About seven years ago I got to know the work of the Acton Institute by attending a conference aptly called: “Toward a Free and Virtue Society.” There were about 30 young adults at this event at a location in the Northeast and hosted by Acton. It was taught by Catholic and Protestant scholars on the subject of religion, economics and culture. I was allowed to sit outside the circle and listen to the teaching and interaction and then share fellowship with the scholars and students over meals and breaks. It was a wonderful firsthand encounter with a religious think tank that I have come to regard with high regard.

Acton U I encourage you to check out the Acton University event as well. This year it takes place June 14-17 in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. I will be teaching a seminar on “Protestant Social Ethics.” The speakers, fellowship, resources and event are all superb. I have attended twice before as a participant. I heartily encourage every one to attend, especially younger business entrepreneurs, graduate students and professionals.

Acton promotes a free society characterized by individual liberty and religious principles. Acton’s core principles include the following:

Integrating Judeo-Christian Truths with Free Market Principles

  1. Dignity of the Person
  2. Social Nature of the Person
  3. Importance of Social Institutions
  4. Human Action
  5. Sin
  6. Rule of Law and the Subsidiary Role of Government
  7. Creation of Wealth
  8. Economic Liberty
  9. Economic Value
  10. Priority of Culture

Dignity of the Person – The human person, created in the image of God, is individually unique, rational, the subject of moral agency, and a co-creator. Accordingly, he possesses intrinsic value and dignity, implying certain rights and duties both for himself and other persons. These truths about the dignity of the human person are known through revelation, but they are also discernible through reason.

Social Nature of the Person – Although persons find ultimate fulfillment only in communion with God, one essential aspect of the development of persons is our social nature and capacity to act for disinterested ends. The person is fulfilled by interacting with other persons and by participating in moral goods. There are voluntary relations of exchange, such as market transactions that realize economic value. These transactions may give rise to moral value as well. There are also voluntary relations of mutual dependence, such as promises, friendships, marriages, and the family, which are moral goods. These, too, may have other sorts of value, such as religious, economic, aesthetic, and so on.

Importance of Social Institutions – Since persons are by nature social, various human persons develop social institutions. The institutions of civil society, especially the family, are the primary sources of a society's moral culture. These social institutions are neither created by nor derive their legitimacy from the state. The state must respect their autonomy and provide the support necessary to ensure the free and orderly operation of all social institutions in their respective spheres.

Human Action – Human persons are by nature acting persons. Through human action, the person can actualize his potentiality by freely choosing the moral goods that fulfill his nature.

Sin: Although human beings in their created nature are good, in their current state, they are fallen and corrupted by sin. The reality of sin makes the state necessary to restrain evil. The ubiquity of sin, however, requires that the state be limited in its power and jurisdiction. The persistent reality of sin requires that we be skeptical of all utopian "solutions" to social ills such as poverty and injustice.

Rule of Law and the Subsidiary Role of Government – The government's primary responsibility is to promote the common good, that is, to maintain the rule of law, and to preserve basic duties and rights. The government's role is not to usurp free actions, but to minimize those conflicts that may arise when the free actions of persons and social institutions result in competing interests. The state should exercise this responsibility according to the principle of subsidiarity. This principle has two components. First, jurisdictionally broader institutions must refrain from usurping the proper functions that should be performed by the person and institutions more immediate to him. Second, jurisdictionally broader institutions should assist individual persons and institutions more immediate to the person only when the latter cannot fulfill their proper functions.

Creation of Wealth – Material impoverishment undermines the conditions that allow humans to flourish. The best means of reducing poverty is to protect private property rights through the rule of law. This allows people to enter into voluntary exchange circles in which to express their creative nature. Wealth is created when human beings creatively transform matter into resources. Because human beings can create wealth, economic exchange need not be a zero-sum game.

Economic Liberty – Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one's nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought. Economic liberty is a species of liberty so-stated. As such, the bearer of economic liberty not only has certain rights, but also duties. An economically free person, for example, must be free to enter the market voluntarily. Hence, those who have the power to interfere with the market are duty-bound to remove any artificial barrier to entry in the market, and also to protect private and shared property rights. But the economically free person will also bear the duty to others to participate in the market as a moral agent and in accordance with moral goods. Therefore, the law must guarantee private property rights and voluntary exchange.

Economic Value – In economic theory, economic value is subjective because its existence depends on it being felt by a subject. Economic value is the significance that a subject attaches to a thing whenever he perceives a causal connection between this thing and the satisfaction of a present, urgent want. The subject may be wrong in his value judgment by attributing value to a thing that will not or cannot satisfy his present, urgent want. The truth of economic value judgments is settled just in case that thing can satisfy the expected want. While this does not imply the realization of any other sort of value, something can have both subjective economic value and objective moral value.

Priority of Culture – Liberty flourishes in a society supported by a moral culture that embraces the truth about the transcendent origin and destiny of the human person. This moral culture leads to harmony and to the proper ordering of society. While the various institutions within the political, economic, and other spheres are important, the family is the primary inculcator of the moral culture in a society.

Some readers think my stance on political engagement is sometimes too liberal and others think I am too conservative. These labels are neither helpful nor accurate in far too many instances. This is why I do not embrace them in a partisan, political way. Sometimes I am in agreement with political opinion that is seen as liberal by some and more times than not I am in agreement with so-called conservative positions, but never in a manner that walks in lock-step with a political party or movement. I try to judge economic and social policies by principles, not by raw politics, labels and a great deal of emotionalism.

My stance underscores my growing appreciation for Acton. Acton seeks to teach Christians how to think more clearly about public policy and culture from a morally rigorous perspective. It does this in scores of contexts and by many means.

rl_20_3 A few days ago, to give examples, I came across two verbal attacks against capitalism made by noted Christians that I often agree with on most subjects. The first comment came from my favorite missional theologian, the late Lesslie Newbigin. I was reading Newbigin for a course that I teach on missional-ecumenism. He refers in his theology to the twin evils of communism and capitalism. When he bothers to define capitalism it is done poorly and almost always from the perspective that capitalism inherently breeds greed. (I reject consumerism forthrightly but consumerism is inherently built on greed and lacks a commitment to wisdom and restraint as well.) I reject Newbigin’s premise on his point about capitalism, as much as I admire him on almost every other point he writes about. Acton Institute has helped me understand more clearly why Newbigin’s comment (it is hardly a reasonable argument) is so profoundly wrong.

A second attack on capitalism I came across last week was in reading an anthology of the work of the famous Catholic G. K. Chesterton. He made some equally terrible statements about capitalism and economics in general. Again, the reason in Chesterton’s case was an almost complete misunderstanding of the real idea of capitalism and how it works to bring about freedom and prosperity.

Acton publishes an excellent magazine that you can subscribe to without charge (see photo above at right). I urge you to get Religion and Liberty and to financially support Acton in the process. I was featured on the cover of the Summer/Fall 2010 issue, Volume 20, No. 3/4. You can check out my interview with Acton online. The whole issue is also available if you find the tab for the magazine.