Comparing J. Gresham Machen and Mustafa Kemal

I did in fact compare Machen’s effort to purge Christian political activism from American Protestantism to Ataturk’s secularization of Islam in last night’s lecture. Here is an excerpt, well before the comparison:

The intervening history of Enlightenment and secularization is what makes the Religious Right and political Islam stand out. Both groups in different ways oppose secularization. Both also do so by appealing to the sacred texts of their faith. These similarities are what invite comparisons of activist evangelicals and political Muslims, no matter how unflattering or inflammatory. In fact, although born-again Protestants have not blown-up any buildings – wrong headed associations with the Christian militia and Timothy McVeigh notwithstanding – evangelicals’ continued reliance on older religious foundations for civil authority may look odder than political Islam considering that American Christians have so much more experience with alternatives to confessional states (or theocracy) than Muslims do. The United States, a secular nation hallowed by evangelicals, has almost 250 years under its belt and it stands as one of the chief alternatives to Christendom’s political theology. In contrast, the break up of the Ottoman Empire is still less than a century old and places like the Republic of Turkey are still trying to figure out the nature of secular democracy in a Muslim society. Evangelicals’ experience with secular politics may explain their reluctance to use violence. But it makes all the more unusual born-again Protestants’ appeal to the Bible as the norm for politics and social order. To unpack this anomaly a brief comparison of Christian and Muslim understandings of secularity may be useful.

As Bernard Lewis, among many others, has written, secularity in its modern sense – “the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian.” The locus classicus of this idea is Christ’s own instruction, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” [Matt. 22:21]. This was directly the opposite of Roman and Jewish conceptions where either Caesar was God or God was the monarch. For Muslims, God was the supreme authority with the caliph as his vice-regent. What makes the contrast with Islam all the more poignant is that Christianity stood between Judaism and Islam chronologically such that Muslims could well have appropriated Christian notions of secularity. As it happened, Islam followed theocratic models of the ancient near east. Christianity, of course, made social order a lot more complicated as later disputes between popes and emperors demonstrated. Indeed, discomfort with secularity often arises from a legitimate desire for greater moral and political coherence. But for whatever reason, Christ himself apparently favored a social arrangement that differentiated spiritual matters from temporal ones.

No tomatoes thrown, but the ones served during a pleasant meal with UTC faculty were appetizing.

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22 thoughts on “Comparing J. Gresham Machen and Mustafa Kemal

  1. Thank God for Matthew 22:21. Christ was saying this about the Roman Empire that would put him to death a short time thereafter! Christians want civil law to reflect biblical law, which is a noble goal. God never promises us that this will be the case, though. Instead He tells us we will live as aliens and strangers until Christ returns, living quietly and peacefully with our unbelieving neighbors — even serving them as we have opportunity.

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  2. D.G. – Have you ever had any interaction with Dr. Hector Avalos? Religion professor at Iowa State. Ph.D. from Harvard. Vocal atheist. Used to be an evangelist in Latin America when he was a child. I’m trying to get him to post here.

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  3. If natural law comes from God (albeit as general/creational revelation), why isn’t it considered theonomic? Darryl, if the Christian right is motivated more by religious concerns than political/secular ones, how can they get behind Mitt Romney?

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  4. Darryl, this part doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe you can explain please? “Evangelicals’ experience with secular politics may explain their reluctance to use violence.” Secular politics suggest many modes of action that activist evangelicals disregard. Why would they adopt this particular aspect? Is there something else at work?

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  5. Terry M. Gray: If natural law comes from God (albeit as general/creational revelation), why isn’t it considered theonomic?

    RS: Why is it that Zrim says that natural law teaches that parents have authority over the children and yet we are not supposed to press it upon political leaders that the God who created them and all things demands just laws? If natural law declares the God of the Bible, wouldn’t the laws of those who more or less follow natural law be passing laws that reflect the Bible while the Muslim is not following the natural law or the Bible?

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  6. David, I surmise that evangelicals are so used to criticism of secular government — and along way removed from John Brown-style tactics — that they do not advocate violence or rebellion even though their rhetoric suggests otherwise.

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  7. Richard, why not be content with approximately just laws without needing the powers that be acknowledge their source? I mean, when the cashier short changes me and refuses to rectify it, all I want her superior to do is get my money back for me. I don’t see what is to be gained by playing the God-card, especially if the one to whom I appeal may very well not even care, except maybe to make an obnoxious point. And if that’s true in a local economic situation then I don’t see why it would change in a larger political one.

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  8. Zrim: Richard, why not be content with approximately just laws without needing the powers that be acknowledge their source?

    RS: If one is content with laws that are sort of kind of approximate, then in a short time as depravity takes its course the next law will be sort of kind of approximate to the first kind of sort of approximatge law. In other words, if we are not looking for true justice it won’t be long until there is no justice at all. There is also no basis for any kind of law apart from the knowledge of God and His perfect justice.

    Zrim: I mean, when the cashier short changes me and refuses to rectify it, all I want her superior to do is get my money back for me.

    RS: But that would be very selfish of you. What happens if the cashier gives too much money back? Are we concerned with her welfare at all and the welfare of future customers?

    Zrim: I don’t see what is to be gained by playing the God-card, especially if the one to whom I appeal may very well not even care, except maybe to make an obnoxious point.

    RS: Perhaps God commands all to bow to Him. God is the sovereign ruler of all and we are to be those who proclaim His sovereign rights over all.

    Zrim: And if that’s true in a local economic situation then I don’t see why it would change in a larger political one.

    RS: But it should not be true in a local economic situation.

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  9. Richard, don’t look now but you live in the age of proximate justice, just like the rest of us. I venture you’re also willing to live with something less than exactitude but only speak as if you’re not (because it sounds and feels good). And you have to remember that there is a piety that doesn’t at all disagree about the sovereign rights of God over all but also thinks wearing that faith on the sleeve has more downsides than up.

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  10. Zrim: Richard, don’t look now but you live in the age of proximate justice, just like the rest of us. I venture you’re also willing to live with something less than exactitude but only speak as if you’re not (because it sounds and feels good).

    RS: I see that you think you can read my mind. However, the issue is not whether we are willing to live with something or not, because if we live we will not have perfect justice. My point is that if we don’t aim at a higher justice, we will slide down and have less and less justice. Whether it sounds or feels good or not is simply not the issue. We either love justice or we don’t. If we love justice, we should not be satisfied with less than justice. It sounds as if you are far too easily satisfied.

    Zrim: And you have to remember that there is a piety that doesn’t at all disagree about the sovereign rights of God over all but also thinks wearing that faith on the sleeve has more downsides than up.

    RS: I suppose one might have a different idea of what a downside is than another. But still, God loves justice. We have no right to be satisfied with something that is not just.

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  11. D. G. Hart: Richard, it could be that Muslim morality also overlaps with natural law, just as Roman law, or Greek law, or U.S. law follows natural law.

    RS: True, there may be some overlap, but does natural law really set out true morality? Does natural law give us the spiritual nature of the law of God?

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  12. Just curious, Erik Charter, if you have a “No Wiggins” sign up? For non-Iowans, David Wiggins is an Iowa Supreme Court judge up for a retention vote. He helped okay gay “marriage” in the state a couple years back.

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  13. 28660a – I don’t, but I think I will vote to not retain him. I voted not to retain the other three. I think the judiciary overstepped their bounds and decided an issue that should have been left to the legislature. The Democrats have narrowly controlled the Iowa Senate for sometime now (currently 26-24) and their leader, Mike “Governor” Gronstal, has not let the process of amending the state constitution begin. That being said, the Republicans did nothing on the issue when they controlled the legislature. Plus, there is some merit in voting “no” on a judge whenever you get the chance. It’s the only time they have any accountability to the people.

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  14. I think Wiggins will probably survive, though. The Presidential election will bring more Democrats to the polls than two years ago and there will not to a majority of votes on the pro-ouster side. Obama is up 4% in the Des Moines Register poll announced yesterday. Iowa is a weird state politically – Tom Harkin (as liberal as can be) and Churck Grassley (conservative, but in office too long) have been our Senators since I was a kid. Terry Branstad (a Republican) is governor for life, with a few Democrats separating his two terms (when he decided to go make some money). What can I say, we have a lot of Methodists.

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  15. Erik and enumerated one:
    Justice Wiggins, though deciding Varnum on a method of interpreting the constitution with which I disagee, has done us the favor of not launching a campaign that would politicize the Iowa Supreme Court. So there’s that in his favor.
    I think he is in trouble. Not only can the non-retention side probably count on a lot of the same voters who ousted justices last time, but Wiggins isn’t all that popular in the bar. Iowa lawyers gave him the second-lowest rating of all the judges in the state who are up for retention. They especially don’t like his demeanor. http://www.iowabar.org/associations/4664/files/2012%20Judicial%20Review%20SC.pdf Only 3 out of 5 attorneys would retain him, whereas the other justices get 9 out of 10 attorneys in favor.

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  16. Erik, I’m just a casual reader of Iowa Supreme Court opinions. Cases that show up on the culture warrior’s radar are rare. They were strong on a free exercise case on which I posted – “Mennonite Tires and Your Religious Rights.” But, actually, Justice Ternus and the other former justices might well have ruled the same way.

    Some will vote against retention of all the judges out of general disdain, but I don’t think that’s responsible voting. District court judges deal with ideological issues even more rarely, and I have a favorable opinion of probably eight out of ten before whom I have practiced. Down here in Des Moines, there’s really no good reason to vote against someone like Judge Ovrom, to name one. Besides, she’s a black belt so don’t pi$$ her off.

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  17. Erik Charter
    Posted September 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
    Thank God for Matthew 22:21. Christ was saying this about the Roman Empire that would put him to death a short time thereafter! Christians want civil law to reflect biblical law, which is a noble goal. God never promises us that this will be the case, though. Instead He tells us we will live as aliens and strangers until Christ returns, living quietly and peacefully with our unbelieving neighbors — even serving them as we have opportunity.

    Amen.

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