Hooker the Humanist?

Richard Hooker is often thought of as a scholastic, because of his obvious appreciation for Thomism, Aristotelianism, and late medieval philosophy, and his very orderly and precise argumentation; and scholasticism, of course, as we all know, is antithetical to humanism.  Right?  Well, no, not really—more recently, scholars have recognized that scholasticism and humanism were not necessarily at all mutually exclusive, and William Bouwsma has described Hooker as every bit as much a humanist as he was a scholastic.  These intriguing passages from Susan Schreiner’s book Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era, describing the distinctives of 15th-century humanism, lend considerable weight to Bouwsma’s argument, and suggest much more fruitful work to be done on this connection:
“Like Valla, he [Agricola] was interested in argumentation that persuaded and influenced the hearer, thereby commanding assent. In his challenge to Aristotelian logic, he emphasized the case for “likelihood” or “probability” over certainty. According to Agricola, dialectic was concerned with speaking convincingly (probabiliter), in a way suitable for creating belief in the given situation or context. Thus both Valla and Agricola challenged the supremacy of the syllogistic form of reasoning and its sole claim to validity and certitude. Both men were interested in forms of reasoning or argumentation that convinced or persuaded rather than proved. 
. . . 
More so than the Nominalists, the humanists explored the implications of living and belonging to history. They focused on the study and writing of history and the assumptions of living within history. They began to recognize the historicity of truth. In particular, they understood the ramifications of human knowledge as appropriate to the ever-changing historical realm: “The historical aspects of the realization of the mind are never eternally valid, never absolutely “true,” because they always emerge within limited situations bound in space and time; i.e. they are probable and seem to be true [verisimile], probably only within the confines of “here” and “now,” in which the needs and problems that confront human beings are met.” 
In this worldview, the objects of contemplation were not eternal and unchangeable first principles. Rather, the object of thought was the changing, contextual, and societal world. Throwing human concerns into the realm of the historical had important consequences for the issue of certainty. Downgrading the claim of certitude based on rational syllogistic demonstration and the elevation of the mind through abstraction, humanists developed a significant consciousness of what it meant to live within the partial and incomplete realm of history.  Ethical, political, and historical issues became the primary subjects of debate and discussion. . . .
By the late Renaissance, the growth of historical knowledge sometimes functioned to accentuate the sense of perspectivism, and “custom” came to be recognized as a dominant force. The study of philology and law also exerted enormous impact on the development of a historicist and relativist consciousness.” 


What’s Wrong with the Regulative Principle?

After two weeks of hibernation (well, excluding the comments thread on the most recent post), the lights will be slowly flickering back on here.  And where better to re-start than with S&P’s patron saint, Richard Hooker?  In this post, I want to look squarely at a question that has been dancing around in the background of many of my Hooker and Puritanism posts, and much of my research on those topics: What did Hooker think about the so-called “regulative principle of worship”?  

The RPW, as any self-respecting Presbyterian knows, runs something like this: “In its worship, the church is to be so guided by Scripture that it must include only those elements for which there is a Scriptural basis, whether it be by way of command or example.”  There are of course looser and stricter applications of this rule, and many of the stricter ones seem to reach bizarrely unbiblical conclusions, such as excluding all musical instruments (um, ever read the Psalms, fellas?).  In principle, though, regulativists agree in denying the so-called “normative principle,” viz., that the Church may worship in any way that is not forbidden by Scripture.  

In reality, of course, the practical difference between the two parties—at any rate with mature, intelligent, and theologically sensitive representatives of them—turns out to be rather less than that bald opposition implies.  For both sides can usually recognize that Scripture offers much more than merely commands and prohibitions; for the most part, it offers principles and historical examples that can and should inform our worship, but in indirect ways that do not necessarily admit of one-to-one application.  Both sides usually draw upon historical precedents as well in forming their liturgies.  The difference then often reduces to one of emphasis, so that regulativists say, “We need to let our worship be always guided by Scripture, always mindful of course of history and common sense” and normativists say “We need to let our worship be guided by history and common sense, always mindful of course of Scripture.”

In particular, the differences are blurred by a key qualification that advocates of the regulative principle have, since their earliest days, had to make: we must distinguish, they say, between “elements” and “circumstances” of worship.  The former are perpetual, essential, commanded by God in Scripture, and must be justified out of it; so we cannot add any additional elements not given in Scripture.  The latter are variable, accidental, not necessarily given in Scripture, and open to improvisation within the general rules of Scripture.  The first consist of the basic building blocks of worship, the latter of the particular ways in which they are manifested in a particular congregation.  It is not hard to see how such a distinction could admit of enormous elasticity.  So, for instance, a loose regulativist might well say merely that “songs of praise” are an “element” whereas the selection of what to sing, how to sing it, and how to accompany it, are “circumstances” that may vary a great deal, and for which we need not seek detailed Scriptural justification.  Stricter regulativists, however, might well contend that the use of musical instruments constitutes an “element,” not a “circumstance,” or that, if singing is an “element,” only Scriptural words must be sung.  A thoughtful non-regulativist, on the other hand, if pressed, could justify many liturgical practices, whether traditional (e.g., a liturgical procession) or contemporary (e.g., a skit) as a “circumstance” or a form of embodying one of the basic elements—prayer, praise, proclamation, offerings, and sacraments.

Moreover, not only must it be conceded that some things may clearly be done in worship that are not prescribed in Scripture, but it also seems clear that not all things prescribed in Scripture for worship must be done in our worship.  Most regulativists today tend to also be cessationists, maintaining that the gift of tongues has ceased and therefore was not intended as a permanent fixture of Christian worship.  

On these basis, some critics have suggested that the terminology of the regulative principle vs. the normative principle isn’t all that useful.  


So if we asked, “Was Richard Hooker—or is Anglican worship—opposed to the regulative principle of worship?” the answer is not that simple.  The Puritan critics of Prayer Book worship were insistent that a matter of basic principle was at stake—Are we going to be ruled by God’s Word or not?  Thriving on dualistic oppositions, they saw the entire debate as hinging upon the clash between this regulative principle—worship *according to* the Word of God—vs. the normative principle—worship *not contrary to* the Word of God.  At the end of Book III of the Lawes, however, Richard Hooker disarmingly dismisses this dualism.  In point of fact, he says, they share the same basic principles regarding worship; they just differed over the particular applications:

“For our constant perswasion in this point is as theirs, that we have no where altered the lawes of Christ further then in such particularities onely as have the nature of things changeable according to the difference of times, places, persons, and other the like circumstances.  Christ hath commanded prayers to be made, sacraments to be ministred, his Church to be carefully taught and guided.  Concerning every of these somewhat Christ hath commaunded which must be kept till the worldes ende.  On the contrary side in every of them somewhat there may be added, as the Church shall judge it expedient.  So that if they will speake to purpose, all which hitherto hath been disputed of they must give over, and stand upon such particulars onely as they can shew we have either added or abrogated otherwise then we ought, in the matter of Church-politie. Whatsoever Christ hath commanded for ever to be kept in his Church, the same we take not upon us to abrogate; and whatsoever our laws have thereunto added besides, of such quality we hope it is, as no lawe of Christ doth any where condemn.” 

In other words, we too stick firmly to all those things that Christ has commanded us to keep, omitting those things that were merely temporary ordinances, and all those things we add are mere matters of changeable circumstance.  The real debate is simply which particular matters fall under which heading, and whether, in the matters of changeable circumstance, the Anglican orders be beneficial or not—it is not whether or not Scripture is to be authoritative for our worship:  

“they must agree that they have molested the Church with needless opposition, and henceforward as we said before betake themselves wholly unto the trial of particulars, whether every of those things which they esteem as principal, be either so esteemed of, or at all established for perpetuity in holy Scripture; and whether any particular thing in our church polity be received other than the Scripture alloweth of, either in greater things or in smaller.”

Hooker will therefore occupy hundreds of pages in Book V working through these particulars one by one.  Does this mean, then, that Hooker accepts, ultimately, the regulative principle, but merely applies it in a very different way?  In the end, no.  The clever rhetorical move of reducing the whole debate to one over particulars comes only after Hooker has dismantled the principle in the form stated by the Puritans, leaving them as the only valid logical interpretation of the principle the watered-down version that Hooker will “agree” with.

Hooker’s preference, however, would be to reject the principle as a useful starting-point, and not only because it proves so useless and ambiguous when pressed, but on the basis of two underlying assumptions that taint the Puritans’ invocation of it.  First, it proceeds on the assumption that, as Cartwright says, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as may be in the discretion of the judge,” so that the most specific form of a law is the most perfect.  So while it may be that a moderate and judicious use of the regulative principle would be unproblematic from Hooker’s standpoint, he recognized that the impulse that led to the advancing of the principle in the first place militates against such moderation.  All Protestants, after all, had always maintained that Scripture must guide our worship, but faced with the uncertainty and diversity that this general commitment left unresolved, the Puritans proposed the regulative principle as a more precise rule.  The goal from the beginning then was to attempt to restrict the scope of what might be considered “changeable circumstance.”

Second was the Puritan conviction that it was only because it had been set down in Scripture that any element of worship could be legitimate.  According to the reasoning of the regulative principle, public prayer would not be an acceptable element of Christian worship had it not been prescribed in Scripture.  But this was to mistake the uniqueness of Christian worship, which consists not so much in its elements as in its object, not so much in form as in content.  Of course, this is not to deny that the distinctive content of Christian faith does shape the form of our worship in many ways, or that Scripture provides plenty of guidance in that distinctive shape.  But consider that prayer, singing, praise, penitence, offerings, instruction, reading from Scripture all may be found in other world religions.  Indeed, Scripture itself teaches that the instinct to worship is natural to mankind.  On consideration, it is really only the sacraments that constitute truly unique elements of Christian worship, though even here it is the content—Christ Himself—that makes them unique more than the forms, which have parallels in other religions (washing rituals, sacraficial meals).  In this, as in so much else, Hooker insists that grace restores and perfects nature, rather than replacing it.

Of course, we do as a matter of fact find justification for these elements in Scripture, so why does it matter whether we could theoretically justify them from nature as well?  Because it affects our view of the purpose of Scripture.  Scripture, Hooker argues, presumes us already instructed by nature of the propriety of certain matters of liturgy and polity, rather than seeking to offer a complete blueprint starting from scratch.  But if we approach it assuming that it is only by being first set down in Scripture that an element of worship becomes valid, and assuming that the most precise instruction is the best, then we will find ourselves sifting the Scriptures in vain for detailed teaching on matters they simply do not address.  The result will be a stretching and warping of the Scriptures, a dishonor to them rather than an honor:

“As for those marvellous discourses whereby they adventure to argue that God must needs have done the thing which they imagine was to be done; I must confess I have often wondered at their exceeding boldness herein.  When the question is whether God have delivered in Scriptrue (as they affirm he hath) a complete, particular, immutable form of church polity, why take they that other both presumptuous and superflous labour to prove he should have done it, there being no way in this case to prove the deed of God, saving only by producing that evidence wherein he hath done it?  But if there be no such thing apparent upon record, they do as if one should demand a legacy by force and virtue of some written testament, wherein there being no such thing specified, he pleadeth that there it must needs be, and bringeth arguments from the love or good-will which always the testator bore him; imagining, that these or the like proofs will convict a testament to have that in it which other men can no where by reading find.  In matters which concern the actions of God, the most dutiful way on our part is to search what God hath done, and with meekness to admire that, rather than to dispute what he in congruity of reason ought to do.”

The Abortion Question

In response to my recent Post-Apocalyptic Musings, my friend Ben Miller asked an earnest and important question: “given his [Obama’s] strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion? I’m not saying that everyone who voted for him was consciously pro-abortion, but it’s an unmistakably prominent part of what he stands for. I don’t see how a Christian can support a leader who’s a vocal proponent of holocaust.”  A similar sense underlay my friend Daniel Alder’s post, where he felt confident that if pastors were doing their job right, almost no church member would vote Democrat, because it was unthinkable for any faithful Christian to support a pro-abortion agenda.  In this, of course, they speak for millions of American Christians, deeming that there is simply no way to conscientiously vote for a pro-choice candidate, however preferable he might be on a range of other issues.  

 In my post, I lamented the “chasm of mutual incomprehension” that had opened up in American public life, and I am convinced that nothing is so paralyzing to life together as incomprehension.  Disagreement can be extremely fruitful and edifying, but incomprehension is sterile and provokes only frustration.  When we cannot understand why something has happened or why someone would say or do something, we are prone to become angry, and impute the worst possible motives as a way of trying to make sense of the situation.  Unable to comprehend why any rational person would do something, we find ourselves increasingly unable to think of them as a person, and thus unable to love them as a person, although we have little difficulty loving even our worst enemy if we understand what motivates him.    

It is probably safe to say that no single factor has contributed as much to the creation of this chasm of incomprehension, at least for Christians, as the issue of abortion.  The politicization of abortion, I believe, has been deeply harmful for American public life—for it has done very little in the end to mitigate the abortion problem, but it has done a great deal to dissolve the possibility of rational debate and mutual understanding in American politics and society.  So, although I am deeply sympathetic to Ben and Daniel’s concern (it was indeed one decisive reason that I did not vote for Obama), I would like to make a stab at trying to dispel a bit of the fog around this issue.  As I want to be thorough, I will confine myself primarily to the narrow question, “How could a Christian vote for a pro-abortion candidate, even while disagreeing with his policies?”  Such is the spectrum of opinion on the matter of abortion that many Christians will see this as a silly discussion with an obvious answer, and will be far more interested in discussing whether the pro-choice position is a viable one.  To other Christians, this latter discussion seems almost unthinkable.  Unfortunately, I will only touch on it briefly in my conclusion, though perhaps I can try to address it more fully another time.  But hopefully this inquiry, at least, may constitute a small baby step toward mutual understanding among Christians on this issue.


Before proceeding, let me first reassure my readers that I view abortion as a grave moral evil, tragic and disgusting, and consider many of the campaigners for abortion rights to have deeply compromised moral sensibilities, to put it delicately.  The following may seem like a dry academic argument to the effect, “It’s not that big a deal after all.”  That is not my purpose.  Abortion is a very big deal, and the task of saving lives from it is an urgent one.  But neither is it the only moral issue confronting our society, so there is no virtue in so single-mindedly dedicating ourselves to its opposition that we become incapable of making sound moral and political judgments on other fronts.

So, let’s first untangle the question, “How could a Christian vote for a pro-abortion candidate?” or, to use Ben’s wording, “Given Obama’s strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion?”  The contention here is that one cannot really say, as many Christians clearly have said, “I am voting for this candidate who happens to support abortion, but I am not voting for his support of abortion.”  Now, I would suggest that in Ben’s case, this question contains a couple of unvoiced premises.  Without those premises, and as it currently stands, the conclusion is not at all compelling, for it would seem to imply that our British, Canadian, Australian brothers and sisters—indeed, many foreign Christians, of many nationalities—are necessarily wrong whenever they vote for a pro-abortion candidate in their elections, as they often do.  Is that really the case?  And if so, why not?  Although I think Ben’s claim was much more specifically targeted, let me take some time to say why not, since I think many American Christians have not bothered to think this through, and I think it will help illuminate what’s really at stake.  

 It may help if we abstract from politics for the moment.  Let’s ask then whether it would be appropriate, if one were a stockholder, to vote for a new member of a company’s Board of Directors if one knew him to hold pro-abortion views (assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is not a company directly involved in the abortion industry)?  Or, how about, at the risk of trivializing too much, to vote for an American Idol contestant whom one knew to hold pro-abortion views?  Few would argue, I think, that these views should in any way constitute an automatic bar to a Christian endorsing such a candidate.  If anyone did argue that, on the basis that a Christian should never offer support to a person of such obviously depraved morality, I would suggest that this would be a very arbitrary stand to take, given that the other candidates might be of equally depraved morality on other issues (e.g., greed, toleration of adultery, love of violence, whatever).  Indeed, it is on this basis that I have little patience with Christians who go on boycotting crusades against any company that, say, gives money to Planned Parenthood.  I understand the sentiment, but why single out this single moral issue, while turning a blind eye to companies that engage in complex tax evasion or exploitation of workers? 

 Now, it would not be arbitrary if abortion did indeed constitute a uniquely grotesque perversion of morality.  For instance, I can imagine someone plausibly arguing that even for something as inconsequential as an American Idol contest, one could not support a contestant who advocated, say, rape or pedophilia or the torture of innocents.  Merely holding such views would render a person morally repugnant to a degree that no Christian should want to identify with them.  Is abortion such an issue?  I believe not, though I shall only have time to touch on this for a moment in the conclusion.

Assuming, then, there would be no automatic bar to supporting a pro-choice American Idol contestant or corporate board member, there might still be a contingent bars, of at least two types.  First, let’s imagine that one knew that this board member did not merely privately support abortion, but was an activist, and hoped to use the resources of the company to advance the cause of abortion—perhaps by giving very generously to pro-abortion causes.  In this case, one would be opposing the candidate not on the basis of his private failures of moral reasoning, but on the basis of the harm likely to be done from his gaining a leadership position.  In such a situation, voting for him might be construed as material cooperation in evil, just like knowingly providing a getaway car for a bank robbery.  Unlike the getaway car, however, it would probably be judged far, rather than near material cooperation—you would be supporting a man who probably, given the opportunity, would allocate funds to help support organizations that might well use those funds to offer more abortions—in many cases, to people who were already trying to get abortions anyway.  Even if it were merely far material cooperation, though, one would be forced to judge just how much harm he might actually do, over against the other goods he might bring.  For instance, perhaps he was committed to generous philanthropy in general, and would also try to give large donations to very good causes; or perhaps the other candidates, while not supporters of abortion, might be inclined to donate to other wicked causes; or perhaps he was the only candidate with the business acumen to keep the company running (assuming, for the sake of argument, that it were an otherwise good company doing a service to society).  Perhaps, in short, great good would come from his election; might this outweigh the harm that might come from his use of company funds to support abortion?  Possibly, possibly not.  Or perhaps the company’s policy was already to fund abortion charities, and there was little evidence the other candidates would change it. In view of such uncertainties, this would be a matter on which Christians could quite plausibly disagree.  Some Christians might support the candidate on the grounds that he would do much more good and less harm on the whole than the other candidates; some might support the other candidates on the opposite grounds; some might conclude that when they were all such bad apples, one should just keep one’s distance and vote for none of them.  So the first contingent bar is: likely to materially advance the abortion agenda by means of policies to an extent that outweighs any foreseen other goods.  (Before moving on, it’s worth pausing to notice that although this seems like a rather silly example, given that almost no stockholder ever bothers to vote on their Proxy ballot, or to research the candidates at all, perhaps this just shows to some extent our inconsistency, or unhealthy fixation with politics.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the Board of Director choices that I’ve had the opportunity to weigh in on as a stockholder were actually more consequential, in terms of the harm that might be done or averted, than some of the political candidates I’d had the opportunity to vote for.)   

For the second contingent bar, let’s look at that American Idol competition.  Can one imagine a scenario in which (assuming one were a die-hard American Idol fan, determined to vote for one of the contestants, in which case one might have issues worth addressing) one ought not to vote for one on the basis of her advocacy of abortion?  Yes, I think so.  For let’s consider the fact that an American Idol winner gains a very prominent podium in our society, an opportunity to speak out (albeit rarely very coherently) about what she’s passionate about.  Perhaps even more importantly, she becomes an “idol”—someone that people respect, for whatever reason, and want to emulate.  That being the case, she is capable of doing a great deal of harm merely by standing for morally depraved behaviors, even if she has little role in practically facilitating them.  (Of course, it might well be that she would also practically facilitate them, like the corporate director we saw above, by means of charitable contributions and the like, but we’ll leave that consideration aside here.)  If the contestant’s advocacy of abortion, then, were so strong or high-profile that, by supporting her, you were likely to raise up an influential spokesperson for abortion, or a widely-adored symbol of the pro-choice cause, someone who made it “cool” to be pro-choice make the cause of abortion more respectable, this might well constitute grounds why a Christian should *not* support such a person.  This is particularly the case in the example we have given, since there is really no reason why one should feel the need to vote for an American Idol contestant…this being so, to take the time to support such a morally compromised contestant would be like going out one’s way to support vice.  Of course, there would be other conditions—e.g., a presidential election—in which one might otherwise have very good reasons to support this candidate.  In that case, one would have to weigh the goods in question against the likely evils to result from helping to elevate to prominence of a spokesman for abortion.  Again, this would be a difficult judgment to make, perhaps even more difficult than the question above, since one would be weighing a very intangible factor (how powerful is this figure as a symbol of the pro-abortion cause?) against other more concrete factors.  One can imagine Christians who otherwise largely agreed on a wide range of issues coming to different judgments on this question.  The second contingent bar then is: likely to materially advance the abortion agenda by lending it respectability or prominence to an extent that outweighs any other foreseen goods.

(It should be noted that this second consideration loses significance to the degree that the vice in question becomes a cultural norm.  That is to say, imagine a pop star who was an outspoken supporter of abortion in the 1950s.  At that time, this would have been a very bold and, to most Americans, appalling position to take.  Anyone with such views at that time would have been almost certain to stand out, to become a symbol of this depraved cause, so that she was no longer just a pop star, but known as the “pro-abortion pop star.”  Nowadays, however, abortion has become culturally accepted enough that it is highly unlikely that an individual pop star’s advocacy of it would be sufficiently striking to merit much public attention.  The same, to some extent, is true of political figures.  To elect an openly pro-choice president forty years ago, would have been a much more shocking statement than to do so now.) 

From this second point arises a closely related concern, which might be thought to constitute a third contingent bar to voting for someone who approved of abortion, and which, I suppose, is a large part of what’s going on when people say that “a vote for Obama is a vote for abortion.”  To re-use the American Idol example, imagine if the outspoken pro-choice contestant became so identified with this “cause” that a vote for her could only be considered an endorsement of the cause, a message a Christian certainly wouldn’t want to send.  There are no doubt times which such can happen—when a particular issue generates so much heat and controversy that one cannot really separate the individual from the issue, cannot pass judgment one way or another on the individual without seeming to take sides on the issue.  In such a circumstance, a Christian would no longer be able to say, “I am supporting this candidate who happens to support abortion, but I am not supporting abortion,” which is the disjunction we have been assuming throughout the discussion thus far.  Therefore, no Christian could in good conscience cast such a vote, as it would appear to send a message that they could not send.  I think that this is how many on the Christian Right currently think about the abortion issue.  However, I think this argument fails, both empirically and theoretically.  Empirically, I do not think it is really the case that in America today, a Democratic candidate, even one as clearly pro-choice as Obama, is so identified with the abortion cause as to be almost indistinguishable from it.  Or rather, he is, but only in the minds of his fervently pro-life opponents—and perhaps in the mind of his most fervently pro-choice supporters. The majority of the American electorate does not think that way, and would have little trouble understanding the reasoning of someone who said, “I do not support abortion, but I will vote for Obama for other reasons.”  Theoretically, I think it fails because one’s own intentions always remain free and separate from others’ fallible judgments about them.  Just because someone thinks that when I act in such a way, I must intend evil, does not mean I cannot act in that way, intending something else.  We are to avoid the appearance of evil, but that’s the great thing about our voting—it’s private.  If I am convinced that I need to cast my vote in such a way that would appear to others to be a vote for evil, then I just cast my vote privately, without broadcasting for whom I voted.  Or, if I do broadcast it, I explain my reasoning clearly and carefully.  Therefore, the third contingent bar—likely to appear as an endorsement of a position I cannot endorse—fails.  (Nonetheless, this is still worth taking into account as one decides how to vote.  If one has trouble, in one’s own mind, abstracting the candidate from the morally reprehensible agenda one sees them as representing, then one certainly can determine on that basis that one would rather not vote for them.)


All of this should clarify for us what a vote against a pro-choice candidate isn’t or shouldn’t be: it is not a refusal to associate oneself with someone who has morally objectionable views; or a refusal to take any action that may indirectly result in the advancing of wickedness—both of these, consistently advocated, would require a complete withdrawal from public life.  On the contrary, it is a refusal to advance the agenda of someone who has morally objectionable views that they are likely to put into practice or publicly advocate to an extent that will do great harm outweighing any other foreseen goods.

This being the case, it should now be readily apparent why many of foreign brothers and sisters need have little compunction in voting for candidates who support abortion.  In many of their settings, abortion is in many cases a matter of settled policy, and there are few elected representatives interested in opposing it.  If none of the candidates available is planning to make much change to abortion policy, one may lawfully vote for the candidate one expects to do the most good on other fronts.  Indeed, in such a setting, voting for a candidate who supports the status quo abortion policy is only in a very distant sense any kind of material cooperation with evil, since the evil being done is quite separate from the actions of the candidate.  Likewise, if we turn to the second contingent bar, since abortion is not, alas, highly controversial in many of these societies, even an outspoken supporter of abortion would attract little notice.  In Britain, for instance, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which a candidate could become a symbol of the “abortion cause” (there not really being such a recognizable cause) to the extent that one must avoid lending him one’s support.  In their circumstances, then, it is rarely the case that a given candidate is likely to materially advance the abortion agenda either by means of policy or by lending it respectability or prominence to an extent that necessarily outweighs any other foreseen goods.  Of course, that is not to say it is never an issue.  There are still plenty of live political issues related to abortion here in the UK and other European countries, and there may be some candidates vigorously advancing an expansion of abortion rights, whom Christians should avoid supporting on those grounds.  But in general, it’s not likely to be a highly relevant consideration.  Note also that this is not a call for European Christians to give up on this issue, because they’ve already lost the battle.  It merely means that for most of them, opposition to abortion will likely have to take other forms besides political activism, at least until such time as legal opposition to abortion again becomes a viable platform.


So now, let’s turn finally back to Obama.  Four basic questions will affect our judgment of the Christian’s duty in this case.  The first is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions?”  The second is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender?”  Ben Miller, I take it, considers the answers to both of these questions to be, “To a great extent,” and it is on this basis that he feels able to say, “Given Obama’s strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion?”  But we must ask two further questions.  The third is, “To what extent are we already like Europe?  To what extent is abortion now settled policy, accepted practice?”  The fourth is, “What are the other viable candidates (in this case, Romney) likely to do about abortion?”  

Taken together, the third and fourth enable us to reframe the first and second as follows:  “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions relative to what would happen if he were not elected?”  The second is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender relative to what would happen if he were not elected?”  Once framed this way, the difficulty of reaching a clear answer, that should bind the consciences of believers as they consider voting, becomes readily apparent.  Because I do not think that any of these questions admit of easy answers, I will not attempt to hash them out in detail, but will merely outline a few points.

Thinking again in terms of four questions, how might we answer the first?  Obviously, Obama is pro-choice, and has already as President enacted policies that favor that agenda, most notably the provisions in Obamacare that leave religious institutions having to help fund abortions.  Just because abortion is already law in the US doesn’t mean it can’t be made worse by making access to abortions easier and more universal, and unfortunately, many in the Democratic Party, including Obama do seem committed to doing just that.  The President’s power to appoint judges is of course also relevant, as his selection of pro-choice justices renders it ever more unlikely that Ro v. Wade could be overturned.  I am not convinced by claims that Obama is militantly pro-choice, bloodthirsty for the expansion of abortion in a uniquely sinister way, as many on the Right seem to think, but the general orientation of his agenda is undeniable.  It is worth noting, incidentally, that it really matters little for this discussion what Obama’s private views are—perhaps personally, he really does dislike the idea of abortion, and wants it to be “safe, legal, and rare,” and is acting only under pressure from the NOW and other constituencies.  It would be nice if that were true, and would affect, perhaps, our assessment of his own moral sensibilities, but it makes little difference to our assessment of the impact of his policies. 

Regarding the second, too, we must go on the basis of public presentation, rather than private beliefs, whatever they might be.  That includes, unfortunately, campaign ads.  Of course, everyone recognizes that campaign ads are cynical vehicles of short-term manipulation, and people ought perhaps therefore to put little stock in them.  But they are a key way in which a candidate presents himself, his message, and what he stands for to the American people.  The fact that the Obama campaign decided to run so many ads defending abortion, and castigating Romney for his opposition to it, unmistakably painted Obama as the representative, the champion, of the pro-choice cause.  For him to win under such circumstances meant at least in part a victory for that cause, helping affirm it and lend it respectability.  Using someone like Sandra Fluke as a poster-child reinforces the message that “reproductive rights” are cool, and Obama is all for helping women expand them.  For some Christians I know, it was this identification with the cause of abortion by the Obama campaign, more than any particular policy decisions on the issue, that was a deal-breaker for them.

If we consider the third question, though—”to what extent are we already like Europe?”—I think many realistic Christians, particularly of a younger generation, take a pretty sober assessment of where America is now at on the abortion issue.  Are we really likely to overturn Roe v. Wade now, after forty years?  The political prospects are daunting enough alone.  But worse, it is widespread cultural acceptance of abortion that constitutes a greater obstacle than any purely political difficulties.  There is an extent to which law can affect morality, to be sure, and sometimes, law can outrun morality, as it were, insisting on conduct which does not yet command a general consensus, in hopes of creating that consensus.  The Civil Rights movement is a good example of a case where this seems to have generally worked (although some would argue that federal government policy here was too much, too fast, with long-term harmful effects on both races).  Many would cite also Wilberforce’s successful prohibition of the slave trade, but we mustn’t forget that this took twenty years of sustained effort, and was only successful when Wilberforce realized that first public perception must be re-shaped, the cultural consensus must be altered, before legislation could ever be successful.  There are many other cases in which attempts to ban a practice by law, when the citizenry were not convinced, failed abysmally—Prohibition being perhaps the most notorious.  In general, I would say that the trajectory of a society is one of the things that matters most here.  In Wilberforce’s time, factors were already at work that were moving English society in a direction that disposed them to be able to perceive and confront slavery as a grave moral evil.  Likewise in the Civil Rights movement—the public consciousness, while still stubbornly racist in many areas, was turning already in favor of the cause when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.  Because of this, the law was able to succeed, by and large, in requiring people to be moral when they didn’t want to be, and in continuing to reshape the moral consensus.  Sad to say, the moral trajectory of the American people right now is not toward a greater condemnation of abortion.  Sure, there are some signs that some progress has been made, that a majority of Americans now would consider themselves pro-life, but the majority is slim.  And perhaps more decisively, the general worldview of Americans, with the premium value they place on choice, individual liberty and “rights,” and their general distaste of having the “government” dictate anything to them, renders it unlikely that the pro-choice cause is going down anytime soon.  Even attempts to restrict abortion piecemeal, by raising the age required, or by requiring parental consent, and that sort of thing, have often run into intractable opposition.  That’s not a reason why we shouldn’t continue to fight the cause, and on every front.  But it means that perhaps we are not now at the point where we should consider a presidential election likely to make a decisive difference one way or another.  It also means that we’re at the point where we’re pretty jaded as a nation, and the mere fact of having a pro-choice President may not materially alter people’s perceptions of the issue very much.

Likewise, if we consider the fourth question,”What are the other viable candidates (in this case, Romney) likely to do about abortion?” there were two reasons to be skeptical in this case.  The first is that Romney is a weasel and a flip-flopper, who seemed intent above all on getting elected, and once elected would be intent above all on staying in office.  That being the case, I don’t have great faith that, if he found confronting abortion to prove too difficult or controversial, he would had quietly shelved the issue.  Perhaps that’s overly-cynical, but it is at least an understandable judgment to reach, and remember that our purpose here is simply to show that there exist multiple rationally-defensible answers to these question.  Second, we have to be honest about the fact that we have had 24 years of Republican presidency—at least 16 of which made a fairly strong claim to represent the interests of the “Moral Majority”—since Roe v. Wade was passed, and have seen essentially no positive effect from it.  We’ve even had a conservative majority on the court, but seen it show little indication to revisit the issue or overturn the decision.  Even if we granted that Romney was at least as reliable a pro-life candidate as Bush II or Reagan, that obviously wouldn’t show much.  Yes, it is likely, that especially with the appearance of Obamacare and such, there are issues of particular policy where Romney could influence things positively, but we should not expect anything particularly dramatic.  It is of course also the case that, thinking in terms of the second question, it might help the pro-life cause to have such a visible public advocate.  On the other hand, so entrenched are the two camps now, that it might make little difference.  


Where does all this leave us?  How do we answer the questions, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions relative to what would happen if he were not elected?” and “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender relative to what would happen if he were not elected?”  My own personal answer was that I thought Obama could still do enough net harm on this front that I was unwilling to vote for him, but I was also unwilling to drop all other considerations and vote against him on this basis, as I spelled out a week and a half ago.  But I can readily understand arguments in either of the other directions—those who think that, given the weight of other issues, a vote for Obama was defensible, despite his abortion stance, and those who think that Obama’s position on this issue was likely to do so much imminent harm or Romney’s so much imminent good, that they felt obliged to vote for Romney.   

I hope that I have succeeded at the very least in demonstrating the complexity of the issues that must be sorted through before a summary judgment on this question is reached.  And I hope therefore that we might be more able to comprehend and accept the judgments of fellow Christians who weigh these considerations differently.  We may still disagree, but at least we needn’t be paralyzed by incomprehension.

Unfortunately, in this post, I have worked only within the sphere of assumed agreement that, ideally, we should want to legally ban abortion; I have not had the time to address the other, even more paralyzing source of incomprehension, and I shall only touch on it for a brief moment before concluding.  This is that there are some people, including some faithful Christians, who would genuinely support not merely a candidate who happens to be pro-choice, but pro-choice policy as such.  Perhaps for many Christians on the Right, this position at least remains so morally depraved as to be incomprehensible.  Of course, there are two forms that this might take—a belief that abortion should remain legal, although it is immoral, and a belief that abortion is not immoral.  Although I believe the former position is flawed, I would argue that a plausible case could be made for it, especially given certain assumptions about the nature of law that are increasingly dominant even among today’s Christians.  Even the latter view, I would want to point out, although an example of serious moral blindness, is not a unique or uniquely incomprehensible one.  Many of our Christian ancestors defended slavery, and even the slave trade, positions we now find repugnant and in many cases almost incomprehensible.  But it was only because their opponents were willing to seek to understand their sinful reasoning, and considered them capable of persuasion, that this evil was overcome.  When I hear some Christians railing about evil abortionists, I wonder sometimes if they’ve ever actually known anyone who was pro-choice.  A few, I would grant, truly merit the adjective “evil,” and deserve nothing but the most fervent opposition.  To most others, however, we owe a willingness to listen and learn, even while opposing.  There are some rational links in the chain of logic that would lead one to that position, and we must take the time to understand them if we are ever to successfully win hearts and minds.  


All of this, perhaps, has been a rather tedious way of saying not very much—“It’s complicated.  It depends.  Let’s disagree respectfully.”  Perhaps I am merely stating the obvious, but nowadays, it seems even the obvious needs stating.   With the conclusion of this third very lengthy post on contemporary politics (making up for my recent neglect of the subject on this blog), I propose to take a blogging hiatus for a week or two, while I’m away at ETS, AAR, and SBL, and then celebrating Thanksgiving and my arrival at the quarter-century mark.  I will try to reply to any comments here, but may be much slower than normal.  

A Bit of Self-Promotion

Since people seem to be flooding over here from Facebook, drawn like moths to the candle of election-talk, I thought I might take this opportunity to link to a couple other things I’ve been writing recently, over on the Political Theology blog.  My “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed” series soldiers on, with an installment last week, “From Luther to Calvin,” and one this week, “From Calvin to Hooker.”  Next week was supposed to be “From Hooker to Locke,” by Peter Escalante, but it looks like it may just be “Hooker” by me, with the “to Locke” part to follow in a separate installment.  We’ll see.  For long-time readers of this blog, the substance of these posts shouldn’t be anything new, but the hope is that, by distilling it all down to the bare bones and presenting it as a coherent historical narrative, the series may be of profit to those just wanting to dip their toes into the discussion.  

Also, earlier this week, the Political Theology blog hosted some reflections of mine prompted by Superstorm Sandy last week.  Meteorology is a major side-interest of mine, and the intersection between meteorology, media, and public policy is a particular fascination.  Sandy, I argue, uncovered some troubling trends in the American psyche.  For the details, trundle on over to “Superstorms and the Demise of Prudence.” 

Post-Apocalyptic Musings

I penned my ponderous essay, “Why I Won’t Be Voting,” last week, in hopes that, having lobbed it into cyberspace, I could then quietly retreat again from all things election-related.  Sure, I was planning to get up in the wee hours of the morning to watch election returns, but that was for mere entertainment value…like watching the Olympics, which also only comes around every four years. I had intended to strictly steer clear of Facebook on the day of and the day after the election, to avoid being swamped in hysteria.  Unfortunately, my family was out of town, and, feeling socially isolated, I couldn’t resist puttering about and listening in.  I beheld many strange and wonderful things, from the comical—people seriously contemplating emigrating to Canada (why only now, not in 2008? They’ve survived the last four years alright, haven’t they?  And how exactly do they expect to find Canada less “socialist” than Obamerica?)—to the disturbing—people suggesting that Obama supporters might warrant church discipline.  Mixed in, usually in linked articles rather than on Facebook itself, were a number of profound and thoughtful observations.

Having wallowed about for a day or two now in the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions to the reactions, I find myself, despite my best intentions, ready to weigh in with my own two cents.  The first cent is political, the second theological.


1. What took me the most by surprise about the election was the surprise at the result.  I mean, sure I knew that people on the Right seemed mostly optimistic, and unrealistically so.  But I had figured that it was the understandable brave face that everyone puts on when they go into battle, or when their team has a big game.  Everyone wants to think that their side has a legitimate shot even when outgunned, and even when they have their doubts, they don’t share them with others—that just dampens the team spirit.  But when defeat comes, you bow your head, say, “I knew it was an uphill battle,” shake hands, and move on.  Right?  Not the Right.  

The reactions witnessed on the blogosphere, the media, and in social media yesterday were those of stunned incomprehension.  It became clear that all the brash boasting had not been mere posturing, but sincere belief—sincere belief that despite the weakness, sliminess, and general dislikeableness of their candidate, that despite all the polls, the math, the expert predictions, their candidate was really going to win.  Indeed, not only win, but many believed, trounce.  In the end, it really wasn’t even that close, and it matched up almost perfectly to what the polls were predicting. Hard facts won.  Delusions lost.


This reaction disturbed me, because it confirmed the Right’s steady journey away from reality that we have witnessed over the past few years.  Somewhere along the way—I’m not sure when it happened—conservatives in America reached the conclusion that “the mainstream media” was not to be trusted.  It was hopelessly tainted by liberal bias.  Once this idea sunk in, the normal means of testing claims and forming judgments became useless.  Anything that any respectable source of information or opinion said could be automatically discounted; indeed, not only could we legitimately doubt these claims, but we could generally assume that the opposite was the case.  Around the same time, the Right reached the conclusion that scientists as a whole were gained by the same liberal bias.  They were probably part of some conspiracy seeking for one world government.  Anything they said could also be discounted, and indeed, the opposite assumed to be the case.  So engrained have these habits become that the Right has begun to think of these biases as accepted facts.  “Everyone knows” global warming is a hoax.  “Everyone knows” the media is biased.  These are just facts of life, right?  Now, once you have determined that both expert scientific opinion and nearly all respected forms of journalism are unreliable and even openly deceptive, what are you to conclude?  That truth is elusive and we can’t really know anything?  No, that truth is certain and unchangeable and is what you want it to be.  Personal impressions begin to trump all other considerations.  I recall a revealing moment a couple years ago when a Republican congressman ranted to Ben Bernanke about how inflation was spiraling out of control.  Bernanke calmly pointed out that according to all relevant data, the inflation rate was actually at its lowest in years, less than 2 percent.  The congressman responded that he and his constituents, given their impressions, would beg to differ.  The same attitude was manifest in the bizarrely exaggerated claims throughout the campaign about how bad the economy was, how Obama had wrecked America, and how he was the worst president ever.  Sure, there were things to complain about, but it was hard to see how a sober evaluation of the data bore out any of these conclusions.  And yet the odd thing was that they were presented not as opinions—”Well, from where we’re standing, Obama seems like the worst president we’ve ever had”—but as simple facts, which any rational person ought to accept.  

“Any rational person”—ay, there’s the rub.  Of course, in any partisan conflict, it is common for people to begin to think of their opponents as somehow stupid or irrational.  But the Right has made this way of thinking its trademark.  In the “War on Terror” this attitude allowed conservatives to convince themselves that Muslims were filled with an irrational and implacable hatred of America.  Any discussion with them was useless, because they were incapable of rational discourse or human sympathy…they were, in essence, sub-human.  Once such a conclusion had been reached, any argument they made, however reasonable, could be dismissed as a mere ploy. 

Tuesday night revealed that now, conservatives have reached the same conclusion about their fellow Americans who disagree with them.  Obama’s slap-in-the-face victory should have served as a wake-up call, a reminder that there was a real world out there beyond their fantasies, and ignoring it wasn’t going to get them anywhere.  It was time for conservatives to take a good hard look in the mirror and say, “Gosh, we’re not very attractive anymore.  I wonder why?”  It was time for them to recognize that the majority of the country felt differently than them about Obama and its policies, and if they wanted to continue to claim to love America, they’d better find a way to accept this fact, and recognize that living in a society means accepting policies you don’t always like.  Some, to their credit, have done so, and hopefully more will in the weeks and months ahead. For many leading conservatives however, confronted with the awful truth that they’ve been living in the Matrix, and there’s a real world out there to face up to, the response has been to retreat into the comfort of fantasy land, only now with a more militant edge.


The new rallying-cry of the Right is Romney’s appalling and much-maligned “Forty-seven percent” remarks.  Conservatives are preparing to raise that as their banner (even while having the gall to accuse Obama of inciting “class warfare”!), adjusting the number slightly upward to 51%.  It doesn’t matter that most people considered the moral sensibilities behind Romney’s remarks reprehensible.  Nor does it matter that it was pointed out on all sides that they bore no relationship to the facts.  It was simply not true that anything like 51% or 47% of the American people were freeloading off the largesse of Obama, nor that those who were freeloading were generally Obama supporters.  But that didn’t matter.  Because this fantasy provided an explanation to help rationalize what had happened.  The reason the Right didn’t win was because it couldn’t win.  It was hopeless.  Why?  Because a majority of the American people were now in the pay of the enemy.  They were bribed.  They didn’t give a hoot about the Constitution or the future of their country, so long as they received a never-ending supply of free stuff without ever having to work for it.  Rush Limbaugh declared that it was hard to win when you were running against Santa Claus.  Of course, this is pure fantasy from a statistical standpoint.  Over half of Obama’s votes came from people earning more than $50,000 a year, a demographic that did side with Romney, but by a narrow margin (53%-45%).  Not only that, but the group most likely to vote for Romney (by a 55%-44% margin) were retirees.  Freeloaders, feeding from the public trough of Medicare and Social Security, right?  

But the purpose of the narrative was not to describe facts.  It was to help make sense of what otherwise seemed inexplicable.  For so thoroughly had the Right equated their vision of the world with truth that the revelation that most did not share their vision could only be explained by positing that these voters were evil or irrational.  Even better, such an explanation provided an excuse.  Republicans need not blame themselves for their failures, when scapegoats were so near at hand.  If 52% of the population were lazy and greedy and cared nothing about the direction of the country, then there was nothing the Right could’ve done.  

A chasm of mutual incomprehension, in short, has opened up in American society.  I had hoped that the election would provide an opportunity for self-examination, for taking stock, for righting this sinking ship of a decadent society.  But on the contrary, it has seemed to only confirm the determination of conservatives to live in a separate parallel world, one in which they represent the true American and can write off a majority of their fellow citizens.  Needless to say, if conservatives want to put forward a vision for America, it will have to be a vision for all Americans, a vision that can include them, their hopes, fears, and aspirations.  By seemingly resigning themselves to the fact that they are and will be a minority, arrayed against a morally decadent majority incapable of judgment, the Right seems to be preparing for an age of factional strife in which a victorious minority can impose its will on the people.  And even for those of us who think that many conservative values would, on the whole, be good for America, that is a frightful prospect.  


We are at a crossroads, with three paths before us.  1) Conservatives can accept that they are a minority, and retreat, yielding the field of American public policy to the victors, and go into hiding as the prophesied doom approaches. 2) Conservatives can turn militant, harden their platform into one of racial and class warfare and hope their chance comes to impose it upon an unwilling majority.  3) Conservatives can recognize that they live in a divided country, with different values, different understandings of the good, and different views about how to reach it, and then try to figure out how to negotiate these differences, sticking to their principles while accepting the need to make compromises in practice, as the price of continued life together.   

I hope and pray there are enough now willing to take the third option, and if so, I would try and console them with the thought that the divisions are not half so great as they imagine.  Obama is not a raving socialist, nor are American liberals particularly liberal.  They are a tad to the left on a political spectrum that is, by global and historical standards, quite narrow indeed.  If we cannot figure out how to talk to people who share, in fact, most of our basic cultural and political assumptions, then we have lost the power of speech altogether.  Such a call to learn to live life together is not a call to compromise with evil.  First of all, I do not think it self-evidently obvious that the 51% who voted for Obama are evil—they had many good reasons, not least of which was the atrociously insincere candidate the Republicans put forward.  But even if they were (and to be sure, some elements of the Democratic agenda, particularly among the most fervent pro-choice advocates, are evil), we mustn’t forget that we can only combat evil if we attempt to understand it. Just as we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why a Muslim suicide bomber would want to kill American civilians, we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why many Americans would want four more years of Obama.  Comforting ourselves with the fairy tale that they just want Santa Claus will not get us anywhere. 



2. Now, some theology. 

I was troubled yesterday by the inundation of my Facebook feed with Christian brothers and sisters seeking solace and comfort in God in a time of trial.  Let’s remember, they said, that God will never leave us nor forsake us.  Let’s remember that Jesus is the King, and no earthly election can change that.  Let’s remember that God is in control, and he is working his purposes out, mysterious though they may seem.  

Why should this trouble me?  Why would I be bothered at such fine and Scriptural sentiments?  Well, two reasons.  First is the “methinks the lady doth protest too much” consideration.  To clasp your hands to your chest, hyperventilate, and repeat over and over, “I’m fine.  I’m fine.  I know it’s all going to be all right.  It’s going to be all right” is generally a sign that you are not fine, and you don’t really think it’s going to be all right.  Many folks yesterday seemed to speak as if they’d just lost a close relative and needed to find comfort in God in a time of such bewilderment and distress.  I would rather them seek comfort in God than elsewhere, but if such comfort was needed, it suggests that many had a rather mixed up set of priorities (not to mention a tenuous grip on reality, since, as I said above, an Obama victory was almost a foregone conclusion).  Second, and related, was the fact that only a Romney loss seemed to call for meditation on the discontinuity between God’s kingdom and our politics.  In the lead up to the election, we heard little enough from Christians on the right about the need to keep things in perspective and remember that the result of the election is a fairly small thing in God’s eyes, and will not obstruct the progress of his kingdom.  On the contrary, we were repeatedly told how much hinged upon it.  A Romney victory, it seems, would have been taken as visible proof that God was at work—here was God’s grace and his government made manifest.  Only a Romney defeat called for the sentiment that God moves in mysterious ways—his hand was now hidden, and we must simply trust.  

Again, I’m glad that many Christians came to that conclusion, but I would ask them to remember that God’s hand is always more or less hidden, that he always moves in mysterious ways, and that whichever of these two candidates had won, it would not have been the visible manifestation of his gracious rule.  If it takes a Democratic victory to keep Christians from immanentizing the eschaton, and remind them that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, then let’s have a few more such victories.  


Perhaps more troubling, though, was the determination of some to persist nonetheless in discerning God’s hand of eschatological judgment made visible in the election.  For these, Obama’s victory was not to be met with a humble acknowledgment “God moves in mysterious ways, and we’ll trust him, although we don’t know what he’s up to.”  They did know what he was up to—judgment.  Doug Wilson, after offering the standard reassurances that Jesus was Lord, and was in control even if we didn’t know why, immediately contradicted this agnosticism, declaring, “Given the wickedness of key elements in Obama’s agenda . . . we know that whatever the Lord is doing, it is for judgment and not for blessing.”  We can know the will of the Lord in this case, and it was his will to judge this nation.  Of course, Scripture gives us conflicting guidance when it comes to such attempts at prophetic discernment.  We have cases like Job and the Tower of Siloam where we are taught clearly that we must not attempt to divine the Lord’s will in the vicissitudes of history—in particularly, we must not equate particular tragedies with acts of divine wrath and judgment.  On the other hand, in the prophets, we find countless examples of just such equations—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, the whole lot of them, have little hesitation in saying, “This Assyrian invasion is the Lord’s punishment.  This pestilence is the Lord’s punishment.”  How do we reconcile this?  I would tentatively suggest that the reconciliation is found in the fact that these are precisely prophets doing this.  The ability to discern God’s hand in history is the definition of the gift of prophecy, and it is a gift that has, I would argue, ceased (although we can certainly debate that).  This doesn’t mean we can make no attempts at discernment, but they must usually be highly tentative (there are times, of course, when discernment is important and possible—e.g., Germany in 1933—but they are rare), and they do not carry prescriptive weight. 

This last point is key.  If we know exactly what God is doing in particular events in history, then we can know exactly whose side we should be on.  We can know what actions are for cursing and which are for blessing.  And we can, on this basis, tell Christians exactly how they should respond to these circumstances.  We are no longer left with the murky compass of prudence, but should be able to perceive all things clearly in the light of God’s judgment.  The implication of remarks like Wilson’s, it would seem, is that we can know that those who voted for Obama were helping call down God’s curse upon us.  

And in fact, Wilson draws precisely this conclusion—”Professing Christians who voted for Obama were either confusedly or rebelliously heaping up judgment for all of us.”  Every “principled vote,” he says, offered in faith before the Lord, should be respected, “even if the vote cast differed from our own.”  But he apparently has in mind votes for a third party vs. votes for Romney, since he goes on to classify all votes for Obama under the heading of unprincipled votes.  Now, if I can know that a professing Christian is heaping up judgment for the rest of us, how should I be expected to treat that Christian?  Will I want to live together with him in love and seek to understand him, or will I try to distance myself from him?  It is hard to see how this kind of rhetoric can square with the doctrine of Christian liberty, or how it can be expected to have any effect other than intensifying divisions among Christians and rendering mutual understanding increasingly impossible.  It is the theological equivalent of what the commentators at Fox News are doing—consigning all Obama voters to the realm of wickedness and irrationality, instead of trying to understand them.   

Many Christians are clearly of the opinion that if pastors were doing their job right (including a more vigorous use of church discipline), there would not be many Obama supporters in the church.  One friend wrote

“we need to be serious about our Christianity.  It’s not hard to see why President Obama was reelected.  He won 43% of the Protestant vote, and 50% of the Catholic vote.  I’ve got to ask – how can you be a Christian and vote for a blood-thirsty, baby-killing, free sex-loving agenda?  How can you?  I’ll tell you how – because our pastors and our churches have failed.  They’ve not only failed to boldly proclaim the Gospel (which condemns both murder and free sex, as well as a host of other immoralities), but because they’ve failed to hold their congregations accountable.  This is where a free and open membership has destroyed the church.  Pastors must be serious about their obligation to Christ and His Church.  What are the keys for, after all?  If your members are in sin and are unwilling to repent, then they must be excommunicated. I’m not saying our churches can’t be full of sinners.  They are, they must be, and they always will be.  But our churches should be full of repentant sinners. 

Faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom, this suggests, requires a particular affiliation in the earthly kingdom, and this needs to be policed by the ministers of Christ’s kingdom.  You couldn’t find a much better example of why Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine is necessary.  


Now, my beef with this is of course not that faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom never has anything to do with worldly politics.  Obviously, I think it has a great deal to do with it, and there are times when a Christian’s duties should be clear.  But even when they are clear (e.g., end the slave trade, protect the needy, resist abortion), the means to those ends are not always clear.  In the present case, we have not been given a candidate who makes any plausible claim to stand for Christian principles.  What we are left with is a prudential decision between two candidates who are likely to do a good deal of harm, in which we try to decide which will do the least harm.  We should not consider it remotely obvious, in this circumstance, that one was the Christian choice, and that everyone who voted otherwise was a servant of wickedness or incapable of discernment.  After all, as Steve Holmes has pointed out in a helpful essay, the large majority of Christians outside the US hoped for an Obama victory.  Is that because all of them, too, are waiting for Santa Claus, or are heaping up God’s judgment on us?  Really?  It’s time for us to stop hiding in the ghetto, man up, and face the arduous task of persuasion and debate in a world where our own perspective is not the only plausible one, where we will meet disagreement at every turn, and no doubt find ourselves surprised to discover that it is, from time to time, intelligent disagreement.


(In addition to Holmes’s essay just linked, I recommend, for further reading, Matthew Tuininga’s reflectionsa piece published by the Atlantic yesterday, and Peter Leithart’s butt-kicking prognosis at First Things.)

(UPDATE: See also this astonishingly trenchant analysis by Alastair Roberts of the differences between the way British Christians and American Christians approach politics, which resonates with a great deal of my own observations after more than three years here in the UK.)