Once in college I asked my pastor if he had time to get coffee so I could ask his advice on something that had been bothering me for several months. I was feeling stretched to my limits because I was a full-time student who was also involved in a campus ministry and was working two jobs for around 25 hours a week combined. But, recovering fundamentalist that I was, I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough because I wasn’t more involved in my church.
Mike, to his credit, told me that being a student is exactly what I was supposed to be doing and that the best thing I could do in that time to serve and honor God was to be a diligent student and not to rack myself with guilt over not doing enough in the local church.
By the time I graduated a couple years later I realized how unique that advice was. By then I’d heard my campus pastor say similar things on more than one occasion and I’d seen other students respond to it with a bit of surprise, even shock. The difference, I came to realize, was not just about sacred/secular distinctions or a robust doctrine of vocation, important as those are. It was also a fundamental difference in how my church and campus ministry saw the university itself as opposed to how many other campus ministries saw it.
For RUF, the university could help advance recognizably Christian goods, even when the particular university does not affirm Christian beliefs. This is because the university is a place where human beings who bear the divine image can gather together to learn about God’s world and develop skills that help them to better love their neighbor in their professional lives or simply as citizens, as members of small, local communities or of larger states and nations. All of this is good, God-honoring work and so Christians, particularly Christians involved in the life of universities, should affirm the work being done.
For most of the other campus ministries at Nebraska, the vision of the university was a much smaller thing: universities were convenient social institutions because they rounded up a large number of demographically similar young people into a single place where they would have broadly identical routines, all of which made it very easy to evangelize them. Many of these groups did not think anything of taking their students away from campus regularly on retreats, heavily programming their weeks (thereby cutting into their time to give to their studies), and even sometimes suggesting that their academic work was of mostly incidental importance. The real life happened in Bible studies and when you prayed and over coffee with your discipler or disciplee. College, much like one’s eventual career, was mostly a necessary evil that simply secured material goods for you.
While watching the French-Ahmari debate last night it occurred to me that French seems to have a fairly similar vision of the nation—it’s an incidental good that is useful for advancing certain strictly material goods but it pales in significance when set next to the work of the church. Thus French’s reply to Ahmari’s (admittedly bizarre) obsession with Drag Queen Story Hour: For French the far greater scandal is the hypocrisy of individual Christian men who regularly view pornography.
To be sure, it is a great evil that Christian men routinely view porn, but to raise that issue in response to Ahmari raising a question about public norms in the republic is akin to lamenting local unemployment issues when someone raises concern about dysfunction in their family. Both things can be a concern, even a great evil. But they are separate things concerning separate spheres. To conflate them is simply to create confusion and, ultimately, to refuse to recognize the distinct spheres with distinct responsibilities, all of which are accountable (in different ways) to God.
The point is not necessarily that French should endorse some species of integralism, although it is worth noting that in his handling of rights and the nature of religious doctrine as it relates to public life French is far closer to the Baptists than he is the traditional views of the reformed tradition to which he belongs. But that point aside, French could preserve many of the rights he cares about preserving while anchoring his account of the political in something more real than the pragmatic adjudication of disputes within a pluralistic society.
While I think his account of the political is still inadequate, Jonathan Leeman tries to do precisely this work in his How the Nations Rage. For Leeman, the state is positively authorized by God to do very specific things and, it so happens, these specific things broadly align with the liberal project as understood by some of our founders. But while Jefferson would anchor that project in Enlightenment ideas about human freedom, Leeman sees it as being principally grounded in the revelation given to us by God and thus as being authorized by God. If French wanted to put forward this sort of vision of the nation, as a divinely sanctioned body, albeit one with specific (and tightly constrained) responsibilities in society, one could at least respect his proposals as being a constructive, positive account of the government.
But repeatedly in the debate with Ahmari he refuses to make this move, choosing instead to return to the tiresome line about what works to maintain a mostly functional pluralistic society—never mind the fact that we have obviously ceased to be a mostly functional pluralistic society. The closest French came to offering a positive account of politics is when he argued that liberal proceduralism built around an American idea of equal rights is a kind of political realization of the golden rule—according to others the same rights you would wish to be accorded to oneself. That is at least an attempt, albeit a poor one, to anchor his position in something deeper than pragmatism.
It ultimately fails because merely according one another equal rights cannot possibly be intrinsically good since we can accord one another equal rights to do any number of horrible things. We do not honor the golden rule by according to all people equal access to abortion. Doing so is, of course, fair in an utterly amoral sense, but it is not in any way advancing anyone’s good by doing so, at least according to any Christian account of the good. Rights themselves must be defined by something and by refusing to allow religious accounts of the good to enter the political conversation French denies to everyone the ability to explain the grounds of our rights.
In all of this, French’s commentary reminded me of nothing so much as the banal rebuttal to nationalism put forward by an array of signers and published by Commonweal. As Brad Littlejohn has noted elsewhere, the Commonweal document doesn’t so much condemn nationalism as it condemns the existence of nations. Indeed, it leaves real questions as to whether the signers see any positive vision for non-ecclesial communities.
The document, then, is a progressive mirroring of French in that it refuses to see politics as anything other than an incidental part of life, perhaps even a necessary evil that we must endure today purely as a means of preventing greater evils from arising. That the government could be something more than a mere arbiter who threatens to hit you in the head with a brick if you don’t play nicely with your neighbor seems to be unimaginable to both the Commonweal signatories and to French.
Yet there are sources in the Christian tradition that see government as having a positive role to play in the good community and often, though not always, these governmental goods are realized through the medium of the nation. The Dutch reformed political theorist Guillaume Groen von Prinsterer, a predecessor of Abraham Kuyper’s, articulated this vision well in his essays on unbelief and revolution, arguing that,
If a sovereign in all his acts is to be guided by the precepts of morality, this morality must find support in a religion, to whose faithful profession the sovereign grants protection and favors, in the interest of maintaining justice, virtue, and order. If a sovereign is God’s lieutenant, he is obliged publicly to confess and worship Him, to aid others in the exercise of worship, and as far as his legitimate authority extends to apply the standards of God’s law to all his deeds and ordinances.
Leeman, I think, can run with that while maintaining de facto procedural liberalism because his reading of political authority would put very tight constraints around ‘his legitimate authority.’ But what of French?
And we should not think Groen is odd or quixotic in asserting such things. Even amongst French’s fellowed reformed Christians, this is a very ordinary assertion historically speaking. The 17th century German reformed theologian Johannes Althusius said that the person who sought to remove the Ten Commandments from public life would “destroy politics (and) all symbiosis and social life among men.” Or you could consider the 1646 Westminster Confession chapter on the powers of the magistrate or the obvious fact that both Calvin and his mentor Bucer saw themselves as trying to preserve a Christian social order.
The sort of purely negative view of government articulated by French is not the way Christians have traditionally thought about politics. From this easily established point, it should have been simple for Ahmari to make the basic point he has been trying to make for months: When the magistrate is indifferent to first things we should not be surprised that society follows its example. This is all that Ahmari needed to establish and if he had done so we might have had a more profitable event.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).