Would the Benedict Option Allow for Gay Abbots?

Not to be a mean Calvinist jerk, but the discussion of Christians leaving the cultural mainstream for a Christian enclave — the so-called Benedict Option — strikes me increasingly as just one more way that modern Christians can think of themselves either as superior or victim while paying not much heed to the idea of living quite and peaceful lives in the existing world. Rod Dreher compiles a number of quotations among Roman Catholics and Episcopalians about the Benedict Option and has extensive quotations from Ken Myers. Among them are the following, which includes first a brief against modernity:

The “counter” in counterculture sounds, as I’ve suggested, a prophetically constructive note. It is a necessary note because of the disorder of the modern West, and I think any effort to define and embody a counterculture for the common good has to work to understand the nature of that disorder. In a chapter called “The redemption of society,” in his book The Desire of the Nations, moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan observes that many thinkers from diverse intellectual disciplines and philosophical or theological points of view have converged on a critique of “modernity.” They disagree about many finer points and some larger ones, but they all agree that the social and cultural phenomena of our times need to be understood as “part of a greater historical totality — one which they date variously, but always in centuries rather than in decades. What makes life in the late modern period different — its high level of technologisation, its sexual permissiveness, its voluntarisations of birth and death, its concept of politics as economic management — can all be traced back to seed-thoughts that were present at the beginning of the modern era, and are aspects of a necessitating web of mutual implication.”

I agree that modern life poses challenges for Christians (as it does for Bunk and Jimmy — ahem). But weren’t things pretty bad going all the way back to the fall? Think Cain and Abel. Well, maybe the medieval era of Christendom was better. What about Pope Alexander VI? I don’t mean to suggest that all cultures are equal and that the current moment is no better or worse than any other. I for one think that our society has declined since the 1970s. But can we really blame modernity? Don’t Christians have to blame sinners? Democracy?

To the idea that Christians should promote the common good, Ken responds:

Actively, systematically, and consistently promoting the common good will produce enemies and possibly invite persecution in modern America because our society is deeply committed to the premise that we should share no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common. The American understanding of freedom — an understanding shared by many professing Christians — was articulated by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This so-called “mystery passage” has received a lot of mockery from conservatives of various stripes, but I think it is profoundly accurate statement of the flowering of a seed-thought central to the character of modern culture. This radical privatizing of all metaphysical commitment is not the tyrannical expression of an elitist court, but the precious conviction of a majority of Americans.

Is it true that our society is “deeply” committed to this premise that we share no goods in common? We may live that way de facto. But are Americans deeply committed to this the way that the Gospel Coalition is deeply committed to avoiding the question of baptism? Aaron Sorkin in his popular television shows like West Wing and Newsroom actually seems to portray an understand of America that underscores and longs for a shared understanding of national greatness and his main characters, whether presidents or news anchors, seem to operate as if such a shared vision is still possible (except for the baleful influence of the Tea Party). Ken’s description of America strikes me as a form of overstatement that you might hear from the meaner sectors of Protestantism but not within the Episcopal Church.

And speaking of the Episcopal Church, which does ordain gay bishops, is what Ken says about liberal democracies also true of liberal Protestant communions?

The orthodoxy of all liberal democracies requires that religious convictions — or any beliefs that even appear religious — be segregated from private life. Religious convictions cannot be regarded as having public consequence. As John Milbank has noted, “in principle, a state can adopt any ideology it chooses, except a religious one.” And yet, a Christian understanding of human flourishing and the common good must be founded on the affirmation of our creation by God.

So when Christians do hunker down in the separated fortresses, will Christian orthodoxy prevail? I know, having just attended my first international presbytery meeting (The Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario), that even disciplining Orthodox Presbyterians, who are generally a pretty Bible revering bunch, can be a challenge. So when the Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholics, or mainline Protestants withdraw into their separated spaces and ghettos of virtue, will the lack of discipline that afflicts those communions also show up? That’s another way of asking which Christian group has the chops to produce a rule as strict as Benedict’s? (And let’s not forget about reproduction and what happened to the Shakers.)

To be sure, having a society that doesn’t undermine what parents try to pass on to their kids (but which parents and which kids) is appealing. But Christianity came into the world in such a social setting. Why should we expect more than the original followers of Jesus?

We Need A Declaration of Institutional Independence

A new book, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell (which I haven’t read but is reviewed in Christianity Today), argues that social conservatism (i.e., the Religious Right) is “the application of natural law to politics — the self-evident truths of the Declaration — rather than as a political manifestation of religious revelation.” Bell apparently argues this way in order to counter the trend of evangelicals increasingly moving left. According to Andrew Walker, the reviewer, “Liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis insist that younger evangelicals have moved beyond abortion and gay marriage to matters of immigration and economic justice. Many mainstream Republicans complain that social conservatives hold the party hostage to a divisive agenda. Happy to court social conservative votes, they sweep social conservative causes under the political rug once victory has been attained.” Bell’s book, then, appears to be a way of rallying evangelicals to remain conservative. His reading of the Declaration of Independence, the British Enlightenment, and American politics all point to evangelical convictions as basic to the United States’ character.

The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions. In the antebellum era, appeals to natural rights could be used against states’ rights in order to assert one national norm and go around the powers of local governments. But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits. Pitting individual liberty against governmental regulation is not a conservative argument. In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.

For this reason, if Bell’s book gains traction among evangelicals it will further direct born-again Protestants from any sustained consideration of genuine American conservatism, the kind that takes seriously not some abstract rights of individuals in some nether world, state of nature, but the real laws and institutional arrangements that informed decisions to form a federated republic under the norms prescribed in a national constitution.

This is why it would be much better if evangelicals would turn to writers like Noah Millman, who blogs over at the American Conservative, and understands well the radicalism inherent in appeals to abstract ideals of individual liberty. In a post about the impossibility of religious liberty, he writes:

Winnifred Sullivan’s book argues, in a nutshell, that religious freedom, for individuals, means freedom from religious authority as well as freedom from governmental restriction on religious practice. So, you can’t ask a Catholic prelate whether this or that practice that the law would prohibit (say, putting statues on angels on graves, which is the main example in her book) is actually a formal part of Catholic religious practice, because the prelate has no standing, in a secular court, to rule on the question. If the grieving family feel that it’s an essential that Dad get guarded by a statue of an angel, then that’s their religious practice by definition, and if you want true freedom of religion you have to protect it. But this way, needless to say, lies chaos. Hence the impossibility of religious freedom.

In encourage people to read the book; a one-paragraph summary doesn’t do justice to the argument.

What I’ve argued in the past is that, regardless of where Constitutional doctrine winds up, we should strive to maximize (within reason) the zone of autonomy for religious institutions, because we should view that autonomy as a positive good, not as an absolute “right.” Hegemonic liberalism should be humble enough to accept that it doesn’t know the only ways of knowing, and that there is value, therefore, in having robust voices that claim other modes of knowledge – religious voices being preeminent examples.

Which is why I’ve argued simultaneously that I think the Constitutional objections to the HHS mandate don’t convince me, but that the mandate was a mistake – not a political mistake (it may or may not have been that as well) but a substantive policy mistake. Not because Catholics can’t freely practice their religion if the HHS mandate exists (they clearly can – indeed, it’s really easy to construct workarounds that don’t directly implicate the employer in providing the coverage, in which case I don’t see what the religious objection might be) but because we actively do want the Catholic Church out there living, in its institutions, a worldview with which the majority of the country disagrees, precisely because it has a long and profound history and the majority of the country disagrees with it. This is the kind of situation where “diversity is strength” has some actual meaning in the political ecology.

Important to note is the contrast Millman makes between individual and institutional freedoms. I agree with him that a true diversity would encourage greater resilience for church authorities like the Roman Catholic hierarchy and I would hope that such encouragement would extend to the assemblies and synods of Reformed and Presbyterian communions. But what is striking is that the protection of religious liberties for individuals is a very different matter than such protection for religious institutions.

The reason that evangelicals do not see this distinction, or use it in their political reflections, I suppose, is that their religious devotion is largely personal and individual — the believer’s experience — and not institutional or under the oversight and norms of an ecclesiastical body. It is no wonder, then, that evangelicals, long on individualism and short on ecclesiology, will try to find roots for social conservatism in a document that has no legal standing in America’s laws and that celebrates the individual (at least for a few lines).

Having Your Constitution and Obeying It Too

One of the notable inconsistencies of so-called social conservatives in the United States is the disparity between wanting government to legislate morality and wanting government to be small. This isn’t simply a question of “gotcha” politics, it is a serious matter of political theory and historical inquiry. Is the ideal of American government one of keeping the state under check, or is a far-reaching state fine as long as it supports and enforces the morality that I believe is good. A recent exchange at On Faith explores this tension within the ranks of the Tea Party. This populist effort seemingly favors limited government but if it attracts social conservatives who want the American government to enforce their moral convictions it’s policies may not be so limited.

Contemporary conservative Protestants are equally implicated in this glaring problem. On the one hand, they long for a magistrate who will enforce both tables of God’s law. And shortly thereafter they will upbraid President Obama for violating American notions of limited government.

How can you possibly think you stand in continuity with the framers of the American political order who instituted checks and balances to guard freedom from tyranny and also believe, with the original Westminster Confession, that the magistrate has the power to “call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” Let’s get this straight. The magistrate has power to call synods of the church, and to ensure that whatever happens at them – this from a lay person, no less – conforms not to Scripture but to the “mind of God.” What magistrate has that kind of spiritual insight? What people wants to give a magistrate that kind of power? One obvious answer — not the American people, and that is why they have a Constitution that not only divides the magistracy up into executive, legislative, and judicial helpings, but also prevents the legislature from enacting laws that govern religion.

But despite the disparity between an Erastian magistrate and the American form of government, Presbyterians in the United States continue to think that their big magistrate in religious matters goes with a limited government over the rest of life. Take the example of the Baylys.

First, here’s an excerpt from a sermon which includes exhortations to President Obama from David Bayly (though it may have originated from Doug Wilson):

President Obama stands as our head. He is our representative not just under our federal form of government, not just in earthly terms, but in heavenly terms, before the throne of God. He stands before God for all the righteousness and wickedness of our nation. He either opposes the sins of the nation and reaps blessing from God, or stands in affirmation of them and reaps their judgment.

And in this regard I call on us to declare and President Obama to hear the Word of God.

President Obama, you have promised not to make abortion a litmus test in nominating judges to the Supreme Court. The King of kings, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, however, has declared the murder of innocents a high sin, a sin so vile that even after Manasseh repents of his butchery of the innocent and is followed by the righteous Josiah, God will not turn back his judgment on Judah. President Obama, you are not the first American political leader to embrace this slaughter. Others have gone before you in this. Others bear equal or greater responsibility. But you are president today. And you are the leader of a nation which is at war against God in this, President Obama. We have rejected the Word of God and the Lordship of Christ in this matter. You must oppose abortion in obedience to the King of kings for whom the murder of innocents is indeed a litmus test of righteous authority.

President Obama, in your declaration of June 1, 2009, “NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2009 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. I call upon the people of the United States to turn back discrimination and prejudice everywhere it exists. IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this first day of June, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third. BARACK OBAMA.”

President Obama, you speak of “the year of our Lord,” yet you honor what God despises, declaring a matter of pride that which is an abomination to God. In declaring good what God has judged wicked you are in rebellion against the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.

President Obama, in your speech in Cairo last Thursday you said, “All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.”

In that same speech you also said, “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

But I say to you as a minister of the Gospel you claim to believe: Scripture tells us God hates all false gods and that Jesus is earth’s sole Lord of lords. When Moses, Elijah and Jesus stood together on the mount of transfiguration and Peter suggested building tabernacles for all three, God thundered from heaven the unique authority of His Son. You proclaimed yourself a Christian in your speech. In so saying you claimed to accept the authority of Jesus Christ. Surely any Christian knows that Scripture teaches the unique authority of Jesus.

You, Barack Obama, by using your office to defend the impostor Mohammed, and to suggest that Jesus and Moses are equals, usurp the authority of Christ and are in rebellion against King Jesus.

Reading this you’d almost think Obama was a king (of Israel, no less). But the American rebellion was against monarchical forms of government. Go figure.

And when figuring do take into account another Bayly post which faults Obama for not following the Constitution:

During his State of the Union Address with the justices sitting under his nose, President Obama shamed them for their recent decision overturning unconstitutional campaign reform laws. Note how little the Constitution matters to this former law professor at University of Chicago and editor of the law review at Harvard. His issue isn’t that their decision was wrong, constitutionally, but that its consequences are bad for America. He might have said “with all due respect First Amendment to the Constitution,” but he didn’t.

Whatever in the world happened to the Constitution? Among these public masters, finding submission to their vow to uphold the Constitution is like a “Where’s Waldo” game.

I know consistency is the hobgobblin of small minds, but wouldn’t President Obama after reading the Baylys, be a tad confused about knowing when he is supposed to obey the Constitution and when he’s not? Do the Baylys (and their defenders) really think you can have the Constitution without the First Amendment? Do they also think you can have the original Westminster Confession or Calvin’s Geneva for that matter and have the Constitution of the United States? If the Baylys want to uphold limited government along the lines of the American founding, then how can they support an expansive government with power to pry into personal beliefs?

This is the plight of contemporary American political conservatism. It is populated by people who, thanks to their confusing the spiritual and temporal kingdoms, also confuse 1640s England with 1770s America. That leaves American Protestants of an allegedly conservative bent lurching for policies, laws, and officials that veer markedly from the limits that those not-so-Christian founders placed upon American government. Ironically enough, the sort of limited government practiced in the United States and upheld by political conservatives grants loud-mouthed ministers the freedom to mock and ridicule authorities instituted by the very God they profess to serve. And people think Obama is un-American!