Category Archives: Culture War

Love Casts Out Fear: Christian Witness in an Anxious Age

America’s version of Christendom has collapsed, and most evangelicals are still trying to figure out what this means for the nature of Christian witness. We are so used to being engaged socially and politically from a position of power and privilege that we do not even know where to begin now that it is so obvious we are a minority. Many are discouraged, afraid, and even bitter. While our African American brothers and sisters have long known what it meant to be an oppressed minority (and so are consequently less surprised by recent social and political developments and less likely to freak out over every new development that all is lost), for white evangelicals this is new.

Tim Keller and John Inazu have an excellent article at Christianity Today reflecting on the challenges of Christian witness in an increasingly pluralistic and anxious age.

Whatever one thinks of mainline Protestantism today, … it once provided the sociological and institutional framework that sustained the Protestant culture. That framework no longer exists. In its absence, the deep and accelerating cultural trends toward individualism and autonomy have continued to erode trust in social institutions—business, government, church, and even the family. And neither evangelicalism nor Roman Catholicism nor secularism has been able to fill the vacuum left by the shrinking of the Protestant mainline.

This new cultural reality raises some anxieties, but it also presents many of us with an opportunity to rediscover Christian witness in a world that we do not control. The dominant Protestant culture enabled some Christians in this country to forget, as the book of Hebrews proclaims, that here we have no abiding city. While we are called to love our neighbors and to maintain what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence,” no human society can be identified with the kingdom of God. Christians profess that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), which means that we are never quite at home.

Although Keller and Inazu are careful not to say it explicitly, the widespread confusion and panic this is causing is reflected in evangelicals’ willingness to support Donald Trump. Trump has no coherent policy framework to offer the country, but that’s not what many evangelicals are looking for. They are looking for someone to “shake things up.” They want someone who will stick it to the cultural and political elites. Upset over a revolution in sexuality and gender, they are willing to support a philanderer who has demonstrated little respect for women or for marriage in his life. Fearful about threats to religious liberty, they are willing to support a racist who has declared that practitioners of the world’s second largest religion should be banned from entering the United States.

Keller and Inazu rightly call Christians not to give in to such fear-driven public engagement but to engage as a means of witnessing to Christ, who is, after all, continuing to reconcile all things to himself regardless of the state of American politics. After all, America is not the kingdom of God. We need to rediscover what it means to live as resident aliens.

To live as resident aliens entails a certain vulnerability, but it does not always mean persecution. Claims that American Christians today are facing persecution sound tone-deaf not only to secular progressives but also to many non-white religious believers who have long been actual minorities. That isn’t to say that demographics aren’t changing, or that Christians in the United States don’t face legal abuses and miscarriages of justice. But it is a caution about the use of language and a posture of the heart.

One practical implication?

Christians might engage in the cause of religious liberty with more hope and less anxiety. Many Christians today feel increasing legal pressures on their institutions and the ways of life they are accustomed to. Some of these challenges are significant: campus ministries experience hurdles to campus access, Christian adoption and social service agencies confront regulations in tension with their missional convictions, and Christian educational institutions face threats to their accreditation and tax-exempt status. We should not be naïve to these challenges, and we should work diligently to find appropriate legal and policy responses. But we must make our case in publicly accessible terms that appeal to people of good will from a variety of religious traditions and those of no religious tradition. In doing so, we cannot ignore the importance of religious liberty for all. There is no principled legal or theological argument that looks only to the good of Christians over the interests of others.

Focusing on others means attending to the challenges and limits that they confront in the practice of their faith. Today’s cultural climate makes it especially essential for Christians to defend the religious liberty of American Muslims.

You can read the rest of Keller and Inazu’s excellent article here.

Advertisements

How Did Christians Lose the University?

Rosaria Butterfield was a professor of women’s studies who specialized in Queer Theory at Syracuse University. A practicing lesbian, she was an activist in the gay and lesbian community until she converted to Christianity in 1999. She is now a Reformed Presbyterian.

Given such a story, you might expect Butterfield to have an interesting perspective on the relationship between Christians and the academy. And you will not be disappointed. Only seven pages into her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield declares that she maintains her appreciation for the university and her respect for feminism:

Although I live my life now for Christ and Christ alone, I do not find myself in like-minded company when my fellow Christians bemoan the state of the university today. Feminism has a better reputation than Christianity at all major U.S. universities and this fact really bothers (and confuses) many Christians…

But how has the church responded to this truth? Too often the church sets itself up as a victim of this paradigm shift in America, but I think this is dishonest. Here’s what I think happened: Since all major U.S. universities had Christian roots, too many Christians thought that they could rest in Christian tradition, not Christian relevance.

These words accurately capture many Christians’ bewilderment about what has taken place during the past few decades. The academy, leading the culture, has abandoned Christian teaching about gender and sexual ethics wholesale. Not only are sexual promiscuity and divorce widely accepted, not only have traditional gender roles been widely jettisoned, but the very normativity of sexual complementarity has lots its persuasive power. And it has lost persuasive power not only to a few fringe radicals in the academy, mind you, but to the very people who determine the highest law of the land. Christians are not shocked because they do not expect to witness evil in this life. They are shocked because these developments defy what Christians think are the most basic common sense assumptions possible about the differences between male and female.

Butterfield’s words confirm what many Christians are only beginning to realize. Our worldview – our moral paradigm – is not nearly as intuitive or persuasive as we have imagined it to be. The authority of our churches and our sacred texts is nowhere nearly as widely respected as we thought it was. We are quite out of touch. We have not been engaged. We have been resting on the laurels of more than a thousand years of Christendom. As Butterfield puts it,

Too often the church does not know how to interface with university culture because it comes to the table only ready to moralize and not dialogue. There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted. Like it or not, in the court of public opinion, feminists and not Bible-believing Christians have won the war of intellectual integrity.

A few points jump out at me from Butterfield’s reflections.

1) Attempting to impose our moral framework on American law is not the same as being engaged in the nation’s moral conversation. We have too often confused political activism with thoughtful engagement. If we can’t even persuade the country to uphold marriage at a civil level, what does that say for our ability to witness to the need for the gospel at a moral and spiritual level?

2) Preaching at people – proclaiming the truth – is not the same thing as communicating. We need to proclaim the gospel, of course, but we have too often confused the bare declaration of various messages found in Scripture with the thoughtful engagement that comes from wrestling with what the word of God has to say in light of what we learn from observing, listening, loving and conversing with our neighbors and fellow citizens. We prefer to imitate the way the apostles confronted the covenant people of God (i.e., Acts 4) rather than the way they witnessed to the Gentiles (i.e., Acts 17). We mimic the way Jesus confronted the Pharisees (Matthew 23) rather than the way he ministered to “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 14-15). But America is not the covenant people of God and Americans are not – by and large – Pharisees.

3) Our inability to wrestle with the way the word of God speaks to contemporary culture in a thoughtful, humble way communicates a lack of integrity on our part. Why? Because a tendency simply to preach at people as if they share our basic assumptions about life – while ignoring the fact that they don’t – shows that we do not respect them. We do not take them seriously. We are not willing to learn from them, let alone grant them equality in a conversation. What we think is faithfulness looks to the world an awful lot like arrogance. And Christians, of all people, should know that this is a problem. The Christian tradition has a lot to say about the evil of pride.

We have a lot of work to do, and not primarily at the political level. As James Davison Hunter argued several years ago in his book, To Change the World, we need to be less focused on politics and more focused on culture, less focused on power and more focused on people, less focused on winning and more focused on witnessing.

I think our situation is a little bit like that of a husband and wife whose conversation has gradually escalated to the point where they are talking past one another and each is equally frustrated that the other person is not listening – no doubt willfully. It is time to step back, do some real soul-searching, and think about what and how we are communicating. Communication does not simply consist in declaring what you think and feel is true. Communication is a two-way street. Messages must be received and understood, not simply delivered. And that can only happen in contexts of respect, friendship, and trust.

As in a marriage, if we think the fault is all on the other side we are sadly deluded. In that case, the road ahead will be quite rocky indeed.

Do Evangelicals Worry Too Much About Persecution?

Evangelicals are understandably worried about the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent gay marriage decision for religious liberty. During the arguments leading up to the decision Justice Samuel Alito asked the Obama administration’s solicitor general if the right of gay marriage would jeopardize evangelical educational institutions’ tax-exempt status:

In the Bob Jones case … the court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?

The Solicitor general’s response was not reassuring:

I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics … but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.

Read the rest of this article at Canon and Culture.

Should Christians love their country?

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.

Should Christians Be Environmentalists?

In December 1966, historian Lynn White gave a paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Science arguing that the roots of America’s environmental crisis lay in Christianity and Judaism. White’s paper, which has shaped the anti-Christian animus within parts of the environmental movement for decades, was published in 1967 in Science magazine with the title, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”

White argued that the notion of a God who is transcendent over his creation desacralized nature, turning it into a mere instrument for human purposes. Judeo-Christian theology, which not only gives humans dominion over creation, but (in light of the curse) calls them to struggle against it for their survival, helped to promote a utilitarian and exploitative approach to nature as a mere resource, an attitude that became more and more destructive throughout the modern period.

White’s argument has been refuted many times over the years, but that has not eliminated its force among environmentalists as a general critique of Christianity. The reason for that, in part, is that his argument does have an element of truth to it. There is no doubt that over the centuries, especially after the Enlightenment, many Christians have viewed the creation with precisely the attitude that White describes. In the heady days of exploration, colonization, and imperialism during the 17th and 18th centuries, many self-proclaimed Christians embraced the Enlightenment’s turn to the self, to rationality, and to the scientific method, arguing that it was the white man’s (in the gendered sense) destiny to conquer the world and to exploit its people and resources for human advantage. However much they may have rejected various parts of this view, more orthodox Christians nevertheless often fell under its influence in practice (and even ideology) as well.

White’s argument has been rendered all the more plausible since the 1960s because of the influence of the culture wars on the environmental movement. As Robert H. Nelson argues in his interesting book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, both economics and environmentalism have taken on nothing less than a religious character and fervor in their attempts to explain world possibilities and challenges while claiming full moral authority over human life. For various reasons, one of which is the unnecessary and self-destructive impulse of the environmental movement to demonize business, industry, and capital, and to rely on centralized federal bureaucracy to advance its cause, the Christian Right has tended to ally itself with economic religion rather than environmental religion.

Today, most Americans, including Christians, share broadly in the concern about the environment as well as in the judgment that the federal government should protect that environment by regulating industry, limiting pollution, and conserving natural resources and parks. But despite the encouraging emergence of the Creation Care movement within Evangelicalism, environmentalism remains powerfully influenced by forms of pantheism and other profoundly anti-Christian instincts. In the political spectrum that shapes our outlook on just about everything in this politicized country, the environmental movement remains on the far left.

If there is any area in which a rapprochement would be for the benefit of all, this is it. Eliminating the left’s grip on the environmental movement, and especially on government bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would give it more credibility among the American public, and broaden its influence. It would mitigate the statist impulse that so often informs its political campaigns by encouraging the sort of market oriented strategies that often work best. It would curb conservatives’ tendency to oppose environmental regulation in the name of free enterprise no matter how necessary that regulation in a particular case might be. In short, it would help liberals and conservatives alike to see that Christianity, care for the environment, and commitment to a free market economy need not be, and never should have been, rivals in a zero-sum game.

Is there a way forward? No doubt it will be a challenge to overcome the politicization that plagues more and more of American life as the years wear on, but there are promising signs that at least Christians are increasingly interested in improving their record on creation care.

In a (for the most part) excellent essay in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics entitled “Ecology and Christian Ethics,” Michael S. Northcott demonstrates that the roots of the West’s instrumentalist, exploitative attitude towards nature lie in the Enlightenment, not in orthodox Christian theology. It is not simply a matter of demonstrating that God called the creation good, or that the dominion God gave to Adam and Eve in Genesis is a matter of stewardship and protection rather than exploitation or domination. Much more, Northcott argues, following Oliver O’Donovan’s excellent book Resurrection and Moral Order, Christian theology and ethics is shaped by the central paradigmatic event of Jesus’ resurrection. In Jesus’ incarnation God demonstrated his commitment to save the material world from human sin and the curse. In Jesus’ resurrection God gave that creation a new life, reconciling all things to himself. In Christ’s resurrection, in other words, creation and redemption come together. Both find their goal, their hope, and their telos, in the coming kingdom of God. Every time Christians partake of the Eucharist, as Ben Quash points out, they celebrate – in a profoundly earthy way, by the consumption of bread and wine – this hope.

That does not mean Christians forget about the curse or imagine that Jesus will restore the creation to wholeness before his return to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age. It doesn’t mean they imagine that their actions relative to the environment have eternal material consequences (Jesus builds his kingdom, not us.) It does mean that Christians shouldn’t relegate nature to that which does not matter, to that which is forever cursed, or to that which will end in destruction. The creation groans, as Paul says in Romans 8, because it awaits its transformation. Christians should relate to creation as that which, like them, is destined for salvation.

Although he does not use the term, then, Northcott ends up proposing something like a two kingdoms approach to care for the environment. We should never imagine that our efforts are transforming the cosmos or bringing the kingdom to earth; we should expect to witness to God’s love for creation, and to his promise to transform it, by treating it with care, respect, and justice. We shouldn’t fall under the spell of utopian schemes to return nature to some sort of pristine, untarnished state. We should do our best to minimize the harmful effects of human sin and carelessness, a goal balanced only by the other tasks to which we are called (i.e., the promotion of human flourishing).

There’s so much more to say here, of course (so don’t blame me in the comments section for not saying something you think I should have said, though feel free to argue with what I have said). In future posts I hope to consider the significance of natural law in all of this, as well as the appropriate balance between environmental and free market concerns. But hopefully this is a good start.

Russell Moore and a Christian Witness Beyond Culture Wars

From Collin Garbarino at First Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

Christian Political Witness: Thinking of Ourselves as a Minority

Evangelical Protestants have done very little thinking about what it means faithfully to engage in a democratic process when you are a religious minority. Indeed, Evangelicals are not used to thinking about themselves as a minority at all. To be sure, many have become comfortable claiming victim status when the opportunity presented itself. There is no shortage of voices proclaiming the decline of America and the imminent specter of religious persecution.

But all of that is quite different from the more level-headed, thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a faithful minority – a loyal opposition, so to speak – that has been second-nature for Jews and various Anabaptist groups for centuries. When it comes to public controversies over matters like abortion, marriage, and even immigration or care for the needy, we are still arguing over whether or not we should base our public appeals on Scripture, or whether we should come up with some other sort of argument.

You would think that the New Testament would be a fruitful basis for reflection on what it means to be a faithful Christian in a pluralistic and often immoral world. But again, for centuries Protestants have been so used to thinking about their public responsibilities in terms of Christendom (for which the scriptures of theocratic Israel have always seemed to be a much simpler analogy than the suffering, serving, and witnessing New Testament Church), that they have developed only the thinnest of traditions of reflection on the new covenant scriptures.

At the First Things blog John Turner writes,

After 2008, I thought obituaries of the Religious Right were very, very premature. Come on, Republican Party. If you want to win an election, you may as well try to ride that horse one more time. I know Romney performed better than McCain among evangelicals, but I still think it’s much easier for the Republican Party to win a presidential election with a candidate with fervent evangelical support (this requires the rather delicate trick of not scaring the daylights out of everyone else in the country).

But in the long run, I tend to agree with Albert Mohler that evangelicals had better get ready for a sojourn in the political wilderness. I remember (but could not find to link) a splendid editorial by the Christian Century’s David Heim (some uncertainty about the author) from quite a few years ago (presumably before the 2008 election) wryly encouraging evangelicals to enjoy their moment in the political and cultural limelight because it would prove fleeting. In a short time, they’d be with their erstwhile liberal Protestant bedfellows in the scrapheap of political history. Very prescient.

It’s time to stop focusing on the theoretical question of whether or not America should be a Christian nation, and time to face up to the fact that it is most obviously not one right now. We need to stop arguing over whether or not religious and moral pluralism is a good thing, and to start thinking hard about how we might be faithful in a nation where religious and moral pluralism is a fact. We need to imagine our political responsibilities not by identifying with those in control, but through solidarity with the vulnerable. And then, of course, we have to continue to stand for justice and mercy, in faithful witness to Christ.

Bitter complaints about decline and gloomy prognostications about future persecution do not satisfy this obligation. The changes in American culture and politics do not mean the world is in decline or that Christ’s kingdom has suffered some sort of defeat, as if premillennial eschatology is being confirmed. Only if we’ve made the mistake of identifying America or the West with the kingdom of God in the first place will we assume that our political fortunes in America have anything like this much significance (see the above figures). Our witness to Christ – even in politics – has to be marked by joyful confidence (theological optimism) grounded in the gospel, not by political despair (cultural pessimism) grounded in worldly assumptions about power. That might involve recognizing that despite our tremendous disappointments about certain matters of basic justice, our country remains the embodiment of some of the greatest achievements in political liberty, equality, and prosperity the world has ever known. I would rather live in this place and time than in any other.

A thoughtful Christian approach to democratic engagement in a pluralistic context has to include careful reflection on the relation between Christian morality and human flourishing, and on how we might bring the wisdom of the Christian tradition to bear in a way that is helpful for people who are suspicious of Christianity. It has to work out the implications of under-appreciated virtues like love, service, and self-sacrifice, using them to counter our own older assumptions about power, piety, and paternalism. And of course, like the New Testament church, the guiding light for our own transformed political witness must be not so much the Law of theocratic Israel but the example of the one who came to fulfill it. Romans 13 finds its place towards the end of Romans, in the midst of Paul’s discussion of our sanctification by the Spirit, not in the middle of Deuteronomy, towards the end of the old written code.

When cultural conflict skews your theology …

At his blog Bill Evans writes a follow up post to his earlier article on Presbyterian squabbling. Evans worries that Reformed pastors are losing the ability to distinguish between primary, secondary, and even tertiary issues. He also worries that some are coming to view the confessions as substitutes for (or as the source of) doctrinal consensus, rather than as expressions of genuine consensus grounded in Scripture, a phenomena he calls “confessional fundamentalism.”

On the way he makes a poignant argument about the way in which obsession with the culture wars contributes to a skewed view of theological priorities:

[T]he ever-present context of cultural conflict has become the lens through which many theological issues are viewed.  Whether it be odd speculation about an “eternal subordination of the Son,” or the rise of the so-called “Biblical Patriarchy” recently and properly critiqued by Rachel Miller, or opposition to the ordination of women even to an office of service like the Presbyterian diaconate, a lot of conservative theology is being driven the desire not to give an inch to the feminists.  Likewise, the recent trend in conservative Reformed circles toward literal six-day young-earth creationism is certainly not driven by any new exegetical insights into the meaning of Genesis 1 or any new scientific evidence, but rather by the desire to exclude Darwinism and its cultural implications a priori.

Unfortunately, what has emerged is theology that is often just as “political” as anything on the left, and from this political polarization flows an approach to theological controversy in which there is increasingly little room for complexity and interpretation.  Nuance, judgments of charity, the recognition that reality is often more complex than we might wish, and necessary shades of gray have been replaced by the binary logic of black and white, truth and error, faithfulness and compromise.  Little wonder, then, that the Balkanized conservative Reformed theological landscape looks more and more like an exercise in Manichaean politics.  Little wonder that positions long regarded as acceptable are now suspect and even unwelcome in some presbyteries, or that a view almost extinct in 1960 (except among Seventh-Day Adventists) has become a touchstone of orthodoxy.

As I wrote in an earlier response to Evans, we need to learn that the conservative position is not necessarily the biblical, or Christian position. ‘Liberal’ is not a bad word, and as its usage by an older theologian like John Calvin demonstrates, orthodox Christians used to think of liberality as a virtue. Jesus and his apostles, like the reformers, were as liberal as they were conservative because they understood that their obligation was to the word of God, not to the status quo. Our allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom, not to the way things once were.

Read Evans’s whole post here.

Questioning Christian Reconstructionism (Dominionism) – and Defending the Way of the Cross

According to Larry Ball, a retired Presbyterian (PCA) minister in Florida, Christian Reconstructionism, or dominionism, is thriving, poised to make a comeback as “America continues to decline, and as the Church continues to be unable to speak to the issues of our culture.” I’ve interacted with Ball’s arguments before, you may recall. After the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act Ball complained that Christian pastors weren’t doing their job of preaching against it. As he put it, “The only answer to the modern political debate on health care is a return to biblical law.”

By ‘answer’ Ball seems to mean that the government should remove itself from regulating or overseeing health care provision and that it should leave the task of providing for the poor exclusively to the church. As he puts it, the problem is that “The State has become their [churches’] partners in the ministry of mercy.”

As I pointed out in my interaction with Ball a few months ago, it is odd to hear a Presbyterian pastors speak so confidently about the implications of biblical law for contemporary politics when his assumptions are directly contrary to those of prominent reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and those who so admired what they accomplished in their own churches and cities. Calvin, who believed it was the state’s obligation to enforce both tables of the Ten Commandments, also argued that it was the state’s responsibility to establish hospitals and provide funds for the care of the poor, not to mention to pay the salaries of ministers and establish schools for the training of future pastors. For Calvin what Ball describes as the problem with today’s pastors was precisely the case: “The State has become their partners in the ministry of mercy.” And remember, most Reformed leaders in the 16th Century looked to Calvin’s Geneva as the great example of a godly society (including, most famously, the father of Presbyterianism, John Knox).

Even today, of course, it is by  no means clear that most Christians agree with Ball’s understanding of the teaching of Scripture. Not to mention Christians living outside of the United States, within this country most Hispanic Christians, African American Christians, and even the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, support further government involvement in health care (and certainly support government provision for the poor). Of course, they might all be wrong. The question is whether or not they are wrong because the Bible says so.

In his newer article Ball suggests that many people are disillusioned because of the reelection of President Obama but points out that Christians “must tell them that there is purpose and hope in Christ, even on this earth.” The kingdom will still come on earth as it is in heaven; Christians will still take political dominion, before Christ’s return.

It’s worth paying attention to how Ball makes use of the various motifs in Scripture about conquest and suffering. He parodies Christians who take seriously Jesus’ (and the apostles’) repeated exhortations to believers to expect suffering and to embrace it with joy and hope, storing up treasures in heaven as they conform to the image of their Lord in this age:

There is no hope in the Christian faith, except as a way to get to heaven.  Our only hope on this earth is the joy of suffering persecution, which, if we are honest, we are wont to do. Forget about what our grandchildren will have to face.  Just get me out of here as quickly as possible.

In place of the New Testament’s driving motif of life under the cross in conformity to the example of Christ Ball points the church to the example of Israel on the eve of its invasion of Canaan and genocide of the Canaanites:

The modern Church reminds me of the ten spies who reported to Moses that taking the Promised Land was just impossible.  Let’s just be real and practical here – right?  The enemy is just too big and too powerful.  They are like giants and we are like grasshoppers.   Anyone who speaks of victory is just a dreamer….

What we need is revival in the pulpit and a message of hope.  Joshua and Caleb’s message to Moses was basically that we are not afraid of them, but they are afraid of us. The enemy has heard about the great things God has done for us, and their hearts have melted in fear. We have the Living God on our side.  “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

I’m not sure if Ball thinks we’re supposed to imitate Israel’s commands uncompromisingly to kill their enemies or to put to death those who commit thirty odd religious and moral crimes. Given his constant emphasis on biblical law it’s not clear to me how we can assume otherwise. If Ball doesn’t speak for all Reconstructionists here I’d be happy to be corrected. But note how Ball talks about our enemies being afraid of us as he urges us to take dominion in God’s name. He invokes Romans 8:31 oddly here, but note what in context that passage actually says:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

(Romans 8:35-37)

In all these things. What things? Evidently tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and sword. Paul doesn’t tell us that if we endure all of this we will conquer and take dominion. He promises that in these things we are conquerors already. Like the lamb who was slain we are conquerors in our very suffering witness (Revelation). By conforming ourselves to Christ’s image we testify to the fact that we have all things in him and are waiting for his return to set all things right (here on earth as well as in heaven).

For the record, I’ll be much more hopeful about my children’s future if the Christian Reconstructionists do not take dominion over this country, and I suspect the same is true for most Christians. America is by no means the kingdom of God (who ever said it would be, except perhaps the Reconstructionists or other social gospelers) but I would not want to live in any other place or time. God has blessed us immeasurably and it is by no means evident to me that America is in decline (just remember Jimmy Carter’s famous speech; he thought we were in decline too). With that in view I’ll take Paul’s approach to civil government as a model rather than Caleb and Joshua’s attitude toward the Canaanites.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

Were the 1960s when it all went wrong?

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.

%d bloggers like this: