Category Archives: American Founding
Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.
This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”
Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”
There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,
Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.
The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.
[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.
Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”
Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”
Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.
Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.
Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.
To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”
These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.
I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.
The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.
Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.
The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.
But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.
But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.
It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.
As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.
Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?
What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.
We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.
Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.
The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.
In a provocative article published on Reformation 21 on July 2, Rick Phillips offered some thoughts on the meaning of Christian patriotism in an America that is changing rapidly. Phillips eschewed any identification of America with the kingdom of God, framing his reflections within the context of the two kingdoms doctrine.
Not long after Phillips’s piece appeared Matt Holst wrote a response raising several pertinent questions. Holst seems to share Phillips’s general two kingdoms outlook, as well as his judgment that America is in serious moral decline (though Holst rightly clarifies that America has never been the godly Christian nation it is often thought to have been). Yet he questions Phillips’s call for Christians to love their country.
Then Darryl Hart chimed in here.
Reformation21 has now graciously published my friendly engagement with Matt Holst. Here is a key part of my argument:
This conclusion surprises me because it seems to me that scripture commands us to love our country, in at least some sense (i.e., as a people), in precisely the same place that it commands us “to submit, yield obedience, give honor …” In Romans 13:7-8, toward the end of the classic New Testament text on Christians’ obligations toward governing authorities, the Apostle Paul writes,
“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
We often stop reading at verse 7 and don’t read verse 8 because many of our Bibles place a subtitle there, as if a new section is beginning. But given Paul’s repeated and intentional use of the verb ‘to owe’ it is obvious that this is a mistake. What Paul is telling us is that we owe taxes, revenue, respect, honor, and obedience precisely because this is what love demands. Indeed, if love did not call us to fulfill these obligations, we would not owe them at all. Paul is teaching us to view our obligations toward government and (as Holst seems willing to extend the scope of the passage) country as the expression of Christian love appropriate to this context. Even as we serve our country, in other words, we demonstrate the love of Christ.
There’s much more of course, and you can read the whole thing here.
It’s the Fourth of July, and millions of Americans will spend the day at picnics, parties, and parades, all to be capped off with impressive displays of fireworks around the country. Most of them probably don’t know all that much about what happened on this date 237 years ago, but they do know that our colonial forefathers not only declared their independence, but successfully overthrew their British rulers in the most successful revolution in world history.
Despite the many problems America has experienced over the years, and the daunting legal, economic, social, and political crises we face today, the experiment has succeeded beyond any of the founding fathers’ wildest dreams.
Americans often use their liberty for destructive and immoral ends; but few of us would trade that liberty because it also allows us to worship as our conscience dictates, to build and provide for our families, and to pursue meaningful vocations and careers.
Americans often turn equality into a perniciously destructive force, overthrowing the very distinctions that make human life together possible; but few of us would trade that equality because it is the foundation for our basic dignity and security, the ideal that assures us that no one is going to enslave us, confiscate our property, or prevent us from saying whatever it is that we feel the need to say.
Americans have managed democracy and self-government in shockingly short-sighted, foolish, and misguided ways; but few of us would trade liberal democracy for a king or for the rule of experts. We are, when it is all said and done, doing surprisingly well. Most of us would rather live in this time and place than in any other, and a good portion of those who argue otherwise don’t really mean it.
This country is freer, safer, stronger, and more prosperous than any country in the history of the world, and by no means should we take that for granted.
If you’re in doubt about that, read this morning’s news. While we look back to our successful revolution more than two centuries ago, Egyptians – whose nation is the bellwether for the entire Arab world – wake up to find their revolution of last year – which resulted in the first democratically elected government in Egypt’s history – toppled in counter-revolution. The Arab Spring, which filled western democrats and Muslim Islamists alike with such hope, continues to slide into chaos. We are assured by the Egyptian military that there will be fair elections and democracy will be maintained. But who will be able to govern? And who will be able to solve the economic and social problems that President Morsi’s government was not able to solve? What leader can possibly maintain democratic legitimacy if his power is grounded in the military overthrow of the previous democratically elected leader?
Americans love to get excited about revolution and democracy. It’s in our blood. The explicitly stated foreign policy of the last two administrations has been to export democracy and freedom around the world. Whenever we see a foreign people overthrow tyranny, our heart goes out to them. But it is easy for us to forget that far more often than not, revolution and rebellion ends in failure, chaos, or worse. For every American Revolution there is the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, both of which culminated in mass murder, totalitarianism, and international conflict. Even as I write, revolution and internal conflict rips apart countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in all of which America has a hand. What’s more, much as we Americans would not trade our liberty and equality, the citizens of those countries would give much for a modicum of order and security. Look further around the globe and you will find the vast majority of men, women, and children living without political voice, religious liberty, or freedom of movement and association at best, while experiencing massive inequality, economic hopelessness, poverty, and war at worst.
It turns out then, that for all of our problems, and for all of the ‘culture wars’ that divide us as Americans, to live in a country that was birthed in revolution, that is free, equal, safe, powerful, and prosperous – and all at the same time – is a rare privilege indeed.
Happy Independence Day.
Reformed pastors are invoking Reformed resistance theory to justify disobedience to the Obama administration: Do they have a case?
Since starting up this blog about six months ago I have repeatedly encountered Reformed writers – many of them pastors – who are invoking 16th Century Reformed resistance theory to justify rejection of the Obama administration, whether in the form of civil disobedience or more open forms of resistance. The argument starts, of course, with the assertion that the federal government has become tyrannical. It then claims, supposedly on the basis of the old theory of resistance, that tyrannical governments have no claim on the obedience of Christians. It finally turns to propose that Christians take up active resistance in various ways, such as by refusing to pay taxes. Here are some examples of rhetoric I have heard or read:
- One Presbyterian pastor whose church I visited proclaimed from his pulpit that Americans face worse oppression than the Hebrew slaves did in the land of Israel because we have higher tax rates. His audience seemed to agree with him.
- A Reformed pastor wrote on his blog that because of its policy on immigration and health care the Obama administration has forfeited its moral authority. Christians no longer owe it any obedience.
- A Presbyterian pastor wrote on his blog that if the government uses federal money to fund abortions, or even if it simply raises income taxes too much, Christians might legitimately refuse to pay taxes.
None of these pastors were advocating particular acts of violence, but all of them invoked Reformed resistance theory when pressed, at least asserting that violent resistance is a legitimate option.
The question is, do any of these statements actually reflect continuity with classic Reformed resistance theory? To answer this question I have to point out that there is really not one authoritative version of that theory. Over time persecution, religious war, and atrocities such as the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre clearly radicalized Reformed polemicists. Eventually some Reformed thinkers argued what would have been unthinkable to a theologian like John Calvin, that if a government fails to promote the true Reformed religion believers may seek to overthrow it.
Here, however, I want to focus on the more moderate version of Reformed resistance theory, the version famously articulated by Calvin in his 1559 Institutes. This version, I think it is fair to say, has a lot in common with the sorts of resistance theories appealed to by America’s Founding Fathers, as well as by the South in the Civil War era. But it has little in common with the sorts of arguments made by contemporary Reformed pastors as I highlighted above.
In the last chapter of the Institutes Calvin explicitly argues that Christian believers must obey the governing authorities, no matter how tyrannical they may be, in everything that does not force them to sin. He makes himself quite clear that tyranny on the part of the government does not justify disobedience, whether in the form of a refusal to obey a law or pay taxes, or in the form of seditious or violent activity.
We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office toward us uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of the princes’ office. (4.20.25)
There are many things, he goes on to explain, that a tyrant does that he has no right to do from the perspective of the law, but they nevertheless retain their rights in relation to the people. For instance, relative to the tyranny of a future king described by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 Calvin writes,
Surely, the king would not do this by legal right, since the law trained them to all restraint. But it was called a right in relation to the people, for they had to obey it and were not allowed to resist. (4.20.26)
That is Calvin’s basic rule for ordinary Christians when it comes to tyrannical government. But in the second last section of the Institutes Calvin offers one significant exception, an exception that presupposes his two kingdoms distinction. He clarifies that everything he has been saying refers to Christians in their roles as private persons. It does not refer to persons who hold magisterial office within the civil government.
For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (… perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (4.20.31)
Note that Calvin’s explicit reference is to the estates in their assemblies. Here there is clear precedent for the sorts of arguments made by the Founding Fathers (i.e., that the colonial governments had the authority to resist the tyranny of Parliament) or the Southern secessionists (i.e., that the states had the authority to resist the unjust policies of the federal government), whether or not either of those cases were in fact instances of tyranny or injustice.
How did Calvin apply his theory in practice? In 1560 a French nobleman came to Geneva seeking the support of Calvin and the other pastors for a military coup against the French government. In 1559 the powerful French monarch Henri II had tragically died in a jousting accident. His oldest son, Francis II, though fifteen years of age, was neither physically nor mentally able to be King. As a result the stridently anti-Protestant House of Guise established an unofficial regency that was inevitably threatening to the Reformed churches in France. Yet the House of Guise had little right to take this step. For it was the Bourbon family, which was sympathetic to Protestantism, that was most closely related to the monarchical line. Thus it was the Princes of the Blood, Anthony of Navarre and his younger brother Louis, Prince of Conde, who should have had the primary role in the establishment of a regency.
Calvin rejected what became known as the Conspiracy of Amboise because it was not led by the Princes of the Blood. And the conspiracy ended catastrophically for the Protestant cause. Within a few years, however, Francis II also died, and the ascent to the throne of his younger brother Charles IX, too young legally to exercise the full power of the monarchy, required the establishment of an official regency. The refusal of the House of Guise to allow the Bourbons to exercise their own legal rights in the process turned many of the French nobility against them. Although Anthony of Navarre was always indecisive, his brother Conde came to lead a political party known as the Huguenots, made up largely though not exclusively of Protestants, that challenged the Guise hold on power. War broke out in 1562 as Conde launched a failed effort to secure the King and his mother, Catherine de Midici, under his own Bourbon-led government.
In this case Calvin was entirely supportive of the cause because he, like so many other Protestant pastors and leaders, deemed it to be led by the appropriate lesser magistrates and in defense of the actual law of the land, indeed, of the monarchy itself. But what is striking is that the Huguenots emphasized just how secular and political was the nature of their cause. In his Declaration of Protestation Conde declared,
Firstly, therefore, he protests that no selfish passion leads him, but that his sole consideration is of what he owes God, with the duty he has particularly to the crown of France, under the government of the Queen, and finally the affection he bears to this kingdom, constrain him to look for all methods legitimate according to God and men, and according to the rank and degree which he holds in this kingdom, to return to full liberty the person of the King, the Queen and messieurs her children, and to maintain the observation of the edicts and ordinances of his Majesty, and namely the last edict issued concerning religion.
The document went on to list matters of taxation and debt, the intimidation of the King by his councilors, Conde’s loyalty to the King, and his willingness to lay down his arms if his opponents did so as well. The war ended indecisively in 1563 and Calvin died before the next war of religion broke out.
It should be obvious that the sort of resistance theory presupposed by Conde and articulated by Calvin has nothing in common with the claims of contemporary Reformed clergymen that Christians have a right to disobey or resist the federal government. Calvin understood that if Christians were to pay taxes and honor to a regime as tyrannical as that of Rome, the same had to be said of a regime as Catholic as that of France. It doesn’t matter if tax money is going towards unjust purposes or even towards murder (the French government was killing hundreds of Protestants). The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.
Of course, if lesser magisterial authorities determine that the federal government is practicing tyranny, and that it is their duty to resist such action, then matters change somewhat. But in the contemporary United States we are not in that position. As long as it is just a bunch of disgruntled conservative pastors who are calling us to disobey our government, we should utterly reject their arguments, take up our cross, and follow Christ.
We can all point to the decade when things really began to fall apart. Conservatives were distraught; liberals were exuberant. Anti-war sentiment, labor strikes, racial tension and ethnic conflict were provoking urban riots that led to a level of violence few people had ever seen before. The new emphasis on equality was exacerbating a breakdown in social, political and family authority. College campuses were descending into chaos, with mass expulsions the only way that school administrators knew how to respond. Church attendance, which had been high for most of the century, was plummeting, with especially the intellectual elites turning skeptically against the country’s religious heritage. Perhaps the most obvious expression of it all was the new sexual libertinism. As young people pushed the age of marriage back further and further sexual immorality, adultery and prostitution were noticeably on the rise, with illegitimacy rates reaching a level the country had never seen before. More and more women were simply abandoning their marriages, giving expression to what one historian calls their “unprecedented social and sexual freedom.”
The 1960s were clearly a turning point in American history. And yet there is no going back. Older conservatives, those children who claimed for their parents the title of the “greatest generation,” are constantly annoying younger conservatives by their appeals to the way things once were. Younger conservatives tend to see that sort of attitude as a dead-end form of nostalgia at best, a culturally, politically, and theologically off-putting pessimism at worst. They are interested in looking forward, not backward.
But the description I just provided was not a description of the 1960s. I was talking about the 1790s-1800s, drawing from Gordon Wood’s chapter entitled “Republican Society,” in his magisterial Empire of Liberty. It is arguable that it was post-revolutionary America, not the 1960s, that witnessed the most godless period in American history. Indeed, in their classic The Churching of America 1776-2005 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have pointed out that the rate of religious adherence around the time of the Revolution hovered around 20% of the population. Church attendance rates and the general acceptance of Christian morality was higher, of course, but not as much higher as you might imagine. By Finke and Stark’s math, American church membership has steadily risen from 1776 to the 21st Century, with current rates approximately triple what they were in the days of the founding fathers.
Of course things got better already in the early 19th Century, in significant part thanks to the Second Great Awakening. By 1850 church membership had doubled and church attendance had increased by even wider margins. A plethora of Evangelical organizations and societies sought to combat sin and evil in a myriad of forms, from slavery to alcohol to illiteracy to paganism to poverty. If America ever was a Christian nation, a benevolent empire, it was in this century, the same century that saw Americans who had two very different visions for the future of this country go to war against each other in the bloodiest conflict of the nation’s history.
But there is a lesson to be learned in all of this. In 1800 you could not have predicted the Christianization of the country that would take place in the following century any more than in 1900 you could have predicted the ongoing racial reconciliation of American society that began after the 1960s. In 1980 you could not have predicted the bloodless end of the Cold War any easier than today you can predict that America will stabilize itself financially and figure out how to maintain our democracy and social commitments in the context of the welfare state.
But one thing is clear. It is not by looking back longingly to the way things once were, pessimistically writing off the future of the country as hopeless, that the individuals and groups who helped move the country forward in all of these great moments of the past did what they did. These people did not operate with the sorts of assumptions that told them they had no hope of persuading the country because the rest of the people out there were somehow too morally degenerate to be reached. They didn’t live in a bubble, seeking frantically to hold onto their own little world while the rest of it went to pot.
History is not linear, whether for good or for bad. The only sensible way forward, for anyone, whether Christian or Muslim, white or Hispanic, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, is constructive, inclusive engagement – socially, religiously, politically. There are a lot of people telling us otherwise right now (and there were a lot of different people telling us otherwise in the last decade). We need to show them a better way.
In his latest article at the Daily Caller Brian Lee asks whether or not it matters if a president has orthodox Christian faith or not. Lee answers the question by comparing the Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney to America’s first three presidents: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. His conclusion, on the basis of sound historical scholarship and the rejection of wishful thinking, is that these towering figures, the beloved Founding Fathers, give us plenty of evidence to demonstrate that they were not orthodox Christians. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams explicitly denied cardinal tenants of the Christian faith, while there is no evidence that George Washington ever participated in the Lord’s Supper in his life.
[I]n God’s providence, the men who shaped our nation’s founding and served as its heads of state for the first 20 years of its existence managed to accomplish great things, despite their apparent rejection of God’s saving work in Christ. What does this tell us?
The work of statecraft is not the work of salvation.
That’s a relatively mild point to make, but given how many Christians seem to assume they can only support political causes or candidates that are explicitly Christian, it is a necessary one. If your primary concern in today’s election is to vote for a professing Christian then there is far more evidence in Barack Obama’s favor than there is for Mitt Romney or for Washington, Adams, or Jefferson (if they were alive and running). Yet Lee’s point reminds us that we are not going to the polls to choose the leader of the spiritual kingdom, or even the ultimate Lord of the political kingdom. Rather, we are choosing the President of the United States for the next four years.
Yet Lee’s point is not, and this needs to be emphasized, that we should leave our Christian faith, or the authority of Scripture, outside of the polling booth. He writes,
Surely, Christian faith, and all that it entails — confessing the truth of God’s Law, one’s own sin and the saving work of Christ — informs one’s view of the civil magistrate and the just execution of its highest office.
In a previous article, arguing that pastors should not politicize from the pulpit, Lee made this point even more clearly:
In our hyper-politicized age, the line between religious and political speech is an exceedingly difficult one to draw. Teaching on the morality of war and peace, on social issues including marriage, life, and finance are inherently political…. One care barely open one’s mouth on a moral question of the day without giving political offense, and no one would suggest God’s word has nothing to say on these matters.
Lee’s point is crucial. The advocates of the two kingdoms doctrine, from the beginning of its history, have consistently argued that civil magistrates are obligated to rule according to the principles of justice as revealed in natural law and Scripture. Martin Luther, despite caricatures of the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine that are largely based on a distorted version of the doctrine from the Nazi era, raised the standards for Christian statesmanship so high that he insisted that a Christian prince will be a “rare bird in heaven.”
This might surprise critics of the two kingdoms doctrine, and in fact, it may surprise some of its most vocal proponents, some of whom seem to view the two kingdoms perspective as a “movement” designed to isolate religion and politics from one another rather than as a theological distinction intended to guide and qualify Christian political engagement. The two kingdoms doctrine is not a movement, it is not the possession of a few self-appointed spokesmen (myself included), and it does not require pastors to be silent on what Scripture says that is relevant to politics and civil government, let alone Christians to bracket off their Christian faith when they go to the polling booth.
In fact, despite appearances in some of the polemics that rage across the Internet, I think most Reformed people get this. Most of them embrace the substance of the two kingdoms doctrine as a reminder that the kingdom of God proclaimed in Scripture is never to be confused with cultural and political institutions that nevertheless are ordained by God and hold legitimate claims over Christians in this life. I’ve tried to demonstrate this over the past few months by identifying numerous theologians who invoke the two kingdoms distinction in their writing (i.e., John Bolt, Richard Phillips, Justin Taylor).
(Election Day in Philadelphia, 1815)
This week I received a mailing from a Presbyterian church in Atlanta in which the pastor, who I’m quite confident would not identify himself as part of any sort of “two kingdoms” movement, offered his congregation pastoral advice regarding today’s election. The pastor carefully reminded the congregation that government is ordained by God to rule in accord with justice, but he warned the congregation not to conflate Christ’s spiritual kingdom with the political earthly kingdom. Why not? Because when we conflate the two kingdoms we tend to assume that politicians and states have the obligation of using their coercive power to advance the spiritual cause of the kingdom of God. Worse, we fall into the danger of identifying America as God’s special nation, analogous to Israel. The pastor went on, however, to remind the congregation that Scripture does teach us standards of justice that government is bound to respect and defend, such as the sanctity of life and of the institution of marriage, and that they should keep these standards in mind when voting.
Most Reformed Christians agree with this I think. We might put things somewhat differently, we might highlight different biblical principles of justice, and we might hedge our reminders in more or less qualified language. But nearly all of us agree that pastors should avoid politicking from the pulpit even while they should not refrain from speaking to us the whole counsel of God. They should not extrapolate from Scripture simplistic guidance for contemporary American politics that was never intended by the divine or human authors, but they should call us to put on the mind of Christ, using the wisdom and revelation God has given us as we take our opportunity to help ensure that the government God appointed to punish the evil and reward the good does in fact keep that mandate. They should remind us, in good two kingdoms fashion, to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, that all these other things may be added unto us.
The debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation is an old one and it is not likely to go away any time soon. To be sure, most scholars seem to be generally agreed that the American founding was highly influenced by Christianity, indeed, that it is incomprehensible apart from the general Christian world view. But this influence was of a general sort. Most of the leading founding fathers were not orthodox Christians but Unitarians or Deists at best. The Declaration of Independence reflects a version of natural law theory but not of orthodox Christians doctrine regarding the state. The Constitution says virtually nothing about Christianity, and it is noteworthy as the first major constitutional document of the western world that did not recognize an establishment of religion.
Nevertheless among staunch secularists and arch conservative Christians alike the debate rages on. Many of those most interested in the debate aren’t pleased with a nuanced, balanced view of the religious influences on the founding; they are determined to prove that America was decidedly Christian (in the case of the Christian conservatives) or not Christian at all (in the case of the secularists).
As a result, there is still a strong market for books making the strong case one way or another. And a leading author and advocate in the debate is David Barton, the president of the WallBuilders organization. Barton has written much defending the Christian character of the American nation in its founding, most of his work self-published. But recently Barton made a foray into the broader publishing world by publishing his book on the faith of Thomas Jefferson with Thomas Nelson. The result was an outcry from scholars about the unreliability of the book, an outcry that has led to Thomas Nelson pulling the book from publication. As World reports,
Jay W. Richards, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and author with James Robison of Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late, spoke alongside Barton at Christian conferences as recently as last month. Richards says in recent months he has grown increasingly troubled about Barton’s writings, so he asked 10 conservative Christian professors to assess Barton’s work.
Their response was negative. Some examples: Glenn Moots of Northwood University wrote that Barton in The Jefferson Lies is so eager to portray Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity that he misses or omits obvious signs that Jefferson stood outside “orthodox, creedal, confessional Christianity.” A second professor, Glenn Sunshine of Central Connecticut State University, said that Barton’s characterization of Jefferson’s religious views is “unsupportable.” A third, Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College, evaluated Barton’s video America’s Godly Heritage and found many of its factual claims dubious, such as a statement that “52 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were ‘orthodox, evangelical Christians.'” Barton told me he found that number in M.E. Bradford’s A Worthy Company.
As Barton is finding out, most Americans, even most Christian conservatives, prefer their arguments to be based on truth rather than fiction, even if fiction sometimes seems to make an argument more persuasive. To be sure, there will always be a number of people more interested in having their own beliefs and preferences affirmed than having them challenged with the truth. Conspiracy theories will always abound.
But overall the outcry against Barton’s work receiving mainstream respectability is a good thing. I hope it spurs all of us to a greater commitment to winning over our fellow citizens by ensuring that our public engagement and story-telling is characterized by truth, not simply by a passionate commitment to our own agenda. After all, credibility is arguably the most precious virtue we can possess. Losing it will not do our cause any good.