I received this in a newsletter this week and found it a very thought provoking article by John Armstrong.
“Lord Acton and Labor Day: The Relationship of Freedom and Virtue”
by John H. Armstrong
Several weeks ago I received a major lesson in political theory and economics. No, I am not making a late career change. The “dismal science” of economics (unjustly labeled I think) is not my cup of tea. But I do like to engage issues, especially those that relate directly to my Christian faith in the world. I also believe biblical reformation includes more than the church getting its doctrine right in private. And discipleship includes much more than private submission to Jesus in one’s heart.
Economics is a subject that has always puzzled me. I somehow missed taking a course in economics in college. I was preparing to preach so what did business have to do with me anyway? Like many I find wealth and poverty vexing issues. I have generally been inclined toward free market capitalism, but I have always felt guilty about it since it doesn’t seem to line up with some of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. Isn’t wealth, especially large amounts of it, dangerous?
When a Christian professor of economics at a major university engaged me in dialogue last year about economic theory and Christian faith I was a bit surprised by how little I really understood. Thus, when this professor later encouraged friends to invite me to observe a conference sponsored by the Acton Institute, held in the beautiful mountains of northwestern Connecticut, I gladly went. The theme of this three-day event, designed for seminarians and graduate students in law and government, was: “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society.” Since this is Labor Day in the United States, it might interest many of you to know more about Acton and its philosophy of public theology and economic practice.
Let me begin with a few historical details about Acton Institute. It is a nonprofit educational and research organization named for Lord Acton (1834-1902). It was begun in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1990 by a Roman Catholic priest (who had been a socialist) and a businessman. Its purpose statement is: “Promoting a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” The desire is to connect the often-separated worlds of business and religion. The Institute brings religious principles to business leaders and economic knowledge to the community of faith, promoting greater understanding of market principles and economic freedom. Acton works both in the United States and abroad, bringing these principles to developing nations so that they might connect Christian values to an economy that will lift them out of poverty. You may learn much more at: www.acton.org. Some of you would profit from Acton’s resources and some of you might also want to support this worthwhile endeavor.
Lord Acton was an English historian and popular writer on political, social, and theological issues. He was born in Naples, Italy, and lived on both the continent and in Great Britain, becoming fluent in German, French, Italian and English. When he applied to Cambridge University he was barred because of his Roman Catholicism. He eventually studied at the University of Munich under a famous church historian, Ignaz von Döllinger. Through this influence he embraced a mixture of Catholic and Reformed theology that led him to see the dangers posed to individual conscience by religious or political persecution. At the age of twenty-five he pursued electoral politics and entered the House of Commons in 1859. Prime Minister Gladstone rewarded him for his efforts on behalf of Liberal political causes by offering him a peerage. A participant in Vatican Council I, Acton became known as one of the most articulate defenders of religious and political freedom of his day. He argued that the church faithfully fulfills its mission by encouraging the pursuit of scientific, historical, and philosophical truth, and by promoting individual liberty in the political realm. Acton spent the decades of the 1870s and 1880s working on a universal history that would show the relationship between religious virtue and personal freedom. He even spoke of this research as work on the question of “theodicy,” meaning a defense of God’s goodness and providential care for the world.
In 1895 Acton was appointed the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, the very school that had barred his admittance in the 1850s. But Acton was more than a researcher. He had a passion to demonstrate his view that the historian is required to make moral judgments about historical events. (This is almost universally rejected in the academy today, even by most evangelical historians!) The most famous observation of Lord Acton is the well-known quote that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You will hear this quote in almost every election year, one side accusing the other of grabbing for more power. The truth is that both sides grab for power and the public suffers accordingly.
What is interesting is both the context of Acton’s famous quote and the longer version, often lost in the dust bin of quote books and historic rhetoric. The context was church power, specifically his particular ecclesial communion, the Catholic Church. Acton was an opponent, at least initially, of the doctrine of papal infallibility. (He was even threatened with excommunication at one point.) Here is the long version of the famous quotation, now given in its historic context:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Wow! Read that again, and read very slowly. This man not only believed in total depravity, he believed it still impacted religious leaders. And he believed religious leaders often went “bad.” Though this may sound cynical, I find Acton’s insight to be proven true time and again. Acton also wrote, “There is no error so monstrous that it fails to find defenders among the ablest men.” What is of chief interest here theologically is that in both of these Acton citations you can see the best of both Catholic and Reformed doctrine. Leaders, both religious and political, would benefit from this kind of biblical anthropology. So would followers who are inclined to “trust” good men too deeply.
Acton’s beliefs were deeply rooted in foundational truths of Judeo-Christian civilization: The human person bears the imprint of freedom as God’s gift, and this freedom will find its fullest expression when it is correctly ordered by God-given moral precepts, especially in what has been traditionally called “natural law.” A defining aspect of human nature is the person’s ability to choose, decide and regulate his own behavior. With this divine gift comes the most basic question of all: How does one best use this freedom? Acton argued that true liberty is not the freedom to do what one wants, but rather the freedom to do what one should. The doctrine of human nature is at the foundation of any just and well-ordered society. (This is why scientific naturalism and social Darwinism is so destructive of Judeo-Christian culture.)
The classical worldview, advanced by the Romans and Greeks, and taught most explicitly by Christians, is that the soul is divided into powers, or faculties, of will, heart and intellect. Human nature is rational and thus humans make their best decisions when their will is informed by their intellect. The heart will provide passion for action but the very human action will be intelligently informed by a well-taught mind. Simply put, freedom is not absolute. The modern age has lost this classical insight and sees freedom as license, or the personal right to do whatever I am pleased to do. There should be no restriction placed upon my personal freedom unless my expression of my rights disturbs your own personal freedom directly.
In our world passion rules! Just listen to the debates about abortion, homosexual marriage and related discussions about values and virtue. Give in to your heart, go with the flow. Do what feels good. Pleasure rules and the results are manifest. “What is truth?” If this ancient question is asked in our world you will be met with a blank stare. The traditional conception of truth went like this: There is a proper correspondence between our judgments about reality and our actions. Rather than following our passions and desires, we find ourselves in a world where we seek an objective order because of the prior work of the Creator. In the words of Gregory M. A. Gronbacher: The stress placed on diversity in the past few years has increased the power of subjectivism. Truth has been relegated to cultural perspectives. Now with the multitude of cultures, ethnic groups, and sets of minorities there is also a multiplicity of truths. Political pluralism has resulted in moral pluralism. There is black truth, white truth, Catholic truth, Jewish truth, and so on ad nauseam.
This subjectivism makes it nearly impossible to engage in serious public theology in our time. The Christian Right seeks to bash down the opposition at the ballot box and in the streets while the increasingly immoral world sees nothing but intolerance and bigotry in these actions. Questions become: Whose morality? Whose values? And in the context of niceness and toleranc,e strong views held by politically conservative Christians are seen as worse than dangerous.
We have come a long way. How shall we seek the reformation of public virtue when the church itself is corrupted by this cultural shift? How do we seek to make the claims of Christ over every sphere of human life known in our time?
The argument articulated by the Acton Institute is rooted in what is called “subsidiarity” in Roman Catholic theology. In Reformed theology the same idea is called “sphere sovereignty” and was most completely articulated by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the famous Dutch theologian who became prime minister of The Netherlands.
The principle of subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidium, meaning to help or aid. The idea is that one state or order should not usurp the function of another. Thus the family is to rear children, not the state. Higher orders cannot generally intervene in the affairs of lower ones without serious damage. Thus the government might, under certain well-defined circumstances, aid the family but as a rule it is a relationship that will corrupt, forcing a “top-down” social structure that leads to abuse in the area of personal freedom. In the words of Father Robert Sirico, founder of Acton Institute, “The authority between spheres of influence and power within society are internally legitimate and not merely derivative. The state, for example, is better suited to the provision of national defense than to the provision of income security; the authority for the state to provide such national security is not derived from other institutions” (emphasis mine). This principle, as you can readily see, sets limits for state intervention and on all forms of collectivism, both economic and social.
But isn’t this a crass way of saying that capitalism and free markets are the highest authority in a free society? Not at all. What it does say is that a “bottom-up” social structure, one that begins with the individual person, the family, and the church, is best suited to preserve our liberties and foster a free and open society. Government can properly rescue people in distress and should help when others cannot do the job. (Think about the massive hurricane damage upon Florida or the suffering people of New York after 9/11/01 and you get good illustrations of how government can aid many people temporarily.) The problem with government seeking the solution to poverty is that it almost never does a good job. The hard data, gathered now for over two generations, suggests that the most of the social programs of the New Deal and the Great Society failed to lift people out of poverty precisely because they destroyed personal freedom, thus human responsibility. Political humorist, P. J. O’Rourke, notes that “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” And again, expressing considerable mistrust of what government can really do to lift people up: “A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them.”
The Acton Institute believes that people closest to the problem can make the strongest moral claim on solving it. This means Christians are called to be directly and personally involved in issues related to the poor. But wise Christians will not look for bigger and bigger government to solve the problems that require personal sacrifice and hands-on compassion. It is right to be concerned for ordinary workers, especially those crushed by grinding poverty. Government can do some good. But the most good is done when those closest to the problem take responsibility for family and community needs by getting involved in ways that properly regard the right ordering of society, with proper attention given to both freedom and virtue. The Acton Institute gets the big picture right. I learned a great deal and give thanks for their needed contribution to reformation in both the church and society. Such clear-headed thinking is far too uncommon. The Christian Right would be much better served if it worked more intentionally for cultural change, allowing the political ramifications to work themselves out through the religious and social changes rather than vice versa. This approach may not engage partisan politics as directly but it stands to reason that it offers the distinct probably of winning the hearts and minds of people, which is the only real way to change a society.