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.

Alas. That is not what we had.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." 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 and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Physiocrat

    I have been generally critical of your political writing in the past but your general meta-political approach is well reasoned. I really do dislike Christian organisations who treat everything as just evangelism opportunities.

  • Hosanna

    “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.”

    One of the reasons Ahmari can’t do this is because Ahmari is supporting Trump, who is very much indifferent to first things. The support of Trump specifically, and more broadly focusing more on anger at cultural enemies than articulating a coherent vision of good, badly compromises the criticisms of Ahmari and similar post-liberals make of the liberal order. While those criticisms themselves have some merit, it’s going to be hard for any kind of healthy substantive conservative post-liberal nationalism to develop as long as Trump and “owning the libs” are core components of the conservative ecosystem and voting base.

    • hoosier_bob

      The embrace of Trump and Trumpism by Christian illiberals indeed calls into question whether their commitment to Christianity is anything other than a utilitarian move. In our Western context, any right-wing illiberal order will invariably need to draw upon a kind of folk Christianity.

      It also strikes me as odd that so much of this hubbub revolves around the proper performance of masculinity. Illiberals embrace Trump because he exhibits the kinds of characteristics that conservative white Protestants in the US have traditionally associated with what it means to be a man. Conservatives in America tend to want to see the world in terms similar to the themes of John Wayne movies from the 1950s. Life for them is a zero-sum game. If Trump is owning the libs, zero-summers like Dreher, Deneen, et al. believe that it must surely be injuring to their benefit. After all, being strategic and developing collaborative partnerships is what the effeminate and the weak do. When I was a litigation associate, I used to love it when I got some zero-summer on the other side of a dispute. Defeating them was often as easy as taking candy from a baby. As long as you afforded them opportunities to perform certain traditionalist masculine rituals, they’d give you the farm. They were more interested in creating the appearance of winning than they were in actually winning. After a while, you have to wonder whether conservatism isn’t just some form of deep insecurity.

      • Kessler

        In terms of christian morality Obama, Bush and Clinton were worse then Trump. He is the first president in a while, who hasn’t started a pointless, destructive war, at least so far. I mean, what is your argument in terms of morality? Maybe Trump have not bombed a country into oblivion or caused decade of civil conflict, because of a regime change war, but he is worse, because of his sexual promiscuity? I mean what, it would have been christian to have Clinton, “We went, we killed Gaddafi, now they are selling slaves in the ruins of Libya” elected? Of all the candidates, only Trump said Iraq war was a mistake. Maybe he said it to win votes – still better, then everybody else have done. Donald Trump the Sinner – for condemning a foolish, wasteful, bloody war.

        • hoosier_bob

          You seem to be reading a lot into what I wrote. Further, note that Trump has handed over his foreign policy to the very clowns who promoted the invasion of Iraq. And while we’ve not sent troops to Yemen, we’re effectively underwriting and providing international cover for the Saudi slaughter of thousands of innocent people in Yemen. Not to mention the sanctions against Iran are causing needless suffering. The mere fact that he’s not yet wasted American lives on such immoral foreign policy actions is a distinction without a difference. Further, I’d suggest that Trump’s debate answer was more the product of political calculation than anything else. If Iraq was such a big mistake, why would you turn around and hire Bolton and Pompeo?

          That said, Trump’s constant lying is what concerns me the most. And, as Michael Gerson recently noted, Trump’s recent efforts to fan the flames of racial resentment are quite despicable. Never mind that his tariffs against the Chinese seem more calculated to play off of the ignorance and xenophobia of his base than to achieve any economic benefit to the US.

  • hoosier_bob

    This review of the debate seems somewhat divorced from the reality of what actually happened. The writer’s subjective bias towards illiberalism seems to overshadow the fact that French destroyed Ahmari in the debate.

    I’d also note that the Reformed tradition does not speak with some singular voice on these kinds of questions. For example, French draws deeply from Madisonian principles, which echo much of the philosophy of Madison’s tutor, John Witherspoon. French’s views are quite consistent with the views of middle-colonies Presbyterians. In that sense, French’s views are quite “traditional,” especially in our American context.

    I’d also note that there is no reason why the recognition of rights requires a sectarian narrative. If God indeed created the heavens and the earth, then we should expect that empirical observation of the world around us will provide an acceptable narrative for advancing Christian principles.

    I’d also be interested to know why the author thinks that we’ve ceased to be a “functional pluralistic society.” Dreher and other illiberals seem to level this tired charge with excessive frequency. But where is the evidence for this?

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  • Anthony Castellitto

    Via the dark web, I don’t consider myself evangelical…

    “how preferable it would be to have a more spiritually grounded leader who can speak charitable truth without sacrificing an acknowledgement of the greater spiritual battle that threatens our civilization. We must remain sober and vigilant against all the lies and dark forces that abound while maintaining a love and compassion for the lost, broken ones who are currently estranged but are ripe for a return unto a truly awesome and merciful God.” I think the commitment and support for trump among serious Christians is way overblown. We just want a president who actually performs his duties faithfully and does so on behalf of the citizenry, not a special, often radical or elite, interest. The establishment political system certainly won’t produce this. Nor is Trump any sort of litmus for the state of Christian orthodoxy, I believe the reaction is as much a litmus and an attempt to shame Biblical foundationalists. I expect next to nothing from my government at this point. I just want them to stop trying to politicize Church matters.

    https://www.renewamerica.com/columns/castellitto/180506

  • SamHamilton

    It’s unfortunate that Mr. Meader’s blog post is based upon a response by Mr. French to a question about drag queen story hour. The charge that French could have responded better than bringing up porn habits of individuals is well taken; it’s definitely a different sphere (though French is correct that porn habits of individual Christians is truly a greater problem than the handful of drag queen story hours).

    I say “unfortunate” because we don’t really know what French’s thoughts on what Meador lays out here are. He might totally agree with Meador that government at some level should try to shape our morality in some way. The important question to me is “which governments should have power over which aspects of morality?” Is the national government the government that should be harnessed to do these things, or governments closer to the people?

    I don’t want a national government so powerful that it is anything but a neutral arbiter of whether a local library has the right to host a drag queen story hour. If it was my local library, I would hope that the local magistrate would say “no, we’re not doing that here” but I don’t want the national government involved in any way other than to protect the right of our community to decide what to host at our library. Mr. Ahmari seems to want a national government powerful enough to stamp out these things.

    This is why it’s unfortunate this debate was focused on and started because of Ahmari’s dislike of draq queen story hour at a local library. It doesn’t really get to the crux of the issue.