The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) co-sponsored the Acton Institute’s conference called “Reclaiming the West: Public Spirit and Public Virtue” on December 6 in Washington, D.C.
The Acton Institute is a conservative think tank whose mission is: “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”
The purpose of the “Reclaiming the West” conference it organized was to “examine the ways in which the Western world might see a revival of public spirit through public virtue and remain a civilization marked by order and public tranquility that only this spirit and virtue can provide.”
This conference on “Public Spirit and Public Virtue” set out to address the main issue, which is that:
“…in an increasingly globalized and pluralized world it becomes progressively more difficult to define the public virtues that have delineated the West, and as a result, harder to safe-guard the freedoms – economic, political, and religious – which are the fruits of those virtues.”
Throughout the first panel, discussants were moderated by the Acton Institute’s Rev. Robert A. Sirico. The featured speakers included Bryan McGraw from Wheaton College who spoke on “Social, Political, and Economic Liberties: Oriented Toward Our Flourishing.” After that, Wilfred McClay from the University of Oklahoma spoke on “Preconditions for Active Citizenship.”
Finally, Richard Turnbull from the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics from Oxford, UK, remarked on “the Abandonment and Recovery of Economic Liberty as a Public Virtue by the Christian Church.” Overall, this panel focused on broader socio-economic and political issues throughout history in both America and Europe, drawing an interesting question and answer session concerning shared conservative social values among Christians, Jews, and Muslims as opposed to liberal secular humanists.
Then during the second panel at the “Reclaiming the West” conference, chaired by the Acton Institute’s Samuel J. Gregg, John Wilsey from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary spoke on “The Significance of Tocqueville’s Doctrine of Self-Interest Rightly Understood.” Then, Aleksander Stepkowski from the University of Warsaw and Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture talked about “Searching for the Virtue Lost.” Finally, Hans-Martien ten Napel from Leiden University remarked on “Constitutionalism, Democracy and Religious Freedom: To Be Fully Human.” Overall, this panel focused on broader philosophical and theological issues addressed throughout history and concluded their recommendations in consensus, setting the stage for the plenary speech.
The conclusive, keynote address at the “Reclaiming the West” conference asked: “Can Public Virtue Be Revived?” Professor Gerald McDermott from the Beeson Divinity School, author of The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land spoke on this big question from a deep historical and theological perspective. The professor suggested that:
“…we have considerable consensus on what ought to happen if our republic is to survive without developing into Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority…but how do we get there? or is this conference merely an academic exercise shuffling the lounge chairs on the deck of the Titanic? To be provocative, let me put it like this: our republic is failing because of a failure of masculinity – not macho-ism or chauvinism but the classical and biblical conception of man as a servant leader.”
McDermott talked about how Christian churches have driven men away, helping to perpetuate a culture of feeling that undermines classical notions of manhood, as a result public virtues have diminished to the degree that masculinity has been attacked and ridiculed. Furthermore, emphasizing the fundamental role of the family in society, the professor citied the negative role of the sexual revolution on society therefore leading to the ongoing culture wars in America.
The professor lamented on how the more recent liberal political influence on society through entertainment and the broader culture has had an impact even on the church. However, McDermott offered hope calling for prayers of repentance and awakening as America’s historical Great Awakenings written about by the theologian Jonathan Edwards’ History of the Work of Redemption.
On this broader notion, the professor also cited first U.S. President George Washington’s Farewell Address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity… religion and morality are indispensable supports… and let us caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
On “Public Spirit and Public Virtue,” the professor offered a few critical steps on the road to revival:
“…reject the part of the sexual revolution that evangelicals and large numbers of Catholics have accepted – the notion that sex need have nothing intrinsically to do with procreation, and therefore artificial means of birth control are perfectly acceptable. We must also catechize out children and adults, we must find other ways to provider higher education for our young, willing to challenge the majority culture in an intellectually sophisticated way and foremost we must pray, in concerts of prayer in which churches across the land agree to pray for national revival.”
Overall, the grand mission of “Reclaiming the West” as this conference is titled, is indeed an incredibly important one that theologians and academics discussed in a broader philosophical context. The conclusion of this conference as a whole is that Judeo-Christian civilization known as “the West” is rooted in upholding the role of the Christian church in public spirit and public virtue.
Therefore, revival to those roots is absolutely needed in order for the West to continue to flourish, otherwise we will not. However, there is hope for the Christian Church as God has throughout history demonstrated the best of His will for His people.