Saturday, November 29, 2008

Church, state, and fate

I'm posting another (edited version of an) email correspondence I recently had.

“It seems to me that throughout the world, we have not simply a pendulum swinging back and forth (as it has seemed in the US as the two parties rise and fall over the years), but more like a sea in which waves rise and fall in various places.”
Voters are fickle. They get bored. They want change for the sake of change. They’re also passive creatures of habit. They’ll go along with the status quo until catastrophe strikes—even when the catastrophe was foreseeable and, at one point, avoidable.
As you know, the problem with socialism is that it’s inherently insolvent. A businessman is a risk-taker. But socialism rewards the risk-averse and punishes the successful risk-taker.
Coupled with that is the demographic suicide of a culture that uses abortion and contraception to the point where it falls below the replacement rate—at which juncture it becomes a pyramid scheme with fewer on the bottom supporting ever more on the top. That’s unsustainable.
So, eventually, it falls of its own dead weight. But that doesn’t mean the next generation ever learns from the mistakes of the former generation. The next generation tends to make the same mistakes all over again.
For a lot of folks, unless they personally experience something, it’s unreal to them. They can’t think in abstract terms.
“I know you disagree, but I can't help but think that George Bush's almost boastful portrayal of his Christianity, and the notion or perception that somehow a ‘Christian’ government was in place, has hurt the church. “
Except for Ashcroft, Bush was the only high profile Christian in the administration, and Bush is just a layman, and a rather anti-intellectual layman at that, so his theology isn’t what you’d call sophisticated.
“But in Hortons 2K model, it is not just natural law that is foundational, but it's the fact that God, thru his common grace, is still overseeing things, even in the most godless secular governments. That is what is foundational in Horton, and maybe even in Kline, I have not read him. (I know that seems like a stretch, but biblically, it has to be that way, don't you agree?)”
But what do you do after you lay the foundation? You have to build something on the foundation.
All Horton is doing here is to discuss the providential underpinnings of human gov’t. But that doesn’t furnish any specific guidance as to what forms of social conduct the state should prescribe, proscribe, or permit.
I’m not saying the Bible has all the answers. Scripture gives us a combination of general norms and specific illustrations. We can get a lot of moral mileage out of that if we try.
But Scripture is silent on some issues. That’s fine. That’s a point of liberty. There can be more than one acceptable course of action in a given situation. My problem is when Scripture isn’t consulted for the answers it has.
“Maybe this is why I am not alarmed at the election of Obama, the possible passage of FOCA -- God is still in charge.”
That’s also true in N. Korea, but you wouldn’t want to live under that regime, or raise your kids under that regime, if you could avoid it.
We need to avoid the temptation of hypercalvinistic fatalism, where it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do. For the decree includes the role of human agents in history.
"Some time ago, I read a bunch of Schaeffer's stuff, and he cited that magical 51% figure as being necessary to enact legislation. Christians seem to be falling away from that figure (if you think of the truly Christian population in this country, and how it has fallen as a percentage). “
As a practical matter, a total theonomic package will never be enacted into law. In the OT, God simply imposed his law code on Israel. He didn’t put it up for a vote. It didn’t depend on the consent of the governed. And there were curse sanctions if the nation as a whole balked at the law. There was a credible threat to back it up.
Under our system, human legislators pass laws. And a human lawmaker is disinclined to pass a self-incriminating law. For example, we will never have harsh penalties for adultery, because that’s an evil which a certain percentage of lawmakers are likely to commit, and they’re not going to leave themselves liable to harsh punishment for breaking that law. Hence, a law like that will never get on the books.
However, theonomy is still useful in laying down some basic parameters. One can operate within that framework, even if the framework as a whole will never be enacted into law.
“We’ve had Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and Pat Robertson's run for the White House, and other movements like that.”
But these did some good. We need to separate the men from the movements they inspired or the institutions they established. Liberty U and Regent U are more important than Falwell or Robertson.
There are people who became disillusioned with the Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution because it felt short of their expectations. But that was unrealistic. The question is not whether various movements achieve utopia, but whether they make things better than the situation would otherwise be absent those movements. All I’m looking for is improvement, or even a counterbalance to the forces of evil.
“That Christians have identified themselves with the Republican party leaves them open to charges of hypocrisy because Newt Gingrich was married three times, having abandoned his first wife under almost horrific conditions.”
I’m not impressed by unbelievers who accuse Christians of hypocrisy when said unbelievers don’t know the first thing about Christian ethics. Their ignorant standards need to be challenged, not appeased.
We endorse a policy, not a person. But it takes a person to lobby for a policy.
“It seems unhelpful to the gospel that Christians feel compelled in the world to tie their hopes to (smart, reasoned, but morally flawed) individuals like Gingrich.”
But that’s a caricature. It’s not as if all our hopes are vested in one man. Gingrich is just a vehicle. We use him until he runs out of gas. Then we thumb down another vehicle to take us on the next leg of the journey. We’re political hitchhikers.
BTW, I’m not saying that we should treat everyone as a vehicle. We shouldn’t disown a fellow Christian if he becomes a political liability. We might tell him that he’s done his tour of duty, and it’s time for him to retire from active combat. But he’ll still be a friend.
No, I’m talking about cynical politicians who exist to be used. Who live for power.
“But did the earliest Christians want to live in the Roman empire, being persecuted as they were?”
But Christian fortunes oscillate in time and place. We play the hand we’ve been dealt. You work with what you’ve got and try to build on that.
I’d distinguish between principles and processes. The principles are invariant. But we should be flexible and adaptable about the process we employ. A process is just a mean to an end. It’s the vehicle, not the destination. We don’t have to use the same vehicle from start to finish. We can change cars during the course of our journey.
I think some Christian political theorists make the mistake of trying to formulate a procedural metanarrative which will apply in every time and place. But we don’t need a single recipe to get things done. I’m a consummate pragmatist about the process issues. Process is entirely subordinate to principle. Depending on the terrain, I may switch from a sports car for a Land Rover or dirt bike or motorboat or chopper. What mode of transport I use at any given time is a question of pure expediency. We should be opportunistic about the process, but principled about the norms and the goals.

(Of course, some methods are out of bounds. I’m not suggesting that we do whatever it takes. Sometimes we have to take a loss if price of success is morally exorbitant.)
“That thread at Greenbaggins is now over 500 comments long. This clearly is a discussion that thoughtful Christians are itching to have. What do you think?”
Both in tone and substance, I think the “theonomists” performed badly in the first couple of innings. A lot of swashbuckling rhetoric in lieu of rational arguments.
I think the theonomic side of the debate underwent a dramatic improvement in later innings as some of the early, B-team players dropped out while some A-team players took their place.
Both in tone and substance, I think the 2k proponents have performed badly from start to finish. This may be in part because they are also backbenchers. It would be useful to see what some A-team players like Irons, Tipton, or VanDrunen would have to say if they took to the field. 
“This is one reason why I think that it's important for Christians not to simply hitch their wagons to one party, but for Christian principles to be suffused (somehow) throughout the Democratic party.”
The GOP is a temporary vehicle. Conservative Christians generally vote Republican for the simple reason that Republican candidates are generally more sympathetic to our agenda while Democrats are generally antagonistic to our agenda.
“And I think, in these last few elections when we've seen pro-life Democrats and former military Democrats winning seats in congress, this is happening.”
In principle, a prolife Democrat is better than a proabortion Republican.
On the other hand, politics is often about majority rule. Which side has the most votes. Therefore, the position of the party is often more important than the position of an individual politician.
Take Congress. The minority views of a prolife Democrat will be diluted by the proabortion views of his colleagues. There are times when voting for a prolife Democrat might shift the balance of power from a Congressional prolife majority to a Congressional proabortion majority. Therefore, we need to vote tactically and strategically with a view to the net result. It’s the policy that counts, not the individual politician. The total vote tally, and not any individual vote.
“But Bush was the name on the ticket.”
Bush is not the Church or the State. To judge Christianity by Bush is like people who refuse to salute the flag because, to their warped way of thinking, the flag symbolizes a particular administration or foreign policy.
That’s irrational, and I don’t cater to stupid objections. If some people choose to attack Christianity via Bush, they’re entitled to be stupid, but that’s their problem, not mine.
“And, the church should ‘be the church,’ that is, should adhere to word and sacrament.”
But this way of categorizing the issue is misleading. We’re not talking about the “church,” or what your pastor does on Sunday. We’re talking about Christians in general. What should lay Christians do Monday-Saturday? What should a Christian lawmaker do?
“I like the two-kingdoms model of churches preparing people to be Christians in society.”
How are they actually doing that? 

1 comment:

  1. Goodness gracious! This was and is a fabulous post, it's timeless and transcends era-specific issues even though people-specific examples are sprinkled throughout!

    I just love this classic line:

    "We endorse a policy, not a person. But it takes a person to lobby for a policy."

    I hope more folks read this post and mine its jewels for personal growth and reflection.