Public Square

Remembering Michael Novak: The “Philosopher of Freedom”

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IFWE’s friend and colleague, Michael Novak, passed away on February 17, 2017. He was known for many things: he wrote more than 45 books, spent personal time with every president starting with John F. Kennedy, and was hosted and honored by many international leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher and Vaclav Havel.

Perhaps most notably, Michael Novak is known as the “philosopher of freedom” because of his emphasis on the necessary relationship between political, economic, and religious freedom. His magnum opus, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, is called the “book that changed the world” because of its influence on key leaders around the time the Berlin Wall came down. For this work, he received the prestigious Templeton Prize ($1 million), presented to him at Westminster Abbey.

In my work with an intern group called The Falls Church Fellows, I had the opportunity to get to know Michael a little bit better. For several years, we had a retreat for the fellows at a home in Lewes, Delaware. Michael happened to have a home right next door. He was gracious enough each year to join this group of 12 young men and women for dinner discussion, which gave me the opportunity to interview him about his life.

A Radical Conversion

Michael started out a theologian of the radical left, as a professor at Stanford. His book, A Theology for Radical Politics (1969), was assigned reading for my seminary classes. His movement from a radical left socialist position to a defender of democratic capitalism is a fascinating story. His book, From Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (2013), details the transformation.

In my interview with Michael, he said what surprised him was that the more he studied, the more the numbers persuaded him. Counterintuitively, he came to see that socialism is always bad for the poor. The poor do much worse in socialist countries than in capitalist countries.

Those numbers are much more easily available today in the “Economic Freedom of the World Report” and the “Index of Economic Freedom” published by the Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation. These reports show that the more economic freedom a country has, the better that country is in every way, and the less economic freedom, the less flourishing in every way—especially for the poor and extremely poor. The results are clear. This argument of Michael’s especially impressed me when I first read The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism many years ago.

A Faithful, Gentle Voice on the World Stage

I was especially impressed by how open, humble, gracious, and accessible Michael was during those times at Lewes and at conferences where he spoke. He took time for students and not just for prominent leaders.

A couple of years ago, I was attending Acton University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Late one afternoon, I saw Michael and he asked me if I wanted to have dinner with him. We dined together that night in the hotel restaurant. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I asked him about his relationships with JFK, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel, and many other important political figures of the 20th century. I asked him about Vatican II (he wrote a book about it) and his relationship with the popes. It was an insider’s tour of recent history.

At the end, the question was put to him, “What would you most want to say to a group of young college students about faith, work, and economics?”

He thought for a little bit and said, “I would want to let them know that Jesus was a small-business man.” He went on to say that “If God sent his son, the Verbum Dei, to be a small-business man, it must be all right to be in business.”

Michael was right. Jesus was a tekton; sometimes translated carpenter, but probably meaning a general construction worker with wood, stone, and metal. He was not just a tekton, but the tekton, probably meaning that he had prominence in the region and also hinting that he may have been a construction foreman. He continued as a tekton from about age 12–13, when he would have become an apprentice, until “about 30” (Luke 3:23) when he began his itinerant ministry. If “about 30” could mean 31 or 32 years old, then he worked as a small-business man for about 20 years.

Jesus also taught through parables and about 32 of them are economic (work-related) parables. The fact that Jesus worked with his hands has had a major impact on how believers view manual labor and work in general.

A Champion of God’s Design for His Creation

The first chapter of an IFWE book coming out this year, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism (Abilene Christian University Press, August 8, 2017), was written by Michael: “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism Thirty Years Later.” (The chapter is also available in digital format free for a limited time in IFWE’s bookstore). It is a magnificent sweeping survey of where we are now in the debate over capitalism. We have decided to dedicate Counting the Cost to Michael Novak.

Michael also wrote a couple of articles for the recent Washington Times inserts IFWE helped produce. In his article, “Invention and discovery generate wealth,” Michael says that the free market economy is more accurately described as “invention-centered,” or “mind-centered.” He maintains that, more than anything, the mind is the cause of wealth today:

The fire of invention lies hidden in every human mind, the very image of the Creator infusing the creature. To ignite it, one must offer incentives, a vision of a higher, better human condition…The spirit of capitalism is not entirely materialistic, or even miserly. Far from it. The spirit of capitalism teaches people to turn away from what they now have, to put that at risk, to stop clinging to the safe things of the past, and to set off bravely toward inventing new futures. It is a spirit of risk…It is a spirit of creativity. It is a spirit that incites dreams, and in a quiet undertone murmurs, ‘Why not?’

We will miss Michael Novak, but he has left us a considerable legacy of writing that can inspire and inform us as we move forward to solve the problem of poverty and bring about more flourishing on this earth.

(Photo by Patrick G. Ryan —

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