The first exhibit upon entering the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum is a jarring display of the 1970’s with all its horrors: Watergate, disco, gas lines, polyester, ERA, staggering inflation evolving into stagflation, and the collapse of South Vietnam.
Across 3 years, Ford’s low key ordinariness, after the drama of Nixon, was calming. Inflation did fall, though probably not thanks to the lapel buttons that the White House distributed shouting “WIN,” or “Whip Inflation Now.” As a boy I recall getting one and probably still have it. A video at the museum shows Ford telling Congress: “A government big enough to give you what you want is a government big enough to take away what you have.”
High inflation, this time accompanied by high interest rates, gushed back with a vengeance during the Carter Administration. Against a backdrop of global Soviet strategic advances, reinforced by Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech and call for lower expectations, America’s best days seemed behind. Reagan’s sunny optimism, confidence in free markets, budget and tax cutting, joined by bold initiatives against the Soviet Empire, helped restore morning in America.
The rebirth of American confidence and prosperity was fueled by new intellectual ammunition for democracy and free markets. Chief among them was Catholic philsopher Michael Novak’s 1982 Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Novak provided theological and moral arguments for limited government and free enterprise. He would later win the Templeton Prize for his religious intellectual achievements. I once attended a dinner where then former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hailed Novak for helping win the Cold War with his robust defense of Western political and economic virtues. Novak helped found the Institute on Religion and Democracy in 1981.
So it was a great pleasure to hear Novak speak this morning at Acton University, an annual conference in Grand Rapids hosted by the wonderful Acton Institute, one of the foremost thinktanks linking faith and virtue with free markets. Novak spoke of American exceptionalism, offering a rigorous defense against some on the Left who have denounced it in recent years. “It fell to Americans to articulate principles that speak to the entire human race,” he said of America’s founding. The genesis of American liberty was in Christian and Jewish teaching, not atheism, as the ACLU will claim, Novak smilingly recounted. But the beneficiaries of American democracy and freedom include atheists and people of all faiths.
America’s founders wisely built a republic for sinners not saints, Novak emphasized. Unlike other revolutions, the American experiment accepted the biblical understanding of fallen but redeemable humanity. It also learned from the Bible of God’s gift of liberty to His creation. In recent years, partly learning from America, the world has experienced the “greatest movement out of poverty in human history,”” as countries like India and China have allowed free markets.
But threats to ordered liberty always persist, Novak warned. He cited Obamacare’s attempt to “define” religion as the “greatest abuse” of liberty from the current administration. Recalling the famous Doric columned backdrop for Obama during the 2008 campain, Novak joked: “He thought he was Caesar but now thinks he is God.”
Novak also referenced debates over marriage and gender. “We can’t distort what is meant by man and woman,” he warned, since man and woman together reflect the divine image. “It distorts the path to God.”
America’s current struggles do not seem as overtly dramatic as the tumultuous 1970’s, as reflected in the Ford Museum. But today’s cultural and economic battles are potentially no less defining for our nation.
Enjoyably at Thursday’s Acton lunch, held in the Grand Rapids Convention Center across the Grand River from the Ford Museum, I met the Episcopal priest who pastors the church to which the Ford family had belonged during their decades in the city. He helped conduct last year’s funeral for Betty Ford. Discussing current Episcopal Church controversies with him formed the perfect book end to a great experience with Acton University.