Blog author: eschansberg
Saturday, March 15, 2008
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The title of Curtis White’s provocative but flawed essay in Harpers

As an intro to his primary topic (politics), White has some provocative things to say about the contemporary (American) understanding of our “beliefs”…

The most bewildering and yet revealing gesture of a truly fundamental American theology takes place when an individual stands forth and proclaims, “This is my belief”. Making such a simple and familiar statement implies at least three important things. First, it implies that I have a right to my belief. Whether this right is God-given, one of the laws of nature, or simply something we wrangled politically out of the process of constitution-making, it is something we believe we have. Second, my statement carries with it the expectation that you ought to respect my belief, or at least my right to it, even if my belief makes no sense to you at all. Third, and most important, my belief doesn’t have to make sense in order to carry legitimacy.

And now to how this relates to politics…

On the basis of this belief I not only will claim the right to order my own life but also will feel free, without embarrassment, to enforce my belief universally through the election of politicians and through the sponsorship of legislation…

What we require of belief is not that it make sense but that it be sincere. This is so even for our more secular convictions….Clearly, this is not the spirituality of a centralized orthodoxy. It is a sort of workshop spirituality that you can get with a cereal-box top and five dollars. And yet in our culture, to suggest that such belief is not deserving of respect makes people anxious…

Consequently, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that our truest belief is the credo of heresy itself. It is heresy without an orthodoxy. It is heresy as an orthodoxy. The entitlement to belief is the right of each to his own heresy….For Nietzsche, European nihilism was the failure of any form of belief (a condition that church attendance in Europe presently testifies to). But American nihilism is something different. Our nihilism is our capacity to believe in everything and anything all at once. It’s all good!…

Once reduced to the status of a commodity, our anything-goes, do-it-yourself spirituality cannot have very much to say about the more directly nihilistic conviction that we should all be free to do whatever we like as well, each of us pursuing our right to our isolated happinesses. Worse yet: for that form of legal individual known as the corporation, the pursuit of happiness can mean fishing with factory trawlers, clear-cutting forests, and spreading toxins across the countryside with all the zeal of a child sprinkling candies on a cupcake.

Let me jump in here by saying that White is correct insofar as he goes. But it’s odd to point out corporations (and in a part I excised, “social morality” interest groups) without pointing to the role of special interest groups in politics– rather than corporations or concerned citizens per se.

And now, White goes with a relatively obscure but effective Biblical reference. Among other things, this gives him the title to his essay…

Aren’t these the false gods that Isaiah and Jeremiah confronted, the cults of the “hot air gods”? The gods that couldn’t scare birds from a cucumber patch? Belief of every kind and cult, self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of every degree, all flourish. And yet God is abandoned. For first and foremost, “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18). And that is the problem that we ought to have at heart: our richness of belief masks a culture that is grotesquely unjust.

“Grotesquely unjust”…Preach it, brother! Given the differences in our worldviews and his limited training in political economy and economics, I don’t think we point to the same set of policy issues. In any case, he’s right on the proverbial nose with his critique…

White does see some good news:

A more positive way of looking at the situation I have described is to say that through the concept of religious freedom, American political culture has succeeded in mediating the competing claims of true religion and idolatry. If it has not purged the hatred from this distinction, it has at least prohibited most of the violence. And if there is wisdom in this, it is less the wisdom of benevolence than the pragmatism of imperial policing….

But then he gets silly on us…

Capitalism has been so successful in this orchestration of reality that it has even created the illusion that, in spite of every fact, the Market works for all of us, or will eventually. In spite of the fact that the poor are ever greater in number, and that education, health care, and retirement are ever more inaccessible, the majority of Americans persist in believing (with all the obliviousness of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss) that our economic system is “the best of all possible worlds”. This is a form of wishful and magical thinking no stranger than the belief that a statue of the Madonna can cry.

Here, White reveals his bias and ignorance– or his “wishful and magical thinking” (if he prefers). He’s pointing the finger at the Market. But all three of these realms are largely controlled by the Government! And in each of those, it is clear that Government involvement has caused vast damage to the poor. I love it when people blame “capitalism” to embrace government– when government is so heavily involved already!

His last three words are “the Market God”. But White is blind to his own idolatry– a blind critique of markets (not that some critique is not available to him) and a blind, idolatrous embrace of “the Government God”.

Robert George in the November 2007 issue of Touchstone on democracy, Catholic social teaching, and the confusion of means and ends…

Catholicism…preaches democratic ideals and promotes democratic institutions in the political sphere….

This teaching is put forth not as a mere prudential matter…but as a matter of justice in the dealings of human beings with one another. At is core is the idea that of all systems of political governance, democracy best comports with the foundational anthropological and moral truth that every human being, as a creature fashioned in the very image and likeness of God, possesses a profound, inherent, and equal dignity.

The principle of basic human equality demands not only that the interests of all be taken into account, without discrimination, in distributing the benefits and burdens of common life, but also that all competent adults have a voice in deciding between options for political choice…

Democracy, however, is fundamentally a means rather than an end in itself….[T]he common good of political society is fundamentally an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good.

In this respect, the common good of political society is unlike the common life of the family and the koinonia of the church. The point of political society is provided by the ends or purposes it serves. The state, whether constituted democratically or otherwise, is fundamentally a means to those ends; it is in no sense an end in itself.

By contrast, the family and the church, though they may also be means to many valuable ends, are not mere means….

From there, George continues by repeating John Paul II’s caution against idolatry toward government and democracy– as well as his warning that unjust ends accomplished through democracy are ungodly. Despite the common reference to polling results– and although majority vote may legitimize a viewpoint in the secular realm– the right-ness of something cannot be determined by such a criterion.

The subtitle of Damon Root’s article in Reason– food for thought for Dems (and GOP’ers) and a history lesson on an important but obscure figure, Moorfield Storey

With Republicans apparently uninterested in pleasing the libertarian segments of their coalition, some liberals and libertarians—Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas, former Democratic National Committee press secretary Terry Michael, and Reason contributor Matt Welch among them—have suggested an alternative: the libertarian Democrat, the sort of liberal who favors both free speech and free trade, both the right to bare pornography and the right to bear arms.

It’s far from clear, however, that the Democratic Party has room for candidates who favor a smaller, less intrusive government. But it did once. The Democratic Party actually has a very distinguished libertarian legacy, one that combined principled anti-imperialism, respect for economic liberty, and a firm commitment to civil rights. If the would-be libertarian Democrats are looking for a historical model, they should consider the Boston attorney Moorfield Storey (1845–1929).

A fierce critic of imperialism and militarism…An advocate of free trade, freedom of contract, and the gold standard…An individualist and anti-racist, Storey was the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he argued and won the group’s first major Supreme Court victory, Buchanan v. Warley (1917), a decision that relied on property rights to strike down a residential segregation law….

To read more, click here:

A large crowd packed into St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids yesterday to hear Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s presentation on “The Rise and Eventual Downfall of the Religious Left.” This is a political movement, he said, that “exalts social transformation over personal charity, and social activism above the need for evangelization of the human soul.” (He also took time to critique the Religious Right.)

An audio recording of Rev. Sirico’s Acton Lecture Series presentation is available on the Acton Web site here.

Rev. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, began by pointing to a “series of signs” that often characterize the Religious Left today:

1) A tendency to believe that the Kingdom of God is not something essentially eschatological; it is a state of being that can and should be achieved on earth through human effort.

2) A loathing of the economically successful rooted in the assumption that wealth is generally unjustly acquired even and especially if it has been accumulated through market means.

3) A conviction that the cause of material inequality is due to injustice that must be rectified, usually by a forced redistribution of the wealth.

4) A reliable bias against commerce and the merchant classes, their products, their marketing, and their cultural presence.

5) A fixation on government programs that purport to do good for others and a pronounced preference for public policy (that is political) solutions instead of voluntary individual or communal efforts.

6) A judgment that unless physical states of social well being are realized, issues such as faith and morals are somehow invalidated.

7) An attachment to the idea that the natural environment represents a source of moral light in the world that is darkened by the activities of human beings.

Rev. Sirico will be discussing the Religious Left on Friday, March 14, on Ave Maria Radio at 4 p.m. with host Al Kresta. (The originally scheduled debate with Jim Wallis is being rescheduled at Wallis’ request). Pick up a live stream for Ave Maria Radio here. (Update: Audio of this interview is available for download in .mp3 format here.)

In this week’s Acton commentary, Chris Banescu looks at a ruling by the Second District Court of Appeals for the state of California which declared that “parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children.” The ruling effectively bans families from homeschooling their children and threatens parents with criminal penalties for daring to do so.

Chris Banescu was reminded of another sort of government control:

The totalitarian impulses of the court were further evidenced by the arguments it used to justify its decision: “A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare.” As someone who has lived and suffered under a communist regime (I grew up in Romania), the “good citizenship,” “patriotism,” and “loyalty to the state” justifications have struck a little too close to home. These were precisely the kinds of arguments the communist party used to broaden the power of the state, increase the leadership’s iron grip on the people, and justify just about every conceivable violation of human rights, restrictions on individual liberties, and abuses perpetrated by government officials.

Read the entire commentary here.


The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome held a conference last month dedicated to Elizabeth Anscombe’s work Intention and essay “Modern Moral Philosophy”, a groundbreaking paper for the field of ethics. Anscombe (1919-2001), an Irish convert to Catholicism, was a fellow of philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, wife to philosopher Peter Geach, and mother of seven. She wrote a number of different papers and articles following ethical questions of her day, for example just war theory in WWII, the advent of birth control, and more.

The questions raised by Anscombe are still trying to be resolved in philosophy, in particular, the relevance of the word “ought” to the modern position on morality. She argues that the western concept of moral “ought” is based in the Judeo-Christian tradition of divine legislation. In other words, the concept of justice in western society is fundamentally linked to Christian morals. When modern secularism attempts to retain the idea of morality without the idea of God, the power of the word “ought” is merely psychological.

The idea of a moral “ought” is also linked to the concept of justice, and what we are owed. Without an objective moral framework, such as is found in natural law theory, justice becomes a subjective interpretation. An obvious consequence of this error is found in political lobbyists who make excessive demands of the concept of human rights.

Here is an excerpt from a paper I gave on human rights talk at the conference, “Fundamental human rights are being supplemented with entitlements, and sometimes the distinction between the two is lacking entirely. This moral equivalence fails to demonstrate what is unique and defining about human persons that man is an end in himself, and has the responsibility of making free moral choices ordered toward that end.”

It is wrong to make the means to an end, an end in itself. It is wrong to put material benefits, which provide for human flourishing, in the same category as human freedoms. For example, there is a difference in saying that “I have a right to freedom from oppression by my government” and saying “I have a right to be provided with a job by my government”. It is one thing for the government to guarantee it’s citizen’s liberty; it is another to guarantee their financial success.

The framework of the Christian moral tradition and natural law theory are able to qualify the concept of justice much better than a secular guilt trip. Something to think about the next time you hear someone demanding his or her rights.

Blog author: dwbosch
Thursday, March 13, 2008
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The big boys at the Southern Baptist Convention are running from Jon Merritt’s statement on ecology and climate change faster than a pack of polyester-clad deacons trying to beat the Assembly of God folks to Denny’s for Sunday brunch.

The so-called “Southern Baptist” statement is not an initiative of the Southern Baptist Convention which voiced its views on global warming last summer in a resolution, “On Global Warming”.

More from WorldNetDaily:

“For the record, there has been no change in convention policy and despite the media blitz that suggests otherwise, there does not appear to be a groundswell of support for change,” explained Will Hall, vice president for news services for the SBC, a member of the executive committee and executive editor of the Baptist Press. “Jonathan Merritt does not speak for the Southern Baptist Convention. Unfortunately, his use of ‘Southern Baptist’ in the title of his declaration misinforms the public and misrepresents the Southern Baptist Convention.”

They are making Jon’s point here quite perfectly:

We recognize that Christians are not united around either the scientific explanations for global warming or policies designed to slow it down. Unlike abortion and respect for the biblical definition of marriage, this is an issue where Christians may find themselves in justified disagreement about both the problem and its solutions. Yet, even in the absence of perfect knowledge or unanimity, we have to make informed decisions about the future.

Difficult to make informed decisions – or influence the discussion for that matter – when you feel it’s beneath your religious dignity to even show up.

By the way, if climate change is the new orthodoxy, is Merritt a young Martin Luther upsetting the old orthodoxy? We’ll know for sure if the SBC calls for him to retract his statement or face excommunication.

[Don's other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist]

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
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At 93% Muslim—Orthodox churches account for most of the rest—Azerbaijan is the sort of country that tends to lack what some have called “reciprocity,” meaning that Christians enjoy the same freedom relative to the Muslim majority as Muslims do in Christian-majority nations. Amidst the justifiable attention and worry religious liberty advocates have lately devoted to the problem (see our own John Couretas on Turkey), it is good to note instances of progress. Such a story emerges this week from the former Soviet republic, where the pope’s representative was on hand to mark the opening of the country’s first Roman Catholic church.

This is not to say that Azerbaijan has become a paragon of religious liberty (see this summary), but permission to erect a place of public worship is at least a step in the right direction.

I’ve been on record more than once regarding my own doubts and criticisms of the precise political pronouncements made by various church groups, especially offices and branches seemingly representing the institutional church. So when I see something sensible and good coming from these same sources, it’s only right and fair that I acknowledge and celebrate them.

Here are two items worthy of notice:

The first is from the newsletter of the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action (OSJHA) of the Christian Reformed Church, which linked to an article, “Can Violence Ever Lead to Peace?” In this piece Paul Kortenhoven explores how “the use of violence in reaction to an extremely violent attack by an extremely violent rebel force simply stopped them. Along with the British stance in Sierra Leone, this also was a main catalyst for peace.”

I have to say I was pretty surprised to see an explicit acknowledgment of the positive role that military and coercive intervention can play as a backdrop for lasting peace. Kortenhoven’s piece is the diametric opposite of what IRD’s Mark Tooley has called in another context the attitude of “pseudo-pacifist academics and antiwar activists.”

It’s an article that takes seriously the complexities involved in answering such questions as, “How, in a world of such strife, are Christians to build peace? How should we think about war? And how do we talk to one another about these issues with open hearts and minds in patience, love and humility?”

The second item of note comes from the ecumenical world, where at the end of last month leaders of WARC “called for the lifting of the United States’ economic embargo against Cuba in the interest of justice and right relationships.”

Unfortunately, this position shouldn’t be construed as part of a broader agenda pursuing economic liberty and international openness, linked as it is to the overall “covenanting for justice” outlook of the 2004 Accra, Ghana meeting. How can you decry embargoes and at the same time militate against “neoliberal economic globalization”? Your guess is as good as mine, but at least on the issue of the Cuba embargo, WARC leaders are in the neighborhood of a prudent approach.

Beyond this, I do have a word of concern as well as praise. Regardless of the rightness of the positions espoused above, there is the methodological and eccelsiological issue of whether these are the appropriate groups to be campaigning for such things. That is, should the institutional church, which the ecumenical clearly fancies itself as representing, be speaking so clearly and particularly on prudential policy matters?

Blog author: kosten.joseph
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
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Rome students Joe Kosten (left) and Chris Wells.

Recently, I had the distinct honor to represent Canada at the Papal Rosary for University Students in Rome. The event was held in the Pius VI Hall and was well attended by more than 12,000 students and faithful. Though the story behind my choice of country remains long and obtuse, suffice to say it was an honor to represent any English speaking country before the Holy Father.

The Pope’s message following the Rosary promotes virtue, freedom, and justice for all.

Benedict XVI’s opinions on virtuous living and freedom are well known in the intellectual world. As Pope, he has been working to promote a society of freedom and justice through which man can grow and develop with dignity. The message for students and young people was clear: You are disciples and witnesses of the Gospel, because the Gospel is the herald cry of the Reign of God; the society of love.

As a student in Rome and an intern for the Acton Institute, this call applies directly to my activities here in the Eternal City. However, the call can extend to all young people as they work and function within society. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote in his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, “Our Blessed Lord said: ‘Go into the world and make disciples.’ Here was not only a cosmic mission, but a personal one . . . to bring souls under the discipline of Christ. . . . God never intended that individual and social justice should be separated”(Treasure in Clay, 107-108). Sheen foresaw what the current Pope now asks of youth everywhere: to actively live the society of love in everyday life, and thus give witness to the truth of the Gospel.