It does look more and more like the Roman Catholicism that is supposed to be so much like the ancient church (and which needed to be modernized at arguably the worst time to do so… More
Lots of people are throwing around statistics about COVID-19, cases, deaths, ICUs, ventilators, even percentages, a challenge for those who forgot long division. And then there are the software/programming types and computer models that project what yesterday’s and today’s numbers will mean for tomorrows.
Keep in mind though that in country as large and opinionated as the United States, tabulating numbers (which depend on people keeping records) is a challenge. For instance:
In his effort to narrow the stunning divide between the U.S. and other industrialized Western nations on the rates at which they incarcerate their respective citizens, Latzer’s argument is limited to people housed in prisons. His analysis thus quite explicitly ignores the almost 800,000 people who are detained, at any given point in time, in city and county jails across America housing half as many prisoners as state and federal prisons do.
Excluding jail inmates in a debate concerning over-incarceration, however, is just as illogical as ignoring foreign-manufactured vehicles from an assessment of the number of automobiles on the road. The place where prisoners are housed (prison versus jail) is just as irrelevant as the place of manufacture of automobiles in arguments over whether we have too many inmates and cars in the United States. To have any real-world significance, each normative inquiry must begin with an accurate appraisal of the empirical phenomenon being assessed. In the case of over-incarceration, that means factoring in the hundreds of thousands of people locked up in jails along with their counterparts in federal and state prisons.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “County and city jails in the United States reported a total confined population of 745,200 inmates at midyear 2017.” In that same year, the government reported that prisons contained 1,489,363 inmates. Despite the fact that non-lawyers often use the terms “prison” and “jail” interchangeably, prisons are reserved for persons convicted of felonies and sentenced to more than a year behind bars. Jails, by contrast, house less serious convicts serving custodial sentences of one year or less and persons being held on pending charges not yet adjudicated. People in jails and prisons alike are incarcerated and thus directly relevant to debates regarding over-incarceration.
At a time when we are trying to sort through critical cases of COVID-19, ordinary ones, and asymptomatic carriers, remembering that Americans also have trouble counting people who commit felonies may provide comfort. You can always juke the stats.
Some think Aaron Ginn’s article that debunks the projections for COVID-19’s rates of transmission, infection, and mortality are off. In an era of big data, from Wall Street to Major League Baseball, occupying the lane alone as the only interpreter of statistics looks a tad risky. But okay, Carl T. Bergstrom can have the numbers (though I wonder if he ever questions the graphs that Stuart A. Thompson creates for the New York Times).
What about the text that Ginn also supplied?
One example is from the Wall Street Journal:
A World Health Organization report on China concluded that cases of Covid-19 in children were “relatively rare and mild.” Among cases in people under age 19, only 2.5% developed severe disease while 0.2% developed critical disease. Among nearly 6,300 Covid-19 cases reported by the Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention on March 8, there were no reported deaths in anyone under 30. Only 0.7% of infections were in children under 9 and 4.6% of cases were in those ages 10 to 19 years old
Only 2% of the patients in a review of nearly 45,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in China were children, and there were no reported deaths in children under 10, according to a study published in JAMA last month. (In contrast, there have been 136 pediatric deaths from influenza in the U.S. this flu season.)
About 8% of cases were in people in their 20s. Those 10 to 19 years old accounted for 1% of cases and those under 10 also accounted for only 1%.
This was not a cherry-picked quotation. Ginn could have added:
Trends in South Korea so far look similar. Among nearly 6,300 Covid-19 cases reported by the Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention on March 8, there were no reported deaths in anyone under 30. Only 0.7% of infections were in children under 9 and 4.6% of cases were in those ages 10 to 19 years old.
Ginn also quoted a study from the Center for Disease Control
A growing body of evidence indicates that COVID-19 transmission is facilitated in confined settings; for example, a large cluster (634 confirmed cases) of COVID-19 secondary infections occurred aboard a cruise ship in Japan, representing about one fifth of the persons aboard who were tested for the virus. This finding indicates the high transmissibility of COVID-19 in enclosed spaces.
The larger part of that paragraph includes this.
[H]ospital-based transmission has occurred, potentially affecting healthcare workers, inpatients, and visitors at healthcare facilities, which might explain an increasing trend and the elevated CFR estimates. Indeed, thousands of healthcare workers have succumbed to the disease in China (18), a pattern that resembles past nosocomial outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (19,20). During past MERS outbreaks, inpatients with underlying disease or elderly persons infected in the hospital setting have raised the CFR to values as high as 20% (21,22).
Meanwhile, Ginn brought interpretation of statistics — that would be words — from Nobel laureate and Biophysicist, Michael Levitt. Not shabby, right?
Every coronavirus patient in China infected on average 2.2 people a day — spelling exponential growth that can only lead to disaster. But then it started dropping, and the number of new daily infections is now close to zero.” He compared it to interest rates again: “even if the interest rate keeps dropping, you still make money. The sum you invested does not lessen, it just grows more slowly. When discussing diseases, it frightens people a lot because they keep hearing about new cases every day. But the fact that the infection rate is slowing down means the end of the pandemic is near.”
Turns out Ginn was abstemious in his quotation of Levitt:
There are several reasons for this, according to Levitt. “In exponential growth models, you assume that new people can be infected every day, because you keep meeting new people. But, if you consider your own social circle, you basically meet the same people every day. You can meet new people on public transportation, for example; but even on the bus, after some time most passengers will either be infected or immune.”
Another reason the infection rate has slowed has to do with the physical distance guidelines. “You don’t hug every person you meet on the street now, and you’ll avoid meeting face to face with someone that has a cold, like we did,” Levitt said. “The more you adhere, the more you can keep infection in check. So, under these circumstances, a carrier will only infect 1.5 people every three days and the rate will keep going down.”
Quarantine makes a difference, according to Levitt, but there are other factors at work. “We know China was under almost complete quarantine, people only left home to do crucial shopping and avoided contact with others. In Wuhan, which had the highest number of infection cases in the Hubei province, everyone had a chance of getting infected, but only 3% caught it,” he explained. “Even on the Diamond Princess (the virus-stricken cruise ship), the infection rate did not top 20%.” Based on these statistics, Levitt said, he concluded that many people are just naturally immune to the virus.
The explosion of cases in Italy is worrying, Levitt said, but he estimates it is a result of a higher percentage of elderly people than in China, France, or Spain. “Furthermore, Italian culture is very warm, and Italians have a very rich social life. For these reasons, it is important to keep people apart and prevent sick people from coming into contact with healthy people.”
It doesn’t take epidemiological scientist to think this:
To put things in proportion: “there are years when flu is raging, like in the U.S. in 2017, when there were three times the regular number of mortalities. And still, we did not panic. That is my message: you need to think of corona like a severe flu. It is four to eight times as strong as a common flu, and yet, most people will remain healthy and humanity will survive.”
If Carl Bergstrom wants all non-experts to butt out. Fine. But what newspaper, magazine, or news-website will stand in that great day?
Americans may distrust big institutions, and journalists may take most of what Donald Trump says as brummagem, but why aren’t Americans suspicious of the people running the health care system? After all, most times the phrase — flattening the curve — is not about saving lives (as Jay Santos would put it), but about managing the demand for medical care in a hospital. Of course, saving lives is related to access to hospitals, especially in life threatening stages of many diseases and conditions. But flattening the curve also indicates that hospitals are not prepared for a pandemic. That could well be the fault of federal authorities and public health officials. But we are in a privatized system of health care (different from health insurance). And it’s now fairly obvious that hospital CEOs had all sort of financial incentives to handle COVID-19 cases.
Here’s some of the polling data on physicians and research scientists:
The spread of the new coronavirus in the United States comes at a time of low public trust in key institutions. Only around a third of U.S. adults (35%) have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in elected officials to act in the public’s best interests, and fewer than half say the same about business leaders (46%) and the news media (47%), according to a January 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
Public attitudes are substantially more positive when it comes to another set of participants in the unfolding coronavirus threat: doctors and medical research scientists. In the same survey, 74% of Americans said they had a mostly positive view of medical doctors, while 68% had a mostly favorable view of medical research scientists – defined as those who “conduct research to investigate human diseases and test methods to prevent and treat them.”
Why don’t Pew’s pollsters ask questions about hospital administrators? A story about the differences between non-profit and for-profit health systems indicates that hedge fund types, the folks who gave us (at least partly) the 2008 financial meltdown, may also be responsible for the COVID-19’s economic symptoms:
for-profit health system boards tend to be a blend of investor representatives and community leaders.
At Nashville-based HCA Healthcare Inc., a for-profit health system with more than 180 hospitals, the chairman of the board is Thomas F. Frist III, founder and managing principal of Frist Capital LLC, a Nashville investment firm.
Other members of the HCA board include Nancy-Ann DeParle, a partner at New York-based Consonance Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests in healthcare companies. Charles O. Holliday Jr., chairman of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which is headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, is also on the board.
Sure, it could be that to make hospitals work, you need bean counters and market watchers and venture capitalists to calculate the allocation of resources. But what if for-profit medicine is not the right model for pandemics?
And what if journalists and Democrats, eager to make the current White House look like a gaggle of idiots (not hard), took a long look not at the way we pay and process paperwork for health insurance companies? What about running stories on the business people who manage and own hospital systems that were interested in profits as much as public health? What about coverage of the sort of contortions imposed on epidemiologists, economists, and elected officials because the people who directly manage and own institutions within the health care system were unprepared for a pandemic? And when will someone point out that again the federal government and its printing presses at the Treasury will save another industry’s CEOs?
During the blizzard-like conditions of COVID-19’s spread, Christian writers have been thinking about ways to minister during a plague. Some appeal to Luther. Some about the ongoing urgency of preaching the gospel. Some discuss the tension among commitments to love neighbors, serve God, and obey civil magistrates. Some compare COVID-19 to an atomic bomb (seriously). And some describe at great length and with much unction how the church needs to respond redemptively.
Ed Stetzer may be the best example of evangelicals’ historical imagination during a major, worldwide illness. His is exclusively post-canonical:
Sociologist Rodney Stark explored one such one example where during a plague AD 251 swept through the Roman Empire decimating the population. In his Easter letter around AD 260, Dionysius wrote a tribute to the believers whose heroic efforts cost many of them their lives during the plague.
Pagans tended to flee the cities during plagues, but Christians were more likely to stay and minister to the suffering. According to Dionysius: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
Dionysius added: “The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
In Christians in the Age of Outrage I offered a more recent example of sacrificially living out the gospel in the midst of suffering. During the Fall of 1793, yellow fever gripped the city of Philadelphia. Historian Richard Newman writes that, “from the moment it began, the yellow fever epidemic was a public-health crisis. Thousands of citizens fled, hospitals became overwhelmed, and dead bodies rotted in homes.”
Within this crisis, it was the emerging black church under the leadership of Richard Allen which entered into the suffering. Some assumed that persons of African descent were immune to Yellow Fever, and the free black community was approached to provide help. Spurned by the church they had served and slandered by others, Allen and his church served the sick when others isolated themselves for fear of catching the disease.
…Through both examples, we are reminded that the gospel calls us to live sacrificially in the face of crisis.
If these Christian authors had the Old Testament background to the New Testament more in mind, what might they say about the mother of all plagues, the one that forms the background for the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, even the Mass. That plague, as Psalm 78 has it, was also at the center of the Exodus, the Old Testament redemptive historical event that inspired many of the modern world’s social justice activists:
42 They did not remember his power
or the day when he redeemed them from the foe,
43 when he performed his signs in Egypt
and his marvels in the fields of Zoan.
44 He turned their rivers to blood,
so that they could not drink of their streams.
45 He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them,
and frogs, which destroyed them.
46 He gave their crops to the destroying locust
and the fruit of their labor to the locust.
47 He destroyed their vines with hail
and their sycamores with frost.
48 He gave over their cattle to the hail
and their flocks to thunderbolts.
49 He let loose on them his burning anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.
50 He made a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death,
but gave their lives over to the plague.
51 He struck down every firstborn in Egypt,
the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
52 Then he led out his people like sheep
and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
53 He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid,
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
54 And he brought them to his holy land,
to the mountain which his right hand had won.
If Christians identified more with Old Testament saints than with modern humanitarians, then, would they be more inclined to view COVID-19 as God’s judgment on a neo-liberal, morally indifferent, systemically unjust society and a hypocritical evangelical church? You could even turn in this into God’s judgment on a nation’s president who is entirely without a moral compass.
Then again, invoking God’s righteous judgment on a wicked society is so Pat Robertson (though anti-Trump prophets are hardly Mr. Rogers).
Remember when two-kingdom theology was the easy and quick explanation for Reformed churches friendly to homosexuality? Steven Wedgeworth clarifies what everyone knew when anti-two kingdom folks were using Meredith Kline as the whipping boy for moral relativism. The folks at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis who sort of oversaw the production, “Transluminate: A Celebration of Transgender, Agender, Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Genderfluid Artists,” are not two-kingdom proponents:
To understand how the Transluminate event could happen within the PCA, readers should see it as an extreme but perhaps predictable ramification of a certain philosophy of ministry, common in our day. Evangelical and particularly “missional” churches routinely advocate for various kinds of parachurch ministry in the world of arts and culture. Some call for an aggressive or confrontational approach, while others say that mere “faithful presence” is a more effective strategy. This term, “faithful presence,” was originally coined by James D. Hunter in his book To Change the World, but has become a shorthand way, not unlike the term “common good,” to express the concept of Christians interacting with the secular public realm, not in overtly distinctive ways, but simply according to basic morals and friendly manners. This posture is frequently described as winsome or hospitable. It argues against direct criticism or evangelism, at least in any public way, in favor of building more long-term relationships. After these relationships of trust are sufficiently built, opportunities for evangelism may make themselves apparent. Some proponents of this philosophy even deny that specifically evangelistic activity, arguing that the relationship itself or the image and reputation such faithful presence creates will itself be a sufficient Christian testimony. Memorial Pres. certainly seems to promote this view of evangelism and outreach.
Jake Meador partly agrees:
Our outreach to the world cannot simply be a gesture of welcome, but must also include a call to repentance and to adopt the practices of Christian piety in grateful response to God’s offer of grace in the Gospel. What conservatives fear is that this inherently confrontational aspect of Gospel proclamation is lost or watered down by some on the church’s progressive side. And this is not a wholly groundless concern.
Parachurch ministry in the realm of arts and culture, welcoming congregations, “faithful presence” — these are all features (not bugs) of Redeemer New York City and its spin offs. And yet, the Gospel Coalition has not clarified the missional approach to ministry. In fact, they have benefited from Tim Keller’s presence and stature.
With the appeal of Donald Trump in 2016 and Bernie Sanders in 2020 (which may turn out to be the political equivalent of Dave and Busters), some political commentators have observed that Democratic and Republican leaders have not served the American voters well. Party elites continued to play by old rules of analysis and missed the effects of economic and cultural changes on the electorate. The same point could well be made about leaders of the PCA — leaders, that is, who emerged as such through the platforms created by big evangelicalism.
Tim Keller and Bryan Chapell have emerged as pastors whose assessment of the church and its relationship to the world matters. Like E. F. Hutton, when they speak, people listen.
But why? When it comes to assessments of the culture and what Christians should do in response, consider the following. Remember in 2015 when during what was approaching peak intersectionality awareness, Chapell identified pluralism as the major challenge facing the PCA:
If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.
Without clear identification of the external enemy’s magnitude, the dynamics of a largely homogenous social and doctrinal association will only make us less patient with our differences. We will also become increasingly insensitive to how much we need one another to maintain a voice for Christ in an increasingly pluralistic culture.
Right now our eyes are not focused on pluralism as our greatest enemy. We are more focused on what others in our ranks are doing or not doing. Debates about charismatic gifts are unlikely to divide us. Discussions about the role of women will continue to marginalize us but probably will not break us. Dealing with changing sexual mores may drive our youth away but will probably not divide us. All these issues are secondary to the challenges of pluralism.
Two years later, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Keller corrected course. Uniting in response to a perceived enemy — looking for denominational cooperation — is part of what produced evangelical support for Trump:
In a book published earlier this year, “In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis,” the historian Kenneth J. Stewart makes the case that the evangelical impulse in Christianity has been with us for centuries, taking on many different forms and bearing many different names, while maintaining substantially similar core beliefs. Many have analyzed the weaknesses of the current iteration of this movement. The desire by mid-twentieth-century leaders to foster more widespread coöperation between evangelicals and downplay denominational differences cut believers off from the past, some religion scholars have found. The result was an emphasis on personal experience rather than life in a church with historical memory. This has made present-day evangelicals more vulnerable to political movements that appeal to their self-interest, even in contradiction to Biblical teachings, for example, about welcoming the immigrant and lifting up the poor.
The lesson appears to be that a broad interdenominational cooperation by post-World War II evangelicals made born-again Protestants more political and less ecclesiastical.
It is at the very least, advice with a mixed message and could raise questions about the capacities of pastors to assess culture and society.
It is also a tad ironic for Keller to critique downplaying denominational differences when City-to-City is hardly a program of the PCA’s Mission to North America or Mission to the World.
If Tim Keller is someone to read for political philosophy, what about urban design and planning? It turns out that much Christian reflection on the city is similar to Christian thought about government and society — it is pietistically utilitarian. The city or politics are ways to evangelize or carry out God’s will for me and others, not a common arena of human life that relies on the sorts of human inquiry that may involve both sides of the antithesis.
Here is one of Tim Keller’s typical briefs for the city:
social scientists tell us that across the whole planet there are at least 5 million people moving into cities from the countryside every month. The number of churches per capita in the country and towns dwarfs the number of churches in cities. People are moving to cities with fewer places of gospel witness for the population, and that situation is worsening by the day. For example, New York City will be gaining a net of 1 million people over the next 25 years. That’s bigger than Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet will we be planting as many new churches here as there are churches in Charlotte? Probably not.
So put the balance like this: we need churches everywhere there are people—but the people of the world are moving into cities much faster than the church is. Jesus told us to go into the world to make disciples (Matt 28:18–20). If we fail to go where the world is going, then we aren’t heeding our Lord’s command. Certainly we must never insist that everyone should do city ministry, nor that gospel ministry in one place is intrinsically better than in another, but we shouldn’t shrink from emphasizing city ministry as never before.
Don’t romanticize or demonize or shrug at the city. Love the city, as Christ loved you.
Treat cities like a mission field.
But if you are going to transform a city with a gospel ecosystem, you may need to read urban designers and planners. And if you read the history of the cities, you may encounter a less than onward-and-upward understanding of the city. Cue James Howard Kunstler:
The city is perhaps the greatest cultural artifact of the long-running human project, which now faces an array of predicaments at a larger scale than at any previous inflection point in our history. These include population overshoot, the fossil-fuel quandary, competition over dwindling resources, an unsound banking system, climate uncertainty, and much more. These dynamics are expressing themselves currently in political disorders and cultural hysterias, and the anxiety over what happens next appears to be driving us crazy. . . .
The urban metroplexes of the U.S. have assumed a scale and complexity of operation that cannot be sustained in the coming disposition of things. They will contract substantially. Some of them in especially unfavorable locales—Tucson, Miami, Houston—may disappear altogether, but the rest will have to become a lot smaller and the process is liable to be messy as various groups fight over who gets to inhabit the districts that retain value: for example, riverfronts and original urban cores. This will occur against the backdrop of more generalized political disorder and the failures of national government, especially where fiscal management is concerned. State governments, too, may be broke and impotent. (That implies a devolution of political power from the grand scale to the local level, where decisions and action will matter.)
Cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers and megastructures face an added degree of failure. These buildings will never be renovated in the coming era of resource and capital scarcity. Professional observers like Krieger’s colleague, Edward Glaeser of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (author of Triumph of the City, 2011), is exactly one of those who expects only more-bigger-higher-denser cities in the years ahead. That will be another disappointment for the wishful-thinking techno-narcissists of this land. More likely we will see skyscrapers and megastructures convert from being assets to liabilities in very short order. We may not even have the financial mojo to pay for their disassembly and the salvage of their modular materials.
The places in our country that stand a chance to carry on are the very places that have gone through the most catastrophic failure and disinvestment the past 50 years: the small towns and small cities that are scaled to the capital and resource realities of the future—especially the ones that have a meaningful relationship to food production. Many of these places lie along America’s inland waterway system (the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Great Lakes, including the Hudson River estuary and the Erie and Champlain Canals). As the trucking system collapses, we will have to move more things by boat. The conventional futurists don’t even see this coming.
But you don’t read about this side of the city when you see descriptions of gospel ecosystems:
When a gospel movement is underway, it may be that the Body of Christ develops to the point that a whole city tipping point is reached. By that I mean the moment when the number of gospel-shaped Christians in a city reaches critical mass. The Christian influence on the civic and social life of the city—on the very culture—is recognizable and acknowledged. That means between 10 and 20 percent of the population.
. . . In New York City, some groups have a palpable effect on the way life is lived when their numbers reach at least 5 to 15 percent and when the members are active in public life. . . . In other words, something is going on in New York that goes beyond one church, one network, or any one denomination. It goes beyond any particular race or ethnic group. It’s a movement.
We’re a long way from getting to the place we need to be, a city tipping point, when 10 to 20 percent of the population goes to those churches, and you begin to realize that the whole city, the whole culture is going to change because of the impact of Christians in a place like New York.
That’s what we’re after. It takes a movement to reach a city, and that’s more than just planting a church, or even seeing your denomination growing.
Someone needs to ask, what will remain of the city when the movement arrives?
For Lutherans, the question is what do you do?
What precautions should my church take?
Buy large supplies of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Masks too if you feel like it, but masks are not as essential as disinfectant materials.
Establish a single, controlled point of entry to your church which you can use to force congregants to wash their hands and check for disease symptoms.
Strongly discourage people with any sickness in their household from coming to church; the pastor or deacons can make a house call later.
Eliminate non-essential activities at your church like social groups. Consider suspending church schools or peripheral activities.
Communion is your highest-infection-risk element of the service. Avoid passing a communion plate, intinction, or a common cup. The safest way to take communion is in individual cups and pieces of bread, in small groups, at the altar.
Other personal-touch service elements like peace-passing, offering, or attendance books should also be restructured or suspended.
Put more space between chairs or encourage bigger seating gaps in pews.
However, informal interpersonal contact at church and church fellowship time does not need to be cancelled, provided a few basic precautions are taken, like limiting food to individually-packaged snacks.
It is especially important for church workers to wash their hands fanatically, wear masks, and maintain good personal hygiene.
For New Calvinists, the question is what this disease means for your walk with God:
Why should Christians be concerned about the coronavirus?
There are several reasons Christians should be concerned about the coronavirus, and for those who are suffering from the disease. But the primary reason, as the apostle Paul tells us, is that we should “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) and that we “comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4).
As a pastor of a church in Wuhan recently said in an open letter to fellow believers, “If you do not feel a responsibility to pray, ask the Lord for a loving soul, an earnestly prayerful heart; if you are not crying, ask the Lord for tears. Because we surely know that only through the hope of the Lord’s mercy will Wuhan be saved.”
Neither set of advice is wrong. But if you want an index to the way that confessional Protestants and pietists think about life in this world — especially about economics and politics — this is a good measure. Notice too the importance of the church and public worship to the Lutheran outlook. Just saying.
It can be a cliche to say that the church’s task remains the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But more Presbyterians may be tempted to adopt that somewhat stodgy outlook if you look at what has become of the PCA’s Strategic Plan from a decade ago. Finding it on-line is a challenge, but a video of Bryan Chapell introducing the Plan gives a fairly good indication of the concerns that animated its authors:
About six minutes in, you will see a list that includes:
Loss of Piety
Loss of the Young
Loss of Mature Members
Longing for Biblical Responses
Those concerns contrast with those that motivate Presbyterians in pursuit of social justice (from Covenant Seminary’s website):
While some branches of liberal theology have erred gravely by equating issues of social justice with the gospel and downplaying or eliminating the call to repentance and personal faith in Jesus, we must ensure not to make the opposite mistake of removing the biblical call for social righteousness and justice from our understanding of the gospel.
What situations do our neighbors find themselves in as they hear this proclamation that require tangible acts of Christ’s love that flow out of that gospel? Today, we face a wide range of issues that are matters of neighbor love expressed in biblical social justice. These include but are not limited to abortion, human trafficking, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, abuse of women and children, misuse of power, criminal justice, and lack of educational and economic opportunity for the marginalized in our society. The Bible starts with creation and ends with new creation, and the impact of the fall affects everything, including the creation itself and the structures of society. The gospel of God’s saving and restoring grace is set into this framework. Love for God and love for neighbor are always to be held together by the people of God.
Covenant Seminary is the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), with our main campus located in St. Louis, Missouri. As the denominational seminary, we exist to serve the denomination and its churches as we prepare leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. A key current issue in the PCA is racial reconciliation and justice . . .
That way of looking at the church’s current ministry is distinctly different from Chapell’s remarks a decade ago. If some thought the Strategic Plan sounded New School Presbyterian — somewhat uncomfortable with confessional narrowness, the old Strategic Plan looks downright Old School compared to the advocates of social justice. What a difference a decade makes.
But now, Bryan Chapell is back with a statement about the PCA’s current predicament as he explains how he will serve as Stated Clerk if chosen by the upcoming General Assembly:
I believe our beloved PCA is at a crossroads with regard to her influence in both the wider church and surrounding culture. We carry a unique calling as a Reformed church with a missional zeal. Our historic strength has been maintaining a Bible-centered mission that does not yield to the singular pressures of Reformed fundamentalism, distinction-less Evangelicalism, mere social progressivism, or strident political conservatism. Each of these emphases have sought ascendency in our ranks, yet we have continued to evaluate ideas and establish priorities based on Scripture. Most in our movement remain committed to respect those among us who differ in perspective but prioritize God’s Word. Still, as our culture polarizes and our denomination becomes more distant from her roots, it becomes increasingly difficult for the strands of our biblically Reformed rope to stay woven together for the purposes of our original vision and our future calling.
All things considered, Chapell looks like a moderate and the advocates of the 2010 Strategic Plan look conservative compared to progressives in the PCA. That is actually encouraging to other churches in NAPARC.
But it does cast doubt about the wisdom of calculating the church’s mission in relation to changes in the culture.
Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, is not a conservative. His ethic background is both Jewish and Irish, so chances are he is not a Reformed Protestant and so does not have a Christian w-w. He’s a Democrat, an egalitarian, and generally progressive. Plus, he’s a darned good historian and will not let partisan politics shape our understanding of the past.
On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.
The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.
No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth.
The article goes on, almost in the manner of a legal brief, to do the historical equivalent of math assignments — show your work.
Wilentz was also pretty good about the differences between liberalism and socialism. In defense of Hillary Clinton, in 2018 he pointed out the conceit of Sanders claiming to be merely a liberal on the order of the New Deal:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt called himself a Christian, a Democrat, and a liberal. He did not call himself a democratic socialist, or any other kind of socialist. He was, in fact, no socialist at all. Nor was he a conservative or a reactionary, although many on the socialist and communist left charged that he was—including the Communist Party USA, which attacked his New Deal for a time (until Moscow’s political line changed) as American “masked fascization.”
The only Americans who considered Franklin Roosevelt a socialist were right-wing Republicans. “The New Deal is now undisguised state socialism,” Senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio declared in 1934. “Roosevelt is a socialist, not a Democrat,” Congressman Robert Rich of Pennsylvania announced on the House floor a year later. Roosevelt scoffed at such talk, but in 1939 he paused to present a very concise political dictionary of his own. “A radical,” he told the New York Herald Tribune, “is a man with both feet firmly planted—in the air.” A conservative, he continued, “never learned to walk forward”; a reactionary walked backward in his sleep. A liberal, though, used legs and hands “at the behest—at the command—of his head.” The metaphor was poignant coming from him, but it also emphasized his point: In the face of all adversity, he was every inch a liberal.
In the 1936 election, FDR masterfully ran as an unabashed liberal and at the same time completely outmaneuvered the left and would-be populists like Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who, before his assassination, planned to challenge Roosevelt in the campaign on a “Share Our Wealth” platform. As Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks related in It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, the Great Depression “presented American radicals with their greatest opportunity to build a third party since World War I.” But Roosevelt’s New Deal, in its improvisational way, offered a triumphant liberal alternative.
The election of 2016 showed how confused these old labels and distinctions have become. The socialist senator Bernie Sanders, for example, rallying his supporters with a speech at Georgetown University in November 2015, offered a surprising definition of socialism, which consisted of a paean to FDR and the social protections ushered in by the New Deal. “Almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea, was called socialist,” Sanders said—as if the right-wing name-calling was the rightful definition.
Somewhere the ghost of FDR burst out laughing, while the ghost of one of Sanders’s other heroes, Eugene V. Debs, scratched his head.
What distinguishes liberals like Wilentz from Leftists like Sanders or writers at the New York Times is an attachment to the United States. He may not think it’s the greatest nation ever. But he seems like you could have a conversation about it. Wilentz would also likely be suspicious of newspapers and magazines that claim to be exceptional in ways formerly reserved for nations.