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.

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Integration and Separatism

I’m behind on podcasts at Reformed Forum and Proto-Protestant nudged me to listen to Camden Bucey’s discussion with Alan Strange about the spirituality of the church. I was not surprised to learn that Alan (and Camden) have concerns about aspects of the spirituality of the church as articulated by contemporary 2k folks like David VanDrunen, John Muether, and mmmmmeeeeeeEEEEE. I was surprised, though, to hear the word “integration” used as much as Alan voiced it during the hour-long recording. Alan wants to affirm the spirituality of the church and on this we agree — the church can’t take a stand on say the War between the States. But he also wants some measure of integration between the church’s witness and civil authority and seems to think that the Scottish Presbyterians are a good model of such engagement.

I am not sure that I would put my disagreements as starkly as Proto-Protestant does:

His final appeal to Acts 17 struck me as patronising and pedantic if not silly. Of course we preach the Word. Does any Two Kingdom adherent deny that? We call all men to repent. That’s a far cry from arguing for the Sacralisation of culture and the state, let alone taking covenant law and ‘integrating’ it with the temporal non-holy order. There is no Biblical precedent for his view in either the Old or New Testaments and he assumes categories completely outside anything found in the Apostolic writings. Instead what he suggests is that natural fallen man can be compelled to ‘keep’ God’s commandments and work together with the Spirit to build the Kingdom of God on Earth in the form of institutions and culture.

Calvin’s comments on the state are wrong. He misinterprets Romans 13 let alone Christ’s words concerning Caesar in Matthew 22. The state is not holy or redemptive. It is temporary and yet serves a ‘ministerial’ purpose. That’s true with Assyria, Persia and in the New Testament context, the Roman Empire under Nero. The Reformed tradition got this desperately wrong and sadly their view has become the Evangelical standard.

It is a caricature to suggest that 2k folks don’t think the church can preach about abortion or same-sex marriage. The Bible forbids the taking of innocent life and has no grounds for marriage between two men or two women. But just because the church preaches against idolatry doesn’t mean that the OPC, for instance, opposes Roman Catholics or Muslims living and worshiping in the United States. Morality is one thing. Civil legislation and public policy are another. And if Hodge was correct that the Presbyterian Church could not back the federal government during the beginning of the Civil War (as Gardiner Spring proposed) even if the Bible requires subjection to the powers that be, is it really that far to go to say that the church cannot endorse a politician or legislative initiative even though the church affirms the morality for which said politician might stand?

But here’s the aspect of this discussion that caught my ear. What does it mean for the church to be integrated with the state? At first, I thought of the Roman Catholic position on integralism. Here’s how one Roman Catholic blogger describes it:

Contrary to popular belief, Catholic integralism—or what I shall refer to simply as “integralism” for the duration of this essay—is not first and foremost a political program. For the integral understanding of Christianity begins first with the supernatural society established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, namely the Corpus Mysticum, the Holy Catholic Church, which transcends the temporal sphere and has for its end the salvation of souls. By carrying out its mission in the world, the Catholic Church possesses indirect power over the temporal sphere which is exercised for the good of souls. This indirect power in no way sullies the Church’s divine mission nor dilutes it by way of overextension since the civil authority retains at all times direct power over temporal matters.

Of course, Alan does not endorse this or even Erastianism. But integration is too close to integralism for that word to work for Protestants (in my book).

As matters now stand, churches in the United States are related (integrated?) to the civil government but obviously not in the way that the Church of Scotland is to the United Kingdom. The latter is likely somewhere in the constitutional provisions for religion in the realm. In the United States churches relate to the federal and state governments as tax exempt institutions. That means that churches don’t pay taxes and that contributions to churches can be deducted by individual tax payers. That’s not a recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord. It means the OPC is no better or worse than Rotary (another 501c3 organization). But it is a relationship between church and state at which Christians should not sneeze.

And mind you, the church and Christians in the U.S. fair better than Christians during the Roman Empire. What kind of integration to Paul or Peter experience? Did they have a tax-exempt status?

If we want more overt forms of integration, though, what might that involve? If the United States is going to give legal preferences to Christians, does that include Protestants and Roman Catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Wesleyans? It’s not a foolish question since even the venerable Puritans (who did believe in the spirituality of the church) wouldn’t let Baptists or Lutherans in Massachusetts Bay. Then again, if we want religious freedom for believers (as many seem to since gay marriage went on-line), then where does the good form of religion to free stop and become the bad kind of faith? In other words, isn’t the system we have for church state relations the best we can do without an established religion/church?

But let’s complicate the idea of integration even more. Churches are integrated in the federal government through the military chaplaincy program. But boy oh boy does that look like a disagreeable relationship. In the Armed Services, Orthodox Presbyterian chaplains minister God’s word cheek-by-jowl with female Lutherans and male Wiccans. Of course, if that sounds provocative, it should. If Orthodox Presbyterians insisted on being separate from modernist Presbyterians in the PCUSA, and if those same OP’s remained separate from Arminians in the National Association of Evangelicals, why wouldn’t Orthodox Presbyterians be comfortable now with separatism rather than integration? I mean, if you have the stomach for being separate from other Protestants, surely you can fathom separation (rather than integration) from the federal authorities.

I understand that Alan Strange wants to prevent Presbyterians from being Anabaptists. But 2kers are not separate from the government because civil authority is a corruption of Jesus’ rule. 2kers advocate separation of church and state because politics is only good but not holy. Magistrates maintain public order. They don’t minister salvation. The one is good. The other is great.