Even Neo-Calvinists Get 2K Religion Once in a While

In her review of Philip Gorski‘s American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, Susan Wise Bauer concludes with a distinction between the earthly and the spiritual that clearly out the arteries (spiritually, of course) of an Old School Presbyterian’s heart:

But I also think the prophets and the New Testament writers would agree with me that giving up earthly power (and make no mistake, language is power) is only possible if you believe that earthly power is not the end of existence, that the death of something worldly, whether that earthly thing is influence, recognition, or even life itself, will lead to a supernatural resurrection brought about by a transcendent reality much greater than yourself.

What in the world does this do to every square inch redemption of all things earthly, created, cultural, and urban? Does Bauer mean to suggest that these things, like the grass, fade? And that only the life resurrected abides?

How did Jamie K.A. Smith let this get through? Is this the Neo-Calvinist of the broken clock?

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When Will Churches Give Up the U.S. Flag?

Have Southern Baptists pointed the way?

Messengers to the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention renounced display of the Confederate battle flag in a historic, overwhelming vote Tuesday (June 14).

Southern Baptist Convention Parliamentarian Barry McCarty explains the resolution amendment process after a messenger complained about not being allowed to speak after time expired during the afternoon session of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday, June 14 in St. Louis.

The convention adopted late in its afternoon session a resolution that urged “brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole body of Christ, including our African American brothers and sisters.”

Imagine improved relations with Mexicans and Canadians.

What If Historical Inquiry Isn't Comforting

Kevin DeYoung has a pretty positive spin on John Witherspoon’s commitment to Protestant unity without lapsing into doctrinal indifferentism:

Although he remained staunchly committed to and invested in Presbyterianism his whole life, Witherspoon was not a man of narrow party spirit. In his Treatise on Regeneration (1764), Witherspoon noted, “I am fully convinced, that many of very different parties and denominations are building upon the one ‘foundation laid in Zion’ for a sinner’s hope, and that their distance and alienation from one another in affection, is very much to be regretted.”[9] In his farewell sermon in Paisley, Witherspoon warned against “going too much into controversy” and developing “a litigious and wrangling disposition” that would lead Christians—and here he is quick to add the qualification “I mean real Christians”—into “innumerable little parties and factions.”[10] He longed for the day when the “unhappy divisions” among “protestants in general” would be “abolished” and those truly centered on Christ crucified would “be no longer ranked in parties and marshaled under names” but only strive with each other to see “who shall love our Redeemer most, and who shall serve him with the greatest zeal.”[11]

This ecumenical streak in Witherspoon was not borne out of doctrinal indifferentism. His desire for unity, for example, did not encompass Socinians, Pelagians, Catholics or any other group holding religious views he deemed antithetical to true biblical Christianity.[12] Witherspoon had no patience for the latitudinarian kind of unity he found among his colleagues in the Moderate Party.[13] In conjunction with the publication of his St. Giles’ sermon before the SSPCK (1758), Witherspoon penned a robust defense for pointing out error entitled “An Inquiry into the Scripture Meaning of Charity.”[14] With characteristic verve, Witherspoon attacked the increasingly popular notion among enlightened clergy that “charity was a far more important and valuable bond among Christians than exact agreement on particular points of doctrine.”[15] For Witherspoon, Christian unity was not rooted in downplaying doctrinal distinctives (least of all among those who could not be counted true believers), but in stressing the theological similarities that existed among born again Christians from a variety of denominations. “No man, indeed,” Witherspoon wrote, “deny it to be just, that every one should endeavor to support that plan of the discipline and government of the church of Christ, and even the minutest parts of it, which appear to him to be founded upon the word of God. But still sound doctrine is more to be esteemed than any form.”[16]

This is a plausible reading of some of the material, though Witherspoon remains a mystery to many who have studied him — Mark Noll is still puzzled why Witherspoon threw out Edwards’ idealist philosophy when he started as president of the College of New Jersey. Explaining Witherspoon can be almost as difficult as reading Pope Francis’ tea leaves.

But what Kevin needs to keep in mind is what Witherspoon’s politics and civil religion might have done to facilitate doctrinal indifferentism. In his widely circulated sermon on behalf of independence, the Scotsman said this:

. . . he is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy to God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country. Do not suppose, my brethren, that I mean to recommend a furious and angry zeal for the circumstantials of religion, or the contentions of one sect with another about their peculiar distinctions. I do not wish you to oppose any body’s religion, but every body’s wickedness. Perhaps there are few surer marks of the reality of religion, than when a man feels himself more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular liver of his own. It is therefore your duty in this important and critical season to exert yourselves, every one in his proper sphere, to stem the tide of prevailing vice, to promote the knowledge of God, the reverence of his name and worship, and obedience to his laws.

One way of reading that is that Witherspoon felt more in common with a Methodist who lived an upright life than a Presbyterian who insisted on perseverance of the saints. The kicker here is that Witherspoon aligns such a pursuit of holiness with the American cause, thereby enlisting a form of moralistic Protestantism on the side of patriotism and nationalism.

Witherspoon is not necessarily to blame for crafting a recipe that liberated a devotion that supported American independence from the “circumstantials” of Presbyterianism. He had help — lots of it. But since we live at a time where unsexy America promotes both Christian morality and American exceptionalism to the detriment of sound moral theology and ecclesiology, I do tend to conclude that in Witherspoon we have the seeds of Protestant liberalism and its Christian Right progeny.

Everywhere you turn in history, you step on Sideshow Bob’s rakes.

When People Believe in God . . .

. . . they believe almost anything. That isn’t how G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote goes, but it seems more accurate than the one he actually penned: “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) believe a lot of stuff that isn’t in the Bible, which is hard enough to believe. And when it comes to national holidays, Christians believe even more stuff that may be comforting but doesn’t have a lick of logic attached to it. Consider Lincoln, the Civil War, and Memorial Day from the perspective of that unbeliever, H. L. Mencken:

Of Lincolniana, of course, there is no end, nor is there any end to the hospitality of those who collect it. Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry—the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order— but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive to-day, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

The growth of the Lincoln legend is truly amazing. He becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the chautauquas and Y. M. C. A.’s.

Mencken also takes the wind out of the sails of anyone who favors a two-state solution in Israel but insists that the Confederate States were always misbehaving:

The Douglas debate launched [Lincoln], and the Cooper Union speech got him the presidency. This talent for emotional utterance, this gift for making phrases that enchanted the plain people, was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fireworks—the childish rhodomontades of the era. But in middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly simple— and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered to-day. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

Could it be because Mencken didn’t believe in God he could cut through the shine of the halo and see civil religion for the idolatry it is?

We Need a Religion that Unites

That was the dream of the founders. Ben Franklin stopped going to hear the Presbyterian pastor, Jedediah Andrews, because the printer believed Andrews’ turned his hearers not into good citizens but good Presbyterians:

Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He used to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevailed on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

Serious Presbyterians (and other Protestants) may not have agreed with Franklin’s civil religion (though at the Revolution Presbyterians turned out in force for generic and patriotic devotion), but in today’s debates about the nation and its identity Franklin dominates. Consider a couple examples of how the word “Christian” obscures differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants who would have had very decidedly different estimates of each other and the nation in 1790.

James Conley, the Bishop of Lincoln, NE, thinks we need to return to the vision of the founders:

If the American experiment is to survive, it needs Christianity—and the influence of all religious believers. And if our legal system is to survive, it needs your influence. Our obligation is to work to restore a sense of the common good and a sense of the transcendent in American public discourse. If law continues to be an agent of self-interest, we will see more instances of religious persecution and family disintegration. On the other hand, if law helps us to identify, proclaim, and seek a common good, then we will have turned the tide and served the vision of the Founding Fathers.

But why would a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church ever be satisfied with the Christianity of a bunch of patriotic Presbyterians and skeptically Protestant statesmen? That seems a long way from what Rome taught then and now about the nature of Christianity.

Mark David Hall in similar fashion glosses differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants to talk about the influence of Christianity (could he mean Eastern Orthodoxy?) on the founding:

I believe that this is the most reasonable way to approach the question “Did America have a Christian Founding?” In doing so, it is important to note that nominal Christians might be influenced by Christian ideas, just as it is possible for an orthodox Christian to be influenced by non-Christian ideas. I believe that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the Founders.

Before proceeding, I should emphasize that I am not arguing that Christianity was the only significant influence on America’s Founders or that it influenced each Founder in the exact same manner. Clearly there were a variety of different, but often overlapping, intellectual influences in the era. The Founders were also informed by the Anglo–American political–legal tradition and their own political experience, and like all humans, they were motivated to varying degrees by self, class, or state interests. My contention is merely that orthodox Christianity had a very significant influence on America’s Founders and that this influence is often overlooked by students of the American Founding.

But which Christianity? Doesn’t a historian have to do justice to the antagonism that has evaporated but that used to make Protestants and Roman Catholics suspicious (if only) of each other, and which led the papacy to condemn accommodations of Roman Catholicism to the American setting?

And so what always happens to biblical faith in the pairing of religion and public life continues to happen: Christianity loses its edge and becomes a generic, pious, inspirational goo. Even the Seventh-Day Adventists are worried about losing religious identity while gaining public clout.

One of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s most famous sons, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, is seeking evangelical support for a likely 2016 presidential bid. But the global leader of his church worries that the thriving denomination is becoming too mainstream.

In 2014, for the 10th year in a row, more than 1 million people became Adventists, hitting a record 18.1 million members. Adventism is now the fifth-largest Christian communion worldwide, after Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and the Assemblies of God.

Meanwhile, Team Religion doesn’t seem to notice that religion divides believers from unbelievers (as well as serious believers from other serious and not-so-serious believers). You gotta serve somebodEE.

A July 4th Homily

The Foreign Policy Research Institute rolls out this piece by Walter McDougall every year on the nation’s “High Holy Day” and it is worthy of repeated consideration. Here is the introduction:

The spiritual qualities of public rhetoric in American politics, courtrooms, churches, schools, and patriotic fetes used to be so pervasive, familiar, and unobjectionable that we citizens just took it for granted (until the advent of litigious atheists). Our national motto is “In God We Trust.” Our Pledge says we’re a nation “under God.” Our Congress and Supreme Court pray at the start of sessions. Presidents of all parties and persuasions have made ritual supplications that the United States might be blessed with divine protection. The last stanza of “America” begins “Our father’s God to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing” and ends by naming “great God,” not George III, “our King.” The last stanza of the “Star Spangled Banner” asks our “heaven rescued land” to “praise the Power that has made and preserved us a Nation.” “America the Beautiful” asks that “God shed His grace on thee.”

Most Americans, even today, would likely agree with Boston Puritans John Winthrop, John Adams, and Jonathan Mayhew, Princeton Presbyterian Jonathan Witherspoon and his disciple James Madison, Virginian Anglican (and Freemason) George Washington, and Deists Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin that Americans are “called unto liberty” (a phrase from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians)—that we are a new chosen people and ours a new promised land, and that our mission is to bestow liberty on all mankind, by example if not exertion. To be sure, the majority of Americans always found it easy to identify the God who watches over America with the God of their Protestant theology. But thanks to the free exercise of religion—the “lustre of our country” ensured by the First Amendment—religious minorities have been free to embrace the American Creed with equal or greater fervor.

Thus did Bishop John Carroll, founder of the American Catholic Church, “sing canticles of praise to the Lord” for granting his flock “country now become our own and taking us into her protection.” Thus did Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin liken Americans to the Children of Israel being led through the Sinai: “God Bless America, land that I love, stand beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above.” When Americans of all sects or no sect gather in civil ceremonies to praise their freedom, honor its Author, and rededicate themselves to their nation’s deals, they do not merely prove themselves a religious people, they prove the United States of America is itself a sort of religion, a civil religion, or as G. K. Chesterton put it in 1922, “a nation with the soul of a church.”

2K as Rodney Dangerfield

I have to give credit to Jamie Smith for rattling the neo-Calvinist cage with a review of James Skillen’s recent book on Christians and politics. I agree with Jamie when he wonders out loud, can you believe we have another book about Christianity in the public square? Jamie’s liturgical side might also welcome a book on the sacraments, but he and I would likely diverge when he would want (I suppose) to talk about the sacraments in broad as opposed to my narrow (and vinegary) terms. Even so, I was glad to see Jamie mix it up with neo-Calvinists who need to get out more:

. . . what follows from all of this [Skillen’s book] feels either truistic or simply a theological rationale for a particular form of American constitutionalism—as if a “biblical” understanding of justice naturally entails the American project. “The question for Christians,” Skillen summarizes, “is this: How should we engage politically, guided by the vision of Christ’s kingdom that has not yet been revealed in its fullness?” That’s a pretty big, vague question. The answer seems at once predictable, tired, and hollow: “In the political arena, therefore, we should work for the kind of political communities in which those who fill offices of government act as public servants to uphold public justice for the common good, willingly accepting their equality with all citizens under the law.” Fair enough: but is anybody really going to disagree with that? If not, then we’re on the terrain of truism. The Good of Politics tends to do this: offer theological rationales for things you had already assumed were a good idea.

Jonathan Chaplin was someone whom Smith woke from his principled-pluralism slumbers:

Smith quotes Skillen’s summary of the political pay-off from such a vision of justice as that “we should work for the kind of political communities in which those who fill offices of government act as public servants to uphold public justice for the common good, willingly accepting their equality with all citizens under the law.” Yet he casually dismisses this vision as “predictable, tired, and hollow.” In doing so, however, he reveals less about the limits of Skillen’s accounts and more about his own failure to grasp just how globally distinctive this conception of politics really is, what an enormous achievement it has proven to be historically, and how radical and transformative it would be if American Christians actually took it seriously in their political thinking and acting. It is lazily dismissive to suggest that what Skillen’s vision amounts to is a “pretty standard liberal democratic game”—little more than “liberal proceduralism.”

I myself am fairly comfortable with a procedural republic — unfortunately, we are now a procedural empire (and we all know what empires yield — the not so good tyrant). But it seems to me that Smith has a point. If we want something a little more high octane at the Christian political theology pump, basically rolling out Christian arguments for liberal democracy isn’t going to rev the engine of anyone who walks on the antithesis wild side.

What is curious about both Chaplin and Smith’s pieces is that 2 kingdom theology isn’t even a serious option (as one way of making peace with a procedural republic or divine-right monarch or demented emperor). The working assumption of neo-Calvinists is that the spirituality of the church is not even worthy of attention. According to Smith:

On Skillen’s account, all of our political errors stem from “believing that Christ’s kingdom is spiritual, or not of this world, or only ecclesiastical, or only future.” In other words, the demons to be exorcised are dualism and clericalism: an anti-creational, a-cultural piety that cares only about heaven and/or a misguided desire to have the church rule the state. He sees this growing out of misguided beliefs. Specifically: “It is the combination of the belief that government was given because of sin and the belief that life on earth exists in negative tension with heaven that has lead to the development of almost every approach Christians have taken to government and politics.” Every approach except—you guessed it—Skillen’s (who, it should be noted, conveniently avoids the fact that John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper also saw government as a postlapsarian institution, necessary only because of the Fall).

If you identify dualism and clericalism as the threats, then your solution is going to be engagement and sphere sovereignty. In other words, if you think the problem is that Christians either don’t care about politics or want the church to run the state, then your “introduction” is going to emphasize the good of politics (and creaturely, cultural life more generally) in a way that is distinctly anti-clerical, persistently downplaying the church. And Skillen delivers, once again exhibiting the problem with the Kuyperian fixations on sphere-boundary policing. Bent on what he calls “de-ecclesiasticization,” the significance of the sacramental body of Christ is once again effectively marginalized. This standard Kuyperian trope de-politicizes the church (hence his rejection of Hauerwas’s emphasis on the church as polis) in a way that is not only wrong-headed but also mis-directed. This emphasis might be correct if there were hordes of people around looking to “establish” a particular religion or denomination as the official state religion. But is that really our problem now? Hardly.

Well, if you’re worried about the kind of generic prayer before townhall meetings that sounds Laodecian, you may actually be worried about the establishment of religion-and-I-don’t-care-what-kind-it-is.

But who says that dualism and clericalism are the threats that need to be subdued? I understand that Kuyper did. But did Jesus? Did Augustine? Was Kuyper the third Adam? Which is not to say that dualism and clericalism are the best ways of describing either the spirituality of the church or an Augustinian political theology (which says basically that because of the fall all of this talk of human flourishing is pagan). But have Skillen, Chaplin, or Smith considered the upside of dualism and clericalism? Which is to ask, have they not ever noticed that history is littered with instances that suggest Christian engagement or transformationalism is the real danger. (Sphere sovereignty seems to me a keeper, but one that actually constrains neo-Calvinists since they keep blurring the lines and taking every square inch captive.)

Just consider the religious voices that supported World War I. Here I will repeat quotations from a previous post:

The Bishop of London in 1915 said:

kill Germans — do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends. . . . As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.

The Bishop of Carlisle added:

But in this war there move and work spirits deeper, stronger, more revolutionary than any or all of these — spirits of good and evil, powers of heaven and principalities of hell, invisible spirits of goodness and wickedness of which men are the instruments and the world the visible prize. . . . This present war is essentially a spiritual war; a war waged on earth but sustained on either side by invisible powers.

Not to be outdone, Protestant clergy from Harry Emerson Fosdick to Billy Sunday signed a statement that urged the U.S. in 1916 to enter the war. Here is how their faith-based argument went:

The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death, their dread of suffering and loss, their concern for comfort and ease above the holy claims of righteousness and justice, and freedom and mercy and truth. Much as we mourn the bloodshed [of war], we lament even more than supineness of spirit, that indifference to spiritual values which would let mere physical safety take precedence of loyalty to truth and duty. The memory of all the saints and martyrs cries out against such backsliding of mankind. Sad is our lot if we have forgotten how to die for a holy cause.

. . . the question of all questions for our immediate consideration is this: shall the ancient Christian inheritance of loyalty to great and divine ideals be replaced by considerations of mere expediency?

Or how about the religious rationale that informed the Cold War, at least if William Inboden’s book, Religion and American Foreign Policy, is reliable. He describes the “Truman Doctrine” this way:

In a 1951 address at Washington’s famed New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Truman preached a virtual sermon on America’s role in the world. He elaborated on the vexing relationship between the divine will, armed strength, American goodness, and communist evil. “We are under divine orders — not only to refrain from doing evil, but also to do good and to make this world a better place in which to live. . . . At the present time our nation is engaged in a great effort to maintain justice and peace in the world. An essential feature of this effort is our program to build up the defenses of our country. There has never been a greater cause. . . . We are defending the religious principles upon which our Nation and our whole way of life are founded. . . . The international Communist movement is based on a fierce and terrible fanaticism. It denies the existence of God and, wherever it can, it stamps out the worship of God . . . Our faith shows us the way to create a society where man can find his greatest happiness under God. Surely we can follow that faith with the same devotion and determination that Communists give to their godless creed.” The Cold War, in other words, had erupted not merely between two nations with contrary economic and political systems, but between two different religions. . . . Two ideologies and two systems asserted their rival claims to reality, neither one willing — or even able, if they would be true to themselves — to shrink from their confessions of truth. (114)

When you start entering the public square with religion, it becomes hard not to divide the world in antithetical ways. Truman was no Calvinist but weren’t neo-Calvinists, ever since 1789, habitually dividing the political world between the forces of good and those of — in the Church Lady’s voice — Say-TEN!

Do we really want a Christian political theology if it is going to keep baptizing the particular interests of nation-states as if those interests are those of Christ and his kingdom? Neo-Calvinists seem so intent on fixing today’s problems that they don’t seem to be capable of being sobered by the historical record of fixers who also rejected clericalism and dualism all the while collapsing the kingdom of God into the U.S.A., Germany, the UK — you name the pretty good nation.

But without 2k as an interlocutor, Smith may driven to look for sterner Christian engagement:

I wonder if. . . we don’t actually need a more robust embrace of “ideology” in this respect—a more forthright and unapologetic Christian politics that, in the name of the common Good and the good of politics, reconsiders Christendom for the missional project it was. That is the sort of question that reading Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart has left me with. But it is a question that a reader of Skillen’s book could never understand.

Will Smith take the theonomic plunge and confirm what 2kers have always suspected about neo-Calvinism — it’s just one step from theonomy but marching lock step with the Federal Visionaries who pine for Christendom and Christian emperors.

The Dark Side of Civil Religion

Easy-target-alert!

Sarah Palin — can you believe it — has once again inserted the cosmic foot folly into her mouth by likening water boarding to baptism. I wonder if she had made similar remarks about the mode of baptism — say, by comparing Baptists’ immersion practices to torture as opposed to the humane treatment of Presbyterians sprinkling infants and adults — if she would have received as much flack. (You do know the old joke that at the exodus, God sprinkled the Israelites but dunked the Egyptians.) Or what if Palin had switched the object of water boarding from terrorists to Don Sterling? Might that have complicated the offended thoughts of many Americans?

Still, the point Mollie Hemingway makes about civil religion is worth mentioning (thanks to Rod Dreher):

I’ve long defended Palin against the offensive treatment she’s received at the hands of a blatantly biased media, a media that collectively lost its mind the moment she entered the national stage. But that hardly means she must be defended at all times. … This is a perfect example not just of civil religion but also how civil religion harms the church. Civil religion is that folk religion that serves to further advance the cause of the state.

That still doesn’t mean that commenting on Palin’s faux pas one shows great discernment. So to complicate Palin’s comparison of torture to baptism, consider the substance of John Danforth’s homily at the funeral for Ronald Reagan:

Reagan’s most challenging test came on the day he was shot. He wrote in his diary of struggling for breath and of praying.

“I realized that I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who shot me,” he wrote.

“Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children, and therefore equally loved by Him. So I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”

He was a child of light.

Now consider the faith we profess in this church. Light shining in darkness is an ancient biblical theme. Genesis tells us that in the beginning, darkness was upon the face of the deep. Some equate this darkness with chaos.

And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Creating light in darkness is God’s work.

You and I know the meaning of darkness. We see it on the evening news: terror, chaos, war. An enduring image of 9/11 is that on a brilliantly clear day a cloud of darkness covered Lower Manhattan.

Darkness is real, and it can be terrifying. Sometimes it seems to be everywhere. So the question for us is what do we do when darkness surrounds us?

St. Paul answered that question. He said we must walk as children of light. President Reagan taught us that this is our mission, both as individuals and as a nation.

The faith proclaimed in this church is that when we walk as children of light, darkness cannot prevail. As St. John’s gospel tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That’s true even of death. For people of faith, death is no less awful than for anyone else, but the Resurrection means that death is not the end.

The Bible describes the most terrible moment in these words: “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until in the afternoon.”

That was the darkness of Good Friday. It did not prevail. Very early on the first day of the week when the sun had risen, that’s the beginning of the Easter story.

The light shines; the Lord is risen.

If only Danforth would have received the same amount of outrage that Palin justifiably is receiving.

The deity of civil religion is a demanding god. It gives life and inspiration to millions when it generates a comforting fusion of the life of Jesus Christ with the life of a not-so religious president. This god takes away when it encourages people like Palin to confuse the sweetness and light of generic faith with the sour and dark of torturing persons suspected of terrorism.

Perhaps the application of this little encounter with the god of civil religion is to just say no (sorry for the split infinitive). Deny this god’s existence in good first-commandment fashion. Then we can avoid elevating our presidents to canonized saints and leave our dear sister Sarah some other means to derail American conservatism.

Who Says the U.S. Lacks a Religious Establishment?

From Dwight Eisenhower’s December 22, 1952 speech as president-elect before the Freedoms Foundation’s directors:

I had a friend, a man who really turned out to be quite a good friend, and who suffered for it. His name was Marshal Zhukov, of the Red Army. In fact, his later disgrace came about because of the fact that he was supposed to be too good a friend of mine; . . . We used to talk about the bases of our respective forms of government, our civilizations.

One day he put me back on my heels with the statement: “of course, we have difficulty in promulgating our theory, because we appealed to the idealistic in man and you appeal to all that is materialistic and selfish. We tell a man that he is not to work for his own special rights, for his own privilege and the opportunity of indulging himself in anything from religious worship to earning and saving our property and giving it to his children. We appeal to something higher and nobler,” he said. “We tell him his only glory is in the glory of the body, of the whole group, the entirety of the organism to which you belong. Therefore, we say, don’t worry about earning money. Don’t worry about worldly advancement. Work for the Soviet Union. Work for Russia. That,” he said, “is what we have to say. But you tell a man, ‘why you can do as you please, and there are really no restrictions on the individual.’ So you are appealing to all that is selfish.”

I must say that in just a matter of immediate dialectic contest, let’s say, I didn’t know exactly what to say to him, because my only definition was what I believed to be the basic one, the basic reason for its existence. I know it would do no good to appeal to him with it, because it is founded in religion. And since at the age of 14 he had been taken over by the Bolshevik religion and had believed in it since that time, I was quite certain it was hopeless on my part to talk to him about the fact that our form of government is founded in religion.

Our ancestors who formed this Government said in order to explain it, you remember that, that a decent respect for the opinion of mankind impels them to declare the reasons which led to the separation [between the American colonies and Britain] and this is how they explained those: “We hold that all men are endowed by their Creator . . . .” Not by the accident of birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but “all men are endowed by their creator.” In other words, our form of Government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. . . .

Now, it seems to me that if we are going to win this fight we have got to go back to the very fundamentals of all things. And one of them is that we are a religious people.

This is the speech often quoted for its inane remark about the importance of religion combined with indifference to the specific religion. But in the context of the Cold War and a struggle between an ideology that was explicitly atheistic, materialist, and collectivist, Eisenhower’s recognition of theism’s value, even as confused as it is, makes some sense. His point specifically about theism and personal freedom is a point that not only evolutionists might need to hear, but also Christian critics of the West who blame notions of political freedom for the selfishness and decadence that afflicts the United States. If the choice is between the Soviet communism or Christendom dominated by Holy Roman Emperor and infallible bishop, I’ll stand with Ike. Freedom has its flaws. But it keeps the free on their toes. Autocracy doesn’t leave much room for correction, nor does group think.

Those Were The Days

A big bowl of civil religion to put the culture wars in perspective:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice. . . .

Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keeness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

Thy will be done, Almighty God.

Amen.

Can anyone guess the source (without using Google or some other search engine)?

Does this make the spirituality of the church look any more appealing?