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.

History Doesn’t Have Sides (take it from a professional)

Citizens of the U.S. have become used to presidents talking about “the right side of history”:

Most recently, during his December 6 Oval Office address on terrorism, Obama said: “My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.” It’s a phrase Obama loves: He’s used it 15 times, in debates; at synagogues; in weekly radio addresses; at fundraisers. Obama is almost as fond of its converse, “the wrong side of history,” which he has used 13 times; staffers and press secretaries have invoked it a further 16. (These figures are all based on the archives of the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara.)

But the expressions are hardly original to Obama. Bill Clinton referred to “the right side of history” 21 times over his time in office, while his staffers added another 15. Clinton also mentioned the “wrong side of history” several times. Ronald Reagan, for his part, wryly resurrected Leon Trotsky’s relegation of the Mensheviks to the “dustbin” or “ash heap of history.” Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, the Gipper said, “The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

That kind of naivete from the smartest people in the country (minus Reagan, of course) makes you (okay mmmmeeeeEEEEE) wonder what it feels like to lose and be on the wrong side of history (now Democrats know how Jerry Falwell felt in 1993).

But this is not simply an American problem. Paul Helm (not licensed as a historian) points out that history is not so readily categorized as right or wrong. But it is the legacy of the Enlightenment and a departure from Augustinianism:

This idea of history having a ‘side’, which is liberal, enlightened and so on, harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, to the emergence of what David Hume called ‘these enlightened ages’, in sharp contrast to the side of the ‘dark ages’ of medievalism. The idea is that such a surge as the Enlightenment, having begun, is inevitable, tending unstoppably in one direction. This side of history is on the move to better times, and so if we wish these times for ourselves and others, we had better get on the right side. And that direction becomes ‘obvious’ to those with enlightened minds.

The forces of darkness, of barbarism and superstition, are history’s other side, its faltering side, the side of those intent on ‘turning the clock back’, impeding or interrupting and so delaying its progress. Sooner or later history’s other side is to be decisively supplanted by the enlightened. So that dark side is destined to fail. The light side of history will succeed. Who wants to be left behind? So do not get left behind, for the Light and its forces will ultimately triumph over Darkness, reason against unreason, liberty against slavery, and so on. This is somehow connected with what Herbert Butterfield and others referred to as the Whig interpretation of history. Though this seems to have been, insofar as it existed, a gentler version of the current ‘sides of history’ view, at least insofar as it is view of history that is the outcome of ongoing parliamentary debate. In fact it may be said that so long as freedom of speech and the working of government and opposition in Parliament continues, the enlightened ages continue.

One implication is a lesson for those who think progressively about Christianity making the world a better place (read transformationalism). Don’t mimic Enlightenment progressivism:

Also linked with the winning side of history view is the idea of Western leadership and hegemony, which causes the rising sun to shine on the Sunny Side until the entire world basks in it. These are the engines of light. Currently these are the forces of globalism, international corporatism, and the waging of the war against global warming. Its personal ‘values’ include unlimited tolerance, and the freedom from offendedness of various kinds, along with the renouncing of the vestiges of nationalism and popularism, two currently-favoured examples.. Though it is said that we are living in a post-Enlightenment period, the confidence of the Enlightenment persists. Whatever ‘post-modernism’ is, it is not pessimistic.

The solution? Thinking like aliens and strangers, not conquerors and transformers:

It is a feature of living ‘between the times’ that God’s activity in history, his macro activity we might call it – cannot be correlated with the ebb and flow of history. Why is this? Because there is now no fixity between the events in history and the saving purposes of God. The only possible exception is the history of the church. But that is also rather uncertain. During the eras if special revelation – in the call of Abraham, and the history of Israel, and of course in the coming into flesh of the eternal Son, there is redemptive history in something like the usual sense of history. There were times in which the purposes of God with those with eyes to see, could be discerned. Through the ebbing and flowing, a trajectory of the divine redemptive purpose is discernible. But no longer. There is no ‘open vision’. Attempts to make a connection between historical states as the centuries roll, and the redemptive purposes of God are doomed. . . .

Such an understanding of history and the place of the Christian church in it throws into sharp relief the New Testament teaching on Christians as pilgrims and strangers, whose citizenship lies exclusively in a future city whose maker and builder is God. Any ‘Christian’ activity which seeks to impact dimensions of this present age and its cities –through social policies, political agendas, or arts and crafts – as so many expressions of Christian faith, inevitably compromises the root importance of a pilgrimage of men and women who otherwise may agree on little else, but whose eyes and hopes are in the New Jerusalsem. Besides these, the questions of history, its various sides and significances, matter not.

Helm should add, this outlook is not inspiring. No conferences on “Embrace the Suck” or “Endure the Uncertainty.”

The Patron Saint of Calvinist 2k?

The Anabaptists may have seen the problems with Constantinianism, but they weren’t fans of religious tolerance the way Pierre Bayle was:

Bayle’s passion for religious liberty reflected his circumstances. Unlike better-known champions of tolerance such as Voltaire or John Locke, he had first-hand experience of persecution. He was the son of a poor Calvinist pastor in a small French town near the Spanish border. Protestants such as the Bayles were a harassed minority in France, where roughly 95 per cent of the population was Catholic.

Thousands of Bayle’s co-religionists had been massacred in the late 16th century, and even though Protestants won some freedoms at the end of the French wars of religion in 1598, their position worsened during Bayle’s lifetime. He fled to the Netherlands in 1681, when he was in his early thirties. A few years later, one of his brothers was arrested and died in a French prison. If he had converted to Catholicism, he would have been released. Bayle never got over his brother’s death.

Bayle had the misfortune to be not only a heretic in Catholic eyes, but also an apostate, for which the punishments were still worse. In his youth, he had briefly been convinced by the intellectual case for Catholicism and had converted. After about a year and a half as a Catholic, however, he decided that he had been mistaken and switched back. He followed his conscience, and this became the linchpin of his case against persecution. Why would God have given us a conscience if He did not mean us to use it?

Even if an alleged heretic, such as Bayle, was in error and was worshipping the wrong God, or worshipping Him in the wrong way, might this not be an honest mistake? He used a well-known example of mistaken identity to make his point. The wife of the peasant Martin Guerre sincerely believed an impostor to be her long-lost husband. When the real Martin Guerre returned to his village, the impostor confessed and was executed for adultery and fraud. But Guerre’s wife went unpunished, because her error had been made in good faith. Bayle reasoned that “heretics” should be treated in the same way. If they had searched diligently for the truth and acted conscientiously, they were guilty of no sin. Nobody should punish them or try to compel them to act against their honest beliefs.

Do we need religion to prop up morality? Bayle didn’t think so (and he hadn’t even listened to Angelo Cataldi):

Nor was Bayle much troubled by the notion of atheism, either, which is perhaps the most modern thing about him. Locke maintained that unbelief cannot be tolerated, because it is bound to lead to the moral collapse of any society foolish enough to allow it. Voltaire thought the same. Bayle seems to have been the first person in the Christian world to deny this conventional opinion. Morality, he reasoned, can exist perfectly well without religion.

Bayle was also unimpressed by contemporary apologists:

When an exceptionally bright comet was spotted by a German astronomer in late 1680, it caused a panic. Comets had presaged countless disasters, from the fall of Carthage to the Norman invasion of Britain, or so it was widely believed. Hundreds of alarmist pamphlets were published across Europe and in North America, announcing that the new comet was a dire warning from God to repent immediately.

Bayle set out to show that it would be against God’s nature to use celestial phenomena to send messages to mankind. With typical thoroughness, he offered eight main arguments for this conclusion, supported them with several hundred texts, ancient, medieval and modern, and made sideswipes at dozens of other superstitions along the way.

The argument of which he was most proud was original, effective and simple. It was that any such divine warnings would be bound to backfire and achieve the opposite of what God supposedly intended.

It was easy to show from scripture that God abhorred the worship of false gods. ­According to the prophets, idolatry seemed to rile Him even more than murder, theft or adultery. Yet most people on the planet are not Christians. As Bayle put it, the majority of human beings “remain idolators or have become Mohammedans”. So, if God put awe-inspiring warnings in the sky, most people would just embrace their false religions even more fervently. Why would He send harbingers of doom that could only “reanimate false and sacrilegious devotion almost everywhere on Earth” and “increase the number of pilgrims to Mecca”?

Bayle didn’t try to play God (which should be obvious to Reformed Protestants):

Why is there so much wickedness and suffering in the world? Bayle went through the standard theological answers to this question and knocked down each one, often with a vivid analogy. Is God absolved of man’s evil by His gift of free will – which makes everything man’s fault? No, Bayle answered: that would be like giving a knife to a man when you know he will use it to commit murder. The gift does not absolve the giver. Did God permit man to rebel so that He could send Jesus as a redeemer? That, Bayle replied, would make God “like a father who allows his children to break their legs so that he can show everyone his great skill in mending their broken bones”.

The real answer, he insisted, is that we cannot comprehend why God allows evil. A true Christian must simply accept that He does.

I can’t vouch for Bayle’s personal devotion, but he may be one of those many bridges between Protestantism and Enlightenment.

Bringing Up the Rear

If Islam is going to develop into a religion of peace and tolerance, it doesn’t need either a Reformation or an Enlightenment, according to Daniel Philpott. Instead it needs a Vatican Council — preferable Vatican Council 2.0 since the first council was a tad militant and intolerant.

Here are the limitations of Protestantism and philosophy:

Protestant reformers enforced their orthodoxy with every bit the deadliness that Catholics employed. While England’s Queen Mary acquired the sobriquet “bloody” for her brutal restoration of Catholicism, her little sister Elizabeth was equally violent in reestablishing the Anglican Church.

The 18th century Enlightenment advanced individual religious freedom but was skeptical towards religion. The French Revolution, the Enlightenment’s political enactment, asserted the rights of man but severed the heads of men and women of faith.

Yes, lots of blood before 1800. But where’s the American exceptionalism? Where’s John Courtney Murray arguing for the Enlightenment tradition of natural law that shaped the founding of the United States? Maybe Philpott’s editor didn’t give him enough words to embrace the religious freedom that his bishops celebrate every fortnight for freedom:

Catholics must fight against forces seeking to remove the influence of religion from American culture, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore told over 1,000 Catholics at a Mass beginning a 14-day campaign for religious freedom.

“In differing ways, both the Church’s teaching and our nation’s founding documents acknowledge that the Creator has endowed individuals with freedom of conscience,” said Archbishop Lori. “Such freedom goes to the heart of the dignity of the human person.”

The archbishop delivered the opening homily for the Fortnight for Freedom, the two-week period leading up to the Fourth of July that the bishops have dedicated as a time for prayer, education and advocacy for religious liberty.

That was 1776. But the real lesson of religious freedom, for Philpott, comes in 1965 (for the historically minded, notice the chronology and the Roman-centric w-w paradigm):

. . . western history contains a more promising pathway, ironically one found in the very religious body that the Reformation and the Enlightenment considered freedom’s greatest enemy: the Catholic Church.

It was in Second Vatican Council’s declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, on Dec. 7, 1965 — a date whose 50th anniversary is right around the corner — that the Church finally and authoritatively endorsed the human right to religious freedom.

While the Catholic Church’s road to religious freedom will not suit Islam in every respect, it shows how a religious community that for many centuries did not teach religious freedom could discover grounds for the principle that were rooted in its own teachings rather than in modern secularism.

Like Islam, Catholicism long predates the modern world. The period from which Dignitatis Humanae most dramatically departs is medieval Christendom, when the integrity of the Catholic faith was regarded as crucial for social order. Heresy was not merely a sin but an act of sedition.

Not the point of the post, but notice how this booster also notices what the rest of us without a dog in the fight of papal supremacy notice — namely, that Roman Catholicism changed from medieval to modern at the Second Vatican Council. Everyone sees this except for those who put their trust in ecclesiastical princes.

What is the point here, though, is how Rome is an example to Islam. Was it not the case that modern developments in Europe and North American finally forced bishops to open the church’s windows to modernity? In which case, it was not that the church embraced religious freedom on its own but “finally” — Philpott’s word — caught up to religious freedom in trails blazed by Americanists (and others). Of course, Protestantism did not usher in freedom of conscience. But Protestants did adjust much earlier than Rome. And Philpott gives Protestants no credit.

Instead, he thinks Muslims should look to Roman Catholics — who still celebrate the Battle of Lepanto.

Yup.

In But Not of America (part three)

Before U.S. Roman Catholics feel too comfortable with the harmony of religion and freedom worked out by the bishops in Fortnight of Freedom or by Tea Party Catholics, they may also want to consider a strain of conservative Roman Catholicism that objects to Americanism and that John Zmirak (a serious Roman Catholic himself) finds troubling. For instance, he has observed these instances of Roman Catholic illiberalism:

– It was a festive evening at the small Catholic college. A hearty dinner followed Mass for the feast of its patron saint. Now the students were gathered with the school’s faculty and leaders for a bonfire and robust songs. The high point of the night was the piñata, which the school’s director of student life hung from a hook. It was full of candy and shaped like a pig. Across it was written, “Americanism.” The student life director held up a bat, and told the students, “Okay, everybody, let’s SMASH Americanism!” The students lined up behind their teachers, their dean, and their college president, to smash whatever it was they thought was Americanism. (They had never been taught what Leo XIII actually meant by that word.)

– At this same school, in an academic discussion, the college dean explained the greater economic success of Protestant countries that embraced capitalism (compared to agrarian Catholic nations) as the “effects of Freemasonry.” The college president quickly corrected him, pointing out another critical factor: “diabolical intervention.”

– That same dean, in a conversation with me, waved off the possibility of democratic reform in America. Moral reform, he explained to me, would only come in the form of a forcible coup d’état, by which “men of virtue” would impose their will “on the people, who will fall in line when they see that they have no choice.” That dean had previously criticized Franco’s Spain for being too lax.

– The historian at a large Catholic university gathered his friends and family on the day that the rest of us call “Thanksgiving.” But his clan called the holiday “Anathema Thursday,” and every year used it to mock the Protestant origins of America by hanging a Puritan in effigy. This same historian teaches those he mentors to call the Statue of Liberty “that Masonic bitch-goddess.”

Zmirak goes on to credit Protestantism with the sort of liberties that Americans enjoy (if not take for granted):

In one of God’s little ironies, as Russell Kirk showed in The Roots of American Order, it was largely Protestants who championed the rights of Christians against the State, while Catholics endorsed old Roman, pagan conceptions of the State and its nearly limitless prerogatives. After the Reformation destroyed the Church’s political independence, popes saw little choice but to baptize, and try to morally inform, the absolutism of monarchs. (The nadir was reached when Catholic kings — who already picked all the bishops in their countries — forced the pope to suppress the Jesuits, who had eluded their royal control.) In the wake of the French Revolution, any talk of liberty seemed tainted by the blood of murdered priests, nuns, and Catholic peasants. The fear of revolutionary violence was enough to make Pope Pius IX side with the tsar and his Cossacks against the freedom-loving Catholics of Poland, and with the British Crown against the Irish.

He concludes with an expression of gratitude for the Enlightenment rarely countenanced in conservative circles (non-mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic):

We ought to be deeply thankful for the heritage of the Enlightenment — because the American anti-Catholics of the 19th and 20th century were dead right about one thing: Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition. Do I exaggerate? Consider the fact that during the Spanish occupation of New Orleans, before the Louisiana Purchase, an officer of the Inquisition was interrogating heretics and collecting torture equipment — which he never got the chance to use, thank God. (The Inquisition did take root in Florida, and continued in Cuba until 1818.) Protestants in Spain were subject to legal restrictions as late as the 1970s. The great defender of Pius IX and Vatican I, Louis Veuillot, summed up what was for centuries the dominant Catholic view of religious liberty:

“When you are the stronger I ask you for my freedom, for that is your principle; when I am the stronger I take away your freedom, for that is my principle.”

As Americans, too, we must be self-critical, and acknowledge that in their reaction against the paternalism of the past, men like John Locke made grave philosophical errors — and unwittingly poisoned the ground of human dignity where the roots of freedom must rest. Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker do an excellent job of explaining Enlightened errors in Politicizing the Bible, as does Edward Feser in his classic The Last Superstition. In Tea Party Catholic, Samuel Gregg shows in detail how freedom-loving Catholics can reintroduce the critical truths about human nature that our Founding Fathers overlooked. Such constructive criticism of the Enlightenment project, which we might call “reparative patriotism,” is essential to preserving the lives of the unborn and the integrity of marriage, among many other things.

It is one thing to say that John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had flawed views of human flourishing. It is quite another for Catholics — given our long, unhappy heritage of paternalism and intolerance — to reject the Enlightenment wholesale; to pretend that religious, political, and economic freedom are the natural state of man, which we can take for granted like the sea, the sun, and the sky. These freedoms are the hard-won fruit of centuries of struggle, and many of our ancestors were fighting on the wrong side. If we expect to preserve our own tenuous freedom in an increasingly intolerant secular society, we must make it absolutely clear to our non-Catholic neighbors that we treasure their freedom too. Denouncing the Enlightenment a mere fifty years after our Church belatedly renounced intolerance, at the very moment when men as level-headed as Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal Burke are warning that Catholics face the risk of persecution, and we desperately need allies among our Protestant neighbors… can anyone really be this reckless?

Another point you’re not going to hear from the Callers.