Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Week With Acton

by: R.J. Moeller

“No man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he thinks that he is in truth and the other man in error.” -G.K. Chesterton (Heretics)

I realize that the challenge here from Mr. Chesterton may sound unnecessarily confrontational to the fragile sensibilities of the modern American reader. But I believe it is precisely because we’ve lost our stomachs for defending truth that we are losing our country (and minds).

For a moment, drown out the empty, hollow calls for “unity”, “open-mindedness” and “bi-partisanship” that dominate the rhetoric of our politics, media, and academic institutions. These calls for harmonization, regardless of what party or ideology is making the plea, invariably amount to nothing more than an appeal for all others to join their “side”. Unity, as it is so carelessly defined by the secular world today, equates to unquestioned conformity.

The reality of life is that we all believe in something. For better or worse, we all have worldviews and philosophies of life that are used as navigation systems through life’s murky waters. Whether it is in regards to what baseball team we will root for or in deciding whom to cast our precious ballot for come every other November, each of us make decisions, take positions, and accrue perspectives that enable us to function as normal human beings.

In every facet and area of life, from economic policy to gourmet cooking, there are “better ways” of doing things, and the divulgence and defense of the better ways we discover is a moral imperative for members of a free society. Freedom isn’t free, and one of the prices we are privileged to pay in America is the personal and collective engagement with the world around us. This presumes you have lived enough to learn, and that you care enough to contribute your experience, knowledge, and values to the melting pot that is the Unites States.

The Acton Institute, a visionary organization and energetic think-tank located in Grand Rapids, MI named after British historian and political philosopher Lord Acton, is exactly the type of place where G.K. Chesterton’s mandate is accepted and cultivated.

Even in the face of rampant moral relativism and cultural apathy towards “that politics stuff”, not all have given up hope for a freer and more virtuous society. Not everyone is disinterested in preserving the ideas and values Abraham Lincoln rightly labeled, “the last, best hope of earth” nearly 150 years ago. There are still those who believe that debate and disagreement is not to be avoided, and that the citizen who does not genuinely believe in (or understand) the things they say, do, or vote for is exactly the type of citizen who unravels civilizations from within.

Founded in 1990 by Father Robert Sirico, the Acton Institute offers an intellectual harbor in the secular-progressive tempest where truth-seeking, freedom-loving people can shed the myth of moral relativism, embrace the challenges of informed discourse, and seriously debate the issues affecting our world today.

Acton does this with the acknowledged intention of actually discovering and advancing those “better ways” I mentioned. In short, they think they are right about something like free enterprise being a good thing worth preserving, and, for example, that Nancy Pelosi’s vision of a top-down bureaucratically controlled economy is wrong.

Acton’s stated purpose is the “Integrating Judeo-Christian truths with Free Market principles”, and they are refreshingly unapologetic about their mission. Bringing together students, professors, and professionals of faith, Acton is purposefully religious at its core and decidedly ecumenical in its approach to the topics and issues it involves itself with.

Two weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of attending their annual “Acton University” four-day conference held on the campus of Grand Valley State University. More than 300 private citizens, primarily college and graduate students, came from all across the country (and some from as far as Italy and Venezuela) to attend lectures, ask questions of experts in everything from economics to theology, and explore the intellectual foundations of liberty and free markets.

As anyone from Acton will tell you, their goal is not to robotically program minds, but challenge them from the perspective of certain, defined values, principles and facts.

In all honesty, I would need 10 blogs to articulate all that Acton does, and has done to inspire me personally. They offer conferences like the one in Grand Rapids I attended. They have a fantastic website and blog that serves as a useful reference point for those interested in hearing a defense of conservative ideas from actual conservatives for a change. The various films they have produced are stirring, covering topics such as "The Birth of Freedom" and “The Call of the Entrepreneur.” They publish journals, host public debates for their scholars, and sponsor charities and faith-based initiatives.

Because of my admitted inability to thoroughly pay homage to all the things Acton does, I want to focus like a laser beam on what I believe to be the most important service they provide: an articulation and defense of traditional, Judeo-Christian, conservative values and principles in the economic, political, and cultural realm.
At the heart of everything Acton does there is a convergence of faith, reason, ideas, facts, and the practicality any ideology, belief system, or solution must display for it to even be considered as a legitimate option.

The people associated with Acton are not monolithic in their thinking on each and every issue. Theologically, there are predominantly Protestants and Catholics represented. Politically, while there is no affiliation with any political party, I think it fair (and necessary for disclosure’s sake) to say that the socio-political ties that bind Acton employees, speakers and event attendees together are unmistakably and unashamedly Center-Right. You can’t take a stand on issues as a group if there are not some basic, commonly held values and beliefs

I suppose it is a sad commentary about the lack of real and meaningful education regarding topics like liberty and economic freedom that takes place in our nation that a group like the Acton Institute appropriately feels so rare. Or, that each time I sat in a lecture hall during “Acton U”, and a professor or lecturer made a compelling, fact-based point about why something like Keynesian economics has been such a monumental and perpetual failure, I winced in anticipation for outcries of “bigotry” and “intolerance,” that thankfully never came.

Instead, people who might not all agree on the answer, but at least agree on the existence of an answer, discussed topics as diverse as social justice, universal health care, and the causes of the Great Depression in a civil and thoughtful manner.

Almost as if they were truly interested in solving problems, and not just inconsiderately throwing their votes, dollars, and support behind fads or catchy slogans.

Almost as if they realized that ideas have consequences; real, practical, often unintended consequences and thusly decisions we and our leaders make cannot be based purely on feelings and YouTube music videos from Will I Am and Scarlett Johansson.

For “real change” to come to America, we each must begin to shed the cumbersome shackles of moral relativism and intellectual indifference towards the world around us. Truth is real, and it matters. The way we live, the things we do, the politicians we vote for, it all matters. There must be debate, rigorous, vigorous debate over the direction our nation is heading, and no longer can we allow the weak-willed and easily-offended among us to dictate the terms by which we discuss the alternatives in front of us. We all need thicker skins and softer hearts when we enter the combative arena of public discourse.

The people at and involved with Acton understand this. They have rightly seen through the disingenuous calls for the re-defined “unity” and “tolerance” that currently are the clich├ęs-de-jour among the liberal Democrat-dominated power structure in Washington, in the media, and on college campuses from Berkley to Boston.

As if Joe Biden, Keith Olbermann, or Professor Howard Zinn have any interest in conceding their positions in favor of traditional, conservative, or libertarian ones.

Such a self-indulgent insistence upon unity is wrongly presuming that Americans are not capable of both holding deep-rooted ideological, theological, and political differences with their fellow man, and then being kind neighbors and trustworthy business partners at the same time. I think they called this “projection” in the Psych department when I was in college.

No one is a true relativist, and subsequently, everyone believes in something, in certain things. Let’s agree that to disagree is an agreeable privilege for free people. Let’s concede that we all have opinions about the issues we’re faced with in our personal-daily and collective-national lives, and that those opinions matter to us.

And if they matter to us, if we as fallen creatures can find “better ways” of surviving and thriving as individuals and as a nation, let’s get busy sharing them with others. Not in the hopes of making some pie-in-the-sky utopia here on earth, but with a focused, obtainable goal of making a freer, safer, more prosperous, more virtuous republic.

It’s reassuring to know a place like the Acton Institute already is.