Northern Ireland Proves American Exceptionalism

The attempt by Conservatives to form a government with the Democratic Unionist Party, the anti-Catholic organization of Northern Ireland, has generated attention on a form of politics that has white American evangelicals scratching their heads. On the one hand, the DUP is even more conservative on social issues than America’s religious right:

The DUP is also wed to a list of views regarding society and the culture wars. They believe in six-day Creation, reject homosexuality and are opposed to abortion. All well and good. I agree with them, but when these positions and doctrines (rooted in faith apprehended revelation) are put into a political platform wed to nationalism and violence… we have a problem. Their conduct leads not only to the discrediting of these Biblical doctrines but places them within a framework of political extremism, coercion and threat. Holding them means one is potentially part of a sect devoted to political violence and the desire for power.

On the other hand, the DUP has no place for American conservatives’ attachment to small government:

Within the broader context of Northern Ireland, the DUP’s position on “social issues” is not peculiar, therefore, but neither is their position on finance best described as “conservative.” Their strategy is to seek the extension rather than the limitation of the state, and the success of this policy, widely shared among Northern Ireland parties, has contributed to the fact that the area has the UK’s highest public spending per person, with tax revenues of £8,580 per person in 2016 falling far short of the public spending per person of £14,020. Northern Ireland’s taxpayers contribute little more than half of what it costs to run the province.

In point of fact, the DUP’s commitment to big government on social and economic matters makes the most sense to me. How you have a government that enforces Christian morality but then turns liberal when it looks at markets is incoherent. If you have small government that trusts responsible citizens not to abuse the freedoms of the market place, why do you need the state to enforce Christian ethical norms?

Everyone’s Doing It or Stop It (another anti-civil religion post)

Inspired by a post that questions Reinhold Niebuhr’s contributions to foreign policy and national politics, here goes a few morsels I ran across while teaching Christianity and politics last fall.

As much as conservatives and (some) evangelicals perceived the former president as a captive to secularism and relativism, President Obama’s use of civil religion was down right gobsmacking, so much so you wonder what the secular left was thinking when he said this:

For me, the celebration of Easter puts our earthly concerns into perspective. With humility and with awe, we give thanks to the extraordinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Savior. We reflect on the brutal pain that He suffered, the scorn that He absorbed, the sins that He bore, this extraordinary gift of salvation that He gave to us. And we try, as best we can, to comprehend the darkness that He endured so that we might receive God’s light.

And yet, even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’s sacrifice, on Easter we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday. The story keeps on going. On Sunday comes the glorious Resurrection of our Savior.

“Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day,” Dr. King once preached, “but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.” Drums that beat the rhythm of renewal and redemption, goodness and grace, hope and love. Easter is our affirmation that there are better days ahead — and also a reminder that it is on us, the living, to make them so.

Or this:

Around the world, we have seen horrific acts of terrorism, most recently Brussels, as well as what happened in Pakistan — innocent families, mostly women and children, Christians and Muslims. And so our prayers are with the victims, their families, the survivors of these cowardly attacks.

And as Joe mentioned, these attacks can foment fear and division. They can tempt us to cast out the stranger, strike out against those who don’t look like us, or pray exactly as we do. And they can lead us to turn our backs on those who are most in need of help and refuge. That’s the intent of the terrorists, is to weaken our faith, to weaken our best impulses, our better angels.

And Pastor preached on this this weekend, and I know all of you did, too, as I suspect, or in your own quiet ways were reminded if Easter means anything, it’s that you don’t have to be afraid. We drown out darkness with light, and we heal hatred with love, and we hold on to hope. And we think about all that Jesus suffered and sacrificed on our behalf — scorned, abandoned shunned, nail-scarred hands bearing the injustice of his death and carrying the sins of the world.

And it’s difficult to fathom the full meaning of that act. Scripture tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Because of God’s love, we can proclaim “Christ is risen!” Because of God’s love, we have been given this gift of salvation. Because of Him, our hope is not misplaced, and we don’t have to be afraid.

And as Christians have said through the years, “We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!” We are Easter people, people of hope and not fear.

Now, this is not a static hope. This is a living and breathing hope. It’s not a gift we simply receive, but one we must give to others, a gift to carry forth. I was struck last week by an image of Pope Francis washing feet of refugees — different faiths, different countries. And what a powerful reminder of our obligations if, in fact, we’re not afraid, and if, in fact, we hope, and if, in fact, we believe. That is something that we have to give.

His Holiness said this Easter Sunday, God “enables us to see with His eyes of love and compassion those who hunger and thirst, strangers and prisoners, the marginalized and the outcast, the victims of oppression and violence.”

To do justice, to love kindness –- that’s what all of you collectively are involved in in your own ways each and every day. Feeding the hungry. Healing the sick. Teaching our children. Housing the homeless. Welcoming immigrants and refugees. And in that way, you are teaching all of us what it means when it comes to true discipleship. It’s not just words. It’s not just getting dressed and looking good on Sunday. But it’s service, particularly for the least of these.

And whether fighting the scourge of poverty or joining with us to work on criminal justice reform and giving people a second chance in life, you have been on the front lines of delivering God’s message of love and compassion and mercy for His children.

This is the theology of progressivism. Jesus died to better the world, to advance equality, reduce poverty, spread peace. Conservatives have their own civil religion. It is just as bad. Jesus didn’t die for a stronger military or free markets. If reading Reinhold Niebuhr doesn’t prevent you from this excess, then reading Reinhold Niebuhr is pointless.

So cut it out. Join the 2k movement and hope in a kingdom (not a republic or democracy) not of this world.

Liberalism Does Not Frame 2k

When I read Jake Meador’s index of political theologies, I was generally in agreement and thought he accurately describe 2k. I guess my biggest disagreement was over his definition of liberalism:

When I speak of liberalism, I am referring to something broader than just left-wing politics or even some brand of liberalism realized in a single discipline, such as theological liberalism.

At its heart, liberalism is concerned with how human beings know things. As a system, it is suspicious of knowledge not derived from empirical observation. Thus it is suspicious of the claims of religious faith as they inform social life. Religious practice is fine for individuals, but any attempt to enforce a set of religiously based moral norms beyond the religious individual or maybe a voluntary religious community is suspect because the knowledge is not sure enough to justify political application. Indeed, this skepticism goes beyond a skepticism toward religious faith and goes so far as a skepticism toward any kind of comprehensive moral system that claims to be true in anything beyond a particular, local sense. We simply do not trust our moral judgments enough to think they can be binding in anything beyond an individualistic, voluntaristic sense. When this epistemological agnosticism becomes pervasive in a social order, you basically have some species of liberalism.

In an odd way, these instincts can make liberalism like a more traditional Christian sort of social order. It tells us that men should be persuaded rather than coerced into belief. It tells us that there is, as one friend put it, a “just area of sovereignty,” that each person possesses. However, the way that liberalism arrives at these ideas is not necessarily through the belief in a God who rules over creation and endows his creatures with dignity, honor, and freedom. Rather, they arrive at it through a lack of confidence in the ability of anybody to wield coercive authority justly or to infringe upon a person’s autonomy.

I don’t understand why you conceive of a political order in epistemological or philosophical categories. For mmmmmeeeEEEE, liberalism was mainly a way to overcome divine right monarchy that extends from Hammurabi through to those audacious claims for the papacy by canon lawyers in the thirteenth century down to French and British kings (among others) who objected to checks upon their power. The question that liberalism (classical) tackled was not how we know but what authority is legitimate. I guess you could push that back to epistemology. But why unless you privilege philosophy?

Meador went on to describe 2k’s relationship to liberalism this way:

The best way to get at the key difference between this group and the Radical Anabaptists is to highlight the differences in how they see the church’s relationship to civil society. For these thinkers, there is no problem with Christians participating in civil society. Indeed, such participation is inevitable. That is why Dr. Moore heads up an organization dedicated to protecting religious liberty and why Dr. Leeman and a number of his colleagues with 9 Marks pastor in Washington D.C. and support church planting efforts in the capitol city.

However, the good that these thinkers hope to achieve in all societies outside of the institutional church is purely natural while the goods they hope to achieve within the church are supernatural. The institutional church is, in Leeman’s understanding, an embassy for the Kingdom of God. Thus the institutional church as such is an institution of a qualitatively different sort than any other physical, visible institutions in the world. Likewise, Drs. VanDrunen, Hart, Clark, and Trueman have all at various times gotten very nervous about what they see as an attempt to sacralize work that is rightly understood as secular.

Thus there are two core pieces that unite the Post-Liberal Retreatists:

First, they have what I take to be a realistic and appropriately sober assessment of our cultural state.

Second, they see the work to be done in non-ecclesial institutions as being primarily defensive not only in our current moment, but in principle.

The positive work of taking hold of supernatural goods happens primarily in the institutional church. Thus the Post-Liberal Retreatists are suspended, as it were, between the Post-Liberal Protestants and the Radical Anabaptists. They share a similar read of the current cultural moment with both groups. Like the Post-Liberal Protestants, they still have a place for Christian participation in civil society. Like the Radical Anabaptists, they see the work of the institutional church as being qualitatively different than the work Christians do outside the church and essentially constructive in a way that civil society participation cannot be. So they would say, with the Anabaptists, that the church is a polis, but that it is not a comprehensive polis in the way that the Anabaptists use the term.

That sounds fair enough. But it locates 2k too much within the categories of the pre-modern and modern West. In fact, much of the blow back that 2k receives comes from Protestants who have a soft spot for Christian establishment in the form of the confessional state, whether Geneva’s City Council, Scotland’s monarch, or the Netherlands’ republic. Most critics of 2k want a Christian society of some kind. 2k is suspect, then, because it won’t support such a desire or programs to achieve such a society.

But what if Christendom or post-Christendom are not the only options? What about pre-Christendom? Here the idea is not that the time before Constantine was ideal but that a religiously diverse or even a religiously hostile environment is normal. It’s what Jesus and the apostles faced. Those are the conditions under which the church emerged and the canon established. For that reason, modern Christians should not think that either Christendom or a Christian friendly liberal government (like the U.S. before 1965) are the default settings for the church. Christianity can persist in any number of circumstances. It can be like the Old Testament promised land, like the Israelites in exile, like the early church under the domination of Rome, or even like Scottish Presbyterians in covenant with a divine-right monarch. Christianity is flexible. It’s not tied to one political order.

This perspective seems to inform Proto-Protestant in his assessment of political liberalism. Notice that he starts by identifying the way that Rome used to regard liberalism and the United States:

Classical Liberalism so poignantly represented by the United States was viewed as poison and a triumph of the secular over the sacred. Rome sought to protect its flock from the influences of American ideology. Classical Liberalism was the spawn of the Reformation’s triumph of the individual. The lone man was allowed to challenge and cast down all authority. This is the sociological aspect to Luther that many Protestants have failed to grasp. The individual gets to decide what is right and wrong and the Reformation unleashed epistemological uncertainty and the social chaos which began the long process of dismantling Christendom.

The Reformation led to Modernism and as a consequence Post-Modernism and now Nihilism.

Undoubtedly there is some truth to this narrative and the post World War II period has brought about a time of intellectual reconsideration on the part of Evangelical Protestants and not a few defections to both Rome and Constantinople. The political Papacy utterly defeated by the late 19th century reformed its teaching and came up with a new paradigm for the industrial secular age. Consequently it allied first with Fascism then with the West (in general) at the conclusion of the war. It began to build a new empire, one wed to the Capitalist forces so dominant in the Protestant world and joined the fight (real or imagined) against world Communism. Today Rome no longer rules a geopolitical realm but instead reigns over a vast financial empire and has regained a little of its lost ground.

Evangelicals have been forced to reckon with the problems of Christianity wed to Classical Liberalism and as I’ve written elsewhere there are tendencies both toward revisionist history and increasingly in the direction of abandoning Liberalism for a more Roman Catholic-friendly Throne and Altar type paradigm.

So if Protestants don’t follow Roman Catholics, where do they turn? The Bible and in so doing they abandon the sufficiency of Scripture. Protestants have made Scripture do more than it was supposed to:

There is undoubtedly much that is valid in the critique of Classical Liberalism and in what the Reformation unwittingly unleashed. And for this reason the glorification of Protestantism which is at its zenith in this 500th anniversary year, ought to be weighed carefully if not rejected.

But the truth of the critique is limited to the sociological realm.

The true problem is not individualism (which can indeed work to destroy society) but the attempt to formulate Sola Scriptura into a comprehensive societal worldview. That was a rival philosophical project rooted in speculation and dependent on speculative philosophical coherence… thus it fragmented.

The Reformers only began to toy with this question. Luther, perhaps the more conservative of the Reformers was content to sustain the Medieval-Renaissance order and sit under the protection of a so-called Christian prince. Calvin’s Geneva moved in the direction of Authoritarian Republican government. Zwingli took up the sword (so to speak) and died by it on the battlefield.

It was in the 17th century that Protestant Scholasticism began to earnestly reckon with the implications of the Reformation applied to society. It was at this point that Sola Scriptura as a social organising principle failed. Rightly so I would add, as the New Testament nowhere even envisions a Christian State/Christendom project. In fact it repudiates the very notion of it.

In wedding Reformation theology to the Christendom project the Protestant Reformers and certainly the Scholastics after them undermined their own vision and sowed the seeds for epistemological collapse. They employed (and even exploited) the Scripture for something it was not meant to be used for. In the end their project exploded into the 17th century Wars of Religion and ultimately undermined not only their social vision… but their theological and ecclesiastical hopes as well….

But even granting the narrative that Liberalism and Modernism were the natural outgrowth of Protestant theology applied to society, then such a notion must be condemned as sub-Biblical. It does not represent New Testament doctrine either in its concepts of values. Confidence in reason? I think not. Rights? The individual? Progress? None of the concepts are found in the New Testament. Only deformed Judaizing hermeneutics can locate them through distorted readings of the Old Testament.

If liberalism is not the basis for evaluating politics or its reaction to Christendom, the proper starting point for political theology is as Paul Helm recently observed Christ’s teaching that his kingdom is not of this world. Proto-Protestant explains what that means for 2k (even if he does not self-identify as 2k):

Speaking generally if both paradigms were and are wrong, what then are we to make of the so-called and very misnamed Judeo-Christian West? Not much. As a society it has some very good things about it and many that are rightly condemned. Christian it is not. And the more it is associated with Christianity the more problematic it becomes.

As pilgrims we understand that this world is not our home. We look for a city to come, a new heavens and new earth. We can live and function as the salt and light Oracular Church in any culture and civilisation. That said, some will be more pleasant than others. But pleasant isn’t always better, especially if it leads to laxity, complacency and confusion. Though not pleasant the most spiritually vivacious times of my life have been during periods of hardship and opposition. It’s not pleasant to live that way but the antithesis becomes razor sharp which spiritually speaking is healthy. It’s a good place to be. If goods, lands, and prosperity are set aside and no longer important to me, then hardship becomes certainly less hard. The yoke of suffering, the burden of Christ to which we are called, becomes a little lighter.

And though on a practical level I lament the downfall and paganising trajectory of the West … spiritually speaking it’s probably the best thing that could happen. The widespread apostasy is like a forest-burn. In the end it will make for a healthier forest. The forest to which I refer is not society, but the Church. Don’t ever confuse the two.

While on the one hand I celebrate the fact that the Protestant Classical Liberal narrative is being exposed as a lie… both doctrinally and historically, I am concerned that many Protestants are quickly succumbing to an equally problematic lie… the Pre-Liberal Throne and Altar vision of Medieval Roman Christendom.

If Jake Meador had started with the church in exile and Christians as pilgrims as the frame for his index, he might have used a this-worldly (immanentize the eschaton) vs. an otherworldy (don’t immanentize the eschaton) division. That one even pits 2k against Anabaptists since the latter regard (as I understand it) the company of believers as an outworking of “the perfection of Christ.”

What Princeton Seminary Could Learn from the Pentagon

Peter Berger notices a sector of American religiosity where true inclusion and diversity reigns — the military chaplaincy:

One particularly interesting development is that the military chaplaincy, in its Protestant group, is increasingly filled with Evangelicals, who feel more at home in the military than among largely liberal mainline clergy, whose concerns over gender and multiculturalism Evangelicals don’t resonate with. Some years ago I presided over a seminar dealing with whatever issues members of the seminar were concerned about. One of the seminar students was an Evangelical Air Force chaplain. This was the issue she wanted to think through: She served on a small base in the Arctic where she was the only Protestant chaplain. Of course she was not expected to perform religious services that did not agree with her own beliefs. But she was expected to facilitate services for any group of Air Force personnel. A group of Air Force women wanted to perform the rituals of Wicca, which defines itself as a modernized version of the old witches’ Sabbath. How, she asked, could she help organize a worship service of the devil without betraying the core of her Christian faith? I tried to convince her that the devil part was not to be taken seriously, that Wicca was a rather harmless form of nature worship—dancing naked in the moonlight and showing respect for menstrual blood. She said that the way I spoke about this showed I did not take the religious beliefs of this group seriously. I’m afraid she was quite right. In the end she had no choice unless she wanted to resign from the chaplaincy—so the would-be witches did their thing as facilitated by a nonsectarian Evangelical minister. (Religious freedom bears strange fruit, including the struggle of conscience of an Evangelical pastor ordered to go against her conscience by her commanding officer.)

Here’s the thing: if NAPARC communions and the PCUSA wonder about the fit between Tim Keller and a liberal Presbyterian seminary, why are those same NAPARC communions willing to send their pastors off to work not only with ordained women but even witches? I keep asking. I’m still not hearing many answers.

Good and Bad Israel Complexes

David P. Goldman (aka Spengler) tries to explain appropriate and inappropriate appropriations of Israel:

There is a fine but definite line, to be sure, between the Gentiles’ identification with Israel and their idolatrous desire for election in place of Israel. It is one thing for the Puritans to speak metaphorically of a new chosen people in a new promised land, and quite another for Joseph Smith to rewrite Scripture in order to place Jesus Christ on American soil. African Americans saw themselves as suffering Israel in Egypt, and their emancipation as a new exodus; that is not the same as James Cone’s eccentric 1969 claim that Jesus was black and that blacks are the chosen people.

Goldman thinks the key to this distinction is whether or not Christians engage in theocracy because he believes Christians are people of God “by the Spirit” not “by the flesh.” As such, Christians have a dual loyalty, one their nation by birth, the other their kingdom by new birth. He invokes the Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod:

As understood by Christianity, a model of dual loyalty develops. The individual belongs both to a nation and to a religion. He is a Frenchman and a Christian or a German and a Christian. As Frenchman or German, he is a member of a national community with territorial and linguistic boundaries. But he is also a member of the supra-national church which has no national boundaries . . . . The church is a spiritual fellowship into which men bring their national identities because they possess these identities but not because such identities play a role in the church. The church thus understands itself as having universalized the national election of Israel by opening it to all men who, in entering the church, enter a spiritualized, universalized new Israel.

This sure seems 2k friendly.

Obedience Boys, Say Hello to Law Enforcement Boys

Courtesy of John Fea:

The Alabama Senate has voted to allow a church to form its own police force.

Lawmakers on Tuesday voted 24-4 to allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham to establish a law enforcement department.

The church says it needs its own police officers to keep its school as well as its more than 4,000 person congregation safe.

Critics of the bill argue that a police department that reports to church officials could be used to cover up crimes.

The state has given a few private universities the authority to have a police force, but never a church or non-school entity.

Police experts have said such a police department would be unprecedented in the U.S.

A similar bill is also scheduled to be debated in the House on Tuesday.

The big question: if women may not serve in combat, how about law enforcement?

When Did Christians Forget their Jewish Roots?

Maybe when Constantine tempted them to think that Christendom meant the end of exile and alienation?

But it sure would help if Christian-Americans thought about American society more the way Jewish-Americans do than the way people who used to be the Church of Scotland think.

Imagine if Rod Dreher had grown up not mainline Protestant but Jewish:

Dreher has frequently and sometimes testily responded to critics by saying he’s not calling for anybody to head for the hills. But that’s not what I’m asking about. The Lubavitch hasidim are as “in the world” as any strictly observant Jewish group I can think of. They send shlichim to the four corners of the earth to minister to Jews wherever they may be. They are all about outreach, and they try in a host of ways to meet the people they are reaching out to where they are. And they are certainly making sure that they have something to give the world before they give it — they are ferocious about deeply educating their kids, and traditional Judaism is all about imbuing every single action of every day with the sacred. If you wanted to point to a Benedict Option-like group that had unquestionably not withdrawn into itself and fled for the hills, they’d be a perfect candidate.

But they are also a group apart within a people apart, and they believe themselves to be precisely that. And I can assure you, that has a real impact on how other Jews perceive them and relate to them. I’m curious to know whether that is a dynamic the Benedict Option would inculcate within Christianity, and whether Dreher thinks that would be a problem if it did.

The answer, by the way, to Millman’s question is that Christians who read Peter know that Christianity has a set-apart dynamic:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Pet 2)

And then imagine what it would mean if Christian America was as fantastic an idea as Jewish America:

[Christian traditionalists] are more likely to win space to live according to their consciences to the extent that they are able to convince a majority that includes more liberal Christians and non-Christian believers, as well as outright secularists, that they are not simply biding their time until they are able to storm the public square. In addition, they will have to develop institutions of community life that are relatively low-visibility and that can survive without many forms of official support. The price of inclusion in an increasingly pluralistic society may be some degree of voluntary exclusion from the dominant culture.

There is no doubt that this will be a hard bargain for adherents of traditions that enjoyed such immense authority until recently. . . . The basis for coexistence must be a shared understanding that the Christian America for which some long and that others fear isn’t coming back—not only because it was Christian but also because it involved a level of consensus that is no longer available to us. There are opportunities for believers and nonbelievers alike in this absence.