If You Worry about Pompeo, Why Not Pope Francis?

The Guardian has a story that should trouble 2kers. It’s about the influence of evangelicals, holding office, mind you, and responsible for foreign policy in the Middle East:

In his speech at the American University in Cairo, Pompeo said that in his state department office: “I keep a Bible open on my desk to remind me of God and his word, and the truth.”

The secretary of state’s primary message in Cairo was that the US was ready once more to embrace conservative Middle Eastern regimes, no matter how repressive, if they made common cause against Iran.

His second message was religious. In his visit to Egypt, he came across as much as a preacher as a diplomat. He talked about “America’s innate goodness” and marveled at a newly built cathedral as “a stunning testament to the Lord’s hand”.

The desire to erase Barack Obama’s legacy, Donald Trump’s instinctive embrace of autocrats, and the private interests of the Trump Organisation have all been analysed as driving forces behind the administration’s foreign policy.

The gravitational pull of white evangelicals has been less visible. But it could have far-reaching policy consequences. Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo both cite evangelical theology as a powerful motivating force.

Just as he did in Cairo, Pompeo called on the congregation of a Kansan megachurch three years ago to join a fight of good against evil.

“We will continue to fight these battles,” the then congressman said at the Summit church in Wichita. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the rapture. Be part of it. Be in the fight.”

This is not good on two counts. First, it mixes the church and the state. Second, it uses bad theology for one of the mix’s ingredients. Good for Julian Borger to catch this.

But what about when the Vatican does the same thing (but without the Word of God)?

Though the week between Christmas and New Year’s is traditionally a fairly slow period on the Vatican beat, this is the Pope Francis era, when tradition and a Euro will buy you a cup of cappuccino in a Roman café.

Thus it’s entirely fitting that arguably one of the Vatican’s most important diplomatic encounters of 2018 came the day after Christmas, when Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, met Iraqi President Barham Salih in Baghdad.

During the meeting, Salih extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit the Iraqi city of Ur, the Biblical city of Abraham, for an interreligious summit. It’s a trip that St. John Paul II desperately wanted to make in 2000, during a jubilee year pilgrimage to sites associated with salvation history, but the security situation at the time made such a trip impossible.

There was no immediate word from the Vatican whether Francis intends to accept the invitation, although there has been some media buzz about an outing coming as early as February. Doing so would be entirely consistent with his penchant for visiting both the peripheries of the world and also conflict zones.

Parolin was accompanied in the Dec. 26 meeting by the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, the largest of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome in the country, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako. That was an important signal, in part underlining that the Vatican isn’t interested in pursuing a parallel diplomatic track with Baghdad that doesn’t prioritize the concerns of the local church.

(That’s a real concern, given the fact that critics insist the Vatican has done precisely the opposite in some other parts of the world, including China and Russia.)

According to a statement afterwards from the Iraqi president’s office, Salih and Parolin discussed the importance of different religions working together to combat extremist ideology “that does not reflect the beliefs and values of our divine messages and social norms.”

The statement also said the two leaders discussed the situation facing Christians in Iraq, talking “a great deal” about how to maintain their presence in the country and to assist in rebuilding their homes, businesses and places of worship in the wake of devastation caused by ISIS and other extremist Islamic forces.

Is it because the Vatican has been engaged in foreign policy for a millennium, compared to evangelicals who have only been at it maybe 30 years tops, that allows reporters to take Bishops’ influence on temporal rulers for granted?

Or are evangelicals scarier because with the executive branch of the U.S. federal government they have more power than the pope?

If so, that’s true audacity.

Advertisements

Hyphenated, Not Integrated

Peter Meilaender enhances the Lutheran reputation for thinking clearly about two kingdoms. In this particular case, Meilaender connects the dots between two kingdoms and vocation. But first, he has to clear the deck of modernity-phobia:

In a pre- or early modern world, most people still lived in stable communities that structured their lives, providing shared norms and a sense of place in an intelligible world. Their local communities, their work, their families and kinship networks, and their religious practices all overlapped and fit neatly inside one another, creating reinforcing structures of meaning. But the accelerating processes of modernity, especially over the last three centuries, gradually broke apart this coherent world. Political authority and structures of governance grew larger, more powerful, and more centralized; the decisions shaping people’s lives came to be made far away, by unknown strangers, even as their consequences reached deeper into one’s life. Workers became more mobile, and work moved out of the home, losing its connection to family structure and the rhythms of daily life. Employers, like states, became large, faceless powers, and urbanization took more and more men and women off the land and away from their traditional customs into massive, strange, and anonymous cities. Religion became an increasingly private affair, and in a mobile and diverse world, neighbors could no longer assume a set of shared norms. People were left alienated, powerless, and lost, their lives fragmented among different spheres of family, leisure, work, faith, and citizenship (or subjecthood) that they no longer knew how to integrate. Over time these processes have accelerated and have become even more acute in the post-Cold War world, with its intense globalization and rapid technological change.

You could add Patrick Deneen to this list. This understanding of modernity also increasingly informs Ken Myers’ interviews at Mars Hill Audio.

Then Meilaender uses Michael Walzer to show that modernity is more bark than bite:

Walzer briefly sketches several more such separations or differentiations. The “separation of civil society and political community creates the sphere of economic competition and free enterprise, the market in commodities, labor, and capital” (Walzer 1984, 316). It is true, of course, that “market freedom entails certain risks for consumers,” but, as Walzer points out, “so does religious freedom” (Walzer 1984, 316). Similarly, the “abolition of dynastic government separates family and state” and in this way creates the possibility for people to pursue careers according to their talents, opening up the “sphere of office and then the freedom to compete for bureaucratic and professional place, to lay claim to a vocation, apply for an appointment, develop a specialty, and so on” (Walzer 1984, 316-17). Finally, Walzer writes, the same process, by separating “public and private life” (Walzer 1984, 317), enables new forms of domestic intimacy that are profoundly important to most of us. In the privacy of our homes we become free to pursue “a very wide range of interests and activities…: reading books, talking politics, keeping a journal, teaching what we know to our children, cultivating (or, for that matter, neglecting) our gardens” (Walzer 1984, 317). Raising our own chickens, we might add, or not raising them! “Our homes are our castles, and there we are free from official surveillance” (Walzer 1984, 317).

The virtue of Walzer’s analysis is to correct the one-sided portrayal of modernity as a story of decay, fragmentation, and alienation, the loss of a pre-modern, pre-liberal Eden. The story of modernity is also one of increasing richness and diversity, of freedom and pluralism, of a world in which, to borrow a line from C. S. Lewis, “Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time” (Lewis 2003, 281).

The loss of integration is not bad but actually good (and of course, something that even the complainers take for granted, from indoor plumbing to civil rights).

Lutherans, according to Meilander, understand this differentiation better than most, thanks at least to Luther’s own recognition of the paradox that goes to the heart of Christian experience this side of glory (before real integration happens). He quotes Luther:

Two propositions are brought into harmony with one another: at one and the same time you satisfy God’s kingdom inwardly and the kingdom of the world outwardly. You suffer evil and injustice, and yet at the same time you punish evil and injustice; you do not resist evil, and yet at the same time, you do resist it. In the one case, you consider yourself and what is yours; in the other, you consider your neighbor and what is his. In what concerns you and yours, you govern yourself by the gospel and suffer injustice toward yourself as a true Christian; in what concerns the person or property of others, you govern yourself according to love and tolerate no injustice toward your neighbor.

This understanding of Christian identity, as one caught between (at least) two realities, is the basis for the doctrine of vocation and juggling all of the duties that a modern person has:

As a husband and father, I have obligations to love, cherish, and be faithful to my wife and children, to maintain, together with my wife, the good order and discipline of the household, and to provide for the religious education of my children. In the same fashion, I also fill other offices with their own corresponding duties. As a citizen, I must support the governing authorities, uphold the rule of law, and assist my fellow citizens in need. As a professor, I must help my students learn, expose them to important works and thinkers in my discipline, and help them develop their intellects. As a member of my parish, I have duties to support it financially and in other ways according to my talents—perhaps by caring for the church grounds or teaching Sunday school or singing in the choir. “There is no getting around it,” says Luther, “a Christian has to be a secular person of some sort….[For] now we are talking about a Christian-in-relation: not about his being a Christian, but about this life and his obligation in it to some other person, like a lord or a lady, a wife or children or neighbors, whom he is obliged, if possible, to defend, guard, and protect” (Luther 1956, 109).

An upside that Meilaender does not mention is that hyphenation would spare us the social justice warriors whose desire to immanentize the eschaton is the most obvious recent example of seeking integration.

This is Your Society on Antithesis

Damon Linker explains:

Slightly (but just slightly) below the level of national politics, reverberations from news of Harvey Weinstein’s allegedly atrocious behavior with women over a span of several decades continued to radiate outward from the movie producer. Instead of a united front of disgust at the details revealed by the story that brought him down, reaction (of course!) split along partisan lines, with leading liberal and conservative writers denouncing one another for hypocrisy and double-standards (the easiest and laziest forms of moral denunciation). So the right accused the left of going easier on Weinstein than they had on conservatives Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly after similar behavior was alleged against them, and the left accused the right of precisely the opposite sin.

Every single event in our public life is now instantly swept up into the centrifugal whirlwind of a political culture in which the center has completely failed to hold. Democrats are increasingly defined by their hatred of Republicans, just as Republicans manage to agree about little besides their loathing of Democrats.

Isn’t this precisely what happens when culture is an outworking of ground motives, and when policy is part of the plan of salvation? Living in God’s two kingdoms sure looks more attractive. But it is not nearly as fulfilling or energizing.

Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong

In 1872 the Protestant churches in Scotland handed over all their schools to the State on the explicit condition that Scottish State Education should continue to be Christian. From that day on the Scottish Education system (unlike the American one) has officially been Christian. The Catholics, being wiser than the Protestants, didn’t trust the State and so they kept their own schools. Even within living memory most schools in Scotland would have had ‘religious’ worship, school chaplains and bible teaching. The ethos of the schools were largely Christian. But this is now virtually unrecognisable. Secular humanists/atheists have cuckoo like taken over the State education system and are now using Salami tactics (piece by piece) to dismantle the remaining parts of it – crying tolerance and equality in order not to tolerate Christianity and in order to prevent Christians from receiving the equal education that the UN Human Rights charter demands.

2k Protestants were not so gullible.

And that’s why 2kers give two cheers (sometimes three) for the separation of church and state. It is impossible for established churches to remain faithful. They will always need to do the magistrate’s bidding and reflect the attitudes of the citizenry.

Selah.

Why I Love the Modern State

It helps me keep straight the difference between the city of God and the city of man, at a time when so many Christians want Christianity to define “ALL of me.”

Mark Oppenheimer thinks it possible to distinguish Christian as a noun and adjective:

And Jews and Christians alike have internalized these different connotations. Most Jews, if asked about their religion, say not, “I’m a Jew” but the softer, more acceptable, “I’m Jewish.” With Christians, the answer will vary depending on the kind of Christian you’re talking to. Liberal Protestants may say, “I’m Christian,” using the adjective, but many evangelicals, born-again Christians, and other passionate believers will say, “I’m a Christian.” It sounds a little jarring to more secular or liberal types, but not in a bad way. It just sounds hard-core, like the person is planting a flag and standing by it.

For Christians, the difference between “Christian” the adjective and “Christian” the noun is one of both degree and kind. We are all described by many adjectives, but we select very few nouns to sum up who we are. The nouns require a bit more commitment. It’s the difference between “I’m liberal” and “I’m a liberal”—the man or woman willing to own the noun is more committed, for sure. The adjective is what you are like; the noun is who you are.

And what about James Bratt’s suggestion that politicized evangelicals should own the moniker, “Christianist“?

Whatever the label, believers have trouble (without the help of modern politics) sorting out their Christian and non-Christian aspects. Just consider the confusion in this response to yesterday’s bombings in Belgium:

I’ll leave it to people who know what they’re talking about to expound further on the radical nature of what Christ is demanding of us when he says this. Suffice it to say for now that it’s clear and direct and we don’t have any choice if we call ourselves Christians: we have to forgive our enemies.

And that includes the terrorists who killed 34 people in Brussels on Tuesday. We have to forgive them.

BUT…But…but it is also written, “thou shalt not kill.” And that means that we need to kill all the other terrorists who are still out there.

Why? Because justice and reason and the teaching of the Church. The Fifth Commandment (don’t kill) imparts on Christians a duty to protect and defend innocent human life. Sooooo…it is morally just to use lethal force to prevent the killing of innocent people. Self-defense, just war, etc. etc. etc.

So kill ISIS.

First, I thought God through the ministry of the church forgives sins. It’s not up to me to forgive people who have not wronged me. Do I even have authority as an elder to forgive sins that are crimes against humanity? The Book of Church Order doesn’t say so.

Second, I don’t have the power to kill anyone legally unless I become part of the executive branch of our constitutional order. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I could legitimately kill someone. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I am also carrying out orders of someone else. As a Christian policeman, executioner, or solder I am carrying out the duties of my vocation. But I am not acting “merely” as a Christian since non-Christian police and soldiers carry out similar orders.

So as a 2k Christian I don’t have to forgive or kill. I defer to those with higher pay grades, which includes — piety alert! — praying, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and Clueless

Unless the Obedience Boys have figured out a way to make Wesleyan perfectionism a reality, all Christians struggle with the Lutheran paradox of being simultaneously a saint and a sinner (sorry to those professors of Christianity who need Vatican validation for sainthood). That paradox means that all Christians in their honest moments admit to struggling with and yield to sin. Which makes Christians inconsistent at least to outsiders. How can these people, the lament goes, who constantly prattle on about the moral law not see that they are immoral themselves? There’s a point in that somewhere, just as there is in stories about the guhzillions of pounds of CO2 that participants in the Climate Change Convention produced. But the impossibility of perfection in this life does not prevent either pastors or legislators from calling people to follow God’s law any more than the reality of political corruption prevents voters from voting for “good” candidates.

A measure of hypocrisy is part and parcel of the Christian life. Christians may be overly afflicted with temptations to promote sanctity all the while knowing that sanctification is a battle in which the believer always comes up short in a glass-completely-full-kind-of way.

But to go out of your way to oppose sinfulness in others while you yourself know you are guilty of the very sinfulness to which you object seems to be in a different category. 2k has regularly received opposition from those who think it leads to antinomianism, a disregard for God’s moral law. The reason runs something like this: if you can follow God’s law on Sunday but don’t need to the rest of the week, or if you strive to be holy as a Christian but not as a plumber, then you undermine the authority of God’s law in all areas of life.

But what happens if you are making that case against 2k at the very same time that you are knowingly violating God’s law? Is that hypocrisy? Or is it some other kind of disorder?

If, for instance, I were in the process of embezzling funds from an organization because finances on the home front were tight, wouldn’t it be foolish (aside from hypocritical) to become a champion of upholding the eighth commandment? Sure, I might still think others are sinful to steal, and if I’m an embezzling church officer I might would still vote to convict someone brought up on charges for stealing. But would I go out of my way in a public manner to identify stealing as a great form of wickedness? Would I write a series of blogposts about a sin I believe is responsible for destroying the church’s witness all the while I am guilty of that sin? Mightn’t I want instead to lay low? Wouldn’t I at least know that now — during this time of personal financial crisis — is not the occasion to stand atop the moral soapbox and point the finger?

We have a word for hypocrisy. What is the word for such lack of self-awareness? Clueless?

Why I Love (all about) Kuyper

From John Halsey Wood’s Going Dutch in the Modern Age:

Kuyper departed from Calvin and his Reformation forbears on one critical point, a deviation that imprinted his ecclesiology with a distinctively modern tint. The church had to be absolutely separated from the state. The Reformation was right to break up Rome’s worldchurch, wherein a single institution had been foisted on all Christians, but the Reformation had not gone far enough. It had stopped short at the settlement of cuius regio, eius religio, the state or societal church. “The Spirit of Christ yielded to an institution that wanted to twist the spiritual lines of humanity according to her geographical boundaries.” In practical terms, separation of church and state meant giving churches control over their own property; it meant that the state should stop subsidizing the salaries of the ministers (an ongoing reality even after the 1848 constitutional separation of church and state); and it meant that the state should relinquish its role in social welfare. Most importantly though, it meant abolishing Article 36 of the Belgic Confession. . . . Abolishing Article 36 as Kuyper proposed was the logical step in securing the doctrinal freedom of the church. (70-71)

But it also had an upside financially as Halsey Wood also explains:

Kuyper believed that the Netherlands Reformed Church (NHK) stood to benefit greatly from a shift from a state sponsored church to one arising from the voluntary participation of the members. Kuyper compared the Amsterdam congregation of the NHK with the Christian Reformed Church (CGK), the secession church of 1834. The Amsterdam congreagation of the NHK counted almost one hundred forty thousand members, while the whole CGK church totaled about one hundred thousand, which was forty thousand less than Kuyper’s own Amsterdam congregation. He estimated tha since 1834 (the year of the secession of the CGK from the NHK) his Amsterdam congregation had received almost eight million Guilders in state subsidy, yet the entire CGK had not gotten a cent. What did the NHK have to show for it? The Amsterdam congregation had fourteen buildings and twenty-seven pastors. The CGK, on the other hand, had two hundred buildings and two hundred and twenty pastors — with nothing but the free will gifts of its members! Kuyper went on for half a dozen pages with example after example of the deadening effects of state subsidy. (72)

So why is the separation of church and state with a 2k accent such a bogeyman to those who call themselves Kuyperian? Granted, Kuyper’s conception of a pluralistic society constructed along the lines of confessional or ideological pillars — Calvinists, Roman Catholics, and liberals each with their whole set of institutions, from labor unions to schools is not exactly what the United States turned out to be with its state consolidation and centralization to fight world wars and its suffocating two-party system. But what U.S. Kuyperians seem to have done is regard the U.S. as one big Christian pillar, even as they get in the tank for Christian nationalists of the GOP.

If New World Kuyperians were truly interested in a pluralistic society, one in which straights and gays lived together, 2kers and Kuyperians tolerated each other, I might be willing to tolerate the flawed rationale for Christian schools (read w-w). But what seems to have happened is that outside the confines of Netherlands’ pluralism, American Dutch Calvinists have determined that theirs is the only true Calvinism (why 2k is a threat) and have appropriated the logic of every-square-inch for national identity even while forgetting entirely the legacy of sphere sovereignty and pillarization.

Can We Talk About Prayer Meetings?

Paul Levy and I have, but the differences of our talk may be worth considering.

Like many evangelicals who seem to need to show their piety (despite our Lord’s warning about praying that others can see us at prayer), Levy provides a number of reasons for the week night “gathering” that seem to have less to do with prayer itself than with the fellowship that such meetings might encourage. For instance:

4. There is something that unites us together when we pray together – People ask sometimes what is encouraging you in Christian ministry? For me the big one is to hear someone pray for the first time. I am a Westminster Confession believing, card carrying Presbyterian and yet to hear someone pray for the first time makes me want to dance a jig of delight. As in marriage, those congregations who pray together stay together. You cannot hate your brother while praying with him and for him.

Is the point of prayer to encourage other believers or inspire a dance, or is it to offer up to God our desires “for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies” (SC 98)? If it is the latter, then Levy is closer to the mark when he writes:

6. Prayer is a means of grace – Hebrews 4:14-16 ”14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Prayer is us speaking with God, but, as we pray, we receive mercy and find grace. It is my experience that at prayer gatherings when the people of God together call on the name of God we are often more conscious of his blessing. As we draw near to him he draws near to us.

But is prayer more effective, more gracious, when people gather for it and it’s done corporately? If people stay home and pray, even at the same time, is the effect the same? With God maybe, but not for those for whom prayer becomes a means of bonding or becoming more personally acquainted. Fellowship is a valuable thing. But doesn’t it happen more over a meal than when either listing prayer requests of extemporaneously praying for them. In fact, sometimes prayer meetings can hurt fellowship when you find that saints (see what I did there?) request prayer for ephemeral matters or lack eloquence when praying publicly (myself included). In other words, prayer meetings can be very uncomfortable because of the performance component inherent in them. But Levy, like so many pietists, only sees the spiritual (up) side.

On the other hand, prayer meetings may be a very good marker of Christian devotion, as they reveal Christians who participate in the life of a congregation and are willing to make that a priority. Instead of being culture warriors, they are church members.

At the same time, if we limit serious church assemblies to the Lord’s Day and the regular administration of the means of grace, Christians may actually have time to serve on school boards or attend public events and show that they are active members of the earthly kingdom where they live while they await and pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory.

With Constantine No Walter White

I wonder if those who long for a stronger Christian presence in determining cultural standards and governing society are willing to give up some of their sideline interests. If, for example, you happened to hear a person who advocated family values and traditional marriage also write about the brilliance of The Wire in its depiction of urban life and politics, would you not think the message a tad mixed.

I have before wondered about those who like Doug Wilson or the BBs who advocate a return to Geneva of the 1550s or Boston of the 1650s if they are willing to give up some of the liberties that Americans now enjoy this side of 1776 (like blogging). But I am even more curious about the larger and less vocal set of critics of our current scene for its indifference to a higher range of human aspirations and who follow with great enjoyment the latest hit cable TV show — Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective. Do these folks who hope for higher standards in government and culture make any calculation about whether their favorite shows will still be on the air if they get their wishes (the Gypsy Curse?)?

Take for instance this passage from Theodore Dreiser’s novel, Genius (1915) — hide the women and children:

She leaned back against his shoulder stroking his hair, but finally ceased even that, for her own feeling was too intense to make movement possible. She thought of him as a young god, strong, virile, beautiful – a brilliant future before him. All these years she had waited for someone truly to love her and now this splendid youth had apparently cast himself at her feet. He stroked her hands, her neck, cheeks, then slowly gathered her close and buried his head against her bosom.

Angela was strong in convention, in the precepts of her parents, in the sense of her family and its attitude, but this situation was more than she could resist. She accepted first the pressures of his arm, then the slow subtlety with which he caressed her. Resistance seemed almost impossible now for he held her close – tight within the range of his magnetism. When finally she felt the pressure of his hand upon her quivering limbs, she threw herself back in a transport of agony and delight.

By the standards and laws of the day (remember Comstock was still on the books), this passage was pornographic. It kept Dreiser and his attorney tied up in courts and prevented the book from being widely distributed for eight years. By those same standards, The Wire would never have aired.

Could I live without HBO or Netflix? I’d like to think so but aside from the ordinary routines of family life or the genuine enjoyment of clever plots and transfixing characters, I’d also like to think that I would not have to choose. I do know enough history to think that if the Christian political and moral types get their way and rectify the errors of a secular society that lives by the antithesis of a Christian w-w, my private amusements are going to resemble what transpires among my fellow church members when we gather for worship or merriment than what I now enjoy in the other kingdom of a 2k universe.

Neutrality Beach

Anthony Esolen gives shelter and clothing to neo-Calvinists in his piece opposing neutrality in matters of public life. As we so often here, it’s impossible:

On the impossibility: consider the effects of a permission that radically alters the nature of the context in which the action is permitted. We might call this the Nude Beach Principle. Suppose that Surftown has one beautiful beach, where young and old, boys and girls, single people and whole families, have been used to relax, go swimming, and have picnics. Now suppose that a small group of nudists petitions the town council to allow for nude bathing. Their argument is simple—actually, it is no more than a fig leaf for the mere expression of desire. They say, “We want to do this, and we, tolerant as we are, do not wish to impose our standards on anyone else. No one will be required to bathe in the raw. Live and let live, that’s our motto.”

But you cannot have a Half-Nude Beach. A beach on which some people stroll without a stitch of clothing is a nude beach, period. A councilman cannot say, “I remain entirely neutral on whether clothing should be required on a beach,” because that is equivalent to saying that it is not opprobrious or not despicable to walk naked in front of other people, including children.

From this he goes on to comment on religion in the United States under a liberal secular government:

The virtue of religion, as our founders used the word, pertains to the duty that a person or a people owe to God. Now there either is a duty or there is not. You cannot say, “The People must remain absolutely neutral as to whether the People, as such, owe any allegiance to God, to acknowledge His benefits, and to pray for His protection.” To say it is to deny the debt. It is to take a position while trying to appear to take none. To decline to choose to pray, now and ever, is to choose not to pray. It is to choose irreligion. One should at least be honest about it.

The reader will no doubt know which side I take on these issues. My point here is that for certain questions, neutrality is an illusion. The nakedly secular state is not a neutral thing. It is something utterly different from, and irreconcilable with, every human polity that has existed until a few anthropological minutes ago. It is itself a set of choices which, like all such, forecloses others; a way of living that makes other ways of living unlikely, practically impossible, or inconceivable.

One odd aspect of this argument is that many Roman Catholics (Anthony Esolen’s religious tribe) would have appreciated a tad more neutrality from public officials for about a 170-year swath of U.S. history (1790-1960). Most American Protestants didn’t grasp the privilege they enjoyed by virtue of certain political ideas embodied in the Constitution and that the Vatican did not finally embrace until the Second Vatican Council. Protestants also enjoyed a semi-monopoly of public education, a situation that forced many bishops to sponsor parochial schools. In which case, I could well imagine that if Anthony placed himself at a different time in U.S. history he might be able to empathize with those Americans who take some comfort from a government that tries not to take a side among religions.

Related to this is empathy with state officials who are trying to decide about a nude beach. Maybe they cite chapter and verse from the Decalogue and enlist the support of Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. But what if they also want the support of the large collection of journalists and engineers in town who work for National Public Radio. Maybe they use an argument against a nude-beach on the grounds supplied by a non-religious argument.

One of the problems the Religious Right has faced, in my view, is an inability to arrive at just such common rationales for what they believe. The logic of the Lordship of Christ or w-w says that all of me is religious so I need to make a religious argument. But lots of non-religious people would also favor a beach where bathers did not reveal their private parts. That this outcome seems far fetched in the case against neutrality may show how much the religion-is-all-of-me has prevailed. But why is it unlikely that many parents in the United States, even if they don’t attend a church or synagogue, would oppose a nude beach? And why is it necessarily a betrayal of my faith if I try to find a rationale for conventional Christian morality that also appeals to a non-Christian?

The bottom line I keep coming back to: if neutrality is not something we shoot for no matter how sloppy it will be, then do we need to return to the confessional state where only Protestants or Roman Catholics run things? That would certainly cut down on the pluralism of our societies and may bring a return of the ghettoization of religious dissenters. Do opponents of neutrality have a stomach for that? If not, maybe they should keep their clothes on.