Jamie Smith’s Bait and Switch

I was afraid that neo-Calvinism’s refusal to distinguish the sacred and secular would go here — that is, to a defense of civil religion. Jamie Smith’s latest editorial does just that.

Mind you, he is aware of the defective versions of civil religion, especially the one that has sent U.S. soldiers “to die face down in the muck of Vietnam” (thank you, Walter Sobchak):

civil religion is what we get when we divinize the civitas, when devotion to “the nation” trumps other allegiances and inspires a fervor and passion that is nothing short of religious. David Gelernter names this in his 2007 book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Walter McDougall’s more recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, which Robert Joustra reviews in this issue, identifies the same problem in its subtitle: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. In McDougall’s argument, civil religion carries the usual whiff of irrationality: the hard-nosed rationality of national interests is compromised because of vaunted values and misguided mythologies.

But Smith still thinks civil religion is salvageable.

The envisioned good of a diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. In short, the very project of a well-functioning, pluralistic, liberal society depends on the formative power of tradition-specific, “illiberal,” non-democratic communities that can inculcate virtues of hope, respect for dignity, commitment to truth, and more. Families, synagogues, churches, mosques embed their members in a Story that makes such virtues “make sense.” These non-political spheres of society cultivate people who become the sorts of citizens who know how to be patient and forgiving precisely because they believe in something beyond the state.

See what he did there? Civil society in liberal democracies owes its existence to Christianity. In those societies synagogues, churches, and mosques embed citizens in “a Story.” They become patient and forgiving.

Christianity did that? Or was it the Enlightenment (which owes its existence in part to medieval and early modern Europe). Maybe by using the indefinite article in “a Story” you can get away with blurring churches, synagogues and mosques into one happy, fuzzy, gentle, and kind civil society. But that is certainly not the experience of most western societies where Christians ran things and established their churches.

Smith really pours it on when he leads the following cheer:

But one of the by-products of a healthy church forming citizens of kingdom come is that they are then sent into the earthly city with Christlike virtues that also contribute to the common good. We might miss this because it doesn’t primarily play itself out on a national scale; rather, it is enacted at the parish level, in a thousand different neighbourhoods. There we also find Christians, Jews, and Muslims collaborating for the sake of the vulnerable, the lonely, and the marginalized while also nourishing the virtue incubators we call families.

Well, in point of fact, when Christians go into public with a comprehensive w-w they have to be especially aware that they are not like Jews or Muslims. Pot down the w-w gauge and perhaps you have less conviction about being distinct from those people who do not profess Christ. But I don’t know how Smith gets the Chamber of Commerce view of Christianity’s civil nature from Christ’s own words:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:34-35)

That explanation of the antithesis is what makes Abraham Kuyper’s pillarization of Dutch society so intriguing. The Netherlands was not the American melting pot (or even the Canadian multicultural stew). It was a series of religious subgroups that kept to themselves the way that states’ rights advocates in the United States thought about relations between local and federal government.

But if Christians want a seat at the table of a liberal international order that preserves democracy from autocracy, Smith does a pretty good impersonation of 1950s mainline Protestantism.

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What’s the Difference between a Pro-Refugee Evangelical (Tim Keller) and a Democrat (Dianne Feinstein)?

Short answer: neither quotes the Bible.

Notice for instance the parallels among the National Association of Evangelicals, Ed Stetzer, Evangelical leaders (among them Tim Keller), and the Democrats.

The NAE:

“Christians and churches have been welcoming refugees for 2,000 years, and evangelicals are committed to continue this biblical mission. Thousands of U.S. evangelicals and their churches have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past 40 years through World Relief and other federally approved resettlement agencies. We don’t want to stop now,” NAE President Leith Anderson said.

The Trump administration’s plans to make severe cuts to the admission of refugees are alarming. We call on President Trump to declare his support for the continuation of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which is critical at a time when the world faces a significant refugee crisis.

Ed Stetzer:

Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, says it this way: “The decision to restrict all entry of refugees and other immigrants … contradicts the American tradition of welcoming families who come to the United States to start their lives again in safety and dignity. The American people — most of whom can trace their own families’ stories through a similar immigrant journey in search of freedom — are a hospitable people.”

He’s right. But, it’s not just because we are Americans. It’s because we are Christians.

God’s people should be the first ones to open their arms to refugees. We should welcome them and do what Christians, in your church and mine, have been doing a long time — showing and sharing the love of Jesus with them.

Tim Keller et al:

As Christians, we have a historic call expressed over two thousand years, to serve the suffering. We cannot abandon this call now. We live in a dangerous world and affirm the crucial role of government in protecting us from harm and in setting the terms on refugee admissions. However, compassion and security can coexist, as they have for decades. For the persecuted and suffering, every day matters; every delay is a crushing blow to hope.

Since the inception of the refugee resettlement program, thousands of local churches throughout the country have played a role in welcoming refugees of all religious backgrounds. Ministries to newly arrived refugees are ready, and desire to receive many thousands more people than would be allowed under the new executive order.

The Democratic Party (according to Damon Linker):

Many liberals argue that refugees are among the most vulnerable people on Earth and so must be welcomed with open arms. That forcing undocumented immigrants to leave the country is gratuitously cruel, violates their rights, and so justifies municipalities flouting federal law by turning themselves into “sanctuary cities.” That banning entry to refugees or immigrants not yet within the United States can violate their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. And that the desire to restrict immigration is invariably an expression of xenophobia, racism, and other forms of irrational animus and so morally (and perhaps constitutionally) indefensible.

All of these claims are, at bottom, expressions of a fundamentally anti-political humanitarian ideology that is unlikely to fare well in the next presidential election. Democrats desperately need to confront the vulnerabilities of this position and stake out a more defensible and pragmatic one if they hope to push back against Trump’s populist-nationalist message in upcoming years.

Of course, evangelicals don’t need to worry about running for election (though the likes of Russell Moore does need to worry about ministry dollars going somewhere other than the Southern Baptist cooperative program). But evangelicals who live in the United States may want to think (with help from Linker) about how to love their actual neighbors who live within U.S. borders (Walter didn’t see his buddies die face down in ‘Nam for open borders):

Many Americans believe that their constitution presumes or appeals to certain timeless, universal moral truths that apply to all human beings. But the U.S. Constitution itself — like the constitutions, fundamental laws, and commonly affirmed norms and rules of all political communities — is nonetheless instantiated in a particular place, rooted in a particular tradition. It also pertains and applies only to people who are members of the political community known as the United States of America.

Those who are members of this community are known as American citizens. They get a say in what laws get passed and how they get enforced. Those who are not members of this community — who are not citizens — don’t get such a say. The community is perfectly within its rights to decide which and how many of these outsiders will be allowed to visit the country, how long they will be allowed to stay, when they will need to go, and how many, if any, will be permitted to join the community permanently by becoming citizens.

This is one of the most elemental acts of politics: the community deciding who to admit and on what terms. To treat this act as somehow morally illegitimate is to treat politics as such as morally illegitimate.

In other words, evangelicals think like 1kers, as if the U.S. is a Christian community. Imagine welcoming non-Christians into fellowship in a Christian congregation. What sense does that make? So why should citizens of the United States act as if they are the United Nations of the World. As Linker says, it’s a complicated question how Americans decide what to do with outsiders:

Note that nothing I’ve said tells us anything about how many immigrants or refugees the political community of the United States should welcome at any given moment of history, or what criteria should be used to make this determination. I generally favor liberal immigration policies; many Trump voters take a very different view. The point, as Josh Barro recently argued in an important column, is that the policy debate needs to be made in terms of the good of the political community as a whole and in its parts, not in terms of abstract, extra-political moral duties owed to prospective newcomers. A political community exists in large part to benefit itself — to advance the common good of its citizens. There’s nothing shameful in that. It’s to a considerable extent what politics is.

And don’t forget, if godless Democrats and progressive evangelicals agree that Jesus is on the side of refugees, w-w has failed.

Engaged or Cohabiting

Thanks to Dustin who challenges the Old Life (okay mmmmeeeEEEE) manner of responding to The Gospel Coalition (aka Gospel Industrial Complex and related outlets) I have the opportunity to clarify this old Calvinist’s attitude to the Calvinist wannabes.

The problem with TGC is that is neither fish nor foul. It tries to do the gospel but it also adds a lot of clutter. So if I wanted to read a theological journal, TGC isn’t the place to go because it doesn’t go deep or academic (though it tries to strike a scholarly tone). And if I want to read about culture — TGC has channels from “Current Events” to “Arts and Culture” — why would I read their take before what I normally read — New Republic, New Yorker, American Conservative, and a host of blogs.

So the issue is that TGC doesn’t really investigate the nooks and crannies of theology and worship. How can it when it is a coalition of people in different communions? TGC accentuates the positive. In my mind that is overwhelmingly dull. TGC feels more like an organization interested in boundary maintenance and creating a feeling of belonging than in thinking challenging thoughts. The inspirational bits, whether from earnest piety or the fame of celebrity pastors, don’t overcome the predictability.

When it comes to arts, culture, current events, TGC seems to want to be neo-Calvinist but the New Calvinists haven’t done the intellectual heavy lifting that neo-Calvinist clearly have. As much as I take issue with the integralist aspirations of neo-Calvinists, they are smart, they know the importance of academic rigro rigor and are generally (in their intellectual demeanor) not interested in inspiring. They are especially proficient in philosophy. I don’t happen to believe that philosophy is the area of study to supply the foundation that gives coherence to all human activity — I don’t think such coherence is possible (hide human flourishing under a bushel? Yes!). But I give the neo-Calvinists credit for doing the hard intellectual labor.

I don’t see that kind of intellectual output — no offense — at TGC. Not to mention that I’m not sure what current events or the arts or food shopping on Sundays has to do with the gospel.

So TGC fails on two counts: they dabble at paleo-Calvinism; and they dabble at neo-Calvinism. If the allies want simply to be evangelical, fine. That is actually what they are — a repristination of the New Evangelicalism of Fuller, Christianity Today, and the National Association of Evangelicals minus the Wesleyans and Pentecostals. I’ve seen this stuff before. Not much to see and certainly nothing to take seriously.

In other words, I don’t engage TGC. I live in a world where TGC also lives. In some sense, we live together. But we don’t relate and we certainly don’t commune (or roll on Shomer Shabbos).

Taking Every Inch But Not The Lord's Day Captive

We do know that Walter doesn’t roll on Shomer Shabbos. We should have also known that if Bubba Watson won at Augusta, the Allies — like clock work — would be all over it. Opportunities to root, root, root for the home team shall not be passed up, even if unbelievers may find the self-congratulations a sign of insecurity. (Somehow negative readings never occur to cheerleaders.)

Even so, the explanation for the significance of Watson’s victory is hard to believe:

Why It Matters: Christians have always been involved in professional sports, so why is the faith of superstars like Watson suddenly worthy of the public’s attention? Because athletes like Watson show that it’s still possible for athletes to be open and unapologetic about their willingness to share the Gospel. Also, Watson may be one of the best in his sport but he understands the importance of keeping his priorities in order, winsomely admitting that their life’s callings are secondary to serving the Creator who has called them. To a culture that is both obsessed and disillusioned with fame and fortune, this centered perspective provides a refreshingly countercultural witness.

Wouldn’t not playing golf on Sunday be a truly counter-cultural witness? Such a decision is not that hard to imagine since Eric Liddell became the subject of a successful motion picture. The problem, of course, is that not playing on Sunday in golf means no victory, and no chance for Christians to preen. At least Liddell could run on another day. Even so, if the Allies are truly interested in being counter-cultural (and not merely complimenting themselves for being so), they might consider whether a victory at the Masters is the best vindication of Christian faithfulness.

Why Exclude Walter and the Dude?

Viewers of “The Big Lebowski” may well remember one of many memorable lines from Walter Sobchak. This one comes in the context of a discussion with Donny about the merits of nihilism. Walter will have none of an outlook that believes in nothing. As he explains to Donny, “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

That line came to mind when reading a recent Christianity Today editorial about Chuck Colson and his efforts to unite Roman Catholics and Evangelicals in an Abraham-Kuyper like coalition to oppose “spiritual nihilism.”

Colson, like Kuyper, was concerned about the effects of modernism and later postmodernism on contemporary culture. And like Kuyper, he believed that unless believers are equipped with the critical tools of worldview thinking, they are unlikely to make any headway in redeeming culture.

When Colson and Richard John Neuhaus formed Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), their new Protestant-Catholic initiative, the group focused its initial statement on the common mission of the church in the third millennium. That mission, their 1994 document said, involved contending together “against all that opposes Christ and his cause.” In “developed societies,” that included “widespread secularization” that had descended “into a moral, intellectual, and spiritual nihilism that denies not only the One who is the Truth but the very idea of truth itself.”

Within the framework of Kuyper’s vision, this was an excellent summary of what Protestants and Catholics needed to address together.

As commendable as it may be for Christians to combat nihilism, why would this be a project that would exclude religiously conflicted folks like the Dude’s good friend and bowling team member, Walter? Lots of people who are not Christians oppose nihilism. Some of them are Christian. Some are Muslim. Some are Mormon. Some profess no God. If you want to oppose nihilism, then why not broaden the tent?

It could be that Christians think they alone have the true basis for a proper opposition. Or it could be that “spiritual nihilism” is different from Karl Hungus’ version of nihilism. But it does seem to me to be a form of shooting yourself in the foot when you make a common cultural cause into a matter of the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Postscript: are neo-Calvinists really comfortable with Colson carrying the water for Kuyper’s legacy?