Sanctification Signaling

Big Green Letters is piling on with niceness. Not only has Jared Wilson repeated the charge that Calvinists are mean, but Ray Ortlund re-quotes John Newton’s oft-cited comments about how to pursue controversy with love. (Justin Taylor may be the first Green Letter to appeal to Newton.)

But here’s the thing that Big Green Letters don’t seem to consider — that the pursuit of nice often ignores both sides of a disagreement. It opts for the third way without really sorting out what’s right and wrong in the controverted issues. Which means, that love or nice is its own sort of polemical meanness because in taking no side and offering no alternative except to say “love” or “be nice,” it ignores the people and principles in view. Imagine doing that in a dispute between a wife and a teenage son over mowing the grass. The dad says, “love each other.”

Sure.

This side of Big Green Letters, this religious affectionism, is what makes evangelicals (even those who think they are Calvinist) so unreliable either in ecclesiastical or civil matters. Liel Liebovitz picked up on this in the spat between Sohrab Ahmari and David French over virtue and the current POTUS:

To put it briefly, the Never Trump argument is that they should be greatly approved of, while Donald Trump should rightly be scorned, because—while they agree with Trump on most things, politically—they are devoted to virtue, while Trump is uniquely despicable. The proofs of Trump’s singular loathsomeness are many, but if you strip him of all the vices he shares with others who had recently held positions of power—a deeply problematic attitude towards women (see under: Clinton, William Jefferson), shady business dealings (see under: Clinton, Hillary Rodham), a problematic attitude towards the free press (see under: Obama, Barack)—you remain with one ur-narrative, the terrifying folk tale that casts Trump as a nefarious troll dispatched by his paymasters in the Kremlin to set American democracy ablaze.

By analogy, The Big Green Letters supposedly agree with “mean” Calvinists about Christianity and church ministry (actually they don’t but go along, please), but want to hold themselves up as the party of sanctification because they don’t fight the way “mean” Calvinists do. But what if Big Green Letters had had a little more fight or agreed more with “mean” Calvinists when deliberating about whether to grant a Big Letter to Mark Driscoll, C. J. Mahaney, and James MacDonald?

It gets worse (thanks to Liebovitz) and points to the follow-the-money argument that Carl Trueman has made:

French and the other self-appointed guardians of civility, then, should do us all a favor and drop the civic virtue act. They’re not disinterested guardians of our public institutions; they are actors, working in an industry that rewards them for dressing up in Roman Republican drag and reciting Cicero for the yokels. This is why Bill Kristol, another of the Never Trumpers, could raise money for his vanity website, The Bulwark, and why he could expect his new creation be lauded on CNN as “a conservative site unafraid to take on Trump,” even as the site was staffed by leftist millennials and dutifully followed progressive propaganda lines. Like anyone whose living depends on keeping on the right side of a leftist industry, they understood that there’s only so much you can say if you care about cashing a paycheck—especially when the president and leader of your own party won’t take your phone calls.

The Never Trumpers, of course, aren’t the first Americans to hide cold careerism behind a wall of virtue-signaling. It’s why so many in the professional punditry went the way of Never Trump: More than anything else, the decision to align oneself with a movement that, ontologically, vows to reject the president a priori, no matter what he might say or do, regardless of your own supposed political beliefs, is a way of affirming one’s professional class loyalties, thus ensuring that your progeny will still be accepted and acceptable at Yale.

A YUGE part of Big Green Letters’ brand is nice. It increases hits at the website, registrations at conferences, sales of books, size of celebrity. In which case, if the New Calvinists really want to follow John Newton’s example and practice their niceness within the boundaries of a Christian communion like the Church of England rather than turning nice Calvinism into a movement.

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You’ve Heard it Said that Calvinists are Mean

But I say to you, #woke Calvinists are meaner.

Here’s what one wrote recently:

Recent books such as Jemar Tisby’s “The Color of Compromise” highlight that there is incontrovertible proof that theologically conservative Christians historically created, protected and benefited from racially unjust practices and ideologies. Research has shown how the Reformed tradition in the United States has a dark history of defending slaveholding and advocating for segregation in our churches and Christian schools.

Princeton Theological Seminary, once the flagship institution of the Reformed tradition in the United States, has a well-documented history of employing faculty members who ardently defended slaveholding in their teaching and ministry and took significant donations from slave-related enterprises.

One of these faculty members, J. Gresham Machen, who went on to found the OPC and Westminster Theological Seminary, brought complaints to his fellow faculty members when a black student was assigned to live in seminary dormitories with white students.

Other writers, such as Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, in “Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”, show how racism and white supremacy are a present reality in the church. The experience of many people of color in Reformed churches can further attest that our churches are no exception.

Within our churches, there is a general pushback against charging Christians with dismantling racism. The fear of white supremacy is considered to be overblown, and talking about racism is equated with progressive theology outside of the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. We’ve failed to combat white supremacy with the urgency and seriousness it deserves.

Not only has the assertion that President Trump is a racist become an axiom of American math, but now we also know with apodictic certainty that white Presbyterian denominations are also.

Here’s another:

But the OPC is handicapped in its effort to combat white nationalism by the application of the very theology it promotes.

Too often Christian individuals and institutions act as if general statements condemning bigotry and saccharine assertions of racial and ethnic equality are sufficient to combat white nationalism. . . .

If denominations like the OPC wish to make their churches inhospitable to people who harbor white nationalist views — or to confront the sins of racism and white nationalism in hopes that church members will repent of them — then they’re going to have to offer unequivocal and direct teaching refuting the ideology.

White denominations, especially in the theologically Reformed branch of the church, should hold specific workshops, classes and special events explaining white nationalist beliefs and tactics so their members can guard against subversion.

White churches and leaders must bring members who express white nationalist views or sympathies under church discipline, with the ultimate goal of discipleship and restoration. But, if necessary, suspension from the Lord’s Supper and excommunication should be an option.

In addition, white churches in Reformed traditions must probe exactly why people who hold white nationalist and other racist beliefs may find a comfortable home in their fellowships.

Perhaps it’s because pro-slavery theologians such as R.L. Dabney are still cited as positive examples of godly men.

Maybe it’s because black liberation theologians such as James Cone are demonized and if they are read at all, it is merely to discount their viewpoints.

Perhaps it’s because of the almost unshakable loyalty of many white evangelicals to Republican officials who express racist ideas.

Maybe white racists and nationalists can sit comfortably in the pews of certain churches because whenever calls for social justice arise their leaders say that such issues are a “distraction” from the gospel.

I absolutely do not believe that pastors in the OPC or any similar denomination are regularly spewing anti-Semitism and racism from the pulpit or on any other occasion.

But the rigid exclusion of discussions of racial injustice from the regular preaching and teaching in these churches means that white nationalists are seldom challenged in their beliefs.

Notice that “spewing” racism or anti-Semitism is not a regular part of preaching in Presbyterian pulpits. It only happens occasionally. Thanks for that qualification.

At the same time, if pastors do not speak out against these hatreds and prejudices they are guilty of racism and anti-Semitism.

By that standard, some of the #woke Calvinists favor waterboarding, carbon emissions, the Patriot Act, William Barr’s letter, and Senator Ben Sasse. Why? Because #woke Christians haven’t said anything about these subjects.

And yet, the niceCalvinists” say nothing when #woke Calvinists turn mean.

Would Jesus Forgive Ken Starr?

A little over a month ago I attended an evening of offbeat film where one of the archivists responsible for the program introduced himself as hailing from Raleigh, N.C. He said that he used to say this was the home of Slim Jims (I think) and Jesse Helms. But since the cooking of spicy meat bi-products was going on somewhere else, and since Jesse Helms had died, he could no longer talk that way about his home. At the point where he mentioned Helms’ death, the mostly academic and artsy crowd began to applaud.

Now I know conservatives are regularly guilty of bad taste and the examples of Rush and Glen provide daily reminders to non-conservatives of how mean the Right is supposed to be. But I find it hard to believe that even the vox talk-radioli greeted the news of Edward Kennedy’s death with the same glee evident at this evening of film. Granted, everyone on planet earth is a sinner and so constantly guilty of hypocrisy (which is sort of Paul’s point in Romans 1 and 2, right?). So I shrugged off the incident and despite discomfort with the egregious bad taste stuck around for the movies (plus, I had paid my $7). But I do scratch my head at the liberal talking point that conservatives are meanies when instances like this, not to mention various hosts at MSNBC, seem to balance the scales of meanness between the Right and the Left. If liberals want conservatives to stop being mean, shouldn’t they embody the niceness that supposedly typifies their understanding of a good society?

I was reminded of this incident when reading Randall Balmer’s recent reflections about the appointment of Kenneth Starr as president of Baylor University. I myself think that the Republicans treatment of Bill Clinton during the Lewinski scandal was in the ballpark of Clinton’s own shameful behavior – maybe not at home plate, but still inside the white lines. But liberals don’t forgive and forget anymore than conservatives, hence the helpings of meanness that fill up both the Right’s and the Left’s plates.

Balmer writes:

Starr’s appointment is not surprising because it apparently reflects the right-wing leanings of the regents, if not necessarily the faculty or the students. Starr as special prosecutor, of course, sought to bring down the Clinton administration. (Was it my imagination, or did Starr seem just a tad too interested in the tawdry Monica Lewinsky business?) Starr also has been dean of the notoriously right-wing Pepperdine Law School, and he has been in the forefront of supporters for California’s Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that reversed the legalization of same-sex marriages.

At the announcement of his appointment, Starr sought to play down his past. “Baylor’s pursuit of knowledge,” he intoned, leaning closely to read his notes, “is strengthened by the conviction that truth has its ultimate source in God.”

As a person of faith, I have no quarrel with that statement. But the real question for the faculty and students at Baylor is how the new administration approaches the “pursuit of knowledge” at the university. What if the pursuit of knowledge entails stem-cell research or leads to the conclusion (gasp!) that evolution is the most satisfactory explanation of human origins? What if a member of the religion department or the divinity school faculty notices that Jesus really had little or nothing to say about homosexuality or that Paul’s statement that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female merits a capacious interpretation?

The difficulty for Balmer here is even greater than the one that afflicted my fellow movie watchers. On a minor level, he should know that universities, their trustees, and presidents regularly engage in activities that are inconsistent with the ideals they uphold. Think, for instance, of the welcome that Balmer’s institution, Columbia University, gave to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But an even greater problem is that Balmer identifies with the evangelical left, a group of believers who supposedly point to the kinder and gentler Sermon on the Mount, as opposed to the Right’s harsh Ten Commandments, as the model for Christians getting along. So if Christians are to do as Jesus did, turn the other cheek, and forgive at least seventy times seven, why is Balmer publicly bearing a grudge against Starr? If the love and forgiveness that Jesus taught and practiced is supposed to provide a different model of Christian engagement in public life and discourse, wouldn’t it be good either to let this editorial against Starr go, or extend the right hand of fellowship and thereby embody the sort of ethic that Balmer finds lacking in the Religious Right?

It could be that wherever you get your law, either from Moses or Jesus, it is awfully demanding and so fails to produce the Rodney King-like society for which that liberals and evangelical lefties pine. Or it could be that Balmer is simply regretting that his most recent book has come out with Baylor University Press. At least he can explain that it wasn’t issued on Starr’s watch.