We as Americans are very proud of our history. We admire our forefathers who took a stand for liberty to found this great nation, but it would be unwise, as her former colonists, for Americans to overlook the British contribution to human freedom following the events of 1776. Doing so will allow us to understand more fully the role of religion and freedom in our own society.

The beginning of the 19th century was a tumultuous time for those who love liberty. Embroiled in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1793-1815, Great Britain fought and bested every sea power in Europe. With her naval supremacy assured by the victory at Trafalgar in 1805, Britain undertook a new moral enterprise in 1807—the end of the slave trade in the Atlantic.

While Great Britain was the only country with a navy capable of pursuing this endeavor, an underlying question remains unanswered. Why would the British attempt this? Britain was the foremost slave trading power in the two decades preceding the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and her government made tremendous profits by transporting human cargo to the New World. Furthermore, the embattled crown committed 13 percent of her navy to a newly formed, “West Africa Squadron” in order to suppress the illicit industry. The squadron would operate until the 1860s and more than 25 percent of its sailors would die, mostly from malaria and yellow fever. Despite these figures, the Royal Navy freed 150,000 Africans from bondage, captured 1,600 slave ships, and burned slave trading depots from the Cape of Good Hope to Morocco, which effectively ended the trans-Atlantic slave trade by 1866.

(more…)

Fr. Kevin’s talk raised a number of questions about the status of sports in our society. Here are some of them:

  • Have we lost a healthy sense of leisure and play, to the point where sport and entertainment have become similar to a religious ritual or duty?
  • Is the desire to win at all costs inherent to sports? What’s the point of playing a game if not to win?
  • Why don’t religious leaders criticize athletes who cheat, such as flopping Italian soccer players? Are such standards culturally conditioned?
  • Are there different virtues associated with different sports, depending on the rules and culture of the particular sport?
  • Do big business and corporate sponsorships entice athletes to cheat?

Obviously, there were not many clear answers to these questions, but Fr. Kevin did his best to encourage an healthy appreciation of sports, and reminded us that while St. Paul most probably was not an athlete himself, he definitely knew that living with, in and for Christ is the greatest prize of all.

I think most thinking sports fans are aware of the ambiguities of their passion and try to keep it in check. But at the same time, the desire to train, compete, and win helps us recognize that excellence/virtue actually exist. This recognition is essential to fighting the good fight against egalitarian complacency and mediocrity; it is also essential to the entrepreneurial vocation.

Last night I watched the latest episode of The Apprentice: Celebrity Edition. I have been pulled into the series this year largely because of the compelling finishes where The Donald lectures celebrities about their work habits and managerial ineptness. Dennis Rodman has been a draw because of his incredibly bad behavior.

This was Dennis’ week. His teammates chose him to be the project manager because they hoped he would rise to the challenge if he was running things. It worked, for a short while, then he drank enough to go past caring. First, he got angry. Then, he absented himself from the project he was supposed to direct.

The men’s team lost, which gave rise to the beautiful moment. Motorcycle entrepeneur and reality star Jesse James confronted Dennis Rodman with his drinking problem. The others readily agreed with the diagnosis. Rodman got angry and defensive, mostly offering support of his own worthiness by adverting to his NBA career which has been over for some time now. Finally, getting nowhere, Rodman said in frustration, “I . . . I could kick all y’all’s a**es. Everyone one here.”

Now, I’m not sure that is actually true. Jesse James, for example, was a professional bodyguard at one point. But James didn’t respond to Rodman’s provocation with a physical challenge. His actual reply was devastating:

Then why don’t you kick our a**es at being a good person?

Rodman sat silent.

I called this a beautiful moment for the natural law because Jesse James put the idea out there for millions of people whether he or they realized it. We know what a good person is. We expect people to aspire to that AND to achieve it.

At a minimum, we expect people to be honest, to keep their promises, to be reliable, and to moderate their own behavior out of respect for others. These are things Thomas Aquinas would say we can reason to from the premise of the social nature of man. Rodman did none of that. And he was kicked out.

This year’s national meeting of the Philadelphia Society was my first. William Campbell of LSU invited me (a young-ish faculty member of Houston Baptist University) after reading a piece I wrote on libertarians and conservatives for the Acton Institute. I am very thankful for the opportunity and enjoyed the event very much. The list of attendees was really quite impressive and people were generally interested in and open to others.

At each meal I sat with a different group of people and found the conversation rewarding. There was a strong sense of fellowship and collegiality. I felt that individuals who offered divergences of opinion were treated respectfully and well. It was, in the best sense of the word, scholarly.

However, I write to offer a suggestion. To me, the panels shaded too much to the hall of famer/veteran side and not enough (or even at all) to rising, young talent needing an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do or what new things they have to say. A meeting of this kind would represent a great way for the distinguished members to identify talent and then to figure out how to promote the careers of young people who can seek to build on the previous generation’s successes.

For every paper delivered by a long-standing member who is confident in what he has said and is ready to say it again, there are young people who will work their brains out for a chance to present something impressive to people they respect. The leadership needs to figure out how to move national meetings in that direction to a greater degree.

From the question of performance-enhancing drugs to antitrust issues in the BCS, government involvement in professional sports is a common occurrence nowadays. Then-President-elect Obama said that he would favor a playoff system for Division I college football and that he would “throw” his weight around a little bit in pursuit of that agenda. Congress recently announced plans to take up the question of antitrust issues with the BCS.

The powerful influence of professional sports on today’s culture raises complex questions about the intersection between business and government, as well as education and moral formation. Perhaps nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the midst of March Madness.

It is timely then that tomorrow the Acton Institute’s Rome office hosts a talk by Fr. Kevin Lixey, LC, head of the Church and Sport Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Fr. Lixey’s talk is titled, “Fighting the good fight: The promise and peril of sports as a training ground for virtue,” and is introduced in this way:

2000 years ago, St. Paul wrote “athletes are disciplined in every way.” But in nearly every country and every popular sport, the news reports as much scandal as inspiration. Can sports still foster human virtues? Or has the desire to win at all costs, please the crowds and increase profits destroyed the nobility of athletic competition? In this year dedicated to St. Paul, would he still use sports as an example for Christians?

So this week’s PowerBlog Ramblings topic takes up Fr. Lixey’s question: “Can sports still foster human virtues?”

The Philadelphia Society’s New Orleans meeting has concluded. This was my first time to be invited. I have some impressions to report about both the society and the town. For this post, I’ll focus on New Orleans.

If I can judge from the French Quarter and the rush hour traffic, New Orleans is back. The downtown area was absolutely hopping and it wasn’t Mardi Gras time. I’ve never seen an American city other than NYC with so much night life.

However, I have to admit I was taken aback by Bourbon Street. On Saturday morning, I visited Cafe du Monde with a fellow academic who’d been a Bush appointee. After eating our beignets, we walked along the sidewalks and were nearly flooded out by a street washing machine that literally poured soapy water all over the streets and walkways. I wondered how often the city conducted that operation. My guess now is every night. By the end of Saturday, I’d seen the Quarter in operation. You run into an awful lot of questionable liquids on the street and sidewalks. Come morning, the wages of overindulgence (and a lot of horse droppings) need to be washed away.

I was stunned by “out there” nature of the sexually-oriented businesses in evidence. That takes a little doing since I live in Houston which is filled with elaborate strip clubs, but there you spin rapidly by them on elevated freeways. In New Orleans, you walk by women in lingerie standing on sidewalks and in doorways to beckon customers inside. I imagine Times Square was like that P.G. (pre-Giuliani).

Having been to 21st century Times Square and seedy Bourbon Street. I’ll take Times Square. One changed for the better. The other stayed the same. Of course, I take into account the admonition of Thomas Aquinas that you can’t use the law to abolish all vice, lest you create a backlash of total rebellion. Still, Rudy G. seems to have done a better job of locating the golden mean than his counterpart Ray N.

It is our pleasure to welcome guest ramblings on the PowerBlog, and we are happy to feature this contribution from Jonathan Petersen, former Sr. Dir. of Corporate & Internet Communications at Zondervan. His 22 years at the international book and Bible publisher included directing public relations, corporate communications, and marketing strategy for general retail stores, direct mail, and the Internet. Prior to Zondervan, he was founding religion news editor and anchor for United Press International Radio Network. A member of the Online News Association, he can be reached at www.JonathanPetersen.com.

Who knew back in 1969 when ARPANET was created by the military as the precursor to the Internet to decentralize communication in the event of war on domestic soil, that it would eventually lead to revolutionizing and toppling entire societal institutions and upending business models that withstood onslaughts for 100 years? Among the hardest hit are traditional print- and broadcast-centric media. They’re now having to reinvent themselves or risk collapse in light of the ever advancing digital tsunami. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age cogently summarizes the current media scenario in his article “Apocalypse Now” (warning: strong language).

The stunning effects on journalism can be traced to 1997 when RSS debuted and 1998 when blogs entered the Web fray, allowing anyone to publish and syndicate any content they wanted for everyone to read anywhere. In 1999, the same year citizen journalism was taking root online, the book The Cluetrain Manifesto succinctly observed, “A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.” How true.

For more than a century, journalism operated the same way: a news event occurred, an “official” reporter wrote about it, an editor reshaped it, a headline writer contributed to it, a designer/producer fit the story into a prefabricated and limiting format, and it was all distributed to consumers at a predetermined time for consumption the way the “professionals” proscribed. Today, in only 10 years, that model has been ripped apart: anyone can now manufacture and globally distribute news and we can select what news we want to read however and whenever we want to read it. This is good if you believe in freedom of speech. But it’s not so good if you demand consistently high editorial standards and desire quality reporting. Since the editorial filter is non-existent in citizen journalism, every reader must exercise discernment to know what to accept as fact and what to jettison as fiction.

Print newspapers are closing their doors for lack of sustainability and seasoned reporters are being forced to ply their trade in new digital ways. With all that journalistic professionalism unleashed, coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit, perhaps “citizen journalism” will become more institutionalized in its own way in the age of new media.

In the midst of declining revenues, increased competition from digital sources of information, and new costs associated with distribution, a number of print magazines have launched in recent months. This is noteworthy, in part because it attests to a disruption in the narrative of digital progress that sees print as an obsolete medium.

The New York Post reported that magazine advertising revenues were down 21.5% in the first quarter of 2009 (compared with Q12008). Here’s a rundown of some notable publications that have launched within the past year or so, right in the thick of this downturn:

  • Bible Study Magazine, published by Logos Research Systems, appears six times per year. The magazine is a complement to Logos’ powerful Libronix software, which is geared toward engagement with biblical, linguistic, and theological resources in digital form. As the magazine’s name indicates, the focus is on providing resources and guidance for engagement with the biblical text. This is a most worthy pursuit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “We must once again get to know the Scriptures as the reformers and our forebears knew them. We must not shy away from the work and the time required for this task.” Bible Study Magazine is a great place to start.
  • We’ve had a guest contribution from an associate editor of a promising publication published by Cardus. As the publication of a non-profit, Comment represents one avenue for the survival of print media, in the sense that it is not dependent solely on breaking even for survival. It is underwritten and subsidized as part of the larger mission of Cardus. The folks behind Comment have done a good job using the power of both print and digital media (including social networking) to promote and disseminate their product.
  • The Purpose Driven Connection is another non-profit print publication that is connected to a larger digital world. Rick Warren’s ministry launched PDC this year in part as a way to connect people to the larger Purpose Driven website. But the magazine itself is full of features, including a mix of new and repurposed content.
  • My own denomination, the CRC, has an office which launched a new web publication called Justice Seekers. The layout mimics a traditional print publication, and the email notice about the magazine also noted that it is available in print, although for a number of reasons it seems clear that digital delivery is the main concern.
  • Townhall.com also recently put out a new print publication, which represents a move from the digital back to print, Townhall magazine.

Each of these projects represents in its own way the possibilities for ongoing usefulness of the print medium, whether as a complement or a secondary alternative to some kind of digital offering. All of the above except for Bible Study Magazine are offered by some kind of non-profit, and this may represent a signal about the future of print media.

Indeed, non-profits still have an option for print delivery that’s unavailable to traditional publishers, and that’s an alternative pricing structure for USPS delivery. This can lead to a significant advantage, as in the past rates have gone up for regular publishers while decreasing for non-profits. The differentiation of rates is one way politically to provide a competitive advantage for non-profit print publications.

I visited Notre Dame last year at this time to meet with a few professors for the purpose of academic networking. My university was hiring and I hoped to hear about Christian doctoral students ready for their first job. As I walked across the snow-covered campus, I was a little in awe of how wonderfully the sacred space had been planned and laid out.

But when I met with one older professor who had been with the university for quite some time, he expressed a great deal of regret for how his student (the current president) was making decisions. Looking around his office, I noticed photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. holding hands with priests protesting the injustice of segregation. I thought to myself, if this man feels something good has been lost at Notre Dame, it must truly be so.

When I heard about Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak and receive an honorary doctorate, I could not believe it. I knew the university had liberalized. I knew many faithful Catholics felt ND had lost its way, but I also knew many fine, Christian scholars populated its offices and classrooms. How could it be that the university many of us point to when we aspire to building a great Christian academic institution would invite a president to speak and receive and honorary doctorate when he could not liberalize abortion laws quickly enough upon taking office?

Has the protection of unborn and newly born life not been a distinctive of the Christian church from the beginning? Did not the Catholic church act convincingly to remind evangelicals and others of their duties to protect life?

All I can think about as I watch this great university rushing to honor a president who considers the question of when life begins to be above his pay grade and yet who acts to liberalize the capacity to extinguish it is that Notre Dame is trading its heritage for the applause of the culture. Friend, Father Jenkins, I pray that you would consider the quality of the culture whose applause you seek.

As Walker Percy, a self-proclaimed bad Catholic who was actually a great one said, there is decline and fall and then there are the options. Choose life instead, sir. I say that to both of these presidents. One, the president of a university, and the other, a president of a nation.

Dear Fr. Jenkins:

You are, no doubt, being inundated with letters, phone calls and emails objecting to the decision of Notre Dame to invite President Obama to give the commencement address this year and to receive an honorary doctorate from your university.

I feel compelled to write to you as a brother priest to express my own dismay at this decision which I see as dangerous for Notre Dame, for the Church, for this country, and frankly Father, for your own soul.

I have had the honor to speak at Notre Dame over the years in my capacity as the president of the Acton Institute. I recall the sparkling discussion and questions from the student body, notably from a number of the Holy Cross Seminarians. I have, in fact, been invited to your campus on a number of occasions and on my last visit I was given a statue of the Lladro Blessed Mother in appreciation of my speech. I was told the statue was blessed by Fr. Hesburgh. It has occupied a special place in our religious community since then.

Father, I have no degree or awards from Notre Dame to return to you to indicate how strongly I feel about this scandalous decision. So here is what I have decided to do:

I am returning this statue to your office because what once evoked a pleasant memory of a venerable Catholic institution now evokes shame and sorrow. The statue is simply too painful a reminder of the damage and scandal Notre Dame has brought to the Church and the cause of human life in this decision.

Moreover, I will encourage the young people from my parish and within our diocese to consider universities other than Notre Dame for their college career and I will further encourage other priests in my diocese to do the same. I will also discourage Notre Dame alumni to make donations to the University.

And you may rest assured that I will make this sentiment known from my pulpit and in other public outlets as the occasions present themselves.

This is not a matter of abortion (I presume we agree on how evil it is); nor is it about free speech (you could have invited the president to a discussion for that). This is about coherence. You no longer know who you are as a Catholic institution.

It pains me to write this letter to you. I ask that you go before the Blessed Sacrament and look into your soul – the soul of priest – and reverse this decision before more scandal is brought to the Church.

You and the students under your pastoral charge will be in my prayers and Lenten sacrifices.

Sincerely in Christ,

Fr. Robert Sirico