Monthly Archives: April 2013

Brian Lee to Serve as Guest Chaplain in House of Representatives

My friend Dr. Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington D.C., will be serving as a guest chaplain in the House of Representatives today. Lee will be offering the opening prayer for the pro forma session at 2 pm this afternoon. You should be able to watch it live here.

Lee has years of experience working in for the federal government in various capacities. He’s also done some excellent writing on questions of religion and politics, and has been a helpful contributor to discussions about two kingdoms theology.

Congratulations Brian!

The Christian Perspective on the War in Syria

We are living through the second coldest spring in American history but in the Middle East the Arab Spring is only getting hotter. Some 70,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians, in the past two years of fighting in Syria. Bloodshed in Iraq is on the upswing again, and fears are rising that the country is sliding back into war. Iran continues to defy western pressure as it works its way to nuclear capabilities the Obama administration has said will not be tolerated. Iran supplies the Syrian government with much of its weapons and equipment, much of which, it appears, passes through the territory of its ally Iraq, the country for whom so many Americans lost their lives and to which America devoted so many billions of dollars. In addition, consider the festering failure of US and Afghan forces to establish a peaceful stability in Afghanistan, or the fact that the one Muslim country in the region that already possesses nuclear weapons – Pakistan – has terrorists and their prominent sympathizers holding important posts in the government.

The consequences for Christians have been abysmal. Large minority communities with centuries of tradition and history have been tragically shattered amid the chaos and the resulting surge of Islamist forces across the region. For these Christians times were certainly better under Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad than they are under the forces and regimes supported by the United States.

The Bush administration is to blame for much of this mess, of course, including the chaos ricocheting out of Iraq. But one virtue of the Bush administration was that it sought to explain to the American people what is at stake in various conflicts to which American troops are committed. Under President Bush, Americans could be confident that their government was not afraid to make the hard decisions necessary to secure our national security interests in the region.

Under President Obama, on the other hand, there hasn’t been much of a message to Americans at all. When has the president addressed the war in Afghanistan, or the now “ended” war in Iraq, in terms that would prepare the American public for the sacrifices expected of them? Even worse, the signals radiating from the White House in the Middle East since Bush left office have amounted to a lot of hard talk backed by little of substance.

The obvious example, of course, is Iran. President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not tolerate Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. Military force would be used if necessary. But there is no evidence that Iran has slowed its progress, or changed its intentions at all. The president has been right to put off war up to this point. Even if it would be just to go to war against Iran over its nuclear program, such would obviously only be the case as a last resort. In the  meantime, however, it is imperative that the United States communicate strength in the region, a willingness to back up its talk with power, lest Iran doubt that President Obama means what he says. One way to do that is to make sure that when the United States draws a red line and threatens consequences once that line has been crossed, it is not an empty bluff.

For months now the President has been saying that if Assad used chemical weapons it would be a “game-changer,” there would be clear consequences. Now Israel, Britain, France, and the United States (the latter with less official “certainty”) have concluded that Assad has used such weapons, probably in just the degree that suggests he is testing the president’s mettle. Yet the United States has dithered. The White House claims that certainty needs to be established, especially given what happened in Iraq last decade. Fair enough. But the stakes are high. If the United States, whether intentionally or unintentionally, somehow communicates to Iran that it does not mean what it says when it talks about red lines, war in the region will be far more likely, not less likely.

Most Americans, of course, understandably want nothing to do with another war in the Middle East. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have ended well. Even Libya seems to have had consequences more negative than positive. Will intervention in Syria really achieve anything more than taking a big problem and making it a big American problem? On the other hand, interventionists like Senator John McCain argue that all the terrible things non-interventionists said would happen if we went into Syria have happened anyway. The conflict is spilling over into Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. Chemical weapons have been used. The radical contingent of the rebel forces is growing in strength, and Syria increasingly looks like yet another excellent training ground for Islamist terrorism. Isolationists might imagine that the United States could just walk away from all of this, but such optimism is based more on dreams than on a careful analysis of the situation in view. If the last four years are any indication, a weakening U.S. presence in the region is likely to make matters worse rather than better.

What is the Christian perspective on all of this? Approximately ten percent of the population of Syria is Christian, a total of some 2.3 million persons. As in Iraq and Egypt, the Christian population in Syria has often been identified with the old tyrannical regime, a regime that was politically repressive but that permitted meaningful religious liberty. Today Christians in Syria certainly worry that the fall of Assad would lead to tragic consequences for their own communities. Many (probably some 300,000) have already fled the country.

Christians occupy prominent political and military posts within the Assad regime. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, “Bishop Khouri, who is known as an ultra-loyalist, accused western countries of betraying their own religious heritage by backing the rebels.” There is also something to be said for the Christian aversion to insurrection and rebellion, in line with both the spirit and the letter of New Testament teaching.

Other Christians in Syria, however, rightly point out that the Assad regime has lost all credibility or ability to govern. They claim that the government has intentionally characterized the rebel opposition as radical Islamist in order to prevent U.S. intervention. As The Guardian reports, “The Syrian National Coalition, the main western-backed anti-Assad grouping, has tried to avoid any whiff of sectarianism … Its current leader, the respected George Sabra, is a Christian.”

Although it increasingly looks like the battle lines in the Middle East are being drawn between Shiites (Iran, Iraq, the Assad regime) and Sunnis, Christians are caught in the middle. Perhaps the view of most Syrian Christians is best represented by the Syrian taxi driver Abu Jean.

Christians should be neutral. But this is not our business. I will not let my son join the [government] popular committees or the national defence army – or the armed opposition either.”

But it’s not easy to remain uninvolved. These people are Syrians, as well as Christians. Syria is their country. It’s government clearly has to go. Yet while many reject the heavy-handedness of a regime that is now using chemical weapons against its own people, they are also wary of the consequences of a more democratic Syria, given what has taken place in Egypt and Iraq.

What a mess.

If Natural Law is Useless, Why Do So Many People Embrace It?

One of the common truisms I regularly come across in banter emanating from across the political and religious spectrum is that natural law is a theoretical concept devoid of any practical substance or significance. Natural law, its critics claim, produces no certain knowledge. It is more often merely the rhetorical projection of whatever a person firmly believes but finds herself unable to prove. Appeals to natural law never solve moral conflict. On the basis of natural law people on the right and the left come to radically contradictory conclusions about matters as fundamental as marriage, human life, and property. Better to find a clearer, more widely accepted basis for morality.

What is that alternative basis? Ask many conservative Christians and they will tell you it is the Bible. To be sure, the authority of the Bible is not as widely accepted as it once was, but it is still more widely accepted than any other “objective” standard. What’s more, these conservative Christians will tell you, it has the advantage of clarity. It may not answer every moral question that we have but it certainly settles the most important ones.

Really? Dig a little deeper into the blogosphere or media of any particular religious tradition and you will find that even among those who embrace the authority of Scripture there is a lot less agreement about the practical implications of what Scripture teaches than these broad appeals to the Bible would suggest. Look back into the history of Christianity and you will find even more disagreement. There is no uncontested conservative Christian consensus on moral issues as basic as slavery, war, women’s rights, poverty, or freedom of religion.

What’s more, when one takes into account different assumptions about the political implications of Scripture’s clear moral teaching the field gets even more complicated. Libertarians and theonomists, liberals and conservatives, democrats and authoritarians, nationalists and universalists all find a place under the broad Christian tent. Among these there is no consensus about the political implications of a myriad of moral subjects addressed with  more or less clarity in Scripture.

And to remind you, this is just to highlight disagreements among theologically conservative Christians. The political usefulness of the Bible as a public authority is seriously limited even before we take into account the fact that most members of our society do not accept it as a decisive authority in their lives at all.

But does that leave us without any basis for a shared public morality? No it does not, despite the apparent widespread cynicism about natural law. Step back from the more controversial political disputes of our time and you will discover much more of a public moral consensus than you might at first expect. Read the writings of almost any prominent ethicist or political theorists and you will discover appeals to broadly shared principles such as the golden rule, basic human rights, or principles of reciprocity and fairness. They might not like the term natural law and they might adamantly reject particular versions of natural law theory, but they still find themselves assuming its reality and even its concrete principles. Even the pagans know, as Calvin often said, that there are basic human values to be protected with laws backed up by coercive institutions.

In fact, in our own time there is even greater basis for confidence in the value of natural law than there was in the time of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or John Locke. We actually have a developing system of international law recognized throughout the world. We have the United Nations, which, problematic as it is, is still a political body in which all nations are represented. Perhaps most obviously, we have the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that comes as close to being a statement of shared universal morality as the world has ever known. Natural Law is at work. Consider these articles:

  • Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
  • Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
  • Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
  • Article 16:
    • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
    • (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
    • (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
  • Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
  • Article 25
    • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
    • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
  • Article 26
    • Everyone has the right to education …
    • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Of course there are still major disagreements. Many people despise the UN Declaration of Human Rights, while even those who embrace it disagree with it at various points. Others reject common assumptions about what enforcing the rights enumerated in the Declaration requires on a political level. Just as importantly, the Declaration sets out only the broadest of frameworks for justice. It is tragically short on duties. It leaves tremendous room for conflict, abuse, or rationalized injustice. In so many ways, like any morality, it is  more a statement of unrealized ideals than of practical political reality.

Still, it remains a widely shared statement of universal morality, embraced by people of all sorts of religions and creeds. It remains precisely the sort of evidence for natural law to which theologians like Aquinas and Calvin pointed in their own times. I would argue that conservative Christians have avoided formulating their political convictions about abortion, marriage, child-rearing, education, and sexuality in terms consistent with the Declaration at their own peril.

There is a much stronger foundation for a public morality shared between Christians and nonbelievers, liberals and conservatives, than we are often willing to admit. Truth, thanks to common grace, still has tremendous power. If you are in doubt about what our society would really look like were this shared morality to evaporate you don’t know history very well. What we have is far from perfect, but it’s far from useless as well. Natural law is at work.

Christian antisemitism and opposition to homosexuality: Heeding the Warnings of the Past

According to yesterday’s New York Times report on the opposition to same-sex marriage in France, a movement that was initially inspired and led by religious figures has been embraced by conservative politicians eager to use the issue to discredit socialist French President Francois Hollande. This has been good for the campaign in terms of numbers. On Sunday some 45,000 protestors marched peacefully in Paris against the bill (which gained final parliamentary approval yesterday).

Unfortunately, the surge in opposition to same-sex marriage has spawned new levels of vitriolic anti-homosexual rhetoric, as well as violence.

At the margins, the demonstrations have also become more violent and homophobic, with a series of nightly demonstrations last week around Parliament that resulted in clashes with riot police officers and a number of arrests. Even opposition leaders have bemoaned the way harder-right groups have infiltrated the demonstrations, and there has been a small surge in violence against gay men and lesbians, with some beatings and angry, offensive words on social media.

Two weeks ago, a Dutch-born man walking with his partner in Paris was beaten up. The man, Wilfred de Bruijn, posted a photograph of his bloodied face on his Facebook page, calling it “the face of Homophobia.” It has been shared thousands of times. Last week, two gay bars, in Bordeaux and Lille, were attacked, and a same-sex couple was attacked Saturday in Nice outside a gay nightclub.

These sorts of developments are a nightmare for conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage but who believe gays and lesbians bear the same rights and the same human dignity as do all human beings. There is no better way to discredit a moral tradition than to show that it inevitably leads to bigotry. Unfortunately, when a religious tradition is embraced almost universally on a cultural and political level, it is inevitable that that tradition’s teachings will be directed in ways hostile to its fundamental character. Although Jesus associated with the sexually deviant and taught love for one’s enemies, throughout Christendom people and societies who claimed the name ‘Christian’ have responded to those deemed ‘sinners’ with precisely the opposite attitude.

The problem has become all the more acute during the modern era, as societies that still conceive of themselves as broadly Christian are shaped by forces and ideologies that have little to do with historic Christianity and that are often openly hostile to it. Inevitably Christian teachings and symbols are politicized or hijacked for other purposes, often with tragic consequences, but generally with the cooperation of many Christians themselves. Bewildered, those who understand the true teachings of the faith, or the example of Jesus, mourn the perversion of the faith. Yet far too often the efforts of such individuals and groups to reclaim their faith comes too late.

Perhaps the best example of this is antisemitism. As I argued in a recent essay at Patheos, many Christian pastors embraced Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 because they believed that he would restore Germany to its national glory and to its Christian heritage. These Christians associated liberalism, democracy, socialism, and Jewish emancipation with the decline of Christianity. Though they had no desire to return to the violent persecution of false religion that characterized Christendom through the 16th and 17th centuries, they did want Germany to be a ‘Christian’ nation, in which national identity, political power, and Christian faith went hand in hand.

As Jonathan Steinberg writes in his powerful biography of Otto von Bismarck,

The impact of the defeat of Prussia in 1806 and the occupation of the kingdom by the ‘godless’ Napoleon had driven many of the great Junker landlords back to Christianity. They rejected Enlightenment rationalism, the horrors of Jacobin fanaticism, the doctrines of equality, the guillotines, but also Frederick the Great’s cynical contempt for religion. (57)

One of these men, Friedrich Ruhs, declared in 1816 that “a Christian state can therefore absolutely not recognize any other members than Christians.” In a speech in June 1847 General Ludwig August von Thile, president of the Berlin Mission to the Jews, an evangelistic organization, rejected talk of granting full political rights to Jews on the basis that the state had to remain Christian:

I have also heard today that Christianity and even religion should play no role in the discussions of the state; but one of the Honor delegates put this in words which I could heartily endorse when he said ‘Christianity should not be constituted within the state. It should be above the State and should govern it.’ With this I heartily agree … He [a Jew] may be the born subject of another nation, he may out of private interest or out of a feeling of general love for humanity make great sacrifices to the circumstances in which he lives, but he will never be a German, never be a Prussian because he must remain a Jew.” (80)

Such sentiments are properly understood in relation to older (though not so old as Jesus!) Christian convictions regarding the nature of the state rather than to later figures like Hitler. Unlike their Nazi descendents of the next century, 19th Century German antisemites accepted that conversion enabled a Jew to become a Christian, and therefore a German. Nevertheless it is easy to see how this sort of Christian antisemitism could easily evolve into a more radial antisemitism in the context of secularization, modernity, and human sin.

Think about it. If you emphasize too much 1) the hostility of Christianity to a particular religion or practice, and 2) the necessarily Christian character of the state, it is inevitable that people devoted to the welfare of the state, whether Christian or not, will turn themselves in strident opposition to the religion or practice in view. Once Christian views have been thus politicized within a broader culture, the results are entirely unpredictable. If it turns out well, expect Christians to take the credit. But if it turns out tragically, as in the Holocaust, or in the cases of anti-homosexual violence mentioned above, don’t expect nonbelievers to let Christians off the hook. Nor should they.

As Christians we need to be aware that any principle we bring into politics – any idea or symbol we seek to integrate into a broader culture – will be politicized and manipulated for other ends. This should caution us against being too quick to slap the label ‘Christian’ on a movement or policy we happen to support. We must always carefully distinguish between the principles of our faith (i.e., Jesus is the Messiah long promised to the Jews; sexual intercourse outside of marriage is unjust) and political policies deemed by some people (perhaps including ourselves) to be logical extensions of such principles (i.e., non-Christians shouldn’t have the same political rights as Christians; homosexuals should be punished).

Just as importantly, we have to make sure that we are as committed to defending the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings as we are to opposing what we regard as unjust or unrighteous. We are, at least to a certain extent, responsible for the ways others abuse our arguments, especially if we are silent at the abuse. We should be horrified by the violence committed against homosexuals in France. We should be wary of any religious rhetoric that so denigrates other human beings, turning them into such ‘Others’ that we no longer see them as those whom we are called to serve and with whom we are called to suffer, after the example of Jesus.

Christians convinced that the true religion must be advanced by the sword have done inestimable damage throughout the turbulent years of Christendom and modernity. That’s not what Jesus called us to do. Let’s heed the warnings of the past.

Evangelicals and Immigration Reform

Immigration reform is an excellent example of a political controversy on which faithful Christians legitimately disagree. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have recently run stories drawing attention to increasing Evangelical support for immigration reform. Some of the most significant Evangelical organizations associated in the past with the strident conservatism of the Christian Right – including the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Focus on the Family, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) – have thrown their weight behind the cause.

At the same time, among the broader Evangelical population there is still significant hostility towards immigration reform; according to the Washington Post, it remains the demographic most opposed to what many conservatives regard simply as amnesty. Conservatives expect people to work hard, act responsibly, and obey the law. They worry a lot about the growing demographic of Americans who don’t seem to share their understanding of what it means to be an American, and the idea that someone would enter this country illegally and then expect the same public benefits as anyone else flies in the face of that fear. It’s not that they are opposed to immigration, as they will tell you. They just think it should be done legally. You can’t give amnesty to someone who has broken the law or you will simply encourage her or him to do it again.

That said, in his defense of immigration reform Tea Party Senator Marco Rubio rightly reminds such critics that when we talk about enforcing the law and about deportation we are talking not primarily about criminals but about people. In many cases we are talking about children and young people who have been born and grown up in this country but whose parents immigrated illegally. We are talking about married couples, perhaps a woman who has entered the country illegally but whose husband is an American. Though in many cases the human cost of deportation is not very significant, in other cases we are contemplating breaking up families, arresting people, and forcibly deporting them, whatever the moral and personal cost may be.

Again, I understand that this is an issue on which Christians legitimately disagree. I would not want my church taking a defined position on immigration legislation, which is why I take issue with what the NAE and ERLC (though not so much Focus on the Family) are doing. How do you balance the integrity of the law against empathy, retributive justice against restorative justice, the common good against the well-being of individuals, a person’s identity in terms of citizenship against her calling as a wife and mother? The church should lay out biblical principles that policymakers must keep in mind (i.e., don’t split up families), but it hardly has divine authority to promote particular legislation.

I personally believe immigration reform is an urgent necessity of our time. I expect many of you to disagree, and that’s fine; I may well be wrong. That said, I do want to comment on the irony of American conservatives – that segment of the population most likely to take the history of nations, cultures, and institutions seriously – calling for such a hardline against illegal Mexican immigrants.

How many of our ancestors (political ancestors if not literal ones) broke the law when they came to this country, or when they pushed irrepressibly westward? I’m not just talking about the occupation of lands inhabited by natives who had little understanding of property ownership. I’m talking about the refusal of Americans over and over to obey the treaties their own country signed with various tribes, the insistence that even if these non-white people had been pushed off their lands multiple times already, they should be pushed off yet again. And what of the mass American migration into Mexican territory that resulted in the Texan secession from Mexico and ultimately in the huge land-grab resulting from the most unjust war in American history (Mexican War, 1846-1848)? (By my count the territories we seized from Mexico add up to about 130 votes in the electoral college.)

My point is not to question the wisdom, virtue, and hard work on which American prosperity is built. Conservatives rightly point out that we can’t turn back the clock and make these wrongs right. As with the case of reparations to former slaves, it is far better to move on and move forward than to continually haggle over the sins of the past. Clemency is just as important a political virtue as is justice.

But then why do so many view illegal immigration so differently? To be sure, there are approximately 15 million people who are currently living in this country illegally. They have broken the law. And yet they now play a vital role in the American economy, performing hard work that many other Americans are not willing to do, contributing far more to this country than they take from it. They believe in the American dream, the same American dream that motivated our own ancestors.

Finding a way for these people to work through a process – a process that involves penalties and a significant amount of waiting time – that would enable them to hold their families together, work towards prosperity, and become legal residents hardly seems like an outlandish proposal, let alone one that would destroy the integrity of the law. To be sure, it would have to be accompanied by stricter border enforcement. But it is unlikely that, even were the present immigration reform to amount in an “amnesty” like that of the 1980s, we would find ourselves in the same mess in 20 years that we are in today. An improving economy and rapidly falling birth rates south of the border mean that there are far fewer Mexicans interested in entering the United States than was once the case.

In any case, it’s good to see Evangelicals increasingly seeing both sides of this difficult issue. Enforcing the law at all costs, as Les Miserables has recently reminded us, is not the same thing as justice. We’ll see what happens.

Hitler and Restoring Germany’s Christian Heritage: Learning the Right Lessons From Church History

I’m grateful to the folks at Patheos for publishing my essay, “Why Did German Protestants Support Hitler?” It’s a much fuller presentation of arguments I’ve made on this blog in the past, but it arises out of a course on the Holocaust for which I’ve been a Teaching Associate and lecturer at Emory University. In the fall I’ll be giving a paper at the American Academy of Religion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a two kingdoms theologian, showing how Bonhoeffer took two kingdoms theology in a quite different direction than did many of his contemporaries.

Here an excerpt from my piece at Patheos.

Leading two kingdoms theologians like Paul Althaus argued that it was the church’s obligation to support the state in its attempt to protect the German volk from corruption or defilement. When Hitler came to power in 1933, it was therefore not a passive two kingdoms doctrine that kept otherwise skeptical Christians from opposing him. After all, the two kingdoms doctrine had not stopped them from standing up against the Weimar Republic, which they had regarded as godless. On the contrary, because of their strong convictions about the complementary roles of church and state, as well as about authority and basic Christian morality, they actively supported Hitler. They believed his rhetoric that he would restore Germany to its national glory and Christian foundations.

You can read the whole essay here.

Do American Christians want the USA to be more like Russia?

In the past few months I’ve heard several conservative American Christians grumble that Christians increasingly have more freedom in Russia than they do in America. Obviously such comments reflect awareness of Russia’s history of rigorously anti-Christian communism during the 20th Century. At least when it comes to religion, however, Putin’s regime has more in common with Europe’s 20th Century Fascist regimes than it does with Lenin or Stalin.

And I fear that the comments of these conservative Christians says more about their own politicized perceptions than about reality. As Jonathan Merritt writes,

American Christians have a persecution complex. Whenever a public figure criticizes the Christian movement or offers believers in other faiths an equal voice in society, you can bet Christians will start howling. Claims about American persecution of Christians are a form of low comedy in a country where two-thirds of citizens claim to be Christians, where financial gifts to Christian churches are tax deductible, where Christian pastors can opt out of social security, and where no one is restricted from worshipping however, whenever, and wherever they wish.

There is an increasing tendency among some on the right to turn every single political issue into a matter of religious liberty. The base isn’t getting fired up enough about same-sex marriage? About government tax policy? Show them that their religious freedom is at stake.

This strategy strikes me as misguided for a number of reasons, both strategic and moral. First of all, there is the old story of the boy who kept crying wolf. The religious liberty charge is being thrown around so much that by the time religious liberty is genuinely at stake in this country it may evoke little more than a collective rolling of the eyes. Just as importantly, it doesn’t say much about our political morality if Christians can only become engaged by claiming victim status for ourselves. Self-interest, not justice or concern for the common good, seems for some to be the main reason why we should be concerned about same-sex marriage. Yet bemoaning the poor state of we Christians in this country is hardly a strategy likely to win the political hearts and minds of mainstream America.

In any case, on the surface, at least, there is plausibility to the claim that Russia is more friendly to religion than is America. Let’s compare the two. The Economist reports that the Oklahoma Senate just passed, by a vote of 40-3, legislation to bar both foreign and religious law from state courts. Enactment of the law would make Oklahoma the sixth state (after Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota and Tennessee) to have such a law on the books. As the report humorously puts it,

If a judge sentences you to be stoned for adultery, you are probably not in Middle America. But just to make sure, the Senate of Oklahoma this week endorsed by 40 votes to three a bill that would bar the use of foreign or religious laws in state courts.

This phenomena, ironically, is largely coming from the right. But of course, most of us are aware of the secularization being pushed from the left as well: same-sex marriage, the contraceptive mandate, talk of suspending the charitable tax deduction, etc. To be sure, these are serious issues, worthy of our concern. They no doubt have some implications for religious liberty. But is religious liberty really the fundamental value at stake?

Enter Russia. According to the Globe and Mail,

Russian legislators have given initial approval to a law [by a vote of 330-7 in the Duma] that would make offences against religion punishable by up to five years in prison after the Pussy Riot protest in Moscow’s main cathedral outraged many in the mainly Orthodox country.

Three women from the punk band were jailed for hooliganism after their protest over Kremlin ties to the church, but the new law would make such stunts illegal by deeming they caused offence to religious feelings, ceremonies, sites or artifacts.

The Russian Orthodox Church, with close ties to the Putin regime, strongly supports the legislation. Putin says its necessary to protect believers. But his broader agenda regarding religion seems to be just the sort that some American Christians would love to see carried out in this country:

Putin’s relationship with the church has strengthened since Pussy Riot band members entered Christ the Saviour Church last year and sang a profanity-laced song, urging the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out” at the height of protests against his rule.

He has called for the church to have more say over family, life education and the military, and has tried to mix spirituality with his own brand of patriotism.

Does anyone outside of Russia honestly believe that Putin has the genuine interests of Christianity at heart here? Far more likely is that this is just another instance of an authoritarian political leader using faith and the church for his own purposes. And as a theologian like John Calvin can remind us, it has always been this way, even during the best years of Christendom. We are therefore left with the odd paradox that often Christians have far more freedom – and would much prefer to live – in secular western countries than in “Christian” countries that seek to synthesize religion with authoritarian rule.

In any case, amid all the rhetoric about religious persecution in this country, it helps to get some perspective about what oppression really looks like. If you’re in doubt, take some time off and catch up on your reading about Putin’s Russia.

Russell Moore and a Christian Witness Beyond Culture Wars

From Collin Garbarino at First Thoughts:

Last week, Russell Moore, president-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, gave C-Span an interview … [T]he host asks Moore if he thinks that he’s on the losing side of the culture war. His answer sums up his approach:

I don’t like to think in terms of culture wars. I don’t think we are at war with one another in this country. I think we have very deep disagreements on issues that matter, but we come to that with civility and in conversation.

Moore recognizes that social conservatives who let the Bible shape their worldview are a decided minority in America. He claims that this minority needs to realize their position and speak prophetically. During the course of the interview, Moore fields questions from callers on both sides of the political divide. Callers from the left are angry with him because of his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Callers from the right can’t understand his position on immigration and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to use the rhetoric of “culture war.” I suppose that these callers have a right to be confused because they probably haven’t heard someone talk like this before. Moore offers an intelligent, cool-headed position, and most Americans have never experienced intelligence and cool-headedness in the context of discussing religion’s role in politics.

Amid all the hand-wringing and the endearing “woe is us – persecution is coming” rhetoric coming from conservative Christians these days, Moore’s approach is principled and refreshing. Read Garbarino’s post, or watch the interview, here.

The Greatest Threat to Marriage – It’s Not What You Think It Is

It’s hard to claim that allowing a tiny percentage of gay men and women to marry will destroy an institution that already has little to do with what conservatives say they are trying to preserve.

The Changing Face of Marriage infographic

Nearly half of births are to unwed mothers. Many more children grow up in households wrecked by divorce. Marriage is not in a meaningful sense a legally binding contract.

One of the reasons it’s plausible for so many people to think Christians oppose same-sex marriage because they are bigots is because on the whole Christians have shown themselves to be much more fired up about homosexuality than about problems like divorce, adultery, and what was once known as illegitimacy (problems with which Christians themselves are quite complicit). To be sure, many Christians opposed the liberalization of laws pertaining to divorce and adultery. But many others proved highly susceptible to the feminist claim that such radical  liberalization was essential to the liberation of women, unable to distinguish between reforms that were necessary and those that went too far.

If social conservatives – most of whom are Christians – have any hope of recovering the institution of marriage as a meaningful factor in the procreation and raising of children in this country, they are going to have to get back to the basics. Set aside same-sex marriage for the moment. What should traditional marriage look like? The relevant audience that needs to do some hard thinking here is not simply the audience committed to gay marriage, but the audience committed to the rights of men, women, and children to have sex, get married, have sex with people married to other people, and get divorced at will.

How do we recover the binding legal character of marriage so that it will benefit children, men, and women without allowing that institution to be used for the exploitation of women as it so often was in the past? What might laws regarding adultery and divorce look like – laws with teeth – that protected and empowered women as much as they promoted the interests of men? Perhaps most important of all, how do we persuade a skeptical audience – in practice made up especially of those both at the top and the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum – not only that marriage matters, but that it is good? That, not the narrow issue of same-sex marriage, may be the vital social question of our time.

Calvin’s Terrible Argument Against Religious Liberty

I’ve noted before that Calvin used Plato and other philosophers to defend his claim that magistrates should suppress false religion. In addition to the last chapter of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the places in which Calvin makes this argument explicitly is in his commentary on the judicial supplements to the first commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ It is here that he addresses the Torah’s numerous stipulations that false teachers, idolaters, and witches are to be put to death. This work was published in 1563, well after Calvin’s approval of the execution of Servetus (in 1553) had swelled to a major international and theological controversy. It is obvious that he writes with that controversy in mind.

Calvin was well aware that the Torah’s call for capital punishment for false teachers is an insufficient basis for a Christian nation in the 16th Century to do the same. He affirmed that Christians are not under the law except as a guide to charity; the Torah’s political laws only bind other nations insofar as they reflect general principles of equity or of natural law. He knew therefore that if he was to defend the suppression of false religion he had to produce an argument supported by natural law and by Scriptural teaching on the nature of the kingdom of Christ (not simply about Israel).

It is quite telling, however, that Calvin’s first and most basic argument is not derived from Scripture but from Plato’s Laws. It is as if he knows that his exegetical argument against religious liberty is remarkably thin, and that he must therefore clear the air by showing that he has the consensus of philosophers – even non-Christian philosophers – on his side. He writes,

For Plato also begins from hence, when he lays down the legitimate constitution of a republic and calls the fear of God the preface of all laws; nor has any profane author ever existed who has not confessed that this is the principal part of a well-constituted state, that all with one consent should reverence and worship God. In this respect, indeed, the wisdom of men was at fault, that they deemed that any religion which they might prefer was to be sanctioned by laws and punishments; yet the principle was a just one, that the whole system of law is perverted if the cultivation of piety is ignored by it.

From this statement it is clear that Calvin saw the defense of religious liberty (he would not have called it such, of course) as arising from Christian sources rather than from pagan ones. Yet he turns this important fact not into a basis for defending religious liberty, but into a reason for opposing it.

What is particularly striking about his argument is that as a rule Calvin had very little confidence in magistrates. He declares over and over in his writings that even those kings and princes who claim to be Christian are usually guided more by their own ambition than by a zeal for God’s righteousness. Virtually none in the history of the world have had the genuine interests of the church at heart. Yet Calvin’s solution for this problem is not to call for the state to remove itself from spiritual affairs, but to insist that it get religion right. One is reminded if the claim made in the late 20th Century by some Marxists, to the effect that the problem is not with Marxism, but simply with the fact that true Marxism has never been tried.

Of course, Calvin does offer the typical qualifications. Magistrates should only suppress false religion if the truth of God’s word as revealed in Scripture has been publicly acknowledged among the people. There can be no use of coercion on doubtful matters.

It must then be remembered that the crime of impiety would not otherwise merit punishment, unless the religion had not only been received by public consent and the suffrages of the people, but, being supported also by sure and indisputable proofs, should place its truth above the reach of doubt.

On this basis it would be difficult for Calvin to insist on the state’s suppression of religious liberty in 21st Century America (though this is small comfort for those who are concerned about the ultimate intentions of the Christian right).

Calvin also agrees with the later Enlightenment argument that the truth is strong enough to stand on its own feet and does not need the protection of the sword. But his appeal is not for the sake of the preservation of the truth, but to the will and glory of God.

God might indeed do without the assistance of the sword in defending religion, but such is not his will… Pardon shall never be extended to poisoners, by whom the body alone is injured, and shall it be sport to deliver souls to eternal destruction? Finally, the magistracy, if its own authority be assailed, shall take severe vengeance upon that contempt; and shall it suffer the profanation of God’s holy name to be unavenged?

Here Calvin returns to a comment he often makes in these sorts of contexts. Though our reason and sentiment may object to a particular command, God has pronounced his will and we must abide by it.

But what about the objection, derived from the two kingdoms doctrine, that in the spiritual kingdom of Christ the Torah’s stipulation about God’s will for the punishment of false teachers has no place? Calvin is well aware of this theological argument, the argument that most Christians (including myself) would use today to defend religious liberty. Yes, he was a product of his time; but that doesn’t mean he didn’t think through the issues clearly. He writes,

But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion. And there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law, not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of his kingdom should be aided by the sword. But, when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed. For although it was Christ’s will that his gospel should be proclaimed by his disciples in opposition to the power of the whole world … he did not impose on himself an eternal law that he should never bring kings under his subjection.

In short, Calvin views the obligation of magistrates to use the sword to suppress false religion not as a function of their role in the kingdom of Christ (whether Israel or the church) but as a function of their secular vocation. He now turns to the passages in Scripture that he thinks decisively establish his case, two from the Old Testament and (only one!) from the New. He invokes Psalm 2, which calls kings to “kiss the Son,” and Isaiah 49:23, which declares that at the coming of Christ kings will become “nursing fathers of the church.” Despite his oft-repeated reminder that such prophecies should be interpreted analogically, as describing the spiritual kingdom of Christ in language that would have made sense to people familiar with the temporal and earthly kingdom of Israel, in these cases he jettisons all such exegetical principles.

Yet his argument from the New Testament is the most tenuous of all. He cites Paul’s instruction to Timothy that Christians are to pray for all people, including kings and those in authority over them, in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Timothy 2:2). He insists that this passage calls magistrates to protect godliness by using the sword to suppress open ungodliness. In hindsight it is obvious that 1 Timothy 2:2 teaches no such thing. At best it might be said that Paul’s instructions imply that the magistrate should protect the religious liberty of Christians. The text says nothing at all about what the magistrate should do about other religious groups. Calvin was reading his own political convictions into the text. He surely acted sincerely, but his interpretation bears the mark of theological desperation rather than of the careful exegetical work for which Calvin was rightly so famous. He knew that the apparent teaching of the New Testament weighed heavily against his argument. He had to find something to show that his interpretation of the implications of natural law and of prophecy was affirmed in its pages.

Reformed folks sometimes want to defend Calvin for his views on religious liberty, pointing out that his position was no different from that of the other great theologians of Christendom. That is fair up to a point, particularly relative to those who want to judge Calvin as somehow uniquely tyrannical. He was a product of his time, as we are of ours. But in the interest of honesty and our Christian witness, it is necessary to affirm openly that Calvin was wrong, and that he was wrong not because he was not modern, but because he abandoned his own theological and exegetical principles. The biggest problem with the soft hagiography that defends Calvin is not the way it handles the execution of Servetus, but the way it ignores just how flawed was Calvin’s theological reasoning on religious liberty and politics. It is with this theological issue that we must come to grips if we are to clarify our own confession regarding religion and politics.

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