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The Faith and Freedom Award was established as part of the Acton Institute’s tenth anniversary celebration in 2000. The award recognizes an individual who exemplifies commitment to faith and freedom through outstanding leadership in civic, business, or religious life. For this award, the Institute commissioned a sculpture of Lord Acton, the Institute’s namesake, who held firmly to the two pillars of faith and freedom.

Past Recipients

Jimmy Lai

The Acton Institute awarded its Faith and Freedom Award in 2020 to Jimmy Lai, the outspoken Catholic dissident who has dedicated his Hong Kong-based media empire to exposing Chinese repression.

On November 18, 2020, the Acton Institute awarded its Faith and Freedom Award to Jimmy Lai, the outspoken Catholic dissident who has dedicated his Hong Kong-based media empire to exposing Chinese repression.

As an eight-year-old boy, he worked as a baggage carrier in a railway station in his native mainland China. After he carried the bag of a visitor from Hong Kong, the man gave the future billionaire a piece of chocolate. “It was amazing,” he says. Eating that delectable sweet made him believe “Hong Kong must be Heaven, because I’ve never tasted anything like that.” One bite of that confection gave him a taste for freedom.

At the age of 12, he sailed off – alone – to Hong Kong, hidden in the bottom of a fishing junket. “In the morning, I smelled a lot of food that I never smelled, the great aroma of food,” Lai remembers. “It was as if I arrived in Heaven.” Waking up in that bustling land of opportunity, surrounded by the abundance that economic freedom facilitates, “I knew I had a future.”

Lai’s prowess in the fashion industry turned him into a billionaire. But at the time when most people would concentrate on how to enjoy their wealth, he felt his homeland calling. On June 4, 1989, no one could block out the sound, as Chinese tanks crushed peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square. The assault struck a deeply personal chord with Lai. “It’s like my mother was calling,” he says, “and my heart opened up.”

Lai used his fortune to begin publishing the Apple Daily. Its honest coverage of Beijing made the newspaper one of the most popular in Hong Kong. Lai says his vocation as an entrepreneur compelled him to spread liberty through the printed word. “In the media business, you deliver information, then you deliver choice, and choice is freedom,” he says.

His activities soon caught the attention of the Chinese Communist Party. After China’s aggressive (read: illegal) combination of industrial insourcing and global exports drove decades of double-digit GDP growth, the world’s newest economic powerhouse suppressed internal dissent through increasingly violent means. Soon, the CCP turned its eyes on Lai’s honest publication.

Lai’s love of freedom landed him in government confinement. More than 200 police officers stormed the offices of Lai’s newspaper on August 10 to arrest him and two of his sons for violating China’s draconian new “national security law.” Lai already faced five years’ imprisonment for trumped-up charges of intimidating a reporter. He was acquitted of that case in September, but the possibility of a longer prison term looms over the 71 year old.

Lai, who owns numerous mansions around the world, could have fled Hong Kong at the first sign of trouble. He has instead committed himself to fighting for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to speak truth to power. His godfather, Wall Street Journal editorial board member William McGurn, has called Lai “Hong Kong’s Thomas More.”

The Acton Institute agrees that Lai’s sterling character in the face of totalitarian adversity deserves all the plaudits we can muster. For that reason, we have awarded Lai our 2020 Faith and Freedom Award.

Antonin Scalia
Antonin Scalia

The Honorable Justice Antonin Scalia was posthumously awarded the Faith and Freedom Award in 2016. His son, the Rev. Paul Scalia, received the award in his stead.

Scalia spent six years excelling in corporate law before turning to academia. In 1967, he and his young family moved to Charlottesville where he became an administrative law professor at the University of Virginia. In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed him general counsel for the Office of Telecommunications Policy. He was then appointed assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Council in 1974.

President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1982, where people first noticed his sharp wit. When Chief Justice Warren Burger retired, Reagan nominated Scalia for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court; he was confirmed by the Senate 98-0 as an associate justice in 1986.

Justice Antonin Scalia was much more than a brilliant lawyer and steadfast Supreme Court justice. He was a devout Roman Catholic, a family man and a great friend even to his ideological enemies.

During his thirty year career he was an indefatigable champion of originalism (a principle of interpretation that views the Constitution’s meaning as fixed as of the time of enactment) and a vociferous critic of the slippery “living constitution” school of jurisprudence. Over the past hundred years few judges have been able to match the wit, wisdom, and intellectual rigor of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. When future historians assess his career Scalia will be viewed as one of the most thoughtful, principled, and important jurists of his era.

Diet Eman
Diet Eman

Dutch resistance fighter Diet Eman was recognized with the 2015 Faith and Freedom Award for her bravery in the face of the Nazi regime. This honor was established as part of the Acton Institute’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2000. The award recognizes an individual who exemplifies commitment to faith and freedom through outstanding leadership in civic, business or religious life. For this award, the institute commissioned a sculpture of Lord Acton, who held firmly to the two pillars of faith and freedom.

Eman was presented with the sculpture on October 21, 2015 at Acton’s 25th Anniversary Dinner in Grand Rapids at the DeVos Place. 

Few encapsulate the concepts of courage, faith and perseverance quite like Diet Eman. She was born just outside of The Hague, Netherlands, in 1920. During World War II, she was a member of the Dutch resistance, helping secure ration cards for Jews, rescuing shot-down Allied airmen and risking her life in Nazi-occupied territory. They helped rescue thousands of Jews during the Nazi occupation and was arrested and sent to a German concentration camp for four months.

After World War II, Eman studied nursing and worked as a head nurse in Venezuela and as a foreign correspondent and export manager in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was active in volunteering for the Red Cross Disaster Service and doing relief work in impoverished nations. In her book Things We Couldn’t Say, she vividly recalls personal accounts and events of her brave saga during the war in the resistance. She currently resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

Acton recognized Lady Thatcher for her courageous leadership in the cause of liberty, her achievements as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, her role in inspiring moral and economic renewal in Britain and the West, her contribution to ending Communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and her commitment to Christian belief and values.

The eleven years of Lady Thatcher’s prime ministership were a struggle against the forces of discord, doubt, and despair that threatened the establishment of a freer, more prosperous, and self-confident society in Britain. Whether it was confronting military dictators in Latin America or the radical left in Britain, Lady Thatcher illustrated that conviction politics can prevail over the policies of easy compromise and acquiescence.

The economic reforms pursued by successive Conservative governments led by Lady Thatcher turned Britain from being the sick man of Europe into a country with faith in the free economy’s ability to create value and produce wealth. Her willingness to confront out-of-control trade union power did much to breathe new life into the idea of rule of law. Likewise, her unwillingness to accept that half of Europe should be abandoned to the rule of faceless Marxist-Leninist regimes inspired millions to work for a peaceful end to Communist dictatorships.

But in the long-term, Margaret Thatcher’s greatest legacy may be her insistence that the free society must be grounded upon a culture of moral absolutes. In her 1988 address to representatives of the Church of Scotland, Lady Thatcher stressed that freedom can only be grounded on and guaranteed by our commitment to the moral absolutes that are at the core of authentic Christian faith. “If you try,” she said, “to take the fruits of Christianity without its roots, the fruits will wither. And they will not come again unless you nurture the roots.” Freedom, she believed, is intrinsically linked to truth, and without a commitment to truth, liberty is endangered.

Image attribution: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard DeVos
Richard M. DeVos, Sr.

The Acton Institute recognized Richard (Rich) M. DeVos for his decades-long exemplary leadership in business, his dedication to the promotion of liberty, his courage in maintaining and defending the free and virtuous society, and his conviction that the roots of liberty and the morally-charged life are to be found in the eternal truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

No narrative better encapsulates the value of hard work and free enterprise than that of Richard M. DeVos.  This year’s award recipient began his first business in the late 1940s, when he and friend Jay Van Andel became independent distributors for Nutrilite.  The California manufacturer of vitamins used a person-to-person direct-selling approach that DeVos and Van Andel adopted when starting Amway from their Ada, Mich. homes in 1959.  Together, they refined the direct-selling method of offering individuals the opportunity to build businesses of their own that became the model for scores of direct-selling companies and marked the start of a major worldwide direct-selling industry.  Five decades hence, statistics from Forbes and Deloitte rank Amway among the largest and most successful companies in the world.

In addition to his generous support of Christian causes and the American conservative tradition, DeVos is an accomplished author.  Throughout his four books, DeVos presents his most poignant stories and important principles.  The second of these books, Compassionate Capitalism, outlines 16 strategies for integrating compassion with free enterprise.  A later work inspired by DeVos’ heart transplant, Hope from My Heart (1997), imparts ten lessons for life on subjects including persistence, confidence, optimism, respect, and faith.   Former President Gerald R. Ford hailed the book “exciting, inspiring, and down-to-earth with God-given advice for everyone.

If faith is the primary source of power in DeVos’ life, his family is his principal source of joy.  DeVos has been married to his wife and best friend, Helen, for almost 60 years.  They enjoy spending time with their four children—Richard Jr., Daniel, Cheri, Douglas—and 16 grandchildren.

A testament to his dedication and courage, DeVos once famously remarked: "The only thing that stands between a man and what he wants from his life is often merelythe will to try it and the faith to believe that it is possible." It is this tenacity and conviction that has earned DeVos a place among Christians, among business executives, and among men.

William F. Buckley
William F. Buckley, Jr.

Acton recognized William F. Buckley, Jr. “for his decades-long courageous leadership in the cause of freedom and his powerful advocacy of the free society grounded in the universal moral principles of the Judeo-Christian Western tradition. Mr. Buckley understood that liberty is a gift from the Creator to the humanity that He made in His image, and that a society without true faith in God was a society incapable of mastering the everyday challenge of virtuous freedom.”

William F. Buckley, Jr., grew up in an era that was embracing the ascendancy of government expansion under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Buckley’s heroic battle against modern liberalism was so pronounced and effective because of the seriousness of his ideas and the intellectual weight they carried. His 1951 book God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom, which highlighted the efforts of professors to indoctrinate students in liberal ideology and to cultivate a contempt for religious faith, served to establish Buckley as the founding father of the modern American conservative movement. Four years later Buckley created National Review Magazine, a publication that championed human liberty and the conservative cause. Buckley was often quoted as saying, “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.” His profile rose with his many books, famed vocabulary, and especially as host of the popular debate show Firing Line.

Never shy about hiding his beliefs, Buckley was also a committed Catholic. His Christianity was the foundation of his beliefs. In his autobiography of faith titled Nearer, My God, Buckley declared:

It is of course obvious that it is mostly features of this world from which we take our satisfactions. The love of our family, the company of our friends, the feel of wind on the face, the excitement of the printed page, the delights of color and form and sound. But there is that other life that only human beings can experience, and in that life, and from that life, other pulsations are felt. They press upon us, in the Christian vision, one thing again and again, which is that God loves us. The best way to put it is that God would give His life for us and, in Christ, did.

Perhaps one of Buckley’s greatest achievements was his ability to bring traditional conservatives, free-market advocates, and anti-communists together into a political movement. Not only did Buckley exorcize the American Right of its anti-Semitic elements, but he also popularized the once moribund conservative movement and elevated it to the center of American political life. He was essential in laying the intellectual foundations that brought America the likes of Ronald Reagan. “You didn’t just part the Red Sea — you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism. And then, as if that weren’t enough, you gave the world something different, something in its weariness it desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom,” Reagan said of Buckley.

Buckley played an integral role in shaping American political culture in the twentieth century, and in challenging the West to live up to its higher ideals and purpose.

Mart Laar
Mart Laar

Acton recognized Mart Laar for “the courageous leadership he has shown for the cause of freedom and his powerful witness to the truth that our freedom is always guided by true faith. With great resolve and courage, Dr. Laar helped his people find their way out of the darkness of oppression and into the light of freedom. As a man of faith, he understands that the yearning for liberty is universal, a desire written into the hearts of all people by their Creator.”

When Mart Laar began his second term as prime minister of Estonia in 1999, the country was in the midst of a fiscal crisis. The collapse of Russia's economy the year before had left Estonia's stock market reeling, and the government was struggling to fund the benefits promised by Soviet-era social programs.

Laar realized that the only way for Estonia to weather the crisis was to finally leave behind the legacy of its communist past. He announced deep cuts to paternalistic state welfare programs, slashed business taxes, and urged liberalization of international trade. By the end of his term, the government's Bureau of Privatization was dissolved; more than 90 percent of the economy was in private hands. The economy was growing 7 percent annually, and Laar was widely credited as the force behind the creation of the "Baltic Tiger."

Mart Laar believes in economic freedom because he believes in the Estonian people. As a young student of history, Laar braved Soviet arrest by researching Estonian resistance to the World War II occupation. In his first term of office, he negotiated the withdrawal of Russian troops from the country, introduced the highly stable Estonian currency, and implemented a flat tax that has decreased steadily since 1994.

Laar is not an economist, and he says that his boldness came mostly from naiveté. "I had read only one book on economics—Milton Friedman's Free to Choose," he said. "I was so ignorant at the time that I thought that what Friedman wrote about the benefits of privatization, the flat tax and the abolition of all customs rights, was the result of economic reforms that had been put into practice in the West. It seemed common sense to me and, as I thought it had already been done everywhere, I simply introduced it in Estonia, despite warnings from Estonian economists that it could not be done. They said it was as impossible as walking on water. We did it: we just walked on the water because we did not know that it was impossible."

Laar's dedication to progress and economic freedom has allowed the former communist state to develop into one of the most dynamic economies in the world. In 2007, Estonia was ranked one of the top 10 countries in the Economic Freedom of the World index, the first post-communist economy to earn such a distinction. At the dedication in 1995 of the F. A. Hayek Auditorium at the Cato Institute, then House Majority Leader Dick Armey said of Laar's government, "If Estonia is not a vindication of everything we believe in—from free trade to privatization to sound money to balanced budgets—I am at a loss as to how else one could validate our ideas." Laar has defied common wisdom in Europe to prove that economic freedom works.

Image attribution: European People's Party / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0].

Charles W. Colson
Charles W. Colson

Acton recognized Charles W. Colson for his life that “stands as a dramatic example for others concerned with the purposes of faith and freedom. Chuck’s ministry has proven beyond doubt the effectiveness of the faith-based approach in turning around some of the most broken and neglected lives in America. Chuck has not only conformed his own life to the Truth, but led countless others to the faith.”

Almost 30 years ago, Charles W. Colson was not thinking about reaching out to prison inmates or reforming the U.S. penal system. In fact, this aide to President Richard Nixon was "incapable of humanitarian thought," according to the media of the mid-1970s. Colson was known as the White House "hatchet man," a man feared by even the most powerful politicos during his four years of service to President Nixon.

When news of Colson's conversion to Christianity leaked to the press in 1973, the Boston Globe reported, "If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody." Colson would agree.

In 1974 Colson entered a plea of guilty to Watergate-related charges; although not implicated in the Watergate burglary, he voluntarily pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Daniel Ellsberg Case. He entered Alabama's Maxwell Prison in 1974 as a new Christian, and gained the vision there that led him to found Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976 after his release. While an inmate, he promised his fellow prisoners that he would "never forget those behind bars." He fulfilled his promise by investing the royalties from his book Born Again to begin Prison Fellowship.

Today there is no larger outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, crime victims, and their families in the world than Prison Fellowship Ministries. The Christian nonprofit has more than 50,000 prison ministry volunteers in 88 nations. Its programs range from various programs for prisoners and ex-prisoners; to Justice Fellowship, aimed at reforming the criminal justice system; to Angel Tree, which annually provides more than 500,000 children of inmates with Christmas presents on behalf of their incarcerated parents. In 1991, Colson also launched a daily radio commentary called “BreakPoint”, which aims to provide a Christian worldview on everyday issues.

Rocco Buttiglione
Rocco Buttiglione

Acton recognized Rocco Buttiglione for “his steadfast defense of Judeo-Christian values during his contentious confirmation hearings before the European Commission. While weathering a firestorm of criticism, Mr. Buttiglione maintained his steadfast support of equality before the law and the equal dignity of every individual and stood fast against the attacks of radical secularism that denies all public manifestation of religion.”

Rocco Buttilgione, Italy’s Minister of Culture, was born on June 6, 1948 in Gallipoli, Italy. He studied law in Turin and Rome, where he took his degree with a thesis in the history of political doctrines. He became an assistant to his academic advisor, Professor Augusto Del Noce and collaborated with Del Noce for many years. He is married and the father of four daughters.

His main intellectual concerns have been philosophy, social ethics, economics, and politics. He has held professorships at the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and Saint Pius V University in Rome and has been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Science. He has lectured internationally and is on the editorial boards of many Italian and foreign journals.

In the early 1990s, Buttiglione helped to form an Italian political party, the Christian Democratic Union and since 1994 has served in the Chamber of Deputies in the Italian Parliament. Since 1999 he has been a member of the European Parliament, and in 2001 he was appointed to be Italy’s Minister of European Affairs. In 2004, Buttiglione withdrew his nomination to the new European Commission after a controversy arose over his defense of the traditional family and marriage.

Image attribution: Elena Torre / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0].

Francis Van Thuan
Francis Van Thuan

Acton recognized Cardinal Van Thuan as a leader whose “life stands as a dramatic example for others concerned with the purposes of faith and freedom. The Cardinal remained committed, despite great personal suffering, to the ideals of his faith.”

His Eminence Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who died in September 2002, served the Catholic Church as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome. He was formerly Archbishop of Saigon, Vietnam. Cardinal Van Thuan was born in Hue, Vietnam, in 1928 and completed studies in philosophy and theology in Vietnam. He was ordained to the priesthood of the Catholic Church in 1953. He pursued advanced studies in Rome from 1953-1959, and received a doctorate in Canon Law from Gregorian University in Rome.

He was a professor and then rector of the major seminary of Nha Trang, Vietnam. Cardinal Van Thuan was ordained to the episcopacy in April 1967 and led the Diocese of Nha Trang for eight years, until he was named coadjutor and later Archbishop of Saigon on April 23, 1975, by Pope Paul VI. Archbishop Van Thuan was accused by Vietnamese Communist authorities of being implanted in Saigon as a subversive influence. He was arrested on August 15, 1975, and imprisoned without trial for a total of 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement. Instead of turning to bitterness or despair at this injustice, he chose to emulate Saint Paul’s experience of writing letters while in prison. Archbishop Van Thuan sent a message of love and hope to his people, especially to the youth, telling how every day, even in captivity, he lived his devotion to Jesus and Mary.

When he finally was freed, in 1991, he was expelled from his homeland. He went to Rome, where he served the Church in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, becoming its president in 1998. He was elevated a Cardinal of the Catholic Church on February 21, 2001.

When the Communists put me in the hold of the boat, the Hai-Phong, along with 1500 other prisoners and moved us to the North, I said to myself, "Here is my cathedral, here are the people God has given me to care for, here is my mission: to ensure the presence of God among these, my despairing, miserable brothers. It is God's will that I am here. I accept his will". And from that minute onwards, a new peace filled my heart and stayed with me for thirteen years. -- Cardinal Van Thuan

Image attribution: Thuy Ho / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]. Image cropped.

John Marks Templeton
John Marks Templeton

Acton recognized Sir John Marks Templeton as “a pioneering philanthropist with wisdom to understand the tremendous role of faith in the course of human history.”

The inaugural Faith and Freedom Award was bestowed on John Marks Templeton. Beginning a Wall Street career in 1937, he created some of the world’s largest and most successful international investment funds. Templeton, a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), was known for starting mutual funds’ annual meetings with a prayer. Templeton was knighted Sir John by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987 for his many accomplishments. One of these was creating the world’s richest award, the $1 million-plus Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities presented annually in London since 1972. Because of his vision, the John Templeton Foundation continues to give away about $40 million a year – especially to projects, college courses, books, and essays on the benefits of cooperation between science and religion.

In 2003, The Templeton Foundation committed to a generous four-year pledge to launch the Templeton Freedom Awards program at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Since that time, Atlas has presented 18 Prizes and 30 Award Grants to outstanding think tanks working to improve the public understanding of freedom. The Acton Institute has won two Templeton Freedom Prizes.

“High ethics and religious principles form the basis for success and happiness in every area of life.” - John Templeton

Image courtesy of the John Templeton Foundation.


The Faith & Freedom Award sculpture

The Faith & Freedom Award was created by Liberty's Artist, Phil Jensen.

Phil Jensen, a self-taught artist, is steeped in the Austrian School of Economics and the ideas and philosophy of human Liberty. His self-development has led him to a firmly non-political view of Liberty, and his “art to inspire a coming age” imagines the freedom from one’s own limitations and the triumph of the human spirit.