This summer, I posted a link to the Acton Institute‘s Calihan Fellowship on the ESN Facebook Page without really thinking much besides, “Oh, here’s some grant money for someone out there.” I never expected that it would lead to the most vigorous conversation to date on our Facebook Page, ranging from disagreements about the Acton Institute in particular to broader issues of politics, academia, and theology. This certainly caught my attention, since ESN, in general, doesn’t host all that many internal controversies. Jordan J. Ballor, Research Fellow with the Acton Institute and Executive Editor of their Journal of Markets & Morality, also noticed the online conversation, and, with Tom Grosh’s help, he and I were able to connect and set up this Q&A with him about the Acton Institute.
Free subscription: Additionally, Jordan has generously offered a 2-year complimentary digital subscription to the Journal of Markets & Morality for student members of ESN and student readers of the ESN blog. To take advantage of this offer, email Assistant Editor Dylan Pahman to set up your online account, which also includes access to the two most recent issues.
Thank you to Jordan for his time and willingness to correspond.
Mike Hickerson: How did you come to be involved with the Acton Institute?
Jordan Ballor: I was introduced to Acton through one of the programs for future religious leaders during my time as a student at Calvin Theological Seminary. I attended a “Toward a Free & Virtuous Society” conference in Techny, Illinois, in 2002. These “TFAVS,” as they are called in the office, are intensive weekends of 15-20 seminarians and graduate students, introducing them to the relationship between economics and faith. Upon my return to Grand Rapids, I realized that this was precisely the sort of place that I wanted to work, so I applied for an internship at Acton. It was a good fit for me, in part because I was focusing on an academic career in theology rather than a pastoral calling, so I was looking for a place that I could do write and do research. After some time as an intern, I took on a regular part-time position as I continued graduate study, and eventually took a full-time position last June (2010) as research fellow and executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.
MH: I didn’t know much about the Acton Institute before this year, and I find its theological mix interesting. For example, the Institute was named for the English Catholic historian/politician Lord Acton and was founded by Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Kris Alan Mauren, both of whom are also Catholic, yet one of its current projects is a translation of Reformed politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper‘s Common Grace. What brings together the people of the Acton Institute? How do you negotiate theological differences that may arise?
JB: We embody what Timothy George and others have called an “ecumenism of the trenches.” In many ways the Acton Institute really brings together a diverse mix of faith traditions and views about society, politics, and the economy. In general we are committed to the thesis that a free society is only possible in the context of a virtuous citizenry, but the ways in which we ground our articulations of these concepts can differ widely. This variety is perhaps most apparent than at our annual Acton University event, which last year brought over 600 people (ranging from students, to teachers, to businesspeople, to ministry practitioners) from 78 countries together for four days in Grand Rapids. As a Reformed theologian, I find inspiration in the sources emanating from the Protestant Reformation (particularly, but certainly not exclusively, the Reformed branches). But we have, as you’ve noted, significant representation from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as other Protestant traditions. To a limited extent we also have some intriguing engagement with non-Christian traditions.
The great thing about working at a think tank is that we can have reasoned and respectful discussions, even arguments, about the relationship between religion in general (and the Christian religion in particular) and different visions of the free society. In my mind these discussions are a strength rather than an impediment to critical thinking about economic and moral concerns. From the beginning the Acton Institute has had an important emphasis on Protestant traditions, but very recently we’ve really added some significant resources to our engagement of evangelicals in particular. Our work on the NIV Stewardship Study Bible is a good example of this long-term commitment, and the translation project of Kuyper’s Common Grace volumes are an important piece of that larger work.
MH: How would you compare the Journal of Markets & Morality to other journals of economics? What have been some highlights of your time as editor?
JB: One of the unique things about the journal is that we are truly interdisciplinary. In my experience it is very difficult to find journals that authentically aim at covering academic subjects from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, and even more difficult to find ones that actually are able to execute that intention effectively. So, for instance, the Journal of Markets & Morality is not simply an “economics” journal, but engages economic, political, historical, theological, and philosophical topics from scholars working out of their own disciplines. We aren’t content to leave these issues isolated from the critical perspectives of other methodologies and disciplines. While we do have a distinct editorial vision and mission, we are also committed to scholarship at the highest levels and are uncompromising on this. This commitment means that we aren’t willing to simply publish articles that reflect the ideological vision of the Acton Institute (whatever one might think that to be), but encourage critical voices from a variety of economic, political, and theological perspectives. One piece of evidence that we’ve been successful in realizing this ambitious vision is the fact that our journal is indexed in the leading databases of theology (ATLA Religion) and economics (EconLit), respectively.
One of the things I’m proudest of, and another thing that separates the Journal of Markets & Morality from some other journals, is the extent to which we’ve been able to bring some significant primary sources from the past back into circulation. The process of finding appropriate works, getting them translated, edited, and introduced is one of the most challenging and demanding aspects of publishing the journal. But this work is one of the lasting scholarly legacies of the journal, which is sometimes the first place that someone could read many of these significant (but often overlooked) figures in English. With works from figures like Althusius, Cajetan, Lessius, Mariana, Musculus, and Zanchi, these features represent the cutting-edge of historical scholarship. We’ve published pieces as diverse as what’s been called the first response to the Weber thesis by an Orthodox theologian (Sergey Bulgakov’s “The National Economy and the Religious Personality (1909),” in issue 11.1), as well as treatises on economic topics from Spanish Scholastics (such as Luis de Molina’s “Treatise on Money,” in issue 8.1), and the Reformed application of Scripture to the problem of poverty (as in Herman Bavinck’s “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today (1891),” in issue 13.2). Our investment in special features (like translations, controversies, and symposia), in addition to the high standards for our article and review sections, is one of the most exciting parts of working on this journal.
I’m currently in the process of putting together a special issue for this Fall (14.2) focused on “Modern Christian Social Thought.” I’m using the theme as a point of departure to examine the last century and a half or so of various Christian responses to social questions. In particular we’re noting that this year is the 120th anniversary of the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum as well as the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress in Amsterdam. My hope is that this issue will renew attention to how the Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions of social thought have developed in the meantime, and what this might mean for Christian social thought in the future.
MH: How do you see the relationship between an organization like the Acton Institute and the academy? What about between the Acton Institute and the church?
JB: As an independent research and educational organization, the Acton Institute occupies a unique position with respect to both the academy and the church. We aren’t affiliated formally with any church body or denomination, or any school, university, or seminary. We do partner with various institutions on particular projects, but we remain institutionally independent. As a 501(c)(3), we also occupy a particular place in the broader context of civil society.
In many ways our position relative to other institutions, like churches and schools, allows us to provide a complementary (and sometimes critical service) to these other institutions. So with respect to the academy, for instance, we provide access to scholarship, in the form of resources like the Journal of Markets & Morality, other published works, as well as lectures, conferences, and scholarship programs. Through these venues we help to shape and frame the academic conversation about the relationship between theology and economics. But we don’t grant degrees or offer formal coursework, and so in that way we don’t supplant or usurp the important role that institutions of higher education play in our culture. Likewise we aren’t a ministry of any institutional church, but we do offer resources that can help denominational officials, ministers, elders, deacons, teachers, and laypersons work out the implications of their faith in the contexts of their individual callings.
Since we aren’t a lobbying group, much of what we do in the public square in the context of debates about political questions and economic policy is to attempt to articulate some of the principles that are relevant and some of their broad implications as to how they should inform Christian discourse and deliberation on particular policies. So we do a range of things at the Acton Institute, from the academic and scholarly (like the Journal of Markets & Morality), to the intellectual and occasional (like our weekly commentaries, blog, and social media).
MH: Earlier this year, you had an online disagreement with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice regarding the CPJ’S Call for Intergenerational Justice, which ultimately led to you and Gideon sharing the stage for a public discussion of the issues (a video of the event is here). What have been the results of that conversation? More generally, how do you respond to Christians who may disagree strongly with you on economic or political matters?
JB: It’s been difficult to gauge the larger results of the conversation in the sense that it has been just one among many discussions focusing on the questions of Christian responses to the national debt crisis. To the extent that the Call injected the real issue of intergenerational consequences into the larger conversation, I think it has to be judged to be praiseworthy and a success. In that sense I’m thankful for CPJ and Evangelicals for Social Action for raising these often-overlooked aspects of this issue. My disagreements with Gideon have to do largely with the prudential value of issuing such a call and the specifics (or lack thereof) in the document itself. Those concerns have been well-documented in various other places, and can be located for those who are more curious about them.
But as you note this discussion can be seen as an example of public disagreements between Christians on particular political matters. Broadly speaking, my approach to disagreements on many of these matters is to appeal to some important distinctions. It is one thing for an individual theologian to advocate for something; it is quite another for a denominational agency or institutional church itself to engage in direct political advocacy. This in many ways relates to your question about the role of the Acton Institute as related to the church. When a group like Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, the Acton Institute, or the Center for Public Justice comes out with a statement or says something about a public policy issue, they are in fact doing what they are supposed to be doing: representing a particular Christian response in the public square. It’s quite different, however, for a church, either at the local, denominational, or ecumenical level, to get into the specifics of public policy. Where think tanks, advocacy, and research groups work generally in the areas of prudential judgments, pronouncements from the institutional church and its representatives carry the implicit claim to principled authority (I examine these questions in greater detail in the context of the ecumenical movement in my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness).
What I want Christians to do in the midst of passionate disagreement about economic or political matters is to do our best to avoid anathematizing or demonizing those who are on the other side. On the vast majority of social questions it is not clear to me that there is some single, univocal Christian response. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t better and worse positions, positions for which I will in fact argue forcefully both in public and in private. But this distinction between principle and prudence does mean that we should locate those prudential judgments at a categorical level below questions of confessional adherence, doctrinal orthodoxy, or Christian faithfulness as such. In my view it is a tragic conflation of worldly ideology and the Christian faith to be unwilling to worship with or associate with other Christians (even those from the same denomination) who disagree with you over some political or economic question, and this is a conflation we see happen with Christians with political commitments on both sides of the aisle. I know this temptation to politicize the Gospel in this sense is a pervasive and strikingly powerful temptation because it’s one that I struggle with, and so I want to hold myself and to have others hold me to this standard as well.