Is Neutrality Anti-Religious?

The insightful Bruce Froehnen offers a standard brief against neutrality:

The lie of a neutral public square, in which we can debate important issues on the basis of “public reason,” is at its heart an anti-religious lie. It rests on the notion that we can set aside our faith and discuss important issues on the basis of reason alone. But faith and reason are not distinct categories of thought and action. Faith and reason are intimately bound up with one another and with a more generalized approach to the world—the imagination. Historically, the vast majority of people have seen the world as intrinsically moral, that is as made up of structures and choices that have intrinsic moral importance. Ethics is central to life, on this view, and is bound up with our general approach to both daily and life-changing issues such as whom to marry and what to demand of government, community, local association, family, neighbor, and self. This conception of life is intrinsically religious, for it rests on recognition of a natural order to our being that makes sense, has moral importance, and calls us to virtue, despite our own failings and limitations. It is a vision that has been under attack for more than two centuries, however, as a seemingly secular vision rooted in human emotions and impulses has sought dominance. This latter view, often termed the “idyllic” imagination and ascribed to Rousseau, sees the intrinsic goals of life as bound up with self-expression and self-actualization. It blames the injustices of life on social structures deemed oppressive or unjust and sees duty as something to be imposed on other people and especially on institutions.

But where would Froehnen put Calvinists who have a distinctly different estimate of humans’ moral potential? Is it possible for Protestants who affirm the following to have a place in Froehnen’s dressed public square:

Q. 25. Wherein consisteth the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.

Q. 26. How is original sin conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity?
A. Original sin is conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity by natural generation, so as all that proceed from them in that way are conceived and born in sin.

Q. 27. What misery did the fall bring upon mankind?
A. The fall brought upon mankind the loss of communion with God, his displeasure and curse; so as we are by nature children of wrath, bond slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come.

Such an understanding of human nature post-fall certainly qualifies Froehnen’s sense that ethics are “central to life” or that we all share an understanding of existence that “calls us to virtue.” If neutrality is deceptive, so too is an ethical public square if it leads people to think they can be good “naturally,” apart from grace. And if Froehnen wants to claim that goodness only proceeds from grace, then what does he do in the public square he envisions with people who don’t have grace? Do they need to leave? Or does he expand his understanding of grace — as so many western Christians have done while holding the keys of the establishment — to include everyone as a recipient in some sense of grace? (Say hello to Pope Francis praying with Hindus and Buddhists.)

So maybe a “neutral” public square is not so bad after all. It doesn’t mean having to cut and paste Christian orthodoxy in order to include non-Christians in a common ethical endeavor. Let the civil realm be the civil realm, and the church the church.

In Defense of Neutrality

When did “neutral” become such a dirty word (along with Lutheran; is it because Lutheran’s cuss?)? It’s a perfectly fine word to use on colors such as beige, ivory, taupe, black, gray, and white. It also works when describing countries like the United States before 1917 or Switzerland to this day. It’s a word that any of us going to court hope is in play with the judge hearing our case — though fair comes close. In sports, if an umpire is wearing the colors of one of the competing teams, we would definitely wonder about his (or her) — watch out — neutrality. By the way, if your run a word search for the word at the ESV websit, you get verses that include the word, “natural.” Which makes me think that the neo-Calvinists gremlins got into Crossway’s software.

Scott Clark explains that the aversion Reformed Protestants have to “neutral” — not because they are flashy dressers — owes to the influence of Dutch (neo) Calvinism:

Anyone who is familiar with the work of Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck or Cornelius Van Til knows that the idea of “neutrality” is consistently and thoroughly rejected by the framers of much of modern Dutch Reformed theology and thus, were the 2K (as people like to put it) guilty of introducing it into Reformed theology that would be a great, even fatal flaw. In this discussion, “neutrality” means “a sphere of life which is un-interpreted by God’s Word” or “an un-normed sphere of life” or “an un-interpreted sphere of life” over which the Christian or even an unbeliever would be able to say, “This is mine.” This is a truly legitimate concern. Reformed theology opposes human autonomy (self-rule). Abraham Kuyper was absolutely correct to say, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’””

For proponents of the so-called 2K ethic, the question is not whether Jesus is sovereign but how. As I understand the neo-Calvinist movement (van Prinsterer, Kuyper, Bavinck, Van Til, Berkhof, et al) they all taught two complementary principles: antithesis and common grace (Gemeene Gratie). As I understand the so-called 2K model, it is an attempt to describe the way common grace functions relative to the antithesis.

So if the question is only about the ultimate day of judgment when the goats and lambs go their separate ways, then who could defend using neutral to describe persons standing before a holy God?

The problem is that with the exception of the keys of the kingdom, when pastors and elders administer God’s word and open and shut the kingdom of heaven, most us using the English language are dealing not with ultimate but proximate realities. And in this world of sports, politics, law, and interior design, neutral is a good thing.

Here’s one example, Ross Douthat (via Rod Dreher) on the problem of guns in the United States:

With 300 million guns in private hands in the United States, it’s very difficult to devise a non-intrusive, “common-sense” approach to regulating their exchange by individuals. Ultimately, you need more than background checks; you need many fewer guns in circulation, period. To their credit, many gun control supporters acknowledge this point, which is why there is a vogue for citing the Australian experience, where a sweeping and mandatory gun buyback followed a 1996 mass shooting.

The clearest evidence shows that Australia’s reform mostly reduced suicides — as the Brady law may have done — while the evidence on homicides is murkier. (In general, the evidence linking gun ownership rates to murder rates is relatively weak.) But a lower suicide rate would be a real public health achievement, even if it isn’t immediately relevant to the mass shooting debate.

Does that make “getting to Australia” a compelling long-term goal for liberalism? Maybe, but liberals need to count the cost. Absent a total cultural revolution in America, a massive gun collection effort would face significant resistance even once legislative and judicial battles had been won. The best analogue is Prohibition, which did have major public health benefits … but which came at a steep cost in terms of police powers, black markets and trampled liberties.

Does any policy on gun use and restrictions rise to the level of “neutral”? Maybe not. But neither does this issue of public safety and personal freedom achieve the ultimate heaviosity of the anti-thesis. Most matters stemming from our common life together — Augustine’s heavenly city living in the earthly city — do not have a Christian solution. So turning “neutral” into an expletive really does nothing to help pilgrims living in exile, except to tempt some to think their real home is in a low-lying delta below sea level (and I’m not talking about New Orleans).

If Morally Indifferent, Why Not Morally Neutral?

I understand and have commented before on the scare word, neutral. The followers of Abraham Kuyper regard nothing as neutral; everything is either for or against Christ and so no secular or neutral realm exists. This has obvious appeal in Sunday school or at a political rally. But someone going to court, even to protest a parking ticket, is hoping that some realm of neutrality exists. If everything is partisan, then so much for impartial judgment by police, justices, reporters, or even plumbers (“Fox opines, you report”).

But lo and behold there is help for those parched and weary from the partisans of antithesis. Johannes G. Vos, son of Geerhardus Vos, and longtime professor at Geneva College, wrote an essay, “The Bible Doctrine of the Separated Life,” in which he asserted that some parts of creation are indeed morally indifferent. Take the case of piano playing:

Playing on the piano. . . is in itself morally indifferent. Just because it is a thing indifferent, it can never be sinful in itself. But there may exist circumstances in which such an act is sinful. If a child has been forbidden by its parents to play on the piano at a particular time, but does so anyway, then under those circumstances playing on the piano is sinful. The sin committed, however, is not the sin of piano playing, but the sin of disobedience to legitimate parental authority. Again, if a person develops such a consuming passion for piano music that he devotes to this pursuit practically all of this time and strength, and makes it the supreme business and chief aim of his life, even above worshiping God and seeking his kingdom and righteousness, then in such a case and when carried to such an intemperate extreme, playing on the piano is sinful. The sin committed, however, is not the sin of piano playing but the sin of idolatry. Thus we see that while certain circumstances may render the use of adiaphora sinful by a particular person at a particular time or under certain circumstances, still this is very different from affirming that the things in question are sinful in themselves.

Let us assure ourselves, then, once for all, that Scripture does really teach that certain things or actions are not sinful in themselves, but morally indifferent. If this fact be denied or ignored, only confusion and error can result. If any of our readers are disposed to deny that Scripture teaches the existence of adiaphora, we can only entreat them to make a more careful study of the fourteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. This doctrine is proved by Rom. 14:14 and I Cor. 10:23. “I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean of itself; save that to him who accounteth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” “All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify.”

Since neutral is a synonym of indifferent, I think I’ve found daylight for neutrality. And from a Dutchman, no less. Woot!