Good but Different Americans

With Ash Wednesday comes Lent and different rationales for turning up those practices that increase holiness. George Weigel opts for the difference that Lenten practice makes:

Friday abstinence was once a defining mark of the practicing Catholic, and Lenten pork roll raillery aside, it ought to be again. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is not renowned for its traditionalism, but some years ago the bishops mandated a year-round return to Friday abstinence south of Hadrian’s Wall, and good for them for doing so. If our baptisms really set us apart for Christ, then we should live a different temporal rhythm than the rest of the world: not to advertise our righteousness, but to remind ourselves, each other, and those who might be curious about these Catholics and their ways that we’re, well, different. And at a moment in Western cultural history in which the tsunami of the Culture of Me threatens to overwhelm everything, putting down behavioral markers of difference is no small thing. From Friday abstinence, who knows what might grow?

Well, these days at First Things someone might ask if Friday abstinence could lead to the kidnapping of baptized children from non-Roman Catholic parents.

Or how about the royal absolutism of French monarchs?

For those keeping score at home, liberalism is on the ropes at First Things, which is odd for a magazine that used to be (along with Weigel) firmly in the Americanist camp of U.S. Roman Catholics.

The problem is not Lent or abstinence from meat. I have great respect for minority groups that maintain their religious ways in face of a society that does little to encourage or foster such practices. The Amish and Orthodox Jews, for instance, who continue to maintain family and spiritual traditions without trying to Americanize their traditions are (or should be) obviously admirable in their fortitude and conviction.

But transferring such admiration to Roman Catholics comes with a catch. That snag is that Roman Catholic piety for a long time was not simply a way of being a good Christian before God but also came with expectations about society, the political order, and the church’s authority. To sever personal piety from Rome’s global reach or cultural aspirations was never possible, the way it has been for other faiths outside the political order that brought them into existence. The reason is that fellowship with the Bishop of Rome and all the affairs in which he had his hands was necessary to be a good Roman Catholic.

So Weigel’s proposal for being more distinct is no neutral proposition when Roman Catholicism in its most distinct expression was not necessarily a respecter of the sort of freedoms that allow the Amish and Orthodox Jews to practice their faiths. Like Neo-Calvinism, Roman Catholicism is not content with a personal faith. Religion is not a private affair but needs to take root in all areas of life — and there goes political liberalism.


End of Democracy


The proposition examined in the following articles is this: The government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed. With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of “things of their knowledge.” Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government. The Supreme Court itself—notably in the Casey decision of 1992-has raised the alarm about the legitimacy of law in the present regime. Its proposed solution is that citizens should defer to the decisions of the Court. Our authors do not consent to that solution. The twelfth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946), expressed his anxiety: “While unconstitutional exercise of power by the executive or legislative branches of the Government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of restraint.” The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy.

And now:

Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

This is where the real risks lie. It is not possible to keep behaving like this without damaging the basic machinery of democratic government. It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts of the state that need reform while leaving intact the parts that make that reform possible. Trump – and indeed Brexit – are not that. They are the bluntest of instruments, indiscriminately shaking the foundations with nothing to offer by way of support. Under these conditions, the likeliest response is for the grown-ups in the room to hunker down, waiting for the storm to pass. While they do, politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse. The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face. Fake disruption followed by institutional paralysis, and all the while the real dangers continue to mount. Ultimately, that is how democracy ends.

Back then it was shocking:

On September 26, after the Senate failed to overturn President Clinton’s veto of a ban on partial-birth abortions, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer and other leaders of the religious right assembled in the antechamber of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s office. The rhetoric could not have been more fiery. As Lott looked on approvingly, Watergate felon and evangelist Charles Colson declared, ‘a nation which sanctions infanticide is no better than China, no better than Nazi Germany.’ Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, went even further. ‘It is not hyperbole to say that we are at a point at which millions of conscientious American citizens are reflecting upon whether this is a legitimate regime,’ Neuhaus said. ‘That is the solemn moment we have reached.’

Despite the apocalyptic tone of what was, after all, an open meeting convened by the most powerful Republican in Congress, the gathering in Lott’s chambers attracted little notice. But this meeting was not an isolated or aberrant event. It was a harbinger of a political development that has now reached fruition: a full-fledged war between two leading groups of conservative intellectuals over the basic question of what constitutes a moral conservatism and a moral society.”

Now, it’s sensible:

A country designed to resist tyranny has now embraced it. A constitution designed to prevent democracy taking over everything has now succumbed to it. A country once defined by self-government has openly, clearly, enthusiastically delivered its fate into the hands of one man to do as he sees fit. After 240 years, an idea that once inspired the world has finally repealed itself. We the people did it.

What’s the big deal? Didn’t the Hebrews and the Greeks teach us that democracy was more problem than solution?

How Others Hear Us

So if Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant, want a Christian society or commonwealth or polity, what does that mean for non-Christians? That seems to me the question that most critics of 2k fail to answer. It is also a question to which 2k supplies an answer that 2k critics reject.

But consider this contribution to the Commentary magazine forum of the First Things symposium on “The End of Democracy”:

Years ago (how many, I do not remember) I was on a panel with the late Russell Kirk, the doyen of the paleoconservatives, and sitting behind him when, at the podium, he outlined his plan for a Christian commonwealth. Rather rudely, I must admit, I interrupted him by asking, in a voice audible throughout the room, “What are you going to do with us Jews?” The question obviously took him aback, first because he knew I was not Jewish, but most of all, I suspect, because it had never occurred to him to ask it, or to have to answer it. After a short pause, he mumbled something to the effect that, of course, he did not mean to exclude Jews or anyone else.

Having raised the question, I felt obliged to point out that the Constitution provides a better answer: by separating church and state, I said, the Founders intended to provide (in the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) a haven “for all sorts and conditions of men,” and the foundation of this haven—safe for the Jews and safe for the rest of us—was not Christianity, and certainly not the church of that prayerbook, but liberty of conscience, a liberal principle whose provenance was John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.

Sure, a secular society has limitations. But so do Christian societies.

So why can’t we all get along and be thankful for the United States of America?

When Did Christian America End?

For some it happened recently. This blogger doesn’t refer to the Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, but it’s hard not to think he has it in mind:

The 350-year marriage of Protestant Christian theology and American popular culture is over. Christianity, it may be sadly said, is no longer the preeminent social influence in American life. We Christians who dared to presume that America was ever all and only ours are, apart from some God-ordained awakening, unlikely to “get our country back.” We will live and work henceforth, as do most other Christians around the world, amidst a public square hostile to our beliefs.

The odd wrinkle to Christian readings of the American revolution is that the United Kingdom was a Christian nation. Presbyterians were the established church in Scotland. And King George was head of a church that claimed George Washington as a member (and he was an orthodox Christian, you know). Plus, it seems that King George III wasn’t all that bad a king.

What the United States did was to establish itself without a Christian church. Advocates of a Christian America may not like the language of the separation of church and state, but what the United States did in comparison to Europe and 1500 years of history (and even compared to France where Napolean eventually made Roman Catholicism the established church) was to create a nation without a state church (at the national level — hello) and that prohibited religious tests for holding office. That also meant the churches (except for Congregationalists in New England) had to pay as they went on the basis of their own creative schemes for finding parishioners and persuading them to give (till it hurts — I mean, tithe).

So even though American has been secular for a long time — as long as the U.S.A. has existed — the events of two weeks ago seem to be decisive for making Christians of all kinds abandon the United States as a blessed, favored, or welcome place.

No one except for Rusty Reno seems to recall that in 1996, a time when the Internet was just catching on, Christians were also worried about “The End of Democracy”:

The prospect of a purely political decision from the Court led me back to the famous First Things symposium published in November 1996: “The End of Democracy?” The occasion for that symposium was a federal circuit-court decision finding a right (subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court) to doctor-assisted suicide. The reasons given were identical to those used to justify America’s abortion regime. Richard John Neuhaus and the others who participated in the symposium were deeply concerned about the perverse way in which our constitutional system was turning liberty into an enemy of life.

No matter what the higher courts decided, physician-assisted suicide is still on the books in Oregon. And the number of Americans — since we are after the 14th Amendment now citizens not of the states but of the nation — dying with the help of doctors in Oregon is growing — from 16 in 1998 to 105 last year.

So what I wonder is whether Christian America ended in 1998. I also wonder why more Christians have not been outraged by a federal government that allows Oregon to persist in this law. Maybe secession is unconstitutional, but can’t the Union kick states out? And why single out same-sex marriage? Wasn’t Roe v. Wade worse?

Is it simply that the Internet now gives Americans more room to hyperventilate about Outrage Porn?

Where Sometimes Is Heard a Realistic Word

This is a conversion story that Bryan is not going to feature (I saw this REALLY before sdb commented):

I was raised as a secular Jew in New York City. (No religious education at all, no Bar Mitzvah, etc.) In my undergraduate and graduate education, I learned a lot about Christian theology and always found it impressive as a system of ideas, though I never entertained the thought of converting. That began to change when I taught at Brigham Young University for two years in the late 1990s. I found the Mormon students and faculty there to be extremely impressive — morally and intellectually serious. When I left the university (my non-tenured visiting position came to an end), I felt a loss, like something spiritual had been stirred up inside me that now lacked an outlet. I looked into my native Judaism, but by that point it seemed more foreign to me than Christianity, and especially Catholicism. (My wife is a cradle Catholic.) So I somewhat impulsively decided to convert. I was received into the church during the Easter Vigil Mass in 2001 at lovely St. Mary’s in New Haven, CT. (The long, involved homilies by the Dominicans at that parish spoiled me. I’ve never encountered anything remotely that engaging in the years since.)

To answer one of your questions, politics had nothing at all to do with my conversion — though it’s also true that I applied for and landed a job as associate editor of First Things magazine very soon after I began my RCIA classes, so for a time I wondered if there might be something providential going on there. That was especially tempting for the nine months or so after the September 11 attacks. It seemed like every aspect of my life and identity was related, connected, harmonized: Catholic convert, Richard John Neuhaus protege, ambitious intellectual, Republican, American — and Evil Doers to smite. What could be better?

That’s one of the great Catholic promises, isn’t it? Both/And? Unlike the either/or Protestants, let alone the neither/nor secular liberals, Catholics are supposed to pull it all together, show how it All Makes Sense — or at least how it once did make sense, during the Middle Ages, the high point of Christian civilization, a time of unity and synthesis. Until Occam’s nominalism shattered the great social-intellectual whole, that is. One guy denies the reality of universals and before you know it, you’ve got the Reformation and liberalism and pluralism and After Virtue.

I’m being glib, but I sometimes feel like working for First Things during the religious right’s moment of maximal influence in Washington might have been the worst possible thing I could have done to nurture my nascent faith. I never really had any, but I wanted it very much around the time of my conversion. It began to take tentative root in the months after 9/11. But then it pretty much died. Faith was always going to be fraught for me. I’m too skeptical, irreverent, too much in the habit of doubting authority, culturally too much of a secular New York Jew, to settle in easily to faith, let alone faith in a visible church. But add on priests endorsing military invasions and whispering in the ears of princes? Widespread child rape by priests and its active cover-up by the hierarchy? By the time I quit First Things in a huff in early 2005, I wanted nothing more to do with the church at all.

That proved too hasty. Unlike my friend Rod Dreher, who left Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy in aftermath of the sex-abuse scandal, I stayed put. I slowly returned to the church over the next few years, and we eventually resolved to raise our kids in the church as well — though it’s been a challenge at times. Neuhaus liked to say that the Catholic Church is “the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? I can’t even begin to imagine how someone could believe that.

Bursting this bubble hastens feasting on other sacred cows:

Clearly, we need to recognize that it took something like 1,700 years or so for Christian civilization to begin to develop norms and institutions that facilitated the transfer of the church’s theological-anthropological teaching about human dignity over to the political realm. And I’m inclined to give a lot of credit for that to the Protestant innovations that came about in the century or so before liberalism began to develop as a theory of government. So I guess you could say that even at this deep level, Protestantism has shaped my thinking more than Catholic political thought.

At a less fundamental level, I’d also say that I tend not to find Catholic political thinking especially helpful for guiding us through the most fundamental problems of our time. One of those problems is how to conceive of a society that no longer shares a common culture — that’s “centerless,” as I’ve sometimes put it in my writing. Catholic thought always seems to presume that political communities are unified moral wholes. Then when it looks at modern liberal cultures that clearly aren’t unified in this way — their wholeness is highly differentiated into a pluralism of sub-cultures that don’t agree with one another about the highest good — Catholic political thinkers kind of short-circuit. That’s why they’re fond of decline narratives and stories about the Great Fall from medieval Christendom. Brad Gregory’s big book about how all our problems can be laid at the feet of the Protestant Reformation (The Unintended Reformation) is just the latest in a very long line of such accounts. Let’s just say I don’t find arguments like that particularly useful.

Day One without a Washcloth

I know this boarders on tmi, but why is it that Europeans and Turks don’t furnish hotel patrons with a simple washcloth? I get it that Americans are not in the habit of outfitting bathrooms with bidets — but neither are the Irish or the Turks. So what is the aspiring ablutionist to do? When it comes to the handy devise of said washcloth, I am willing to use that dreaded phrase, “human flourishing.”

That said, this morning’s rituals in Dublin (where I am doing some research while not crawling from pub to pub — kidding, dear but you’re probably not reading) included a full Irish breakfast in the hotel’s dining room. There I brought along a recent issue of First Things (to keep away the friendly tourist) and found a readable discussion of Robbie George’s proposal that churches should get out of the civil marriage business (April 2014). As a side point, I was struck by the number of appeals to the deeply theological accounts of marriage and how the secular version is merely an inferior copy. For one, Scripture itself doesn’t say that much about marriage, though the analogy of the church and Christ does give lots of wiggle room — yet it is only an analogy, like a piece of bread and a thimble of wine is a meal. For another, complaints about the inferior nature of secular marriage strike me as yet one more version of Christians bellyaching about the loss of Christendom — oh, how inferior a secular republic is to the deeply textured presence of faith in medieval Europe. Put not your hope in princes, their territories, or their marriages.

None of the Protestant contributors to this discussion picked up on what George’s proposal would do for Protestant ministers. Since Protestant churches know nothing of marriage as a sacrament, since marriage is a common institution not reserved for believers, the only kind of marriage that Protestants offer is a secular version. In our records we don’t keep a special class of members who are married. We have no instruction from Scripture that pastors are supposed to perform marriages (and I can’t think of any explicit cases or instruction from the Old Testament that would have led the apostles to think they needed to perform marriages, though I didn’t score high on my English Bible exam). And we have nary little instruction from Scripture about a happy home except for that impossible stuff about wives submitting and husbands loving (what pastors cover in marriage counseling before a ceremony is a true mystery — do ministers really know anything about finances or balancing a checkbook?).

So I’ll take the challenge. I propose that Reformed churches encourage their pastors to get out of the marriage racket. At the very least, it puts us out in front of that difficult situation when a gay couple wants to make an example of one of our congregations. At the most, what do we lose? So we as a body of believers accompany a couple and their witnesses (the signed ones) to the city courtroom to observe a civil marriage ceremony. Would that be so bad? Imagine the savings on flowers and wedding party attire.

On the other side, I could see abandoning the wedding ceremony for its inclusion within a Sunday morning worship service, sort of like the vows that new members take before the observance of the Lord’s Supper. So the couple would go forward, the pastor would offer some brief instruction about marriage, bride and groom would take their vows, return to their seats, and participate in the rest of the service. The reception? Coffee hour.

Imagine the even more savings!

Roman Catholic 2K (and it's not Stellman)

A good article, “Eudaimonia in America,” from last month’s issue of First Things by Robert T. Miller (it may not be available for free yet) shows that 2K thinking is even attractive among Roman Catholics. He doesn’t call it 2K. But the intellectual move is the same, namely, not to expect correspondence between the political philosophy of the nation and one’s own theological convictions.

Here is how Miller describes the problem that afflicts many conservatives (Tim and David Bayly take note):

America is under attack in the pages of First Things. In a recent article Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen tells us that America is founded on a philosophy of “unsustainable liberalism.” Implicit in the ideas of the American founding, he argues, are certain mistaken philosophical premises about individual choice and man’s separation from nature. Moreover, these mistakes are not merely intellectual because, as their logical consequences play out over time, the inexorable results are severe and pervasive social pathologies: a corrupt political order, a collapsing economy, and a degraded and degrading culture. Indeed, in Deneen’s account, pornography, sexual promiscuity, abortion, divorce, violent video games, cheating in academia, and Wall Street frauds all stem from the faulty political philosophy of the American founding.

Miller goes on to disagree with these observations about the U.S. but is especially critical of efforts to link the U.S.’s moral decay to an inadequate philosophical base (or w-w):

Liberal political philosophies are incompatible with the eudaimonism of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. Does that mean that eudaimonists cannot support the American political system? I share Deneen and MacIntyre’s Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical commitments, but I am also deeply loyal to the American political tradition. The reason is that there is a great gap between politics and moral philosophy. Thinking that a certain set of political arrangements is the best way to organize a particular society in particular historical circumstances is a prudential judgment, and in supporting America’s liberal political system I do not thereby commit myself to a liberal political philosophy.

This point is obscured by the fact that liberal political institutions are naturally and commonly justified on the basis of liberal political philosophies, such as a theory of natural rights as in Locke, or a theory of personal autonomy inspired by Kant, or a theory of justice as in Rawls. People who support liberal political systems on such bases are philosophical liberals. But we can also view a liberal political order as embodying not grand philosophical principles, but reasonable, pragmatic, political compromises worked out among individuals who disagree sharply on matters of morality in order to allow such people to live together in peace and to pursue their various, often incompatible, goals.

In other words, while living on planet earth, we need to live on planet earth, not in our minds or the eschaton. Or, this is a matter of prudence, not of intellectual or theological certitude. Miller explains:

The pragmatic liberal thus makes a political calculation: The cost of prohibiting some appalling speech is the risk that the government will someday use the power it thus acquires to suppress other speech that the pragmatic liberal wants to protect. People like Deneen and me, who are in a religious minority now at odds with many of the norms of the larger, increasingly secular society, should reflect carefully before advocating an expansion of government power, for we are some of the people whose speech could easily be found disgusting and worthless. For pragmatic liberals, therefore, the decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants is sound not because people have a moral right to play disgusting video games (they don’t), but because the danger of censorship is too great to allow the government the power to restrict speech merely because, in the government’s view, the speech is disgusting and worthless.

An Aristotelian-Thomistic eudaimonist can thus be a pragmatic liberal in contemporary America. There is a deeper point here, however, and it is that, although the philosophical liberal must reject as immoral any form of government other than liberal democracy, the Aristotelian-Thomist can be much more flexible. Leaving aside some extreme systems that would substantially prevent a person from attaining his final end (e.g., a Shari’a theocracy or a Nazi or communist dictatorship), an Aristotelian-Thomist should conclude that, in the right circumstances, almost any form of government may be the best available. Hence, St. Paul urged respect for the Roman emperor, who was an absolute autocrat;St. Wenceslaus was a feudal overlord; and St. Thomas More served Henry VIII, who was a constitutional monarch.

The same goes for the confessional Lutheran or Reformed Protestant. Feel the ecumenical love.

From Renegades to Virtuosos

In the same issue of First Things, R. R. Reno comments on a new book on Urs von Balthasr (Karen Kirby, Balthasar: A [Very] Critical Introduction, Eerdmans). Reno mentions that some Roman Catholic theologians worry that Balthasar was too “dependent on modern German philosophy,” or that he played “fast and loose with the authoritative tradition of the church.” Reno concedes the point:

Balthasar was by any reckoning a unique figure in twentieth-century Catholicism. For good and for ill, he was a free agent. He left the Jesuits and struck out on his own, forming a community in Basel and founding his own publishing house. He had no academic appointment, no graduate students, and no religious superiors other than the spiritual authority he accorded to Adrienne von Speyr.

That sort of independence got Martin Luther in a lot of trouble (and gets blamed for the downfall of Christendom and the destruction of Europe’s “sacred canopy”.) But now, such creativity and independence inspire marvel. Reno writes that Balthasar “exemplifies an exploratory, virtuoso style of theology. It’s a style characteristic of the heroic generation that prepared the way for the lasting achievements of Vatican II.” But it is also “unstable, and hard to reproduce”:

Balthasar and his peers were unique, creative figures who resist summary and resist integration in the earlier theological traditions of the Church. The result is a feeling of discontinuity in theology, and this often in spite of explicit efforts to the contrary.

Looks to this Protestant like a double standard. Or it could simply be discontinuity between Rome’s willingness to discipline wayward theologians (from the Middle Ages to the Cold War) when during the 1960s development of doctrine turned fairly arbitrary, with continuity and discontinuity doing their best impersonation of each other.

Authors, Editors, and Readers

One of John Frame’s implicit complaints about two-kingdom theology is that its proponents are not as forthright as they should be about the Lordship of Christ or even about their own Christian profession. In his new book, he writes:

Too often, in ethical debate, Christians sound too much like unbelievers. They reason as if they and their opponents are both operating on the same principle: human rational autonomy. I believe they almost inevitably give this false impression when they are reasoning according to natural law alone. Only when the Christian goes beyond natural law and begins to talk about Jesus as the resurrected king of kings does his witness become distinctively Christian. At that point, of course, he is reasoning from Scripture, not from natural revelation alone.

A recent post by Peter Leithart for First Things‘ “On the Square” reminded me of Frame’s lament. Leithart was writing about empires in a positive light, hence his title “Toward a Sensible Discussion of Empire.” For the politically challenged, a sensible discussion of empire may be necessary since folks on the Left and the Right are not fans of the tyranny and overreach that usually comes with imperial administrations. Paleo-conservatives particularly lament the loss of the United States’ salad days as a republic and its emergence as the helicopter-mom nation-state. Among Leithart’s “sensible” thoughts are these:

6) American hegemony is not an undiluted evil. In some respects, it is a good, and preferable to many of the conceivable alternatives. America is the linchpin of a global economic system that has improved the lives of millions. We are still a beacon of liberty, our military has effectively defeated evil regimes and delivered the weak, and we continue to be an asylum for the oppressed. The world reaps more favors from American hegemony than it wants to admit. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the neoconservatives are right. . . .

8) America has often acted very badly. Noam Chomsky is right too. Native Americans have many legitimate complaints against the U.S., as do Latin American countries.While we Americans congratulated ourselves for our Christian charity in civilizing the Philippines, other Americans were killing Filipinos or herding them into concentration camps. For decades, we have deliberately dropped bombs on civilians and slaughtered hundreds of thousands. Sometimes we are merely foolish or short-sighted, as when we propped up Saddam Hussein or spread Islamicist propaganda to inspire the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets. And culture warriors should worry more about our export of domestic pathologies: If violent and sexually explicit entertainment, abortion, and an aggressive homosexual lobby threaten our culture, they aren’t good for the rest of the world either.

9) The benefits from empires do not excuse the behavior of empires. We cannot give ourselves a pass on international folly and injustice by congratulating ourselves on the good things we do.

As much as I may debate Leithart’s thoughts about empire — they are not surprising, after all, from a fellow who wrote a positive biography of a Roman emperor — the point here is whether the Federal Visionist (which means some kind sympathy for the Christ-is-Lord form of public argument) is as forthrightly Christian as John Frame thinks believers need to be. Notice that Leithart says nothing about Christ as king of kings. Notice also that his criteria for judging the American empire all come from non-biblical criteria.

Now, the additional point is not that Leithart is a hypocrite or that Frame is selective in the writers whom he throws under the Lordship of Christ bus. It is instead that authors write for editors and audiences and need to couch their language and arguments in terms acceptable to the editors and plausible to the readers. This isn’t a matter of the right apologetic method or a consistent epistemology. It is a case of either getting published or not, of being understood or not. If Leithart had come to the editors of First Things with arguments in a distinctively neo-Calvinist idiom, they would likely not have published him.

Perhaps that means that Christians should not write for religiously, epistemologically, or the-politically mixed publications. Indeed, it does seem that Frame’s arguments run directly in the fundamentalist direction of not having anything to do with associations where a believer might have to hide his faith under a bushel (NO!). But if Christian authors, even neo-Calvinist inclined ones, are going to write for publications not edited by Andrew Sandel or Ken Gentry or the faculty of Dort College, they may need to use rhetoric and arguments that are not pedal-to-the-metal Christian.

For this reason, I am surprised that John Frame can’t appreciate why 2k writers sound the way they do, or appeal to natural law arguments the way they do. He himself lauds the book reviews of secular publications as a model for his own engagement with the so-called Escondido theology:

To me, a review was, when possible, an occasion for careful analysis of an author’s thought and an exchange of views between the author and myself. My models here came from publications like the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and National Review. The Christian magazine Books and Culture is another source of reviews that thoughtfully interact with a writer’s ideas.

If Frame is used to reading non-Christian sources, and even finds in them a model of intellectual engagement, then I am surprised that he can sound so condemning of 2k writers for apparently betraying Christ’s claims upon all of life. Then again, I am surprised that a man who uses the New Yorker or Atlantic as models for book reviewing numbers the paragraphs in his own reviews.

What I'm Saying

guinness-draft1Over at Evangel, one of First Things ‘ blogs, readers and contributors have been busy attempting to define that 600-pound object in the room that goes by the name evangelical but defies descriptions as either an elephant or gorilla. Paul McCain, the author of the post, is responding to an interview at Evangel with Os Guinness (yes, that Guinness – brilliant!). In the interview, Guinness makes the following distinction between evangelicalism and orthodoxy:

Interviewer: Evangelicalism is more of the foundation and Orthodoxy is built on top of that.

Guinness: Exactly, and that is why whenever there is corruption, deadness, formality, heresy, whatever in the church, there will always be the impulse to go back to Jesus which is the Evangelical impulse. That’s why I would insist that, understood historically, theologically, spiritually; it is deeper than the other impulses. So Evangelicals are embarrassed by the culture of Evangelicalism or the politics of Evangelicalism, but that’s just a call to reformation.

This indeed a curious riff on the form-content distinction that generally lets evangelicals do whatever in worship and evangelism for the sake of the content of saving souls or being led by the Spirit (as Luther would say, feathers and all). Guinness implies that evangelicalism is formless; it is almost a gnostic or docetic understanding of Christianity in which the relationship or loyalty or feeling about Jesus transcends any kind of embodiment, whether in thought, word, or practice. It also has the advantage of bestowing upon the lexicographer – in this case, Guinness – the privileged position of determining whatever belongs or doesn’t to evangelicalism.

But then comes an interesting exchange between McCain at his post with someone who chimes in that German pietism is the continental equivalent of the revivalism that Whitefield and Wesley spawned. Good Lutheran confessionalist that he is, McCain wants to clarify the relationship between German evangelicalism and historic Lutheranism:

“The Pietist streak runs deep within Lutheranism” needs some very serious qualification. In fact, Lutheran Pietism is responsible for nearly single-handedly destroying authentic confessing Lutheranism, since it eschewed dogmatics, doctrine, the means of grace, the office of the ministry, and so forth. It would be a very serious misinterpretation of Martin Luther to think that he was a Pietist.

To which the commenter responded:

my real point was to say that there is still an emphasis on experiential piety within Lutheranism. The Lutheran charismatics that I know draw on this stream and will even talk about the synergism of a Melanchthon. Most Lutherans will simply talk about the sacraments as encounters with God because of real presence.

All of this sort of reinforces the point that it’s easier to talk about Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostal, than it is to talk about Evangelical, which is why I said it’s a spirituality.
(Lutheran charismatics – that’s a scary proposition!)

And McCain gives it back:

there is no “Lutheranism,” as it is properly understood and defined, apart from the confessions of the Lutheran Church, as contained in the Book of Concord. “Lutheran charismatics” is an oxymoron. It’s just a bunch of bored Lutherans dabbling with 20th century American Pentecostalism. The Lutheran Church firmly rejected Melanchthon’s errors on several key points.

Oh, for ten ounces of that confessional moxie among conservative Presbyterians.

And then along for the ride comes Francis Beckwith who proposes yet another reason for his belonging to the Evangelical Theological Society even after he went back into the Roman Catholic Church.

If the term “Evangelical” is broad enough to include high-church Anglicans, low-church anti-creedal Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, the Evangelical Free Church, Arminians, Calvinists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, open theists, atemporal theists, social Trinitarians, substantial Trinitarians, nominalists, realists, eternal security supporters and opponents, temporal theists, dispensationalists, theonomists, church-state separationists, church-state accomodationists, cessationists, non-cessationists, kenotic theorists, covenant theologians, paedo-Baptists, and Dooweyerdians, there should be room for an Evangelical Catholic.

Why doesn’t occur to Beckwith that if evangelicalism is that broad, and if a besetting sin of Protestant liberalism was breadth (as in Lefferts Loetscher’s Broadening Church), then why is evangelical width a good thing? Why isn’t it actually a sign of incoherence and vacuity? Granted, born-again Protestantism could be Guinness’ warm feeling in my heart. But how do I tell the difference between the evangelical feeling and the one I receive after drinking several pints of Guinness?