Monthly Archives: February 2013
On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist (HT: Aquila Report) Bill Evans offers some insightful reflections on the declining influence of conservative Presbyterianism (or of the confessional Reformed tradition) in America. I don’t agree with every word Evans says, but I do agree with his general perspective. What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.
Presbyterian and Reformed Christians seem to view unity and solidarity as a luxury or utopian dream rather than as a command of Christ. They tragically underestimate the way in which this division and intramural conflict is destroying their credibility – and therefore their survival.
As Evans writes,
There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K. The list goes on and on. Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality. Not every issue requires that one go to the mat… when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside.
Evans isn’t arguing that none of these issues are important. He is suggesting, rather, that they have inappropriately become all-consuming. What helps blow the various controversies out of proportion is the way in which they become tied to institutional turf wars.
Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market. But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.
Evans is talking about seminaries here but he later extends the point to denominations as well. Far too many of us are concerned about our denominational identity and traditions, rather than about the gospel and church of Christ.
Perhaps Evans’ most insightful point, however, is not the pervasiveness of narrowing vision and consequent intramural squabbling. Perhaps his most penetrating suggestion is that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have had their sense of mission and faithfulness distorted by their impulsive conservatism. Evans doesn’t say it this way (and I don’t think he would want to), but have theological liberalism and the cultural turn away from Christendom confused far too many Reformed Christians into thinking that their calling is to be conservative, rather than to be Scriptural?
To be sure, most Reformed conservatives would insist that those are one and the same thing. But that, it seems to me, is precisely the problem. The legitimate recognition that theological liberalism has seriously undermined the orthodox Christian faith, and the determination to defend that faith, has evolved into the assumption that the conservative position is always the biblical position. No longer do we confidently witness to the liberal (i.e., generous and earth-shattering), powerful and transforming work of the resurrected Christ; now we batten down the hatches, bolster the fortress, and try to hang on to our posts for dear life. As Evans writes,
What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation. To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed?
Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.
No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.
At Economics for Everybody, R.C. Sproul Jr.’s website for “Applying Biblical Principles to Work, Wealth, and the World,” Timothy Terrell has written a three part response (here, here, and here to my discussion of the relation between property rights and the rights of the poor (here, here, and here). Terrell agrees with my criticism of the sort of libertarianism that views government taxation as theft, but he rejects my argument that the Christian political theological tradition recognizes that the poor have rights to basic necessities enforceable by civil government. He sums up my argument as follows:
[I]f the poor have not received sufficient charity from those who are able to give, the civil magistrate should (as a last resort, he grants) tax them and transfer the proceeds to the needy.
In fact, I believe the (deserving) poor have the right to sustenance as a matter of justice, not simply of charity. Further, I would view redistributive welfare policies as merely one possible means of the government’s enforcing this element of justice, and not by any stretch the best means. My argument (despite Terrell’s suggestion on this point) is not that government should usurp the role of civil society, but that it should ensure that at a most basic level, civil society is operating justly.
Terrell repeatedly declares that my arguments are those of the “political left” or “Christian left,” seemingly assuming that this will render my argument illegitimate for his typical readers. But his readiness to wave flags and call us to our partisan allegiances, in contrast to my attempt to think through the perspective of the pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition, leads him to ignore the actual substance of that argument.
For instance, Terrell rightly insists that simply because someone has a duty to do something does not mean that government has the authority to enforce that duty. This is a distinction I have made repeatedly on this blog. The difference between the moral law and the civil law is foundational to political liberty, religious liberty, and Christian liberty alike. Yet Terrell seems to assume that this distinction in and of itself proves that government has no obligation to protect the rights of the poor to have their basic necessities met. He writes,
If “justice” is about making sure that rights are protected, we should be careful in thinking about who has a right to what. Are all rights to be enforceable by the sword of the civil magistrate? …
Where do those responsibilities end? Does the civil magistrate have power to enforce (with the sword) every positive duty of families and churches?
While a person with the ability to give has a moral obligation to do so, this is different from a poor person having a legal right to the assets of a rich person.
Of course, I agree. But this is not an argument, it is simply a statement of principles. Terrell goes on,
So, even if those with means to give charitably do not do so, this is a long way from showing that the civil magistrate has a right to extract wealth from them by force and transfer it to the poor. As R.C. Sproul, Jr. has pointed out in another post, true compassion is done voluntarily, with one’s own resources, not resources forcibly extracted from others. Unfortunately, the twisting of the terms “justice” and “protection” clouds this truth, as wealth transfers become (in the Left’s view) just another part of the civil magistrate’s legitimate pursuit of “justice” or “protection” for the poor.
Here Terrell is stating his position but he is not really making an argument. He is refusing to admit that the poor have rights to basic sustenance or that the obligation of others to assist the poor is a matter of justice, insisting on describing it as charity. His basis for this refusal seems to be Sproul’s point that true compassion is voluntary, not coerced. But of course we are not talking about true compassion, but about public justice. A comment on the nature of true compassion tells us nothing more about the form that the civil law should take than does the teaching of Jesus that truly refraining from murder requires loving our neighbor from the heart. Morality and civil law, as Terrell has pointed out, are not the same thing. Pointing to what Scripture says about poor relief and compassion in the church and in the sanctified lives of believers is insufficient when we are discussing the obligations of the state.
Terrell falls into the same confusion when he discusses Calvin’s position. Appealing to Calvin’s commentary on the Law he writes, “Calvin indicates that giving to the poor is to remain a voluntary act, not coerced by anyone.” Terrell rightly comments that Calvin rejected the position he associated with the Anabaptists, which called for the abolition of property, because Calvin believed Christians are to hold all things in common as a matter of voluntary fellowship, not as a matter of civil law. Yet he oddly assumes that this means Calvin thought the government had no obligation to use public property to assist the poor. Here he quotes François Dermange, who argues that Calvin
explicitly distinguishes this religious interpretation of justice from legal and political justice. God summons consciences to appear before his judgment seat, not before an earthly judge, and hence one must say that this law is ‘spiritual.’
So now Terrell does appeal to the distinction between true justice and political justice in order to say that the government should not ensure that the needs of the poor are met. Care for the poor is a matter of conscience, not of public order. Yet here he misses Calvin’s distinction between the virtue of Christian poor relief and the outward political order of poor relief. This despite his own admission that in Calvin’s Geneva the civil government funded and regulated not only the work of the church, but the tasks of education and poor relief as well. Calvin clearly supported Geneva’s policy: In his commentary on Isaiah 49:23 and in a sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he explicitly called government to use public funds to establish poor-houses, hospitals, and schools.
The relevant distinction is not between charity (love) and justice, which in ordinary Scriptural usage have the same basic content (to love someone is to treat them justly; to treat someone justly is to treat them in accord with love; the justice/righteousness of the law is summarized in the command to love one’s neighbor). The relevant distinction is between the true or inward justice that arises from the heart and the minimal or outward public order of justice that the state is obligated to uphold. The right of the poor to have their minimal outward necessities met clearly falls under the latter. It is a distortion of Calvin’s (two kingdoms) distinction between spiritual and political righteousness to insist that it falls exclusively under the former.
The real question is on what basis Terrell and others claim that the government must force citizens to honor contracts and abstain from murdering one another, while insisting that it may not force those with surplus resources to meet the most basic needs of the poor. I understand how this argument arises from certain classical liberal (or libertarian) premises about the state. I do not believe it is consistent with Christian political theology.
But what of the slippery slope argument? If government has the obligation of making sure the most basic needs of the (deserving) poor are met, will this not lead to intrusive regulation of every part of our lives? One may as well push the slippery slope argument further. If government has the responsibility to enforce justice at all, how do we stop it from seeking to enforce all justice?
The solution, however, is not government abandoning its most basic responsibilities, out of fear that it will abuse its legitimate power. The solution is in the never-ending work of getting government power right, finding the appropriate balance between liberty and justice, the individual and the society, rights and responsibilities. We don’t have to go from one extreme to the other.
Blogging will be a little light the next few days, as I’m off to the sunny beaches of southern Florida for some long awaited vacation time with my wife and kids. A few posts will go up, but I won’t be reading them as I, happily, will cut myself off from the wonderful world of the Internet.
If you write a thoughtful comment or question to which I am able to respond I will do so when I get back to regular blogging late next week. In the meantime, as you ponder your thoughts, I’ll probably be building a sand-castle, looking at alligators, or playing toy soldiers with my son. Yes, completely for my son’s sake, of course …
In a discussion at the Puritan Board regarding propositions written by Mark VanDerMolen in a comment thread on this blog, a number of people wondered how it can be true that the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) were given at Mt. Sinai uniquely for God’s covenant people, and yet the moral substance of those commandments remain binding on all human beings in all times and places. As one person wrote, this seems like “doublespeak … [I]s the moral law expressed in 10 commandments binding on all men or not?”
In practice I don’t think most people have any trouble distinguishing between the Ten Commandments as given and the moral substance of those commandments as timeless. After all, the commandments specifically address the covenant people of God (I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt), make promises unique to the covenant people of God (that you may live long in the land the LORD your God has given you), and provide reasons unique to the covenant people of God (for the LORD brought you out of a land of slavery). Such covenant language could not have been transferred to ancient Egyptians or Canaanites any more than it can be transferred to contemporary Tibetan Buddhists or even to American Evangelicals.
Why not? Because the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece of a specific legal document, a covenant often referred to by theologians as the Mosaic Covenant and described in the New Testament simply as “the Law.” Neither Jews nor Christians have ever received them simply as a timeless statement of ethical principles, which is why Jews do not view the sabbath law as binding on Gentiles, and why Christians do not hold to the seventh day sabbath. If Christians literally believed that the Decalogue was given to all people in all places as a timeless statement of moral law, we would all be Seventh Day Adventists, seeking the reward for our obedience to our parents by relocating to the land of Israel.
Some Christians do that, of course, but not most of us.
Most of us follow the lead of Christian theologians going back to the middle ages and distinguish between the moral substance of the Law – which we equate with the principle of love, or with natural law – and the covenantally contextual elements of that Law, usually described as the judicial and ceremonial law, which no longer bind us. In addition, we follow the logic of the theologian John Calvin, who distinguished between the rigor and contractual legal force of the law, which no longer binds Christians, and the truth or teaching of the law, which is always profitable for moral instruction.
In taking this approach to the Ten Commandments we follow the Apostle Paul in Romans. Paul argued that Christians are no longer under the Law, having been freed from it and bound to Christ just as a woman whose husband has died is free to marry a new husband. At the same time, he called Christians to love one another, declaring that by doing so they fulfill the moral substance of all the commandments.
Why is this confusing to some Protestants today? It is confusing in part because despite these clear covenantal and theological distinctions, the theologians of the Reformation generally described the moral law as being summarized in the Ten Commandments. Both Luther, Calvin and their followers gave the Ten Commandments a prominent place in their catechisms, which became the core teaching tool (after regular preaching) instilling doctrine into their followers. Eventually various catechisms and confessions presented the Ten Commandments simply as the summary of the moral law. For instance, in response to the question, “What is God’s law?”, the Heidelberg Catechism recites the Ten Commandments. Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith declares that the moral law is “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments.
Have these documents abandoned the distinction between the Ten Commandments as a contextual covenantal document and the timeless moral law, thus leading to contemporary confusion? In my view they are less than clear on the point, but a careful consideration of each indicates that while the distinction is not clearly stated and articulated, it is nevertheless assumed. This is most obvious for the Heidelberg Catechism, which follows Calvin and the Second Helvetic Confession in interpreting the Fourth Commandment (the sabbath law) in terms of an eternal sabbath that calls Christians to spiritual rest and worship, rather than as a call to seventh day sabbath observance, as the Decalogue is actually written. But even the Westminster Confession, which does present the sabbath day principle as binding on Christians, explains that for Christians the day has been changed from the seventh day of the week to the first. Even here, it is clear, it is the moral substance of the commandments that is viewed as binding on all people, not the Decalogue itself as given to Israel.
One might wonder why this question even matters, outside perhaps of debates about the sabbath law. Everyone involved in the discussion agrees that the moral law as presented in the Ten Commandments is binding on all people and all places, and (as far as I can tell) everyone agrees that the elements of the law that were covenantally specific to Israel are not. Nevertheless, given the consternation of some Reformed Christians regarding those who try to explain why this is the case, the point clearly needs clarification. I hope this post has helped to provide just that.
I have not had the opportunity to study in any depth the Obama administration’s wide-ranging use of drones to kill terrorists. I am well aware of the longstanding criticisms of the use of drones coming from liberals as eminent as former President Jimmy Carter. I am also mindful that the increasing use of drones for targeted killings may be one unintended consequence of tightening restrictions both on the detention of suspected terrorists and on interrogative techniques bordering on torture. If it is extraordinarily difficult legally and politically to contain your enemies when you capture them, it becomes a whole lot simpler simply to kill them. That doesn’t make it right, but it does suggest that there are no pretty or ideal answers to the hard questions of how to wage a just war such as the War on Terror. “War is hell,” General William T. Sherman purportedly declared. That’s true even when we try to wage it justly.
Today Obama’s nominee as CIA director John O. Brennan will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing. The use of drones will certainly be discussed. And while most people in this country sensibly recognize that drones – like any other military technology – should be used to full advantage, there is also a healthy respect for the dangers of a kind of war that requires little risk on the part of America’s soldiers, that significantly endangers innocents, and that, most importantly, is potentially subject to massive abuse.
The current issue of controversy is whether or not President Obama – or any of his future successors – are accountable to the American people through their congressional representatives for the use of drones. In particular, can the President order the killing of American citizens involved in international terrorism without any judicial oversight? I understand the fact that sometimes decisions have to be made without prior judicial or congressional permission. The president is, after all, the commander-in-chief, charged with the defense of this country. But I’m wary of a program that authorizes the government to use lethal force without any accountability for abuse. I don’t think American citizens who join the ranks of terrorists waging war against America retain all of their constitutional rights, but I do find myself agreeing with the New York Times in its criticism of the administration for dragging its feet on the matter of accountability.
The Times writes of the administration’s controversial white paper:
But it takes the position that the only “oversight” needed for such a decision resides within the executive branch, and there is no need to explain the judgment to Congress, the courts or the public — or, indeed, to even acknowledge that the killing took place.
The paper argues that judges and Congress don’t have the right to rule on or interfere with decisions made in the heat of combat. Some officials also draw a parallel to police officers who use violence to protect the innocent. Even in wartime, there are many ways to review commanders’ and soldiers’ decisions, and while courts-martial are internal to the military, their verdicts are subject to appeal to a civilian judge. When a police officer so much as discharges his weapon, it triggers a great deal of review, based on rules that are known to everyone….
Going forward, he should submit decisions like this one to review by Congress and the courts. If necessary, Congress could create a special court to handle this sort of sensitive discussion, like the one it created to review wiretapping. This dispute goes to the fundamental nature of our democracy, to the relationship among the branches of government and to their responsibility to the public.
It also goes to some fundamental principles of just war theory. No one should be allowed to use lethal force without some form of accountability under the law.
When Evangelicals think about natural law they often imagine cerebral intellectuals attempting to use reason and logic to invent or try to prove moral principles. They are appropriately skeptical of such exercises. With a little ingenuity and skill, the intellectually self-confident can defend just about any moral conclusion on the basis of reason. Catholics in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas might take natural law to some very conservative conclusions, but the Enlightenment launched us in a liberal trajectory that has taken us far to the left of anything recognizable to Aquinas. As cynics point out, reason alone does not confirm the most basic principles, such as human dignity or equality, which depend on theological affirmations regarding the creation of human beings in the image of God.
Reformed theologians can be quick to jump on the bandwagon. Given human depravity and sin, natural law is not a reliable epistemology (i.e., means of moral knowledge). All it does is to render human beings accountable to God (i.e., Paul’s argument in Romans 1). It has little constructive value for human life.
On the other hand, as theologians like David VanDrunen have demonstrated, the older Reformed tradition actually followed Thomas Aquinas in finding an important role for natural law. To be sure, Calvin and others emphasized that natural law has no power to save. Only the gospel of Christ – special revelation – can do that. But when it came to political and social moral practices these theologians could often wax eloquently about the achievements and wisdom of pagan philosophers like Plato and pagan societies like ancient Rome. And Calvin repeatedly affirmed that all truth comes from the Holy Spirit, wherever it is found.
But what is natural law? And what do we make of the fact that natural law can be and has been claimed as the moral basis for virtually everything – including slavery, racism, and the Nazi genocide of the Jews? Since I’ve started this blog a number of people have written me to ask me just this question. What is natural law?
This is not the focus of my work, and I have no scholarly response prepared. VanDrunen is currently working on a book that articulates a biblical theology of natural law, and I think it will be quite good. It will certainly move the discussion forward. For now, however, I want to make a few points about what natural law is, what it isn’t, and why it is useful in our current cultural context.
First, contrary to popular belief, natural law is not first and foremost a process of reasoning or a means of attaining moral knowledge. It is, rather, the objective moral order of creation as designed by God. It exists whether or not any human beings understand it or can attain to it, and whether or not human theories of natural law have any correspondence to it. It is inherently covenantal, in that it expresses the moral relationship God has created between himself and human beings, among human beings, and between human beings and the rest of creation. As an objective standard built into creation, it is distinct from positive human law (i.e., laws humans have established whether consistent with natural law or not) as well as from revealed divine law as recorded or written (i.e., the Torah, the Ten Commandments, the New Testament), although the latter is always consistent with and often includes much of the natural law.
Second, knowledge of the natural law does not necessarily depend on reason or logic because it is written on the human heart (Romans 2). In that sense it is often intuitive, expressed by human beings in their social and political interactions whether they are aware of it or not. Human beings can suppress some of the principles of natural law (i.e., that God should be worshiped or human life preserved) but they can never consistently suppress all of it (i.e., that human life should be preserved and the flourishing of social order promoted). Evidence of natural law is found in what philosophers and theologians used to call the law of nations – the universal or near universal practices of human beings that are essential to social survival. But intuition, reason, experience, science, and special revelation all provide some evidence of the natural law; none of them reveal it independently, or fully.
Third, although there are areas in which contemporary modern society flagrantly ignores natural law, there are also numerous commitments of the liberal West that express its enduring moral relevance. Such expressions include much of the content of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other similar charters, and they also include some of the principles found in more overtly religious documents like the American Declaration of Independence. The moral authority of these documents, even in societies like the United States that feature significant political, cultural, and moral divisions, indicate the widespread acceptance of a natural moral order, however we might disagree about what that order looks like in practice.
Finally, the primary role of natural law in contemporary American political and civil society is not to solve our political disputes or even to adjudicate between our conflicting arguments. In a perfect world, of course, natural law would achieve such ends, but as the critics rightly point out, in the world we have human depravity and sin is simply too great to warrant such optimism. The primary role of natural law is therefore not to serve as a means to moral knowledge but as a basis for moral conversation. By speaking in terms of natural law – or in terms of language of rights and responsibilities, liberty and equality, justice and peace – we testify to the fact that as human beings we are moral creatures obligated to live together according to standards of mutual accountability, order, and basic justice. We acknowledge that although we might often disagree on very important things, we also agree on many important things. We recognize that we have the ability to work through our disagreements in a manner conducive of at least a modicum of peace and justice, and that therefore we should not be in a constant state of war.
What happens if we reject natural law? What happens if we simply appeal to our personal preferences, our religious convictions, or to the revealed standard that our religious community uniquely affirms to be the word of God? We lose all common ground. We see the breakdown of conversation. Politics becomes nothing more than a power struggle. Government loses its moral authority in the eyes of its subjects. There becomes no reason why my neighbor (or enemy) should listen to me when I seek to persuade him that a certain principle or practice is morally essential to our common good.
There is much more that could be said, but perhaps this is a good start. Natural law will certainly not solve all of our problems. But we cannot do without it.
Greg Forster, like fellow First Thoughts bloggers David Mills and R.R. Reno, is skeptical about David Blankenhorn’s call for a new conversation on marriage, a call that seemingly seeks to unite those unwilling to oppose same-sex marriage yet concerned about the catastrophic decline of marriage in American society. Yet Forster wonders whether conservatives are placing too much emphasis on the struggle against gay marriage, and despite his initial skepticism, encourages us to take this development seriously.
In this post I want to ask: is gay marriage really the best place for the marriage movement to be making its big investments? Isn’t that threat avoidance rather than opportunity seeking? ….
The question is, can we do this kind of thing without repudiating our consciences on gay marriage, as Blankenhorn’s manifesto seems to be asking us to do? If not, I see no hope for a humane outcome to the present crisis – one side or the other will have to be crushed. But that kind of thinking is threat avoidance. What we have to do is focus on seeking the opportunity for another kind of outcome….
Rest assured, Blankenhorn’s caucus is where all the cultural power is. Therefore, the terms of the discussion going forward will depend on who engages with them and how. Let’s seize that opportunity. A new movement to destroy casual divorce that brought together supporters and opponents of gay marriage would reframe the marriage debate in America. Such cross-ideological coalitions are actually very common in politics – consider the immigration debate, which pits libertarians and ethnic collectivists on one side against big business and big labor on the other. This is often the way old battle lines get redrawn. The way the lines are drawn now, we are losing badly. Time to get entrepreneurial.
My friend and colleague Jimmy McCarty writes a very insightful piece on why Christians with identical theological beliefs come to some very different political positions, and why quite often lived experience, and specifically race, is the reason. Jimmy has been deeply involved in churches and social circles across the political spectrum, and he tends to understand the people he is describing. He writes,
As much as many want to deny it, race greatly influences the ways that people experience life in America. Of course, it is not only race which leads to these political differences (inner-city LA is quite different from Tacoma and its suburbs in a variety of ways), but race is a strong contributing factor to these differences.
Indeed, the Pew Research Center has demonstrated that race is a consistent factor in how abortion is viewed politically and morally, even among Protestants. White Protestants view it as morally wrong and believe it should be made illegal at significantly greater percentages than black Protestants. Based on the voting patters of white Protestants, especially Evangelicals, and black Protestants, it is safe to assume that these racial disparities continue across a range of political issues.
There are a variety of reasons for these disparities, but one (in the case of abortion) is surely the history of black women not being able to control their bodies throughout slavery and Jim Crow. It should be no surprise, and is totally understandable, that many black women in America don’t trust others (especially white men) to determine in advance what should be done with their bodies. White men have raped, killed, abused, and degraded their bodies for centuries, and many black women have not forgotten it even as most white people have.
In short, race impacts the experience of every American Christian. And these experiences directly influence the politics of many of the Christians in our churches. There is no straightforward way to translate the vast majority of Christian beliefs into political policy and to hold any political position as a sign of theological orthodoxy, as is increasingly becoming the case among many white Evangelicals, is a grave mistake. And, though many would not say it in this way, there are many Christians who write off a significant portion of other Christians who are racially different than them because of their politics.
In general I agree with Jimmy, as he knows. (Indeed, kudos to Jimmy on his embrace of the two kingdoms doctrine!) There is indeed “no straightforward way to translate the vast majority of Christian beliefs into political policy.” On the other hand, does Jimmy go too far when he says that “to hold any political position as a sign of theological orthodoxy … is a grave mistake”? To be sure, orthodox Christians fell on both sides of the antebellum debates over slavery, and they also fell on both sides of the battle over civil rights for African Americans. There were orthodox Christians, such as Confessing Church founder Martin Niemoller, who voted for Hitler. There are no doubt orthodox Christians on both sides of the abortion debate too. And I wholeheartedly agree with Jimmy that we should be much more careful about judging the faith of others on the basis of their political commitments. But that doesn’t mean that on any of those political issues there wasn’t a basic orthodox Christian position.
I’m currently working on a lecture and paper on the response of the German church to the Holocaust, and it seems to me that there must be lines, there must be principles, that Christians simply will not compromise. Otherwise we simply give credibility to those who, like the “German Christian” movement, want to claim the compatibility of Christianity with blatantly evil politics. Granted, most political debates are not like this. But what if one line that we cannot cross, one principle that we cannot yield, is the obligation of the state to protect innocent life? What if those Evangelical Christians (whether white or, as in the case of the elders of my church, black) who make the pro-life position the Christian position, are right?