Selective 2k

Readers may remember an exchange between John Fea and me about religion and politics from last summer. In the course of that exchange, Fea quoted favorably from President Obama’s welcome to Pope Francis:

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concern. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and as societies, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity – because we are all made in the image of God.

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart – from the refugee who flees war torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, those who have suffered, and those who seek redemption.

This is a blatant effort to use Christianity for political ends. Because Fea found it agreeable to his own understanding of government, he wrote that if such views made him a Christian nationalist, “then call me a Christian nationalist.”

But when Mike Horton wrote critically about the hobby horse of Fea, the so-called “court evangelicals,” Fea liked the kind of 2k that had originally led me to call him a Christian nationalist. According to Horton:

Liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant, have courted political power and happily allowed themselves to be used by it. This always happens when the church confuses the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this present age. Jesus came not to jump-start the theocracy in Israel, much less to be the founding father of any other nation. Even during his ministry, two disciples—James and John—wanted to call down judgment on a village that rejected their message, but “Jesus turned to them and rebuked them” (Luke 9:54–55). He is not a mascot for a voting bloc but the savior of the world. He came to forgive sins and bring everlasting life, to die and rise again so that through faith in him we too can share in his new creation.

Sorry, but President Obama was confusing the kingdom of Christ with the United States when he welcomed the pope. John Fea apparently suffers from the same confusion when approving Obama and then approving Horton.

It’s hard keeping selectivity straight.

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Protestant Nationalism

With all the attacks on and outrage over white nationalism and white theology, a historical perspective on the origins of nationalism might be instructive. This is from Philip S. Gorski’s The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (2003):

Confessionalization contributed to the development of Western nationalism in at least two ways: (1) by bringing cultural and political boundaries into closer alignment with one another; and (2) by supplying a discourse through which national distinctiveness could be articulated — and at least partly reconciled with Christian universalism. Like most agrarian societies, medieval Europe possessed an elite, high culture (literate and Latinate) that spanned political boundaries and a crazy quilt of popular cultures (oral and vernacular) that were confined to particular regions. Insofar as confessionalization stimulated the development of mass vernacular cultures that were neither local nor fully European, it helped to create the cultural homogeneities that nationalism would later mythologize and extol. . . . Of course, students of the subject have long argued that nationalism is a secular ideology that first emerges during the French Revolution. But recent work by early modernists has show this view to be untenable. However one defines it — qua movements, discourse, or category — nationalism can be found in the early modern period. While there were secular forms of nationalist discourse, grounded in narratives of cultural and political distinctiveness, the most common type of nationalist discourse in the early modern period was a religious one, which drew on the Exodus story, and on the notion of chosenness more generally. (163)

A Wrestling Match Over the Resurrection

Chris Gehrz thinks a belief in the resurrection will produce activist evangelicals (maybe even social justice types):

What would happen if evangelicals let the reality of the resurrection penetrate into our hearts and give us the vitality and power of Christ’s victory over death?

First, it would cause us to value life all the more. Yet many “pro-life” evangelicals seem to care little when their preferred presidential administration closes this country to those seeking refuge from war and gang violence. Or when it ignores the deaths of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico. Or when it leaves unaddressed (or worsens) problems with health care, drug abuse, poverty, and climate change that threaten the lives of millions.

Second, a living orthodoxy of resurrection would leave us evangelicals more hopeful and less fearful. Instead, as I observed in our book, “The same people who argue most strenuously for the historicity of the resurrection can seem the least likely to live as if Jesus Christ has actually conquered the grave.”

The resurrection as the basis for social policy and legislation — I have not seen that one before. But Gehrz thinks this corresponds with what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

That is not the way I typically think about the resurrection, especially after what Paul writes just before that verse:

… flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Instead of turning Christians into transformationalistizationers of culture, the reality of death and the hope of the resurrection would seem to teach believers that this world is inconsequential to the world to come, that as Paul writes elsewhere, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” We may not labor in vain. But we die and we receive glory, and that puts the affairs of this life in a different perspective, as it seemed to for Paul:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4)

Gerhz even seems to agree with this when he writes, “a lived belief in literal resurrection should lessen our fear of both literal and metaphorical death.” If true, then it would less our fears of inequality and injustice since Christians will have a life to come.

But by trying to appropriate the resurrection for social justice, Gehrz seems to be guilty of what Paul warned against:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Christian teaching on salvation transcends the politics and economics, which likely explains why Paul had so little to say about the social injustice of the Roman Empire. Christianity is an otherworldly faith because Christians await the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns.

Does this mean Christians should eschew politics of only vote for Republicans? Probably not on politics, it’s a free church when it comes to the ballot box. Which is to say that Christians have all sorts of material for sorting out the social and political problems that come with a fallen world.

We don’t need to baptize them in the miracles of redemption.

Where Taking a Knee and Taking a Life Differ

Reporters and academics appealing to the Bible – have we gone back to Christian America? To see arguments over the Bible’s meaning that implicitly accept its authority is mildly amusing if only because the whole endeavor is so patently selective. Do reporters ever write stories about the Fourth Commandment and Christians playing in the NFL? They might if it turned out the chaplains running devotionals for football teams were part of President Trump’s team of religious advisers.

Anyway, the recent kerfuffle over Romans 13, political authority, and immigrants was another window into the weird world of Donald Trump. At Slate, Ruth Graham wrote about Jeff Session’s invocation of Romans 13 to explain law enforcement — as in, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Of course, she threw in for bad measure opposition to the American founding (from John MacArthur), defense of slavery, and submission to Hitler as further examples of Romans 13 interpretation. She does not consider that pitchers batting in the National League, submitting tax forms by April 15, or using physicians licensed by the state as other instances of honoring civil government and the rule of law.

Still, the stunner in the piece was the idea that martyrdom only made sense if Christians refused to honor and obey the law:

Romans 13 goes on to command the early church to “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Arbo pointed out the importance of the clause about giving what is owed, which allows for the possibility that some authorities are not owed honor and respect. “If Sessions’ interpretation of Romans 13 were followed, it would render martyrdom meaningless,” he said. “If the Christian were always in every instance to honor the authority’s command then as a result there would never be an instance of dying for allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

I understand that part of what makes martyrdom possible is refusing to obey the law. A Christian may not disobey God to submit to Caesar, though the rationale for disobedience may not be as straightforward as the civil disobedient thing.

Still, the kicker is that martyrdom also makes no sense unless the state has the authority to execute those who disobey and uses it. You may refuse to bow before the emperor’s statue and the authorities decide not to prosecute you. If the United States required standing for the National Anthem, Colin Kaepernick would have been guilty of breaking the law. But for him to become a martyr, the state needs to use its bearing-the-sword authority to execute law breakers. Also required is that Kaepernick submit to death, another way that someone may honor the state and submit to law. Defiance does not simply make someone a martyr. Running away from executioners . . . . well, you get the point.

So as much as the administration’s opponents might like to think that this government is dishonorable, they need to see that only if the executive branch has legitimate power and uses it will those who defy it become martyrs.

When You Ignore the Context

You have lose your outrage over evangelical hypocrisy.

John Fea argues that Damon Linker nails it when the latter writes:

No informed evangelical today seriously hopes for a reversal of same-sex marriage. (Even in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision affirming a right to same-sex marriage were overturned, public opinion would by this point strongly support legalizing the institution through democratic means.) What they do hope for is protection from persecution for their religiously based views of sexual morality. That can be done most effectively by the appointment of judges who are friendly to religious freedom and the reining in of the power of executive branch bureaucracies to apply anti-discrimination law to every corner of American life. The Trump administration has been doing a lot of both. And evangelicals are understandably elated about it.

Those who loathe and fear the religious right should keep all of this in mind when they mock evangelicals for their cynical political maneuvering. The willingness of evangelicals to embrace Trump is a function not of their strength but of their weakness. It may not look that way from the outside, with an increasingly Trumpified Republican Party exercising so much control in Washington and in state houses around the country. Yet evangelicals are right to recognize that people like them have by now long since decisively lost the culture and the political support of the bulk of the American electorate.

The moral majority has shrunk to become a moral minority surrounded by a sea of secularism. For all the talk of the president serving as God’s instrument in the 2016 election, most evangelicals understand very well that he’s an emissary from the wider secular world. But that makes his willingness to serve as their strong man and protector all the more remarkable — and all the more an occasion for gratitude and loyalty.

But Linker’s point is not simply that evangelicals support Trump out of fear and weakness, thus adding to the woe of being hypocrites. His point is that evangelicals the alternative to Trump as even worse:

Like the residents of an urban neighborhood who gladly pay a local mob boss a share of their earnings in return for safety and security, evangelicals have made a transactional calculation. In return for obsequious, gushing, unconditional support, Trump will serve as their protector, surpassing all prior Republican presidents in his willingness to advance a religious right agenda for which he personally feels nothing but indifference.

The character of this arrangement shows just how much the situation for evangelicals has changed since the administration of their previous presidential champion, George W. Bush.

Bush spoke frequently and convincingly about his faith, and he backed it up by advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and working to get anti-same-sex-marriage referendums on the ballots of numerous states in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. Trump, by contrast, expressed explicit support for LGBTQ rights in his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican convention.

Meanwhile, in the intervening eight years, a Democratic president and just about every member of his party shifted from opposing gay marriage to supporting it while denouncing the remaining holdouts as bigots. Then, in the blink of an eye, progressives immediately began waging the next battle in the anti-discrimination wars: a defense of the rights of the transgendered, including an insistence that all public discussion and debate of the issue begin by affirming the absolute malleability of gender, a position radically incompatible with historic Christianity’s teachings on sexual morality.

This is the context in which the evangelical embrace of Trump needs to be understood.

John left that out of his post. He also leaves this context out of his apparent loathing for the so-called “court” evangelicals. His categories for evaluating Trump and evangelicals are chiefly moral. He leaves out the context of politics.

Normal for a fundamentalist or evangelical, odd for a historian.

Do Muslims and Jews Have This Problem?

In the mood of the season, I found a Youtu.be video with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.

Maybe yours doesn’t but my mind boggled (again). Frank Sinatra, the singer alluded to in The Godfather, with real ties to the Rat Pack, and no model of family mores, is singing Charles Wesley (one of the original Methodists’ better verses). Again, the mind boggles.

This is how familiar Christmas is for Americans (and people in the West more generally). Not only did Sinatra sing Wesley. But producers in the recording industry believed that Frank singing a batch of Christmas songs would be a revenue enhancer. And these entertainment geniuses decided not only to include some of the secular and corny songs, like Jingle Bells, but also the sorts of material that Anglican cathedral choirs include in Lessons and Carols services.

Is your mind boggling yet?

Do Muslims have songs to sing about the birth of Muhammad? Do Jews sing about the birth of Abraham? One way to tell is to live in a Muslim or Jewish society during the holy days? How much religious music seeps out into the larger commercial world?

I don’t know (and am willing to learn from readers).

But one of the things that makes Christmas great (in all senses of the word) is that recording celebrities have put out so many albums and cds devoted to the birth of Jesus.

For the New Schoolers out there who like to chalk such cultural expressions up to the church’s (which one?) transformatalistizational powers, the pervasiveness of Christmas cheer is a sign of the longing that many people have the good news that the nativity narratives begin. Yes, we need more Christ and less Frank in Christmas, but for Americans to devote the better part of six weeks every year to the celebration of Christmas is an indication of Christianity’s abiding appeal.

For Old Schoolers, though, the relentless persistence of Christmas in all its schmaltz and devotion is an indication of how little discomfort Christians feel about making their own holiday an affair for Muslims, Jews, and secularists to enjoy or endure. Imagine thinking that Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums would sell in Istanbul.

At the same time, Old Schoolers who know the history of the church calendar should not blame Roman Catholics for the ubiquity of Christmas sales and music. Protestants in the United States did not observe Christmas (minus some Episcopalians and Lutherans) until the late nineteenth century when department store entrepreneurs like New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, connected the dots between God’s gift to man in sending his son, and the gifts that Americans could give to friends and family to participate in that incarnational spirit.

Protestants made the world safe for Frank Sinatra singing Wesley, not the bishops.

An Answer to Prayer

At its 81st General Assembly (2014), commissioners of the OPC heard a report from the chaplains’ committee that asked for prayer for the recently released Bowe Bergdahl:

Finally, given the media attention surrounding the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and in particular his relationship to the OPC, the following statement was placed in the minutes:

In the wise providence of our Sovereign Lord, we acknowledge thankfully, the 31 May release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl USA from Taliban captivity; and that he is in the custody of the United States Army.

Consequently, for those who ask how to pray, we suggest the following, or similar, petitions:

For grace to resist the temptation to rush to judgment, in the absence of sufficient information
Thanks to God for the release of Bowe
For Bowe’s recovery from any and all ill effects arising from his captivity, with healing as well for his family members
That truth will triumph and justice will be done
That, in the months to come, it might please our Lord Jesus to use the events of the past five years to draw Bowe and his family increasingly closer to Himself and give them His peace.

As one of the commissioners, I sensed that the chaplains were playing at the heart strings of those gathered. Reports from chaplains always brings out the God-and-country inner self of Orthodox Presbyterians who are generally spirituality of the church in their deliberations.

And so, I wonder if this is an answer to the prayer request for justice:

Things have changed since 1979, when a Marine named Robert Garwood, who claimed to have been captured by the Viet Cong in 1965, was tried and convicted by court-martial for desertion and sedition. The military court rejected Garwood’s claim that he had been tortured and had collaborated with the enemy only to survive, sentencing him to a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances during his alleged captivity. The Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.

There are many similarities between Garwood’s case and that of Bergdahl, but in fact Bergdahl’s case is weaker than Garwood’s. For one thing, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to the charges. Nonetheless, for unexplained reasons, the military judge in the case refused to impose prison time.

At Powerline, Paul Mingeroff has noted the hubris of General Mark Martins, a highly decorated and celebrated brigadier general in the United States Army JAG Corps, who declared that “law embodies and summarizes human experience about right action in a particular context.” That may be true in a perfect world but it fails in the context of military justice and the goal it is designed to serve.

Some will argue that President Trump’s tweets regarding the case constitute “unlawful command influence” (UCI). That may have influenced the sentence. But if Trump is guilty of UCI, then certainly former President Obama is, too, given the Rose Garden event with Bergdahl’s parents and earlier comments by Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, claiming that Bergdahl had “served with honor and distinction.”

The actions of both Obama and Trump helped to politicize the Bergdahl case, but none of that should have negated the purpose of the military justice system. Bergdahl’s actions were premeditated. They also led to American casualties. Nothing in mitigation justifies a decision that mocks not only the practical goals of good order and discipline in the military but also such military virtues as honor and sacrifice.

What Kind of Christian is John Fea?

John Fea responds to my post that wondered about his ongoing criticism of David Barton, Donald Trump, and the evangelicals who support the POTUS. As convenient as social media is (are?) for carrying on discussions, this one may be bordering on excess.

The nub of the disagreement seems to be the degree to which Christianity should inform judgments about secular politics (I sure hope John agrees that the U.S. is a secular government — it sure isn’t Throne and Altar Christendom). But even behind this question is one about Christianity itself. What kind of religion is Christianity and what are its political aspects?

John’s own religious convictions seem to veer. In one case, he objects to my raising the question of virtue signaling, that by opposing the “right” kinds of bad things, he shows he is not that “kind” of evangelical.

Hart implies that my convictions are not really convictions, but a clever ploy to show people that I am “not that kind of evangelical.” I will try not to be offended. And yes, Hart is correct. Indeed, some of my evangelical readers do understand the difference between Messiah College and Liberty University or David Barton U. I also think that many of my non-evangelical readers and non-Christian readers who may not have understood the difference between these schools have learned from reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home that the world of evangelical higher education is more diverse than they originally assumed. But I also get new readers every day. If my experience is any indication, many folks out there still don’t understand the difference between Messiah College and Liberty University or David Barton University. I hope my blog will teach people that evangelicals are not all the same when it comes to their approach to higher education or politics.

If John has to try not to be offended, I must have offended. My bad. But don’t Christians generally worry about posturing, pride, self-righteousness? Not much these days. And that could be a problem with a certain kind of Christianity, no matter how right in its public interventions, that comes across and being more moral than others. Jesus warned about public piety in the Sermon on the Mount. As a self-acknowledged Christian, should not John be thankful for someone who warns him about the dangers of moral preening?

But John retaliates kind of by locating me in the religious backwaters of Reformed Protestantism:

I should also add that The Way of Improvement Leads Home is not a Reformed Christian blog, a paleo-conservative blog, or a denominational (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) blog. In this sense, it is different than Old Life.

He is broad while Old Life is narrow. But then, even though I am narrowly Reformed (agreed), he faults me also for being secular.

I realize that the kind of approach to government I am espousing here is different from the kind of secularism Hart has written about in his book A Secular Faith: Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State. According to one synopsis of the book, Hart believes that “the only role of government is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices.” (This, I might add, is the same kind of thinking put forth by court evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress).

In the end, I think Hart’s warning about mixing church and state is important. You should read A Secular Faith. I read it, enjoyed it, and learned much from it. I also agreed with much of it. I just don’t go as far as Hart in my secularism. This apparently makes me a Christian nationalist.

John does not try to make sense of being narrowly Reformed in church life and broadly secular in politics. His Christianity simply faults me for either being too narrow on religion or too secular on politics. This makes me wonder if John has thought much about two-kingdom theology, whether from Lutheran, Reformed, or Roman Catholic sources. If he had 2k in his tool kit, he might understand that his own evangelical approach to national politics very much follows the play book of neo-evangelical leaders from the 1940s, who followed the national politics (though with revivals thrown in) of the mainline churches. In both cases, ecumenicity, not being narrow in religion, was a way to build coalitions across denominations that would preserve or build (depending on the timing) a Christian America. Now of course, America is a good thing. But to look at the church or Christianity through the lens of its capacity to help the nation is one more instance of immanentizing the eschaton. In other words, you make Christianity (a global faith) narrow on nationalist grounds.

By the way, John’s quote of the synopsis of A Secular Faith — “the only role of government is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices” — is actually off. The summary of the book from Booklist included this: “That is Augustine’s distinction of the holy city of God from the secular city of man. Christians are perforce citizens of both, but their only specifically Christian obligation concerning secular citizenship is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices.” John’s quote of the synopsis does allow him to link me to Jeffress. But again, if he knew 2k, he’d be scratching his head over that comparison. Still this tie typifies the way many evangelicals read 2k: if you aren’t with them, you’re on the fringes, either sectarian or secular.

When John moves beyond tit-for-tat, he explains his understanding of government and Christianity’s place in America:

I believe that government has a responsibility to promote the common good. It should, among other things, protect the dignity of human life, encourage families, promote justice, care for the poor, and protect its citizens and their human rights. I also believe in something akin to the Catholic view of subsidiarity. This means that many of these moral responsibilities are best handled locally. This is why I am very sympathetic to “place”-based thinking and find the arguments put forth by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World to be compelling.

But when morality fails at the local level, such moral failures must be dealt with by higher governmental authorities. For example, I believe that the intervention of the federal government in the integration of schools during the era of the Civil Rights Movement was absolutely necessary. Local governments and white churches in the South failed on this front. Moral intervention was necessary. I use the term “sin” to explain understand what was going on in these racist Southern communities. Others may not use such theological language and prefer to call it “unAmerican” or simply “immoral.” But whatever we call it, I think we can still agree on the fact that what was happening in the Jim Crow South was morally problematic and the federal government needed to act. I hope Hart feels the same way. If he does, I wonder what set of ideas informs his views on this.

Here John identifies Christianity with morality. Not good. Christianity does point out sin through the moral law. But Christianity actually provides a remedy. Without the remedy, Jesus and the atonement, the moral law is just one big pain in the neck (for the lost, at least). A policy that enacts something that seems like Christian morality is not itself Christian without also including the gospel. This may be the biggest disagreement between John and me. He is willing apparently to regard mere morality as Christian. That means taking to the lost all the imperatives to be righteous without any way to do so. Christian morality, without the gospel, scares the bejeebers out of me (and I don’t think I’m lost), which is another reason for being wary of seeming self-righteous. Who can stand in that great day by appealing to Christian morality? What good is Christianity for America if it doesn’t lead to faith in Christ?

Another larger problem goes with looking to Christianity for moral authority or certainty. This is an old theme at Old Life, but how do you follow the second table of the Ten Commandments — many of which encourage the policies that John thinks government should pursue — without also taking into account those about idolatry, blasphemy, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy. I don’t see how you set yourself up as a follower of Christ while disregarding some of your Lord’s directives?

The kicker is that John admits he could support a president quoting Muslim sources to uphold American ideas:

I think much of what Obama celebrates in Pope Francis’s ideas is compatible with American values. If Obama quoted a Muslim thinker who spoke in a way compatible with American values I would say the same thing.

So is America the norm? Is it Christianity? Or is it John Fea’s moral compass?

John concludes by admitting:

I am opposed to Trump for both Christian and non-Christian reasons and sometimes those reasons converge.

I appreciate the candor but I wonder why John doesn’t see that he here identifies with every other evangelical — from Barton to Jeffress — who merge their political and religions convictions to support a specific political candidate or to argue for their favorite era of U.S. history. Because John converges them in a superior way to Barton and Jeffress, is that what makes his views on politics more Christian, more scholarly, more American?

John is willing to live with the label of Christian nationalist if it preserves him from the greater error of secularism. What I think he should consider is that converging religion and politics is how we got Barton and Jeffress. If John wants to stop that kind of Christian nationalism, he should preferably embrace two-kingdom theology. If not that, at least explain why his version of convergence is better than the court evangelicals, or why he is a better Christian.

Does Cultural Christianity Advance the Gospel?

Missionaries tell us no. Convincing indigenous peoples that they don’t need to become western or American in order to trust Christ has been a chief insight of modern missions at least since 1900. But for some of the younger Calvinistically inclined folks, the push back against liberalism also now includes a defense of cultural Christianity.

Picking your spots for such a faith surely requires discretion since the riots in Philadelphia between nativist Protestants and Irish Roman Catholics had all the earmarks of cultural Christianity. Protestants expected the public schools to use the Bible to reinforce republican norms but Roman Catholics objected that the Protestant Bible was not neutral — it was not even the right one — the Douay version. Those riots were far more about politics and culture, but defenses of cultural Christianity tread gingerly around such episodes.

What is especially perplexing about Stephen Wolfe’s defense of cultural Christianity is not simply how he might make sense of its darker moments in the past, but even how it measures up to the New Testament. For instance, he starts with this assumption:

We should first acknowledge that the civil recognition, establishment, and privileging of Christianity was the received and standard view for most of Christian history, amongst most major Christian traditions, including many Protestants, and only recently has it been rejected by a majority of western Christians.

That may be true after 350 AD, but imagine Peter and Paul thinking the privileging of Christianity was the air they breathed when they were receiving inspired and infallible revelations from the Holy Spirit.

Wolfe later asserts in a way that would have left Paul scratching his head:

Put differently, the civil and ecclesiastical are the twin species of the same genus, Christian communion. The people of God submit to these mutually supporting, separate and independent administrations because Christ is both the Creator and Ruler of creation and the Mediator of eternal life. The Christian communion is not coterminous with ecclesiastical membership, but is rather the same people submitted to both the civil and ecclesiastical.

Again, that might describe Christendom at some point, but how does it make sense of the apostle’s warning to Corinthians against going to court:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. (1 Cor. 6)

If the civil and ecclesiastical are mutually supporting, why is Paul so incensed with the Corinthians for going to court? Might it be that Paul and the early church had no idea about the state reinforcing Christian norms? That’s what persecution means, I believe.

Calvin’s commentary on this epistle also suggests that he, even though living at a time before 1789 when expectations for Christendom were still in place for all Christians except the Anabaptists, was not as convinced of the easy harmony between church and state. The reason is that the magistrate is an avenger and the church is an instrument of God’s love and mercy:

Those who aim at greater clearness in their statements tell us that we must distinguish between public and private revenge; for while the magistrate’s vengeance is appointed by God, those who have recourse to it do not rashly take vengeance at their own hand, but have recourse to God as an Avenger. This, it is true, is said judiciously and appropriately; but we must go a step farther; for if it be not allowable even to desire vengeance from God, then, on the same principle, it were not allowable to have recourse to the magistrate for vengeance.

I acknowledge, then, that a Christian man is altogether prohibited from revenge, so that he must not exercise it, either by himself, or by means of the magistrate, nor even desire it. If, therefore, a Christian man wishes to prosecute his rights at law, so as not to offend God, he must, above all things, take heed that he does not bring into court any desire of revenge, any corrupt affection of the mind, or anger, or, in fine, any other poison. In this matter love will be the best regulator.

Of course, Calvin is no Anabaptist. He knows the legitimacy of the magistrate and even the competency of unbelieving civil authorities. But he also senses in ways that critics of modern secular liberalism do not seem to that the purposes of church and state are distinct. One implication is that they are not necessarily harmonious. Especially if upholding the Christian ideal of love.

Perhaps cultural Christianity aspires to such an ideal. But chances are what Christian societies produce when the church is established is more on the order of manners or politeness than the spiritual fruit that comes with sanctification.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

John Fea is back (it’s been a while) with an explanation of why he energetically criticizes the David Bartons and Robert Jeffresses of the evangelical world:

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian. Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books. But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.” Maybe I am obsessed. Somebody has to be. We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

My problem with this at one level is that John does not seem to acknowledge the optics or signaling. If he criticizes these evangelicals, then his readers will know that he is not that kind of evangelical — though I think his readers are way smarter than that and that no one confuses Messiah College with David Barton U. (or even Liberty U.).

But the bigger objection is that John only goes after evangelicals when they do this and not the entire enchilada of American Protestantism. To read John’s blog, you might receive the impression that only the Religious Right has engaged in a crass Christian nationalism (as if a refined Christian nationalism exists). But what about when mainline Protestants engage in the kind of civil religion that evangelicals advance?

Consider President Obama’s remarks while welcoming Pope Francis:

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concern. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and as societies, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity – because we are all made in the image of God.

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart – from the refugee who flees war torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, those who have suffered, and those who seek redemption. . . .

Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency. All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true and right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better. You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to “never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!”

Maybe you agree with President Obama’s policies and Pope Francis’ teaching. But what is this “we” and “our” of which POTUS speaks? How is that anything but a mixing of Rome’s religion with America’s political norms?

And what about FDR’s “speech” that informed citizens of America’s involvement in the D-Day operations (June 6, 1944) — get this — in the form of a prayer?

My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. . . .

Wow!

No matter how big Jeffress’ congregation is and no matter how many Americans Barton may reach with his materials, neither can hold a candle to the kind of resources POTUS brings to bear on the nation and the world. Can Barton or Jeffress make war? I don’t think so.

So why not go after the nationalism that informs American officials who actually use force legitimately and send American soldiers to battle?

Why not also cease treating President Trump as if he is unworthy of presiding over a righteous nation? If Trump’s critics actually had a different moral standard rather than an expectation that POTUS should conform to Christian morality, they might become less indignant. Plenty of reasons to oppose Trump without Christian ones.