The Acton Institute’s Moral Capital

By Mene Ukueberuwa

Originally published on August 17, 2017 on

Economic liberty may be unfashionable, but the think tank hasn’t given up on it.

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American Christians may have more in common with Bernie Sanders supporters than you think. A slim majority of self-identifying Christians hold an unfavorable view of capitalism, according to a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey. Pope Francis, the world’s most prominent Christian, consistently critiques free-market economics. Today millions of well-meaning Christians worry about capitalism’s compatibility with Christian values. What’s a committed Christian capitalist to do?

For a better sense of how the Christian social vision can work alongside capitalism, look to the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. The Grand Rapids, Mich., think tank remains confident in the American economic system, researching ways to restrain its worst qualities while promoting its best.

This task hasn’t gotten easier with time. When the Acton Institute was founded in 1990, America was in a heyday of harmonious thinking about capitalism and Christian values. Catholic intellectuals such as Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel gained renown for defending economic freedom. Novak described the ideal Christian economic creed as “ordered liberty”: a system that acknowledges the risks of consumerism and competition and mitigates them with a moral culture rather than state regulation.

This cohort influenced Acton Institute co-founder and president Father Robert Sirico. His ordination as a Catholic priest in 1989 followed his conversion from the leftism that marked his early career as a Pentecostal minister and political activist. One year after the think tank opened, Pope John Paul II published his encyclical “Centesimus Annus.” The document rejected socialism and embraced private property. Father Sirico calls it a limited but explicit blessing of the union between faith and economic freedom.

This school of economic thought transformed politics in the coming years. Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1996, argued that limited government would help lift up poor Americans, a direct appeal to the needy largely missing from the middle-class orientations of the Reagan and Bush administrations. In the same year, Congress enacted welfare reform that brought millions of Americans back to the work, guided by the premise that there is more dignity in a job than an endless stream of checks.

Two decades later, the capitalist consensus has begun to crumble. Pope Francis often urges audiences to consider the harm free markets can wreak upon the disadvantaged. Even right-leaning commentators have joined the choir of capitalism’s critics. First Things editor R.R. Reno warned in 2013 that because “economic freedom creates social and therefore political problems,” conservatives should be willing to limit it.

Far from the Christian capitalist caricature—ignoring the Gospels while clamoring for top-bracket tax cuts out of sheer self-interest—the Acton Institute is engaging the skeptics on economic and philosophical grounds. Recent issues of its journal, Religion & Liberty, have included essays about income inequality and millennials’ growing fondness for socialism. In June Father Sirico took on a pair of critics in a debate about the best way to serve the poor at the annual Acton University conference.

Despite these efforts to dispel the mounting Christian critiques of capitalism, the organization has carefully avoided taking an openly polemical stance. “We’re not here to lobby the Vatican,” explains Kishore Jayabalan, director of the institute’s outpost in Rome. Acton’s values have lost ground in the Francis era, but Mr. Jayabalan demurs at the thought of “turning back the tide.” Instead the group remains focused on its own activities. For Mr. Jayabalan, this means organizing economics seminars for priests studying in Rome—a program Acton hopes will improve the clergy’s grasp of the financial and political issues that shape parishioners’ lives.

For Father Sirico, maintaining a local focus has offered an ideal opportunity to put Acton’s values to work. In 2013, he embarked on a mission to revitalize the then-dwindling Sacred Heart Academy, the school at the Grand Rapids parish where he serves as pastor. He instituted a classical curriculum and boosted the amount of regular prayer while weaning the school off all government support. The reforms have driven a fourfold increase in enrollment in as many years, a small but solid victory for the mixture of faith and unencumbered industry Father Sirico preaches at Acton.

The same mixture is working wonders on a larger scale throughout Grand Rapids, where Acton has chosen to remain despite temptations to relocate to Washington or New York. The Michigan city’s robust industry and its residents’ Calvinist work ethic have helped preserve its culture of philanthropy—anchored by Acton supporters like Dick and Betsy DeVos.

A generation ago more Christian commentators sought to redeem rather than renounce capitalism. They worked to turn their conclusions into policy. But even as this vision has lost favor in some Christian circles, the Acton Institute has kept up the mission, spreading the word about the uplifting potential of a free economy to believers and skeptics alike.

Mr. Ukueberuwa is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal.