Posts tagged with: church and state

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Joe Knippenberg, who blogs at No Left Turns, provides a thoughtful and engaging analysis of the particulars of the recent Iowa court decision finding against InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an outreach of Prison Fellowship Ministries. In “Penitents in the Penitentiary?,” at The American Enterprise Online, Knippenberg writes, “Despite my general support for the faith-based initiative, and for religious efforts to put the penitence back in penitentiaries, I’m inclined for the most part to agree with Judge Pratt. In this particular case, where the state and Prison Fellowship self-consciously tested the outer bounds of current church-state jurisprudence, they went too far.”

Reaction from PFM’s president Mark Earley is available here and at the special IFI verdict page. I have written before in support of work of PFM, and this decision does nothing to change my mind on that score.

It does expose the real complexities involved with taking for Christian ministries, even those that have a strong social service component. As Knippenberg writes, InnerChange staff ran up against the difficulties of abiding by what I consider to be the increasingly rigid and invalid separation of secular and sacred elements: “Where so much of the program is devoted to inculcating a Christian worldview, it is difficult, if not impossible, to precisely delineate what portion of a staffer’s time, or what fraction of a piece of equipment’s value is devoted to secular, as opposed to religious, purposes.”

I’ve written more about the entanglements and effects of the faith-based initiative in the case of the Silver Ring Thing, and there’s conversation between myself and Knippenberg on this linked here, here and here.

Blog author: jarmstrong
posted by on Thursday, June 8, 2006

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).

Emil Brunner (1889–1966)

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."

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In his fragmentary and incomplete Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer examines the reality of the will of God, which he contends come to us from Scripture in the form of four mandates: work, marriage, government, and church. Here’s a great summary of Bonhoeffer’s view of the mandate of the government or state, from his essay, “Christ, Reality, and Good,” pages 72-73:

The divine mandate of government already presupposes the mandates of work and marriage. In the world that it rules, government finds already existing these two mandates through which God the Creator exercises creative power and upon which government must rely. Government itself cannot produce life or values. It is not creative. Government maintains what is created in the order that was given to the creation by God’s commission. Government protects what is created by establishing justice in acknowledgment of the divine mandates and by enforcing this justice with the power of the sword. Thus, marriage is not made by the government, but is affirmed by the government. The great spheres of work are not themselves undertaken by the government, but they are subject to its supervision within certain limits—later to be described—to governmental direction. Government should never seek to become the agent of these areas of work, for this would seriously endanger their divine mandate along with its own. By establishing justice, and by the power of the sword, government preserves the world for the reality of Jesus Christ. Everyone owes obedience to this government—according to the will of Christ.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, May 5, 2006

“There is a time for everything, / and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to tear and a time to mend, / a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7 NIV).

On April 19, 1963, writing from the jail in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the following words:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

King was responding to what he called the “white moderate” who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” King concluded that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

This reminds me of an exchange that took place in 1933 between theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. Earlier in the year, the Nazis had passed the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums), which contained the so-called Aryan clauses.

This section of the law required that any civil servant of non-Aryan descent be “retired” or “dismissed.” That summer, the German Christian (or Deutsche Christen [DC]) party of the state church would go on to win a huge victory in the church elections. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, April 18, 2006

This article, “Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of ‘Evangelical’,” which appeared in the New York Times on Easter, is instructive on a number of levels. First off, the article attempts to point out widening “fissures” among evangelicals, in which “new theological and political splits are developing.” While the article does talk at the end about so-called “theological” differences, the bulk of the piece is spent discussing the political divisions.

Michael Luo writes, “Fissures between the traditionalist and centrist camps of evangelicalism have begun to emerge much more prominently in recent months in the political realm.” He points specifically to the issues of global warming and immigration, which recall the topics of a post of mine from a few weeks back. Incidentally, the text of my post somehow found its way onto no less an auspicious locale than the Sojourners site.

The fact that political differences about issues on which there are a variety of defensible biblical positions is viewed as a threat to the unity of evangelicalism says something important about how the movement is more broadly perceived. That is, evangelicalism has become publicly identified as much or more with particular political views than any necessarily corresponding theological position.

Thus, while Rick Warren is identified as “theologically and socially conservative,” the fact that he has generally avoided politics makes him a “centrist” rather than a “traditionalist” evangelical, according to the categories that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life uses. And on climate change, for example, there is “a tension that exists between the traditionalists and the centrists,” according to the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.

In my mind, however, this political aspect really is a red herring, albeit one of great interest to the secular media. Aside from the few social issues on which the perspective of Scripture is rather straightforward, evangelicals should be free to express the convictions of their consciences without being perceived as outside the tent.

And the reason that such clear moral evils need to be opposed is because their affirmation would directly undermine the normativity of the Bible. If anything, this is the baseline identifiying characteristic of evangelicalism, as evidenced by the doctrinal basis for the Evangelical Theological Society: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.” (See also the “Statement of Faith” of the National Association of Evangelicals.) But otherwise, where prudential judgments are concerned, evangelicals enjoy a wide freedom and diversity.

And it is with respect to the theological differences that the NYT article truly gets to the heart of real cracks in the evangelical edifice. Ultimately the unity of any group of Christian believers must be founded on doctrinal agreement. Practice is informed by belief. The eventual failure of the Life and Work and the Faith and Order movements of the ecumenical enterprise to remain completely separate testify to this reality

This is why creeds and confessional statements have enjoy such an important place in the history of Christianity, and why the NAE and the ETS define themselves in theological and doctrinal rather than political, practical, or social terms.

If the unity of evangelicalism is threatened by disagreements, however sharp, over prudential political concerns, then the so-called “unity” is something more like the unity enjoyed by political parties and factions rather than that of the body of Christ. One characteristic of the spirit of sectarianism is that it makes matters of moral prudence and permissibility a litmus test of true Christianity.

“Letter on Immigration Deepens Split Among Evangelicals,” trumpets a story from the Washington Post. Ever since evangelicals received such credit in the election and reelection of George W. Bush, the ins and outs of evangelical politics has recieved a greater share of media attention. A great part of this attention has focused on so-called “splits” among evangelicals, as a way to highlight the newly recognized reality that all evangelicals aren’t card-carrying Republicans.

So from issues like immigration to global warming, the press is eager to find the fault lines of evangelical politics. And moving beyond the typical Jim Wallis-Jerry Falwell dichotomy, there are real and honest disagreements among evangelicals on any number of political issues.

This stems from the fact that political policy is most often about the prudential application of principles, and thus is a matter where there can and should be a variety of informed and committed voices. Thus, says Aquinas, human law should not seek to make illegal everything that is immoral, but only that which is necessary for the maintenance of a just society.

He writes, “many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man. Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like” (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

For Aquinas then, human law is the result of the prudent and contextual application of the natural and divine law. And it’s not surprising that among a diverse group like evangelicals, different opinions will exist as to what considerations are relevant to the construction of a particular policy.

With respect to immigration reform, for example, the previously noted Cooperman article reports that a letter signed by numerous evangelical leaders outlining four major points of emphasis was sent to members of the federal government (original letter here in PDF). Among the national evangelical organizations that signed on to the letter are the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the World Evangelical Alliance.

Notably absent, however, was the National Association of Evangelicals, and the lack of support for the bill was noted as the occasion for the Cooperman headline. According to the NAE’s vice president for governmental affairs, Rev. Richard Cizik, “the NAE itself did not sign the letter because its members are divided on how to deal with immigration.” Since the letter makes rather specific policy proposals rather than general moral and theological guidelines, many evangelicals are not ready to endorse the statement. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, March 23, 2006

Joe Knippenberg raises three issues with respect to my critique of the faith-based initiative (here and here). He writes first, “any activity that depends upon money is potentially corrupting, whether the source is governmental or private…. Why governmental money is different from private in this regard isn’t clear to me.”

I agree that the potential for corruption is present in both cases, but the immediate constituency differs from private to public funds. For the former, the donors are the immediate stake-holders and the charity is accountable to them. For the latter, politicians and bureaucrats are those who hold the charity immediately accountable.

Despite the best intentions of many people who work in government, special interests and ideologies can skew their proper stewardship of taxpayer money, and does not always represent the interests of the citizenry. Since taxpayer money is mediated through the government, there is another layer of institutionalization that serves to increase the distance and thus the accountability between the charity and the donor constituency.

This raises another important issue, which is that strictly speaking taxpayers shouldn’t be considered “donors” in the traditional sense at all. Paying taxes is enforced by the power of the state in a way that voluntary donation to private charities is not. One aspect of this is the distancing effect I just pointed out, but another effect is that the moral virtue of the act of giving is displaced by the coercive nature of the taxpayer/government relationship. Surely those who voluntarily give even more to charities than they are required by taxation are worthy of even greater praise because of this, but nevertheless the nature of the money flowing in to charities from these two sources is quite different. One is coerced the other is voluntary. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, March 14, 2006

According to The Church Report, a new resource has been released which offers churches guidelines for keeping their activities and functions within the letter of the law. As non-profit organizations, churches are held to the same standard as registered charities and cannot engage in certain forms of public speech.

A report by The Rutherford Institute, “The Rights of Churches and Political Involvement” (PDF), examines in detail what the restrictions are for churches. There are two main areas: “first, no substantial part of the organization’s activities may consist of carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation; and second, the organization may not participate in political campaigning in opposition to, or on behalf of, any candidate for public office.” For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the former case rather than the latter, since I take it for granted that churches shouldn’t be institutionally involved in campaigning for a specific candidate. For more on this second aspect of the law, see this post on the use of church directories by political parties, passed on by Joe Carter.

In its summary of the first type of restriction, the report states:

In short, only one reported court decision has found a religious organization in violation of section 501(c)(3) by engaging in “substantial” legislative activities. The IRS, however, refuses to abide by any precise standards, such as a percentage rule, to measure when “substantial” legislative activities have occurred. Hence, a church or religious organization seeking to acquire or maintain a tax-exempt status must be aware that there is always some risk that its attempt to influence legislation will prompt the IRS to pursue an audit and perhaps even revoke its tax-exempt status.

It goes on to say that “one risk adverse approach might be for a church to report pending legislation to church members, without proposing, supporting or opposing any legislation.”

The bottom line seems to be this: “Tax exemptions for churches and religious organizations are a privilege and not a constitutional right. In fact, to acquire and maintain this privilege, churches and religious organizations may have to forsake heretofore protected constitutional rights under the First Amendment.”

This means that if it is something that is germane to the proclamation of the gospel, a church must be willing to lose its tax-exempt status. The government could potentially use tax-free status as leverage to keep churches quiet about political activity. If the pastor and consistory feel that the issue is one of religious imperative, something like a status confessionis, the church must resist the temptation to impose restrictions on its own speech in the interest of maintaining a privileged position.

This clearly calls for prudence and wisdom on the part of the church leadership. I’m not suggesting that churches simply cast off their tax-exempt status on a whim. But when the issue comes down to one of keeping silent over clear moral evils or losing their special status, churches must choose the latter. Their ultimate allegiance must be to Christ and not Caesar.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the context of the enforcement of the Aryan clauses prohibiting pastors of Jewish heritage from ministry in the state churches, writes of the rare instance in which the church must “put a spoke in the wheel itself.” In his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he says, “Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order, i.e. when it sees the state unrestrainedly bring about too much or too little law and order. In both these cases it must see the existence of the state, and with it its own existence, threatened.”

He continues to argue that “there would be too little law if any group of subjects were deprived of their rights, too much where the state intervened in the character of the church and its proclamation, e.g. in the forced exclusion of baptised Jews from our Christian congregations or in the prohibition of our mission to the Jews. Here the Christian church would find itself in statu confessionis and here the state would be in the act of negating itself. A state which includes within itself a terrorised church has lost its most faithful servant.”

One such instance of the state making “too much law” and intervening “in the character of the church and its proclamation” would be the criminalization of certain types of speech as hateful or offensive.

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Thursday, February 9, 2006

Kishore Jayalaban, Director of Acton’s Rome office, appeared on Kresta in the Afternoon yesterday to discuss a number of topics relating to religious freedom in the European Union, including abortion, homosexuality, “retrograde” Poland, and the troubles in Slovakia relating to the approval of a concordat with the Vatican.

To listen to the interview, click here (3.1 mb mp3 file). It will also be available on Acton’s podcast, which is available for free through the iTunes Music Store.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 2, 2006

The Feb. 6 edition of NEWSWEEK features a story on the debate program at Liberty University, in a bit by Susanna Meadows, “Cut, Thrust and Christ: Why evangelicals are mastering the art of college debate.” The story trots out a number of tired old formulas, with the lede referencing the fact that fundamentalists (used interchangeably with the term evangelicals) view of the imminence of the second coming: “When you believe the end of the world is coming, you learn to talk fast.”

But what really makes this an item worthy of notice on GetReligion is an illustrative misquote of Jerry Falwell. “We are training debaters who can perform a salt ministry, meaning becoming the conscience of the culture,” says Falwell. That’s what he actually said.

Apparently, though, “in the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK quoted Falwell as referring to ‘assault ministry.’ In fact, Falwell was referring to ‘a salt ministry’—a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ We regret the error.” No doubt NEWSWEEK still considers it an “assault,” albeit of the verbal and intellectual variety rather than physical.

Still, the story does illustrate one of the more important growing trends in contemporary evangelicalism: the emphasis on the use of political power as a means for furthering the aims of the Church: “Falwell and the religious right figure that if they can raise a generation that knows how to argue, they can stem the tide of sin in the country. Seventy-five percent of Liberty’s debaters go on to be lawyers with an eye toward transforming society.”

“I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans’ godly heritage,” says freshman debater Cole Bender.

Meadows writes, “Debaters are the new missionaries, having realized they can save a lot more souls from a seat at the top—perhaps even on the highest court in the land.” The article does implicitly raise the challenge to politics-minded evangelicals to recognize the difference between moral suasion and political coercion. The former addresses matters of the heart and soul, while the latter necessarily addresses externals. A religion that focuses too much on externals to the detriment of the heart will at some point become legalistic and Pharisaical.

And it remains to be seen if and when evangelicals achieve the political victories they desire if they will be willing to only seek to enact public policy that addresses clear moral matters and issues of justice, as the governing authority is “God’s servant to do you good” and “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV).

I’m simply not convinced that the “top-down” method of evangelization is the right way to view things. Falwell says, “So while we have the preaching of the Gospel on the one side—certainly a priority—we have the confronting of the culture on moral default on the other side.”

I would think that a necessary part of evangelism is “confronting the culture,” but can’t that be done as part of the proclamation of the Gospel (see the Second Use of the Law)? After all, the conscience can falsely justify as well as condemn, and the “conscience of culture” is no different.

I’m always suspicious when I hear “the Bible and…” or the “the Gospel and…”. It signals to me that the Church is getting away from its calling, the commission to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Engaging, critiquing, and transforming culture are all important things. But we’re wrong if we think that the primary means to accomplish these goals is something other than the preaching of the Word.

The other activities of the Church (moral suasion, charitable work) need to be consciously and intentionally connected to this ultimate purpose of the Church (or viewed as simply as penultimate). Otherwise, they run the risk of subverting the Church’s mission through distraction. They are never simply ultimate goods unto themselves.

Even Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the “father of modern liberal theology,” knew better. He writes:

That a Church is nothing but a communion or association relating to religion or piety, is beyond all doubt for us Evangelical (Protestant) Christians, since we regard it as equivalent to degeneration in a Church when it begins to occupy itself with other matters as well, whether the affairs of science or of outward organization; just as we also always oppose any attempt on the part of the leaders of State or of science, as such to order the affairs of religion.

While we would differ on what the concerns of “religion” or “piety” consist in, I do agree with Schleiermacher that the tendency of a Church to emphasize “the Gospel and…” is a degeneration. Perhaps this is just an infelicitous coordination between the two on Falwell’s part. But it isn’t the only place I’ve heard such things, and I do think it’s illustrative of broader trends in evagelicalism.