Monthly Archives: June 2013
Is Charles Krauthammer Right that United States v. Windsor Makes Nationalized Gay Marriage Inevitable?
In his column in the Washington Post yesterday, and in a plethora of other places, Charles Krauthammer argues that although the Supreme Court exercised restraint in this case, the logic of its ruling in overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) made the overturning of traditional marriage laws in all 50 states inevitable. Krauthammer points out that the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, makes use of two arguments: 1) federalism (or states’ rights); 2) the equal protection clause of the 5th Amendment. If the Court had merely relied on the first argument, he suggests, its ruling would have been essentially conservative, properly returning the issue of marriage to state jurisdiction. The introduction of the equal protection argument, however, necessitates that all gay couples receive equal protection. As Krauthammer puts it,
If the argument is just federalism, the court is saying: Each state decides — and we, the court, are out of here. But if the argument is equal protection, one question is left hanging. Why should equal protection apply only in states that recognize gay marriage? Why doesn’t it apply equally — indeed, even perhaps more forcefully — to gays who want to marry in states that refuse to marry them?
If discriminating (regarding federal benefits) between a gay couple and a straight couple is prohibited in New York where gay marriage is legal, by what logic is discrimination permitted in Texas, where a gay couple is prevented from marrying in the first place?
Which is exactly where the majority’s second rationale leads — nationalizing gay marriage, the way Roe nationalized abortion.
But Krauthammer doesn’t get the Court’s logic quite right. Read the majority opinion and you will notice that it builds the second argument (equal protection) on the narrow foundation of the first argument (a state’s right to regulate marriage within its bounds). The logic is not that DOMA discriminates against gay couples because it does not treat them the same as straight couples, but that DOMA discriminates against a particular subset of married couples because it does not treat them the same as the rest of the married couples of the state wherein they reside. Note how the equal protection argument is carefully worded:
The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States ….
DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.
Lest readers fail to appreciate the significance of this connection, the opinion concludes, “This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.”
In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts explains why the very connection between the equal protection argument and the federalism argument undermines the case for nationalizing gay marriage on the basis of the former.
The dominant theme of the majority opinion is that the Federal Government’s intrusion into an area “central to state domestic relations law applicable to its residents and citizens” is sufficiently “unusual” to set off alarm bells….
The majority extensively chronicles DOMA’s departure from the normal allocation of responsibility between State and Federal Governments, emphasizing that DOMA “rejects the long-established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State.” But there is no such departure when one State adopts or keeps a definition of marriage that differs from that of its neighbor, for it is entirely expected that state definitions would “vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next.” Thus, while “[t]he State’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance” to the majority’s decision to strike down DOMA here, that power will come into play on the other side of the board in future cases about the constitutionality of state marriage definitions. So too will the concerns for state diversity and sovereignty that weigh against DOMA’s constitutionality in this case.
In short, the invocation of the equal protection clause merely explains why the federal government is obligated to provide equal recognition to marriages that receive such equal recognition in the states wherein they reside. Why? Because the regulation of marriage is within the prerogative or “sovereignty” of the state, not the federal government. By the same logic, however, the federal government cannot force gay marriage on states that define it traditionally, because to do so would undermine the very same state sovereignty, which is to say, the very federalism on which United States v. Windsor relies.
Does this make it certain that the Court will not nationalize gay marriage in the future? Of course not. There are a myriad of legal issues that arise due to the ever more complicated patchwork of marriage laws among the various states. What happens to a gay couple married in Massachusetts, who then relocate to Georgia? How can they possibly lose the federal benefits to which they were entitled when they lived in Massachusetts? And given the Constitution’s declaration that the contracts entered into in one state are to be recognized in another, how can Georgia fail to honor a marriage contract recognized as valid by both the state under whose law it was established, and by the federal government?
No one knows exactly how the Court will address these questions. Still, as Roberts points out, these sorts of questions are not entirely new, and nothing in United States v. Windsor dictates their outcome.
I write only to highlight the limits of the majority’s holding and reasoning today, lest its opinion be taken to resolve not only a question that I believe is not properly before us — DOMA’s constitutionality — but also a question that all agree, and the Court explicitly acknowledges, is not at issue.
Krauthammer may be right that United States v. Windsor paves the way for future challenges to state laws defining marriage traditionally, but he is wrong that its logic makes the nationalization of gay marriage inevitable. Indeed, as Roberts shows, the logic of the case arguably does as much to protect the sovereignty of those states holding to the traditional definition of marriage, as it does those states that abandon it.
President Obama’s speech on climate change yesterday has given rise to the predictable euphoria and hand-wringing this polarized debate inevitably causes. While most Americans – and especially younger Americans – agree that care for the environment should be a top government priority, they also view human flourishing through economic growth as non-negotiable. Unfortunately, so many of the organizations and individual activists that drive the debate reject this tension by embracing one of these concerns and playing it off against the other. Environmentalists call for protection of precious resources, regulation of industry, or curbs on pollution regardless of economic cost or even a basic awareness of how the free market works and why it matters. Conservatives vilify the Environmental Protection Agency and mock climate science, insisting that growth and jobs must always trump care for the environment.
Most Americans reject these extremes, but we’ve seen them played out again during the past two days. Indeed, the very nature of the president’s strategy makes this nearly inevitable. Even when Democrats held both houses of Congress, the president failed to win sufficient support for the cap-and-trade legislation designed to curb greenhouse emissions, due to its feared deleterious economic effects. Now, with Republicans firmly in control of the House of Representatives, Obama has chosen to follow the undemocratic path of the executive order. In 2009 at the Copenhagen Conference he made a commitment to the international community that by 2020 America would reduce its carbon emissions by 17% (from 2005 levels). Now he intends to reach that goal regardless of the lack of popular or congressional support, regardless of the cost to the democratic process.
In his speech the president offered no hint that he recognizes the legitimacy of those Republicans and Democrats who opposed his cap-and-trade legislation due to economic concerns. He gave no indication of his awareness that free market forces enabled the United States to become the first western nation to meet the emissions reduction goals of the 1999 Kyoto Treaty, a treaty that the United States Senate unanimously rejected because it was too top-down and placed unnecessary constraints on the U.S. economy. He does not seem to be aware that without following the regulation and state driven approach to carbon emissions followed by the European Union, the United States already has become the global leader in reducing carbon emissions. This is in no small part due to the U.S. embrace of mining shale natural gas through fracking, over the opposition of environmentalists who long opposed such methods on environmental grounds.
Instead of recognizing these points of potential common ground in order to bring the country together, the president implied that his opponents are mere climate change deniers, somewhat akin to the “flat earth” societies of an age long past. He proposed policies that even his supporters agree are legally controversial, stretching the Clean Air Act to its limits by calling for new emissions restrictions on already existing power plants, a strategy that one White House adviser agreed amounted to a “war on coal,” though the White House is obviously unwilling to describe it that way. He indicated once again his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas despite the pipeline’s very widespread support and obvious benefits. And all of this, of course, rests on the power of executive order and bureaucratic federal regulation. Congress is not part of the discussion.
Republicans and conservatives have responded predictably, offering little hint that they recognize climate change to be at all a legitimate concern and dismissing Obama’s proposals as mere job-killers, as if economic concerns are the only considerations to be taken into account. National Review offers perhaps the most thoughtful criticism from the right of Obama’s program:
Global warming, contrary to the predictions of the best climate models, is not accelerating. It is slowing, and some estimates show it having been reversed. The warmest year on record was 1998, and there has been significantly less warming in the last 15 years than there was in the 20 years before that. The Economist, which supports measures to control greenhouse-gas emissions and has been a reliable hotbed of warming alarmism, conceded: “There’s no way around the fact that this reprieve for the planet is bad news for proponents of policies, such as carbon taxes and emissions treaties, meant to slow warming by moderating the release of greenhouse gases. . . . They will become harder, if not impossible, to sell to the public, which will feel, not unreasonably, that the scientific and media establishment has cried wolf.”
This is a little misleading, though it’s not entirely off-target. There is no substantive evidence that global warming has been reversed. There is widespread consensus that global warming has slowed in the past 10-15 years, but temperatures have not reverted to their prior levels. 1998 was by far the warmest year on record, but there have been many years just like it in the 15 years since. It would be fair to say that global temperatures have plateaued, and that climate scientists entirely failed to predict this development. The fact that they have discovered new factors (such as the ocean heat-containing effect) to explain this “temporary” let-up in global warming, and that many have revised downwards their prediction as to the extreme rise of temperatures we are likely to see during the 21st Century, is significant, but it does not render climate change science null and void, nor does it undercut the evidence that human beings and industry are a key factor in the process.
What it does show is that climate change science, and its conclusions about the predictability of temperature, the effect that global warming is likely to have, and the role that various mitigating factors might play in restraining expected warming, is a lot less fixed than the alarmists (and in many cases, the scientists themselves) would have you believe. Add on top of that the fact that free market forces have proven far more effective in curbing carbon emissions than have the top-down measures pursued by the European Union, and we have a highly complex political issue on our hands. Surely it is the type of issue that warrants the full deliberation of the democratic process, the attention of Congress as well as of the president and the EPA.
For this to happen, both sides need to stop demonizing their opponents and exaggerating the certainty of their own arguments. Conservatives need to stop insisting that the only legitimate perspective on the issue is economic, and conservative legislators need to stop acting as if the only criteria by which any initiative should be judged is whether not it kills jobs. The president and his environmentalist allies, for their part, need to stop dismissing their opponents as if they are mere deniers, opposed to science. Rather than wasting their efforts on the sort of alarmism and wolf-crying that merely makes their arguments – and the science that really matters – less credible, they need to let democracy, culture, and education do its work.
Liberal democracy has been highly effective in turning the United States into the safest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world in part because it prevents the powerful – whether on the right or on the left – from dictating policy according to their own interests. It forces these powers instead to allow ideas and policy to undergo the necessary refinement of testing, deliberation, and democratic debate, ensuring that the full range and balance of concerns is addressed. This does not usually work out perfectly, but it has worked better than any other system known to humanity. We should give it a chance to do its work on the global warming problem as well.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports the following on the effect of the Arab Spring on religious liberty:
At the onset of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and early 2011, many world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, expressed hope that the political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa would lead to greater freedoms for the people of the region, including fewer restrictions on religious beliefs and practices. But a new study by the Pew Research Center finds that the region’s already high overall level of restrictions on religion – whether resulting from government policies or from social hostilities – continued to increase in 2011.
As numerous articles have reported, the number of Christians in the region continues to plunge, both because of the Arab Spring and because of the policies of regimes established by the United States after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But what makes the report interesting is that the increase in restrictions on religion is even greater outside of the Middle East:
The Americas, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region all had increases in overall restrictions on religion in 2011….
Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, more than 5.1 billion people (74%) were living in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.
You can read the whole Pew Report here.
At Acton University, on Wednesday, I had the privilege of hearing Marina Nemat speak about her arrest and torture as a teenager following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Nemat was just a young girl, sixteen years old, when she was arrested. She described her upbringing as a Christian in Iran leading up to the Revolution as quite normal. There was no religious tension between Christians and Muslims; women were able to travel freely, to dress like westerners and, as she put it, “have fun.” That all changed in 1979.
Nemat, along with many of her friends, was arrested because of her involvement in protests against the new regime. She was beaten, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement during an imprisonment of two years. She described to us how she was forced to convert to Islam in the face of threats that if she did not, her parents would be arrested and face the consequences. Nemat was raped and forced to marry her torturer.
But Nemat’s response to this horrific treatment was to draw closer to Christ, whom, she reasoned, had been through even worse suffering, and therefore understood what she was experiencing. Rather than hate or seek vengeance on her torturers, as she was tempted to do, she chose to forgive them. The consequences, and the PTSD, remain with her throughout her life. But despite the pain, the only possible response, she insists, is to show the love of Christ.
Still, Nemat distinguishes between forgiving people and failing to resist their tyranny. Having immigrated to Canada, she wrote the international bestseller Prisoner of Tehran, and has devoted her time and energy to speaking around the world against torture.
What was perhaps most interesting about Nemat’s speech was her insistence that more often than not American interventions in the Middle East make the problems worse rather than better. CIA complicity in the Iranian coup of 1953 helped pave the way for the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Americans like to do things quick and clean, she pointed out, but democracy is a process, not an event. Americans need to abandon their tendency to think that a revolution is always the solution.
In short, despite her torture and abuse at the hands of Islamists, or rather because of it, Nemat is highly skeptical of the benefits of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
These comments, of course, follow closely on President Obama’s decision last week to send U.S. arms to the Syrian rebels. The administration is now convinced that “Butcher” Assad’s regime has crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. There must therefore be “consequences”: America will contribute just enough in the way of small arms to ensure that a balance of power is preserved and the war – which has already claimed 93,000 lives – can drag on.
In this case one might point out, in the administration’s defense, there is no expectation of a quick and easy fix. Against the arguments of Secretary of State John Kerry, but in line with the views of the Pentagon (the Joint Chiefs appear to adamantly oppose intervention), the president is refusing to create a no-fly zone or to use air power to bring Assad’s regime down. The objective (as in Vietnam!), is not victory, but negotiation.
Such a strategy may have the merit of avoiding the sort of interventions that brought U.S. forces into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, but it hardly gives anyone hope that Syria will end up much better than have either of those countries. As Jeffrey Goldberg writes on Bloomberg.com,
The decision to provide small arms to the Syrian opposition has made no one happy — not the rebels, who understand that these quite-possibly ineffective weapons will take many months to reach them; not Kerry, who, while arguing that these shipments may become a “force multiplier” in the conflict, thinks that only a show of American air power will convince Assad and his Hezbollah allies that the U.S. is making a serious attempt to level a playing field that has been tilting their way for some time; and not the Pentagon, which thinks that Obama, despite saying that he is wary of the slippery slope, might be pushed down that slope anyway, by interventionists on his team or by events on the ground.
It is striking that even longtime interventionists like Walter Russell Mead now admit that it is hard to see how any of this might end well. The administration unnecessarily put itself in a corner with its Wilsonian rhetoric, first by declaring that “Assad must go,” and then by drawing the “red line” that would bring about such hard consequences. Now, if the United States does not act, President Obama will be regarded by countries like Russia and – most importantly – Iran as all bluff and no punch.
This is an entirely self-created problem; there was absolutely no objective reason for the administration to lay those markers on the table. There was no requirement in America’s foreign policy that the administration bounce in with the categorical demand that Assad step down….
Meanwhile at VM [Via Meadia], we are beginning to worry that there are now no good options left in Syria. Intervention looks increasingly like it would lead to a nasty quagmire; we supported it at an earlier stage before things had unraveled to their present point but are increasingly convinced that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so much that there is not a lot the US can do that would help. The current policy appears to be to feed the rebels just enough arms to keep the civil war grinding on, further polarizing Syrian society and promoting the rise of fanatical jihadis with ties to rich backers in the Gulf. Victory for Assad, even partial victory, would leave the administration in the position of having its bluff called and standing revealed as an incompetent blowhard on a major world political issue. Russia would gain credit throughout the region and the world for forcing Obama to fold, and Iran’s prestige would grow as Obama’s wilts.
If this is how the interventionists are talking, you know the case for war is weak. Yet war seems to be at the bottom of that slippery slope down which we are sliding. If Obama were to ask Congress to pass a resolution justifying intervention, he would probably get it.
What’s at stake? Mead reminds his readers why America cares about the Middle East in the first place:
The worst thing that can happen to the United States in the Middle East is that the Persian Gulf melts down and the oil flow stops, wrecking the global economy (and, despite our healthy domestic supplies, our own), bringing down the world financial system, causing mass unrest in country after country, and creating a messy situation in which a variety of ugly and expensive US interventions are absolutely required.
While most Americans probably agree that the United States should not seek to be the world’s policeman, the fact remains that America is the power that holds the global economic order together. Europeans and Australians may complain – as one burgeoning economist did to me over a few beers in Berlin last month – that U.S. militarism is out of control, but the fact remains that in the cases of Libya and Syria it is the British and the French who are pushing the Americans toward intervention. Why? They understand that the prosperity of the global economy does indeed depend on a measure of stability and security in the Middle East. Just as importantly, they understand that only the United States has the power to make that stability and security endure.
But does that amount to a case for U.S. intervention in Syria that would satisfy just war theory? I doubt the Obama administration is thinking about it from that perspective, but Christians have to wrestle with these questions. And when it gets down to it, we need to face up to the real question: is the stability of the Middle Eastern oil supply, and its importance for the global economy, sufficient grounds for the United States to intervene in a war in which neither side appears to merit such support? Perhaps the case can be made, but I remain skeptical.
The case for intervention seems to rest on something a lot more like Bismarckian Realpolitik than on anything comparable to just war theory, whether Christian or secular. And for that reason it seems to put us in that dangerous territory of having no idea what the unforeseen consequences of military action will be. Which takes me back to the stirring story – and warning – of Marina Nemat. Revolution, violence, and intervention don’t have a great track record in the Middle East. It’s one thing when war is unfortunately necessary as a requirement of justice; it’s a whole other thing when war is merely an uncertain gamble of international power politics. Perhaps both the safest, and the most just, thing the United States can do is to use its economic and diplomatic power to press for peace.
In the debates that sometimes stir across the evangelical world natural law and Scripture, creation and redemption, are often played off against one another as if they are dueling forces in a zero-sum game. Usually these controversies obscure the point that the real question under discussion is about the appropriate relation between natural law and Scripture, or between creation and redemption, rather than about dividing and classifying the world or ethics according to some scientific principle.
The fact is, in orthodox Christian theology it is precisely the creation that God redeems in Jesus Christ (what else could he possibly be redeeming?) and it is the natural law to which Scripture commands us to adhere (otherwise God would be schizophrenic). The real questions we should be discussing – How does future redemption call us to relate to the presently fallen creation? How in the created order do we see the natural law that points all human beings to their creator? – are much more difficult to answer, and require much more humility, than are these false dilemmas.
Shortly after I arrived at Westminster Seminary California some years ago Michael Horton guided me into the field of political theology by suggesting that I read Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order. I had been a history major at Covenant College and in Washington D.C. my focus was on practical politics and government. This was my first deep foray into the theology that underlies ethics and politics.
Oliver O’Donovan is one of the preeminent ethicists of our time. He certainly knows the Christian tradition better than anyone else (he is the editor of the massive From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625), and he has a way of bringing the debates of the past into conversation with the issues of the present in a way that is appropriate, rather than strained, insightful rather than anachronistic.
In Resurrection and Moral Order O’Donovan does a masterful job articulating the decisive relationship between Christ’s resurrection and the created order, particularly as it relates to Christian ethics. As he puts it,
In proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, the apostles proclaimed also the resurrection of mankind in Christ; and in proclaiming the resurrection of mankind, they proclaimed the renewal of all creation with him. The resurrection of Christ in isolation from mankind would not be a gospel message. The resurrection of mankind apart from creation would be a gospel of a sort, but of a purely Gnostic and world-denying sort which is far from the gospel that the apostles actually preached. So the resurrection of Christ directs our attention back to the creation which it vindicates.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that every last individual, or every particular of creation will be renewed. As John Calvin argues in his commentary on 2 Peter 3, making use of Aristotelian logic, it is the substance of creation that will be renewed, not the accidents. “Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same, as it may be easily gathered from Romans 8:21 and from other passages.” As Calvin warns, we should be wary of theological speculation that seeks to identify precisely the sort of continuity this entails.
Still, Calvin is quite clear that the restoration for which fallen creation is destined is the same telos, or goal, for which it was always intended. God is redeeming the creation through Christ not in the sense that he is returning it to some static, original state, but in the sense that he is restoring it to its original destiny and purpose. As Michael Northcott puts it, directly in line with Calvin, “the resurrection vindicates the original relational ordering of creation towards the Triune God.”
Some of the readers of my article, “Should Christians be Environmentalists?“, questioned whether it is really appropriate to ground Christians’ approach to care for the environment in our Christology. Wouldn’t it be better simply to look to creation, rather than to confuse creation with redemption? I understand the concern. It would be ludicrous for Christians to claim the ability to somehow bring this fallen world to its eternal purpose in God’s kingdom, let alone even to restore it to its original pristine state.
But that is not the purpose or implication of grounding our attitude towards creation in Christ’s work of redemption. Rather, it is to demonstrate that Jesus’ incarnation and bodily resurrection has vindicated the created order, placing God’s stamp of approval on it and establishing its eternal existence. The sin and curse that have so tarnished it have done their worst, but they have ultimately failed. Creation is not destined for destruction, but for restoration.
Why does this matter? If the fall so tarnished creation that God has decided to abandon it, elevating human souls to some sort of transcendent destiny, then Christianity isn’t so different from Gnosticism or neo-Platonism. Natural law can hold little claim over us. Creation has mere instrumental value. The philosophers of modernity and the Enlightenment then had plausible reasons to view the human relationship toward the environment as one of mastery and exploitation. Christians are simply waiting out the deluge in the lifeboat, waiting to be rescued from this dying world. All that really matters is how many souls are saved.
If, on the other hand, the resurrection amounts to the reconciliation of all things in the body of Jesus, as Paul declares in Colossians 1:15-20, then that tells us something about the fundamental goodness of creation. No matter how tarnished it may be, no matter how radical a transformation it will undergo when Christ returns at the end of the age, the creation itself is destined for salvation. The resurrection has enabled us to make a “decision about the status of the ordering of creation as we still partially encounter it, both in ourselves and in the rest of the created order.” The decision is that natural law endures.
The practical implications of this are therefore significant. Because creation is good, because it continues to hold a place in God’s redemptive purposes, the created order – natural law – maintains its authoritative place in Christian ethics. O’Donovan ties together the various threads:
only if the order which we think we see, or something like it, is really present in the world, can there be an ‘evangelical’ ethics. Only so, indeed, can there be a Christian, rather than a Gnostic, gospel at all. The dynamic of the Christian faith, calling us to respond appropriately to the deeds of God on our behalf, supposes that there is an appropriate conformity of human response to divine act.
In other words, only if Christian ethics reflects the created moral order does it remain faithful to the gospel. Christians must constantly be about the business of demonstrating that the moral order found in Scripture is indeed that of the creation within which we live. It is, in short, natural law.
Far too much of modernity amounts to a war waged against creation for human ends. Women must have the right to choose to destroy the life within them if we are to be free. Industry must have the right to pollute rivers and groundwater if we are to be prosperous. Men must be permitted to use their property – even human property – precisely how they desire, if we are to be autonomous. Governments must be granted the unchecked ability to wage war against weaker nations if we are to be secure. Individuals must be permitted to engage in sexual relations that bring them pleasure, even to bring children into family structures that seem rewarding to them, regardless of the alienation from the body and from the sexuality of male and female that it entails, if we are to have genuine self-regard.
Christianity permits no such mechanical domination over nature. It requires, rather, a respect for natural law, finding genuine freedom within the order that God has created and that he has redeemed in Christ’s resurrection. And while Evangelicals are good at insisting on these principles for their own pet issues (i.e., abortion, same-sex marriage), their record is less impressive when it comes to others. Claims to a principled approach to politics, or to genuine interest in natural law, would be far more credible were they applied across the board. In the same sense that the health of the fetus, or of a sexual relationship, or of children, is normative for Christians, so the health of the environment, of material and social relationships, and of international affairs deserves our careful attention. The more power human beings, whether as individuals or collectively, have to exercise power unjustly in these areas, the more government is required to intervene to maintain at least a basic measure of justice and peace.
That does not mean we are imposing our religion, seeking to bring about a utopian kingdom of God. Although our motive is forward looking (faithfulness to Christ and his work) our standard is backward looking (conformity to the created order, or to natural law). Although the measure according to which we will be judged is that of perfection (idealism), we recognize that this side of Christ’s return – and in the realm of coercive politics – we are dealing with fallen human beings and a cursed creation (realism). We are therefore motivated and informed by distinctly Christian theology, but the basic material with which we are concerned and the practical knowledge on which we rely, is shared commonly between believers and unbelievers. Christ is lord of all, but we remain caught in the eschatological tension between the two kingdoms, between the present evil age and the kingdom of the age to come.
Anyone who takes all of these principles seriously will quickly see that the Christian religion is not a political conversation stopper. There are no direct lines between biblical teaching and environmental policy. Our Christian faith calls us to take our responsibility toward the environment seriously, and yet it is by no means immediately clear what this means in practical terms. Indeed, on a practical level unbelievers or pagans might hold more wisdom and prudence in these areas than we do. Our calling is humbly to serve, testifying in this way to the hope that lies within us.
Christianity does eliminate several options. We are not pagans who worship nature, setting it above human beings in status and worth. Nor are we humanists who value prosperity and wealth no matter what the human and environmental cost. We are Christians who recognize that the destiny both of ourselves and of creation is in Christ, and that in the meantime, we are to be stewards of the created order, to the best of our ability.
In December 1966, historian Lynn White gave a paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Science arguing that the roots of America’s environmental crisis lay in Christianity and Judaism. White’s paper, which has shaped the anti-Christian animus within parts of the environmental movement for decades, was published in 1967 in Science magazine with the title, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”
White argued that the notion of a God who is transcendent over his creation desacralized nature, turning it into a mere instrument for human purposes. Judeo-Christian theology, which not only gives humans dominion over creation, but (in light of the curse) calls them to struggle against it for their survival, helped to promote a utilitarian and exploitative approach to nature as a mere resource, an attitude that became more and more destructive throughout the modern period.
White’s argument has been refuted many times over the years, but that has not eliminated its force among environmentalists as a general critique of Christianity. The reason for that, in part, is that his argument does have an element of truth to it. There is no doubt that over the centuries, especially after the Enlightenment, many Christians have viewed the creation with precisely the attitude that White describes. In the heady days of exploration, colonization, and imperialism during the 17th and 18th centuries, many self-proclaimed Christians embraced the Enlightenment’s turn to the self, to rationality, and to the scientific method, arguing that it was the white man’s (in the gendered sense) destiny to conquer the world and to exploit its people and resources for human advantage. However much they may have rejected various parts of this view, more orthodox Christians nevertheless often fell under its influence in practice (and even ideology) as well.
White’s argument has been rendered all the more plausible since the 1960s because of the influence of the culture wars on the environmental movement. As Robert H. Nelson argues in his interesting book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, both economics and environmentalism have taken on nothing less than a religious character and fervor in their attempts to explain world possibilities and challenges while claiming full moral authority over human life. For various reasons, one of which is the unnecessary and self-destructive impulse of the environmental movement to demonize business, industry, and capital, and to rely on centralized federal bureaucracy to advance its cause, the Christian Right has tended to ally itself with economic religion rather than environmental religion.
Today, most Americans, including Christians, share broadly in the concern about the environment as well as in the judgment that the federal government should protect that environment by regulating industry, limiting pollution, and conserving natural resources and parks. But despite the encouraging emergence of the Creation Care movement within Evangelicalism, environmentalism remains powerfully influenced by forms of pantheism and other profoundly anti-Christian instincts. In the political spectrum that shapes our outlook on just about everything in this politicized country, the environmental movement remains on the far left.
If there is any area in which a rapprochement would be for the benefit of all, this is it. Eliminating the left’s grip on the environmental movement, and especially on government bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would give it more credibility among the American public, and broaden its influence. It would mitigate the statist impulse that so often informs its political campaigns by encouraging the sort of market oriented strategies that often work best. It would curb conservatives’ tendency to oppose environmental regulation in the name of free enterprise no matter how necessary that regulation in a particular case might be. In short, it would help liberals and conservatives alike to see that Christianity, care for the environment, and commitment to a free market economy need not be, and never should have been, rivals in a zero-sum game.
Is there a way forward? No doubt it will be a challenge to overcome the politicization that plagues more and more of American life as the years wear on, but there are promising signs that at least Christians are increasingly interested in improving their record on creation care.
In a (for the most part) excellent essay in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics entitled “Ecology and Christian Ethics,” Michael S. Northcott demonstrates that the roots of the West’s instrumentalist, exploitative attitude towards nature lie in the Enlightenment, not in orthodox Christian theology. It is not simply a matter of demonstrating that God called the creation good, or that the dominion God gave to Adam and Eve in Genesis is a matter of stewardship and protection rather than exploitation or domination. Much more, Northcott argues, following Oliver O’Donovan’s excellent book Resurrection and Moral Order, Christian theology and ethics is shaped by the central paradigmatic event of Jesus’ resurrection. In Jesus’ incarnation God demonstrated his commitment to save the material world from human sin and the curse. In Jesus’ resurrection God gave that creation a new life, reconciling all things to himself. In Christ’s resurrection, in other words, creation and redemption come together. Both find their goal, their hope, and their telos, in the coming kingdom of God. Every time Christians partake of the Eucharist, as Ben Quash points out, they celebrate – in a profoundly earthy way, by the consumption of bread and wine – this hope.
That does not mean Christians forget about the curse or imagine that Jesus will restore the creation to wholeness before his return to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age. It doesn’t mean they imagine that their actions relative to the environment have eternal material consequences (Jesus builds his kingdom, not us.) It does mean that Christians shouldn’t relegate nature to that which does not matter, to that which is forever cursed, or to that which will end in destruction. The creation groans, as Paul says in Romans 8, because it awaits its transformation. Christians should relate to creation as that which, like them, is destined for salvation.
Although he does not use the term, then, Northcott ends up proposing something like a two kingdoms approach to care for the environment. We should never imagine that our efforts are transforming the cosmos or bringing the kingdom to earth; we should expect to witness to God’s love for creation, and to his promise to transform it, by treating it with care, respect, and justice. We shouldn’t fall under the spell of utopian schemes to return nature to some sort of pristine, untarnished state. We should do our best to minimize the harmful effects of human sin and carelessness, a goal balanced only by the other tasks to which we are called (i.e., the promotion of human flourishing).
There’s so much more to say here, of course (so don’t blame me in the comments section for not saying something you think I should have said, though feel free to argue with what I have said). In future posts I hope to consider the significance of natural law in all of this, as well as the appropriate balance between environmental and free market concerns. But hopefully this is a good start.
In their excellent book Modest, Tim Challies and R. W. Glenn note that when Christians argue over whether or not women should wear bikinis (an argument being waged on the electronic pages of the Aquila Report this week) they often confuse the real issues – and virtues – that are at stake. Challies and Glenn draw our attention to a statement by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, distinguishing between chastity, modesty, and charity.
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. (Mere Christianity, 83-84)
Those seeking clear and precise standards for modesty from Scripture are sure either to abuse and manipulate the text, or, if they are more careful, bound to be disappointed. Because modesty, even in Scripture, is a relative virtue. As Challies and Glenn define it, “Modesty is that virtue which is respectful of a culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech, and behavior in a given situation.”
The argument that those who oppose bikinis need to be making is not that bikinis offend against modesty or chastity but that they offend against charity. In fact, the better arguments, such as that of Rachel Clark last week, do emphasize that the fundamental issue is one of charity. But even Clark confuses a woman’s self-sacrificial decision not to wear a bikini, out of love for the men who might be tempted when they see her, with the virtue of modesty itself.
Once, however, we grasp that the issue at hand is that of charity, rather than modesty, then it becomes important to ensure that we are acting charitably to the woman who decides to wear a bikini as well as to the man who wishes she didn’t. This means at least two things. First, a man seeking to be virtuous in his attitude towards women fails entirely if he only manages to avoid lust when such women are dressed according to his own demands. If that man is truly to conform to the image of Jesus, he must learn to love, and to act virtuously towards, a woman in a bikini. Second, those women who believe they demonstrate love for others by not wearing bikinis must make sure that they demonstrate equal love for others by respecting those who do choose to wear one. This is not exactly a matter on which Scripture has ruled decisively.
Yet in her essay Clark manages to make the case against women wearing bikinis only by first reducing women (by analogy) to the status of the objects of consumer desires. She writes,
Let’s try and put ourselves in a guy’s shoes. I think we can all agree that as girls, exercise is important to us. We want to stay healthy and are often working on getting fit. We work out and stay away from carbs or sweets. We use all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake on the counter! Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.
This is how I imagine it is for guys.
If women are mere sex objects, this logic makes sense. But if women are human beings, made in the image of God, then the argument fails entirely. Because a man has no right to process a woman made in the image of God as he would an object for his appetite, sexual or otherwise. As Aimee Byrd puts it in her excellent response to Clark,
First of all, I am a woman made in the image of God, not a piece of cake. Isn’t that a huge part of the problem with our thinking about sexuality? I don’t want my daughters to think of themselves as some tantalizing dessert that needs to always be self-conscious that they look too good. Sure, I care very much about what they wear, and they would say that I am pretty strict, but I’m trying to send a healthy message about beauty and modesty.
Byrd drives the question home in a very helpful way:
Of course, this also begs the question, If a woman looks good in her bathing suit, is that being immodest? There’s also the question that I’ve asked before, Can a man admire a beautiful woman without sexually fantasizing about her?
If we come to the conclusion that some men cannot help but sin if they are confronted with a woman in a bikini, we must also come to the conclusion that those men are in deep, deep trouble. Because you cannot possibly function in our culture without being able to handle such images. You can’t drive down the highway. You can’t go to the airport. You can’t purchase bread at the grocery store. You might not even be able to put gas in your car. You certainly can’t have yahoo mail.
Nothing outside of a man can make him unclean, as Jesus said in Mark 7. Rather, sexual immorality stems from the heart. That’s why Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, places the burden of lust on men, as I argue in this sermon. If we allow men to think they should never be confronted with attractive women we are setting them up for massive failure.
It’s interesting. Both the world and fundamentalists agree that we live in a sex-saturated culture, and that it is very difficult for many men not to lust after women in such a culture. The response of the world, quite often (though not always), is to say, Just do it. Far too often the response of fundamentalists is little better: Just don’t do it. The world says look and lust. Fundamentalists say look away. But the gospel calls us to look with the eyes of Jesus, seeing not sex objects to be consumed or avoided at your choice, but seeing human beings made in the image of God. That’s the real issue. If we are serious about being conformed to the image of Christ, we need to be trained not to look away, or even not to look at all, but to look with the love of Christ.
In a helpful essay published last month by Reformation 21, Nick Batzig draws attention to a point not often appreciated or discussed among Christian theologians. When Paul talks about the curse of the law satisfied by Christ in Galatians 3:13, he is talking about Israel’s civil law.
An important biblical theological idea emerges out of Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 21:23 in Galatians 3:13. In the middle of the most polemical book in the New Testament, Paul made the astounding declaration: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’).” The immediate context shows that the curse to which Paul is referring is the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10-11). Returning to Deuteronomy 21, out of which Paul takes the command for capital punishment and applies it to Christ, we discover the theological riches of Gal. 3:13. In Deuteronomy 21:23 we read:“If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deut. 21:22-23)The civil law, given to Israel in redemptive-history, was meant to prepare God’s people for the coming Redeemer. Just as the moral and ceremonial laws pointed to Jesus and our need for Him, so too did the judicial principles of the civil law. The civil law as a redemptive-historical guide is one that has often been neglected–and yet it is one of the richest in all the Scriptures.
When we come to the New Testament we do not find the apostles insisting on the church’s implementation of civil law into the governments. Rather, we find them applying it spiritually to the life of the New Covenant church.
In the February 27 issue of Christian Renewal Doug Barnes, a pastor in the denomination of which I am a member, writes a column addressing readers’ concerns about two kingdoms theology. Barnes declares that the two kingdoms doctrine “currently making waves” is sometimes called the “Radical Two Kingdoms” doctrine because it is so “sweeping” and “vast” in its implications. Clearly this is pretty serious stuff.
Barnes goes on to describe the two kingdoms view as one that divides the world into two spheres, the redemptive kingdom containing the church, and the common kingdom containing “the state and all other social institutions” (there is no eschatological nuance recognized here). In this kingdom, he says, “God reveals his will not by Scripture, but by ‘natural law'” (emphasis added). To drive the “vast” implications home to his readers, he then affirms that two kingdoms theologians believe Scripture is intended for the church but not for “the life of the common kingdom.”
The church has neither the right nor the calling to preach about politics or other matters distinct to life in the common kingdom, according to Two Kingdoms proponents.
Yikes. If what Barnes is saying is true, these two kingdoms people are arguing that God does not reveal his will about anything in the common kingdom in Scripture, and that pastors should therefore never say anything about marriage, the raising of children, relations between masters and slaves, or civil government, the sorts of matters discussed regularly in the New Testament. If what Barnes is saying is true, in other words, the theologians he has in view must be denying the authority of Scripture at best; they are outright heretical at worst. How many of Barnes’s readers come to just this conclusion? Labeling the doctrine “radical” doesn’t exactly set the stage for objective consideration.
Who does Barnes identify as the leaders of this wave, this movement that is so sweeping in its implications? He mentions three names, Michael Horton, R. Scott Clark, and David VanDrunen. VanDrunen is the chief theorist, of course, but Barnes points his readers to the book Kingdoms Apart, which he assures them, has ably addressed VanDrunen’s troubling views (for evidence that this is not remotely the case, see my review of Kingdoms Apart here and here, and VanDrunen’s review here). The most redeeming thing about Barnes’s column is that he points his readers to VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (although he immediately reminds his readers that they should quickly follow up this book by reading Cornel Venema’s critique of it).
Yes, please do go and read VanDrunen’s book. If you do, I hope you note that this is a book that claims to present what Scripture teaches about both of God’s two kingdoms. On its very face, therefore, the book challenges Barnes’s characterization of two kingdoms theology as a view that claims God does not reveal his will about the common kingdom in Scripture. Then, after reading the first five chapters of the book, which lay out biblical theological foundations for the two kingdoms view, note that VanDrunen concludes the book with two chapters, one of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on the church, the other of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on education, vocation, and politics. The latter chapter, by the way, is longer than the former.
In fact, on pages 194-203 VanDrunen goes on to outline what he believes Scripture teaches about politics, and how the church should proclaim these truths while avoiding usurping God’s authority by going beyond them. VanDrunen even concludes the section by declaring that there may be times when pastors need to specifically address particular political controversies or public policies. “Each preacher must wrestle conscientiously with the particular text he is expounding and determine what obligations it undoubtedly places upon his hearers” (203).
It is time for serious Reformed people to step up and demand that whatever concerns people may have about two kingdoms theology, they raise them in a responsible way. If you want to criticize someone, I was always taught, you have to earn the right by showing that you actually understand their views, summarizing those views in terms they themselves would recognize. This has not been happening much lately in certain circles. To be sure, there are important questions worth asking and yes, there are legitimate criticisms of certain versions of two kingdoms theology that need to be made. But this is not the way to do it.
Note that Barnes and others are raising the stakes quite high here. Barnes admits that the “first generation” of two kingdoms proponents are “firmly committed to the confessions” and suggests “that keeps them from working their doctrine out to its logical ends.” Later generations, however, can be expected to follow the doctrine to its obvious conclusions. What then? “If that happens with the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine, I suspect our broader assemblies eventually will need to evaluate how compatible the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine is with our confessions.”
In fact, some confessional watchmen are already doing just that. Interestingly enough, in a ten page essay comparing two kingdoms theology to Belgic Confession Article 36, Mark VanDerMolen, an elder in the same denomination, focuses almost entirely on blog posts and does not even mention the name VanDrunen. He embraces a view of Belgic 36 that takes the footnote found in the 1976 Psalter Hymnal as confessionally binding, a view that would not be widely shared within the denomination. He ends up concluding that Belgic 36 includes three vital claims:
- the Magistrate is subject to both tables of God’s law
- the Magistrate is subject to the authority of God’s Word
- the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ
I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who would dispute the first two points. While it is true that all two kingdoms theologians agree that government should not enforce everything commanded in both tables of God’s law, I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who argues that they magistrates may with impunity disobey them. No two kingdoms theologian thinks, for instance, that magistrates are justified in worshiping false gods or idols, blaspheming God’s name, or teaching false doctrine.
On the third point, VanDerMolen’s phrasing is sloppy. Belgic 36 does not declare that the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ. What it says is the following:
Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word.
As Nelson Kloosterman clarifies on his own blog (where, however, he hosts and seems wholeheartedly to affirm VanDerMolen’s essay),
BC 36 does not require civil rulers to agree with the gospel preached or to engage in divine worship, but to remove every obstacle that could impede these. Nor does BC 36 require civil rulers to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ or to resist every anti-christian power—but to fulfill their calling of obstacle-removal for these purposes to be achieved, presumably by Christians.
Exactly. Civil government is indeed ordained by God to fulfill certain purposes that contribute to the advancement of the kingdom of God, but such advancement is indirect, not direct (Calvin in his commentary on John 18 says it is accidental). And while Kloosterman does not admit it here, this insight comes directly from the two kingdoms theology of which he is so critical. Every Reformed two kingdoms theologian since Calvin has emphasized that civil government may not engage in the ministry of the gospel or the administration of the sacraments because Christ’s spiritual and political kingdoms are distinct and not to be confused. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith does not contest two kingdoms theology. It assumes it.
In his own essay VanDerMolen writes,
Undoubtedly, the manner of the magistrate accomplishing its God-ordained and God-honoring purposes in a pluralistic age lead[s] us into difficult thorny questions. But difficulty in application does not abrogate the principles we confess.
Thank you. That is precisely the premise of the scholars, like VanDrunen and myself, who have actually devoted significant scholarly attention to this problem. We are not questioning the principles we confess. We are trying to work through the “difficult thorny questions” that arise when these principles, as well as the teaching of Scripture in general, are applied to our pluralistic age. Can we get on with that task now?
[Note: For a brief, general introduction to two kingdoms theology, see these essays at Reformation 21:
The preface to an album I purchased at Auschwitz properly describes the Holocaust as the great watershed moment for modern Europe. The Nazis planned the complete extermination of European Jewry but they also believed, as SS leader Heinrich Himmler declared, that the genocide was a story that would never be written. As Soviet forces approached Auschwitz-Birkenau they tried to wipe out all traces of what they had done, destroying the gas chambers and crematorium. But, as Piotr M. A. Cywinski notes in the book’s preface,
They failed in this in a way that they surely did not anticipate in their darkest surmises. The memory not only endured, but it changed the view of all contemporary civilization. Relations between European states were rebuilt on completely different principles – communitarianism and solidarity. Genocide and crimes against humanity have been defined legally. Protection of minorities has become a basic democratic norm. The Holocaust has become a fundamental reference point in culture, philosophy, theology, and all of anthropology – what is more, it increasingly plays the role of a historical European turning point. Nothing is what it was before. Without the Holocaust, there is no way to understand Europe today. (Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Place Where You Are Standing … 2012)
That is exactly right. Apart from World War II and the Holocaust, the foundations of the modern international order would never have been established: the United Nations, the European Union, internationally embraced norms of human rights and international law, the supremacy of the liberal democratic political order.
These principles aren’t entirely new, of course. They are deeply rooted in Christianity and the legacy of Christendom, as numerous scholars have demonstrated. Rather than a rejection of Europe’s Christian past in favor of the Enlightenment, as is often assumed, they amount to a secular affirmation of Christianity’s most basic humanitarian principles. They are new only because they synthesize those principles with the best insights of the Enlightenment and work them out in the context of modernity. They are new insofar as they are a rejection of modernity’s most horrific 20th Century legacy: racism, militant nationalism, communism, totalitarianism, and world war.
In my past few blog posts I’ve described the ongoing legacy of World War II and the Holocaust in Berlin and in Poland. Europe’s not so distant past is incredibly dark, and no religious or political tradition, no ethnic or national group is free of blemish or taint. Some groups come out better than others, but too often it is only because they lacked the power to do worse, or because they suffered so much that we simply view them as victims. There are very good reasons why Europeans are skeptical about dogmatic political, national, and religious ideologies. There are even better reasons why they are absolutely committed to human rights and to the protection of minorities.
American conservatives, specifically Christian conservatives, tend to be pessimistic about the future of America, of Christianity, and of western culture. Yet we need this history, and these stories, to put things in perspective. The 1930s, the 1950s, the 1980s, were not the good ole’ days. The history of the West is not a history of unilinear decline. The emergence of international organizations like the UN and the EU, the widespread embrace of human rights and basic free market principles, the rejection of nationalism, racism, and the persecution of minorities, and the supremacy of the liberal political tradition over Fascism, Nazism, and Communism all tell a different story. Although few people appreciate it today, especially in Europe, none of this is conceivable apart from the legacy of Christendom, of Christian political principles, and of basic human awareness of natural law.
One of the most important task facing American and European Christians in our time is to offer our skeptical neighbors hope by witnessing to the gospel of Christ. An entire continent is turning away from the faith that shaped it so decisively, confusing evil, injustice, and hypocrisy with what is good, what is just, and what is true. It is by no means clear that these people understand the alternative. Surely few of them grasp the importance of Christian convictions regarding God, humanity, and natural law as the foundation for the liberal order to which they remain so committed. Christians, for their part, need to be honest and own up to our tradition’s complicity in the tragedies of the past. Let’s stop pretending that to be be Christian is to be conservative. But we also need to be courageous in demonstrating that the best hope of the future – the true insights of the liberal tradition – are rooted in the truths of Christianity.
The hope of the future, of course, is neither Christendom nor liberalism. Human history is a long story of “one damned thing after another,” of course, and that is as true for the achievements of the middle ages and modernity alike. But truth shines through, or is at least reflected, in the debris. The hope for all human beings is that God was incarnate in the flesh, that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was raised, and now reigns at God’s right hand. One day he will will set all things right in the perfect justice of his kingdom.