When Did Christians Forget their Jewish Roots?

Maybe when Constantine tempted them to think that Christendom meant the end of exile and alienation?

But it sure would help if Christian-Americans thought about American society more the way Jewish-Americans do than the way people who used to be the Church of Scotland think.

Imagine if Rod Dreher had grown up not mainline Protestant but Jewish:

Dreher has frequently and sometimes testily responded to critics by saying he’s not calling for anybody to head for the hills. But that’s not what I’m asking about. The Lubavitch hasidim are as “in the world” as any strictly observant Jewish group I can think of. They send shlichim to the four corners of the earth to minister to Jews wherever they may be. They are all about outreach, and they try in a host of ways to meet the people they are reaching out to where they are. And they are certainly making sure that they have something to give the world before they give it — they are ferocious about deeply educating their kids, and traditional Judaism is all about imbuing every single action of every day with the sacred. If you wanted to point to a Benedict Option-like group that had unquestionably not withdrawn into itself and fled for the hills, they’d be a perfect candidate.

But they are also a group apart within a people apart, and they believe themselves to be precisely that. And I can assure you, that has a real impact on how other Jews perceive them and relate to them. I’m curious to know whether that is a dynamic the Benedict Option would inculcate within Christianity, and whether Dreher thinks that would be a problem if it did.

The answer, by the way, to Millman’s question is that Christians who read Peter know that Christianity has a set-apart dynamic:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Pet 2)

And then imagine what it would mean if Christian America was as fantastic an idea as Jewish America:

[Christian traditionalists] are more likely to win space to live according to their consciences to the extent that they are able to convince a majority that includes more liberal Christians and non-Christian believers, as well as outright secularists, that they are not simply biding their time until they are able to storm the public square. In addition, they will have to develop institutions of community life that are relatively low-visibility and that can survive without many forms of official support. The price of inclusion in an increasingly pluralistic society may be some degree of voluntary exclusion from the dominant culture.

There is no doubt that this will be a hard bargain for adherents of traditions that enjoyed such immense authority until recently. . . . The basis for coexistence must be a shared understanding that the Christian America for which some long and that others fear isn’t coming back—not only because it was Christian but also because it involved a level of consensus that is no longer available to us. There are opportunities for believers and nonbelievers alike in this absence.

How America Can Become America Again

Noah Millman, on a roll again, squares the circle of American identity and national narrative:

In our private lives, few would accept leaving this question — who inherits our property, our name, and the custody of our reputations — to forces entirely beyond our control. Most of us think seriously about who we marry, who we will have children with. Even those of us — like myself — who are adoptive parents recognize that the choice to adopt is exactly that: a choice.

Questions of identity — of who we are — are just as fundamental to any political community. A shared sense of identity is what makes collective action possible, whether that action is financing a community center or fighting a war. Any time we make sacrifices today to benefit generations yet unborn, we imply an identifying bond between the present and the future. And yet, for many supporters of immigration there is a real dispute about whether this is even a valid political question — or, on the contrary, whether freedom of movement is an inalienable right, or whether asking questions about national identity is inherently racist.

In a piece that considers deeply how immigration advocates have gone wrong, Josh Barro argues for the need to make the case for a relatively liberal immigration regime as being in the national interest (as opposed to just being “the right thing to do”). And he’s right about that. But before that case can be made, they need to win the trust of those who suspect — perhaps rightly — that immigration advocates see “the national interest” as the interest of a corporate entity known as the United States of America, without regard to what the nature of that entity is, or who it exists for in the first place.

If they can’t rule questions of identity out of bounds, liberals will be tempted to answer them with ideological definitions of Americanism that implicitly deem large numbers of actual Americans to be less-than-faithful communicants of the national religion (something conservatives have been prone to do at least as much). It’s an approach that is distinctly unlikely to win over anyone not already singing from their hymnal.

So how can those with a more expansive conception of American identity make their case? The answer begins with a return to that word: posterity.

From the perspective of the founders, we are their posterity, whether our ancestors are from England, Ethiopia, or Ecuador. They are our ancestors. And what they have bequeathed to us — from our political institutions down to the land itself — is our inheritance.

We all have varied relationships with our individual parents. Some of us live in awe of their shadows; others of us cringe at their failures; still others of us have spent years working our way through the residue of abusive childhoods. And some of us are lucky to stand tall and proud on our forebears’ shoulders. For all of us, they are still the people to whom we owe our beginnings. We can love them, hate them, live in illusion, or see them for who they are — but we cannot disclaim them.

The same is true of our political ancestors — and we need to talk that way.

If we want to share our inheritance more broadly, and convince our cousins to do the same, we need first to be able to demonstrate that we cherish it, that we recognize that it is our inheritance, something we, as individuals, did not create, but was given to us by those who came before, and that we are responsible for passing on. If it is ours, then we have the right to remodel it to better suit the needs of the present and the future — we don’t have to be shackled by the past. But if we care about it as an inheritance, then we’ll show gratitude for what we have received, and make changes in that spirit, even if we know that many of those who came before would have cringed to see just who has taken up residence in what was once their house, and what they’ve done to the place.

But if the United States (where did the name ever come from) did not begin until the nation elected Barack Obama, who cares about the so-called Greatest Generation or the Founders or even Abe Lincoln? Such a way of looking at the past — today’s social justice warriors’, not Millman’s — does make it hard to look at Donald Trump as a betrayal of inheritance. If they can cut themselves off from Jefferson, Jackson, and Wilson, why can’t Trump cut himself off from Obama?

Doh! History always comes back to bite. Not to mention that the founding has been pretty good business for Lin-Manuel Miranda.

We’ll Surrender if You Let Us Keep Our Emperor

Noah Millman explains why Christians may need to work out a truce with the Democrats:

Suppose that you look out a couple of decades, and you see, as Dreher does, an America in which traditional Christians are a dwindling minority ever more clearly out of step with American culture, to the point of mutual incomprehension and even loathing. In that world, a polarized party system in which one party is resolutely determined to circumscribe the freedom of that dwindling minority while the other party pays lip service to its defense is a world in which that minority’s life gets progressively worse and worse year after year. One can dispute the probability of that world coming to pass, but I believe that’s what Dreher believes is coming.

If it is, my question is: what’s the political strategy for heading it off? Voting over and over again for a party that pays less and less attention to your concerns is clearly a losing strategy — for obvious reasons. So what’s the alternative?

It seems to me, clearly, that the alternative is making an overture to the enemy party. After all, as Yitzhak Rabin famously said, you don’t make peace with your friends — you make peace with your enemies. And you cannot make peace with your enemies if you decide, from the start, that your enemies will never make peace, on any terms. It seems to me that if Dreher really believes the Democratic Party is moving in the direction of outright persecution of traditional Christians, then it is a moral and practical imperative for traditional Christians to engage in outreach to the Democratic Party to try to change their course, and to keep trying if the first efforts bear no fruit.

But suppose the enemy really is as implacable as you imagine. If the correlation of forces is similarly dire, then what we’re talking about isn’t making peace but negotiating the terms of surrender. Even then, terms have to actually be offered. And it’s the people seeking an end to hostilities who have to offer them.

If that is the case, then — and I know this is a very ugly way of putting it, and I apologize in advance, but Dreher himself is the one who brought up “Japanese-soldier Religious Rightists hiding out on a desert island in the South Pacific” — my question is: what is the traditional Christian version of “we’ll surrender if you let us keep our Emperor?”

Another Problem with W-w

At a time when Europeans and their former colonial outposts are reflecting on the nation state, political union, and the shelf-life of post-World War II peace-keeping institutions, the celebration of U.S. independence was another chance to ponder the merits of political autonomy and state sovereignty. But notice the way that some Christians decided to frame the matter:

Those of us who identify as Christians should never fear admitting the truth, even when it means letting go of the myth of a “Christian America.” And those of us who identify as both Christian and social conservative should not fear that admitting this particular truth means abandoning what we believe the “We hold these truths” line to mean. Unlike with the Constitution, the “original intent” of the authors shouldn’t necessarily be our guide. If it really is a truth—and a “self-evident” one—it is only because it was revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

In an age when even many Christians are hostile to religiously informed public philosophy, it’s understandable that social conservatives would turn to the past for examples and look to the founding documents for affirmation. But such an effort is likely to be as unproductive as it is unpersuasive.

If Christians wish to build a polis informed by Christian convictions, if we want the truths we hold to be seen once again as “literally true,” we must look to the future, thick with possibility, rather than to the thin material left over from the religious sentiments of our Founding Fathers.

Really? The best Christians can do is ask once again what kind of believers the founders were or whether the Declaration’s self-evident truths are compatible with special revelation?

Compare this to Noah Millman’s thought experiment. Imagine if the Declaration left out self-evident truths:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. . . .

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Which leads Millman to make this point:

One people is oppressed by another, suffering a long chain of abuses. Eventually, the abuses can no longer be tolerated. They constitute a tyranny, and they oblige the oppressed people to throw off the tyrant’s yoke.

That’s not a new story – nor is it a story that requires a new political theory to justify rebellion. The Dutch Revolt required no such theory. Neither did Tyrone’s Rebellion. Why, then, did America’s founders find it necessary to introduce such a theory into the document justifying our own rebellion against the crown?

It’s hard to believe that this philosophical language was introduced to win the support of the France’s absolute monarchy. The philosophes might have applauded, but Louis XVI would surely have preferred to back a rebellion that cast no particular doubt on the legitimacy of hereditary monarchy to one that did. It is even harder to believe that the language was intended to justify a revolution in the domestic arrangements of the colonies. The Declaration was a document intended to be something that the colonies – from slaveholding South Carolina to loyally-inclined Pennsylvania – could assent to unanimously. An alarmingly revolutionary doctrine would surely be the last thing the Congress would have wished to include.

Was it revolutionary, though, to American ears? Quite likely not. In fact, the most stirring portion of the Declaration, the words that have had profound implications for American and world history, may have been so much boilerplate. Americans from Virginia to Vermont, with long experience with self-government, casually assumed Lockean premises about where government legitimately derived and what was its legitimate purpose. Including these words in the document justifying American independence may not have established an American creed so much as they reiterated the largely unexamined premises that many Americans already assumed.

Whether you agree with Millman or not (and the whole piece is a plausible case for American exceptionalism), you have to admit that his take is much more interesting than Joe Carter’s. The latter feels compelled to squeeze a political statement into a theological mold. Millman simply imagines the political stakes. No religious references. And in so doing, the Declaration takes on even more significance than when Christians try to find America’s eternal meaning (or not).

If U.S. Christians thought about politics politically rather than religiously, they might not look so odd to their neighbors.

Without Sabbath Observance We Could Not Identify Christians

How do you spot a Christian? That may be easy compared to defining religion. Damon Linker had a go at religion recently:

Religion is any set of norms, practices, and beliefs that establishes a comprehensive way of life that is held out as the right or best way of life for those who adhere to it.

Noah Millman agreed but wanted to amend the definition:

. . . religion is a comprehensive set of normative practices that reflect or imply a set of beliefs about the nature of life and the right way to live it. Those beliefs may or may not be conscious, and may or may not be articulated and taught, in the way that the practices are.

I wonder why both Linker and Millman are so hung up on comprehensive. They don’t seem to understand a two-kingdom (read Augustinian) presentation of Christianity, one that recognizes some aspects of a believers life are religious, some are common or creational. It’s the hyphenation thing. But it’s especially a worry about “all of me” or comprehensive accounts of Christianity when in fact the Bible or bishops haven’t weighed in on everything and Christians have some liberty to figure it out themselves (rue the uncertainty).

In which case, the recent story about the decline of Sabbath observance may be a better indication of how to define religion and spot Christianity, as in Christians are people who take worship seriously and set aside a day for it. But that is changing in the South:

Signs are beginning to emerge suggesting that role of religion in the Bible Belt may be declining, at least to some degree.

The shift is increasingly apparent in local cafes and restaurants in towns across the South, particularly on Sundays. The sale of alcohol on Sundays has long been prohibited in many traditionally religious conservative communities. But recently, more and more of those communities are repealing so-called Blue Laws.

In Sylacauga, Alabama, a small town of just 12,700 people that hosts 78 churches, after-church lunch-goers are now bumping into craft beer drinking sports fans at local restaurants, following a September vote to do away with the Sunday exclusion. Similar initiatives are also underway in parts of Georgia and Mississippi.

A Pew Research Center survey showed 19 percent of Southerners do not identify with any organized religion, a 6 percent rise since 2007 and a number that more closely matches that of the rest of the country.

In another Pew study, 35 percent of Millennials surveyed self-identified as atheist or agnostic. The tendencies appear to be consistent across races.

“We’ve seen this sort of broader shift throughout the country as a whole with fewer people identifying as being part of the religious base,” Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher in religion and public life at Pew told the Associated Press. “In the South you see a pattern very similar to what we are seeing in other regions.”

Maybe sanctification of the Lord’s Day is something that “obedience boys” and Old Lifers could both get behind.

Are Christian W-w Voters Selfish?

A curious exchange today at American Conservative between Alan Jacobs and Noah Millman over voting for a party that both supports religious freedom and wars on behalf of liberty. Jacobs, the Christian, writes:

Now, some Christians might also argue that the Church exists for others, so that promoting religious freedom, even at the cost of lives lost overseas, is still the selfless thing to do. And that could be right, but I think we all ought to be very wary of arguments that provide such a neat dovetailing of our moral obligations and our self-interest.

I honestly don’t know what I think about this, and still less do I know how to apply the proper principles to our own more complex political scene. But I do think it’s right to conclude that there are at least some potential circumstances in which religious believers, in order to be faithful to their religious traditions, would need to refrain from direct political advocacy for those traditions.

In other words, voting simply on the basis of religious convictions may be an oversimplification of electoral politics and of public and foreign policy. Say hello to 2k.

But Millman responds that self-interest is the wrong way to frame the question:

I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with the underlying premise that voters should aspire to cast their ballots in a selfless manner. Indeed, I think “selfless” is a red-herring. The objective oughtn’t be to deny the needs or wants of the self, but to see beyond them, to feel other selves as equally worthy of care (and yourself as equally unworthy of supremacy), and thereby to achieve a feeling of solidarity with those other selves. (Then again, I’m not a Christian, so your mileage may vary.)

So is it the case that Christians, even when they recognize the limits of faith-based voting as Jacobs does, come across as inherently selfish when they vote according to their beliefs? Millman’s point is especially pertinent when he talks about seeing others “as equally worthy of care” and feeling solidarity with them. If people who have a heightened sense of the anti-thesis, Christians, that is, people who are also keenly aware of God’s law and those who break it, are also supposed as members of a civic community to feel solidarity with other citizens, is faith something that impedes or assists such fellow-feeling? Not to put too fine a point on it, but can Christians feel solidarity with gays or advocates of same-sex marriage?

Maybe Millman is wrong about a sense of belonging with other Americans, though any small dose of Aaron Sorkin’s television series West Wing or the Newsroom should confirm Millman’s point. But if Christians judge Millman wrong, then what hope have we for a free society if it consists of Christians and non-Christians?

Putting a Point on Christian America

Would the United States possibly consider a bill comparable to the Jewish State proposal of Israel, which includes the following language:

The state of Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state. These two values are intertwined, and one does not outweigh the other. We promise equal rights for everyone, regardless of religion, race or sex. At the same time, Israel is the nation-state of the Jews only. This combination between the the rights of the nation and the rights of the individual, serves as the central thread in all of Israel’s founding documents.

Try that for a Christian America:

The state of the United States is a Christian and a democratic state. These two values are intertwined, and one does not outweigh the other. We promise equal rights for everyone, regardless of religion, race or sex. At the same time, the United States is the nation-state of Christians only. This combination between the the rights of the nation and the rights of the individual, serves as the central thread in all of the United States’ founding documents.

Would this kind of legislation make unsexy Americans happy?

Noah Millman, a Jewish-American of some variety, is not happy with Israel’s proposed legislation because it provides legal justification for a status quo that discriminates against Arabs:

It means that Arab citizens can be discriminated against in housing, including state-supported efforts to move Jewish citizens into Arab-dominated regions coupled with local discrimination to keep Arab citizens out of Jewish areas. That they can be discriminated against in education – most Arab citizens are educated in a separate school system from Jewish Israelis (actually, there are three official “streams” in Israeli education, secular state schools, Jewish religious state schools, and Arab schools, plus a large set of ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious schools that are outside state control but receive state support, plus a small smattering of independent schools, but now I’ve probably given too much information). And so forth. . . .

This, in my view, is the most tangible practical significance of the Jewish State bill: that it would provide a legal justification for upholding the legitimacy of the discriminatory aspects of the status quo when faced with legal challenge.

The point of bringing this up is not the situation in Israel (where a modified bill is pending). It is instead to wonder how far Christian advocates of a Christian America are willing to go in their national self-understanding. Should non-Christians face discrimination in housing and education? Or if America is about freedom of religion as so much of the contemporary opposition to gay marriage has it, how is it possible to insist on a Christian America?