Monday, January 30, 2006

The stranger in the pulpit

I’m going to quote and comment on the following article:

“In February of 2003, shortly before the U.S. declared war on Iraq, I asked my pastor if I could make a one-minute announcement from the pulpit about a letter I wrote to President Bush opposing the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq, giving congregants the opportunity to respond. As a Christian, I opposed the war on many grounds, and was concerned with the reflexive response of many of my fellow Christians to stand with President Bush and the current administration without critically thinking through what a Christian response might look like…My request was flatly denied, despite having preached many times from this same pulpit (thirteen times in all!). A year earlier, a complete stranger had been granted unquestioned access to this same pulpit to make a lengthy announcement promoting a “God and Country” rally shortly after the tragic events of September 11th.”

i) The first thing to make note of is that Mr. Ross comes to this issue from an Anabaptist perspective. That’s apparent, both from the tenor of his article, as well as his attendance at Ashland Theological Seminary.

Now, that’s a perfectly respectable position. But it also means that Ross is assuming, without benefit of argument, a hermeneutical outlook which the average evangelical would not take for granted.

ii) Then we have the condescending insinuation that pro-war Christians are guilty of a “reflexive” support for the war effort “without critically thinking through what a Christian position might look like.”

This is no doubt true in some cases, but many evangelicals are literate, well-read professionals who have a thoughtful and well-informed position in support of the war.

iii) As to his immediate grievance, I think the best way to handle such a situation is to give both sides a forum, but then open up the process by inviting questions from the floor.

“I’ve discovered many strangers in the pulpits of evangelical churches in this post-9/11 era. Some of the names of these strangers are nationalism, populism, corporatism, and patriotism.”

It’s clear that, for him, these names carry invidious connotations. Unfortunately, he doesn’t bother to explain why the average reader should agree with him. Is patriotism intrinsically evil? Is capitalism intrinsically evil?

“Many Christians in the American evangelical church have made a practice of defaulting to the right-wing political position that Republican politics provides.”

This assumes a false antithesis, as if Evangelicals are one thing, and Republicans are another. But surely many Evangelicals are Republicans, and their Evangelical outlook is shaping the party platform of the GOP, not vice versa.

“In recent decades, the evangelical church has become a spawning ground for a popular, pervasive, and unexamined Christian nationalism, despite plentiful biblical evidence opposing that position.”

Again, he doesn’t bother to define his terms. What does he mean by “Christian nationalism?” What’s so odious about this position? And what’s the biblical evidence opposing it?

“Since Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century, the Catholic Church has made an art form of being on the power side of politics, from the inquisitions to the reformation age, and more recently during the Nazi era from 1930 to 1945.”

Constantine did not make Christianity the state religion. He merely decriminalized the faith. Does Ross think that Christianity ought to be against the law?

In the reference to the Nazi era, I guess he’s alluding to the alleged complicity or even collaboration of Pius XII with the Third Reich.

Speaking for myself, I’d avoid that accusation. To begin with, you really have to have a rather specialized knowledge of modern European history to render an informed judgment on that question. It’s best to leave that to church historians and war historians.

Furthermore, we know who won; we know how the story ends. But Pius XII did not. He was up against a superior and hostile regime. From his historical vantage point, the wrong side was winning. That’s a very awkward position to be in. He had to play the hand he was dealt. But, at best, he was leading with a weak hand, if not a losing hand.

There are good reasons as well as bad reasons for opposing Catholicism. Ross seizes on the bad reasons.

“During the early 1940s the Nazis were fond of saying, “Deutschland uber alles!” which translated means “Germany over all!” There is a striking similarity of this popular Nazi chant and the desire that many evangelicals possess today to make the rest of American culture conform to their moral template of success for America.”

This is a breathtaking comparison. At the risk of stating the obvious, someone’s moral template is going to govern public policy. And in a republic, why shouldn’t evangelicals use the democratic process to promote their moral template?

I certainly prefer that moral template to George Soros and the New York Times.

For his own part, Ross thinks that we should conform to an Anabaptist template. Brother, can you pass the template?

“As a Christian, I oppose abortion too, but ironically, making abortion a crime again won’t make America a more ‘Christian’ country.”

No, it won’t make America more Christian. It will simply save innocent babies from the dumpster. Isn’t that reason enough?

“What it will do, however, is broadcast to the culture at large that Christians in general and evangelicals in particular are more interested in law than grace.”

What it will broadcast to the culture at large is that murder is murder, that adults should defend the young, not murder the young. I rather like that message myself.

Also, it’s very sloppy to introduce a law/grace antithesis at this point. The Pauline law/grace antithesis has nothing to do with crime or civil law. It isn’t about the social function of the law.

Rather, the antithesis is about the inability of sinners to by justified before God by law-keeping. Ross is intoning the traditional slogan after having forgotten, if he ever knew, what the slogan stood for.

“Civil laws may change behavior, but only God can truly change people’s desire, their motivation, or why they believe what they believe.”

How is that an argument against banning abortion? The fact that sinners are ill-motivated is a presupposition of civil law, not an argument against it. Since we can’t appeal to their conscience, we resort to the force of law to restrain immorality.

If it’s all right to have laws against murder in general, what’s wrong with having laws against murder in particular?

“Most Christians are very comfortable with their pro-life position, but they are often guilty of making it the ONLY issue. They are not unlike single-issue politicians.”

Given a choice, I’d rather that Christians focus on at least one great moral issue than abdicate the public square entirely.

Of course, there is an alternative to single-issue politics. You can go the theonomic route. But I rather doubt that Ross would favor that alternative.

“His real goal, and that of many evangelical Christians, is to attain a Christian majority and overthrow Roe v. Wade once and for all.”

This is a gross oversimplification of the culture wars, but even if it were accurate, defeating Roe v. Wade would be a great cultural achievement.

You might as well blame single issue politicians like Churchill and FDR for the “inordinate amount of time, money, and energy, and manpower” they threw into defeating the Nazis, to the neglect of “all other issues.”

“Christianity works better as a minority movement than a monolithic majority.”

When Christianity is a minority movement, it should do what it can as a minority movement, and when Christianity is a majority movement, it should do what it can as a majority movement.

“If evangelical Christians in America want to have a voice in the culture, they must accept their minority role…”

Minority relative to what, exactly? We may be in the minority of the total adult population, but we outnumber the liberal elite.