Monthly Archives: December 2012

Conservative special pleading on taxes: charitable giving

I don’t know whether or not we’ll be diving over the fiscal “cliff” in the next few days, but one of the discussions that has intrigued me in recent weeks has been the debate over whether or not Congress should preserve the tax deduction for charitable giving. This deduction will expire should Congress do nothing during the next four days, and it could also expire or, more likely, be modified, if Congress does take action.

Conservatives and Republicans love to claim that their policies are more fiscally responsible than are those of the liberals and the Democrats. Conservatives want to reign in spending to reflect tax revenue, they point out, while the Democrats are committed to the unsustainable welfare state. Liberals, on the other hand, note that the Republicans talk the talk but never actually make the hard decisions to cut spending. What recent Republican administration ever maintained a balanced budget?

Part of the problem, of course, is that while virtually everyone agrees that the federal deficit has to be reduced, no one wants to see their own pet projects abandoned. We can all outline a series of programs and initiatives that we think should be jettisoned, but there is no shortage of organizations and lobby groups to explain to us why such reductions in spending would be detrimental to the country. Similarly, when others outline their lists, we are ready with our defense of our own favorite policies.

Thus we have the phenomena of staunch conservatives attacking President Obama and the Democrats for refusing to make hard decisions when it comes to spending cuts, while at the same time adamantly insisting that the deduction for charitable giving has to be maintained. So for instance, Richard Land, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claims that the expiration of the deduction is a “draconian threat to the religious and non-religious charities they [Americans] cherish.”

Land’s concern is about a measure not aimed at charitable deductions per se, but simply attempting to limit the amount of deductions claimable by high earners. In fact, he insists, “By all means we should reduce tax loop holes and extravagant personal deductions.”

But not this loop hole and not this deduction.

At a time of a seemingly ever-expanding, but financially strapped, federal government, why would that government seek to weaken and eviscerate the civil society nonprofits so necessary to act as a gentle buffer between government and individual citizens in need?

The proposal to further cap charitable deductions in the federal tax code is a threat aimed like a dagger at the heart of America’s charitable nonprofit entities, secular and religious. It will weaken most, kill many, and harm all.

Land tends to give in to temptations to escalate his rhetoric in situations like these (he claimed a few months ago that the 2012 election was the most significant in his lifetime). The Christian Examiner reports,

The idea of capping the charitable deduction “is as serious a threat to religious organizations as anything the federal government has done in recent decades,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

As serious as anything? Even the contraception mandate? Even the attempt by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to curtail the “ministerial exception”?

I agree with Land that government needs to foster and protect a strong civil society. I’m not convinced that the survival of such civil society depends on selective treatment from a federal government reeling from its inability to say no to special interests. It is simply not enough to make a good argument that federal support for a particular program or tax break benefits the country and is financially beneficial in the long run. Such arguments can be made about virtually every program or policy. If we have any hope of establishing a just, simple tax code, however, such arguments need to be resisted. Conservatives need to be as ruthless with their own favorite policies as they are with those of the left. They certainly don’t need to be playing the religion card.

In the Washington Post Ken Stern questions the degree to which the tax deduction is an incentive to charitable giving,

People with income in the lowest quintile give a higher percentage of their earnings to charity than do more wealthy Americans. This pattern persists despite the fact that low earners have less disposable income and rarely take advantage of itemized tax deductions for charitable donations. Sure, some contributions are tax-driven: Almost a quarter of online giving occurs in the last two days of the year as taxpayers rush to qualify for deductions. But Americans’ generosity may be more resistant to changes in the tax laws than most people think.

Of course, Stern may be being unduly optimistic here. But in my view it is somewhat irrelevant. Even assuming giving should drop off somewhat, are charitable and religious organizations really as threatened as Land claims? I doubt it. If they have really become so dependent on favorable federal tax policies then the fault is their own for ignoring Rule #1 when it comes to maintaining liberty from government interference: He who controls the purse strings makes the rules …

Homeschooling on the Left and the Right: beyond public and Christian schools

Last week’s issue of The Economist includes a brief report on the phenomenal growth of homeschooling in the past thirty years in the United States. According to the report, approximately 2 million children are currently being homeschooled, roughly the same number as are attending charter schools.

Homeschooling is one of those issues on which folks on the right and the left often find more in common with each other than they do with those in the middle.

Although home schooling started on the counter-cultural left, the conservative right has done most to promote it, abandoning public schools for being too secular and providing no moral framework. Today the ranks of home-schoolers are overwhelmingly Christian, and 78% of parents attend church frequently….

Home schooling is not exclusively white and Christian. In 2007 a report found that Muslim children were one of the fastest-growing groups; black-home schoolers are around 4% of the total and comprised 61,000 children. The super-wealthy, and parents who must move around a lot, are also taking up home schooling in increasing numbers because of its flexibility.

In certain Christian circles homeschooling has actually sparked significant opposition because it is viewed as a threat to Christian schools. Some Dutch Reformed communities, for instance, have gone so far as to refuse ecclesiastical office to parents who homeschool their children. In fact, while the movement in general owes much to Christian skepticism towards developments in public schools, many homeschooling parents are just as motivated by their frustration with Christian schools. As far as they are concerned, many of these schools are neither as Christian as they claim, nor do they offer anything like the rigorous education the parents are seeking.

How do homeschoolers do?

Academically, home-schooled children seem to do well; they enter higher education in proportions similar to those who are conventionally educated, and score as well or better on college entrance exams. Nor, on the evidence of Mr Murphy’s book, are they socially backward: most seem confident, assured and well-adjusted. They also have fewer behavioural problems.

It is also the case that in many instances public schools have been far more cooperative with homeschoolers than have Christian schools.

Public schools can do little but co-operate these days, and most offer access to school facilities, websites, books and other materials. Some even allow home-schoolers to take specialist courses—allowing the school to tap into a portion of public financing they would otherwise lose entirely.

Flexible cooperation between public schools, charter schools, Christian schools and “home schools,” each of which may be a legitimate option for parents under varying circumstances, seems sensible to me. The United States stands to benefit from the decentralization and democratization of education, both because of what this does for competition and educational improvement and because of the pluralistic solution it offers in a nation that has thus far found that the only possible way to be post-Protestant is to be thoroughly secular. We don’t all have to do this the same way.

Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Bush: Just War Theory and America’s Wars

[I’m traveling for the holidays today, and in the next week and a half blogging will be somewhat more sporadic and brief than usual. I do hope to get up a few posts, however, the first of which is the following on Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and American wars. Things should be back to normal in January.]

I recently finished reading biographies of two presidents – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower – both of whose legacy was to a significant degree shaped by their foreign policies. In Roosevelt’s case, whatever the controversial legacy of the New Deal may be, the successful oversight of what is largely regarded as the greatest and most just war in human history cements his place in history as one of America’s greatest presidents. As for Eisenhower, although his eight years in the White House can be criticized on many points, he merits significant praise for navigating America through eight years of peace and prosperity, years book-ended before and after by bloody military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

Judging the morality of any given military conflict is a notoriously complicated task. Although it’s easy for armchair ethicists to judge wars once they have been fought and won (or lost), in the heat and passion of most conflicts, very few people have the wherewithal to make level-headed evaluations. For example, for most amateur students of history it is difficult to fathom why so many Americans believed the nation’s cause was so righteous – and why they were convinced so much was there to be won – in the First World War. The same is true of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and to a certain extent of the Mexican War in 1846-1848. It is increasingly the case with the Iraq War, launched by President George W. Bush in 2003.

One of the things that really strikes me about the presidencies of Roosevelt and Eisenhower was just how seriously these men took decisions whether or not to go to war, and how hard they worked to ensure that if the nation did go to war, the public would be solidly behind the effort. This despite the fact that during the 1940s and 1950s the United States faced threats to its security far greater – or at least far more obvious – than the country does today.

During Roosevelt’s second term in office Germany launched Europe into its second major war in little more than two decades, overrunning seven countries and crushing the combined armies of the major military powers of Britain and France in a matter of weeks. Britain had a knife at its throat and its survival was most certainly in doubt. Despite the threat to western civilization, and despite his efforts to give Britain as much material support as he could, President Roosevelt did not commit the United States to war. It’s not that he didn’t believe in the cause. The issue was that he believed the country had to be fully behind a major war, and he was determined to lead Congress by leading popular opinion. In many ways it was FDR’s policies that provoked the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and when it was all said and done, Roosevelt, like Abraham Lincoln before him, succeeded in the crucial tactical effort of having his enemies (even Germany and Italy) start a war with America, rather than the other way around. As a result, Americans were always 100% behind the war effort.

Eisenhower, likewise, faced enormous threats to the United States. In the years leading up to his presidency the country had become embroiled in a seemingly endless yet bloody war in Korea, eastern Europe had been decisively consolidated under communist control, and the great nation of China – in which many Americans had placed lofty political and religious hopes – had itself turned red. The Soviet Union and the United States were gearing up for a nuclear arms race – soon to be followed by a space race –  that would leave the two countries in a state of perpetual fear and tension. Despite these threats, despite crisis after crisis, and despite the consistent urging of his highest advisors to go to war, Eisenhower led the United States through eight years of peace. He ended the Korean War, kept the military out of Eastern Europe, and avoided getting entangled in the French conflict in Vietnam. All the while he made himself clear on one crucial point: if America was going to go to war against China, or the Soviet Union, or one of their satellites, the country had to be overwhelmingly committed. The United States was not going to go to war divided or half-hearted.

I can’t help but think of the two wars of George W. Bush in relation to these earlier times. I know that historical comparisons are fraught with danger. No two situations are entirely alike, and often military and political actors make their greatest mistakes by assuming that history is repeating itself, when it is actually not. It is sometimes true that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat it, but it is also true that those who try to imitate the leaders of the past often make the present worse. So comparing Bush’s war on terror with Roosevelt’s struggle against fascism, or Eisenhower’s against communism, is certainly comparing apples and oranges.

That said, it is worth noting that when Bush led the United States into war in Afghanistan in 2001 he had the country solidly behind him. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were our generation’s Pearl Harbor, and virtually no one doubted that our troops were serving the cause of justice when they went after Osama bin Laden, and the regime that had made his terrorism possible. On the other hand, when Bush led us into war against Iraq, Americans were divided from the start. There was no great event to unify the country (the War on Terror was already beginning to run on fumes); instead we were working to wrap our minds around the new doctrine of preemptive war, desperately hoping that Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN would be as dramatic as the one he was seeking to emulate had been (during the Cuban Missile Crisis). True, no one doubted that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a threat to the United States. But was he a greater threat than Nazi Germany, regarding which Roosevelt was so patient before leading the country to war? Was he more dangerous than the Soviet Union, with whom Eisenhower maintained peace for eight solid years?

I’m not trying to offer any definitive judgments here. But it does seem to me that history affirms the wisdom of applying just war theory quite strictly. When our country is fighting a defensive war, when when we have justice on our side, we tend to be very united. We also tend to win. When matters are more complicated – you might think of Vietnam, in addition to Iraq – we do not do so well. I don’t know when the next war will be. But Iran’s continued progress towards a nuclear bomb continues to provoke talk of war, particularly preemptive war. We should make sure we keep some historical perspective, however, and not rush into anything prematurely. Roosevelt and Eisenhower both did a swell job protecting American security. Let’s hope our current leaders have the wisdom to do the same.

Wilson Was a Calvinist, but He Got Calvin Wrong

I’ve written a short piece over at Patheos about the relation between President Woodrow Wilson and Reformed theologians like Abraham Kuyper, J. Gresham Machen, and John Calvin. Here are the first couple paragraphs:

In a fascinating essay at Patheos, Dean Curry describes Malcolm Magee’s argument in What the World Should Be that President Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was decisively shaped by his Presbyterian Reformed theology.

“It is well known that Woodrow Wilson was a foreign policy idealist and that his approach to it was moralistic. After all, it was Wilson who famously promised that America’s participation in World War I would not be about selfish national interest—or realpolitik — but about the altruism of making the world “safe for democracy.” What is not well known about Wilson, and what Magee explains in fascinating detail, is how Wilson’s personal and political worldview was profoundly shaped by Reformed Protestant theology. Challenging the prevailing historiography of Wilson that has all but ignored Wilson’s theology, it is Magee’s thesis that Wilson was a “Presbyterian in politics, a twentieth century John Knox, a Christian statesman whose overriding motivation was his determination to do God’s work in a fallen world.””

Curry goes on to describe Wilson’s relationship with his father, a very prominent Southern Presbyterian pastor, and the influence on Wilson’s thinking of Princeton theologians like Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield. Curry also outlines Wilson’s friendship with J. Gresham Machen, as well as similarities between Wilson’s understanding of the relation between Reformed faith and politics, and that of Abraham Kuyper.

Read the rest, including my judgment of Wilson’s connection to Calvin’s thought, here.

What do you mean by ‘Christian’? What do you mean by ‘culture’?

A classroom full of kindergarten students is busily working on their art projects. One student glances over at the work of the student sitting next to him. “What’s that?” he asks. “It’s a cat,” the second child answers. The other looks skeptical. “No, that can’t be. We have a cat at home, and that’s not what it looks like.” The second child stops drawing, stiffens, fixes his eyes straight ahead of himself, and repeats, “it’s a cat.” The first child insists again, absolutely sure of himself, “no it’s not.” The conversation gradually escalates, with each student offering reasons as to whether or not the object in view is or is not a cat. The first stresses the lack of fur, whiskers, and movement. The second points to the shape of the head, the ears, and the body.

Finally a teacher is forced to mediate, and quietly explains to the second student that what his critic means is that it’s not a real cat; it’s simply a picture of a cat. She then explains to the first student that what the other means is that it’s a picture of a cat, not a real cat. The same word can mean different – though similar – things, in different contexts. This is not something we are supposed to argue about.

Something similar to this often happens, I think, when Christians get to arguing about the meaning of words like ‘Christian’ or ‘culture’ or ‘redemption’ or ‘transformation.’ We act as if any of these terms has one, authoritative meaning that everyone is supposed to accept, and then criticize everyone who, using the word differently, makes statements that seem contrary to our own.

Consider the word ‘Christian.’ The word appears in the New Testament three times. In Acts 11:26 we are told that in Antioch the disciples of Jesus were first called ‘Christians.’ There is no hint that there is anything normative about this. It’s simply a passing reference to the historical origin of a descriptive term. In Acts 26:28 we come across the word again, this time in the mouth of a pagan ruler. After listening to the Apostle Paul proclaim the gospel King Agrippa asks, “In a short time, would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Here again it is obvious that the term refers to a follower of Jesus. Finally, in 1 Peter 4:16 the Apostle Peter reminds believers that whether or not suffering has a redemptive quality to it depends on whether or not a person is suffering “as a Christian,” as opposed to as a “murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler.” Here the term seems to refer to someone who is actually following Christ in his or her conduct, rather than simply to someone who professes faith in Christ.

Of course, there are many other examples in the New Testament of the apostles declaring one thing or another to be “in Christ.” It would seem that these instances are also occasions in which the adjective ‘Christian’ might fairly be used. So for instance, when Romans 8:1 says that there is no no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, it would be a fair paraphrase to say that there is no condemnation for those who are Christians. Or when Paul says in Romans 9:1 that he is speaking the truth in Christ, it would be appropriate to say that he is declaring the “Christian truth.” Finally, when Paul says in Romans 12:5 that believers are “one body in Christ” we could paraphrase him as saying that we are “one Christian body.”

Fair enough? What then about those occasions in which Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” in breathtakingly expansive ways, ways indicative of the radical claims of the gospel over all of life. For instance, what about a passage like Colossians 1:15-20, in which Paul says that all things were created in Christ, all things are reconciled in Christ, and all things exist in Christ. Could we say that from this perspective there is a sense in which all things are definitively Christian (in origin, destiny, and existence)? It would seem so. At the very least it would seem very silly or petty of a person to say that we can say that something is “in Christ” and yet we cannot say that it is in any sense “Christian.”

From these examples you can readily see that the word ‘Christian’ can have a wide range of meanings. It can be a purely descriptive, historical term, referring to someone who outwardly professes to be a Christian. It can refer to someone who is actually living as a Christian, or to someone who is actually united to Christ. More broadly it could refer to the truth of Christianity, or even to the truth seen from the perspective of Christianity. Indeed, it could even refer to material objects insofar as they are seen in relation to Christ.

What then, about the word culture? Here we are on much more difficult ground, because the word culture is not a Scriptural word. There is a wide range of meanings and uses of the word culture, and all of them are correct. For instance, culture can refer to human products, such as a hammer, or an article of clothing. It can also refer to a set of beliefs or understood meaning about those products, such as a religious perspective or philosophical worldview. Ryan McIlhenny suggests in Kingdoms Apart that Christians should think of the redemption of culture (and remember, redemption is another tough word, with both concrete theological meanings and general secular meanings that predate Christianity) not in terms of the redemption of material things but as the expression of a Christian perspective on those things, i.e., about an understanding of how those things relate to Christ.

Darryl Hart has trouble with this. As he writes in a comment to Friday’s post on this blog, “I don’t think the Bible has much to say about cultural life.” What does he mean by that? Is he referring to the meaning of life, suggesting that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about the meaning of life? Or is he talking about the structure and nature of material things, as if to say, I don’t think the Bible has much scientific or technical information in it? The first understanding of Darryl’s sentiment would be absurd; the second makes a whole lot of sense. Darryl gives an indication of how he is thinking:

It seems to me that when Christians make culture they end up making things informed as much by non-biblical teaching as by Scripture itself… The issue in my mind is the sufficiency of Scripture.  I do not deny that the Bible has much to say about a Christian’s obedience.  I don’t think it has much to say [of the] odd notion of ‘cultural obedience.’

Clearly Darryl is not saying that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about the meaning of life, or about the necessity of obedience in all of life. He is talking about epistemology – or how we know things. He is concerned that Christians arrogantly claim for themselves superiority over unbelievers regarding matters about which Scripture does not speak. He is using the word culture in a narrow way (i.e., material culture rather than culture as meaning) and he is implying a narrow use of the word Christian (i.e., something found in Scripture but not anywhere else). And for the point he is trying to make, a point I think most Reformed Christians would affirm, that makes sense. The question is, is that the only way Christians can speak?

In another comment Darryl sheds more light on his concern: He notes five definitions of culture found in a particular dictionary, the fifth and most significant of which is “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.” Darryl then writes, “The closest that we get to a Christian culture in there is perhaps a church culture … But for Christians to claim anything distinct in this list of definitions is beyond me.”

Darryl gives the example of language. Language is basic to culture, but Christians clearly don’t use their own distinctive vocabulary or grammar. And of course, if we are understanding language as a bare symbolic fact, he is right. On the other hand, if we understand language as a set of tools that presuppose a structure of meaning (people do sometimes talk about the ‘language of Scripture’ or of Christianity, referring to its ordinary use of terms and concepts to refer to certain truths), much more needs to be said.

Darryl also gives Kuyper’s example of a civilization such as Rome, the Muslim world, or other ancient cultures. He writes, “To my mind, that is a conceit of neo-Calvinism, the thought of a Christian culture.  It applies the antithesis where it does not belong, at least in this age.” Again, it seems that Darryl’s words could be parsed out here in ways with which most of us would agree. Christians do often use these words loosely and in ways that confuse and mislead unbelievers at best, while utterly alienating them as sheer arrogance at worst. On the one hand, if by Christian culture we are talking about a material society becoming the kingdom of God itself, then Christians should spurn all such talk. If we are saying that a particular society does everything justly and in accord with the truth (i.e., Peter’s use of the term) we should also reject its application to a whole group of people, believers and non-believers alike. If we are saying that everything good in a civilization comes from Christian people or from exclusively biblical ideas, we have become guilty of breathtaking (and ignorant) arrogance.

On the other hand, historians and sociologists routinely refer to particular societies with the descriptive term Christian, often in contrast to other societies that are Buddhist, Muslim, or pagan. And what they mean when they write this way is that various societies have been shaped to a certain extent by truths of the Christian religion, or by beliefs unique to a body of Christians. Does Hart reject this? I doubt it.

I could go on and on, applying the same analysis to words like redemption and transformation, but this post is already long. Consider it a testimony to my frustration with the sound-bite quality that the Reformed debate over questions of Christianity and culture often takes, a quality  no better than those two kindergarteners arguing over whether or not a picture of a cat should be referred to as a cat. I’m not saying there are no real disagreements or important issues at stake. I am an ethicist, after all, having devoted the last four years of my life to studying Christianity and culture. And no, I’m not simply picking on Darryl Hart here, any more than I’m picking on neo-Calvinists or reconstructionists.

Far too often our debates devolve into simplistic sloganeering against paper caricatures that obscures the real points of agreement and disagreement. We abandon all charity of interpretation as we insist that others use their terms precisely as we do. Well aware of the extremes to which those in the other camp have gone, we are entirely blind to the extremes of those in our own. Knowing our own faults and inconsistencies, we readily forgive them based on our good intentions and correct thinking on the ‘main points’, while holding others ruthlessly accountable for the logical outworking of their own mistakes. A good test here: do you find yourself stubbornly unwilling to talk about something with the language or perspective found in Scripture, simply because someone somewhere has abused it?

I’m not above criticism here either. At one point or another, I’ve done every one of the things I’m saying we shouldn’t do. We all need to do better.

Neo-Calvinism and Distinctive Christian Living: A Response to Darryl Hart’s Quibble

Last week at Old Life Darryl Hart graciously ventured his agreement with my basic statement of the two kingdoms doctrine at Reformation 21, though with a qualification. He writes,

My lone quibble with Matt is the sign of lingering neo-Calvinism (which I attribute to his Covenant College education, in part, and which he denies). For instance, he still believes that Christians will look or be different and noticeable when they apply the Bible to their daily lives …

But I also know and I am sure Matt knows, plenty of non-Christians who believe government officials should serve the public, that businessmen should not ruthlessly pursue profits, that husbands should be considerate and loving toward their wives, and that those with resources will share them with those in need. In other words, I see nothing inherently distinctive or biblical in the Christian pursuit of these social and cultural goods. Do different motives exist for Christian businessmen compared to their unbelieving peers? Sure. Can I see those motives? No. And that is the point. The best stuff that Christians produce in public or cultural life is hardly distinct from non-Christian products. Where you do literally see Christianity at work is on Sunday.

Darryl describes my project as an “effort to find a middle way between 2k and neo-Calvinism. This is not how I perceive my own work. Although I do not view myself as a neo-Calvinist any more than I view myself as a representative of some sort of “two kingdoms movement” (I don’t find such flag-waving helpful), I, like David VanDrunen, wholeheartedly affirm neo-Calvinism’s teaching concerning the sovereignty of God over all of life, along with its emphasis on the cultural mandate, the antithesis, sphere sovereignty, and common grace (you will recall that in Natural Law and Two Kingdoms VanDrunen, with qualifications, claims Kuyper and Bavinck for the two kingdoms tradition, distinguishing it from neo-Calvinism’s subsequent evolution). Rightly understood, as David VanDrunen argues in his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, every one of these principles is fundamentally compatible with, and to a significant extent even presupposes, a two kingdoms perspective.

To be sure, a prominent strand of neo-Calvinism has evolved in a highly problematic, radical direction, in part due to its abandonment of biblical two kingdoms distinctions, and it therefore easily devolves into the worst forms of the social gospel and liberation theology. In between Kuyper, Bavinck, and this radical form of neo-Calvinism there are a plethora of variants and distinctions among self-conscious and unconscious neo-Calvinists, all of which suggest that we should not dismiss the movement as if it is some sort of monolithic beast.

But let me get to the precise quibble about which Darryl is concerned. Yes, I believe that Christians should look different from the world when they work out Christ’s lordship in their daily lives. At the same time, yes, I believe that the same moral law that binds Christians is written on the hearts of nonbelievers as natural law. As Calvin clarified time and again, outwardly nonbelievers often keep the moral law just as well as, if not better, than those who profess the Christian faith. (Once we get into the realm of the “products” of “public and cultural life,” by which I assume Darryl means things like civil laws, party platforms, scientific discoveries, works of art, or manufactured products like homes, clothing, or tools, there is no question that for the most part, the best that Christians do is hardly different from the best work of nonbelievers. But let me focus on the moral question in this essay.)

There are various reasons for this. On the one hand, many who profess the Christian faith are insincere or hypocritical. None attain to the moral standards that they themselves profess. On the other hand, many nonbelievers readily perceive the advantages of maintaining the natural moral order, whether as a result of their own religious convictions or of the influence of the very Christianity which they reject. But as C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, the relevant question is not whether every Christian is morally superior to every non-Christian. The relevant question is whether a Christian is more sanctified than he or she would be apart from the work of Christ. That’s why when professing Christians act like the worst unbelievers, the church excommunicates them.

But of course, that sanctification may be outwardly imperceptible in some cases, as Darryl rightly insists. This is particularly true when Christians are compared to those nonbelievers or practitioners of other religions who outwardly live moral lives worthy of the highest human praise, for whatever reason. In fact, there are myriad instances in which even the most sanctified Christians have much to learn – even morally –  from individuals who deny the Christian faith. We need humility. Here again Darryl and I are agreed.

But Darryl overemphasizes the degree to which either Christians or nonbelievers actually live according to the best moral standards. I would suggest that the main reason why Christians often look no better morally than the world is that Christians are plagued by so much vice rather than that nonbelievers are marked by so much virtue. If Christians actually followed the teaching of Christ they would look profoundly different from the world, just as would nonbelievers if they actually obeyed the natural law. I understand Darryl’s desire to reject the “They will know we are Christians by our t-shirts” variety of Christianity, but that does not mean our Lord was wrong when he told us that they will know we are his disciples by our love for one another.

The fact remains that even in the works that Christians do that look just like the best works of the most morally admirable nonbelievers, the context for the former distinguishes them from the latter. The Apostle Peter gets at this when he calls Christians to act in ways that the world will respect and admire (which would be impossible if the world did not share the same moral awareness to some extent), but then insists that they always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them. Taken as isolated, individual actions, therefore, what Christians do often looks identical to what is done by nonbelievers, but viewed in the context of a life of Christian witness (expressed most directly in worship, as Darryl emphasizes, but also present in the readiness of Christians to testify to the gospel), the same actions look different. As Ryan McIlhenny helpfully explains in Kingdoms Apart,

The good works done by Christians, although common in the abstract, nonetheless can effectively win over people to the kingdom, as Lord’s Day #32 … of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us (265)

In the particulars, Christian activity is similar to that of unbelievers and therefore part of the common, secular realm, but the picture changes when the pieces form a whole (269).

Christianity makes a difference in the life of anyone who is regenerate. When Christians rightly apply the Bible to their lives, following Christ, their actions will look different than they would have if they had not become Christians, a reality the New Testament explicitly associates with the calling of Christian witness. Does Darryl really disagree with this, understood rightly (rather than facilely)? I doubt it.

Calvin on the Pastor and Christ’s Church

John Calvin on Paul’s description of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 11:2:

Here … he gives us in his own person a lively picture of a good minister. For one alone is the bridegroom of the church – the Son of God. All ministers are the friends of the bridegroom, as the Baptist declares respecting himself (John 3:29). Hence all ought to be concerned that the fidelity of this sacred marriage remain unimpaired and inviolable. This they cannot do unless they are actuated by the dispositions of the bridegroom, so that every one of them may be as much concerned for the purity of the church as a husband is for the chastity of his wife.

Away then with coldness and indolence in this matter, for one that is cold will never be qualified for this office. Let them, however, in the meantime, take care not to pursue their own interest rather than that of Christ, that they may not intrude themselves into his place, lest while they give themselves out as his friends, they turn out to be in reality adulterers, by alluring the bride to love themselves.

Our culture is losing sight of the beauty – indeed the very comprehensibility – of this image, and in part it is the failure of the church to uphold it that is at fault. May God give us grace to show our confused, tragedy-filled world the beauty and hope of the gospel of Christ.

A bishop and a priest clash over Michigan’s right to work law: the curses of the prophets

Catholic clergy are playing out a longstanding debate in response to the right to work legislation Michigan enacted yesterday. Reflecting an older, left-leaning Catholic agenda, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton thunders prophetically:

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet proclaims, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” Indeed, woe to those in the Michigan state legislature who voted in favor of these laws. Woe to Gov. Snyder whose pen is at the ready to sign these bills.

What is Gumbleton’s basis for his prophetic cursing? Invoking the 1986 letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” he writes,

The right-to-work legislation that was passed by the House and the Senate in Michigan just this month is designed to break unions. It is designed to prevent workers from organizing. And we must oppose it as firmly as we did during the 1980s.

As Catholics, we believe that if the dignity of work is to remain protected, then the basic rights of workers must be protected — fair wages, freedom from discrimination and the right to organize and join unions. We believe in justice. We believe in the common good.

Right-to-work laws go against everything we believe.

Economists tell us that right-to-work laws devastate economic justice. They lower wages for all workers. They lessen benefits for all workers. They increase poverty for all people.

Workers tell us that these laws decrease cooperation, collaboration, love and solidarity.

Humbleton also appeals to the official consensus of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Union for Reform Judaism, to argue that his position reflects the core values of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and “all great religions.”

In response the head of the conservative Acton Institute, Father Robert Sirico, calmly and helpfully disagrees:

I dissent. Michigan’s new right-to-work law is neither “unjust” nor will it “foster extreme inequality.”  The law simply gives working people the freedom to choose whether or not they want to be members of a union. What’s more, they are not forced to pay union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment. Another word for this is freedom.

Historically, the Catholic Church has looked favorably on unions — with exceptions, of course. The Church sees unions as one way to look after the well-being of workers and their families.  However, this favorable bias does not mean that workers are obligated to join a union, nor that management is obligated to accept the terms of a union. The right to join a union, in Church social teaching, is rooted in the natural right of association, which of course also means that people have the right not to associate. Which is exactly what this legislation addresses; it protects workers from being coerced to association with and paying fees to a group with whom they would rather not join.

Christians coming to radically different conclusions on politics is nothing new, of course. And while it is certainly helpful to glean from the best of Catholic social teaching over the years, it seems to me that prophetic denunciation isn’t quite helpful here. Many conservative Christians do it on their own pet issues, I know, but I have rejected that on this blog as well. There are times to speak ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ to the powers that be. Michigan’s right to work legislation is not one of them.

Victory for Conservatives in Michigan: The Right to Work

Conservative despair at the thought of four more years of President Barack Obama has been palpable during the past month, with all kinds of hand-wringing about whether or not America is lurching to the left or even in decline. While these sorts of fears and conversations are inevitable, they often revolve more around high profile elections (i.e., the White House) or court cases (i.e., same-sex marriage, forthcoming) than around underlying fundamentals. For instance, passionate pro-lifers not closely in tune with events on the ground tend to despair about the prospects of the movement because they focus on Supreme Court decisions and congressional legislation, but they entirely miss the dramatic success the pro-life cause has enjoyed on the state level in recent years.

From this perspective the enactment of right to work legislation in Michigan yesterday is breath-taking. Imagine Massachusetts following in the way of Mississippi and passing legislation that effectively drove all abortion providers out of the state. Unthinkable? Not too long ago people would have said the same about Michigan when it came to unions. As the Washington Post reports:

The “right to work” effort illustrates the power of Republicans to use state legislative majorities won in 2010 to pursue their policy preferences, even after losing a bitter presidential election.

The defeat is devastating for organized labor, which for decades has been waging an uphill battle against declining membership and dwindling influence.

But it also strikes at the roots of a Democratic Party that relied on unions for financial support and to marshal voters for President Obama’s reelection….

Proponents call their win in Michigan especially significant because the state is the birthplace of one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, the United Auto Workers. Founded in 1935, the union organized auto workers, winning wages and benefits that transformed assembly-line work into solid middle-class jobs.

“This is really a message to every other state that is a closed union shop, that if you do it here you can do it everywhere else,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity.

(courtesy: Washington Post)

Expect more of this kind of story in the coming years. Although the Democrats will now control the White House for another four years, Republicans dominate state governments across the country. As a result, while Democratic policies may be advancing in certain respects at the federal level, Republicans are having a better time of it at the state level.

Truth be told, state governments have been polarizing, with more states under one party control (either Democratic or Republican) than at any point in recent American history. This allows both conservatives and liberals to push their agendas in their respective states, enabling ready comparison between concrete policies in different places and therefore turning the states into a laboratory for government. Ultimately it’s the long view that matters here, but the early returns suggest that the most important red states are doing much better than similarly situated blue states. Simply compare Texas with the likes of New York, California, and Illinois, and you get the picture.

As the “blue states” continue to struggle economically, more of them will follow the way of Wisconsin and Michigan (and even, to a certain extent, Illinois) and abandon the “liberal” economic policies of the past. In the long run such a shift would certainly have an impact at the federal level.

My point is not that the United States is becoming more conservative, or that the conservative movement is on the verge of enjoying consistent political success. Politics is rarely linear like that. Liberals and conservatives will each continue to enjoy their respective victories. My point is simply that things are not as bad as many conservatives seem to imagine. Neither America nor the conservative movement is in decline. Life is moving on.

Anti-Homosexuality Legislation in Uganda

At First Thoughts Matthew Schmitz reminds us that most American Evangelicals oppose the sort of anti-homosexuality legislation currently being proposed in Uganda.

Prompted by the recent revival of Uganda’s so-called “Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren has once again sent out his 2009 “encyclical video” (interesting phrase, that) to his fellow pastors in Uganda:

We can never deny or water down what God’s word clearly teaches about sexuality. At the same time, the Church must stand to protect the dignity of all individuals, just as Jesus did and commanded all of us to do. . . . Since God created all, and Jesus suffered and died for all, then we are to treat all with respect.

The bill has long been opposed by Christian groups including the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, Exodus International, and Courage. In a letter to Uganda’s president, Exodus International wrote: ”The Christian church . . . must be permitted to extend the love and compassion of Christ to all. We believe that this legislation would make this mission a difficult if not impossible task to carry out.”

See a full report on Warren’s actions here.

As Schmitz writes, “there is no reason to magnify already significant disagreements with libelous claims that American Christians have favored Uganda’s bill. They haven’t, and the suggestion that they have only harms the cause of truth and makes it all the more difficult to speak to one another about our moral disagreements.”

Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, as in many other African countries, but the current legislation, which its proponents have characterized as a means of defending Uganda’s children, would stiffen penalties. Thankfully, it appears as if the stiffest punishment, the death penalty, has been removed from the legislation. But in general, many Ugandan Christians regard the American opposition to capital punishment for homosexuality as imperialistic. As Christianity Today reports:

Christopher Byaruhanga, professor of historical theology at Bishop Tucker School of Divinity and Theology at Uganda Christian University, said the reaction from American Christians was creating tension for Ugandan Christians.

“You see there’s a kind of imperialism and a kind of relativism from the West,” said Byaruhanga. “They don’t understand our ethics in the country of Uganda and they are trying to impose what they believe.”

No doubt there is something of this going on here, and there is no reason why Uganda needs to follow the libertine western trajectory when it comes to sexual ethics. But Ugandan Christians should also note that western Christians have some experience when it comes to mixing up church and state, as well as (and perhaps more importantly) with the overuse of the death penalty.

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