At the Daily Beast yesterday, Michelle
Goldman Goldberg muses on the movement of “the ultra-right evangelicals who once supported Bachmann” over to Ron Paul. This is in part because these “ultra-right evangelicals” are really “the country’s most committed theocrats,” whose support for Paul “is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian.” (Goldberg’s piece appeared before yesterday’s results from Iowa, in which it seems evangelical support went more toward Santorum [32%] than Paul [18%].)
Goldberg shows some theological sensibilities as she tries to trace the connections between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism. Better informed readers will recognize some of the holes, however, as Goldberg describes proponents of Reformed or “covenant theology” as those who “tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back.” Christian Reconstructionism becomes, then, “The most radical faction of covenant theology,” and, “a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.” (For an opposite reading of Paul that criticizes him precisely for not seeking to legislate biblical morality and his “opposition to moral legislation,” see D. C. Innes’ piece over at WORLD, “Christian, why Ron Paul?”)
So while Goldberg is right to note the interesting connections and tensions between libertarianism and Reconstructionism, the connection of Reconstructionism to broader evangelical and Reformed “covenant theology” is rather more tenuous. In part this must be because she relies primarily on Steve Deace, “an influential Iowa evangelical radio host,” for her mapping of the intellectual and theological landscape. But it’s also due, of course, to the impulse to paint any conservative Christian who draws political implications from their faith as a kind of theocrat, whether a theonomist, Reconstructionist, or the latest term bandied about by Goldberg in connection with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, “Dominionist.”
On the one hand, you rarely if ever hear this sort of worrying over the influence of those on the religious Left, who very explicitly want to make an American government in line with their image of biblical justice. On the other, Goldberg’s connection between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism, especially in the person of Gary North, is quite legitimate. This can be seen in more detail and with more nuance in one of the few academic articles to explicitly address this connection, “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Timothy Terrell and Glenn Moots. And as pieces from David Bahnsen and Doug Wilson from earlier this year show, the connections between reconstructionists and libertarians are deep, in part because, as Wilson puts it, “We are talking in many cases about the very same people.”
But as Terrell and Moots point out, the place of Christian Reconstructionism within the broader context of American evangelicalism, and Reformed covenant theology in particular, is hotly disputed. Indeed, write Terrell and Moots, “Some of the most notable critiques of Christian Reconstruction come from within conservative Presbyterianism.” So while Christian Reconstructionism might self-identify as a kind of Reformed covenantal thinking, this doesn’t mean that all Reformed covenant theology is either postmillennial or prone to theonomy. As no less than John Calvin writes in his Institutes,
The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.
This is a sentiment commonly shared by Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theological forebears of Reformed “covenant theology.”
Terrell and Moots conclude with an emphasis on the importance of taking religious motivations and theological convictions seriously:
Recent history demonstrates that the considered prescription of a free society has advanced best when it is a broadly ecumenical and pluralistic discussion. This means that it not only includes secular and religious justifications but also takes into consideration the breadth and depth of religious viewpoints.
So I think we should applaud Goldberg for taking into consideration the religious viewpoints and influences of candidates like Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann, but we should also take her to task for not being a bit more sensitive to the complicated theological landscape. Christian Reconstructionists are a vocal minority, a “fringe” as Goldberg calls them, among politically conservative Christians, but their specific views about biblical laws and punishments are simply not attributable to every evangelical candidate.
Unfortunately this kind of conflation is all too common in the media and popular entertainment. As Russell Moore writes of “dominionism” (and by extension all of the charges of theocracy against conservative Christians) in the latest issue of The City,
the menace of this movement is routinely exaggerated by the media. All this is quite rare, a movement on the far fringes of faithful life. And the scare tactics are made worse by ignorance, particularly among those who don’t understand ‘dominion theology,’ and assume the use of the word ‘dominion’ itself as a call for theocracy as the consolidation of Christian political power — when the case is so exactly the opposite.
And as I conclude in the same issue, “Those in our day who level the baseless charges of suspicion against Christians for undermining the public good deserve to be branded as the real dissemblers and enemies of common good.” Or as Calvin put it, “It is not we who disseminate errors or stir up tumults, but they who resist the mighty power of God.”
It has long been customary to distinguish characteristically Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to ethics by understanding Protestants to embrace a dynamic divine-command approach and Roman Catholics to pursue stable natural-law methods.
James Gustafson, for instance, writes that the strength of Roman Catholic moral thought is “an ordered pattern of moral thinking, based upon rather clear philosophical and theological principles with positive moral substance.” On the Protestant side, we find “a theology and an ethics that has a looseness and an openness which is responsive to modernity as the context in which the Christian community has to find fresh and relevant ways to counsel and to act.”
In an incisive piece at Christianity Today earlier this week, Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy highlights why evangelicals tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments, “Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable.” But Anderson does this in a way that avoids identifying Protestant ethical thought as univocally opposed to natural-law thinking.
As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully persuade people in public on the basis of universally accepted moral norms.
Anderson goes on to note Carl Henry’s opposition to natural law, but also observes that Protestant reticence about the approach does not always result in wholesale rejection of the doctrine of natural law.
Anderson refers to Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics as leading the charge in an array of recent attempts to more fully and responsibly understand the role of natural-law thinking in Protestant traditions. Anderson also notes David VanDrunen’s latest work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.
VanDrunen in fact points indirectly to the central role that the Acton Institute has played in fomenting this kind of corrective work. He writes, “2006 alone saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines.” On the former front, he points to Grabill’s work and his own monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, each of which are connected directly to the Acton Institute. VanDrunen rightly observes that the fact that “such books would appear within a few months of each other is rather remarkable.” VanDrunen also makes use of primary source works that have appeared in the institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, including pieces by Johannes Althusius and Jerome Zanchi.
The upshot is that Protestantism has had its own variety of characteristic approaches to natural law, and these are not reducible to the stereotypical divine command occasionalism or neo-Thomistic rationalism. A quote from Al Moehler represents these middle paths perfectly: “As an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”
Anderson’s piece has sparked some broader conversation, particularly at the First Things site. This includes posts from Joe Knippenberg and Greg Forster. Forster concludes, “Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it.”
Also noteworthy is a recent conference on natural law and evangelical political thought. Although I wasn’t able to attend, given the variety of speakers I would hope that the real diversity of natural-law approaches from various traditions was well-represented.
As I noted in the context of the Witherspoon Center’s recent project, the characteristically and uniquely Protestant views of natural law have not always been properly appreciated. Thus far in the most recent rounds of conversation, the particularly Protestant emphasis on the voluntarism of the anthropological problem, that even though we know what is good we willingly choose not to do it, when sinners “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” warrants greater emphasis.