This Guy Needs His Own Blog – Part 1

As astute as these two critiques of Reagan’s civil theology are, they fail to consider one widely neglected but critical question: whether Reagan, or any American leader for that matter, should ever have called the United States the ‘city on a hill’ in the first place. Americans need not choose from among an anti-religious secularism that is deaf and blind to theology, or a low-voltage populist civil religion, or even a more chastened Puritan or Edwardsian sense of national election that keeps a place for divine judgment. The Christians among them can instead reserve divine election and the ‘city on a hill’ for the Christian church alone. Christians in the United States can think of themselves from an Augustinian perspective as, first and foremost, citizens of the City of God, living in tension with the world, and sojourning as pilgrims for a time within the current manifestation of the City of Man called ‘America’. Keeping their eternal citizenship in mind, they can object when either Democrats or Republicans co-opt any part of the church’s identity for their own use, no matter how good their intentions. They can live much of day-to-day life in common with their neighbours, but in the matter of worship, as Augustine wrote in the City of God, they must dissent. Part of that dissent means guarding the church’s unique identity and calling. (Richard M. Gamble, In Search of the City on a Hill, 161)

If presidents shouldn’t use the Bible to speak about the identity of the United States, how much more should ministers — specialists in the Bible — avoid identifying a nation with the city on a hill? And this is why the all-of-life Christianity that w-wists promote inevitably leads to identifying the nation in which 24-7 Christians live with the City of God. If my everyday activities are simply an extension of my spiritual duties, then everyday life in the United States must be an extension of God’s kingdom.

Augustinians are a rare breed.

Lyman Beecher was Prophetic

Anti-Catholicism is one of the most difficult topics that I teach on the history religion in the United States. Students today, most of whom were born about the time that the Dude was trying to recover his rug (i.e. the first Iraq War), have no understanding or feel for the sort of animus that Protestants in the U.S. once had for Roman Catholics. One of the most important expressions of anti-Catholicism came as late as 1949 when Paul Blanshard wrote American Freedom and Catholic Power, which was not an obscure monograph but a best-seller.

That sort of anti-Catholicism still haunted the days of my youth, despite the election in 1960 of the first Roman Catholic as president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This anti-Catholicism was seriously deficient. It drew its animus not from a defense of the Reformation and the formal (sola Scriptura) and material (justification) principles of Protestantism. Instead, it was rooted in a very anti-2k conflation of Protestantism with liberal society (in the form of republicanism and democracy). Because Roman Catholics were subject to a foreign prince (the pope), and because the Church itself was one of the most feudal and medieval (anti-modern and anti-democractic) of institutions, followers of Rome could not be “good” Americans. They were outsiders and Protestants were insiders. That’s why Protestants had public schools and Roman Catholics needed parochial (in both senses) institutions.

Lyman Beecher put anti-Catholic notions succinctly in his book A Plea for the West where he worried about the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany (at the time a mere trickle compared to what was coming in the 1840s):

If [Roman Catholics] associated with republicans, the power of caste would wear away. If they mingled in our schools, the republican atmosphere would impregnate their minds. If they scattered, unassociated, the attrition of circumstances would wear off their predilections and aversions. If they could read the Bible, and might and did, their darkened intellect would brighten, and their bowed down mind would rise. If they dared to think for themselves, the contrast of protestant independence with their thraldom, would awaken the desire of equal privileges, and put an end to an arbitrary clerical dominion over trembling superstitious minds.

Since 1970 the old Protestant anti-Catholicism has vanished. Some of this owes to the culture wars in which evangelical Protestants have recognized Roman Catholics as some of the surest defenders of traditional morality, especially on matters sexual. Another important factor is that Roman Catholics have “gotten right” with the United States. That is, they have become some of an American way of life’s chief defenders. The process began notably with John Courtney Murray’s book, We Hold These Truths (1960). But it continues and a recent post confirms how American and modern Roman Catholics in the United States have become. Here is what Joseph Pearce has to say:

One of the truths of Christendom which lays the very foundations of freedom is the Christian insistence on the mystical equality of all people in the eyes of God and the insistence on the dignity of the human person that follows logically, inexorably and inescapably from such an insistence. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God, it doesn’t matter if people are black or white, healthy or sick, able-bodied or handicapped, or whether babies are inside the womb or out of it. It doesn’t matter that people are different, in terms of race, age or innate abilities; they are all equal in the eyes of God and, therefore, of necessity, in the eyes of Man also. This is the priceless inheritance of Christendom with which our freedoms are established and maintained. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God and Man, everyone must also be equal in the eyes of the law.

If, however, the equality of man is denied, freedom is imperiled. The belief of Nietzsche, adopted by the Nazis, that humanity consists of übermenschen and untermenschen, the “over-men” and the “under-men”, led to people being treated as subhuman, worthy of extermination and victims of genocide. The progressivist belief of Hegel, adopted by Marx and his legion of disciples, that a rationalist dialectic, mechanistically determined, governs the progress of humanity, led to the deterministic inhumanity of communism and the slaughter of those deemed to be enemies of “progress”. The French Revolution, an earlier incarnation of atheistic progressivism and the progenitor of communism, had led to the invention of the guillotine as the efficient and effective instrument of the Great Terror and its rivers of blood. The gas chamber, the Gulag and the guillotine are the direct consequence of the failure to uphold the Christian concept of human equality and the freedom it enshrines. In our own time, the same failure to accept and uphold human equality has led to babies in the womb being declared subhuman, or untermenschen, without any protection in law from their being killed at the whim of their mothers.

Apart from the connection between freedom and equality, the other aspect of freedom enshrined by Christianity is the freedom of the will and the consequences attached to it. If we are free to act and are not merely slaves to instinct as the materialists claim, we have to accept that we are responsible for our choices and for their consequences.

What is remarkable about this argument is that it is precisely the one that Protestants used to use against Roman Catholics. In other words, especially prior to Vatican II, Rome’s hierarchy was especially skeptical about republican institutions and for good reason given how the French Revolution played out for the Church in France. But now Rome seems to be fully on board with those very institutions that Protestants embraced to justify themselves to the wider world. Winthrop’s city on a hill morphed into Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy.

What is also important to notice is that just as Protestants had to adapt (and liberalize) their faith to underwrite the U.S. project by giving up Calvinism’s notions about divine sovereignty and human sinfulness (think Finney and Fosdick), so Roman Catholics like Pearce (anyway) have forgotten that Thomas Aquinas was a predestinarian who believed that the human soul was incapable on its own of free will. In other words, the United States first assimilated Protestants to Americanism and now it appears that it is also working its wonders with Roman Catholicism.

The only immunity appears to be two-kingdom theology. It allows you to defend republican (or sacral monarchical) ways in one realm, and divine sovereignty in the other. No muss, no fuss (if only).

2K Reinforcement

Richard Gamble, my colleague in history and fellow elder in the OPC church plant in Hillsdale, has a new book, In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. It is a deconstruction of the Puritan and American abuse of the biblical metaphor when applied to either Massachusetts Bay or the United States. Here’s a tantalizing excerpt (thanks to our friends at The Imaginative Conservative):

Whether Jesus had in view only his chosen disciples, his followers in general, or the universal Church he promised to build, he clearly did not address the metaphors of salt, light, and city to the Roman Empire of his day. He could have done so. Others living during roughly the same era did just that. A century earlier, the Roman statesman Cicero combined two of these three images when he warned his fellow Senators at the time of Catiline’s conspiracy that he “seem[ed] to see this city, the light of the whole world and the fortress of all the nations, suddenly involved in one general conflagration.” Centuries earlier, the Athenian general and statesman Pericles had praised his city as a model to all the Greeks. Jesus, in contrast, gave these metaphors to his Church and not to an earthly kingdom. At some point in history—we will never know when—someone first applied the city metaphor to something or someone other than Jesus’ disciples, to something or someone outside the boundaries of the Christian church. That may not have happened for many centuries. It may not have happened first and only in America. But along the way it became commonplace to talk about America as the embodiment of Jesus’ hilltop city.

It is not natural or inevitable that America should have been given this sacred identity. The path from first-century Palestine to twenty-first century America is not an obvious one. Nor is the path from a sermon about life in the Kingdom of God to blogs about national destiny. Along that path, individual Americans did something to Jesus’ metaphor that changed it. Gradually or abruptly, intentionally or not, they helped remake the “city on a hill” from “a metaphor into a myth,” to borrow a phrase from historian Michael McGiffert. Even if we cannot pinpoint the exact moment of transformation, we will see in the following pages that at one time Americans chiefly used the “city on a hill” to describe something transcendent and theological, and then at a later time chiefly to describe something earthly and political. The transition required nothing less than the unmaking of a biblical metaphor and the making of a national myth.