Dr. Moore and the Politics of Dinner Parties

I’m pleased to publish this essay by Susannah Black reviewing Dr. Russell Moore’s recent Erasmus Lecture given last weekend in New York City.

On Monday night I got on the E train in Forest Hills and headed to the Union League Club on East 37th Street to hear Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, announce the end of the Religious Right as a political force in America.

So that was interesting.

This was, of course, the Erasmus Lecture: First Things’ signature annual lecture; a sort of State of the Nation or Setting of the Agenda for politics and religion in America, straight to your computer’s livestream from Murray Hill in Manhattan. It’s been going on for 29 years now, and past speakers have included Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop Timothy Dolan; past subjects have included Islam and Christianity; the crisis of conservative Catholicism in the age of Francis; the development of Catholic moral teaching; genealogies of modernity… the gamut of the topics of conversation that those who can’t help but talk about politics and religion at the dinner table have been talking about for the past quarter century plus. Continue reading

On Voting and Civic Participation: A Response to Wayne Grudem

I’m delighted to publish this incisive review of Dr. Grudem’s Trump endorsement written by Drs. Matthew Arbo and Jeremy Kidwell.

This has been a strange and bewildering year for American politics, and for certain segments of the American church. Some commenters have felt confident to call the church’s reaction to the general election a “schism” in the religious right—quite strong language. The candidacy of Donald Trump has been inordinately mystifying for many of us, Christians included, but “schism” is far too vague a diagnosis in attempting to capture the state of this discourse, just as “religious right” is a rather unimpressive sociological descriptor. We would like to suggest that this and a great many other takes on “evangelical politics,” reflects a troubling confusion about the nature of Christian political citizenship that has finally been drawn from the background into the foreground of political discourse. This confusion is on clear display in Wayne Grudem’s 19 Oct piece “If You Don’t Like Either Candidate, Then Vote for Trump’s Policies.” Continue reading

Betraying Politics: The Mystique of Public Life

This is a fun week—for the second time in as many days, we’re debuting a new writer here at Mere O. It’s a delight to be able to publish this guest piece from John Shelton.

“Everything begins as a mystique and ends as a politique,” observes French essayist Charles Péguy. In other words, that which begins as a pure idea—mystic, even transcendent—devolves into profane politics, the slow grind of policy divorced from any sort of sanguine idealism. The politique politician is an automaton, swayed by the slightest breeze of public opinion and party leadership. Such a man considers himself to be “eminently practical.” If he is always choosing an evil, at least it is the lesser of two. He takes what he can get; he desires the possible and worries not over the good, the beautiful, the true. He scoffs at Plato, even Aristotle. His man is Hobbes—Machiavelli, if he is forthright. He esteems them not for their realism but their cynicism. Such humdrum pessimism is fit cover for this man without a chest. Continue reading

Is Not Voting in an Election Nihilistic?

One of the more common complaints about yesterday’s feature by Matt is that refusing to vote for a candidate in an election is nihilistic in a way that goes well beyond whatever nihilism one might see in Dod Crump. (This is henceforth how I will be referring to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz—feel free to join me if you are as sick of them as I am.)

The obvious problem with this argument is that it epitomizes the sort of prioritizing of the presidency above all else that was one of Matt’s main targets yesterday. One of Matt’s chief concerns in yesterday’s piece—and it’s been a concern of his (and mine) for some time—is that a church which subordinates the life of the church to the goal of political power is a church that will be incapable of using political power effectively. You cannot win a culture war without a culture and right now the most pressing problem facing orthodox Christians is the lack of a true Christian culture in many parts of our nation.

To go on arguing that we must continue supporting men who don’t seem to have any actual principles but will vaguely gesture in our direction to win our support because #religiousliberty is to make the very sort of argument Matt has been attempting to rebut for years. Indeed, it shows more clearly than anything else how evangelicals will subordinate the values most necessary to the life of a Christian culture in order to achieve political power. Continue reading

Reviewing John Wilsey’s “American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion”

I’m pleased to publish this guest review today by Hillsdale College visiting professor Dr. Miles Smith. You can learn more about Dr. Smith from his bio below this post. You can also follow him on Twitter @IVMiles

A book exploring the idea of American exceptionalism is especially timely in a year when the political realm has been captured, or at least invaded, by a man promising to Make America Great again. For many Americans, especially American Evangelicals, the notion that America is great is synonymous with the notion that America is exceptional. Few American Evangelicals, after all, believe that the United States is exceptionally bad. John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is written for the educated Evangelical layman and proves to be earnest attempt to reevaluate the idea of American exceptionalism from a Christian perspective. Continue reading

The Relationship Between American Political Thought and Biblical Interpretation

Tim Scheiderer is a freelance writer and Southern Seminary graduate. He lives in metro Washington, DC.

Culture is a force comprised of traditions curated and subsequently cherished in the hearts of the collective as years expire. It presses itself upon every facet of one’s life more often than realized. For instance, in the United States, ordering an afternoon cappuccino at Starbucks is a common practice. If one orders an afternoon cappuccino in Rome, however, the barista will begrudgingly oblige seeing it is not an Italian tradition to enjoy one after breakfast. Just as culture impacts food choices, it also impacts emotions. Americans are in the midst of the holiday season. During this time, it seems everyone has a figurative fireplace warming their hearts with openness, nostalgia, good will, and generosity. These feelings, however, are neither experienced globally by all people nor historically by every age. In America, in our culture, the high time of national festivities is late November to the first of January. (Interesting that a calendar tells us when to become sentimental.) Continue reading

Reopening the Question of China and Hobby Lobby

We’ve been through this once already, but since my friend Jonathan Merritt’s latest piece dredging up the charge of hypocrisy against the Greens because they do business in China has been sent around, so I thought I’d say one or two things about it.

Before that, though, it’s worth pointing out that this has nothing to do with any of the legal arguments that Hobby Lobby has pursued the last few years.  Hypocrites still have their right to religious liberty, after all, and thank the Lord for it. Additionally, I’d note that whatever else I end up saying about this that I think there are real questions to be answered here about how we entangle ourselves in environments where injustice is being done.  It’s obvious that evangelicals need to do a lot more thinking about dirty hands, and Jamie Smith’s recent essay is a great place to start.

But can I gently suggest that Jonathan’s essay is not how such thinking should be done?  The gist of the piece is that China does lots of bad stuff, and Hobby Lobby buys and sells goods there…ergo Hobby Lobby are hypocrites for defending the integrity of their consciences against the intrusiveness of the government. If they aren’t conflicted about their complicity in China, then why do they care about their complicity in the States?

'A Hobby Lobby that looks different!' photo (c) 2014, Nicholas Eckhart - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Now, put that way, Merritt’s piece highlights why everyone should be rooting for Hobby Lobby before the Supreme Court.  If the alternative is having their consciences broken by the heels of the government, then the US environment is really no better than China.  Merritt’s critique (ironically) highlights whats at stake here:  do we want a US government that is as demanding and intrusive to individual consciences as he alleges the Chinese government is, or not?  Even if we grant his point about hypocrisy, then our appropriate response should be to exhort the Green’s to revisit their business practices in China while praying they win before the Court. Something tells me that’s not quite the conclusion Jonathan was hoping for.*

But let’s take a look at his….well, I’d call it an argument but I’m not sure it rises to that level.  It gets all of its rhetorical energy on obfuscations and generalizations, which allow for the rhetorical point to go but in the olden days would have been called sophistry.  There’s a lot of handwaving here meant to make you readers feel bad about China, and doing business with China, but not very many specifics about what Hobby Lobby actually does there.  So here are some additional questions that I would want answered before making a moral judgment about Hobby Lobby’s gross hypocrisy:

  • Does Hobby Lobby pay their workers in China the $9.77 a day that Merritt says is the average wage, or more?
  • Where are they buying their products in China, and what does kind of quality of life does what they pay their vendors earn their employees?
  • What kind of due diligence did they do on their vendors to ensure that their vendors are providing the kind of working conditions we would all want to support?
  • Is Hobby Lobby’s China branch leaning on and petitioning the Chinese government to the extent that it is able to ensure better working conditions for laborers?
  • Is the free trade that Hobby Lobby undertaken helpful, harmful, or indifferent for establishing Western leverage with the Chinese with respect to human rights?  To put the question differently, if Hobby Lobby pulled out and trade died, would conditions in China improve or not?  Is interdependence important for social improvement, even if China currently has abusive practices in places? (Thanks to Jonathan Chan for this point, and for this West Wing clip.)
  • Does Jonathan have any evidence at all that allows him to make the rhetorical leap from (a) Hobby Lobby does business in a country where child labor happens to (b) Hobby Lobby supports underage labor?  (See his question “Can you call yourself a “Christian business” when you support underage labor?”
  • Given what we know about Hobby Lobby’s conscientiousness in other facets of their business, is there any reason to think that the Green’s have not been as conscientious with the above questions, other than by prima facie assuming that “doing business” (as a vague abstraction) in China means that they are complicit in everything happening in China?

I could probably keep going, but you get my point.

Jonathan wraps things up with this fun little gotcha:

The most glaring inconsistency between Hobby Lobby’s ethical proclamations and its business decisions concerns the matter of religious liberty. The craft store chain is hailed by conservatives as standing up to Uncle Sam and fighting for religious freedom. Yet Hobby Lobby imports billions of dollars worth of bric-a-brac from a nation that denies 1.35 billion citizens freedom of worship.”

There’s lots to be said about China and its rhetorical function in American culture. (Go ahead, name me three positive things about the Chinese people or society without using the internet.) But with respect to religious liberty, Jonathan’s statement that the Chinese government are denying their citizens “freedom of worship” is a simplistic caricature of a massively complicated subject.   China as a society is more religiously open now than it has been in a long time. Among other things, the Chinese government is funding theological research in China. Even when they are tearing down churches, the situation is much more complicated than the American press generally indicates

Is China perfect on religious liberty?  Of course not.  To quote a line that we all know well, it’s complicated. But  one-sided portrayals of the sort that are popular within the US actually matter for US-Chinese relations, as they perpetuate a vague hostility toward China when we should be encouraged about the gains in religious liberty we have seen there the past thirty years while continuing to push for more.

Is there an irony there, then, for Hobby Lobby?  I don’t think so. They could very well argue that by entangling themselves in a society that is trying to navigate the delicate balance of opening themselves slowly to new ideas (China) they are trying to be instrumental in that society for the slow, messy, often painful advancement of the good and the freedom of its citizens.  Those would be, I’d note, the very same freedoms they are seeking to protect here at home, and for which they have done so at great personal cost. They are not martyrs, and their practices deserve scrutiny.  But if Merritt is going to dismiss them as hypocrites, he ought at least do them the justice of making an argument that’s more than the smoke and mirrors he has given us here.

*Jonathan tells me that I wrongfully assume that he is opposed to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case. I’ve asked for further clarification on whether this means he actually supports Hobby Lobby’s case.

In Defence of War: A Reflection

In Defence of War is thoroughly researched, clearly and elegantly written, and masterfully argued.  The task I have been given of responding is therefore harder than it might seem: as I find Professor Biggar’s account persuasive, perhaps because his contrarian instincts match my own, my most natural impulse is to offer my plaudits and be done.  In Defence of War is, in my opinion, a definitive account of the subject that will be read for a long time to come.  Instead, however, I take my remarks below in the opposite direction and consider whether in his defense of war Professor Biggar has been as pervasively theological in his account as he might has been otherwise.

In the introductory comments to his book, Professor Biggar lays claim to a “realist” tradition of politics that acknowledges the ‘fact of intractable human vice on the international stage.’  Some people, he contends, simply “do not want peace,” or do not want it enough, or only want it on their own terms, a view that he adopts not a priori but “on historical experience.” (10)  Yet he contends such a ‘realism’ is not Hobbesian, but Christian and Barthian. It affirms a God “who is capable of incarnation real death, and bodily resurrection” and so is “stronger on eschatological hope” than Reinhold Niebuhr’s. in defence of war biggar

Biggar sets this “realism” against the “virus of wishful thinking,” or the notion that there “always has to be an available pacific solution.” Yet such a pacifism, which Biggar contends is motivated by an “optimistic anthropology” that works “by faith in the natural goodness of human beings”, is not the only anti-violence outlook that he opposes.  There is also the theological variety, which is motivated by the example of Jesus, and so “by faith in the supernatural power of God to purge the world of the human vices that foster war.”

Framing theological pacifists this way, though, borders on reducing the argument to whichever view is more effective, which the theologically-minded pacifists are to reject. If the claim that abstaining from violence is more ‘effective’ at eliminating violence and warfare, then the question can only be determined by an empirical judgment, in which case the pacifist may simply modify Chesterton’s maxim about Christianity and say that it is not so much that pacifism has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and so left untried. Or at least untried enough in either domestic or international conflicts to form a reasonable comparison set with the just war position.

Where theological pacifism and Biggar’s own Augustinian willingness to pursue a limited retribution through warfare part ways is not on whether and who must finally purge evil from the world, but rather the obligations and possibilities Christians face in the meantime as they pursue evil’s mitigation, not its final undoing.  On Biggar’s view, an “Augustinian modesty” demands that we pursue justice, but not too much justice, lest by our perfectionism we commit additional evils. (77)  The political order war leaves behind must be one that is “at least sufficiently just and stable not to return to the old ways.” But there is no reason a pacifist, theological or otherwise, would have to be committed to pursuing or expecting anything more than that either:  the pacifist constraint that Christians stringently hold forth the possibility of a non-violent resolution by refusing to take up arms does not commit them (necessarily) to the proposition that in every case peace will prevail, or even that resolution will be found in most cases. The theological pacifist may immanentize the eschaton, so to speak, and claim that God is purging the world of the vices that foster war through their non-violence. But there is no theological reason why they must.  Biggar’s claim that theological pacifists must take their stance “because they view the unilateral renunciation of violence as optimally beneficial in the (very) long run”, in fact, puts both the just war theorist and the theological pacifists in the same boat.  As he writes, neither can “demonstrate  that their chosen response to grave injustice will be less costly and more beneficial than the alternative.” (330)

I mention this not to object to Biggar’s account, but rather to raise questions about the role history and contingency plays in determining our responsibilities theologically. Biggar’s critique of the theological pacifists decisively demonstrates (in my opinion) that the New Testament is at the very least ambiguous about the legitimate use of violence. Yet in answering why we might choose just war over pacifism, the main reason Biggar gives is that “human experience teaches that wickedness, unpunished, tends to wax.” (330)  Fair enough. But wax for how long, and with what sort of unforeseen consequences?  It is incumbent upon the Christian ethicist to determine not simply the peace we ought let go of in our pursuit of retribution, but the terrors and evils we ought patiently endure. Biggar thinks that there are some cases where war is the only option before us, and so repudiates the ‘wishful thinking’ that there ‘must be a better way.’ But what is the force of this necessity in the sphere of human action? Attempting to meet an intractable vice with the unstoppable means of a more powerful coercive violence seems more like a tragically determinist account of history and its forces than a Christian view of providence and history.

To put the point a different way:  while the cross may be construed in ways other than the unqualified obligation to nonviolence, what role does the resurrection play in a just war theory? Such a moment seems to demand a qualification to the claims of history, and potentially demands of Christians a constant and unending obligation to remain open to the possibility that the tragic circumstances we find ourselves in are a momentary illusion, and that the violence is a cheat that obscures—but cannot defeat—the possibility of renewal. Biggar relays the pacifists claim that their stance “is right regardless of its efficacy,” and bluntly retorts:  “That makes no sense,” enjoining the Christian theologian to care about “the outcome of what he says.”  Yet it is just such claims of ‘efficacy’ that the resurrection seems to problematize for Christian theologians by shifting the terms of judgment away from empirical results on to another plane.

However, Biggar’s own theological account of just war does more than simply make room for it biblically as a legitimate mode of Christian reflection, before turning toward ‘natural reasons’ for sorting out when it applies.  His defense of love in war attempts to integrate forgiveness with certain kinds of resentment and retribution to demonstrate how Christian love qualifies coercion, and how that might structure the activities of soldiers on the battlefield.  Yet the account here is limited to justice in warfare, rather than clarifying how love might structure the reasons to go to war.  In that case, Biggar allows “plausibility” to define the ethical terrain in a way that potentially overly-naturalizes and historicizes our theological judgment.  He contends his account enables “us to discern how forgiveness could find fitting political expression in circumstances where simple absolution would be breathtakingly naive and inappropriate,” such as the United States’s reaction to the attacks of September 11th.  As he puts it, “If such absolution were the sum of forgiveness, then it could have had no plausible place in America’s reaction.”  Biggar is unquestionably right:  but to construe the decision to forgive slightly differently, it is not absolution that America might have offered in refusing to take up the cause of a retribution that has been chastened by compassion, but rather a judgment deferred toward another and potentially delayed until the eschaton. The American response may have been substantively identical regardless of whether it was ordered toward peace or vindictiveness. But it is not clear why, theologically, what is ‘plausible’ ought be the criterion by which these matters are decided, especially in light of the history-disrupting, deeply implausible moment of the resurrection.  In bracketing the eschatological peace that the resurrection signifies to avoid an overly stringent perfectionism, Biggar raises a real question about what need we have for it in deliberation about war at all—other than as the sort of thing we shouldn’t aim at.

The question of how we judge history in light of the cross and resurrection may have a more general practical application as well.  In the question of the Iraq War’s legitimacy, Biggar argues that the fact “that Saddam Hussein was not actually engaged in the process of perpetrating mass atrocity removes just cause from the invasion of 2003,” as the “regime of Saddam Hussein had not changed its spots.” His argument rests on the eminently practical principle that absent a change in heart or leadership, “there would be reason” to “expect the future to run along historical lines.” (256)  Given that there were no signs of internal unrest in 2003, Biggar concludes that regime change may have been possible, but clearly was not likely at the time (298), and so the invasion was a matter of last resort in that respect.  All that is fair enough.

Yet with respect to Michael Northcott’s arguments that America was motivated by imperial ambitions in light of his case that America has had at least 35 years of imperial activity, Biggar suggests that even if Northcott is right “we should still judge each case on its own merits” and “examine the most directly relevant evidence, and give priority over what our reading of historical precedent has led us to expect.”  At the least, this principle applied to Iraq would seem to eviscerate the claim that the past activities of Saddam’s regime justified intervention simply because there had been no regime change.  Whether moral atrocities by wicked dictators have a statute of limitations I am not qualified to judge.  But there is, at least, a serious question here about whether and how we use history in moral analysis.

I would note again, however, my appreciation for the book and my widespread agreement.  I offer the above noting that my own construals are questionable, at least, and instead submit them as a foundation for a healthy and lively conversation.*

*Disclosure: Professor Biggar is currently my M.Phil. advisor.  I hope it’s clear that had no bearing on the above. 

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.

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.