The Liberty to do what we ought

“Good news – the President has announced a reduction of the government work force by one million people (20%).  Bad news – the cuts were ordered by President Raul Castro in Cuba.”

So began the 20th anniversary dinner of The Acton Institute tonight in Grand Rapids, MI.  Acton co-founder, Kris Alan Mauren, loosened up the crowd with the aforementioned joke which served the dual purpose of making me laugh and disturbing me deeply.  But of course, the fact that Canada, Germany, France, England, China, and even Cuba are currently moving the ball in the opposite direction that we are here in the United States is now common knowledge.  And as Kris said, it reinforces why the stakes are so high right now for lovers of liberty.

The event itself was a delight, as always.  Kate O’ Beirne was a fantastic master of ceremonies.  She is a national treasure.  Richard DeVos, the co-founder of Amway and one of the wealthiest men in America, was awarded the Faith and Freedom Award.  His testimony was extraordinary.  Humble.  Visionary.  Principled.  Devout follower of Christ.  600 people came tonight to celebrate the organization that, the more involved with I get, the more excited I am to see what they represent.  Acton’s mission is almost exactly identical to the ruling passion in my life: the intersection of markets and morality.  Acton is so much more than a think tank (though they surely do feature the great intellects in the fields of religion and economics).  But they also are an activist and educational organization, producing content in a variety of media that challenge the presuppositions people bring to the subjects of work, calling, wealth, freedom, and virtue.  They are producing DVD’s that are viewed by millions of people and are revolutionary in terms of content and message.  My commercial for the organization could go on and on, but just go to their website and see for yourself all they are doing.

The video vinette from their new documentary, Poverty Cure, was powerful.  “How can you know what causes poverty if you do not know what causes wealth?”  Acton’s approach to the great social ills of our day is extremely contrarian to the right and the left.  They do not advocate a cold “eat what you kill” kind of capitalism, and they certainly do not advocate the dependency-creating solutions of the left.  They know that free markets open up the widest lanes to a society that can create and sustain real alleviation of poverty.  As an African priest put it in the video clip tonight describing the solutions they pursue in their own village: “We do not aim to create job-seekers; we aim to create job-makers”.  Thoughtful, sensible, and deeply compassionate.  But not an iota of coercion or redistribution.

As always, Father Sirico’s keynote address was remarkable.  In describing the necessity of a perspective that understands the dignity of man he said, “If we don’t get the anthropology right, we get nothing right.  Human beings are a composite of heaven and of earth.  It is the ultimate tragedy when we decide to try and dichotomize the two.”  What he means, of course, is understanding the theological principle that man is created in the image of God, yet not God; man is a part of the created order, yet possesses a dignity and ability to reason that no other part of creation does.  Understanding these things is the very first step in understanding economics.  To reduce economics to mathematical abstractions is to give way to the worst kind of moral relativism.

Father Sirico repudiates the horrid teaching that work is a by-product of the fall.  Not only did man work in the garden (and love it) before the fall, but God worked before He created man (and loved it).  In fact, God worked for six straight days.  The Christian world is in desperate need of a complete re-thinking of this issue.  I would add, an improved Christian witness to the culture will simply not happen until it does.

Father Sirico does not view capitalism merely as the best system for highly elite producers to better enrich themselves (though it surely may be).  It must be defended as the morally superior choice in alleviating global poverty (especially when contrasted to the tragedies of national socialism and Marxism).  The way in which we approach the problem of poverty is a particularly important thing to Father Sirico:  “We do not treat poor people as animals, merely in need of shelter, water, and food.  We treat them as being created imago dei, and not pawns in a political agenda.  We aspire for the poor to be rich, not merely materially, but in the deepest parts of their soul.”

Acton exists because it has an idea it wants to share.   Acton wants to share that idea with articulate and passionate members of the faith community – those with leverage – those seeking to influence the centers of society, and not merely the periphery.  To hear Father Sirico speak is to bathe in Kuyperianism.

Marxism has an idea, though these days many sympathizers avoid that word like the plague.  Class warfare. Class envy. Class struggle. Myth of the zero-sum. Wealth redistribution instead of wealth creation. These are the ideas Acton exists to oppose.  But what is the idea it exists to affirm?

“Human beings are born to be free.  And we have that right because we were given it by God, not because a government gave it to us.  We speak not on behalf of the institutions of church or state, but plead first that these ideas would penetrate the heart of the faithful.”

Wow. 

And then  the grand finale: “We want moral ties to be strengthened in direct proportion to political ties being loosened.”  Herein lies the rub.  Our friends on the secular right will never ever understand this: Their goal of limited government and increased freedom in society can never be realized, and will never be realized, until the moral ties by which we voluntarily function in community with one another are strengthened.  There is a directly inverse relationship between the two.  Acton stands for the same end result that the secular right does: Greater freedom and individual responsibility in our lives, liberated from the shackles of socialism, redistributionism, and collectivism.  Acton believes in solving for maldistribution of wealth by creating more wealth.  Yet for all the common ground that may seem to exist within the various factions of conservatism, only that perspective which recognizes Acton’s one big idea – that our own moral ties will themselves untie the political binds – has any longevity to it.

I am inspired, as always, to hear Father Sirico speak.  I was entertained to hear his brother, Tony Sirico of The Sopranos fame introduce him.  But beyond a wonderful evening with like-minded lovers of liberty and market economics, I also leave Grand Rapids tomorrow a more equipped believer.  God is working through this Institute.

Quick commercial – Yours Truly, Father Sirico, Jay Richards, Andrew Sandlin, and Dinesh D’Souza will all appear TOGETHER in my hometown of Newport Beach, CA on February 25 & 26 of 2011).  The Virtue of Prosperity: The Morak Implications of Wealth and Work – coming soon.  The promotional materials are at the printer, and the web page will be up shortly.  I am producing the event (and speaking at it), but am working with my friends at CCL and Acton.  After hearing Father Sirico tonight, I am glad I will be speaking Friday (and he Saturday).  He would upstage some of the great orators and preachers of the last three centuries.