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?


From the-one-step-in-one-direction-and-two-steps-in-the-other department:

Even under the terms of the 1998 deal, tobacco companies still faced potentially billions of dollars in liabilities. Taxes on cigarettes have only gone up in recent years, and rates of smoking have dropped by about ten per cent in the last ten years.

So whence the record windfall for tobacco companies in 2016?

The answer, as the WSJ points out, lies in the simple fact that tobacco sales are driven less by the “traditional laws of supply and demand” than they are by the guarantee that a large base of customers will buy the product at almost any price. When governments slap the industry with taxes, then, rather than discouraging sales, they are contributing directly to increased profits. In 2016 the average cost to buy a pack of Marlboros was about $6.31—of that only 18% went to cover manufacturing costs, with 17% going to retail markup and 42% a result of taxes. That leaves about 20% of pure profit for the companies. In addition to beefing up profits, this regulatory insulation discourages smaller manufacturers from moving up in the market, as they struggle to meet the onerous legal requirements and high cost of business.

Quite apart from the relative merits of tobacco regulation—on which opinions rightly differ—this story proves a case-study in how both the market and government attempts to control it are subject to ‘soft’ cultural factors quite beyond their control.

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?

Freedom for Home Schoolers, Tyranny for Infidels

In the category of harmonic convergence, Rabbit Bret and Brothers B recently huffed and puffed about a PCA pastor from Richmond, Indiana who had the temerity to write a letter to the local newspaper editor in which he argued for more government oversight of homeschooling.

In his 19-point reply (with subpoints, no less) the good rabbi makes this not so subtle rejoinder:

Tom, the chief person you’ve offended is Jesus Christ in heaven above. You have advocated the State to usurp the prerogatives that God has given to the parents in order that the State might play God to the family. Your advocacy for increased State control is an advocacy that leads to the deterioration of the family and the enhancement of the State. A State, I might remind you, which is hostile to Biblical Christianity.

Weighing in for the Baylys is brother Tim who has this reasoned response (though, a drive-by snipe at Covenant Seminary ended up provoking the most discussion):

It takes a village? Actually, no: that village is a gang or a group home.

What it really takes is a home. It takes a father and mother. It takes God and the natural sovereigns He’s put over sons and daughters–Papa and Mama.

Those authorities that undermine or remove the authority of fathers and mothers by transferring their authority to the state are rebels against God.

Keeping the cosmic convergence on a roll, I too would come down on the side of Bret and Tim. I affirm limited government and the value of mediating institutions, starting at the very basic, natural law, level of the family. On matters of policy, I might favor some kind of interaction among families and local school authorities, just at a meet and greet level so that both sides actually function as neighbors, another association that yields mediation. So I understand and approve generally of their concern about the state controlling more and more of daily life.

What I call attention to though is the contradiction between these pastors’ call for limited government regarding the family and their frequent requests for the state to uphold and defend the true religion. To put this matter graphically, would Bret and Tim be so willing to see a Wiccan family conduct home schooling? Maybe they would given their opposition to big government.

But how big a government would you have if the Westminster Assembly was right about the powers of the civil magistrate and Hilary Clinton as the next president of the United States had the power and duty to call and preside over the PCA General Assembly or the CRC Synod? At this point I believe Bret and Tim might finally come around to a 2k outlook (mind you, I know longer speak of worldviews).