Looking More and More Like Paul Wrote Romans around 1971 (A.D.)

On the way to church yesterday, I was listening to the latest episode of Mars Hill Audio and I swear I heard Ken Myers complain that modern thinkers do not consider human nature in the light of the incarnation and the resurrection. That would imply an understanding of human nature without sin since Jesus lived a perfect life and since believers who go to heaven will live lives in which it is impossible to sin. If the desire is to call people to live virtuous lives and leave behind the viciousness and debauchery that characterizes modern America, the appeal to something higher is understandable. But it also needs to be plausible. And that means taking sin and unbelief into account when thinking about personal and civic virtue. How much “goodness” is truly possible in a world distorted by sin?

And then at church we read an excerpt from Paul’s epistle to the Romans which made me think he must have been writing at a time when he was observing How (or Why) Liberalism Failed (even though the secular liberals at Columbia University set the date for the epistle around 57 AD):

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:20-32)

Is that a description of Times Square circa 1970 or of Trump’s America? Well, if Columbia University is correct, Paul was actually depicting the society of first-century Mediterranean world. And if Paul was writing about his own time, not the United States with its defective Lockean political theory, then maybe the problems we twenty-first-century Americans face are not the product of bad political theory but of bad people who live at all times.

Notice too, how Paul goes on in that epistle to advise about the remedy for such a sorry state. Is it to have a church that becomes a civilizing force among barbarian tribes? Is it more governmental programs that make two-parent families plausible? Is it reading Aliadair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor on the problems of secular modernity? No. All of these remedies might help to lessen the blows of our fallen estate. But the only solution is — wait for it — justification by faith (chs 4-6) and preachers who will proclaim the good news (ch 10). He doesn’t even invoke the Virgin Mary for help.

But what about politics? Paul even addressed that. Honor the emperor, you know, the one who was not very virtuous and didn’t seem all that interested in rolling back modernity.


Kant, Mencken, and Locke Walk Into a Bar

And the politicians come out poorer:

Locke has first dibs:

In advocating tax dodging you forget the Social Contract. Is it decent for a citizen to evade his fair obligations to other citizens? Suppose everyone did as you recommend? What would become of the State?

That’s a problem for Kant to solve:

An interesting objection–if only because it proves that the corpse of the late Dr. Immanuel Kant is still dancing. But though it may thus dance, it is nevertheless indubitably dead—and with it the crazy doctrine of a universal moral law. There is, of course, no such thing. Nothing is ever moral for all men—at all events, not with equal horsepower—and by the same token nothing is ever immoral. It may be wrong for a rich man, with so much money that he doesn’t know what to do with it, to dodge his taxes, but it is certainly not wrong in the case of a man whose family must suffer if he pays them. An individual’s first and paramount duty is to himself and his second duty is to his children. Then, in order, come his duties to his wife, his parents, his friends. his brothers and sisters, his creditors, his nieces and nephews, his uncles and aunts, his cousins, his second cousins, his third cousins and so on. Finally come his duties to his enemies, his wife’s relatives and the community in general.

Mencken tries to get the last word:

If the Social Contract were really a free contract, made in cold blood by autonomous principals, then it would lay upon every man a plain duty to pay his taxes in full. But it is really nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it is a contract forced upon him without his leave, and one which he couldn’t evade if he would, and what is more, its terms are grossly unfair and extortionate. The State, in brief, is a professional swindler. Its incessant effort is to make every taxpayer pay $2 or $3 or even $10, for something worth but $1. Theoretically, it collects only enough money each year to pay the actual expenses of government—not a cent more. But actually it collects enough in addition to pay a handsome profit to thousands of men—men who are theoretically servants of the State, but in sober truth are private individuals engaged in the universal human business of getting as much money as possible for as little work as possible.

Certainly, it is no crime for a taxpayer to refuse to submit to this brigandage, and to oppose it with whatever means are at hand. The members of the so-called Government, it is obvious, enter the contest with all of the advantages on their side. Not only have they the police power of the State behind them, to enforce their extortionate demands, but they are also supported by the indifference and superstition of the vast majority of taxpayers, some or whom are too lazy or too ignorant to protect themselves, and others of whom think it would be wrong to try. Therefore, it is perfectly moral, in warring upon such unfair assaults, for the intelligent taxpayer to use devices which, in themselves, may be frowned upon by his private code. In brief, it is moral for him to meet brute force with guile, with chicanery, with downright mendacity—to lie like an anti-vivisectionist whenever the truth would expose him to indefensible and ruinous robbery.

Kant won’t let Mencken have it:

But hark! the corpse of old Immanuel rises to ask a question, to wit: What would happen if every taxpayer swore off most of his takes? How could the State exist? A silly question—like most of those asked (and answered) by that cadaver—for it must be obvious that the majority of taxpayers are so poisoned by moral ptomaines that they will never get the courage to save themselves. The average man is, and always will be, a born sucker. What with his stupidity on the one hand and his morality on the other, he is paralyzed from birth, and so he goes through life a chronic victim. The temptation to rob him is irresistible. Even his wife, his pastor and the policeman on the beat can’t keep their hands off him. He almost begs the world to take his money.

But Mencken persists:

But, supposing the question to be intelligible, it may be answered quickly. And here is the answer: If every taxpayer refused to pay more than, say, 50 per cent. of his taxes, the efficiency of government would not only suffer no diminution, but would probably be vastly augmented. Economy, which is now a mere abstraction, would then become a reality, a necessity. And in the business of cutting down expenses, thus suddenly made the chief concern of the State, nonessentials would go first. If, by any unyielding stupidity of the heads of the State, they didn’t go first—if essentials were thrown overboard to protect supernumeraries and grafters—then the people would rise against the Government and take things into their own hands, and for the first time in the history of the Republic the State would be run as honestly and as economically as the average coal yard, or newspaper, or building association.

The curse of our present scheme of government lies in the fact that it puts no limitation upon taxation. The men who run the State are able to rob us as they will. Naturally enough—since their one aim is to get all they can for themselves and their friends—they lay on all the traffic will bear. The present tax rate on realty in Baltimore, counting in direct and indirect taxes, is fully $3 on the $100—a rate wholly indecent and proposterous. In the absence of legislation reducing it to $1—which rate, if constantly maintained, would be ample to pay all the legitimate expenses of the government—it is the supreme duty of every self-respecting taxpayer to reduce his own bill himself, and in that endeavor he is justified in employing any means, however “immoral,” that may achieve the desired end. Every time he pays a cent more he hands over his good money to meet the costs of pediculine debauchery.

And Mencken wrote this before the states ratified the sixteenth amendment.

More Burke, Less Locke

Ben Sasse addressed CPAC yesterday and Scott Clark has the video under the heading, “The Government Exists to Secure Natural Rights.”

I immediately wondered if this commits the federal government to granting amnesty to all the Mexicans living in America, legally or not. If everyone has rights naturally, and the U.S. government is committed to protecting those rights, how could it ever not protect the rights of anyone who winds up American soil?

Here‘s what Senator Sasse may have meant by that line:

Our founding moment is truly extraordinary. Our founders were making a claim about human dignity. Our founders were saying that everybody, everywhere—not just those who have been blessed to be born in this place—but everybody, everywhere is ordained with natural rights. Everyone everywhere is created in the image of God with natural rights, and government is just our shared project to secure those rights.

Again, everyone has rights by virtue of being human (sort of like the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man — a universal, abstract ideal).

But another way of thinking about rights is to say they are protected by a constitutional arrangement and in order to receive such protection you need to be a member of a constitutional community. Here’s another statement from Senator Sasse:

People have been wrong about the nature of government and the nature of freedom, and we the people in America believe that our rights come to us via nature, and government is our project to secure them, so we the people give the government enumerated powers. We don’t ever wait for the government to give us an rights. We claim those by nature.

But what if the government has clearly enumerated powers and some of those mean that citizens enjoy the protection of that government. That protection is a form of liberty and rights. Citizens benefit from the government’s protection and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. But non-citizens don’t. That seems elementary (but I’m only licensed to do history.)

What might Senator Sasse’s remarks have sounded like if he were a reader of American Conservative:

Sasse’s case for classical conservatism was actually a defense of classical liberalism. For the senator, America is an exceptional idea invented by the Founding and “ordained with natural rights”. This Lockean interpretation of the American Revolution is not how classical (or small-c) conservatives understand the Founding. Classical conservatives certainly believe in conserving the achievements of the Founding, but they also know America is not an idea. America is a culture and a nation composed of many regional and local communities. It is from these communities that a sense of self-government is developed and citizens who can underpin limited government are forged.

Sasse also described conservatism as a “set of policy preferences” directed towards the reduction of the size of government. Classical conservatism is not merely a checklist of anti-government policies, regardless of how virtuous those policies might be. It is a philosophical temperament which sees politics as the art of the possible, values prudential reform, and puts concrete institutions before abstract concepts.

John Clarifies Confusing Johns

John Calvin, the Genevan reformer who had the most influence on the theology of the colonial clergy, taught that rebellion against civil government was never justified: “If we keep firmly in mind that even the worst kings are appointed by this same decree which establishes the authority of kings, then we will never permit ourselves the seditious idea that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, or that we need not obey a king who does not conduct himself towards us like a king.” Calvin added: “we must honour the worst tyrant in the office in which the Lord has seen fit to set him,” and “if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid.” He taught that Christians must “venerate” even those rulers who were “unworthy” of veneration. As political scientist Gregg Frazer has argued, “One cannot legitimately employ Calvin to justify rebellion, which is why the patriotic preachers argued in terms of ‘Mr. Locke’s doctrine’ rather than Calvin’s.” In the end, today’s Christians who are interested in understanding the relationship between Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 and the American Revolution must come to grips with the fact that many patriotic clergy may have been more influenced in their political positions by John Locke than the Bible. (John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? 118-19)