Religious Freedom — For Everyone

That is what Russell Moore says is one of his biggest policy priorities. Religious freedom certainly is on the lips of most U.S. Christians.

But when you hear someone like Peter Lillback, you begin to think that religious liberty is only for religious Americans (thanks to our Texas correspondent):

A careful reading of the First Amendment shows us that the concern that motivated our Founding Fathers was to protect the conscience from governmental encroachments. Twenty iterations of the language for the First Amendment ensued in the congressional debate before the final version was sent to the House on Sept. 24, 1789. Not once in any of those 20 attempts to write the First Amendment did the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. The word conscience, although it does not appear in the final form, occurs in 12 of these iterations.

Clearly, the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to protect conscience from government, not protect government from religion. This is where public theology comes in, calling for the application of religious principles to every area of life, including politics.

Washington called religion and morality “indispensable pillars” of America’s political happiness. In his farewell address, he noted, “experience has taught us that morality is impossible for a people unless it is brought to us through religious teaching.”

But what about freedom for gays and lesbians and trannies? And how in the world to you bring religion into politics and allow freedom for people to play football on Sunday, get a divorce on non-biblical grounds, or be exempt from police following home a guy who has just picked up a girl at the local bar?

In other words, lots of religious conservatives want protection from government so that they can use government to take away freedoms (okay, call it moral licentiousness) from other Americans.

That’s why the rhetoric of religious liberty is not simply hollow but disingenuous. If only Lillback and other anti-naked public square types were libertarians like J. Gresham Machen:

Against such tyranny, I do cherish some hope that Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are lovers of liberty, may present a united front. I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; bu the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others. What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object ot the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they do hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda, first, last, and all the time? Clearly they ahve a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same. (“Relations between Christians and Jews”)

I see right away that folks like Moore and Lillback will read Machen and think, exactly. We want freedom for religious groups. Seldom do religious conservatives admit, thought, that they are advocating freedom for that which they oppose, meaning, that I suppose Lillback and Moore do not favor Roman Catholicism but are on the side of Luther and Calvin.

So if they can advocate freedom for that with they disagree, then where do they stop? If freedom for the wrong religion, why not freedom for the wrong morality? (And get this, if everything starts from one’s presuppositions, isn’t LBGT really a religion? And so isn’t a case for religious liberty a case for LBGT on Van Tillian grounds?)

The test then is how wide are you willing to draw the circle of freedom. Here’s how wide Machen’s circle was:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Ibid)

It’s Always Sunny In Religious Journalism

The New Calvinists have to be feeling pretty good with yet another puff piece about one of the under home boys (as in under shepherd in relation to Jonathan Edwards as the New Calvinist home boy). Tim Keller is once again the darling of a national media outlet, the Weekly Standard, and he is doing what few pastors seldom can — showing that faith is not backward or sectarian but young, urban, even urbane:

Timothy Keller lists the types of congregants filling his auditorium pews: “A cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites—doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties.”

Huh? We raise our eyebrows. How could this be, when the city runs on secular selfishness? Or at least, secular selfishness drives the creative class and their upwardly mobile professional counterparts to pursue material success and swami-organic “self-actualization.” The traditional mainline Protestant denominations may be mostly dead, making way for the ongoing rise of a new orthodox evangelicalism. But in Manhattan?

So contrary to the secularization-is-winning narrative that predominates the media and academy, Keller (and the rest of the evangelical megachurch world) is what is really happening:

The truth remains: Megachurches from the Upper West Side to the Bible Belt draw mega-congregations. For Episcopalians, who can’t stomach evangelicalism, the rule is attraction rather than promotion. As empty pews and dwindling parishes testify, gospel-as-metaphor doesn’t attract troubled souls, particularly when the 21st-century’s troubled soul wants to know what’s it got to do with me?

It’s not news that yuppies, creatives, and masters of the universe have immortal souls, too. In 2016, it might take a minister like Timothy Keller to remind us what that means.

Granted, this is a short piece and so the author may not have had room to dig a little deeper in the Keller phenomenon to see if it is all numbers, success, and orthodoxy. Old Life readers likely are aware that some in the Presbyterian world (okay, me) wonder if the New York City pastor is as fully committed to the orthodoxy of his Presbyterian communion as this journalist assumes. Some of those critics (okay, me) also think that Keller’s cooperation with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants in planting churches in New York City and around the world not only raises questions about his commitment to Presbyterianism but also demonstrates the tell tale signs of the kind of interdenominational cooperation that turned the Protestant mainline from evangelical to liberal. If you can cut corners with the Shorter Catechism, your successors can cut more than corners — maybe an entire block.

Feature stories in journalism to be sure rarely go into great depth regarding the controversies or critics that surround their subject. But when the New Yorker recently ran a feature on the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, they did not shelter audiences from some of the less than flattering aspects of her life. Not only did the writer cover the philosopher’s complicated relationship with her father, but also refused to ignore Nussbaum’s run-in with feminists:

In 1999, in a now canonical essay for The New Republic, she wrote that academic feminism spoke only to the élite. It had become untethered from the practical struggle to achieve equality for women. She scolded Judith Butler and postmodern feminists for “turning away from the material side of life, towards a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest connections with the real situations of real women.” These radical thinkers, she felt, were focussing more on problems of representation than on the immediate needs of women in other classes and cultures. The stance, she wrote, “looks very much like quietism,” a word she often uses when she disapproves of projects and ideas.

In letters responding to the essay, the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak denounced Nussbaum’s “civilizing mission.” Joan Scott, a historian of gender, wrote that Nussbaum had “constructed a self-serving morality tale.”

The feature story on Keller also reminded me of Christianity Today’s coverage of Bill Hybels back when Willow Creek was emerging as the more important megachurch in the U.S. The article sounded more like the Weekly Standard on Keller than the New Yorker on Nussbaum:

Because of Willow Creek’s size, the church’s leaders feel participation in small groups is essential to the spiritual support of its members. And in keeping with its megachurch status, Willow Creek is loaded with specialized ministries for virtually every need among its believers: programs for four age divisions of youth, three categories of single adults, married couples, divorced persons, single parents, and physically and mentally challenged individuals, as well as outreach services to the homeless, the poor, and prison inmates, are just a few of the selections from the church’s huge and diverse menu.

Willow Creek’s success has not gone unnoticed. Three times a year, the church sponsors a conference at which 500 church leaders gather to see how it is done. And in 1992, Hybels and his church elders formed the Willow Creek Association—which currently has a membership of over 700 churches—to provide support to other seeker-sensitive congregations.

Bill Hybels says Willow Creek is simply following the pattern of the first-century church. In the meantime, hundreds of twentieth-century churches are: eager to follow the pattern of Willow Creek.

So aside from questions about Keller or Hybels and their way of doing ministry, what’s up exactly with Christian and conservative readers of journalism? Do we always need to hear the positive and fear any mention of the negative? Faith is about inspiration, not about troubles? That may be what editors think and what marketing reveals. But for a religion that features all those animals butchered in the Temple, the execution of the son of God, not to mention Jesus’ followers clear teaching about suffering, it sure seems odd that secularists appear to handle the dark side of human existence better than believers.

Integration and Separatism

I’m behind on podcasts at Reformed Forum and Proto-Protestant nudged me to listen to Camden Bucey’s discussion with Alan Strange about the spirituality of the church. I was not surprised to learn that Alan (and Camden) have concerns about aspects of the spirituality of the church as articulated by contemporary 2k folks like David VanDrunen, John Muether, and mmmmmeeeeeeEEEEE. I was surprised, though, to hear the word “integration” used as much as Alan voiced it during the hour-long recording. Alan wants to affirm the spirituality of the church and on this we agree — the church can’t take a stand on say the War between the States. But he also wants some measure of integration between the church’s witness and civil authority and seems to think that the Scottish Presbyterians are a good model of such engagement.

I am not sure that I would put my disagreements as starkly as Proto-Protestant does:

His final appeal to Acts 17 struck me as patronising and pedantic if not silly. Of course we preach the Word. Does any Two Kingdom adherent deny that? We call all men to repent. That’s a far cry from arguing for the Sacralisation of culture and the state, let alone taking covenant law and ‘integrating’ it with the temporal non-holy order. There is no Biblical precedent for his view in either the Old or New Testaments and he assumes categories completely outside anything found in the Apostolic writings. Instead what he suggests is that natural fallen man can be compelled to ‘keep’ God’s commandments and work together with the Spirit to build the Kingdom of God on Earth in the form of institutions and culture.

Calvin’s comments on the state are wrong. He misinterprets Romans 13 let alone Christ’s words concerning Caesar in Matthew 22. The state is not holy or redemptive. It is temporary and yet serves a ‘ministerial’ purpose. That’s true with Assyria, Persia and in the New Testament context, the Roman Empire under Nero. The Reformed tradition got this desperately wrong and sadly their view has become the Evangelical standard.

It is a caricature to suggest that 2k folks don’t think the church can preach about abortion or same-sex marriage. The Bible forbids the taking of innocent life and has no grounds for marriage between two men or two women. But just because the church preaches against idolatry doesn’t mean that the OPC, for instance, opposes Roman Catholics or Muslims living and worshiping in the United States. Morality is one thing. Civil legislation and public policy are another. And if Hodge was correct that the Presbyterian Church could not back the federal government during the beginning of the Civil War (as Gardiner Spring proposed) even if the Bible requires subjection to the powers that be, is it really that far to go to say that the church cannot endorse a politician or legislative initiative even though the church affirms the morality for which said politician might stand?

But here’s the aspect of this discussion that caught my ear. What does it mean for the church to be integrated with the state? At first, I thought of the Roman Catholic position on integralism. Here’s how one Roman Catholic blogger describes it:

Contrary to popular belief, Catholic integralism—or what I shall refer to simply as “integralism” for the duration of this essay—is not first and foremost a political program. For the integral understanding of Christianity begins first with the supernatural society established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, namely the Corpus Mysticum, the Holy Catholic Church, which transcends the temporal sphere and has for its end the salvation of souls. By carrying out its mission in the world, the Catholic Church possesses indirect power over the temporal sphere which is exercised for the good of souls. This indirect power in no way sullies the Church’s divine mission nor dilutes it by way of overextension since the civil authority retains at all times direct power over temporal matters.

Of course, Alan does not endorse this or even Erastianism. But integration is too close to integralism for that word to work for Protestants (in my book).

As matters now stand, churches in the United States are related (integrated?) to the civil government but obviously not in the way that the Church of Scotland is to the United Kingdom. The latter is likely somewhere in the constitutional provisions for religion in the realm. In the United States churches relate to the federal and state governments as tax exempt institutions. That means that churches don’t pay taxes and that contributions to churches can be deducted by individual tax payers. That’s not a recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord. It means the OPC is no better or worse than Rotary (another 501c3 organization). But it is a relationship between church and state at which Christians should not sneeze.

And mind you, the church and Christians in the U.S. fair better than Christians during the Roman Empire. What kind of integration to Paul or Peter experience? Did they have a tax-exempt status?

If we want more overt forms of integration, though, what might that involve? If the United States is going to give legal preferences to Christians, does that include Protestants and Roman Catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Wesleyans? It’s not a foolish question since even the venerable Puritans (who did believe in the spirituality of the church) wouldn’t let Baptists or Lutherans in Massachusetts Bay. Then again, if we want religious freedom for believers (as many seem to since gay marriage went on-line), then where does the good form of religion to free stop and become the bad kind of faith? In other words, isn’t the system we have for church state relations the best we can do without an established religion/church?

But let’s complicate the idea of integration even more. Churches are integrated in the federal government through the military chaplaincy program. But boy oh boy does that look like a disagreeable relationship. In the Armed Services, Orthodox Presbyterian chaplains minister God’s word cheek-by-jowl with female Lutherans and male Wiccans. Of course, if that sounds provocative, it should. If Orthodox Presbyterians insisted on being separate from modernist Presbyterians in the PCUSA, and if those same OP’s remained separate from Arminians in the National Association of Evangelicals, why wouldn’t Orthodox Presbyterians be comfortable now with separatism rather than integration? I mean, if you have the stomach for being separate from other Protestants, surely you can fathom separation (rather than integration) from the federal authorities.

I understand that Alan Strange wants to prevent Presbyterians from being Anabaptists. But 2kers are not separate from the government because civil authority is a corruption of Jesus’ rule. 2kers advocate separation of church and state because politics is only good but not holy. Magistrates maintain public order. They don’t minister salvation. The one is good. The other is great.

Do Historians Do This?

Last night’s conversation at Presbycast about a lot of things Presbyterian, together with current research on Roman Catholic debates during the 1980s about the church and American identity, got me thinking about whether I, as a historian of J. Gresham Machen and the OPC get away with writing this kind of evaluation of the PCUSA. What follows is from Jay Dolan’s The American Catholic Experience (1985) [Dolan taught history for many years at Notre Dame]. Here’s his description of what happened in the United States after Vatican II:

Another change that transformed the religious world of Catholics was a new understanding of sin. The traditional concept of sin was grounded in a system of laws, some of which were rooted in Scripture or the natural law, while others were promulgated by the church. The new Catholic morality argued for a more personal, less legalistic, approach to sin. The virtue of love became primary, together with the individual conscience. The implications of this shift, publicized in both scholarly and popular works, was tremendous. Perhaps most dramatic was the decline in confession. A 1974 study found that only 17 percent of the Catholics surveyed went to confession monthly, compared to 37 percent in 1963. Soon form followed function, and reconciliation rooms, where priest and penitent could interact face to face, replaced the dark confessional box. Penitential services became popular, and on some occasions a public general absolution replaced private confessions. (434).

For those who say nothing changed after Vatican II, Dolan is a contrary voice and a recognized authority on Roman Catholicism in the United States to boot (not a blogger or apologist).

But that’s not the primary reason for unearthing this quote. The point is this: what if I wrote this about the PCUSA after the OPC’s formation? What if I asserted in a book published by a trade press (Doubleday) that the PCUSA had become liberal, that it changed its theology on sin and salvation, and that these departures from historic Presbyterian practices constituted a “new” Presbyterianism, or Protestantism for a “new age.”

Of course, while wearing my OPC hat, I think that about the PCUSA. But I can’t get away with that in the mainstream publishing world without running the risk of being ostracized from the profession as the Gary North of American historians. Call me a coward. But historians of American religion cannot make certain claims about communions everyone knows to be theologically accurate because they don’t want to admit that the fundamentalists had a point.

It could also be a function of 2k. What is acceptable for churchmen’s judgments is not so for professional historical scholarship. We don’t always succeed but we do try to keep theological judgments from informing historical analysis. Sometimes that’s artificial. But it’s also the case that professional academics is not the place to settle ecclesiastical conflicts.

Still, why do those academic calculations not apply to Jay Dolan, the history of Roman Catholicism in the United States, or Doubleday? Is it a function of academic seniority? Once you acquire tenure you can write whatever you want?

Or is it that what Dolan said is actually good history and that converts and apologists have yet to catch up with the church they’ve joined and celebrated?

As White and Christian As Ever

Some think the United States is becoming less white and less Christian:

These racial and ethnic changes are dramatic, but they only partially account for the sense of dislocation many whites feel. In order to understand the magnitude of the shift, it’s important to also assess white Christian America’s waning cultural influence. It’s impossible to grasp the depth of many white Americans’ anxieties and fears—or comprehend recent phenomena like the rise of the Tea Party or Donald Trump in American politics, the zealous tone of the final battles over gay rights, or the racial tensions that have spiked over the last few years—without understanding that, along with its population, America’s religious and cultural landscape is being fundamentally altered. . . .

It’s true that mainline numbers dropped earlier and more sharply—from 24 percent of the population in 1988 to 14 percent in 2012, at which time their numbers stabilized. But beginning in 2008, white evangelical Protestant numbers began to falter as well. White evangelical Protestants comprised 22 percent of the population in 1988 and still commanded 21 percent of the population in 2008, but their share of religious America has now slipped to 18 percent.

Meanwhile, some can’t help but notice that the Democrats and Republicans have nominated white Protestants:

Too little noted, Protestant America has managed to nominate two Protestant candidates for president. As Clausewitz famously observed, “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” My corollary, from which most Americans might prefer to avert their eyes: “Politics is simply a continuation of religious intercourse, with the addition of other means.”

While almost ignored it is a telling and, perhaps, a defining aspect of the 2016 election. In his imperfect but authentic way, Donald Trump is reflecting certain of the Calvinist values underlying his beautiful Presbyterian faith. Hillary Clinton is reflecting, in her own imperfect but authentic way, the values of her beautiful Methodist faith.

If you’re not convinced that America is still white and Christian, then you haven’t tried out the apologists’ argument that Roman Catholicism hasn’t changed.

Tim Keller with Hair (and coiffed to boot)?

Let this be a lesson to the PCA where some want women to do the same things that men already do (sometimes poorly):

Since the 1990s women have found plentiful opportunities to fill positions in the upper echelons of the national security apparatus. Although we have not yet had a female commander-in-chief, three women have served as secretary of state and two as national security adviser. Several have filled Adlai Stevenson’s old post at the United Nations. Undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries of like gender abound, along with a passel of female admirals and generals.

So the question needs be asked: Has the quality of national security policy improved compared to the bad old days when men exclusively called the shots? Using as criteria the promotion of stability and the avoidance of armed conflict (along with the successful prosecution of wars deemed unavoidable), the answer would, of course, have to be no. Although Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Clinton herself might entertain a different view, actually existing conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries across the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa tell a different story.

The abysmal record of American statecraft in recent years is not remotely the fault of women; yet neither have women made a perceptibly positive difference.

Whatever Happened to Boomer Irony?

While the missus is still away, I watched a documentary over the weekend about folk music in Greenwich Village, Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation. It was largely celebratory. Only scant attention to drugs, the cost of success and selling out, envy of Bob Dylan. And then there was politics. I had really hoped they would not go there but they did: folk music changed everything. The last segment included stars talking about how music changed the world. One example was how Harry Chapin rallied musicians to sing together (of all things) and so raise funds for worthy causes. No mention of how those funds were administered. No mention directly of folk music’s inspiration of either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. And no images of Rev. King with ear buds during his marches while he listened to Don McLean or Peter, Paul, and Mary (and why did Mary come up last in the list?) and evaded barking dogs.

I’d have expected New Yorkers with New York sensibilities to be a little less self-congratulatory. But then there are the Yankees and their fans.

But amazingly, for a movie made after — underscore after — A Mighty Wind and Inside Llewyn Davis (okay, Greenwich Village and Inside LD came out the same year), how can you ever play folk music straight? Don’t you need a measure of ironic distance, a little self-awareness that you are the one touting yourself?

It struck me that folk musicians were for the left what evangelicalism is to Christianity.

And then comes this from another boomer New Yorker:


Forget irony. Whatever happened to the fall that follows pride?