Transcending Partisan Politics is Sectarian

Evangelical Protestants suffer from a tic. It is an unwillingness to identify with a political party. Evangelical writers about politics can spot the defects of both the left and the right, though they don’t often calculate which side has the most flaws. They act as if Christians really are above politics. When believers follow the Bible, they will not have to settle for either what liberals or conservatives propose.

A couple examples: the first on race.

The danger is that Christians who rightly reject the first (conservative) view as sub-biblical will merely pick up the second (progressive) view uncritically and use the terminology that it provides. But both are secular, reductionistic and simplistic. The Bible’s account of justice includes both individual and systemic dimensions—and more. We are not merely individual and social, but also soul and body. Indeed, the term “world” (kosmos) in the New Testament has not only a material reality (as in God loving the world of human beings, John 3:16), but also a spiritual reality, an inevitable tendency to make counterfeit gods out of good created things (1 John 2:15-16). “Doing justice” on the basis of the biblical view will include extraordinary prayer and evangelism along with everything else. The biblical view of justice gives full weight to both personal responsibility and social structures while based on a rich understanding of human life that goes well beyond the world’s reductionistic alternative views.

The second on communism.

Liberation theology, which puts a Christian face on Marxist social analysis, retains an enormous mystique on the Christian left. This isn’t because left-leaning Christians admire Stalin but because they are profoundly skeptical of the alternative to communism: economic systems built on property and contract rights protected by the rule of law. These systems produce economic growth, but as wealth has grown we’ve also seen a growing worldliness and materialism in our cultures. Christians on the left (most famously Gregory Paul) point to the radical economic community of the church in Acts 2–5 and ask if this doesn’t implicitly delegitimize market systems of price and exchange.

Right-leaning Christians, meanwhile, often seem indistinguishable from secular conservatives. They rail against communism, yet almost none of them seems to have read serious theological analysis of communism—not even from anti-communist Christians like Chambers. In almost every case, their top priority is to protect free markets and economic growth rather than oppose the atheistic inhumanity of the communist worldview. And their zeal to defend free markets often leads them to downplay, or even celebrate, the worldliness and crass materialism that have been associated with economic growth.

Why is the church haunted by communism, even though in Christ crucified we already possess the real answer to the world’s suffering and injustice? Because the church hasn’t put a Christian economic ethic into practice systematically. We need, but don’t know how to develop, an organized and operational Christian economic life.

Actually, the Amish have developed an economic system by some measures. But even their herculean efforts to retain Christian solidarity depends on the “English’s” society of property, currency, a legal system, and the political process that functions in, with, and around economic systems. Talk about systemic.

This does not mean that Christian academics should refrain from connecting dots between revelation (general and special) and politics or economics. What it does mean is that Christians trying to be Christian about everything, including politics and economics, separate themselves from the institutions most responsible for those areas of society. Christian w-w thinking is really a product of a ghetto that is isolated from bodies of learning and institutional structures in which political and economic decisions are made.

It is functionally Amish. Is that where New Calvinists want to be? Sectarians on the margins?

The 2k Middle Way

This should eliminate the “R” from R2K with help from the Gospel Allies. Trevin Wax mentions three matters where New Calvinists (posing as neo-Calvinists) can learn from Anabaptists (hint, it’s not how to build a gospel barn). If Mr. Wax had spent a little more time with 2K, he might have posed these theses better.

First, “What happens in the church matters more than anything that happens in the world.

Reply: what have 2kers been saying but only to hear that Christianity must go beyond the church parking lot? And is it not a tad rich to hear about the importance of the church at a website that puts the RA in parachurch? In other words, a high church Calvinism would help Mr. Wax restore the visible church to its proper significance.

Second, “The church changes the world by being the church.”

Reply: don’t go empire building without referring to your Constantinian playbook. Heck, would the church even have a Trinitarian theology to wind up the complementarians without the emperor calling an ecumenical council? Don’t forget either that the conversion of emperors and kings gave a plausibility to Christianity that made the evangelization of medieval Europe more plausible than it would have been with Christianity as a minority and persecuted faith. Do remember as well that the number of Christians spiked in the first half of the fourth century — from 10% of the population in 300 to 50% in 350 — undoubtedly because Christian politicians made the faith respectable and even remunerative.

Meanwhile, as kind as it is to regard Anabaptists as making a difference, overlooking the enormous influence of magisterial Protestants in so many of the aspects of Christian life we take for granted is unfortunate. Whether you like Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, a Bible in every hotel room, or parachurch foreign missionary enterprises, the evangelicals who read and take heart from the Gospel Allies would have a dry and parched religious landscape if they had had to depend on Anabaptists who went before.

Third, “The church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins.”

Reply: another kind and generous assertion, but is anyone going to tell me that the OPC has been incredibly strong — compared to Tim Keller, the Gospel Allies, the hipper portions of the PCA, and the behemoth Southern Baptist Convention — because Orthodox Presbyterians have ministered on the margins? Please.

So before anyone tries to buy a farm next to an Amish family, take Mr. Wax’s recommendation of Anabaptism with a grain of salt. If you’re really Reformed, you can chase it with a shot of Rye.

The Limits of W-w

Like I say, transformationalism is good on inspiration but not so good on transformation. Jim Bratt gave a peak behind the curtain of neo-Calvinist culture in the U.S. in his last post before heading to China on a Fulbright (happy trails, Jim):

Boy, do we need that now. I’m thinking of the death this past week of Tim LaHaye. The span of tomfoolery he pumped out in the name of Christianity has created lasting disrepute for the faith. The creation “science.” The “end-times” irresponsibility, compounded of self-pity, blaming others, and a certain cultural idolatry. All of it redolent of the John Birch Society swamp from which he first slithered. Still, it’s the sort of religious fantasy you can expect to hit the American best-seller list. The death that really strikes home for me is the moral nadir of Mr. Family Values, “Dr.” James Dobson. His endorsement of Donald Trump puts paid to any pretense that the ethics and politics he pushed, lo, these many years have come to anything but authoritarian nationalism with a particular macho strut. For that is Trump. Dobson’s worse for covering it with smarmy God-talk.

I say this hits home for me because back when I was on a denominational committee studying the future of the CRC’s magazine, The Banner, we were given some research stats of readership habits and opinion. James Dobson turned out to be the CRC’s #1 rated authority on current events. Charles Colson was its #1 theologian. The Fraud and the Felon atop the Calvinist hit parade. Two minor sins in that revelation somehow stuck out for me. Dobson, a member of the Church of the Nazarene. Read rank Armininian. Colson, invoking the name of Kuyper as he bullied along.

All this, I mused, was the price of that “Americanization” to which the CRC, as an immigrant church, had been long pushed to accede. Well, nationalist mush compounded by militancy turns out to be the bitter fruit of that process. And so it is today.

I don’t pretend that Kuyper ever represented more than a small fraction of Dutch people claiming a Reformed commitment. Ditto, in Dutch-American Reformed circles, for The Forum, The Journal, or Perspectives. But these magazines have fought hard and punched way above their weight because of that magic formula that Kuyper caught, and taught. And it’s worth carrying on their mission, worth trying to maintain cultural, political, and theological integrity above the open sewer into which white-American Christianism has descended.

I bring this up not to delight in the sufferings of neo-Calvinists, nor to take a shot at Jim on his way out of the blogosphere. Bratt, it must be said, is honest about the state of neo-Calvinism and properly annoyed at its abuses.

I do refer to this to remind those would-be Kuyperians that the neo-Calvinist project is a lot harder than it sounds. Take every thought captive. Christ is Lord of every square inch. Television (and plumbing) redeemed. Integration of faith and learning. New York City as a tipping point for global revival. Bratt’s own account of the CRC is a ready warning that even with all the infrastructure of neo-Calvinist culture — church, school, catechesis, denominational magazine, world-and-life bleep, you are a poor match for mass culture in a liberal capitalist democracy.

Take every though captive? More like, kid yourself that you are large and in charge.

I truly admire the grit and determination of Dutch-American Calvinists. They are one of the true success stories of transplanting a distinct form of Old World Calvinism to the New World. They were BenOp Calvinists before the Benedict Option became hip.

But as all immigrant groups know, leaving the ghetto for the suburbs is part of the American dream. So for w-w to happen you may need to hunker down in the ghetto (or if Amish on the farm or if Benedictine in the monastery). But if you are going to live and move and have your being as a citizen of a modern nation state, chances are many of your square inches will be taken captive.

And if you want a theological rationale or explanation for that, for being part of the mainstream society but not, learn, live, and love 2k. The water’s warm.

If Christians Thought of Themselves Less as Transformers and More as Pilgrims

They might receive better treatment. Ross Douthat brings up a good contrast between the Amish and social conservatives:

. . . let’s pause for a moment to consider the substance of the well-known case she cites, Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Amish families had the right to withdraw their children from education after the 8th grade. (And withdraw completely: They weren’t just petitioning for regulations allowing them to homeschool, though I believe that Wisconsin in that era had policies making homeschooling difficult as well.)

Given the usual public-policy justification for compulsory education, it is very easy to see an argument that the beliefs of Amish parents do, in fact, impose a steep cost on “other people” — with the “other people” in question being, of course, their own children, who are denied the years of education that state law and public policy deem essential to their flourishing. Indeed, from the perspective of a society that often seeks to protect children from unfit parents, and that frets endlessly about high school drop-outs and the high school graduation rate, the burden imposed on Amish teenagers by their parents’ beliefs could be seen as far exceeding the burdens involved in today’s religious liberty debates. A gay couple seeking a wedding photographer is likely to be able to find one even in the event that their preferred choice has a religious objection, and an employee who wants contraceptive coverage can usually purchase it directly with their wages for a non-exorbitant price. But an Amish teenager’s only recourse, if she wants the kind of education that the state usually deems necessary, would require an extreme, wrenching break with the family of her birth, the quest for emancipated-minor status, and the like.

But for evangelicals and Roman Catholics who comprise those opposed to gay marriage to gain a hearing comparable to the one Amish have received, they’d have to present themselves as a minority rather than the moral majority. And the dynamics of evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism — where size matters — clearly point in a direction opposite to that of people who are exiles, sojourners, or refugees. Especially when you enter the world of numbers created by democratic electoral politics, you can’t take any comfort from being a minority group. Of course, American Protestants with British backgrounds have never thought of themselves as a minority. But what happened to Roman Catholics?

When Transformation Transforms the Transformers

In arguably his most important book, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes the following about the Amish (in ways that neo-Calvinists might find instructive and inspirational):

First, the Amish communities are, at their center, religious. They are bound together not just by various worldly necessities, but by spiritual authority. . . Whereas most contemporary sects of Christianity have tended to specialize in the interests of the spirit, leaving aside the issues of the use of the world, the Amish have not secularized their earthly life. . . .

Second, the Amish have severely restricted the growth of institutions among themselves, and so they are not victimized, as we so frequently are, by organizations set up ostensibly to “serve” them. Though they pay the required deferences to our institutions, they accept few of the benefits, and so remain, in perhaps the most important respects, free of them. They do not become dependent on them and so maintain their integrity. As far as I know, the only institutions in our sense that the Amish have started are their schools — and his, by our standards, for a strange reason: to keep the responsibility for educating their children and so, in consequence to keep their children. . . .

Third, the Amish are the truest geniuses of technology, for they understand the necessity of limiting it. . . . Whereas our society tends to conceive of the community as a loose political-economic mechanism of mutually competing producers, suppliers, and consumers, the Amish think of “the community as a whole” — that is, as all of the people, or perhaps, considering the excellence both of their neighborliness and their husbandry, as all the people and their land together. If the community is whole, then it is healthy, at once earthly and holy. The wholeness or healht of the community is their standard. And by this standard they have been required to limit their technology.

Berry goes on even to violate Old Life standards by applying the word Christian to a secular enterprise — as in Christian agriculture, which is “formed upon the understanding that is is sinful for people to misuse or destroy what they did not make.”

As side from the irony from H. Richard Niebuhr categories of Christ and culture that Anabaptists may have done more to create a Christian culture than Niebuhr’s (and Kuyper’s) Calvinist transformationalists, the example of the Amish (as Berry understands them) may also be instructive for those wanting to transform out culture. Instead of infiltrating the city to redeem it, the Amish have fled the dominant culture to cultivate a Christian culture (as they understand it). In so doing, they have avoided the problem that generally afflicts the infiltrators — that they become like the culture they inhabit, that is, in the case of city transformers, they become as urban and hip as they are Christian. The Amish are also apparently free from the self-delusion that often infects the transformationalists, then one where to justify redeeming the culture the cult loses what makes it distinct (the salt is no longer salt).

This is not, by the way, an endorsement of either the Amish (whom I admire) or the project of Christian culture. I am more and more persuaded that the longing for a Christian culture is illegitimate and whets the soul’s appetite for something we cannot have in this world. But if you are going to look for examples of Christian culture, the Amish may have unwittingly outscored the neo-Calvinists. Think Free University.