But We Already Have Ethics Experts

Several weeks ago while listening to NPR I heard a phrase I had not encountered before — ethics experts. These were people with expertise to comment on the conflict of interests surrounding the newly elected President Trump (as if the press needs to hind behind such expertise). This is part of the story in particular:

We are continuing our coverage of the Trump administration’s executive orders implementing a permanent ban on those coming from Syria and a temporary ban of citizens coming from six additional Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan.

Now, one aspect of the new policy that has drawn notice are countries that are not on the list, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. And those are the countries of origin of a number of people who carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. starting with September 11, 2001. Those countries also happen to be places where President Trump and his family have business interests.

That’s one reason ethics experts continue to raise questions about how President Trump is addressing potential conflicts or even the appearance of them.

I also noticed that one of the experts to which the reporters turned was — wait for it — formerly in the Obama administration:

One of them, for example, spoke with NPR. That’s Norm Eisen. He’s a former ethics adviser to President Obama, and he’s a fellow now at Brookings Institution. He says that it looks to him like Trump was singling out countries that did not pay him tribute. That was his words.

If Rush Limbaugh brought on ethics experts to comment on Nancy Pelosi, would anyone inside the editorial offices of NPR think such expertise credible?

But we are surrounded now by ethical expertise (though it seems to be fairly easy to come by — a general rather than expert sense).

But ethics experts say the broader conflict between the White House and Nordstrom is more worrisome, raising questions about whether the United States is entering a new environment in which presidents use government to steer money to their inner circles.

Here’s another:

Outside ethics experts say Trump’s conflicts-of-interest plan does almost nothing to clear up problems that could arise during his presidency. Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the plan “meaningless.” Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics attorney under President Obama, told Mother Jones that Trump’s plan “falls short in every respect.”

And yet, just six months ago, according to a Google word search, ethics experts were not so easy to come by (even in the midst of all the allegations swirling around both the Clinton and Trump campaigns). One story wondered about ethical food:

Andrew Chignell, a philosophy professor at Cornell University who teaches an ethics in eating course each spring, had a change of heart when he embraced a vegan diet five years ago. But he still identifies as more of a flexitarian when he’s been invited to someone’s home for a meal.

Another commented on the ethics of a judge:

A controversial Nashville judge who retroactively signed orders committing dozens of people to mental health institutions violated ethics rules by doing so, according to a judicial expert’s opinion.

Another link led to the defense of such a thing as an ethics expert:

Within my sub-genre of philosophy – practical ethics – the suspicion of public engagement has a more specific cause. It’s often asserted that moral philosophers can’t claim expertize in ethics in the same way a chemist, for example, can be an expert on a molecule.

That’s a concern that puzzles me. Certainly there’s some evidence – from the UC Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel – that those who write about and teach courses in ethics are no more ethical than anybody else. And it’s true that specializing and so commanding authority in trichloro-2-methyl-2-propanol is disanalogous in various ways to being an authority in some corner of practical ethics – not least in how this expertize can be tested.

Still, I want to defend the expertize of moral philosophers, to maintain that their views in their chosen field merit respect and at least a degree of deference.

But now, after the Trump victory, ethics experts are easy to find.

So when John Fea says that times such as these call for the special work of historians, I’m left wondering what ethical work is left to do once every journalist and editor and academic and Hollywood celebrity has already taken a number to condemn Trump again:

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals. Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now. History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions. They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

Is the argument for not living like Trump based on evidence or on ethics? Were historians worried about Trump before becoming president? Did they condemn billionaires, real estate developers, adulterers, divorcees, outer borough New Yorkers? Now, when some of the coarser aspects of American society attach themselves to the presidency — as if for the first time — we need historians to teach us how not to be like Trump?

I get it. My friend John finds Donald Trump repellent. (Is that ethical for a Christian who is called to love his enemy? Think Jesus and Zacchaeus.) But again, why gussy it up in the aura of academic expertise? Speak truth to power as a citizen. Do it as a Christian. But as a historian do remember that ethics is a different academic discipline that seldom leaves history as an unfamiliar territory. Moral indignation renders the past something to be condemned for not meeting now’s standards.

No Legal Precedent, but Lots of Self-Righteousness

A legal scholar weighs in on local governments (think Boston) and churches that are creating sanctuaries for refugees:

While many cities have already begun to declare themselves sanctuary spaces for the undocumented, in fact there is currently no body of law or judicial precedent to which they are appealing.

“There’s really no legal definition of what sanctuary means,” explained Pham. (Even the most recent 1983 Code of Canon Law no longer refers to the practice.)

A bizarre result is that definition of the term “sanctuary” will end up coming from the executive branch.

“The President is threatening to withhold funding from sanctuary cities,” Pham said. “When he writes an executive order to do so, he’s going to have to define what it means.”

Some religious institutions might consider claiming that the declaration of sanctuary is an exercise of the rights afforded to religious organizations under the First Amendment. But that tactic will be of limited use to those seeking sanctuary, Pham said.

Such a claim, he explained, “is going to be resolved through a legal process through the courts, months later. It won’t be resolved then and there. And by that time the undocumented person may have already been arrested and deported.”

Pham also pointed out, “The housing of undocumented people is not necessarily covered under the First Amendment.”

So, the first thing to know, Pham said, is that to declare oneself a sanctuary “is mainly a symbolic statement of support.

In other words, no real help to the refugees, but lots of solace to the self seeking the superior life.

Magistrates Should Enforce the Whole Decalogue?

Mencken recognized the fallacy of enforcing morality but not theology (“thou shalt have no other gods before me”):

It is moral tyranny that now afflicts These States, and the worst of the matter is that thousands of Americans seem disposed to submit to it without protest.. If theological tyranny were revived tomorrow, they would loose a bellow loud enough to shake the earth, but in the face of moral tyranny they remain silent and sit still. Thus it is that militant moralists, moved by that will to power which is universal in man, have proceeded from excess to excess, until now an almost endless roll of wholly harmless acts is under the ban of the law.

It is unlawful in Baltimore for a citizen to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Sabbath. It is unlawful for him to buy a cigar. It is unlawful for him to have his hair cut. It is unlawful for him, on a summer Sunday, to recreate himself by playing baseball. In various large areas of his city he is forbidden to buy a bottle of wine, even on a week-day. Many plays that he may want to see, indubitable works of art, are barred from the theatres he patronizes. He is forbidden to possess certain great and valuable books, or to send them to his friends by mail. The law decides what games of chance he shall play and what games of chance he shall not play, and the division is purely arbitrary and nonsensical.

What is more, this invasion of his common rights is still going on. Here in Baltimore there are half a dozen organizations devoted exclusively to the concoction and prohibition of new and wholly artificial crimes. And in Washington the Congress of the United States is preparing to pass a law making it a crime for a man to have a bottle of beer in his possession–not to sell it or give it away, remember, but merely to have it.

What is the theory at the bottom of all this oppressive and intolerable legislation? Simply the theory that no man shall do, even in his own house, anything which the majority of his fellow-citizens do not care to do in their houses. His act need not be vicious in itself; it need not be dangerous; it need not be disturbing to his neighbors. All it need be is abhorrent to the opinion of those neighbors, or, to be more exact, to the opinion of 51 per cent. of them. This is the theory at the bottom of moral snouting and moral legislation, and this was also the theory at the bottom of the hanging of Jews and Quakers, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew and the Inquisition in Spain.

No sane man, I take it, objects to laws necessary to the public security, even when they limit his own liberties. I have never heard anyone defend burglary, or arson, or rape. I doubt that any such defense has ever been made in Christendom. But is it necessary to the public security that boys who work hard all week be forbidden to take reasonable recreation on Sunday? Is it necessary to the public security that a sane man, fully competent to take care of himself, be forbidden to drink a bottle of beer? Is it necessary to the public security that a good citizen be forbidden to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony one day out of every seven, or that he be forbidden to read the books he wants to read, or to see the plays be wants to see?

I think not. On the contrary, it seems to me that such prohibitions are wholly intolerable and indecent. It seems to me that any person who essays to enforce them upon free citizens is a far more dangerous criminal than that poor wretch who essays to pick their pockets. The pickpocket steals only a watch, and a man without a watch is still a man. But the militant moralist tries to steal liberty and self-respect, and the man who has lost both is a man who has lost everything that separates a civilized freeman from a convict in a chain-gang.

So again the question: why do Christians expect non-Christians to behave like Christians?

The 2017 Challenge

How can Christians who voted for Hillary show charity to Donald Trump?

This fellow doesn’t seem to have figured it out:

The “Year of our Lord” 2016 deserves the label, “The Year of the Jerk.” It has been a long time since exhibiting the maturity level of a toddler has been enabled so fiercely or rewarded so completely. Donald Trump looms as the obvious example in a crowded field. Trump’s bombastic style elevated the antics of schoolyard bullies to morbid political theater.

Many of the very people who encouraged me to stand up to bullies as a child in my small southern town were fervent flag wavers for the bully of bullies this campaign season. Rather than rejecting his candidacy due to these antics, Trump’s supporters seemed to feed on his absolute disdain for his fellow humans. Each broken taboo was like throwing red meat to a den of lions for many of his enthusiastic supporters.

Over and over again, we heard fervent Trumpites express their conviction that Trump is “real” because he “tells it like it is.” Yet there was nothing original, or even remotely factual, in much of what Trump had to say. It was the crass way he said it that appealed to an angry subset of American culture. The candidate himself, a trust fund product whose persona was manufactured by tabloid magazines and reality television, could not have been more manufactured, inauthentic, or unreal.

None of this is inherently wrong or objectionable as part of political debate (nor is it wrong to recognize Trump’s failure to manifest the fruit of the Spirit). But how do you promote Jesus’ message, the guy who hung out with publicans (not republicans) and tax collectors, and then do what the Pharisees did?

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17 ESV)

When oh when will the Christians who voted for Hillary stop being so unforgiving of the president-elect? When will they show charity even to sinners?

Reading about Machen in The Reformed Journal

Reformed Protestants 50 and up may have spent some of their reading hours with The Reformed Journal, a magazine of Dutch-American Calvinist provenance that came into existence as a forum for Christian Reformed Church progressives. I read it from my days as a seminary student until 1990 when it folded. I didn’t always agree with the politics or theology, but it was provocative and thoughtful.

Given the “progressive” character of the magazine, I should not have been surprised that TRJ’s regular contributors were slightly sympathetic but underwhelmed by J. Gresham Machen. That outlook bothered me because the deeper I went into the archives, the more impressed I was by the man who started Westminster Seminary and the OPC (with lots of help from others). In light of yesterday’s post with an excerpt from Machen’s testimony at his trial and with some reflections still fresh from the fall Presbyterian Scholars Conference (where several participants were experiencing the joy of post-PCUSA life but still not on board with Machen’s own version of that experience), I reproduce some high or low lights of TRJ takes on Machen.

First comes Rich Mouw’s argument that Machen’s departure actually hurt the cause of conservatism in the PCUSA (one echoed by George Marsden at the Wheaton conference):

Barbara Wheeler and I have argued much about the issues that threaten to divide us, but we share a strong commitment to continuing the conversation. She regularly makes her case for staying together by appealing to a high ecclesiology. The church, she insists, is not a voluntary arrangement that we can abandon just because we do not happen to like some of the other people in the group. God calls us into the church, and that means that God requires that we hang in there with one another even if that goes against our natural inclinations.

I agree with that formulation. And I sense that many of my fellow evangelicals in the PCUSA would also endorse it. The question that many evangelicals are asking these days, though, is whether God expects us to hang in there at all costs.

One of my reasons for wanting to see us stick together is that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely the cause of Reformed orthodoxy. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people with my kind of theology, have acted in the past, and I am convinced that splits inevitably diminish the influence of the kind of orthodoxy that I cherish — for at least two reasons.

First, the denomination from which the dissidents depart is typically left without strong voices to defend orthodox. This is what happened in the early decades of the 20th century when J. Gresham Machen and his colleagues broke away from the northern Presbyterian church.

I know that this is not a very popular thing to say in this setting, but I happen to be a strong admirer of Machen. I think that he pretty much had things right on questions of biblical authority, the nature of Christ’s atoning work, and other key items on the theological agenda. But I have strong reservations about his ecclesiology and I regret that his views about the unity of the church led him to abandon mainline Presbyterianism. As long as he remained within the northern church, he had a forum for demonstrating to liberals that Calvinist orthodoxy could be articulated with intellectual rigor. When he and his friends departed, this kind of witness departed with them.

The evangelicals who stayed on in the northern church generally did so because they were not as polemical as the Machen group; they were also not nearly as inclined as the Machenites to engage in sustained theological discussion. This meant that the quality of theological argumentation in mainline Presbyterianism suffered for several decades — some would even say up to our present time.

Not to let facts get in the way here, but Mouw would do well to remember that the PCUSA brought Machen to trial and excommunicated him. Yesterday’s post shows that Machen was not eager to flee even if it would have been a lot more pleasant. Whether his actions were legitimate or constitutional is another question. But he asked about the constitutionality of PCUSA actions and that didn’t endear him to the people who stayed. In fact, they tried him for having the temerity to question the soundness of the Board of Foreign Missions — as if that’s never happened — and the administrative fiats that condemned dissent.

I too wonder if Mouw considers that from 1869 until 1920 the PCUSA became infected by the social gospel and Protestant ecumenism. During that very same time Princeton Seminary as the voice of Reformed orthodoxy in the northern church was still dominated by conservatives. What happened during the years when Princeton kept alive the theology that Mouw values? Princeton and it’s orthodoxy became marginal and then a nuisance — hence the reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929. The idea that had Machen stayed conservatives would have done better is naive and ignores what actually happened before Machen “left.” Plus, what kind of high ecclesiology settles for articulating “Calvinist orthodoxy with intellectual rigor”?

George Marsden and Mark Noll regularly wrote for TRJ and again the returns on Machen were not always positive. First, Marsden:

Both at the time and since critics of Machen have suggested that there was something peculiar about him. Most often mentioned are that Machen remained a bachelor and his very close relationship to his mother until her death in 1931. Neither of these traits, however, was particularly unusual in the Victorian era, which certainly set many of Machen’s social standards.

More to the point is that he does seem to have had a flaring temper and a propensity to make strong remarks about individuals with whom he disagreed. One striking instance is from 1913 when Machen had an intense two-hour argument with B. B. Warfield over campus policy, after which Machen wrote to his mother that Warfield, whom he normally admired immensely, was “himself, despite some very good qualities, a very heartless, selfish, domineering sort of man.” You can imagine that, if someone says things like this about one’s friends, that it might be easy to make enemies. Machen does not seem to have had a great ability to separate people from issues, and this certainly added to the tensions on the small seminary faculty. Clearly he was someone whom people either loved or hated. His students disciples were charmed by him and always spoke of his warmth and gentlemanliness. His opponents found him impossible, and it is a fair question to ask whether, despite the serious issues, things might have gone differently with a different personality involved.

This observation continues to baffle me, as if people do not distinguish public from private statements. Maybe we are only learning that lesson after Donald Trump, but historians generally know that in the archives you find people saying all sorts of things that they wouldn’t say in public. In private we blow off steam, unless we are all walking John Piper’s and sanctified all the way down. I also don’t understand why Marsden starts his sentence on Machen’s personality with the man’s opponents found him impossible. Hello. The feeling was mutual. But Machen as a sanctified believer was supposed to find his adversaries hedonistically delightful?

And finally, Mark Noll’s estimate on the fiftieth anniversary of Machen’s death:

By reading controversies within Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian missions, and eventually the Presbyterian denomination as battles between two separate religions, “Christianity and Liberalism,” Machen undermined the effectiveness of those Reformed and evangelical individuals who chose to remain at Princeton Seminary, with the Presbyterian mission board, and in the Northern Presbyterian Church. By committing himself so strongly to theological and ecclesiastical combat, Machen left successors who were ill-equipped to deal with the more practical matters of evangelism, social outreach, and devotional nurture. By pursuing the virtues of confessional integrity, he opened the door to sectarian pettiness.

No real sense here that blaming the victim is a potential downside of such an interpretation. The perspective seemed so often in TRJ to be that Machen was a man on a mission and looking for a controversy. The bureaucrats and seminary administrators were innocent. (Yes, the lawyer who defended modernists in the 1920s, John Foster Dulles, became the Secretary of State who crafted the Eisenhower administration’s Cold War policies — the very administration that the founding editors of TRJ questioned.) The Presbyterian hierarchy simply responded — with a hammer, mind you — to Machen’s provocations. That could have been the case but no one argued that. They largely reduced Machen to a cantankerous figure who got what most of us would expect if we rock the boat the way he did.

And now in hindsight I wonder what these same men would think of Abraham Kuyper who was also part of a church that came out of the Netherlands’ state church. Didn’t Kuyper’s GKN (Reformed Churches of the Netherlands) make it a lot harder for conservatives who stayed in the NHK (Dutch Reformed Church)? And didn’t Kuyper’s Free University make life more complicated for orthodox theologians who remained at Leiden or Utrecht? (In other words, why wouldn’t it be possible to imagine Machen akin to Kuyper? Why doesn’t the Kuyper glow trickle down to Machen? Because Kuyper became Prime Minister and Machen merely president of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions?)

And what of John Calvin? Was he wrong to leave France? Did he leave Huguenots in the lurch? Was the Roman Catholic Church worse off without Calvin’s ministry and theological reflection? Or does the mind boggle at the questions you need to start asking other historical figures when you become so demanding of a figure of which you disapprove?

Law Enforcement: More Art than Sanctification

Mencken finds wisdom from the mayor of Toledo:

There are, to be sure, on the scrolls of the State, and on the books of the city, statutes and ordinances which forbid the commission of certain sins, and even enlarge venial offenses to the proportions of crimes for the sake of prohibiting them; and, having enacted this legislation, society seems to be content, because the theoretical remedy has been provided against evil. All that remains, according to the theory, is to “enforce” these statutes and ordinances, and the evils will vanish, the sins cease. But these remedies are theoretical only. They do not search out the mysterious and obscure causes of crime; they are concerned solely with the symptoms or surface indications of those deeply hidden causes. But, however that may be, these statutes and ordinances can be administered only by human agencies, and in their administration are encountered human obstacles. (VIRTUE BY STATUTE. From “The Enforcement of Law in Cities,” by Brand Whitlock)

If John Piper’s preaching can’t transform the human heart (without the Holy Spirit), how are Barney Fife and Andy Griffith?

Make It Stop

Yet another conversion account with these un-Francis like asides from a former Dutch Calvinist:

I also realized that there was actually no real Protestant faith in itself. The Protestant faith was founded on a protest against a faith, the Catholic Faith. Why would I ever want to part of a “church” that was actually no church at all; one that was racked by division and founded on protest!

The blindness that had always covered me was now gone. I saw that there were countless Protestant denominations, and that they all disagreed with each other on at least one important point of doctrine. This defied the very nature of Truth itself, and rendered all of them imperfect. I finally saw that there must be an authority to clear the air, which I now understand is the See of Peter.

But these questions soon evaporated into joy:

Towards the end of the Vigil, when I saw a number of people receiving their First Sacraments, I knew God was calling me to do the same thing. Mother Church was opening her arms out to me, and even though I knew many crosses would come my way if I ran to Her, I could not resist Her love. Family members of mine would shun me, professors would shake their heads as I had received prestigious scholarships in the Reformed Theology department, my future would be so uncertain, and friends would laugh, but it didn’t matter anymore.

Why doesn’t the fine print of conversion include mention of a stop in purgatory?

Purgatory (Lat., “purgare”, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

The faith of the Church concerning purgatory is clearly expressed in the Decree of Union drawn up by the Council of Florence (Mansi, t. XXXI, col. 1031), and in the decree of the Council of Trent which (Sess. XXV) defined:

“Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful” (Denzinger, “Enchiridon”, 983).

Further than this the definitions of the Church do not go, but the tradition of the Fathers and the Schoolmen must be consulted to explain the teachings of the councils, and to make clear the belief and the practices of the faithful.

Temporal punishment

That temporal punishment is due to sin, even after the sin itself has been pardoned by God, is clearly the teaching of Scripture. God indeed brought man out of his first disobedience and gave him power to govern all things (Wisdom 10:2), but still condemned him “to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow” until he returned unto dust. God forgave the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but in punishment kept them from the “land of promise” (Numbers 20:12). The Lord took away the sin of David, but the life of the child was forfeited because David had made God’s enemies blaspheme His Holy Name (2 Samuel 12:13-14). In the New Testament as well as in the Old, almsgiving and fasting, and in general penitential acts are the real fruits of repentance (Matthew 3:8; Luke 17:3; 3:3). The whole penitential system of the Church testifies that the voluntary assumption of penitential works has always been part of true repentance and the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, can. xi) reminds the faithful that God does not always remit the whole punishment due to sin together with the guilt. God requires satisfaction, and will punish sin, and this doctrine involves as its necessary consequence a belief that the sinner failing to do penance in this life may be punished in another world, and so not be cast off eternally from God.

Venial sins

All sins are not equal before God, nor dare anyone assert that the daily faults of human frailty will be punished with the same severity that is meted out to serious violation of God’s law. On the other hand whosoever comes into God’s presence must be perfectly pure for in the strictest sense His “eyes are too pure, to behold evil” (Habakkuk 1:13). For unrepented venial faults for the payment of temporal punishment due to sin at time of death, the Church has always taught the doctrine of purgatory.

Can you really be so happy about the uncertainty that awaits 99.9% of those who have to make, grace-assisted of course, satisfaction for their sins? If perfection is necessary, how can the imperfect ever be perfect? Protestantism may seem like a legal fiction. But Rome’s fiction is moral. Alien righteousness matters and this convert doesn’t seem to know that her welcoming mother church not only rejects but condemns such teaching.

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the LORD
and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Psalm 24:3-5 ESV)