Do Southern Baptists Need a Pope of Public Policy?

What could possibly go wrong? A communion appoints an officer to represent members’ views within the corridors of the most powerful nation on God’s glowing earth. And all the members — who are Protestants, mind you and not used to submitting to church hierarchy — are going to agree with all that the officer says or the agency he leads? Heck, even in the little old OPC where the stakes are considerably lower than the Southern Baptist Convention, you cannot get church members to agree with the editor of New Horizons magazine.

So why are so many people concerned and surprised that Southern Baptists are challenging Russell Moore at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission? Funny the way president-elect Trump winds people up.

I (all about me) have nothing against what Dr. Moore seems to be doing. I do suspect sometimes that he’s trying to soften the edge of the religious right in a way that Tim Keller tries to make Christianity less objectionable. Maybe Aaron Sorkin and David Simon have poisoned me to suspect that public statements always come through spinners and handlers who are looking at polls and access to power or gatekeepers. But some of Dr. Moore’s recent statements do seem to have more the fingerprints of building coalitions than those of “thus, saith the Lord” or even, “this is what Southern Baptists believe, gosh darn it.”

Here’s the problem. Moore heads an agency whose mission more Kuyperian than Williamsian (think Roger Williams):

The ERLC exists to articulate every priority and every agenda item in terms of where it fits in seeking the kingdom of God in this era, in order to equip churches to stand before the watching world with the sort of quiet confidence that characterized Jesus.

The kingdom is an “already” present reality (within the life of the church) but also a “not yet” future hope (as we await the coming of Jesus). This kingdom come includes not just worship, but righteousness (ethics), freedom (religious liberty), communion (society), authority (politics), and “the glory and honor of the nations” (culture). Seeking first the kingdom of God should not dampen our concern for ethics but should instead heighten it. After all, the priorities of the King must become the priorities of his kingdom colony, the church. Therefore, the kingdom of God sets both the content of our concern and the tone with which we speak.

That’s pretty broad. Southern Baptists might want to take note that Kuyperians and 2kers disagree about the nature of the kingdom (or kingdoms), so Christ as king is hardly a consensus building affirmation. Worse, hardly clear is the understanding that such a view of God’s kingdom emerges organically from Baptist theology and experience. As dissenters for a long time in England and low on the list of Anglo-American Protestants, some might be surprised to see Southern Baptists doing their impersonation of Puritans or their descendants, the United Church of Christ. Once up a time, Southern Baptists (I’ve heard) saved string so they could send foreign missionaries to India.

So this presence in the capitol of the world’s most powerful nation seems out of character for those little old Southern Baptists.

But if you are going to enter that environment as an ambassador of the Southern Baptist Convention, please don’t tell us you are doing so in a non-partisan way:

There is no more effective evangelical leader than Moore. Under his leadership the ERLC has grown in reach and influence, hosting numerous seminars on a variety of issues with policy-making attendees from both sides of the aisle. Additionally, the ERLC plays a vital role in a number of conservative coalitions. I have witnessed House and Senate leadership offices ask for Moore to personally participate in various events to lend legitimacy and gravitas.

Too often evangelical leaders get pigeonholed into partisan identities. This is not the case with Moore. Both parties see him as a leader transcending partisan divide and stereotypes. This is because Moore and his team balance speaking truth to power while achieving real policy victories.

Being Southern Baptist is non-partisan? This is the affliction that haunts American Protestantism. We somewhere along the line — think the Second Glorious Awakening (if the Brits can have a Glorious Revolution . . . ) — believed that Protestantism is a public faith. It is the religion of the United States. That didn’t work out real well for Roman Catholics or Jews or Mormons. But it had its moments and gave the United States a measure of national identity and spiritual overtones to reasons for fighting tyranny and authoritarianism. That conviction also hollowed out the gospel from the mainline churches. Access to power became something to protect lest the offense of the gospel and calls to repentance offend. The irony is that this mainline Protestant agenda for a Christian nation left the mainline churches without a voice once they questioned America for being too white, male, anti-Communist, Christian, and hetero. The mainline lost both the nation (it was never Christian but sexist and racist) and their place at the table (do mainline pastors even have access to the boards of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton?).

The solution to Dr. Moore’s woes is to close down ERLC and let the Southern Baptist Convention be a church that is fully Baptist (whether particular or general). We have public policy agencies for matters like religious liberty, marriage, civil society, and human dignity. Sometimes even the Democrats and Republicans consider those matters. Not to mention that the Roman Catholic Church has a far greater reach than Southern Baptists.

Let the church not be non-partisan, earnest, well-meaning, tolerant, or humanitarian. Let Southern Baptists be Southern and Baptist. (Or be really Kuyperian and form an Anti-Secularist Political Party.)

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It’s Only POTUS

Michael Brendan Dougherty echoes the point that presidential elections are destroying America (and so we should let Congress pick POTUS):

The length of our presidential campaign atrophies self-governance. Instead of citizens governing themselves, Americans increasingly define their political lives by their membership in one tribe, and their support for its candidates. Instead of electing a leader, we pledge fealty as followers.

The bulk of our attention flows to the presidential race. And because there is so much attention there, the process attracts candidates who are merely seeking attention for themselves and not high office. In fact, that may be why the primaries feel more and more like reality television, and produced a reality TV president. Each debate is a new episode, and the political press waits for the latest news about which contestant is eliminated.

Because our mode of engaging with politics feels tribal, and because the process takes two years, many people experience it as a crushing psychological and social blow to be on the losing side. Citizens who identify with the losing presidential candidate feel like they are no longer a part of their country. They experience the transfer of the executive branch from one party to the other as a regime change that threatens them. Remember the red and blue maps of Jesusland and America that appeared during the Bush administration? Back then there was heady talk of Vermont seceding from the union to become a bastion of tolerance. Fast forward a few years, and conservatives were the ones spreading stories about Texas’ secession. This is not healthy. But it’s going to continue if we don’t begin to tame the presidential election itself.

The presidential election increases our sense that all issues are national issues. Even people who say they are addicted to politics often have no idea what is happening in their state or county government.

Dougherty adds a point that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of Jed Bartlet, the POTUS on West Wing, should take to heart:

One cause for the gigantism of our presidential election is the gigantism of the executive branch. The federal government employs more than 2 million people in the process of governing us.

Too bad that Sorkin doesn’t seem to recognize the monster that he fed (even if he did not create). His letter to his wife and daughters was typically hysterical (thanks to one of our southern correspondents):

White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons. Angry young white men who think rap music and Cinco de Mayo are a threat to their way of life (or are the reason for their way of life) have been given cause to celebrate. Men who have no right to call themselves that and who think that women who aspire to more than looking hot are shrill, ugly, and otherwise worthy of our scorn rather than our admiration struck a blow for misogynistic s‑‑‑heads everywhere.

But if POTUS were little more than a glorified dog catcher, would the stakes be so high?

Thankful for Trump

I rarely see eye-to-eye with Michael Novak, but m(mmmmeeeeEEE)y reaction to the election was similar to his in the sense that I dreaded four more years of progressivism at that center of American life and felt a sense of relief when news came that Hillary Clinton did not win.

But a better expression of my thoughts comes from Damon Linker who recognizes, as few do inside the bubble of progressivism, that the United States includes more than elite institutions and their unofficial establishment:

The urge toward exclusion is a perennial possibility of politics. That’s because politics takes place on two levels. On one level is the back and forth of partisan conflict, involving persuasion, argument, electoral battles, triumphs, and defeats. On this level, pretty much anything goes as long as it abides by the rules of the political game. But there’s also a second, more fundamental level of politics that involves a competition over who gets to set the rules, the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable, in the first place — and precisely where those boundaries will be positioned.

The most obvious example of second-order politics in the American system is the judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court. Until the Obergefell decision in 2015, for example, the American people were engaging in a free-flowing debate about same-sex marriage, with some people in favor of allowing it and others opposed, and public opinion shifting rapidly in the “pro” direction. That was politics conducted on the first level. But then the Supreme Court stepped in to declare gay marriage a constitutional right. That was second-order politics in action: Suddenly the rules were changed, with the “pro” side summarily declared the winner throughout the nation and the “anti” side driven — and permanently excluded — from the political battlefield going forward.

But second-order politics isn’t only found in the formal strictures of a Supreme Court ruling. It comes into play when prominent institutions in civil society (such as mainstream media outlets, universities, corporations, movie studios, and other arms of the entertainment industry) informally unite in deciding that an issue, or a specific position on an issue, is simply unacceptable because it crosses a moral line that leading members of these institutions consider inviolable. Over the past several decades, a range of positions on immigration, crime, gender, and the costs and benefits of some forms of diversity have been relegated to the categories of “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “white supremacy,” or “white nationalism,” and therefore excluded from first-order political debate.

I’m not going to cry for progressives. They still have elite journalism, Hollywood, the most exclusive colleges and universities, and lots of agencies related directly and indirectly to the federal government. They just don’t have the White House for the next four years. Let’s see Aaron Sorkin make a television show about that.

What History is Supposed To Do (which is different from blogging)

More thoughts today on the outlook that historical knowledge cultivates.

First comes the pietist version — the past as pointer to what’s true and right:

In the introduction the authors offer five reasons to study church history: 1) It continues to record the history of God’s faithful dealings with his people and it records Christ’s ongoing work in the world. 2) We are told by God to remember what he has done and to make it known to those who follow us. 3) Church history “helps to illuminate and clarify what we believe” and in that way allows us to evaluate our beliefs and practices against historic teaching. 4) It safeguards against error by showing us how Christians have already responded to false teaching. 5) And finally it gives us heroes and mentors to imitate as we live the Christian life. In this way it promotes spiritual growth and maturation.

History as a means of grace? I’m not sure.

Second, history as perplexity:

… we developed an approach we call the “five C’s of historical thinking.” The concepts of change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency, we believe, together describe the shared foundations of our discipline. They stand at the heart of the questions historians seek to answer, the arguments we make, and the debates in which we engage. . . .

One of the most successful exercises we have developed for conveying complexity in all of these dimensions is a mock debate on Cherokee Removal. Two features of the exercise account for the richness and depth of understanding that it imparts on students. First, the debate involves multiple parties; the Treaty and Anti-Treaty Parties, Cherokee women, John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, northern missionaries, the State of Georgia, and white settlers each offer a different perspective on the issue. Second, students develop their understanding of their respective positions using the primary sources collected in Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents by Theda Perdue and Michael Green.7 While it can be difficult to assess what students learn from such exercises, we have noted anecdotally that, following the exercise, students seem much less comfortable referring to “American” or “Indian” positions as monolithic identities.

Third, history as empathy:

I hope that the young adults who study history with me find themselves cultivating five interrelated values: comfort with complexity, humility, curiosity, hospitality, and empathy. I don’t think Donald Trump is unusual among Oval Office aspirants in his utter lack of humility (here’s a conservative critique of him on that point), his disinterest in learning (see his recent comments on his reading habits), or his impatience with complication and nuance. But if I’m going to tell my students that historical study exists to a significant extent to help them be more hospitable and empathetic to those of a different culture, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., I can hardly stay silent about a candidate who has demonized immigrants and Muslims.

So I think the open letter’s authors are right to characterize the Trump candidacy as an attack not only on the “constructive, evidence-based argumentation” we try to practice in our profession, but on “our values, and the communities we serve.”

What is striking is how even professional historians can make history be what they want it to be.

But why is it that professional historians don’t recognize that the way they frame the historical enterprise winds up making not a scholarly but a political point. If the aim of history is to empathize with others (among other things), where have historians been about developments in Turkey or the real complexity of issues that inform the current discussion of police and crime in the United States? (For some academics, there’s not much complexity about cops shooting people.) I’m sorry, but to be so outspoken about a guy like Trump just doesn’t take all that much insight or courage. Most people who work outside history departments know he is egotistical, bombastic, clownish, and a jumble of assertions and passions. Even supporters see that. Are students so desperate?

Or is it that historians want to present as being on the “right” side?

The thing is, the responsibilities necessary to be president are not the same as the virtues that historical study cultivates. In the case of empathy, a president does need to be empathetic. But that’s not all. Just think back to episode 2, season 4 of West Wing where President Bartlet approves the assassination of a Qumar state official suspected of terrorism. Sometimes prudence trumps empathy. And that’s something that history actually teaches. Or it should. (Why should Aaron Sorkin get all the good lessons?)

To John Fea’s credit, he excerpts Jonathan Zimmerman’s reasons for not signing the letter:

I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

I speak, of course, of the millions of people who have cast ballots for Donald Trump. According to the signatories of the statement, there’s only one historically grounded opinion on Trump: their own. By that definition, then, Trump supporters are uninformed. When he accepts the Republican nomination this week, the historians’ statement concludes, the party will have succumbed to “snake oil.”

Of course, there are plenty of ignoramuses and bigots in the Trump camp. But surely there are reasoned, knowledgeable people who back him.

The “lessons of history” — to quote the historians’ manifesto — can be read in different way, by equally informed people. And it strains credulity to imagine that all Trump supporters have had the wool pulled over their eyes.

One consolation in all this: it’s not only Reformed Protestants or social conservatives who traffic in outrage.

Did President Obama Throw Malcolm X Under the Bus?

Now that the missus and I are three seasons into West Wing, I understand that the nation’s presidents cannot say whatever is on their mind. They need to spin for so many different reasons. It’s almost like watching Tom Reagan in Millers’ Crossing.

Even so, President Obama seems to have once again provided a cliched account of Islam in the United States that “makes the rough places plain” so to speak:

Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.

Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)

Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.) So this is not a new thing.

Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. They built America’s first mosque, surprisingly enough, in North Dakota. (Laughter.) America’s oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford’s assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago.

In 1957, when dedicating the Islamic center in Washington, D.C., President Eisenhower said, “I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution … and in American hearts…this place of worship, is just as welcome…as any other religion.” (Applause.)

And perhaps the most pertinent fact, Muslim Americans enrich our lives today in every way. They’re our neighbors, the teachers who inspire our children, the doctors who trust us with our health — future doctors like Sabah. They’re scientists who win Nobel Prizes, young entrepreneurs who are creating new technologies that we use all the time. They’re the sports heroes we cheer for -— like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon. And by the way, when Team USA marches into the next Olympics, one of the Americans waving the red, white and blue — (applause) — will a fencing champion, wearing her hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is here today. Stand up. (Applause.) I told her to bring home the gold. (Laughter.) Not to put any pressure on you. (Laughter.)

Muslim Americans keep us safe. They’re our police and our firefighters. They’re in homeland security, in our intelligence community. They serve honorably in our armed forces — meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom. Some rest in Arlington National Cemetery. (Applause.)

So Muslim Americans are some of the most resilient and patriotic Americans you’ll ever meet.

In many ways I salute the president for trying to make Islam part of the American narrative but I worry that his story line is one that suits Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce better than a president who ran and won in part because he is African-American. For blacks in the 1950s and 1960s, people that the president’s in-laws would well know (and possibly were), Islam looked more like a way to dissent from the nation’s racism and segregation than it did an on-ramp to the American mainstream. The tension between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about the dilemmas that integration posed for blacks who wanted a separate identity from the one King was cultivating:

“You don’t integrate with a sinking ship.” This was Malcolm X’s curt explanation of why he did not favor integration of blacks with whites in the United States. As the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim organization led by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X argued that America was too racist in its institutions and people to offer hope to blacks. The solution proposed by the Nation of Islam was a separate nation for blacks to develop themselves apart from what they considered to be a corrupt white nation destined for divine destruction.

In contrast with Malcolm X’s black separatism, Martin Luther King, Jr. offered what he considered “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest” as a means of building an integrated community of blacks and whites in America. He rejected what he called “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist,” believing that the fate of black Americans was “tied up with America’s destiny.” Despite the enslavement and segregation of blacks throughout American history, King had faith that “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God” could reform white America through the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.

Of course, the experience of most Muslims in the U.S. — namely, immigrants from the Middle East — is distinct from that of descendants of American slaves (like Michelle Obama). But a reminder about Islam’s plausible appeal to black separatists seems necessary for doing justice to both the history of Islam and African-American life in the U.S.

Update: And what would President Obama say to Muhammad Ali, a Baptist turned Muslim, who said this about the U.S. military when refusing to serve in Vietnam?

But who is this white man, no older than me, appointed by another white man, all the way to the white man in the White House? Who is he to tell me to go to Asia, Africa, or anywhere else in the world to fight people who never threw a rock at me or America? Who is this descendant of slave masters to order a descendant of slaves to fight other people in their own country?

Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington

Ben Sasse gave his first speech as a Senator last week and it echoed themes from Newsroom and West Wing about putting the country ahead of partisan politics. If Sorkin is hopeful about the presidency of journalism, Sasse is calling for the Senate as a place to engage in important debates about the health of the nation:

And if I can be brutally honest for a moment: I’m home basically every weekend, and what I hear – and what I’m sure most of you hear – is some version of this: A pox on both parties and all your houses. We don’t believe politicians are even trying to fix this mess. To the Republicans, to those who claim this new majority is leading the way: Few believe that. To the grandstanders who use this institution as a platform for outside pursuits: Few believe the country’s needs are as important to you as your ambitions. To the Democrats, who did this body harm through nuclear tactics: Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing. And does anyone doubt that many on both the right and the left now salivate for more of these radical tactics? The people despise us all.

And why is this? Because we’re not doing the job we were sent here to do. The Senate isn’t tackling the great national problems that worry those we work for.

I therefore propose a thought experiment: If the Senate isn’t going to be the most important venue for addressing our biggest national problems, where is that venue? Where should the people look for the long-term national prioritization? Or, to ask it of ourselves, would anything be lost if the Senate didn’t exist? Again, this a thought experiment, so let me be emphatically clear: I think a great deal would be lost if the federal government didn’t have a Senate – but game out with me the question of “Why?” What precisely would be lost if we had only a House of Representatives, rather than both bodies? The growth of the administrative state, the fourth branch of government, is increasingly hollowing out the Article I branch, the legislature – and many in Congress have been complicit in this hollowing out of our own powers. So would anything really be lost if we doubled-down on Woodrow Wilson’s impulses and inclinations toward administrative efficiency by removing much of the clunky-ness of legislative process?

Or, we could approach this thought exercise from the inside out: What is unique about the Senate? What can this body do particularly well? What are its essential characteristics? What was it built for? Consider its attributes:

We have 6-year terms instead of 2-year terms (and the Founders actually considered lifetime appointments to the Senate);

We have proportional representation of states, not of population counts – reflecting a federalist structure where we are supposed to be especially attuned to the distinction between agreeing that government might have a role to play in tackling certain kinds of problems – and yet guarding against a routinized assumption that only a centralized, national government can ably tackle problem X or Y;

Third, we have rules designed to strengthen the hand of individual senators, not to the end of obstruction, but rather to ensure full debate and engagement with dissenting points of view – for the Founders had less concern with governmental efficiency than with protecting minority rights and culturally unpopular views;

Fourth, we had no formal rules acknowledging political parties until as late as the 1970s; we had merely a 20th century convention of acknowledging to speak first the leaders of the two largest party blocks;

We have explicit constitutional duties related to providing the executive with advice – chiefly on the building of his or her team and on the long-term trajectory of foreign policy.

Six-year terms; representation of states, not census counts; nearly limitless debate to protect dissenters; no formal rules for political parties. What then is the answer to the question, “What is the Senate for?” Possibly the best shorthand is: “To shield lawmakers from obsession with short-term popularity to enable us to focus on the biggest long-term challenges our people face.”

Reclaiming American institutions. Deliberative bodies of legislators. Imagine that.

Maybe He Needs MmmeeeeeEEEEEE

Scott Sauls may have spent too much time with Tim Keller, the author of Center Church, because Pastor Sauls seems to think that he is at the center of Presbyterianism. The reason for saying this is that he admits that he needs to hear from those with whom he differs. Here’s his list:

I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of CS Lewis, though his take on some of the finer points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the Kingdom vision of NT Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, though their ethnicities are different than mine. I need the reconciliation spirit of Miroslav Volf, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of GK Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliott, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the honesty of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Anne Voskamp, the theological precision of Kathy Keller, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.

In the world of hipster Protestantism this is cool but not Snapchattingly trendy. If I were to assemble my own list of those with whom I disagree theologically but who have shaped my thinking in profound ways it would include: Orhan Pamuk, Joel Coen, Tom Stoppard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Aaron Sorkin, Wendell Berry, Michael Oakeshott, Edward Shils, David Simon, John McWhorter, Andrew Sullivan, Louis Menand, David Hackett Fischer, Henry May, Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Epstein, and Ethan Coen. See what I did there? I went outside Christian circles with most of that list. Do I get points for being really cool and cosmopolitan?

The thing is, none of those writers really helped me understand the nature of the Christian ministry as Presbyterians understand it. I’ve learned greatly from these figures about being human, which comes in handy for overseeing a congregation or participating in a church assembly. But I don’t look to these people for my life in the church.

But here’s the kicker for Pastor Sauls: what if he learned from those with whom he disagrees about Presbyterianism like Old Schoolers? What might his ministry look like then?

My sense is that because Pastor Sauls via Keller thinks he is in the heart of Presbyterianism or conservative Protestantism or evangelicalism, he already has his Presbyterian bases covered.

And in that case, boy does he need to understand the nature of disagreement.

Are Christian W-w Voters Selfish?

A curious exchange today at American Conservative between Alan Jacobs and Noah Millman over voting for a party that both supports religious freedom and wars on behalf of liberty. Jacobs, the Christian, writes:

Now, some Christians might also argue that the Church exists for others, so that promoting religious freedom, even at the cost of lives lost overseas, is still the selfless thing to do. And that could be right, but I think we all ought to be very wary of arguments that provide such a neat dovetailing of our moral obligations and our self-interest.

I honestly don’t know what I think about this, and still less do I know how to apply the proper principles to our own more complex political scene. But I do think it’s right to conclude that there are at least some potential circumstances in which religious believers, in order to be faithful to their religious traditions, would need to refrain from direct political advocacy for those traditions.

In other words, voting simply on the basis of religious convictions may be an oversimplification of electoral politics and of public and foreign policy. Say hello to 2k.

But Millman responds that self-interest is the wrong way to frame the question:

I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with the underlying premise that voters should aspire to cast their ballots in a selfless manner. Indeed, I think “selfless” is a red-herring. The objective oughtn’t be to deny the needs or wants of the self, but to see beyond them, to feel other selves as equally worthy of care (and yourself as equally unworthy of supremacy), and thereby to achieve a feeling of solidarity with those other selves. (Then again, I’m not a Christian, so your mileage may vary.)

So is it the case that Christians, even when they recognize the limits of faith-based voting as Jacobs does, come across as inherently selfish when they vote according to their beliefs? Millman’s point is especially pertinent when he talks about seeing others “as equally worthy of care” and feeling solidarity with them. If people who have a heightened sense of the anti-thesis, Christians, that is, people who are also keenly aware of God’s law and those who break it, are also supposed as members of a civic community to feel solidarity with other citizens, is faith something that impedes or assists such fellow-feeling? Not to put too fine a point on it, but can Christians feel solidarity with gays or advocates of same-sex marriage?

Maybe Millman is wrong about a sense of belonging with other Americans, though any small dose of Aaron Sorkin’s television series West Wing or the Newsroom should confirm Millman’s point. But if Christians judge Millman wrong, then what hope have we for a free society if it consists of Christians and non-Christians?

Two Districts, One Nation

Maggie Jordan, one of the characters in Newsroom, says in one episode during Season Two that “The country is divided into people who like sex and people who are utterly creeped out by it. I’m one of the sex people.” As creepy as that description might be for those celebrity pastors who write books about how enjoyable sex is (read TKNY), the statement seems pretty accurate. Chances are most Americans agree about economic matters. Differences might emerge about tax rates but hardly anyone (except Pope Francis) is questioning consumerism and the benefits of buying. Most Americans agree on foreign policy. They might question a foreign war here or there. But a hegemonic United States is desirable across the aisle as is applause for American soldiers. No one disagrees about English as the nation’s language. No one questions the Constitution, though interpretations vary. No one seriously objects to the NFL.

But on sex we differ. In fact, the most contested aspects of political life surround either giving more freedom to sex (and reducing its consequences) or trying to put restraints on it. Make the left grant unlimited access to guns the way they seem to think about sex and make the right apply its logic about guns to sex and you might have a united country.

By the way, America’s sexual exceptionalism is not the most flattering aspect of national history. Until the 1960s pretty much every important thinker recognized that restraint in sexual matters was important. Whether Aristotle was telling Greeks not to imitate animals (who do enjoy unrestrained access to sex and its consequences), or Romans were advocating restraint of the baser passions, or Christians were arguing for chastity, pretty much all the major civilizational food groups disapproved of easy access to sex. Not so post sexual-revolution America.

Aren’t we great pretty good?

But here’s the solution. Why don’t we create two districts in the United States, one where people who like sex live and one where people who are creeped out about live. Let’s let (easier for me now that I’m in the Great Pretty Good Lakes region the sexy people have the Northeast and the West Coast, and we’ll give them Illinois and Minnesota for those afraid of hurricanes and tsunamis. The rest of the country will live and move and have their being in the unsexy district. In the latter, states will be free to pass laws against abortion, adultery, same-sex marriage, and pornography (which doesn’t include HBO). Both districts will still participate in the federal government. But the national government will recognize this fundamental divide in American character and respect the boundaries of the Sexy and Unsexy Districts.

Of course, the pro-unionists in the nation won’t hear of this because such a proposal the sort of thing that the South proposed with the creation of the Confederacy. And if you make an idol out of national union — please don’t weigh in on Northern Ireland or Israel, then — then I understand this proposal makes no sense. There goes the meaning of Abraham Lincoln. EEE GADS!

But if you are a federalist, then this idea should have some appeal. At the basis of federalism was the idea of granting real power to local authorities while participating in certain common endeavors for the good of the larger whole. This is what Protestants even tried to achieve with the — wait for it — Federal Council of Churches; a federation that granted powers to the member denominations while finding ways to cooperate on common projects, like transforming the United States into a Christian nation. Federalism is a great way to allow for serious differences in a country. If you only have nationalism, then winner takes all. DOUBLE EEE GADS!!

The real defect in this proposal is that the unsexy Americans who live in the Northeast and the West Coast (and Lake Wobegone) will have to move to unsexy territories. But that’s a heck of a lot better than becoming a refugee — think Syria. The same goes for the sexy people who live in South Carolina and Utah. They will have to relocate. But they will be able to keep their portfolio, won’t need to learn a new language, and can use the same currency. The also won’t have to convert to metric or Celsius.

The advantage in such a scheme is that over the course of a generation or two, we might actually see which is a better way to organize a society. Maybe sexy America will prove itself better in the long run, but where they will get new generations to replace the old is anyone’s guess. And maybe unsexy America will prove itself incapable of anything culturally or financially interesting. But the history of the human race until 1965 suggests otherwise. If unsexy America could produce H. L. Mencken, how bad can being creeped out by sex be?

Has Aaron Sorkin been Reading John Calvin?

The Hart home has a problem. The missus and I are about 2/3 of the way through season four of The Wire (for at least the third time for the whole series), and we are also making our way pleasantly through West Wing thanks to being smitten by Newsroom. As I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, you can’t have two more diametrical views of political life in the United States than Simon’s sober portrait of the state of nature (Hobbesian) with a veneer of civilization or Sorkin’s inspiring depiction of large, national institutions like the executive branch of the federal government or the reporting of network news organizations. The conflict within this hyphenated blogger is thoroughly appreciating the self-interest that pervades all walks of life in Simon’s Baltimore and the genuine love of country that steers both West Wing’s president, Josiah Bartlet, Newsroom’s anchor, Will McAvoy. So powerful have Sorkin’s series been that I have found myself rooting for President Obama and (finally) recognizing how destructive (even if entertaining) conservative talk radio is. (I am still enough of an Augustinian and Madisonian to understand that people in power need to be questioned and checked.)

And thanks to the life of Martin O’Malley serving as the basis for the white city-councilman who becomes mayor in Simon’s Baltimore, I’m especially hoping that O’Malley beats Hillary in the Democratic primaries and becomes president. Then maybe Simon and Sorkin can co-produce a series on an O’Malley administration.

Another Aaron, the one who blogs for Ref21, has a few remarks about Calvin on civil government that help me justify my new-found patriotism and the shows that inspired it:

In Calvin’s estimation, the Christian life is properly one of constant gratitude. Gratitude bears fruit in holiness — we can and should say “thank you” to God with our lives as well as our lips. The root of gratitude is constant and careful attention to God’s remarkable gifts to us in spite of our creaturely finitude and culpability both for Adam’s sin and our own. God’s greatest gift to us, of course, is Jesus Christ, to whom we are joined by the power of the Spirit as the basis of our forgiveness, renewal in the divine image, and restoration to fellowship with the Triune God. But God has given other gifts to us — gifts that are common to believers and unbelievers alike, but should no less be noted and appreciated. Government is one such gift. Any reflection upon civil government which does not ultimately lead to gratitude (and therefore greater holiness) is faulty by Calvin’s standard. Thus he introduces the subject of human government in his Institutes by observing: “It is of no slight importance to us to know how lovingly God has provided in this respect for mankind, that greater zeal for piety may flourish in us to attest our gratefulness.”

It is, importantly, not government in abstracto that should lead us to “gratefulness” but government in concreto. To put a finer edge on this point: it is this government — this president, this congress, this parliament, this prime minister, this monarch, this mayor, etc. — that should properly catapult us into a posture of prayerful gratitude before God. Calvin has little interest, in fact, in government in the abstract. Thus he dismisses debates/conversations about the “best kind of government” (whether monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy) as an “idle pastime” for persons who have no real influence upon the particular form of government where they live. He proceeds, ironically, to spend some time considering the advantages and disadvantages (and there are both) of each “kind” of government, but concludes the matter by highlighting the superfluity of even his own words: “All these things are needlessly spoken to those for whom the will of the Lord is enough. For if it has seemed good to him to set kings over kingdoms, senates or municipal officers over free cities, it is our duty to show ourselves compliant and obedient to whomever he sets over the places where we live” (emphasis mine). What really matters, in other words, is not what government would be best, but what government you’ve been given. That is the government to which you must submit; that, by the same token, is the government for which you should offer thanks, with both your lips and your life, to God.

It may even be that for Calvin, gratitude is the basis for the Christian life.