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This evangelical leader gave the most important speech about the religious right in the age of Trump

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Week which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.

Donald Trump is a master of humiliation. Mostly he humiliates himself, but he has also humiliated countless people and entities over the course of his life and presidential campaign. If you had to draw up a list, near the top would have to be the religious right.

To say that some of the religious right’s top leaders have beclowned themselves by embracing Donald Trump is an understatement. It’s hard to know even where to begin. Donald Trump practices almost every kind of immorality forbidden by the Bible — and brags about it. He claims to be a Christian, but seems to know nothing about Christianity or show any interest in it. He has said several times that he has never asked God for forgiveness for anything, even though asking God for forgiveness is just about the most basic qualifier of a Christian. Oh, and Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president of the United States.

And yet this is the man many on the religious right embrace — even though it has previously denounced political figures as beyond the pale for lesser slights. To say that this is intellectual and moral bankruptcy is an understatement.

Enter Russell Moore. He may not (yet?) be a household name like a Jerry Falwell Jr., but he is an important man in the religious right. He’s the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. In other word, he’s the “Mr. Politics” of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., one that is evangelical, conservative, and largely based in the Bible Belt. If anything qualifies as a leader of the religious right, this is it.

This week, Moore was invited to give the Erasmus Lecture, a prominent lecture given by the intellectual Christian magazine First Things (a previous honoree was a clergyman named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, better known today as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). And boy, is it a doozy. Moore basically called out the religious right — and particularly his own section of the religious right, conservative, white evangelical Protestantism — for all the flaws that are so glaring to those outside it.

Moore’s speech begins by recounting a spiritual crisis he underwent as a teenager. He had been brought up as an evangelical in the heart of the Bible Belt. But as he grew older he became disenchanted by the hypocrisy and vacuousness that was already apparent then (as it is apparent, in various forms and guises, in every religious community, as Jesus himself pointed out relentlessly), whether it took the form of “voter guides” that seemed eerily to parrot Republican National Committee talking points, except with Bible proof texts attached, or pastors denouncing adultery from the pulpit while honoring benefactors who were notorious adulterers, or literalistic interpretations of Biblical prophecies, always applied to the political controversies of the day. Providentially, Moore found his way to a deeper, more grounded form of Christianity, instead of drifting away from the faith as so many in a similar situation have. But that experience certainly forms the backdrop of his speech.

Moore then goes on to zing the religious right for its hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy. While disagreeing with them, he respects those Christians who are disgusted by Trump, but will hold their nose and pull the lever for him as the lesser of two evils. But, he goes on to note, many religious right leaders have not made that argument, but instead embraced Donald Trump and found excuses for his pandering to white nationalism or bragging about assaulting women. He points out that the same crowd — indeed, in some cases, the very same people or institutions — was calling for figures like Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani to resign over their own infidelities, because a basic moral standard has to be upheld for public figures. They’re the ones who made the argument that political office requires not just having the right positions on issues of public policy, but also meeting a certain threshold of moral character. Yet here we are.

In the most searing line of the speech, Moore concludes: “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

He also points out that this sort of behavior is killing the religious right. He didn’t put it that starkly, but it’s pretty clear that everyone outside the echo chamber can see what phonies they are.

But there’s a bigger problem for the religious right, as Moore notes, which is that on most issues, mainstream American society has moved away from conservative Christianity. The old-line religious right could talk of a “Moral Majority” because it was true that on a set of basic moral issues, most Americans, while not Bible-thumping evangelicals or Aquinas-quoting traditional Catholics, were closer to traditional Christian views than to the progressive left. Which, if your basic duty as a religion is to evangelize people, makes it all the more important to (again, saying essentially the same thing as Moore in less guarded language) not look like money-grubbing, power-hungry, hypocritical sycophants and nincompoops.

The religious right now stands bankrupt. The question is, to pursue the bankruptcy metaphor further, is it a chapter 7 bankruptcy or a chapter 11? Do we shut the whole thing down, or is it possible to come out of the other side healthier, after some painful — no doubt very painful — restructuring?

“What’s at stake here is not just credibility, it’s also the question of whether religious conservatives even want a future,” Moore says.

Moore sees rays of hope for the religious right nonetheless. He points out that, contrary to many predictions, the young have not deserted conservative Christianity. Young people are “packing into orthodox and confessional universities and seminaries” and planting churches left and right, Moore notes. And while those young people may care more than their elders about traditionally progressive issues like racial or environmental justice, it is by no means because they have become liberal. In most cases, they are just as conservative, both theologically and morally, as their forebears.

What’s more, while American millennials have drifted very far from Christianity in many respects, they are “conservative” in others. The millennial generation is no less pro-life than the previous generation. Importantly, tantalizingly, it is also much more anti-divorce than the previous generation, as being the one that lived through the divorce waves of previous generations.

“The evangelicals who are the center of evangelical vitality are also the least likely to be concerned with politics. Not because they’re liberal, but because they want to keep a priority on the Gospel and the mission that they do not wish to lose,” Moore says. This is a sign of weariness with the excesses of the religious right, but also a sign of hope, if it is not pushed too far in the opposite direction.

There’s another thing that the young generation understands, Moore says. Today, many in the religious right and the Bible Belt understand “evangelical Christianity” to mean white evangelical Christianity. But the future of the church is global. In evangelicalism, as well as Catholicism for that matter, the energy in the church is global. By becoming enmeshed with, if not white identity politics per se, then certainly the white culture of the Bible Belt, the religious right has cut itself off from a key source of vitality within Christianity, and has overlooked — if not been downright hostile to — causes that should matter to Christians like racial justice and reconciliation.

So, there are seeds of hope, perhaps. What’s the way out?

In perhaps the most important phrase of the speech, Moore says: “One of the assumptions of some in the old religious right is that the church is formed well enough theologically and simply needs to be mobilized politically.”

Most Christians simply don’t know what they believe and why, and that is killing Christianity. Jacob Lupfer, a scholar of American Christianity, has noticed that within evangelical Christianity, the pro- versus anti-Trump split has come down along lines that are not so much political, or even theological per se, but confessional. “Generic evangelicals or cultural/nominal Protestants go for Trump. Confessional evangelicals are theologically primed to resist him.” By confessional, he means those believers, churches, and institutions that stress preaching and adhering to specific historic Christian creeds. (This also probably explains why Mormons and Catholics, including conservative Catholics, have also tended to be outliers in their rejection of Trump.)

Moore is not calling for a retreat of Christians from politics. The Christian faith calls on believers to regard themselves as strangers in a strange land, and citizens of Heaven first and Earth second, but that “second” matters. They need to serve their fellow men, including through public service and advocacy. Political organizing is good, Moore exclaims at one point. What’s more, it’s not just that Christians need politics, it’s that America needs conservative Christians. As Trump shows, without conservative Christianity, the right will not simply go away, as some progressives might hope, it will become more like the ethno-nationalistic populist right of Europe, and more Nietzchean, Moore warns, rightly in my view.

But for Christians to stop shaming themselves in the public square, let alone start playing a constructive role, they must first become more grounded in their own faith. Christians are supposed to believe in divine providence, so I can only say: from Moore’s mouth to God’s ears.

By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and originally published on October 27, 2016 in The Week and can be found here.

Trump and Hillary, models of fallen human nature

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one Aleteia which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.


Their go-to responses to wrongdoing is deflection and dissimulation rather than repentance

Like many of you I was upset, though unsurprised, by the recently released tape in which Donald Trump brags about sexually assaulting women. However, what scandalized me more was to see how many Christians jumped to defend and downplay Trump’s behavior.

When I expressed dismay on social media about Donald Trump’s behavior, I was accused of being a Hillary supporter and of being indifferent to the pro-life cause. One man called me a “turncoat,” and another person told me I was a “fake nun.” I was told that I needed an exorcism and one man assured me that I would be responsible for Christians being thrown into gulags. And this reaction was tame compared to the response others received.

When Christians look away from any form of evil rather than prophetically calling human nature to a higher ideal we water down the Gospel message. This becomes all the more important in this election because we have two candidates whose behavior often exemplifies precisely what Christians are called to reject. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are mirrors of our own sin and just how far our fallen nature, our culture, and our country can fall. (Please note, I am not presuming to judge our presidential candidates’ moral state before God, who alone knows our conscience, but simply assessing their objective actions).

In the beginning, Adam blamed both Eve and God when he ate the forbidden fruit: “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree” (3:12).

Eve similarly protested: “The snake tricked me, so I ate it” (3:13).

Both our presidential candidates have proven that their go-to response to wrongdoing is deflection and dissimulation rather than repentance. However, Trump and Clinton’s behavior often goes beyond the rationalizations of Adam and Eve and straight to the deliberate deception of the serpent. Hillary Clinton lies in a deliberate way when it seems politically convenient (the email debacle involved lie after calculated lie). Donald Trump’s denials, on the other hand, seem more frequent and instinctual rather than logical. He denies obvious, provable facts on national television without blinking an eye. And his “apologies” inevitably end with excuses and deflections.

When God heard Adam and Eve’s excuses and saw their lack of repentance, he expelled them from the Garden of Eden.

God cautioned Eve of the effects of original sin, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (3:16).

Donald Trump’s life exemplifies this domination, abuse of power, and objectification of women that God warned Eve would happen. Trump has left his wives not once but twice. He’s boasted about his adulterous affairs. He has made multiple comments sexualizing underage girls, including his own daughter. And throughout his entire campaign, when the stakes are highest, Trump seems unable to avoid ridiculing, bullying, and making sexist comments about women. Donald Trump’s ongoing behavior concretely illustrates the way some fallen men treat women.

In the same way, Hillary Clinton exemplifies the fallen woman in her rejection of the feminine genius. As Hillary herself admits, she comes across as cold rather than warm and empathetic. This, no doubt, is related to her attempt to make it in a man’s world. But walling oneself off comes at a cost to both feminine authenticity and one’s moral worldview. Her turning away from the feminine genius further expresses itself in her unreserved support for abortion (a convenient solution for men who live a lifestyle similar to Donald Trump). Hillary also denigrates the feminine vocation to motherhood (which is not just biological) when she argues that babies can be aborted up to minutes before they are delivered. And she excuses fallen masculinity when she lauds the women who accuse Donald Trump of sexual assault while attacking the women who accused her husband.

When Adam and Eve sinned for the first time, their behavior immediately became selfish because their lives ceased to be centered on God.

Hillary and Trump typify behavior that seems centered on the wrong things, especially when it comes to money and power. For example, both run “charity” foundations that seem to do little more than serve their own respective interests. Trump has used his foundation to bribe public officials and to buy a huge 6-foot tall portrait of himself. In fact, Trump did not give a penny of his own money away through the foundation over a five-year period. Likewise, when Hillary was Secretary of State, Bill Clinton’s speaking fees doubled and in some cases tripled, causing many to suspect quid pro quo. Of the 154 people who met with Hillary when she was Secretary of State, at least 85 donated to the Clinton Foundation. It is against the law for foreigners to donate to political campaigns in the United States, yet Hillary accepted foreign donations for the Clinton Foundation from multiple foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia.  Just as troubling, are the leaked emails from the Clinton campaign mocking Catholics.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s questionable behavior and ethics is painfully evident. They both should have been unequivocally rejected as presidential candidates. Tragically, our country is so divided that we cannot unite behind even this obvious fact. Instead, people continue to cling to candidates who represent a ghost of their worldviews. Some people excuse or ignore their preferred candidate’s serious faults, and selectively become enraged when the other candidate does wrong.

But Christians are called to another kind of behavior. We are called to step outside of political situations and to view them within the trajectory of salvation history. We are called to be prophets, to name evil when we see it, and not just when it is the evil of the party opposite to the one we endorse. Unfortunately, like Adam and Eve, many of us instead defend and deflect for our respective candidate. We are fallen human beings and it is easy to lose hope in the radical message of the Gospel. We forget that human nature is called to something more through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. We have lowered the bar so low only a snake can slither through.

When this election is over, no matter who becomes president, we will enter an era of great difficulty for our country. My hope is that Christians will spend more time praying for our new president’s conversion than criticizing him or her. And I hope we will have learned the following lessons: We will never find salvation in a political party and we should be apologists and uncritical cheerleaders for no one but Jesus Christ.

By Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble and originally published on October 18, 2016 and can be seen here.

Vox, derp, and the intellectual stagnation of the left

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one The Week which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.


Several long winters ago, when President Obama was thunderously elected amid Messianic fervor, and much of the right was in the throes of apoplectic confusion, some liberal writers warned of a phenomenon among right-wing intellectuals, which they called “epistemic closure.” The charge was that conservative thinkers had lost the ability to process the idea that the world of 2008 was not the world of the Reagan Era, and more generally to consider new ideas or, really, reality. The word “derp” entered our lexicon to mock forehead-slappingly stupid statements, defined by the liberal blogger Noah Smith as “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors.”

Liberal writers overstated the phenomenon at the time, and there was always a bit of shadow-boxing and concern-trolling there. But they did have a point. Still, even as they were making that point, the smartest writers on the right were already rising to the occasion. A flurry of innovative young writers like Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Tim Carney, and Avik Roy put out fresh, 21st-century ideas on everything from tax reform to health care to social mobility to poverty to curtailing the power of Big Business. Many of these ideas are now compiled in a seminal new book. And many of these ideas have been adopted by the most prominent GOP politicians and presidential candidates. Only with the right leader will the GOP truly embrace what’s been called reform conservatism, but it’s clear that the GOP is becoming the party of ideas again.

Meanwhile, two things are particularly striking about the current Democratic agenda. The first is that it’s so tired. Raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on high earners, tightening environmental regulation — these are all ideas from the ’60s. The second is that nobody on the left seems to be aware of it.

One of the most striking examples of this epistemic closure among liberal writers are their forays into “explanatory journalism.” The idea that many people might like clear, smart explanations of what’s going on in the news certainly has merit. But the tricky thing with “explaining” the news is that in order to do so fairly, you have to be able to do the mental exercise of detaching your ideological priors from just factually explaining what is going on. Of course, as nonliberal readers of the press have long been well aware, this has always been a problem for most journalists. And yet, the most prominent “explanatory journalism” venture has been strikingly bad at actually explaining things in a nonbiased way.

I am, of course, talking about Vox, the hot new venture of liberal wonkblogger extraordinaire Ezra Klein. It was already a bad sign that his starting lineup was mostly made up of ideological liberals. And a couple months in, it’s clear that much of what passes for “explanation” on Vox is really partisan commentary in question-and-answer disguise.

And the troubling thing is, I don’t think the people at Vox are even aware that that’s what they’re doing.

Consider this selection of Voxplainers on ObamaCare. “Millions of Americans are paying less for ObamaCare than cable“; “The best evidence we have that ObamaCare is working“; “Kathleen Sebelius is resigning because ObamaCare has won“; “The right can’t admit that ObamaCare is working.” (The URL slug on the last one: ObamaCare Derangement Syndrome.) Hmmm..

Or take another, related topic: Single-payer health care. What are the arguments for or against single payer? That’s a complex topic! Thankfully Vox‘s Sarah Kliff, former health policy reporter at The Washington Post and a noted progressive, is here to explain. Her post on the topic — which purports to list the arguments against single-payer — does not mention the fact that cancer survival rates and other positive health outcomes are significantly higher in non-single-payer countries than in single-payer countries. It seems relevant. The point is not whether or not single payer is wrong, or that the cancer survival rate point is decisive. The point is that a prominent, talented liberal writer on health policy, asked to make an objective list of arguments against single payer, cannot do justice to the job.

Or take the alleged loss by the IRS — which imposes onerous archiving requirements on all large companies — of certain important emails related to the agency’s targeting of conservative political groups. It certainly looks bad for the IRS. But it’s really conservatives’ fault, says Vox: The IRS scandal shows the IRS needs a bigger budget. Never mind the fact that the IRS already has a $2.4 billion IT budget and countless companies are able to archive emails with much smaller budgets, or that the IRS had a contract with an email backup company. Never mind that the argument for a higher budget is based on the notion that IRS applications rose dramatically before the scandal, which is, um, not true, even according to the liberal website Politifact. Again, the point isn’t to litigate the IRS issue. The point is that Vox often looks more like a right-wing caricature of what a partisan media outlet dressed up as an explainer site would look like, rather than an actual explainer site.

There is no doubt that Klein and Vox are earnest. They are not engaged in some vast conspiracy to deceive the American public and surreptitiously plant liberal ideas in Americans’ brains. Instead, Vox just contains a disturbing amount of, well, derp. (It’s great at sports explainers, though!)

Another symbol of growing epistemic closure on the left is The New Republic, which, under new ownership, has gone from being an idiosyncratic magazine critiquing liberalism almost as often as endorsing it to becoming a liberal mouthpiece, and now has decided to get into the explanatory journalism game. The name of their new vertical? “QED.” The jokes write themselves.

Increasingly, liberal writers have been drinking their own Kool-Aid. They really believe they are the “reality-based community.” When they talk about conservatives they respect, they qualify their praise with “The smart conservative so and so…” — with such “he’s one of the good ones” asterisks betraying the wholly unwarranted assumption on the left that the vast majority of conservatives are crazy, stupid, or both.

And yet, liberals themselves are very rarely capable of passing an Ideological Turing Test. They believe not only that an honest evaluation of the world lines up with their worldview (everyone does, to some extent), but have also forgotten how to differentiate between the honest evaluations and their worldview, or that doing so is even possible, or that their worldview is based on very idiosyncratic moral priors.

Back when epistemic closure was more salient a problem on the right, the liberal writers who pointed it out were mostly genuinely concerned: A healthy polity needs a healthy intellect on both sides of the aisle. The left needs an intellectually vigorous right, and vice versa — so get your act together.

By: Pascal Emmanuel Gobry and originally published in The Week and can be found here.

The Problem with Conservativism

A couple of weeks ago I posted “The Problem with Liberalism” as published First Things (see here).  Here is the companion piece to that article, “The Problem with Conservativism,” below; be edified!


My first conservative experience was in second grade, when I learned America the Beautiful. Verses one and two were merely baffling: I could not picture waves of grain, I could not believe that mountains were purple, and I could not form an association between liberty and pilgrim’s feet. But the third verse broke me like glass and made me an idolater. O beautiful for patriot’s dream, that sees beyond the years, we warbled; thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears. Somehow the song called forth in my childish heart an answering music that I had never heard in church. I seemed to hear the whine of gulls and the murmur of the sea before a white throne; I was afflicted with a sense of the Fall and a longing for the City whose light is the Glory of God. But I misidentified the City. The song sent me questing for Columbia, not the New Jerusalem. I was told to seek in the ideal futurity of my nation what cannot be made by hands.

What then is a Christian to make of conservatism? The danger, it would seem, is not in conserving, for anyone may have a vocation to care for precious things, but in conservative ideology, which sets forth a picture of these things at variance with the faith. The same is true of liberalism. From time to time Christians may find themselves in tactical alliance with conservatives, just as with liberals, over particular policies, precepts, and laws. But they cannot be in strategic alliance, because their reasons for these stands are different; they are living in a different vision. For our allies’ sake as well as our own, it behooves us to remember the difference. We do not need another Social Gospel—just the Gospel.

In a previous essay, “The Problem With Liberalism” (FT, March), I described liberalism as a bundle of acute moral errors, with political consequences that grow more and more alarming as these errors are taken closer and closer to their logical conclusions. Conservatism may be described as another such bundle. The parallel is not perfect, for American culture is balanced at the top of a liberal ridge and is only now considering the descent. Because conservative moral errors have had less time to work among the powers and principalities, we cannot always discern their political consequences. But we can anticipate their fruits by their roots. The moral errors of conservatism are just as grave as those of its liberal opponents.

A minor difficulty in setting forth these errors is the ambiguity of the term “conservatism.” Conservatives come in many different kinds, and their mistakes are equally heterogeneous. I should like to stress, therefore, that not every conservative commits every one of the errors that I describe in the following pages. But there is a common theme. Each kind of conservative opposes the contemporary government-driven variety of social reformism in the name of some cherished thing which he finds that it endangers. One speaks of virtue, another of wealth, another of the peace of his home and the quiet of his street—but although these pearls are of very different luster, none wishes his to be thrown before swine. So it is that conservatives are often able to make common cause, putting all their pearls in a single casket.

The first moral error of political conservatism is civil religionism. According to this notion America is a chosen nation, and its projects are a proper focus of religious aspiration; according to Christianity America is but one nation among many, no less loved by God, but no more.

Our civil religion seems to have developed in four stages. The first stage was the Massachusetts Bay colony. Although the Puritans accepted the orthodox view of the Church as the New Israel, they also viewed it as corrupt. The Church’s role of City Upon a Hill had therefore passed to themselves—to the uncorrupted remnant of the faithful, fled to North American shores. Like the Israelites, they viewed themselves as having entered into a special covenant with God to be His people. The same blessings and curses, however, were appended to their covenant as to the one at Sinai; therefore, warned Governor John Winthrop, should the settlers embrace the present world and prosecute their carnal intentions, “the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us [and] be revenged of such a perjured people.”

The second stage was the colonies just before the Revolution. Increasing unity among the settlers had given rise to a national sense of covenant with God, but the shared experience of English harassment aroused suspicion that the covenant had been breached. Isaiah’s warnings to Israel were invoked by way of explanation: “How is the faithful city become an harlot! It was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.” Preachers like Samuel Langdon declared that if only the people would turn from their sins, God would remit their punishment, purge the nation of wrongdoers, restore a righteous government—and deal with the English.

The third stage was in the early and middle republic. God was still understood as the underwriter of American aspirations, but as the content of these aspirations became more and more nationalistic it also became less and less Christian. It appeared that God cared at least as much about putting down the South and taking over the West as He did about making His people holy; patriotic songwriters like Samuel Francis Smith used expressions like “freedom’s holy light,” but they meant democracy, not freedom from sin.

The fourth stage was the late republic. By this time American culture had become not just indifferent to Christianity, but hostile to it. Conservatives still wanted to believe that the nation was specially favored by God, but the idea of seeking His will and suffering His chastening had been completely lost. President Eisenhower remarked that what the country needed was a religious foundation, but that he didn’t care what it was. President Reagan applied the image of the City Upon a Hill not to the remnant of the Church in America, but to America as such—its mission not to bear witness to the gospel, but to spread the bits and pieces of its secular ideology.

The mistake in all these stages is confusing America with Zion. She is not the inheritor of the covenant, not the receiver of the promises, not the witness to the nations. It may well be that all nations have callings of sorts—specific purposes which God in His providence assigns them. But no nation can presume to take God under its wing. However we may love her, dote upon her, and regret her, the Lord our God can do without the United States.

The second moral error of political conservatism is instrumentalism. According to this notion faith should be used for the ends of the state; according to Christianity believers should certainly be good citizens, but faith is not a tool. To be sure, the pedigree of instrumentalism is not purely conservative; it has followers on the left as well as the right. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, wanted the state to invent a civil religion to his order and then make use of it. Its articles would be proposed “not exactly as religious dogmas” but as “sentiments of sociability without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a faithful subject.” Most instrumentalists, however, are not so fastidious. They are willing to make a tool of whatever religion comes to hand, whether civil, traditional, or revealed. Religious conservatives who pine for the days when jurists called America “a Christian country” and recognized Christianity as “the law of the land” are deeply in error if they think such statements expressed belief; what they expressed was instrumentalism. In those days the religion that came to hand was Christianity (or at least its counterfeit in civil religion), and the speakers were interested primarily in how it could be used. The eminent nineteenth-century jurist Thomas Cooley admitted as much. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, controversial author of America a Christian Country, was only slightly less explicit.

Viewed from this perspective, the contrast between the jurisprudence of yesterday and today is not nearly as sharp as religious conservatives make it out to be. Although language describing Christianity as the law of the land has disappeared from our cases, judges and legislators are just as interested in the social utility of the faith as they were before—and just as indifferent to its truth. Consider for example the 1984 Supreme Court case Lynch v. Donelly, which concerned whether a Christmastime nativity display could be financed by a municipal government. Members of the Court likened erecting a creche to adopting “In God We Trust” as the national motto and opening judicial sessions with the invocation “God save the United States and this honorable Court.” By the comparison, they meant three things.

These acts and declarations have nothing to do with religion. They do not “endorse” the faith, but merely “acknowledge” it, said Justice O’Connor. Indeed they have “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content,” said Justice Brennan. Otherwise, they said, they would be establishments of religion, which are forbidden.

On the other hand, they are socially indispensable. They are “uniquely” suited to serve “wholly” secular purposes (Brennan) which could not reasonably be served in any other way (O’Connor). These purposes include “solemnizing public occasions” (Brennan and O’Connor), “expressing confidence in the future and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society” (O’Connor), and “inspiring commitment to meet some national challenge in a manner that simply could not be fully served if government were limited to purely nonreligious phrases” (Brennan). The last of these purposes is especially interesting—in plain language, it means getting people to do something they would refuse to do otherwise.

In fact, they are a noble lie. Obviously, if the mottoes and creches and so forth had really lost all their religious content they would be completely useless for achieving any purposes whatsoever, secular or otherwise. Our rulers feel free to use them because they have lost religious meaning for them; they work, however, because they retain this meaning for the masses.

The third moral error of political conservatism is moralism. According to this notion God’s grace needs the help of the state; Christianity merely asks the state to get out of the way. We might say that while instrumentalism wants to make faith a tool of politics, moralism wants to make politics a tool of faith; on this reading, what instrumentalism is to secular conservatives, moralism is to religious conservatives. Surprisingly, though, many religious conservatives seem unable to tell the difference. Whether someone says “We need prayer in schools to make the children holy” or “We need prayer in schools to make the country strong,” it sounds to them the same.

Now I am not going to complain that moralism “imposes” a faith on people who do not share it. In the sense at issue, even secularists impose a faith on others”they merely impose a different faith. Every law reflects some moral idea, every moral idea reflects some fundamental commitment, and every fundamental commitment is religious”it proposes a god. Everything in the universe comes to a point. For moralism, therefore, the important distinction is not between religion and secularism, but between faiths that do and faiths that do not demand the civil enforcement of all their moral precepts.

To the question “Should the civil law enforce the precepts of the faith?” the biblical answer is, “Some yes, but some no; which ones do you mean?” The New Testament contains literally hundreds of precepts. However, Christianity is not a legislative religion. While the Bible recognizes the Torah as a divinely revealed code for the ruling of Israel before the coming of Messiah, it does not include a divinely revealed code for the ruling of the gentiles afterward. To be sure, the Bible limits the kinds of laws that Christians can accept from their governments, for “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). However, it does not prescribe specific laws that they must demand from them.

It is not even true that all of God’s commands limit the kinds of laws that Christians can accept. To see this, contrast two such precepts: (1) I am prohibited from deliberately shedding innocent blood; (2) I am prohibited from divorcing a faithful spouse. Both precepts are absolute in their application to me, but that is not the issue. If we are speaking of governmental enforcement, then we are speaking of their application to others. The former precept should require very little watering down in the public square, for even nonbelievers are expected to understand the wrong of murder. That is why I may be confident in condemning the legalization of abortion. But the latter precept requires a good deal of watering down in the public square, for before the coming of Christ not even believers were expected to understand the true nature of marriage. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard,” said Jesus, “but it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8). No doubt the Pharisees to whom He was speaking were scandalized by the idea that their civil law did not reflect God’s standards fully. They must have been even more offended by the suggestion that it was not intended to. Among religious conservatives this suggestion is still a scandal, but it does not come from liberals; it comes from the Master.

Christians, then, may certainly commend a law as good or condemn it as evil. They may declare it consistent or inconsistent with the faith. But not even a good law may be simply identified with the faith; Christians must not speak of a tax code, marriage ordinance, or welfare policy as Christian no matter how much, or even how rightly, they desire its enactment or preservation. That predicate has been preempted by the law of God. The civil law will be Christian—if it still exists at all—only when Christ himself has returned to rule: not when a coalition of religious conservatives has got itself elected.

The fourth moral error of political conservatism is Caesarism. According to this notion the laws of man are higher than the laws of God; according to Christianity the laws of God are higher than the laws of man. With this error we have come back to secular conservatives. The peculiar thing about American Caesarism is that the state never says that its laws are higher than the laws of God; it simply refuses to acknowledge any laws of God, in the name of equal liberty for all religious sects.

George Reynolds, a Mormon living in Utah Territory, was charged during the 1870s with the crime of bigamy. In his defense he argued that the law was an unconstitutional infringement of his free exercise of religion. Accepting his appeal, the Supreme Court disagreed. Although it said all sorts of interesting things about why free exercise of religion is good (and why polygamy is wrong—for instance because it leads to a patriarchal rather than republican principle of authority in government), the heart of the rebuttal was a simple distinction between opinions and actions. Appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation between church and state,” it held that what people believe is the business of the church, but that what they do is the business of the state. Therefore, the First Amendment does not mean that people may act as their religion requires, but only that they may think as their religion requires; free exercise of religion makes no difference whatsoever to the scope of state power over conduct.

Still favored by many conservatives, this doctrine has startling implications. It means, for instance, that in throwing Christians to the lions for refusing to worship Caesar, the Romans did nothing to infringe the free exercise of Christianity; after all, while being devoured, the martyrs were still at liberty to believe that Caesar was only a man.

A century later, in cases involving other religious groups, the Court conceded the point. Announcing its discovery that faith and conduct cannot be isolated in “logic-tight compartments,” it now decreed that “only those interests of the highest order and those not otherwise served can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion.” But this was too much for judicial conservatives, and the experiment was ended in 1992. Writing for the Court in Employment Division v. Smith (II), Justice Scalia appealed to the notion that the issue in free exercise cases is not whether the state’s motives are “compelling,” but whether they are “neutral.” A law that does not expressly single out a particular sect may burden any religious practice to any degree, so long as this burden is “merely the incidental effect” of the law and not its “object.” In other words, repression is fine so long as it is absentminded. Pastoral care and counselling could not be forbidden as such but could be forbidden as an incidental effect of regulations for the licensing of mental health practitioners; the sacrament of baptism could not be forbidden as such but could be forbidden as an incidental effect of regulations for bathing in public places. To be sure, since the recent action of the Court, Congress has reinstated the compelling-interest doctrine, lauding its deed as a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” But surely this is overstatement. After all, even under the compelling-interest doctrine, claims to the free exercise of religion can be swept aside whenever the state thinks its reasons are good enough. So much we would have had without a First Amendment.

As our own times have made clear, even releasing nerve gas in public places can be an exercise of religion. Perhaps the blame for our troubles lies with the Framers, for refusing to distinguish the kinds of religion whose exercise should be free from the kinds of religion whose exercise should not. But, foolishly thinking ignorance a friend of conscience, we have followed their lead. Afraid to judge among religions, we put them all beneath our feet; pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of equal liberty, we tumble headlong into Caesarism.

The fifth moral error of political conservatism is traditionalism. According to this notion what has been done is what should be done; Christianity, however, though it cherishes the unchanging truths of faith, insists that any merely human custom may have to be repented. “That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun,” writes Koheleth, “the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). “Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth; shall ye not know it?” answers God (Isaiah 43:19).

An illustration of the mischiefs of traditionalism may be found in the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the supposed right to take the lives of one’s unborn children. By inventing the right in the first place, the Court had shattered tradition; no such use of lethal violence by private individuals had ever been sanctioned in common law. But Roe v. Wade had stood for twenty years. As far as the Court is concerned, that makes it a new tradition”and as such, unassailable. Amazingly, the Court upheld Roe even while admitting that it might have been decided incorrectly. “We are satisfied,” says the majority, “that the immediate question is not the soundness of Roe’s resolution of the issue, but the precedential force that must be accorded the ruling.”

Just how does an unsound precedent have force? The answer, says the Court, is that “for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized their intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail . . . . An entire generation has come of age free to assume Roe’s concept of liberty.” To put the idea more simply, sex has been separated from responsibility for resulting children for so long that to change the rules on people now would be unfair. Therefore, never mind whether what was done was right; what matters is that it was done.

Moral errors gain their plausibility from the truths that they distort. It is certainly true that precedents, traditions, and customs should not be needlessly disturbed; the gain in goodness from a particular change must always be balanced against the harm of change as such. But this truth applies to the choice between a good law and a still better one, not to the choice between a good law and an evil one. The question to ask about moral evil is not whether we have got used to it, but whether it can be stopped.

The sixth moral error of political conservatism is neutralism. This may come as a surprise, because neutralism also comes in a liberal variety. Whereas the liberal sort of neutralist exclaims, “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” the conservative sort cries merely, “Leave me alone.” In essence, conservative neutralism is the notion that because everyone ought to mind his own business, moral and religious judgments should be avoided. By contrast, while agreeing that one ought to mind his own business‚St. Paul warns three times against busybodies—Christianity holds that moral and religious judgments can never be avoided. They must be straight and true before people can even agree as to what their business is.

Not everyone reaches neutralism by the same route, but conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott follows a well-worn path in deriving it from traditionalism. Conservatives, he says, seek activities whose enjoyment springs “not from the success of the enterprise, but from the familiarity of the engagement.” What makes this disposition intelligible in politics is “the observation of our current manner of living” together with the belief that laws are “instruments enabling people to pursue activities of their own choice with minimum frustration.” But to say this is to reject the view that laws are “plans for imposing substantive activities”; therefore, he holds, conservatism has “nothing to do” with morals or religion.

Of course the conclusion does not follow, and if it were really true then conservatives could make no decisions at all. Rather than being indifferent to questions of good and evil, Oakeshott himself maintains the good of minimizing frustration, and rather than holding no opinion about religion, he holds the opinion that it is better to be ignorant of truth than to be pestered about it. For example he says that people of conservative disposition “might even be prepared to suffer a legally established ecclesiastical order,” but “it would not be because they believed it to represent some unassailable religious truth, but merely because it restrained the indecent competition of sects and (as Hume said) moderated ‘the plague of a too diligent clergy.’” The difficulty is plain: If not by his own moral and religious standards, then how does Oakeshott know that competition is indecent and diligence a plague? Why not condemn complacency and sloth instead?

Not even rules designed to tell what counts as pestering can work in a neutral way. Always we must add others to make them work—and what we add makes a difference to the outcome. Christianity recognizes this. For example, consider the principles of Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty. Each targets the problem of knowing where the business of one party ends and the business of another begins. Subsidiarity, a precept of Catholic social thought, holds that greater and higher social institutions like the state exist just to help lesser and subordinate ones like the family. Therefore, to destroy the lesser institutions, absorb them, or take away their proper functions is “gravely wrong” and a “disturbance of right order.” Sphere subsidiarity is more prominent in Protestant social thought. Ordering social institutions horizontally instead of vertically, it says that each has its own domain, its own authority, and its own ruling norm, for instance love in the case of the family and public justice in the case of the state. Therefore, each should be protected from interference by the others.

Both rules are meant to deal with meddling, but applying either one requires a vast amount of other knowledge, which one must get from somewhere else”just what the neutralist would like to think unnecessary. To test my college students I used to ask, “To which institution would a subsidiarist give the task of instructing children in sexual mores”state or family?” Almost all replied, “The state.” Families need help, they argued, because they do a poor job in this area: They rarely teach children about contraception, sexual preferences, or the many other things which young moderns need to know. I was astonished. Couldn’t my students tell the difference between helping the family and absorbing its functions? On reflection their answer was not astonishing at all. They shared neither Christian presuppositions about what sex is for nor Christian presuppositions about how a family works; why then should they have reached Christian conclusions in applying Christian social principles?

There is nothing exceptional about the principles of Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty; no definition of meddling or intrusion can work in a neutral way. Particular moral and religious understandings are always presupposed, and changing them changes the way our definitions work. It follows that forbidding moral judgments will not keep busybodies out of other people’s hair. Somehow they must learn the meanings of “other,” “people’s,” and “hair.”

The seventh moral error of political conservatism is mammonism. According to this notion wealth is the object of commonwealth, and its continual increase even better; according to Christianity wealth is a snare, and its continual increase even worse. Mammonism is what the Big Tent that some political analysts urge for the Republican Party is all about: ditch the social issues, but hold onto the capitals gains tax reduction. To keep your liberty you have to keep your money.

Christians, of course, are not the only ones to have criticized mammonism. Warnings against the love of wealth were a staple even of ancient pagan conservatism. The idea was that virtue makes republics prosper, but prosperity leads to love of wealth, love of wealth leads to loss of virtue, and loss of virtue makes republics fall. Thus if you want your republic to endure, you will do well to seek a site unfavorable to great prosperity—not too warm, not too fertile, not too close to the trading routes. That our secular conservatives disagree with their ancient counterparts will strike no one as a new idea. Odder is the ease with which modern Christians make their peace with mammonism.

An extreme example is found in the late-nineteenth-century Baptist preacher Russell Conwell, who maintained that to make money is the same thing as to preach the Christian gospel. However that may be, to preach his own gospel was certainly the same thing as to make money. So eager were people to hear his oft-repeated Acres of Diamonds speech that he is said to have earned, over a period of years, perhaps six million dollars from speakers’ fees alone. Though peanuts by the standards of modern televangelists, at the time that was real money. An inventory of Conwell’s more astonishing claims would include at least the following: (1) It is your Christian duty to get rich, and ownership of possessions makes you a better person; (2) The overwhelming majority of rich people are morally upright, and that is exactly why they are rich; (3) It is wrong to be poor, and God does not approve of poor people. That Jesus explicitly contradicts each of these claims (Matthew 6:19–21, Matthew 19:23–24, Luke 6:20) leaves Conwell cold.

A more temperate but still objectionable form of mammonism is found in Toward the Future, a “lay letter” published in 1984 by a committee of prominent Catholic conservatives. Jesus told the story of a master who entrusts his servants with the care of his money while he is traveling to a distant place to receive a kingship. Upon his return, he finds that one servant has buried his share while the other two have made investments. The timid servant he scolds and dismisses, but the bold ones he praises and rewards with yet greater responsibilities. Traditionally the Church has understood this parable to mean that just as a king in this world expects his agents to take risks, not burying his money but investing it to earn a return, so God expects his people to take risks, not burying their gifts but using them to build up the Kingdom of Heaven. By contrast, the lay letter understands it to mean simply that God expects his people to invest their money to earn a return. “Preserving capital is not enough,” the authors teach; “it must be made to grow.” The use of gifts for the sake of the Kingdom becomes the growth of wealth for the sake of wealth.

To be sure, the lay letter’s defense of enterprise is not altogether wrong. Material things are not intrinsically evil, it is not a sin to engage in honest business, and, despite its dubious motivational underpinnings, the capitalist type of economy may well be superior to the alternatives. Indeed the cooperative sort of socialism seems to ignore the circumstance of the Fall, and the compulsory sort cannot even be established without the sin of theft. In a fallen world, much can also be said for the “invisible hand” of the market, by which independent individuals, even though selfish, bring about a social good which was no part of their intention. But even Adam Smith recognizes that the invisible hand does not work unless laborers and businessmen submit themselves to the restraints of justice, and that an interest in wealth alone will not induce them to do so. After all, if winning is all that matters, why keep the competition going at all? Why not use one’s wealth to wring special privileges from the government and so become more wealthy still? Capitalism depends on a moral spirit which it cannot supply and may even weaken; it is, in the most exact of senses, a parasite on the faith. But a Christian parasite is not by that fact Christian.

The eighth moral error of political conservatism is meritism. According to this notion I should do unto others as they deserve. With the addition of mammonism, matters become even simpler, for then those who need help are by definition undeserving, while those in a position to help are by definition deserving. That meritism is not a Christian doctrine comes as a surprise to many people. Large numbers think the meritist motto “God helps those who help themselves” is a quotation from the Bible. What the New Testament actually teaches is that in what we need most, we are helpless; the grace of God is an undeserved gift. According to Christianity I should do unto others not as they deserve, but as they need.

Aristotle taught that vices tend to come in pairs, because one can miss a mark either by way of excess or by way of deficiency—by going too far or by failing to go far enough. That is certainly the case here, for the conservative mistake of meritism stands opposite to the liberal mistake of propitiationism—doing unto others as they want. In fact the commonest way to fall into either mistake is by sheer recoil from the other. The reason is easy to see: We tend to think of justice and mercy as antithetical, so that to practice either I must slight the other. By this line of reasoning the conservative emphasis on desert is a preference for justice, while the liberal emphasis on desire is a preference for mercy. By contrast, in the Christian account of things justice and mercy are corollaries that must be united. They are united in the Atonement because God neither waived the just penalty for our sins nor inflicted it on us, but took it upon Himself. This staggering gift also teaches what the unity of justice and mercy requires: sacrifice. If to us justice and mercy seem irreconcilable, the reason is probably that we are loath to pay the price of their reconciliation; we are afraid of sacrifice and shrink from the way of the Cross.

What does the contrast between meritism and charity look like in ordinary human relationships? Consider the governmental policy of paying women cash prizes for bearing children out of wedlock. Liberals want to continue the policy because they cannot tell need from desire. Meritists propose ending it because the subsidies are undeserved. Although a Christian may accept the cutoff, he cannot accept it for the reason given. All of us at all times need and receive many things that we do not deserve. The problem with the subsidies is that they are not what is needed. They so completely split behavior from its natural consequences that they infantilize their supposed beneficiaries; to infantilize them is to debase them, and no one needs to be debased.

Very well, says the meritist to the Christian, but we both support a cutoff. The rationales differ, but so what? That makes no difference in practice, does it? But it does. After achieving the cutoff, the meritist thinks his work is done, but the Christian thinks his work has only begun. He must now find another way to offer help; and he had better be prepared to pay the price. For a portrait of that price, don’t think of a bureaucrat, think of Mother Teresa.

We have considered what Christians are to make of political conservatism. It might also be asked what political conservatives are to make of Christians. I am afraid that the more faithful we are to our identity in Christ, the less reliable they will find us even as occasional allies; and we must be honest with them. The Christian thinker Michael Novak wrote in his 1969 book A Theology for Radical Politics that because God is the source of all truth and good, whatever is true and good is Christian. At that time finding truth and goodness on the left, he therefore baptized the left. Like many Christians of the time, what he forgot was that in order to identify the true and the good, one must have a standard. “Every explanation of the meaning of human existence,” said Reinhold Niebuhr, “must avail itself of some principle of explanation which cannot be explained. Every estimate of values involves some criterion of value which cannot be arrived at empirically.” By the time he wrote Confessions of a Catholic, fourteen years later, Novak had arrived at the same insight. As he explained, his former self had erred in taking his principle of explanation and criterion of value from a worldly faction instead of the community of faith. The “reference group” of Christian activists like himself had somehow become “others on the left”; it should have been others in the Lord.

To repeat the error would be a shame, for the reference group of Christians can no more be others on the right than others on the left. Citizenship is an obligation of the faith, therefore the Christian will not abstain from the politics of the nation-state. But his primary mode of politics must always be witness. It is a good and necessary thing to change the welfare laws, but better yet to go out and feed the poor. It is a good and necessary thing to ban abortion, but better yet to sustain young women and their babies by taking them into the fellowship of faith. This is the way the kingdom of God is built.

It is not by the world that the world is moved—yet how it pulls. Ah, God, help us let go of the heights and the depths, the thrones and dominions, the powers and principalities; to be not conservatives, nor yet liberals, but simply Christians. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”

By J. Budziszewski and originally published in First Things in April 1996 and can be found here.


The Problem with Liberalism

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.


Believers in the congregation of my youth took for granted that Christianity and liberal politics were opposed. The Bible seemed to back them up; of Lyndon Johnson’s two great wars, for instance, they viewed the first, the war in Vietnam, with enthusiasm because America was a “City upon a Hill,” while viewing the other, the war on poverty, with indifference because “the poor will always be with us.” An antiwar socialist, I rebelled, eventually leaving the faith completely. When in middle adulthood I returned, I found myself in a congregation of a different kind. Here, to my surprise, the believers took for granted that Christianity and liberal politics were brothers. Again Scripture was gleaned for support. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me””obvious backing for the welfare state. “There is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus””a manifesto for feminism. “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him””homosexual activists asked for no more. As a teenager I had hurled some of the same verses against my elders. God had devised a cunning penance.

Of course, both sides were tearing passages out of context and reading into them things that are not there. The City upon a Hill is the Body of Christ, not the United States of America. If the poor will always be with us, then we will always have to care for them. I am expected to look after the least of Christ’s brethren myself, not to have the government send them checks. The apostle who said that in Him there is no male or female also said that in the family their roles are different. And the apostle who said that God is love also claimed for God the authority to define that love.

Unfortunately, knowing these things does not answer the ideological question. Should Christians be political liberals? Or even, to put the query the other way around, Can they be?

In one way, both forms of the question are wrong-headed. According to the letter to the Philippians, our commonwealth is in Heaven, not on earth. In the same vein, the Great Commission shows that the mission of the Church to the world is to preach the gospel, not to underwrite any worldly regime or ideology. Therefore the primary identity of the Christian is in Christ”it cannot be in liberalism, any more than it can be in conservatism, communism, or communitarianism.

But to stop at this truth would be evasive. Although the faith does not mandate any worldly regime or generate any worldly ideology, it does stand in judgment upon worldly regimes and ideologies. Moreover, Scripture makes clear that so long as human institutions do not defy God’s commandments, we are to submit to them. Under a monarchy, submission might mean nothing more than obedience. In a republic, however, submission includes participation, so we have no alternative but to take positions on political questions. Willy-nilly, this involves us in responding to the worldly philosophies by which other people settle such questions.

The result? Even though I am not a duck, I will sometimes seem to quack like a duck. I cannot be a liberal and I cannot even be in strategic alliance with liberals, but I may from time to time find myself in tactical alliance with them”just as with conservatives”defending the cause of particular laws, precepts, or policies that they too approve, but for reasons of their own. To keep my head, I had better be clear about what those reasons are and how they differ from mine. So although we cannot ask whether Christians can or should be political liberals, we can and should ask what Christians are to think of liberalism.

At the threshold of the question we run into another problem. The term “political liberalism” can mean several things. In which sense are we using it here? Its principal meanings are threefold. Broadly, it means constitutional government with a representative legislature and generous liberties. In political economy, it means a competitive, self-regulating market with minimal government interference. Colloquially, it means the contemporary variety of government-driven social reformism. The first sense makes both Senator Kennedy and Speaker Gingrich liberals. The second makes the Speaker a liberal, but not the Senator. The third makes the Senator a liberal, but not the Speaker. For present purposes I use the term in the third.

My thesis is that, even as worldly philosophies go, political liberalism is deeply flawed. We may best describe it as a bundle of acute moral errors, with political consequences that grow more and more alarming as these errors are taken closer and closer to their logical conclusions. I am not speaking of such errors as celebrating sodomy and abortion”for these are merely symptoms”but of their causes. Nor am I speaking of all their causes”for this would require reading hearts”but of their intellectual causes. I am not even speaking of all their intellectual causes”for these are too numerous”but of the most obvious. No claim is here made that every political liberal commits all the moral errors all the time. Nor do I claim that all the moral errors are logically compatible, so they even could all be committed all the time. Certain moral errors support certain others, but others are at odds, so they must be committed selectively. One must not expect logical coherence in moral confusion.

The political implications of the faith are more negative than positive, so rejecting liberalism does not mean accepting conservatism. In the first place, under the influence of a liberal culture conservatives often fall for liberal moral errors too. In the second place, like every worldly ideology conservatism commits heresies of its own. But we can study conservatism another time.

The first moral error of political liberalism is propitiationism . According to this notion I should do unto others as they want; according to Christianity I should do unto others as they need. Numerous mental habits contribute to the propitiationist frame of mind. Most of my college students, for instance, think “need” and “want” are just synonyms. Many also construe the Jeffersonian right to pursue happiness as a right to be made happy by the government. Propitiationism corresponds to a style of politics in which innumerable factions, both organized and unorganized, compete to become government clientele, fighting not only for shares of the public purse (such as grants and loan guarantees) but also for governmental preferences (such as trade barriers and racial quotas) and for official marks of esteem (such as multiculturalist curricula and recognition of homosexual unions). Of course, in a representative system every government functionary, whether liberal or not, finds it difficult to resist group pressures. Propitiationism, however, reinforces the habit of giving in by making capitulation a moral duty.

Christians can slip into propitiationism by misunderstanding the Golden Rule. This happens when we read Do unto others as you would have them do unto you as though it implied Do unto others as they would have you do unto them -“I’d want others to honor my demands, so I should honor theirs.” The mistake lies in overlooking the fact that the “you” to whom the precept is addressed is a free subject of the kingdom of heaven, not a stranger. We are therefore speaking of what in Christ we would have others do unto us”to minister to our godly needs, not to our foolish or sinful wants. Unto others we should minister in the same way. It follows that keeping the Golden Rule may even mean saying “No” or suggesting a better way. Jesus instructs us to feed the poor, and so we should; but Paul says to the church at Thessalonica, “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”

To be sure, it is easier to see the need to say “No” to a greedy industrialist who wants the government to protect him from honest competition than to a teen mother who wants to marry the government instead of a man. Both want what is bad for them, yet he is likely to get much more of what he wants but doesn’t need than she is. The sloppy sort of compassionator is tempted to say, “If he gets what isn’t good for him, then it’s only fair that she should get what isn’t good for her.” But to give it to her might be to take her sole beatitude away. Find another way to help her. Blessed are those who cannot pay the entry fee to Hell.

The second moral error of political liberalism is expropriationism . According to this notion I may take from others to help the needy, giving nothing of my own; according to Christianity I should give of my own to help the needy, taking from no one. We might call expropriationism the Robin Hood fallacy. Today, the expropriationist is usually a propitiationist too, confusing the needy with some subset of the merely wanty. So we are speaking of a style of politics in which the groups in power decide for us which of their causes our wealth is to support, taking that wealth by force.

Many Christians seem to miss the point, thinking that expropriation is wrong just because the wrong groups are in power, choosing the wrong causes for subsidy. This is where the horror stories are offered, and horrible they are: of subsidies to promote abortion, subsidies to photograph crucifixes in jars of urine, subsidies for all sorts of wickedness and blasphemy. But expropriation would be wrong even if each of its causes were good. Consider the following progression.

1. On a dark street, a man draws a knife and demands my money for drugs.

2. Instead of demanding my money for drugs, he demands it for the Church.

3. Instead of being alone, he is with a bishop of the Church who acts as bagman.

4. Instead of drawing a knife, he produces a policeman who says I must do as he says.

5. Instead of meeting me on the street, he mails me his demand as an official agent of the government.

If the first is theft, it is difficult to see why the other four are not also theft. Expropriation is wrong not because its causes are wrong, but because it is a violation of the Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.

But how, one may ask, can government steal? We live in a republic; aren’t we therefore just taking from ourselves? No, not even in a republic are the rulers identical with the ruled, nor for that matter are the ruled identical with each other; if we were just taking from ourselves, there would be no need for the taking to be enforced. Then is it wrong for government to tax at all? No, government may certainly collect taxes for the support of its proper work; that work, however, is not the support of all good causes, but merely punishing wrongdoers and commending rightdoers. So Peter teaches in his first letter (2:13-14).

If government were to end its subsidy of good causes, wouldn’t these good causes suffer? Not necessarily; they might even thrive. Marvin Olasky has shown in The Tragedy of American Compassion that government subsidy itself can make good causes suffer, for in taking money by force one weakens both the means and the motive for people to give freely. Not only that, government usually distorts good causes in the act of taking them over. But what if the causes did depend on the proceeds of theft? Should we do evil, that good may come? When some people accused Paul of teaching this doctrine, he called the charge a slander. There is no such thing as a tame sin that will do only what we want it to, going quietly back into its bottle when we have finished with it. Sin is no more like that than God is. In politics, no less than in private life, it ramifies.

The third moral error of political liberalism is solipsism . According to this notion human beings make themselves, belong to themselves, and have value in and of themselves; according to Christianity they are made by God, belong to Him, and have value because they are loved by Him and made in His image. “Your eyes shall be opened,” said the serpent, “and ye shall be as gods.” Solipsism holds that we already are.

Political liberalism was not always solipsistic, but the change has hardly been noticed. John Locke in 1688 and Immanuel Kant in 1797 both held that we are not to use others merely as means to our ends. And yet though one can read in many books that they were saying the same thing, Locke gives as his reason that we are here to serve God’s ends, while Kant gives as his that each of us is an end himself. Locke therefore roots our dignity in God, while Kant makes us out to be gods ourselves. The two thinkers turn out to be as far apart as two thinkers can be.

Some might say the difference makes no difference; after all, Kant did reach the same conclusion as Locke, did he not? Say rather that he purported to. As we might have guessed from social conditions among the pagan deities, that is not the end of the story. Olympus was a world of irresistible forces and immovable objects. The gods deserved everything, but owed nothing. While expecting divine honors, they did whatever they could get away with. Solipsism produces the same result. Not everyone can have unconditional value, so beneath the high public language of equal concern and respect some become more equal than others. Because mothers are not to be means to their babies’ survival, their babies become means to their mothers’ control over their pregnancies. Because speakers are not to be means to their listeners’ purity, their listeners become means to the speakers’ pleasure in filth. Because patients are not to be means to the quiet of their doctors’ consciences, their doctors become means to their patients’ desire to die.

As surely as cider makes vinegar, solipsism made this evil. It would have done so even if it were true that being ends in ourselves keeps us from viewing others as means to ourselves. The mere idea of Not Using Others cannot produce a moral code, for only by the light of a moral code can we tell what counts as using others.

Christianity does not suffer from this vicious circle. Our faith takes its code from the one Who alone possesses unconditional value, yet Who sacrificed Himself that we may live, commanding that we love one another, not according to our own ideas, but as He has loved us.

The fourth moral error of political liberalism is absolutionism . According to this notion we cannot be blamed when we violate the moral law, either because we cannot help it, because we have no choice, or because it is our choice; according to Christianity we must be blamed, because we are morally responsible beings. Of course absolutionism cannot be practiced consistently, nor would it be so convenient to its practitioners if it could.

For example, a father may be absolved of child abuse because he was abused as a child himself; because of the abuse, however, the child may be absolved of murdering his father, and in this case the father is not absolved. A sodomist and a bully both may be absolved because of predisposing factors in their family or genes, but if the bully beats the sodomist, then the sodomist is absolved but not the bully. A woman may be absolved of leaving her husband because she feels trapped in the marriage, but a man is not absolved of leaving his wife for the same reason, because that would be sexist. A young man may be absolved of smashing a brick into a person’s head in the excitement of a riot, but not of doing so in the excitement of a gang war: unless the motive is political, in which case he is absolved if he is a Freedom Fighter, but not if he is a Terrorist. Finally, in a reversal of vicarious atonement, the critics of absolutionism are blamed for the sins of those whom they refuse to absolve.

Nowhere does Scripture say that to know all is to forgive all. Rather it says that on the Day of Wrath, everything secret will be known and everything in darkness will come to light. Nevertheless, Christians get pulled into absolutionism by all sorts of ropes. Ours is a God of mercy . Yes, but He is also a God of judgment. These two qualities are united by the atoning sacrifice of Christ, of which we cannot avail ourselves unless we repent. Christ has commanded us not to judge . Yes, but we are not commanded not to judge acts; we are only commanded not to judge souls. We know which acts are wrong because He has told us; we don’t know which souls will repent because He hasn’t. God loves everyone . Yes, and that is why He wants to save us from our sins. We are not saved by good deeds, but we are certainly saved for them. God does not overlook our wrongdoing; He forgives it when we turn in faith to Christ.

In the final analysis, absolutionism is cruel, not compassionate; harsh, not lenient; malicious, not magnanimous. It speaks of mercy, but shuts out God’s grace by teaching that we have no need for it. It speaks of forbearing from judgment, but its main use is to demonize class enemies. It speaks of love, but justifies evil. God forgive us for thinking there is nothing to forgive.

The fifth moral error of political liberalism is perfectionism . According to this notion human effort is adequate to cure human evil; according to Christianity our sin, like our guilt, can be erased only by the grace of God through faith in Christ. Perfectionists also think the cure can be completed in human time. Some even believe it can be arranged for whole societies at once. By contrast, the faith teaches that God must start over with each person, and that although guilt is erased immediately, the cure of sin is not complete until the next life.

Perfectionism is rich in consequences. The war to end all wars that ushered in a century of wars, the war on poverty that spent trillions of dollars but left poverty untouched, the war on unhappiness that enriched assorted gurus while rates of suicide soared, these are but its nuts and berries. According to the faith, its final fruit is unending darkness. Yet though emptied of Hope, perfectionism is full of hopes. “Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.” “Humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.” “Man sets himself only such problems as he is able to solve.” Statements like these were once considered extreme; the first and second are from the Humanist Manifestos, the third from Karl Marx. Yet today such sentiments are the boilerplate of liberal speechmaking. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined what we can build,” the current President has prophesied, misquoting Paul and Isaiah.

Christians bear some responsibility for the advent of perfectionism. For instance, today’s believer does not often hear that Love is a disposition of will toward good, Faith a disposition of reason toward revealed truth, and Hope a disposition of longing toward Heaven. Once he has followed nonbelievers in using the first word for an emotion and the second for something inimical to reason, there is nothing much to stop him from using the third for complacency about the course of this present, broken world.

Other slidepaths to perfectionism are just as well traveled. Some people even think Jesus was a perfectionist; did He not urge us to be perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect? But the Greek word translated “perfect,” teleioi , means merely “complete,” meaning that we are not to stop at half measures but grow up to full maturity. Thus John, who ought to have known what the Master meant, wrote in his first letter that if any man says he has no sin, he deceives himself, and the truth is not in him. Nor is perfectionism to be found in biblical prophecy. True, some Christians distort the prophecy of the millennium”the thousand-year reign of the martyrs with Christ”into the idea that worldly suffering will diminish and finally disappear through human social reform. But the text of the Revelation says nothing of such things.

One sometimes hears that perfectionism is a prerequisite for pity”as though one offers a cup of cold water to a thirsty child only because he foresees an ultimate victory in the War on Thirst. On the contrary, one takes pity for the love of souls, not for the love of abstractions; moreover, one takes it because these souls are suffering, not because he expects suffering to end. Perfectionism is more likely to annihilate pity than to heighten it. All for the sake of paradise, the tyrants of our generation stacked bodies higher than Nimrod stacked bricks; yet they came no nearer heaven than he did.

The sixth moral error of political liberalism is universalism . According to this notion the human race forms a harmony whose divisions are ultimately either unreal or unimportant; according to Christianity human harmony has been shattered by sin and cannot be fully healed by any means short of conversion.

The argument that human divisions are unreal is usually some form of pantheism. According to the Eastern way of putting it, all is in God”the obvious consequence of which is that God includes evil. For instance, the psychiatrist Carl Jung taught that Christians are mistaken in worshiping God as Trinity. Instead they ought to worship Him as “Quaternity,” the fourth Person of Godhood being Satan”a dog in the manger if ever there was one. For this some praise Jung as more “spiritual” than Freud. Most Westerners, though, prefer a formula that suppresses such unsettling conclusions: not “all is in God,” but “God is in all.” Thus George Fox taught that the “light of Christ” resides within each person already. By making such divisive steps as conversion unnecessary, this would seem to hold out hopes of bringing people together; actually it makes the origin and persistence of our divisions wholly mysterious.

The argument that human divisions are unimportant is usually some form of myopia. In one version, everyone is just like me”my class, my set, my outlook. We may all seem to want different things, but deep down we all really want the same thing and seek the same God. This is the stuff of beauty pageants and Robert Fulghum books. In another version, we are all different, but that is all right because it takes all sorts. Each ingredient adds its flavor to the salad. We are the world. This is the stuff of rock telethons and multicultural curricula.

Such delusions are almost cruelly easy to explode. Did the Nazis want the same as their victims? Did they seek the same God? Did it take both sorts to make a world? Our wants are different”wealth, redemption, power, death, revenge. Our Gods are different”Yahweh, Allah, Krishna, Kali, Volk. Even our sins are different”lewdness, envy, pride, resentment, sloth. God has placed in all hearts a longing for Himself, but not every way in which we try to satisfy this longing is a search for God. A diversity of gifts has been strewn among the children of men, but not every vice or twist of the children of men is a gift. In Christ there is no slave or free, no Greek or Jew; but there are slave and free, and there are Greek and Jew.

In our time, the universalist fallacy has even given rise to a new type of professional, the “facilitator,” whose bag of tricks for uncovering supposed latent unity is more and more familiar. Some of these, like active listening and decision by consensus, can be useful at times. Others, like unconditional inclusiveness, spell disaster if taken literally. What happens when they are imposed where a basis for unity is presumed that does not in fact exist? Various things; for instance the parties may stall, fly apart, or reach conspicuous agreement about points that are not at issue. At least these outcomes are straightforward. But just as often the technology of reconciliation becomes a technology of domination, more subtle than most, whose adepts simply bamboozle those who cannot talk the talk.

The seventh moral error of political liberalism is neutralism . According to this notion the virtue of tolerance requires suspending judgments about good and evil; according to Christianity it requires making judgments about good and evil. We can break neutralism into three components. According to the Quantitative Fallacy, the meaning of tolerance is tolerating; therefore, the more you tolerate, the more tolerant you are. According to the Skeptical Fallacy, the best foundation for tolerance is to avoid having strong convictions about good and evil; therefore, the more you doubt, the more tolerant you are. According to the Apologetic Fallacy, if you can’t help having strong convictions the next best foundation for tolerance is refusing to express or act upon them; therefore, the more pusillanimous you are, the more tolerant you are.

Closely examined, each fallacy explodes itself. If you really believe that the meaning of tolerance is tolerating, then you ought to tolerate even intolerance. If you really believe that the best foundation for tolerance is to avoid having any strong convictions at all about right and wrong, then you shouldn’t have a strong conviction that intolerance is wrong. If you really believe that when you do have strong convictions you should refuse to express or act upon them, then your tolerance should be a dead letter; it should be one of the things you are pusillanimous about.

But if consistent neutralism is self-refuting, then why is it so persistent? How is it possible for it to live on in our newspapers, on the television, in the schoolroom, and even in the pulpit? There are two main reasons for its vigor. The first reason is that it is never practiced consistently. Rather it is used selectively as a weapon for demoralizing Christians and other opponents. For the neutralist too has strong convictions; it’s just that his convictions aren’t the ones he says one shouldn’t act upon. Consistent neutralism would hold that if it is intolerant to express the conviction that unborn babies should not be torn from the womb, then it is also intolerant to express the conviction that they may be torn from the womb. By contrast, selective neutralism remembers itself only long enough to condemn the defenders of life.

The second reason for the vigor of neutralism is that it encourages the illusion that we can escape from moral responsibility for our beliefs and decisions. “I am innocent of this man’s blood; it is your responsibility””in these words Pilate implied that one can authorize a wrong without taking sides. “I am neither for nor against abortion; I’m for choice””this statement is based on the same view of responsibility as Pilate’s. Indeed in trying to evade our choices we set ourselves not only against the laws of conscience but also against the laws of logic, for between two meaningful propositions X and not-X there is no middle ground; if one is true, the other is false. Even the pagans knew that.

What then is the truth about tolerance? The meaning of this virtue is not tolerating per se, but tolerating what ought to be tolerated. Practicing it means putting up with just those bad things that, for the sake of some greater good, we ought to put up with. We aren’t practicing the virtue when we fail to put up with bad things that we ought to put up with, such as the expression of false opinions in debate; nor are we practicing it when we do put up with bad things that we ought not to put up with, such as rape. But making such distinctions requires knowing the truth about goods, bads, and greater goods. There is nothing neutral about that. It requires that we avoid not strong convictions, but false convictions; it requires not refusing to act, but acting. As Abraham Kuyper, J. B. Phillips, and C. S. Lewis have said in nearly identical words, “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”

The eighth moral error of political liberalism is collectivism . According to this notion the state is more important to the child than the family; according to Christianity the family is more important to the child than the state. To be sure, collectivists do not usually put their point so bluntly. A good example of hypocrisy and circumlocution is found in a court case from 1980.

In that year, the Supreme Court of the state of Washington ruled that lower courts had been right in granting fifteen-year-old Sheila Sumey’s request to be taken from the Sumey home and placed in another that was more to her liking. The Sumeys were not unfit, and Sheila had not been mistreated; these points were not even at issue. Under the 1977 statute, all Sheila had to do was say that she was in “conflict” with her parents, and go on saying it after state-imposed counseling had run its course. Her “conflict” was that she disagreed with her parents’ rules that she stay away from drugs and dealers, abstain from sex and alcohol, and be home every night at a reasonable hour. Mr. and Mrs. Sumey called the statute unconstitutional. The court, however, defended it as a “means for providing social services to the family and nurturing the parent-child bond.” The intrusion on parental rights was “minor,” it declared, because Sheila would have to petition every six months if she wanted to stay away from her parents for the rest of her minority. Although “the family structure is a fundamental institution” and “parental prerogatives are entitled to considerable legal deference,” these prerogatives must yield to “fundamental rights of the child or important interests of the State.”

Before collectivism, our family law was based on a philosophy that ran something like this. Growing up takes time, and until the process reaches its end children are not fully capable of deciding what is best for them. Moreover, the family is a more fundamental institution than the state, based on a closer harmony of interests among its members. From these premises we may conclude that in normal families, during the period while children are growing up, their parents may be trusted to act in their best interests. It follows that the state should not intervene except on evidence that the parents are acting abusively. In other words it should confine itself to the restraint of wickedness rather than trying to absorb the functions of the family.

The regnant political class is increasingly unhappy with this approach to growing up. Implicit in the position of the Washington court is the thought that of the two human institutions, family and state, the state is the more fundamental, and that normal families are characterized by conflict rather than harmony of interests between parents and children. From these premises the court concludes that parents should not be trusted to act in their children’s best interests, and that therefore the state may intervene even when there is no evidence that parents are acting abusively.

Collectivism hides in a forest of reassuring bromides. “It takes a whole village to raise a child,” the secular intone; “Every child is my child,” the pious drowsily respond. Of all these deceptions the language of “children’s rights” is the most brilliant”and also the most daring, for in no imaginable world would children be competent to exercise their “rights” themselves. The primary decision maker in the life of a child must always be, and always is, someone else: if not parents, then the state. So, although most rights limit the reach of the government, so-called children’s rights increase it. They do nothing to empower children; they only empower mandarins.

I am reminded of an election-year scuffle between a father, who was also a candidate, and a social service functionary. “No government bureaucrat could love my children as I do,” the father said. “That’s not true,” protested the functionary, “I love them just as much.” “What are their names?” asked the father.

People do wrong, and I have to do something. People are unhappy, and I have to do something. People are foolish, and I have to do something. I will absolve them. I will give them things. I will take their children. At last we come to the ninth and most mysterious moral error of political liberalism: the fallacy of desperate gestures . Though it mixes with all the others, it is different from each of them, different even from perfectionism, with which it is often confused. The perfectionist acts, at least in the beginning, from a desire to relieve someone else’s pain. The desperationist acts to relieve his own: the pain of pity, the pain of impotence, the pain of indignation. He is like a man who beats on a foggy television screen with a pipe wrench, not because the wrench will fix the picture but because it is handy and feels good to use.

Not long ago I sat up late listening to two friends debate. The first maintained that federal antipoverty policies were an engine of misery, which had bought off the poor with checks and coupons while undermining their families and fossilizing them in permanent dependence on the government. For a while the second denied the charge, but his denials were half-hearted and at last he conceded it. Whether the state is really doing more harm than good is not my present point; perhaps he should have held his ground. But the interesting thing is what happened next.

Having admitted that the federal antipoverty policies were doing harm, he defended them anyway. “What do you propose doing instead?” he demanded. “Nothing?” My other friend replied that he meant no such thing, and spoke of what people could do individually and through the churches. Friend one was contemptuous. “Government is unique,” he said. “You cannot convince me that mere charity can take its place.” “I don’t want it to,” said friend two. “We’ve already agreed that government hurts instead of helping. Besides, I’m not trying to end poverty. I don’t know how. I’m just trying to help where I can reach.” Friend one was unmoved. “We have to do something,” he said, and so he went on repeating.

The two friends were at cross-purposes. The rule of the first was “Do no harm, and help where possible”; of the second, “Better to harm magnificently in the name of help, than to help but a little.” Not that he would have put it that way. He was medicating his pity with symbols, and the power of the drug depends on self-deception.

Here lies the power of political liberalism: Its moral errors are fortified with opiates. We may think that reality will break through the dream by itself, but reality is not self-interpreting; the causes by which errors are eventually dissipated and replaced by other errors are hidden in God’s Providence. All we can do is keep up the critique which is in the gospel, and in the meantime go on being Christians: our eyes lifted up not to the spectacular idol of political salvation, but to the Cross. Let those who will call this doing nothing; we know better.

By J. Budziszewski and originally published in First Things in March 1996 and can be found here.

It’s High Time White Christians Listen to our Black Brothers and Sisters

Here is an article by Jonathan Merritt in On Faith & Culture regarding the recent police shootings and how he thinks white Christians ought to approach these issues.  He provides very interesting and thought provoking perspectives and it is worth checking out here.

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