Blog author: jspalink
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
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Today marks the day that the Acton Institute broadens its horizons… If you haven’t noticed, we’ve literally widened our blog to 900px, creating a bit more space for all the things we have to say. We’ve also changed the location of the blog to http://blog.acton.org/. All of our old links (http://www.acton.org/blog/…) should still work although there may be occasions when they won’t. Please don’t hesitate to leave notification of old links that don’t work in the comments section of this post.Technorati Profile

You may also want to update your RSS feeds, although the old ones should still work. The general PowerBlog RSS feed is now http://blog.acton.org/feeds/index.rss2. Another nifty feature that we’re adding is the ability to grab an RSS feed of a particular author. So, if you just can’t get enough of Marc’s “Global Warming Consensus Alerts,” scroll down till you find the “Authors” box on the lefthand column of the page and click on the XML icon next to Marc’s name.

Blog author: abradley
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
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New Haven, Conn., isn’t waiting for a green light from the federal government to solve its illegal immigration problem: Two weeks ago, it became the first city in America to issue its own ID card. Already considered a “sanctuary city,” as the latest issue of The Economist reports, New Haven has forbidden its police force to ask anything about immigrants’ status and offers illegals help with filing federal taxes. Now with the new ID card — good for all sorts of fun perks — New Haven is offering even more provisions for illegal immigrants. The ID functions as a debit card at downtown shops, restaurants, and parking meters; grants access to public beaches and libraries; and allows undocumented immigrants to open accounts at two New Haven banks. Costing only $10 for an adult card and $5 for a children’s card, the IDs are mostly funded by a $250,000 grant from First City Bank (one of the two banks accepting the card as valid identification).

But will making life more livable for New Haven’s illegal immigrant community do anything to solve the real problem, which is (a) that they are there and (b) that they are illegal? The immigrants could still face deportation at any time the federal government decides to enforce the current laws. Thirty-two arrests of undocumented immigrants were made almost immediately after the cards were issued, calling into question the entire concept of a “sanctuary city.” New Haven’s solution brings to mind the image of a disobedient child whose father has banished him to his bedroom, complacent but looking over his shoulder as his mother sneaks DVDs and apple pie to him through the window. It makes the child’s captivity more pleasant, to be sure, but at the end of the day he is still culpable and locked in his room with no way out. What kind of overall stability does this approach contribute? I would argue, none.

Another city is making provisions for its non-violent lawbreakers in a completely different way. The New York Times reported two days ago that Nashville, Tenn., has instituted Fugitive Safe Surrender, a program of the U.S. Marshals that allows individuals with outstanding arrest warrants — for “smaller” offenses like missed court dates, traffic violations, or minor drug offenses — to turn themselves in at designated churches, which provide a more “neutral setting” than a police station or courthouse would. When offenders present themselves, they are given the chance to work out a plea with city lawyers and to go before a judge, who typically dismisses the warrant, clears the backlogs, and sends the former fugitives on their way.

Fugitive Safe Surrender is a way of acknowleging that a law has been broken, but it provides a legal, mutually beneficial remedy to the minor issues that clog the courts, and it helps to prevent violent confrontations between fugitives and police. It requires something of the offenders — turning themselves in — and relies neither on total blindness to illegal behavior nor on the sporadic, nocturnal kicking-in of doors to prove the law’s point (which measures usually turn out to be counterproductive for those on both sides of the law).

A beach pass and a debit card won’t do a thing to justify an illegal immigrant’s presence in the States, even if they make his stay a bit more comfortable. But a voluntary acknowledgement of wrongdoing, answered by a serious and thoughtful pardon, resulting in a peacable relationship … that sounds like it might have a ring of justice to it.

Five U.S. cities have implemented Fugitive Safe Surrender to deal with their non-violent criminals, albeit not with illegal immigrants. More than 100 cities have declared themselves “cities of sanctuary.” Could the 100+ learn anything from the principles of the five? Perhaps.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
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Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam provoked a cottage industry of commentary and debate on the question of “social capital” when he published his book, Bowling Alone, a few years ago. Now he’s at it again with an intriguing study concerning the effects of diversity on civic life.

The controversial finding is that the more diverse a community is, the lower its index of social connectedness (measured by volunteer rates, for example). The implications of the finding are significant for all sorts of issues, from immigration to education.

It’s a provocative finding for promoters of Christian social thought, as well. The Christian social vision is dependent on the existence of strong communities made up of close personal bonds. On the one hand, we want to believe that the Christian imperative to love one’s neighbor as oneself trumps any tendency to withdraw from “the other”—anyone who is different in some way. On the other hand, grace is not magic; it builds on nature. Is the natural tendency to associate with those like ourselves a harmful trait that must be eradicated, or is it simply an inherent piece of human nature that must be taken into account?

HT: Rick Garnett at Mirror of Justice.

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 1 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Good Works:

  • A condemnation of selfishness: “It is a sign he is a branch cut off and withered who careth little for any but himself” (292).

  • The orderliness of subsidiarity obligations: “But as all motion and action is first upon the nearest object, so must ours; and doing good must be in order: first we must begin at home and with our own souls and lives; and then to our nearest relations, and friends, and acquaintance, and neighbours; and then to our societies, church, and kingdom, and all the world. But mark that the order of execution, and the order of estimate and intention, differ. Though God set up lights so small as will serve but for one room, and though we must begin at home, we must far more esteem and desire the good of multitudes, of city, and church, and commonwealth; and must set no bounds to our endeavours, but what God and disability set” (294).
  • The need for discernment and prudence in Christian charity: “In such cases there is need of great prudence and impartiality to know whether the good or the evil do preponderate; and a great part of the actions of our lives must be managed by that prudence, or else they will be sinful” (295).
  • God brings good even out of the evil of selfishness: “A narrow-spirited, selfish man, will serve others no further than it serveth himself, or, at least, will stand with his own safety or prosperity. He will turn as the weathercock, and be for them that are for his worldly interest. I confess that God oft useth such for common good: but it is by raising such storms as would sink them with the ship, and leaving them no great hope to escape by being false, or by permitting such villanies as threaten their own interest” (298).
  • Again, the need for wisdom in loving others is emphasized: “He that will do much good in the world, must be furnished with considerable abilities, especially prudence and skill in knowing when, and to whom, and how to do it. Without this, he will do more harm than good” (299).
  • Good works are oriented towards the ultimate good of the soul. The composition of human nature, body and soul, determines the relationship between material and spiritual assistance: “Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul” (303).
  • This prioritization of the spiritual over the temporal necessitates the use of the sort of prudential wisdom and reasoning Baxter praised earlier: “All men are sensible of pain or pleasure, good or evil, to the flesh, before they are sensible what is necessary for their souls. You must therefore speak on that side which can hear, and work upon the feeling part, if you will do good” (303).

Enthusiastic atheists are on the offensive in an effort to tear down private faith, now that religion has increasingly lost influence in the public square. Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion”, and Christopher Hitchens’s, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The reason for this attack is because the atheists claim to be committed to justice, while people of faith, along with the divine itself, are and have been purveyors of injustice, according to the new breed of aggressive atheists. It’s an interesting and alien perspective for those with a religious world view, especially those who are familiar with Christ, scripture, and so much of Church history. It is in fact Christ who is the greatest liberator of humanity from evil, and Christian practice and thought that has helped liberate the oppressed, and eased the burdens of the weak.

Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield in a piece entitled Atheist Tracts in the Weekly Standard, discounts the notion that real justice and societal advancement will be empowered by the absence of a belief in the creator. Some essential quotes from Mansfield’s article are provided below:

Atheism isn’t what it was in the eighteenth century. Now, the focus of the attack is not the Church, which is no longer dominant, but religion itself. The disdain one used to hear for “organized religion” extends now to the individual believer’s faith. Despite the change, politics is still the thrust of the attack. It’s just that the delusion of religion is now allowed to be the responsibility of the believer, not of some group that is deluding him. A more direct approach is required.

Edmund Burke said, with a view to the atheism of the French Revolution, that we cannot live justly and happily unless we live under “a power out of ourselves.” By this he meant a power above us, transcendent over our wills and our choices. We must choose to live under a power that limits our choices.

In the contest between religion and atheism, the strength of religion is to recognize two apparently contrary forces in the human soul: the power of injustice and the power, nonetheless, of our desire for justice. The stubborn existence of injustice reminds us that man is not God, while the demand for justice reminds us that we wish for the divine. Religion tries to join these two forces together.

One of the reasons of the failure of atheism to overtake the world is noted by Mansfield in today’s Weekly Standard piece. He notes, “More pointedly, has not the atheist totalitarianism of the twentieth century, with its universal pretensions, proved to be the worst tyranny mankind has ever seen?”

Ironically, it was the atheist dream of utopia which helped secure atheism’s diminishing influence. When put into practice in the twentieth century, it was a hopeless, dark, and dreary mix of bread lines and gulags. It was a Baptist Minister from the American South, Martin Luther King, who was famous for saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Mt. Tabor

In much of the Christian world today, the great feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord is commemorated (Matt. 17:1-9). In the Eastern Church, as Fr. Seraphim Rose observed, it is customary to “offer fruits to be blessed at this feast; and this offering of thanksgiving to God contains a spiritual sign, too. Just as fruits ripen and are transformed under the action of the summer sun, so is man called to a spiritual transfiguration through the light of God’s word by means of the Sacraments. Some saints, (for example – Saint Seraphim of Sarov), under the action of this life-giving grace, have shone bodily before men even in life with this same uncreated Light of God’s glory; and that is another sign to us of the heights to which we, as Christians, are called and the state that awaits us – to be transformed in the image of Him Who was transfigured on Mount Tabor.”

Fr. Lev Gillet saw a three-fold meaning in the Transfiguration:

The Jesus that the disciples knew well and whose looks, in ordinary life, did not differ radically from those of other people, suddenly appears to them in a new and glorious form. In our inner life, a similar experience can happen in three ways.

Sometimes our inward image of Jesus becomes (to the eyes of the soul) so luminous, so resplendent, that we seem truly to see the glory of God in this face: somehow the divine beauty of Christ becomes for us an object of our experience.

Or, sometimes, we feel with great intensity that the inner light, that light which is given to all men born into the world as a guide to their thought and action, is identified with the person of Jesus Christ: the power of the moral law becomes fused with the person of the Son, and the attraction of sacrifice makes us glimpse the sacrificed Saviour, and hear his call.

Sometimes, too, we become aware of Jesus’s presence in some man or woman whom God has set in our path, especially when it is given to us to bring compassion to their sufferings: then, in the eyes of faith, the man or woman is transfigured into Jesus Christ. From this last example, one could evolve a precise spiritual method, a method of transfiguration which could apply to everyone, everywhere and always.

Picking up on the themes of the importance of narrative from recent weeks, I pass along this worthy saying of Lord Acton:

“Government rules the present. Literature rules the future.”

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, August 6, 2007
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Australian blogger Barney Zwartz, writing for the Australian newspaper The Age, tracks down intrepid research director Sam Gregg, who participated in a Melbourne book launching for Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy. After noting that “it seems counter-intuitive to me to consider market-theorist heroes such as Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan friends of the poor,” Zwartz asks:

Is Dr Gregg right? Is a market economy the primary tool for addressing poverty, are other economic approaches better, or are there still-deeper issues that underlie the economic? And what about the churches? Vatican teaching on economics in the past century has been socially liberal, endorsing the right to trade unions for example. The churches still play a leading role in welfare, usually with some government funding. (Often this dissatisfies Christians, who think the agencies become hostage to government policy, and non-believers, who feel the churches are an anachronism who should have no role.) Is this partnership a problem? Should the churches do less – or more? Do other faiths have a better approach? What is the morality of welfare, and how does it apply? Should the old notion of the deserving poor regain some purchase or is welfare simply an obligation of a civilised society, as part of which we accept that some people will take unfair advantage? Is poverty an institutional or a personal responsibility – what do you do to help?

An op-ed in today’s NYT by James E. McWilliams, “Food That Travels Well,” articulates some of the suspicions I’ve had about the whole “eat local” phenomenon.

It seems to me that duplicating the kind of infrastructure necessary to sustain a great variety of food production every hundred miles or so is grossly inefficient. Now some researchers in New Zealand have crunched some numbers that seem to support that analysis:

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

McWilliams closes with some compelling questions about stewardship of the environment, food production, and trade:

Given these problems, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn’t we create development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

Read the whole thing, as they say.

Hey everybody, Richard Dawkins is selling T-shirts! Get ‘em while they’re hot!

Scandalous! And available for men and women!

One of my favorite bloggers, Allahpundit (who just happens to be an athiest himself), calls this “…a new stage in the transformation of ‘new atheism’ from rational argument to aggrieved identity group,” and has this to say about the t-shirts themselves

Some of our commenters call this sort of thing evangelical atheism but a moron with a scarlet “A” on his chest really isn’t trying to convert you. He’s just trying to get in your face in his own passive way and remind you that nonbelievers exist in case you missed Hitchens’s last thousand appearances on cable news or somehow avoided his, Dawkins’s, and Sam Harris’s ubiquitous books. I hate to frag a guy on my own side but honestly, we can do without these pity parties.

I’ll drink to that. But honestly, the part of this that really caught my attention was the following statement on Dawkins’ homepage:

It is time to let our voices be heard regarding the intrusion of religion in our schools and politics. Atheists along with millions of others are tired of being bullied by those who would force their own religious agenda down the throats of our children and our respective governments. We need to KEEP OUT the supernatural from our moral principles and public policies.

I wonder just how Dawkins and his out-and-proud atheist brethren would propose to accomplish that goal. (An aside – it would be just as fair to say that millions of Christians are tired of being bullied by the much smaller group of quite militant atheists who seem determined to wipe away any acknowledgment of God or the supernatural in all realms of our public life.) Is the argument from Dawkins that those of us who are religious should not allow the principles that form the core of our existence on Earth and inform all of the decisions that we make should be kept completely out of politics and the public square? Or should we be allowed in, but only if we strictly segregate our moral and religious beliefs in our decision making on any public issue? How would such a restriction be enforced? How is that compatible in any way with human freedom? I imagine the discussion going something like this:

Dawkins: I DEMAND THAT YOU NOT ALLOW YOUR BELIEFS TO INFLUENCE YOUR DECISION MAKING ON PUBLIC ISSUES!
Me: Uh… Sorry. No dice.

What is Dawkins’ next move at this point? How does he propose to stop me from ramming my religious agenda down his throat (or, as I like to call it, acting according to the dictates of my conscience within the legal bounds of our political system)?

One other point – One of my former pastors, a big booster of Christian education, often made the point that a non-religious education is impossible, in that all education must have at its root some sort of central organizing principle – some fundamental truth about who man is and how he relates to the world that he lives in. Christianity has a distinct view on that issue – that man is created in the image of God, and because of that has a unique and intrinsic value as a created person, and also has important rights and responsibilities within God’s creation. That worldview has distinct consequences for how a Christian approaches education, and the same could be said for any religious system, including humanism, which is, in reality, the core religious principle of a “non-religious” education.

I’ve always thought that this speaks to a basic truth about mankind – that we were created to be religious. We all have a need to orient our lives toward something, a set of beliefs that we hold to be true and supreme. We’re all religious. Even if you don’t believe in God, you believe in something. So why do the new atheists feel so comfortable accusing believers of trying to “force their own religious agenda down the throats of our children and our respective governments” when that’s exactly what they’re trying to do themselves?

Just a thought.