NTJ Is Risen!

The “journal” has not suffered another stroke but is simply delayed. The essay below appeared in the Winter 2012 issue and is a possible foretaste of what readers may enjoy in the next number. Consider this post the Old Life Theological Society variation on Advent.

More Scruton, Less Trueman

One of the advantages of reviewing a book several years after its publication is that the evaluation yields early returns on the test of time that book reviews written at the time of a title’s releases don’t. Which is to say, a new title demands attention simply because an author, editor, and publisher pooled resources to bring out a set of reflections that have not been seen before. After a couple of years when the newness wears off, perspective emerges on whether the author’s arguments were worthy of culling those resources. Obviously, since the marketing and publicity of books is tied to the review process, writing a book review three years after a book’s publication will not become a trend.

Still, Carl Trueman’s Republocrat may fail time’s test since it comes from an author who has increasingly collected thoughts originally produced on-line in books. In some ways, blogging and book writing is similar. Both use words, paragraphs, arguments, and depend on a measure of coherence. At the same time, blogs are to books what the sit-com “Friends” is to Shakespeare’s As You Like It. A blog post is like a letter to the editor of a magazine or newspaper. It is here today and though not necessarily gone tomorrow thanks to the comments that posts provoke, it does not achieve the coherence that comes with a series of reflections that an author determines to take the form of a book. Simply stringing together posts and slapping them together in a book would be even less satisfying than a collection of George F. Will columns since the former likely have many arguments that are closer to notes for a book than an example that an author might use for a portion of a chapter. In other words, blogging is ephemeral; book writing is substantial. Readers may go to an old blog post to understand an opinion, but they go to books generally expecting to find arguments that endure beyond the window of a month or two.

The genre and style of blogs are arguably worthwhile considerations for understanding Trueman’s book on evangelicals and American politics since it has the feel of his previous compilations of on-line essays (The Wages of Spin and Minority Report). The style is generally breezy. The tone is often cutting and sarcastic – the word bloggers use is snark. And the arguments feel more off the cuff than systematic. It is in other words, like his other short books, Republocrat is a collection of personal reflections about the way that evangelical Protestants politicize the Christian faith and baptize partisan politics. This may explain why a book that both criticizes evangelical Protestantism and resembles the two-kingdom theology – themes close to the heart of the Old Life Theological Society – does not please as much as it should have. To his credit, Trueman brings an Englishman’s perspective to American-style religion and politics and the chance to see ourselves as outsiders observe us is almost always valuable. Even so, if the book fails to engage even those who are sympathetic, the reason may be that Trueman has fallen prey to writing books based on on-line reflections. The usually personal and occasional arguments of a blog do not translate well into the less subjective and more measured medium of pages between book covers.

Obviously, this is a long-winded way of pointing out the personal nature of Republocrat. Despite his disavowal at the beginning – “Despite the title of this book [Confessions of a Liberal Conservative], I do not plan to spend much time talking about myself” – the book turns into a fairly long series of rants about the heavy-handedness of Fox News, the silliness of the Republican Party, and the scandalous political theology of the Religious Right. These are all subjects worthy of a blog post given its op-ed character and immediacy. But readers of books want sustained arguments. For that reason, Trueman struggles mightily to organize his observations into a coherent whole. The best he can do is by bringing similar topics within chapter designations. This is not to say that Trueman’s punchy and witty reflections on American politics lack merit. If Protestants in the United States had to consider more than we do how Christians from other parts of the world see us, and particularly whether the worries we have really stand up as matters about which Christians worldwide might agree in the name of Christ, American Protestant appeals to faith or doctrine in the public square might be much more circumspect.

Still, Republocrat is not without substance. For starters, Trueman is, as the title suggests, critical of both the Left and the Right. For instance, in the chapter on the Left, Trueman observes astutely how the New Left, particularly in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, shifted the notion of oppression from economic realities to psychological neediness. In the process, an older quest for greater equality among the classes morphed into the politics of identity and the demand for affirmation of race, gender, and sexual orientation. What is odd about Trueman’s discussion of the Left is how much it revolves around European (even British) categories of liberalism and conservatism without explaining what the Right and Left in Europe have to do with Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

Trueman also lands punches when he mocks the partisan nature of television cable news and wonders why evangelical Protestants are so loyal to Fox News and so suspicious of MSNBC when both networks manipulate politics to drive up ratings and generate advertizing revenue. Though again, part of what accounts for Trueman’s critical eye is the back story of his own experience as a British citizen and upbringing in England where Rupert Murdoch (the owner of Fox) has turned sensationalist journalism and raunchy programming into a highly lucrative formula. But Trueman’s point implicitly is that detecting Murdoch’s scheme should not take a European sensibility. American Protestants, especially Calvinists, should be able by virtue of what they know about human nature to see that the Fox media empire does not measure up well on the scale of family values and traditionalism.

A further useful point concerns the uncritical embrace of free market capitalism by American Protestants, a hug that for Trueman yields a piety that is not exactly characterized by the otherworldliness of the New Testament and that all too easily becomes a prosperity gospel, as in, wealth must be a sign of God’s blessing or favor. He argues effectively that capitalism creates wealth well but it is not a firm foundation for Christian morality or nurture. Capitalism, Trueman writes:

. . . can focus minds on economic prosperity in a way that is not biblical. Nobody wants to be poor — I certainly do not. There is no virtue in poverty considered in itself. But we need to be careful about simplistically identifying either wealth with divine blessing, or the impact of the gospel with economic prosperity. Neither is biblical. The story of Job makes it clear that there is no mechanistic connection between being right with God and enjoying earthly, material bounty. The life of Paul speaks to precisely the same thing. To read of his sufferings in the book of Acts, or his own description of his ministry, especially in 2 Corinthians, is to enter a world where it is not wealth and ease but rather hardship and poverty that flow from his fidelity to the cross.

Trueman also makes the point effectively that for all of political conservatives’ talk about ties between capitalism and personal virtues (such as responsibility, industry, thrift), market economies are also premised on the necessity of consumption. And reliance upon the desires of consumers communicates an ethic very different from, if not hostile to, the Christian religion:

. . . consumerism is good to the extent that it drives our economies and helps in the creation of wealth; but it is always going to tend toward the message that the meaning of life is found in the accumulation of property — a vain exercise, as the Preacher makes clear in Ecclesiastes 2. This is simply another form of idolatry — an ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power.

Yet, for all of these insights into the mind of the Religious Right, Trueman has little to say about an alternative outlook. The best he can do is to observe that Christians should not be so gullible. Trueman’s conclusion is littered with the words, “thoughtful,” “critical,” and “realistic.” He adds to these words the language of imperatives, as in Christians should be wise. This point is not wrong. It is actually correct. But it seems obvious, one that social conservatives would hardly dispute. Still, instead of offering an alternative political outlook, Trueman simply bases his shoulds on the notion that Christians have an obligation to model good citizenship. His biblical rationale for this is the idea that believers must maintain good reputations with outsiders:

. . . a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome clichés, character assassinations, and Manichaean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process.

Had Trueman written less about the conceits of the Religious Right and more about the authors from whom he has learned about politics (or added a section of political reflection), he might have produced a more substantial book. In the introduction, Trueman mentions William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Edward Said, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Terry Eagleton, Nat Hentoff, P. J. O’Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, John Lukacs, Charles Moore, and Roger Scruton as writers from whom he has learned how to think about the world of politics and economics. Exposing these authors and their political perspectives to an audience addicted to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would have been a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, Trueman missed his chance.

As it stands, that audience will likely dismiss Trueman as little more than a British contrarian, not someone to be taken seriously. In fact, the book’s foreword gives a good indication that this will be the response of American evangelicals addicted to Fox News and Glenn Beck. Written by Peter A. Lillback, to whom Trueman dedicates the book, the foreword attempts to be “suitably contemptuous” for a book with an “oxymoronic” title. First, Lillback notes with good natured glee the self-contradictory qualities of the author:

Here is a man who has memorized the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, but prefers to sing only the Psalms on the Lord’s Day. Here’s a dean who only under coercion reluctantly walks the 26.2 steps to the president’s office from the dean’s office for fear of being asked to do some extra work, but regularly delights in running 26.2 miles, even if it means there will be icicles hanging from his running shorts and oozing wounds from his ice-nicked ankles. Here is a scholar who relishes the writings of Karl Marx, but who is inherently, instinctively, and immutably committed to the Reformation spirit of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Here is a man who refuses to go to counseling to address these oxymoronic traits, but who nevertheless is soon psychoanalyzed by all who associate with him.

When Lillback turns to the substance of Trueman’s book, he concedes that the British historical theologian’s “unmasking of the well-camouflaged foolishness on all points of the political spectrum elicit chortles and deserve admiration.” But that does not mean that Trueman succeeds. According to Lillback, Trueman’s opponents may fall “to his wit, words, and wallop,” but just because “Bill O’Reilly is illogical at times and Glenn Beck’s histrionics are more stage than sage, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to avoid the socialization of medicine and the limitation of the Second Amendment rights.” So Lillback indicates that he will wait for another occasion to “tear apart the straw men” lurking in Trueman’s arguments and for the moment will pick up on a problem that stands out, namely, Trueman’s own admission that he uses “outrageous overstatement to make a point.”

In other words, evangelicals committed to the Republican Party and prone to be persuaded by Sean Hannity will likely react the way that Lillback does – dismissal. Perhaps if Trueman had avoided the popular writing he traffics in on-line and instead applied the considerable intellectual skills he reserves for theology and church history to the subject of politics in the United States, he might have engaged in a significant teaching moment. As it is, Republocrat will inflame more than it instructs, thus leaving the Reformed wing of the Religious Right confirmed in their prejudice that Europeans don’t get us because they are simply jealous of “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.”

David French is to Conservatism what Tim Keller is to Presbyterianism

This is a follow up and updates this in the light of even more chatter.

Sohrab’s Ahmari’s critique of French-ism, the outlook of the evangelical attorney and Iraq War veteran, David French (not to be confused with Moby), who writes for National Review was over the top. But it did capture a problem in French’s above-it-all-I-just-follow-the-Declaration-and-Constitution self-fashioning. That is one of putting convictions into practice and forming institutions to maintain them.

French says his outlook consists of:

“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The problem is, as William F. Buckley saw when he founded National Review, that holding up the ideals of classical liberalism requires taking sides. You nominate candidates, vote in elections, and decide on laws and policy. You may believe in the Bible, by analogy, but you need to interpret it, write a creed, institute a polity, and decide who may be ordained to ecclesiastical office. Simply saying that you believe in the founding or in the Bible without taking a side politically or denominationally is to fly in a hot air balloon above the fray — except that you’re receiving a pay check from either a magazine that has for over fifty years been taking the movement conservative side of interpreting the founding or a denomination that has identified for forty years with a American conservative Presbyterian rendering of the Bible.

Both French and Keller don’t want to be partisan or extreme which is why they reach for the high-minded origins of either the U.S. or Christianity. They don’t want to fight alongside others. They may employ their own arguments either in court or as a public theologian but having the backs of others in a particular group is not the way they seem to carry it.

No Machen’s Warrior Children here.

This is why Rod Dreher sees Ahmari’s point, namely, that French positions himself above the clamor of division or controversy:

I concede that I’m more of a classical liberal than I thought I was, in that I resist a coercive political order. I am willing to tolerate certain things that I think of as morally harmful, for the greater good of maintaining liberty. Not all sins should be against the law. Again, though, there’s no clear way to know where and how to draw the line. Sohrab Ahmari uses Drag Queen Story Hour as a condensed symbol of the degrading things that contemporary liberalism forces on the public.

I am a thousand percent behind Ahmari in despising this stuff, and I am constantly mystified by how supine most American Christians are in the face of the aggressiveness of the LGBT movement and its allies, especially in Woke Capitalism. I am also a thousand percent with Ahmari in his general critique of how establishment conservatism tends to capitulate to cultural liberalism.

But French has the virtue of being virtuous, which is why Alan Jacobs sees the National Review correspondent as merely being a good Christian:

I disagree with David French about a lot of things — especially what I believe to be his sometimes uncritical support for American military action — but I admire him because he’s trying. He’s trying to “take every thought captive to Christ.” I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly. Among Christians invested in the political arena, that kind of integrity is dismayingly rare.

Hey, Dr. Jacobs! I try too. But the day I see you come alongside confessional Presbyterians and say, “they are simply trying to live out the Christian gospel” I’ll book a flight to Waco and buy you a drink.

But Jacob’s reaction is precisely the problem. To regard French’s politics as simply trying to be consistent with Christianity — aside from being a violation of two-kingdom theology — is to ignore that politics requires getting dirty and making compromises. It is not a place to pursue holiness and righteousness — though it is an occupation worthy of a vocation.

So, while David French takes his stand with Burke, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jesus (as if those add up to anything coherent), French-ism is nowhere in Matthew Continetti’s breakdown of contemporary conservatism — trigger warning for #woke and Neo-Calvinist Christians who want their politics to come from either the prophets or the apostles:

The Jacksonians, Mead said, are individualist, suspicious of federal power, distrustful of foreign entanglement, opposed to taxation but supportive of government spending on the middle class, devoted to the Second Amendment, desire recognition, valorize military service, and believe in the hero who shapes his own destiny. Jacksonians are anti-monopolistic. They oppose special privileges and offices. “There are no necessary evils in government,” Jackson wrote in his veto message in 1832. “Its evils exist only in its abuses.”

…Reform conservatism began toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the publication of Yuval Levin’s “Putting Parents First” in The Weekly Standard in 2006 and of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party in 2008. In 2009, Levin founded National Affairs, a quarterly devoted to serious examinations of public policy and political philosophy. Its aim is to nudge the Republican Party to adapt to changing social and economic conditions.

…Where the paleoconservatives distinguish themselves from the other camps is foreign policy. The paleos are noninterventionists who, all things being equal, would prefer that America radically reduce her overseas commitments. Though it’s probably not how he’d describe himself, the foremost paleo is Tucker Carlson, who offers a mix of traditional social values, suspicion of globalization, and noninterventionism every weekday on cable television.

…The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.

The post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience.

For those keeping score at home, that’s Jacksonians, Reformocons, Paleocons, and Post-Liberal conservatives. None of them are “classical liberals.” History moves on and requires people to choose.

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?

Did Sam Francis Hold a Fundraiser for Donald Trump?

Of course, not. The paleo-conservative died in 2005. But what about Bill Ayers (the co-founder of the Weatherman) fundraiser for President Obama?

The reason for asking is elite journalism’s tic of recognizing the tawdry associations of president-elect Trump while never having taken seriously President Obama’s associations with the radical left. For instance, I read this in the New Yorker:

Throughout the campaign, he was accused of being the leader of a white backlash movement, waging war on minorities: he says that he wants to expel millions of unauthorized immigrants, and calls for a moratorium on Muslims entering the country. Since his election, many analyses of his political program have focussed on his ties to the alt-right, a nebulous and evolving constellation of dissidents who sharply disagree with many of the conservative movement’s widely accepted tenets—including, often, its avowed commitment to racial equality. This connection runs through Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, an “economic nationalist” who was previously the executive chairman of Breitbart, a news site that aimed to be, Bannon once said, “the platform for the alt-right.” Earlier this year, Breitbart published a taxonomy of the alt-right that included Richard Spencer, a self-described “identitarian” whose political dream is “a homeland for all white people.” At a recent conference in Washington, Spencer acted out the worst fears of many Trump critics when he cried, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Later, Spencer told Haaretz that the election of Trump was “the first step for identity politics for white people in the United States.”

It is important to note that the link between Trump and someone like Spencer is tenuous and seemingly unidirectional. (When reporters from the Times asked Trump about the alt-right, in November, he said, “I disavow the group.”) But it is also true that partisan politics in America are stubbornly segregated: exit polls suggest that about eighty-seven per cent of Trump’s voters were white, which is roughly the same as the corresponding figure for his Republican predecessor, Mitt Romney. It is no surprise that many of Trump’s critics, and some of his supporters, heard his tributes to a bygone American greatness as a form of “identity politics,” designed to remind white people of all the power and prestige they had lost.

It is true, too, that Trumpism draws on a political tradition that has often been linked to white identity politics. One Journal author suggested that the true progenitor of Trumpism was Samuel Francis, a so-called paleoconservative who thought that America needed a President who would stand up to the “globalization of the American economy.” In Francis’s view, that candidate was Pat Buchanan, a former longtime White House aide who ran for President in 1992 and 1996 as a fiery populist Republican—and in 2000 as the Reform Party candidate, having staved off a brief challenge, in the primary, from Trump.

Three graphs of a long story on Trump and the alt-right even though the reporter also concedes, “what is striking about Trump is how little he engages, at least explicitly, with questions of culture and identity.” “[A]t least explicitly” gives the reporter room to disbelieve Trump and to leave readers inclined to think the worst thinking the worst.

So doesn’t that make the New Yorker the alt-left equivalent of Breitbart?

The question is how to parse these associations and affinities. Do you rely on hard evidence? Do you define narrowly the overlap between the politician and the offensive action or idea? Consider how Noam Scheiber cleared President Obama of untoward associations with Ayers:

Suppose we were talking about a meeting Mike Huckabee attended during a (fictitious) run for state senate in the early ’90s. Let’s say the meeting took place in the home of a local pastor, who, back in the ’70s, had been part of a radical anti-abortion group that at times attempted, but never succeeded in, bombing abortion clinics. The pastor was never prosecuted and had since become a semi-respectable member of his community, where he also ran an adoption clinic for children of mothers he’d counseled against abortion.

If Huckabee had once addressed a group of local conservative activists at the pastor’s home, would that tell us anything about his views on political violence? Reasonable people can disagree about this. But I don’t think it would.

But that is not the standard that Kalefa Sanneh of the New Yorker is using for Trump or the alt-right. Although he has no clear links between Spencer and Trump, because people who like Spencer voted for Trump — kahbamb — association confirmed. But because Bill Ayers and former supporters of the radical left (even in its terrorist phase) voted for Obama, no connection. Just the way the system works.

Which is true. Bad people vote for good candidates all the time. We wonder why such candidates appeal to such voters. But to see the New Yorker do what Rush Limbaugh does is well nigh remarkable. Rush assumes that people who vote Democrat are overwhelmingly bad citizens or bad Americans. Turns out — thanks to the revelations that have arisen during Trump’s candidacy and election — that editors of “respectable” journalism do the same. If you voted for Trump you must be harboring views of white supremacy. Just because you think immigration and ISIS may be a problem?

Where’s the Fall?

Rod Dreher hearkens back to his crunchy con days for this piece of conservative logic:

A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.

Might we then expect Rod to show some theological restraint when commenting on the murder of a Scottish Muslim?

Asad Shah is with our Creator today. I am confident of that. Please, Christians, wherever you are this Easter weekend, pray for the soul of a righteous man, murdered for his compassion and love of mankind.

Remember, too, that if you condemn all Muslims over the bloodthirsty killers of ISIS, you also condemn this good man Asad Shah, may his memory be eternal.

Sure, Rod doesn’t need to use the timing of this man’s tragic death to point out the differences between Muslims and Christians over sin, salvation, and the redemption secured by Christ (though at Easter he might have the meaning of Christ’s death on his mind). But if conservatives are going to ask the rest of society to take religious seriously, shouldn’t they show the way?

Independence Day Blues

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — the most memorable phrase from the Declaration of Independence, arguably. So Father Dwight tries to instruct us on the proper meaning of happiness (which is not as bad as trying to find the true meaning of hedonism, but it still doesn’t go well). Of the four levels of happiness, the ultimate is the “transcendental”:

This highest level of happiness comes when we learn how to serve an even higher being than our neighbor. Our happiness is linked with our self-esteem, and our self-esteem is linked with whether we feel our life is being spent in a worthwhile manner. Those whose lives have a high level of meaning and purpose have high levels of happiness. Those who serve God feel they are living for values and meanings that are eternal in their scope. No matter how negative the circumstances, people who are at the transcendental level of happiness evidence extreme, even ecstatic, happiness. They are not just happy—they are joyful.

As I say, it doesn’t go well since at the end of the article Father Dwight, a regular apologist for Roman Catholicism who points out the foibles and liabilities of his former Protestant communion, tries to make his pitch for happiness sound generically religious. This is how we are supposed to pursue this ultimate form of happiness:

. . . conservatism has always had deep roots in the traditions of faith. Religious belief takes us into the depths of the human experience historically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The strength of conservatism is that it is a solid, stable, and secure philosophy. These deep roots are fed by the structures and systems of religion that open the individual to the transcendental dimension of happiness. Conservatism in religion connects the individual to the spiritual giants of the past, and the simple traditions of ancient religion open the individual to experience the true worship of God that experts tell us is the final stage of true happiness.

What about the sacraments, what about the death of Christ, what about sin and purgatory? “Religious belief” will do? Leo XIII would be appalled, but then he was the pope who condemned Americanism, a mild heresy that seems to be more prevalent now than it was 120 years ago.

The worry, though, has less to do with Protestant-Roman Catholic differences than it does with the conflation of “religion” and conservatism. That mix has produced a civil religion that leads many American believers to be very happy about the United States and its mission — except when they turn to despair because its officials have abandoned its religious ideals. Richard Gamble has a good antidote to such civil religion by showing (from a few years ago but recently republished) that even the sainted Abraham Lincoln was guilty of this dangerous conflation of piety and politics:

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state, but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and to transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

Bellah, a defender of American civil religion who wanted to globalize it in the post-Kennedy years, claimed that Lincoln and the Civil War gave America a “New Testament” for its civic faith: “The Gettysburg symbolism (‘…those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live’) is Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church.”

The link between Gamble’s piece on Lincoln and Father Dwight’s on the Declaration is that both — aside from being alumi of Bob Jones University — are addressing, the former explicitly and the latter only implicitly, civil religion. Gamble is on the lookout. Father Dwight promotes it.

So what is the remedy? Maybe it is to abandon happiness. Life is hard, we seek to serve God in our callings, we die, and our remains await the resurrection. In other words, we await a better country. If we look for happiness in this one, we will “like” Father Dwight’s post and let President Lincoln inspire us.

So maybe the true conservative is the unhappy American. You may see him tonight at the fireworks display. He won’t be smiling. He’ll be fearful because of all the noise and explosions.

How A Biblical W-w Conflicts with American Conservatism

This may explain further how the so-called Religious Right is an untrustworthy ally to political conservatives, an interview with Jonathan Compton, the author of The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution:

JC: I was intrigued by the fact that many nineteenth-century evangelicals were openly critical of certain aspects of the constitutional system. The example of the antislavery movement is well known, but one finds the same sorts of criticisms within the temperance and anti-lottery movements, among others. After further investigation, I discovered the underlying source of this discontent: evangelical activists wanted to eradicate various forms of “sinful” property, and this goal put them at odds with a constitutional order that was designed, in large part, to protect vested property rights and to insulate national markets from state and local regulation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution?

JC: By the late nineteenth century, the prohibition and anti-lottery movements had grown so powerful that judges and lawmakers were forced to accommodate their demands, even if this meant weakening property rights and federalism constraints across the board. The triumph of the evangelical reform movements convinced many Progressive-era Americans that key constitutional categories like “property” and “commerce” were simply social constructs that could be modified to reflect the views of the present generation.

Without 2K It's All A Muddle

The response to last week’s post about the similarities between the religious right and political Islam is in (at least from the person who inspired the comparison) and it seems to be to deny the point about the ways in which Christians and Muslims object to secular society simply by stamping feet harder and louder. Bill Evans is back with this rejoinder (though it is not all about me):

Some are opposed to Christian political involvement on theological grounds. Here we think of the current proponents in Reformed circles of the so-called “two-kingdoms” doctrine (2K). According to this way of thinking, Christians have no business involving themselves as Christians in the political process, nor of proclaiming that there is a Christian position on the issues of the day. Such political activity, it is argued, fails to recognize the essentially spiritual mission of the Church, and to acknowledge that the task of the Church is to prepare people for the hereafter, not to work for political or social transformation. Some 2K advocates (e.g., here) have recently upped the rhetorical ante, suggesting that there is no essential difference between Christians who seek cultural transformation and Muslims seeking to impose Sharia law.

Although my main point here is not to provide an extended critique of current Reformed 2K thinking, I do have significant reservations about it. I tend to agree with the standard objections—that it has rather little connection to the two-kingdoms theme in Calvin and the earlier Reformed tradition (Calvin certainly thought that Geneva should be governed in accordance with broadly Christian principles), and that it confuses the Kingdom of God and the Church (biblically speaking, the Kingdom involves the Church but is not coextensive with it). Moreover, its working assumption that there is no middle ground of principled pluralism between theocracy and 2K is certainly open to question, and I sense that what traction 2K is getting stems largely from the fact that it provides a theological fig leaf for the evangelical culture-war fatigue referenced earlier.

Not to be missed is that Evans’ main point is that Christians have an obligation to engage the culture war (say, hello to Abraham Kuyper):

Simply put, a refusal to engage the cultural and political issues of the day is no longer an option for thoughtful conservative Christians in America. The battle has been forced upon us. Reasons for this have to do with current political realities, especially the wholesale shift of administrative power to a technocratic elite with a rather clear progressive social agenda. Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism has recently explored this development in an insightful article in The Weekly Standard. Smith writes, “Liberals today seek to create a stable, and what they perceive to be a socially just, society via rule by experts—in which most of the activities of society are micromanaged by technocrats for the economic and social benefit of the whole. In other words, social democracy without the messiness of democracy, like the European Union’s rule-by-bureaucrats-in-Brussels. This is the ‘fundamental transformation’ that President Obama seeks to implement in this country.” . . . If Smith is correct, and I think he is, culturally conservative religion and religious believers are in the crosshairs of these secular, culturally progressive technocratic elites.

This is a remarkable misreading of 2k and American politics. First the theology bit.

Evans, who is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, should know something about J. Gresham Machen who advocated the church staying out of politics (a 2k view) but then turned around and testified before Congress against the Department of Education, for instance. The lesson Machen taught me at least is that 2k is not opposed to Christian political involvement. What 2k opposes is the blurring of categories and confusion of arguments that so often afflicts Christians who either want to redeem the world or fear the world is out to get them. What is more, 2k actually follows the categories supplied by Reformed orthodoxy, such as the Westminster Confession.

Notice that within the Confession Christian involvement in politics has three possible expressions — believers, church officers, and Christians who hold political office.

On the involvement of Christians: It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion. (23.2)

On the involvement of church officers as members of assemblies (and all Presbyterian pastors are members of presbyteries, not congregations): Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate. (31.4)

On the involvement of the magistrate, well here you may get a difference of opinion, but the revised confession says: It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance. (23.3)

I believe this would apply to Christian magistrates protecting Muslims even though Islam is not Christian. Even the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for which Evans works (at Erskine Seminary) allows the possibility of Christian magistrates in a secular country protecting Muslims:

Christian magistrates, as such, in a Christian country, are bound to promote the Christian religion, as the most valuable interest of their subjects, by all such means as are not inconsistent with civil rights; and do not imply an interference with the policy of the church, which is the free and independent kingdom of the Redeemer; nor an assumption of dominion over conscience. (23.3 ARPC Confession of Faith)

Since the United States is not a Christian country (just ask the Covenanters), the part about promoting the Christian religion is off.

What this adds up to is that 2k is once again tried and true according to the confessional heritage of the Reformed churches. I don’t suppose that Evans faults 2k for teaching that Christians may participate in politics (whether we turn into a Kuyperian holy duty is another matter but that sacred cause of politics is not something that Reformed Christians have adopted as part of their confession). Evans may disagree with 2k for arguing that churches should not meddle in politics. But that’s an issue he should likely take up with the Westminster Divines.

Perhaps the real disagreement comes over the nature of the magistrate. Here comes the political part of the post. Again, I wish that 2k’s critics would just once notice how practically all of the Reformed churches, liberal and conservative, have revised the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century chapters on the duties of the civil magistrate. But let’s go one step farther. Let’s say that Evans wants the kind of magistrate taught by the Westminster Divines, the one who can call councils and synods, be present at them, insure that they follow the word of God in Constantine like fashion, not to mention have the power to abolish heresies and blasphemies. If that is the kind of magistrate Evans wants, isn’t that what he has with today’s “technocratic elite” who are increasingly regulating more and more aspects of human life? Of course, the problem for him is that today’s politicians are not Christian and are not implementing Christian orthodoxy and morality. But if his fear is of a powerful state that can interfere with all parts of our affairs, wouldn’t the magistrate envisioned by the original Westminster Confession of Faith be the kind of big government that Evans believes Christians should oppose?

This is why if you want small government you should spend more time reading not the Bible but the debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Bible has virtually nothing to say directly to check and balances, constitutions, executives, legislatures, and judiciaries. But the framers of the U.S. Constitution and their critics did.

2k gives a better reason to oppose the technocratic elites than Evans’ dismissal of 2k does on the way to a call for culture war (jihad?). It frees Christians to take their cues politically from non-believers. Evans appears to be left with either the Bible or the sixteenth-century Constantinian order which give him no grounds for a constitutional republic. Aside from a different religion, how is that different from political Islam?

We Need A Declaration of Institutional Independence

A new book, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell (which I haven’t read but is reviewed in Christianity Today), argues that social conservatism (i.e., the Religious Right) is “the application of natural law to politics — the self-evident truths of the Declaration — rather than as a political manifestation of religious revelation.” Bell apparently argues this way in order to counter the trend of evangelicals increasingly moving left. According to Andrew Walker, the reviewer, “Liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis insist that younger evangelicals have moved beyond abortion and gay marriage to matters of immigration and economic justice. Many mainstream Republicans complain that social conservatives hold the party hostage to a divisive agenda. Happy to court social conservative votes, they sweep social conservative causes under the political rug once victory has been attained.” Bell’s book, then, appears to be a way of rallying evangelicals to remain conservative. His reading of the Declaration of Independence, the British Enlightenment, and American politics all point to evangelical convictions as basic to the United States’ character.

The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions. In the antebellum era, appeals to natural rights could be used against states’ rights in order to assert one national norm and go around the powers of local governments. But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits. Pitting individual liberty against governmental regulation is not a conservative argument. In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.

For this reason, if Bell’s book gains traction among evangelicals it will further direct born-again Protestants from any sustained consideration of genuine American conservatism, the kind that takes seriously not some abstract rights of individuals in some nether world, state of nature, but the real laws and institutional arrangements that informed decisions to form a federated republic under the norms prescribed in a national constitution.

This is why it would be much better if evangelicals would turn to writers like Noah Millman, who blogs over at the American Conservative, and understands well the radicalism inherent in appeals to abstract ideals of individual liberty. In a post about the impossibility of religious liberty, he writes:

Winnifred Sullivan’s book argues, in a nutshell, that religious freedom, for individuals, means freedom from religious authority as well as freedom from governmental restriction on religious practice. So, you can’t ask a Catholic prelate whether this or that practice that the law would prohibit (say, putting statues on angels on graves, which is the main example in her book) is actually a formal part of Catholic religious practice, because the prelate has no standing, in a secular court, to rule on the question. If the grieving family feel that it’s an essential that Dad get guarded by a statue of an angel, then that’s their religious practice by definition, and if you want true freedom of religion you have to protect it. But this way, needless to say, lies chaos. Hence the impossibility of religious freedom.

In encourage people to read the book; a one-paragraph summary doesn’t do justice to the argument.

What I’ve argued in the past is that, regardless of where Constitutional doctrine winds up, we should strive to maximize (within reason) the zone of autonomy for religious institutions, because we should view that autonomy as a positive good, not as an absolute “right.” Hegemonic liberalism should be humble enough to accept that it doesn’t know the only ways of knowing, and that there is value, therefore, in having robust voices that claim other modes of knowledge – religious voices being preeminent examples.

Which is why I’ve argued simultaneously that I think the Constitutional objections to the HHS mandate don’t convince me, but that the mandate was a mistake – not a political mistake (it may or may not have been that as well) but a substantive policy mistake. Not because Catholics can’t freely practice their religion if the HHS mandate exists (they clearly can – indeed, it’s really easy to construct workarounds that don’t directly implicate the employer in providing the coverage, in which case I don’t see what the religious objection might be) but because we actively do want the Catholic Church out there living, in its institutions, a worldview with which the majority of the country disagrees, precisely because it has a long and profound history and the majority of the country disagrees with it. This is the kind of situation where “diversity is strength” has some actual meaning in the political ecology.

Important to note is the contrast Millman makes between individual and institutional freedoms. I agree with him that a true diversity would encourage greater resilience for church authorities like the Roman Catholic hierarchy and I would hope that such encouragement would extend to the assemblies and synods of Reformed and Presbyterian communions. But what is striking is that the protection of religious liberties for individuals is a very different matter than such protection for religious institutions.

The reason that evangelicals do not see this distinction, or use it in their political reflections, I suppose, is that their religious devotion is largely personal and individual — the believer’s experience — and not institutional or under the oversight and norms of an ecclesiastical body. It is no wonder, then, that evangelicals, long on individualism and short on ecclesiology, will try to find roots for social conservatism in a document that has no legal standing in America’s laws and that celebrates the individual (at least for a few lines).

Now We're Talking Christian Education

This comes from a recent review in The American Conservative of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (by Geoffrey Kabaservice). The author of the review is Jeff Taylor, who teaches political science at Dort College.

Counterintuitive though it may be, the past three decades have actually brought about the triumph of liberalism in the United States, liberalism of the big-government, policing-of-the-world, secular-values variety. The vision of Nelson Rockefeller, not Ronald Reagan, has attained supremacy within the GOP. Rockefeller and his Democratic counterpart, Hubert Humphrey, symbolized a bipartisan consensus in the 1960s and 1970s for monopoly capitalism tempered by a welfare state at home and a well-armed empire abroad. In the 2000s, the George W. Bush administration solidified a coalition between pragmatic heirs of Rockefeller such as Dick Cheney and neoconservative successors of Humphrey such as Paul Wolfowitz. Rhetorical crumbs notwithstanding, traditional conservatives and libertarians lack a seat at the table. Their support is desired—and needed—by party leaders, but they are excluded from power.

The standard of ideological measurement within the GOP has changed dramatically during the past half-century. By the criteria of the 1960s, the national leaders of the Republican Party today are all liberals. A generation of wolves (liberals) did not give birth to a generation of sheep (conservatives). Instead, partly out of personal convenience and partly for historical reasons, the Republican establishment donned fleece in the 1980s. Liberals in conservative clothing. Kabaservice doesn’t recognize a friend when he sees one. He continues to mourn the loss of moderates and progressives in the party, though they continue to thrive under a different guise.

If this is a Christian W-W, I’m in.