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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Fifty years ago, the main cultural tension of being a Christian in the United States was that the Christian believed things regarded as naive and false by the general culture: that believing in an omnipotent creator required the checking of your brain. Now the main tension is that the Christian’s tradition is regarded by the general culture as immoral: that the God of scripture is a bad character, and those who adore him are misshapen by the company they keep.

Consequently the work of the apologist today resembles more closely that of the early church’s apologists. The Romans, to be sure, regarded the Way as false, but (more gravely) they regarded it as dangerous — a thing that produced bad citizens.

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In each of the last two weeks we’ve seen a story that has made manifest the anti-Christian bigotry that exists on the front lines of British and American politics: last week, on this side of the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders’s unconstitutional imposition of a religious test for office* in his questioning of Russell Vought; this week, on the other side of the Atlantic, Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats.

What makes both cases interesting has been the extent to which the facts of each dispense with the usual pretexts and red herrings. Sen. Sanders, for example, could have found ample grounds for rejecting Mr. Vought’s nomination as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the nominee’s views of the federal budget. But in his remarks during the committee hearings Sanders was crystal clear: he was voting “no” because Mr. Vought had expressed belief in certain scriptural declarations about Jesus and eternal life. The final kicker in the Vermont Senator’s rejection of Mr. Vought was that Sanders didn’t just deem Vought an unsuitable nominee for OMB, he deemed him un-American: “this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.” Hello, national covenant shaming.

Mr. Farron’s case strips away the usual pretexts even more perfectly: he was a political liberal who had consistently (so far as I know, without exception) defended the establishment of abortion rights and same-sex marriage in civil law. He had also, however, expressed faith in Jesus Christ, and this profession made him suspect to the Pharisees of Secularism in the media. These questioned him at every turn. Why? It couldn’t be because they disapproved his record of voting and public advocacy. It could only be that he didn’t hold to Correct Thinking.

This kind of thing isn’t new; neither are these episodes cause to sound the alarms. They are, however, cause for clear thinking and measured action among Christians in the English-speaking world. They reveal that the French Revolution’s laïcité is making a play to become a kind of Religious Establishment, and that its adherents have made great strides toward achieving that end.

 

* U.S. Const. art. I. sec. 6

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Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope is a fascinating read — in large part because the author is one of the few surviving members of the Obama 2008 campaign. Not that many of the other members have died, of course, but the vast majority either (a) revealed subsequently that they had never believed the unifying, third-way rhetoric that featured in the famous 2004 DNC Convention speech and the Obama 2008 campaign, or (b) ceased to believe it. Michael Wear is a true believer, and the best kind of true believer: a chastened one. He can see expedient shifts, cynicism, and outright treachery, and still believe.

One of Mr. Wear’s most helpful statements in the book, about the contrast between a healthy political party and an unhealthy one, is badly needed today: a healthy party seeks converts, while an unhealthy one hunts heretics. And heresy-hunting — which gunks up political discourse as few gunks can — is now a thoroughly bipartisan phenomenon.

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Having dispensed yesterday with the idea that Donald Trump’s election made The Benedict Option moot, I turn in this post to the book’s actual content.

The Benedict Option addresses how American Christians should face two pressing challenges today. The first challenge is external hostility toward traditionalist Christians and Christian institutions. This hostility has burrowed into powerful institutions in business, education, media, entertainment, politics, and law. Once upon a time, upon lands not far away, the Christian strategy for dealing with this hostility was a national culture war, waged chiefly through the Republican Party and an assortment of national political and legal organizations. The Benedict Option‘s assessment of the culture war’s outcome is simple: Christians lost. It’s time to move on from the business of trying to gain the world — because it’s futile, and because the consuming intensity of national culture war campaign has for too long distracted us from cultivating our own souls, homes, churches, personal relationships, and local organizations.

Which leads to the second challenge facing American Christians addressed in The Benedict Option: internal rot in teaching and practice. That Mr. Dreher recognizes this as the graver threat is evident by the relative space he devotes to it. In doctrine, too many Christians and churches are given to a watery deism that holds that God wants us to be good and to be happy — with the definitions of “good” and “happy” left vague enough to be filled in with definitions from the broader culture. As far as the churches’ practice, too often their members are given to the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions, rather than to the application, adornment, and spread of the Christian Gospel. Where The Benedict Option really comes into its own is in its proposals for how American Christians should act to clear the rot out of their houses and replace it with sound, firm timber.(1)

In taking on the American churches’ internal problem, The Benedict Option is consistently practical. The book’s emphasis on consistent, ordered, local practices is characteristically Benedictine. The prescribed practices require discipline and re-orientation toward more uniquely Christian goals, but they are within the layperson’s reach. In this, the spirit of The Benedict Option very much aligns with what Fr. Robert Hart wrote of the Anglican Common Prayer tradition:

The average working man or woman, or the average child in school or young person in college, can read daily Morning Prayer and daily Evening Prayer and at least keep up with the schedule of scripture reading. It is true that the Prayer Book contains services for the Church, sacramental rites for Baptism, for Confirmation, for marriage, and the Ordinal added in 1550. It contains a funeral rite. Yes, the book is the book for all public services. But, it is more than that. It is also a simplified Benedictine Rule for the common man (emphasis added), and this is the tradition of English prayer that has been made available to everyone through the Anglican Common Prayer tradition.

The Benedict Option is not itself “a simplified Benedictine Rule for the common man,” (2) but it is an earnest exhortation to Christians and churches to adopt and practice such a Rule, and a collection of practical proposals for how to make it happen. Fittingly, the book (mostly) arranges these around the same principles that appear in St. Benedict’s Rule: ordered prayer, work (especially labor with hands), community, stability (i.e. commitment to one community), and hospitality to outsiders (“let everyone that comes be received as Christ”). In these proposals and principles, one can see reflected the practice of the Jerusalem Church in the Book of Acts — “they devoted themselves to thBenedict Optione apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” — and the fulfillment of Jesus’s Great Commandment.

The end of The Benedict Option‘s proposals, including the proposed “strategic withdrawal from public life,” is focus upon forming a culture whose members may better love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as their selves. As in the first century, however, such ends, and the means prescribed for achieving them, are apt to arouse critics. The next post will address them.

 

Notes:

(1) For a helpful index of The Benedict Option‘s practical propositions, see Brad Littlejohn’s summary and collection here.

(2) The reason The Benedict Option couldn’t itself be a Rule: the book is intentionally ecumenical in the sense that it’s addressed to all “small-o orthodox” Christians — Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Each of those traditions has distinct resources for practicing some form of the Benedict Option, but the forms that may grow in each branch of the Church will look quite different.

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Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option contains more than a few vestiges of a book written for a Hillary Clinton Administration. Indeed the author has openly admitted that he wrote it anticipating (as most did) a second Clinton presidency, with all the hardships for religious liberty that the Clinton presidency had implied (1). The hasty revisions Mr. Dreher made to the book in light of Donald Trump’s election could hardly have been more satisfactory to the author than they have been to some of his critics — several of whom have argued that the election of Donald Trump, with the support of four-fifths of voting evangelicals, proves that conservative Christians are not so powerless in American national politics as Dreher says.

So did reality outflank The Benedict Option — subtitled A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation — and make its message moot on arrival? Only if one reads the book as the kind of reactive current-events commentary it isn’t.

Between the enemies threatening the American churches from outside, and the rot in doctrine and practice threatening it from inside, The Benedict Option focuses far more attention on the rot inside. (more…)

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Nearly five years ago, in the midst of a lot of argument over the public implications of Christian theology — about the demise of the Religious Right, the rise of Islamist terrorism, Christian signaling (often confused and distorted) by Republican politicians — I set myself a task: to write a series of essays on several New Testament passages that address how one goes about being a Christian in public. The purpose of the series would be to set forth the often startling angles from which the New Testament authors regarded political power, angles that would present some surprises for everyone.

After setting forth the idea, alas, two things happened. First, the arguments, provocations, and occasional atrocities piled up. Second, I became too busy following them, and occasionally responding to them on their own terms. After stating that serious Christian engagement with the world requires “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” Holy Scripture, the troubles of the world distracted me from that very work. The results were frankly terrible for my soul.

The lesson I learned the hard way, of which I am now more persuaded than ever, is simple: deep reflection on the Bible is the key to remaining sane and hopeful in our decidedly interesting times. Not that following the events is unimportant. St. Luke (to take only one example) is a model of how to think with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But ten minutes of perusing the Acts of the Apostles discloses that St. Luke didn’t forget Scripture for the news. And for that reason he neither drifted with his times nor overreacted to them. He could approach issues of his time from surprising angles, and regard them with critical hope.

Moving, then, from introduction to the first essay proper, we leave the pages of St. Luke and the apostolic age and rewind to a small-town scandal preceding Jesus’s birth, as recorded in first pages of St. Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

S Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV).

One of the questions this brief passage raises is “in what did St. Joseph of Nazareth’s justice consist — that he had cause to divorce Mary, or the quiet manner in which he resolved to divorce her?”

The question actually presents a false dichotomy. Joseph’s righteousness consisted in both. For, in his time as in ours, there was no shortage of men willing to divorce their wives on the flimsiest of grounds: to seize upon trivial “causes” to justify themselves when their real motive may have been to marry a richer, more sexually attractive, or more complying wife. In Joseph’s time that was called “any cause” divorce; the contemporary equivalent (now practiced by both sexes) is “no-fault.” Joseph did not practice “any cause” divorce. His cause — Mary’s apparent fornication — was unquestionable. It was a ground for divorce recognized even by the strict disciples of Shammai, and by Jesus himself.

st joseph and gabrielThat said, in describing the nature of Joseph’s righteousness St. Matthew’s accent is on the quiet manner in which Joseph resolved to divorce Mary. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” In legal terms, what that means is that while Joseph had the right to a for-cause divorce — involving a public trial and whatever shame followed for Mary — he would pursue only the remedy prescribed for “any cause” divorce: privately to procure and deliver a certificate of divorce. That would have meant also that Joseph waived his claim for any monetary compensation for Mary’s infidelity, and any recovery of the bride-price he had paid her family.

I start this series here because in the pages of the New Testament St. Joseph’s kind of forbearance — from pressing claims of righteousness, shame and honor — is not an isolated curiosity. It occurs so frequently as to mark a kind of paradigm shift between the Old Covenant and the New: that while the definitions of moral rights and offenses continued, the approach to remedies — penalties to wrongdoers, compensation to the wronged — changed substantially. The didactic passage most obviously on point here is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that it’s better to suffer wrong than to have lawsuits among church members (1 Cor. 6:1-8). But this little pinch of leaven leavens the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the Kingdom of God. And in its unemphatic way, this ethic stands as a quiet but powerful witness against the excesses of our rights culture, and the cultural, political, and legal brinkmanship to which those excesses so often lead.

Joseph needed no trumpet, no public assertion of his right, no open vindication. His justice, manifest in the remedies he would and would not pursue, was as regular and quiet as the intake of breath. Like alms given with the right hand and kept secret from the left, Joseph’s resolve is a paradigm of true righteousness. It creates, at the very beginning of the New Testament, a striking new atmosphere, in which we can form the kind of character that alone can sustain faithful Christian public engagement.

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From listening to a bit of FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee, it isn’t really hard to grasp what was behind the Federal B.I.’s no-prosecution recommendation in the case of Hillary Clinton. Here is the Bureau’s thinking in a nutshell: even though the Espionage Act sets forth gross negligence as the required mental state for a violation, the feds can’t prosecute everyone, so they have reserved prosecutions for specific-intent cases. If the Director’s summary of the FBI’s historic practice is correct, then the no-prosecution recommendation in Clinton’s case is consistent with that. Fair play.

What I don’t get are Comey’s repeated, totally gratuitous, and absurd general statements about the criminal law: that crimes generally require specific intent rather than negligence; even that criminal statutes requiring only negligence may be constitutionally infirm on that ground. If that were so, a lot of people currently serving time for involuntary manslaughter would be amazed.

Nor do I get the Director’s waffling on the question of whether Clinton violated the law. The answer to that question, assuming that Comey’s characterization of Clinton’s information-handling as “extremely careless” is accurate, would clearly be “yes.”

If I were making Comey’s case, I would ask and answer four simple questions:

Q1: Did Clinton violate the law?

A: Yes. The law requires gross negligence in handling information; she was grossly negligent.

Q2: Can federal prosecutors prosecute every violation of the law?

A: No.

Q3: In light of that, how have federal prosecutors decided whom to prosecute?

A: By looking at whether the evidence further shows intent to violate the law, intent to cover up a violation, or intent to give confidential information to enemies.

Q4: Did Clinton violate the law in a manner that shows such intent?

A: No.

Therefore, Clinton violated the law, but the FBI’s no-prosecution recommendation is consistent with the FBI’s and the Justice Department’s treatment of other persons who violated the law’s gross negligence standard. The kinds of violations Clinton committed have customarily been handled, not by criminal prosecution, but administratively within agencies.

Was that so hard?

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