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Last month I returned from my fourth straight year at Acton University. This is a four-day conference in Grand Rapids, MI put on by the Acton Institute that seeks to integrate markets and morality in order to create a virtuous and flourishing society. It’s called a “university” because you sign up for classes and attend about four a day (two in the morning, two in the afternoon) for three days, and each evening consists of a nice dinner and a plenary speaker with a time of hospitality (drinks and conversation) afterwards. To get a sense of what it’s like, you can view the 2017 schedule here.

The Value of Acton University

This conference is simply outstanding, for multiple reasons. First, the Acton Institute’s mission and guiding vision is robust and inspiring: “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” The Institute, of course, is named after Lord Acton (1834-1902), an English historian and political theorist whose writings span many volumes. The Institute is explicitly Christian (more specifically, Catholic) in its faith worldview, and it is this Judeo-Christian foundation which gives rise to the richness it brings to the conversation of political governance and economics. This means they take the study and implications of a sound anthropology seriously: the dignity of the human person, the individuality and sociality of persons, our freedom and fallen nature, and the need for social institutions. Yet Acton also takes the study of economics and political governance seriously as well, believing in the rule of the law, limited government in a subsidiary role, the creation of wealth as the means of escaping poverty, economic value, liberty, and the stewardship of culture.

Second, AU is interdisciplinary. The classes you take aren’t simply traditional courses in price theory or Pauline theology. Instead, they include “Property Rights in the Old Testament,” “Intersectionality and Social Justice,” “Free-Market Environmentalism,” and so much more (see the schedule above for more examples). These are topics you won’t find in traditional liberal arts universities or divinity schools, but they are critical nonetheless for they seek to apply a Christian worldview to areas of practical life that are often overlooked. Additionally, they often provide new perspectives on old issues, e.g., perhaps we don’t need onerous and intrusive government regulations (or the Paris Agreement) to have environmental stewardship and accountability.

Third, the conference brings in the best of the best scholars and teachers who are experts in their fields. This includes Frank Beckwith, J. Budziszewski, Peter Kreeft, Greg Forster, Samuel Gregg, Anne Bradley, Jay Richards, and more. Additionally, the plenary speakers are also world-renown: Gregory Thornbury, Ken Elzinga, Russell Moore, Janice Rogers Brown, Joel Salatin, Ross Douthat, Andy Crouch, etc. The chances that you’ll attend Baylor University and sit in on a class with Dr. Beckwith is unlikely; but you can come to Acton University and learn from him without much trouble at all. AU brings the knowledge of the experts to the common person, and this is a treasure. Fourth, AU gives you an opportunity to network with scholars and colleagues, meeting new people, exchange business cards, put faces to names, and collaborate on future projects. This is explicitly what the hospitality time every evening is about, and AU afford two hours (plus drinks on the house) after dinner for these times of fellowship.

Fifth and finally, AU is ecumenical, both in its spirit and in reality. Although a Catholic institution, Acton welcomes Christians of all types, and even admits Muslims, Buddhists, and unbelievers. Men and women are welcome (although there are noticeably more men than women), and all races and ethnicities are present. This year, Acton University hosted 1,100 people from 81 countries—and Rev. Sirico said that they easily could have had twice that number attend! This is remarkable given the small size of the Institute, and the relative newness of the University conference (13 years). Yet the Institute and AU draws a huge diversity of people worldwide because its mission, Christian foundation, and vision for a free people and flourishing cultures is contagious. It especially appeals to people who come from corrupt, poor, and socially broken countries that desperately need both the rule of law, sound economics, and the revitalization of a free and virtuous citizenry. Notably, AU achieves such breathtaking and beautiful diversity not by focusing on “diversity and inclusion” as some sort of institutional value or end goal, but by teaching truth and welcoming all. Diversity then becomes a natural by-productive of antecedent principles and institutional characteristics marked by a healthy mission and genuine care for all peoples.

2018 Courses

I’m going to briefly run through the twelve courses I took in the hopes of wetting your appetite and piquing your interest in attending.

Property in Common Law: Liberty and Virtue Together (Adam MacLeod)

Adam MacLeod (professor of law at Faulkner University), tackled the common view that private property is a bundle of rights, the heart of which is the right to exclude—which hurts the common good (used to called property rights into question). Instead, property is essentially dominion, which is a way of being fully human. Relying upon British common law and Blackstone’s conviction that property is constrained by divine law, natural law, and morality, we can reach the conclusion that property is a natural right and part of our divine calling that requires practical reason (i.e., wisdom) in its use and stewardship. For more on MacLeod’s take, see his book Property and Practical Reason.

Theories of Race (Ismael Hernandez)

Acton University has not typically held sessions on racial or ethnic issues, so when I saw this was offered I jumped on it. Hernandez is the president of the Freedom & Virtue Institute, and he presented the two dominant approaches one can take to race in America today. The first is the natural law/integrationist/personalist approach that believes the essence of a person is as an individual with integral, personal identity. It rejects the notion of “race” as a biological category and even though it accepts race as a social construct, this is not intrinsic to the person. This approach is universal in its application (i.e., it doesn’t depend upon power differentials, social classes, or ethnic origins to assign guilt/innocence or social roles), and most importantly, it embraces the ethic and vision of the American founding generation in their quest to eradicate racial injustices. The second approach is the dialectical/separationist/collectivist method that takes the collective group as its point of departure. Drawing from the works of John Hope Franklin, Derrick Bell, and Malcom X, this is an essentially Marxist view whose goal is the division of society into oppressors and oppressed in order to bring about social transformation—namely, the overthrow of Western jurisprudence, political constitutionalism, and philosophical norms of personalism. Hernandez adopts the first approach (as I do), and correctly points to a false and toxic anthropology as the Achilles heels of the second view. This lecture was critical and electrifying. I immediately bought Hernandez’s book, Not Tragically Colored: Freedom, Personhood, and the Renewal of Black America, which goes into much more detail. I will review it here when I’m done with it.

John Locke’s Philosophy of Liberalism (Greg Forster)

In this lecture, Forster sought to give a charitable interpretation of Locke’s ideas and his influence. In many ways, Locke represented the turning point between the medieval and modern worlds, and it was this context—the religious and sectarian conflict of the English Civil War—that shaped his political philosophy. Locke believed that religion in public life inevitably creates conflict because it makes truth claims on the basis of tradition or authority, two sources that cannot easily be adjudicated between different communities. Although Locke believed that politics requires a moral basis to be effective and that the religious question should be at the center of the human search for truth, he sought a new source for discovering these truths. This is why Locke elevates reason and our rational faculties to a high level in moral and political discourse, for God has revealed himself both through nature and scripture. The state is then founded on the basis of a minimal moral code that can be discerned from nature. This is the basis of modern natural law political philosophy.

In the Q&A I asked Forster about Locke’s anthropology, specifically the common claim that Locke bases private property rights in the right of self-ownership. If we own ourselves and mix our labor with the earth, then the product of that labor becomes ours, and this is just what private property is. However, the Christian critique is that we don’t own ourselves, but that God owns us by creation (and redemption) and we are simple stewards. This argument is often used to undermine claims to property and the right to decide how to use it. Forster replied that this argument misunderstands Locke: when Locke says that “yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself” (Two Treatises of Government, II.V.§27), what Locke means by “person” is “body.” What he believed is that God owns us but that he has given us our bodies that we now own and for which we are accountable to God; and thus, the work we do with our bodies rightly becomes our property. This doesn’t annul stewardship or accountability before God, but neither does it invalidate property rights.

What Do Catholics and Protestants Have in Common? (Peter Kreeft)

Peter Kreeft is getting up in years, but his mind is as sharp as ever. This was a fascinating talk, and somewhat a unique topic for Acton, since it had more to do with ecumenism than religion and society. Even so, it was very good, for Acton draws people of various Christian traditions. Kreeft gave thirty things that Catholics and Protestants have in common; I won’t run through all 30, but here are a few. Under natural commonalities, we share existence, life, human nature, reason, and conscience. We have God in common, faith, hope, and charity. We share the same scriptures (almost), the same institutional church, Christ as our Savior and God as our Father. We are both called to follow the cultural mandate, we have common sins and a common enemy. Finally, we share the Way, the mind of Christ, and the same truth and love. Needless to say, this was an encouraging talk. I find great camaraderie with my Catholic brothers and sisters, more than I did in my younger years, and I’m excited for the work they are doing through Acton and similar institutes.

Crisis of Responsibility (David L. Bahnsen)

I’ve already written a long review of Bahnsen’s book, which I loved. Although I had a pretty good idea of what he was going to say, I wanted to hear Bahnsen in person—and he didn’t disappoint. All I will say is that this dude is a financial wiz. Holy. Crap. He spent about 15 minutes at the beginning just monologuing on the 2008 financial crisis, and I had a hard time keeping up with him and I’m no slouch on economics. Anyway, his talk was excellent. He covered the basics of his book, reiterating that the standard narratives from both the Left and Right are incomplete. It wasn’t some external bogeyman that caused the financial collapse; it was us, each one of us and collectively. This reveals the moral rot in the heart of the American people. Nothing short of a renaissance in public virtue is needed to combat the political, economic, and cultural crises we face. Interested? You should be. Go buy his book.

Alexis de Tocqueville: The Man and His Times (John Wilsey)

De Tocqueville is probably one of the most important commentators on America society over the course of our national history. His Democracy in America (1835, 1840) is an iconic literary piece by a Frenchman who admired Americans as an “exceptional” people (Tocqueville was the first person to use this term). Wilsey covered Tocqueville’s life, why he came to America, what kind of America he found, and how his book was received—both then and today. Tocqueville was born in 1805 right after the French Revolution, and was well educated. In 1831 he convinced the new French monarch to let him travel to America to study its prisons, but this was just a front for his political work. He came at an incendiary time: the Indian Removal Act, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Nullification Controversy, the problem of slavery, and the Second Great Awakening. Tocqueville found that religious culture permeated all of the America, but what he was most impressed about was our voluntary associations. For much more, read Democracy in America.

Panel: Christian Foundations of a Free Economy

This was a panel between Alejandro Chafuen, Samuel Gregg, and Charlie Self. I confess that I didn’t pay much attention because much of it was familiar and I was working on a survey. Chafuen spoke on his book Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics, Gregg spoke from a Catholic, free-market position, and Self talked about Protestant contributions.

Vested Private Rights: Foundation of American Constitutionalism (Adam MacLeod)

This was the second lecture with MacLeod, and it was worth it (again). MacLeod began with a discussion of the three kinds of pre-political rights: (1) Natural Rights (like conscience, life); (2) Common Law/Customary Rights (e.g., trial by jury, right to bear arms); and (3) Vested Private Rights. This talk focused on the third kind, an important form of rights that the great American jurists all held to be the cornerstone of American constitutionalism, but which we have forgotten today. Vested private rights are a right in that they convey a conclusive reason to either act or not act (i.e., they impose a legal obligation), and they are vested in that government power to limit or take away these rights is restricted. In other words, these rights must be resistant to alteration after the fact. One example of a vested right would be property rights: the law cannot retroactively deprive a person of their rightful property, if say, for example, another person had previously trespassed on another’s property and constructed a building upon it. That construction violates the vested private property right of the owner and so the law must recognize this and reprimand the trespasser. The importance of vested rights was clear in early judicial decisions, but the progressive revolution in the early 20th century, and especially the advent of the legal realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (which said rights and duties were fictions), severely weakened the idea and utility of vested rights. Legal realism (or legal positivism) has reigned supreme in American legal studies and practice over the past century, but thankfully a new movement—called the New Essentialists—has renewed the theory and purpose of vested rights for contemporary jurisprudence. If you’re interested in more, see MacLeod’s article, “Of Brutal Murder and Transcendental Sovereignty: The Meaning of Vested Private Rights,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 41, 1 (2017): 253-307.

Natural Law, Natural Theology, and the Protestant Critique: Are We Really That Far Apart? (Francis J. Beckwith)

Frank Beckwith is one of my favorite thinkers and writers; I’ve learned a great deal from him, so I was intrigued to see what he would say on this topic. Beckwith broke his talk down into these questions: what is the natural law, and what are Protestant critiques of it?; and what is natural theology, and what are Protestant perspectives on it? Natural law is the belief that (a) there are some universal and immutable truths, that (b) humans have the capacity to know these truths, and (c) that it is human nature by which these truths are known. Natural law looks at how human beings and their powers are ordered, and what we can know through our rational capacities; it form the basis of legitimate positive law, and it participate in eternal law (the blueprint of law in God’s mind; from Aquinas). While natural law is important it cannot direct humans to their final end (God), which is why we need divine law. There are two major Protestant critiques. First, there’s the frustrated pragmatist who is critical of natural law because it has failed to bring victory for social conservatism. In other words, appealing to natural law in public policy debates just doesn’t work. Beckwith’s response was that natural law is working, but that never assured “victory.” Second, there’s the so-called “solo scripturist” who thinks that natural law is unstable for delivering claims of divine revelation. In particular, advocates of natural law overlook the pernicious influence of the noetic effects of sin (corruption of the mind). Beckwith’s response was that (a) natural law is part of God’s eternal law, which includes both natural and divine components, (b) the Bible teaches it, and (c) our minds are not so corrupted as to be blind to general revelation of God (Rom. 1). At the end, Beckwith touched briefly on natural theology (positive arguments for God’s existence from nature), but I won’t go into the details. I didn’t really disagree with Beckwith at all; I suppose the “Protestant” critique is not universal, for I run in Protestant evangelical circles that are in lock-step with Catholics on their understanding and use of natural law and natural theology.

Income and Inequality (Stephen Barrows)

What more can be said about income and inequality? This topic has been beaten to death over the past couple decades, but Stephen Barrows brings fresh insights to a stultified conversation. Barrows mainly focused on the recent work of Thomas Piketty and Anthony Atkinson, the former of whom famously argued in Capital in the Twenty-First Century that r (rate of return on capital) > g (growth of economy). This simply means that the owners of capital will see their returns rise while non-capitalists won’t. However, Barrows points out that there are many complexities in determining genuine economic inequality that are often overlooked, such as: household size (changes in size over time), the nature of the household (marriage vs. cohabitation), pre-tax and pre-transfer data, lifetime earnings vs. cohort samples, and income vs. consumption inequality (for most purposes, consumption is a better indicator of economic equality or inequality). These and many other problems have been pointed out in the professional literature by the likes of Gregory Clark (on social mobility) and Greg Mankiw (Harvard economist), who challenge not only Piketty’s economics, but also his policy prescriptions of government redistributive measures. In the end, what sounds like sophisticated economics in the name or justice or fairness is really just envy and class strife in disguise.

Private Property and the Early Church (Stephen Presley)

I have already been to a number of ActonU courses on private property in the Old and New Testaments, so I thought attending one on the early church would be good. Dr. Presley began with the common error people make of imposing their assumptions about poverty and wealth upon the text of the early church fathers (e.g., David Bentley Hart). This often (and predictably) leads to the conclusion that wealth was considered intrinsically evil in the NT or patristic era. Presley combatted this simplistic view by looking at five different authors on wealth in the early church: (1) The NT church in Acts 4:32-35; 5:1-6; (2) Athenagoras of Athens (133-190 AD); (3) Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD); (4) Cyprian of Carthage (200-258 AD); Justin Martyr (100-165 AD). The basic upshot is that the early church held to a number of things: wealth is not intrinsically evil, property and use of that property (e.g., through commerce) was necessary for wealth, property and wealth should be used for the benefit of others, the necessity of embracing the good of material things in order to oppose Gnostic thought, and that wealth was a means to cultivate virtue or vice. Often times Christians will appeal to the early church in an attempt to get closer to what the NT “really” teaches because (supposedly) those who were closer to the first century understood Jesus’ teachings and the practices of the early churches together. I think this approach to the patristic era is flawed for numerous reasons, but in this case what we find is that the early church almost certainly struck the balance right. Most Christians throughout the centuries have found this balance in material possessions: they are good gifts from God, but they must be stewarded toward good ends.

What Happiness Is and Isn’t: Insight from Thomas Aquinas (J. Budziszewski)

Dr. Budziszewski is one of the premier moral philosophers of our age, well-known for his works on natural law. In this talk, he did a superb job of exploring what Thomas Aquinas believed about happiness and ultimate purpose. Most empirical studies on happiness today (e.g., Arthur C. Brooks) determine happiness by asking people if they are happy or not and what makes them happy. This is a flawed approach if (a) people aren’t really happy but think they are, or (b) are confused about what makes them happy. Does the modern person really understand what happiness is? Probably not. In the Summa (first part of the second part, questions 3-5) Aquinas explores what happiness is, what’s required for happiness, and how to attain happiness. Although these questions and their answers aren’t that long, they are jammed with amazing insights. Aquinas’s conclusion is that happiness is an activity—an activity that brings us closer to the highest Good, which is God. This is not merely an intellectual knowledge of God, but a personal and experiential knowledge of him, for we were made for the vision of God in his being.

Evening Plenary Speakers

One of the best parts of Acton is that every night there is a three-course meal, a plenary speaker, and time of hospitality afterwards. If you’ve been to other academic conferences you know you’re lucky if you get one evening meal and a plenary talk. Dinners are where friendships are forged and great conversations forged. This year there were four speakers: the first night María Corina Machado, an elected member of the National Assembly in Venezuela spoke on the crisis there; the second night featured Justice Janice Rogers Brown who is retired from the U.S. Court of Appeals; the third night we had the privilege of hearing from economist Ken Elzinga, who teaches at the University of Virginia; and the final night featured Acton co-founder and CEO Rev. Robert A. Sirico (he speaks every year). This is a remarkable opportunity to hear people whom you normally wouldn’t get a chance to listen to, and from various perspectives: a freedom fighter in a socialist country, a former judge, an economist, and a Catholic priest. Machado’s talk was especially poignant because she skyped in from Venezuela since the government had revoked her passport and was monitoring her. The work that Acton does to fight for a free and virtuous society is not just a theory for some people—it is a real life and death struggle that most of us take for granted.

This was my Acton University experience this year, and it was the best yet. Consider attending Acton next year. And consider taking up the mantle of fighting for a free society and virtuous citizenry in the little ways you can.