Posts tagged with: religion

Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.

The Belgic Confession of 1561This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.

There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.

In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.

The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In today’s Acton Commentary, “Debt and the Birth Dearth,” I examine the interrelationship between demographics, economics, and morality, especially within the context of America’s current public debt crisis.

I conclude by pointing to the spiritual nature of our “debts”:

Jesus taught Christians to pray, “Forgive us our debts.” If we do not renew and reform our culture along the lines suggested here, a renewal that must be led by Christians acting as agents of transformative grace, the debts for which we must pray forgiveness will be far weightier than those incurred by the federal government.

In a primary sense, of course, all of our debts, sins, and transgressions are more than we can afford to make recompense for. This is why the atoning work of Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, is of fundamental importance.

But this reality doesn’t remove our responsibility to respond to God’s saving grace in thankfulness and in “fear and trembling.” Instead Christ’s work makes our even meager attempts at faithfulness possible and meaningful.

The Heidelberg Catechism describes this daily conversion of the Christian, the turning away from sin and toward Christ, in terms of death and life, mortification and vivification. This “mortification of the old man” is a dying-to-self, “a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.” Vivification, by contrast, is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.”

A critical part of this “joy of heart in God, through Christ,” must manifest itself in the celebration of God’s gift of life itself. This includes promoting faithful procreation and parenting, and as Russell Moore has argued so well, promoting a culture of adoption.

Luther famously described parenthood as a sacred calling.

Preaching on “The Estate of Marriage” in 1522, Luther said:

Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.”

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, “O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.”

A wife too should regard her duties in the same light, as she suckles the child, rocks and bathes it, and cares for it in other ways; and as she busies herself with other duties and renders help and obedience to her husband. These are truly golden and noble works. This is also how to comfort and encourage a woman in the pangs of childbirth, not by repeating St. Margaret legends and other silly old wives’ tales but by speaking thus, “Dear Grete, remember that you are a woman, and that this work of God in you is pleasing to him. Trust joyfully in his will, and let him have his way with you. Work with all your might to bring forth the child. Should it mean your death, then depart happily, for you will die in a noble deed and in subservience to God. If you were not a woman you should now wish to be one for the sake of this very work alone, that you might thus gloriously suffer and even die in the performance of God’s work and will. For here you have the word of God, who so created you and implanted within you this extremity.” Tell me, is not this indeed (as Solomon says [Prov. 18:22]) “to obtain favor from the Lord,” even in the midst of such extremity?

Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool—though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith—my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.

[Martin Luther, vol. 45, Luther's Works, Vol. 45: The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works, 39-41 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999).]

Thus Christians, in celebrating life, marriage, family, and children, must risk being worldly derision and ridicule, relying on heavenly wisdom rather than the devil’s foolishness.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We’ll have the Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty online later this week and you won’t want to miss it. Subscribe here. We’re previewing the issue on the PowerBlog with a book review that, because of space limitations, had to be shortened. This post publishes it in full.

Constantine and the Great Transformation

Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010)

Reviewed by Johannes L. Jacobse

The argument that the lifting of the persecutions of early Christians and the subsequent expansion of the Christian faith led to a “fall” of the Christian Church is more widespread than we may believe. Academics have defended it for years. Popular Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism, takes it as a truth second only to the Gospel.

Towering over this argument is Constantine the Great. When Constantine faced the final battle that would determine if he became Rome’s new emperor, he saw a cross shining in the sky above the sun and heard the words, “By this sign conquer.” He took it to mean that divine providence chose him to be the emperor of a new and undivided Rome. His soldiers went to battle with a cross painted on their shields and won. The persecutions stopped. Christianity was the new religion of the empire.

But is the collective wisdom accurate? Is it true that the fourth century represents decline? No, argues Peter J. Leithart in his new book Defending Constantine.

Emperor Constantine (Byzantine mosaic ca. 1000 from the Hagia Sophia)

“Constantine has been a whipping boy for a very long time and still is today,” Leithart begins. The historical and theological consensus identifies Constantine with “tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy.” Constantine, the conventional wisdom goes, was a “power hardened politician … a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the Church for his own ends … a murderer, usurper, and egoist.”

This opinion has its roots in the work of John Howard Yoder, a prominent pacifist and “probably the most influential Mennonite theologian who ever lived,” Leithart argues. His influence is far reaching and includes such prominent names as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University among others. “In Yoder’s telling, the Church ‘fell’ in the fourth century (or thereabouts) and has not yet recovered from that fall. This misconstrues the theological significance of Constantine … ”

Challenging Yoder’s thesis is not the only reason Leithart wrote the book but it certainly is the most compelling. Leithart believes Yoder’s pacifist preconceptions distort the historical record to such a degree that they blind us to the inherent moral power of the Christian faith to transform and elevate human culture. The pacifism of Yoder and like-minded disciples, Leithart argues in so many words, is nothing less than a debilitating emasculation of the Christian faith. (more…)

Writing in the Boston Globe, columnist Jeff Jacoby says that a “more fundamental problem with the “What Would Jesus Cut?’’ campaign is its planted axiom that Jesus would want Congress to do anything at all.”

As a believing Jew and a conservative, I don’t share the religious outlook or political priorities of Wallis and his co-signers. But you don’t have to be Christian or liberal to believe that in God’s eyes, a society is judged above all by its concern for the unfortunate. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 — “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me . . . Whatever you did for one of these least . . . you did for me’’ — echoes what Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets preached centuries earlier: “Learn to do well: seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.’’

But does it really follow from these timeless injunctions that God expects legislators never to eliminate any poverty program or social-welfare line item, or even to roll such spending back to where it stood a few years ago?

Read Jacoby’s “Separation of Jesus and Congress” in the Boston Globe.

Ray’s post pointed to something that’s been bugging me about Jim Wallis’ “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. As with the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign (“Transportation is a moral issue.” What isn’t these days?), Wallis’ campaign assumes the moral high ground by appropriating the Holy Name of Jesus Christ to advance his highly politicized, partisan advocacy. Jesus becomes an advertising slogan. And what is implicit here is that those who oppose Wallis are somehow at odds with the Gospel of Christ; those who agree with him are on Christ’s side and especially as it concerns “the least of these.”

But watch the video above and listen to the language of this MSNBC program host. What Wallis and his organization have done is give occasion for the use of Christ’s name for the most partisan, mocking and disrespectful purposes. Wallis should be ashamed of himself, but instead he lets this all pass so he can right away get to his simplistic talking points about “the budget as a moral document.” He arrogantly does this as the voice for the “faith community.”

Did I say simplistic? I should have added “dishonest” to my description of what Wallis is doing.

No serious person would take Wallis’ sound bites or the Sojourners campaign as a real help to understanding our nation’s grave budget and debt problems. In that respect, what Wallis is doing is aggravating a problem that has cried out for honest, bipartisan cooperation for many years. He makes inflammatory assertions about cuts to programs for nutrition, malarial bed nets, and the like, and generally raises false alarms about budget cutters abandoning “the most vulnerable.” Really? If this were true, it would cast those Christians on the other side of Wallis — those who honestly believe we need to do something serious about the budget and mounting debt — as haters of the poor. Look at the White House chart on the budget and show me where this abandonment is happening. Just the opposite.

And all these vague, unattributed assertions, like the bed nets. If you don’t see it the way Wallis sees it, you must be indifferent to children dying of malaria. Right? That’s insulting to say the least. How many mosquito nets flow into Africa annually? Where do they come from? What share of these is funded by U.S. taxpayers? Are they effective? We don’t get answers to these questions. Maybe Wallis should read this article in the left leaning Guardian newspaper that explains why “Mosquito nets can’t conquer malaria.” How is malaria defeated? Economic growth.

Against his claims of abandoning the poor, Wallis harps on defense spending. Again, this is a dishonest diversion. Defense spending is not the main problem as this chart vividly shows (HT: Heritage Foundation).

Should defense spending be treated as a sacred cow? No. Is there waste in the defense budget? Undoubtedly. But let’s not make vague assertions about children going hungry because of redundant or unneeded military programs.

What’s more, Wallis seems to be impervious to the fact that spending on welfare and War on Poverty programs has been a massive and costly failure. His use of anecdote and selectively trivial factoids serves as a smokescreen for this reality. Is is possible that government nutrition programs might be wasteful or redundant? He doesn’t seem to be aware of that possibility. In a recent report on duplication in government programs, the GAO said this about nutrition programs:

Domestic food and nutrition assistance is provided through a decentralized system of primarily 18 different federal programs that shows signs of overlap and inefficient use of resources. [But] not enough is known about the effectiveness of many of these programs. Research suggests that participation in 7 of the 18 programs— including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and SNAP—is associated with positive health and nutrition outcomes consistent with programs’ goals, such as raising the level of nutrition among low-income households, safeguarding the health and well-being of the nation’s children, and strengthening the agricultural economy. Yet little is known about the effectiveness of the remaining 11 programs because they have not been well studied.

Reality gets complicated. Talking points are easier. Writing in 2005, Washington Post columnist George Will described how a freshman Sen. Barack Obama used a string of “old banalities” to attack the Bush administration for not doing enough to alleviate the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. Will wrote:

[Obama] included the requisite lament about the president’s inadequate “empathy” and an amazing criticism of the government’s “historic indifference” and its “passive indifference” that “is as bad as active malice.” The senator, 44, is just 30 months older than the “war on poverty” that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.

At least Obama had the decency not to invoke the name of the Lord. As for the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign, the “faith community” hasn’t been spared that.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 23, 2011

From Abraham Kuyper’s opening address to the First Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, The Problem of Poverty:

The first article of any social program that will bring salvation, therefore, must remain: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” This article is today being erased. Men refuse any longer to recognize God in statecraft. This is not because they do not find the poetry of religion charming, but because whoever says I believe in God thereby acknowledges God’s ordering of nature and an ordinance of God above human conscience–a higher will to which we as creatures must submit ourselves.

Kuyper said this at the close of the nineteenth century, and in the intervening decades the question of the place of the Christian faith in public life has become even more pressing.

This year’s Novak Award winner Hunter Baker has written an important volume on the place of religion in civil discourse, The End of Secularism. He also participated with Jonathan Malesic on a controversy appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” (PowerBlog readers can get complimentary access to the controversy in PDF form here.) Baker and Malesic were also kind enough to follow up on their exchange in the journal with a Radio Free Acton podcast, “Concealing Christian Identity.”

This year also marks the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress, held in Amsterdam from November 9-12, 1891. In that same issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we have the pleasure of publishing a translation of a paper composed by Herman Bavinck at that congress, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today.” This translation also includes an extensive introduction from John Bolt, who writes of the “overlooked” tradition of European social congresses as “organized movements for social reform, often including a variety of groups and interests, and acting in varying degrees of concert over an extended period of time.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 17, 2011

RealClearReligion has become a starting point for my day, and I’m honored to have this week’s commentary linked in today’s morning edition, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads.”

The link posted just below mine from CNN’s Belief Blog highlights problems facing a local congregation, “Atlanta church faces eviction.” One of the points of dispute facing the congregation is the status of daycare and afterschool programs that use the facility. As John Murgatroyd reports, the pastor Mark Anthony Mitchell “considers the day care to be part of his ministry.”

What this case illustrates is that the true value of churches, so to speak, can be hard to pin down. Should churches simply be measured in economic terms? A study done in Philadelphia, for instance, tried to “to calculate the economic ‘halo effect’ of a dozen religious congregations in Philadelphia – 10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue.”

One outcome of the study, in part led Ram Cnaan, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is that “equipped with such measurements a congregation could produce hard numbers to show community organizations, policy makers and potential funders the value of its local presence.”

But as the study notes, this can cut both ways. One of the reasons that local governments have been focusing on church properties is that, as this study found in Philadelphia, churches can sometimes seem to reduce surrounding property values. Thus, “measuring the congregations’ impact on property values backfired for St. Luke’s and the Epiphany Church in Center City, where adjacent real estate values were lower than in nearby neighborhoods. While that could not be pinned on the handsome church’s presence, the category put St. Luke’s halo into negative territory: minus $226,000.”

This brings us back, in some sense, to the issue I ended yesterday’s post with, the question of the right relationship and valuation between material and spiritual realities. While studies such as the one done in Philadelphia are clearly intended to help local churches, they run the risk of subjecting these institutions to rules of competition within which they will never really succeed if compared with local businesses. The true value of churches can’t be measured economically in these ways.

So while social science has important things to teach us about how our spiritual lives impact our lives in the material and social world, these disciplines don’t exhaust what needs to be said. Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, recently wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality (PDF) that the danger of “appealing to Christianity’s positive social function is that it substitutes a theological defense of Christianity for a sociological one. It admits that it is right to judge Christianity on its social function and then leaves it up to sociologists to amass empirical evidence for and against Christianity’s positive social effects.”

It’s true as Hunter Baker responds in the context of that controversy that Christianity (and the functions of a church) cannot be reduced to its social effects. And this is precisely the mistake we see at work in an ecclesiology that views that what the church has really “always been about [is] social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (‘Let’s get together for dinner this week!’). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.” What’s missing here is anything beyond the mere sociality of the church.

There’s no sense of the marks of the true church, what you get at church that you can’t get anywhere else: proclamation of the Gospel in the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. These are things, most especially the sacraments, that you just can’t get from Facebook.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 14, 2011

I’m pleased to report that Hunter Baker is the recipient of the 2011 Novak Award from the Acton Institute. Hunter is associate dean of arts and sciences and associate professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and author of The End of Secularism (Crossway Academic, 2009).

From the release:

With his writing and speaking in a variety of popular and academic contexts, Dr. Hunter Baker has made a compelling and comprehensive case for the integration of the Christian faith into all areas of life, including economics and business.

Baker said the award was made all the more meaningful to him in light of the “power and diligence” that Michael Novak has shown over a long career. “Novak’s work helps readers understand the importance of the Christian faith as both a supernatural relationship with God that stirs the soul and as a powerful impetus for and sustainer of liberty, compassion, creativity, and excellence in the broader culture,” he said.

About the award: “Named after distinguished American theologian and social philosopher Michael Novak, the Novak Award rewards new outstanding research by scholars early in their academic careers who demonstrate outstanding intellectual merit in advancing the understanding of theology’s connection to human dignity, the importance of limited government, religious liberty, and economic freedom.”

Hunter has been a good friend to the Acton Institute, and as the award recognizes, holds forth a promising future for a career (building off of his already significant achievements) articulating the foundations of a free and virtuous society.

He’s a contributor to the PowerBlog, and here’s a sampling of his work elsewhere:

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 11, 2011

In a recent Acton Commentary, Stephen Grabill and Brett Elder reflect on the tension that often exists between conceptions of ministry in the church and in the world. They point especially to the Cape Town Commitment, which on the one hand identifies a “secular-sacred divide as a major obstacle to the mobilization of all God’s people in the mission of God.”

But on the other hand, write Grabill and Elder, “The gulf between economics and theology in evangelical social engagement and missionally informed action is a momentous barrier that must still be overcome before we can truly embrace all legitimate vocations as sacred and worthy callings.”

There are some positive signs on this front, however, and the workplace section of the Cape Town Commitment is one of them. A piece by Rob Moll in today’s Wall Street Journal highlights this hopeful trend, as he writes, “Not only does the church tend to privilege church and missionary service over business, but it often condemns business practices and implies the guilt of any participants. Yet there are signs that this dynamic is changing—not least because churches rely on the donations of business professionals.”

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Wrapping up our recap of last year’s Acton Lecture Series, today we present two additional lectures for your enjoyment.

The first was delivered in April of 2010 by Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico, and was entitled “Does Social Justice Require Socialism?” In this lecture, Sirico examined the increasing calls for government intervention in financial market regulation, health care, education reform, and economic stimulus in the name of “social justice”.

And finally, we present Jordan Ballor’s lecture from July of 2010, entitled “Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Appraisal.” On the heels of the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 18-27 2010), and in anticipation of the eleventh General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (Stuttgart, Germany, July 20-27 2010), Jordan J. Ballor looked at recent developments in the public witness of the mainline ecumenical movement. Focusing especially the question of economic globalization, he responded to ecumenical pronouncements, subjecting the movement’s witness in its various forms to a thoroughgoing ecclesiastical, ethical, and economic critique.