Category Archives: Social Issues

Do Christians believe in equality? Should we?

In his classic work The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined Georges Duby describes the way in which the medieval church understood the inequality of earthly society as a divinely ordained reflection of the heavenly hierarchy. “The harmony of God’s creation results from a hierarchized exchange of respectful submission and condescending affection” (p. 34). Like the angels, divided into ordinary angels and archangels, so human beings are divided into those that submit and those that serve. In addition, human society is organized according to three functional orders: those who pray (the priests, at the top of the hierarchy); those who fight (the kings and princes); and those who labor (the peasants).

To be sure, medieval theologians recognized that God had created all people equal. But they insisted that he did not expect them to live in functional or hierarchical equality. Duby quotes one famous statement by Gerard, an 11th Century Bishop of Cambrai: “Although nature creates all men equal, error subordinates some to others in accordance with the variable order of merits; this diversity arising from vice is established by divine judgment so that, since man is not intended to live in equality, one may be ruled by another” (p. 35, emphasis added).

There were egalitarians in those days, Duby points out. For instance, in 1024 Gerard was confronted with one campaign by a bishop who claimed he had received a letter from heaven calling for the restoration of peace in the world in anticipation with the millennium, expected by many on the 1,000th anniversary of Christ’s death. The letter called for human society to be renewed according to three forms of equality: equality in agreements (society should be grounded in egalitarian oaths); equality in grace (fasting as the only basis for the forgiveness of sins); and equality in peace (an end to vengeance and war).

For bishops like Gerard, of course, such a vision was horrifying, a heresy that threatened the equilibrium of the universe. Gerard argued, and his arguments were representative of the views of the church of his day, that the kingdom of heaven is not expressed or realized in terms of equality. God imposes certain rules and commands on some that he does not impose upon others.

There were distinctions between men, an essential inequality which could be compensated only by charity, mercy, and mutual service, service which everyone was obliged to give and entitled to expect from his fellow man…. This reciprocity was the source of peace on earth. Others spoke of heaven. Heaven was exactly the same. There were several abodes in the house of the Lord. It was God’s wish that even in paradise a certain inequalitas prevail, reduced to nought only by charity, collective communication in the glory of God, common participation in the ineffable joy of salvation. This is the cornerstone of Gerard’s ideology: a generous redistribution of the available wealth within an inevitable framework of inequality. (38)

Redistribution of wealth is the right way to think about it. The power and prestige of the church (those who pray) and of the magistracy (those who bear the sword) was built on the labor and taxation of the peasantry (those who grew the food). Life expectancy for a peasant throughout much of the middle ages was somewhere in the thirties. The peasants were expected neither to understand the teaching of their faith nor to rise out of their poverty to any sort of mobility or prosperity. For all the emphasis on the need for superiors to serve their inferiors (after the example of Christ), we all know what usually happened.

The Reformation was one of the great catalysts that destroyed this system. The reformers rejected the church’s claim that believers had to draw near to God through the sacramental system controlled by the clergy, replacing it with the priesthood of all believers in response to the preaching of the gospel. Although Calvin and others insisted that the liberty of the spiritual kingdom had no obvious implications for liberty in the political kingdom, the flow of history dictated otherwise. As Charles Taylor and others have demonstrated, the rejection of a hierarchical order in the church was gradually followed by the rejection of hierarchy in government (i.e., the divine right of kings), the prohibition of radical economic inequality (i.e., slavery), and eventually the abandonment of hierarchy in the family (i.e., male headship).

We American Christians now find ourselves in an interesting scenario. We would all affirm, with the medieval church, that God created human beings equal, but most of us would be terribly uneasy about the way in which the church assumed the legitimacy of a hierarchy of orders (and of hierarchy within orders) that permitted no mobility, no avenue of ascent for those of talent. We don’t like Calvin’s declarations that ordinary Christians shouldn’t concern themselves with changing their day-jobs or with judging political affairs. We are uneasy about the way in which many of our forbears described or treated women.

To be sure, we recognize that there is a need for leadership in the church and in society. Not everyone can hold the same vocation, nor should everyone possess the same wealth and the same honor. But we like being able to hold our leaders accountable to us through elections, and we have a strong, visceral reaction against those leaders who would claim the right to confiscate our property through taxation, even if that property is directed to the lower ranks of society rather than to the elites. We expect that if we are willing to study and work hard we should be able to pursue a vocation suitable to our interests and talents, and even to change vocations if we feel so inclined. Most of us, while rejecting radical feminism, have no desire to force women back under the social and legal constraints within which they have lived for most of western history.

The rhetoric of equality is thrown around loosely by politicians and believers on the left and right. For some equality is the reigning norm that trumps all norms in all circumstances. The only differences that should be tolerated are those that are consensual and absolutely necessary (i.e., that we cannot possibly eliminate). For others equality is a great evil, a Trojan Horse that enables ideologists to exercise their tyranny over the rest of us. But most of us recognize that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

In that sense we have a lot in common with the medieval church. We believe that God created human beings equal even though we don’t think human beings are made equal in all respects. But what do we affirm beyond that? Is there a Christian teaching on equality? Should the liberty and equality of the spiritual kingdom have any implications at all for life in the political kingdom? How do we evaluate various claims to equality: legal, political, economic, gender? How do we justify defending equality in one area but not in another?

I’m curious to hear how many of you would answer these questions. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section or feel free to send me a reply through the contact page.


If the NAE represents the church, it is treading in dangerous waters

I am loath to comment on the criticisms World Magazine has been heaping upon the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) for taking money from the pro-contraception National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, but there are a few points of contention here that are worth your attention.

For those of you not following the story, World editor Marvin Olasky, a leading Evangelical in the (compassionate) conservative movement, summarizes the story as he sees it here. Olasky writes,

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, founded in 1996, is devoted to promoting contraceptive use by the unmarried. CEO Sarah Brown clearly enunciates its mission: “Whatever the proposition on a given day, ask yourself one simple question: Does it increase women’s access to good contraceptive care? If the answer is no, oppose it!”

The annual budget of the NAE, of which several confessional Reformed denominations are a part, is approximately $1 million. That the National Campaign has given the NAE a $1 million grant is therefore as significant for the functioning of the NAE as it is noteworthy in bringing together what Olasky calls “strange bedfellows.”

The Campaign’s website describes the benefits of its NAE investment: “Through a series of papers, projects, and meetings, the NAE seeks to spark productive conversation, deliberation, and action among evangelicals regarding sexuality, healthy family formation, and abortion reduction.”

So what happened? You should really read Olasky’s entire piece, but here are the most important parts:

In April, the Relevate Group, headed by Gabe Lyons, held its Q Gathering in Washington, D.C. Young evangelicals gathered to hear speakers and panels address numerous topics, including abortion reduction. The speaker who dominated that panel was none other than the Campaign’s Sarah Brown. It turns out that the NAE paid $10,000 to Q and pushed to include Brown. Brown argued that churches should promote contraceptive use by their unmarried singles….

As the one-sided panel concluded, 372 audience members had the opportunity to answer electronically this question, “Do you believe churches should advocate contraception for their single 20-somethings?” Almost two-thirds voted yes….

News reports noted that result as evidence that the debate over contraceptive use by the unmarried is over, since even evangelicals favor it.

On the website of the NAE one finds the following statement:

Several sources have mistakenly claimed that the National Association of Evangelicals endorses or promotes the use of contraception by unmarried Christian young adults. No. NAE has never done so. NAE promotes, endorses and teaches the biblical standard of God’s gift of sex only within marriage between one man and one woman.

At the same time, in another article Olasky presents the following as part of the response of NAE President Leith Anderson to Olasky’s concerns:

“We never want to promote or condone sexual immorality,” NAE President Leith Anderson wrote in response to my questions: “But, we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.” (Olasky provides a link  to this article where one can find the fuller conversation.)

This is a fascinating story. We have a conservative Evangelical journal going after a quasi-ecclesiastical organization (i.e., an organization that represents denominations) for compromising its fidelity to biblical teaching on sexual morality in the name of a prudential effort to reduce abortion. Now for the purposes of this blog post let’s set aside all questions of whether or not handing out free contraceptives is the wisest way to reduce the prevalence of abortion. I would submit that the NAE has brought this trouble upon itself by failing to see that the purpose of an ecclesiastical organization (even a quasi- one like the NAE) is to speak the revealed truths of the word while abstaining from involvement in politics or in civic campaigns that involve prudential judgments about the application of biblical teachings in the effort to achieve particular goals of justice. Political and civic organizations may rightly reason that particular ideal ends (i.e., reducing abortion) sometimes justify unideal means (i.e., handing out contraceptives to singles), but churches have no business diluting their presentation of the word by making these sort of judgments. At the very least, asWorldpoints out, NAE ought to be providing moral clarity on this point. Given the response of the media to what NAE has been doing, whatever the NAE may claim, this clarity is not getting through.

The fact is, the best thing the church can contribute to the cultural crisis of abortion and sexual promiscuity is to speak clearly to what Scripture says about these matters, both in terms of law and of gospel. To be sure, the church sometimes needs to make public statements regarding issues of broader cultural concern. But the content of those statements still needs to be that of the word, nothing more and nothing less.

What is the nature of the crisis at hand? It’s not just about abortion. Olasky writes,

Contraception among the unmarried, sold as liberating, has created a new slavery: Many young women feel pushed into sexual activity because guys want them to do what “everyone else” is doing, purportedly risk-free. Many young evangelicals understand that contraceptive use by unmarried individuals enables sinful behavior.

In a book review in Christianity Today Sharon Hodde Miller makes a strong case for the devastation that has been brought by the sexual revolution, and the decisive role the birth control pill has played in that process.

As [Mary] Eberstadt sees it [in her book, Adam and Eve After the Pill], the contraceptive pill has launched us into a new age in which responsibility has been divorced from sex. And while it is easy to point fingers at the secular world for embracing this reproductive technology, Christians are complicit in its hold on our culture. Most Christians do not want to be told what to do with their bodies any more than non-Christians, and the Pill has made that freedom possible….

Using contraception is not a private act, nor is it a neutral one. Eberstadt’s book is Exhibit A of this reality.

Knowing this, pastors cannot address the widespread sexual brokenness in our culture simply by encouraging married sex. They must also address the ideology and theology behind the brokenness, and contraception is Ground Zero for those discussions.

If the church is to have anything at all to say to the broader cultural crisis it is to proclaim the whole truth of Scripture regarding sexuality, marriage, and care for children. To be sure, the broader society will not be able to uphold this moral standard, particularly not through government coercion. But simply hearing the truth about human beings and sexuality, loud and clear, is absolutely crucial in a world in which people are being bombarded continually with a completely contrary (and deceiving) message. Sex is not an arena of private morality. It matters for the basic health and prosperity of human society as well as for individuals, and the church needs to demonstrate why that is the case.

There is a place for governmental and civic organizations to ask the questions about what we should do when people do not live as they should, what prudential steps we should take to eliminate the worst evils, and so forth. In fact, this fits nicely into the mission of an institution like World Magazine. But it is not the job of the church. Indeed, if there was ever an illustration for the need for the two kingdoms doctrine this is it. The task of the church is to proclaim the whole counsel of God and to exhibit that counsel in the love of its members (whom it lovingly trains and disciplines). That task should never, ever be confused with the need to work out ways of restraining evil or alleviating its tragic consequences through coercive or otherwise prudential civic endeavors. The clarity of the gospel depends on it.

The PCA Needs to Stop Letting Culture Dictate Its Practice: We’ve been here before and it wasn’t pretty

There has been a vigorous debate on Wes White’s blog regarding whether or not establishing the office of deaconess (or placing women in the office of deacon) would push the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) down the same slippery slope followed by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). For those not aware of the history, the CRC voted to allow deaconesses in 1984, with the idea that the change was to hold no implications for the ordination of women to the offices of pastor and elder. Eventually, however, the CRC opened all of its offices to women, and the denomination has become increasingly liberal in recent years. Once a bastion of the confessional Reformed world, it is now moderately Evangelical at best.

The question is whether this path is inevitable for those who ordain women to the office of deacon. As one pastor writes,

When I was a pastor in Holland, I observed how the Reformed Church (GKN) began by allowing female deacons. They asserted that that was all they really wanted. A few years later, they got female elders; another few years and they had female pastors. From there they got male and female homosexual pastors. I really don’t care what name you give it (slippery slope; domino theory) there does seem to be an element of truth in the process.

Deaconesses is still around and some PCA pastors have a huge ethical dilemma by refusing to conform to PCA standards on this point. Now we have intinction and the historicity of Adam and Eve. Can we not discern a slip towards the slope? We need to ask ourselves who the main players are in these movements. I submit that it is basically the same people every time.

Of course, others point out that there is solid precedence for ordaining women to the office of deacon within the Reformed tradition. Advocates point to John Calvin as well as to modern denominations like the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). The latter can hardly be considered a liberal denomination. It prohibits instruments in worship and demands that its congregations practice exclusive psalmody. Many of its women wear head coverings, but the denomination also ordains women to the office of deacon.

Now my concern here is not to defend one side or the other in the debate over whether or not the PCA should ordain women as deacons. What worries me is the tendency of conservatives within the PCA to argue that this issue should not be addressed as an exegetical issue but as a cultural issue. In other words, while it may have been legitimate for the RPCNA and the ARP to ordain women to the office of deacon, and while Calvin may have been right to see some sort of public office of ministry in the church open to women, in our context of feminism and liberalism today, we should not take these steps.

With all due respect for my fathers in the faith who have observed and experienced with pain the decline of the CRC, allowing culture to provide our cues for how to handle theological, ecclesiastical, or moral problems is just as dangerous of a path as is liberalism. It is built on the assumption that the only real danger facing the church comes from the left, as if there are no dangers coming from the right. It implicitly suggests that Jesus’ kingship over the church should be set aside for the more important struggle of preserving America’s culture. And it has historically been a disastrous path.

It is not hard to find an obvious example for this. During the 1960s the conservative wing of the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS), out of which the PCA arose in 1973, was battling a liberalism within the denomination that threatened to lead the PCUS down the same liberal path once taken by the northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) earlier in the century. Liberals were pushing an egalitarian agenda that clearly compromised the authority of the church and that was more in tune with the politics of the 60s’ New Left than with historic Christianity. The problem was, they were right on perhaps the hottest issue of the day: racism.

The cultural conflict over racial integration had immediate practical implications for Presbyterian churches. Should the churches allow blacks as members, or even as pastors? Should they condemn the social reality of racism all around them? Many, many conservatives within the PCUS believed that the lessons of history and culture were obvious. It was the liberals who were pushing racial integration, the same people who destroyed the Mainline churches of the North. Everyone knew what these people wanted to do with the church, and the examples of other churches that had gone down that slippery slope were clear. This was not an issue about Scripture or even about justice. This was a matter of preserving the church from liberalism.

Cultural concerns like this shaped the founding of the PCA just as much as did a desire to be confessionally Reformed. While the denomination has repented of the racism in its past, it is still deeply shaped by the forces of cultural conservatism in a way that the other denominations of NAPARC are not. This creates reactionary tendencies on both ends of the cultural spectrum. Those ashamed of the sins of cultural conservatism tend to push a progressive agenda that seems only partially grounded in Scripture. Those worried about the liberal slide reject anything progressive regardless of its biblical merits.

If the PCA is to learn from the sins of the past, it needs to recognize that culture cannot dictate the church’s worship and life. If Scripture is truly authoritative and if Scripture suggests the church should recognize an order of women deacons, it does not matter at all that this has become a point of conflict in the culture wars. Indeed, the very integrity of the church demands that the church take the unpopular position of standing with Scripture rather than with conservative culture.

There are many people in this country who dismiss the claims of conservative Christian churches to stand on the authority of Scripture because they find those churches to be culturally selective in their use of Scripture. Many of these people – thoughtful Christians – simply become cynical. They turn away from those churches because they want nothing to do with a politicized gospel.

The gospel can be destroyed by cultural conservatism just as easily as it can be destroyed by cultural liberalism. Racism has driven just as many from Christianity as has feminism. That’s why we need to learn to trust Christ and allow him to be the king of the church. Our own cultural perceptions are influenced by worldly philosophy and our own sin. We need to choose whether Scripture or culture will be our guide.

How we are losing one another for the sake of ourselves: the death of civil society

Sociologists have been writing for years about the weakening of the bonds of association and community that once tied Americans together. My own doctoral adviser Steven Tipton coauthored the classic book Habits of the Heart, followed by its sequel The Good Society, to explore just this theme. As Robert Bellah, Tipton, and their other coauthors emphasized, Americans have long struggled to preserve community, virtue, and common institutions in a nation grounded on a faith in individual rights. Historically, in American history, individual rights nearly always trump group rights. My concerns are necessarily more important than our concerns.

The paradox is that the more weight we put on individuals, the more we need an enormously powerful government to ensure that those individuals rights are preserved. Someone has to prevent any other group or association from interfering with the individual, and ultimately that someone has to be Big Brother. The expansion of individual freedoms therefore goes hand and hand with the extended reach of the state.

In recent years this dynamic has led to growing conflict between government and religious communities. Note I did not say between government and religion. As long as religion is practiced individualistically, government cares little about what you do. Where religion is threatened is in its associational forms. Joseph Knippenburg writes in Christianity Today:

Examples of this intractable conflict come swiftly to mind. World Vision has defended its religious hiring rights against an employee lawsuit. Catholic Charities of Boston has abandoned its adoption placement services rather than submit to a state requirement to place children in same-sex households. The Supreme Court has affirmed the power of Hastings College of the Law to compel its chapter of the Christian Legal Society to consider non-Christian leadership candidates. Only months ago, the Obama administration failed (thanks, ironically, to the same Supreme Court) in its bid to force a Lutheran school to retain a teacher who had violated its teachings on conflict resolution. And the administration continues to defend its policy of mandating that all employers—with only the narrowest exemption for houses of worship—purchase health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.

Knippenburg makes this point in a review of a book by Stephen V. Monsma,Pluralism and Freedom: Faith Based Organizations in a Democratic Society.He goes on,

According to Monsma, both conservatives and liberals devote their attention primarily to the relationship between the (believing or unbelieving) individual and the government. Conservatives see “big government” as shrinking the realm of individual choice, while liberals expect government power to protect and expand that realm. (Consider their vigorous defense of the contraceptive mandate as safeguarding women’s rights.) But Monsma contends that neither side has an adequate theoretical framework for comprehending “the host of intermediary social structures—families, neighborhoods, religious congregations, associations, and nonprofit service organizations—that lie between the individual and the government.”

Darryl Hart makes a similar point in a criticism of Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Noting Bell’s defense of social conservatism based on the Declaration of Independence and its doctrine of individual rights, Hart explains,

The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions.

Sometimes individual rights trumps these lesser authorities and institutions in ways that people approve of. In other cases the consequences are more dire.

But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits… In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.

In fact, most Americans care deeply about the civil institutions threatened by this trend, whether families, churches, communities, schools, or any other institution that makes life worth living. Even those who do not seem to care most definitely do care once these institutions fall apart. No one wants to live in a neighborhood with broken marriages, corrupt churches, and failing schools. No one wants to receive their livelihood in a monthly paycheck from Uncle Sam, particularly if that paycheck is accompanied by a set of regulations thicker than your old-fashioned phonebook.

As we wrestle with what it means to be loving neighbors in a world we share in common with people of many religions and many political persuasions, we would do well to think long and hard about the importance of our common bonds of association and our civil institutions. This is a point at which we can appeal to our neighbors for the advancement of our common good in a manner that makes sense to them because it has to do with what it means to be human, and with what it means to be human together. Again, as Knippenburg points out,

Structural pluralism can make an additional pitch to more secular-minded citizens. Consistent with the view that faith and church membership can’t be compelled, structural pluralists have to be neutral toward the kinds of associations human beings form. I can’t claim for my local Christian homeschooling group any status that I’m not willing to extend to my secular homeschooling neighbors, let alone to Jewish day schools, Catholic and other Christian schools, and charter and other public schools. In other words, there is a common ground that Christians can find with their secular fellows …

Of course, to take this approach we have to appreciate our common human solidarity with those among whom we live, whether they are Christians or not. But as far as I can tell, that is precisely what it means to love our neighbors and to promote the welfare of the city in which we live.

If the essence of liberation is a career unconstrained by husband or children, yes, stay-at-home mothers should be depressed

Today Slate came out with an article by Sharon Lerner asking why stay-at-home moms are so depressed. According to a study cited by the article, 28% of stay-at-home moms suffer from depression, compared to only 17% of working women (with or without children). Now no matter what spin you’d like to put on the subject, this is bad news. The work that mothers do caring for children is not an interest or focus group issue. It is not even a culture war issue. It is the foundation of our society. The evidence is solid that devoted and sustained parental care and attention for children is crucial for their development. Children who rarely see their parents because they are always working suffer in a wide range of ways. In short, this is not an issue of the right or the left. We should all be concerned.

That said, what are the probable causes of this higher risk of depression among stay-at-home moms? Lerner speculates as to several causes. One is that

the findings do offer some evidence that stay-at-home moms, who make up 37 percent of Gallup’s sample of mothers with kids living at home, are more likely to be unhappy, resentful—and thus perhaps also likely to take umbrage, along with Romney, at being portrayed as lazy or irrelevant. [Ann] Romney tapped into a long and strong current of resentment among stay-at-home mothers when she tweeted that raising five boys was “hard work.”

But, Lerner points out,

if Ann Romney was spot-on about both the derision reserved for stay-at-home mothers and how offended they are by it, what she doesn’t get—and what was reflected clearly in the Gallup poll—is the economic expression of this same sentiment: that the work of caring for children is also undervalued economically, which adds to the financial and emotional burdens of mothers who don’t have jobs. Financial strain is, in many ways, a bigger problem than lack of appreciation. It hinders the work of raising kids, and it dogs women long after they’ve returned to the paid work force (as most ultimately do) in the form of reduced earnings and Social Security benefits.

So both in terms of social honor and financial reward, stay-at-home moms get the short end of the stick. This despite the fact that they do arguably the most important work on which our society depends. There can be no doubting that a society that fails to honor its mothers is a society that itself deserves no honor.

So what is the solution? Lerner has her own suggestions:

neither party is saying enough about the things that might help stay-at-home moms out of their financial hole, things like paid parental leave (the lack of which nudges many new mothers out of the workforce); protections for part-time workers, which would allow mothers to spend some time with their kids and get some income, job satisfaction, and recognition; affordable childcare, which would make holding down those part- and full-time jobs possible; and changing the way we track earnings toward Social Security, so the years spent at home with children aren’t recorded as zeros.

Isn’t this fascinating? The way in which we should help make stay-at-home moms less depressed is to make it easier for them to get out of the home and get to work! In other words, stay-at-home moms, you are depressed because you should be depressed. The good life is out there, and you are stuck in here.

Now I am not suggesting that none of Lerner’s proposals are good policy proposals. That is not my point. My point is that many of the elites in this culture push a version of women’s flourishing that demands that they work and loosen their ties to their children and their homes. It is not simply that our society tries to make it possible for women to have flourishing careers. That itself is a good thing. The problem is that our society suggests in a myriad of ways that it is better for women to focus on having a career rather than raising a family.

You would think it would be obvious that the solution is not creating more benefits for women who work in an office, but creating more incentives (whether financial or social) for women who do the hard work of caring for children. I grew up thinking my mother and grandmother were the most honorable people I knew. I now think that about my grandmother, my mother, and my wife. I am not suggesting we make it harder for women to work. Far from it. But somehow America needs to figure out how to give to women who stay home to care for children the incommensurable honor they deserve.

Minorities might be saving America in more ways than one.

The story is in all the major papers today. For the first time in American history, the majority of births are to non-Hispanic whites. I have already commented recently on how non-whites are preserving Christian orthodoxy as well as traditional Christian teachings regarding marriage. Slate notes that African Americans are viewed all around as the key voting group in the effort to reestablish traditional marriage in Maryland. The conservative National Review quotes one black pastor, Dwight McKissic, commenting on Obama’s decision to support same-sex marriage, “The moral impact of this decision is equal to the military impact of al-Qaeda when they attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11.”

Reverend McKissic notes all the problems the black community faces: “divorce, out-of-wedlock birth, absentee fathers.” Same-sex marriage will exacerbate the problems, he argues. It will have a “devastating effect on families.” The president “slapped history in the face” by “going against natural law.”

But non-whites are having just as great of an impact on American demographics. In an age when industrialized countries around the world are struggling with the economic and fiscal implications of plummeting birth rates and aging populations, immigrants are maintaining America’s demographic health. As the New York Times puts it,

the fact that the country is getting a burst of births from nonwhites is a huge advantage, argues Dowell Myers, professor of policy, planning and demography at the University of Southern California. European societies with low levels of immigration now have young populations that are too small to support larger aging ones, exacerbating problems with the economy.

“If the U.S. depended on white births alone, we’d be dead,” Mr. Myers said. “Without the contributions from all these other groups, we would become too top-heavy with old people.”

The need for a vibrant economy to support the growing portion of the federal budget that goes towards health care, support for retirees, and the safety net has never been greater. Liberals often complain that America spends far too much on defense and far too little on care for the needy, but according to a vivid graph posted on NPR (which you should definitely look at), spending on defense has been steadily falling – from 51.7% in 1962, to 29.7% in 1987, to 22.6% in 2011 – while spending in health and welfare has been rising almost as dramatically (For instance, in the same years support for the poor has increased from 5.8% to 7.2% to 12.6%; Medicare has risen from 0 to 13.1%).

Someone has to pay for all of this of course, and that burden falls on the youth of the future. For that reason, a high birthrate among minorities is very good news, although one wonders about the social tension that would be created if the United States found itself in the situation of having a predominantly non-white work force pay for the comfortable retirement of mostly white senior citizens.

Whatever the case, one would hope that a healthy immigrant ethic would help Americans give up their seeming belief that they should receive everything from the government while paying nothing. As George Will vividly portrayed the problem in a recent Washington Post column:

Campaigning recently at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Romney warned students about their burden from the national debt, but when he took questions, the first questioner had something else on her peculiar mind: “So you’re all for like, ‘Yay, freedom,’ and all this stuff and ‘Yay, like, pursuit of happiness.’ You know what would make me happy? Free birth control.”

If this is how American youth think these days, we are in trouble. The burden they (or we) are facing is far greater than most people realize.

Calvin thought your church should devote half of its wealth to the poor. Does it?

One of Calvin’s hobby horses often ignored by modern conservative Christians was his sharp criticism of the way in which churches, clergy, and Christians used their wealth. In the Institutes (4.4.6) Calvin wrote the following:

You will frequently find both in the decrees of synods and in ancient writers that all that the church possesses, either in lands or in money, is the patrimony of the poor. And so this song is often sung there to bishops and deacons, that they should remember that they are not handling their own goods but those appointed for the need of the poor; and if in bad faith they suppress or waste them, they shall be guilty of blood. Accordingly, they are admonished to distribute these goods to whom they are owed, with the greatest awe and reverence, as if in God’s presence, without partiality. (emphasis added)

Does your church view its property as the “patrimony of the poor”? Calvin thought that pastors who could support themselves without the provision of the church should do so, for “if they receive anything belonging to the poor, [they] commit sacrilege.” To be sure, he thought the church should provide for all of the needs of those who “work for the church.” (4.4.6) But he limited the total funds appropriate to this end to roughly one fourth of the church’s revenue. In addition, another fourth could go to the “repair of churches and other buildings.” (4.4.7)

What did he think should happen with the rest? It should go to the poor. As he puts it, in the medieval era, to curb the greed of the clergy, “canons were enacted, which divided the income of the church into four parts: one for the clergy, another for the poor, a third for the repair of churches and other buildings, a fourth for the poor, both foreign and indigenous.” The latter fourth, Calvin admitted, was to be given to bishops, but that was for the purpose of their showing hospitality to travelers, prisoners, and other needy persons. (4.4.7) Calvin concludes, “To sum up, what the same man [Ambrose] said in another place we see to be very true: ‘Whatever, then, the church had was for the support of the needy.’ Likewise: ‘The bishop had nothing that did not belong to the poor.'” (4.4.8)

So how does your church budget match up to this standard? Calvin insisted that the church’s responsibility to the poor was not a marginal part of the church’s life. God appointed one of the church’s four offices for the care of the poor, and Calvin stressed adamantly and repeatedly that the deaconate was no secular office: “it was not secular management that they were undertaking, but a spiritual function dedicated to God.” (4.4.5) In other words, the way in which the church uses its wealth is not a lesser matter. It is a direct expression of the kingdom of God in our midst.

We often think of the giving of offerings in church as giving to God, and rightly so. But we should not forget that often the New Testament talks about the church’s giving simply in terms of giving to the poor. When we think of pastors as those who cannot earn a living because they have devoted their lives to the church, pastors are rightly seen as being included in this category. What the church does with its wealth, then, should be a partial fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “sell your possessions, and give to the needy” (Luke 12:33), in imitation of the early church, which did just that (Acts 2:44-45). If anything, the New Testament is even more radical in its teaching on this matter than Calvin was.

The natural law is not what you think it is – and you need it.

Evangelicals often don’t make very good public arguments. That is one of the lessons to be learned from the recent debate over gay marriage. Evangelicals are traditionally marked  by their commitment to the authority of Scripture for all of life, and this laudable commitment often leads them to present Scripture as the foundation for all of their social and political positions. Catholics, on the other hand, tend to rely much more on natural law, although they also appeal to Scripture. To see the stark contrast, compare the Roman Catholic statement on abortion with that of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is not hard to see which statement is more persuasive, even for Christians.

One of the reasons so many people are skeptical about natural law is because they think of it as an airtight rational system akin to the medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas at best, or to the humanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment at worst. In the case of the former, people are skeptical that anything can ever really be proven by the rigorous use of reason and logic without the support of Scripture. In the case of the latter, people note that natural law is often used as a means of escaping God’s will for human beings rather than following it. Now I have no desire to criticize Thomas Aquinas’s view of natural law. I actually find it quite cogent and helpful. But here I am dealing with Evangelical perceptions, not with Thomas’s actual theory.

In contrast to the Thomist and Enlightenment versions, John Calvin’s approach to natural law is often viewed as insignificant and less than helpful. Although Calvin invoked natural law almost constantly, he never developed a theory of natural law. He seemed to treat it more as a set of intuitions based on human experience than as a rational edifice of argument and theory. As a result, many Evangelicals assume that his use of the concept is a medieval holdover rather than an active part of the reformer’s theology.

But natural law did play a major role in Calvin’s theology, and we should not mistake his lack of a theoretical development of the concept with the lack of a substantive view of it. Like most theologians, Calvin grounded his view of natural law in Paul’s statement that the law is written on the hearts of the Gentiles. As such, he believed it played a major role in the civil affairs of all peoples in all places, and he regularly appealed to the laws of pagan nations or pagan philosophers to justify his political or social arguments. He believed that natural law was the true standard of rule for political governments.

What I want to suggest here is that Calvin’s lack of a theoretical development of natural law theory may actually be a strength rather than a weakness. If it is precisely the theoretical and rationalistic nature of many natural law arguments that make most people skeptical of them, a version of natural law that emphasizes human experience, intuition, and consensus should strike us somewhat differently. After all, in the real political debates of our day, are not these the points of common ground on which people often come together? Take abortion for instance. It is one thing to hear someone tell you that God has forbade abortion, or to hear someone offer a philosophical argument against it. It is another thing to watch an ultrasound, see the evidence that a fetus feels pain, or view pictures of tiny aborted babies. Or take marriage. Whose argument is based on theoretical top-down reasoning and whose is based on centuries of human experience? Here too, experience, intuition, and human consensus are bastions of common sense.

The point is not that people will always agree with us. The point, rather, is that in this way they will actually understand us, something that has to happen before they can actually be persuaded. People who are skeptical about appeals to written revelation or philosophical argument will actually listen when we demonstrate to them that the views we are advocating will actually help them – personally, socially, economically, and politically. When we appeal to the lessons of history and to the evidence of the social sciences, they might find that the positions we are defending actually have a basis in reality. They might even find us to be reliable citizens, known to genuinely care about the interests of all.

As we enter an age of increasing pluralism, Christians need to come to grips with the fact that Scripture’s authority is no longer widely accepted. We also need to recognize the dangers of a natural ethic based on humanistic rationalism. But we could surely use more of a paradigm for social and political engagement that urges us to love our neighbors by building common ground with them on the problems that we face together. More often than not, on the issues that really matter, this approach will be productive rather than harmful to our common good. It would certainly help to puncture the myth of liberal elitism that says Evangelicals are trying to mold America into a theocracy.

Paul says in Romans 2 that God’s law is written on the hearts of human beings, and all of history and human experience points to the continuing reality of this common grace. God’s commandments are not arbitrary, abstract and isolated from the requirements of human flourishing. On the contrary, they are grounded in the very order of creation as it works itself out economically, socially, and politically. We need to start acting like we believe this truth by reaching out to our neighbors with the confidence that because we live in the world God has created, God’s will actually does reflect the way in which life is lived most healthily and productively. Showing this to people – even people who do not share our faith – will do a world of good for our common life together.

[Note: the original version of this article has been edited.]

Is the United Methodist Church still Mainline?

The United Methodist Church is the largest of the denominations generally viewed as the Protestant Mainline. Of course, the Southern Baptist Convention is much larger, but due to its theological and social conservatism, it is usually described as Evangelical. The question is, given the trajectory of the Methodists in the last decade – they are becoming more Evangelical, more African, more pro-life, and firmer in their defense of traditional sexual morality – should the Methodist Church still be viewed as Mainline? For now the answer is yes. The Evangelicals and conservatives do not control the denomination, though they may be its most powerful faction. But for how long will this remain true? The African and Southern portions of the denomination are only growing with time. Evangelical churches are doing better than their more liberal counterparts. It seems that it is only a matter of time before the Methodist Church will no longer be a Mainline denomination.

Consider just two crucial events of the General Conference that ended yesterday. First, the Conference decisively (61-39%)  rejected an amendment that would have declared that the denomination “agreed to disagree” on matters of sexual morality, reaffirming its condemnation of homosexual activity.

As the Christian Post reports:

The Social Principles section of United Methodist teachings on sexuality in the Book of Discipline states: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching;” and “Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

An amendment to these statements would have added the sentence: “As a denomination, we are conflicted regarding homosexual expressions of human sexuality.”

That amendment was rejected.

“We have to say what the Gospel says even though we love our brothers and sisters,” said one commentator from an African UMC branch against the amendment.

The second key event, though receiving less public press, was that for the first time ever the Church and Society legislative committee voted to withdraw from the strongly pro-choice Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization including most of the Mainline denominations that the United Methodist Church helped found. As far as I can tell (I’m having trouble finding a report on this, if someone finds one please let me know), the General Conference has not followed the recommendation of the committee. Nevertheless, this is another sign of trends within the UMC. This is not your parents’ Methodist Church.

Gendercide in Canada? The Economist

Gendercide in Canada? That is the Economist’s headline, not mine. For various reasons many liberals find a way to be much more concerned about discrimination in abortion than about killing the future persons on which our society depends. But it is still good to see a mainstream news magazine like the Economist bring this issue a little closer to home. As the Economist concludes:

In India and China sex-selective abortions are seen as crimes against humanity. Why should Canada view them any differently?

Recall that many people criticized the Arizona law banning discrimination in abortion as simply a cover for pro-life policies without any justification in fact? Shock! Apparently even here in North America people who would abort their own children are not immune to even worse practices like discrimination.

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