Leithart’s Eucharistic Politics

Last week, I wrote a post at the Political Theology blog entitled “Demystifying Eucharistic Politics,” in which I sought to offer a typology of how the Eucharist might and might not function “politically.”  The post cited both Peter Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast and with perhaps the most well-known book on this theme, William Cavanaugh’s 1998 Torture and Eucharist, but I only had space for the most cursory interaction with these texts.  I would like to use this post to build on the arguments I developed there in more direct engagement with Leithart’s book, of which I am working on a review.

In a nutshell, the post last week argued that much of the talk of “eucharistic politics” rests on a serial equivocation between the Church as polis and the Church as paradigm or pedagogue, between the Eucharist as a form of genuinely political action and the Eucharist as an inspiration, resource, or model for Christians as they pursue other actions that we would normally recognize as “political.”  Proponents of eucharistic politics (of whom, I should confess, I have often been one) seem to want the rhetorical oomph of the former without actually committing themselves to its somewhat unsettling consequences.  For the most part, what they want could be better described under the latter heading, in which the Eucharist helps to form Christians for a Christ-like mode of political engagement.  

However, resolving this ambiguity is not as simple as pointing out that these proponents are not using the word “politics” literally.  Because at times, they do seem to be; or at least, to be asking for rather more than a pedagogical Eucharist could provide.  But what exactly?

One of the great strengths of Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast  is its ability to telescope very large arguments and claims into a very small space.  But this can also be a weakness, or at least a frustration, and this is particularly so on the theme of eucharistic politics.  The theme is clearly a crucial one for Leithart, for when he comes to offer his so-what-do-we-do-now prescriptions in the very terse Conclusion, it is the first of his three proposals (the other two are “renounce the heresy of Americanism” and “risk martyrdom”).  Here’s what he says about it:

“American churches need to commemorate the final sacrifice of Jesus in regular eucharistic celebrations, and they need to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics—the end of sacred warfare, the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians, the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs, the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.” (152).

Now this is a fairly restrained call, one that operates, it would seem, almost entirely within the paradigmatic-pedagogical conception that I outlined in the PT post.  In this context, the phrase “eucharistic politics” seems clearly to mean something like “a politics which draws its inspiration from the practice of the Eucharist, and what the Eucharist has to teach us” rather than treating the eucharistic rite as itself a political one.  Before delving into these practices, though, I should note that the first clause suggests something different, what we might call the proclamatory function of the Eucharist.  This was a category that I did not adequately distinguish in my PT post, but which is perhaps one of the most important things that people have in mind when they speak of eucharistic politics.  The Eucharist “proclaims the Lord’s death till he comes,” we are told, and in this statement are two points of political significance.  First, by proclaiming Christ’s crucifixion, we remember the injustice of worldly powers, and remember how Christ overcame that injustice with love and self-sacrifice.  Second, by proclaiming that he will come again, we remember that he will come in judgment, that unjust worldly powers will be dashed to pieces before him.  In this way, the enactment of the Eucharist represents a kind of prophetic protest against unjust powers, a reminder that Christ has unmasked them and disclosed a different kind of kingdom.  This function of the Eucharist is more directly political inasmuch as it can be aimed in fact at rulers and authorities, intending to get their attention and convict them (this might be hard to imagine in our American context, but in struggles against some Latin American dictatorships, for instance, the church sometimes used public celebrations of the Eucharist in this way).  But what is important to note about this function, and what ties it quite closely to the more straightforwardly pedagogical function, is that it is not ex opere operato; it is not self-interpreting.  Missionaries could not enter a pagan land, march up to the local warlord who was oppressing the people, break bread and drink wine together, and expect any reaction other than bewilderment.  In this as in all else, the Eucharist (as the Reformers were keen to emphasize) depends on the Word for its power.  Only by celebrating the Eucharist and proclaiming the Word along with it can we expect our “commemoration of the final sacrifice of Jesus” to have any prophetic value.  

But let’s get back to those practical prescriptions now.  They are frustratingly vague as stated here, and although the rest of the book provides some elucidation, it isn’t all that much, as we shall see.  The Eucharist teaches us to end sacred warfare by pointing us to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ the victim, reminding us that we fight now only as a necessary means of protecting the innocent and restraining injustice, not as agents of divine vengeance, purging the world of wickedness.  Clearly, this is a means by which the Eucharist may impact Christian approaches to politics; but equally clearly, this will not happen automatically, but will require careful teaching and discipleship to help us understand and practice these implications.  On the other hand, it is hard to know what to make of the second clause, “The formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians,” although this is a recurrent motif of the book.  Something rather like this did once exist—it was called the Catholic Church, and in the medieval period, it took the language of “imperium” quite seriously, claiming to exercise authority over all the kings of the earth.  But Leithart is a Protestant, so presumably he means nothing like this.  Perhaps the most plausible reading of this clause is as another way of stating the fourth clause: “the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.”  In other words, although we in fact only celebrate the Eucharist with a fairly small group of local believers, it is a sign and seal of our union, through our mutual union with Christ, with all Christians all around the world.  The consciousness of this brotherhood will make us think twice about casually going to war with other Christians and sending our sons (and as of this week, I might add, our daughters) to kill them.  (I should not in passing that I have problems with the implication which one might draw from this and other passages in the book that a Christian could never justly kill another Christian in war, but as he never says that straightforwardly, I’ll leave that be.)  Again, this is clearly a means by which the Eucharist may inform our political practice, but again, it does so only as a pedagogue illuminated by the Word.  This is true also for the last item, “the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  By proclaiming Christ’s fearless death before tyrants, the Eucharist can help strengthen in us the faith and courage to be prepared to follow Christ unto death, a death that faithful opposition to unjust rulers may entail (although we in America are probably not going to find ourselves at that point for quite some time yet, Leithart’s somewhat melodramatic rallying-cries notwithstanding).  Again, though, the celebration of the Eucharist may prepare us to be martyrs, but it is not itself an act of martyrdom.  

Having thoroughly analyzed this concluding prescription, what can we say about the other passages in which the Eucharist crops up?  There are six, by my count.

First, page 40.

“The fulfilled Israel of the church, by contrast, was founded on the victim not the victimizer.  It was a city founded by crucified and risen Abel rather than Cain.  Its ritual center was not a repetitive round of bloody sacrifices, but the memorialization of the sacrifice-ending sacrifice of Jesus, celebrated with wine rather than blood.  With this founding and this ritual, ecclesial imperialism was sure to be a peculiar conquest.  The establishment of the ecclesial imperium did not immediately end war.  It did not even end war for Christians.  But it brought a decisive end to holy war, the sacrificial prosecution of war, the legitimation of imperial regeneration through violence.  The church’s sacrificial practice imitated that of Jesus, as willing martyr-vitims mixed their blood with His.  Renewal came through violence suffered, not violence enacted.  Force continued to be used, and could be used justly; but force was de-sacralized because de-sacrificed.”

Here we find a fuller exposition of the logic behind Leithart’s calls for both “the end of sacred warfare” and the “cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  The Eucharist teaches us to die for Christ, not to kill for Christ, and if faithfully followed, this will transform the practice of Christian politics.  Leithart is claiming in this section that in fact this is exactly what happened, and early Christendom did do away with sacred warfare.  This seems a rather romanticized portrait of the early Middle Ages, which seem in fact to have witnessed plenty of officially-sanctioned killing in the name of Christ.  But it is probably truth that the Church’s witness was effectual to some extent in changing attitudes toward violence during this time—as indeed it has been since then, I would argue.  My only complaint here, besides the romanticized history, is that this passage obscures the extent to which the Church did this by its teaching, not merely by celebrating the eucharistic ritual, as if it was some ex opere operato instrument of peacemaking.

By far Leithart’s fullest discussion of eucharistic politics comes on pages 60-61, which we will quote in full here

“At the center of this political community was a new ritual, the quasi-sacrifice of the Eucharist.  Through participation in the Eucharist, the members of the church were formed into a more-than-human community.  It was a human society constituted by its more common participation in the living God-man, Jesus Christ.  Christian belief in ‘a mystical body cohering around a godhead’ was unprecedented in Western political thought, and by this concept ‘Christianity helped father the idea of a community as a non-rational, non-utilitarian body bound by a meta-rational faith, infused by a mysterious spirit taken into the members; a spirit that not only linked each participant with the center of Christ, but radiated holy ties knitting each member to his fellows.’  By this concept, ‘The Christian community was not so much an association as a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.’  [Wolin, Politics and Vision, 119] Eucharist was seen as the sacramental embodiment of the fulfilled project of divine imperium that began with Abraham.  The community gathered at the eucharistic meal ‘crossed all ethnic borders’ and achieved a ‘unity that was not abstract, nor was it made by coercion or force,’ yet constituted a depth of ‘political [61] allegiance’ that had never before been achieved.  In the Eucharist the church ritually enacted ‘a transcendent vision that not even the most expansive understanding of “empire” could have competed with.’ [Pecknold, Christianity and Politics, 23-24.]

“When Constantine gave permanent legal recognition to the church, he was implicitly, more or less consciously, acknowledging the the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.  Constantine simultaneously suppressed traditional Roman sacrifice, and (again, more or less consciously) placed the Christian eucharistic sacrifice at the center of Roman order.  Sacrifice is an inescapable feature of political order, and the relocation of sacrifice, the public recognition of the Eucharist as the one true sacrifice, is one of the foundations of Western Christendom and Byzantine order.  Public acknowledgement of the eucharistic sacrifice went hand in hand with the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.  Where your sacrifices are, there will your heart be also.  By the regular remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice, the church celebrated the end of sacrifice, the end of sacralized politics and sacralized war.”

In the latter paragraph, we find the now-familiar theme of Eucharist-as-end-of-sacred-violence, but this passage also gives us a new theme, one that ties in with the references in the conclusion to “the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians” and “the forging of bonds of brotherhood.”  We might try to read all this as just a fancy way of saying, “All Christians should really love one another and treat one another like brothers and sisters”—perhaps this is what Leithart means by “the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.”  “Loyalty” can after all mean something like that, rather than political allegiance.  But we do encounter here the explicit language of “political allegiance” and it is most bamboozling what we are to make of it.  We are told that “the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.”  The only way to make sense of any of these terms in their standard English (and Latin) usage is something like the medieval papacy, which did function as an independent juridical body, claiming immunity from worldly political authority and supreme power of command (imperium) over worldly authorities.  Again, it is hard to think this is what Leithart wants, but what then does he mean.  The quotes from Wolin and Pecknold in the first paragraph just confuse the issue further.  To be sure, the Christian community is something “unprecedented,” “mystical,” “transcendent,” in which we are each “linked with the center of Christ” and through him to one another; it is “a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.”  But that is precisely the point.  These aspects of the Church do not take place at the level of body, but of spirit.  Forgive my stubborn Enlightenment dualism, but it really seems hard to deny that when we are talking about our mystical union with Christ through faith, and to all who are elect in him, past, present, and future, we are talking about something fundamentally and categorically different from a political community as we could ever meaningfully use that word.  The quote from Wolin implies somehow that this concept of a spiritual community provided a new paradigm for understanding the political community in the Christian West.  But how?  Did Christian polities start trying to fashion themselves into “non-rational,” “non-utilitarian” bodies “infused by a mysterious spirit.”  

What Leithart is gesturing at here is the idea that Christians are a people bound together by a common allegiance to Christ that will, when the chips are down, trump any earthly allegiance, and that the Eucharist is a visible sign of this allegiance.  But this “binding together” is necessarily an essentially invisible binding.  Leaving aside the stubborn theological fact that a great many in the outward Church have no real allegiance to Christ, the simple problem of geography, and of diverse denominations, ensures that this is the case.  Any attempt to make this community of shared allegiance visible and clearly-delineated would seem to require an international juridically-unified church, which requires an allegiance to earthly church authorities besides Christ—as I tried to spell out in my PT post.  Viewed in this light, the language of “loyalty to the church” takes on more troubling overtones.

All of these problematic ambiguities reappear in perhaps even starker form a couple pages later, in the following passage: 

“In Christendom and Byzantium, then, ‘political order’ in the narrow sense was founded on central metapolitical convictions.  At the heart of the project was the ‘state’s’ recognition of the church as an independent polity or order of its own, the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity—a sacrificial center not controlled by the state—and civil government’s embrace of the church’s end, the kingdom of God, as its own end.  Christendom in the West and Byzantium in the East took shape within the metapolitics of christological and ecclesial typology, a political ecclesiology, eucharistic practice that nourished the spirit of martyrdom, and eschatology.”

What does this language of “independent polity” mean?  In using the phrase “quasi-civic order,” Leithart highlights the ambiguity. Is it civic?  Or ain’t it?  And if so, how so?  The eucharist is the “sacrificial center” around which all Christians, worshipping all over the world, spiritually unite, but can this communion of saints be described as “a polity”?  

Leithart goes on to argue that our modern woes can be blamed largely on our loss of this eucharistic center:

“The Reformation produced martyrs aplenty, but they were mostly Christians put to death for heresy by other Christians.  The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.  No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples.  It was no longer even the locus of union for all Christians.  The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty.  Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war: If the state is a sacred community, and war endowed with a mystic aura, then kings might well think they have the right to demand that their soldiers sacrifice themselves and their enemies for the fatherland.” (66)

“It has been a long time since a sizable proportion of American Protestants have viewed the Eucharist as a gift of the corpus mysticum that forms individual participants into a pneumatic body in Christ, and it is thus a long time since American Protestants have thought that the Eucharist would do much to form God’s Abrahamic imperium in America.  American Eucharists have done little to nurture an alternative empire of martyrs ready to resist the unjust demands of the nation. . . . Given the pressure of American typology and eschatology, it was inevitable that a new form of nationalist sacrifice would take the place of the eucharistic sacrifice of martyrdom, a sacrifice not for Christ but for kin and country.” (77)

The second of these quotes may have something to it (although it should be noted that modern nationalism was much stronger in “high-church” countries like Britain and Germany and even Catholic countries like France), and undoubtedly Americans need to reclaim the powerful message of the Eucharist as a warning against sacralizing their nation.  But the first quote offers a remarkably uncritical restatement of the standard Radical Orthodox narrative of the migration of holiness from church to state during the Reformation.  The holes in that narrative are many, but I will just point out two here: (1) “the relatively new ideology of holy war”?  On Leithart’s own narrative in this book, that ideology had already surfaced in medieval Christendom at least as early as the 9th century, 700 years before the Reformation.  As new as the Canterbury Tales is today, that is.  In any case, one of the crucial planks of Luther’s reform was his wholesale rejection of the sacralization of violence.  (2) “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.”  If the point of the Eucharist is to knit together the body of Christ into a community, then the Reformation was precisely about recovering this.  The Reformers protested the medieval church’s elitization and privatization of the Eucharist; the majority of masses were celebrated by individual priests in private chapels, funded by wealthy lords.  Even in those masses that were public, very few of the laity took part, and those who did only communed in one kind.  The Eucharist was unaccompanied by teaching in languages that the common people could understand, so it could hardly serve its purpose of training Christians for potential martyrdom.  The Reformation sought to re-establish the Church’s eucharistic center, with frequent celebration of communion in both kinds by the whole congregation, accompanied by thorough teaching.  The only sense in which the Church became disconnected from the Eucharist was that the Eucharist no longer functioned ex opere operato; it could not create a church without the Word, and it could not be used as a coercive threat by which clergy could intimidate lay rulers.

We are thus left to wonder whether it is in fact the overtly political function of the Eucharist—a way for the church to wield coercive imperium against other empires—that Leithart is lamenting we have lost.  A brief hint on page 110 shows this is not mere paranoia: 

“Even Christian leaders in the United States are not in any real way accountable to the officers of God’s imperium.  Whatever their private convictions, public officials are not held publicly accountable to King Jesus.  When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated?  When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?”

Of course, an unfaithful Christian who holds political office may warrant church discipline as much as an unfaithful Christian in any other station of life.  But this discipline should be conceived of as a pastoral tool for this sinner’s spiritual healing, not as an instrument for directing public policy—however good our motives.  That way lies a whole nest of temptations, that plenty of ugly episodes in church history should warn us to steer clear of.  


We have seen then that the main substance of what Leithart wants to do with “eucharistic politics” could probably be well-expressed using a paradigmatic/pedagogical conception of the Eucharist, a way of training God’s people to be more Christlike, that they might resist injustice where they encounter it.  But there is an undercurrent in his exposition that cannot be easily reduced to that way of speaking, an undercurrent that either has to remain an incoherent metaphor or else find expression in a strikingly un-Protestant ecclesiology.  I am sure Leithart does not intend this consequence, but it is hard to see exactly what else to do with his language, and it needs to be queried accordingly.  Of course, after such a negative ending, I want to hasten to say that
Between Babel and Beast is an extremely valuable book, both in its remarkable exposition of Scriptural teaching, and in its compelling and much-needed indictment of contemporary American practice.  So it is lamentable that this whole business of eucharistic politics introduces a significant ambiguity into the argument at certain crucial points, undermining some of its more valuable insights.  If you haven’t read the book, however, I certainly commend it to your careful attention.


When Time Stands Still?

A Prayer for the First (and only) Sunday of Christmas, 2012
Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church

Lord Jesus Christ, Incarnate Word, baby of Bethlehem, we come to you today with hearts full of joy and thankfulness for the riches you have showered upon us this Christmas season: for family, friends, food, and fellowship, for the exchange of gifts which knits us closer to our loved ones, for the more glorious exchange we have experienced in worship in recent days and weeks, as we bring our praises and our hearts before you and you give us your own presence in return.  We thank you for this opportunity to rest our bodies and refresh our hearts as we prepare to take on the challenges of a new year.  

And yet, Lord, we come to you also with hearts aching inwardly, sometimes weary of the world and burdened by its multitude of griefs, and weighed down by a hundred private cares of our own.  We like to imagine Christmas as a day when ordinary business stops,  when time stands still, when all the world holds its breath in memory of that day two thousand years ago when history turned the corner; we yearn to experience Christmas as a foretaste of eternity, transcending time in the midst of time.  And yet how insistently time presses itself upon us, how impossible it proves to shut out the world, in all its mundanity and its madness!  Stores open their doors early on Boxing Day for shoppers craving ever more stuff; investors rush to resume their trading; politicians return to Washington to continue their interminable squabbling and posturing while America’s fiscal cliff looms before them.  Duty keeps forecasters and emergency workers at their posts on Christmas Day as storms, fueled by a changing climate, batter Britain with floods and sweep through the American South with blizzards and tornadoes.  For hundreds of thousands of families in the Philippines, Christmas just means another can of cold food, shivering in a makeshift shelter, wondering how to pick up the pieces of lives shattered by a typhoon. For grieving mothers in Newtown, Connecticut, sitting bewildered by the graves of their children, Christmas brings only a redoubling of the pain, while elsewhere in the US, new shootings are reported on Christmas Eve.  Meanwhile, for grieving mothers in Syria or Afghanistan, Christmas is just one more day of bombings and bloodshed, and for a billion worldwide struggling in the deepest poverty, neither rest nor a feast is a luxury that can be contemplated.  Truly, Lord, we walk by faith and not by sight, confessing that the world has been reborn in the birth of Christ, when all around us it seems still to be groaning.  

 

And yet it is no different than the first Christmas, when the peaceful dawn in Bethlehem was so soon shattered by the tramp of boots, the ring of iron, the screams of children, when throughout Palestine, the days, weeks, and years after Christ’s birth brought more business as usual—soldiers abusing, tax collectors extorting, leaders plotting, peasants starving, criminals dying on crosses outside the city gate.  


Jesus, Glory of Israel, make yourself known to your church this Christmas and in the new year before us.  You have promised to call for yourself a new people, heirs of the promises of Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and yet when we look around us at the church all we see is a bunch of squabbling siblings, unable even to understand one another, much less agree, on issues such as women’s ordination or homosexuality.  You are the light of the world—shed the light of truth upon us in the midst of our confusion.  Feed the sheep who hunger for your word, in this church and throughout the churches of this land.  Strengthen the shepherds who are to lead and guide, especially Justin Welby, as he assumes the see of Canterbury; may your word be a light unto his path in a time of darkness and uncertainty.  

Christ, Desire of the Nations, make your rule felt among the rulers of the earth this Christmas and in the new year before us.  We repent of the foolish leaders we often elect, that their hearts are far from you and their lips do not honor your name.  We thank you for the witness of Queen Elizabeth, who reminded the nation and the commonwealth on Christmas Day of your blessed birth, and called upon us to give our hearts to you.  May many of those in power heed that call, especially now in the UK, as leaders forge ahead with plans for gay marriage, ignoring the voices of your churches, and as, throughout the developed world, politicians try to balance budgets by shielding the wealthy and powerful and abandoning the poor and weak.  In these days of violence, Prince of Peace, teach us to beat our guns into ploughshares, and our missiles into pruning hooks.  We are not naive; we know that peace is not easy in a world of sin, but, emboldened by faith in your promises, give us the imaginations needed to make peace a reality. 

Emmanuel, God-with-us, rule in all our hearts today.  Fill the doubting with faith, the fearful with hope, the lonely with love.  Lord, for each member of this congregation today, we pray that you would so fill us with the awareness of your presence, the comfort of your grace, the fire of your love, that we would be filled to overflowing, no longer obsessed with receiving the attention and affection we need, but eager to give it to others who need it.  On Christmas, we seek in vain in the world around us for that foretaste of eternity, that sign that the fullness of time has come, but by your grace, we can find it within our hearts, in moments of worship and fellowship with one another, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease.  Help us, as we face this new year, to draw strength from that peace in our hearts, and to carry it out into the world, that all eyes might see your salvation.

 

Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in  the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


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.  


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.)


Between Babble and Beast? A Review of a Review

Peter Leithart’s long-awaited new book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empire in Biblical Perspective, is starting to make a splash among Reformed folk, evangelicals, and political theologians in general.  Although in the introduction he expresses his expectation that he will “offend everyone,” the predominant response thus far has been praise.  Princeton University’s Eric Gregory goes so far to say, “Between Babel and Beast offers a bracing critique of American political history and a pastoral call for repentance from imperial ‘Americanism.’ But Leithart’s distinctive analysis provides a more complex–and potentially more constructive–biblical perspective on international politics than can be found in the many ecclesial critics of empire. This crisply argued and highly readable companion to Defending Constantine confirms that Leithart is one of the most interesting voices in theology today” (although one must take back-cover blurbs with a considerable grain of salt).  

That being the case, my friend Steven Wedgeworth’s bruising review posted today on The Calvinist International will be sure to cause a certain degree of consternation among Leithart’s many admirers—while gentlemanly and in many respects highly appreciative, Wedgeworth does not hesitate to indict Leithart of some fairly significant historical and theological errors, fundamentally calling into question key aspects of both his descriptive account and his constructive agenda.  

As someone known to be a longtime admirer and follower of Leithart, and deeply influenced by his theopolitical vision, yet more recently closely identified with the Calvinist International, some may be wondering what I think of all this.  That is difficult to say with any certainty just yet, as I am still awaiting the arrival of my own copy from across the Atlantic, after which point I hope to draft a thorough review of my own.  However, I’ve read enough about the book, and know enough of the background to it, that I can form some preliminary conclusions about the aptness of Wedgeworth’s review.

 

Although I might read Between Babel and Beast somewhat more sympathetically, I expect I would share several of Wedgeworth’s concerns, of which at least four in particular stood out to me in the post; they are worth calling attention to because they are recurrent features of much of Leithart’s recent work in political theology and ecclesiology.  (Of course, they are not unique to Leithart, but can be found in much of the broadly Radically-Orthodox historiography and theology that has shaped Leithart’s own diagnoses and prescriptions; and indeed I recognize them in a lot of my own earlier thinking about many of these issues).  I will content myself with merely listing them here, and recommend that you avail yourself of Wedgeworth’s thoughtful review, and read the book yourself with some of these questions in mind:

1) There seems to be a proclivity toward an idealist philosophy of history that is content with sweeping explanations of complex historical events as merely the concrete embodiment of pre-existing religious commitments, ideas which necessarily unfold themselves in time.  Of course, oversimplification is to be be expected in a book of such wide scope and short length, but the objection is not merely that empirical complexity is being telescoped into something more generalized, but that empirical historiography is never really the method to begin with.  This seems a natural product of the kind of grand-paradigm typologies in Leithart’s approach to the historical narratives in Scripture.  The problem is that Scripture can be treated in a unified text in a way that history can’t quite—not so readily at any rate.

2) Related to this, but distinct, is an inattentive reading of the Protestant Reformation which heavily relies, in fact, upon Catholic counter-Reformational polemics, rather than the self-understanding of Protestant theologians and jurists as they forged new ecclesiastical and political orders in the 16th and 17th centuries.  At a time when such Roman Catholic apologetics are increasingly resurgent, it’s important for Protestants  at least to stand up and give their forebears a sympathetic reading.

3) At the heart of the account of where things went wrong and how they might be set right lies an aestheticized account of the Eucharist and of the structures of church discipline and government that surround it which consistently sidestep basic questions about how these ideals are concretely realized.  What is a eucharistic counter-politics?  If it is merely the cultivation of a new social ethos based on charity, then what exactly is gained by the language of counter-politics?  If it entails concrete disciplinary powers for a juridical church authority structure, then exactly how are these to be enacted without becoming sucked into the very vortex of power politics that we are claiming to transcend, as they did in the Middle Ages?

4) Related to this, but distinct, is a systematic ambiguity surrounding the concept “church,” which does not fit recognizably into any established Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox traditions of ecclesiology, simultaneously displaying features of each while disclaiming its identity with any.  This ambiguity may be largely masked behind the fashionable language of liturgy and ritual that speaks of the Church as a culture based on a cult, but at some point this sociological account has to make clear distinctions between the church of aspiration and the church of actual practice.  How has the Church presented itself to us as a historically embodied reality?  Within those constraints, what are the realistic potentialities of the Church as a shaper of politics, and what exactly is gained by using the singular rather than the plural “churches” or even “Christian people”?

 

I would be eager to see Leithart engage critiques such as Wedgeworth’s, as I think his recent work is rich with insights that need to be heard in contemporary political theology, and it could be rendered considerably more valuable if he could address and resolve some of these sources of ambiguity.