Letter to a Christian Climate Skeptic

 

Dear Incertus,

In your last communication, you offered three main reasons for your reflexive skepticism about climate change. As each of these reasons, in my experience, reflects deep-seated suspicions and doubts among many American Christians on this issue, I wanted to take some time to address each of them at some length, before touching on a fourth point that I think is much misunderstood and should be given serious weight.

Objection 1: The Science is All Political

You said that much of what passes for science on this issue is politics, or at any rate heavily politicized. I think several things can be said in response to this.

First is, “well sure, of course.” If by “politics” we mean something like, “the deliberation by a society about justice and the common good,” well then one could hardly expect a phenomenon like climate change not to be a political issue right off the bat. After all, if some parties (and indeed some nations) are in fact profiting off of the production and use of fossil fuels while their actions are having destructive effects on other human beings (including disproportionately the most powerless, namely, those yet unborn and the poor and those in third-world countries), then that is surely a matter of concern for justice and for the common good. Of course, if you don’t think that is happening after all—if there’s nothing there science-wise—then, by the same token, there’s nothing there politics-wise. But in that case, to say it shouldn’t be politicized is to beg the question. If the problem is real—if the science is right—then it is a political problem, and we should expect the political issues to get entangled with the science pretty quickly. Read More


A Primer on the Meaning of Political Opposition

As Trump’s shocking campaign promises have given way to the even more shocking realization that he actually meant them, our country’s already fevered political polarization has intensified to the boiling point. This polarization, and its occlusion of the possibility for meaningful political discourse, is in my view considerably more dangerous than anything Trump himself is likely to do. Trump is, as Alastair Roberts has recently reminded us, much more a showman than a conniving dictator, and although his autocratic leadership style is sure to undermine the rule of law (ironically, the very “law and order” he claims to re-establish), those who worry about a repeat of Hitler’s Germany are, I think, giving Trump way too much credit. The Art of the Deal is not exactly Mein Kampf.

However, an individual leader is always considerably less dangerous than the mindset he instills (or helps capitalize on, or both) among his followers and the society at large. And the greatest danger for a political society, one that does tend to prove conducive to the emergence of totalitarianism, is the illusion of the binary choice: there are either two options here, and if you are not for X, you are against it. If you are not for me, you are against me. While such a binary choice is often real in the realm of truth, it is rarely so in the realm of politics. Demagogues, however, are a master of reducing the complexities of politics to the simplicities of the binary choice, and Trump is, in this at least, the arch-demagogue.

Up through Trump’s actual inauguration, though, most thoughtful conservatives seemed to be resisting the pull of Trump’s all-or-nothing framing—after all, nothing is more antithetical to the true conservative mindset (though this has become something of an endangered species in recent decades). Nothing has been so disturbing to me about the past couple weeks as how rapidly this seems to be changing. In true progressive fashion, many “conservatives” have reflexively greeted concerns about policy by changing the subject to questions of sweeping (often caricatured) principle. This was of course the standard liberal move during the Obamacare debate: “You think this isn’t good policy? Wait a minute—are you telling me you don’t care about poor people getting healthcare?” We are in danger of witnessing the exact same drama play out in reverse: “You think Trump’s executive orders aren’t good policy? Wait a minute—are you telling me you think that unrestricted immigration is a good thing and we should have totally open borders?” Of course, progressives are making this much easier by too often playing right into it, and voicing their opposition only in the shrillest and most sweeping terms of humanitarian sentimentalism.

Amidst all this, it is important to remember what a complicated and nuanced thing political opposition is, and in the manifold debates to follow in the coming weeks and months and years, to do others (and ourselves) the favor of rigorously distinguishing exactly which form we are facing or seeking to articulate.

Of any proposed policy, we must ask the following questions: Read More


Nine Priorities for a Christian Politics

In my lecture in Richmond, VA a couple weeks ago on “What Does it Mean to be a Christian Citizen,” I pushed back against the idea that Christian politics was primarily a matter of particular Christian policies (see the previous two excerpts here and here), and I also emphasized that as our political duties are rooted in creation, many of the principles of justice that Christians seek can and will often be shared by unbelievers.

However, I did distill what I thought were nine priorities for a Christian politics, principles that while perhaps recognizable by the light of nature, were particularly clear by virtue of revelation, and which must guide any Christian citizen or representative. All of these will remain quite general, reflecting the limitations of time in my lecture, and my conviction that politics is more often a realm for careful discernment and prudential improvisation than for detailed dogmatic blueprints.

They are as follows:

1) Limited aims and aspirations

A Christian politics recognizes the limits of politics. We have already seen that the Christian’s dual citizenship serves as a warning against investing too much hope and meaning in political identity, expecting too much what good politics may achieve or fearing too much what evil it may bring about. A Christian politics recognizes that the true fruition of our human life together lies outside the bounds of history as we know it and beyond any human power to bring about; it also recognizes that God will bring about this fruition no matter how much we might seem to screw things up along the way. It might seem like an obvious and banal point to say that politics can only achieve so much, but in fact, it is something of a uniquely Christian contribution, since the natural human tendency is to look to earthly powers for our redemption and fulfillment, investing nations and rulers with a religious significance rather than recognizing that their authority is derivative and limited.

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Christian Politics as Neighbor-Love

In this post, I offer a second excerpt from my lecture at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA on “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian Citizen?” You can read the full text and hear the full audio of the lecture at the Davenant Trust’s website. Here, continuing from the excerpt in yesterday’s post, I develop the second half of Luther’s famous dialectic in The Freedom of a Christian: “dutiful servant of all.” 

Does this mean, then, that the Christian is to float heedlessly above the troubles and travails of the world? “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through”—we’ve heard this sort of line from many Christians in many eras. Is this faithful Christianity? No, for while we must not cling to earthly loyalties and attachments out of fear, as we so often do, we can and must cling to them out of love. Let’s look at the flipside of many of the passages we’ve quoted.

Galatians 5:13-14 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Romans 6 and 7 say, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (6:17-18) “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” And of course, 1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

This is the second half of Luther’s paradox: the Christian is the dutiful servant of all. He is worth quoting extensively on this point. Read More


Freedom From Fear as the Heart of Christian Politics

A week and a half ago, I was invited to give a lecture at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA on “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian Citizen?” It was a great blessing to be hosted by such a thoughtful and engaged congregation, and a great opportunity to present in relatively-concise form many of the thoughts I’ve been pondering and researching the past few years about Christian political identity. You can read the full text and hear the full audio of the lecture at the Davenant Trust’s website, and I encourage you to do so, but here is an excerpt that will hopefully stand well on its own, developing the first half of Luther’s famous dialectic in The Freedom of a Christian:

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What does it mean for a Christian to be the “free lord of all”? Freedom is of course the dominant theme of American political discourse, even if we rarely know quite what we mean by it. This theme also dominates not merely Luther’s writings, but the New Testament as well. Galatians 5:1 proclaims, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In Romans 6:13-14, Paul admonishes us, “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” And in the next chapter he says, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ. . . . But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom. 7:4, 6) And then just a bit later, in one of the most famous chapters of Scripture, we read,

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . .

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:31-39)

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