Acton Speaks Louder Than Words

By John Zmirak Published on June 24, 2019

I never take vacations. Last year I used up all my personal days working on a freelance project devoted to protecting Americans’ gun rights. Its message, in a nutshell? “No Second Amendment, no First.”

Religion and Liberty

The closest thing I have to a getaway is a four day conference jam-packed with speakers and intense discussions about religion and liberty. I mean Acton University. It’s sponsored by the Acton Institute in beautiful downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.Acton Institute’s Robert Sirico on Fox News

If you don’t know the Acton Institute, you owe it to yourself. Founded by Rev. Robert Sirico, this group explores crucial questions.

  • What’s special about America, and why has it mostly succeeded?
  • What are the connections between religion, freedom, and progress fighting poverty?
  • How can we help the people in poor countries to gain the advantages our ancestors left us?
  • What must we do to preserve and improve that legacy? Then pass it on to our children?
  • Why are most political ideologies — from secular individualism to so-called “Christian” socialism — comically incomplete? Or outright public menaces?
  • What’s the root of a free, successful society? Is it a rationally calculating, selfish individual? Or instead, a human being seen as the dignified image of God, embedded in family and civil society?

Learning such things isn’t normal vacation fare. But it does count as “leisure,” in Josef Pieper’s sense of the word. That great Christian philosopher saw leisure as time and attention paid to things that might not be urgent, but are deeply important.

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The Worst of Both Worlds: Libertinism and Socialism

The questions above are the most important we face today. And lately they’re getting urgent. That’s because confusion about the real meaning of freedom has spurred any number of evils. Each one threatens the American experiment in virtuous, ordered liberty. As I wrote last year, “mainstream” opinion in America cherry-picks the worst elements of libertarianism and socialism.

Collectivism ensures that somebody else pays the price for our narcissistic choices. A welfare state will feed those kids we fathered and forgot. It will provide us rehab, when our hedonism hits bottom. When we can’t find a job it will take care of us. When we’re old it will give us a comfortable retirement. By promising all this, it renders economically superfluous the bonds of family, church and community.

A real vicious cycle connects the libertinism that advocates same sex marriage and drag queen story hour, and the socialism that offers big government as your own, impersonal “Jesus.” Smoke enough Jim Morrison, and you end up cuffed to a gurney looking up at Big Nurse Buttigieg.

America’s founders created sound institutions. The arose from truthful principles about human nature, from natural law to limited government, from strong property rights to an awareness of human fallenness.

Learn from the Best

So let me urge you to check out the vast, deep resources offered by the Acton Institute. The books, articles, online video and audio talks really do offer better answers. They show the deep connections that link a holistic, Christian view of man to the tangible benefits of a free economy and constitutional government.

And consider attending Acton U. It’s not expensive. Scholarships abound for students, and attendees from developing countries. Whom will you meet there? Scholars of economics and theology like Samuel Gregg. Pro-family activists who expose the lies of the Sexual Revolution like Jennifer Morse. Thinkers from the developing world who try to free its people from debilitating corruption and dead-end socialism, like Alejandro Chafuen.

But beyond the high-profile authors and activists, there are hundreds of smart, hard-working people from all corners of the world. They travel thousands of miles to learn more of the formula that made the West so successful — which the West is quickly forgetting.

Unlocking the Human Potential of the Poor

When we sat down to dinner at Acton U., I was next to a priest from Cameroon. He studies economic development at a university in Rome. His subject? Microfinance. That’s the technique of helping people in poor countries unlock their hidden capital, and cooperate for success.

As I spoke to him, at first I felt little tendrils of standard issue white guilt tugging at me. I worried about sounding condescending or patronizing. I remembered how many advantages I’d been born into, by popping out in America. In other words, I struggled against the temptation of Wokeness, which gets pumped into our heads these days. The Cultural Marxist project is to divide us by every possible means — racial, cultural, national, sexual and religious.

Then I remembered instead how much united me with this man. First of all, we shared the same religion. If I were to suffer a heart attack, I’d much rather have a Catholic priest like him sitting next to me than a fellow New Yorker or white Yalie. But the ties run deeper than that. We’re fellow men, with a common fallen nature. That trumps race, culture and ideology. That’s the foundation of cooperation and love.

Eventually, as I thought it through, what we shared got more specific. I remembered that my mother, who grew up malnourished in the Great Depression, was probably just as poor as his mother. Maybe poorer. But in one generation we were able to climb out of poverty. To achieve the very goal which this young priest has for his countrymen. And why were we able to do it? Because America’s founders created sound institutions. They arose from truthful principles about human nature, from natural law to limited government, from strong property rights to a realist suspicion of human fallenness.

Ultimately, the goal of the Acton Institute is to help spread such institutions around the world. So that one day the prosperous nephews and nieces of men like this priest can encounter people from other countries that are still poor, and fend off inappropriate guilt. That’s something to look forward to.


John Zmirak is a Senior Editor at The Stream, and co-author of several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration.

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