By Joe Childs
The Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conference provided a sound introduction to the moral foundations of personal and economic liberty. The concept of liberty is built upon a Judeo-Christian view of anthropology, natural law, and the laws of economic behavior. By building a foundation through pre-conference readings, the entire event was designed to expand on the themes of liberty and virtue through speakers from various academic, professional, ministerial, and think tank sources. Furthermore, the Acton staff and lecturers made themselves available for informal discussions during meals and breaks.
The conference helped me to evaluate public policy and economic proposals in terms of good anthropology. Because all people are created in the image of God, they demand respect and dignity, reflected in enabling maximum opportunity to freely express their God-given creativity through market-based choices. The policies and systems which best reflect proper anthropology affirm human life while preserving personal and economic liberty. Freedom, of course, is balanced with the need to impress upon individuals the moral values of personal self-restraint and virtue, as a free society must also be one in which people are freely choose to follow moral values. Thus, the church and clergy have a vital roll in preserving a free and virtuous society by speaking to both the structures of society and the souls of people.
What struck me most, however, was the diverse representation of conference participants with a common interest to explore the ideas of religion and liberty within a spirit of love and honest reflection. Our conference participants were from Catholic and various Protestant expressions from the USA, Europe and Africa. At one point during an evening meal there were five of us engaged in a pleasant discussion about liberty. I stopped to interject, “Have you noticed that here we are… two Baptists, a Methodist, a Catholic and a Church of Christ minister…we are also Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian, but we are engaged in a dialog of common interest with a spirit of Christian love!”
I was especially interested in the readings and lectures on economics and entrepreneurship. My personal interest in attending included expanding my knowledge of the philosophy and theology of work and commerce. Too often the default attitude from clergy toward capitalism and market economics is negative. A negative attitude about civic life in general is often rooted in eschatological traditions which suppose that this world is unredeemable and all that matters is the ‘spiritual Kingdom.’ The lectures and readings argued that clergy should be about preparing people for two Kingdoms: The Kingdom to come and the Kingdom now. A balanced ministry speaks to both spiritual redemption and redemption of our social and economic systems.
Being a former pastor myself, I can appreciate the vocational demands of the clergy—the need to care for the souls of people. Unfortunately, the job demands—especially among boomer-aged Protestant ministers—often encourages the opposite. The calling becomes a career, aimed at expanding one’s power and prestige through growing into a mega-church/ministry. Thus, ministry reduces to managing strategic plans for filling pews with parishioners, fundraising, and building programs.
Ministers often take on an executive roll, becoming tied to their offices and limiting their interacting with people at the workplace and home, let alone setting time aside for pastoral care and counseling. Many who have pursued the CEO ethos have been rewarded with book deals, radio ministries and speaking engagements. The unfortunate outcome is that many ministers have little understanding and few personal relationships with the parishioners who must eke out a living in the world of day-to-day commerce. The conference challenged us descend to the marketplace so we can converse intelligently with the business community. Understanding economics and the workplace is essential to understanding the context in which people live.
The Acton Institute has helped to broaden my knowledge on how to address the Gnostic dualism of the spiritual versus material world by exposing me to other theological traditions, especially to Catholic social teaching. My Protestant colleagues should take interest in the contributions from Vatican social teachings. I’m hopeful that more religious leaders will take advantage of Acton resources to understand the roll they have to affirm and shape the moral souls business leaders, entrepreneurs and social institutions.
In the end, I walked away with new friends, fresh ideas and a deeper sense of purpose.