Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, August 20, 2010

Two more thoughtful reviews of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, now available on Kindle. First, from John Armstrong on his ACT 3 blog:

In reducing its witness to advocacy for a particular set of policies, the ecumenical movement has abandoned the attempt to proclaim the Gospel, the true foundation of its spiritual authority. “This is surely a form of culture-Christianity,” writes Ramsey, “even if it is not that of the great cultural churches of the past. This is, indeed, the most barefaced sectarianism and but a new form of culture-Christianity. It would identify Christianity with the cultural vitalities, with the movement of history, with where the action is, with the next and even now the real establishment, but not with the present hollow forms.” In this way, the question of how the church’s prophetic responsibility ought to be expressed in a post-Christendom era has not received adequate attention from the ecumenical movement. Instead, it has simply assumed that the same form of prophetic pronouncement is as appropriate today as it was in the era of the Reformation, the medieval church, or the Old Testament monarchy.

The modern ecumenical movement began in the early twentieth century with great promise. By the middle of the 20th century that promise had been greatly misplaced because of the relationship of the movement, through many of its principal leaders, to ideology. The same happened on the right, from 1976 on, as conservative evangelicals increasingly embraced political and economic ideology in place of the gospel. If we are to get Christ and the gospel back into the center of our shared life and witness then we must take seriously what writers such as Jordan Ballor are saying to us. I heartily commend Ecumenical Babel, a truly readable and wonderful book. All who love Christian unity centered in the witness of the church and the gospel of Christ will benefit from this fine new book.

And these concluding paragraphs from a long review on Viola Larson’s Naming His Grace blog:

Ballor’s last chapter offers ways the ecumenical movement could be reformed. He focuses on a biblical and personal reform that centers in the life of the Church. He also focuses on the wealth that God gives to be used by his people. He asks that peripheral issues be left open for debate. Ballor writes:

“Economic and political opinions should not be turned into articles of faith. Indeed there must be room for bad economic and political opinions in our confession. There are limits, of course, and these primarily arise when some alien influence or idea, a worldly ideology, takes the place of biblical confession and becomes an all compassing world-and -life view, a would be competitor of Christianity.” (119)

While Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, is a small book, it is dense, filled with clear thinking, biblical and confessional concern and a multitude of resources. Ballor has provided members of the mainline Churches with valuable material. Members of the PCUSA, who long for an ecumenical movement that speaks as a Church to and with its members, rather then in an authoritative manner for its members, will find a possible way forward in this book. The orthodox members of mainline churches who long for an ecumenical movement that confesses for Christ and against his enemies will also find relief in this book.

President Calvin Coolidge called Francis Asbury a “prophet in the wilderness.” He has also been called “the bishop on horseback” and “the prophet of the long road” for his prolific treks across the American frontier.

Francis Asbury statue in Wilmore, Kentucky

The Methodist bishop who was born on August 20, 1745, was the architect of the American Methodist movement. The denomination grew from a few hundred upon his arrival to over 200,000 members at the time of his death. At his death in 1816, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest U.S. denomination. To here about his unique work ethic and more biographic information check out this Acton PowerBlog post in our archives.

When Asbury left England for the colonies he never saw his parents again. Asbury would witness the American Revolution and played a pivotal role in the Second Great Awakening. He joined America’s Westward Expansion by horseback so that none would go without hearing the Good News of Christ. While sailing to the American colonies in 1771 Asbury wrote in his journal:

I will set down a few things that lie on my mind. Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honour? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others so to do.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, August 20, 2010

We at Acton have been among the loudest critics of clergy and other religious leaders who undermine economic freedom (and therefore prosperity, including for the poor) by advocating more extensive government intervention in economic affairs.

So we should be the first to applaud when clerics strike a blow for freedom. Kudos to the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana.

Monasteries may seem an unlikely venue for capitalist ferment, but in fact they hold an important place in the history of economic development in the West. In the medieval period, for example, they were centers of industrial activity, such as milling and tanning.

The monastic tradition’s insistence on self-sufficiency continues, spurring contemporary marketing of monkish products from coffee to chocolate to … caskets.

It’s the coffin business that got St. Joseph’s in trouble. By selling its pine boxes without a funeral director’s license, the monastery violates state law. So the abbey is suing the State of Louisiana in federal court.

It’s a classic case of what economists call “barriers to entry”: regulations put in place by existing businesses or professionals to limit competition and thereby drive up prices and compensation. Usually the vested interest posits some rationale concerning the public good (e.g., not just anybody should be allowed to practice medicine…), but frequently enough the reasoning is pretty thin (e.g., should you really need a license to cut hair or drive a taxi?).

The negative consequences of such barriers are the same as those attending any artificial limiting of competition: inflated prices, deflated supply, decreased employment opportunities for those who need them most (those who cannot afford the fees or tuition associated with credentialing and licensing).

Thus, Abbot Justin Brown, in words that might warm the heart of Frederic Bastiat, Adam Smith, or Milton Friedman:

We have not taken this step lightly, but it is one of our Constitution’s many great virtues that it protects economic liberty so that everyone — even monks — can earn an honest living through the labor of their own hands.

Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Deficits, Debt, and Self-Deception

By Samuel Gregg

It passed almost unnoticed, but in late July the Obama Administration raised the Federal Government’s budget deficit forecast for fiscal year 2011 to $1.4 trillion. That’s up from February’s forecast of $1.267 trillion. In July alone, the Federal Government’s deficit was $165 billion, of which $20 billion was for interest-payments on debt.

The long-term outlook is even worse. The U.S. Government is now borrowing approximately 41 cents of every dollar it spends. It’s also predicting additional borrowing of $8.5 trillion until 2020. If that eventuates, America’s national debt would exceed 77 percent of its annual economic output.

At some point, most of us become dazed by all these numbers that track America’s upward spiral of debt. This numbness is only exacerbated by the fact that government debt-excesses in most developed countries have been matched and even surpassed by household and financial-sector debt.

In Spain, for instance, household debt rose from 69 percent of disposable income in 2000 to 130 percent in 2008. Britain was worse, with the ratio rising from 105 percent to 160 percent over the same period. Average American household debt increased from $27,000 in 2001 to $44,000 today.

The economic effects of servicing all this debt (let alone paying down the principle) are not hard to grasp. For many households, it means either bankruptcy or severe curtailing of lifestyles so that expectations match people’s actual incomes. For others, it translates into less access to credit, even for those with good credit records or well-conceived business plans that need only sufficient capitalization to succeed. The cost of servicing government debt also reduces the amount of private sector capital available for investment. This means slower growth which further impedes our ability to shrink government deficits. (more…)

Blog author: jwitt
Thursday, August 19, 2010

World magazine has an update on the Jim Wallis story that I blogged about earlier this week.

A Sojourners spokesman today reversed an earlier Wallis denial and confirmed the organization has received funding from Soros’ Open Society Institute. Sojourners is a leading organization on the religious left founded by Wallis, who is a spiritual adviser to President Obama. Soros is the billionaire financier of, a Democrat-leaning organization that pushes for abortion, atheism, bigger government, and other progressive causes.

The full update is here.

It’s always nice to hear from old friends, even when said old friends are unsettling you with tales of insane government spending. When last we heard from former Acton colleague Michelle McAdoo here on the PowerBlog, she was taking Washington by storm with her proposal for an “alternative stimulus.” In the interceding time, she’s gotten married (congratulations!) and now has returned with more tales from the dark and unsettling world of “stimulus.” Enjoy!

Update/Clarification: Michelle adds: “just so you know, not all of these gov’t spending programs are part of the stimulus. it is more of a video to show how reckless all parties are. the prostitutes example was a 2008 spending program, though the turtle tunnel was stimulus.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A constant theme here at the Acton Institute is the idea that good intentions are not enough…they need to be connected to sound practice.

In a reflection on fair trade at, D. C. Innes commends Victor Claar’s monograph, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

Fair TradeInnes, an associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, writes,

It’s admirable that people wish to better the lives of coffee growing peasants. I also applaud their use of private initiatives and organizations. But before scorning their neighbors for not sharing their means, and before trying to turn the world inside out and upside down on the basis of an adolescent “why not?” they should make sure that the vehicle they have chosen for their dreams actually does what it’s supposed to do, and doesn’t do more harm than good.

Check out Claar’s book for more on the intentions, challenges, and realities facing the fair trade movement.

On his recently launched Ambiguorum Blogis site, Fr. Michael Butler is reviewing Elizabeth Theokritoff’s Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). Fr. Michael, who joined us for Acton University 2010, examines the author’s exhausted earth meme, beginning with this quote from the book:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that with an ever-growing human population, it is not enough for humanity as a whole to do more with less; individually, we must also learn to do less with less (Theokritoff, p. 21).

Fr. Michael comments:

This statement is astonishing. It is a call to reduce our quality of life, and I find it hard to square with her concern for the poor and the weak, for whom learning “to do less with less” is a recipe for catastrophe. She says, on p. 19, “most environmental problems take their toll on the poor and weak long before they affect those who can afford to live far from the landfills, upwind of the factories or power plants, and well above sea level”. If the poor and the weak suffer in our current economy, their suffering in a reduced economy will be unspeakable. A vibrant economy helps everyone; poverty in the United States, for example, is incomparable with poverty found elsewhere in the world. The poor and weak will not be helped by making everyone else poorer and weaker.

The author spends some time describing a “culture of control,” which is “a way for us to arrange the world for our own convenience, with no reference to some higher will for the world or for us” (p. 22). She goes on,

Many people regarded it as quite normal, for instance, to have strawberries to eat in mid-winter, relax and a cool house in mid-summer in a subtropical climate, or sit on a well-watered lawn beside the swimming pool in a semi-desert. (Theokritoff, p. 23)

I freely disclose that I eat strawberries in midwinter. My winter strawberries come from Mexico and Chile. What is for me an “indulgence” (Theokritoff’s term) is probably not an indulgence for the Latin American farmers who grow the strawberries and depend upon their sale for their livelihood. Taking to task people who live in the South for air-conditioning their homes strikes me simply as mean-spirited. She might as well take northerners to task for presuming to heat their homes in the winter. I don’t have a swimming pool, so I won’t comment on that part.

Fr. Michael has been a priest in the Orthodox Church in America for more than 15 years in Michigan and Ohio. See his bio and scholarly interests here. And put him on your blog roll and newsreader today.

In a recent article in World magazine, Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky urged evangelical minister Jim Wallis to drop the pretense of being post-partisan. Olasky, World magazine’s editor-in-chief, went on to assert that (1) Wallis’s organization, Sojourners, received money from the foundation of secular-leftist George Soros, and that (2) Wallis had lent the Sojourners mailing list to the Obama campaign.

In an interview here, Wallis appears to deny these charges. But now former Acton research fellow Jay Richards has followed up with some additional findings in a new piece at NRO. The findings strongly support Olasky’s claims, and make it all the more unclear why Wallis would respond to them by denying them and calling Olasky a professional liar.

Richards has been keeping tabs on Wallis for a while now. In an October 2005 review of God’s Politics, Richards shows how Wallis sits squarely on the left and has even capitulated to the secular left on key social issues. The book review also examines Wallis’s questionable biblical exegesis as well as some of the economic fallacies that drive much of Wallis’s political thinking.

Wallis may mean well, but the big-government policies he advocates have been a wrecking ball to the very communities he seeks to help. An Acton/Coldwater video short examines why the left’s approach to poverty alleviation has done so much harm. It’s called How not to Help the Poor.