlook it, despite its amazing bulk.

This April 15th, feel free to toss a few choice words at the Tax Man. But make sure to spend some time looking at your pay stub and thinking about payroll taxes.

An essay of mine appears today over at the First Things website as part of their “On the Square: Observations & Contentions” feature. In “Between Market and State,” I explore the dialectic logic of market and government “failure,” which functions in part to provide us with a false dilemma: our solution to social problems must lie with either “market” or “state.”

I work out this logic in the context of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and conclude that non-profits play a critical role as mediating institutions that are not driven in the first place by profit motives. A great deal of the economic woe of the last year or so has been the result of seeing the poor as objects of material gain rather than partners in charitable compassion. Read the piece over at the First Things site and discuss it here.

I should note that PowerBlog contributor Dr. William Luckey has provided a brief and challenging analysis of the role of non-profits. His survey of the treatment of non-profits in the literature includes the observation, “Many sources see the purposes of non-profits as taking up the slack from either market failure or government failure, thus revealing a pro-statist, anti-market bias.” The argument in my First Things essay takes the position that one purpose of non-profits is to “take up the slack,” so to speak. But I don’t see how this by definition reveals a “pro-statist, anti-market bias.”

As I say in the essay,

Advocates for government intervention abound nowadays. But apologists for the market economy do themselves and their cause no favors when they ignore the fact that there are limits to what the market can and ought to be asked to do. Indeed, much of what has been called “market failure” is actually the result of applying market-based solutions to problems for which profit considerations ought to be considered secondarily—if at all.

Within a market framework people tend to maximize efficiency and increase material well-being. But the market is not the answer for everything. It cannot tell us, for instance, how to arrange our familial or spiritual lives.

I was influenced in this line of thinking by a brief reflection from Arnold Kling, who writes about two propositions in the context of the sub-prime lending disaster: 1) Market failure is inevitable; and 2) Government failure is inevitable. He says, “In talking about the financial crisis, I believe that to speak the truth one has to accept both propositions. Most people prefer narrative, which either explicitly or implicitly denies one or the other.”

To be sure, I do think Luckey is right to call for “a completely new study of non-profit organizations,” an early attempt at which was made in the context of Acton’s own Samaritan Guide program. (With Marvin Olasky’s comment that the finalists tended to be either “rescue missions for the homeless or rehab centers for alcoholics and addicts” in view as well, see the conclusions of the promising paper, “Faith Makes a Difference: A Study of the Influence of Faith in Human Service Programs,” by Beryl Hugen, Fred De Jong, and Karen Woods.)

One non-profit ministry that I highlight in the First Things essay that is neither a homeless shelter nor a rehab center is the Inner City Christian Federation. This is a worthy organization that merits a great deal of attention in the debate about home ownership, the mortgage industry, and Christian charity.

As I also note in the First Things essay, this discussion about the credit crisis must go to our core assumptions about home ownership. A fascinating interview with Edmund Phelps, director of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society, picks up on some of these issues. Phelps has a lot of great things to say, and here’s one of them:

I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.

A handy chart showing the movement in trust in social institutions over the last thirty years according to the General Social Survey is available here.

Non-profits are increasingly being squeezed out between market and state, and the solutions they offer are either marginalized or subsumed under the logic of profit or coercion. As many others have noted, some recent policy initiatives, most notably lowering the limit on qualifying charitable donations, will only serve to exacerbate this problem.

I recently received a request from a reporter to respond to the recent spate of studies and stories positing a decline in American Christianity. Here’s how I answered:

Broadly speaking, it is silly to think of secularization as a linear process. The prominence of the Christian faith waxes and wanes during different historical periods. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, the old golden age of faith picture of antiquity is not nearly as strong as many believe. There is, however, always a solid and motivated core.

What differs over time is the overall number of people who want to associate themselves with the basic project of the church. Sometimes, that seems advantageous and people do it for reasons of social respectability or advancement. At other times there is little to be gained from it and many turn to spending Sundays on the golf course or with the New York Times.

We happen to be in one of the periods when there is not a lot of social prestige or other benefit to being in the church and thus nominal members are dropping out. They have no desire to meet even modest demands of the church when they see no compensatory benefit.

The drop off in the number of nominal Christians also results from the ascendancy of conservative Christianity in the United States. The more intensely the church stands for something, the less likely it is that people with low commitment will associate themselves with the church. This has always been the church’s dilemma. Should it be a comprehensive church that baptizes babies and includes everyone in a Christendom model? Or should it concentrate on voluntary, adult decisions for a strict faith that actively excludes those not with the program. While mega-churches are often criticized for trying to be all things to all people, doctrinally speaking they are actually pretty orthodox and tilt more in the direction of believers with some commitment.

What has happened in the last fifty years is that the mainline churches which had seemed to prevail during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy actually lost by becoming increasingly liberal. They became so liberal that their membership had nothing to attach themselves too other than being against conservative Christianity. They can do that just as easily on their own as they can in a liberal church. They end up in the “other” or “none” category when religionists are counted.

In summary, the disappearance of the middle option of a semi-orthodox mainline Protestantism and the corresponding rise of conservative Protestantism is the best explanation for the results we see in the ARIS survey and other observances which claim a future of religious decline.