Monthly Archives: May 2013

European Court Upholds British Law Against Employees’ Freedom of Conscience

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected appeals by British Christians in two cases in which the individuals were fired by their employers for refusing to perform services for homosexuals that violated their conscience. One of the cases involves a local government employee who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies. The other involves a charity employee who indicated he could not in good conscience assist homosexual couples with their sex lives.

As the Telegraph reports:

Marriage registrar Miss Ladele was disciplined by Islington [a London borough] council for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies when they were legalised in 2004 … Mr McFarlane was dismissed as a relationship counsellor at charity Relate after he said he was prepared to counsel same sex couples but not to discuss sexual issues.

Peter Saunders worries that these cases set an obvious precedent: gay rights trump conscience rights.

The two rulings demonstrate that under British law gay rights now trump conscience rights and that reasonable accommodation need not be made for employees. At a stroke this puts at risk the job of any employee objecting to helping gay couples in activities they believe to be wrong (eg. Celebrating a civil partnership, adopting a baby, having sexual counselling etc).

Saunders does see a silver lining in the court’s logic.

The European Court decided that decisions of the UK Courts were within the ‘margin of appreciation’ (discretion) that it allows to national Courts – but in so doing it challenged many of the principles adopted by UK Courts and asserted by the British government. 

So for example, the UK Courts had held that beliefs about marriage as between a man and a woman was not a core component of Christian belief and so not protected. The European Court said that these beliefs were part of Gary and Lillian’s Christian identity and so were in principle protected!

The British Government also suggested that because the individuals were free to resign and find other jobs, there had been no infringement of their freedom of religion – in other words, ‘your freedom to resign secures your freedom of religion’.  But the European Court ruled that ‘freedom to resign and find another job’ is not sufficient to guarantee religious freedom.

These are significant breakthroughs and will be a great help in contending for Christian freedoms in the UK Courts in the future. 

Cases like these will be important to follow moving forward. Liberal democracies are committed to protecting minority rights. The problems arise because often these rights conflict. Still, it is worth noting that what is at issue here is not the right of gay couples to enter into civil partnerships or receive sex counseling. What is at issue is whether a particular individual can be required to perform such services as a condition of maintaining her employment. The real issue is therefore not about gay rights vs conscience rights, but about duties vs rights. Simply put, do the British really think that the duty to offer particular services to homosexual couples trump freedom of conscience?

Polish Agony: Exploring My Family’s Past in a Nation’s Tragedy

During my stay in Poland last week I had the privilege of visiting many of the important sites of recent Polish history. There is the city of Poznan, where my mother-in-law studied, Polish and Catholic through and through, but still witnessing to 150 years of Prussian/German occupation with its Protestant church named after Kaiser Wilhelm II. There is the astonishingly beautiful city of Krakow, which was undamaged during the war, but whose massive Wawel castle served as the headquarters for the brutal Nazi governor general of Poland, Hans Frank.

Then there is Auschwitz. Auschwitz I was particularly meaningful for me, as it was there that my wife’s great-grandfather was murdered in 1941. He was part of the Polish ‘intelligentsia,’ an engineer who designed antiaircraft weaponry for the Polish military. After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 he initially avoided arrest by going into hiding. Even during the months before he was captured, my wife’s grandmother (We call her, in the Polish way, Bapcia Hanna) tells me, she, a young girl of 7 years at the time, did not get to see him. But he apparently remained involved in the nascent Polish partisan movement, and when he was accidentally arrested in late 1940, the Nazis quickly figured out who he was. He lasted 7 months in Auschwitz, sending one letter to his family each month (these letters are now in the possession of my mother-in-law). The last letter came from Block 11, the infamous barrack next to the shooting wall in which the Germans kept the prisoners they intended to torture, starve, or murder. It was in the basement of this barrack that the Nazis first experimented with the gas Zyklon B on Soviet prisoners.

Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, much larger than Auschwitz I, was the largest and most efficient of the Nazis’ extermination camps. It was here that the Nazis murdered over 1 million Jews, many of them Hungarian, during the last years of the war. A German soldier – we will likely never know who – somehow photographed the process through which several trainloads of Hungarians were brought to Birkenau and murdered. Now you can go to the very places where the photographs were taken, identifying precisely how these men, women, and children were taken off the trains, removed of their possessions, and divided by ‘selection’ into two groups: those who were to be put to work as slaves, and those who were to be immediately gassed. For those in the latter category, it was a short walk to the gas chambers at the back of the camp. The whole process from debarkation to death might not last more than 30 minutes. The Nazis tried to demolish the chambers and crematorium but the ruins are still there, and you can easily identify the undressing room, the gas chamber, and the crematorium based on the architectural plans the Nazis failed to destroy.

Then there is Warsaw, the city entirely destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Polish Home Army’s uprising in late 1944, yet rebuilt in its core areas with such meticulous care that it has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage sight (the only such sight that is a reconstruction). I had the good fortune of being shown around the city by Bapcia Hanna’s partner Teddy, who was a boy during the war. Teddy told me how during his first encounter with German soldiers in 1939, as a boy of ten, he was beaten for failing to get off the sidewalk when the soldiers passed by. Later Teddy became one of those remarkable Polish youths who were involved in partisan work, serving as a courier, training with weapons, and even sabotaging German railroads and trains. Teddy describes one such foiled effort, in which he and a friend had to flee into a forest while under direct fire from German soldiers. Teddy also showed me the house in the old part of Warsaw, now reconstructed, in which he had once lived, and in which his uncle, aunt, and their children lived during the uprising. The home was destroyed by the bombing and Teddy’s family had to dig themselves out.

Today there is a famous monument in Warsaw to the boy soldiers who fought, and in many cases died, during the Warsaw uprising in 1944. Teddy, 15 at the time, and his older brother were prevented from joining in the uprising by the cordon of German troops around Warsaw. Despite the fact that over 200,000 partisans and civilians were killed by the Germans during and after the uprising, Teddy tells me that to this day he regrets not having been able to participate. Bapcia Hanna’s mother, apparently carrying on her husband’s work (and apparently refusing to believe until well after the war that her husband had really been murdered), brought her two children to a farm south of Warsaw, then returned to serve in the uprising, like many other women, by preparing food for the partisans. Captured by the Germans like so many others, she avoided a concentration camp by escaping and managed to get back to her children. She did not escape the brutality of the Soviet soldiers who subjected thousands of Polish, German, and other women to rape and abuse as they occupied the region following the retreating German army.

Warsaw also witnesses to the Holocaust. During the war the city’s massive Jewish population was confined along with Jews from other places within a ghetto of only a few square miles. Conditions, which the Nazis captured on film, were horrific. Well before the ghetto inhabitants were deported to extermination camps thousands had died from the effects of overcrowding, starvation, and disease. Both Bapcia Hanna and Teddy described to me what they saw when they passed through the ghetto on the tram (whose windows were supposed to be darkened so that the Poles could not see what was taking place). The suffering, starvation, and death, stared them in the face.

Americans and western Europeans tend to look back on World War II as a just war that ended in victory. Poles don’t necessarily think of it that way. Poland, we forget, was invaded by two brutal armies during September 1939, the German and the Soviet. Both occupying forces murdered Poles by the thousands and deported Polish civilians by the hundreds of thousands. Both persecuted the Catholic Church and both sought to wipe out any semblance of Polish culture and nationality. The Polish became reluctant allies of the Soviets when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, hoping that with British help their country might yet win its independence. They rose up against the Germans in 1944 in anticipation that the Soviets would come to their assistance. But Stalin intentionally betrayed them, hoping to see the Germans wipe out the underground government and military that might serve as the foundation for a future free Polish state.

Six million Poles, half of them Jews, died during World War II (the total population of Poland on the eve of war was just over 30 million people). Yet the Poles, as they will tell you today, were not liberated in 1944. The British and the Americans betrayed Poland, along with the other countries east of the iron curtain, to the Soviets, figuring that Polish freedom was a small price to pay for the avoidance of war with the Soviet Union. The Soviets subjected the nation to their own brutality, and though communism was challenged by the Catholic Church and the solidarity movement in the 1980s, communism did not finally collapse until 1989. It was only then that the Polish people could erect a monument to the Polish resistance during World War II, or could openly discuss the Soviet murder of thousands of Polish officers in 1940, the communists having subjected the people to decades of propaganda and deceit.

To this day the Poles are still coming to grips with what exactly happened during those fifty brutal years. Given the years of manipulation and deceit, it is not only the conspiracy theorists who are skeptical and wary of standard historical accounts. Yet the churches in Poland, unlike in Germany and other parts of eastern Europe, remain vibrant and full, a testimony to their role in resisting the oppression of Nazis and Soviets alike, in providing hope by pointing to another way of life. The challenges for the younger generation are obvious, and here the churches have their work cut out for them. Still, for Poland, it would seem, the future can only be brighter than the past. I sure hope so.

Fleeing the Past to Nowhere: My Observations on Berlin

Americans often look back on the past with a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that for several centuries now we’ve had something very good going on here in this country. Although we are a very forward-looking people, we love to remember, to preserve, and to honor the heroes of the past.

Germans could not be more different. Berlin is a city whose troubled history overwhelms visitors and residents alike. The city has suffered more calamity in one hundred years than most cities endure in a thousand. The most famous sites – the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag building, the Berliner Dom – are all reconstructed or significantly repaired in the wake of damage from fire, bombs, and battle. The Germans have surrounded these monuments with exhibitions and displays reminding passers-by of just what horrors took place on these grounds in past years. A few images show Nazi soldiers marching these very streets and doing their damage. Many more feature the numerous heroes who resisted the Nazi scourge – usually paying the ultimate price. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s photo, with an explanation of his story in various languages, is there, a few hundred yards from the reconstructed Reichstag building.

The buildings and monuments point back to better times as well, of course. The Reichstag was the meeting point for the German parliament in the brief years of democracy between World War I and Hitler’s rise to power. The Brandenburg Gate, like France’s Arc de Triomphe, hails to a spirit of patriotism and an age of military success with which any people can identity in some sense. And the Berliner Dom reminds its visitors of Germany’s solidly Protestant, Christian past. In the sanctuary prominent statues of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers are symbols of an evangelical tradition in which the Calvinist Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty united together Reformed and Lutheran branches of the Reformation in one united Prussian church.

But at the heart of Berlin, only a few blocks from the city’s massive postmodern Jewish memorial, the legacy of the Nazi past again confronts the careful observer. Walk the Wilhemstrasse, once the nerve center of Hitler’s government, and you will see a number of prominent Nazi buildings that fully  or in part survived the Allied bombing of the city – the propaganda ministry building, the air ministry building, and more. A sign (Germans are careful to insist that it is not a plaque) tells you that where communist-era apartment buildings now appear Hitler’s Chancellery once stood. Pass down a side street, duck through an opening in the row of buildings, and you find yourself in a grass and gravel covered parking lot. Oddly enough, this ugly parking lot is full of interested, chattering tourists. As another sign informs you (again, not a plaque), this was the site of Hitler’s bunker. Germany refused to indicate the site until only a few years ago, not wanting it to become a shrine for neo-Nazis, but the myths and falsehoods swirling around about the site finally convinced the authorities that acknowledging the sordid truth is the best way to come to grips with the past in such a way that it will not be repeated.

The gift shops in Berlin are all about the era of communism and the Berlin Wall, which of course, ended just under 25 years ago. You can search far and wide but for the most part you won’t find postcards or tourist trinkets about World War II. Various segments of the Berlin Wall have been preserved, as well as a very touristy Checkpoint Charlie, and these sites get much more attention than do the World War II era bomb shelters, bunkers, or anti-aircraft towers that can still be found around the city.

Still, the key points for the Holocaust and Nazi terror are there. A few blocks east of the Berliner Dome, tucked away on the Rosenstrasse, there is a quiet monument to a group of German women who successfully protested and prevented the deportation of their Jewish husbands to extermination camps during 1943. The courageous protest saved some 1,800 lives. It was the only significant successful protest against the extermination of Jews in Germany during the war. You have to know about it to find it, but take the train to the Berlin-Grunewald station at the southwest edge of Berlin, pass under the rail lines, and there is a sign marked ‘Gleis 17’ pointing off to the left. Walk up the steps and you come to a stretch of old track, no longer used and now partly overgrown with weeds. Two stretches of old platform have been covered with a series of dozens of metal grates. On the top of each grate is a date, a number, and a place. Each one records the date of a deportation of Jews – usually in the hundreds – and the camp to which they were deported, usually Theresienstadt or Auschwitz. This was the train station from which Germany deported the Jews rounded up in the area of Berlin.

Another ten minutes on the train brings you to the beautiful resort town of Wannsee. It takes a short bus ride, but within twenty minutes you can reach the Wannsee Conference House, a beautiful mansion on the edge of the lake, surrounded by gardens and shaded by large trees. Here, unlike at the Gleis 17 memorial, there are a fair number of visitors. Wannsee was used for numerous purposes by the SS, the mansion serving as a place to host prominent officials as well as important meetings and conferences. The most important of these was the conference of January, 1942, at which SS officer Reinhard Heydrich gathered representatives of the various German bureaucracies and ministries for a brief but high level ‘discussion.’ As the perfectly preserved minutes of the meeting tell us, it was here that the SS made clear its ownership of the Final Solution of the Jewish problem, and just what it expected in cooperation from the various parts of the German government (you may have seen the stirring film Conspiracy, which dramatizes the conference). Here, as much as anywhere, the Holocaust was conceived. For me, it was the stark contrast between the evil that was conceived here and the mundane feel of the house and the pacific beauty of its idyllic neighborhood that made this the most depressing stop of all. How could the Germans have done this?

And the past does very much live on with the Germans, even the younger generation. Few Jews have returned to the country, and those who have often still feel like outsiders. Antisemitism remains strong among a fringe of the population. Jewish graves are still occasionally desecrated, and even in my short time in Berlin I was on the receiving end of remarks about “Jews” that it would be hard to imagine an American making. Also, the controversies remain. A few years ago, when the Holocaust memorial was being built, it emerged that one of the companies responsible for the construction was the same company that once produced Zyklon B, the gas used to murder millions of Jews at Auschwitz and other locations. Now, a middle-aged German grumbled to me, some of the solid stones of the monument are breaking apart. “We Germans can’t seem to get anything right.”

Yet as one young German noted, this history is pounded into them day after day in school. “We get it,” he said. “We’re not going to start a war again.” That’s quite obvious. If there is anywhere in the world where a country has come to grips with its own evil and its own crimes, it is Germany. Nothing has been shoved under the carpet here, as has been done, for instance, in China or Russia. Germans (unlike some Americans) fully appreciate that nationalism, conservatism, and religious or ethnic solidarity are forces that can easily degenerate into the worst forms of evil. There are no “good ole’ days” in the memories of Berliners.


Yet it is not hard to detect a wary skepticism among Germans even about the future. Although the country is dramatically outperforming many of its southern European neighbors, its economy and society are riddled with problems that raise questions about the sustainability of the country’s welfare state. The folks driving the BMWs, a German business owner told me, are often the unemployed. They don’t bother working because they get a higher income if they remain inactive. People are abandoning the churches and social institutions like marriage in droves. The young, in particular, seem to think that partying and fun are what makes life most worth living. If Berlin is known for anything now, in addition to its endless construction and reconstruction, it is the city’s nightlife. The trains run at all hours of the night, the partiers not leaving the clubs until light appears in the wee hours of the morning. There is little worth conserving in Berlin’s storied past, it seems; but many Germans wonder just what it is that is worth living for in the future.

The Law, Israel, and Politics: Coming to Grips with a Reformed Error

[Note: This article originally appeared on this blog on May 1, 2012.]

In a recent post on his excellent blog, Walter Russel Mead compares the political right in Israel with the political right in America:

Like social conservatives and libertarians in the US, only in a much more polarized way, the right wing of the Israeli electorate includes very religious and very secular voters. The Christian right in the US is mostly focused on a small number of high profile issues like abortion. In Israel, the religious right has a much fuller and more encompassing view on how religion should shape the political agenda. Jewish law in all its complexity, many feel, should be the guiding principle in a Jewish state.  The resulting issues go from how strictly should state entities observe the Sabbath to whether ultra-Orthodox students should be able to defer their military service indefinitely.

In part due to its high birth rate, the ultra-orthodox movement is increasingly asserting itself in Israeli politics. And consistent with their allegiance to the old Mosaic Covenant, they want Israel to be run according to the Torah, the Mosaic Law. As the International Crisis Group quotes one ultra-orthodox student:

There’s a new ultra-orthodox generation that wasn’t born in the diaspora but in the land of Israel. It’s the world of those whose roots belong here and who don’t want to abandon the land. They see the crisis afflicting Israel and want to get involved in mainstream politics for the good of the whole society, not just their interest group. They want to see judges wear skullcaps and act according to Torah law.

Classically, of course, Christians rejected the use of the Torah as a definitive authority for the government of Christian lands. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to claim in his Summa Theologiae that if someone follows the Torah’s political and judicial laws simply because those laws are found in the Torah, that person commits a mortal sin (I-II, Q. 104, Art. 3). Christians were to obey the Torah only insofar as it reflected natural law.

Martin Luther, likewise, argued that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, and that they should follow its political laws only where those laws can be demonstrated to be expressions of natural law. On this basis he initially opposed the use of the sword for the coercion of false teachers or blasphemers. Unfortunately, he later changed his position.

Even John Calvin took a similar position. As he wrote in his first edition of the Institutes, against those who “deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and [which] is ruled by the common laws of nations,” the judicial laws of the Torah are only binding insofar as they are expressions of the timeless demands of natural law, love, and equity:

For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain… For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere (4.20.14-16).

In fact, it is little known that in the first edition of theInstitutesCalvin criticized the use of the sword for religious persecution. Speaking of the love with which Christians should seek to reconcile those who are excommunicated, as well as “Turks and Saracens, and other enemies of religion,” he wrote:

Far be it from us to approve those methods by which many until now have tried to force them to our faith, when they forbid them the use of fire and water and the common elements, when they deny them all offices of humanity, when they pursue them with sword and arms (1536 Institutes, 2.28).

This is promising stuff. Unfortunately, Calvin dropped that quote from subsequent editions of the Institutes (except, fascinatingly, the final French edition). In practice, he defended government’s use of the sword to punish violators of all of the Ten Commandments, especially in his commentaries and sermons on the Torah. Both Lutheranism and Calvinism became known for their turning to the example of Old Testament Israel as a model for Christian commonwealths. Like the Israelite kings, godly magistrates were to enforce all of God’s laws, including those laws regulating preaching and worship.

It’s not that they didn’t know opposing arguments. In addition to their early positions, as described above, Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers were consistently confronted with arguments from Anabaptists, Evangelical pastors, prominent civil officials, and various intellectuals, to the effect that Christians are not under Israel’s Torah, and that therefore the example of Old Testament Israel did not justify the use of the sword for religious persecution. As one civil official in the city of Nurnberg put it:

Now it is certainly true that the Old Testament no longer binds any man, and if we are bound in one matter on the ground that it is commanded in the Old Testament, how shall we avoid being bound in other such matters? If one thing were necessary, they would all be necessary, as Paul clearly concludes in Gal. 5[:3] and says against those who wanted to make circumcision obligatory: Whoever has himself circumcised is obliged to fulfill the whole law. Therefore we must not be bound by anything in the Old Testament but rather give heed to the New Testament.

Our views of the Mosaic Covenant, of the Torah, and of their relation to politics in the present age are tremendously important. Christians still debate this stuff vigorously today, although the “dominionists” and “theonomists” make up only a small minority within Evangelicalism. Is God’s purpose for modern day America (or for modern day Israel, for that matter), for us to be an imitation of Old Testament Israel, under that Law that Christians – according to Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin in their better moments – have been freed from?

Thankfully in time the Reformed tradition came to see the mistake in insisting that civil magistrates are to enforce the true religion, and both the Westminster Confession of Faith (the Presbyterian confession) and the Belgic Confession of Faith (the Dutch Reformed confession) were modified to eliminate that requirement. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that in part this was simply a shift of convenience. When separation of church and state and religious liberty is so popular all around us, it is hard to keep such an intolerant confession. Have we ever really come to grips with the crucial theological and covenantal issues that led our tradition down the wrong path in the past? Do we still think that in some ideal sense we are “under the Torah”? There still needs to be so much discussion on this topic.

Natural Law in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[Note, this post originally appeared on this blog on April 26, 2013.]

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.

Is Women’s Modesty the New Legalism Among Christians?

[Note: This article originally appeared on this blog on July 26, 2012. When I originally published it there was some controversy, as a number of people feared that I was in some way promoting  antinomianism. Such is not the case, at all. Here is a sermon I preached on Jesus’ warning against lust in Matthew 5:27-30.]

Contemporary America is one of the most sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Sex is everywhere, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, and the objectification of women in virtually every form of media is a commonplace. In this context, it is easy to see why many Christians react by placing tremendous stress on women’s modesty, not only in principle, but in terms of a system of rules and practices designed to cover and obscure the skin and curves of a woman’s body. In certain conservative circles the rhetorical and moral condemnation of those women who do not conform to the strict (and sometimes arbitrary) standards of others is quite intense. In many ways it is analogous to the fundamentalist approach that Christians took toward alcohol in the early twentieth century. The cultural problems caused by drunkenness and strong liquor were tragic and required a response, but the response of many Christians was more legalistic than realistic, more about control than about the gospel.

Of course, the problem with an issue like modesty is that one can always take a stricter, more modest position than the next person. Person A says women should always wear skirts, never pants. Person B says women’s skirts should always extend below the knees. Person C says women should never show their ankles or hair. Person D says why not just put on a burqa? Men don’t lust after women in burqas (or do they?). On the other hand, once one opens the door to Christian wisdom and liberty, where do you stop? In some cultures women freely show their breasts, even in church. Even in Victorian England it was suitable to show significant cleavage but not your ankles.

In his classic Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis writes,

The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e., propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or unchaste)…. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as so often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable. (83-84)

Often lost in all of this is that when the New Testament talks about modesty it is always concerned about women who put too much emphasis on their clothing, jewelry, and hair, forgetting that what it means to be a Christian woman is about godly actions that stem from the heart, not about what one wears. If anything, Paul’s writings show that he was concerned about wealthy women drawing too much attention to themselves through their physical adornment. Throughout much of human history, and one sees this in the descriptions of the adulterous woman in Proverbs as well, sexual immodesty had to do with the kind of clothing and makeup a person put on to draw attention to herself, not with the showing of skin. And Jesus puts the burden of preventing lustful thoughts on Christian men, not on Christian women.

I am not saying women should dress provocatively, or that it is acceptable for them to show as much skin as possible. I am suggesting that there is nothing inherently immodest about showing the skin on most parts of the human body or about wearing clothing that accentuates certain curves. As Christians we should be careful not to commit the Muslim mistake of thinking that we need to hide a woman’s body in order to make life easier for men, or that feminine beauty is something that we should flee from and avoid rather than celebrate and enjoy. The problem is with the human heart (lust) and the actions that spring from it (sexual immorality and adultery), as Jesus made quite clear to the Pharisees who were prone to their own forms of legalism. It is not with women, or with the bodies that God has given to them.

One of the most helpful set of posts I have seen on this is by Rachel Miller at her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation. As Miller writes, responding to a post on another blog praising the merits of women wearing skirts,

Skirts are not inherently more modest than pants. Modesty is much more an issue of the heart than simply what a woman wears. A skirt can easily be provocative, and it’s not hard to be modest in pants, or shorts, or even a swimsuit. And, there is a real danger for many women to become self-righteous over their choice of clothing.

Miller illustrates her point with a clever set of pictures. The link in the quote leads to a more substantive post she wrote on the issue. There she writes,

In reading the Scripture verses that deal with modesty and clothing, I noticed something. First, I noticed that Scripture gives very little by way of specifics as to what modest clothing looks like. Second, I noticed that Scripture speaks more about what might be termed “inner beauty.” (Again, I want to be clear that I am not disagreeing with those who see the need to address the practical issues related to dressing with modesty.)

Noting the relevant biblical passages, she goes on with reference to 1 Timothy 2:8-10,

While we could certainly get into a debate about whether women should braid their hair or wear jewelry, I think the point Paul is making here is that godly women should not worry so much about their outward appearance, but they should concern themselves with living godly lives. Our love for God and His love for us should make us care more about what He thinks of us and less about what the world around us thinks.

This is a very freeing concept. Women and girls who know that they are loved by God, not for anything they’ve done or anything they are, but solely because He has chosen to love them, are freed from the constant struggle for acceptance by the world.

One might add that it frees Christian women from the constant scrutiny of those to the right of them on the modesty spectrum.

Here again the comments of C.S. Lewis are helpful:

I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety [i.e., modesty] is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or ‘emancipated’ people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems. (84)

Again, the point is not that women should wear whatever they want without thought to modesty, or that they should dress provocatively. The point is that we should be very careful not to make arbitrary external rules our obsession, rather than the heart and the actions that stem from it, and that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of implicitly viewing women and their bodies as evils that are to be avoided or hidden. As a virtue of the gospel, modesty calls us to sanctify our hearts even as we celebrate that what God has made, including women created in his image, is very good.

[Note: the C.S. Lewis quotes have been added to the original version of this post]

Thank You Readers: “Christian in America”‘s First Anniversary

Blogging will be light while I’m traveling during the next couple weeks. Later this week I’ll be giving a paper on “John Calvin as a Two Kingdoms Theologian” at a Reformation anthropology conference in Berlin. The following week I’ll be visiting with my wife’s family in Poland. I may or may not put up a few posts; we’ll see how things go. At the very least I’ll re-post a few classics, posts many of my more recent readers haven’t yet had a chance to see.

Last month Christian in America reached its one year anniversary. It passed with little fanfare. Although maintaining this site for a year has at times been a greater commitment than I would have liked, I am tremendously grateful for how things have worked out. Posts routinely get 300-400 hits, and the most popular ones get well over 1,000. Although I started out posting six days a week, I’ve been able to reduce my writing commitment to a more sustainable two or three times per week while gradually increasing blog traffic in absolute terms.

Far more important than the stats, of course, are you, my loyal readers. None of this would be worth it if you did not faithfully keep coming back, ignoring the weak posts where it’s clear I’m not thinking entirely straight, offering helpful criticism, or giving your encouragement and support when you’ve found my writing helpful. I’ve received generous messages from professors, students, elementary school teachers, state representatives, pastors, reporters, lawyers, dads, moms and Christians serving in all sorts of other vocations and circumstances of life. They tell me that what you read here has in some way or another helped you to think through what it means to be a faithful Christian in America (or some other country). I’m very grateful for this encouragement, and even more so for the fact that my work has occasionally attained some practical value for you.

Because that has always been the main motivation here. This blog is not designed to be a focal point for controversy, nor is it designed merely to stimulate a particular professional or theological audience. I write for ordinary Christians, seeking to help you think through some of the controversies, problems, and opportunities of our time, with a special eye toward politics. I try not to react to events or arguments with talking points or cliches, the sorts of things people have come to expect from many Christians. But I do try to challenge common assumptions about theology or politics, rethinking the implications of the Christian faith for public life from the perspective of Scripture and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I write from a Reformed perspective, but I also wrestle with the Reformed political theological tradition. Every healthy tradition or community, I believe, must challenge and reinvigorate itself through reflection, conversation, and self-criticism, bringing the wisdom of both past and present into conversation with reference to the practical issues of our life together. It’s our duty as Reformed Christians to wrestle with what we have done well and what we have done poorly, with what we bring that is helpful to Christians of other traditions and what we need to learn from them. I seek to do this with humility and in a spirit of Christian unity. I also do so out of a sense of love and obligation to our neighbors in this country who do not share our faith. The ultimate goal is to remain faithful to our calling to reflect the image of Christ by serving one another in love.

So I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to all of you, and to ask for your continued support and constructive criticism. I hope and pray that my work will be helpful to you during year 2.

Do Christians Think Congress Should Be Opened With Prayer to Allah? Thoughts from Brian Lee

In the Daily Caller on Wednesday Brian Lee wrestles with the question of whether he should have opened the House of Representatives with prayer last week. This is not a case of it being easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Lee admits that he was always a bit torn, and that there are arguments both for and against what he did. Generic civil religion, he points out, is worse than problematic for Christians.

Lee, however, did not offer a generic prayer of civil religion last week. He helpfully explains the way he understands what he did as follows:

A church is a particular worshiping community, a creedal body, because it prays to a particular God. When I pray publicly in church, I therefore pray in the first person plural. That is, I pray in common and on behalf of every member of that community…

To whatever degree “Christian” may describe America, we are quite obviously not a creedal nation. Membership in Congress is explicitly not subject to a religious test; it is in this sense an anti-creedal body. It is therefore impossible for me to pray before Congress as I pray in church, on behalf of the assembled body, for Congress does not have an agreed-upon God. However, while I may not be able to pray on behalf of people who don’t share my faith, I can certainly pray for them. In this way, I occasionally pray for sick unbelievers when I’m invited to visit them in the hospital.

Christians must not presume false unity within a pluralistic group by praying in the first person plural on their behalf. If we do pray in such settings, we must pray as individuals, to a particular God, for the group. And indeed, this seems to me most consistent with the pluralistic character of our polity, that we retain our religious distinctiveness even as we enter the public square, instead of pretending as though there is none.

I think Lee gets this just right. But he goes on to note that this perspective gives rise to a poignant problem.

Should the House tolerate prayers like mine, offered in the name of Christ? Only, it seems to me, if it is also willing to accept prayers written in the name of Allah, Buddha, Gaia, or Zeus. My guess is this pluralistic version of Pascal’s wager would enjoy a lot less popular support than generic prayers to a nameless God, and the practice would soon pass away entirely.

Are most Christians OK with the U.S. House of Representatives asking practitioners of other religions to open House functions with prayer? In a sense this was not Lee’s problem when he was asked to lead the House in prayer. That’s why he stands by what he did. As he puts it,

Why then did I accept? God is near to those who call on him in faith. If someone asks a Christian to pray for them — especially a Christian minister — and you can do so in truth, with the love of Christ, and without violating your conscience, you accept.

As my father always said, if he was asked to preach in a mosque he would do it, as long as he was free to preach the gospel. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether a democratic nation, our nation, should request prayers not only from Christians, but from Muslims, Buddhists, or others. If we are OK with this, as Lee seems perhaps to be, how do we justify allowing a political body that represents us to promote what we regard as idolatry? If we are not OK with this, it seems that we should either be consistent and call for the establishment of the Christian religion, or we should oppose such prayers entirely.

What do you think?

Why Calvin Rejected Religious Liberty: Scott Clark on the Servetus Case

At the Heidelblog last week, and since republished on the Aquila Report, my friend Scott Clark writes a helpful response to dismissals of Calvin as the “tyrant of Geneva,” dismissals closely related to caricatures of Calvinism as a cold, authoritarian, and fatalist religion. Clark reminds us that it was not Calvin who sentenced the heretic Servetus to death, but the civil government of Geneva. More importantly, he points out that this took place during an age in which civil authorities throughout Europe, aligned with Rome, were killing thousands upon thousands of Protestants. Clark’s post is well worth reading in its entirety.

All of the leading magisterial reformers defended putting heretics, including Anabaptists, to death. Indeed, as Clark points out, Zwingli, Luther, Melanchthon, and Bullinger and other leading reformers were just as vocal in their defense of such policies as was Calvin. The reformer gets the extra press today because he is associated with a social movement that has had an impact far beyond its numbers. Luther, of course, gets bad press for his own blemishes and their supposed legacy in history.

Clark has no interest in defending the reformers’ complicity in the suppression of religious liberty. A strong two kingdoms advocate, he writes,

Was it a confusion of the civil and ecclesiastical spheres for Calvin to demand civil penalties [against one of his severe public critics] for being identified with the sufferings of Christ? Absolutely. From the perspective of a distinction between the ecclesiastical and common spheres, Calvin might have had a case before the Consistory but not before the Civil Authorities.

The true moral of this story, however, is of the danger of the Constantinian church-state alliance wherein civil authorities have the power to punish heresy. Nowhere in the New Testament or in the moral law is theological heresy a ground for civil punishment. The only sphere authorized by God to correct theological error is the visible church (see Matthew 18) and their means are purely spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline (e.g., rebuke, censure, excommunication).

With all of this I agree, and I appreciate Clark’s putting Calvin’s actions in historical context. That said, I do think more needs to be said than simply that Calvin was a product of his time, that nearly everyone in Europe agreed Servetus should be put to death for denying the fundamentals of Christianity (not simply of the Reformation), and that in any case, it was not Calvin who technically condemned and burned Servetus, but the government of Geneva.

The fact is, Calvin was a vocal and dogmatic apologist for the suppression of religious heresy. He was severely criticized for his complicity in the execution of Servetus, and the theological fighter that he was, he wrote repeatedly in defense of his actions and those of his government. He considered the arguments that Clark raises above and rejected them on theological grounds. Had Clark made these arguments in Calvin’s Geneva, Calvin would have said that he simply “desire[s] to be at liberty to make disturbances with impunity.” There is no need for me to recap all of that here, as I’ve written on it before. But here is a brief sampling of Calvin’s arguments, drawn from his commentary on the Law.

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.

Calvin is aware of these arguments, and he agrees both that the use of the sword is alien to the spiritual kingdom of Christ and that Christ does not need it for his kingdom’s success. However, he insists that God can nevertheless require that magistrates promote and defend the true religion merely because it is his will that such be part of their earthly vocation. In essence, he simply denies that capital punishment for false doctrine is a confusing of the kingdoms.

But when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed… He did not impose on himself an eternal law that he should never bring kings under his subjection, nor tame their violence, nor change them from being cruel persecutors into the patrons and guardians of his church.

He then denies that any contrary conclusions should be drawn from Jesus’ silence (and in general, that of the New Testament) on this magisterial responsibility. This is the weakest part of Calvin’s argument, it seems to me – his lack of any clear New Testament support for his position. He attempts to make up for it by appealing to three passages – the same three passages he invokes in at least half a dozen places in his writings where he discusses the issue – that he thinks prove that even in the Christian era magistrates are to enforce the true religion: Psalm 2, Isaiah 49;23; 1 Timothy 2:2. Again, I’ve addressed his appeal to such texts here.

Why does it matter? I’m sure some Reformed people will read this blog post and complain once again that we shouldn’t be criticizing our forebears on matters that aren’t even controversial anymore. Why beat a dead horse? It simply threatens the credibility of our theological tradition, doesn’t it?

I disagree. I care more about the Reformed tradition than about Calvin’s particular political opinions, and the credibility of the Reformed tradition depends far more on whether or not we take seriously the legacy and theology of the past than on whether we can manage to whitewash our history with hagiography. In this case, I firmly believe, many in the Reformed tradition, along with many Evangelicals in general, have not come to grips with why we disagree (or should disagree) with our forebears who opposed religious liberty.

We think they were simply products of their time. As if, were Calvin to appear in the 21st Century, he would suddenly agree with us. As if we were not products of our time as well. And as a result, we never come to grips with the theological mistakes the reformers made that led them to the positions we now oppose. Calvin supported the suppression of religious liberty in part because, influenced by Plato, Cicero and others, he held certain assumptions about the nature of the Mosaic Law and of Israel, and about their normativity for Christians. He believed that magistrates were called to enforce the law of God as revealed in Scripture, unto the glory of God. He failed to see why the first table of the law (i.e., worship and piety) should be excluded from that principle.

Read a smattering of Evangelical political arguments on a host of issues today – abortion, homosexuality, economics, health care, etc. – and you will find that many Evangelicals hold the same assumptions about the simple correlation between Scripture (and the example of Israel) and politics. The only difference was that Calvin was much more consistent than they are. He didn’t exclude idolatry, blasphemy, sabbath-breaking, or adultery from the political realm. That modern Evangelicals do so is usually not so much because they understand the theological problems with Calvin’s (and the other reformers’) views, but because they, even more than Calvin, are products of their time.

But is there a biblical theological foundation for a democratic society that values religious liberty? That, for me, is what is at stake here. That’s why we need to keep hashing through the counter-arguments of our theological forebears, arguments that were better and more theologically rigorous than we are usually willing to admit. We need biblical theological arguments for democratic pluralism and religious liberty that seriously come to grips with the Christian political theological tradition and come out on top. Calvin’s political theology may have been a product of its time. It’s up to us to work as hard as we can to ensure that ours is a product of Scripture.

[Note: All the Calvin quotations are from his Commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5]

American Guns, Reason, and a Fat Walrus: Which One Did the Media Get Right?

On Friday and Saturday the Drudge Report, under a large picture of President Barack Obama, ran as its headline: “Blames Mexican Violence on U.S. Guns.” It was the sort of headline that makes so many conservatives angry. There goes our president again, apologizing for America and taking the blame for problems that aren’t even ours. There goes Obama, attacking the second amendment again. Click on the link and you find that the British Daily Mail’s headline sounds even worse: “Obama Blames American Guns For Mexican Deaths.” Other news sources, including RealClearPolitics, ran yet more inflammatory headlines: Obama Blames U.S. for Gun Violence in Mexico.”

But what did President Obama actually say? This is what he said:

We also recognize that most of the guns used to commit violence here in Mexico come from the United States.

I think many of you know that in America, our Constitution guarantees our individual right to bear arms. And as president, I swore an oath to uphold that right, and I always will.

But at the same time, as I’ve said in the United States, I will continue to do everything in my power to pass common-sense reforms that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people.

So the president didn’t exactly “blame” Mexican violence on American guns, let alone on the United States. He simply stated some troubling facts about the rampant violence in Mexico that helps to destabilize the country, and its link to trade in American guns. The president would be wrong not to acknowledge such facts, or to fail to recognize the problem as one for which America should take some measure of responsibility. We would expect the same if terrorists were killing Americans with weapons brought from, say, Iran.

Slate did no better with a different story. Slate ran as a story title on Friday: “Ridiculous Fox News Claim of the Day: Reason Caused the Holocaust. It would, indeed, be a ridiculous claim if someone said that reason caused the Holocaust. What’s the real story? Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, a Christian conservative organization, was complaining that the mayor of Charlotte proclaimed Thursday to be a Day of Reason, at the same time that he declared it a Day of Prayer. During the course of her interview on Fox News she said this:

You know the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism. And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust

Now let’s get it out there right away. It is ridiculously foolish for conservative Christian leaders to be critical of a Day of Reason. I understand the background of the day, and the intent of humanist organizations to use it to criticize the National Day of Prayer as an establishment of religion. But the appropriate Christian response, one would think, would be to praise the day by saying that Christians embrace both faith and reason (we do, don’t we?) and the contributions they have made to this country (we do admit that, right?). Criticizing reason while defending faith is sort of like loading a gun and giving it to a man who has just broken into your home to assassinate you. What was Nance thinking?

That said, Slate’s headline is highly misleading. Nance did not blame reason for the Holocaust. She made a historical reference to a specific historical and philosophical period in western civilization known as the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, and noted that one of its products was a godless moral relativism. She then drew a line between that godless relativism and the Holocaust. She could have drawn other lines to the great Communist atrocities of the century. Most prominent historians, and many ethicists, draw the same connections. Slate writer Amanda Marcotte might want to start with a standard Holocaust history like The Holocaust, by Robert Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt.

It’s media reporting like this that seriously distorts civil discourse in America. Reporters on the right and the left and in the middle need to start focusing on what’s actually happening and what people are actually arguing rather than on what sounds controversial or sensational.

The media did get one story right, however. On Thursday Montreal Canadiens’ forward Brandon Prust called Ottawa Senators’ head coach Paul MacLean a “bug-eyed fat walrus.” MacLean had just blamed the Canadiens for causing their own player’s injury in the previous night’s game, when a Canadiens defenceman had passed the puck to teammate Lars Eller with his head down in a dangerous area, only to see Eller get crushed by the Senators’ Raphael Diaz. Prust was responding to MacLean.

Now that’s news.

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