Thursday, October 16, 2008

Irons in the fire

Lee Irons started blogging last year. I notice that his stock has been rising in the Christian blogosphere.

To some extent this is merited. Lee is a fine Bible scholar. And he frequently stakes out conservative theological positions.

However, his political views are something else, and I noticed a commenter over at Justin Taylor’s fine blog who used Lee’s position on Obama as cover.

Therefore, I think it’s worthwhile to put Lee’s political views in perspective, discussing the presuppositions and influences on his ideology, as well as some of the specific positions he has taken.

On a personal note, I happen to know Lee and Misty, though not very well. Lee is a very nice guy, and his wife is a charming lady.

Lee is a protégé of the late Meredith Kline, and that’s a major influence on his ideology. Kline was a brilliant, but eccentric OT scholar. Kline is one of those men who, when he’s right he’s very right, and when he’s wrong he’s very wrong.

In relation to Reformed tradition, Kline held a number of idiosyncratic positions, including his idiosyncratic position on common grace—which is quite germane to Lee’s political outlook.

Kline was well aware of the fact that some of his views were controversial in Reformed circles. I remember having lunch with him at the home of the missions’ professor. In the course of our conversation, Kline admitted that he had never transferred his membership from his old presbytery to the presbytery where he was now residing since that would subject him to questioning before he was admitted to the new presbytery.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything ipso facto wrong with bucking Reformed tradition. As Protestants, we don’t want to exchange one blind tradition for another blind tradition. Reformed tradition must be open to exegetical examination and reexamination.

My immediate point is that if some Christians are trying to justify their political positions by citing Lee Irons simply because Irons has a conservative Christian reputation, then they should be aware of the fact he’s just as iconoclastic as Kline on statecraft.

If you want to cite Lee because he makes a good argument for his position, fine. But don’t cite him to simply give yourself cover, as if the mere fact that Lee has a particular opinion on some social issue automatically legitimates his opinion because he’s a conservative Christian. Let’s not turn this into an argument from authority.

Now, what about Kline’s position? Kline radically redefined the traditional notion of common grace. In particular, Kline secularized the notion of common grace, thereby driving a wedge between church and state, Christian and profane.

Mind you, Kline himself avoided the word “secular,” since that’s a loaded word. He was too cagey to use the word “secular.” Instead, he drew a distinction between common/culture and holy/cult.

By his own admission, Lee’s political views are governed by this rubric:

“Little did I know at the time that Schaeffer was playing an influential role in shaping the theocratic underpinnings of the Religious Right that I would later reject under the influence of Kline’s common grace approach.”

Here’s a fuller statement of his position:

“By the same token, [N.T.] Wright sacralizes the city of man so that it loses its character as part of God’s common-grace, non-holy order for the provision of a temporary field upon which the operations of soteric grace may be played out via the gospel mission of the church. Common grace is the key here! Kline has taught us that God established a common grace order that began after the fall and which will be terminated at the second coming. Civil rulers belong to this common grace order. They are neither sacred nor sinful, although individual rulers can usurp god-like prerogatives and become sinful, even Satanic in their opposition to the kingdom of God. But as ordained by God civil rulers are merely given to promote temporal justice, to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. They are not agents of the eschatological kingdom. They are not means of bringing in the eschaton.”

However, Lee, unlike Kline, tips his hand about the secular implications of Klinean common grace when he posted this approving quote from Andrew Sullivan:

“It may well be that support for a piece of social policy emerges from religious reasons. But in a secular society, it is vital that when making the argument for your position in public, you do not deploy arguments that depend on or invoke religiously-revealed truths. The essential civic discipline in a pluralist democracy is to translate your religious convictions into moral arguments - arguments that can persuade and engage people of all faiths or none.”

Now, the best-known exponent of common grace was Abraham Kuyper. But although Kuyper believed in sphere sovereignty, he didn’t believe in secularizing the political sphere.

And notice the arbitrary character of Sullivan’s dichotomy, which Lee endorses. What does it matter how we classify a truth as long as it’s true? If it’s true, then why shouldn’t it figure in public policy?

How does Lee’s position on common grace translate into political positions? Here’s an example:

“For me, with pressing issues like the future role of American troops in Iraq, the instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the possibility of a nuclear Iran, as well as the most recent developments in the financial crisis, we do not have the luxury of voting solely on the basis of a candidate’s stance on abortion or other social issues. I understand the deep biblical conviction that drives some to this position, but it is ultimately a zeal that is not according to knowledge. The values of the kingdom of God are eschatological and heavenly, and cannot be so simply translated into the earthly transitory realm of public policy and civil law. To vote solely on the basis of a single-minded zeal to implement heaven on earth while overlooking the urgent, temporal problems of the city of man is not only to neglect the common grace arena but is, ironically, to work for its premature destruction.”

On the face of it, this is simply incoherent. On the one hand, it’s okay to vote for a candidate based on foreign policy/national security or domestic economic policy considerations.

But, on the other hand, it’s not okay to vote for a candidate based on social issues like abortion, infanticide, eugenics, euthanasia, or organ farms or homosexual adoption because that would be too “eschatological” and “heavenly-minded.”

How does he justify this compartmentalization? How does he assign foreign policy/ national security, and domestic economic policies to the “common,” “civil” realm, but relegate social issues to the “eschatological” realm? What are his criteria to warrant this radical fact/value dichotomy?

On the fact of it, it looks like he is trying to simply “define” certain issues as out of bounds, not on any principled basis, but on an ad hoc basis because of his own moral priorities.

Here’s another example:

“When picking a doctor or a car mechanic, I want the most competent person I can find. His or her religion is irrelevant.”

Isn’t this terribly naïve? Even if we play along with his illustration, the religion or irreligion of a doctor can be quite germane to medical care. What if you physician subscribes to involuntary euthanasia? What if he wants to harvest your organs because your quality of life doesn’t meet his standards?

Or what about Muslim physicians who perform genital mutilation on prepubescent girls?

Hasn’t Lee ever heard of bioethics? Does he seriously imagine that one’s religious or irreligious outlook is irrelevant to bioethics?

What about an auto mechanic? Would you want your car serviced by an auto mechanic who was a moral nihilist? Wouldn’t he be more likely to cut corners?

Lee was using these examples to shoot down the candidacy of Mike Huckabee. But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that medical science and automechanics are value-free disciplines, can we say the same thing for the presidency?

The Executive is partly responsible for formulating public policy. Executive orders issued to executive agencies tasked with various social programs.

Or what about a Congressman? Don’t our laws have moral presuppositions, for better or worse? Doesn’t a law code enact a social code of conduct? Can we sequester religious truths from moral truths? Isn’t that implicitly atheistic? Is atheism morally neutral?

Once again, how does Lee’s view of common grace translate into specific political positions? One example is his support for Obama. This, in turn, betrays him into special pleading about Obama’s view of abortion.

Another case in point is his position on sodomite civil unions, which (to my knowledge) he shares in common with Misty. You’ll find Misty’s site on Lee’s blogroll. And if you mouse over to her blog, you’ll find, among other things, a link to the “Independent Gay Forum,” her infamous article on “A Conservative Christian Case for Civil Same-Sex Marriage,” as well as her opposition to Prop. 8.

Consider the implications of sodomite civil unions. If sodomites have a right to marry, then they have a right to adopt children. It would be impossible to confer on them the right to marry (“civil unions”), but then deny them the right to adopt children. Do Lee and Misty support homosexual adoption? Do they think that children should be placed in that environment?

Another influence on Lee is Andrew Sullivan. Lee has Sullivan’s site on his blogroll. Also, if you do a search of “Sullivan” or “Andrew” on Lee’s blog, you’ll pull up several references.

Who is Andrew Sullivan? He’s a homosexual activist. It’s odd that Lee would allow himself to get so much of his news or news analysis filtered through the jaundiced lens of a homosexual activist.

To take one example, Sullivan circulated the scurrilous rumor that Palin faked her fifth pregnancy to cover up her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Lee even turns to Sullivan for his wisdom on what constitutes a Christian witness to the world:

“[Quoting Sullivan] The social and cultural witness to certain values is a long way from the use of politics to impose them on others. It seems to me that our society needs Christian witness - on charity, on caring for the environment, on protecting the vulnerable, on seeking peace, on opening dialogue - as much as it doesn’t need Christianist intolerance, politicking and campaigning. It’s especially important, it seems to me, that Christian witness also regain humility and an indifference to power. Forsaking a partisan identity is critical to this. On abortion, for example, serious and sustained efforts to highlight the life of the fetus, and to appeal to the conscience of a free people to make a free choice against it is a more authentic Christian witness than taking control of one political party in order to ban it.”

A bitter, homosexual activist like Sullivan is hardly an expert on what constitutes a Christian witness to the world. To the contrary, Sullivan is trying to reconstruct Christianity to conform to his immorality.

Consider some of Lee’s other political positions:

“If it’s Hillary versus any other Republican, I’m in a quandry. Do I hold my nose and go with Hillary as the lesser of two evils? At this point, I think she may be the lesser evil, given the fact that Giuliani, Romney, and most Republicans seem to believe that we should continue the Bush approach to Islamic terrorism, namely, using torture (waterboarding) when interrogating terror suspects, detaining prisoners without Habeas Corpus, and increasing executive power at the expense of civil liberties - all in the name of national security, when in fact these things hurt national security by taking away our moral high ground and alienating Europe.”

“We have had enough of the Bush-Cheney junta, the despicable rationalization of torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, the joke military tribunals at Gitmo, the secret extraordinary renditions, and the failed attempt at nation-building in Iraq. Not only have these deeply un-conservative, coercive, tyrannical techniques not worked, they have shredded the Constitution, destroyed our moral credibility, inflamed anti-Americanism around the world, and alienated valuable allies.”

Now, the Bush record on counterterrorism is hardly faultless, but this is an utterly skewed and lopsided evaluation of the Bush record. Where is Lee getting his information? From the likes of Andrew Sullivan?

Has Lee ever studied the other side of the argument? Has he read Richard Posner or J. Daryl Charles or Keith Pavlischek or Keith Burgess-Jackson or Lee Casey and David Rivkin—to name a few?

Or take the following statement:

“I heard Douglas Kmiec today on Larry Mantle’s Air Talk discussing his new book Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Questions about Barack Obama. Douglas Kmiec is a Roman Catholic, a Republican (he worked in the Reagan administration), and a con-law professor at Pepperdine.”

Once again, this is very one-sided, and disregards abundant evidence to the contrary, such as:

Lee exhibits a willful blindness regarding Obama’s social agenda.

Or consider what he said about the death of James Kennedy, quoting another writer who had “a nice commentary” that “pretty accurately sums up my feelings to:

“Born in 1930, Kennedy lived in a world so distant from our own that it may well have been possible to believe in a Christian America. Churches stood on every public square; members of the clergy shaped public opinion on every issue; schoolchildren uttered Protestant prayers and read Protestant scriptures daily. Many people from Kennedy’s generation remember—or imagine they remember—a vanished Christian world, an ordered society with Protestant faith at the center. Much of the Religious Right’s energy derives from a desire to restore that world, or to “reclaim America for Christ.” To that end, Kennedy mixed evangelicalism with classical Reformed theology and a kind of soft Christian Reconstruction, creating the spiritual fuel for a right-wing political and media empire that meshed with the longings of a certain age.”

Wasn’t Calvin a political activist? Wasn’t John Knox a political activist? Wasn’t Samuel Rutherford a political activist? Wasn’t Abraham Kuyper a political activist?

Presbyterian ministers were involved in the Revolutionary War. Charles Hodge was, among other things, a social critic.

And on and on. There’s nothing novel about a Reformed churchman who’s a political activist.


  1. “When picking a doctor or a car mechanic, I want the most competent person I can find. His or her religion is irrelevant.”

    Interesting, this quote was recently cited verbatim by one of the guests on the White Horse Inn.

  2. Or consider what he said about the death of James Kennedy, quoting another writer who had “a nice commentary” that “pretty accurately sums up my feelings to:

    Do you mean ". . . my feelings too": ??

    Are those your feelings?

    or it is another quote from another writer?

    Do you agree with Kennedy or Irons -- was the late D. James Kennedy wrong to fight for moral values?

    Thanks for exposing Irons presuppositions.

  3. Steve,

    I take Lee's intent to apply the doctrine of the 2 Kingdoms to be a noble and biblical aim. Not just an antidote to theonomy.

    Where he goes wrong is to allow the separateness of the secular, profane kingdom act as a cover for sloppy leftist moral equivalence (as if debatable matters like the Iraq war should really take precedence over undebatable matters such as abortion). In this, I think he gives 2K a bad name. When the Christian engages the secular kingdom, he does not depart from the realm of Christian ethics.

    I don't think I'd go along with the doctor or car mechanic analogies. I'd distinguish between who can do the job *better* (refering to skill set) and who can do the job *ethically*.

  4. Ken,

    "My feelings" has reference to a statement by Lee about how he shares the same evaluation (of James Kennedy) as the writer he quotes.

  5. What about an auto mechanic? Would you want your car serviced by an auto mechanic who was a moral nihilist? Wouldn’t he be more likely to cut corners?

    This is the funniest thing I've read all week.

    So, you can't trust anyone who doesn't have the same value set as you to do anything properly?

    Surely a deep paranoid distrust of the "outsider" lies at the heart of the Christian right.

    Godspeed the eschaton, then we won't have to put up with these vile filthy sinners any longer.

    See you on the other side!

  6. Steve, I appreciated this thoughtful and careful analysis.

  7. Hi Tommy,

    There are unbelievers who reject moral absolutes. Some of them are candid enough to say so. They subscribe to moral relativism or moral nihilism. I can quote examples from their own lips.

    So, yes, an automechanic who's a moral nihilist might cut corners on the brake job if he thought he could get away with it. And things like that happen every day.

  8. Irons just proved your point again, calling R. Scott Clark's Two-Kingdoms credentials into question, labeling him as a theocrat!