Founding faith

Jon Rowe profiles U.S. founding father Benjamin Rush, who, though generally cited as an orthodox Christian, showed ample evidence of freethinking. Rush wrote, for instance, that he “never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men,” and seems to have been far more interested in the spirit of the Gospel than proof-texting justifications, opposing both slavery and capital punishment. My holiday reading prominently featured H.W. Brand’s excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin – maybe Rush would make a good followup.

Utah town won’t take seven more Commandments

I can’t resist this one: a (very) minority religious group is suing a Utah town because it wouldn’t accept their donation of a monument to sit beside a Ten Commandments plaque in a public park. The New York Times says the case goes to the Supreme Court tomorrow. The minority religion in question is called Summum – it apparently incorporates elements of Gnostic Christianity and ancient Egyptian iconography. The monument they to donate would have been carved with the text of Summum’s Seven Aphorisms, which are supposed to have been given to Moses along with the Ten Commandments.

The situation is a real-world version of the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument against mixing church and state – once you incorporate one religious narrative into state-sponsored architecture, science curricula, or whatever, how can you argue that any religious narrative isn’t appropriate for inclusion? (The FSM is a facetious Creator originally proposed for inclusion in Kansan public school science classes, as an “alternative” to both scientific explanations and Christian Creationism.) The Summum church has a point. And that point is (perhaps contrary to their actual wishes) that the Ten Commandments has no more business in a government-funded public space than the Seven Aphorisms do.

Having their cake and eating it, too

There’s been much coverage (on Public Radio, anyway) of today’s “Pulpit Initiative” from the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, in which a handful of pastors risk their congregations’ tax-exempt status by endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. The goal is to provoke the IRS into following the law of the land and revoking tax exemption, so that ADF has one or more test cases with which to challenge said law. The clergy’s free speech rights are at stake, is the argument – the Pulpit Initiative is only trying to get government out of the church house.

Photo by Ben McLeod.

Except, of course, that government is already in the church, providing a subsidy in the form of a tax exemption. I don’t see any particular reason to think that pastors shouldn’t say what they want about politics in whatever forum they wish – but when they’re taking money from the government while they do it, something smells. Regardless of what the ADF boosters say, tax-exemption plus freedom to endorse is a recipe for corruption.

Christ Church as it is: Church and state

Here in Moscow, Idaho, it’s hard to avoid hearing about Christ Church, a local conservative mega-church with ministries encompassing a publishing house, a Bible college with dodgy accreditation, a private k-12 school, a ministerial training program, and its own denomination of conservative neo-Calvinists. All of which are headquartered in Moscow, ID, population circa 23,000.

Figure 1: State, and Church
Photo by eqqman.

Non-Christ Churcher Moscovites mostly know the group for its ties to Christian Reconstructionism, a movement that aims to return U.S. society resurrect the Confederate States of America as a “Christian” nation. Including, yes, slavery. Douglas Wilson, the pastor of Christ Church and éminence grise behind most of its ministries, earned the attention of the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center when he published a (substantially plagiarized) book explaining that slavery wasn’t so bad after all. Christ Church has since tried to downplay this fundamentally racist history, and succeeded in snowing a New York Times reporter who profiled the affiliated New Saint Andrew’s College.

Actually, reading that Times piece, you can sense that the reporter may have under-represented CC/NSA/Doug Wilson’s racist undercurrents not so much because Christ Churchers hide them very well (Doug Wilson on mainstream conservatives: “They voted for Bush; I’d vote for Jefferson Davis.”) but because locals who are creeped out by Christ Church can sound a bit, well, shrill. Which brings me, finally, to the point of this post: I’ve started looking into what Christ Church has to say about itself. It’s one thing for a bunch of Moscovite hippies (yours truly included) to be worried about a conservative megachurch in our midst; it’s another if that church actually, by its own admission, takes extreme and worrying positions.

Today’s topic: the relationship between church and state. This is a good starting point because one of the major accusations against Christ Church is that its aims are basically theocratic – that, politically, Christ Church (or Wilson, who might as well be synonymous with the church’s policy positions, as we’ll see below) wants to enforce Old Testament law on the entire population of the United States. Now, there are actually three theological components to that position, if Christ Church does indeed hold it:

  • Whether, for Christians, the Old Testament text is a standard for normative ethical behavior (as opposed to viewing the Old Testament through the lens of the Gospel, as we Mennonites do);
  • Whether Christians should ask non-Christians to accept Christian ethical views (whatever those are); and
  • How Christians should go about doing that.

You might take all sorts of positions on these three questions and still fall somewhere on the spectrum of theology Christians have built up over the last two thousand years. The question is, where does Christ Church fall on that spectrum? Well, fortunately for the curious among us, Christ Church’s newsletter, “Credenda/Agenda”, has just run a cover story on religion and politics. Let’s see what it (and, by it, I mean Doug Wilson, who is the editor of “Credenda/Agenda”, natch) has to say.

(First, a complaint/warning to those clicking through to the source text: it’s long and kinda rambling, much like this post. This is probably because Wilson’s primary employment is writing sermons, which are not usually structured as five-paragraph essays. That’s fine for speaking aloud, but less so in written form.)

Anyway. Wilson starts out by strongly affirming the political relevance of the Gospel:

Jesus was crucified in a public way, and His death necessarily has public ramifications. There is no way to be fully faithful to the message of His death and resurrection in private.

I could actually fully agree with Wilson on this point; my thinking about the relationship of the Gospel to politics is basically lifted wholesale from the writings of John Howard Yoder (no relation), who wrote things that sound a lot like the above quote. For example, in his masterwork The Politics of Jesus:

The kingdom of God is a social order and not a hidden one. … it is that concrete jubilary obedience, in pardon and repentance, the possibility of which is proclaimed beginning right now, opening up the real accessibility of a new order in which grace and justice are linked, which men have only to accept.

But it’s also possible that Wilson means something completely different from Yoder when he says the Gospel is politically relevant. Yoder held that Christian ethics are political because they necessarily challenge the authority of the state, but he didn’t mean that Christians should take over the state – he meant that Christianity challenges the entire concept of human government:

Preaching and incorporating a vision of an order of social human relations more universal than the Pax Romana … [Jesus] permitted the Romans to deny their vaunted respect for law as they proceeded illegally against him. This they did in order to avoid the threat to their dominion represented by the very fact that he existed in their midst so morally independent of their pretensions.

Figure 2: Jesus conquers
Photo by RATAEDL.

(That’s more from The Politics of Jesus.) Yoder was unsure whether Christians should vote, much less run the country. What political meaning does Wilson see in the Gospel, then? Explicating a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Wilson writes,

… Christ and Him crucified is theonomic postmodernism — when the nations are discipled in accordance with His Word and are taught to obey all that He required, this means the necessary exclusion of secular democracy (which is the political expression of modernity). … Christ is the Lord of the new polis that has been planted right in the middle of the old polis. God did this so that the new way of being human in Christ would … gradually transform all the nations of men. [Italics all Wilson’s]

That sounds to me like Wilson wants the Church (presumably, his) to be more than present in the world – he wants it to rule the world. A quick dig in Wikipedia for the definition of “theonomy” suggests this is the case: the term literally translates as “God-law,” and in modern times, it’s apparently associated with Christian Reconstructionist (theocratic) thinkers.

In theological response, I’d point to the words of Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel according to Matthew:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus isn’t just rejecting the current model of government under which he and his disciples live (i.e., Roman dictatorship), but the entire concept of government, of one human being exercising power over another. Note also the reference to the Crucifixion – Jesus is setting up his basically passive submission to Roman authority as a model for his disciples. It’s hard to govern in any meaningful sense of the word if you’re submitting yourself to death on the cross.

And but so Wilson thinks that the Church should rule the world. Eventually, anyway – he’s vague on the topic of how it gets to rule. That seems to answer both the second and third question above – what about the first? Where is Wilson getting the ethical standards by which his Church will rule? Here there is much verbiage about “cruciform politics” and “sacrificially” testifying to the lordship of Christ, but not a lot of actual policy positions, or the specific sources from which they spring. Except for this one:

The idols of the age are always decked out in respectable clothing, and people who attack them are always dismissed (initially) as crazed nutjobs and disturbers of the peace. In our day, one of the central idols is the the swollen state. In other words, the political aparatus [sic] over which Jesus will be Lord needs to be about 100 times smaller than it currently is. [Italics Wilson’s]

And this one:

Issues like abortion and homosexual marriage are far more important than are issues like minimum wage laws. But the lordship of Christ does apply to minimum wage laws. It is just that we might not want to start there—especially if we think they are a good idea.

So, according to Wilson, Jesus is for limited government, outlawing abortion, and preventing legalized gay marriage. He’s interested in minimum wage improvements, but they’re not a top-tier priority precisely because they sound like a good idea. Apart from this last weird, counter-intuitive assertion, this is a pretty tired outline of Christian Right talking points. And it’s maddening, and sad, and completely disconnected from the Gospel text.

Jesus never said a word about the “size” of government (whatever that means), abortion, or homosexuality. Never. Nothing. If you dig around in the Old Testament and the Epistles, you’ll find a handful of statements against homosexuality (depending on how you define the term), and also against women leaving their heads bare in church, men shaving their sideburns, and anybody eating owls. Meanwhile, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about being generous to the poor. So does the Old Testament. Which suggests to me, just looking at, you know, the Bible, that God might actually care about minimum wage laws. Quite a lot. And way more than he (or she) cares about the latest skirmish in the U.S. culture wars. In other words, Doug Wilson and Christ Church might be interested in setting up a theocracy, but it sure won’t be a Christian one.

The GOP’s testing religiosity

In this week’s New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg chews through the respective religious protestations of GOP presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Hertzberg seems more perplexed than irritated by Huckabee (perhaps he hasn’t read about Huck’s Christian Reconstructionist supporters), but he takes Romney’s over-hyped “faith speech” to pieces:

Indeed, the only “religion” that Romney had anything rude to say about was “the religion of secularism.” … Secularism is not a religion. And it is not true that “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” as Romney maintained. What freedom, including religious freedom, requires is, precisely, secularism—which is to say, state neutrality in matters of religion.

Amen to that.