Looks Like Trump is Sufjan’s Choice for POTUS

Mark Tooley reports that Sufjan Stevens opposes Christian nationalism:

Musician Sufjan Stevens blogged last week about politics and faith, decrying the parochialism of American Christianity while unconsciously offering his own brand of uniquely American impatient individualism.

The blog was republished in The Washington Post online, headlined “Stop repeating the heresy of declaring the United States a ‘Christian nation.’”

“You cannot pledge allegiance to a nation state and its flag and the name of God, for God has no political boundary,” according to Stevens. “God is love, period. God is universal, nameless, faceless, and with no allegiance to anything other than love.” He added: “A ‘Christian Nation’ is absolutely heretical. Christ did not come into this world to become a modifier. Look what happened to the Holy Roman Empire.”

That’s why President Trump’s failure to use religion to sacralize national purpose must be an encouragement to all who reject arguments that make American a Christian nation. John Fea notes that POTUS may be a blessing for mainline Protestants who edit Christian Century:

Theologians have long been wary or dismissive of civil religion, noting that it often functions as a rival religion to authentic faith—it’s a brand of Christian heresy. Civil religion borrows Christian themes but celebrates the stories and martyrs of the nation rather than the church and treats the nation rather than the church as the vehicle of God’s purposes. As such, especially in times of war, American civil religion has been an invitation to hubris and self-righteousness; it can cloak mundane self-interest in religious garb.

Yet because civil religion claims a transcendent purpose for the nation, it has also offered a basis for judging the nation’s failures and spurring it to reform. Because the nation has claimed high ideals for itself, it has invited a moral critique. It was in that tradition that Martin Luther King Jr. blended biblical ethics with democratic principles to condemn racial segregation as a betrayal of the nation’s creed of equality for all. It is in that tradition that protesters took to the streets in recent weeks to insist that the United States fulfill its promise to be a beacon of freedom to refugees from all lands and religions.

Christians have no ultimate stake in the survival of American civil religion. Its demise under Trump could conceivably encourage the church to claim and assert its distinct identity apart from the rhetoric of American politics. Yet insofar as the demise of American civil religion spells the contraction of moral imagination and the loss of a horizon of moral judgment and aspiration, it is hardly a development that Christians can cheer. The collapse of a Chris­tian heresy can lead to things that are far worse.

Just like the broken clock that is right two times each day, every Christian is going to have a 2k moment sometime in her life.

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Blame Trump on the Mainline

So argues Mark Tooley:

Neither Sanders nor Trump would have been possible or even conceivable as serious presidential candidates during the decades of Mainline Protestant hegemony in American public life.

Excluding JFK, all presidents (including Unitarians) have had ties to Mainline Protestants, who shaped America’s political ethos for most of four centuries. Mainline Protestantism helped create American civil religion, a broad vaguely Protestant view of God that permitted all religious groups, including Catholics and Jews, to fully participate in public life without having to minimize their own religious convictions.

American democracy consequently remained very religious but also non-theocratic, tolerant and diverse, with all sects invested in America’s affirmation of religious liberty.

Through the mid-20th century, Mainline Protestantism provided the political language and ethical tools for governance and accommodation, especially for the great reform movements that expanded human equality. The Civil Rights Movement was perhaps Mainline Protestantism’s last great moral crusade, redeeming its earlier failures to address slavery and segregation.

But the great Mainline Protestant membership and wider cultural collapse began in the early 1960s. Then, one of six Americans belonged to the seven largest Mainline denominations. Today, fewer than one of 16 do.

Tooley fails to ask whether that political hegemony came with the price of theological modernism? After all, to maintain your place in the establishment, you can’t be vigorous about the particulars of your religious communion.

Tooley goes on to observe a certain tackiness among evangelicals:

Evangelicalism, lacking that magisterial heritage, is less self-confident, often uncomfortable with political power, is prone to extremes and often highly individualistic, impatient with human institutions.

These same handicaps plague even more the world of the religiously unaffiliated, who often lack the traditions, formal human communities, ethical tools and moral vocabulary for governance. They are especially vulnerable to the impulse of the moment.

So, if the the downfall of the mainline paved the way for Trump, how much more the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church which paved the way for magisterial reformers?

I'm Thankful for Tracy McKenzie

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. A four-day weekend, a big meal, no gifts, a day to sleep off excessive consumption, and a meal that has lots of carbs. What’s not to like (and what wine do you pair with carbs)? But of course, the pressure is on to be thankful in a special way, as if I’m ungrateful or not sufficiently thankful the rest of the year. Not to go all New Calvinist, but I am in the habit of praying prayers of gratitude at least five times a day — more on Sunday.

So can’t we just enjoy this day without an extra dollop of piety? In these religiously charged times, no. In fact, Thanksgiving becomes a way to reinforce the meme of religious liberty and Christians creation of it:

More than any other group globally, Christians are under threat and restriction by many tyrannical regimes and violent ideologies. Our prayers this Thanksgiving must remember them.

The Pilgrim escape to New England emblematizes the centuries-long quest for liberty to worship God without coercion, a liberty that hundreds of millions from different faiths in our world do not have.

The feast celebrated by Pilgrims and Indians also models a transcultural and transracial harmony possible by divine grace and good will. May we always honor their persevering faith and continue today the quest for liberty under God for all people.

That’s why Tracy McKenzie’s reconstruction of the actual history of the Pilgrims is so valuable. He cuts through the sanctity and civil religion and shows how accidental history is:

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

The Pilgrims had their circumstances. We have ours. Cut me another piece of pie.

Window Shut?

When asked about the need for the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” So how can it be that the new encyclical, Laudao Si, may be an indication that the Roman church is shutting the window that Pope John opened? How especially could a seemingly open, affable, and loose pope like Francis, function as a brake on progress in the church?

Just this morning I was reading Colleen McDannell’s fine book, The Spirit of Vatican II, a reflection on McDannell’s mother and the changes that she witnessed in her pre- and post-Vatican II life. Here is part of McDannell’s account of Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

Given that God acted within the world and not against it, people learned his mysterious designs by studying not only society but nature as well. The Constitution admitted that science and technology could foster a detached orientation toward matter that encouraged the denial of God’s involvement in life, but this need not be the case. Conducted in the correct spirit, science and technology could greatly improve the conditions of humanity. Science as well as philosophy, history, mathematics, and the arts served to elevate humanity to a “more sublime understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty.” (111-12)

The church, in other words, was opening up to the modern world of science and technology, and trying to avoid an overt association with things medieval.

Such openness is not how some are reading yesterday’s encyclical. Rusty Reno, for instance, thinks Pope Francis has impersonated William F. Buckley, Jr., and has stood up to yell “STOP” to the modern world:

Commentators are sure to make the false claim that Pope Francis has aligned the Church with modern science. They’ll say this because he endorses climate change. But that’s a superficial reading of Laudato Si. In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era.

Francis describes the root of our problem as a failure to affirm God as Creator. Because we do not orient our freedom toward acknowledging God, the Father, we’re drawn into the technological project. We seek to subdue and master the world so that it can serve our needs and desires, thus treating “other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination.” By contrast, if we acknowledge God as Creator, we can receive creation as a gift and see that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not found in us.”

In short, without a theocentric orientation, we adopt the anthropocentric presumption that we are at the center of reality. This tempts us to treat nature—and other human beings—as raw material to do with as we wish. For Francis, “a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable.”

Of course, God is exactly what modernity has forgotten, which means that it too is “not acceptable”—exactly Pius IX’s conclusion. The Syllabus of Errors is exquisitely succinct. Laudato Si is verbose. But in a roundabout way Francis makes his own case against the modern world.

Mark Tooley seconds Reno and wonders whether we will have to give up air conditioners after Pope Francis is finished:

The new papal encyclical addressing climate change comes as I’m having central air conditioning installed in my Northern Virginia home. Likely I’m one of the last people in the notoriously muggy Washington, DC area not to have it. For nine years since purchasing my current home, which is 75 years old with radiator heat, I’ve postponed installation, trying to pretend it wasn’t needed, relying on overhead fans, window and floor units. After all, I largely grew up in the 1970s without it. My parents’ home didn’t have it (until after my brother and I moved out!). Neither did my elementary school. Central air was experienced in grocery stores, movie theaters, public libraries, and my grandparents’ house.

Currently I’m out of town, in pleasantly temperate Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending an Acton Institute conference on faith and free markets. But I can’t wait to get home and experience my new central air conditioning.

Interestingly, the new papal encyclical warns against air conditioning as a supposed contributor to climate change:

55. Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.

Ironically, a Slate.com column, which praises the papal encyclical as “more like a poetry slam at an Occupy Wall Street rally than a formal church document,” notes that in poor countries like India air conditioning is becoming a “human rights” issue:

An estimated 300 million people there—one-quarter of the country—has no access to electricity at all. Just last month the country endured the fifth-deadliest heat wave in world history. In India air conditioning is increasingly becoming a human rights issue. This is what the pope is talking about when he discusses climate change and poverty in the same breath.

But in fact the papal encyclical implies that Indians should go without air conditioning, and electricity for that matter, as 300 million joining the grid ostensibly would heat the planet. Despite rhetoric about renewables, the provision of electricity to the 1.3 billion in the world currently without it primarily requires more fossil fuel powered electrical generators. African and Asian countries are busily building mostly coal powered plants.

Should we in the wealthy West tell the 1.3 billion that they should live permanently without electricity? Many hundreds of millions more have unreliable sources of electricity. And most people globally have no air conditioning. Would they be wrong for wanting it?

Just at the time I need to open the window to let in a breeze, Pope Francis closes it.

Why Aren't More Americans Gospel Allies?

According to a recent Pew survey:

Americans are more religious and Americans are more hopeful about their ability to improve their future than are other wealthy countries.

Americans are more prone to think hard work will uplift, to reject thinking that outside forces control their destinies, to be happy and to prioritize religion. Over half of Americans say religion is very important to them, twice the rate found among Canadians, Australians, British and other wealthy nations.

In fact, Americans have more confidence that hard work will uplift than any other country. And Americans reject fatalism more than any country than, interestingly, Venezuela, which is perhaps Venezuelans subversively rejecting the nonsense rhetoric of their socialist regime.

Wait, the findings even have Calvinists in view:

Fifty-seven percent of Americans disagree with the statement “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” a considerably higher percentage than the global median of 38%. Similarly, Americans place an especially strong emphasis on the value of hard work – 73% think it is very important to work hard to get ahead in life, compared with a global median of 50%.

According to Mark Tooley:

Such confidence in hard work in America obviously reflects the undying Puritan work ethic, still strong after 400 years, and reinforced by countless waves of ambitious immigrants. As to rejecting “forces outside our control,” this American trait is also rooted in historic Puritan/Anglo Protestant confidence about providential mastery over the future. Calvinists may have believed in predestination but not determinism or passivity. Americans, even the non-religious, are culturally embued with a notion of individual and national purposefulness.

In other words, Americans are ripe for the New Calvinism that the Gospel Coalition promotes. Why doesn’t anyone ask what the Allies are doing wrong? Is Kathy’s b-s detector using all the electricity?

Calvinism Envy

Mark Tooley wishes Methodists were more like Calvinists. (H.L. Mencken couldn’t tell a difference when it came to Prohibition and World War I.)

Calvinists are sometimes mocked but they do have their own élan. These determined people endured the flames, created their own cosmology, generated revolutions, crossed oceans, conquered virgin lands, built civilizations, and writ themselves large across history. Calvinism inspired literature, art, work ethics, and systems of governance. Theirs is a world of fire and drama. Think John Knox, Oliver Cromwell, Jonathan Edwards, Rembrandt, Hester Prynne wearing the brand of her Scarlet Letter, Woodrow Wilson, George C. Scott in “Hardcore,” or a bewhiskered Francis Schaeffer in his lederhosen traipsing about the Alps. They may not always be easily lovable but they must command respect. Theirs is a firm, unflinching identity.

As a Methodist, I’m jealous of the Calvinists. . . . Where’s the drama in Methodism? Methodists typically are amiable people, earnest, quiet, dutiful, often colorless, diligent but not renowned for intellectual rigor, art, literature or political theory. Methodism transformed Britain, shaped America, and has influenced the world. It fostered education, charity, philanthropy, a democratic ethos, and social reform. But Methodism doesn’t easily spark the electricity that Calvinism often has. Instead it evokes images of potluck suppers, hymn sings and ice cream socials. Very nice.

In point of fact, Methodism did once spark experimental, culture-transforming Protestantism with the best of the Edwardseans. The problem was that it cooled off the way most movements do when they organize and form structures. Then Wesleyanism needed the kick of Holiness (read Nazarenes) or a second dollop of the Holy Spirit (read Pentecostals) to reignite the fire.

The source of Tooley’s envy is John Piper’s recent poem, The Calvinist, set to video. (The sort of financing, planning, and producing that go into even a small video like this do tend to sap the vigor of even Piper’s earnestness.) Here are a few lines:

See him on his knees,
Hear his constant pleas:
Heart of ev’ry aim:
“Hallowed be Your name.”

See him in the Word,
Helpless, cool, unstirred,
Heaping on the pyre
Heed until the fire.

See him with his books:
Tree beside the brooks,
Drinking at the root
Till the branch bear fruit.

It won’t rival Horatio Bonar, so why did it turn Tooley’s head? It likely goes back to the way that Puritanism has dominated the English-speaking world’s idea of Calvinism. And of course, no Protestant group, not even those world-changers, the Dutch-American Calvinists, can rival the way that the Puritans continue to enrapture and repel.

But if Tooley wants to see a different strain of Calvinism, one less exceptionalist and more restrained, he only needs to visit any congregation of the OPC. There he will find pot-fatalist suppers, hymn sings, and even the avoidance of stimulants (e.g., grape juice). That’s not a put down or a recommendation. It is (what it is) a communion Christ founded.