Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, August 21, 2008
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It’s still more than a week off, but the US Catholic bishops are out in front, issuing a Labor Day statement this week. Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the (extravagantly titled) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote the statement, which begins as an encomium to the late Msgr. George Higgins, arguably the last of a species once well known in American Catholic life, the labor priest. Fr. Sirico ably described the strengths and weaknesses of Higgins’ career upon his passing six years ago.

Without question, Catholic social teaching affirms the right of workers to organize in defense of their rights and prerogatives. Whether and how effectively contemporary labor unions serve the common good, or even the interests of their members, is debatable. (Consider that this nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, officially supports unlimited access to abortion, a policy difficult to square with the mission of promoting justice for public school teachers.)

It would be hard not to offer some positive words about unions in a Labor Day statement, and Murphy does so, mostly in the context of his praise for Higgins. Nonetheless, Murphy’s remarks are on the whole an excellent reiteration of the Church’s teaching on labor and the economic sphere. He resists the temptation to opine on policy matters, instead restricting his comments to the solid principles of the Church’s social message. Noteworthy, in light of previous statements emanating from Bishop Murphy’s committee (formerly the Social Action Department) is his emphasis on the individual responsibility of Catholics to form their consciences properly and apply the social teaching in their everyday lives; and his lack of emphasis on recourse to government action as the default solution to social problems.

“An informed conscience,” Murphy writes in connection with upcoming political contests,

moves beyond personal feelings and individual popularity. An informed conscience asks first what is right and true. An informed conscience examines the candidates and the issues from the perspective of human life and dignity, the true good of every human person, the true good of society, the common good of us all in our nation and in this world.

At the risk of nitpicking, I note one passage that seems poorly expressed:

The principle of subsidiarity champions the freedom of initiative that allows everyone scope and opportunity to be creative and productive and reap the benefits of hard work and energy. When taken to the extreme, it can become exploitive of others. Yet joined to the principle of solidarity, subsidiarity and all its creative impulses become harnessed to an end that includes the makers of a vibrant economy.

Subsidiarity, to the contrary, cannot be “taken to the extreme.” Embedded in the concept is the assumption that, when individuals or intimate institutions are inadequate to their normal responsibilities, larger or less immediate institutions should provide the support necessary to meet the need. The perception of solidarity as a kind of check on or correction to subsidiarity is a common one. It is more accurate, I think, to view subsidiarity and solidarity as entirely complementary rather than in tension: subsidiarity is the method by which solidarity is practically implemented.

Nitpicking aside, Bishop Murphy’s words are a salutary reminder that our obligation to practice virtue extends to policy debates, workplaces, and voting booths.

Linked on the left-hand side today under the PowerBlog Food For Thought is an item from the Wall Street Journal, “College Presidents Debate Drinking Age.”

At issue is concern over the drinking age in the United States (currently 21) and the binge-drinking phenomenon among under-age college students. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) oppose the movement among many college and university presidents to lower the drinking age to 18.

Here’s a popular version of how the school presidents’ argument goes:

Moana Jagasia, a Duke University sophomore from Singapore, where the drinking age is lower, said reducing the age in the U.S. could be helpful.

“There isn’t that much difference in maturity between 21 and 18,” she said. “If the age is younger, you’re getting exposed to it at a younger age, and you don’t freak out when you get to campus.”

What is true about these sorts of observations is that culture has a lot to do with how people respond to newfound freedoms or possibilities. When children are raised in a household where responsible gun ownership is taught, for instance, it makes sense that gun accidents due to irresponsible gun handling are less likely to occur (compared with homes with guns that don’t teach responsible gun handling). Where the use of alcohol is not a taboo that can become part and parcel of a young-adult “rebellion” experience, it seems less likely that binge drinking will function as a gateway to adulthood.

To address the concerns of MADD, perhaps if the drinking age is lowered, the driving age should be raised. But one thing we should not be afraid of is substantive debate on the prudence of a particular policy like the national drinking age. As the administrators’ and presidents’ movement states, “The Amethyst Initiative supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age.” This is a law that is a perfect example of the government administration of a positive law put in place in a particular time and context.

Thomas Aquinas’ words about the principle of prudence have special bearing on this question, given the biblical allusion he chooses to employ:

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.

Thomas’ warnings about imprudent laws are echoed in the arguments of the presidents’ association. John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the Amethyst Initiative, has said that “college students will drink no matter what, but do so more dangerously when it’s illegal.”

The seventh week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The seventh leg of the journey took the bikers from Madison to Grand Rapids, a total distance of 378 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,041 miles.

This week of the tour ended in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of the major rallies along the tour was held here yesterday. Check out the Sea to Sea webpage for more coverage of that event. Update: Here’s a link to a piece in today’s Grand Rapids Press, “Bike riders know poverty can be a vicious cycle.”

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week keeps the focus on the problem of poverty. Day 43’s devotion reads in part, “This is a major goal of our trip: to raise awareness of God’s presence in many places–in the beauty of the earth and the church, yes, but also among the poor.”

Grand Rapids is home to the denominational headquarters of the CRC as well as main offices of the Acton Institute. But also in Michigan are a host of non-profits and charities that deserve your attention. These include Samaritan Award honorees like Marquette’s Earth Keeper Project of The Cedar Tree Institute (2007 honoree) and Grand Rapids’ own Baxter Wholistic Health Clinic of the Baxter Community Center (2004 honoree).

Indeed, one of the 2008 finalists for the annual Samaritan Award is located in Grand Rapids, Guardian Angels Homes of Faith in Action. All of this year’s ten finalists, including Faith in Action, are profiled in the current issue of WORLD magazine.

As Acton senior fellow and WORLD editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky writes, “All 10 of these faith-based finalists spend money garnered by voluntary contributions, not Washington lobbying: They are compassionate conservatives in the original sense of the term. All 10 emphasize real change in lives, not the passing out of spare change: As it turns out, eight of the finalists this year are rescue missions or rehab centers of various kinds; the other two are a program for developmentally disabled adults and another for women fleeing prostitution and strip clubs.”

Be sure to check out all of the WORLD articles and profiles for more information about the finalists, runners-up, and winner of this year’s Samaritan Award.

I just got a chance to catch part of the Saddleback Civil Forum. I’ll have to go back and watch a replay of Sen. Obama’s appearance.

I’ll just say a couple things right now.

First, I have had a hard time understanding a lot of the criticism of Rick Warren, through the lead-up to this event especially. There are a lot of conservatives who want to cast Rick Warren as Jim Wallis-lite, a politically progressive Christian who stealthily is trying to undermine the conservative movement.

Warren, to me, acquitted himself very well tonight. He’s not a professional journo, and shouldn’t be judged by those standards. He asked tough questions but let the candidates speak for themselves, something that has value even if it isn’t what journalists typically do.

The great thing that Rick Warren has been able to do is position himself as an honest broker that can get both candidates to the table in a forum like this. That’s something that somebody like Jim Wallis, for all the bi-partisan touting of his Sojourners compassion events, is unable to do (not least of which because he’s probably unwilling to do anything more than give lip service to being non-partisan). Perhaps Warren has had to upset the margins on both sides of the political aisle to get himself into a position that could command the kind of respect from both candidates that would get them to this platform. But for the reason I state below, I’m glad he’s around and willing to pay that price.

Second, for all the wanna-be pundits who hate the fact that a forum like this was held in a church, I see it as a perfect example of how a vibrant civil society ought to function. As a nation we are all better off for having had a forum like this. It’s a great service to the public square, I think, to see the candidates’ reaction to questions that many people want to have asked and are interested in hearing, but so many of the media and political gatekeepers aren’t interested in communicating.

There’s a great deal of talk about this event all over the blogosphere. Let me recommend the insights over at Mere Orthodoxy for particular attention.

I’ll be blogging more about this week’s developments in the CRC Sea to Sea Tour in my regular Monday entry, but I wanted to note that the tour is making a pit stop in Grand Rapids this Sunday, August 17.

The Red Letter Christian Shane Claiborne is the featured speaker. Unfortunately my schedule won’t allow me to attend the ministry fair and worship service at Fifth Third Ballpark.

So far the “Shifting Gears” devotional has not been too overt in promoting the government as the primary agent in wealth redistribution, although admittedly I’ve been attempting to go through the book with a devotional rather than a critical eye.

I have yet to see how cycling against poverty is explicitly connected in any concrete way to the Great Commission, however. And on that point, it’s appropriate to keep in mind how another Christian has used the bicycle as a means to promote the cause of Christ.

This week the Voice of the Martyrs reported that the Chinese pastor who was the inspiration for the VOM Olympic prayer bands has been arrested by Chinese authorities. A VOM email alert states, “Pastor Zhang ‘Bike’ Mingxuan, known for traveling across China on a bicycle to evangelize, was arrested by Chinese police just two days before the Olympics began.”


Here’s more on Pastor Bike:

Pastor Bike, president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, rode his bike more than 10,000 miles, visiting 24 Chinese provinces to introduce nonbelievers to Jesus Christ. Armed with a Bible and his business card, which declared “Believe in Jesus, Earn Eternal Life,” Pastor Bike brought the gospel to thousands of people. He and other Chinese evangelists have been repeatedly harassed by Chinese officials during this Olympic year. Please pray for the release of Pastor Bike and his wife.

Examples like Pastor Bike show us that in our concern for material poverty, represented in the CRC’s Sea to Sea Bike Tour, we need to keep a sharp eye on spiritual realities as well.

The challenge for social relief agencies and denominations engaged in advocating for and addresing the alleviation of material poverty is to connect that kind of work in an intentional and meaningful way to the spiritual truths of the Gospel. Without addressing those ultimate realities, concern for the poor risks becoming just another form of the Social Gospel.

For more on the religious freedom situation in China, check out his week’s Acton Commentary, “China’s March Against Religious Freedom,” by PowerBlogger Ray Nothstine.

Earlier this week the Detroit News reported (HT: Pew Forum) that supporters of Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Republican candidate for this election’s presidential nomination, would be meeting with representatives of John McCain in the key swing state of Michigan. Among the “battleground” states, Obama holds his largest lead in the polls here in Michigan (RCP average of +3.2).

The purpose of yesterday’s meetings was ostensibly to urge McCain to pass over Mitt Romney as a possible running mate, in the interests of courting social conservatives. Debra Matney, a Huckabee supporter from Fairgrove who helped organize the meetings, said of McCain, “Who he chooses will speak volumes to us.”

It’s unclear, however, what effect meetings of this kind might have, as an interview with McCain published yesterday in the Weekly Standard has McCain saying that he would not rule out a pro-choice running mate like Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge.

That fact alone ought to speak volumes to social conservatives.

Meanwhile, since his withdrawal from the presidential race, Mike Huckabee has done his best to remain in the national conversation. In a recent interview with Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Huckabee had this to say about the tension in the GOP between social and fiscal conservatism:

Wallis: You’ve talked about public responsibility alongside personal responsibility to overcome poverty. What’s a proper role for government?

Huckabee: One of the things I’m frustrated about is that Republicans have been infiltrated by hardcore libertarians. Traditional Republicans don’t hate all forms of government. They just want it to be efficient and effective. They recognize that it has a place and a role.

Growing numbers of people in the Republican Party are just short of anarchists in the sense that they basically say, “Just cut government and cut taxes.” They don’t understand that if you do that, there are certain consequences that do not help problems. It exacerbates them.

Every law and every government program we have is a direct indictment and reflection that somewhere we’ve failed at the personal level to self-govern. The ideal world is where everybody self-governs and lives by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we all abided by that, we would need no other law. No one would hurt anybody. Nobody would get drunk. Nobody would abuse the speed limits. Nobody would drop out of school. It would be a great world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that.

I go to a church that feeds a whole lot of people. Some kids still slip through the cracks that my church or somebody else’s isn’t getting to. I could be an ideological purist and say, “That’s not government’s responsibility.” But I’m also a realist, and when all of the other social structures fail—whether family, neighborhood, community, or charity organizations—then we have by default created a demand for government to step in.

I get beat up for this terribly by the libertarians in the party. I call them libertarians and not conservatives, because I think I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut! They ask me if I want government to engage in all these social programs. No, it’s not my preference. But if my choice is that government has a program or a kid goes hungry, then give me the government program. I prefer that over a hungry child. I prefer that over a child that’s wheezing through untreated asthma.

If people out of generosity can do this beyond the scope of government, praise the Lord! But when they don’t, then it’s no different than all the nice conservatives in the gated neighborhoods who really don’t want any government until their home is broken into and they call 911. That’s a call to government. And then they want that person in prison for a long time. If we want smaller government and lower taxes, the best way to get there is to create a more civil social structure in which people play by the rules and self-govern.

There’s a lot of wisdom in what Huckabee says here. And that interview is worth reading in its entirety, not only because it’s a pretty candid look at Huckabee’s positions, but also because it shows what many of Jim Wallis’ assumptions are concerning the role of church and government.

I’ve written before about the incompatibility of anarcho-capitalism and the Christian faith, and I think Huckabee is on to something here. The problem, as I see it, has a good deal to do with the adoption of libertarianism as a comprehensive world-and-life view, and not just a political philosophy applicable to limited spheres of human existence. When your political philosophy becomes the be-all and end-all of your worldview, you run into real problems, and that’s what I think Huckabee means by “hardcore libertarians.” Under such ideological illusions you can’t, for instance, deal adequately with the reality of positive social responsibilities that exist between persons. Political liberty becomes an end in itself, and not something, as Lord Acton would have it, that must be oriented towards a higher moral, social, and spiritual good.

That isn’t to say that varieties of libertarianism or classical liberalism that don’t assume the government to be something to be done away with, or that limit themselves to asking questions about the efficiency of political economy, don’t have a good deal to teach us. But Huckabee’s position is worth engaging, I think, if only because it resembles that of Abraham Kuyper, who in the same address could say both that “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior,” and, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

Anthony Bradley has written a thoughtful and challenging commentary titled, “John Edwards is the Real World.” Bradley discusses the moral bankruptcy and sexual infidelity that plagues our culture, and further highlights the seriousness of sin and its consequences. Bradley notes:

In the decades to come, stories like this will be the American social narrative because Americans are not inculcating virtue in children. Are parents today raising children to be women and men of prudence, courage, justice, and self-control? Or are we raising the kinds of children who will be the self-focused, egotistic, and narcissistic, believe they are invincible and are morally accountable to no one? That is, “successful,” but lacking integrity.

This is a refreshing commentary that discusses an important topic that will determine much about the future stability and ethical health of our nation.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I make the case that persecution of Chinese Christians has increased since the government’s preparation of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Freedom House is really leading the way in compiling a wealth of information to substantiate China’s recent crack down on freedom and human rights.

Jimmy Lai, who was featured in The Call of the Entrepreneur, has a great quote on the makeup of China’s moral failings and its relation to the Olympics. I included his words in my commentary. Lai says:

When the Olympic Games begin in Beijing, China will show the world its physical strength, but also its moral poverty. This is unavoidable because the Olympics are more than just a sporting event; they are an expression of the human drive for greatness in all pursuits.

I also cited an excellent piece in The Washington Post titled “Beijing Curbs Religious Rights.” This article offers a more detailed perspective on specific crackdowns by the government on house churches in China’s capital city.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
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As The Dark Knight sets box office records, and the Acton Institute plunges deeper into the business of film production, it might be an opportune time to revisit the question of Christianity and movies.

Scads of ink have already been spilled on the subject, which is of course part of the larger question of the relationship between Christianity and art, upon which many great minds have ruminated. (See, for example, Jacques Maritain on Art and Scholasticism.)

On the PowerBlog, besides the occasional movie review, John Armstrong (here) and Jordan Ballor (here and here) have alluded to the broader questions raised at the intersection of morality, movie production and viewing, and evangelization.

A provocative recent contribution to the discussion comes from Time magazine’s Anthony Sacramone, writing at On the Square. Sacramone refers to the defunct Motion Picture Production Code (one part of an interesting history of Catholics and American movies) in the course of a critique of the contemporary Christian Movieguide, concluding,

There should be a happy medium between resigning oneself to the rank nihilism emitted from cineplexes like stink lines from an R. Crumb cartoon, and pining for the days when the Production Code had to be formally amended to permit Rhett Butler’s valedictory “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

The feature interview for the Winter issue of Religion and Liberty was Dr. David W. Miller, who at the time served as the Executive Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. With his permission, Dr. Miller has agreed to let us inform our readers that he is taking a new position at Princeton as the Director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative. The Trinity Forum is the only organization with an updated biography mentioning his new position.

No stranger to Princeton, Dr. Miller received his Master of Divinity degree and Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. He will also be an Associate Research Scholar and teach at Princeton. Dr. Miller will also continue as president of the Avodah Institute, which helps “leaders integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work.” The Acton Institute takes great delight in congratulating Dr. Miller on his new academic position.