Category Archives: Conservatism

Does Two Kingdoms Theology Make Christians into Republicans or Democrats? You Can’t Have It Both Ways

We should all be deeply concerned about two kingdoms theology. Its disastrous effects on the church are evident, are they not? Recent evidence indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Christian Right pastor Robert Jeffress, support Donald Trump and the Republican Party. As David R. Brockman warns in the Texas Observer, Jeffress “has deployed Two Kingdoms thinking repeatedly since the presidential election” to justify his support for Donald Trump. If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Democratic party, that should be deeply concerning.

But wait. Recent evidence also indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Andrew White, candidate for governor of Texas, are Democrats. As Larry Ball warns in the Aquila Report, White’s approach “is deduced from what is called two-kingdom theology.” If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Republican party, that should be deeply concerning.

These articles advance arguments I have repeatedly heard from the lips of Reformed theologians and pastors. One highly esteemed Reformed scholar told me he is convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Republican party despite its unChristian tendencies on poverty and race. Two kingdoms advocates, he believes, are crypto-Republicans. At the same time, numerous pastors have told me they are convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Democratic party despite its unChristian positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Two kingdoms advocates, it turns out, are crypto-Democrats.

Image result for politics of right and left

I suppose a cynic would say that this is precisely the problem with two kingdoms theology. It complicates the link between the kingdom of God and the politics of this age, and so it allows Christians to support whatever positions they want, regardless of biblical teaching. Real Christians, thoughtful Christians, know which party is the Christian party. Right? Right?

So which party is it? Just how would Jesus vote if he were to become a citizen in 2018 America?

Who’s right, Brockman or Ball? Jeffress or White? Just which side is two kingdoms theology on! Christians demand to know. Partisans purport to reveal the real truth of the matter.

What if it turns out that Christians have substantial disagreements about politics precisely because neither political party faithfully serves the interests of justice, let alone of the kingdom of God? As my friend Mika Edmondson likes to say, if you have an easy time voting for either the Republicans or the Democrats because you are convinced that their policies align so perfectly with the teachings of Christianity, you have been deceived. The real tragedy, as my friend and colleague John Witvliet has put it, is that Christians feel forced to decide which part of a consistent ethic of life they will support and which part they will abandon.

I know. This is anathema for those who are so convinced that their party is the Christian party. And I know that because two kingdoms theology consistently challenges those who sanctify the politics of either the Right or the Left, articles like these will continue to be written and published. But do not be deceived. Brockman and Ball actually have much in common. They are both frustrated that two kingdoms theology refuses to sanctify their own politics.

This suggests to me that two kingdoms theology is actually getting something right, and that we need more of it, not less. It’s time for the church to stop being co-opted by either the Left or the Right. The gospel has much to say about justice and righteousness – and about politics too – but we only get it right when we seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, refusing to confuse that kingdom with America or with the policies of any political party.

It’s time for the church to be the church. If you are sick and tired of the politicization of the church – if you are eager to see the church faithfully witness to the kingdom and its righteousness as it applies to every area of life, without compromise to any political party – then two kingdoms theology is for you.


Why We Should Read Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Creation

If you have been paying attention to the media hype about Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Laudato Si’, you might be forgiven for assuming that the pope’s 180-page encyclical is devoted to the issue of climate change. In fact, the encyclical devotes relatively little attention to the phenomena of global warming: as little as 2% of its text, according to climate change skeptic Calvin Beisner. It offers but a cursory summary of the scientific consensus, calling the faithful to accept that consensus and take steps to curb global warming. But it offers nothing in the way of an argument that would persuade a climate change skeptic to change her position on the issue. The only way that might happen is if the skeptic in question is a Catholic Christian – or otherwise admirer of Pope Francis – who is committed to following papal direction for its own sake.

The danger, however, is that a thoughtful, theologically insightful, and morally helpful statement of the Catholic Church’s teaching on creation will be ignored by many conservatives because of its conclusions regarding climate change. This danger is all the greater given the valid economic critiques that have been raised against the encyclical by Catholic intellectuals such as my friend Sam Gregg, not to mention the criticism from climate change activists and scientists that Pope Francis significantly understates the threat of global warming.

You might be surprised, then, to learn that Laudato Si’ is first and foremost a theological document whose assertions regarding policy are presented cautiously and tentatively – as proposals for debate and discussion – rather than as conversation stoppers.

The pope is quite clear on this point:

[T]here is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions [60]. On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair [61].

It is worth emphasizing that when the pope speaks of “this situation” which requires a solution he is not primarily referring to the problem of climate change. Rather, he is talking about ecological deterioration in general. We are wrecking our planet in more ways than one, and the pope’s fundamental thesis is that in doing so we are failing both to love God and our neighbor by failing to live as stewards of the creation that he has given to us as a gift.

The solution, Francis is at pains to stress, cannot consist simply of changes in laws or regulations. What is required is nothing less than “ecological conversion” away from the self-centered, consumerist-driven, technocratic paradigm that dominates modern society and that leads modern society to dominate [i.e., ruthlessly exploit] creation. (It is the same sort of dominating attitude, the pope points out, that characterizes modern attitudes toward the embodied human being, giving rise to moral catastrophes ranging from abortion to rampant confusion about gender.) On this central point, as I hope to argue in forthcoming posts, Laudato Si’ is a praiseworthy and helpful document. I would even go so far as to say that it is one that all serious Christian leaders should read.

But why, you may ask, is the pope taking a position on global warming, a point on which there are “honest debate[s]” and “divergent views.” Here, it is clear, the pope must defer to the experts. But he obviously believes that there is a meaningful consensus that the church is obligated to take seriously.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as a Reformed Protestant I do not believe the pope has any divine authority within the church. Just as important, following Calvin I would argue that the church has no authority to offer official pronouncements on matters of academic debate or public policy. Its public authority is tied up with, or contained within, the Word. When the church attempts to use its spiritual authority to “come down” on matters of controversy or disagreement it almost always ends up undermining its own credibility. The exceptions – areas on which scriptural teaching is relatively clear – merely prove the rule.

So while I am an admirer of the tradition of Catholic social teaching, I think that teaching is at its best when it avoids pronouncements on specific policies.

On the other hand, I believe the document’s clear theological teaching on what evangelicals like to call creation care is desperately needed within conservative evangelical circles. We tend to be dangerously and irresponsibly suspicious of environmental concerns. To be sure, as the pope notes, there is a radical sort of environmentalism that is in sharp conflict with Christianity. But too many conservative Christians have gone to the opposite extreme of turning environmentalism into a whipping boy. How many times have I heard pastors drop off-handed remarks dripping with scorn for “environmentalism”? How often do our writers list environmental concerns as one of those areas on which Christians need not work towards any substantive agreement? It’s as if stewardship for creation were no more important than what baseball team you root for or what style of music you like.

In part this dismissive attitude arises from an unhealthy skepticism toward science and the scientific community. It is true that within certain strands of society there is far too great of a deference towards science. But too many evangelicals go to the opposite extreme.

Let’s face it, for most of us our conclusions regarding biology or quantum physics, let alone climate change or evolution, come down to who we decide to trust (which, incidentally, is one good reason why the church should abstain from ruling definitively on these matters). For instance, most of us are not experts on the matter of climate change, and it is eminently reasonable for us to defer to the consensus of the scientific community (this book offers a good introduction to the issue). On the other hand, it can be praiseworthy to withhold judgment while continuing to learn from what others have to say. The scientific community has not done a very good job persuading the American public of its concerns about climate change in a measured, sympathetic way. But populists on both sides tend to be dogmatic and even shrill, undermining the trust necessary for thoughtful and open-minded communication. Both sides need to do the hard work of listening and learning in a spirit of humility and respect.

Enough about that. I want to stress that this encyclical is not primarily about global warming. I’ll have more to say about the positive aspects of the pope’s encyclical in the next few posts. For now let me just say: Read it. Reflect upon it. Take its call to Christian stewardship seriously. It won’t do you any harm, and it just might do your Christian sanctification a world of good.

Is Christianity Inherently Undemocratic? Hierarchy and Predestination

In his well-known book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert P. Kraynak argues that Christianity is inherently illiberal and undemocratic. Nowhere does Scripture prescribe democracy or speak of human rights, Kraynak points out, let alone call for a separation of religion and politics. And while the Bible affirms the dignity of every single human being by virtue of her creation in the image of God, the image of God is conceived in primarily spiritual terms, in which obedience to God is more essential than liberty.

This spiritual view of the image of God, Kraynak argues, implies that human dignity is relative to degrees of human perfection. A more faithful person has more dignity – is higher in the hierarchy of value – than a less faithful person. Similarly, a man is naturally superior to a woman.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute. The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promotes hierarchies because it understands reality in terms of the ‘image of God’ which is a type of reflected glory – a reflection of something more perfect in something less perfect. Hence, dignity exists in degrees of perfection rather than in abstract qualities. The dignity or glory possessed by something made in the image of a more perfect being carries moral claims of deference, reciprocal obligation, and duty rather than equality, freedom and rights. (60)

To be sure, Kraynak admits, the New Testament undermines all such hierarchies by asserting the fundamental equality of all persons in Christ, so relegating social and political hierarchies to secondary status. Still, this very relegation, this very separation between the spiritual and earthly cities, means such inequalities can be tolerated as long as spiritual equality is preserved. This is in sharp contrast to liberal democracy, which insists on social and political equality.

Kraynak thinks that the early Christian theological tradition only accentuated the Bible’s hierarchical tendencies insofar as it was infused with Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of the world. According to such Greek philosophical notions, the natural universe is “a hierarchy of beings, ascending from lower to higher substances in an order of rational perfection” (73). The understanding of the universe as a chain of being was integrated with Augustine’s orthodox doctrines of the two cities and of predestination to create a thoroughly hierarchical understanding of both church and society. Thus,

In general, traditional Christians were illiberal and undemocratic because they conceived of God’s created universe as a hierarchy of being and thought that institutions should promote rational and spiritual perfection. (73)

Kraynak admits that the Reformation undermined the church’s hierarchicalism and rejected systematic Neoplatonism, but he claims that in their doctrines of the two kingdoms and predestination Luther and Calvin maintained the theological commitments that lie at the heart of Christianity’s illiberalism. For Kraynak that is not a bad thing. Christianity is not inherently democratic, he maintains, and Christians have been wrong to imagine it so.

It  is true, of course, that classic Christian political theology consistently distinguishes between the kingdom of God and earthly political structures (a distinction that has been variously labeled as the two cities, the two kingdoms, the two governments, the two jurisdictions, the two powers, the two swords, etc.). It is also true that this distinction makes Christian political theology a species of political realism. Politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. We must tolerate sin and injustice because only God can set things right. Our task is to maintain a general degree of peace, justice, and order.

But this doctrine does not make Christianity inherently illiberal. True, the toleration of the status quo has all too often meant the defense of oppressive gender relations, slavery, and tyranny, but this is hardly the thrust of the New Testament. In acknowledging the prophetic roles of women in the church, in maintaining the essential equality and consequent moral reciprocity between master and slave, in calling political authorities to submission to Christ, and in relativizing the spiritual priority of marriage and the family, the apostles set in motion an ethical trajectory that challenged all rigid conservative notions of the way things ought to be. (Paul called each person to be content with the situation in which he found himself, of course, but he also called slaves to seek their freedom, if possible, and he insisted that it is good for a Christian woman to devote herself to the service of Christ and the church rather than to marry and raise children.)

In my view, therefore, Christians have rightly identified equality, along with liberty, as an essential part of the gospel of Christ. This does not mean equality without difference, but it does suggest that Christians should aspire to forms of equality much more substantive than is implied by the bare minimum of political realism.

What about the doctrine of predestination? My friend and teacher Timothy P. Jackson insists that the doctrine of predestination leads Christians constantly to create distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, distinctions that fall all too easily into the oppression of or apathy toward the ‘other.’ The only way to overcome this temptation, he insists, is to eliminate any distinction between the saved and the damned.

The objection has to be taken seriously. No doubt Christians have used the distinction between the saved and the damned, the elect and the reprobate, in just such nefarious ways. But in my view such misuses of the doctrine of predestination actually rely on a caricature of it – one common enough that it is proclaimed by some Christians as the teaching of Scripture (thus rendering plausibility to Jackson’s objection). In this caricature God wills the judgment of the reprobate, and thus no matter what such persons do in their lives, they cannot escape it.

That is not the Christian doctrine of predestination as it has been articulated by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. Christian theologians have generally distinguished between the revealed and normative will of God, on the one hand, and his divine sovereignty, which is hidden and mysterious, on the other.

The distinction amounts essentially to this. God desires that all people be saved just as he desires that all people act lovingly and justly. This is a genuine desire on God’s part. The one who is love does indeed love all persons made in his image, and he does good to the just and the unjust alike. It was out of love for the world that he sent his son to suffer as the lamb of God, the one who is the propitiation not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.

But this does not deny the fact that as the sovereign Lord, God does, in some mysterious way, govern all that occurs. This governance does not take place on the ordinary plane of causality. Without dictating the actions of angels or human beings, God nevertheless governs them according to his sovereignty (or his decretive will). While hating evil and injustice, and while desiring the good for all people, he nevertheless ordains all things according to his purposes. This is not a doctrine that arises from philosophical logic but from faith. It is not a doctrine that we seek to explore to its depths, as Calvin pointed out, but one that we accept based on the recognition that God is entirely different from us, and cannot be measured by our notions of scientific or philosophical causality. Indeed, he cannot really be known or understood at all, apart from his revelation in Christ.

Christians are therefore called to conform to Christ in their attitudes towards all persons, laying down their lives in humility and service. Any other ethical use of the doctrine of predestination is ideological and self-serving.

None of this requires that Christianity is inherently liberal of course, let alone democratic. That would depend both on what is meant by liberalism and what is meant by democracy. But it does suggest that Christianity is not inherently illiberal or undemocratic. Perhaps we can agree on that.

Christianity and the Free Market

In recent decades Christian theologians and ethicists have raised a host of objections against capitalism. From Gustavo Gutierrez’s Marxist-influenced liberation theology to John Milbank’s neoplatonic Christian socialism, the academic tendency is to blame the free market for the curses of individualism, greed, materialism, commercialism, and exploitation. Christianity is the religion that proclaims good news to the poor and woe to the rich, Gutierrez reminds us. And while the great theologians of the past wrestled with the implications of Christian teaching for just lending, fair prices, appropriate wages, and distributive justice, Milbank and others point out, today Christians too often simply resign themselves to the ruthlessness and impersonality of the market.

There is some truth to these claims, of course. Many Christians, especially American Christians, do seem to think that a laissez-faire government approach to economics, absolute property rights, and freedom of contract is pretty much all that Christianity has to say about political economy. And there certainly is a need for much greater self-criticism among Christians about our own infatuation with materialism, security, and the American dream. But if conservative Christians tend to err in the direction of selling out Christian theology in subservience to (classical) liberal economic and political theory, the theologians on the left are often guilty of erring in the opposite direction, ignoring economic reality in the name of theological purity.

The reality, of course, is that for all of the problems associated with free market capitalism, this economic system has lifted more people out of poverty – giving them at least the opportunity for a fuller human flourishing – than has any system of political redistribution or religious charity in the history of the world.

A few statistics about economic development help to tell the story. For most of history the vast majority of human beings have lived their lives at or below a very bare subsistence standard of living. In the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, for instance, this was true of some 60% of the population. Over the many centuries of history up to the 19th, average economic growth ranged between 0.05% and 0.15%, while average life expectancy rarely exceeded 36 years. In 1820 average incomes in the world in contemporary U.S. dollars were about $1,050 (in Europe they were less than twice that, at $1,950).

Today, of course, virtually no one in the West experiences genuine poverty and average annual growth rates top 1.5%. General life expectancy hovers around 80 years and average income in the United States is around $43,200. More people may have escaped poverty in the last generation in India and China alone, due to those countries only half-hearted embrace of free market principles, than in the entirety of human history preceding.

What is the reason for such prosperity in the past two hundred years? In simple terms the answer is simply economic growth. As late as the 17th Century the idea that wealth can be expanded, that property and money are fundamentally productive, and that the earth has the capacity of supporting an ever increasing population at an ever rising standard of living was alien to the assumptions of theologians and men of the world alike. Material wealth was viewed as a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain was inevitably another person’s loss. The power, honor, prestige and citizenship of the few, philosophers from Aristotle to those of the antebellum American South assumed, depends on the labor of the many.

Free market capitalism changed the game entirely, unleashing the forces of productivity and trade by means of the division of labor, supply and demand, and competitive markets. New technology, largely spurred by economic forces, maximized the production and movement of goods and services to levels earlier generations would have consigned to fantasy or the miraculous. Longer lives, better education, and improved health have both resulted from and contributed to this progress. They have made possible political and cultural systems built on representation, equality, and freedom, all of which redirect their beneficiaries back into the system of economic growth and prosperity.

One would expect that the basic realities represented by this bare sketch of the data would temper the criticisms Christian theologians so often launch at free market capitalism. It is all fine and good to say that property is a post-fall institution, that human beings were made to have all things in common, and that economics based on self-interest or greed represent the way of the world rather than that of Christ. But if Christians are serious about walking in genuine love toward our neighbors, surely we can only do so by recognizing that the world is fallen, that we cannot yet live as we one day will in the kingdom of God, and that people should be motivated for their own sakes, if not for the sake of others, to live productive and responsible lives. To put it another way, if we are serious not simply about symbolically helping the poor, but about actually helping the poor, the success of the free market in the modern world, unimaginable only a few centuries ago, must bear some normative weight.

That does not mean we should abandon all Christian and moral reasoning about economics, which was the result of much of the laissez-faire economic thinking during the 1800s. The social teaching of the Catholic church since the late 19th Century is an excellent model here. The Catholic tradition embraces basic free market principles expressive of the values of human dignity and prosperity, while at the same time calling for the moderation of the free market via laws that protect the poor and the weak and uphold basic principles of justice and solidarity.

There is a way forward here, a path to consensus that would help to mitigate the political-economic polarization among thoughtful Christians, if not of American society generally. The left stresses its concern for the poor while the right stresses the liberty necessary for prosperity. But if the two actually go hand in hand, then so much of our political and economic conflict is off the mark. The free market may not always function perfectly, and it needs to be regulated and supplemented with basic social welfare, but it is nevertheless necessary and must be protected, both from corruption and from state manipulation, if the poor are to be helped. The question is, will we figure this out before it is too late?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is the Reformed tradition in decline?

On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist (HT: Aquila Report) Bill Evans offers some insightful reflections on the declining influence of conservative Presbyterianism (or of the confessional Reformed tradition) in America. I don’t agree with every word Evans says, but I do agree with his general perspective. What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians seem to view unity and solidarity as a luxury or utopian dream rather than as a command of Christ. They tragically underestimate the way in which this division and intramural conflict is destroying their credibility – and therefore their survival.

As Evans writes,

There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K.  The list goes on and on.  Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality.  Not every issue requires that one go to the mat… when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside.

Evans isn’t arguing that none of these issues are important. He is suggesting, rather, that they have inappropriately become all-consuming. What helps blow the various controversies out of proportion is the way in which they become tied to institutional turf wars.

Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market.  But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.

Evans is talking about seminaries here but he later extends the point to denominations as well. Far too many of us are concerned about our denominational identity and traditions, rather than about the gospel and church of Christ.

Perhaps Evans’ most insightful point, however, is not the pervasiveness of narrowing vision and consequent intramural squabbling. Perhaps his most penetrating suggestion is that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have had their sense of mission and faithfulness distorted by their impulsive conservatism. Evans doesn’t say it this way (and I don’t think he would want to), but have theological liberalism and the cultural turn away from Christendom confused far too many Reformed Christians into thinking that their calling is to be conservative, rather than to be Scriptural?

To be sure, most Reformed conservatives would insist that those are one and the same thing. But that, it seems to me, is precisely the problem. The legitimate recognition that theological liberalism has seriously undermined the orthodox Christian faith, and the determination to defend that faith, has evolved into the assumption that the conservative position is always the biblical position. No longer do we confidently witness to the liberal (i.e., generous and earth-shattering), powerful and transforming work of the resurrected Christ; now we batten down the hatches, bolster the fortress, and try to hang on to our posts for dear life. As Evans writes,

What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation.  To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed?

Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.

No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Avoiding “conservative” radicalism: Walter Russell Mead on the Blue Social Model

If you are interested in the future of the American welfare state and American democracy – i.e., if you want to think carefully about the future of life in this country – Walter Russell Mead’s writing on the decline of the blue model is a must read. As he reports on Via Meadia,

The “death of blue” theme has gotten a lot of attention. Hundreds of thousands of readers have come to these posts, and they’ve been discussed widely in the blogosphere and in print.

Mead’s prose is clear, readable, and gets to the point. More importantly, it represents a broadly conservative, yet helpfully pragmatic perspective on American society, its changing institutions and its evolving possibilities, that provides conservatives with a genuine alternative to utopian attitudes of libertarianism or reconstructionism. And it is now carefully summarized at the American Interest in one well-written summary article. Read it.

Mead argues that what he calls America’s “blue social model” is dying, by which he means that

the characteristic form of 20th century industrial democracy has come unglued, and that the advanced industrial democracies around the world must adjust to basic changes in the way the world works….

Briefly, the idea is that after World War II America was organized around a group of heavily regulated monopoly and semi-monopoly companies. AT&T was the only telephone company; there were three big networks, three big car companies and so on. There was very little foreign competition, and these companies were able to offer stable, lifetime employment to most of their workers. The workforce was heavily unionized, and the earnings of the big companies were divided between shareholders, managers, workers and government in a predictable way. An intellectual and administrative class of planners, social scientists and managers ran the big institutions and administered the government.

Several forces came together to break up this system. Foreign competition, first from rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II and then from low wage newly industrializing countries around the world, eroded the market position of companies like the Big Three auto manufacturers. The rise of offshore banking eroded the tight financial controls of the postwar era. Growing consumer impatience with the high prices and poor quality offered by monopoly companies like the telephone monopoly led to political pressure to deregulate and introduce more competition. Technological change, especially in information processing and communications, led to disruptive changes that shifted the advantage to nimble and lean companies and left the bureaucratic, slow moving giants of the Blue Age behind. American society became increasingly individualistic, with both the left and the right rebelling against the authority of experts and bureaucrats.

Unlike many in America today, whether on the right or the left, Mead is not pessimistic about America’s future. The United States, he argues consistently, maintains solid economic, political, social, military, and environmental advantages over other countries. Yet the land of the pilgrims and pioneers needs to figure out how to adjust its institutions and policies – as we always have in the past – corresponding to a rapidly evolving world, yet in a manner faithful to American ideals.

What future does Mead propose?

The first thing to say about a post-blue social model is that it will be liberal. That is to say it will be a further exercise the development of the concept of “ordered liberty” that has been the guiding light of Anglo-American civilization since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The synthesis of enlightened, forward looking governance resting on the acknowledged and inalienable liberties of the people at the heart of the liberal vision remains the best foundation humanity has yet found for running a society in a world of rapid change.

At the heart of the enduring liberal ideal is a truth that is often forgotten in today’s political debates: the relationship between order and liberty does not have to be zero sum. More government can mean less freedom, and more freedom can mean less government—but things don’t always work out that way….

The secret of Anglo-American civilization has been its ability to combine the two elements of order and liberty at successively higher levels of both. To think constructively about our future we shouldn’t be thinking about a zero sum tradeoff between order and freedom; we should be thinking about how to build the kind of order that extends our liberty in new and important ways.

Mead’s take on the liberal project is profoundly conservative. In a time when some conservatives, including Christian conservatives, are becoming increasingly jaded with the idea of liberal democracy, his perspective reminds us that genuine conservatism is respectful both of the past and of the present. It gives the benefit of the doubt to the social order as it exists – the legacy of the past – while calling for necessary changes that are gradual, that are morally, economically, and politically appropriate, and that do not disrupt the legitimate social fabric. This is in sharp contrast to the sorts of “conservatism” that owe more to the legacy of revolutionary radicalism, whether in their libertarian dreams of dismantling American government or in their theocratic hopes of turning America into the kingdom of God.

If you haven’t done so, go read Mead’s essay.

Victory for Conservatives in Michigan: The Right to Work

Conservative despair at the thought of four more years of President Barack Obama has been palpable during the past month, with all kinds of hand-wringing about whether or not America is lurching to the left or even in decline. While these sorts of fears and conversations are inevitable, they often revolve more around high profile elections (i.e., the White House) or court cases (i.e., same-sex marriage, forthcoming) than around underlying fundamentals. For instance, passionate pro-lifers not closely in tune with events on the ground tend to despair about the prospects of the movement because they focus on Supreme Court decisions and congressional legislation, but they entirely miss the dramatic success the pro-life cause has enjoyed on the state level in recent years.

From this perspective the enactment of right to work legislation in Michigan yesterday is breath-taking. Imagine Massachusetts following in the way of Mississippi and passing legislation that effectively drove all abortion providers out of the state. Unthinkable? Not too long ago people would have said the same about Michigan when it came to unions. As the Washington Post reports:

The “right to work” effort illustrates the power of Republicans to use state legislative majorities won in 2010 to pursue their policy preferences, even after losing a bitter presidential election.

The defeat is devastating for organized labor, which for decades has been waging an uphill battle against declining membership and dwindling influence.

But it also strikes at the roots of a Democratic Party that relied on unions for financial support and to marshal voters for President Obama’s reelection….

Proponents call their win in Michigan especially significant because the state is the birthplace of one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, the United Auto Workers. Founded in 1935, the union organized auto workers, winning wages and benefits that transformed assembly-line work into solid middle-class jobs.

“This is really a message to every other state that is a closed union shop, that if you do it here you can do it everywhere else,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity.

(courtesy: Washington Post)

Expect more of this kind of story in the coming years. Although the Democrats will now control the White House for another four years, Republicans dominate state governments across the country. As a result, while Democratic policies may be advancing in certain respects at the federal level, Republicans are having a better time of it at the state level.

Truth be told, state governments have been polarizing, with more states under one party control (either Democratic or Republican) than at any point in recent American history. This allows both conservatives and liberals to push their agendas in their respective states, enabling ready comparison between concrete policies in different places and therefore turning the states into a laboratory for government. Ultimately it’s the long view that matters here, but the early returns suggest that the most important red states are doing much better than similarly situated blue states. Simply compare Texas with the likes of New York, California, and Illinois, and you get the picture.

As the “blue states” continue to struggle economically, more of them will follow the way of Wisconsin and Michigan (and even, to a certain extent, Illinois) and abandon the “liberal” economic policies of the past. In the long run such a shift would certainly have an impact at the federal level.

My point is not that the United States is becoming more conservative, or that the conservative movement is on the verge of enjoying consistent political success. Politics is rarely linear like that. Liberals and conservatives will each continue to enjoy their respective victories. My point is simply that things are not as bad as many conservatives seem to imagine. Neither America nor the conservative movement is in decline. Life is moving on.

How FDR eroded America’s constitutional consensus

Last week I described some of the reasons why Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a president from whom conservatives have much to learn. Ronald Reagan, who supported FDR in every one of his presidential campaigns, self-consciously emulated the Democratic president in both his attitude toward ordinary Americans and in his popular mode of speech. Conservative Republicans admire Reagan (and long for his reincarnation) but aren’t always very good at detecting what made him so effective.

Roosevelt’s effect on the country was not entirely positive, however. And while we could critique his policies at many points, both the successful and unsuccessful ones, one could make a pretty good case that the most negative part of FDR’s legacy was the extent to which it hailed the breakup of the American legal and constitutional consensus. The Supreme Court and its rulings have always been controversial, of course, but never has that court been so politicized, never has it been so divided between judges with utterly contrary philosophies of constitutional interpretation, than it is today.

In the early years of the New Deal the only effective roadblock to FDR’s legislation was a Supreme Court that was more than willing to overturn laws passed by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. The court’s opposition angered Roosevelt, but as Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (who had been the Republican presidential candidate in 1916) pointed out, the problem was with the administration’s quite cavalier attitude towards the Constitution.

If we had an Attorney General in whom the President had confidence, and in whom the Court had confidence, and in whom the people had confidence, the story might have been different. But the laws have been poorly drafted, the briefs have been badly drawn and the arguments have been poorly presented. We’ve had to be not only the Court but we’ve had to do the work that should have been done by the Attorney General.

The problem was that Roosevelt wanted to use the federal government to achieve things that the courts had long interpreted as being out of step with the Constitution. Yet despite being the leader of the party that had the most powerful grip on politics (at both the federal and state levels) in American history, before or since, FDR didn’t want to go through the trouble of amending the Constitution in the manner of previous presidents, the manner outlined by the Constitution itself, and the manner called for by the Democratic party platform.

It’s not that he and his advisers didn’t understand the problems with their proposals. As Justin Dyer recently wrote at Public Discourse, Roosevelt and labor secretary Frances Perkins were well aware of what they called the “constitutional problems.”

New Deal-era Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins once recounted a conversation she had with Franklin Roosevelt about how feasible it was to create a government-administered system of social insurance for the elderly. “Well, do you think it can be done?” the president asked his longtime advisor and friend. “There are constitutional problems, aren’t there?” To this Perkins conceded, “Yes, very severe constitutional problems.” Under the traditional understanding of the enumerated powers of the federal government, there simply was no congressional power to create a national system of social insurance. “But what have we been elected for except to solve the constitutional problems?” Perkins asked. “Lots of other problems have been solved by the people of the United States, and there is no reason why this one shouldn’t be solved.”

Perkins included this story in a speech at the Social Security Administration headquarters in 1962, and she was remarkably candid about her view that the Constitution was an obstacle to be overcome rather than a legal framework to work within. “The constitutional problem was the greatest one,” she said. “How could you get around this business of the State-Federal relationships? It seemed that it couldn’t be done.”

In the end Roosevelt got his way, of course, but a big part of the reason for his success was his intimidation of the Supreme Court. In a political move that biographer Jean Edward Smith describes as nothing short of “hubris” the president proposed the Bill to Reorganize the Judicial Branch of Government, calling for up to fifty new federal judges to sit alongside judges who were over the age of seventy, including six of the nine sitting justices on the Supreme Court. If he couldn’t persuade the Court to break with its longstanding tradition of constitutional interpretation, FDR was going to pack it with his own supporters.

The opposition in Congress was firm, though it took the soaring Roosevelt administration by surprise, and that opposition solidified with the appearance of the unprecedented letter from the chief justice quoted above (not since Chief Justice John Marshall in 1819 had a chief justice intervened in a public controversy like this, according to Smith).

Nevertheless, while FDR’s attempt at court-packing failed, seriously eroding the president’s until then solid congressional support, the Supreme Court was from then on much more amenable to the New Deal legislation. As Smith tells the story,

On March 29 [1937, eight days after the appearance of his letter], in a tense, packed courtroom, the chief justice read the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the State of Washington’s minimum wage law, which was almost identical to the New York law it had overturned six months earlier… When Hughes finished reading his opinion, the Court went on to uphold three recent pieces of New Deal legislation, all by unanimous vote.

Two weeks later, in the most eagerly anticipated ruling of the term, the Court, speaking again through Hughes, upheld the Wagner Labor Relations Act – the most ambitious undertaking of the New Deal since the NRA, and the most controversial. Hughes rejected the distinction between direct and indirect effects on commerce that had governed the Court’s approach since 1895, restored the commerce clause to the full sweep of John Marshall’s expansive definition in Gibbons v. Ogden, and dismissed the recent holdings Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States and Carter v. Carter Coal Co. “These cases are not controlling here,” said Hughes majestically.

When the Court subsequently sustained the Social Security Act (7-2), even the most rabid New Dealer recognized that whatever rationale there was behind FDR’s Court-packing scheme had evaporated. (FDR, 387)

FDR would go on to appoint eight Supreme Court justices over the course of his presidency (it is very important to note that he had appointed none of the justices that upheld Social Security and the other pieces of legislation noted above), in the process laying the foundation for a whole new approach to constitutional law that has been dominant to this day. It would take constitutional conservatives decades to recover even the bare credibility of views that until the 1930s were considered standard and authoritative. Today, as we well know, the Court is sharply divided between liberals and conservatives, the appointment of justices subject to politicization like never before. The suspicion and bitterness of the culture wars is in no small part due to conservatives’ feelings of betrayal by the judicial establishment, feelings that go back to 1937 but that run through numerous controversial cases in the following decades, the most divisive of which is perhaps Roe v. Wade.

One can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Roosevelt taken a different route, that of constitutional amendment. But that, of course, is water under the bridge. We’re now stuck with the jurisprudence – and the controversy – that shows no sign of abating any time soon.

Following the Example of FDR: The Common Man’s President

Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the American presidency because he connected with the ordinary American. While the presidents preceding him – especially Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – tended to emphasize the things that government could not do, along with the necessary virtue of patience, FDR approached the Great Depression with a determination to make changes that would actually help people – right away. He was not only the president who spoke directly to the people in his famous fireside chats; he also presided over the most productive Hundred Days (the first three months after a president’s inauguration) in the history of Congress.

There are all sorts of things that can be said in evaluation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The President’s policy was hardly Keynsian (he was motivated more by the simple desire to put people to work than to stimulate the economy) and yet it expanded the reach of the federal government in breathtaking ways. FDR’s approach to the Constitution was cavalier and destructive of the nation’s legal (and ultimately cultural and political) infrastructure, though he was prevented from achieving his worst designs relative to the Supreme Court (about which I hope to write more next week). Economically it was World War II that ended the Great Depression, not the New Deal, and yet the New Deal may well have saved America from revolution. Many of FDR’s policies are widely supported even by conservatives today. Others were thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court already during the 1930s.

But one thing that made FDR a great president – as his admirer, consistent supporter, and eventually conscious emulator Ronald Reagan appreciated – was that he knew how to speak to and represent ordinary, hard-working Americans without pandering to base desires. For instance, in November 1935 Roosevelt spoke at a homecoming rally at Georgia Tech in Atlanta:

I realize that gentlemen in well-warmed and well-stocked clubs will discourse on the expenses of Government and the suffering that they are going through because their Government is spending money on work relief. Some of these same gentlemen tell me that a dole would be more economical than work relief. That is true. But the men who tell me that have, unfortunately, too little contact with the true America to realize that … most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, which in this case is honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral degradation. I propose to build that barrier high and keep it high.

Note how FDR – like the recent Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – criticized dependency on the federal government. But notice also how – profoundly unlike Romney – he did it in a way that was perceived as respectful and helpful to the people who were most in need.

Or take Roosevelt’s speech at the 1936 Democratic convention, only a few months before the greatest landslide election in American history (until Johnson’s even greater victory in 1964):

Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for. For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.

These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution….

Governments can err. Presidents do make mistakes. But the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

Americans didn’t vote for FDR by massive margins because they wanted handouts. They – especially southern Evangelicals (black and white alike) – voted for FDR by massive margins because they knew he would stand for them against the sorts of people who were not terribly concerned about their welfare. While they, like most contemporary Americans, may not have understood the ins and outs of economics or fiscal policy, they could appreciate the significance of having a president willing to err on the side of compassion.

Conservatives need to learn how to communicate this way. To be sure, American voters are much  more sensitive today about the dangers of a government that is too “warm-hearted,” living in a “spirit of charity” that results in its own destruction. They are not looking for another New Deal (and they did not – in general – like Obamacare). But they still need political leaders who care about them and who know how to communicate that concern. A conservatism that fails to meet this need forfeits the right to govern, especially in a time as economically uncertain as the present day.

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