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On Tuesday, Acton’s president, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, joined three other prominent Catholic thinkers for a roundtable discussion of the U.S. bishops’ 1986 letter “Economic Justice for All.” Georgetown Univeristy’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs sponsored the discussion, and Berkley Center director Tom Banchoff moderated the proceedings.

The discussion, held on the left-leaning document’s 25th anniversary, addressed its legacy. Fr. Sirico’s contention was that the bishops “exceed[ed] their authority in an area where they lack competency,” in a way that, in hindsight, is “frankly embarrassing.” “Bishops should be bishops, not managers, not policy-makers,” he said, and noted that in the case of “Economic Justice for All,” it wasn’t even necessarily the bishops themselves who produced the silly economic arguments in the first place, but they had signed the letter.

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat agreed with that assessment, adding a point that Acton’s been making for 20 years: “Well-meaning public policy isn’t effective public policy.”

Catholic News Service article here, and Georgetown Vox Populi blog post.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It seems that the supercommittee (the US Congress Joint Select Committee on Defict Reduction) has failed to agree on $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade. In lieu of this “failure,” automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion will kick in. These cuts will be across the board, and will not result from the committee’s picking of winners and losers in the federal budget.

In the context about discussions of intergenerational justice earlier this year, Michael Gerson said that such across-the-board cuts are “really the lazy abdication of governing.” And with respect to the outcome of the supercommittee process, Gerson is laying the lion’s share of blame for this failure to govern with President Obama: “It is the executive, not the legislature, that gives the budget process energy and direction. The supercommittee failed primarily because President Obama gave a shrug.”

But I want to speak out in favor of across-the-board cuts, at least provisionally. I do not think they necessarily represent a failure to govern, or the “lazy abdication of governing.” It’s true as Gerson says that “To govern is to choose. And some choices are more justified than others.” In the case where there is no clear agreement about spending priorities, or even the basic views of the purpose of government, choosing to keep spending priorities as they currently exist might just be the most feasible political move. If everyone agrees that there needs to be cuts, but no one wants their pet programs cut, then it seems reasonable to, as Gerson puts it, “let everyone bear an equal burden.”

If we were to try to weigh the cuts and divide them proportionally between various areas of government spending, it seems to me that we’d need to come to grips with the various responsibilities of government: primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on. Things that are more central to the federal government’s purpose should be cut relatively less than those things that are more peripheral. That’s the view that appears in the Acton Institute’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” for instance.

But one thing that’s clear about today’s political climate is that there is very little consensus on what the central functions of government are. And in the absence of consensus, maintaining current spending priorities might be the best we can hope for.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off the launch pad for the final space shuttle mission. Image credit: NASA TV

Imagine you’re eight and you’re given a dog. The first thing your parents say is that you need to take care of him: feed him, play with him in the backyard, and train him so that he doesn’t do bad things in the house. You and the new dog quickly become “the dog and his master.” That well-worn phrase can tell us something about our human instincts. Once something is put under our care, often our kneejerk reaction to “taking care of it” is to rule it or conquer it.

It’s no different with space. And the event of the final shuttle launch of Atlantis is yet another example of our human enthusiasm for conquering what’s before us. This launch, bittersweet as it was, marks the end of one program of curiosity and adventure, as well as the beginning of a new era of space exploration. This new era could include the privatization of programs to continue doing what shuttles like Atlantis have been doing, like replenishing supplies on the International Space Station, as well as take on other new space ventures. There will be debate about the next steps, I’m sure, just as there has always been debate about the space programs themselves.

But between the arguments concerning the pros and cons of space exploration, I believe it’s safe to say that there is general agreement that space has always given us that sense of grandeur and awe which inspires us to explore and conquer. I think it’s also fair to say that our zeal for exploration of creation is an impulse given by God, and one that’s directly in line with being created in the image of the Divine. Joan Vernikos, a member of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy and former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, comes close to this truth in her answer to Stephen J. Dubner, author, journalist and blogger, about the worth of space exploration:

Why explore? Asked why he kept trying to climb Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory reputedly replied, “Because it was there.” Exploration is intrinsic to our nature. It is the contest between man and nature mixed with the primal desire to conquer. It fuels curiosity, inspiration and creativity.

This desire to conquer, like all of our tendencies, is tainted with sin, but it has its origins in the characteristics of God. We know historically that the urge to conquer has been coupled with other horrors which we hope we will not repeat as we venture into space. And we also know that God commanded his people to conquer other peoples and also to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen.1:28, NIV), which can perhaps be translated into “conquer it.”

Which side of this “primal desire” will lead us into space? We’ve made great strides in our ability to conquer; case in point, the space shuttle Atlantis. But like any great power, it comes with great responsibility, and for Christians, our responsibility is wrapped up in God’s creation, which extends all the way out to the infinity of the cosmos. What’s to be done with it? The coverage of Atlantis has brought lots of ideas concerning this back into the news. We already hear about space property law and space tourism offering “unbeatable views.” There may be interesting and important implications here for the possibility of entrepreneurial growth and encouragement through private companies picking up from where NASA is leaving its retired space shuttles, things that might be explored in another blog post.

In a piece a few years ago, Jordan Ballor mentioned the emerging ideas about property ownership in space and how private companies would like to offer space as a tourist attraction, and what the real purpose of space might be. Speaking of the views of the sixteenth-century reformer Philip Melanchthon, Ballor writes:

Even if Melanchthon’s views were founded on assumptions that subsequent advances in astronomy have disproved, his theological vision is a salient reminder that every part of the created cosmos fills a specific purpose within God’s created order. While we may be uncomfortable with Melanchthon’s belief that “the stars were created by God to tell men what God intended,” we should acknowledge that there are created purposes for the heavenly bodies and seek to understand them.

When we discuss “stewardship of the cosmos,” as Jordan Ballor called it, we must ask whether conquering and stewardship compatible. Valid questions like this arise when we are faced with questions concerning the private ownership of space and the possibility of colonizing other planets. I have no hard and fast answers, except that for Christians, perhaps “conquering” isn’t the best characterization of what we’re doing in space. Our God-given tendencies towards adventure and understanding are compatible with his love of beauty, creativity, and complexity. But where does conquest fit?

Another writer recently posted that maybe the best way to think about it to think of space exploration as worship. Josh Larson discusses how that sense of awe we share when we see shuttles launch into space and see photos from the International Space station of galaxies and stars can be akin to worship. Maybe we can think about coupling them all together: conquering, being a steward, and worshiping, in order to think about how best to approach the discovery and development of the final frontier.

My contribution for this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Inner-city education fails without the church

By Anthony Bradley

As Congress moves toward reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the problem is not that the Department of Education is not doing enough but that it suffers from an acute case of what psychologists call “organizational narcissism.” If they really wish to address America’s inner-city public school crisis, federal education officials must look beyond the boundaries of their own agencies and recognize the crucial role of churches.

Steven Churchill, of the Center for Organizational Design, explains that organizations can have a grandiose sense of self-importance and an inflated judgment of their own accomplishments, leading to “an unreal, self-defeating preoccupation with the company’s own image.” For example, even with overwhelming evidence that, other than family support, church involvement is the most consistent predictor of academic success for inner-city children, the organizational narcissism of the education industry prevents it from tapping into the resources of black and Latino churches.

In 2008, President Obama rightly acknowledged that, “There is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child’s education from day one.” This is an indisputable truth. What should baffle every American citizen is that the role of inner-city ethnic churches is oddly missing from the Obama administration’s education reform vision.

A series of 2010 studies in Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education (JNE), one of America’s oldest continuous academic journals focusing on black people, reported how church involvement increases education success in inner-cities. In “Faith in the Inner City: The Urban Black Church and Students’ Educational Outcomes,” Dr. Brian Barrett, an education professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, describes the unique contributions black churches play in cultivating successful students in the inner-cities. He observed that “religious socialization reinforces attitudes, outlooks, behaviors, and practices … particularly through individuals’ commitment to and adoption of the goals and expectations of the group” that are conducive to “positive educational outcomes.”  In fact, back in 2009 Barrett reported that for black inner-city youth who reported attending religious services often, the black/white achievement gap “was eliminated.”

Barrett reports that one of the most important advantages of inner-city churches is that they provide “a community where Black students are valued, both for their academic success and, more broadly, as human beings and members of society with promise, with talents to contribute, and from whom success is to be expected.” Churches also affirm inner-city youth as trusted members of a community that celebrates academic success, and the practices that produce it, which overrides the low expectations communicated at school. Additionally, Barrett highlights the ways in which black churches, because they are equipped to deal with families, are effective at sustaining and encouraging parental educational involvement from the heart as well as providing contexts where youth can have regular contact with other adults for role-modeling and mentoring.

Barrett is not alone. In another JNE study of 4,273 black students titled, “How Religious, Social, and Cultural Capital Factors Influence Educational Aspirations of African American Adolescents,” Hussain Al-Fadhli and Thomas Kersen, sociology professors at Jackson State University, report that “family and religious social capital are the most potent predictors for positive student college aspirations.” These scholars explain that “students who attend church and believe religion is important may be more likely to interact with more adults who can help them with their school work and even provide guidance about their futures goals and plans.” The authors conclude that students with an “active religious life, involved parents, and active social life have greater opportunities and choices in the future.”

Since W.E.B. DuBois wrote in the 1890s about the black church, dozens of studies confirm this truth: Low-income black kids will not achieve academic success without strong families and the church. Strengthening these institutions, however, is beyond the expertise of any government agency or education program or policy. Using President Obama’s phrasing, if parents need to be involved in a child’s education from day one, in the inner-city the church must be involved beginning on day two. Without thriving and healthy inner-city churches, low-performing schools are simply cultivating the next generation of crime and welfare statistics. We owe it to children to place them in contexts that are sustainable and effective.

News from the Acton Institute:

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty is joining forces with Refo500, a project that aims to bring international attention to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Leading up to the anniversary in 2017 of Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses, Refo500 is engaging with a variety of partner organizations to promote the importance of the Reformation period and its relevance for today’s world.

“Refo500 has the potential to help Acton bring its message about the relationship between faith and freedom to a broad and diverse audience around the globe,” said Dr. Stephen J. Grabill, director of programs at the Acton Institute. “The ecumenical vision of Refo500, which broadly encompasses the time period and is not merely a narrow confessional project, shows why the Reformation was so important in the shaping of the modern world.” He points to, for instance, the important contributions of the Roman Catholic School of Salamanca to the development of modern economic thought, as well as the legacies of the Protestant Reformers on doctrinal, political, and ethical matters.

The themes of the Refo500 project, which include “Money and Power,” “Art and Culture,” and “Freedom and Preaching,” resonate with the Acton Institute’s mission to promote a society characterized by freedom and virtue. The aims of Refo500 are also consistent with the institute’s work in creating The Birth of Freedom documentary and curriculum products for the importance of communicating the roots of freedom in Western civilization.

Lord Acton, the nineteenth-century British historian for whom the institute is named, was particularly clear about the significance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the development of limits on political power. “From that time it became possible to make politics a matter of principle and of conscience, so that men and nations differing in all other things could live in peace together, under the sanctions of a common law,” he wrote in his essay, “The History of Freedom in Christianity.”

“Refo500 is excited to welcome the Acton Institute into partnership,” said Refo500 project director Dr. Herman Selderhuis. “Acton’s significant achievements on a variety of levels, from academic publications, to popular writings, to film and social media, connect well with the comprehensive vision of the Refo500 project.”

Next year Refo500 will be involved in observing the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism, including a conference held in the Johannes a Lasco Library Emden (Germany), March 3-5, 2011. The Acton Institute will also be publishing a translation of a section of Abraham Kuyper’s commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism in its Journal of Markets & Morality later in the year. There are also plans for Acton Institute scholars to take an active role in participating in the Reformation Research Group (RefoRG), the academic section of Refo500. RefoRG will hold its first conference June 8-10, 2011, in Zurich and will be hosted by the Institut für Schweizerische Reformationsgeschichte on the theme, “The Myth of the Reformation.”

For more information visit:

http://www.acton.org/Refo500

http://www.Refo500.com

photo reprinted with permission from warofourfathers.com

The emotional scars and nightmares from Eugene Bondurant Sledge’s memories of the battles at Peleliu and Okinawa haunted him for years. He was among a company of men who didn’t talk about their feelings. The experience, he said, “made savages of us all.” Many years later, from notes taken of the battles in his field Bible, Sledge published With The Old Breed, one of the most stirring personal accounts of war I’ve ever read.

His compassion and love for his fellow Marines, and the circumstances of what happened on those islands, caused an outpouring of raw and vivid emotion. Sledge’s writing and passion is so heartfelt in this book because he allows the sensitivity to the events that surrounded him to be chronicled page by page. He quotes the theme of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Insensibility” by saying, “Those who feel most for others suffer most in war.” And this is what particularly made Sledge a master of the craft of writing, his deep and abiding love for others.

The island fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific was so brutal and horrific that Sledge called it “the most ghastly corner of hell I ever witnessed.” In the fight for Okinawa, some of the bravest of combat veterans cracked, “even to the point of losing their desire to live.” The Marines in the Pacific proved so courageous that Admiral Chester Nimitz simply said of those at Iwo Jima: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Sledge mirrored those thoughts in his own account:

It’s ironic that the record of our company was so outstanding but that so few individuals were decorated for bravery. Uncommon valor was displayed so often it went largely unnoticed. It was expected.

After the war E.B. Sledge went on to become a successful professor teaching microbiology and ornithology at the University of Montevallo in his home state of Alabama. Sledge, who passed away in 2001, published his account in 1981.

He had originally planned for his memoir to be read by family but his wife encouraged him to submit it for publication. Today it is widely considered amongst the most impressive and heartfelt accounts of war. And when it was first published it helped many veterans open up for the first time about their own experience. British military historian John Keegan called With The Old Breed “one of the most arresting documents in war literature.” HBO drew heavily from the book for their miniseries “The Pacific.” The book is also on the official reading list of the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The literary contrast of Sledge’s hatred for the Japanese because of their gruesome practices on the battlefield and his own compassion also make With The Old Breed a fascinating read. Sledge, long known as a gentleman from the Deep South, became sickened and disgusted by the horror of war. He writes hauntingly about the profound fear of hitting the beach at Peleliu while reciting the Lord’s Prayer as young men were obliterated around him. He closed his book with these words:

Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country – as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, ‘If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.’ With privilege goes responsibility.

With The Old Breed refers to the veterans of Sledge’s 1st Marine Division who had already earned their reputation for fierce and heroic fighting at Guadalcanal before Sledge joined them. As their “Old Breed” nickname indicates, The 1st Marine Division is the oldest, largest, and most decorated division in the United States Marine Corps. Sledge’s book is also a testimony for these men who experienced, overcame, and triumphed over an enemy that waged unspeakable horrors and where surrender was not an option for either side.

On this Veterans Day, it is Sledge’s words from his preface that are most fitting. He says this of the debt of thanks we owe and the enduring link between the American military and liberty:

Now I can write this story, painful though it is to do so. In writing it I’m fulfilling an obligation I have long felt to my comrades in the 1st Marine Division, all of whom suffered so much for our country. None came out unscathed. Many gave their lives, many their health, and some their sanity. All who survived will long remember the horror they would rather forget. But they suffered and they did their duty so a sheltered homeland can enjoy the peace that was purchased at such high cost. We owe those Marines a profound debt of gratitude.

From Chuck Colson’s column on Christian Post. Read the entire article here.

If the Great Recession of 2008 has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t detach economic prosperity from moral issues. Greed, imprudent spending by individuals and by government, debt, all of these things brought our economy to where we are today. As I’ve said many times on BreakPoint, our economic collapse is the result of our moral and ethical collapse.

We don’t teach our kids that there are such things as right or wrong, and we wonder why they grow up to cheat and steal.

And the social costs of disintegrating traditional families in terms of crime, divorce, juvenile delinquency, are truly staggering.

You don’t think supporting traditional families — and marriage — matters? Well, then you’ve never been inside a prison, like I have. You haven’t met the thousands of young men and women I have who have told you about their missing fathers or their drugged-out moms.

No society that rejects the moral good can possibly stay solvent. The price tag for moral corruption, as we have learned, is simply too high.

From an Aug. 26 Christian Post story. (HT: Mirror of Justice):

More than 100 religious organizations are urging members of Congress to reject pending legislation that would prohibit them from considering religion when hiring.

A letter – endorsed by such groups as World Vision, Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops, and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America – was delivered Wednesday.

“The law has long protected the religious freedom of both the people who receive government-funded services, and the groups that provide the services – long before President Obama, and long before President Bush,” said Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel of USCCB, in a statement. “Stripping away the religious hiring rights of religious service providers violates the principle of religious freedom, and represents bad practice in the delivery of social services.”

The groups are protesting a provision in HR 5466 – a bill introduce in the House in May that would reauthorize federal substance abuse treatment funding that is administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Sponsored by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), the bill includes language banning faith-based groups from receiving federal funds if they consider religion in their hiring process.

The escalating legal battle over the recent health care legislation has spilled out of the federal judiciary into state governments. An August 14 story from the New York Times reports:

Faced with the need to review insurance rates and enforce a panoply of new rights granted to consumers, states are scrambling to make sure they have the necessary legal authority to carry out the responsibilities being placed on them by President Obama’s health care law.

Insurance commissioners in about half the states say they do not have clear authority to enforce consumer protection standards that take effect next month.

Federal and state officials are searching for ways to plug the gap. Otherwise, they say, the ability of consumers to secure the benefits of the new law could vary widely, depending on where they live.

But Arizona, meanwhile, has adopted a course of action that comes rather close to employing some kind of state nullification:

Arizona said it was unlikely to pass legislation authorizing any state agency to enforce federal insurance standards, in view of its participation in a lawsuit challenging the federal law. Moreover, it said, Gov. Jan Brewer has “instituted an indefinite rule-making moratorium, so we have no plans to adopt rules related to enforcement” of the law.

Gov. Brewer, despite causing controversy on the national scene due to Arizona’s immigration law, nevertheless enjoys very promising poll numbers. In the likely event that she wins reelection, Arizona will most certainly become a key state worth watching in the states’ struggle against the federal government.

There’s a new answer to the question, “What would Jesus drive?”, a contention that won’t sit well with the environmental activists who first raised the question.

The inevitably revisionist logic of the prosperity gospel has to hold that “Jesus couldn’t have been poor because he received lucrative gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — at birth. Jesus had to be wealthy because the Roman soldiers who crucified him gambled for his expensive undergarments. Even Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, lived and traveled in style.”

As the Rev. C. Thomas Anderson, senior pastor of the Living Word Bible Church in Mesa, Arizona, says, “Mary and Joseph took a Cadillac to get to Bethlehem because the finest transportation of their day was a donkey. Poor people ate their donkey. Only the wealthy used it as transportation.”

After all, who would want to follow a poor Jesus? “That’s so pathetic, to say that Jesus was struggling alone in the dust and dirt,” Anderson says. “That just makes no sense whatsoever. He was constantly in a state of wealth.”

While the materialistic economism of the false prosperity gospel continues to spread like wildfire, the Lausanne Theology Working Group says that “the teachings of those who most vigorously promote the ‘prosperity gospel’ are false and gravely distorting of the Bible.”

For more, check out what J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu has to say in CT’s Global Conversation, and the accompanying video:

The Prosperity Gospel from The Global Conversation on Vimeo.