Jamie Smith’s Bait and Switch

I was afraid that neo-Calvinism’s refusal to distinguish the sacred and secular would go here — that is, to a defense of civil religion. Jamie Smith’s latest editorial does just that.

Mind you, he is aware of the defective versions of civil religion, especially the one that has sent U.S. soldiers “to die face down in the muck of Vietnam” (thank you, Walter Sobchak):

civil religion is what we get when we divinize the civitas, when devotion to “the nation” trumps other allegiances and inspires a fervor and passion that is nothing short of religious. David Gelernter names this in his 2007 book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Walter McDougall’s more recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, which Robert Joustra reviews in this issue, identifies the same problem in its subtitle: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. In McDougall’s argument, civil religion carries the usual whiff of irrationality: the hard-nosed rationality of national interests is compromised because of vaunted values and misguided mythologies.

But Smith still thinks civil religion is salvageable.

The envisioned good of a diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. In short, the very project of a well-functioning, pluralistic, liberal society depends on the formative power of tradition-specific, “illiberal,” non-democratic communities that can inculcate virtues of hope, respect for dignity, commitment to truth, and more. Families, synagogues, churches, mosques embed their members in a Story that makes such virtues “make sense.” These non-political spheres of society cultivate people who become the sorts of citizens who know how to be patient and forgiving precisely because they believe in something beyond the state.

See what he did there? Civil society in liberal democracies owes its existence to Christianity. In those societies synagogues, churches, and mosques embed citizens in “a Story.” They become patient and forgiving.

Christianity did that? Or was it the Enlightenment (which owes its existence in part to medieval and early modern Europe). Maybe by using the indefinite article in “a Story” you can get away with blurring churches, synagogues and mosques into one happy, fuzzy, gentle, and kind civil society. But that is certainly not the experience of most western societies where Christians ran things and established their churches.

Smith really pours it on when he leads the following cheer:

But one of the by-products of a healthy church forming citizens of kingdom come is that they are then sent into the earthly city with Christlike virtues that also contribute to the common good. We might miss this because it doesn’t primarily play itself out on a national scale; rather, it is enacted at the parish level, in a thousand different neighbourhoods. There we also find Christians, Jews, and Muslims collaborating for the sake of the vulnerable, the lonely, and the marginalized while also nourishing the virtue incubators we call families.

Well, in point of fact, when Christians go into public with a comprehensive w-w they have to be especially aware that they are not like Jews or Muslims. Pot down the w-w gauge and perhaps you have less conviction about being distinct from those people who do not profess Christ. But I don’t know how Smith gets the Chamber of Commerce view of Christianity’s civil nature from Christ’s own words:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:34-35)

That explanation of the antithesis is what makes Abraham Kuyper’s pillarization of Dutch society so intriguing. The Netherlands was not the American melting pot (or even the Canadian multicultural stew). It was a series of religious subgroups that kept to themselves the way that states’ rights advocates in the United States thought about relations between local and federal government.

But if Christians want a seat at the table of a liberal international order that preserves democracy from autocracy, Smith does a pretty good impersonation of 1950s mainline Protestantism.

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Can't We All Get Along?

Generally speaking, American Christians have a tough time perceiving Muslims as anything but a threat if they are promoting Sharia. But why oh why are not Christians similarly concerned about how threatening they might seem to those non-Christians with whom they share North American civil society? Two examples suggest that Christians have as hard a time fitting into modern secular society as Muslims. First, a Canadian iteration about the limits of public education:

To defenders of the North American status quo, school choice is shorthand for a set of policies that will undermine the effectiveness of a single education system, ensuring that all children are educated along similar core values. For those who advocate against big government and favour free market competition, school choice protects the freedoms of individual families and raises standards and performance. But what if most of us don’t actually make choices this way at the local level? In reality, there are two basic questions that parents ask:

Should we have more than one meaningful option as to where we will send our child to school?

Is every school appropriate for every child?

Parents make decisions regarding the education of their children in many ways. Accessibility to a desired school is among the most significant factors in real estate decisions. And while the range between the quality of schools in more affluent neighbourhoods and those in less affluent ones varies depending on the part of North America in which you live, the notion that common funding formulas automatically translate into equal educational quality is commonly understood to be mythical.

Parents desire different types of schools for all sorts of reasons. Whether they’re placing priority on the language, pedagogy, religious perspective, or any one of an additional dozen factors, decisions regarding schooling priorities can be as diverse as the population itself. The functional social question that emerges is two-fold: Which of these choices should be supported by the community? Should the same rules and the same funding apply to all of the choices?

I personally (all about moi) have great sympathy for this argument but at the same time we should remember that public schools were created to provide a common curriculum and basic level of education for citizenship in a republican or constitutional monarchy. If Christians opt out of public schools — and there are many good reasons — they are also opting out of a common project and claiming implicitly that their faith sets them apart from Canadian or American identity. This is more antithesis than common grace providence.

So where will Christian exclusivism end? Does it extend to vaccines? Maybe so:

Can parents have their children vaccinated with the MMR vaccine without compromising their pro-life principles—without cooperating with the Culture of Death? The National Catholic Register addressed that question this week, and although I cannot find any clear error of fact in the article, I think it creates a very inaccurate impression.

Relying heavily on analysis by the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), the Register explains that parents who choose to have their children vaccinated are engaged only in “remote material cooperation” with abortion. Given the potential risks of disease, the article reports, the Vatican has stated that parents can be justified in chosing vaccination.

That’s all perfectly true. But reading the Register article, one might conclude that the Vatican has said parents should vaccinate. That’s not accurate. The Pontifical Academy for Life, in a statement released in 2005, said that parents could be justified in choosing vaccination. The statement did not say that this choice was preferable, let alone mandatory.

What the Vatican did say, with undeniable clarity, was that parents have a moral obligation to insist on vaccines that are not prepared by immoral means: vaccines not derived from fetal remains. The Pontifical Academy for Life wrote that “there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically.”

Of course, the reasons against vaccination here are more complicated than parents simply questioning the w-w of the medical establishment. But it does again raise questions about the willingness of Christians to participate in a common life that runs according to shared standards of education, medicine, and science. I get it. No neutrality in every square inch. But how about commonality (at least in a Commonwealth)?

So could the author of the Letter to Diognetus say this about today’s Protestants and Roman Catholics in North America?

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

If he couldn’t, should that make Christians more sympathetic to Muslims who also want to maintain their religious ways?

The Two-Kingdom Case for Blue Laws

Rendell and Eagles
(Not to be confused with the “Blue Letter.”)

In 1933, the years the Philadelphia Eagles football club started (thank you Dan Borvan), the state of Pennsylvania considered reforming its laws prohibiting commercial activity on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, so that football players and coaches could play in the afternoon. (How would the NFL make it without violating the fourth and eighth commandments?) J. Gresham Machen, then a resident of Philadelphia, wrote a letter to Gifford Pinchot, the governor of Pennsylvania and requested the retention of the Blue Laws as they were then written.

Machen’s reasoning in this letter is instructive for what it says about a recognition and acceptance of religious diversity, a commitment to religious freedom, and the tensions within a democracy between majority rule and minority protection. Perhaps most important for two-kingdom purposes is the place of an appeal to Scripture in public debate. In this case, Machen argues not for the magistrate to enforce divine law, but for the advantages that come to everyone when the law protects the practices of some citizens.

Not to be missed is what this letter says about the fourth commandment, and that keeping the whole day holy with two services is an occasion of Christian liberty. If only the Bible speaks to all of life crowd would take up the cause of the sanctity of the Lord’s Day. (Do we see a pattern here? Two kingdoms, two services?)

April 20, 1933

The Honorable Gifford Pinchot
Governor of Pennsylvania
Harrisburg, Pa.

Dear Sir:

Will you permit me to express, very respectfully, my opposition to the Bill designated “House Bill No. 1″ regarding permission of commercialized sport between the hours of two and six on Sunday afternoons?

It is clear that in this matter of Sunday legislation the liberty of part of the people will have to be curtailed. It is impossible that people who desire a quiet Sunday should have a quiet Sunday, while at the same time people who desire commercialized sport on Sunday should have commercialized sport. The permission of commercialized sport will necessarily change the character of the day for all of the people and not merely for part of the people.

The only question, therefore, is whose liberty is to be curtailed. I am convinced that in this case it ought, for the welfare of the whole people, to be the liberty of those who desire commercialized sport.

The curtailment of their liberty, through the existing law, does not, I am convinced, go beyond reasonable bounds. There is, it seems to me, a sharp distinction of principle between complete prohibition of some form of activity or enjoyment and reasonable regulation of it in the interest of other people. To ask that commercialized sport should dispense with one day out of seven for the benefit of that large part of our population that desires a quiet Sunday and believes that it is necessary to the welfare of the State does not seem to me to be unreasonable.

Of course it is perfectly clear that in a democracy the majority should rule in this matter as in other matters. I should be the last to advocate any attempt to make people religious or even to make people ordinarily moral or decent against their will by mere legislative enactment. I should also be the last to advocate any tyrannical imposition of the convictions of a minority upon the majority. But how shall the majority will be exercised? I think that it ought to be exercised through the ordinary processes of representative government. To allow commercialized sport on Sunday in Pennsylvania will be a radical change in the whole life of our people. It is a wise provision of representative government that such radical changes should not be hastily accomplished, as might be the case by the referendum vote, but that they should be accomplished only when it is quite clear that the majority of the people really and seriously and permanently desires the change. . . .

As to the merits of the question, I could hardly find words strong enough to express what my feeling is. It does seem to me that the profoundest dangers to our entire civilization are found in the constant rush of noise and jazz and feverish activity which is one of the great faults of the American people and which is a great barrier to true efficiency as well as to the cultivation of the deeper things.

Of course, my own cultivation of a quiet Sunday is based on considerations much more fundamental than these. I am a Christian, and it is quite clear that a commercialized Sunday is inimical to the Christian religion. There are many other Christians in Pennsylvania, and because they are Christians they do not cease to be citizens. They have a right to be considered by their fellow-citizens and by the civil authorities. But the reason why they can with a good conscience be enthusiastic advocates of the Christian practice in the matter of Sunday is that they regard it as right, and as for the highest well-being of the entire State.

Very truly yours,

J. Gresham Machen, Professor of New Testament in Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

Postscript: over at David Strain’s blog come a couple of helpful posts about sabbath observance. As a native Scot, Strain knows first-hand about patterns of sabbatarianism among Old World Presbyterians, both mainline and sideline. In fact, during a Hart expedition to Scotland a decade ago, Mrs. Hart and her husband were delighted to see that even the Church of Scotland congregations conducted morning and evening service. This contrasts with the practice of one service among conservative Reformed and Presbyterians in the United States where supposedly Reformed Christianity is doing better.

Strain also mentions one of the common complaints about sabbatarianism – that is it legalistic. Well here is one radical two-kingdom virus carrier who also fully supports the supposed legalism of sabbath observance. In fact, the critics of 2k ought to consider where the leading 2k voices are on matters like the fourth commandment and the regulative principle of worship (as in the second commandment). Antinomian? Reconsider.