Category Archives: Politics

Calvin’s Theology of Social Justice

Christians sometimes disagree sharply about whether or not witnessing to social justice is part of the church’s mission. Some worry that when the church speaks or acts on matters of justice it inevitably becomes politicized. Even where churches avoid the obvious mistakes of endorsing particular candidates or policy proposals, they inevitably confuse their ideological commitments with the teaching of scripture. Conservative churches begin to sound like the Republican Party at prayer, while liberal churches begin to sound like the Democrats at prayer. Better to avoid matters of justice altogether.

On the other hand, others worry that out of a fear of politicization the church will fall into a passivity that is just as dangerous. By calling Christians to respect and submit to political authority while declining to proclaim a vision of social justice, the church will merely uphold the status quo, thus aligning itself with the powerful elites who benefit from that status quo. The church thus becomes like the servant who buried his talent in the ground so as to avoid using it improperly, and whose fear was judged by his master to be wicked laziness (Matthew 25:14-30).

How is the church to witness to the “kingdom and its righteousness” in a way that avoids these dangers of politicization and passivity? John Calvin argued that if we simply “let the church be the church!,” as some have put it, the church will witness to the justice of the kingdom in ways that are appropriate to its mission: through preaching, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, discipline, the diaconate, and the organic life of the body of Christ.

I explore all of this in my presentation on John Calvin’s theology of social justice, which I recently delivered at the “Jesus and Justice” conference hosted by New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids. I was speaking alongside Mika Edmondson, pastor of New City OPC and author of The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theodicy, and Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Theological seminary and author of The Justice Calling.

For more on Calvin’s theology of social justice, see my book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church.

Announcing My Forthcoming Book: Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church (Cambridge University Press)

I’m excited to announce that my book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms, will final be released next month. You can pre-order it at, though it may currently be less expensive if you purchase directly through Cambridge University Press. The book is part of Cambridge’s series of titles on Law and Christianity, edited by John Witte, Jr.


I’m grateful for the following endorsements from scholars who I greatly admire:

Nicholas Wolterstorff – Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University:

It’s a superb piece of work, an important contribution and lucidly written. My guess is that this will become the gold standard in the field. Tuininga’s line of interpretation will be much discussed.

Barbara Pitkin – Religious Studies Senior Lecturer, Stanford University, and President of the Calvin Studies Society:

This is an outstanding piece of intellectual-historical scholarship. It will appeal to historians of medieval and early modern political thought regardless of their personal faith or political commitments.

Michael Horton – J. G. Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California:

Lionized as a founder of modern liberalism and demonized as ‘the tyrant of Geneva,’ Calvin has been used more than understood. Placing the reformer in his own context, Tuininga exegetes primary sources while challenging anachronistic stereotypes. In the process, we meet a complex figure who offers important and relevant insights for Christian political reflection, even in – perhaps ironically, especially in – a secular age very different from his own.

David Little – Berkley Center of Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University, Washington, DC:

Tuininga’s account of Calvin’s thought is original, lucid, well-informed, and timely. It is based on a firm grasp of the primary materials, a comprehensive familiarity with the relevant scholarship, and a challenging interpretation of Calvin’s political theology with important contemporary relevance.

Elsie McKee – Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship, Princeton Theological Seminary:

Tuininga’s thoughtful and cogent examination of Calvin’s two kingdom doctrine turns on one of the perceptive distinctions which make the reformer’s thought such a complex yet coherent expression of Biblical commitment joined with practical intelligence. Tuininga appropriately points to the often neglected eschatological dimension of Calvin’s thought to ground the way the reformer clearly distinguishes ecclesiastical and civil while also clearly affirming that Christ is Lord of both – ruling each in specific and distinct ways. The study focuses on the development of the teaching in its historical and religious context, providing a well-organized exposition of the interplay of scriptural exegesis with Calvin’s affirmation of the gift of natural law in the human realm. Tuininga then draws some very timely conclusions about the resources Calvin’s theology can offer for faithful Christian engagement in the modern pluralist world.

John L. Thompson – Professor of Historical Theology and Gaylen and Susan Byker Professor of Reformed Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary:

Tuininga’s book is exemplary and informative not only for its rich display of Calvin’s own thought but also for its serious engagement with the most important political theologians of our own day.   His painstaking examination of Calvin exposes many longstanding generalizations and replaces them with a Calvin who is at once more nuanced, more contextualized, and even more compatible with political liberalism than usually supposed — a Calvin who displays remarkable currency for us today, especially when we see the poignancy and depth of Calvin’s concern for refugees and the poor.

David VanDrunen – Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, Westminster Seminary California:

Tuininga provides a clear and thorough account of John Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, a topic much in need of such a study. The author’s careful reading of Calvin’s texts and thoughtful consideration of his context makes this a landmark work amidst the ample literature on the Genevan Reformer’s political thought. As much as this book contributes to our understanding of Calvin as a historical figure, however, its most important contribution may be its argument that Calvin’s two-kingdoms doctrine provides theological reason for contemporary Christians to support liberal democracy, at a time when many inside and outside the church question its viability. Christians who wish to think deeply about their political identity and responsibilities will find this a richly rewarding work.

And, finally, here is a brief description of the book:

In Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Matthew J. Tuininga explores a little appreciated dimension of John Calvin’s political thought, his two kingdoms theology, as a model for constructive Christian participation in liberal society. Widely misunderstood as a proto-political culture warrior, due in part to his often misinterpreted role in controversies over predestination and the heretic Servetus, Calvin articulated a thoughtful approach to public life rooted in his understanding of the gospel and its teaching concerning the kingdom of God. He staked his ministry in Geneva on his commitment to keeping the church distinct from the state, abandoning simplistic approaches that placed one above the other, while rejecting the temptations of sectarianism or separatism. This revealing analysis of Calvin’s vision offers timely guidance for Christians seeking a mode of faithful, respectful public engagement in democratic, pluralistic communities today.

If I might say it myself, this book would make a perfect Valentine’s Day gift for that special person near and dear to your heart. It might not seem like the most romantic gift, but I assure you, it is. We are living in the era of Donald Trump, after all.

Not persuaded? Here is the scintillating Table of Contents:


  1. Two Swords, Two Powers, or Two Kingdoms: Spiritual and Political Authority in Early Modern Europe
  2. Calvin, Geneva, and the French Reformed Churches
  3. The Kingdom of Christ
  4. Two Kingdoms
  5. Christ’s Spiritual Government
  6. Christ’s Political Government: Early Formulations
  7. Covenant and Law
  8. The Magistrate’s Care of Religion
  9. Law, Democracy, and Resistance to Tyranny
  10. Conclusion: Calvin’s Two Kingdoms and Liberal Democracy

Can Christian Political Engagement Be Christian in Election 2016?

Christians – like the rest of the country – are deeply divided heading into tomorrow’s election. While African American and Latino Protestants feel an existential threat from Donald Trump and his supporters, many white evangelicals fear that if Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party win tomorrow the pro-life cause – not to mention the cause of religious liberty – will suffer irreparable damage. And of course, religious voters are motivated to vote for or against these candidates for many other reasons as well.

If Christians are so divided, is there any sense in which Christian political engagement can be Christian in Election 2016?

Image result for election 2016

Last week I had the privilege of speaking on Christian political engagement in a multicultural context with Ekemeni Uwan at Calvin College. Ekemeni is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia who speaks and writes regularly on matters ranging from racial injustice and police brutality to Christian cultural-political engagement.

Together we wrestled with the choices facing Christians in 2016. We focused particularly on why different Christians are approaching this election differently, and on how the political barriers that divide Christians might be overcome through the gospel.

You can listen to the audio here. Ekemeni speaks first. I begin at about the 21 minute mark. Q&A begins after that.

Immorality, Deceit, Idealism, and Achievement: The Perplexing Presidency of John F. Kennedy

When asked to rank the greatest occupants of the White House, Americans consistently place John F. Kennedy among the top five, if not the top two or three, presidents in American history. Professional historians, on the other hand, while recognizing Kennedy’s popularity, generally judge him to have been an above average president at best, but by no means comparable to the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Why the gap in evaluation? In part it’s because historians recognize that while Jack Kennedy masterfully communicated to the public the image of a healthy, youthful, and brilliant family man, husband of the glamorous Jackie Kennedy, father of two, and master of foreign affairs, the reality was quite different.

To be sure, Kennedy masterfully handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to a catastrophic nuclear exchange, resisting the war-mongering of the Joint Chiefs while nevertheless convincing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that if the Russians did not withdraw their missiles from Cuba there would indeed be war. He exploited the capital earned from that successful showdown by engineering the first ever nuclear weapons agreement with the Soviet Union, a nuclear test ban that made future detente a genuine possibility. And had he not been assassinated fifty years ago in 1963, he almost certainly would have avoided the escalation of the Vietnam War that occurred under his successor Lyndon Johnson.

Photo: Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961

On the other hand, the president who founded the Peace Corps and launched the project that eventually put a man on the moon was in no small part responsible for the escalation of Cold War tensions in the first place. His scandalous botching of the invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco significantly reduced America’s moral image in Latin America and in the broader world, giving the Soviet Union moral cover for its own aggressive subversion in third world countries and pushing Fidel Castro’s new regime into the open arms of the Russians. His sending of nearly 17,000 “advisers” to Vietnam set the stage for Johnson’s escalation of that war, and his encouragement of the South Vietnamese generals in their coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem made him partially responsible for the brutal assassination of Diem only a few weeks before his own death from an assassin.

On the domestic front Kennedy was full of great ideas but he successfully enacted none of them. The first genuinely Keynesian president, he introduced the idea later associated with Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party that cutting taxes would actually increase revenue by bolstering the economy. He advocated health insurance for the elderly, federal funding for education, and a cabinet position for housing. He was much more encouraging of the civil rights movement than Eisenhower had been, eventually using his executive authority to ban discrimination in federal housing and calling for a civil rights law to protect African American voting rights.

On the other hand, Kennedy’s leadership on civil rights was nearly as indecisive, calculated, and cautious as had been that of Eisenhower before him, and Kennedy failed to persuade the Democratic controlled Congress to pass even one of his major initiatives. All of them would be enacted during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the “Master of the Senate”, in 1964-1966 (though in part due to Johnson’s success in exploiting grief over Kennedy’s death). In fact, at Kennedy’s funeral the famous French general and statesman Charles De Gaulle apparently declared that while Kennedy was America’s mask, Johnson was the country’s real face.

Photo: Marilyn Monroe, only the most famous object of Kennedy’s obsessive womanizing, aborted what was probably Jack’s child, shortly before her death.

In his masterful biography of Kennedy Robert Dallek demonstrates just how successfully Kennedy worked to foster an image of health, morality, and honesty to cover a reality that was quite different. Throughout his life Kennedy’s body was wracked with near-debilitating ailments, pains, and degenerative diseases that were successfully kept from public view. Had he run for office a few decades later, he would never have been deemed eligible, let alone elected. The husband of Jackie Kennedy was an obsessive philanderer and womanizer, once declaring to the British Prime Minister that if he went without a woman for three days he got a headache. Not only did his womanizing get him tied up with the mafia, but it led to a near scandal when Kennedy became sexually involved with a young woman invited to nude pool parties at the White House, a woman suspected of being an East German spy. With help from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover Kennedy quashed a potential Senate investigation, while Attorney General Robert Kennedy had the young woman deported and paid off.

The deception, which was not unique to Kennedy’s administration but which was uniquely mastered by the man to whom the press was so friendly, extended to Kennedy’s handling of Vietnam. In contrast to presidents like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, Kennedy sought to minimize public awareness of U.S. involvement in a foreign war, fearing that democratic deliberation on the conflict would tie his presidential hands. He and Bobby Kennedy worked hard to arm twist the press into providing coverage cooperative to the administration’s aims, an abuse of the free press that helped to make it so cynical of later American presidential leadership and its handling of the Vietnam War.

Photo: Kennedy with his wife Jackie and daughter Caroline

Americans still love the Kennedys, especially the one who occupied the White House for those three years, deceptively described by Jackie Kennedy as the recreation of King Arthur’s Camelot. Yet the immorality and the idealism, the tragedies and the achievements highlight the age-old complexities of politics as it has always been conducted under the sun. God steers nations according to his mysterious will, using fallible instruments for his own purposes. In the final analysis, the country was probably in better shape when a rifle shot took the life of Jack Kennedy than it would be following the work of at least the next four occupants of that high office. Things aren’t always as they seem, and events rarely follow the course we might expect. That won’t change in the coming years.

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.

The Mainstream Two Kingdoms Doctrine: Justin Taylor at the Gospel Coalition

In a thoughtful blog post at the Gospel Coalition (HT: Darryl Hart) Justin Taylor describes the appropriate Christian attitude towards culture and politics in terms of the two kingdoms doctrine:

We are dual citizens, responsible and active members of both God’s spiritual kingdom and earthly kingdom. And if we seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength—and to love our neighbor as ourselves—then we should care to some degree about politics and elections and the role of government in our land.

Taylor reminds his readers of the way in which the two kingdoms tension runs throughout the Scriptural record.

The apostle Paul once warned that “no soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits” (2 Tim. 2:4), and he insisted that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). This sounds like a single citizenship with only a heavenly zip code.

However, the same apostle Paul also declared that he was “a citizen of no obscure city” (that is, Tarsus) and avoided torture by appealing to his Roman citizenship, which gave him certain rights and prevented certain actions from the Roman authorities (Acts 21:39; 22:25-29). Paul knew that his fundamental identity was “hidden with God in Christ” and that he was to set his mind on “things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-3), but he also knew that he had earthly obligations and rights and that they were not insignificant.

Or, we can ask: Which city should we care about?

“Here we have no lasting city” (Heb. 13:14). Like Abraham, we look “forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).

And yet, as “sojourners and exiles (1 Pet. 2:11) we are commanded to “seek the welfare of the city . . . and pray to the LORD on its behalf” (Jer. 29:7).

And so the paradox goes.

Taylor helpfully points out that ultimately evangelism is more important than politics, the spiritual kingdom more important than the earthly. But he notes that most Christians do and should care about both. In fact, Darryl Hart’s fair quibbles about priorities aside, I find that Taylor may overemphasize the call on Christians to evangelize. Taylor writes, “If you have to choose between evangelism and politics, choose evangelism. Saving an eternal soul is more important than fixing a temporal need.” I think it would be better for Taylor to put the Christian call to evangelism in the context of vocation. For some Christians politics is a calling of God, and they ought to do their best to remain faithful in that vocation, mindful that their politics should be an occasion for others to ask them for a reason for the hope that is within them.

I think Taylor gets the formulation quite right in his closing paragraph. If only in the sense that his very concept of the secular is shaped by his understanding of the gospel and of the word of God, even Darryl should agree with this statement:

There are more important things in life than politics. It’s easy to become an idolatry. But it’s also easy to be too apathetic. As the Lord leads, let us commit to letting our politics be shaped by the gospel and informed by the word of God as we prayerfully work to become informed and to fulfill our roles, seeking the good of the city even as we wait for the city to come.

Is Peter Leithart right to defend Constantine?

I just finished reading Peter Leithart‘s Defending Constantine, a book in which Leithart synthesizes the work of modern scholarship to present a thorough-going critique of John Howard Yoder’s popular narrative in which the fall of the church into heresy comes with the “Constantinian turn.” A Mennonite theologian, Yoder inspired what many have come to describe as the emergence of a neo-Anabaptist tradition within the academy and the broader church. And of course, not only did Yoder reject the idea of Christendom, but he was a pacifist.

Leithart’s book makes a predominantly historical argument, although he is forthright about his theological and polemical concerns, and particularly towards the end of the book he shifts to the work of straight-up theology. The first few chapters are an excellent introduction to the Roman Empire of Constantine’s day, as well as to the basic narrative of Constantine’s life and the controversies surrounding it. Leithart offers a persuasive case that Constantine was a genuine Christian believer who sought to place his life and rule at the service of Christ and his church, not a cynical politician who simply used Christianity and manipulated the church for his own imperial purposes.

One important contribution of Leithart is to put the reign of Constantine back into perspective. Whatever one might think of the “Constantinian turn” Constantine should be credited for liberating the church from persecution and making its existence legal. He should be praised for eliminating the gladiatorial games and outlawing violent sacrifice. He should be recognized as the one who began the process of conforming Roman law to a higher standard of justice (what Leithart calls “the evangelization of law”) even if his own record on that account was somewhat mixed.

To be sure, Leithart does not hesitate to criticize Constantine from time to time. Constantine did little to challenge the oppressive social dynamic of his day in which the lower classes were easily manipulated and mistreated by the upper classes. He used military force in an unsuccessful attempt to end the Donatist controversy, confiscating the Donatists’ property, closing their churches, imprisoning bishops, and even allowing some to be tortured and executed. And as interpreted by church historians like Constantine’s contemporary Eusebius, his Christianization of the empire led many to link their hopes for the church and for Christ’s kingdom too closely with Rome.

But Leithart insists that in the case of Constantine the good contributions outweigh the bad. While there may have been a Constantinian “moment” of excess and eschatological utopia, the moment did not last long and was certainly repudiated by Augustine in his City of God (despite Yoder’s conflation of Augustine with Eusebius). The only reason Constantine’s reign seems like such a fall to Yoder, Leithart suggests, is that Yoder exaggerates the pacifism and anti-statism of the church leading up to Constantine, and he caricatures the Christendom that followed him.

On the point of pacifism Leithart rejects the claim that the early church was ever universally pacifist. He suggests that not only were concerns of theologians like Origen and Tertullian about military service closely tied with concerns about pagan Roman religion, but that these sources themselves suggest awareness of a “divergence in Christian opinion and practice” (263). Leithart’s case is somewhat more persuasive and based on the evidence than was suggested in George Kalantzis’s recent lecture at the Candler School of Theology. And he helpfully demonstrates how even those early Christian theologians who are claimed to have been pacifist differ in their emphasis from contemporary neo-Anabaptist pacifists. For instance, the early church fathers spoke highly of Rome and prayed for the success of the Roman legions in war.  What’s more, unlike contemporary neo-Anabaptists “No church father, at least, ever made the distinction between police work and warfare as a way of justifying Christian military service” (266). And tellingly, “there was, quite strikingly, no controversy over war and pacifism at the time of Constantine’s conversion” (272).

What about Constantine’s legacy? Not only did Constantine not conflate the church with the empire, but if anything he weakened the empire by uniting Christians, including those outside the empire, in subservience to an allegiance higher than that of Rome. Constantine’s patronage of the church in the form of wealth and the empowerment of bishops’ courts drastically increased the church’s independence and prestige at the expense of Rome.

In short, the conversion of the empire did not bond empire and church inseparably together. It had, as we would expect and Yoder would want, the opposite effect. It loosened the bonds that many Romans felt to the empire, even as it strengthened their bonds to another city, another kingdom, one that spilled far over the limits of the empire. Baptized Rome found that it could join with baptized barbaria, wince Jesus had broken down the dividing wall. (292)

In all of these areas Leithart’s book is a worthwhile contribution, and it should encourage Protestant theologians to take the legacy of Christendom and the middle ages more seriously. Leithart helpfully asks the question, What should the church do if an emperor or empire actually embraces its message about Jesus Christ and seeks to serve and “kiss the Son” (Psalm 2)?

That said, I do not find Leithart’s own answer to this question, (too) briefly outlined in the last chapter of the book, entirely satisfactory. His defense of the occasional use of force by Christians ignores Romans 13 and appears to be more of an apology for the right of self-defense than of anything like that offered by a theologian like Augustine or John Calvin. He describes the government’s use of the sword as a matter of loving discipline rather than in Paul’s terms of the exercise of vengeance and of God’s wrath. And he explains Jesus’ command to ‘Turn the other cheek’ with an exegetical interpretation that is obscure and is rejected by most New Testament scholars.

Leithart is right to say that in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount magistrates should “not do alms or pray or fast or do any other good things to be seen by others, especially by others with cameras – a rule that would revolutionize modern politics” (338). He is right to note that the church should inform a ruler that he or she will be judged based on “what she had done for the homeless, the weak, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry” (339). But on what basis does Leithart suggest the church should urge a person with the vocation of civil magistrate “not to lose sleep over budget shortfalls or stock market declines, and exhort them instead to store up treasure in heaven by acts of mercy and justice”? (339)

Most troubling of all, in my view, is Leithart’s criticism (or dismissal) of the modern democratic state. He claims that the state “will not kiss the Son as the King of a different city” and that “Democratic states more or less peacefully marginalize the church.” He even goes so far as to argue that “because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state” (340). The modern state, like Rome, needs to be willing to be baptized and so listen to the teaching of Jesus rather than to devote itself to violence in subservience to its highest god – the nation itself. Such a baptism would initiate “a new beginning” (the beginning of what?) and avoid what is otherwise inevitable – an apocalypse (doesn’t John teach us that the apocalypse is certain?) (341-342).

I beg to differ. Part of Leithart’s problem here, it seems to me, is his conflation of rulers and magistrates, who can indeed kiss the Son (as, for instance, virtually every American president has claimed to do), with the impersonal, bureaucratic, pluralistic state, which cannot. Yet underlying even this claim is the question of how a magistrate is to kiss the Son in the first place. Is it really by giving the church material wealth so that the church can use government dollars to build churches and care for the poor, as Leithart seems to suggest?

Leithart’s claim that modern democracies marginalize the church also baffles me. Churches are not required to pay taxes in this country, are not forced to conform to national and state policies against discrimination, and are given numerous freedoms and exceptions not awarded to other organizations. Many, if not most, American politicians, probably regularly attend church or study religious teaching in order to learn from that “model city, as teacher and judge.”

Finally, I find bizarre Leithart’s claim that the modern nation has reasserted its status as the restored sacrificial state, the state devoted to violence and bloodshed in rejection of the teachings of our Lord. The democratic states of modern Europe have been disarming at an alarming pace, and the United States requires its armed forces to operate according to standards of just war more strict than possibly any army in the history of the world. America does not act as if it considers itself to be god, but “under God” is committed to a doctrine of rights and freedoms grounded in the existence of a Creator. Even if there are traces of an ideology of sacrifice in American rhetoric, Leithart’s claim is at best a massive exaggeration.

But of course, the emphasis of Leithart’s book is not on his own constructive political theology. And I highly commend Defending Constantine for its careful historical analysis, and for its asking some excellent questions. Although it seeks to defend a man who ruled 1,700 years ago this book helps move the conversation forward, not backward.

Letting Christian theology shape our politics: the Christian tradition and property Part 3

Many of the early church fathers, such as Ambrose and Augustine, argued that private property, like civil government, was a result of the fall. They believed that God had given material resources to human beings in common, and that individual persons would only have possessed such resources under the principle of stewardship. According to that principle, how I use my possessions for the good of others is just as important as my right to use those possessions in the first place.

Later Christian theologians muddied the waters, and with the rise of the market economy and the beginnings of what became capitalism these theologians articulated careful justifications for the idea of property. But even then both scholars and pastors consistently emphasized the obligations of property owners more than their rights. The commandment ‘you shall not steal’ was always explained in light of the teachings of Jesus not simply as a prohibition of someone taking my property, but as a requirement that I use my property to serve the needs of others. This is a matter of justice (giving another his or her due), not simply “charity.” (See Post 1, Post 2, and also a complementary post by Brad Littlejohn.)

Now in all of this I have said very little about civil government. Yet it is fascinating to see that virtually all of those who objected to what I have written in one way or another engages the issue on a political – or specifically an Americanized political – level. Very few critics actually engaged the substance of the Christian tradition. Many American Christians, it seems, even those most worried about nefarious doctrines like that of the two kingdoms, don’t like having their modern assumptions about property and the poor tested by the actual substance of Christian theology. They judge Christian theology from the perspective of their American political convictions, rather than the other way around (though they often baptize their political convictions as Christian in the process).

Let me give two examples:

1) In contrast to the Christian tradition, which has generally viewed both property and civil government as good but as the results of the Fall, American Christians tend to view civil government as highly suspect and private property as nothing less than sacred. And although there is a general consensus that God appointed civil government as his minister to enforce – i.e., coerce – justice, there is a marked reluctance to view government as having even the right (i.e., authority) to tax property holders for the sake of ensuring justice for the poor.

Note, this objection is not simply an objection to the manner in which government is using tax revenues to protect the poor. There are plenty of good Christian reasons, for instance, to oppose communism or even socialism on the grounds that 1) they do not work; 2) they are often destructive of civil society; and 3) they hurt the very poor they are trying to help. But many libertarians will not even allow us to consider or debate the best ways in which government should help the poor. They question the notion that government should help the poor at all because they reject the Christian notion that an individual’s property rights are qualified by the more basic rights of the community or in particular of the needy.

2) Many American Christians believe whether or not a person is poor should be determined based on that person’s income or possessions. On that basis, they say, there are virtually no poor people in America, and there are certainly no responsible people who are poor. But this assumption is hardly biblical (not to mention the fact that it ignores the fact that the reason there are so few poor in America is because government helps those who would otherwise be poor). In Scripture the concept of the poor is much broader than an assessment of economic resources suggests. The poor are those who are 1) oppressed or vulnerable to oppression; 2) excluded from meaningful participation in the community; 3) lacking the basic resources necessary for life. The specific examples Scripture often provides of those who are poor are slaves, immigrants, women without husbands, and children without fathers.

Now anyone remotely familiar with American society knows that these groups make up a significant percentage of the American population. While many of the “widows and fatherless” in our society are what they are because they’ve been abandoned by irresponsible men rather than because those men died, that hardly changes their basic plight. The poor are still with us (as Jesus said they would be), and it is good that our government seeks to protect them.

Now none of this dictates that any particular policy or program is the appropriate way to protect or help the poor. Civil government should not be equated with civil society (or the rights of the community and the poor), and the first level of support for the poor and for one another should come through the organic structures of civil society. This is a fundamental point needing recognition in a society that wants to be free, and a point often ignored by well-meaning folks on the Left. But I also believe government has a responsibility to make sure this happens, and it seems, increasingly, as if this point is acknowledged by fewer and fewer on the Right (to their own political and moral disadvantage).

It is true that many government programs designed to protect or help the poor have actually done them great harm. Dependency is never a good thing, and America seems to be becoming an increasingly dependent society. But the dependent, contrary to popular perception, are not simply the poor. Most of the programs that are redistributive in this country, whether through grants, entitlements, or tax credits, redistribute resources directly to the middle class or to the wealthy because they are not means-tested (think education, Medicare, Social Security, the mortgage tax credit, lavish public pension programs, and the plethora of subsidies for various businesses, industries, or research programs).

It is obviously true that American government is too big and in too much debt. But it is not Medicaid, nor is it basic provision for the poor, that is bankrupting the country.

It is clear that we need to have, and are having, an open debate about the future of America, and about the nature of government’s responsibility to its citizens. But whatever positions Christians advocate in this debate – and we should advocate positions that make sense economically, politically, and morally – we should not forget the teaching of our own theology. Calvin argued from Scripture that a magistrate will be judged based on how well he protects the poor under his charge. In a democracy, when we are all magistrates insofar as we influence legislation or political debate, we should be mindful that we will be judged on the same basis.

Mitt Romney’s Stupid Comments About the 47%

As I sat down today to write the second part of my discussion of the theology of property in the Christian tradition I was sidetracked by the highly relevant story of Mitt Romney’s comments regarding the 47% of Americans who pay no income taxes, who are dependent on the federal government, who vote for Obama, and about whom Mitt Romney does not care. As Romney put it in the most horrifying part of the statement:

And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax… my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives….

What? As numerous commentators all over the Internet have already pointed out, many of these people are the Republican Party’s staunchest supporters and the most likely people to vote for Mitt Romney. Most of them are either the elderly or young couples with children who benefit from the Republican tax cuts and tax credits of the past two decades. Many of the rest of them are the unemployed who are so disillusioned with how the economy has performed under Obama’s watch. And while it is true that they pay no income tax, they do pay all sorts of other federal, state, and local taxes. Most of them are and always have been very hard workers, and they have taken no less responsibility or care for their lives than have the 53% who are better off financially.

These were stupid, destructive comments, and Romney has nothing to gain and everything to lose by them.

I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives …

This comment is at the level of Barack Obama’s declaration a while back that the people who vote Republican are those who “cling to their guns and religion.” It conveys an arrogant, derisive, and woefully ignorant attitude toward many of the people who make up middle America. It is not the kind of language you want to hear from someone seeking to be elected President of the United States.

Let me be clear. I actually believe in many of the policies Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand for. I think most of you know who I am voting for. I believe taxes should be low, dependence on government should be reduced, and government regulation should be minimized so that a free economy can do its job of creating wealth for hard working Americans.

But we have no hope of enacting these policies if we run around shouting out rhetoric about the lazy poor, or claiming that government has no right to tax me in order to ensure that the needs of the poor are met.

That’s why I’m so disappointed with Romney’s comments, and that’s why I write posts chastising conservatives for their views of the poor and of government’s responsibility regarding the poor. Because it’s not enough, if you want to lead a country, to throw out rhetoric that feeds resentment but fails to provide a vision for your country that is both just and balanced. Conservatives can criticize socialism and class warfare all they want, but if they run to the opposite extreme, abandoning any responsibility for the poor and waging a class war of their own, in my opinion, they forfeit their right to claim leadership of the country.

Hillary Clinton’s response to the Embassy Attacks

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

This is a bit dated now, but in her remarks at the opening plenary of the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue on Thursday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton skillfully represented, I believe, the proper response of the United States to the recent embassy attacks in the Middle East and the video that sparked them.

Clinton navigates numerous thorny issues of politics and religion here, successfully avoiding offense while offering a political assessment of religion and violence that is substantive and meaningful. It’s worth reading this whole excerpt (all italics are added by me):

I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.

To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. But as I said yesterday, there is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence. We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms, and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue.

Violence, we believe, has no place in religion and is no way to honor religion. Islam, like other religions, respects the fundamental dignity of human beings, and it is a violation of that fundamental dignity to wage attacks on innocents. As long as there are those who are willing to shed blood and take innocent life in the name of religion, the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace. It is especially wrong for violence to be directed against diplomatic missions. These are places whose very purpose is peaceful: to promote better understanding across countries and cultures. All governments have a responsibility to protect those spaces and people, because to attack an embassy is to attack the idea that we can work together to build understanding and a better future.

Now, I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. Now, I would note that in today’s world with today’s technologies, that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.

There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all – whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders – must draw the line at violence. And any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.

Now I understand that some Christians would take issue with a description of Islam as a “great” religion, as well as with the claim that Islam “respects the fundamental dignity of human beings.” But there is no question that any charitable description of the world’s second greatest faith would be able to affirm these points. Remember, this is a political statement, an assessment of the proper balance between freedom of speech, human security, and religious liberty. It’s basic message, brilliantly put, is that the United States is committed to all three.

Of course, level headed leaders in the Middle East, including the Islamist leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, share Clinton’s desire to reduce the tension. On Friday Khairat El-Shater, the Deputy President of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood wrote in the New York Times,

Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.

In a new democratic Egypt, Egyptians earned the right to voice their anger over such issues, and they expect their government to uphold and protect their right to do so. However, they should do so peacefully and within the bounds of the law.

The breach of the United States Embassy premises by Egyptian protesters is illegal under international law. The failure of the protecting police force has to be investigated.

We are relieved that no embassy staff in Cairo were harmed. Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger needs to be dealt with responsibly and with caution. Our condolences to the American people for the loss of their ambassador and three members of the embassy staff in Libya.

We hope that the relationships that both Americans and Egyptians worked to build in the past couple of months can sustain the turbulence of this week’s events. Our nations have much to learn from each other as we embark on building the new Egypt.

Right he is. But who will the average Muslim on the street believe? And what about those prominent leaders who are willing to denounce the film that started all this but will not denounce the violence that has followed it? For all concerned, I hope the leaders who understand what’s at stake here – and manage to keep cool heads about it all – are able to win the day.

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