Who’s Afraid of NSA?

What with the news and controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and Wikileaks an average American might think his privacy no longer exists. Everything we do on-line or by phone is closely monitored by people who work deed deep in the federal government’s deep state.

Have I got good news for libertarians. On the way to the airport this morning I learned thanks to the Federalist Radio Hour that the reason the Affordable Care Act rolled out so poorly was that feds could not verify personal incomes of people signing up for the new health care plan. Enrollees entered their digits and the government had to go through too many layers of records, and even then could not tell how much someone made.

Imagine that. NSA and Homeland Security and the Defense Intelligence Agency may know your caloric intake thanks to the Fitbit you are wearing, but they can’t even tell how much you make.

Is this a great country, or what?

Religious Freedom — For Everyone

That is what Russell Moore says is one of his biggest policy priorities. Religious freedom certainly is on the lips of most U.S. Christians.

But when you hear someone like Peter Lillback, you begin to think that religious liberty is only for religious Americans (thanks to our Texas correspondent):

A careful reading of the First Amendment shows us that the concern that motivated our Founding Fathers was to protect the conscience from governmental encroachments. Twenty iterations of the language for the First Amendment ensued in the congressional debate before the final version was sent to the House on Sept. 24, 1789. Not once in any of those 20 attempts to write the First Amendment did the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. The word conscience, although it does not appear in the final form, occurs in 12 of these iterations.

Clearly, the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to protect conscience from government, not protect government from religion. This is where public theology comes in, calling for the application of religious principles to every area of life, including politics.

Washington called religion and morality “indispensable pillars” of America’s political happiness. In his farewell address, he noted, “experience has taught us that morality is impossible for a people unless it is brought to us through religious teaching.”

But what about freedom for gays and lesbians and trannies? And how in the world to you bring religion into politics and allow freedom for people to play football on Sunday, get a divorce on non-biblical grounds, or be exempt from police following home a guy who has just picked up a girl at the local bar?

In other words, lots of religious conservatives want protection from government so that they can use government to take away freedoms (okay, call it moral licentiousness) from other Americans.

That’s why the rhetoric of religious liberty is not simply hollow but disingenuous. If only Lillback and other anti-naked public square types were libertarians like J. Gresham Machen:

Against such tyranny, I do cherish some hope that Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are lovers of liberty, may present a united front. I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; bu the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others. What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object ot the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they do hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda, first, last, and all the time? Clearly they ahve a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same. (“Relations between Christians and Jews”)

I see right away that folks like Moore and Lillback will read Machen and think, exactly. We want freedom for religious groups. Seldom do religious conservatives admit, thought, that they are advocating freedom for that which they oppose, meaning, that I suppose Lillback and Moore do not favor Roman Catholicism but are on the side of Luther and Calvin.

So if they can advocate freedom for that with they disagree, then where do they stop? If freedom for the wrong religion, why not freedom for the wrong morality? (And get this, if everything starts from one’s presuppositions, isn’t LBGT really a religion? And so isn’t a case for religious liberty a case for LBGT on Van Tillian grounds?)

The test then is how wide are you willing to draw the circle of freedom. Here’s how wide Machen’s circle was:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Ibid)

Against Religious Liberty, for the Freedom of the Church

Yuval Levin, arguably the most Burkean of commentators in conservative circles these days, recognizes what many who oppose modern secularism fail to see — namely, that a defense of religious liberty for persons actually increases the power of the state. He is evoking an older case for mediating institutions, like families, schools, community organizations, and churches. These institutions should retain authority over members and government should not seek to overthrow the powers of “lesser authorities.” In the case of Christianity, faith is corporate not individual. But when government does intervene for the sake of a person’s freedom — a son against his parents, a church member against her church officers — the government gains more authority (less for the lesser authorities) by liberating the individual. In effect, libertarianism and big government go hand in hand.

Here’s how Levin describes the dangers of protecting the liberties of religious persons over against the freedoms of religious communities:

The legal arena is where the case for religious liberty seems most straightforward and securely rooted. The First Amendment to the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These sixteen glorious words make for a sword, a shield, and a banner for today’s beleaguered believers. They seem to safeguard the right of every American to live by his convictions. But let us consider what they really demand, and on what grounds.

Our first instinct in the legal battles spawned by the progressive excesses of the last few years is to reach for the free exercise clause, which after all exists to protect religious people’s ability to live out their faiths in practice. It is easy to see why that seems like the right tool: Free exercise jurisprudence has frequently involved the crafting of prudential exemptions and accommodations—precisely the carving out of ­spaces—that could allow religious believers to act on their convictions even in the face of contrary public sentiments or (up to a point) public laws. In their present circumstances, many religious traditionalists would surely benefit from such prudence and protection.

But the logic of free exercise is, at the same time, highly individualistic, while the problems traditionalists now confront are frequently communal or (in the deepest sense) corporate problems.

What Levin proposes instead is for conservatives to defend the freedoms of association that come to communities of believers:

This means we need to see that we are defending more than religious liberty: We are defending the very idea that our government exists to protect the space in which various institutions of civil society do the work that enables Americans to thrive, and we are defending the proposition that this work involves moral formation and not just liberation from constraint. That is an entire conception of the meaning of a free society that goes well beyond toleration and freedom of religion. It is ultimately about the proper shape and structure of American life.

Making that clear—to ourselves and to others—will require an emphasis not just on the principles involved (be they religious liberty or subsidiarity or the freedom of association), but also on the actual lives of our actual, concrete communities. It will require that we turn more of our attention homeward, away from raging national controversies and toward the everyday lives of our living moral communities—toward family, school, and congregation; toward civic ­priorities and local commitments; toward neighbors in need and friends in crisis. It will require us to see that we need to build more than protective walls; we need to build strong, thriving, attractive ­communities.

The way I (mmmeeeEEEE) interpret this is to say that the baker who does not want to bake and decorate a wedding cake (why not an inferior one?) for a gay couple should not base her appeal on her own conscience but the teaching of her church. As a Free Methodist, not as Susan Eddy, she objects to being forced by civil rights legislation to bake a cake for a gay couple.

The downsides of this: first, what if the Free Methodists haven’t taken a stand on gay weddings? Second, what happens when Susan Eddy disagrees with the teachings of her church? Will she come around and submit?

NSA, Homeland, and God

Why should I be worried about the government monitoring my emails or how I surf the web? As someone who is a registered Libertarian (and never voted for a Libertarian candidate) I get it partly. The scale of government is mind-numbing and sometimes frightening, especially in its intelligence and military aspects. Can any regular American aspire to the presidency who has no experience with foreign policy and sensitive intelligence operations? Who can stand in that great day, indeed.

But when I read people who think the world is changing — not to mention ideas about human nature — because of the access now available to government officials through computing and phones, I wonder:

Will you really pay higher insurance rates to escape tracking, or will you swallow the pill of microscopic sensors that watch everything you eat and do—and secure your insurance discount?

The point is not that some simple tweak—making data on us available to us, making it easier to opt out (as if our absence would not be noticed)—would solve the matter. Rather, the point is that a certain view of freedom and a certain view of power are creating a world in which human faculties are superfluous because they are limited and inaccurate compared to scientific measurement.

The tracking revolution is the replacement of, not the extension of a human faculty. Because every advance it offers is a marginal improvement, it proceeds in rational steps toward a goal whose reasons are opaque. Like the division of labor which it imitates, the tracking revolution simplifies knowledge of human beings by breaking us down into our component parts.

For instance, one of the delights (all about me) I take from spy movies or television series like Homeland is a sense that someone is out there monitoring all this stuff, keeping the world safe from bad guys. The same goes for crime shows and murder mysteries (having finished Broadchurch‘s first season last night, I yet again marvel at the Brits capacity to entertain through narratives of justice). It is truly marvelous that any agency can possibly monitor all that stuff, intervene when necessary, and keep the world from careening out of control.

The powers of intelligence agencies and police monitors are of course akin to an all seeing God. If some Christians walk around thinking that certain saints are watching them, most Christians likely live with the scary and comforting thought that God is monitoring everything they do. What is the problem with a few more sets of eyes?

Meanwhile, what possibly could the government find out of interest about me? What Muether and I are planning for the next issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal? Granted, if I were doing something costly to me, something that could get me in trouble in those relationships that most matter — wife, session, department chair — I wouldn’t like the idea that some folks out there know the dirt. But it’s not as if staff at NSA or agents in the CIA are going to give a large rodent’s rear end about activities that might compromise my marriage, church membership, or job. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone wading through all the cookies I use in a day or phone calls I make or email messages I write — along with the rest of America — and finding anything of interest. Average life is so ordinary.

It also helps knowing that my favorite libertarian, J. Gresham Machen, is not looking down reading this.

What Did Charlie Hebdo Accomplish?

The drive back from the annual American Historical Association meeting (and other points northeastern) brought the missus and me lots of coverage of the killings of editors and cartoonists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo yesterday in Paris. As unnerving and tragic as those deaths were and as close to the events as reporters still stood, the dominant narrative of the event was the need, courage, and danger of free speech. Many French and English journalists conducted interviews that indicated the enormous debt they owed to the editors, writers, and cartoonists of the magazine for standing up for free speech. In fact, the Protestant Federation of Churches in France issued the following statement:

We reiterate that the secular republic and its values, including freedom of conscience, democracy and press freedom remains for us the foundation of our life together.

This fairly modern, liberal, and republican line (it is striking to hear the French identify with “The Republic” while Americans who inhabit a republic of similar vintage talk about “The Constitution”) is fairly at odds with the experience of most modern, liberal residents of republics. None of us actually enjoys freedom of speech. Sean Michael Winters, for instance, noted that he is unwilling to use the freedoms he has:

I am not Charlie. I am not as brave as the editors at that newspaper were, continuing their satire even after the death threats and after their offices were fire-bombed. To point out another obvious difference, I am not a satirist and I do not go out of my way to poke fun at other people’s religion. But, they did and – you will pardon the expression – God bless them for it.

In other words, most people even in free societies and even when writing for the wider public censor their thoughts. From deciding not to tell your wife the truth about the chair she purchased to holding your thoughts about the pastor’s sermon, we do not live in a world that allows us to say whatever we think. Some people show more caution than others, and this is of course different from governments censoring citizens. But little in the reporting yesterday suggested any awareness of the layers of free speech.

What has already emerged, however, and this will likely continue for a while, is the chance of drawing attention to the inconsistency of those who condemn these killings. For instance, Mark Tooley observes that the World Council of Churches’ statement about the deaths stands in sharp contrast to the organizations former failure to uphold freedom of speech during the Cold War:

These statements are not bad, and Tveit’s affirmation specifically of the “freedom to print and publish” is especially notable. During its darkest Cold War days of accommodating Soviet Communism and its global proxies, the WCC was often scandalously silent about the freedom to print and publish, among many other freedoms suppressed by dictatorships.

At the risk of adding to such scapegoating, I can’t help but think about the complexity of freedom of speech when it comes to talking about race in the United States or to talk in general at most of the United States colleges and universities. Peter Lawler’s post about campus dissent stands in sharp contrast to outpouring of praise for freedom of speech (folks who talk about microaggressions and social sins should take note):

Now a big difference between the Communists and today’s politically correct is that the (typically perverse) nobility of the Old Left was that it was moved by the plight of people who had little to no property. And so they wanted to use the power of government to redistribute resources from one class to another. There’s still some of that idealism on campus, and even some professors who claim that they have the duty to be socialists to counter the capitalist propaganda that they say dominates the media and so much of ordinary life in America. The genuinely throwback socialists often love liberal education, and I often think I have more in common with them than with libertarian economists, despite the fact that the astute libertarian futurists have a better handle on what the future will probably bring.

Richard Rorty complained that when the Left went from being Old to New it lost interest in the issue of economic injustice and got about the business of eliminating every trace of cruelty and indignity — all the aggressions both macro and micro — from American discourse. Justice became making everyone — rich and poor, black white, straight and gay, and so forth and so on — absolutely secure in his or her freely chosen personal identity. Some of that progress has served the cause of decency, but it’s way out of control. Because the new political correctness reaches its height of self-righteous self-consciousness on campuses, it becomes pretty much unsafe to say anything judgmental or controversial or against reigning democratic and “extreme autonomy” prejudices.

During much of the press coverage yesterday I kept wondering whether someone would step up to explain how Charlie Hebdo’s provocations had actually helped French society. After all, if you provoke people to the point where the police (public servants) need to guard your offices, you might be more of a public nuisance than a cultural asset. Then again, and I don’t know the climate of French campuses, if residents of France enjoy more freedom than their fellow republicans in the U.S. to say what they think without fear of hurting hearers’ feelings, then Charlie Hebdo may have performed a valuable service.

Postscript: Michael Sean Winters added this comment in his praise for those who died yesterday:

The values of a culture that says it is fine to behead homosexuals are worse values than those of a culture that says it is not fine to behead homosexuals. The values of a culture that seeks to keep women in third-class status are worse than the values of a culture that seeks to open opportunities for women. The values of a culture that demands adherence to a strained, fundamentalist reading of a religious text are worse than the values of a culture that acknowledges pluralism and seeks to find peaceful ways for people of different religions to live together amicably. These values are not merely different. Cultural relativism only gets you so far. Our values, our liberal values, are better. I do not have to like this cartoon or that essay, I may regret the sense of license our commitment to liberty allows and even encourages, many and deep are my reservations about the seraglio of the Enlightenment, but I would rather be a citizen of the Fifth Republic of France than a slave in territory governed by ISIS. So would everybody except the evil and the deranged.

By that logic, Winters would also likely prefer to be a citizen of a libertarian U.S. than a member of pre-modern Christendom. In fact, he acknowledges that the history of Western Christianity has not always been appealing:

Just as Catholicism has had to break from its own barbarisms, haltingly to be sure, and insist that its faith be expressed in humane ways, indeed that inhumane expressions of the our Catholic faith are a contradiction of that faith, so too must our Muslim brothers and sisters find the arguments and the ideas and the critical mass of supporters to break their faith free from these murderers who claim to act in their name. The thing that we Catholics can do, especially those of us who are not afraid to call ourselves liberals, is create relationships with humane Muslims, work with them for the common good, highlight their culture and its contributions, and encourage them as they seek to remove the cancer that is currently eating away at their religion. We can share with them the ups-and-downs of our Catholic history in this struggle, noting that sometimes those ups-and-downs occurred in the same person, as when the venerable Saint Thomas More sent heretics to the flames. History, the catalogue of humanity, is itself a great humanizing force in any culture, whether its study prepares a person for a job in the 21st century marketplace or not.

Similar reservations haunt the performance of pre-modern Protestants. In which case, those of us Christians (Roman Catholic or Protestant) who enjoy the blessings of liberty need to do a little more reflection on where those freedoms came from. That they originated at the time of the founding of the American and French republics is not a reason to suggest that medieval Christendom or confessional Europe had nothing to contribute to the legal and political outcomes of the modern West. But the Council of Trent and the Westminster Assembly did not produce the Bill of Rights for a reason. And that reason should lead every modern Christian to express some gratitude (i.e. two cheers) for the Enlightenment.

Mr. Jefferson and Gubmint

Since I am doing a lot of reading of Mencken these days, I was curious to see what the bad boy of Baltimore had to say about the Declaration of Independence and its author. The following excerpt from his review of Albert Jay Nock’s, Jefferson (1926) seems as apt these days as when Nock and Mencken first wrote about the nation’s third president. And it suggests that libertarianism, contrary to its critics, is not as bad as all that:

Of the Jeffersonian system Mr. Nock offers a clear and comprehensive account, disentaingling it from the trivialities that party history has thrown about it. The essence of it, he says, is to be found in what would be called, to-day, Jefferson’s class consciousness. He divided all mankind into two classes, the producers and the exploiters, and he was for the former first, last and all the time. But there is no consolation in the fact for for the Marxians who now rage in the world, for to Jefferson producers meant far more than mere handworkers. A manufacturer, if he made some useful thing, was also a producer, so was a large landowner, if only he worked his land; Jefferson regarded himself as a producer, and his friend Jimmie Madison as another. Living in our own time, no doubt, he would put Henry Ford in that category; Henry, in fact, put himself there, and with no little show of reason. The only genuine non-producer, in the Jefferson lexicon, was the speculator — that is to say, the bonder, the promoter, the usurer, the jobber. It was against this class that he launched all his most awful thunderbolts of invective; it was this class that he sought to upset and destroy in the ferocious and memorable campaign of 1800. His failure was colossal. Driving that class out of the executive offices and making life very warm for it in the hall of legislation, he only shoved it into the courts, and there it has survived gloriously ever since, gradually extending and consolidating its power. Since Marshall’s day the American courts have suffered many vicissitudes and entertained many heresies, but in one department, at least they have kept the faith heroically: they have always protected the virtuous and patriotic bond-holder.

That is a useful reminder of where the power in the U.S. (and the world) still resides even after the banking failures of 2008 and the federal government’s bailout and “reforms” of Wall Street. And yet, Mencken still found a kind word to say about Jefferson’s outlook:

[Jefferson] was less the foe of the Federalists than of government in general. He believed that it tended inevitably to become corrupt — that it was the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. The less there was of it, the better he liked it, and the more he trusted it. Well, that was a century ago, and wild doctrines from the barricades were still in the air. Government has now gone far beyond anything dreamed of it in Jefferson’s day. It has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a state religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. (Mencken, Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series, 448-49)

No amount of turning the magistrate into the good and Christian ruler can undo what the Psalmist sang, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”

A Trend?

Some Roman Catholics are scratching their heads about David Brat, the economics professor who defeated Eric Cantor in Virginia Congressional primaries. Brat describes himself as a Calvinist Catholic Libertarian. For some, Roman Catholicism is as incompatible with Calvinism as it is with libertarianism, though you don’t hear as much about Calvinist theology as you do about economics (except among Jason and the Callers but they are so far off the Roman Catholic reservation that they don’t count). Whether Calvinism and libertarianism are compatible is something more often assumed than proved.

Be all that as it may, one Roman Catholic writer has no trouble with Brat at Calvinist, Catholic, and Libertarian:

It’s doubtful that Brat is Catholic in the way readers of this column are likely to be Catholic. He states that he “attends” a Catholic church, St. Michael’s, but also lists other churches as “affiliations” — Christ Church Episcopal, Third Presbyterian, and Shady Grove Methodist. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Hope College, a Christian liberal arts college in Holland, Mich., which is historically affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination that sprouted during the 17th century. He earned a master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school. Perhaps Brat will clear up what these “affiliations” signify in the coming weeks.

Until then, I suggest we not get overwrought about what he means when he calls himself a “Catholic Calvinist libertarian,” even though many have been reacting with alarm.. . . I don’t know Brat. I hold no brief for him, but I am convinced that his description of himself as a Catholic Calvinist libertarian is one that most Catholics who identify themselves as “conservatives” or “on the right politically” would feel comfortable with. I include myself in that category.

I submit that Brat’s point is that he is not a doctrinaire Calvinist or economic libertarian. That is why the word “Catholic” is part of his self-designation. He is saying that he is attracted to certain positions that are taken by Calvinists and libertarians that do not clash with Catholic teaching. There are such things.

Brat is not the only so-called Calvinist on the political “right” to be worshiping on both sides of the Tiber as it were. Hugh Hewitt has also recently admitted to double-dipping liturgically. In a piece that suggests Hewitt will be leaving the PCUSA for its vote to divest of companies that do business with Israel, he also admits to going to mass on Saturdays before worshiping with Presbyterians on Sunday:

Now the PCUSA, as its members call it, has taken an official position against Israel and so I, as an elder in the PCUSA — no longer a “ruling” elder in my congregation, having wrapped up my second such stint last year — have to take a position for or against the PCUSA based on it.

Many PCUSA congregations across the country are already engaged in the process of “discerning” whether to remain within the splintering denomination, and this new assault on Israel and the virulent language employed — “occupation” — will no doubt make that process much easier for hundreds of thousands of us. If their congregations don’t leave, they will. They will not be part of the American intifada against Israel.

The PCUSA has raised its hand against Israel. So now either my congregation must depart the PCUSA or I must depart my congregation. I will not be a part, however small, in any campaign against Israel. No Christian who knows how the Church largely stood silent during the Holocaust should be. No thinking person who reads beyond the fringes of the Left would reason as this letter does. If a denomination insists on being ruled by a majority of ill-educated posers, it deserves the withering that has already set in and will now accelerate.

Strong language that, and I have never used it in any of the theological debates to date. Jesus was angry only with the Pharisees and the money-changers. . . .

It seems likely that most of the PCUSA’s General Assembly voters are wholly ignorant of most of this, being anti-intellectual as well as anti-Israel.

This is not a theological dispute. As a guy who goes to Mass on Saturday afternoon and to the PCUSA on Sunday morning, I am not easily riled over theological disputes.

One could well quibble with Hewitt about the theological dimensions of the PCUSA’s decision, especially if he had ever encountered the doctrine of the spirituality of the church during his stint as a PCUSA elder. Some, like me, would argue that for the church to take a political position — which, ahem, the PCUSA has been doing for a long time now — the church is pretending to speak for God (read minister the word) on matters about which God has remained silent. The irony, in addition, is that Israel is both a theological (think Old Testament) and (since 1948 a) political topic. So Hewitt’s attempt to separate theology (where he’s easy going) from politics (where he’s adamant) is not as easy as he might think. But why would he consider leaving a church for the wrong politics? Is the Church of the Latter Day Saints now attractive for its conservative politics or does the deity of Christ matter for church membership?

So where’s the trend? In the long run, it is the social gospel momentum of churches speaking about matters over which they have no authority. (And please note the historical coincidence of Protestants getting in the Progressive politics business at roughly the same time that Leo XIII was cultivating Roman Catholicism’s taste for social teaching.) We continue to see this trend played out 125 years later.

The short-term trend is for this social gospel mindset to blur lines that used to keep Calvinists and Roman Catholics apart. Granted, Evangelicals and Catholics together is almost two decades old now, but Calvinists were a pretty small piece of that effort unless you want to count Chuck Colson’s Kuyperianism. But now with Calvinism’s popularity, it’s possible for political candidates and pundits to have it all.

Is this a pretty good country or what!

Who Says the U.S. Lacks a Religious Establishment?

From Dwight Eisenhower’s December 22, 1952 speech as president-elect before the Freedoms Foundation’s directors:

I had a friend, a man who really turned out to be quite a good friend, and who suffered for it. His name was Marshal Zhukov, of the Red Army. In fact, his later disgrace came about because of the fact that he was supposed to be too good a friend of mine; . . . We used to talk about the bases of our respective forms of government, our civilizations.

One day he put me back on my heels with the statement: “of course, we have difficulty in promulgating our theory, because we appealed to the idealistic in man and you appeal to all that is materialistic and selfish. We tell a man that he is not to work for his own special rights, for his own privilege and the opportunity of indulging himself in anything from religious worship to earning and saving our property and giving it to his children. We appeal to something higher and nobler,” he said. “We tell him his only glory is in the glory of the body, of the whole group, the entirety of the organism to which you belong. Therefore, we say, don’t worry about earning money. Don’t worry about worldly advancement. Work for the Soviet Union. Work for Russia. That,” he said, “is what we have to say. But you tell a man, ‘why you can do as you please, and there are really no restrictions on the individual.’ So you are appealing to all that is selfish.”

I must say that in just a matter of immediate dialectic contest, let’s say, I didn’t know exactly what to say to him, because my only definition was what I believed to be the basic one, the basic reason for its existence. I know it would do no good to appeal to him with it, because it is founded in religion. And since at the age of 14 he had been taken over by the Bolshevik religion and had believed in it since that time, I was quite certain it was hopeless on my part to talk to him about the fact that our form of government is founded in religion.

Our ancestors who formed this Government said in order to explain it, you remember that, that a decent respect for the opinion of mankind impels them to declare the reasons which led to the separation [between the American colonies and Britain] and this is how they explained those: “We hold that all men are endowed by their Creator . . . .” Not by the accident of birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but “all men are endowed by their creator.” In other words, our form of Government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. . . .

Now, it seems to me that if we are going to win this fight we have got to go back to the very fundamentals of all things. And one of them is that we are a religious people.

This is the speech often quoted for its inane remark about the importance of religion combined with indifference to the specific religion. But in the context of the Cold War and a struggle between an ideology that was explicitly atheistic, materialist, and collectivist, Eisenhower’s recognition of theism’s value, even as confused as it is, makes some sense. His point specifically about theism and personal freedom is a point that not only evolutionists might need to hear, but also Christian critics of the West who blame notions of political freedom for the selfishness and decadence that afflicts the United States. If the choice is between the Soviet communism or Christendom dominated by Holy Roman Emperor and infallible bishop, I’ll stand with Ike. Freedom has its flaws. But it keeps the free on their toes. Autocracy doesn’t leave much room for correction, nor does group think.

If Theonomy, Then No Machen (or United States)

The folks who lament the decadence of the contemporary West most (who also happen to be some of the biggest whiners about 2k) seem to think that a return to God’s law in the United States would fix our social and political woes. Aside from the problem of finding unregenerate citizens who will follow God’s law, these law lovers do not grasp a fundamental point of U.S. legal and political life (and this may explain why the so-called Religious Right is so easily ridiculed).

For Americans, as well as the Brits before them, law is not simply the embodiment of God’s moral standards. Laws against stealing and perjury do, of course, reflect God’s righteousness. But legal documents like the venerated Constitution are not primarily about morality. They are primarily procedural. Such laws place limits on government. The Constitution, for instance, prescribes and limits the powers of each branch of the federal government. Such restraints are at the heart of the Anglo-American notion of liberty, namely, the idea that people need to be protected from arbitrary and despotic power. To enjoy a life free from a potentially coercive government, we as a people drew up a body of laws that were designed not to constrain the actions of individuals but to prescribe the power of the magistrate. Placing limits on the government for the sake of civil and religious liberties is at the heart of libertarianism and is a major theme in J. Gresham Machen’s thought and political activities. (Whether or not he was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he was sympathetic to the ACLU, a sympathy that would drive the likes of Doug Wilson and Greg Bahnsen batty).

Those who want more of God’s law in public life do not appear to understand this basic aspect of civil society in the U.S. They seem to think that if God’s moral standards are on their side, they have the power, duty, and right to make sure that the rest of Americans know that they are deserving God’s wrath. They also apparently believe they have responsibility to condemn the state if it fails to enforce God’s law, hence the double-down point about the magistrate’s duty to require observance of both tables of the law.

That argument about both tables of the law is almost entirely at odds with the American notion that law restrains government from exercising power unspecified in the Constitution. It also runs up against the legal tradition of assuming an accused citizen’s innocence until proven guilty. Just because we “know” someone broke the law doesn’t mean that district attorneys and police are free from following the laws that keep us from being a police state. In fact, the appeal to God’s law by some culture warriors has the flavor of vigilantism, that is, taking the law into their own hands. The problem for theonomists and other moral breast beaters is not simply that they don’t have power to execute God’s law. They also don’t seem to understand that the “rule of law” as we understand it in the United States actually prevents government from enforcing a whole host of laws, including God’s.

Even Presbyterian books of discipline reflect this other rule of law — not the embodiment of God’s morality but the protection from arbitrary power. The OPC’s book ensures that those accused will receive a hearing and not be found guilty of violating God’s law simply on the basis of an individual’s complaint:

3. Every charge of an offense must: (a) be in written form, (b) set forth the alleged offense, (c) set forth only one alleged offense, (d) set forth references to applicable portions of the Word of God, (e) set forth, where pertinent, references to applicable portions of the confessional standards, (f) set forth the serious character of the offense which would demonstrate the warrant for a trial.

Each specification of the facts relied upon to sustain the charge must: (a) be in written form, (b) declare as far as possible, the time, place, and circumstances of the alleged offense, (c) be accompanied with the names of any witnesses and the titles of documents, records, and recordings to be produced.

4. Offenses are either public or private. Public offenses are those which are commonly known. Private offenses are those which are known to an individual only, or, at most, to a very few individuals. Private offenses may or may not be personal, a personal private offense being one which involves injury to the person bringing the charge.

5. No charge of a personal private offense shall be admitted unless the judicatory has assured itself that the person bringing the charge has faithfully followed the course set forth in Matthew 18:15-17; nor shall a charge of a private offense which is not personal be admitted unless it appears that the plaintiff has first done his utmost privately to restore the alleged offender. However, even in the case of public offenses, it is not wrong to seek reconciliation in terms of Matthew 18:15-17 or Matthew 5:21-26 or Galatians 6:1. (chapter 3)

Maybe the Anglo-American tradition of law and constitutional liberties is wrong (though it finds expression in Presbyterian government). Maybe the West if fundamentally flawed and should follow political patterns and traditions established by the Persians and Turks. Or maybe theonoomy and the original Reformed confessions’ teachings about the magistrate lost when the Reformed and Presbyterian churches embraced the politics associated with a certain eighteenth-century republic founded in North America.