How Small Are Your Ten Commandments?

Jake Meador addresses the question of whether to support impeachment of President Trump on the basis of the Decalogue (as the Christianity Today editorial did implicitly). After all, if you argue that Trump lied and broke the 9th commandment, what about other presidents who were not exactly truthful about intelligence and wars?

He goes on to say that the Ten Commandments are the basis of Protestant political reflection:

First, the Ten Commandments are central to traditional Protestant political theology. Indeed, the Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius says that you destroy all possibility of symbiotic human community if you remove the Ten Commandments from public life. (In as much as many of our arguments about symbiotic communal life today depend on structuring our economy in such ways that human selfishness is ingeniously twisted to promote mutual material prosperity, I think Althusius is almost certainly correct.)

Likewise, many early Protestants, Melanchthon included, would argue that the Ten Commandments are simply a distillation of the Natural Law and so to remove the Ten Commandments from all consideration in public life is to render public life lawless; it is to make the norms of public life equivalent to the wishes of the powerful, who have the ability to wield the power of government to their own ends and who, apart from the law, have no mechanism to limit their power. This, of course, is an echo of Augustine’s much-cited line when he says that kingdoms without justice are but little robberies. Given the state of our republic, I, once again, find this line of thought highly persuasive. Therefore, any attempts to push the Ten Commandments to the center of Protestant political thought is quite welcome, for it is an attempt to return Protestantism to its historical roots.

… The magistrate’s responsibility is to preserve the peace of society through protecting the good and punishing the bad. So while I might sin in my inner life through impure thoughts, coveting, or some other vice, these things are not crimes, properly speaking, because they are strictly internal; if these thoughts are externalized in my conduct then they could become subject to civil law.

But what about the sins of the First Table that, as Protestant political theology teaches, magistrates are supposed to enforce? Don’t people remember the original Westminster Confession?

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (23.3)

That might be a good idea — having the magistrate (as long as it’s not Donald Trump or Anthony Weiner) evaluate worship — if the church is struggling with veneration for POTUS:

For Rose Ann Farrell, 74, from Florida, the claim rang true. “I really believe he was sent to us,” she said. “From one to ten, he’s a ten. He lives in a Christian world and we needed a strong Christian, somebody who is not afraid. He speaks for us, has the guts and courage to speak what we want to say. His actions, his intentions, are Christian.”

But is it such a good idea to enforce the First Table of the law on Muslims and Mormons?

Plus, why do Protestants concerned about public life so often reduce the Decalogue to the Second Table? That was not the way old Protestant political theology had it. Not only did the First Table restrict religious expression and worship, but the magistrate — maybe someone like Barack Obama — was supposed to enforce worship and morality. It doesn’t get much older for Protestant political theory than Calvin:

no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship. Thus all have confessed that no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care, and that those laws are absurd which disregard the rights of God, and consult only for men. Seeing then that among philosophers religion holds the first place, and that the same thing has always been observed with the universal consent of nations, Christian princes and magistrates may be ashamed of their heartlessness if they make it not their care. We have already shown that this office is specially assigned them by God, and indeed it is right that they exert themselves in asserting and defending the honour of him whose vicegerents they are, and by whose favour they rule. Hence in Scripture holy kings are especially praised for restoring the worship of God when corrupted or overthrown, or for taking care that religion flourished under them in purity and safety. (Institutes, IV, 20. 9)

I understand Meador wants to promote the common good and to do so as a self-conscious Protestant. I don’t understand, though, in a nation that prizes freedom — even religious freedom — how that common good is going to come from the Decalogue if the whole of it is in view.

Putting the Nationalism in Denominationalism

Colin Hansen makes an arresting admission in his piece about having grown up a Methodist and how he left the communion:

As a former United Methodist, I thank God for these friends and co-laborers in the gospel, even if I no longer share all their theological views. I recognize my spiritual debt. They were my family. They are my family.

I’m in no position to advise these people called Methodists. I forfeited that right when I left. And no one is asking for my advice, anyway. But I want my United Methodist friends to know something important. I did not leave because of your views on sexuality. By the time I left in the early 2000s I didn’t even realize you had been debating sexuality for decades. I left to find the theology of George Whitefield and Howell Harris that converted the Welsh, including my Daniel kin. I left to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal by heart as cancer ravaged his body.

I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.

Imagine if New Calvinists and Gospel Allies followed the same logic. “We do not belong to the PCA or the OPC or the URC, so we have no reason to offer you advice or criticism. By virtue of our not being members in your communion, we are in no place to tell you about Reformed Protestantism.”

Imagine too if those who associate or form alliances with New Calvinism — ahem — also followed what is implicit in Hansen’s understanding of membership. Imagine if a Presbyterian ally of the gospel said, “well, because I am a member of the PCA, even ordained in it, my first duties (PCA First) are to the denomination where I serve. That means, I might have to cut down on participating with non-Presbyterians. I might even reconsider my relationship to non-Presbyterians because we are merely allies, not fellow members of the same body.”

But I also noticed what Hansen did with Methodism. He did with it what he did with Calvinism. “I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.” The same goes for Gospel Allies. The identify less with Calvinist communions to find Calvinism.

And so, the problem of belonging to the church, the ministry of the church, ordination, and membership rears its head again. To parachurch or to church?

But Hansen did seem to acknowledge that not being a member of an institution means he loses standing for being heard by members of a denomination. That point also suggests that someone who is more involved in parachurch endeavors while belonging to a body of Christians also loses some of his or her standing for dialogue and instruction. As if.

After all, if borders between countries matter, if governments of nations matter, why shouldn’t the borders and polities of Christian communions also matter?

How Did it Become So Easy to Get Out of a United Church?

In the United States, we put “the union” in USA. We are as much a republic as France, though we are still in our first iteration (some say Lincoln started our second republic) and the French are up to five. But in a few weeks, POTUS will deliver not “The State of the Republic” but “The State of the Union.” Union matters in part because the Civil War was so traumatic (and deadly). To consider separating from the U.S. is tantamount to the sin of schism. And yet Scotland can hold a referendum on leaving the UK or Britain can do the same to vote on leaving the European UNION! and no one fights a war to protect such unions, maybe because no one like an Abraham Lincoln was around to call these political arrangements “perpetual.”

The effects of political union on Christianity in the United States has been huge. Soon after the Civil War the Old and New School Presbyterian churches in the north reunited, with a large part of the rationale coming from imitating the Union. That merger launched a wave of ecumenical affiliations and networks that resulted in the Federal Council of Churches (1908) and a proposal to unite all Protestant communions in one United Church of the United States (comparable to the United Church of Canada). “United” has been a common part of Protestant church names, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Presbyterian Church in the United States, United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the United Churches of Christ, the United Reformed Churches, and the United Methodist Church.

Now comes word that the Methodists are about to break apart into two denominations, one traditionalist (at least about marriage and sex) and one progressive (at least about marriage and sex). All it takes these days is a vote. No theological battles, no warring pamphlets. No one has even mentioned the s-word of schism. Although, Episcopalians still do not look favorably on leaving the Anglican communion.

If J. Gresham Machen had tried that back in the 1920s, he would (and did) have faced charges of disloyalty, unfaithfulness, and disobedience. In fact, when he called for a separation of conservatives and liberals, it was as if he had suggested Social Security should be privatized:

whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour.

Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin.

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Something is changing out there. The old liberal internationalist order is breaking up. The election of Donald Trump was one sign, Brexit was another. The change also is having effects on the ecclesiastical world.

The Wrong Question

In his review of Thomas Kidd’s new book, Who Is an Evangelical, Samuel James begins with this anecdote:

Many years ago I was sitting in the basement of my Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, when a friend asked: “Do you think it’s a sin to vote for John Kerry?” This was 2004, and conversation was littered with talk of the upcoming contest between Kerry and President George W. Bush. I thought for a minute, then said no, I didn’t necessarily believe that. But it never occurred to me to think of the question as strange. The congruence between believing in Jesus Christ and voting Republican was as natural in my mind as the inspiration of Scripture. Only much later would I realize just how novel that kind of thinking truly is among we who call ourselves evangelicals.

Roberts seems to think that asking about the sinfulness of a ballot choice is fine. The problem is identifying evangelical fortunes with the Republican Party.

What if both are wrong? I mean, why on earth (as opposed to heaven) would anyone conceivably think that a vote for a Democratic candidate is sinful? Why, that is, if the person asking had any sense of Ecclesiastes, Paul, and Augustine, texts and authors that indicate politics is intrinscially a temporal, earthly, dirty affair because it happens post-Eden. To expect politics to correlate with redemptive purpose is to border on utopianism or immanentizing the eschaton. What is rich, for evangelicals at least, is that questions about sinful voting rarely extend to the visible church, which is locus of Christ’s kingdom this side of glory. Why not ask if it is sinful to think Beth Moore should be president of the Southern Baptist Convention?

And so, the better way that Roberts hopes for in the end is one where evangelicals are not so predictably Republican:

Nevertheless, Who Is an Evangelical? is a hopeful book, demonstrating that the word “evangelical” is rooted not in our present culture wars but in our past gospel commitments. The solution is to look backward, to break the tyranny of the now and remind ourselves of a way more ancient, more holy, more biblical, and more evangelical.

In politics? Hello. That older evangelical way (at least in the United States) had some role in apotheosizing George Washington as the father of the country and turning Abraham Lincoln (a Republican, remember) into a Christian martyr.

Roberts’ (and Kidd’s) critique of political evangelicalism is simple. Trump is a despicable person who puts the fall in fallen. If evangelicals remain loyal, it’s because they are so politically partisan. Their political partisanship blinds them to Trump’s wickedness (as if evangelicals have ever been known for subscribing to National Review). That analysis is both moralistic and pseudo-psychological. If evangelicals wanted to vote for the Democratic candidate, were they facing a clearly moral and holy choice? And what if evangelicals were not merely tribal in their attachment to Republicans but also felt alienated from the corridors of elite institutions where people associated evangelicals with clinging to God and guns or were worse, belonging to a basket of deplorables (without the loaves and fishes). In fact, the divide between elites and non-elites likely has a lot to do with Brexit and Trump. But some evangelicals who work in the academy and publishing world, and aspire for inclusion in those same sectors within the secular world, do not seem to understand the elite-populist divide.

This post overdoes it, but it also captures some of the reality of life among Protestants who want to be evangelical:

The 2016 election and the years that followed have revealed this truth: that the composition of the current “respectable” evangelical leadership does not derive its legitimacy from the evangelical many but from the few. They are a self-legitimizing, self-perpetuating, and self-anointed elite—unaccountable to and disconnected from those whom they are to serve and represent. In other words, as to form, they are no different than the elite of broader American society; and, materially, they are increasingly similar in political sentiment.

I might qualify “self-anointed” and refrain from attributing motives. But 2016 did reveal a significant gap between those people who observers thought were evangelical leaders and spoke for the movement and the ordinary whites who voted for Trump. To be so completely out of touch with the eighty-one percent does raise all sorts of questions about whether you have your finger on the pulse of the movement so you can actually represent it to reporters and scholars. Whether traveling in evangelical academic circles, Washington think-tanks, or on-line fraternities necessarily isolates you from the rank-and-file is a question without an obvious answer. But given the way modern life works especially for people who don’t work with their hands or in the service sector, it’s hard to imagine that evangelical professionals would be immune from elitism.

Then again, they could ask whether it’s sinful to think that your professional office or rank make your theological or political judgments more valuable than those of the average pastor or church member. Expertise does yield insights. So does the communion of the saints.

SBC Politics beyond Beth Moore (or will Southern Baptists save evangelicalism?)

I was listening to the Quick to Listen interview with Thomas Kidd about his new book, Who is An Evangelical, and heard a startling advertisement. Just about 32 minutes into the discussion, I heard Truett Seminary, the Southern Baptist institution for training ministers at Baylor University, plug its programs. Although the seminary describes itself as “orthodox” and “evangelical,” in that order, it also trains women to be pastors. The advertisement was explicit about that part of Truett’s endeavor. Here‘s an excerpt from a piece on Truett’s female alums:

Another reality for many Baptist women called to preach is whether to remain inside the Baptist denomination or to move to a denomination more open to female pastors. As Lillian enters her final semester at Truett, she is considering another denomination. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a Baptist all her life, this is a difficult decision to make. But Lillian is a woman in her fifties who has been divorced and she has to accept the fact that there may not be a place for her in Baptist life. She says, “I have already been turned down by one church as their music minister, because I was divorced. Being a woman and talking about preaching makes most people uncomfortable so I have to be careful what I say.” Lillian believes she is called to preach, not to divide churches. She loves the church and the people of God and believes that she will be a good pastor. Although the future is unclear, she resolves to remain hopeful, positive, and faithful to her call.

Leah also faced changing denominations, but says that she could not move because she is committed to Baptist beliefs and core ideas. She says, “…I see myself committing to this and so at the same time calling churches to committed to calling women, because I am not giving up on the Baptist church and the Baptist church doesn’t not need to be giving up on women either.”

Now, see if you can follow the bouncing balls.

Kidd has written a book about Protestants who have been generally opposed ordaining women. Evangelicals typically affirm traditional family values and roles for women (though that is not a big part of his book). Kidd is also a regular blogger at The Gospel Coalition which is firmly in the complementarian camp. The editors at Christianity Today who interviewed Kidd, at least one of them, is in a mainline Protestant denomination that ordains women. And the podcast is being sponsored by a Southern Baptist seminary that supports the ordination of women.

To add to potential confusion, maybe you younger readers have the visual dexterity, Kidd is going to teach part-time in the graduate programs at Midwestern Baptist Seminary, a school that admits women to the M.Div. but does not train them to preach:

Purpose: The Master of Divinity degree, Women’s Ministry concentration, cultivates a Christian lifestyle, offers instruction in classical theological disciplines, and develops theoretical understanding and practical skill related to women’s ministry.

Objectives: In addition to the Master of Divinity degree objectives, students graduating with the M.Div., Women’s Ministry concentration will be able to do the following:

Demonstrate understanding of the biblical and theological foundations of women’s ministry in the local church.

Demonstrate increased skill in the practice and leadership of women’s ministries in the local church.

In fact, women at MBTS take courses not in preaching but teaching.

If you want an additional shell to follow, consider that Ed Stetzer went from Lifeway Christian Resources to Wheaton College. Lifeway is the publisher for the SBC but also controlled by conservatives, the ones who are inerrantists and generally oppose female pastors. The moderates in the SBC look to Smyth & Helwys as their publisher for theology and biblical commentary. Wheaton College has many faculty in denominations that ordain women and even has had some female professors who are ordained to preach.

So, go ahead, try and correlate Southern Baptist conservatives with evangelicals. I dare you. See if it makes any sense for evangelical (what used to be a Yankee word in the SBC) institutions to establish closer ties with Southern Baptists except for increasing readership, audiences, enrollments, and subscriptions.

It makes you wonder about looking to conservatives in the SBC for leadership in evangelical circles if only because the Convention may be as soupy as evangelicalism. Look at what Trump has done to turn Southern Baptist conservatives from supporting Republicans to dabbling with progressives. Withdrawing support from the GOP is fine. It’s a free country. But it took Trump to do that?

And yet, because of their size and their presence in evangelical institutions like Christianity Today, Wheaton College, and The Gospel Coalition, Southern Baptists, no matter the previous identification with Republicans and their opposition to female preachers, are in a position to dominate an evangelical world that has no obvious successor to Billy Graham and the institutions that grew up around his endeavors.

Maybe the solution is Beth Moore. Maybe she can transcends all the parties and unite moderates and conservatives in the SBC along with evangelicals. Maybe she is the next Billy Graham. That way, if you like her, as George Marsden had it about Graham, you can be an evangelical.

An End Run

Imagine you are a Reformedish Protestant around the time of George W. Bush’s election. You have entered the world of Reformed Protestantism by way of the biblical theology (which leaned Federal) of Peter Leithart and James Jordan, you agree with a number of Doug Wilson’s critiques of modern America, and you became acquainted with the West and the Great Books again through Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Say you want a Reformed or Presbyterian church with a narrative that inspires, that connects with the sort of intellectual creativity that Leithart displays, that shows little of the wear and tear that afflicts most denominations in the United States whether sideline or mainline, and that connects with the larger history of the West, from Plato to Erasmus.

Where do you turn?

The OPC is too small and too theologically sectarian. The PCA suffers from similar problems among the TRs (Truly Reformed) and is blithely naive about modernity and urbanity on its progressive side. The ARP and the CRC are too ethnic and suffer from a measure of parochialism within their Scottish and Dutch traditions respectively. The same goes for the RPCNA which is even smaller than the OPC. The CREC might work but in 2000 that communion is only two years old, not the strongest case for a church with roots.

To your credit, you were enough of a Protestant not to find Roman Catholicism as a viable alternative.

What then? Why not turn to Elizabethan Anglicanism, like this?

The early English church, despite all the misconstruals of it by Anglo-Catholics, was Protestant and Reformed. The history of the 19th Anglo-Catholic attempt to deny this is a painful one for those who prize integrity of inquiry. The work of Peter Nockles and the more recent, and excellent, work of Jean-Louis Quantin, have shown how wrongheaded that 19th century orgy of wishful thinking really was. But this was proved back in the 19th c itself by Nathaniel Dimock, regarding sacramental theology, and regarding ecclesiology, by the American Bishop Charles McIlwaine, in his Roman, Oxford, and Anglican Divinity Compared.

The English Church of Elizabeth, James, and Charles is, in some ways, a model of importance for own time. Reformed churches, their common mind constricted by familiarity only with Scots and English Presbyterianism, miss the riches of Reformed thought available in Richard Hooker, or Richard Field, or Lancelot Andrewes (just as they miss the riches available in the thought of German and French Reformed). Anglo-Catholic attempts to prove that the established church was somehow not really Protestant are attempts to deprive modern Protestants of useful heritage.

What is important to notice about this way of being Reformed is that it allowed you to occupy the catholic and moderate middle while also regarding the regulative principle as too Puritan and biblicist (and sectarian) and two-kingdom theology as a betrayal of the godly monarch (which allegedly made the English church tick until those rowdy Presbyterians and Puritans conspired to take down Charles I).

What is also striking about this line of argument about the American church scene at the beginning of the 21st century was that it was precisely the way priests and bishops who were part of the Anglican establishment saw Christianity in England:

The great innovation of Elizabeth’s reign was what we might term the internalization of anti-sectarian rhetoric, as anti-puritanism. In Edward’s reign that language had been used to associate the English church with the foreign reformed churches in the common defence of an emergent reformed orthodoxy. Now it was introjected, to precisely opposite effect, into the conduct of intra-Protestant debates between defenders of the ecclesiastical status quo and proponents of various styles and modes of further reformation. The central figure here was John Whitgift who, in an extended exchange with the leading presbyterian ideologue of the day, Thomas Cartwright, deployed the Edwardian version of the two extremes used to define the via media of the English church, popery and Anabaptism, to exclude, as he hoped, the likes of Cartwright and his ilk, from the charmed circle of English Protestant respectability. True to the spirit of his Edwardian forebears, Whitgift sought to assimilate Cartwright and his associates both to popery and to Anabaptism, using what he took to be their ultra-scripturalism and populism to associate them with the latter and what he took to be their clericalist opposition to the Royal Supremacy to associate them with the former.

Ostensibly a form of religious polemic, Whitgift’s anti-puritanism was also inherently political. It dealt with issues of governance and jurisdiction and stressed heavily the extent of direct royal authority over ecclesiastical affairs. In so doing it encoded within itself a set of (intensely monarchical) political values, defined against what he took to be the ‘popularity’ inscribed within presbyterian theory and puritan political practice. By popularity Whitgift mean a commitment to theories of government in which the role of the people was expanded. But he also used the term to refer to the political methods used by the supporters of the discipline to put their case to a variety of more or less popular publics through the pulpit and the press, and through the the circulation of manuscripts and of rumours and a variety of petitioning campaigns, some of them aimed at the parliament rather than at the prince. (Peter Lake, “Post-Reformation Politics, or On Not Looking for the Long-Term Causes of the English Civil War,” 28)

When Machen, Witherspoon, and Knox won’t do, turn to Whitgift and Hooker? In the United States, a country that made its name by rejecting Royal Supremacy?

It is an intellectually energetic way to find an alternative to American politics and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches that have persisted in the United States. But it is as arbitrary as thinking that the debates surrounding foreign missions and church government of Machen’s time are the terms by which Presbyterians in Australia ought to operate.

That Sound You Heard Was Paul Blanshard’s Head Exploding

Paul Blanshard, for those born after Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern, was a lapsed Congregationalist (redundant?) who wrote the last best-selling work of anti-Catholicism. American Freedom and Catholic Power was perhaps the last gasp of Protestant bigotry, but it was still sufficiently forceful and plausible into the 1950s that Blanshard did not get cancelled for expressing hurtful thoughts.

That was 15 years before the end of Vatican II (roughly), when Rome still on paper and through political channels was skeptical about the kind of freedoms embodied in American political norms. In 1950 the church still insisted that “error has no rights,” a position that ran into something of a hurdle with the United States’ Bill of Rights which guaranteed rights for all sorts of groups who held erroneous views (even Roman Catholics).

But Vatican II sort of kind of ended all that and Rome changed its mind about freedom for false religions. That explains this post, an argument that assumes Roman Catholicism and freedom go hand in hand. That Americanist position is receiving push back from integralists (among others). So imagine writing advice about liberal democratic institutions with Roman Catholic integralists as the ones defenders of civil liberties need to fear:

I think the recent intra-conservative French-Ahmari debate can be partially resolved by determining the extent to which secular progressives integralists can be trusted to protect robust freedom of religion for religious traditionalists with conservative views about human sexuality.

If secular progressives integralists are trustworthy, at least by and large, then French’s strategy of working within liberal democratic institutions makes sense. Conservatives should hold secular progressives integralists to a constitutional order that they accept in general, but chafe at in certain cases. Secular progressives Integralists cannot always be trusted to uphold robust freedom of religion, but they’re trustworthy enough not to fundamentally undermine Christianity in the United States. They will obey liberal democratic norms on the whole; conservatives just have to fight to keep them honest.*

However, if secular progressives integralists aren’t trustworthy, then Ahmari’s approach starts ceases to make sense. Secular progressives Integralists will tend to undermine robust protections for freedom of religion in a systematic way, and so ignore constitutional constraints whenever they can get away with it. In that case, politics is war regarding freedom of religion, and conservatives may be permitted to respond in kind. Perhaps the liberal legal settlement is therefore unstable because the left cannot be trusted to uphold it, and so the only truly feasible arrangement is cultural and political victory in the fight against the left. There’s no peace and no middle ground because the other side isn’t trustworthy, and so can’t be trusted to keep a liberal democratic peace.

Actually, I’m not sure if more sentences need to be changed to maintain the parallels. Either way, secular progressives are not the only ones about which to worry. They would likely let Presbyterians worship (and other groups). That was not an option in Roman Catholic societies.

There is Therefore Now Some Condemnation for Those who Are in Christ Jesus

Feel good moments are not part of the feng shui of Old School Presbyterianism. For that reason, I can empathize with some who viewed the video of Botham Jean’s expression of forgiveness to Amber Guyger as too sentimental and its viral circulation as sappily predictable.

Still, I am having trouble understanding Christians who have argued that Christianity is more than forgiveness because social (read racial) justice is still really important. According to Dorena Williamson:

Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.

That way of putting makes you wonder if what social justice Christians really want is purgatory, a place where you go to burn off your temporal sins even though your spiritual ones are forgiven.

Williamson says people inspired by Botham need to listen to his mother. But what about the apostle Paul? He did write, after all:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Is it anachronistic to think that not even racism could separate someone who trusts in Christ from God and redemption through his son? Or is racism the unpardonable sin?

Of course, Paul also wrote about justice. Five chapters later, he made this point:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

What Paul does not say is that punishment by the governing authorities can separate Christians from the love of God.

Forgiveness trumps social justice, then. Even the Coen brothers understood this in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

…religion and politics, at least by the light of one strand of Christianity, have different standards and scope. The state’s purpose is justice and, according to any number of New Testament writers, the magistrate is well equipped with physical penalties to accomplish it. The church’s purpose is mercy and is similarly furnished with such means as preaching and the sacraments to pursue its redemptive tasks. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill some spiritual void. Even run of the mill ex-cons, like Ulysses Everett McGill, the scheming ring-leader of the escaped prisoners in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” could see that his colleagues’ conversions would have no effect on their legal predicament as escaped convicts. When Pete and Delmar both appealed to their baptism in a muddy river as the basis for a general absolution, Everett responded, “That’s not the issue . . . .. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.” (A Secular Faith, 123)

Is God Holding Back Urbanist Presbyterians?

For those social justicey pastors who labor for the city, what’s wrong with this picture?

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

“It’s something I never thought would happen,” she said of the bond she has forged with the church’s community, if not the tenets of its faith. She was drawn to the church, she said, by “something in the spirit of Rutgers and something in the spirit of the outside world.”

Katharine Butler, an artist, was lured into Rutgers when she walked by a sandwich board on the street advertising its environmental activism. Soon, she was involved in more traditional aspects of the church, too.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this, singing away and all the Jesus-y stuff,” she said. “It was wonderful to find a place larger than me, that’s involved in that and in the community and being of service. It’s nice to find a real community like that.”

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary. Instead, the community there has been cobbled together by a different code of convictions, pulled in by social justice efforts, activism against climate change, meal programs for the homeless and a task force to help refugee families.

Houses of worship — including Christian churches from a range of denominations, as well as synagogues — have positioned themselves as potent forces on progressive issues, promoting activism on social justice causes and inviting in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But religious scholars said that Rutgers was reaching a new frontier where its social agenda in some ways overshadowed its religious one.

“Rutgers has periodically reinvented itself as the Upper West Side has gone through changes like this,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University. “This isn’t the first reinvention. It is one of their more interesting ones.”

The approach at Rutgers reflects how spirituality has shifted in fundamental ways. Those who enter the unassuming brick-and-limestone sanctuary on West 73rd Street find a place for pancake breakfasts, fund-raisers, activism and developing ties to a neighborhood.

“People who otherwise feel marginalized or pushed out by regular congregations, more thoughtful people, say, or those who like to ask questions about faith, started to gather around our congregation,” said the Rev. Andrew Stehlik, the senior pastor at Rutgers.

“Not all of them are deeply interested in becoming yet another member of a denomination,” he added. “They are still coming and worshiping with us. We call them friends of the church. Often, they’re a substantial part of the worshiping community here.”

It seems that the worshiping community could use an injection of people. Mainline Protestant denominations like Presbyterianism have seen their followings diminish in recent years. (Leaders of the Presbyterian Church put out a news release in April announcing that fewer followers were leaving, declaring that they were “encouraged by the slowing trend downward.”)

To address shrinking congregations, some pastors are searching for new ways to use their churches and redefine what fellowship means. Churches have the space and the good will, after all, to commit to community works, social justice or arts and educational projects. And opening their doors in this way can bring in those looking for more than a Bible study class.

Some progressive Reformed and evangelicals are wont to insist that you can’t have the gospel without social justice.

But at churches like Rutgers Presbyterian, you do have social justice without the gospel. And this is not the Democratic Party. It’s a church.

So, where do you draw the line? At what point do you have too much God to be effectively social justice in your church’s orientation? If Rutgers’ pastors came on with the Westminster Confession, they might see unbelievers less inclined to participate in church activities. Or, when does social justice begin to impede God? If Rutgers’ pastors pastors came on with the Westminster Confession, they might see Presbyterians object to a broad church held together by left-wing activism.

Whatever the answer, a line exists. Or you can put churches on a spectrum. Either way, the gospel is not identical to social justice. Mainline Protestantism is example number one.

Being A Woke Christian is Biting Off More than You Can Chew

I have already wondered how you can throw around the phrase, white normativity, and not also need to add heternormativity to your Christian activism. But Andrew Sullivan, a man who is gay, married, Roman Catholic, and identifies as conservative, also gives reason for thinking that woke evangelicals and Reformed Protestants are playing with fire if they think they can hold on to doctrinal normativity while berating white normativity and remain silent (or not) about heteronormativity.

First, without even using the phrase, “cultural Marxism,” Sullivan explains why some Americans find the Left, and their woke evangelical supporters, scary (yes, it may be okay to be afraid):

A conservative who becomes fixated on the contemporary left’s attempt to transform traditional society, and who views its zeal in remaking America as an existential crisis, can decide that in this war, there can be no neutrality or passivity or compromise. It is not enough to resist, slow, query, or even mock the nostrums of the left; it is essential that they be attacked — and forcefully. If the left is engaged in a project of social engineering, the right should do the same: abandon liberal democratic moderation and join the fray.

I confess I’m tempted by this, especially since the left seems to have decided that the forces behind Trump’s election represented not an aberration, but the essence of America, unchanged since slavery. To watch this version of the left capture all of higher education and the mainstream media, to see the increasing fury and ambition of its proponents, could make a reactionary of nearly anyone who’s not onboard with this radical project.

Of course, Sullivan is not ready to join the OPC or to sign the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. He recognizes a difference between supporting Trump as the embodiment of American norms and seeing Trump as a hedge on the Left’s attempt to remake the nation (even while breaking things):

This, it strikes me, is one core divide on the right: between those who see the social, cultural, and demographic changes of the last few decades as requiring an assault and reversal, and those who seek to reform its excesses, manage its unintended consequences, but otherwise live with it. Anton is a reactionary; I’m a conservative. I’m older than Anton but am obviously far more comfortable in a multicultural world, and see many of the changes of the last few decades as welcome and overdue: the triumph of women in education and the workplace; the integration of gays and lesbians; the emergence of a thriving black middle class; the relaxation of sexual repression; the growing interdependence of Western democracies; the pushback against male sexual harassment and assault.

Yes, a conservative is worried about the scale and pace of change, its unintended consequences, and its excesses, but he’s still comfortable with change. Nothing is ever fixed. No nation stays the same. Culture mutates and mashes things up. And in America, change has always been a motor engine in a restless continent.

But you are not a white racist Christian nationalist supremacist misogynist sinner (where do you put guns?) if you don’t agree with the ladies or men of color who host certain podcasts:

In a new essay, Anton explains his view of the world: “What happens when transformative efforts bump up against permanent and natural limits? Nature tends to bump back. The Leftist response is always to blame nature; or, to be more specific, to blame men; or to be even more specific, to blame certain men.” To be even more specific, cis white straight men.

But what are “permanent and natural limits” to transformation? Here are a couple: humanity’s deep-seated tribalism and the natural differences between men and women. It seems to me that you can push against these basic features of human nature, you can do all you can to counter the human preference for an in-group over an out-group, you can create a structure where women can have fully equal opportunities — but you will never eradicate these deeper realities.

The left is correct that Americans are racist and sexist; but so are all humans. The question is whether, at this point in time, America has adequately managed to contain, ameliorate, and discourage these deeply human traits. I’d say that by any reasonable standards in history or the contemporary world, America is a miracle of multiracial and multicultural harmony. There’s more to do and accomplish, but the standard should be what’s doable within the framework of human nature, not perfection.

Sullivan’s point about the Left blaming nature is what seems to be missing from the self-awareness of woke Protestants. They may agree and receive inspiration from opposing racial and gender hierarchies. But for the Left, these antagonism stem from a willingness to overturn nature. That is a line that Christians should not cross if they want to continue to believe in the God who created humans as male and female, and creatures as feline and canine. You start to argue that to achieve equality we need to do away with natural distinctions and you are going to have trouble with the creator God.

One last point from Sullivan that shows how woke Christians are becoming fundamentalist, but with a real kicker:

This week, I read a Twitter thread that was, in some ways, an almost perfect microcosm of this dynamic. It was by a woke mother of a white teenage son, who followed her son’s online browsing habits. Terrified that her son might become a white supremacist via the internet, she warns: “Here’s an early red flag: if your kid says ‘triggered’ as a joke referring to people being sensitive, he’s already being exposed & on his way. Intervene!” Really? A healthy sense of humor at oversensitivity is a sign of burgeoning white supremacy? Please. More tips for worried moms: “You can also watch political comedy shows with him, like Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj. Talk about what makes their jokes funny — who are the butt of the jokes? Do they ‘punch up’ or down? … Show them that progressive comedy isn’t about being ‘politically correct’ or safe. It’s often about exposing oppressive systems — which is the furthest thing from ‘safe’ or delicate as you can get.”

It reminds me of a fundamentalist mother stalking her son’s online porn habit. Doesn’t she realize that it is exactly this kind of pious, preachy indoctrination about “oppressive systems” that are actually turning some white kids into alt-right fanboys? To my mind, it’s a sign of psychological well-being that these boys are skeptical of their authority figures, that they don’t think their maleness is a problem, and that they enjoy taking the piss out of progressive pabulum. This is what healthy teenage boys do.

More to the point, this kind of scolding is almost always counterproductive. Subject young white boys to critical race and gender theory, tell them that women can have penises, that genetics are irrelevant in understanding human behavior, that borders are racist, or that men are inherently toxic, and you will get a bunch of Jordan Peterson fans by their 20s. Actually, scratch that future tense — they’re here and growing in number.

Many leftists somehow believe that sustained indoctrination will work in abolishing human nature, and when it doesn’t, because it can’t, they demonize those who have failed the various tests of PC purity as inherently wicked. In the end, the alienated and despised see no reason not to gravitate to ever-more extreme positions. They support people and ideas simply because they piss off their indoctrinators. And, in the end, they reelect Trump.

Re-elect Trump or no, you have ideological purity.