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Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mark your calendars: The Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Michigan State University is hosting a conference on April 7-8 with the keynote address to be given by Dr. Randall Balmer, Ann Whitney Olin Professor, Barnard College, Columbia University.

From the conference site: “Dr. Balmer will be giving a lecture and a panel discussion on the topic of his upcoming book Taking the Country Back: How the Religious Right is Winning the Culture Wars.”

There will also be a Saturday morning roundtable on the topic, “Politics, Culture Wars, and the Soul of American Evangelicalism,” featuring Dr. Balmer as well as Dr. Corwin Schmidt, Professor of Political Science and as Director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Some new developments on the idea to move cable television to an a la carte subscription model: Christians and minorities are “concerned.”

According to the Christian Science Monitor, FCC chairman Kevin Martin is pressuring cable providers to move away from the tier-based subscription system to “a full thumbs-up/thumbs-down choice of individual channels.”

In what’s sure to tweak the sensibilities of the cable industry, Martin threatened that if no such moves were made, “basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable alternative.” In other words, it’s the “Do what I want or there’ll be trouble” method of politicking.

The pressure by the FCC may in fact work against the existence of such “family friendly” or religious fare. In a curious confluence, “Democratic politicians and Christian broadcasters are crying foul. They are concerned that a wide expansion of channel choice could raise cable and satellite prices and spell the end of small networks targeted toward niche audiences.”

Martin emphasizes that there should also be “family friendly” packages, but I don’t see the real point of this if people can pick and choose what channels they want themselves anyway. Let them decide what is “family friendly” and what is not. Of course that’s precisely the situation these “niche” broadcasters want to avoid.

For its part, the Family Research Council and its senior legal council Patrick Trueman emphasized the importance of obscenity and decency enforcement on cable and satellite TV, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee last year.

Blog author: mvandermaas
Monday, January 9, 2006

Monopoly #1: I was somewhat shocked the other day when I heard a strong critique of the much-vaunted Canadian national health care system on NPR. I wasn’t dreaming – here’s the link to prove it. The report notes that “after 50 years, the Medicare dream has turned nightmare for many” – something that many advocates for socialized health care in the US would do well to take note of. It also takes note of the recent precedent-setting court decision in Quebec which gives residents who are on waiting lists that jeopardize their health the right to opt out of the public system. (You can listen to the report in Real Audio format by clicking here; previous posts on the topic here, here, and here.) Government health care in Canada seems to be teetering on the brink.

One facing a judicial red light; the other, green.

Monopoly #2: The same can not be said for the governmental education monopoly in Florida. Last Thursday, the state Supreme Court struck down Florida’s statewide voucher system.

In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the program undermines the public schools and violates the Florida Constitution’s requirement of a uniform system of free public education.

This is unfortunate, for the simple reason that the introduction of vouchers has been an effective education reform measure in Florida. The Wall Street Journal noted the positive effects of the program back in June:

The saga began in 1999, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the first money-back guarantee in the history of public education: the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under the program, whenever a public school receives two failing grades on Florida’s academic performance standards, state educational officials come into the school with a remedial program, and the students are allowed to transfer to better performing public schools or to use a share of their public funds as full payment of private-school tuition.

Six years later, only 750 children are attending private schools using opportunity scholarships. But their footsteps have reverberated across the state, prompting failing public schools to reform. Steps taken by failing schools have included spending more money in the classroom and less on administration, hiring tutors for poor performing teachers, and providing year-round instruction to pupils.

Defenders of the status quo insist that such reforms were already under way. But a freedom of information request by the Institute for Justice from school districts that lifted schools off the failing list revealed ubiquitous reference to the dreaded V-word: Without such measures, school officials warned, we wind up with vouchers. The rules of economics, it seems, do not stop at the schoolhouse doors.

The results have been stunning. Even with tougher state standards, nearly half of Florida’s public schools now earn “A” grades, while a similar percentage scored “C’s” when the program started. A 2003 study by Jay Greene found that gains were most concentrated among schools under threat of vouchers.

Most remarkable has been minority student progress. While the percentage of white third-graders reading at or above grade level has increased to 78% from 70% in 2001, the percentage among Hispanic third-graders has climbed from 46% to 61%, and among blacks from 36% to 52%. Graduation rates for Hispanic students have increased from 52.8% before the program started to 64% today; and for black students from 48.7% to 57.3%. Minority schoolchildren are not making such academic strides anywhere else.

And so we revert to the status quo. Sadly, the ones most harmed by the status quo are the ones most in need of the reforms that school choice would bring – the poor.

My predictions: As Canada introduces more market oriented solutions to its health care problems, the quality of care that Canadians recieve will rise and fewer Canadians will have to head south of the border to obtain it; and until American public schools face genuine competition, the quality of the education they provide (especially in inner city and poor areas) will increase negligibly if at all. (more…)

Topping today’s Science/Nature section at BBC News, “Population size ‘green priority'”, by Richard Black. The article focuses on the thoughts of Professor Chris Rapley, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, who contends that the “current global population of six billion is unsustainably high.” This is to say nothing of the growth rate and future generations.

Based on a column Rapley wrote for a new BBC feature, The Green Room, the article presents the view that “humankind is consuming the Earth’s resources at an unsustainably fast rate,” based on “a number of studies.”

The basis for Rapley’s concern, as you might expect, is carbon emissions, but he writes, “Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental ‘footprint’, the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.”

He concludes, “Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.”

Rapley laments that there is a paucity of opportunities to discuss population growth, since it is not often discussed at global environmental summits. “Rare indeed are the opportunities for religious leaders, philosophers, moralists, policymakers, politicians and indeed the “global public” to debate the trajectory of the world’s human population in the context of its stress on the Earth system, and to decide what might be done,” he writes.

Rapley does seem to overlook the UN’s World Population Day, which is little more than a campaign for population controls. And the myth of humanity as a plague species has been fodder for London’s “The Human Zoo,” as well as happening to be the view of Agent Smith in the Matrix movies.

As we saw in a recent commentary by Acton research fellow Jay Richards, Rapley is certainly not alone in his concern. A letter to Richards about his book on intelligent design from a prominent scientist read in part: “Still, adding over seventy million new humans to the planet each year, the future looks pretty bleak to me. Surely, the Black Death was one of the best things that ever happened to Europe: elevating the worth of human labor, reducing environmental degradation, and, rather promptly, producing the Renaissance. From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!”

Perhaps some individuals have imbibed such a view, as birth rates in the developed world are not growing. A 2004 UN report showed that “because of its low and declining rate of population growth, the population of developed countries as a whole is expected to remain virtually unchanged between 2005 and 2050.” Most of the countries in the developed world which will account for the decline in birth rates belong to the EU. The US, on the other hand, is one of the eight nations that will “account for half of the world’s projected population increase.”

But part of the reason that Rapley’s concerns aren’t getting much attention beyond pop culture phenomena and some macabre colleagues is that the population explosion myth has been rather thoroughly debunked. The case of carbon emissions is simply the latest hook for population control advocates. For more on population and the environment, check out Acton’s policy section, which links to a number of helpful resources.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

In the latest issue of Touchstone, Acton senior fellow Jennifer Roback Morse examines the issues of procreation and property in contemporary society, and the seemingly growing opinion anyone can be a parent if they so choose. In “First Comes Marriage” Morse contends, “There is no right to a child, because a child is not an object to which other people have rights.”

She goes on to make a clarification about meanings of “rights” language that are often conflated:

We must distinguish between “the right to have a child” in the sense of possession and the “right to have a child” in the sense of procreation. There is one coherent way to imagine a right to procreate. Two people of the opposite sex can come together to conceive a child, without permission from the state or anyone else. People do it all the time.

To put it another way: Every individual is sterile. No one can have a baby by himself. Each human infant has two parents, one male and one female. Therefore, any right to have a child should be held by a couple, not by an individual who wishes to be a parent.

Read the whole thing and subscribe to Touchstone here.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Kishore has helpfully pointed out the discussions going on elsewhere about Rodney Stark’s piece and the related NYT David Brook’s op-ed. He derides some of the commenters for their lack of economic understanding, but I’d like to applaud one commenter’s post. He questions, as I do, the fundamental validity of Stark’s thesis (which essentially ignores such an important strand of Christianity as Eastern Orthodoxy). Among other astute observations, Christopher Sarsfield asks: “Was it the principles of Christianity that put the ‘goddess of reason’ on the altar of Notre Dame? Or rather was it the rejection of Christianity and the embracing of the Enlightenment?”

The historical phenomena of the Enlightenment is one fundamental place of failure in Stark’s piece (I have not read his book, perhaps he deals with it there. For now, I’ll have to restrict the conversation to the thesis as it appears in the Chronicle of Higher Ed article). In broad strokes, let’s say that I agree with Stark that Christianity is perhaps the single greatest influence on the flowering of Western civilization. As Scottish presbyterian theologian John Baillie has said, “The great shadow on the conscience of the modern West is the shadow of the Cross.”

Where we differ is in our estimation of the role of reason in Christian theology, and thus in our view of the contribution that the Christian view of reason made to the broader world. Stark’s claim that the Christian appreciation for reason was the basis for capitalism, and implicitly therefore technological and scientific advance, simply does not account for the complex historical antecedents and contexts of these systems.

With respect to theology, modernity (usually traced to Descartes) and the Enlightenment up through and beyond Immanuel Kant, is aptly (although simplistically) characterized by the triumph of reason over revelation, a truly Copernican revolution. As Sarsfield states, “Christianity is a religion of revelation. Our primary guide is not logic and reason, but faith in God’s revelation, which reached its fullness with the incarnation of Christ.”

The engagement of Enlightenment critical philosophy placed the relationship between faith and reason in an altogether different one than had dominated precritical times. The less-than-amicable reception of modernity by pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism attests to this. (As a side note, a debate over the reception of Immanuel Kant by Christian theology is now freely available in the Journal of Markets & Morality archive, beginning here with a piece by Derek S. Jeffreys, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and continuing with a response by Robert P. Kraynak, professor at Colgate University.)

Instances abound of a rationalistic Christianity, such as Cambridge Platonism (more broadly latitudinarianism) and the religion of reason itself. Indeed, the deistic religions, not Christianity, are those which best meet Stark’s definition of having a “fundamental commitment” to “reason and progress.” The placement of all these developments under the broad rubric of “Christianity” is simply untenable.

Don A. Howard laments that “explicit engagement with the philosophy of science plays almost no role in the training of physicists or in physics research.” The foundations of modern science in rational religion are all too often ignored these days, not only by those in the natural sciences, but also those in the social sciences.

If Stark is right, that Christianity’s most important contribution to the Western world has been a commitment to reason, if this is how “the West was won,” then that is cause for mourning and repentance, not celebration. It means that the church’s vocation has been usurped, our commission has been left unfulfilled.

The historic and theological relationship between faith and reason is a critically important one for study. But it deserves far more careful attention than what it appears to be given by Stark’s thesis. In general, the church has bordered on being far too accomodating of the modern world, and this is evident in its proclamation and apologetics. John Baillie wrote in the first half of the last century:

During the last several generations we who preach the gospel have been far too ready to assume that the modern man had developed an immunity against its appeal. We have approached him apologetically. We have made stammering excuses for our intrusion. For the old direct challenge we have substituted the language of debate. Where our forefathers would have confronted him with God’s commandments, we have parleyed with him over God’s existence and over the authenticity of His claims.

The fundamental commitment to revelation over reason is one that is shared by the great Christian tradition, represented by Augustine, Aquinas, and all the other great Christian theologians that Stark names. It is not a commitment that is shared by proponents of a rationalistic Christianity or reasonable religion, and this difference cannot be overlooked in any account of the rise of Western civilization.

The Acton debate on the relationship has featured blog posts on Rodney Stark and David Brooks’s column on Starks.

Amy Welborn’s site has more in these two posts (here and here), with a somewhat lively debate in the comments sections.

Several of the comments regard Max Weber’s thesis on the Protestant work ethic and capitalism, and reveal a misunderstanding of what makes for economic growth in Ireland and the lack of it in Latin America.

It’s pretty obvious there are few Actonites or economists taking place in the debate over at Amy Welborn’s. If they had been reading the Journal of Markets and Morality, they could have saved themselves a lot of time.

Jordan Ballor’s recent post on “Christian Reason and the Spirit of Capitalism” hit onto something big.

In today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist David Brooks weighs in with a piece entitled “The Holy Capitalists”. (Once again, the Times has blocked access to non-subscribers. If you aren’t a subscriber, buy today’s Times just to read this column – it’s worth it.)

Brooks calls the debate over the foundations of success the most important in the social sciences today and praises Rodney Stark’s book “The Victory of Reason” for its unconventional take on Western progress.

“Religion didn’t stifle economic and scientific ideas – it nurtured them. […] Catholic theology had taught [European scientists and economists] that God had created the universe according to universal laws that reason could discover.”

He concludes, “Ideas and culture drive civilizations. The Catholic Church nutured one of the most impressive economic takeoffs in human history. Today, as Catholicism spreads in Africa and China, it’s important to understand the beliefs that encourage people to work hard and grow rich.”

Some of these themes can be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent World Day of Peace Message (albeit in less provocative language). And they are also of great interest to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, headed by Prof. Mary Ann Glendon.

Maybe this discussion will be joined on the letters page of the “newpaper of record”. And maybe the Times will even allow non-subscribers to take part.

I wrote previously about the result of the recent world information summit that resulted in ICANN’s continuing governance over Internet domain registration worldwide. Fast Company Now provides us a link to the letter from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez that may have precipitated the détente. Among the salient features of the letter:

  • The contention that “support for the present structures for Internet governance is vital. These structures have proven to be a reliable foundation for the robust growth of the Internet we have seen over the course of the last decade.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • “Burdensome, bureaucratic oversight” (read UN involvement) “is out of place in an Internet structure that has worked so well for many around the globe.”
  • An emphasis on non-governmental solutions: “The history of the Internet’s extraordinary growth and adaptation, based on private-sector innovation and investment, offers compelling arguments against burdening the network with a new intergovernmental structure for oversight. It also suggests that a new intergovernmental structure would most likely become an obstacle to global Internet access for all our citizens.”

The tone of the letter is rather unyielding (principled, perhaps?) in the face of complaints against ICANN (and implicitly American) dominance over Internet administration. I find the arguments rather compelling, especially given that ICANN seems to be responsive to global concerns.

For example, a new Internet domain for the European Union opened up this past Wednesday. This will allow interested parties to register with the new “.eu” suffix instead of having to choose from country-specific codes, such as “.uk” or “.fr”, or other generic options, “.com” and “.net”.

So ICANN is listening to the EU, even if the push for the new domain isn’t a grassroots campaign. The question is whether Europeans actually desire a “.eu” domain name: “Some business groups are uncertain how popular it will be. Europeans have an EU flag, an EU passport and an EU anthem but many have a lukewarm attitude to European integration —as French and Dutch ‘no’ votes to a new constitution showed this year.” I don’t think a “.na” (North America) domain would be that popular for Canadians and Americans, for instance.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, December 1, 2005

A section compiled by Matt Donnelly at Science & Theology News calls the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance’s recent formation a continuation of “the recent and laudable trend of faith-based organizations making a serious attempt to grapple with the religious basis for environmental stewardship.”

The section also provides links to their coverage of a number of other aspects of “the intersection of religious belief and environmental protection.”