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There’s a pretty entertaining piece on Salon.com by Christopher Noxon, “Is my kid a jerk, or is he just 2?”

There’s mild language, but the gist of the piece revolves around this observation:

As much as it goes against the current mode of progressive, project-management-style parenting, I take it for granted that some kids are trouble right out of the gate. They’re the preschool gangsters and playground terrorists, flicking boogers and insults at those they’ve identified as too weak to fight back. Just as some kids are born sweet-tempered and naturally gentle, others arrive as thuggish as HMO claims adjusters.

If you’re interested in the topic, and how reality flies in the face of “progressive, project-management-style parenting,” read the whole thing. And you can do so in dialogue with St. Augustine, who made this memorable observation about infancy:

For this I have been told about myself and I believe it–though I cannot remember it–for I see the same things in other infants. Then, little by little, I realized where I was and wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not! For my wants were inside me, and they were outside, and they could not by any power of theirs come into my soul. And so I would fling my arms and legs about and cry, making the few and feeble gestures that I could, though indeed the signs were not much like what I inwardly desired and when I was not satisfied–either from not being understood or because what I got was not good for me–I grew indignant that my elders were not subject to me and that those on whom I actually had no claim did not wait on me as slaves–and I avenged myself on them by crying. That infants are like this, I have myself been able to learn by watching them; and they, though they knew me not, have shown me better what I was like than my own nurses who knew me.

Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older–not slaves, either, but free–and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast.

So there you have it. The substance of the doctrine of original sin affirmed indirectly by Salon.com, “For in thy sight there is none free from sin, not even the infant who has lived but a day upon this earth.” Indeed, even the kids whom Noxon believes “are born sweet-tempered and naturally gentle” might be described differently in a moment of true honesty by their parents who know them best.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 25, 2008

The eighth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The eighth and penultimate leg of the journey took the bikers from Grand Rapids to St. Catharines, Ontario, a total distance of 410 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,451 miles.

The CRC is a bi-national church, and while the denominational headquarters are located in Grand Rapids, a significant portion of the church’s membership is Canadian. This is something that I’ve always appreciated and is somewhat rare among Protestant denominations that tend to break down along national lines. Even though there is a great deal of cultural affinity between these North American countries, I think the bi-nationality of the CRC adds an element of internationalism that can help offset the natural tendency to identify the church’s interest with a particular national or domestic setting. The gospel is not confined to the US or to North America.

Unfortunately, the day 52 devotion in the “Shifting Gears” devotional falls flat in offering an “internationalist” perspective. It asks, rhetorically I presume, “Why are billions budgeted for defense and border protection, when we can’t come up with the money to supply mosquito nets for Africa? Why do some governments use their national borders as a wall to hide the injustice and persecution occurring within? Why is it so easy for the powerful to cross borders, but not the poor?” There’s no denying there is great injustice on the international scene related to the strictures of immigration and barriers to trade.

But the first question in this series illustrates a presumption that it is the government’s duty to provide mosquito nets for Africa at the expense of national defense. This, quite simply, is a confusion that is endemic to the perspective of progressive Christianity…that the government, and not the church or other institutions of civil society, is primarily responsible for addressing the problem of poverty.

In the words of Jim Wallis, “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.” Wallis is fond of talking about the perceived limits of private and church action. But what are the limits of government action? And why can’t the church do much more beyond mere political advocacy? Ron Sider thinks it can, and I agree. It says a lot about you if you are more willing to put your trust in a secular government than in the church of Christ.

Awhile back I considered the amount of money churches spend on building projects in North America. I discussed a a modest proposal: churches should consider tithing the amount they spend on “themselves” and give a portion of the building fund away to other Christian causes.

These kinds of efforts are catching on. Just this weekend I read a piece about a local church which committed 10% of its $1.1 million building fund to other charity work. I wrote more about this in a 2006 commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship.”

One of the entries in the devotional for this week does the best job I’ve seen so far linking and properly coordinating the physical and spiritual concerns of the gospel. Taking its point of departure in the imagery of physical and spiritual imprisonment, the day 51 devotion concludes, “Enjoy the physical freedom of cycling today, and pray for a deeper, richer understanding of God’s mercy–mercy he shows to all who acknowledge their imprisonment in disobedience and who seek freedom in Christ alone.”

Linked on the left-hand side today under the PowerBlog Food For Thought is an item from the Wall Street Journal, “College Presidents Debate Drinking Age.”

At issue is concern over the drinking age in the United States (currently 21) and the binge-drinking phenomenon among under-age college students. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) oppose the movement among many college and university presidents to lower the drinking age to 18.

Here’s a popular version of how the school presidents’ argument goes:

Moana Jagasia, a Duke University sophomore from Singapore, where the drinking age is lower, said reducing the age in the U.S. could be helpful.

“There isn’t that much difference in maturity between 21 and 18,” she said. “If the age is younger, you’re getting exposed to it at a younger age, and you don’t freak out when you get to campus.”

What is true about these sorts of observations is that culture has a lot to do with how people respond to newfound freedoms or possibilities. When children are raised in a household where responsible gun ownership is taught, for instance, it makes sense that gun accidents due to irresponsible gun handling are less likely to occur (compared with homes with guns that don’t teach responsible gun handling). Where the use of alcohol is not a taboo that can become part and parcel of a young-adult “rebellion” experience, it seems less likely that binge drinking will function as a gateway to adulthood.

To address the concerns of MADD, perhaps if the drinking age is lowered, the driving age should be raised. But one thing we should not be afraid of is substantive debate on the prudence of a particular policy like the national drinking age. As the administrators’ and presidents’ movement states, “The Amethyst Initiative supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age.” This is a law that is a perfect example of the government administration of a positive law put in place in a particular time and context.

Thomas Aquinas’ words about the principle of prudence have special bearing on this question, given the biblical allusion he chooses to employ:

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.

Thomas’ warnings about imprudent laws are echoed in the arguments of the presidents’ association. John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the Amethyst Initiative, has said that “college students will drink no matter what, but do so more dangerously when it’s illegal.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 18, 2008

The seventh week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The seventh leg of the journey took the bikers from Madison to Grand Rapids, a total distance of 378 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,041 miles.

This week of the tour ended in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of the major rallies along the tour was held here yesterday. Check out the Sea to Sea webpage for more coverage of that event. Update: Here’s a link to a piece in today’s Grand Rapids Press, “Bike riders know poverty can be a vicious cycle.”

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week keeps the focus on the problem of poverty. Day 43′s devotion reads in part, “This is a major goal of our trip: to raise awareness of God’s presence in many places–in the beauty of the earth and the church, yes, but also among the poor.”

Grand Rapids is home to the denominational headquarters of the CRC as well as main offices of the Acton Institute. But also in Michigan are a host of non-profits and charities that deserve your attention. These include Samaritan Award honorees like Marquette’s Earth Keeper Project of The Cedar Tree Institute (2007 honoree) and Grand Rapids’ own Baxter Wholistic Health Clinic of the Baxter Community Center (2004 honoree).

Indeed, one of the 2008 finalists for the annual Samaritan Award is located in Grand Rapids, Guardian Angels Homes of Faith in Action. All of this year’s ten finalists, including Faith in Action, are profiled in the current issue of WORLD magazine.

As Acton senior fellow and WORLD editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky writes, “All 10 of these faith-based finalists spend money garnered by voluntary contributions, not Washington lobbying: They are compassionate conservatives in the original sense of the term. All 10 emphasize real change in lives, not the passing out of spare change: As it turns out, eight of the finalists this year are rescue missions or rehab centers of various kinds; the other two are a program for developmentally disabled adults and another for women fleeing prostitution and strip clubs.”

Be sure to check out all of the WORLD articles and profiles for more information about the finalists, runners-up, and winner of this year’s Samaritan Award.

I just got a chance to catch part of the Saddleback Civil Forum. I’ll have to go back and watch a replay of Sen. Obama’s appearance.

I’ll just say a couple things right now.

First, I have had a hard time understanding a lot of the criticism of Rick Warren, through the lead-up to this event especially. There are a lot of conservatives who want to cast Rick Warren as Jim Wallis-lite, a politically progressive Christian who stealthily is trying to undermine the conservative movement.

Warren, to me, acquitted himself very well tonight. He’s not a professional journo, and shouldn’t be judged by those standards. He asked tough questions but let the candidates speak for themselves, something that has value even if it isn’t what journalists typically do.

The great thing that Rick Warren has been able to do is position himself as an honest broker that can get both candidates to the table in a forum like this. That’s something that somebody like Jim Wallis, for all the bi-partisan touting of his Sojourners compassion events, is unable to do (not least of which because he’s probably unwilling to do anything more than give lip service to being non-partisan). Perhaps Warren has had to upset the margins on both sides of the political aisle to get himself into a position that could command the kind of respect from both candidates that would get them to this platform. But for the reason I state below, I’m glad he’s around and willing to pay that price.

Second, for all the wanna-be pundits who hate the fact that a forum like this was held in a church, I see it as a perfect example of how a vibrant civil society ought to function. As a nation we are all better off for having had a forum like this. It’s a great service to the public square, I think, to see the candidates’ reaction to questions that many people want to have asked and are interested in hearing, but so many of the media and political gatekeepers aren’t interested in communicating.

There’s a great deal of talk about this event all over the blogosphere. Let me recommend the insights over at Mere Orthodoxy for particular attention.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 11, 2008

The sixth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The sixth leg of the journey took the bikers from Fremont to Madison, a total distance of 548 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week does a good job reminding us of the appropriate relative value of temporal vs. eternal things. “A human being’s life consists not in the abundance of his or her possessions, but in the blessing of loving relationships. May we be shrewd stewards of all the rest and not forget those around us who live in meager circumstances,” concludes the day 37 devotion.

The daily prayers for the road often take a look at local organizations doing work in the areas that the tour passes through. On day 37, for instance, the prayer notes the work of Justice For All (JFA), “a movement to defend and advance disability rights and advocate for the self-sufficiency and empowerment of adults and children with disabilities.” The day 41 prayer remembers the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), which “serves homeless families in collaboration with local faith communities and organizations.”

The sixth week of the tour travels through the state of Iowa, and you can check out the Samaritan Guide for programs integrating faith and work effectively in this state, including the Rural Senior Citizen and Prison Inmate Volunteers of Hope Haven, based in Rock Valley, Iowa. These volunteers, made up of rural senior citizens and prison inmates, volunteer their time and efforts “to refurbish used wheelchairs and to manufacture our own pediatric wheelchairs to deliver to the disabled poor living around the world.”

Iowa is also the home of one of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a program related to the work of Prison Fellowship Ministries that was challenged on constitutional grounds in 2006. While much of the ruling against IFI was overturned on appeal, the state’s contract with the group was terminated and ended in June of this year.

In the July 24 edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano , a couple of articles related how Italians are reading less than their European counterparts, with 62 percent of the population failing to read even a single book during the year. “Above all, reading increases innovative capabilities, the ability to understand phenomena and in the ultimate analysis, worker productivity,” said Federico Motta, president of the Italian association of publishers.

According to Motta’s article, only 31 percent of Italian 20-29 year-olds have a university degree, compared to 34 percent in Spain and 56 percent in the United Kingdom. This pattern mirrors the levels of unemployment among the young: 20.3 percent in Italy, 18 percent in Spain and 14 percent in the UK. By affecting educational levels and worker productivity, this lack of reading also results in less social mobility and opportunities for growth.

In human capital terms alone, the cost is evident, but there are even greater cultural ones. With the growth of television, cell phones, video games, the Internet, and iPods, it is no surprise that young Italians are not developing a taste for books, i.e., the ability to read, understand, and learn from greats such as Dante, Leopardi, and Manzoni.

And we can’t forget about the Book of Books. Can there be any hope for regaining the Christian roots of Europe without understanding the Bible? Here, at least, there is some reason for hope. The Italian Bishops Conference and in particular its National Catechism Office have promoted various initiatives that have successfully brought the Word of God to young people. Many Bible-study groups are also promoted by lay movements and parishes. This coming October, Pope Benedict XVI will launch a six-day reading of the entire Bible on Italian television, as the Vatican journalist John Allen has reported.

It will be interesting to see how the country reacts to such a public reminder of this lost treasure. Taking books seriously again will benefit Italy not only in terms of its economic productivity, but may also help rekindle its faith.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, July 24, 2008

In the July/August issue of Touchstone, which features a cover story by Acton research director Sam Gregg, “The European Disunion,” a bit of wisdom is passed along to us by senior editor Anthony Esolen in the magazine’s section, Quodlibet:

If you have a virtuous people, you don’t need quite so many laws, and the laws you do pass will have a lot less to do with restraint than with man’s creative participation in God’s governance of the world.

This statement captures well the sentiments I expressed regarding the relation of Christianity to political freedom, which appear in Kevin Schmiesing’s post, “Freedom and Christianity,” at American Creation.

The keynote speaker for the Right Online conference tonight was conservative columnist and political commentator Robert Novak. Talking about his latest book Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, Novak declared that if you want to know why they call him the Prince of Darkness in Washington it’s because he supports limited government, low taxes, and freedom in the economic sphere, and that’s “enough to make you the Prince of Darkness in Washington.”

Novak called Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama a “true and smart politician” for pivoting to the center in the general election campaign. Novak said that chief executive officers of leading industries come away from private meetings with Obama saying they “can live with an Obama presidency.” Novak said recent Democratic presidential candidates couldn’t count on such passive support in previous elections.

Novak also called Ronald Reagan “the only successful president in his lifetime,” and he criticized the Republican minority leadership in Congress. Novak also lavished praise on the fair tax. Novak ended his engaging speech on politics by declaring Calvin Coolidge the other successful 20th century president.

Novak also answered a large number of questions at the end of his address, much more than the usual you may find at a keynote address at a major venue like the one we had here in Austin. Novak is a Roman Catholic convert and called himself “a great believer in prayer.”

One question we didn’t get to ask Novak was how much the support of the religious left, consisting of organizational leaders like Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and Brian McLaren, will be a strength to Obama’s campaign. We can get a sense of how Novak might have answered from a recent column, “McCain’s Evangelical Problem.” McCain is much more reticent to talk about faith while stumping on the campaign trail, and that certainly seems to open additional opportunities for Obama to pick up votes from young, impressionable, and starry-eyed evangelicals. Look for that demographic to be an important swing vote in November.

Update: See also, “McCain’s Lead Among Evangelicals Smaller than Bush’s in ’04.”

An excellent talk by from the Media Research Center, “Understanding and Critiquing Old Media,” opened today’s afternoon session at Austin’s Right Online summit. The speakers clarified some basics about journalism, such as the fact that typically reporters don’t write their own headlines (copy editors do) or that there is an unofficial reporter’s code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists.

A good deal of the talk revolved around consistent forms of bias found in the media, most of which are monitored closely by MRC’s watchblog NewsBusters. An archetypal form of bias by ignorance that exists in the media, often manifesting itself in bias by labeling, has to do with the mainstream coverage of religion.

The signature authority on this form of media bias is GetReligion, whose name is taken from William Schneider’s observation that the press “just doesn’t get religion.” A great example is the most recent GR post on the media’s constant politicization of statements from the pope and other Vatican officials, a theme we’ve long covered in this venue.

These sorts of online outlets represent a huge shift in the conversation about media. The word can now get out if there are errors, intentional or otherwise, in media coverage. Quotes taken out of context can be shown in their original form. Letters to the editor can be posted online whether or not the original source chooses to acknowledge them. New media is an important form of “citizen” journalism.

One question I have is whether or not citizen journalists should recognize and respect the “off the record” phenomenon that is a hallmark of professional journalism. If nothing is ever off the record now, I think there’s a dangerous possibility that such a reality will impoverish public discourse and create an environment of cynicism and opposition. There’s a reason that ability to speak “off the record” arose in the fourth estate and I don’t think we should simply cast it off as an antiquated relic without serious reflection.

One of the other key differences between old and new media is the form that authority, influence, and celebrity take in the latter. See, for instance, New York mag’s “The Microfame Game” and Vanity Fair‘s Blogopticon.