Religion & Liberty Online

The Year in Acton Commentary 2016

Every Wednesday we publish the Acton Commentary, a weekly article that covers topics related to Acton’s mission. As 2016 comes to a close we thought it would be worth highlighting the top ten commentaries produced by Acton Institute staffers and contributors over the past year.


1. Global elites put Christianity in the crosshairs

Global governance ideology is the intellectual stepchild of Marxist materialist thought, says Robert F. Gorman.

The term global governance refers to the political dimension of globalization. Here the question is to what degree governance will be centralized and controlled by international institutions in ways that threaten to diminish national and local governmental capacity. Global governance advocates tend to prefer both transnational regulation of markets and the creation of new human rights norms marked by increased centralization.

In the latter sense, global governance can imply much more than simple international coordination and cooperation, which has existed throughout modern international relations. Now it is also a deeply and widely embedded ideology that seeks global centralization and regulation of wide-reaching areas of international interaction. It is believed and advanced by its devotees with an almost religious zeal.

2. Alexander Hamilton’s warning to fans of Trump and Sanders: Populism Endangers Liberty

Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, noticed a striking similarity between the populist playbook Trump and Sanders use and the rhetoric that Alexander Hamilton spoke out against in the 1780s.

To be sure, populism is often fueled by legitimate dissatisfaction with the status quo. Americans have good reason to be furious with their political and economic leaders, especially those who rarely venture outside the New York-Washington DC axis. When Sanders shouts that the economic system is rigged and Trump thunders against an out-of-touch political class, they have — as no less than Charles Koch (who’s very critical of both men’s economic policies) has affirmed — a point.

3. Martin Luther on vocation and serving our neighbors

“For Martin Luther, vocation is nothing less than the locus of the Christian life,” says Gene Edward Veith. “God works in and through vocation, but he does so by calling human beings to work in their vocations.”

In Jesus Christ, who bore our sins and gives us new life in his resurrection, God saves us for eternal life. But in the meantime he places us in our temporal life where we grow in faith and holiness. In our various callings—as spouse, parent, church member, citizen, and worker—we are to live out our faith.

So what does it mean to live out our faith in our callings? The Bible is clear: faith bears fruit in love (Gal. 5:6; 1 Tim. 1:5). Here we come to justification by faith and its relationship to good works, and we also encounter the ethical implications of vocation. According to Luther’s doctrine of vocation, the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbors.

4. Dakota access pipeline’s real moral problem: property rights for native Americans

“Environmental protests that spring up around development projects on tribal lands point to an underlying systematic injustice,” says Rev. Gregory Jensen. “Native Americans often lack property rights to their traditional lands and waters. The protests now going on over the Dakota Access Pipeline are in part symptomatic of this gap.”

Resolving environmental conflicts between Native Peoples and developers is a good thing. But if the legal ownership of indigenous people to their own lands is left unresolved, then even the best-crafted “solution” merely ratifies the dependence of Native Americans on outside parties. Being dependent means being vulnerable to harm even by well-meaning others.

At Standing Rock the Dakota Access Pipeline protests are harming the very people they are trying to help. It is more than a little ironic that the protesters themselves are a source of inconvenience and frustration in the day-to-day life of the Sioux living in the immediate area.

5. Sorry Bernie: Scandinavia isn’t socialist. You must be thinking of France

Dylan Pahman examines the dissonance between the goals of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and his recommended means.

[W]hile Sanders’ goals may seem comparable to Scandinavia, there’s little Nordic about his means. It all reminds me of a quip from the Russian Orthodox philosopher S. L. Frank, a refugee from the brutality of actual, Soviet socialism. “The leaders of the French Revolution desired to attain liberty, equality, fraternity, and the kingdom of truth and reason, but they actually created a bourgeois order. And this is the way it usually is in history,” Frank wrote. Sanders wants Scandinavia, but his policies would put us on a track more in line with Argentina or Greece. Good intentions are not enough.

6. Re-branding capitalism for millennials

“Over the last decade, millennials have been characterized as filled with a sense of entitlement, lazy, and disillusioned,” says Allison Gilbert. “In the past year they have acquired another label: socialist.”

Despite the fact that the Democratic Party has begun to adopt more policies of the far left — like the $15 minimum wage — many polls show that less than half of Sanders supporters say they will be voting for Clinton this fall. Taking to social media, Millennials called Sanders a sell-out, asking, “where is this revolution I was promised?” Many made it clear that they do not want to settle for an increasingly progressive Democratic platform; what they desire is the utopian vison of the world that Sanders sold them.

7. The captain of conscience

The new Marvel film Captain America: Civil War examines the conflict between conscience and coercion, says Jordan Ballor.

The latest superhero blockbuster Captain America: Civil War opened to a huge box office as well as to critical acclaim last weekend. The basic dynamic of the film focuses on conflict between authority and responsibility. The film could well be understood as an extended reflection on Edmund Burke’s observation: “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

8. The forgotten story of the German economic ‘miracle’

Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, reveals the reality behind an ideology now gaining popularity. Gregg explains how we can learn both from West Germany’s mistakes and fruitful embrace of free markets.

Given many Americans’ apparent enthusiasm for socialism today, it’s hard not to conclude that we live in an age in which millions know little about history or aren’t inclined to learn from it.

There are lessons to be learned from the collapse of command economies in Central-Eastern Europe in 1989, Argentina’s economic disintegration throughout the twentieth century, and the present-day implosion of “twenty-first century socialism” in Venezuela. We can also learn from cases in which countries abandoned planned economies and saved their societies from economic misery. One important but often forgotten example of such a transformation is West Germany’s turn to free markets in 1948.

9. The Jedi Knights Templar

The new Star Wars film embodies that ancient human striving for virtue and a higher spiritual order, says Dylan Pahman.

The most recent installment in the Star Wars franchise, Episode VII “The Force Awakens” has blasted box-office records like the Death Star destroying Alderan, so far grossing over $1.7 billion. Clearly, the series has massively broad appeal. Much of the draw seems to be the allure of the Jedi, the mystical guardians of the Star Wars galaxy who were based, in part, upon a medieval Christian monastic order: the Knights Templar. While there are surely other reasons for its popularity, my view is that that Star Wars’ focus on the importance of devotion to virtue and a higher spiritual order, embodied in the Jedi and illustrated in ”The Force Awakens” resounds with a universal human hope for people who embody that same vocation in our world today.

10. Millennials should read Solzhenitsyn

“The appeal of Bernie Sanders’ socialism is a puzzle to many, but it shouldn’t be, not if we understand how most people think about economics,” says Rev. Johannes Jacobse.

Economics rightly understood then touches on deeper, transcendental truths. And, as the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn taught, any discussion about materialism and transcendence must answer the fundamental question about whether the final touchstone of truth lies inside or outside the human person. The answer determines how we comprehend the world around us and how we act in it. Here the materialist and traditionalist clash, and the first battleground is always language.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).