I’ve noted the recent rash of books roughly on the theme of the danger of theocracy. As though in (indirect) response, several books celebrating Christianity’s impact on Western civilization (and democracy) have appeared. There was Thomas Woods’ How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Then there was Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason, about which others have commented in this venue. Now there is Robert Royal’s The God that Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.
I’ve commented previously on Randall Balmer’s new book. The online article this month from First Things is Ross Douthat’s excellent review of a raft of books (including Balmer’s) that take up similar themes. In a nutshell, there is currently a lot of hyperventilating about the danger of an unholy alliance between church and state in the United States, which, to most religious folks probably seems to read the trends 180 degress wrong.
Douthat doesn’t even include Damon Linker’s book (an expansion of a New Republic article about which I posted here), which dubs First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus a theocon—and which Neuhaus in the latest issue characterizes as “what is known in the publishing business as an ‘attack book.’”
As I’ve noted before, concern about the relationship between church and state is legitimate, and it is dangerous to both sides when religious institutions snuggle too comfortably with government. Unfortunately, most of the accusations of theocracy currently being tossed about in the public square appear to consist more of grandstanding than valuable criticism.
G. K. Chesterton on Journalists:
“…there exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of people whose interest is not in that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or happen unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party or the advantage of that party, but whose interest simply is that things should happen.
“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exception. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not accounted on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding…[Editors] cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complete picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious.”
My posts on the PowerBlog tend to highlight / debate / mull over the threats and challenges to freedom, goodness, prudence, etc. (I.E. today’s earlier account of Chavez’s shopping spree in Moscow.) This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps it is just as important to remind ourselves that we did not fall off the scaffolding.
So, blogworthy or not, newsworthy or not, here is the Friday Afternoon News: Today, I was free–free to work, lunch, pray, think, write, etc. Deo Gratia.
Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett wrote an outstanding piece for USA Today. He argues convincingly that the large-scale and widespread withdrawal of Catholic institutions from many of the nation’s cities has ramifications that extend beyond the interests of Catholics alone.
He notes, too, that government has a role to play in facilitating the flourishing of religious institutions such as Catholic churches and hospitals—mainly by honoring a properly understood separation of church and state:
Is there anything the government and the public can do to protect and invest in our “social capital?” Perhaps. Our Constitution, of course, does not permit the government to run, sponsor or fund churches. That said, legislators and citizens should take care not to add needlessly to their regulatory and other burdens by requiring Catholic hospitals to provide “emergency contraception,” or authorizing lawsuits against religious schools relating to the hiring and firing of teachers and ministers, or by misusing zoning and land-use laws. And urban Catholic schools’ many contributions to the public good provide yet another, entirely secular, reason to embrace school-choice programs.
HT: Domenico Bettinelli at Bettnet.com
Noted evangelical scholar Randall Balmer castigates the religious right in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The critique, in my view, amounts to little more than a slightly more sophisticated version of Jim Wallis. The criticisms leveled by Balmer and Wallis are the same ones made by leftist enemies of the religious right for decades; the difference is that Balmer and Wallis are evangelicals themselves and, therefore, their critiques are “internal” and, for some, more compelling.
I happen to agree with some of these criticisms of the religious right, and especially with Balmer’s general warning against linking religion too closely to a particular political agenda. What bothers me about the article is that it goes flagrantly beyond its ostensible aims and descends into polemics. It’s hard to believe that Balmer is blind to the irony. He rips the religious right for too easily moving between religion and politics, for claiming that the Bible compels support of Republican policies. But he invokes scripture simplistically to imply support for a whole raft of Democratic positions.
There is nothing wrong with Balmer arguing for Democratic policy, nor with his making such arguments on the basis of religious conviction (though abortion policy may be an exception to this rule, I’ll leave it aside for now). It is wrong, however, for him simultaneously to act as though he’s doing something different from what the religious right does. Balmer’s article is not a defense of evangelical theology against its abuses in the political realm. It is a political counterpunch aimed at evangelical Republicans, from an evangelical Democrat.
Happy Independence Day, everyone:
IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (more…)
There’s a new e-version of The Federalist Papers produced by Edward O’Connor. The innovation with this edition compared to all the other various electronic iterations of the papers is the ability to link to an exact paragraph within a particular paper. O’Connor says of the impetus for the endeavor, “I haven’t been able find one that was simultaneously nice-looking and useful (useful insofar as pinpoint linkability is concerned, at least).”
The URL is based on the number of the paper, followed by the number sign #, followed by the paragraph number (preceded by the marker “p”). So that, for example, a link to Federalist No. 37, paragraph 3, would take the following form: http://federali.st/37#p3, which begins:
It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it.
“The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded,” wrote Lord Acton.
Acton called federalism “the best curb on democracy,” because it “assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.” He also described federalism as “the only barrier to Democracy,” which “generally monopolizes and concentrates power.”
“The common vice of democracy is disregard for morality,” he said, and observed that “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”
Acton defined federalism as “coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.”
Having made a large intellectual misstep in younger days, I am aware that rationality isn’t an endowment but an achievement that can come undone at any moment. And that is just why it is prudent, in my opinion, to distrust sacrosanct authorities, whether academic or psychiatric or ecclesiastic, and to put one’s faith instead in objective procedures that can place a check on our never sated appetite for self-deception.
This follows his description of the purpose of his book, to lay out the two sides in an “intellectual clash”:
One is scientific empiricism, which, for better or worse, has yielded all of the mechanical novelties that continue to reshape our world and consciousness. We know, of course, that science can be twisted to greedy and warlike ends. At any given moment, moreover, it may be pursuing a phantom, such as phlogiston or the ether or, conceivably, an eleven-dimensional superstring, that is every bit as fugitive as the Holy Ghost. But science possesses a key advantage. It is, at its core, not a body of correct or incorrect ideas but a collective means of generating and testing hypotheses, and its trials eventually weed out error with unmatched success.
Of course, belief in the reliability and truthfulness of “a collective means of generating and testing hypotheses” which then “weed out error with unmatched success” smacks as much of a sort of fideism as any confession of religious faith.
The approach that would sell the public on the worth of science on the basis of its practical payoffs is like making it a scientific patron on particular issues – which only feeds science for a day. But if the scientific culture can convince us that deep down we are all scientists, or at least that we should all aspire to this elite realm of knowing, then science might enjoy patronage for life. Priestly rhetoric, in other words, tries to recreate society in science’s image.
Priestly rhetoric is not so much about a disdain for “dumbing science down”. Scientists have reservations about “popularization” for good reasons. The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view – by creating a public culture based in scientism.
In this way, Crews is attempting to corner the market on access to knowledge and the rhetorical construal of the scientific method as the only real source of knowledge is attendant to this. After all, “A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength” (Proverbs 24:5 NIV). So much for distrust of all “sacrosanct” authority.
More from Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Bavinck here on the foundations of belief in first principles.
What is Crews first principle? “We materialists don’t deny the force of ideas; we merely say that the minds precipitating them are wholly situated within brains and that the brain, like everything else about which we possess some fairly dependable information, seems to have emerged without any need for miracles.” Crews himself admits this takes the form of a first principle and is not empirically verifiable, “Although this is not a provable point, it is a necessary aid to clear thought, because, now that scientific rationality has conclusively shown its formidable explanatory power, recourse to the miraculous is always a regressive, obfuscating move.”
Social and political theory is widely and, quite often, grossly misunderstood. What we call conservatism today, at least in several very important ways, was once called federalism, or classical liberalism. A central idea of this federalism was that the state should be built from below, not from above. Numerous orthodox Christian thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, have explained and defended classical liberalism over the course of the past two or three centuries.
It is in this sense that Pope Benedict XVI is also a classical liberal, as was the Dutch giant Abraham Kuyper, when it comes to the philosophy of the state (See also my March 31 blog post on Deus Caritas Est).
One of the leading twentieth-century Protestant defenders of classical liberalism was Emil Brunner (1889–1966), the Swiss Reformed theologian. Drawn to religious socialism as a young man, Emil Brunner had a profound change of mind after seeing the damage of World War I. In his book Justice and the Social Order he argued that the modern state—with its totalitarian, atheistic and collectivist tendencies—should be opposed by a rigorous social ethic that grows out of Reformed, biblical and personalistic commitments. To hear Brunner’s arguments now makes him sound like an intellectual proponent of major portions of the modern conservative movement, at least on the academic side.
Brunner further argued that “the state [must be] built up from below.” And since God has ordained certain “orders of creation” these orders are part of his preserving (common) grace for organizing human life. Acton’s site further notes that Brunner wrote: “[that] these orders include human communities in the ‘economic, technical, purely social, and intellectual spheres.’” Brunner further argued that community does not equal state, a position in contrast to the arguments routinely advanced today by modern liberals like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton.
Brunner believed community existed apart from the state. As a noteworthy example, he argued that the family was the “primal community” whose “rights take absolute precedence” over every other institution. And between the family and the state, Brunner reasoned, there must be a number of “intermediate links” that God ordained for varying purposes. The state has two primary responsibilities to these “links.” First, it should never usurp them. Second, it should positively preserve and protect them. This approach severely limits the state’s legitimate authority. This, then, is why modern conservatives are actually closer to classical liberalism than are modern liberals, who promote the state as the primary means for solving social problems.
Next time you want to start after-dinner conversations about politics tell your guests that you have decided to become a “classical liberal.” Then watch what happens. Maybe everyone would learn something valuable if we actually considered the real meaning of some very old, and very noble, terms that we assume we understand.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."
I blogged last week on the ongoing dispute between China and the Vatican. Another demographic giant with tremendous economic potential—and some religious freedom issues—is India. ZENIT reports on Pope Benedict’s address to the new Indian ambassador to the Holy See (May 18 daily dispatch).
The pope took the opportunity to make a pointed comment on the subject:
The disturbing signs of religious intolerance which have troubled some regions of the nation, including the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom, must be firmly rejected as not only unconstitutional, but also as contrary to the highest ideals of India’s founding fathers, who believed in a nation of peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance between different religions and ethnic groups.
The problem of religious oppression in India is different from—and not as severe—as it is in China. But where Christians live in fear of violence, there is obviously room for improvement. For more details on the state of the matter in India, see the 2006 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.