Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton University 2024 Mobile Banner

    We thought it would be appropriate to highlight some of our past interviews in the 20th Anniversary issue of Religion & Liberty. The responses selected represent a range of timeless truths of the Gospel, the importance of human liberty, and the importance of religion and moral formation in society.

    R&L: In some Christian circles, social action has taken precedence over evangelism. I am here thinking of the way that the pursuit of social justice has taken the place of the proclamation of the Gospel. What are your thoughts on this trend?

    Luis Palau: My view is this: Evangelism, proclamation of the Gospel, is social action. It is social action because it changes the core of the problem, which is, the individual out of control from God. Conversion brings the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, and His life into the picture and changes people who, in turn, become salt and light by living their lives without necessarily acting politically or in terms of “social action.” So I put Gospel proclamation first, because you have nothing to work with unless you have people who have been converted.

    R&L: Would you comment on the temptation to identify virtue with collectivism?

    Margaret Thatcher: Liberty is an individual quality and a moral quality. It does not exist in the abstract, but only in a civilized state with a rule of law. Without that, the strong would oppress the weak. The collective law is what makes individual freedom work. I remember a famous quotation of George Bernard Shaw, “Freedom incurs responsibility; that’s why men fear it.” Too many people try to cast their personal responsibility on to the state. It is so much easier to parade with banners demanding that government do something to remedy a wrong than it is to take action oneself. But it will build neither character nor independence.

    The ultimate collectivist was, of course, the communist state. It operated the most total tyranny the world has ever known. It had all of the brutal, evil characteristics of other tyrannies, with its secret police, absence of remedy, and no opposition. In addition to that, it confiscated everyone’s private property and took away everyone’s job, so they became totally dependent upon the state.

    The danger is that the more you turn to the state, the more you are diminishing the sense of freedom and the responsibility of the individual, and the more difficult it is to re-establish when the Communist system has gone.

    R&L: What is the most positive role religious leaders can play in bringing about a lasting moral, economic and political social order?

    John Marks Templeton: Religious leaders have the most powerful tools on earth – love and prayer. Religious leaders are needed to help themselves and others to grow in the knowledge and love of God. They can help both students and adults to learn the basic laws of life which lead to usefulness, happiness and freedom for individuals. The reputation of religious leaders has been diminished when they pretend to be knowledgeable in economics and politics rather than in spiritual growth and the spiritual laws of life. When a religious leader can help his people to be overwhelmingly grateful every day for their multiplying multitudes of blessings then those people will work in economics and politics to bring more and more blessings for others in terms of productivity, freedom, happiness and spiritual growth. Some say a major reason why older church denominations have been losing in members, resources and reputation is that some leaders, especially in headquarters, began over 50 years ago to place their ultimate trust in humanism as expressed in force and government; whereas many newer churches are spirit filled and wholeheartedly place their trust in God as expressed in prayer and love.

    R&L: The concept of natural law underpins the analysis in your latest book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. What is the natural law?

    Jay Budziszewski: Our subject is called natural law because it has the qualities of all law. Law has rightly been defined as an ordinance of reason, for the common good, made by the one who has care of the community, and promulgated. Consider the natural law against murder. It is not an arbitrary whim, but a rule that the mind can grasp as right. It serves not some special interest, but the universal good. Its author has care of the universe, for He (God) created it. And it is not a secret rule, for God has so arranged his creation that every rational being knows about it.

    Our subject is called natural law because it is built into the design of human nature and woven into the fabric of the normal human mind. Another reason for calling it natural is that we rightly take it to be about what really is—a rule like the prohibition of murder reflects not a mere illusion or projection, but genuine knowledge. It expresses the actual moral character of a certain kind of act.

    R&L: What has Christianity given to society that is most often overlooked by Christianity’s critics?

    Chuck Colson: I think the critics of Christianity are looking at the modern ideas of liberalism and believing that freedom from all restraints and the desire to do anything you desire to do is sort of the summum bonum, the element of virtue and life. And what they’re missing is that that undermines the very protection they themselves enjoy the most. It is like somebody sitting on a branch and sawing off the branch they’re sitting on. The ideas that you can determine for yourself the meaning of life, that there are no restraints, that you have absolute autonomous control over yourself, that all of the world revolves around you, [these ideas] leave you vulnerable to all the various scientific assaults upon human life, whether it’s abortion, assisted suicide, genetic engineering, or cloning. You yourself become vulnerable. The price of your freedom is human vulnerability. I don’t think the postmodernist has figured out yet how self-refuting his own belief system is.

    I was with a bunch of newspaper reporters once and the publisher was bragging he had taken the Ten Commandments off the classroom walls in his city. And then about five minutes later, he is complaining about all the stealing in the classrooms. It’s like putting a sign up, “Someone Steal!” I’m very optimistic that postmodernism is running its course because it’s not intellectually sustainable and it’s built on internal contradictions that will ultimately cause it to crumble.

    R&L: Would you agree that there is a general lack of appreciation for liberty, particularly economic liberty, among the clergy?

    William F. Buckley, Jr.: Yes, I think that there has been a massive neglect in education into the inter-relationship between liberty and productivity, and of course productivity and surplus, and therefore surplus and philanthropy and charity. There is no way in which one can look after one’s neighbor until one has looked after oneself. And therefore, one needs the liberty to have that surplus in order to respond to the commandment to concern ourselves with one’s neighbor. I would hardly be the first commentator to say that the social teachers of the church very seldom have concerned themselves at all with the problem of production. They are always talking about distribution. But there can’t be any distribution until there is production. And the key to production is, of course, liberty–economic liberty.

    R&L: Let’s talk about your study of population movement. Do you think immigration undermines prosperity or encourages a free market?

    Paul Johnson: Oh, very much the second. I think immigration was a reason why capitalism took root in certain countries and not in others. Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries received repeated waves of persecuted Protestants, such as the French Huguenots, many people from the low counties and so on, who played a key role in establishing an entrepreneurial climate. Furthermore, it was immigration that gave America such a tremendous start in the economic race. I think that whenever families are able to uproot themselves from their traditional homes and establish themselves in a new one, they always seem to do better, provided they are given a chance by the openness of the political society they find there. They seem to throw off the inert conservatism of the old society and do new things which they wouldn’t have done in their original domicile. They are much more active and original and creative; this has always happened. Therefore, I would say that in general, immigration tends to stimulate economies rather than stifle them.

    Let’s talk about the market and capitalism and particularly the sources of the Judeo-Christian hostility toward capitalism.

    There are two forms of hostility towards capitalism. One is the anti-materialism of some forms of monotheistic religion. Secondly, there is the case of usury.

    First of all, with regard to this anti-materialism, I think this is more true of Christianity than of Judaism. The Jews derive from the Old Testament the notion that the world is a good place, that God made it to be enjoyed by his creatures. Thus, it was necessary for all people to carry out God’s will to play their part in that scheme. And therefore, growing crops, making and enjoying goods, eating the produce of the earth, drinking wine and so on, were not only reputable activities, but in some way necessary activities. So the Jewish religion was not in conflict with the world as such.

    Now Christianity was rather different. In the first place, it was a much bigger religion because it embraced many more people who necessarily held differing attitudes toward life. So there were always a large amount of Christians, what I would call a significant minority, who rejected the world or many aspects of it. That Christian minority provided for many forms of religious life, such as the monastic ideal, which would not have been accepted by Judaism, but were highly regarded in Christianity. So, the rejection of materialism was much more emphatic among Christians than among Jews.

    In the case of usury, both the orthodox Jews and the Christians rejected it to a greater or lesser extent. And what one saw in the 14th, 15th and 16th century was a progressive wiggling out of this rejection by cunning or clever or, you may want to call them, altruistic theologians who realized that many forms of usury were perfectly acceptable in terms of natural morality and were absolutely necessary for the growth of the economy.

    R&L: What does prosperity do to religious sensibilities?

    Richard John Neuhaus:  Prosperity can be a great temptation to pride and smugness and complacency, but I am not sure that prosperity is any greater a spiritual temptation than is poverty, which is a temptation to despair and lethargy and indifference. The Christian ethic is not anti-prosperity. Certainly within the Christian community, voluntary poverty that is chosen for the sake of the kingdom of God is elevated spiritually and is something that is held up to be emulated by those who are called to that vocation and as a critical reference for all Christians. But there is nothing in the Christian ethic which says it is better to be poor than to be rich. Even the Beatitudes are premised upon the promise that those who are now poor will be rich–that being rich is good. At the same time, the church relentlessly challenges every Christian not to become consumed by prosperity. Consumerism is not simply the state of being well-off, it is the spiritual disposition of being controlled by what one consumes, of living in order to consume, of living in order to have things. This, of course, is a great spiritual danger for rich and poor alike.

    And therefore, they should be justified by moral theology.

    R&L: You have been long involved in the late-twentieth-century revival of the freedom philosophy, especially with your involvement in the Foundation for Economic Education (fee). In addition, you are a Congregationalist minister. Why do you think it is important for ministers to be grounded in sound economic thinking?

    Edmund A. Opitz: Ministers today are learned and dedicated men and women. They buy books and subscribe to serious journals, striving to keep abreast of trends that affect religion and the church. They are involved in civic affairs; they are liked and respected, even by those who never go near a church. They are good company and have friends in the other professions, especially businessmen. It therefore would not hurt if they improved their understanding of business and the free economy. The discipline of economics, after all, does not dangle somewhere in outer space but is an integral and essential part of this God-created planet. Sound economics has a religious dimension, and the Acton Institute is bringing this truth home to a growing number of clergy.

    Monotheism, as opposed to every brand of polytheism, implies a uni-verse, a cosmos of law and order with working rules in every sector–including the economic sector. Perhaps the most primary economic postulate is scarcity. Human wants are virtually limitless, but the means for satisfying our wants and needs are scarce. The discipline of economics emerged in response to the awkward fact that, struggle as we may, we will always desperately be trying to cope with our unfulfilled desires. Economics teaches us how to act responsibly and non-wastefully when dealing with the planet’s limited resources of human energy, raw materials, and time. “Why do we work?” asked Francis Bacon, and answered his own question: “For the glory of God and the improvement of Man’s estate.” And Jesus warned that “If you are not faithful in your use of worldly wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?”

    R&L: Would you say, then, that freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for?

    Os Guinness: Paraphrasing Lord Acton, “Freedom is not the permission to do what we like, it is the power to do what we ought.” The trouble is that, today, freedom is purely negative: freedom from parents, from teachers, from the police, and so on. We have lost sight of it as freedom to be that which we can be or ought to be. We need to recover the idea that, as Lord Acton stressed wisely and as the present pope has written of so well, freedom is the power to do what we ought. That assumes, however, we know the truth of who we are and what we ought to do. That is the freedom the modern secular liberal tends to forget.

    R&L: There is a great deal of confusion today about the meaning of human freedom. What misunderstandings lie at the heart of this confusion?

    Avery Dulles: In Western societies, freedom is often defined in political terms, as immunity from the coercive power of the state. In Marxist societies, the emphasis instead has been on economic freedom, or protection from manipulation by the forces of industry and capital. These concepts of freedom, though not invalid, are incomplete.

    In current popular thinking, freedom is understood to mean the capacity to do whatever one pleases, without moral or physical restraints. This arbitrary view of freedom points the way to uninhibited individualism, social chaos, and defiance of moral standards. Many people imagine that entering into firm commitments, such as a vocation or a family relationship, will impair their freedom. They therefore go through life unattached, guided by passing whims rather than firm convictions. Such lives quickly become empty and meaningless, moving toward suicidal despair.

    Lord Acton and other wise thinkers have taught us that true freedom is not the same as license. It is not the power to do whatever we like but to choose what is good. Morality is not a barrier to our freedom but a condition of authentic self-realization. To make responsible commitments is not to negate our freedom but to fulfill its purpose.

    R&L: You are one of the pre-eminent Acton scholars in the world, some of your earliest work dealt with Acton’s intellectual contribution to the ideas of liberty and religion. I know this is a difficult question, but what would Acton say about re-moralizing society? How would he approach this question?

    Gertrude Himmelfarb: I think he would have been as distressed as many of us are today by the condition of our society. He was very religious and very liberal, and very much a moralist, and for all these reasons he would have been appalled by our present state of demoralization and acutely aware of the need for some kind of remoralization. Like all of us, he would have preferred that it come about not by the efforts of government, but by the cultivation of an ethos that would encourage both private and public virtues. Acton was not a libertarian; he was not opposed to social legislation in principle. He had too much respect for the complexities of history and society to be a strict libertarian. I think he would have agreed that there was a role for both the law and the state in the process of remoralization. But above all, he would have looked to religion as the inspiration for moral reformation.

    R&L: You spent your life advancing the free market on two levels: the academic and the popular. Where have you been most effective and why?

    Walter Williams: One of the shortcomings of economists is their inability to make their subject understandable to the ordinary layman. For years, one of my challenges has been to explain potentially complex economic ideas to ordinary people. When asked what I do, I say, “I seek to sell my fellow Americans on the moral superiority of liberty.” This is an extremely important job. One has to write economic journal articles to get promoted, so you go through the hoops and do them. However, I think the more important job is to talk to the common man.

    R&L: Elaborate on the importance of religion and the maintenance of Western civilization and in the free market in general.

    George Gilder: Religion is primary. Unless a culture is aspiring toward the good, the true, and the beautiful, wants the good and the true, and really worships God, it readily worships Satan. If we turn away from God, our culture becomes dominated by “Real Crime Stories” and rap music and other spew. This is the most fundamental point. When the culture becomes corrupt, then the businesses that serve the culture also become corrupt.

    R&L: You suggest that these executives face creative tensions involving their faith and their business practices. What was considered to be the most significant tension in terms of its potential to cause a businessperson to compromise his or her faith?

    Laura Nash: The one they felt most strongly was the obligation to bear witness. They defined witnessing as a literal professing of their faith—explicitly attributing responsibility for every decision to Jesus and implying that anyone who disagreed was wrong. Their common sense would caution them that these explicit statements were probably going to be counter-productive and they searched for other witnessing strategies. But that was a great tension for them. Some tried to resolve this tension by concluding that witnessing does not have to be in explicitly talking about Jesus, but it can also be in living out faith in Jesus. Then if somebody asks them who they are and where they come from, they use that occasion as the opportunity to talk about their faith. Another huge tension they felt was the business emphasis on short-term thinking. A religious worldview stretches to infinity. They felt that to be pressured so sharply within an economic system for quarterly results was really working against the cosmic harmony that they were seeking in their business lives.

    R&L: What do you like most about America? Are you optimistic about its future?

    Amity Shlaes: Resilience is our abiding characteristic. We don’t get mired and we change a lot. We’re proud in a good way. You can think of market recovery in terms of rock climbing. Equities people always say of the stock market “the market climbs a wall of worry.” But you can also say that “the market wants to go up, and the only question is, what is stopping it”? The economy wants to recover now. It’s our job now to figure out what is stopping it and reduce the scale of that obstacle. So we don’t know what America will be like. We don’t know what kind of inventions will come. Also, the forgiving quality of the United States is crucial. You can make an error and start over and that is represented in our bankruptcy law. In the olden days when people went into debt on the East Coast, they’d head west. Did they drop the keys in the mailbox of the bank? They did the equivalent. Was it right? Not particularly but it also reflected energy. There’s always a trade-off between risk-taking and prudence, and honoring the law and the contract. Anyhow, this idea that people are throwing keys into the mailbox or dropping them off at the bank and leaving, this idea that that will mean the ruin of the United States is, perhaps, exaggerated. It’s happened before and we’ve still had prosperity. The prosperity can only happen if property rights over the longer term do get honored.

    Most Read