It’s Nice Having Smart Friends…

The best part is when they put up excellent blog posts so all I need to do is tell you to go read them, instead of having to say something intelligent myself.  

First, then, you might want to check out Jordan Ballor’s fine little post on Acton, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Business” in which he cautions conservatives against rejecting too summarily the solidarist view of society asserted in President Obama’s much-maligned speech last week, when he went so far as to say, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”  Ballor reminds us “We all know at some level that we didn’t get where we are on our own, and that we have an ongoing responsibility and dependence on others for our continuing enjoyment of the goods of human existence.”  Ballor thus points us back toward a more authentic conservatism and away from the modern individualist (and thus thoroughly unconservative) variety.

For a more fleshed-out look at what this older conservatism might look like, you couldn’t do much better than Steven Wedgeworth’s recent post at the Calvinist International on “R.L. Dabney’s Theory of Economics.”  Dabney, a Southern Presbyterian stalwart much beloved by modern-day Reformed conservatives for his trenchant and prescient critiques of the agenda of the rising centralized secular state, may shock many of his admirers for his allegiance to pre-capitalist concepts of the role of business in society, the need for government to restrain inequality, the need to restrain luxury spending and usury, etc.

Finally, on a somewhat different note, Lue-Yee Tsang reflects on the contemporary tempest in a teapot over here as to whether Parliament will intervene to advance the women bishops agenda in the Church of England.  While opposing Parliament’s stance on the particular policy, and pronouncing them unfit to govern church affairs so long as they persist in their current godlessness, Lue-Yee nonetheless offers a unapologetic defence of antidisestablishmentarianism (10 points for using that word!) along the lines of Hookerian two-kingdoms theory.

Go, read, be edified.


A Hotline to Jesus? Obamacare, Ministerial Authority and Christian Liberty

In my recent post on Obamacare and subsequent discussions, one of my chief concerns has been one that, remarkably, I share with David VanDrunen—the concern that the spiritual and civil kingdoms are confused, and believers consciences are thereby bound in matters that fall properly within Christian liberty.  The minister must not confuse the words of God with his own opinions, and one surefire way to do so is to assert that the Lordship of Christ or the authority of Scripture is at stake in some particular political policy.  

In seeking to elucidate his recent “Sermon to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho,” Doug Wilson appeared to cheerfully confirm that yes, this is exactly what he intended to do, in exactly the way that R2K theorists warn against.  Let’s take a closer look then at what VanDrunen is so afraid of, and what false assumptions force him to nonsensical conclusions about the relationship between the church and politics.  The same false assumptions, we shall see, appear to underlie Wilson’s recent attempt to justify his claim to have a speak directly for Jesus in this matter.

In Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen argues that his doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, is necessary to safeguard Christian liberty: 

“The church has only the power to declare the laws and doctrines that already appear in Scripture.  In short, church officers can say and do only that which Scripture authorizes them to say and do.  At first this may sound constricting and burdensome for the church, but its effect and driving motivation is actually to protect the liberty of Christians.  If church officers cannot teach anything beyond what Scripture teaches, then they are unable to bind the consciences of Christians beyond how Scripture already binds it [sic].  Thus Christian liberty is maximized.  Christian consciences are bound to believe and to do as Scripture instructs, but Christians are free to exercise their own wisdom in deciding how to live and what to think about all matters that Scripture does not address (within the bounds of respecting other legitimate authority structures in society)” (p. 152).  A little later on he says, “If a church and its leaders take seriously their ministerial authority, then they will exhort Christians to do what Scripture instructs and leave them at liberty to make wise and responsible decisions about other things.  Church officers should teach Christians to submit to civil authorities, to discipline and educate their children, and to work diligently and honestly.  They should offer them pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.  But they should not command them what political strategies to follow, what child-rearing methods to utilize, or how to make their businesses run more efficiently” (155).

He discusses the particular case of abortion policy, and while granting that the church should support a pro-life position morally, this will not necessarily entail any particular political strategy, since there are many rival considerations that must be taken into judgment in determining whom to vote for, and the best political way to enact pro-life principles.  For this reason, “the church may not promote one side over the other nor may any Christian present his decision as the Christian view. . . . [It may be] an important and morally weighty decision, to be sure, but it is one of discretion and wisdom that the minister, bound to preach the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone, cannot determine from the pulpit” (202-3).  This call for restraint certainly makes sense, but it is when VanDrunen extrapolates from this principle the conclusion that the Church must simply avoid speaking about political matters at all (as he appears to think in NLTK 263-68, where he rebukes Thornwell for “incoherence” in thinking that there may be “a religious aspect to civil concerns”, something clearly appears to have gone awry.

Part of what has gone awry can be seen in his simple conflation of “ministers” and “the Church.”  If ministers can’t address a matter, then “the Church” can’t address a matter, he thinks; but the Church is the whole Christian people, so what about them?  In his paradigm, the voice of the minister is essentially identified with the voice of Christ, and Christ is understood as the great law-giver of the New Covenant.  When the minister speaks, therefore, he is taken to command law in the name of Christ, and thus he cannot envision ministers “speaking” or applying Scripture in any way except to “bind consciences.”  When ministers preach, he thinks, they are necessarily saying “Thus saith the Lord” at every point, and this leaves no room for attempting to venture into the somewhat muddy realm of politics.  VanDrunen actually makes a small qualification that points the way out of this dilemma, but he doesn’t seem to notice it—the line: “They should offer pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.”  What is pastoral counsel if not an attempt to faithfully apply Scripture and reason to particular circumstances demanding prudence and wisdom, and in which the pastor’s word cannot be anything but provisional and advisory, leaving the conscience of the believer quite free whether to accept it or not?  Apparently, however, VanDrunen sees a sharp disjunction between such private counsel, addressed to individuals, and “the pulpit”—the public sermon addressed to believers at large.  But this leaves out a whole realm of other forms of pastoral communication.  What about Sunday School teaching?  What about writing, speaking engagements, and blogging?  In all these settings, it seems to me, the minister can attempt to offer counsel regarding the proper application of Scripture to life, without necessarily insisting that he speaks directly for God.  Indeed, even though the pulpit is a unique platform that carries particular weight, I see no reason why the pastor cannot venture beyond what is strictly contained in his text to offer a provisional application to current circumstances.  However, the pastor must be clear that he recognizes that the further he moves from the express words of Scripture into particular political questions, the more provisional his statements must be; not all his interpretations may equally claim to carry the authority of Christ.

 

Now, Wilson’s sermon seemed to be a textbook example of the sort of thing VanDrunen was warning against.  In it, he certainly seemed to confuse adiaphora—particular political arrangements—with the express teachings of Scripture (what he called the “biblical concept of limited government” or the prohibition on human authorities claiming to be “as God”).  He offered a particular spiritual evaluation of the current political circumstances, and did not confine himself to description—he went on to offer prescriptions about how the Idaho authorities, at least, were obliged to act in this circumstance.  To be sure, the ordinary citizen did not receive direct prescriptive guidance, except insofar as he was being prescribed to share a particular evaluation of the situation; failure to share this evaluation, it was implied, could stem only from cowardice or sophistry.  And then, to cap it all off, Wilson did exactly what VanDrunen said ministers necessarily do, and said, “I have been declaring all these things in the name of Jesus.”  Obamacare is idolatry . . . Thus saith the Lord.  It certainly appeared to be an attempt to bind the conscience, a violation of Christian liberty. 

But perhaps this was an uncharitable reading of what Wilson was up to; so some contended.  Thankfully, Wilson added a post yesterday to explain exactly what he thought he was up to, entitled “Jesus and Conservatism.”  Unfortunately, the post appeared to rely on the very same categories that VanDrunen uses.  Where VanDrunen attempts to offer a reductio ad absurdum—”ministers can’t preach on particular policy decisions, because that would bind the conscience”—Wilson appears to swallow the reductio—“Sure they can, so too bad.”

The post appeared to be a response to the objection “Why is it OK for you to preach politics, if it’s not OK for N.T. Wright to preach politics, as you’ve often complained before?”  Ironically, the question thus posed perfectly highlighted why ministers should avoid claiming the authority of Jesus for particular policy prescriptions.  If two ministers do so, and their policy prescriptions are contradictory, clearly they can’t both be speaking for Jesus.  Yet Wilson says, “When differing with Wright on his economics, I do not fault him for speaking to the situation, and I do not fault him for doing so in the name of Christ. I would only fault him for the bad economic reasoning, and we could then engage in profitable debate — and the debate should occur on that level.” 

But if he recognizes that there’s touchy matters of economic reasoning going on, which require healthy debate (and are not directly addressed by Scripture) then shouldn’t this highlight the need for all prescriptions on such matters to be provisional?  Wilson, however, seems to think that there is no way to have an opinion without attempting to make it binding on others:

“‘I think I’ll have another helping of potatoes’ says absolutely nothing about what other people ought to be thinking. But ‘I think that two oranges and two more of them make four’ is a claim that I believe to be binding on others.

So when I claim, as I recently have, that belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ obligates us to a position that honors the concept of limited government, I really am saying that everybody needs to get good with this. The Bible teaches it. So then, someone will say, ‘you are claiming that Jesus is a conservative’? Not really — given where He is, at the right hand of the Father, I really don’t know how the label would attach. But I am willing to say that He wants you to be one.”

In other words, Wilson says he really is doing what I worried about; he really does mean to say, “The particular political position I hold is Jesus’s position, and you need to get on board with it.”  He goes on:

“Now the dictum that ‘Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar’ requires that we go one way or the other, down into the details, and that we do so in His name. The only way to avoid that is to reject the claim that Jesus has something to say about how we govern ourselves. For as soon as you say that He does have opinions on it, then some bright fellow will ask, ‘Oh? What are they?’ And I will say that Jesus wants us to stop spending money we don’t have, and a Christian Keynesian will say the opposite. And somebody is wrong, not only about the economics, but also about what Jesus wants.

The only alternative to this is to say that Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does. But if He cares, then His people will be asked how He cares, and how His care cashes out. As a minister of Christ, I don’t have the option of saying nothing.”

This is essentially exactly the argument of VanDrunen, only in reverse.  Actually, the minister of Christ does have the option of saying nothing, on matters that are beyond his expertise.  If a quantum physicist asked Wilson what Jesus thinks about the Higgs-Boson particle, is Wilson bound to declare Christ’s mind on the matter, or can he say nothing?  But in any case, there is a false dilemma here, as we say with VanDrunen, between “saying nothing,” on the one hand, and going “down into the details” in the name of Christ.  Why can we not make the general declaration “Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar” in the name of Christ, and then caution that, when we are going down into the details, we are necessarily getting in somewhat over our heads, and whatever we say will be somewhat provisional?  That doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion about it, as Wilson seems to imply (“But to say that Jesus led me into conservatism (for example) is to say that it would be better if others did that too. This is not ideological imperialism; rather, it is what it means to think something, at least something of this nature.”)  You can believe something, and believe it earnestly, and indeed believe that Jesus led you to believe it.  But because you realize that you are not Jesus, you don’t have to thereby say, “Believe such-and-such, in the name of Christ.”  Rather, you can say, “My understanding of what Jesus wants it that we should do such-and-such.  And I believe this on the basis of these Scripture passages, and this assessment of empirical realities.  But all I can tell you for sure that you must believe is those Scripture passages, not my assessment of empirical realities, and not the particular way I have applied those Scripture passages to empirical realities.”  This is by no means saying that “Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does”; it only means that you don’t claim to have a direct hotline to Jesus, some special privileged access into what he would say about every conceivable circumstance.

 

Perhaps I am still missing something, but I do not see how one can make such a claim—”This is what Jesus would say, and you need to get on board with it” without implying that anyone who doesn’t get on board with it is thereby sinning; indeed, sinning in a fairly significant way.  And this is by definition to violate Christian liberty; it is in fact precisely the sort of thing that the Reformers were concerned about when they erected their protest against Rome on the foundation of this doctrine. 

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)


Obamacare in Perspective

[EDIT FOR CLARIFICATION: A lot of people are being directed to this as a response to Wilson’s recent “Sermon to the Government and Legislature of Idaho.”  In fact, it was written and posted before that sermon.  However, many of the concerns voiced here certainly apply (along with additional ones) to what was said there.]

Let me begin with a few (big) caveats.  I’ve been out of the country for three years now.  That provides some helpful perspective, I hope, but it also means I’m pretty ignorant.  Way back three years ago, when the original healthcare battles were being fought, I paid a good deal of attention, but never read up in detail on the final bill, which seemed to me to be a very poor piece of legislation, a compromise that combined the worst elements of both sides.  Since then, I’ve turned a blind eye to the continued bickering, protesting, anathematizing, and so on that has continued to dog “Obamacare.”  I mostly ignored all the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision, and I’ve read very little on the details of that decision.  I’m basically glad John Roberts did what he did, if only because I felt like the whole brawl needed a referee to step in and say “Time out.  Let’s not do anything rash in the heat of the moment.”

So, if you want to lob rotten tomatoes at me, I understand.  But as a few folks really encouraged me to post these thoughts, I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out there anyway.  In any case, the important questions here are at the level of theo-political principles, not the particular details of Obamacare.

Among Christians, perhaps particularly Reformed Christians, one is likely to hear these days that this is the last straw.  Our government has crossed the line.  It is the Leviathan, the Beast now.  It has thrown out of the window “biblical principles of limited government,” making itself out to be infinite, to be God, to be Savior. Christians have a duty to resist it now, in some form or other (whatever that means…).  If we aren’t going to stand up for “biblical principles of limited government,” then who is?  Needless to say, I think this is a deeply misguided line of attack.  

 

For one thing, if it’s really so black and white, and so serious, then what do these statements say about the tens of millions of American Christians who support something like Obamacare?  Or the scores (maybe hundreds) of millions of Christians worldwide who support universal health care?  For another, if these biblical principles of limited government are so obvious, could we at least hear a frank admission from most of their advocates that they have only become obvious to Christians quite recently.  We could pick examples from the 4th century or the 19th, but let’s just stick with the Reformation, since I know that best, and that’s when all our greatest heroes lived, right?  Calvin’s Geneva—really limited government, right?  Ha!  It would be hard to think of a more meddlesome commonwealth!  Almost every aspect of the citizens’ lives—religious, economic, entertainment, apparel—were closely regulated.  “Oh, but that was by the church, so it was OK.” (People will really say that, you know.)  Well, not really, no—just check out my recent post on the politics of Geneva.  How about Martin Bucer, author of that great Biblical treatise on government, On the Kingdom of Christ.  If he published that book during the Cold War, he probably would’ve been imprisoned as a Soviet propagandist.  Bucer’s Christian magistrate has his hands in everything—agricultural legislation, suppressing trade of luxury goods, education, church-building, welfare, etc., etc.  

Now, we’re perfectly free to say, “Well yes, the Reformers were a bit totalitarian in their view of the Christian prince’s scope of responsibility, but we have since learned better, and we have the Bible verses to prove it.”  But if men so zealous for fidelity to Scripture in every area of life saw no contradiction between what we now would call “command economies” and the Bible, this should at least temper the zeal of those who think that the plain teaching of Scripture is at stake.

 

But let’s turn now to ask what this plain teaching of Scripture is.  The only possible guidance one can get out of the New Testament is Romans 13:4, which only helps you if (as a remarkable number of otherwise intelligent people have done) you take it as providing a complete description of the legitimate scope of governmental activity. Is universal healthcare a way of executing wrath on the evildoer?  Doesn’t look like it, so obviously it’s not legitimate—so the argument goes.  In the Old Testament, libertarians must face the inconvenient fact that Exodus through Deuteronomy seems to offer an incredibly meddlesome law code, complete with shocking infringements on private property like the gleaning and jubilee laws.  Of course, the ready response at this point is that these are “laws” only in the moral sense, which God’s people, as individuals, are responsible before him to obey, but they aren’t civil laws, so it’s OK.  Having done a good bit of work in this area, I have little hesitation in saying that this is anachronistic to the point of incoherence.  

Ah, but then we come to 1 Samuel 8, a favorite passage among the monarchomachs, which portrays various kinds of governmental overreach as a divine judgment upon the people.  Indeed, our modern-day Christian libertarians are eager to point out vs. 15 and 17, where Samuel tells the people the appalling prediction that this new king will tax 1/10th of their produce.  Well, there you have it, we are told.  Tax rates of 10% and over are unbiblical.  But one might just as well complain that we have police forces, complex legal institutions, separation of powers in our government, standing armies, and pay our taxes in cash, not grain—all contrary to ancient Israel.  The simple fact is that a more complex society demands a more complex (and more expensive) government structure.  In any case, it’s worth noting that Scripture itself appears to recognize this, praising expansions of administration under godly kings—Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah. The godly kings are involved in all kinds of stuff—religious reform, economic reform, judicial reform, major building projects, military expansion, etc.—and they’re praised for it.  It’s not so much the scope of royal power per se that seems to the problem, but the use of it. The problem with the wicked kings is that they used the great scope of their power for wicked ends.

To be sure, in Scripture, we are given certain key principles of “limited government.”  Above all, the principle that God stands above and behind all governments, it is He who raises them up and casts them down, it is to Him that they are accountable.  Governments cannot therefore seek to usurp his place.  They cannot claim powers that are only his.  They can not claim dominion over the whole world, or over human hearts.  They cannot claim to define good and evil; rather, they are bound to the moral law he has established, and will be judged by Him if they violate it.  While certainly not explicit in Scripture (all the attempts of 17th-century republicans notwithstanding!) we can also certainly develop from Scripture they idea that it is good for government to find ways to incorporate the consent of the governed.  Indeed, we could continue along such lines, attempting to extrapolate reasonable principles from Scripture as to what governments ought to do and not to do.  But already, we have moved beyond clear biblical principles (the violation of which is rebellion against God) into the realm of prudential reasoning. 

 

If we’re looking for a list of enumerated powers, some very clear limits on the sorts of things government can legitimately take responsibility for, I’m afraid the US Constitution is where you’ll have to look, not the Bible.  Christians today who claim about the ungodly expansion of government tend to confuse these two—the generic Biblical limits on government (don’t usurp the place of God)—with the concrete American constitutional limits on government.  We seem to think that if a government transgresses these latter, it has claimed freedom from all bounds, has claimed equality with God.  In particular, we are told that the judicial decision last week constituted a claim that the US government has a prerogative “without limit.”  Really?  Did John Roberts yesterday just certify that the US government has sovereignty over any territory on earth it desires to occupy?  Did John Roberts just certify that the US government can tell you what you’re allowed to read? which church to attend?  which God to believe in?  Hardly.  Of course, there is no doubt that the US government, by its sheer scale and pervasive wickedness, has bestial proclivities, a tendency to make itself into an idol which must be served, to make its own glorification the end of its existence.

But where will we draw the limit, if we abandon the enumerated powers of a strictly construed Constitution?  If we don’t draw the line in the sand here, then where will it stop?  There are no criteria, we are told.  But this is to assume that the only criteria we have to work with are neat, concretely defined little checkboxes: national defense? Check.  Police service? Check. Regulate interstate commerce? Check. Issue drivers licenses? Check. Define the meaning of marriage? Check. Ban abortion? Check. 

The fact is, a great many nations of the world get by just fine without the kind of written limit that we are asking for.  The idea of a Constitution with enumerated powers is by no means a ubiquitous one.  Britain has no such thing.  Britain relies on a slowly developing common law tradition, in which precedent, popular consent and the principles of natural equity serve as limits upon the legitimate scope of government action.  Of course, I suppose most of the Christian Right, would have few qualms about dismissing much of the rest of the world, including Britain, as totalitarian.  But this is just a combination of naïveté and hubris, or else depends upon the possession of a reliable concrete standard for defining what counts as totalitarian.  And in any case, ultimately, the US too must fall back on these kinds of limits. If nothing else, this controversy is proof that a constitution with enumerated powers is insufficient.  There is too much room for disagreement about how much these powers may be stretched, and even how much of a straitjacket a 220-year-old Constitution should be.  Ultimately, while the Constitution provides certain limits on the scope of our government’s powers, legal precedent, popular consent, and the sense of natural equity play a bigger role.

 

But, aside from the Constitution, do we have no standard for determining the just limits of government?  What do Scripture and natural law have to tell us?  A good two kingdoms theology  will warn us against the danger of seeking for detailed guidance on matters pertaining to the civil kingdom in Scripture.  Even where Scripture does give detailed guidance, it is the nature of such matters is to be variable according to time and circumstance, so there is no a priori guarantee that the guidance still applies (e.g., the 1 Sam. 8 taxation question above).  What does necessarily still apply (the “equity” of the law) does so because it belongs to the natural law, with which Scripture is “fraught,” according to Hooker.  The general principles of Scripture and the natural law will coincide in helping us see that certain things governments might try to do are intrinsically beyond their God-given limits.  So, although it is somewhat question-begging, we can of course start by saying that government oversteps its limits if it ever commands us to act contrary to the moral law, such as ordering its citizens into a blatantly unjust war, or requiring doctors to prescribe abortifacients, or requiring ministers to marry gay couples.  Of course, such situations may require a good deal of discernment, and most cases are not so obvious.  Natural law will also require that government abide by principles of justice, commutative and distributive.  These too require discernment, and it is not always clear what belongs to the fundamental moral law and what are mere changeable positive laws of Scripture; thankfully, the Christian tradition of moral theology has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for us on this point.   Most importantly, we can lay down, on the basis of a good two kingdoms theology, that government must never seek to intrude itself upon the realm of belief or to idolatrously claim religious devotion (though again, it requires a great deal of work to cash out what constitutes such violations and what does not).

In any case, though, natural law does not function well as a detailed set of prescriptions, or even a set of deductive principles from which we may arrive, a priori, at a detailed set of prescriptions.  That is not the sort of thing it is, since it reveals itself in prudential reasoning in ever-changing circumstances which pose ever-new demands.  Rather, it functions best as a means of testing, a posteriori, certain proposed actions, and seeking to discern whether they violate fundamental norms—in other words, much more in the manner of a common law tradition than an attempt to establish enumerated powers.  So we do have means of determining the just limits to government, but they are no silver bullet or infallible answer key; they require a great deal of attention to particular needs and constraints.

 

So, finally, to come back to Obamacare, what might such limits have to say to this particular question?  Has some fundamental line been crossed, now that the government can “coerce us to buy something”?  Well, hardly.  Although I haven’t read the opinion, I think Roberts was quite right in his basic view of the situation.  To describe the individual mandate as a market transaction that you were required to engage in was the Obama administration’s attempt to compromise with the market model they were confronted with.  In most health care systems, it is quite clear that the government is ensuring the provision of a service, and requiring you to pay for it in some way or another—in other words, taxing you for it.  

Now, you can try to be a consistent anarchist and insist that all taxation is theft, but if not, you’re going to have to grant that we already accept any number of “coerced purchases” through taxation.  We pay, through our taxes, for defence from enemies and from criminals, for the provision of justice at the courts, for the maintenance of a stable currency, for government safety inspections in various industries, for a transportation network, for weather measurement and forecasting, for public parks for disaster management and response, etc. (just to pick a few items that even arch-conservatives are unlikely to object to, though you never know these days).  Of course, I have argued before, and will continue to argue, that it’s really misguided to think of such taxation in terms of coercion—or rather, it is only coercive if you first choose to think of it as such.  But in any case, is there something special about healthcare that makes it categorically inappropriate for us to be taxed for the provision of, whereas it is perfectly fine to tax us for the provision of firefighters?  In both cases, the reasoning is, “Some unforeseen peril or harm may suddenly come upon a citizen, which he does not have the means to rescue himself from on his own. As part of ensuring that we, as a society, take care of one another in our need, we tax citizens to provide the means to protect and care for them in their need.”  Indeed, it seems rather easier to justify taxation for healthcare than taxation for transportation, for instance.  Now, none of this is to say that universal public healthcare is necessarily a good idea, and certainly not that the particular ugly hybrid enacted in the US is a good idea.  It may be poorly-conceived in any number of ways.  But this is quite different from saying it is a grave injustice, a mark of rebellion against God, etc. 

When we want to ask whether government has become tyranny, the chief question to be asked is whether it is seeking to serve the common good of its people, or whether it has turned aside to serve the private good of the governors.  The tyrant has classically been identified as the one who turns on his own people, plundering them for his own private gain (to be sure, there are ideological tyrants, like Hitler, who oppress for the sake of some perverse higher end—but is that really what we’re dealing with?).  This is the problem with Tea Party-type cries of “tyranny.”  Where are the millions and billions that Obama is stealing from the American people to fill his own bank account?  Actually, he, and almost all other government officials, make considerably less than most private sector executives.  “Oh, well it’s not money, of course,” we’re told, “it’s the quest for power for power’s sake.”  Well maybe, in the case of some people.  But in general, most people who advocate universal healthcare do so on the basis of genuinely trying to serve the common good.  They may certainly be going about it in the wrong way, but that doesn’t make them tyrants.  

 

To show the ways in which Obamacare is flawed, we cannot point to some cut-and-dried Bible verse, or some blindingly obvious principle of justice.  We will have to resort to detailed arguments and analyses, to the much more difficult but more rewarding task of persuasion, to show the ways in which justice and the common good are undermined, rather than advanced.  And we will have to live with the fact that some Christians of good will may continue to disagree with us.  And wherever there is legitimate room for disagreement about what the common good requires, then we are not talking about an issue of conscience on which we are bound “to obey God rather than men.”  Many are loudly declaring that Christians need to stand up and resist this evil; otherwise, we are obeying men rather than God. The implication, of course, is that the tens of millions of Christians who disagree with them on this (within the US alone) are in rebellion against God.  Really?  Are we willing to go that far?    No, it seems quite clear to me that what we are differing about is a question of the best pursuit of natural goods within the civil kingdom, a matter in which Scripture and the natural law will inform us but may not lead us to any one certain conclusion.  That being the case, we are certainly free to continue to argue our case, but we are not free, it seems to me, to disobey our rulers.  “Our judgments we are bound in this case to suspend,” as Hooker would tell us on such a matter—obeying the law even as we critique it.  


Some Thoughts on Obama: A Follow-up

My recent post bothered some people, which was, I suppose, to some extent inevitable; but some of that could have been avoided, and I must take the blame for that.  If you were bothered by the melodrama, then you may be on the wrong blog, since for me, it’s hardly worth writing about unless it’s worth getting a tad dramatic about (perhaps I read too much Shakespeare in my adolescence).  But if you thought that some of the rhetoric about Tea Party Republicans, particularly the line about tactics of “disgraceful depravity or delusionality,” was perhaps overblown, and indeed, calculated to heighten the polarisation that the post laments, then that is a fair complaint, and for that I apologise.  I should also re-emphasise that of course I consider that there’s still plenty of blame to put on everyone else involved, and that during Bush’s days, many Democrats resorted to equally childish tactics at times–the only difference is that they weren’t risking such a disaster.

But the most bothersome part, I think, was a paragraph that could easily be quite misread–my paragraph on Obama.  So since I’ve decided to come out of my insulated British closet and say what I really think of American politics, I might as well say what I really think about Obama.

 

The paragraph in question was this: 

“Obama certainly offered America its most convincing opportunity at a fresh start, at a symbolic end to disunity, in decades.  The nation’s first black president, he symbolised a nation that could overcome enormous differences and prejudices; he was young, he was eloquent, he was, as much as one could expect, “outside the establishment.”  Even those deeply opposed to his policies should have welcomed the hope of transcending partisanship that he seemed to offer.  But the grand new experiment was torpedoed before it got off the ground.”

The intent was to sketch a glowing portrait that was clearly a mirage, to build up the sense of glorious but ultimately illusory expectation before revealing it as the vanity it was.  Of course I never really thought that Obama was likely to offer us a fresh start, nor that his sleek refined Harvard “black”-ness signalled a real end to racial and class differences.  Nor did I think he was really going to prove “outside the establishment.”  Nor did I expect him to really transcend partisanship.  Even if his intentions and ideals were the very best (which is highly doubtful, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt), Washington is a black hole that will stifle all good intentions and twist them to evil.  

My point is that this was the symbolism of his election, and symbolism can be powerful.  Obama symbolised a fresh start and an opportunity for unity, and if we had chosen to make the most of the symbolic moment, then I think that perhaps that symbolism could, to a very limited extent, have become reality.  His election afforded an opportunity to try to make the rhetoric real, to overcome past differences, prejudices, and mutual suspicions.  I never thought that was at all likely to happen, but I wish that had been tried.  I wish that the Right had tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and at least give the idea of working together a short, and I wish the Left had not been so haughty towards the Right.  (This last point, I think, should not be underestimated.  The left was bitter at having to endure eight years of Bush, and, if I may generalise, spent the first few months after Obama’s election strutting around and enjoying their newfound sense of superiority–hardly likely to win them friends on the other side of the aisle.) 

In short, I wish we had followed the Golden Rule, as I put it in my previous post.  That doesn’t mean agreeing with Obama (something which I do only occasionally), but it means treating him how I would like to be treated–giving his ideas a fair hearing, considering his proposals in the context of the options available to him, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he has good intentions, trying to work with him when possible and voicing disagreements constructively.  Now obviously, this is something that both Left and Right have failed to do in recent years (perhaps failed to do ever); but I single out the Christian Right for criticism on this point because they claim to be Christian, and thus should be held to a standard of Christian charity, something that many seem to rarely exhibit when it comes to politics.

 

So, is Obama a good president?  Certainly not in absolute terms.  Probably not even in relative terms (though he’s not up against very stiff competition).  I have little use for his foreign policy, except as an improvement on his predecessor, nor am I enamoured with his economic policy, though to be honest, it’s hard to say what is the right policy under current conditions.  His social policy has any number of problems, though I don’t think it’s quite the Satanic agenda that many of my co-religionists seem to think.  But he is not the anti-Christ, and he does occasionally have some very good ideas–I think that his proposed deficit reduction plan, in fact, was fairly sound. 

In short, as Hamlet put it, “He is a man, take him all in all.”  And as such, he has my sympathy.



The Late Great United States: A Lament

Today, August 2, 2011, the US Congress managed to agree not to send the country headlong into bankruptcy.  While we may be glad that the threat of financial Armageddon was averted for the time being, it would be an understatement to call this a Pyrrhic victory, coming as it did at the cost of the last shreds of American credibility abroad and unity at home.  Indeed, perhaps someday this day will be remembered as a symbolic milestone in the decline and fall of the American Empire.  Certainly, whether you mourn or celebrate the end of American hegemony, it is an occasion that calls for a pause for sober reflection.  

It is a perhaps clichéd now to declare that we live in the twilight days of America’s world domination; indeed, I suspect that just as the 20th century is now seen as the “American Century,” the verdict of history will mark 2001, the turn of the century, as the turning point, the year when the engine of American economic growth sputtered to a halt, when America sought to flex its muscles in response to external attack and gained nothing from the exercise but the hatred of former friends, when a maverick Texan president decided to take the country on a glorious John Wayne expedition against the enemies of civilization that ended up as a ride into its own sunset.

Yet it was only the events of the past couple weeks that succeeded in bringing the fact of our decline home to me–the recognition that we live at the end of an era, on the cusp of uncertain and perhaps unhappy days.

 

To be sure, on paper we are still a mighty nation, teeming with people (around 300 million of them, and more immigrating every day) and money.  Although all empires must come to an end, the pieces are certainly there for us to pull together and eke out another several decades at the top of the pecking order.  Indeed, there is still no lack of commentators–particularly on the Right–claiming that our weakness is all in our heads, and that that all America needs is to shake off its self-doubt and reassume its destined role as Empress of the nations.  But whatever our resources may be on paper, history offers some sobering examples, such as the last days of the Persian Empire, in which an army of a million men melted before 50,000 Macedonian upstarts.  The lesson here is simple: without the capacity to act as one, any quantity of resources are useless.  And if the last few weeks prove anything, they prove that that capacity is far beyond our reach.  Sure, in theory, we could recover it, could agree to recognise one another as fellow citizens and engage again in rational debate.  But it hardly appears likely, especially when the demographic one might expect to be most pushing for charity and the pursuit of the common good–conservative Christians–seems most hell-bent on an atomistic society based on competing assertions of “rights.” 

I will not echo the tired chorus of Christian leaders that all this is the mark of divine disfavour for an ebbing faith, and that, but for our lack of faithfulness, America’s prosperity and power would know no bounds.   After all, I’m not at all sure that God is a fan of global hegemony–at least not by creatures–nor of boundless material prosperity.  Rather, I tend to think that if we’d been more faithful, we might in fact find ourselves living a bit more humbly and simply.  In any case, rather than seek the ultimate cause of our current malaise in the inscrutability of divine providence, let us seek rather the proximate cause–our own actions.  

 

Myriad vices could be listed, perhaps most of all our prodigality and taste for instant gratification.  But all these could perhaps be overcome, or at the very least, their noxious impacts blunted, by unity and resolution of purpose, a sense that we needed to transcend our differences and tackle such serious problems together.  Perhaps this was too much to expect of a populace as drunk on self-gratifying materialism as ours, but just maybe we could hope that our leaders would show such a spirit, especially when, by late 2008, after eight years of military, economic, and fiscal misadventures, America seemed to be derailing fast.  Perhaps the crisis would shake us out of complacency and division, and help us together seek a solution.

Whatever you think of his politics, Obama certainly offered America its most convincing opportunity at a fresh start, at a symbolic end to disunity, in decades.  The nation’s first black president, he symbolised a nation that could overcome enormous differences and prejudices; he was young, he was eloquent, he was, as much as one could expect, “outside the establishment.”  Even those deeply opposed to his policies should have welcomed the hope of transcending partisanship that he seemed to offer.  But the grand new experiment was torpedoed before it got off the ground.*

No sooner was Obama nominated than the so-called “Christian Right” promptly forgot (if it had ever remembered, which seems doubtful) the Golden Rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Obama was promptly demonised as a threat to all that was good and wholesome and American, and the Right not only resolved, but publicly confessed, that its number one priority was no longer to govern the nation (a concept to which, indeed, it seemed ideologically opposed) but to undermine Obama.  The attitude seemed to be that of a child, who, jealous at not being offered some privilege, resolved to at least make life thoroughly miserable for its sibling who had.  Throughout the past two years, the rest of the world has watched in growing unease as the ensuing display of childish political squabbling has reduced America’s government to near-impotence.  

All of this has reached its climax in the last few weeks of “negotiations” about the debt ceiling.  There is certainly more than enough blame to go around for the embarrassing spectacle that has played out, enough that most of the leaders involved ought to retire from politics in shame.  There have been plenty of cowardly retreats when a principled stand was called for, and stubborn assertions of principle when an intelligent compromise was called for; there have been bluffs that should have been called, and bluffs that never should have been made.  But the lion’s share must surely go to the Republicans, who had, after all, long since abandoned any pretensions at governing.  If you ever needed proof that elections mattered (and I had long dismissed them as a waste of time, since all the candidates were crooks anyway), this was it.  Last November’s “Tea Party” triumph has ushered into office a cadre of politicians committed to political tactics that represent either disgraceful depravity or else, if we are to give them the benefit of the doubt, delusionality.  Their policy appears to have been to hold the entire nation at gunpoint unless it consented to capitulate to their ideals, ideals that seem to display only a passing acquaintance with reality.

 

What can we expect as a result of all this?  The near-term consequences, of course, are a fallout of even more intense acrimony and partisanship, and worst of all, of posturing and demagoguery, as both sides seek to convince the American people that it was all the other side’s fault.  The forthcoming election season promises to be the worst in modern memory.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world, incredulous at the display they have just witnessed, will lose all remaining respect for us, and think twice about becoming more entangled with us than necessary.  The rating agencies, having witnessed Exhibit A in political paralysis, and our complete inability to make costly decisions, will most likely conclude that our debt problems will continue to worsen, and will downgrade our credit rating accordingly.  The political wranglings and half-hearted solutions will continue for a few years, until the day of reckoning can be put off no longer, and severe economic contraction is the cost of addressing the debt problem.  And when that happens, it is all too probable that the partisanship we have witnessed recently will look like child’s play in comparison.

This long slow descent into economic doldrums, political paralysis, and financial insolvency is the way that most empires pass into their uneasy senescence.  Few go out in a sudden blaze of glory like Carthage, or the implosion of a house of cards, like the Soviet Union.  Most simply decay from within, and are gradually rolled back from without.  Even if you are unhappy with the ugly story of American hegemony, as am I, its looming end is surely a cause for unease.

For few great nations, in their decline, see the handwriting on the wall and simply determine to accept their fate and make a quiet retreat from the world stage.  Accustomed to nothing but success and prosperity, their people first resort to denial, fervently maintaining, with increasingly shrill nationalist rhetoric, that they are still destined to lead, and then turning to scapegoating, as one class turns on another, or the nation as a whole turns on its neighbours.  In some cases, such as the decline of Spain in the 17th-century, the nation is simply doomed to chronic political discord and economic depression as its slowly deflates over decades.  But the results of France’s decline in the 18th century, and Germany’s in the early 20th, provide far more worrying test cases.  The only promising predecessor is Great Britain, who managed to bow fairly gracefully off of the world stage from 1900 to 1950, handing on the torch to America, and assuming a dull but comfortable emeritus status.  But the ease of Britain’s transition owes much to the existence of a daughter-nation who could take up her mantle, and perhaps more to the fact that two World Wars allowed Britain to decline without losing her honour, and inspired enough continued patriotism to keep her from falling into the devastating internal discord that has torn so many other decaying empires.

In any case, I will make no prognostications for the future.  I will not join in with the alarmists who see Red China as the great new enemy, spreading a pall of tyranny over the world, nor the optimists that think that in the new global marketplace, all will spontaneously unite in the peaceful pursuit of commerce and prosperity.  But in any case, Americans and their leaders must wake up to the sobering truth that the days of their children will not be as the days of their parents, and the sooner we abandon false hopes for the future, the better. 

 

Whatever happens, “the grass withereth, the flower fades, but the word of our Lord stands forever.”

And yet, we may still mourn the fading of the flowers.

*See follow-up post for clarification