Goooooooooooooooooalllll!!!!!

When John Fea gets it right, he gets it (mainly). He recently reflected on life in a small town:

Messiah is located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Mechanicsburg is not a very cosmopolitan place. Many of my neighbors have lived in the town for multiple generations. Some young people get out of town after graduation and never come back, but many never leave. We have all the usual problems associated with small towns. Race-relations could be better. Drug deals go down in the convenience store parking lots. The wealthy members of our town cloister in their gated communities. But this is where we decided to raise our family.

When we arrived in Mechanicsburg our daughters–Allyson and Caroline– were ages four and one. They attended kindergarten through high school in Mechanicsburg Area School District. We chose to live in the Mechanicsburg School District as opposed to the larger regional Cumberland Valley School District (with more opportunities) because we wanted a smaller, more intimate community for our kids. Both of them have thrived in this district and we have never regretted our choice.

Some folks in town who know me may think it is odd that I am writing about the sense of community I feel in Mechanicsburg. As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself. I would rather watch my kids play sports seated alone than join a crowd of cheering fans. I am not very good at small talk. I coached my girls in basketball when they were in elementary school, but I got disgusted with the politics, the ambitious parents, and the way many of those parents treated the selfless staff of our town’s recreation department, so I stopped. I have not participated as much in the local life of my community largely because of the time I spend investing in the life of Messiah College. But I have tried to serve when asked. I could do better.

Then he mixes in Friday Night Lights for fathers without sons (with apologies to Texans):

I thought about my relationship with this community again as I sat in the cold last night and watched the Mechanicsburg Girls Soccer team play their final home game of the season. It was the second round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s District 3 playoffs. The girls won 4-0 over a team from Berks County and advanced to the District semifinals on Monday night at Hershey Park Stadium. They are now 20-0 and ranked 21st in the nation. A great story is developing here in small-town Mechanicsburg. My daughter Caroline plays a minimum number of minutes each game, but she has been an intricate part of a team that is making local history. She has been playing soccer with many of the seniors on this team since she was eight-years-old. Some of these girls are her best friends. Mechanicsburg is Caroline’s community. This place has shaped her life in so many good ways.

Caroline had mixed emotions last night. Her team will play again next week and, if things go well, will try to make a run in the state tournament. Yet the sadness of playing her last game on her home field with her friends was palpable as she walked across the field to meet us. Her tears were a mixture of joy for the blessing of an undefeated season (so far) and sadness that it was all nearing an end. I fought them back as well.

From Hillsdale, Mechanicsburg looks like it’s on the grid. It’s a suburb of Harrisburg (the state capital for the geographically challenged) and only 40 minutes from Lancaster, and 90 from Baltimore. In Hillsdale you are 90 minutes from Ann Arbor, 2 hours from Birmingham (there is one in Michigan and it is spectacular!), and 4 hours from Chicago.

The irony is that I started my college career at Messiah. The college was about half the size that it is now. And the name of our dorm floor, for inter-mural athletics, was The American House. That sounded patriotic but was actually the name of a bar in Mechanicsburg where some of the lads went to drink PBR (on tap!!). At the time, 18-year olds could drink (Kavanaugh-like), though that was not exactly how Messiah’s dean of students understood it. But apparently no one in the administration knew the reference or they simply thought our joke was silly and ignored it. Over time I found the college so far removed from urban life that I transferred to Temple in my sophomore year (after doing one semester at Messiah’s center city campus). Now I teach at a college 2/3 the size of Messiah and am even farther from the East Coast than I was in the remote setting of south central Pennsylvania.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

I have no regrets about Hillsdale. It is the best job of my career and a wonderful school. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to teach somewhere like Messiah, where access to the Northeast corridor is much easier.

All of which may explain why Fea and I have different reactions to Americans and evangelicals who voted for Trump. John concedes that he was somewhat sympathetic to anti-elitism in America after hearing graduate students at a recent conference:

There was a sense of confidence in their speech as they talked about their prestigious advisers and the quality of the graduate programs where they earned their Ph.Ds. They did not seem overly worried about landing a job. Rather, their complaints focused more on the fact that so many jobs were located in rural communities in so-called “Red States” where they did not want to live. Their conversation was infused with the kind of cosmopolitan snobbishness that I often hear in academic circles. As I listened to them talk, I thought that maybe all those Trump voters and Fox News watchers are correct about the “coastal elites.”

Yet, that disdain for coastal snobbishness has not stopped Fea from sounding like the Never Trumpers who live and work on the coasts (with the exception of Austin or St. Louis thrown in). If he lived in rural Michigan would he see through Michael Gerson’s coastal elitism?

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An Evangelical Pope

As the returns come in, the difference between Rusty Reno at First Things and Michael Gerson at the Washington Post reinforce the notion that the more you want Christianity not to be bound by rules, institutions, or forms — which is to say, you’re an evangelical — the more you like Francis. And the more you want Christianity to provide rules, stability, and patterns for belief and practice — which is to say, you’re an institutional conservative (e.g. ecclesial or confessional Christian) — the more you wonder about Francis.

First the evangelical Gerson:

Rather than surrendering the moral distinctiveness of the Catholic Church, he is prioritizing its mission. In the America interview, he vividly compared the church to “a field hospital after battle.” When someone injured arrives, you don’t treat his high cholesterol. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” The outreach of the church, in other words, does not start with ethical or political lectures. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

There is a good Catholic theological term for this: the “hierarchy of truths.” Not every true thing has equal weight or urgency.

But this does not adequately capture Francis’s deeper insight: the priority of the person. This personalism is among the most radical implications of Christian faith. In every way that matters to God, human beings are completely equal and completely loved. They can’t be reduced to ethical object lessons. Their dignity runs deeper than their failures. They matter more than any cause; they are the cause.

So Francis observed: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”

This teaching — to always consider the person — was disorienting from the beginning. The outsiders get invited to the party. The prodigal is given the place of honor. The pious complain about their shocking treatment. The gatekeepers find the gate shut to them. It is subversive to all respectable religious order, which is precisely the point. With Francis, the argument gains a new hearing.

Then the Episcopalian-turned-Roman Catholic Reno:

Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university. One of my colleagues insisted again and again that the greatest challenge we face in the classroom is “Catholic fundamentalism,” when in fact very few students today even know the Church’s teachings, much less hold them with an undue ardency.

It’s in this context that Pope Francis makes extended observations about the profound pastoral challenge of ministering to gay people today, to which he adds the personal statement that he cannot judge a homosexual person who “is of good will and is in search of God.” He also speaks of other pastoral challenges: a divorced woman who has also had an abortion. These are subtle remarks, and necessary ones.

He sums up this section with statements about the witness of the Church today. They are the ones most often quoted: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “It is not necessary to talk about these issue all the time.”

In themselves these statements are obvious and non-controversial. Since my entry in the Catholic Church in 2004, I have heard some homilies on abortion, gay marriage, and even one on contraception. But these are infrequent. For the most part priests expound the mystery of Christ, which, as Pope Francis emphasizes, is the source and foundation of our faith. Without Christ at the center, the Church’s moral teachings can quickly become mere moralism.

But Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics—“audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement—or silence. Dialogue? Catholic higher education has been doing that for fifty years, and the result has been the secularization of the vast majority of colleges and universities. Today at Fordham or Georgetown, the only people talking about contraception, gay rights, or gay marriage are the advocates.

Francis is certainly giving new meaning to papal audacity and Roman Catholic conservatism.

Hearing (all about) Me Speak

As Zrim has already indicated, pronunciations matter. If you say the word evangelical with a long e in the first syllable, as in “egads,” then according to popular wisdom you are one, that is, a born-again Protestant. If you pronounce it with the short e in “whatever,” then you aren’t ehvangelical.

The same goes for conservatism. If you slip in an extra syllable, as in “conservativism,” then you are likely unfamiliar with the discussions about what it means to be a conservative. But if you say the real word, “conservatism,” then you’re in the ball park of knowing something about the American Right even if you are not a card-carrier.

A twist on correct pronunciation came for me as my wife and I were driving to Washington, D.C. last week for the Round Table on the future of evangelical politics hosted by Brian Lee and the saints at Christ Reformed Church (URC). Scanning the dial in hopes of finding a voice different from Sean’s, we stumbled upon the local affiliate of the EWTN radio network which broadcasts the Al Kresta show weekdays at 4:00. This particular day found the host away at a conference and the show re-airing the “best of” Al Kresta. Imagine my (all about me) surprise when my wife and I heard Al introduce the hour-long interview I did about From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin on September 20, live in the Ann Arbor studio. Imagine my (all about me) further surprise to hear me babble on like a surfer dude. Which raises the question, if you sound goofy, can you really call yourself a confessional Protestant or a political conservative?

But misgivings about my voice and diction did not prevent a thoroughly enjoyable event with Michael Gerson and Terry Eastland thanks to the great hospitality and event planning of Brian and Sara Lee. The audio for the event is here (though you will need Quick Time to listen). Future events still include David VanDrunen this Thursday night (October 20), and Dave Coffin preaching(Sunday, October 23).

I believe the biggest difference to surface between Mike Gerson and me was his willingness to appeal to higher law (justice and human dignity) in thinking about a Christian understanding of politics and my reluctance to jump over existing laws, institutions, and powers for the sake of a higher good. I also believe this is one of the most profound difference between evangelicals and confessional Protestants in the sphere of religion, and between evangelicals and conservatives in matters political.

Consider, for instance, the willingness of revivalists to circumvent ordained clergy in order to bring the gospel to people (some of whom are already church members). George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent did this. The Gospel Coalition is still doing it. Think too of the way that evangelicals will appeal to the Bible to circumvent the authority of creeds or confessions with Scripture functioning as a higher law above man-made doctrines.

In politics evangelicals will appeal to Christian morality usually without considering such matters of state sovereignty. This happens when evangelicals look to the federal government to implement laws that state or local governments have not adopted, or when born-again Protestants seek to intervene internationally without doing justice to the existing governments in place. I know, I know, these matters are difficult and the complexity of the situation can lead to pacifism or even indifference. I also concede that folks like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., neither of whom used a long e when saying the word evangelical, also appealed to the higher law for the Declaration of Independence and Civil Rights. Still, evangelicals appear to me to be largely indifferent to existing governmental structures and laws when political forms get in the way of eternal truths. And every conservative (both religious and political) knows that this is a recipe for revolution.

This is not to say that Gerson espouses such radicalism, but only to point out that implicit in the appeal to a higher law is an impulse that makes evangelicals insufficiently aware of the restraint and stability that conservatives hope to preserve.

Now Maybe Billy Graham Will Run

Those shrieks you hear this morning are coming from Michigan where in the burgs of Grand Rapids and Hillsdale, author and editors are bemoaning the news that Sarah Palin is not going to run for the presidency. One of the first reviews of From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin at Amazon asserts that the book does not even mention Sarah Palin, as if her insertion in the title were merely a ploy to increase sales. In point of fact, the introduction discusses at some length Palin’s performance as Vice-Presidential nominee during the 2008 elections. But a Palin bid for the GOP nomination in 2011-2012 would have perhaps given more visibility to books with Sarah’s name in the title.

Truth be told, the book devotes a lot more attention to evangelical reflection about the United States and its government than to electoral politics. In fact, one of my frustrations with the interviews I have been doing — most of them pleasant and welcome — is that I have yet to talk about any of the figures in the narrative, such as Richard Mouw, Carl Henry, Ralph Reed, Jim Skillen, or Michael Gerson. I understand the appeal of talking about a race. That’s why people go to the track and play the ponies. But the problem for evangelicals is not simply the possible thinness of the political candidates they produce, but the way that even the smartest evangelicals reflect on American politics, which is a combination of biblicism and moral idealism.

In which case, Sarah’s decision may actually help out the long term sales of the book since she will continue to be a voice that illustrates the weaknesses of the evangelical mind and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin will be a guide to those defects.

Old Life in the Imperial Capital

Brian Lee, pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URC) in Washington, D.C., has put together another fall program of lectures and events, this year devoted to the theme of Christianity and Politics. I will be speaking with Michael Gerson, speech writer for George W. Bush, on Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm. Terry Eastland, publisher of the Weekly Standard, will be moderating our discussion of evangelicals and American politics. (Terry’s presence is remarkable given the collapse of his beloved Braves. I don’t point this out to mock or chest thump but to express real empathy; if Terry takes Braves’ losses the way I go blue after a Phillies’ defeat, then his willingness to get out of bed is a tribute to his mental health.)

[Taken from CRC’s press release]
The full schedule follows (speaker bios below):

Sunday, October 9th,11:00 am — Michael Horton, “Evangelism and Social Justice”

Thursday, October 13th, 7:00 pm — Michael Gerson, Darryl Hart, Terry Eastland, “The Future of Evangelicals in Politics”

Sunday, October 16th, 11:00 am — Brian Lee, “Govern Well, or Be Governed?”

Thursday, October 20th, 7:00 pm — David VanDrunen, “Natural Law and Christian Politics”

Sunday, October 23rd, 11:00 am — David Coffin, “The Spirituality of the Church”

Events will be held at Christ Reformed Church’s new Logan Circle home, historic Grace Reformed Church (the church home of President Theodore Roosevelt), located at 1405 15th Street NW, Washington, DC. Reception to follow. Free parking is available (with validation) at the Colonial Parking Lot at 1616 P Street NW, one block west of the church. Call 202.656.1611 for more information or visit our website at http://www.ChristReformedDC.org.

Speakers:

Dr. Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, Host of the White Horse Inn radio program and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He has written The Gospel Commission and Where in the World is the Church, as well as The Christian Faith, a new highly-acclaimed one-volume systematic theology. He is a minister in the United Reformed Church.

Michael Gerson, opinion writer for the Washington Post and former head speech writer and senior policy advisor to President George W. Bush. He is the author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, and Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail if They Don’t).

Terry Eastland, Publisher of The Weekly Standard and is ordained as an elder at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland.

Dr. Darryl Hart, visiting professor of History at Hillsdale College in the area of American Religious history and the author of numerous books on Christianity and Politics, including From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism and A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State, and blogs on religion and public life at oldlife.org.

Dr. Brian Lee, founding pastor of Christ Reformed Church, Washington, DC, and holds degrees from Stanford University, Westminster Seminary California, and Calvin Theological Seminary. Prior to becoming a pastor Dr. Lee also worked in Washington on Capitol Hill, at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and at the Department of Defense. He studied Dutch Calvinism as a Fulbright Scholar in the Netherlands in 2001.

Dr. David VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. He has written Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought and Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. He is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and holds a Law Degree from Northwestern University School of Law.

Rev. David Coffin, Senior Pastor at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia.

Say Hello to Nelson Kloosterman, James Jordan, Tim Keller, and David Bayly

Theonomy and R. J. Rushdoony have never been so popular. Ever since Ryan Lizza’s piece on Michele Bachman in the New Yorker appeared, bloggers and columnists had been taking shots at the journalist for allegedly writing a hit piece on the congresswoman from Minnesota. The latest to weigh in is Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s speech writer, and a columnist for the Washington Post. According to Gerson:

The Dominionist goal is the imposition of a Christian version of sharia law in which adulterers, homosexuals and perhaps recalcitrant children would be subject to capital punishment. It is enough to spoil the sleep of any New Yorker subscriber. But there is a problem: Dominionism, though possessing cosmic ambitions, is a movement that could fit in a phone booth. The followers of R.J. Rushdoony produce more books than converts.

So it becomes necessary to stretch the case a bit. Perry admittedly doesn’t attend a Dominionist church or make Dominionist arguments, but he once allowed himself to be prayed for by some suspicious characters. Bachmann once attended a school that had a law review that said some disturbing things. She assisted a professor who once spoke at a convention that included some alarming people. Her belief that federal tax rates should not be higher than 10 percent, Goldberg explains, is “common in Reconstructionist circles.”

The evidence that Bachmann may countenance the death penalty for adulterers? Support for low marginal tax rates.

Since theonomists recently dismissed me and other 2kers as infidels for not supporting the death penalty for adultery, Gerson’s words have a certain poignancy. As I argued at Front Porch Republic, the word Dominionism is proving to be a real distraction from a much bigger issue for Protestants who may not be as obscure as the Dominionists (wherever they are — do they have a website, journal, or institution?). Theonomy or Reconstruction may be acquired tastes among Reformed Protestants who hold neo-Calvinism dear, but a wide swath of conservative Calvinists — some whom Gerson knows — defend the Kuyperian view of the antithesis in ways that make the world safe for Michele Bachmann and many evangelicals who also see the social world in black and white categories. The reason for this convergence owes to a rejection of appeals to the light of nature in favor of special revelation and regenerate interpretations of the Bible alone (to be interpreted by regenerate people, mind you) for arriving at Total Truth. Such conservative Protestants may not follow theonomists in supporting the death penalty for disobedient adult covenant children, but they do believe the Bible should be the basis both for the public square and arguments about how the best way to run the public square.

As I pointed out in one comment at Greenbaggins:

. . . there are at least three different critiques of 2k but those critiques are also at odds:

1) the 16th century view of the magistrate and his duties to promote the true religion is one critique. (But this critique is marginal to contemporary Reformed communions because all the Presbyterian and Reformed churches of which most of us here are members have repudiated those views and revised our confessions).

2) the generally Kuyperian view that Christ is Lord of all things which reads the relationship between general and revelation in a particular way against 2k. (This is generally Kuyperian because this view is only implicit in Kuyper who also rejected the 16th century view of the magistrate and who also held up the ancient philosophers as models of political philosophy despite their lacking special revelation.) If someone could actually explain the Kuyperian view it would be very helpful and I have ask Mark many times for it and he keeps avoiding an answer.

3) there is the theonomist critique which is a reading of the law of recent vintage (though it may pull from earlier Reformed thinkers) and which has no standing in any of the Reformed churches represented here (as in people asking for the magistrate to execute adulterers).

These three critiques are not in agreement and the third would actually have to take as much issue with the first two as with 2k because those other positions don’t follow the law any more than 2k does (as theonomists understand the law).

So with all of this hostility, it would be useful for the critic to identify himself and what the model or standard is for which he stands. The first two critiques hold up part of a historical example and use that against 2k to show that 2k has departed from a certain standard. But the entire Reformed world has moved from those earlier expressions. So the first two critiques need to explain what the new model is now that Reformed churches have moved on.

Theonomists don’t really need to identify themselves. I generally get their objection. I just don’t see why theonomy is as much a problem for Calvin as it is for Kuyper.

In other words, the one position available to conservative Protestants for demonstrating that they do not hold a view of biblical law comparable to sharia — the 2k theology and its use of the order of creation and the moral sense that all people have — is anathema or nonsensical to many who call themselves neo-Calvinists, evangelicals, and theonomists. As I (the one in all about me) have also argued, at least the theonomists are consistent. But what folks like Gerson seem to be in denial about is the working assumption that prevents most evangelicals folks from embracing 2k — that God’s truth only comes from the Bible and the regenerate who alone have the capacity, through the lens of Scripture, to understand the created order aright.

This doesn’t make Bachmann or Keller, or Kloosterman, or the Baylys dominionists — the Federal Visionaries are another matter. But they are all using the same play book — an understanding of worldview that relies on the basic distinction between the redeemed and the lost. For that reason, outsiders like Lizza and others outside the Christian camp, may have trouble knowing when a Christian entering the public square is going to follow Scripture or not. I am still waiting to hear the argument that says we will follow biblical teaching for civil laws on marriage, sex, and murder but not on idolatry, blasphemy, or the Sabbath. Until the critics of 2k start to criticize each other — sort of the way that conservatives were wondering when feminists would turn on Bill Clinton for his dalliance with Monica — knowing how to distinguish Dominionists from the rest of the Bible-onlyists will require a special playbook.