How to Love America

Noah Millman proposes this (while meditating on G. K. Chesterton):

People feel an attachment, and a willingness to fight to protect, their homes, and their communities. That can take noble and ignoble forms — sometimes fighting to defend your community means committing injustice (as, for example, if you band together with your neighbors to prevent someone from a disfavored ethnic group from moving to the neighborhood). But the feeling is rooted in a direct experience, not an abstract attachment.

For any political community larger than a city, though, that attachment necessarily becomes abstract. So you need to teach your children why they should care about that larger community, be proud of it, and treat it as constituent of their identity.

Chesterton famously quipped that the sentiment, “my country, right or wrong” is like the sentiment, “my mother, drunk or sober.” But the thing about the latter is that she is your mother whether she’s drunk or sober — it’s just that your obligations change based on her condition. If she’s drunk, you won’t let her drive — instead, you’ll make sure she gets home safely.

The question, then, is how you teach your children to see their country as, in some sense, like a mother when their relationship is necessarily abstract rather than directly felt. A love of country based on the lie that your mother is never drunk will be too brittle to survive any kind of honest encounter with reality. But it seems to me equally problematic to say that you should love your country because it is on-balance a good one. Does anyone say about their mother that they love them because on-balance they are sober?

While Millman stresses the particular (a people, a place, a way of life — think baseball), Kevin DeYoung goes abstract and is thankful for the “idea” of America:

The United States of America began with the conviction that a nation should be founded upon truth. Not simply values or preferences, but upon truths. Self-evident truths that were true, are true, and will remain true no matter the time, the place, or the culture.

And central among these truths is the belief that all men are created equal. No one possesses more intrinsic worth for being born rich or poor, male or female, artisan or aristocracy. Of course, this truth, as much as any, unmasks our history of hypocrisy, for 3/5 of a person is an eternity from equality. But truth is still true. We all come into the world with the same rights and the same dignity–whether “gated community” in the world’s estimation or “trailer trash.”

These unalienable rights, we must note, are not granted by the Declaration of Independence. Our rights do not depend upon government for their existence. They are not owing to the largesse of the state or the beneficence of any institution. The rights of man are the gifts of God. The Creator endows; the state exists to protect. These unalienable rights can be suppressed or denied. But they cannot be annulled. We possess them–no matter what kings or parliaments say or presidents and congress decree–by virtue of being created in the image of our Creator.

Oh, by the way, if all humans have these rights irrespective of government, then how is that the basis for founding a nation? Didn’t this way of thinking lead in France to Napoleon’s wars to teach Europe liberty good and hard?

The thing is, if you stress ideas you wind up with a creedal nation, one that you tend to treat like a church, with people divided into the camps of orthodox and heretics, saints and pagans. Protestants suffer from this affliction and it shows in the recent anti-liberalism of Peter Leithart and Jake Meador.

Leithart took Matt Tuininga to task for turning Calvin into a liberal. Leithart added an objection to liberalism that fits with the nation-as-idea mentality:

Virtually none of liberalism’s theological critics objects to these forms and procedures as such. Their complaint isn’t against representative government or voting or freedom of speech and association. No one advocates a fusion of Church and state.

Rather, they claim that such a formal, procedural description masks the basic thrust of liberalism. Liberalism’s stated aim is to construct a society without substantive commitments, leaving everyone free to choose whatever his or her or hir own may be. Liberalism’s common good is to protect society from adopting any single vision of the common good. That’s a deviation from classical and traditional Christian politics (including Calvin’s), which sought to orchestrate common life toward a common end—the cultivation of virtue or the glory of God. In fact—and this is the other side of the critique—liberal societies do have substantive commitments. The liberal state pretends to be a referee, but beneath the striped shirt it wears the jersey of the home team. Under the cover of neutrality, liberal order embodies, encourages, and sometimes enforces an anthropology, ecclesiology, and vision of the good society that is often starkly at odds with Christian faith. Tuininga never confronts that line of analysis.

Since the U.S. is a liberal nation, it’s its liberal order becomes its an orthodoxy. But I thought the liberalism of the founders was not to form a society. They already had one — a people, a place, and a way of life. What they wanted was a liberal government, one that would not take sides in religion and other matters. If the U.S began to replace a liberal government with a liberal society, you could blame the centralizing and bureaucratizing effects of a national government that needed to organize the economy, schools, and industry to fight world wars, even cold ones. It really helps when the churches jump on the bandwagon and tell American officials the government is making the nation great.

Jake Meador thinks that the current spate of intolerance that liberals direct toward Christians is a function of liberalism itself:

If the move that western Christians attempt to make in response to all these challenges is to simply rebuild liberalism, then whatever victories we win will be short term. Liberalism is the soil from which the current regime has grown. It’s emphasis on individual autonomy and self-definition and the illegitimacy of unchosen authorities is precisely how we ended up where we are today.

So, two points: First, trying to Make Liberalism Great Again is probably no more realistic than trying to return America to the 1950s. In both cases, the order in question was the unique product of historical circumstances that our own era does not share. Thus any attempt to recreate said order is doomed to fail. Second, we need better language and concepts to make our case to both those within our church communities and those outside the church. Liberalism is not the way forward. It is the way toward further and deeper darkness. If we start thinking about common goods, shared life, and the neighborly arts, then we may be onto something. But all of these things, of course, assume a sort of communitarian sensibility that has always had a hard time reconciling itself to the deeply democratic, egalitarian nature of American Christianity. Therefore, whatever our project ends up being, it figures to be a long-term thing.

Meador should likely include Protestantism as the soil out of which liberal progressivism grew. Protestants were intolerant of Roman Catholics and other outsiders. Remember the threat that parochial schools posed to public ones and the way that American governments insisted no parochial school receive a whiff of public funding (still in the balance in SCOTUS’s recent Trinity Lutheran v. Comer decision). He has a point about “common goods, shared life, and the neighborly arts.” I wish he had included baseball and drip coffee makers. But why these way-of-life matters are at odds with liberalism baffles me.

A truly liberal government, like the one the founders hoped for, was one with a fairly small footprint within the broader American society. Government, in other words, is not society. Communities and people groups have existed within the terms set by the founders for better or worse for the better part of two centuries.

The challenge for the U.S. on this holiday of independence is to figure out how to separate the nation from the government, so that officials do somethings, people and communities do other, and we have a national identity that does not revolve around an idea like liberty and justice for all, and the military campaigns that justify such abstract convictions.

To paraphrase Meador, Americanism or the liberal international order that the U.S. has maintained in its capacity as leader of the free world is not the way forward, at least for building attachments to the nation. We still need less national government, more attachments to people, places, and the ways of life that emerge from them.

Chairman of the Board

Was this what Bryan and the Jasons had in mind?

Francis’s palpable respect for other religious traditions, coupled with his determination that the various faiths must work together to advance shared values such as peace and the care of creation, have made him a global role model for interfaith cooperation. . . .

It’s possible, of course, that people in either India or Turkey unaware of the pope’s record may be briefly swayed by such rhetoric, but the moment such charges are subjected to critical examination they’ll collapse under their own weight.

While the substance of such complaints may not have much merit, there’s nevertheless a sense in which they’re meaningful. In effect, they may be an index that Francis’s ambition to be the “chairman of the board” for religious moderates around the world is working.

Obviously without using that language, that’s a role to which every recent pope has aspired – trying to galvanize a coalition of authoritative moderates within the world’s religious traditions to demonstrate that, as much as religion can be part of the problem, it is also uniquely positioned to be part of the solution.

As someone who doesn’t hail from a traditional Western power, Francis brings a special capacity to pull that off, since he doesn’t carry the same baggage in terms of being associated with either the West’s colonial history or its contemporary military and political choices. His global popularity also means he carries the largest religious megaphone in the world, allowing him to lift the standing of moderate voices in other traditions.

Don’t think too long about where ex-Nazis went after World War II.

Forget also about popes transcending personal experience. Turn STM into ASTM — Argentina, Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium:

From the beginning, it’s been striking how often Pope Francis, when pressed to explain a particular statement or policy choice, will invoke his background in Argentina.

There are really too many examples to count, but just to choose one almost at random, in a session with priests from the diocese of Rome earlier this month, Francis stirred controversy by suggesting there are cases in which it’s better for couples to live together for a while rather than take part in a shotgun wedding.

“Here’s a social fact in Buenos Aires,” he said. “I prohibited religious marriages in Buenos Aires in cases of what we call matrimonios de apuro, meaning ‘in a hurry,’ when a baby is on the way.”

In fact, Francis cited his experience in Buenos Aires no fewer than five times in that address to priests, on multiple topics.

And be sure to love the sinner while hating the sin (except if you are a global capitalist, climate change denier, or a Turk):

Furthermore, the pope did not tell anyone to issue an actual apology. And his focus was not limited to the LGBT community. Rather, he made the broader statement that the Church “must not only ask forgiveness to the gay person who is offended,” but also to all of the people “we could have defended and we didn’t,” including the poor, and women and children who are exploited.

He cited the Catechism, saying that homosexual individuals “must not be discriminated against, (but) must be respected and accompanied pastorally.”

The Catechism teaches that based on Scripture, “tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’”

Homosexual acts, it continues, “are contrary to the natural law … under no circumstances can they be approved.”
When speaking of homosexual persons, however, the Catechism insists that most gay individuals face “a trial” due to their sexual orientation, and “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

What Pope Francis said, then, clearly echoes Church teaching and displays his genuine pastoral concern for a group that has and frequently still does face hostility, including, at times, from within the Church.

Isn’t independence from tyrannical authority wonderful?

Independence Day Blues

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — the most memorable phrase from the Declaration of Independence, arguably. So Father Dwight tries to instruct us on the proper meaning of happiness (which is not as bad as trying to find the true meaning of hedonism, but it still doesn’t go well). Of the four levels of happiness, the ultimate is the “transcendental”:

This highest level of happiness comes when we learn how to serve an even higher being than our neighbor. Our happiness is linked with our self-esteem, and our self-esteem is linked with whether we feel our life is being spent in a worthwhile manner. Those whose lives have a high level of meaning and purpose have high levels of happiness. Those who serve God feel they are living for values and meanings that are eternal in their scope. No matter how negative the circumstances, people who are at the transcendental level of happiness evidence extreme, even ecstatic, happiness. They are not just happy—they are joyful.

As I say, it doesn’t go well since at the end of the article Father Dwight, a regular apologist for Roman Catholicism who points out the foibles and liabilities of his former Protestant communion, tries to make his pitch for happiness sound generically religious. This is how we are supposed to pursue this ultimate form of happiness:

. . . conservatism has always had deep roots in the traditions of faith. Religious belief takes us into the depths of the human experience historically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The strength of conservatism is that it is a solid, stable, and secure philosophy. These deep roots are fed by the structures and systems of religion that open the individual to the transcendental dimension of happiness. Conservatism in religion connects the individual to the spiritual giants of the past, and the simple traditions of ancient religion open the individual to experience the true worship of God that experts tell us is the final stage of true happiness.

What about the sacraments, what about the death of Christ, what about sin and purgatory? “Religious belief” will do? Leo XIII would be appalled, but then he was the pope who condemned Americanism, a mild heresy that seems to be more prevalent now than it was 120 years ago.

The worry, though, has less to do with Protestant-Roman Catholic differences than it does with the conflation of “religion” and conservatism. That mix has produced a civil religion that leads many American believers to be very happy about the United States and its mission — except when they turn to despair because its officials have abandoned its religious ideals. Richard Gamble has a good antidote to such civil religion by showing (from a few years ago but recently republished) that even the sainted Abraham Lincoln was guilty of this dangerous conflation of piety and politics:

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state, but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and to transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

Bellah, a defender of American civil religion who wanted to globalize it in the post-Kennedy years, claimed that Lincoln and the Civil War gave America a “New Testament” for its civic faith: “The Gettysburg symbolism (‘…those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live’) is Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church.”

The link between Gamble’s piece on Lincoln and Father Dwight’s on the Declaration is that both — aside from being alumi of Bob Jones University — are addressing, the former explicitly and the latter only implicitly, civil religion. Gamble is on the lookout. Father Dwight promotes it.

So what is the remedy? Maybe it is to abandon happiness. Life is hard, we seek to serve God in our callings, we die, and our remains await the resurrection. In other words, we await a better country. If we look for happiness in this one, we will “like” Father Dwight’s post and let President Lincoln inspire us.

So maybe the true conservative is the unhappy American. You may see him tonight at the fireworks display. He won’t be smiling. He’ll be fearful because of all the noise and explosions.

The Colonies’ Secession was Smart, the South’s Was Dumb

Maybe it is poor form at the national holiday to bring it up, but has anyone noticed the resemblance between 1776 and 1861? Sure, you can say that the Civil War involved more than preserving the union. Many Americans think the fight between North and South was to abolish slavery and preserve the union. But 1776 saw a similar dynamic – a group of slaveholders asserting their independence from a sovereign nation. So what am I missing?

One important difference could be intelligence. I remember being struck by the stupidity of southerners about twenty years ago during Independence Day festivities. (Mind you, I’m bi-regional so I can get away with speaking about my people this way.) I was surfing cable television on a Sunday evening – back when we had cable (and stupid enough to pay for television) and when Sabbatarian convictions were not where they should have been – and I came across the Independence Day worship service where Charles Stanley’s congregation in Atlanta was waxing patriotic by singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Not only did this manifest a dumb reading of history since this particular hymn was written for a war fought almost a century after the Revolutionary War. It was also stupid because these residents of greater Atlanta were singing a song that the North had concocted to whoop up support for – among other military matters – General Sherman’s raid on central Georgia. To borrow Fosdick’s line, what incredible folly!

Now I see, thanks to one of our southern correspondents, that southern Protestants are still very patriotic and still lacking intelligence about which hymns go with which American wars. Greg Garrison of the Birmingham News writes the following:

Every summer on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, a vast array of churches breaks out the red, white and blue bunting and patriotic songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with salutes to the military and civil servants.

He goes on to report on the activities of various local congregations.

More Than Conquerors Faith Church will have its “Freedom Celebration” on Sunday at 10 a.m. with patriotic music and a procession of flags.

Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church will have its “Can America Still Trust in God?” worship service with patriotic music at 10:30 a.m. Lunch follows on the church picnic grounds.

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church will have patriotic music by Bobby Horton, Bill Bugg and others starting at 5 p.m., followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence at 6:15 p.m. Sunday. . . .

It’s the most dramatic Fourth of July celebration ever for the church, said the Rev. Barry Vaughn, the rector.

“It will be the most patriotic thing we’ve done and people seem to be pretty excited about it,” Vaughn said. . . .

Briarwood Presbyterian Church will have its “Christianity in America” service on Sunday at 6 p.m., with patriotic music and a salute to the armed forces.

It will feature a musical tribute to America by the Alabama Philharmonic Orchestra, and arrangement of armed forces songs.

“It’s a tribute to those who served,” said the Rev. Clay Campbell, minister of music and worship pastor at Briarwood Presbyterian Church. “They enjoy putting on their uniforms and coming and being recognized.”

Campbell said that in the past, some have raised concerns that patriotic worship services are idolatrous and constitute worshipping the state.

“We’re not worshipping America,” he said. “We’re giving thanks to God for the blessing he’s placed on America.”

That may not be the way that some see it if Dinesh D’Souza is going to be your guest preacher tomorrow.

Dinesh D’Souza, author of “What’s So Great About Christianity,” will speak in the “Celebrate America” patriotic service at Valleydale Church on Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

D’Souza, a native of India who came to America at age 16 and became well-known as a political commentator and author of best-selling books on social issues, will talk about his love for his adopted country.

“Patriotism is entirely appropriate on this day,” D’Souza said in a phone interview. “The Christian foundation of America is that the root ideas of America are based on Christian influence and assumptions. You hear people talk about did Thomas Jefferson go to church regularly or did Ben Franklin believe in the Trinity. I don’t care if Jefferson believed in miracles. He sat down and asked where do rights come from. He could think of only one source, the Creator. That’s in the Declaration of Independence.”

Of course, there is an easy way for southerners to be smart about all this – it is the spirituality of the church option of psalm singing. Especially when Sunday coincides with July 4th, Psalm 146 is fitting:

1 Praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD, O my soul.

2 I will praise the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortal men, who cannot save.

4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,

6 the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
the LORD, who remains faithful forever.

7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets prisoners free,

8 the LORD gives sight to the blind,
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,
the LORD loves the righteous.

9 The LORD watches over the alien
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

10 The LORD reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD.