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.”

I opened my recent Patheos piece on Christians and the “Occupy” protests by noting the proclivity for some leaders to seek cultural relevance by uncritically embracing political movements and trends. This shows that it is a common temptation to allow worldly perspectives and ideologies to determine the shape of our faith rather than the other way around.

A good example of this uncritical stance toward the Occupy movement appears in a Marketplace report from last week, “Preaching the Occupy gospel — or not.” As Mitchell Hartman introduces Rev. Chuck Currie, “Forgive me for what is quite possibly blaspheming, but to hear some preachers from the pulpit these days, you’d think the arrival of Occupy Wall Street is tantamount to the Second Coming.” Currie goes on to, in Harman’s words, draw “a direct scriptural line from the Old Testament… to Occupy.” (One of the commenters on my Patheos piece likewise draws a direct line from the parable of the Good Samaritan to a moral obligation for Christians to engage in Occupy protests.)

For more on the chaplains of the protest movement, check out this NYT piece.

In the meantime, you should also read this more measured response to the Occupy movement at RELEVANT magazine by Alex Marshall. Alex outlines two important ways the church can act positively in engaging the Occupiers, including recognizing that “the Church has the opportunity to act as a ‘laboratory’ for experimenting in solutions to society’s problems.”

Or as Jesus puts it, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Reflecting on the GOP presidential campaigns and the Iowa caucus, Joseph Knippenberg has voiced serious concern on the First Things blog regarding the compatibility of Ron Paul’s libertarianism with traditional Christian social and political thought. As this race continues, this may be a question of fundamental importance, and I expect to see more Christians engaging this issue in the days and months to come.

Indeed, as Journal of Markets & Morality (JMM) executive editor Jordan Ballor has noted in his editorial for the most recent issue (14.2), the importance of this question is also highlighted by “the recent denial of a proposal for a master’s program in Austrian economics at Loyola University New Orleans [that] was in part attributed to ‘specific conflicts … between Catholic social teaching and the Austrian view of government, unions, taxations, human life and the place of Christianity in the public sector.'” Clearly, Loyola University New Orleans has already answered the question of compatibility with a strong no.

In light of the pressing need for a thoughtful and educated engagement of this question, I am pleased to note that the upcoming issue of JMM also features a debate in our “Controversy” section between Daniel Finn, Anthony Santelli, and John Mueller over the question: “Does libertarianism tempt some Catholics to stray from Catholic social thought?” The contributors represent an interesting spectrum of viewpoints on the issue and argue their stances with candor and conviction.

If you or your school or institution is not currently subscribed to JMM, this timely controversy is yet another reason to do so. For more information on how to subscribe, visit our website here.

CLPWe are pleased to give a 30% discount off of Christian’s Library Press books at the Acton Book Shop for a limited time for those who follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. If you already follow us, please send us a direct message on Twitter and we will send you the discount code (those who “like” us on Facebook can see the code automatically!).

This discount will allow you to purchase such books as Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace In Science & Art for a special price, but for a limited time only, through January 31. You can browse all of the eligible Christian’s Library Press offerings at the Acton Book Shop.

Civil War gravestones, Vicksburg, Miss.

2011 kicked off the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. At the beginning of 2011, I began seeing articles and news clippings to commemorate the anniversary. While not a professional historian, I took classes on the conflict at Ole Miss and visited memorials and battlefields on my own time. I must give recognition to Dr. James Cooke, emeritus professor of history at the University of Mississippi, for his brilliant and passionate lectures that awakened a greater interest in the subject for me. After reading a lot of anniversary coverage, I noticed unsurprisingly, the topic of faith was neglected.

I thought it would be a good idea to feature a few articles on the Civil War in Religion & Liberty. I asked Mark Summers, a historian from Virginia to pen something on the topic. I have known Summers for over a decade and I knew that he understood the Acton Institute and Religion & Liberty enough to deliver. He is a first class historian and the ideas for the articles were entirely his own.

The first piece, “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War” is a fascinating look at the evangelical revivals that spread through the Confederate ranks. The revivals, and of course the war itself, definitely played a significant role in shaping today’s strong religious vibe in the American South. Summers says himself in the piece,

Prior to the American Revolution, New England had been the “Bible Belt” of America, while church attendance in the South was scant. The Second Great Awakening shifted the culture of Dixie, and America as a whole. The revivals took hold in the “backcountry” amongst the yeoman. Southern evangelism reflected the charismatic and independent character of the Appalachian farmers. Southern yeomen declared their independence from the staid faith of the plantation gentry. While planters dominated politics and business, humbler folk shaped the culture of Southern Sundays.

Summers wrote about the Catholic Church and Catholic soldiers in the Fall 2011 R&L. He primarily focused on Catholics in the North and how the Church was unique from American Protestantism with its ability to stay unified despite the horrific conflict. Those who have studied American Protestant history are well aware that many denominations split along sectional lines and many of the divisions we have today resulted or were exacerbated by the Civil War. Summers notes,

Indeed, it was this unity of the Catholic Church which proved unique among American Christianity. While Protestant denominations split over theological and sectional lines, the Catholic Church stood as the only major church which remained united during the war, even if its congregants fought on opposite sides.

These two articles tell powerful stories about faith in this country during its bloodiest, most heartbreaking period. The country had never seen or experienced such a massive slaughter of life. The pieces authored by Summers tell a story about our own American history but they also tell the story that points to the ancient truth, and that is that God is at work redeeming that which is separated, broken, and in despair. In the words of Isaiah:

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

David Deavel’s review of Mitch Pearlstein’s From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation has been picked up by First Things and Mere Comments. Deavel’s review was published in the Fall 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty.

In his review, Deavel declared:

His [Pearlstein] new book, From Family Fragmentation to America’s Decline, laments this inability of many to climb their way up from the bottom rungs of society. But rather than fixating on the one percent, he focuses on the 33 percent. This is the percent of children living with one parent rather than two. These children, victims of what many call “family fragmentation,” start out with tremendous social and educational deficits that are hard to narrow, nevermind close. These are most often the children for whom upward mobility has stalled. Their economic well-being has led to decline in American competitiveness and also the deeper cleavages of inequality that have been so widely noted.

The fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality has now been finalized and will be heading to print. It is a bit overdue, but this issue is one of our largest ever, and it includes a number of noteworthy features on the special theme issue topic “Modern Christian Social Thought.” As I outline in the editorial for this issue (PDF), 2011 marked a number of significant anniversaries, including the 120th anniversaries of Rerum Novarum and the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam.

We’ll have lots more to say about the contents of this issue as they appear digitally over the following week or so. There’s still time to subscribe to get a hardcopy of the issue and lock in current subscription rates. And if you are affiliated with a school or other institution, please recommend to your librarian an institutional subscription to the journal.

I’m including a PDF of the table of contents of this issue to give you a preview of what’s to come. We’re looking forward to a full new year for the journal, as we hope to launch a new user-friendly website and some other important ways to advance the scholarly conversation. More details will be following in due course. But for now, check out the forthcoming contents of the special issue 14.2, “Modern Christian Social Thought,” as well as a sneak peek at my editorial for the issue (PDF).

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 30, 2011
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In part 1 of “Secular Theocracy: The Foundations and Folly of Modern Tyranny,” David Theroux of the Independent Institute outlines a history of secularism, tracing the complex relationship between religion and the spheres of society, particularly church and government. “Modern America has become a secular theocracy with a civic religion of national politics (nationalism) occupying the public realm in which government has replaced God,” he argues.

One of the key features necessary to unraveling the knotty problems surrounding the idea of secularism is distinguishing between the separation of church and state on the one hand, and religion and public life on the other. Hunter Baker does an excellent job describing this distinction and its consequences in his book, The End of Secularism. Secularism, as Baker and Theroux use the term, is a far more vigorous concept than the institutional separation of church and civil government. As Baker writes,

Secularism is much more than a formal financial and legal separation of church institutions and state institutions. It is a way of living together in community that emphasizes clean conceptual boundaries over organic beliefs and traditions. Here we come to a critical point. Secularism is not and should not be synonymous with the separation of church and state.

George Weigel recently observed the thirty year anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland. He noted the “weakness” of the tyrannical government, which had to resort to such tactics. “Politics and economics are important,” he writes. But “what drives history over the long haul, however, is culture: what men and women cherish, honor, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives, and their children’s lives, on.”

So what we need to be most concerned about, it seems, is a kind of cultural and conceptual secularism, a secularist worldview, that provides the basis for a more far-reaching and insidious form of secular political tyranny.

Look for part 2 on “Secular Theocracy” from Theroux in January. And in the meantime you can check out a controversy feature in the Journal of Markets & Morality between Hunter Baker and Jonathan Malesic on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” Issue 13.2 of the journal will be publicly available shortly, but you can also get instant access by becoming an electronic subscriber.

In the Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, I wrote about the Christian response to disaster relief, focusing on Hurricane Katrina and the April 2011 tornadoes that decimated communities in the deep South and Joplin, Mo. in May. Included in the story is a contrast of church relief with the federal government response. From the R&L piece:

In Shoal Creek, Ala., a frustrated Carl Brownfield called the federal response “all red tape.” The Birmingham News ran a story on May 10 reporting that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

Why the leeriness to reach out for federal assistance? For one, just read this AP story about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and their effort to collect debts or overpayment checks that were spent years ago by people trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina. One can understand the skepticism to apply for federal assistance and it certainly highlights the mismanagement of taxpayer money at FEMA.

As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have written a lot about disaster response on the PowerBlog and elsewhere. Here is just one post that compares the private sector role to the federal disaster response.

Zelda and TheologyAuthor and editor Jonny Walls has announced his latest work published by Gray Matter Books entitled The Legend of Zelda and Theology.

Zelda is a series of video games celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, originating in 1986 with The Legend of the Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  It revolutionized video games with its adventure elements and exploration.  Each new installment of the series has advanced its complexity and story line.  The Zelda world maintains its own unique mythology consisting of spiritual elements that don’t match any existing religion.  In fact, the story often mentions multiple Gods and Goddesses.  The Triforce object in the game was created by divine beings and grants the owner supernatural powers depending on whether they have good or evil in their heart.  The pieces of the Triforce symbolize wisdom, courage and power.

The Legend of Zelda and Theology examines elements of Zelda’s mythology from a Christian perspective.  Having not read the book yet, I am skeptical as to how it interprets this exotic mythology and back story as a Christian tale.

Christian Post has an article about the book with comments from Jonny Walls.  In the end, the hope “is that readers will understand that [Zelda]’s themes all point to one source – God, the Creator.”

The book is a compilation of essays from various theologians and scholars examining the connection between Zelda and Christian theology.  One of the contributing authors is Rev. Jeremy Smith of Hacking ChristianityHe posted an excerpt of his contributed essay, included below:

As a child, one of my first lessons in ethics came from a chicken in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In the game, there are chickens called cuccos running around and I would laugh at their cries of fear while swatting them with my sword. One day I was showing my brother this hilarity when, unexpectedly, a hundred cuccos stormed on screen pecking mercilessly at me as they flew by. In an unfortunate coincidence, I was down to one or two hearts of life energy at the time and, to my childhood horror, actually died as a result of my cucco torment. It was a harsh lesson: don’t mess with the cucco…or at least don’t mess with them too much.

It’s also a lesson on ethics because the scenario with the cucco is a question of how to use one’s power. The Zelda universe is primarily a story about good v. evil, of course; but more specifically, it is a story about the use of power. One of the iconic artifacts in the Zelda universe is the Triforce: three interlocked triangles who grant the bearer significant power. The protagonist Link thus embarks on the hero’s journey from powerless to merely underpowered compared to the antagonist Ganon.

The ethical considerations of the use of power are a persistent theme in the Zelda series, in general, and Link to the Past, in particular. In engaging this topic, LttP contains numerous references to the Christian journey and the role of power in our everyday lives. Much of Christian theology is about good and evil, certainly, but also the use of power: the power of Christ to break the chains of sin, the power of Christians to overcome injustice and oppression, the restrictions placed on Christians in authority, etc.

Through examining the hero’s journey in this story, the role of power comes to the forefront: what does power do to corrupt or purify one’s desires? We will outline three problems of this particular world that serve as lenses to our own ethical behavior in the analog world.

The latest game in the Zelda series for Nintendo's Wii, Skyward Sword.

Interestingly, the theme of power that Jeremy mentions here relates directly to Lord Acton’s famous quote:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

Zelda is a work of fiction.  Fiction is self referencing, according to Marilynne Robinson’s article in the New York Times article about what literature owes the Bible:

Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.

I’ll definitely be checking out this book, being an avid Zelda fan and a Christian.  As of this writing the book is on Amazon, but it’s not available for order right now.  What do you think?  Is this book something that can help young people who might not know much about Christianity, or is it too much of a stretch?