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Odeurs Agréables et Mauvaises
Sunday, December 19, 2010, 11:06 AM

Yesterday my daughter Martha sent me a link to a beautiful King's College Cambridge performance of the hymn Thou Who Wast Rich, which in French is the carol Quelle est cette Odeur Agréable, suggesting it might fit nicely in one of the tunes in the famous 1940 Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church.  Not all the hymns in this book are equal, and it could use supplementation, but many of us still regard it as the finest in English.   

This set me to thinking that if there is ever a great hymnal published in the future, whether it is likely to be the job of a single individual, assisted and advised, but not interfered with, by others.  In the nature of the case, it seems to me that such a genius –and I use this word in the classical sense of "the possessor of a peculiar gift"–may be what is required for a result that in its inevitable imperfection is nevertheless great.  Only with the greatest rarity do committees of equals (in fact no such thing exists), produce what is needed in cases like this.  And this is the great age of the committee, an age to which bald recognitions of inequality–although the necessary practices of inequality remain–are anathema.  (It's all in St. Dilbert.)

The modern furor for the group-project set of mind is inculcated in children by the schools from their early years.  Although in some cases, on some levels, it is appropriate, in many where it is imposed, it is not.  It discourages talent, rarely serves whom it is supposed to help, and tends to produce mediocre results.  In my opinion, those who wish to advance by means of group projects should be required to show (1) that the method is well-designed to serve a clearly defined result, and (2) the necessity for the directed body to have a head has been adequately provided for.

One encounters numerous studies that contradict the prejudices of my experience on this account, demonstrating the desirability and success of such collaboration–and as such recognizing that it is something that needs to be defended.  What I suspect in the examples given is that the project is of such a nature that it does not require someone with supervisory authority (rare), or that those involved are of such single-minded accord that it, as it were, supervises itself (rarer still), or that those making the report are ignoring or concealing the almost inevitable lines of authority that normally and necessarily emerge when people collaborate.  This, I suspect, is what is usually happening. 

My most striking encounter with this kind of thinking was in knocking heads with the ideological authorities (!) of National Association Congregationalism.  In striving to achieve a pure form of congregationalism (unknown to the Congregationalists either in Salem or Plymoth), conventional pastoral authority was discouraged by undermining its basis in prescriptive doctrine.  By this removal, these blundering tinkerers produced power vacuums that were readily filled by those with an interest in filling them–frequently with disastrous results.  I don't know if the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches still bears the dubious distinction of being the fastest shrinking American denomination, but it once did.  There are reasons for this I think connected to their romantic notions about the way groups operate. 

God seemed to have been trying to tell us something when he established the teleological creature in the image and likeness of himself: not with no head, or an unofficial and imperceptible head, or two heads, or a multiplicity of heads, but one. (And yes, I do believe that the pope is our head pastor–which belief is quite insufficient  to make one a Roman Catholic.)

Mother Christmas
Saturday, December 18, 2010, 9:23 AM

No faith that believes man is an eternal being can fail to exalt motherhood.  Indeed, the Christian faith has done this almost to embarrassment in its regard for the Mother of its Lord.  Whether the Christian believes all the traditional stories told of her, behind the faith of all who call her blessed lies the instinct of the greatness of her vocation and office that so easily flows into belief about her person, the hindrances to that flow lying (I believe) not in the progression of Marian logic, but a conservative and fairly unimaginative interpretation of the biblical narrative.  In a sense Protestantism is very un-Christmaslike (Christmas being the most imaginative of our feasts) and we Protestants should remain at least as suspicious of its proclivity to unbelief as we are about Catholic efflorescence. 

This darker kind of interpretation is very unpopular with most of the faithful, and understandably so, not necessarily because they are irresponsible or enthusiastic, but because a good instinct moves them to fear what would, failing in exaltation of Mary, take away blessed motherhood at whose head she stands.  They believe, with all Christians, that every mother is the human wellspring of an undying universe and all its potentialities, and that her bearing and nurturing of her children is the crèche-laying of an eternal foundation.

Feminism does not believe in God, at least not the God of Christians.  In its fathomless vanity it wants women to fulfill their potential in secular occupations, especially those in which they can prove they are as good or better than men.  In doing this it not only denies the principal glory of womanhood, but also what good men know: that all vocations, including motherhood, have meaning and value only so far as they labor to see the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven.

Merry Christmas to you all–to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.


Voices from Ramah
Tuesday, December 14, 2010, 7:54 AM

Russell Moore, who comes from a region of the country where there are two kinds of Northerner, the Yankee and the Damned Yankee, may agree with me that Evangelicals seem to be similarly divided.  To “get my blood going” the other day, he sent me a link to this posting by Alan Johnson that “summarizes a recent panel discussion at the ETS [Evangelical Theological Society], with final comments by I. Howard Marshall.”

It appears that “much anguish is felt by women whose God-given talents [we are speaking here, of course, primarily of the God-given talent of preaching at men, which it cannot be denied nearly all of them possess] have been denied expression.”  The first point of Marshall’s summary of lamentations pretty much covers the rest.  It is,

The inability of complementarians to provide any coherent and persuasive reasons for denying women these positions in church—women are asked to accept a scriptural command simply because it is God’s will even if they cannot understand why it is so.

I hope it is plain enough that what this really means is "our fingers are in our ears with regard to your opinions, but we insist you keep on listening to ours."  

Whether one accepts "complementarian" arguments or not, no reasonable person, having actually listened to them, can identify them as incoherent.  What strange, little sectarian world do people inhabit who cannot understand the reasoning in, for example, Mulieris Dignitatem?  To be sure, all this traditionalist gabble makes no sense in the context of egalitarian presupposition, but this is quite beside the point on the more fundamental question of whether egalitarianism itself is or can be Christian–if, that is, Christianity is to be defined by its scriptures and its history.  What we have described here is women for whom the Christian faith causes anguish.  They, in the wrenching pain of their souls, join many others.

To assuage that pain egalitarians are attempting to reinvent the faith from the Trinity on down.  Blaming their opponents of prooftexting from scripture (that is to say, interpreting the classical loci in the customary way), they impose bizarre interpretations on it and comb church history for the tiniest crumbs of evidence of their rectitude.  When they find something they think will do for their purposes, they typically remove it from context, distort it beyond recognition, and tell us something has been suppressed or misunderstood for several thousand years until they brought us the light.  The “Evangelical” normally avoids crossing the “The Bible is Just Plain Wrong” line, since in that tradition it would identify him as a liberal and lose him his funding.  Most, however, at the end of the day, admit they just can't work with St. Paul.  That he is, and has always been regarded by the Church, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, whose "opinions" (except where he says they’re not) are constituitive, must be in some way disposed of.  Touchstone has chronicled several of their more creative approaches to the problem.

The egalitarians join heretics of every stripe for whom Christianity has been incoherent, anguishing, unfair, illogical (the Arians had deep problems with that), backwards, bloody, too Jewish, too Gentile, pacifistic, patriarchal, too strong, too weak, or whatnot, and actually, as here, have thought that the umbrage they take gives them, in measure to the intensity of the pain they profess to feel, the right to change it to something they like better and still call themselves Christians. 

I know, I know–how can you say this about these fine orthodox people who are so fond of “Jesus” and so damned Evangelical?  Well, somebody has to.

Architecture and Aesthetic
Friday, November 12, 2010, 3:54 PM

Lately I have been reading, with profit and enjoyment, Glenn W. Olsen’s masterly The Turn to Transcendence (CUA Press, 2010). With regard to modern styles of church architecture (pp. 292-3), the complaints of its critics, he says,

often resulted in an uncritical rejection of the new, but what the more serious critics of modernism targeted . . . was an architecture which had forgotten its purpose. The goal of much ‘modern’ ecclesiastical architecture seemed to be the reaction of an abstract space so denuded of iconic connections with the past that the church building evokes more a sense of puzzlement than of mystery.

He goes on to cite Sidney Callahan’s lament on “the sterility and lack of mystery and sacramentality of many contemporary (American) churches”:

In a real cathedral or church my spirit expands if there are dim corners where worshippers can pray privately before illuminated icons and banks of vigil lights . . . . Without this transcendent eschatological dimension of worship, fully embodied in art, music, beauty, ritual, and sacred space, Cromwell wins. . . . Habitual exposure to the stripped-down aesthetic of a school cafeteria or supermarket presents peculiar difficulties for the spirit.

Surely Christians interested in truth and beauty would be dismayed at a secularized aesthetic imposed on the places they meet for worship (all understanding that, faut de mieux, Christians can worship anywhere). And one can certainly sympathize with someone who, loving large iconic banquets, feels that the minimizing of Christian symbolism in churches is also the minimalization of their Christianity.

But what would he say of the New England meeting house with its bright, white clapboards, its place at the head of the green with surrounding oaks and maples, so glorious in the autumn, the Lord’s Table with the people and below the high pulpit for the declaration of the Word, with the light from its windows playing over woody sanctuary, reverberating with Psalms? Can one find the ghost of Cromwell here? And if so, is it a maleficent spirit? Have the altars indeed been stripped in accordance with the dictates of secularism or anti-religion–or have the objects of idolatry simply been removed so God can more readily be worshipped in spirit and truth?

We must take great care here not to divide from each other unnecessarily, in unreflective reaction to identify another form of beauty as ugliness in mere accordance with our tastes–without surrendering to the temptation to relinquish the judgment we are always called upon to make on what is good, true and beautiful, and so also necessarily on what is bad, false, and ugly.

Let us agree that beauty and truth may be given in complexity or simplicity, and let us also agree that there is no Christian worship apart from a full table of the symbols of our faith. Then we may go on to ask what is really happening in the worship. Might we also agree that every discrete set of tastes and tendencies has its own potential idolatries and sectarian (that is, heretical) temptations? In other places I have suggested that the “catholic” tendencies, as exemplified in the Callahan quotation above, are those of the jungle, and the “protestant” ones, for which he uses Cromwell as a symbol, those of the desert–one, the tendency to overproliferate and the other, in reaction, to denude.

This does not call for a via media as the Christian standard, but understanding and wisdom–not the study of art and artifice, or lack thereof, in and of themselves–but of what these are doing among the people. While secularity, simple or complex, is un-Christian, neither symbolic copiousness nor parsimony in or of themselves are indications of it.

The judgment that must be made is of a spiritual nature and is a pastoral responsibility.  I believe it is possible that, despite frequent failures in our history in this regard (the iconoclastic controversy rages as fiercely as ever it has), it is possible, in the Spirit–given who He is–for credally united pastors to agree, and to say on such matters, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . . .” 

Ya Gotta Be Sincere
Sunday, October 17, 2010, 2:49 PM

Inspired today by coming upon yet more of this twaddle, I am moved to say that I hope no friend of ours will ever be misled by anyone’s profession that in coming to some strange or heretical opinion they have spent many hours agonizing in prayer, seeking the face of God in humble willingness to submit to his will, whatever that will might be, and whatever self-sacrifice it might involve–then, not surprisingly, finding at the end of the process, mirabile dictu, that God is exactly of their opinion. 

To be frank, I would be suspicious even if they went as far as crying aloud and cutting themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushes out upon them.  But the point here is that people who are led into error by sincere religious talk, delivered in the dialect of piety to which they are accustomed, are themselves fools.  

I grew up among polite Evangelicals to whom saying "bullshit!" was functionally equivalent to taking the Lord's name in vain.  But really, there are instances when the expletive is in fact a euphemism for some of their leaders' discoveries after "having been in much prayer."   Now repeat after me . . . .  


Pro Deo et Patria: Getting the Order Right
Thursday, September 2, 2010, 8:57 PM

The United States Flag Code (4 USC 1, §7 (k)) reads:

When used on a speaker's platform, the flag, if displayed flat, should be displayed above and behind the speaker. When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman's or speaker's right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.

This is federal law.  Many churches avoid breaking it by simply not displaying the flag.  But in many others, including most of the churches I have attended from childhood, the flag is displayed according to this law, along with, on the left of the pulpit, an early twentieth-century invention called the “Christian Flag” whose pledge says it stands for the Savior’s Kingdom. 

This arrangement symbolically elevates the United States of America, one of the nations among which believers are supposed to proclaim, “the Lord reigns!” an ephemeral entity that is “a drop from a bucket, accounted as dust on the scales . . . as nothing before him,” to “the position of superior prominence” over the Kingdom of which there will be no end, and to which every believer owes his first and comprehensive loyalty. 

To what shall we attribute this wholly remarkable state of affairs?  Ignorance? Stupidity? Negligence?  Inadvertence?  A fancy of decorative symmetry? Block-headed inability to recognize the symbolic significance the flag placement?  Blind patriotic enthusiasm?  Fear of being suspected of disloyalty?  Of being a thought a liberal–unbelieving, unthankful for the terrible blood sacrifices that allow so many ungrateful swine to live in peace and freedom, aggressively and willfully blind to the magnalia Dei in this land upon which God has so generously shed his grace? 

Perhaps we can’t really know, but these would be understandable and less than ominous excuses.  What is truly frightening are indications that the spirits of these (typically “conservative”) churches do in fact place one of the kingdoms of this world before the Kingdom of God, that this is in fact a belief to which many who call themselves Christians hold–that they are Americans first and Christians second–to which the symbolics of their churches bear unmistakable witness, and in which they believe religiously.

In a recent posting to his blogsite, Touchstone senior editor Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Seminary, engaged the same subject, and has raised a considerable stir:

A Mormon television star stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial and calls American Christians to revival. He assembles some evangelical celebrities to give testimonies, and then preaches a God and country revivalism that leaves the evangelicals cheering that they’ve heard the gospel, right there in the nation’s capital.  The news media pronounces him the new leader of America’s Christian conservative movement, and a flock of America’s Christian conservatives have no problem with that. . . .

Glenn Beck, of course, is that Mormon at the center of all this. Beck isn’t the problem. He’s an entrepreneur, he’s brilliant, and, hats off to him, he knows his market. Latter-day Saints have every right to speak, with full religious liberty, in the public square. I’m quite willing to work with Mormons on various issues, as citizens working for the common good. What concerns me here is not what this says about Beck or the “Tea Party” or any other entertainment or political figure. What concerns me is about what this says about the Christian churches in the United States. . . .  In order to be this gullible, American Christians have had to endure years of vacuous talk about undefined “revival” and “turning America back to God” that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement.

Rather than cultivating a Christian vision of justice and the common good (which would have, by necessity, been nuanced enough to put us sometimes at odds with our political allies), we’ve relied on populist God-and-country sloganeering . . . .  Too often, and for too long, American “Christianity” has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it. There is a liberation theology of the Left, and there is also a liberation theology of the Right. . . . The liberation theology of the Right wants a golden calf, to represent religion and to remind us of all the economic security we had in Egypt. Both want a Caesar or a Pharaoh, not a Messiah.

Although I have not consulted Dr. Moore before writing this, I think it safe to say that he and I are both loyal Americans, but believe that Christians must derive and discipline their loyalty to their countries from and by the love of something infinitely greater.  To our nation we would adapt Richard Lovelace’s declaration to Lucasta, “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not Something more.”  What concerns Dr. Moore here is a practical example of what C. S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters called “Christianity-And,” where the senior devil writes: 

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And".  You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.

Here we are dealing with the variety of Kingdom-mixing called “Christianity and the United States of America” in which the greater finds itself defined by the interests of the (infinitely) lesser rather than the other way ‘round.  This is not to say a person may not be greatly devoted to something other than the Faith and its Kingdom–a man, for example, is called to the highest levels of devotion to his wife and children–but that this love, this interest and loyalty, must be ordinate

When speaking of the polities of man and of God, it should be very clear where the order lies.  It cannot lie in what Dr. Moore identifies as a “generically theistic civil religion” or in a “partisan political movement,” for in each of these, by definition, the interests of the lesser are allowed significant control over those of the greater.  In the case of the flag display, those who pay light attention to it will see a scalar balance of national and Kingdom interests on either side of the podium; those who understand the Flag Code’s rule will see the assertion of a nation's superiority to the Kingdom of God.  Neither case is acceptable to the Christian faith.  Such is also the case with all civil religion, whether Glenn Beck’s or anyone else’s.   

Do Dr. Moore and I agree in any sense with Beck that America’s hope is in the Lord Jesus?  We cannot say for certain, for we do not know what he means by this.  His Mormonism is against him, for the Mormon Jesus is different from the one worshiped by orthodox Christians, and the Kingdom for which the Mormons look is different too.  (One might suggest it does look more like America than does the Kingdom of God preached by our Lord.) It is our duty as Christian teachers to say so, to resist the enthusiasm and sentimentalism which are so tem

pting in these environs, and to get the unwelcome point across.  

Informatio quaerens rationem
Friday, August 13, 2010, 10:12 AM

In the February, 2010 issue of Information Today (p. 14), cartoonist Randy Glasbergen has a chap seated at a computer tell an onlooker, "My presentation has live links, full-screen HD, video clips, animated fonts, thundering surround-sound audio, and awesome 3-D special effects. Now all I need is a topic.” 

I believe this is not–and perhaps it is not for Mr. Glasbergen, either–simply depiction of an isolated humorous event, but a parable of the age.  It is one in which standard education and market expectations breed hordes of idiot savants, people who have a great deal of information batting about in their heads, information that either for reasons of personal or vocational interest may make what passes for an expert by coagulating at certain points, all of which, however, is totally devoid of meaning

The modern terminology for this is that it lacks a metanarrative, a story, a picture or cosmic idea of reality or truth by which mere information can be transformed into a canon of topics related to each other, weighed and put into perspective by a fundamental and pervasive Grand Story.  It is as though technology furnishes a resounding Straussian fanfare, but when the gilded curtains fall aside to the audience’s rapt anticipation of a Veritable Topic (for it still remembers such things), all that appears is a whistling janitor, pushing his broom across the floor to exit stage left.  Or perhaps, equally interesting, a lecturing absurdity whose topic is the impossibility of Topics, since all they ever were anyway were components of antique settings, now gathering dust in storage.

It seems to me that conquest of the world of idiot-savantism, which we must all be about, lies first in the acquisition of real knowledge (and so, the reform of education in its broadest sense, which includes refusal to provide for “teachers” who deny its possibility), which implies an organized depth of information on discrete topical fields,  the necessary propaedeutic to wisdom, the essence of which is the relation of knowledge to truth, that is, to the Grand Story.  To borrow a form from John Henry Newman, no one can be deep in any humane study (this excludes by definition depth in mere technology) without concern for “classical” topics and their relations to each other, and no one can speak meaningfully of these relations apart from their organization around a central and compelling core of universal truth–the Tao, which Christians believe to be the person of Jesus Christ, but which is known outside the Christian faith and places Christians in communication with all who have not lost their humanity.  Christianus sum: nihil humani a me alienum puto (Philip Schaff).

The deep and hopeless ennui which should strike into the topic-less geek as deeply as his humanity still reaches, is that nothing he is doing makes any sense, no matter how skilled and elaborate the doing may be.  He has a choice: he may go mad or kill himself, he may remain in the mode where the doing is the being, and the highest he may reach is peerless aptitude in technique and task-oriented information gathering.  Or he may strike out on a pilgrimage in which he seeks knowledge in the classical Topics, and moves from there to Meaning.     

Harry Potter Coda
Wednesday, August 4, 2010, 3:32 PM

Several months ago a journal requested a brief article from me in response to novelist Michael D. O’Brien’s arguments against the Harry Potter books.  I wrote the piece, which was effectively turned down, but am posting it here for anyone who might be interested.  It follows the general lines of my Touchstone and Mere Comments writing on the subject, for which it may serve as a synopsis of something upon which I doubt I will say much more.


Michael D. O’Brien believes the Harry Potter books will paganize Christian children; I believe they are more likely to Christianize pagan ones–and can be read profitably, meaningfully, and harmlessly through young Christian eyes.  This judgment is based in part on the probability that far more non-Christians, or Christians who are practically ignorant of their professed religion, will read these books (translated now into about 70 languages, including simplified Chinese) than knowledgeable Christians, in places where Harry is likely to do more in service to the gospel than against it. 


The Moral Dilemma of Agnosticism
Saturday, July 31, 2010, 12:00 PM

In the July 28 edition of The Slate, Ron Rosenbaum identifies agnosticism as the reasonable option for those who do not know whether there is a God, finding it impossible in all honesty to commit themselves either to theism or atheism.  He notes that the latter demands the same kind of belief, and can be accompanied by the same levels of intolerance as the most belligerent religious fundamentalism.  It is gratifying to hear him observe,

Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)  Faced with the fundamental question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing.

From a Christian perspective, and I also believe from that of the believing Jew, there is no such thing as an atheist or agnostic.  All men are endowed with what has been called a natural knowledge of God which it takes an act of the will to deny, for “ever since the creation of the world God’s invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made, so [the ungodly are] without excuse.”  “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the earth shows forth his handiwork.”  

Nor am I sure Mr. Rosenbaum (and on this he stands with many believers) understands the nature of theism, for the “knowing” that believers in God profess–or should profess–is not of the kind many imagine it to be.  While believers believe it is true knowledge, it is also partial and analogical, the product of sight, citing St. Paul once again here, “through a mirror, imperfectly.”   The knowing paradoxically stands alongside unknowing, both of which are equally valid and true, so that more than a little of the offense caused by Hoffer's True Believer comes from mistaken enthusiasms rather than the knowledge of God.  (Which is not to deny that by the same token much offense comes, as Christ indicated it would, from knowledge of God and obedience to him.)     

But these things aside, I doubt whether agnosticism, or a least the fixed neutral attitude on God implied by the idea of agnosticism, can exist comfortably on the logic of its own grounds, either.  The agnostic says he does not believe in God, but neither does he deny him–he professes the possibility of God’s existence, but does not know whether he exists.  The problem his reason makes him face, if he is honest, is a moral one that I doubt can be avoided.

If it is possible that God exists but the agnostic cannot see him, the question of this existence (because it is the existence of God) must become the Principal Thing for him.  He must abandon agnosticism as a static state and become a seeker.  If he will not, then he has refused what must be for a professed agnostic the most singularly important of all conceivables, and, like the seeker, he is no longer neutral on the question, but is in active refusal to consider God–an a-theist in the sense of a person in rebellion, someone who has said in his heart “no God.”       

God, Caesar, and the Manhattan Declaration
Saturday, July 24, 2010, 12:57 PM

My own signature on the Manhattan Declaration is a witness to my strong agreement with what I take as its basic tenets, particularly what it has to say against murder, sodomy and like crimes and perversions.  A unified Christian, indeed, a Judeo-Christian, witness is needed against these things, and I am pleased to join myself to such unities. 

But I do have reservations, very strong reservations, about this document’s ambiguity on what are distinctively Christian opinions and responsibilities in light of recent social and political developments.  In it “modern democracy,” (!) women’s suffrage, and opposition to slavery (which the scriptures do not abolish, but regulate in such a way as to discourage most of its forms), are put in the same moral category as opposition to homosexualism, abortion, and euthanasia.  This admixture appears based upon the conjunction of revealed religion with the natural law as set in creation by its Creator, at the head of which is the mind of man–law which defines nature's constitution from the physical to the structure of human society, including the general moral precepts by which it must be governed.  Clearly the Declaration was composed in such a way as to be acceptable to the largest possible number of professing American Christians, but in doing this I believe it has attempted to mix the oil of Christianity with the water of popular American religion, and forgotten some things it needs to remember.

Surely there is, for example, a time and place for Christians to defy Caesar, when what a government demands of Christian citizens is contrary to their faith, and obedience to the government is disobedience to God.  It is not simply that in our day and age the necessity for civil disobedience among Christians may be close at hand, but in countless instances it has shown itself to be already here, especially in districts controlled by anti-Christian constituencies, their politicians and judges. It is, however, necessary to draw distinct lines between the civil disobedience of those who disobey to follow a divine precept and that which is a reaction to the abrogation of their rights under the United States Constitution. 

I was troubled in listening to recent video presentations on this subject by Charles Colson and Timothy George, both men for whom I have great respect and admiration.  As representatives of the Manhattan Declaration, they pointed out the looming possibility of resistance to the inhumane and anti-Christian laws promulgated by the current leaders of the United States, and the history of Christian civil disobedience beginning in the apostolic age.  But Dr. George’s presentation became immediately ambiguous when he stepped away from the exposition of principles based on the Lord’s division of his domain and Caesar’s to drawing his examples of Christian behavior from pre-constitutional free churches, from early Baptists and Quakers who were persecuted for their insistence on putting their doctrines forward in Puritan Massachusetts. 

Freedom of religion is not a Christian principle.  It is a secular constitutional principle which, as understood and enforced in the United States, has favored the majority of religious Americans, relieving them from the burden of establishment, and giving the Republic the manifest advantages of a free religious citizenry.  There is, however, another distinctly unpopular but unquestionably Christian side to the matter:  The Massachusetts Puritans regarded belief that a person should be allowed the public service of whatever religion he chooses as a radical failure of charity, a license for false doctrine and social anarchy.  (The generality of American Christians, provoked by the activities of groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, has shown similar impatience at the limits of its own tolerance.) 

The early New Englanders viewed it as their responsibility before God, as long as they had the power to do so–borrowing here the words of the Anglican Ordinal–“to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s word,” and so to treat Baptists, Quakers, and other varieties of aggressive errorist with a notable lack of civic toleration. The early struggles in religious freedom in this country, in other words, were typically between varieties of Christian, the losers when it came time to compose the Bill of Rights by Enlightenment principles probably having the stronger case from Christian tradition, in which toleration of bad religion by Christians in power has a very meager history.      

In present context the idea of the unjust law–which by definition is, of course, un-Christian–seems to be providing the necessary baptismal lubricant for the regeneration of Caesar into God in a manner not unlike the movement whereby natural law is used to justify a principle that is highly debatable from a Christian point of view, such as opposition to the divine right of kings in the name of the natural rights of citizens.  But Augustine’s famous dictum that an unjust law is no law at all is no help in deciding the status of a law as Caesar’s or God’s, which is what we must know as well as we can before we decide whether or how we can break it.  We may ascertain with full and reasoned conviction, for example, that a tax, or a law that arbitrarily favors one class of citizen over another, is manifestly unjust, and perhaps even therefore “no law at all” (I suspect Augustine the rhetorician couldn’t resist the extraordinary epigrammatic force of lex iniusta non est lex–that something which by its own nature opposes itself cancels its own existence).  Thomas Aquinas [ST 1-2, q. 96, a.4], thinking more cautiously, notes, “such laws do not bind the conscience, except perhaps to avoid scandal or disturbance, on account of which one should yield his right. As Christ says, ‘If someone forces you to go a mile, go another two with him; and if he takes your tunic, give him your pallium,’ ” so indicating that unjust laws still have the form of law and are to be reckoned with as such, so that we may rightly–and in fact sometimes by the Lord’s command–chose to tolerate and obey them even though we find them unjust.

But there are no such options with God’s laws.  They must be obeyed–so that if an unjust civil law is contrary to divine law, we must break it, and to do this there must be a vivid distinction between divine and human law, characterized by our Lord as what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, that cannot be homogenized by the principle that all unjust laws stand against what is due to God in the same way or demand the same actions.  They do not.

That is where the problem with Martin Luther King as a Christian witness comes in.  There can be little doubt that he was standing against unjust laws which denied American citizens their full constitutional rights on basis of race.   Although he used the language of Christiani

ty to make his case, there was nothing distinctively Christian in his stand on civil rights.  He was challenging Caesar on the existence of sub-Caesarianism in Caesar’s own realm, and appealing to Caesar, to Caesar he quite successfully went.  He did not have the qualifications or the brief for a Christian saint or martyr, and for Christians to make him out to be such can only result in embarrassment.  Rather, he is a father of a national–a Caesarian, if you will–constitution, like Jefferson or Wilberforce.

We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have produced the Manhattan Declaration, but in order for it to have the highest level of integrity they must be very careful about the way they promulgate it.  It is looking more and more like a document born in an opinion shared by a certain strain of Enlightenment liberalism and prominent representatives of the Reformation’s left wing, elevated to ius divinum by the application of natural law categories.  This approach obscures what I think is the real desideratum: that it lay down Christian principles to inspire Christian resistance to the tyranny of the Godless Party now in power.  To do this, it must stay very, very close to advocacy of the unquestionably and universally Christian (which does not include democracy, freedom of religion, women's suffrage, and rejection of kings, but does include opposition to abortion, homosexualism, and euthanasia), and at all costs avoid using natural law argumentation to appeal to the loose and uncatholic pieties of the largest possible number of modern American churchgoers. 

I suggest a second, revised edition.

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