Personal Sins Require the Cross, Institutional Sins Only Need Policy

Here’s why the talk of systemic sin and social salvation comes up short. It underestimates the gravity of sin and the significance of the remedy. Consider R. York Moore’s case for corporate repentance:

Salvation for American Christians is a transaction between two individuals—themselves and God. This over-simplification of sin does not make sense of systemic, corporate evil, brokenness, and social maladies. American evangelicals reason that if someone is poor, perhaps it is due to his or her individual sinful choices. If someone is denied access to education, perhaps it is because of his or her work ethic or ability to work with others.

Notice that relations between God and man on the sin score card over simplify sin. Never mind that the remedy for my sin only required the eternal son of God to take human form and bear the guilt and penalty of my sin by dying a brutal death. Overly simple? I don’t think so.

Moore goes on to mention ways that healing and restoration “in Christ” may come for the social maladies and corporate injustices of “banking and land development policies [that locked blacks] into cycles of poverty, inadequate housing, and educational opportunities.”

Here are a couple ways to engage the environments, cycles, and systems of injustice that disproportionately impact Black communities.
• Land developers can work with political leaders to create affordable housing that has better potential for wealth creation.
• Policy makers in the banking industry can work toward pathways of empowerment for Black entrepreneurs.
• Law enforcement can pursue racialized quotas in their ranks coupled with substantive ethnic diversity training.

If I follow the implications of Moore’s logic, viewing sin from the perspective of sin and salvation is simplistic because corporate sin is so much more complicated. But the remedy for these structural sins that are so much graver than personal sins comes from a few policy changes that seem inconsequential when compared to the crucifixion.

This is why talk of social sin and social redemption is worrisome. It treats the saving work of Christ as insignificant compared to political reform.

Who’s simplistic now?

Selective Implicit Bias

The journalistic treatment of the Larycia Hawkins controversy at Wheaton College is out (written by a lapsed Orthodox Presbyterian no less). Once again evidence of academic naivete cloaked in a pose of dissent and asking hard questions emerges.

I have no problem with Dr. Hawkins questioning jingoistic American patriotism or American Protestants who wrap themselves in the flag. American civil religion is national patriotism at it worst and Protestants have been especially egregious in their fawning over American greatness (though for the last 30 years they have had lots of help from Neuhaus Roman Catholics). But if you challenge Americanism, don’t you also have to question Islam?

A year or two after arriving on campus, [Hawkins] developed a distaste for performances of patriotism and decided to stop saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. “I feel very strongly that my first allegiance is to a different kingdom than an earthly kingdom,” she told me. “It’s to a heavenly kingdom, and it’s to the principles of that kingdom.” Evangelicals tend to emphasize righteousness on an individual scale, but Hawkins was becoming attracted to theological traditions that emphasize systemic sin and repentance.

In particular, she was reading a lot of black liberation theology, a strain of thinking that emerged from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Jesus’ central mission was to liberate the oppressed, the philosophy argues, but mainstream American Christianity is beholden to irredeemably corrupt “white theology.” The tone of black liberation is often angry — think of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “God damn America” sermon — and conservative evangelicals are wary of it because of its theological pessimism and its politically radical roots. But Hawkins was beginning to view many of the Bible’s commands through a lens of race and class. “Theology is always contextual,” she told me, a core idea of black liberation theology. She said that evangelicals have trouble confronting “an ontological blackness of Christ.” Responding to Wheaton’s charge for professors to “integrate faith and learning,” she took these ideas into the classroom.

Fine. But an academic’s job is also to ask hard questions about Islam, liberation theology, and Jeremiah Wright. It’s not fair selecting which ox you gore.

A Liberal Cigar Smoker? Go Figure

Don’t always believe all that the Allies tell you.

Thanks to our southern correspondent now comes news (only 25 years old) that Charles Spurgeon brought politics into the pulpit (good and hard):

The great preacher did not shun political questions as a diversion from spiritual religion. Although he kept political ventures within limits, especially in his sermons, he urged others to go further. “I often hear it said,” runs one passage in a sermon, “ ‘Do not bring religion into politics.’ This is precisely where it ought to be brought, and set there in the face of all men as on a candlestick.”

Not only that, he was a Liberal:

Spurgeon’s identification with the Liberal Party is well illustrated by an address to local voters that he issued at the 1880 general election. “Are we to go on slaughtering and invading in order to obtain a scientific frontier and feeble neighbours?” he asked. “Shall all great questions of reform and progress be utterly neglected for years? … Shall the struggle for religious equality be protracted and embittered? … Shall our National Debt be increased?”

Spurgeon was advocating four great principles. First, he was protesting against the recent imperialistic ventures of a Conservative government; that was a stand for peace. Second, he was calling for measures of change that would benefit the common people; that was a commitment to reform. Third, he was urging religious equality, the distinctive aim of Nonconformists. Fourth, he was demanding a decrease in wasteful public spending; that was a recommendation of retrenchment.

Nothing wrong with being a Liberal, and the British Liberal Party was more akin to positions advocated by Republicans and Progressives in the United States. So we’re not talking Barack Hussein Obama or John Kerry. Still, I sure would like to know how you minister the word of God and endorse a party platform outside the promised land of Israel. Can we get a little exegesis here?

2K Makes You (and mmmeeeeEEEE) Virtuous

That’s because two-kingdom theology allows you to distinguish between what is and isn’t explicitly a matter of faith.

For instance, Rod Dreher goes batty over Ben Carson’s remark (in support of Trump) that “Sometimes you put your Christian values on pause to get the work done.”

Unless Rod is thinking about joining the Covenanters, his very citizenship is an instance of putting aside Christian convictions — the Constitution, hello! — in order to accomplish a measure of social order among a people with different religious (and other) convictions. Or is Dreher in favor, as an Orthodox Christian, of some kind of Constantine political order? Then please send back the advance on the book on the Benedict Option since the original Benedict Option arose out of a sense that political establishment compromised genuine faith.

A little 2k could also help Archbishop Chaput who seems to be doing his impersonation of college undergraduates who fear the campus of Princeton University is but little removed from Ferguson, Missouri. The wikileaks of emails with critical remarks about Roman Catholic political maneuvering shows a hyper-sensitivity normally associated with 19-year olds (maybe spoiled ones at that). Chaput quotes approvingly an email from a non-Roman Catholic friend:

I was deeply offended by the [Clinton team] emails, which are some of the worst bigotry by a political machine I have seen. [A] Church has an absolute right to protect itself when under attack as a faith and Church by civil political forces. That certainly applies here . . .

Over the last eight years there has been strong evidence that the current administration, with which these people share values, has been very hostile to religious organizations. Now there is clear proof that this approach is deliberate and will accelerate if these actors have any continuing, let alone louder, say in government.

These bigots are actively strategizing how to shape Catholicism not to be Catholic or consistent with Jesus’s teachings, but to be the “religion” they want. They are, at the very core, trying to turn religion to their secular view of right and wrong consistent with their politics. This is fundamentally why the Founders left England and demanded that government not have any voice in religion. Look where we are now. We have political actors trying to orchestrate a coup to destroy Catholic values, and they even analogize their takeover to a coup in the Middle East, which amplifies their bigotry and hatred of the Church. I had hoped I would never see this day—a day like so many dark days in Eastern Europe that led to the death of my [Protestant minister] great grandfather at the hands of communists who also hated and wanted to destroy religion.

Michael Sean Winters thinks that the charge of anti-Catholic bigotry is overheated and shows the calming effects of 2k:

The supposed “bigotry” towards the Catholic Church exposed in the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, released by Wikileaks last week, is nothing of the sort, despite the best attempts of some to make it so. This whole controversy is simply an effort, a stupid effort, to stop Clinton’s ascent to the White House. I say stupid because crying “wolf” is never a smart political or cultural strategy and, besides, anyone who is genuinely concerned about bigotry could not possibly be supporting Trump. This is about Republican operatives who hold the portfolio for Catholic outreach doing their part to ingratiate themselves with Trump.

Even though Winters is Roman Catholic and writes for the National Catholic Reporter, his additional comments reveal that he understands 2k and is willing to employ it:

First, conservative Catholics have every right to be Republicans, to try and play their faith in ways that correspond to their conscience, to reach conclusions that might differ from that of more liberal Catholics. They sometimes leave aside certain concerns that I think are central to the relevance of our faith at this time in history, but as Halpin said in explaining the context of the email, there are those on the left who do the same. The bastardization came when conservative Catholics claimed theirs was the only acceptable application of faith. Second, by aiding the reduction of faith to morals, these conservative Catholics have unwittingly been agents of the very same secularization they claim to oppose. As soon as our faith is no longer about the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, it has no claims to authority and people will walk away.

The only problem for Winters is that his bishops and pope keep commenting on political matters that invite the laity to bastardize the faith by seeking papal authority to back up — like — their own opinions — man.

Even Kevin DeYoung sheds a little 2k light to the allies who are usually tongue-tied by the transformationalist rhetoric of its NYC celebrity preachers:

This does not mean I think every Christian must come to the same decision in order to be a good Christian. There are simply too many prudential matters in the mix for Christians to be adamant that you absolutely cannot vote for so and so. . . . While our church might discipline a member for holding the positions Clinton holds or for behaving the way Trump has behaved, this does not mean we have biblical grounds for disciplining a church member who, for any number of reasons and calculations, may decide that voting for either candidate (or neither) makes the most sense. And if we wouldn’t discipline someone for a presidential vote, we should stop short of saying such a vote is sinful and shameful.

Now just imagine if Pastor DeYoung’s church or those of his gospel co-allies actually disciplined ministers who supported ministries of different faith and practice. It would be like having the Gospel Coalition show precisely the opposite of what DeYoung recommends for Christians when sorting out politics — firm about theology and ministry, soft about policy. But as we now know, the opposite is usually par for the course — indifferent about denominational distinctness and aggressive about civil affairs.

More 2k, more confessionalism, healthier churches, better citizens. Will that fit on a bumper sticker?

At the Other End of the Spectrum — Evangelicals and Liberals Cooperative

Tracey McKenzie links to sensible comments from Amy Black about a Christian citizen’s duty in the context of partisan politics:

When we do choose to respond, we can critique issue positions, individual candidates, and even the system itself with a proper sense of humility. When debates are framed in terms of personal gains or losses, we can reorient the discussion toward broader questions of political justice, asking what biblical values are at stake and what paths are most likely to serve the common good.

We can offer a quieter, less emotionally-charged counterpoint, presenting our arguments with respect and care. We can also take time to learn about political controversies before commenting on them, checking details with multiple sources and considering a range of viewpoints. Most importantly, we should commit the election, our political system, and all those participating in it to prayer.

Voter dissatisfaction has been growing for decades, and the underlying problems that have led to such anger will not be easily solved. But we can chart a different path in how we respond, modeling humbler and more informed political communication.

I’m all for learning about matters before commenting. Common good? That’s good too. And prayer is always what Jesus would do.

But I don’t know what the Bible has to do with it. Yes, on some moral matters that government oversees, biblical teaching comes into view. But Scripture never saysthat what the policy should be or what the law should say.

As much as I appreciate Black’s effort to calm Christians down, she still sounds like she thinks Christianity is a norm for public life. And if that is so, how does she avoid going whole hog with Leithart or Schindler?

How Others Hear Us

So if Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant, want a Christian society or commonwealth or polity, what does that mean for non-Christians? That seems to me the question that most critics of 2k fail to answer. It is also a question to which 2k supplies an answer that 2k critics reject.

But consider this contribution to the Commentary magazine forum of the First Things symposium on “The End of Democracy”:

Years ago (how many, I do not remember) I was on a panel with the late Russell Kirk, the doyen of the paleoconservatives, and sitting behind him when, at the podium, he outlined his plan for a Christian commonwealth. Rather rudely, I must admit, I interrupted him by asking, in a voice audible throughout the room, “What are you going to do with us Jews?” The question obviously took him aback, first because he knew I was not Jewish, but most of all, I suspect, because it had never occurred to him to ask it, or to have to answer it. After a short pause, he mumbled something to the effect that, of course, he did not mean to exclude Jews or anyone else.

Having raised the question, I felt obliged to point out that the Constitution provides a better answer: by separating church and state, I said, the Founders intended to provide (in the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) a haven “for all sorts and conditions of men,” and the foundation of this haven—safe for the Jews and safe for the rest of us—was not Christianity, and certainly not the church of that prayerbook, but liberty of conscience, a liberal principle whose provenance was John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.

Sure, a secular society has limitations. But so do Christian societies.

So why can’t we all get along and be thankful for the United States of America?

When It Was Unthinkable that the State Would Affirm God

Thanks to his typing skills, Mark Van Der Molen reproduces a remark that Alan Strange made in his discussion at Reformed Forum on the spirituality of the church:

The separation of church and state, the distinction of church and state is something entirely different from the separation of faith from politics, or even God from State. None of those men believed in the separation of God from State. Even in public ways, all of them believed….basically Thornwell argued and so did Robinson, that it is immoral. Any state that is atheistic is immoral. They both argued that. If you read Robinson and Thornwell, and particularly Hodge, I think you will see they have clear points of integration. They have them in any number of ways, they all believed that it was immoral and unthinkable that the State would deny God or Christ in a general way.

(Alan, if you’re reading, I’m not picking on you. I am using your remarks to clarify, in which case disagreement may be beneficial.)

First, I do wonder about the difference between an atheistic and an idolatrous state. If the false gods are no gods, isn’t then every state without the Triune God revealed in Holy Writ an atheistic state. Is Turkey any better than the Soviet Union if the former acknowledges Allah in some way but the Soviets denied God? What about a Jewish state like Israel? Or how about a Mormon state like Utah? If states become immoral by virtue of atheism, aren’t they also immoral by denying the true God?

That puts Alan and Van Der Molen, perhaps, closer to the Puritans and a confessional state than to Robinson and Hodge who seemingly welcomed a secular government like the United States but rejected an atheistic state.

But keep in mind the progression of states that include God in their operations:

Puritans — they admitted only Puritans and excluded Baptists, Quakers, and Lutherans (for starters)

1820s U.S. — was friendly primarily to Protestants though all faiths could worship, which was a decisive break from 1640 Boston and 1550 Geneva

1950s U.S. — American society recognized a tri-faith monotheism informally of Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews while also putting God on coins and in the Pledge of Allegiance, which was a break from 1820s Protestant dominated America

2010s U.S. — American society apparently has no religious standards and may even give sectarian faiths a hard time, which is a break from 1950s tri-faith America

The trend here is toward greater diversity and toleration. 2kers are trying to stop the bleeding by reconfiguring what God requires. The 2k conclusion, tentatively, is that God does not reveal a definite pattern for politics. The church is one thing, the state another. 2kers also try to learn lessons from the past and how earlier efforts to establish religious standards could not compete with the movement of peoples or the growing authority of the nation-state to regulate its citizens affairs in a way that achieved a measure of social unity.

What critics of 2k need to do is stop showing how 2k departs from the past. We get that. What critics need to do is not foment fear for disagreeing with Calvin or Winthrop — as if Protestants have post-canonical authorities whom we must follow. Critics need to propose an equation for God-and-state that is either required by God’s word (especially the part where Paul recommends submission to Nero) or that does justice to the lives that Christians now lead and somewhat enjoy.

2k is not novel in one sense. It advocates the spirituality of the church which is a part of the Western Christian tradition going back to Augustine, Paul, and Jesus. In another sense it is new — in the novos ordo seclorum way. 2k proposes a re-consideration of political theology in the light of modern social arrangements that is still true to Scripture and Reformed theology.

Is that any more scary than suggesting that the United States ban idolatry?