Hesitation about Rights and the Need for a Mutual Defense

Adam and Eve made for themselves fig-leaves, but God made for them coats of skins. If justice is the coat of skin with which God has clothed vulnerable and mutually aggressive postlapsarian humanity, rights are the fig-leaves with which they propose to clothe themselves. One difference between the two garments is that the coats of skins are more opaque, and so is justice. It does, indeed, defend us; but only when we allow ourselves to be clothed in it whole and entire; if our concern is with defence instead of justice, we will never achieve justice, and so will never achieve a sufficient mutual defence either.

The above, from Oliver O’Donovan, is worth meditating upon in the context of disputes about what sort of stability and harmony our society should be pursuing.  I’ve not given up on the notion of “rights” as O’Donovan has–in case anyone wishes to dispute whether it is possible for me to disagree with the man–but the cautions that he notes have been working at me in a variety of ways the past few years, especially as the conflict between sexual liberty and religious liberty seems to be proceeding apace.

But it is that last sentence that I find haunting, as it illuminates a peculiar kind of danger that comes upon us in the middle of conflagurations like those we’ve been through recently.  It is easy in the disputes over religious liberty for those with conservative instincts (like me) to shift into a mode that subtly shifts our first concern away from justice and toward the  preservation of a space where people are free–to be unjust. Yes, even that.  Not every wrong done demands the public recognition and legitimation that the law provides.

The preservation of such a space is its own kind of justice, to be sure:  we will all lose if every dispute over cakes ends up in the courts, even if we do not necessarily feel the loss.  But the danger of pursuing this strategy as a form of protecting a business owner’s particular rights is that it disposes us to be inattentive to the grievances that are being claimed.  The conflict between rights also potentially shifts the attention toward the bearers as individuals, rather than attending to what is done by those agents in a particular situation and judging accordingly.  Such a disposition may in fact increase the claims of grievance and the underlying hostilities at work.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t seek legal protections for business owners, or anyone else.  In doing so, we preserve a space for non-legal or political resolutions to disputes.  But we should be attentive to how our defense of the freedom to do wrong sits with the substantive questions of what is just, and how our first and primary concern must always be with the just so that we can ensure–as much as possible–that every citizen is a participant within it.

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On Religious Liberty: A Dialogue with Sarah Posner

I don’t agree with Sarah Posner on much of anything, but she is fun to talk to.  As we both followed the recent scrums about the nature and extent of religious liberty with considerable interest, we decided that a conversation would be fitting and good.

What followed is an hour of sparring that is, I think, worth your time.  Thanks for watching.  Feedback (good or bad) is most welcome.

Against Populism

Conservatives have watched as many of their own have warned of revolution and denounced public servants as little better than Nazi thugs. And political leaders have un-ironically taken up the same mantle and called for us to stand up to Washington and #makeDClisten. They’ve even danced along the edge of default as willing martyrs to conservative ends. Many in the conservative base have publicly dreamed of a grassroots government—that is, after dynamiting the old one and deposing its crony leaders. To be fair, much of America would rather forget about the mud-slinging bonobos of Capitol Hill.

The traditional establishment (an ever-shifting group, often described as donorist and corporatist) has now been deemed the enemy. Populist thinking has elevated the activists in their place. The result has been a celebration of “main street Americans” and of action over deliberation.

But as angry as we might be about the state our country is in, we cannot lose perspective of what’s true and good in being conservative.

Conservatives don’t trust government. But we also don’t trust the people or ourselves. We need institutional restraints on those in government as well as on the popular will. That’s why we have a government of laws, not of men. That’s why we have both democratic principles and constitutional principles elevated in our system of government. Leaders take into account the popular will, but also their own good judgment. They are in turn restrained by law and by election. Same for each of the institutions in which they reside.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s grassroots establishment is far too eager to think that freedom grows as the people grow in power, just as liberals see it in government’s burgeoning authority. Instead, we ought look to Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism. Much of Burke’s life was spent opposing the exact sentiment articulated by today’s conservatives, which in his time came out of the mouths of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. For Burke, authority stems from the weight of society and history, from institutions and laws—not from a belief in the masses. Burkean conservatives uphold both civic virtue and the place of leaders, with even greater responsibilities resting on the latter statesmen to maintain social order, elitist as that may sound.

Jesse Norman, a Conservative member of parliament, distilled from Burke seven core principles of conservative reform. Burke believed that statesmen should act:

  1. Early, forestalling problems before they are fully felt;
  2. Proportionately, in order to mitigate unintended consequences;
  3. Successively, building on the work and lessons of what’s come before;
  4. Steadily, allowing for those affected by change to adjust;
  5. Consensually, avoiding wasteful conflict that hinders a lasting impact;
  6. Coolly, aiming for a rapport with other leaders; and,
  7. Practically, making sure that each step is achievable.

Too many of today’s more populist conservatives bear little resemblance to this. Rather, they seem to fashion a conservatism that exists more in libertarian fantasies. They call for “pointless brinksmanship” and radical dispositions without the practical modesty that should inform conservative leaders. All the while inquisitors are drafted to purify the ranks.

Yet to deem one side “squishy” in order to elevate your own is a fool’s errand. There have always been various gradations of conservatism. There’s a value in going beyond name-calling and rabble-rousing and actually engaging in a proper debate (even an elitist debate) about what the conservative movement should get behind. We debate like this because a governing agenda within our movement will come from both the bottom-up and the top-down, and in between will ultimately reside a messy coalition marching to victory under the broad banner of conservatism.

This is not the time for radicals. This is the time for statesmen.

The Politics of Silence: Questions for Peter Leithart

It was just over a year ago that Louie Giglio withdrew from participating in President Obama’s second inauguration because of the uproar surrounding his twenty-year-old comments on homosexuality.

Since then, much of substance has changed in America’s culture wars, even if each side’s rhetorical posture has not. Facile cliches about history and bigotry still get tossed about by pro-gay activists, while conservative concern about the steady marginalization of traditional views from the public square reached a new pitch this past December when…well, we all remember that one, don’t we?

Faced with arguing that our society’s current trajectory leads toward more stringent regulations for Christianity’s public action, conservatives have been forced into taking up the unenviable task of making much of what seem otherwise to be relatively harmless offenses. The response is understandable: liberals have also amplified the errant words of conservatives, deploying activists and petitions to pressure people into complying. But conservatives are still stuck somewhere between the rock and a hard place: if we use examples of our eroding position, the easy rejoinder is simply that we’re losing advantages we once enjoyed. How conservatives persuade the hesitant, uncertain majority that there are genuine grounds for concern for the future without playing “Chicken Little” is a genuine dilemma.

This is particularly true of the so-called “millennial evangelicals,” for whom the purported “fearmongering” of the Religious Right is often the only thing we know about evangelical politics in the 80s and 90s. In such a context, using situations like our most recent turmoil to demonstrate what’s at stake has a counterproductive effect. The truth delegitimizes the messengers precisely because the audience is already numb to it. Thunderous denunciations issued often enough eventually start sounding like that incomprehensible teacher on Charlie Brown.

One alternative to speaking up in such moments is silence, an alternative that I have tried to defend in a limited way before. But that has troubles of its own, as Peter Leithart recently pointed out at First Things:

At the crucial moment, Jesus submitted in weakness and humility, and in weakness and humility he won his greatest victory. When we ignore the lead-up to the cross, though, we miss the politics of Jesus altogether. Submission comes at the end of a life of very public proclamation. To follow Jesus from the beginning, we need to be faithful in exposing the idols of our world, and joyfully accept whatever consequences come. If we don’t follow Jesus at the beginning, we’re unlikely to have an opportunity to follow him to the end.

If we start with silence, we’ll countenance injustice and accommodate to wickedness. More seriously, if we start with submission, we are not actually following Jesus. We end up in the company of Niebuhr, with a Jesus who is no use in the conflicted world of power. It’s an ironic place for a politics of Jesus to find itself.

Everything Leithart says here is right. But it raises questions on which the shape of our lives and proclamation *now* depends. Who is the “we”? Is it the individual Christian, the writer with the blog, the ordained minister or priest, or the members of the nebuluous and diverse social movement known as “religious conservatives”? Are we now at the middle of Jesus’s story, or somewhere nearer the end? Is the “public proclamation” the announcement of the Word of God, the legal defense of traditional marriage, or some sophisticated combination of the two?

At a minimum, it’s important to remember that we do not each individually enact the life of Jesus on our own, nor do our traditions or communities start anew at the beginning of the life of Jesus in our relationship to the world at the beginning of each new (religious) year. We live in a moment that has been partially shaped by our forefathers, for good or ill, and our own obligations and duties determined partly by their doings and failings. If we are invested in the promotion of life, religious liberty, and marriage, then we are only at the beginning of our proclamation if we ignore those who went before us. (Many of my evangelical peers, embarrassed by the Religious Right’s errant words and repelled by their ethos, would be happy doing just that.) It may be the case that the end of Jesus’s life is more instructive for our present moment than Leithart allows.

I myself find myself uncertain about the task before us. Knowing when to speak and when to stay silent is an art in which I have much learning before me. But I raise the above questions because I am confident that if we do not open ourselves to the possibility that this moment demands our political silence, then we risk allowing our speech to be droned out by the storms and tumult of our current controversies rather than being shaped by our faithfulness to the Word of God.

“Political silence” is a necessary qualification, for there is a sort of public speech which we are enjoined never to give up on as Christians: prayer. This too is a political act, in its own way, as is the whole worship of the church. And it is there that true resistance happens, where the triumphal announcement takes on a power that cannot be quenched, and the true scandal of the world must be found. If we are to make our arguments, we must first make our intercessions.

All of our activity and speech must be suffused by a hopeful waiting, by an expectation that the idols will fall down and the people be saved by an effort that is not of their own. At the center of hell Dante’s Satan traps himself in ice precisely by fanning his wings while working to escape. In Lewis’s dystopian novel That Hideous Strength the merry band of dissenters lives in cheerful preparation for movement by forces inexplicable to this world. The denoument comes with rather little visible activity of their own. The wrong so often overreaches and defeats itself by its own bluster.

Millennial Insecurity Runs Washington D.C.

DC has become an Ellis Island for Middle America, drawing in young people who are looking to escape their struggling economies at home and have a shot at a future. As the Washington Post recently described:

Almost all of the District’s population growth between 2000 and 2010 was due to young adults age 20 to 34, whose numbers swelled 23 percent. Though the influx has slowed somewhat, the latest round of census figures showed that half of the District’s population growth between 2010 and 2012 was from Millennials.<

Why this “march of the Millennials”? As the Post explains, “Many of these young people were drawn here by the jobs our relatively protected economy provides, as well as by D.C.’s good and evil twins: ambition and idealism.”

Budget cuts aside, not only does DC enjoy incredibly low unemployment (if you’re white), but within its metro are some of America’s richest counties. And the power is intoxicating. Washington now runs off the fuel of millennial insecurity.

Just take a walk through the halls of Congress to see how this reality plays out. Note the young people running back and forth, the back slaps and heavy-handed compliments. Capitol Hill feels a lot like high school, full of nerds and jocks, prom queens and student presidents who all have a confidence and overeagerness that seems to cover up a gnawing insecurity. Beneath the high school drama and bleary-eyed overachievement lies a realization that these fast-talkers and walkers are completely replaceable.

There are few stable jobs in DC, for one thing. When millennials get one, there’s a tremendous urge to move on to something bigger. After all, so many others seem to do the same. The average tenure seems to be somewhere in the 2 to 3 year range. There’s of course a line of other young ones bucking to take their job.

The only way to keep from sinking is for the millennial to swim harder or dive deeper. The former is easier, the latter is better. Yet if few actually mean to stick around in one place, why invest in anything permanent around them? Young people are considered old for living in DC longer than 5 years.

DC’s young aspire to more greatness than their experience deserves, and employers expect more from their hires than they’re willing to invest in. Move up or move out, they say—what was once a strategy for elevating talent has become more emblematic of a workforce disrupted. Millennials may still enjoy a heady proximity to power in DC, but they sense the deep chasm before them too, dug by circumstances and an ill-fitting education.

It’s as if the currency of millennial talent has been massively devalued and the only thing left to inflate is their ego. Insecurity becomes inseparable from aspiration. Millennials are told they’re special, but really what’s so exceptional about being underpaid and overworked?

Millennials labor in an economy that increasingly values highly-skilled, nonroutine work. For those who are lucky and talented (and the talented know how to make their luck), their prospects are limitless. For nearly every other millennial, their value in the marketplace seems perpetually set beneath the level that they want (or need) to be paid. They are pursuing prosperity that was once available to a wide swath of their parent’s generation, but now is enjoyed mostly by the best of the best.

In DC there’s a hardly a sense of out-and-out entitlement by millennials, just a sense of bewilderment at what happened to their American Dream.

The Joy of Evangelical Political Life: Russell Moore in First Things

Russell Moore’s latest for First Things is up.  And it’s a fun read:

Indeed, often the “broader” agenda items reinforce their social conservatism. Evangelicals working with the poor see the devastation of family breakdown, substance abuse, predatory gambling, and so on. Not that this changes the way they’re spoken of in public. When Evangelicals adopt, the secularist Left accuses them of “stealing” children for “Evangelism,” though if they didn’t the left would accuse them of caring about “fetuses” without providing them homes.

These Evangelicals actually go to church and so represent the future. The problem is that “young Evangelical” is a confusing term, especially for a media culture that often defines the concept in terms of marketing rather than theology or ecclesiology. It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak in with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic. As one wag once said of Al Gore, that he is “an old man’s idea of a young man,” these Evangelicals are usually an Episcopalian’s idea of an Evangelical, just as the “nuns on the bus” are secularizing America’s idea of a Catholic.

But these sorts aren’t, demographically speaking, where the future is, among those who are actually filling and building churches. The “red-letter Christian” who speaks as though the Sermon on the Mount is a pretty good Galilean first draft of the 2024 Democratic party platform isn’t likely to be launching an Evangelical church-planting movement. Or an Evangelical adoption agency, soup kitchen, or halfway house for people just out of jail. The pop-left of Evangelicalism usually has quite little to do with Evangelical churches and is usually ephemeral even by the standards of Evangelical faddishness. Rob Bell once pastored a megachurch; now, last I heard, he was talking about starring in his own reality show.

And that closes off the first third.

There’s lots to interact with in the piece.  I particularly appreciated Moore’s insistence that the “centrality of the Gospel demands a certain form of public engagement.”  And his critique that the last generation of political activism was sometimes motivated by “a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it” seems apt as well.  Moore is trying to carve out the same sort of delicate relationship with the conservative political world that we have cultivated the past decade here at Mere-O:  appreciative of the efforts, agreeing on many matters of substance, concerned about the rhetoric, and willing to critique when necessary.

In the final third of the piece, he outlines his vision for a Christian engagement that is neither triumphalistic nor isolationist and here too I have hearty cheers.  The word that I think fits is confidence, and I sometimes suspect that evangelicals have never had much of it in their political engagement, which is partly why our influence has been considerably less than our size.

Moore’s imagery of the cultural peril that evangelicalism faces is rather dire.  And perhaps that is warranted.  But even if it’s not appropriate to “shrug off” the hostility before us, we ought to at least have a good laugh about it.  The very Gospel that Moore ably keeps at the center reveals hostility to it to be comically impotent, a laughable parody of genuine power.  The prophetic tension and engagement that Moore unpacks must both be bounded by joy, which is perhaps the most important political affection we can have.

It’s clear Moore is going to lead the way for evangelicals going forward, and I for one couldn’t be happier about that.  And I’ve no doubt that he is a genuinely cheerful fellow, in person and beyond.  He seems to be, anyway.  And I know I’m not saying anything he disagrees with; he has made similar points in other contexts, I think, which brings me great comfort indeed.

But that joy has to begin to pervade our rhetoric.  Courage, fortitude, strength–yes.  You can hear Moore’s words evoking those responses from evangelicals.  But that path before us good, and the hope before us is not simply that Rome will not waver but that in the very marginalization and suffering that Moore thinks is upon us we will be made complete and whole like our Savior.  The prophetic announcement must have its great tidings of glad joy, for it is the joy of the people that will cast out our fear.

No, the GOP is Not Losing Young Christians

Monday, Matt Lewis penned the latest in a long line of the GOP is losing young Christians articles. It is actually a superior piece to many of its kind because it considers how the Christian mandate to “live at peace with all men” weighs against unchecked descent into no-holds-barred political combat. Unless care is taken, Christian politicos may become “wise as serpents, but no longer innocent as doves,” Lewis writes, “For what shall it profit a man if he should win an election, but lose his soul.”

But as poignant as that reminder is, Lewis uses it to support his thesis that “many young Christians are choosing to be conscientious objectors in the culture wars” because  they find “political involvement, no matter how pure the original motives, [to be] a corrupting force.” Appearing on Morning Joe to talk about his column, he proceded to explain that some of these disaffected folks may join the Democrats provided they “field candidates like Obama” while others will disengage from political activity altogether. Jonathan Merritt went even further writing that young Christians turned off by “the dumpster fire that is Washington D.C.” were going to make the GOP pay in the coming years.

The reality is that young evangelicals have not actually moved substantially away from the GOP during the Obama era. Indeed, I am so firmly convinced of this fact that I have no choice but to bust out a couple of homemade infographics. (Drastic measures, I know.)

First, extrapolating from the exit polls and final turnout, my first infographic shows how many white Evangelicals voted for Bush, Bush, McCain, and Romney respectively.EvVote

Just to be clear, that’s the Romney bar peaking higher than any other bar. And Obama’s much-touted Evangelical appeal does not look like much of a blip on the trendline. If you’re looking for decline or white Evangelicals abandoning the GOP, I sure don’t see it here.

This is doubly surprising because it isn’t like McCain and Romney were Evangelical dream candidates. McCain once called Evangelicals in politics “agents of intolerance” and Romney was a “Satan and Jesus are brothers” Mormon. But despite these warts, Obama has proven unable to make any significant inroads in appealing to White Evangelicals.

Yes, there are some Evangelicals who voted for Obama but there were Evangelicals who voted for Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale, too. Over time, there has been a persistent—though perhaps slowly evaporating—minority of Evangelical voters who support Democrats in presidential elections. This doesn’t prove that Obama has proven to possess any specific electoral appeal.

Measuring Young Evangelicals Against Their Peers

But the stats in my first graph are about all white Evangelicals as a whole. Isn’t it the young Christians who are being lost by the GOP?

There is an oft-quoted factoid that Obama did twice as well with young Evangelicals in 2008, than Kerry had in 2004. Here’s an infographic featuring that fact courtesy of the New York Times.

This is true, but, as they say, context is everything. We shouldn’t be looking at the young Evangelical shift in a vacuum. Bush’s narrow reelection over Kerry and Obama’s clear-cut victory over McCain were very different elections. Indeed, young people as a whole voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin after only narrowly going for Kerry four years before.

Thus focusing on Obama doubling Kerry’s support among young Evangelicals misses that even at the height Obamamania Evangelical young people were still much more likely to vote GOP than everyone else their age. Behold, here comes another infographic.2004-2008-compare

I’ve listed the Democrat percentage by age group in both the 2004 and 2008 election. White Evangelicals are the dark gray bars and all voters are represented in orange. Thus, the amount of orange we see represents the gap between overall support for the Democratic candidate to white Evangelical support. For example, in 2008, Obama received 32 percent from 18-29 white Evangelicals while receiving 66 percent from 18-29 year olds overall, resulting in an enormous 34-point gap.

As you can see, in both 2004 and 2008, the youngest age cohort has the biggest orange bar. That means that young Evangelicals are the most counter culturally Republican; they are the furthest to the right of the political center of gravity of their peers.

Unfortunately, I cannot update this to reflect the 2012 data. The exit poll consortium did not see fit to supply the necessary crosstabulations for religion and age. However, an election eve poll showed white Evangelical 18-29 year olds going for Romney by an overwhelming 80-15 margin while Obama ended up winning 60 percent of all 18-29 year olds. It is a pretty safe bet that those orange bars wouldn’t be any smaller.

———

It isn’t that any of this is very new to the attentive Mere Orthodoxy reader. Let’s just add this data to all that has been ably said here by Messrs. Anderson, Walker, and Domenech about the political proclivities of young Evangelicals. I still think that Matt Lewis’ piece was a great volley in this conversation and hope merely that my pretty infographics serve to remind that despite all the chatter, young Evangelicals are still very reliable Republican voters.

Preferential Treatment for Syria’s Christians: A Discussion

As our nation deliberated about the merits of intervening in Syria–a deliberation that has presumably come to a close with the announcement of the agreement between Russia and the United States–many American Christians argued that intervention should be avoided in part because of the potentially horrific repercussions to Syrian Christians.

Whatever we make of the overall case against intervention, deploying these sorts of special moral obligations raises interesting questions for foreign policy.  Here, Jake Meador, Jon Askonas, Brad Littlejohn, and I take some of those questions up as a dialogue. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments.

MLA:  It’s my party and I get to kick it off:  What role should potentially grave harms to Syrian’s Christians play in a North American Christian’s deliberation about intervention?

Mosaic depiction of Mary holding an Arabic tex...

Mosaic depiction of Mary holding an Arabic text, Convent of Our Lady, Greek Orthodox Church, Sednaya, Syria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jake Meador: Let me lay out a few of the facts. In the 2.5 years since the civil war began, 110,000 people have died, 40,000 of whom are civilians. That alone may be enough to justify intervention on grounds of protecting the common good which, it should be remembered, is concerned with the flourishing of all people, not just Christians. Indeed, one could argue that attempting to only protect Christians is a Christianized form of utilitarianism–pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of Christians. A good rule of thumb in political ethics is that any time your political views can be linked with Jeremy Bentham’s, you should be concerned.

That said, I’m still leery of taking action that will almost certainly harm Christians in the region. Perhaps this question can clarify why: Is it possible for Christians to speak coherently about the common good without the presence of the church? Put another way, are we really promoting a nation’s common good if we’re taking actions that will reduce the number of Christians in the nation from 10% of the population down to less than 1%? If so, doesn’t that imply that we’re defining “the common good” in purely materialistic–and implicitly non-Christian–terms? (That less than 1% figure assumes that a new Islamist government in Syria will do to Syrian Christians what the new government in Iraq did to Iraqi Christians–most of whom are now in Syria, it’s worth noting.)

Jon Askonas: Jake, I think the problem of moral particularism really comes into play for Christian policymakers, and not for Christian citizens. As voters in a democracy, Christians have every right to allow their sense of morality and view of the world to influence their advocacy. But a policymaker isn’t simply responsible to his own conscience; he has a special warrant to pursue the national interest of the United States, and he has to articulate any policy in more or less secular terms. I think he has two avenues to do so.

1) By making the general argument that the people who could potentially defeat Assad are not going to act in the American interest. Here, the value of Christian communities in Syria is not simply that they’re co-religionists but rather that they are not radical islamists, and that they likely share at least some core values with America.

2) By making the argument that the US should defend religious freedom abroad as a matter of course. What infuriates me about this White House is that, even though this is the stated policy of the United States, and even though the world’s Christians have gone through a violent couple of years, the present administration has made this policy a far lower priority than nebulous attempts to win political points at home by enforcing “gay rights” in the Third world.

So I think Jake’s right on the “common good” as far as how most American Christians should think about Syria, but things get more complicated when that Christian is also a policymaker with governmental obligations.

Jake Meador: Jon, I agree with your point so far as it goes, but I suppose I want to step back a little and think about the underlying theology that drives how we think about public policy and how we arrive at policy decisions. I’m reading both Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart right now and one point both of them hit pretty hard is that a Christian’s political identity doesn’t begin with their national citizenship, but with their place at the Lord’s Supper.

So I understand the pragmatic reasons for a policy maker to think in secular terms and express their argument in secular terms. But there’s the debate itself and then there’s the way the debate is framed–and I want to be sure we’ve got the framing right before moving on to the particular questions. So I think all of your points are right about how it’s more complex for policy makers. I’m just not sure I want to proceed to the public policy questions quite so quickly.

Brad Littlejohn:  Jake, it certainly sounds nice to talk about a Christian’s political identity being tied to the Eucharist—but what, really, does this mean? I’m pretty familiar with Leithart’s remarks on this score in Between Babel and Beast (though where does O’Donovan make this claim?), and there, it really does seem to mean that Christians should never fight other Christians, and perhaps (though Leithart never quite says this), should always take the side of other Christians in conflicts. But followed consistently, this would make us no better than jihadists. Fact is, the church is almost as imperfect a polity as any nation-state, full of people who sometimes start unjust wars, or take the side of oppressors. If we accept just war criteria, it seems that we should apply them impartially, whether Christians turn out to be the bad guys or the good guys.

So if it were the case that the rebels were innocent freedom fighters, and there were otherwise a good case for aiding them, we might lament that Christians would suffer, but it shouldn’t affect our view of the justice of the cause. To be sure, it’s not nearly so open-and-shut a case. The rebels are bad guys too, and we might deem, all parties being equally bad in the present, that the Christians are likely to be better in the long run than the Islamists. From this standpoint, your original argument about promoting the nation’s common good has some relevance. But I don’t see how talk of eucharistic political solidarity helps this argument.

Jon Askonas: Jake, the problem I have with operationalizing the Christian identity question is how you fit it in with other vital layers of Christian theology, including our theology of state power, of Christian citizenship, of war, of justice, of charity, and of persecution. And I think this kind of intersectionality absolutely has to define how we frame the policy discussion. For example, if we leave out any question of violence, our engagement with Syria becomes about how we prioritize the material needs of Christians vs non-Christians and how we witness Christ in the midst of terrible violence and sorrow. If we leave out how Christians have to deal with Syria in their roles as secular law-makers and only focus on Christians as private citizens, we avoid tough questions about gray areas and murky thresholds between private and public duties.

Laying aside normative questions about policy, even analyzing the situation is fraught with difficulty. There have been clear instances of martyrdom that Christians everywhere should witness. But Syria is also a civil war in a region in which Christianity has important ethnic meanings: Coptic Christians are not simply Christ-followers who happen to be Copts. Many of these Coptic communities have made understandable political choices to support the regime and, now that a war over that regime has broken out, are understandably subject to (and presumably generators of) violence. Isn’t it a little disingenuous to purport that they are being attacked for their identification with Christ?

MLA:  Jon’s last point about the complexity of the Syrian Christian’s entanglements is worth camping out on for a moment, as I think it underscores what is so interesting to me about North American Christians’ response to this. I don’t think anyone is being disingenuous in suggesting they are being attacked because of their Christian identity. (They may be, after all.) But they may be analyzing the situation with an unreflective ability to pull apart  the Christian life from other forms of identity in ways that others who haven’t been formed with liberal intuitions may be able to.

I would be interested, though, to hear thoughts about the moral case for preferring Christians and whether it flies–if it can be abstracted from the other considerations, that is. Dreher argues for it by way of analogy here, only while I agree with his conclusions about those cases I’m not sure they’re actually analogous. For one, none of his examples are set within a political context, which introduces many of the additional considerations that we have been discussing.

But I am also interested in knowing how this should work out: should I prefer a fellow Christian’s life in Syria to that of my atheist friend’s here, because of the nature of our ties? In the distribution of charitable goods in famine situations, should we distribute at the churches first so the Christians are fed before everyone else? I’m on board with some sort of moral particularity, and Galatians 6:10 lends itself to some sort of prioritization of believers. But nor do I think it solves the questions I’m raising here.

Jake Meador: Going into this I was of two minds on that particular question. On the one hand, there’s a lot of good biblical warrant for Christians giving preference to Christians. Galatians 6:10 is the most apparent. But you can also look at what Jesus says about Christian unity in John 13 and 17. Those verses about Christian unity make me very nervous about any policy my home nation might pursue that directly or indirectly harms other Christians. Can I say I am loving my brothers and sisters if I’m encouraging my nation to act against their interests?

Then again, Christians worship a God who triumphed over evil, in part, by dying (although it’s worth remembering that without the resurrection, the crucifixion is just a tragedy). And that act of God breaking himself for the nations is something that sits at the center of our worship. It’s not foreign to Christianity to suggest that one person can die so that others may live. So can the argument be made that Christians, in this case Syrian Christians, should be willing to literally forfeit their lives in a political conflict in order to save their neighbors? Perhaps. (I suppose what I’m saying is that we need to think a great deal about the meaning and significance of martyrdom.)

That said, I still lean strongly toward option one, which means opposing any plans that will have the effect of harming the church. If anything has changed in my thinking in the past few years, it’s that the church has grown larger and larger in my mind and heart. So I’m exceedingly uncomfortable supporting a course of action that will almost certainly harm the church.

Jon Askonas:  Jake, I don’t think loving fellow believers is the only (or even the primary) consideration in play here. Justice, peace, and the lives of millions in the region are also at stake. Galatians 6:10 tells us to do good to believers when we can, but it’s the optimistic capstone on an argument Paul concludes in Galatians 6:7 – God is not mocked, what a man sows he will also reap. There have been innumerable cases of Christians justly engaging in armed conflict with each other. Obviously, any breach of peace is ultimately rooted in some sort of sin. But while there may be other reasons to oppose them, surely you would not suggest that the Revolutionary War or the Civil War were bad wars simply because Christians engaged in violence against each other?

While I don’t think intervening in Syria is the right move right now due to other policy considerations, I don’t think the fate of Syrian Christians should be a determining factor in how American Christians think about the kind of military intervention that is being discussed now. Jake, I think you, Rod Dreher, and others have raised legitimate concerns about the US inclination to support the rebel opposition in light of Christian unity, but I think you are theologizing and abstracting Christian brotherhood in general away from the particular entanglements of Syrian Christians. For pretty good reasons (including, perhaps, 1 Peter principles of obeying political authorities), Syrian Christians have supported the Assad regime. Now what was sown is being reaped; their protector is engaging in behaviors that are wicked and unjust, not to mention in violation of important international norms which protect civilians in armed conflicts. Can America justly intervene to damage the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities, even if this results in greater violence against Syrian Christians in the end if the regime falls?

The principle of double effect would suggest that America would be justified. First, “punishing evildoers” is a responsibility of government, and, ceteris paribus, this kind of strike would be justified. Second, America would intend no harm against Christians either directly or as a means to the end. The only question remaining is whether the bad outcomes of a strike are outweighed by the good to come of it. On this last point, I’m convinced that present circumstances do not justify military action. But were those circumstances to change, the plight of Syrian Christians could not be the sole consideration. We can mourn our martyrs and actively seek to assist Syrian Christians, but their plight does not change the responsibility of political leaders (not only in America) to seek peace and justice in Syria.

As an aside, I do think a theology of Christian unity should complicate our otherwise stalwart support for democracies around the world and the Middle East in particular. It has reliably been the case that Christians have a much harder time in Islamist countries, whether they are democratic or not, and our foreign policy should reflect these concerns. Unfortunately, religious freedom has been a complete non-priority for the Obama administration.

MLA:  I think Jon’s last word is a good one.  However, I also think the case of Christians fighting against each other in (say) the Civil War doesn’t quite do justice to this particular argument.  The possibility of Christians going into combat against one another was–if I can put it this way–accidental to the nature of the conflict:  while there were doubtlessly theological differences at work in how each of the respective sides represented worked out their understanding of slavery, any one soldier would not know whether the other soldier he was shooting at was himself a Christian or not.

Here, the argument is that the intervention would affect Christians as a class of people, an aggregate, which means the parallel doesn’t seem to work.  That doesn’t mean the argument for preferential considerations for Syrian Christians works, but it does mean that as we think about the limits of the preference that Paul mentions in Galatians we have to recognize that it is fundamentally a social reality that is under consideration, not simply the relationship between individual Christians per se.  (So Paul is extending the argument even from Galatians 5, where the fruit of the Spirit are “embodied” in particular persons but take shape within the social life of the church.)

One last observation, by way of closing down this interesting discussion:  American Christians have spent a good deal of time wrestling with the fundamental tension between our Christian identity and our American heritage.  The Neuhausian formula that I will meet God as an American is (I think) close to the right one, but the conflicts over gay marriage are potentially in danger of creating a sense of alienation among conservative Christians from our government.  In this case, none of those internal changes stopped many American Christians from potentially instrumentalizing American foreign policy for specifically Christian purposes (even if not American Christian purposes).  But I for one am interested to see how whether these cultural transitions among American Christians play out in foreign policy.

Spurgeon’s Tea Party Politics

This week, the Reformed Evangelical blogosphere was rocked* by the stunning revelation that their hipster-beard-wearing, homiletical heartthrob Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a pinko Commie.**

(* or at least mildly intrigued)

(** or, to be precise, a “liberal”)Spurgeon near the end of his life.

Jonathan Merritt’s post, Spurgeon: How the politically liberal preacher became a conservative paragon, was very clear in its intent. Merritt, a man of the left himself, wanted to highlight the embarrassing inconsistency of today’s conservative Christians appropriating Spurgeon’s theology as their own, but ignoring his politics. On the authority of two historians, Tom Nettles and Bill Leonard, Merritt presents Spurgeon as a “left winger” who was “anti-war, anti-imperial [and a] poverty advocate” and “loved the American idea of separation of church and state.”

In contrast:

Today, conservative Christians in America often find themselves among those who have a weaker view of the separation of church and state, favor individual responsibility over poverty alleviation by the government, and often support war. It’s not difficult to imagine that Spurgeon would have opposed the political positions of many conservative Christians today–for example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2003 resolution endorsing the Iraq War.

Merritt, satisfied that his point had been neatly made, turned to Twitter to tweak those inconsistent conservatives. “Don’t expect many RTs from my Reformed friends,” he tweeted.

Au contraire! This is precisely the type of article that lights my fire. When you agree with someone 95% of the time, it makes that final five percent fertile ground for exploration and discovery. For me, Spurgeon demonstrates a passion for Christ and very similar theological commitments. Thus, if he held political positions dissimilar to my own, I may be able to discover a blind spot in my own thinking. What could be more stimulating than that?

Unfortunately, Merritt doesn’t actually demonstrate that Spurgeon’s politics would be unwelcome within today’s Evangelical Right. Continue reading

A Radical Anthropology and Imagining our Political Future

James Poulos, one of my favorite political writers, has been hammering away recently at our need to frame our political conversations around anthropology and imagination first and policy specifics second.  He’s taken up the language of “free radicals” as shorthand for his vision, which I hasten to note is a form of “radical” that has little in common with that which readers of Mere-O are familiar with.

There’s a lot about James’ approach that intrigues me.   Like this, for instance:

For Tocqueville, people like us — living in an era when it has become obvious that the definitive thing about us is how similar we all are to each other as humans — two competing anthropologies rise to the fore. According to the first, being human is defined by being in servitude to a heavenly master. According to the second, being human is defined by being in servitude to an earthy master. For people like us, today, that seems to tee up the same old culture clash. But Tocqueville himself made some little-noticed and very pregnant remarks in Democracy in America about just what kind of anthropology would suffice to steer us, in the fragility of our freedom, away from servility before the state and its human masters. He speculated that belief in an immortal soul, or even reincarnation, might be enough.

I offer a rather different answer to the same question. I think it’s an answer that can work not just for Republicans who want to take a shared stand together for the betterment of humankind, but for any particular American who feels that way too. You may be on the edge of your seat about what this anthropology might be. You might be slumped pretty far back in your seat with skepticism and cynicism. Either way, the first hurdle for us to clear is a shared recognition that we should choose not to limit ourselves to a policy conversation — and that without a deeper conversation about what anthropological vision can capture all our imaginations, all the wonkery in the world is largely a waste of some very precious time.

Yet it’s just the details of the anthropological vision that James wants to argue for that I’m uncertain about.  James hasn’t worked them out in full, but he has given us a glimmer:

Just as, in biblical religion, one must ponder the possibilities of a God whose name is “I am that I am,” or “I am that I shall become,” in the free-radical vein that I’ve been developing this year, the quaint anthropology of the rational actor who rank-orders his or her preferences is abandoned in favor of a vision of you, me, and everyone as a person who is what he or she shall become — through language, by making authentic declarations acted into being. (By “authentic” I mean born out of an accurate and witnessed acknowledgement of real-life experience, not the distorted judgments formed by imitation, memory, or fear. See, e.g., the language of declaration, direct experience, and sacred honor in the Declaration of Independence.)

We all know, or can know, what it is to experience a clearing-away of mere imitation, of stale or warped memory, and of biting fear, and an a speaking into that empty space of new promises to ourselves and others grounded in little more than what we see newly possible as a choice that inspires us and others into motion. Once shared, this experience occurs to us as profoundly personal and profoundly human.

It’s here whether I wonder how commensurate this alternative vision of anthropology is with traditional Christian teaching about God and our freedoms in light of his providence.  The emphasis on “clearing away” and “speaking into that empty space of new promises to ourselves and others grounded in little more than what we see newly possible as a choice that inspires us and others into motion” sounds, to my ear, almost like an optimistic strand of existentialism.  The world of things, the “empty space” before us, has been bounded in advance by promises and speakings not of our own choosing or utterance.  Such is, it seems to me, the promise of the doctrine of providence.  Our task is to discern and live within such boundaries responsibly.  Our freedom is only truly free when it has this correlate, when it is responsive to a moral order and to the institutions that bear and communicate that moral order.*

I suspect my worry really arises right at Poulos’s “little more.”  James is adopting a minimalist stance , because without such an approach it will never have legs anywhere beyond….places like Mere-Orthodoxy, and we all know how massively influential we are.

Still, it seems that this radical openness to the future and the emphasis on our own near-divine creative activity actually undercuts our humanity while paradoxically humanizing God.  By adding “or that I shall become” to the description of God James leaves “biblical religion” behind by introducing an unqualified openness, where the future of God is in no way bound by what he has revealed himself to be.  In a sense, that seems to open up space for an abstract “deity” behind the God of the Bible, which is perhaps why James turns toward the language of the Declaration of Independence as resources for his point.

But James’ radical openness also creates a a conception of choice in accordance with imagined possibilities that has no resources to resist the excesses of libertarian posthumanism and all the free unicorns that they want for us.  That isn’t  an argument for or against per se, as the question of such a future needs to be taken up on its own merit.   But it does make it seem unlikely that anyone with conservative theological commitments will be able to buy a ticket on the free radicals train.