Christianity and Conservatism

Robert Merry thinks conservatism is in crisis:

In an influential 1957 essay entitled “Conservatism as an Ideology,” political scientist Samuel P. Huntington listed fundamental elements of the conservative creed, embraced by nearly all of its proponents: society is the organic product of slow historical growth, and existing institutions embody the wisdom of previous generations; man is a creature of instinct and emotion as well as reason, and evil resides in human nature rather than in any particular societal institutions; the community is superior to the individual, and the rights of men derive from civic responsibility; except in an ultimate moral sense, humans are unequal, and society always consists of a variety of classes, orders, and groups; the settled schemes of government based on human experience are always superior to abstract experimentation.

Thus, wrote Huntington, conservatism differs from other ideologies (except radicalism) in that it lacks any “substantive ideal”—a vision of the perfect society. “No political philosopher,” he said, “has ever described a conservative utopia.”

George W. Bush was a utopian. No other word adequately defines his vision of a Middle East culture in which the ancient Bedouin sensibilities are wiped away in favor of Western values and structures. His stated resolve to “rid the world of evil” demonstrated a lack of any conservative sensibility on where evil resides. He certainly didn’t manifest any understanding of society, particularly Middle Eastern society, as the organic product of slow historical growth. And he placed abstract experimentation over human experience in formulating this war policy rationale.

Why do Christians invariably side with Bush over Huntington? Why would they immanentize the eschaton (bring heaven to earth) when they are supposed to believe a perfect social order won’t come until Christ returns. Is it:

a) Christians are invariably Pelagian or Semi-Pelatian

b) Christians invariably reject amillenialism

c) modern Christians are inherently democratic

d) all of the above?

Following the apostle Paul or agreeing with Augustine certainly doesn’t require someone to be a conservative as Huntington defines it. But clearly, you have to reject important pieces of Christian orthodoxy to avoid conservatism.

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MLK and 2K

Matt Tuininga observes how convenient 2k is for someone who wants to distance their politics from their faith:

Recent evidence indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Christian Right pastor Robert Jeffress, support Donald Trump and the Republican Party. As David R. Brockman warns in the Texas Observer, Jeffress “has deployed Two Kingdoms thinking repeatedly since the presidential election” to justify his support for Donald Trump. If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Democratic party, that should be deeply concerning.

But wait. Recent evidence also indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Andrew White, candidate for governor of Texas, are Democrats. As Larry Ball warns in the Aquila Report, White’s approach “is deduced from what is called two-kingdom theology.” If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Republican party, that should be deeply concerning.

These articles advance arguments I have repeatedly heard from the lips of Reformed theologians and pastors. One highly esteemed Reformed scholar told me he is convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Republican party despite its unChristian tendencies on poverty and race. Two kingdoms advocates, he believes, are crypto-Republicans. At the same time, numerous pastors have told me they are convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Democratic party despite its unChristian positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Two kingdoms advocates, it turns out, are crypto-Democrats.

Tuininga’s solution is to let the church be the church:

It’s time for the church to be the church. If you are sick and tired of the politicization of the church – if you are eager to see the church faithfully witness to the kingdom and its righteousness as it applies to every area of life, without compromise to any political party – then two kingdoms theology is for you.

Wouldn’t the same point apply to Martin Luther King, Jr.? Why can’t King simply be a pastor who preached the gospel or a political activist who worked with political officials to overturn unconstitutional arrangements? Why turn him into the model of Christian activism? Is Tuininga willing to take on the recent depictions of King that blur 2K?

According to Gary Dorien:

Any reading that minimizes King’s upbringing or graduate education misconstrues him, which is what happens when scholars fail to credit the black social gospel tradition he embraced. King was nurtured in the piety and idioms of an urban, middle-class, black Baptist family and congregation. He absorbed the evangelical piety and social concerns preached by his father. He got a more intellectual version of both things when he studied at Morehouse College, where Mays influenced him, and then at Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, where the prominent Baptist preacher and writer J. Pius Barbour was his pastor. At Crozer and Boston University, King adopted a socialist version of social gospel theology and a personalist version of post-Kantian idealistic philosophy, and he acquired a conflicted attraction to Gandhian nonviolence. Throughout his movement career King was committed to democratic socialism, personalist theological liberalism, and Gandhian nonviolence. He fashioned these perspectives into the most compelling public theology of the twentieth century, mobilizing religious and political communities that had almost no history of working together.

Imagine pointing out Jerry Falwell’s (senior) theological pedigree and not objecting to the sectarian or illiberal nature of his political activism.

Or consider Michael Sean Winter’s benediction of King:

King was a great civil rights leader because he was both a great American and a genuine Christian prophet, not the other way round. A prophet does not simply point to some future of his or her own imagining. A prophet calls a people to return to their truest selves in order that they may return to a righteous path.

King did not tell the American people to stop being American. He told them to be true to the ideals that they claimed had shaped our national founding. His message was subversive of the ways those ideals had been betrayed, not of the ideals themselves. King evidenced none of the hatred of America that has marred the politics of the left since his death.

When Robert Jeffress makes such claims about Donald Trump most people object, but is it because Jeffress confuses the kingdoms or because he backed an immoral public figure?

Tuininga actually knows that King’s theology violated 2k:

My concern, however, is to encourage evangelicals to wrestle with King’s determination to allow the Gospel to shape Christians’ civic and political engagement. To be sure, we must take care not to conflate the two. King himself did often conflate the kingdom of Christ and temporal politics in his rhetoric, I believe, as did the broader trajectory of mainline clerical activism that took its inspiration from him in following decades. We cannot use political means to establish the kingdom of God, nor should we confuse the liberation that comes through Christ with the justice that can be accomplished through politics.

That means that baptizing King’s politics as manifestations of the kingdom of God is just as flawed as baptizing Donald Trump’s person or policies.

I’ll See Your World Order and Raise You One Principality and Two Powers

Isn’t this what caused mainline Protestantism to go south, namely, identifying the church with the work of building human civilization? George Weigel explains:

If there’s anything Catholics in the United States should have learned over the past two decades, it’s that order—in the world, the republic, and the Church—is a fragile thing. And by “order,” I don’t mean the same old same old. Rather, I mean the dynamic development of world politics, our national life, and the Church within stable reference points that guide us into the future.

Didn’t the apostle Paul (saint if you will) think the church had/has bigger fish to fry?

11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6)

Russia, neo-liberalism, social justice warriors have nothing on sin, the flesh, and the Devil.

Of course, political order is a good thing, so good that churches need it to function — it may actually be that political order precedes church order rather than the other way around. But if the church sees its mission as supporting political order, it may seriously underestimate the amazing work God called ministers of the word to do. And that perspective might prevent a reviewer from writing this about a book on the nineteenth-century papacy:

Whatever misgivings one may have about the First Vatican Council, one does not need to squint to see a providential hand in Pastor Aeternus. As secular governments continue to chip away at different forms of civil society, especially religious forms, a strong papacy can serve as a powerful counterweight.

Counter-weights to secular governments chipping away at civil society? Isn’t that why we have The New York Times?

American Greatness

Liberalism may be failing, but at least the voluntary character of church life in the United States means that communions here do not need to worry the way those in Scotland do where the establishment principle is still in effect even for those outside the established church. David Robertson highlights the contrasting responses of Presbyterians — Church of Scotland vs. Free Church of Scotland — to the Scottish government’s proposal to allow Scots to self-identify their gender. Spoiler alert: the Free Church dissents, the Church of Scotland goes along.

But the arresting matter here is the degree to which a communion self-identifies with its nation:

Lets talk not about gender identity but the identity of the Church. It seems to be that the Church of Scotland is no longer self-identifying as a biblical, prophetic Christian church. It now self-identifies as the spiritual wing of the progressive state, affirming its every action and endorsing its liberal theology. State churches always run the danger of avoiding the prophetic, because they are tied in with the State, and therefore will find it difficult to tell the State the Word of God. If John the Baptist had been a Church of Scotland minister, he would have affirmed Herod in his sin, told him ‘he didn’t want to judge’ and offered to produce a booklet of stories of adulterers like him! I hope and pray that the faithful ministers who remain in the Kirk will not hand out this propaganda, but will challenge 121 and the bureaucracy that has collaborated in this document. Its time for faithful people to be faithful and to at least be prophets to their own denomination.

What about the Free Church (and other churches). We can moan from the sidelines – refuse to get involved – shout in anger or shrink in despair. Or we can be a biblical Christ loving church which does what we can to welcome and help transpeople who are seeking Christ. They need to know him and be saved from their sin – not their trans. And we must have a prophetic voice into the culture – whether its challenging schools when they seek to indoctrinate our children with Queer theory, or making representations to the Scottish Government. And of course we weep and pray….

God have mercy and save Scotland from itself.

At what point do you see the folly of ecclesiastical establishments? Nothing possibly could go wrong here (ever since Constantine).

Good but Different Americans

With Ash Wednesday comes Lent and different rationales for turning up those practices that increase holiness. George Weigel opts for the difference that Lenten practice makes:

Friday abstinence was once a defining mark of the practicing Catholic, and Lenten pork roll raillery aside, it ought to be again. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is not renowned for its traditionalism, but some years ago the bishops mandated a year-round return to Friday abstinence south of Hadrian’s Wall, and good for them for doing so. If our baptisms really set us apart for Christ, then we should live a different temporal rhythm than the rest of the world: not to advertise our righteousness, but to remind ourselves, each other, and those who might be curious about these Catholics and their ways that we’re, well, different. And at a moment in Western cultural history in which the tsunami of the Culture of Me threatens to overwhelm everything, putting down behavioral markers of difference is no small thing. From Friday abstinence, who knows what might grow?

Well, these days at First Things someone might ask if Friday abstinence could lead to the kidnapping of baptized children from non-Roman Catholic parents.

Or how about the royal absolutism of French monarchs?

For those keeping score at home, liberalism is on the ropes at First Things, which is odd for a magazine that used to be (along with Weigel) firmly in the Americanist camp of U.S. Roman Catholics.

The problem is not Lent or abstinence from meat. I have great respect for minority groups that maintain their religious ways in face of a society that does little to encourage or foster such practices. The Amish and Orthodox Jews, for instance, who continue to maintain family and spiritual traditions without trying to Americanize their traditions are (or should be) obviously admirable in their fortitude and conviction.

But transferring such admiration to Roman Catholics comes with a catch. That snag is that Roman Catholic piety for a long time was not simply a way of being a good Christian before God but also came with expectations about society, the political order, and the church’s authority. To sever personal piety from Rome’s global reach or cultural aspirations was never possible, the way it has been for other faiths outside the political order that brought them into existence. The reason is that fellowship with the Bishop of Rome and all the affairs in which he had his hands was necessary to be a good Roman Catholic.

So Weigel’s proposal for being more distinct is no neutral proposition when Roman Catholicism in its most distinct expression was not necessarily a respecter of the sort of freedoms that allow the Amish and Orthodox Jews to practice their faiths. Like Neo-Calvinism, Roman Catholicism is not content with a personal faith. Religion is not a private affair but needs to take root in all areas of life — and there goes political liberalism.

When the Evangelical Left and Theonomic Presbyterians Agree

Shane Claiborne mocks Jerry Falwell for tweeting this:

Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome-he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help poor. That’s our job.

Such two-kingdom thinking is heretical for the student of Tony Campolo:

Honestly, this is some of the worst theology I’ve ever heard. And this heresy is from the president of the largest Christian university in the world.

Not only is this “bad” theology… it is also deadly theology. Similar ideology was used to justify apartheid and to excuse Hitler… this notion that sin is personal but rulers are immune to it.

The idea that Caesar or a Roman soldier… or anyone… is exempt from God’s command to love our enemy, care for the poor, or welcome the stranger is heresy. Jesus said we will ALL be asked how we cared for “the least of these.” (Mt.25)

Larry Ball has a similar gripe against two-kingdom theology (inspired by Andrew White’s run for the governor of Texas):

Both natural law and the democratic process determine civil law for the body-politic. The Bible has no place in the body-politic. The Bible is a religious document and it must be restricted to the realm of the church and personal faith. The State must remain neutral toward religion.

Thus, the result of two-kingdom theology is that Religion (Christianity) is personal, restricted to the heart, and the rules for the body politic must not be determined by the Bible. In America all religions are equal, and therefore all religions are equally irrelevant in the public square. Religion is only useful in so far as it makes people good citizens who are obedient to the law of the land.

Either natural law or the voice of the Supreme Court makes right in society as a whole. Mr. White admits that he and his wife would personally not choose abortion, but this is only a personal and therefore a religious matter. The Bible must not be brought into the arena of the civil magistrate. This is to mix church and state.

Two-kingdoms aside and whether Jesus had anything to say about God and Caesar, why is it so hard for evangelicals to separate what America does from what they as believers do? I don’t build bridges, therefore the United States government should not. I would not declare war on another nation or shoot another person, therefore American governments should not fight or enforce the law by force? Can you say delusions of grandeur? Sure you can.

But if you want to side with the feminists that the personal is political, then welcome to evangelical political reflection.

Could Billy Graham Stand in Alan Jacobs’ Great Day?

Jacobs is a smart fellow and should have enough sense to beware of crowds. If the group is running one way, to paraphrase Glenn Loury, “head for the other.” Right now, group-think is decidedly against any evangelical who supported or voted for Trump.

I did not vote for Trump nor am I an evangelical. So I am a neutral in all the Trump- and evangelical-bashing.

Jacobs recently attributed Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s folly in coddling up to the current POTUS to the poor education he received from his father, Jerry Falwell I:

Point the first: Jerry Falwell, Jr., though not a pastor and holding no advanced degrees in Bible or theology, graduated from two institutions founded by his pastor father for the express purpose of offering seriously Christian education: Liberty Christian Academy and then Liberty University. (JF Jr.’s college major was Religious Studies.)

Point the second: As is evident from the statements that French discusses in his post, Jerry Falwell, Jr. shows no evidence of having even the most elementary understanding of what the Bible says and what the Christian Gospel is.

The problem, as discerning readers will already have noted, is how to reconcile these two points. How could someone raised as Jerry Falwell, Jr. was raised, educated as he was educated, living as he now lives, say that Jesus “did not forgive the establishment elites”? Could he really not know that Jesus said of those establishment elites who killed him, “Father, forgive them”? And this is not an isolated incident. Quite often in recent months JF Jr. (like a number of other evangelical leaders) has made statements that clearly contradict some of the best-known passages in the Bible.

Notice what happens if you apply these standards to Billy Graham. Did his “decisionism” actually express the gospel faithfully? You don’t need to read white papers from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to know that the greatest evangelical of all time may have not used the best of methods or theology to reach the unconverted or lukewarm. Just listen to Tim Challies:

Last weekend Billy Graham preached at what may be his final crusade, preaching before up to 82,000 people at a time. A headline at Pastors.com proclaimed the crusade a great success, indicating that some 12,000 people made decisions for Christ. In a previous article I expressed concerns with Graham’s ecumenism and the fact that Roman Catholic counselors would be present at the event and any people who made decisions and indicated they were from a Catholic background would be directed back to their Catholic churches. Today I’d like to examine the idea of the “decision” that weights so heavily at these crusades.

If you were to do a survey of church history, reading books and documents from the first century all the way to the early nineteenth century, you would find no mention of “decisions for Christ.” Similarly one would find no reference to the altar calls which are the culmination of every modern evangelistic crusade. Those elements, which are found in nearly every evangelical church today, were inventions generally attributed to evangelist Charles Finney who lived from 1792 to 1875. He emphasized the need for a decision, usually made by “coming forward” to approach the altar. Becoming a believer became synonymous with making a decision and proving that decision by taking physical action. It is important to note that this system is entirely foreign to the Scriptures.

Bam!!

By the way, Billy Graham’s theological education was not exactly first-rate, but it didn’t prevent him from preaching his entire life. Nor did it raise questions about the institution where Alan Jacobs used to teach — Wheaton College — which in 1943 granted Graham a degree in — wait for it — anthropology.

In addition to Jacobs’ fastidiousness about Falwell’s theology is the professor’s distaste for the Liberty University president’s politics. Just say Donald Trump and you’ve said all you need to.

But just how reassuring were Billy Graham’s political ties during his long career? What would Jacobs’ have written about Billy Graham conducting worship services in the Nixon White House? And it went beyond worship:

Rev. Billy Graham, the Montreat-based, world-renowned evangelist, long ago addressed some of his troublesome interactions with President Richard Nixon, but disclosures about their behind-the-scenes connections have kept surfacing.

Now, formerly classified and otherwise hidden parts of the daily diary kept by Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, have added even more to the record on Nixon and Graham’s tight relationship.

Last week, on the day before Graham celebrated his 96th birthday, the Nixon Presidential Library posted most of the previously unreleased parts of Haldeman’s “candid personal record and reflections on events, issues and people encountered during his service in the Nixon White House,” as the library describes the diary.

The records add a new level of detail on how Nixon and Graham consulted and bolstered each other during contentious times, with dissent over the Vietnam War sweeping the country, the Watergate scandal erupting, and both men sizing up their standing in national debates.

Most of the records came in the form of audio recordings, which can be heard below.

They expand on how Graham advised Nixon to make more effective speeches, clinch his 1972 re-election bid, address the nation’s spiritual woes and conduct matters of war and diplomacy.

“I talked to Billy Graham during the day,” Haldeman, who ultimately became the key conduit between the preacher and the president, noted in one newly released tape from May 8, 1971, the day Nixon made a major address on his decision to expand the war in Southeast Asia.

“And he said to tell the president to get tough, that that’s what people wanted.”

The point here is not to besmirch Billy Graham. If you were an evangelical you had to scratch your head a lot. Instead, the point is to wonder about the bar that critics of evangelicals like Alan Jacobs are now raising for the likes of Jerry Falwell II. Old Life holds no brief for Mr. Falwell’s mix of religion and politics. But some can wonder where the critics were in the days of Billy Graham.

As the Church Lady used to say, “isn’t that convenient.”

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.

Maybe not Audacious, but Supreme

Look ma, an argument against the imperial Supreme Court without the crutches of w-w (trigger warning – not written by a Protestant):

Brown is the most important decision ever rendered by the United States Supreme Court. Its significance lies much less in its impact on the civil rights movement, which was indirect at most, than in establishing the idea that the judicial branch holds a monopoly on constitutional interpretation. Though controversial in 1954, the Segregation Cases (as Brown was initially called) are today almost universally regarded as the epitome of judicial wisdom and courage. Because the Supreme Court did what is considered so obviously right when the rest of the political system would not, it came to be considered preeminent among the three branches of the federal government.

It is still living off the moral capital acquired in Brown. Three years after that decision, the Court, enforcing the desegregation of Little Rock High School in Arkansas, went so far as to assert that its interpretation of the Constitution was the Constitution, the “supreme law of the land.” In 1992, the majority wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

The American people’s belief in themselves . . . as a people who aspire to live according to the rule of law is not readily separable from their understanding of the Court invested with the authority to decide their constitutional cases and speak before all others for their constitutional ideals.

In other words, the rule of law depends on the rule of judges. The American people and their elected officials have largely acquiesced in this usurpation. Public opinion polls show that the Court is near the top of institutions that Americans trust—way above Congress and the media, behind only the police, the military, and small business.

See? It is possible to reach politically conservative positions without resorting to theology or the Bible. In fact, theologians and pastors who write about politics as theologians and pastors usually let theology and the Bible get in the way of the Constitution.

Theonomists All

If you thought Calvinists and Muslims had a problem accepting political liberalism, wait til you see this (from a review of American Law from a Catholic Perspective: Through A Clearer Lens):

Over and over again, we see the deep chasm between the Catholic understanding of the human person and the anthropology implied by American liberalism. The difference is stark. The former conceives of each human being as a person—a relational being, in relationship to God and others and dependent on God and others. The latter sees each human being as an individual who can make and fashion his own being and existence autonomously and apart from God and others. God is a valid choice, but he is just that, a choice. The Catholic lawyer cannot help but feel a dissonance between his deepest beliefs and the law he is called to practice each day. American Law from a Catholic Perspective helps to remind readers where their allegiances must lie. The attentive reader can begin to see the ways in which he must work to change American law at its very roots to help it conform to the truth proclaimed by the Church. (Briefly Noted)

Doesn’t “at its very roots” mean radical?

And here I thought 2k was rad.