Where Taking a Knee and Taking a Life Differ

Reporters and academics appealing to the Bible – have we gone back to Christian America? To see arguments over the Bible’s meaning that implicitly accept its authority is mildly amusing if only because the whole endeavor is so patently selective. Do reporters ever write stories about the Fourth Commandment and Christians playing in the NFL? They might if it turned out the chaplains running devotionals for football teams were part of President Trump’s team of religious advisers.

Anyway, the recent kerfuffle over Romans 13, political authority, and immigrants was another window into the weird world of Donald Trump. At Slate, Ruth Graham wrote about Jeff Session’s invocation of Romans 13 to explain law enforcement — as in, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Of course, she threw in for bad measure opposition to the American founding (from John MacArthur), defense of slavery, and submission to Hitler as further examples of Romans 13 interpretation. She does not consider that pitchers batting in the National League, submitting tax forms by April 15, or using physicians licensed by the state as other instances of honoring civil government and the rule of law.

Still, the stunner in the piece was the idea that martyrdom only made sense if Christians refused to honor and obey the law:

Romans 13 goes on to command the early church to “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Arbo pointed out the importance of the clause about giving what is owed, which allows for the possibility that some authorities are not owed honor and respect. “If Sessions’ interpretation of Romans 13 were followed, it would render martyrdom meaningless,” he said. “If the Christian were always in every instance to honor the authority’s command then as a result there would never be an instance of dying for allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

I understand that part of what makes martyrdom possible is refusing to obey the law. A Christian may not disobey God to submit to Caesar, though the rationale for disobedience may not be as straightforward as the civil disobedient thing.

Still, the kicker is that martyrdom also makes no sense unless the state has the authority to execute those who disobey and uses it. You may refuse to bow before the emperor’s statue and the authorities decide not to prosecute you. If the United States required standing for the National Anthem, Colin Kaepernick would have been guilty of breaking the law. But for him to become a martyr, the state needs to use its bearing-the-sword authority to execute law breakers. Also required is that Kaepernick submit to death, another way that someone may honor the state and submit to law. Defiance does not simply make someone a martyr. Running away from executioners . . . . well, you get the point.

So as much as the administration’s opponents might like to think that this government is dishonorable, they need to see that only if the executive branch has legitimate power and uses it will those who defy it become martyrs.

From Duck Dynasty to Kim Davis to Fixer Upper

Matt Walsh does his impersonation of Perpetua:

Chip and Joanna Gaines became a target because they are, by all accounts, devout Christians. That’s the only reason. If they were not Christian, or if they had a reputation for being the unserious, heretical, “progressive” sort of Christians, they wouldn’t be under fire. That’s why, as many people have already observed, Muslims and members of other faiths that also reject gay marriage don’t receive the same scrutiny. Progressives don’t hate Muslims. They hate Christians. They hate Christians for being Christian, and for no other reason.

It’s not just about gay marriage or abortion or any other specific issue. They hate Christianity because it is Christianity. They hate it simply for being true, just as Christ was crucified simply for being God. Those who hate truth and hate God will lash out at the closest things to Him. When they had the chance to get their hands on Him in the flesh, they beat Him, whipped Him, and nailed Him to a cross. But now that they are deprived of the opportunity to crucify Christ directly, they must settle for the second best target: you. This is the price that Truth must pay when it enters into a fallen world. And those of us who profess and believe the Truth will pay our own price, even if it is not nearly so brutal.

We should only be worried if we aren’t being made to pay the price. If we get along just fine every day, at our jobs, with our friends, out in the world, and nobody ever insults us, or tries to hurt us, or plots to undermine us and destroy our reputations, then we ought to take that as a hint that we aren’t living our faith openly enough.

So whenever I upset my wife it’s because I’ve achieved holiocity? What a great excuse. And martyrdom sure trumps victimhood.

2K Threatens Defenders of Christendom the Way Christianity Threatened the Roman Empire

Doing a little reading on the motives for Roman authorities to persecute the early church, I was struck by parallels to contemporary criticisms of 2k from the likes of neo-Calvinists, theonomists, or those who pine for Christendom or Christian America. According to Robert Wilken:

Traditional Roman religion emphasized the utilitas (usefulness) of religious belief for the well-being of the commonwealth, the res publica. Hence, it has been easy, especially for a civilization nurtured on the “personal” religion of Christianity, to assume that the Romans did not actually believe in the gods, but rather deemed belief in the gods merely advantageous to the life of society and to the state. . . .

In the cities of the Roman Empire, religion was inextricably intertwined with social and political life. Piety toward the gods was thought to insure the well-being of the city, to promote a spirit of kinship and mutual responsibility, to bind together the citizenry. “In all probability,” wrote Cicero, “disappearance of piety toward the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.” In the most profound sense, then, impiety toward the gods disrupted society, and when piety disappears, said Cicero, “life soon becomes a welter of disorder and confusion.”

By the standards of the individual and personal religion familiar to most Westerners, it is difficult for us to appreciate the social and public character of Roman religion. But “separation of the concept of piety into a familiar and a cultic half is clearly a product of modern sensibilities; in antiquity piety formed a unity.” For the Romans, religion sustained the life of the state. The new Christian superstition undermined it.

Isn’t that what 2kers regularly hear from their critics, that 2k relegates Christianity to the private and personal sphere when Christianity really should be part of the social order, a mechanism for protecting the well-being of society? But that is precisely what Christianity’s critics saw in Christianity. Which suggests that anti-2kers are using pagan categories for evaluating 2k, not ones that the first Christians new.

Wilken concludes:

By the beginning of the fourth century Christianity was a large and influential social and religious force within Roman society, no longer a tiny, unknown foreign sect. Yet from the perspective of Roman officials Christians remained a people apart. They contributed little to the public life of society, and by their devotion to their own deity, Jesus of Nazareth, they undermined the religious foundations of the cities in which they lived.

Again, that sounds a lot like what 2kers hear from their critics. We don’t speak up in the public square. Our faith is irrelevant. Our understanding of Christianity undermines the cause of Christ in the United States (and elsewhere).

If I were a critic of 2k, I’m not sure I’d want to be on the side of an argument that Roman emperors and officials used to persecute and execute Christians.

And the Rockets Red Glare

So much so that the brightness blinds.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (doing things that would have driven Leo XIII bonkers) is in the midst of rallying Rome’s faithful for another all out defense of religious liberty. As a registered Libertarian Party member (have I ever voted for a Libertarian, I don’t know), who am I to take issue with another communion’s defense of liberty? But as a registered church historian, I am having trouble making sense of the Bishops’ call (which I believe is different from Jason and the Callers’ call).

First, this fortnight coincides with the feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher. Here’s how Timothy Cardinal Dolan explains it:

Our two weeks begin tomorrow, June 21, and include moving feasts, such as June 22, the feast of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, both martyrs in England as they prophetically defended the rights of the Church against intrusion by the crown; June 24, the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, the one who defended God’s law to a tyrant and lost his head because of his courage; and, of course, Independence Day.

I understand that evangelical Protestants are not as knowledgeable of church history as they should be, but to bring up More and Fisher is to court some of the old antagonisms that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics. Not that evangelicals would be comfortable supporting the English monarchy, but neither were George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards forerunners of the kind of evangelical-Roman Catholic co-belligerency kicked off by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In which case, at a time when the bishops want to support religious freedom more generally, why invoke saints executed by Protestants or bring back memories of times when Protestants and Roman Catholics both advocated religious freedom but for the sake of excluding the other side (I believe we call that religious suppression)?

Second, invoking martyrs has the effect of making contemporary believers’ look ungrateful (for the blessings of religious liberty) and their pligths look pretty tame. Cardinal Dolan highlights the following as instances of “challenges to religious liberty”:

The HHS mandate, which presumes to intrude upon the very definition of faith and ministry, and could cause believers to violate their consciences

Impending Supreme Court rulings that could redefine marriage, which will present a host of difficulties to institutions and people who stand on their faith-based understanding of authentic marriage as between one man and one woman

Proposed legislation at the national and state levels that would expand abortion rights, legalize assisted suicide, restrict immigrants from full participation in society, and limit the ability of Church agencies to provide humanitarian services

Government intrusion into the rights and duties of parents regarding their children

Overt persecution of believers in many countries of the world

All of these are matters for concern, but in the context of martyrdom they seem trivial. One might argue that these sorts of threats to religious liberty are the road to martyrdom, but that would take a conspiratorial w-w. On the other side, one could also argue that this is part of the bargain that religious believers make with modern liberalism — we don’t get our way on how the government should rule or how our neighbors should live but we get to worship our maker and keep our lives. I suspect Christians in Iran and Egypt would take that deal.

Third, the bishops’ understanding of religious liberty is a historical bait-and-switch. On the one hand, they invoke the founders of the U.S. (fine), but then on the other hand bring up the nation’s anti-Catholic Protestant past without identifying Protestants (smart move) but pinning the blame on government (Roman Catholics used to have a higher view of government than Protestants):

Historically, what have been significant religious liberty issues affecting Catholics in our country?

Equal treatment of Catholic Schools: Catholicism was introduced to the English colonies with the founding of the Province of Maryland by Jesuit settlers from England in 1634. However, the 1646 defeat of the Royalists in the English Civil War led to stringent laws against Catholic education and the extradition of known Jesuits from Maryland, as well as the destruction of the school they founded. During the greater part of the Maryland colonial period, Jesuits continued to conduct Catholic schools clandestinely. The American Revolution brought historic changes, and in 1782, Catholics in Philadelphia opened St. Mary’s School, considered the first parochial school in the U.S. In 1791, the ratification of the Bill of Rights, with the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, helped Catholics further cement the establishment of Catholic schools.

Regardless, anti-Catholic sentiment in the late nineteenth century led to opposition to parochial schools. State governments opposed providing funds to aid students attending parochial schools, which Catholics founded largely in response to the requirement to pray and read from Protestant Bibles in public schools. Some Members of Congress attempted to block all government aid to religiously affiliated schools with the proposed “Blaine Amendment” in 1875. This constitutional amendment was never ratified at the federal level, but many state legislatures adopted similar legislation and amendments. Those “little Blaine” amendments are still in place in the constitutions of about thirty-seven states, and still operate to block Catholic school students from equal participation in government educational benefits.

Anti-Catholic bigotry in presidential campaigns: During the 1884 presidential campaign, candidate James G. Blaine (who proposed the “Blaine Amendment” in Congress) attended a meeting in a church in New York at which a minister chided those who had left the Republican Party by stating, “We don’t propose to leave our party and identify with the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine sat quietly during the anti-Catholic remark. The scene was reported widely in the press, and it cost Blaine in the election, particularly in New York City.

During the 1928 presidential campaign, Al Smith, a Catholic who had been elected governor of New York three times, was the Democratic candidate for president. It is widely believed that Smith’s Catholic beliefs played a key role in his loss of the 1928 presidential election, as anti-Catholic sentiment among the electorate was strong. Many feared that Smith would answer to the pope and not the constitution if elected president.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism became a major issue in the election. Like Al Smith, Kennedy faced charges that he would “take orders from the Pope” and could not uphold the oath of office.

Establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican: In the first years of the United States, the new Republic had contacts with the Papal States. However, in 1867, Congress prohibited the financing of any diplomatic post to the Papal authority. This began a period of over seventy years when the U.S. did not have a diplomatic representative to the Pope, coinciding with a period of strong anti-Catholicism in the U.S. In 1940, President Roosevelt sent a “personal representative” to the Pope who served for ten years. However, when President Truman nominated an ambassador to the Vatican in 1951, opposition mounted, and President Truman abandoned the effort. Presidents Nixon and Carter sent personal representatives to the Vatican. In 1984, President Reagan announced that full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Vatican had been established, and the U.S. has continued to send ambassadors to the Vatican since then.

I hardly approve of this anti-Catholic bigotry in a nation that was supposed to be open to all faiths, but it is a strange narrative of U.S. history that begins with the founders notions of religious liberty (who were opposed to priestcraft and superstition — read Roman Catholicism) and then moves to the devilish ways (without naming them) that Protestants, who also defended religious liberty (and also opposed priestcraft and superstition), mistreated Roman Catholics. When Ray Nothstine writes that “Recapturing the fullness of religious liberty in America will require . . . a fundamental shift in how we view God and man and his relationship to the state,” he may want to consider how a theologically conservative view of God and man was responsible for Protestants and Roman Catholics persecuting each other.

Carl Trueman recently warned about the host of ways that mythologizing politics or religion polarizes the world. He is certainly right to argue that the religious right is not alone guilty of myth-making. At the same time, mythologizing religious liberty obscures how good our times are compared to those when church members actually died for their faith at the hands of members from the rival church. Not to mention that it obscures the rivalry that still exists (spiritually, not temporally) between those churches.

Update: Some Roman Catholics aren’t purchasing the bargain.