Category Archives: Politics

Heaven has a wall?

There’s a meme floating out there that states “Heaven has a wall and strict immigration policies. Hell has open border policies.”2dxqfh

I don’t address all memes out there (especially political ones!), but because I have seen this one shared numerous times, and because it is potentially damaging to our understanding of the gospel, I thought it was worth a comment.

Some truth?

First of all, like most pithy sayings, there’s an element of truth here. That’s what makes it compelling to Christians. The most obvious Scriptural reference to heaven having a wall is in Revelation 21:9-27. Here, the New Jerusalem is presented as a great city with a wall and twelve gates. The gates are always open, though nothing impure can enter the city, nor those who are shameful or deceitful. The only people who enter are those whose names are written in the book of life.

Perhaps the author of this meme didn’t have John’s vision in mind. Perhaps he was thinking more generally. Heaven really is restricted to those who have been saved by Jesus, a gift we receive by faith in Jesus. There’s an exclusivity to the gospel that makes many of us uncomfortable, but which is undeniably taught in Scripture.

And so, the logic goes, if heaven has a wall and entry criteria, then so should America. That is the logic of the metaphor. It is true that borders, in principal, are okay (think skin, the walls of a house, the membrane of a cell, etc.), and I’ll grant that level of logic to the meme.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with this metaphor.

Problem #1: What else this implies about America.

Metaphors tend to carry a lot of weight, intended or not, and this one does too. The metaphor compares America to heaven and ends up implying quite a bit: In the America is heaven metaphor American citizens are heavenly citizens. Non-citizens are the heathens who have to pass some test. The government is God, which has the right to do “extreme vetting” however it sees fit. Etc. All of these fit into the nationalist idolatry prevalent in our culture today. Perhaps those who share this want to keep the metaphor limited to the wall. That’s fine, but it’s not all that gets communicated.

Problem #2: What else this implies about Heaven.

What’s worse is the way in which this metaphor works backwards. If America is like heaven then heaven (and its immigration policies) is like America. That’s a comparison that strikes at the heart of the gospel. Let’s think about how this works.

Heaven, as understood through strict nationalistic immigration policy, is primarily concerned about security. Those who want to enter must wait outside and show themselves worthy to enter. They must prove they are not dangerous and they must show how they can contribute. Citizens of heaven (Christians), on the other hand, are either in by birthright or because they have already gone through extreme vetting and have shown themselves worthy.

That vision of heaven is about as far from the gospel as you can get.  When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven it is both uncomfortably exclusive (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) and radically inclusive “whoever believes in me will have eternal life”).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the ones who imagined themselves citizens by birthright, the ones who were worthy and had something to offer, the ones who passed the “extreme vetting” were offended that Jesus came to invite the prostitutes and sinners into that same kingdom. But they had it backwards: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He goes on to excoriate the Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

According to the gospel, when it comes to entrance into the kingdom of God, we’re all unworthy asylum seekers. We come with nothing to offer. We come without credentials. We come, even, as enemies of God. It is only by God’s radical grace that comes to us and invites us in that we could gain entrance. And then, having been forgiven much, we share that same goodness with the world – a welcoming and hopeful vision of heaven.

This isn’t really a post about immigration. I’ve written a more systematic post about that here. Instead, I’m concerned about two things:

(1) Are we misusing Scripture to make a political point? I think this meme does just that.

(2) Are we allowing an earthly political vision to impact the way we view or express heaven? Again, this post does just that. Even if we manage to understand this meme in a very narrowly defined way, when we share it we are sure to present a picture of heaven that is inconsistent with the gospel of grace, expressed in the mercy of Jesus.

Are Christians morally obligated to vote only for candidates likely to win?

Are Christians morally obligated to vote for one of the top two candidates in an election? Is our choice necessarily binary? Are we required to do this to be responsible citizens and adults?

I’d like to examine those questions through the lens of what I’ll refer to as “Bounded Christian Utilitarianism.” This isn’t really a thing, but it wound up being a good description to how I approach the problem.

This approach will take the consequence of our political choices into account, but won’t make the consequences the end of our ethical responsibility.

First, a story:

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a thoughtful friend who was bothered that I would opt out of voting for reasons of principle:

“Isn’t there a responsibility to choose the best option? Weren’t you, like, 1% happier that [Candidate X] defeated [Candidate Y]? Isn’t the world, like, 1% better with [Candidate X] winning? Choosing the better of two sub-par options, isn’t that what we’re called to do, as adults? As citizens?”

I responded that I don’t believe I have an absolute moral obligation to vote for one of two options, though I do have a responsibility to love my neighbor.

He responded that voting was a tangible way to love your neighbor. I don’t disagree. In fact, I wrote a whole series of blog posts which made that exact argument. But voting is only one – very minor – way of loving my neighbor. It’s a piece, not the whole. And, as I will argue, it’s a piece with boundaries. This is what got me to bounded Christian utilitarianism. I’ll explain that one word at a time.

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism, put simply, is the premise that we have an ethical duty to increase the total amount of happiness in the world and decrease the amount of suffering.[1] An action is ethical if it increases the total happiness, and unethical if it adds to suffering. Since some actions might do both, you would subtract the suffering produced from the happiness produced to get an overall score. Applied to politics, you’d want to implement policies that increased overall happiness and reduced suffering. It’s a simple and elegant system.

What do I mean by Christian Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a secular system, but it could be expressed in Christian language as well, in terms of loving your neighbor. A Christian might observe that “happiness” is not the greatest of all goods. Loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean making someone happy (at least not in the immediate short-term). Instead, we speak of loving your neighbor as yourself.

If we define expressing love as “doing what is good for another person” then a Christian utilitarian might express it this way: My choice is moral if it maximizes the amount of good I am able to do to my neighbor while causing the minimal amount of harm.

When applied to politics, a Christian utilitarian votes for politicians and policies which do the most good to the greatest number of people, and minimize the amount of harm. Again, it’s a simple and understandable system. Generally, I am a Christian utilitarian in politics. Keeping important principles like freedom and wisdom in mind, I try to vote for politicians and policies which will do good to my neighbor without harming him.

What is Bounded Christian Utilitarianism?

While utilitarianism – whether expressed in its secular or religious forms – are simple and clear, they open the door for oppression and other evils. For instance, you could argue from a utilitarian perspective that it is okay to enslave a small group of people if it means great benefits for the mass of people. The math still works. The overall good outweighs the evil. But slavery is wrong all the time, regardless of whether it helps one or fifty or a thousand people. The math might work, but you still end up with injustice.

Utilitarianism can be used to justify tyranny and remove freedoms. It can justify doing evil for the sake of some greater good. It’s an ends-justify-the-means system. In fact, history is replete with people in power finding certain “sacrifices” acceptable to meet some desired, utopian, end.

So, while we should seek to do good to our neighbors, the utilitarian system must be bounded. A pure calculation like making the world 1% better isn’t the ethical choice if it means doing evil to get there.

What are the boundaries?

In politics, it can be hard to discern what those boundaries should be. Almost every policy potentially does some harm. An open trade policy will probably “lift all boats” but it will also inevitably lead to some level of job loss. A closed policy will help American workers but harm people in poverty overseas and probably also increase the cost of goods which will in turn “harm” consumers. It’s a no win. If we say that a policy or politician must do no harm, we would have to drop out of politics entirely. We would probably have to stop doing a lot of other things, too.

But there’s a difference of kind between the kind of harm done by a trade policy and the oppression or enslavement I referred to above. What’s that line? Maybe each person will draw different ones, but I have drawn two lines.

My first line is this: I will not participate in unjust systems. I’m using “unjust” as it relates to people being made in the image of God. Each person is given is endowed certain rights by God and justice upholds those rights. One of those rights is the right to life. Our abortion laws systematically rob the most vulnerable in our society of this right. It is an unjust system. So, I draw a line here. Another right I would recognize is the right to freedom. Slavery is another unjust system. So were the Jim Crow laws of the South. Thankfully, these have been done away with (though more work needs to be done to reduce racism and systems of racism).

My second line is this: I will not participate with a wicked person. Nobody is perfect. I get that. But there is a difference between an imperfect public servant and a person who is marked by a life of foolishness (in the biblical sense). My first reason for this is utilitarian: I don’t believe that private wickedness stays private. I believe that it will inevitably cause harm to others. My other reason relies on Scripture. Paul commands us not to be “partners” with those under God’s judgment because of wickedness. I interpret my vote as a partnership of sorts, and therefore a violation of God’s command.

I’m sure there are other ways to draw lines, and I know other people draw different ones than I do, but I am certain that utilitarianism needs lines. A pure consequentialist – someone who measures their actions, political or otherwise, by the outcome more than the act – will always be dangerous to justice, regardless of their good intentions. No matter how much good you want to do, if you’re okay with doing wrong to get there, you’re still doing wrong. The road to hell is well paved by the intentions of consequentialists.

In fact, while most people who object to the fact that I would choose not to vote for one of two major candidates express utilitarian arguments, I doubt most of them would refuse to draw any lines at all. Almost everyone will draw a line somewhere. (If your “choice” was between someone who wanted to bring back slavery and someone who murdered children, are you really morally obligated to vote for one or the other.) Instead, most people object to where I draw the line. Those on the Left either are not disturbed by abortion, or not as disturbed as I am, or they don’t think that a vote for a pro-choice candidate who could make an impact on abortion law is participation in the system. Those on the Right either thought the candidate was merely flawed or, if he was wicked, argued that character wasn’t really a disqualifying factor or that a vote for such a person didn’t constitute a “partnership” as I have described above. But most would have agreed that some line somewhere was necessary.

Here’s where the role of conscience comes into play. The lines I have formed have themselves been formed by my conscience. If I’ve done it right my conscience has been formed by the Word of God. But my conscience could be weak – I could have put the lines up too early. Or my conscience could be seared – I could have put them up too late. But, it is the role of the conscience to help determine where the lines need to be drawn to avoid sin.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Dilemma: The action of inaction

Those who choose not to vote, or to vote for a candidate very unlikely to win, face a dilemma. They might say that they are not acting, but in fact they are. Inaction is a form of action. More than one person said to me in 2016: “Not voting for Candidate A is a vote for Candidate B”. Or, “voting for Candidate C is really a vote for Candidate B.” While I wanted to dismiss this as linguistic and logical absurdity, there is a ring of truth to it. If I would have otherwise voted for Candidate A and choose not to, then I make a win for Candidate B a tiny bit more likely. In other words, my action – to vote for Candidate C – does have a consequence, one in which I would need to reckon.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 1: Act and Consequence

My first answer to this dilemma is theological. I separate act from consequence. I am responsible for my act. God is responsible for the result. The future is ultimately in God’s hands and He can intervene to bless or override my action as He wills.

There’s a danger in this distinction, of course. God has created an ordered world where act and consequence are linked in cause and effect. I am responsible for knowing the likely consequence of my action and so need to act in such a way to get the result that will do good form my neighbor. This is why I’m a Christian utilitarian. I am responsible for knowing the likely results of my actions, and acting accordingly. But, I’m a bounded Christian utilitarian because there are times when getting the result I want (doing good to my neighbor) would require me to act in a way contrary to God’s Word. In that instance I must act with faith, refusing to break God’s law and trust the future to God.

(As an aside, in big issues like politics people, even experts, can be pretty terrible at predicting the results of their actions. I’m not sure we should have a lot of faith in our ability to see the future even if God weren’t part of the equation!)

This is part of what it means to have faith and to act in faith, to do what you believe is right and trust that God will use that faithful action to do what is ultimately right.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 2: Aiming for a consequence

My second response is that in voting for Candidate C, I am also aiming for a consequence, for a result which I believe, in the long run, will bless my neighbor. If I believe that both parties have become corrupt, then I want to either prop up a party/candidate that is not corrupt, or at least send a message to the corrupt parties that I will not be complicit in their corruption. A few votes won’t make a difference, but a lot would. I think we suffer from a failure of the imagination. For the degree to which both major candidates in 2016 were reviled, it would have been an ideal time to send this message. But, people said, it just can’t happen and thus we shouldn’t try. But since we shouldn’t try, that’s exactly why it couldn’t happen. We’re somehow bound to a system that we all think is terrible. But we’re only bound to the system because we believe it’s the only way. We somehow think voting is the only thing that matters, but are unwilling to use our votes in a way that really would.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 3: Moving beyond voting

I said near the beginning that voting is one way to love your neighbor. It’s a part, but not the whole. In fact, it’s a very small part. A single individual can have much more impact doing other things. And, if you feel you cannot vote in a specific election don’t despair that you are failing your neighbor, and don’t let others convince you that you. Instead, get to work tangibly loving your neighbor.

This is the perfect time to reiterate something I’ve said before: The church is its own politic. It is a people with a purpose and a mission. It aims to love and glorify God and love and reach the world. The church can influence the nation politic in numerous and profound ways. We can pursue justice, speak up for the oppressed, provide for the poor, and work for justice. We can be a counter-politic within the broader politic, a counter-culture within the broader culture, acting as salt and light in the world. We shouldn’t downplay the potential role of the church within society.

But we can also work outside of the institutional church to love our neighbors, too. Get involved. Do good. Use your imagination. Don’t imagine that voting is more than it is. It’s a way, one way, to love your neighbor. Use it wisely, but remember that it is bound. Don’t let it bind you.

[1] One of the most important books I’ve read on competing theories of justice is Justice by Michael Sandel. My description of utilitarianism in this post relies on Sandel’s description of it.

“America at the Crossroads” (a review)

This past Sunday Pastor Robert Jeffress, a prominent and controversial Southern Baptist pastor invited conservative political commentator Sean Hannity to speak at his church on Sunday morning, paired with his own sermon titled “America at the Crossroads.” Instead of reading commentary about the event, I first listened to both the sermon and the interview with Sean Hannity. Here’s my own take on the message:

The Sunday event was controversial before Jeffress or Hannity said a word. The whole setup was problematic to begin with. Hannity is a political commentator and Jeffress invited him to a worship service. Not only that, but Hannity is a partisan. He isn’t exactly known for his even-handedness. Now, I am not one of those who believe that pastors should never talk about politics (as I discussed in this post), but (1) I view the worship service as a sacred event, specially set aside for worship (and allegiance) to God, and (2) it’s not hard to see how the Hannity interview would distract from both that worship and the task of gospel proclamation.

I’m not sure which came first in the service, the interview or the sermon, but I listened to the sermon first so I’ll start there.

First let me say that there was nothing particularly theologically objectionable in “America at the Crossroads.” (I struggle to admit it but) Jeffress and I are probably really close in our interpretation of Scripture. Where we disagree, as we’ll see, is in our interpretation in what is wrong with America and how to fix it.

A Coming Implosion

Jeffress starts the sermon with the story of the demolition of their old church building (to make room for the new one). It started with a series of explosions around the base of the building, followed by a pause, and then the sudden implosion. America, Jeffress said, had already experienced the explosions and we are now merely living in the pause before the coming implosion.

What are those explosions? Jeffress pointed to three Supreme Court decisions, the first which took prayer out of the schools, the second which legalized abortion, and the third which legalized gay marriage. The first was one of a series of events which took Christianity out of the public sphere, the second sanctioned murder, and the third undermines the most foundational of institutions, marriage.

What are we to do? Is there any hope for America? Jeffress argues that the duty of Christians now is to be salt in the world. How can we be salt? We need to get out of the salt shaker and influence the political process. We need to vote for representatives who will reverse the direction our nation has taken. In doing so, we will love our neighbor by ensuring that civil government does its role of restraining evil and, in doing so, avoids the coming implosion.

Jeffress ends the sermon by saying that it’s also important to help people come to faith, to turn America around one person at a time.

The problem and the solution – good vs evil

Except for the bit at the end, Jeffress identified both the problem and the solution in America to be political. We’re where we’re at because of a series of political decisions. Therefore, the solution is also political, the election of leaders who will reverse those decisions and get our country back on track.

This allows Jeffress to frame the 2016 election as good vs evil (I’m not exaggerating here, he specifically said that if there was one thing you should take out of the message it was that elections are a battle between good and evil.) On the one side you had Trump who opposed abortion. On the other side you had Clinton, who supported it in all its forms. Through this lens Trump is the force for good and Clinton the force for evil. The choice was clear.

Has Jeffress rightly identified the problem?

But what if the problems we face aren’t primarily political? I’ve become convinced that our problems are deeper than mere politics, but that they spring up from a long-secularizing culture. (For a recent account of this cultural decline see the first couple chapters of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option). Furthermore, the church should have acted in a counter-cultural “salty” way but, instead, has itself faced the same secularizing cultural creep as the rest of the nation. We’ve become both a nation and a church of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists”, embracing a shallow faith. We’ve wrapped up many cultural narratives in religious garb and called it Christianity. Our political condition is, in part, a function of that cultural decline and the failure of the church to remain faithful to the full gospel.

If the problems are more broadly cultural, both outside and inside the church, then the solution won’t be political, at least it won’t be primarily political. Like Jeffress, I agree that the solution will be for the church to be “salt” in the world, but I interpret that salt with a different emphasis. To be the salt the church will need to recapture the primacy of the gospel, it will need to reignited with a fire for evangelism, it will need to re-evaluate the way it has been influenced by cultural narratives that are opposed to the way of Christ.

My perspective on 2016 and beyond.

This was the primary lens by which I viewed the 2016 election. Through this lens I saw the election not between good and evil, but between evil in different forms. Trump had the right position on abortion, but it was still hard for me to view him as pro-life in any sort of broad sense. Instead, his words and actions demonstrated again and again that he was a fool, in the biblical sense, and thus unfit for authority, especially this highest position of authority. I saw broad evangelical support for Trump as a step backwards both for the culture and for the faithfulness of the church. By aligning ourselves with such a troubled man, I worried that we (as the church) were both damaging our witness and compromising our moral standards.

I don’t write this to take another shot at Trump, but to show how drastically different Jeffress and I understand both the problem and the solution. For Jeffress the political problem required a political solution, i.e., Trump. For me, both Trump and Clinton were symptoms of the cultural/church problem and the solution was to disentangle ourselves from the whole mess, either by opting out or selecting a different candidate altogether. This is, of course, my interpretation, and a minority one at that. My conscience is clear, but so are the consciences of others who, like Jeffress, saw the world differently (Or, who had the same concerns I did but still felt an obligation to oppose Clinton’s extreme abortion position by voting for Trump.) I’m not here to judge, but to lend my voice to the community as a whole.

Be the Salt.

Pastor Jeffress says we should be the salt of the earth. I agree. But that includes a lot more than political engagement. It means, first, obedience to Christ and with it, love for neighbor. It means inner transformation. It means gospel distinctiveness. It means participation within the local church. Political engagement plays a role, but we need to be wary of overplaying that one task. I’m not against talking about political issues from the pulpit. Christ is Lord over all and it’s the task of Christians to see how the Lordship of Christ affects all areas of life. But we can never let politics eclipse the rest. It must always be seen within and under the broader context of discipleship. My fear is that a sermon like “America at the Crossroads” will give the wrong impression, even if it’s not what Jeffress intends, that discipleship means fighting the liberals and retaking political power and that a successful church is one that mobilizes voters towards that end.

What’s wrong with the Hannity interview

If you want some good analysis on the interview, I recommend to you this article by Rod Dreher. Dreher says it better than I but basically Hannity says that he rejects the Roman Catholic view of the Papal Authority because he believes that the authority Jesus was describing to Peter came from God speaking directly into Peter’s heart. Hannity goes on to say that he sees this personal/private revelation as God speaking to our consciences. Hannity himself tries to listen to this voice, which he equates to the voice of the Holy Spirit, to guide his spiritual life. It might be possible to read this as nothing more than “the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin” but given that he tied it to Peter’s authority it sounds a lot more like he’s saying “my conscience is the basis for spiritual authority in my life.” That’s not the Christian teaching on the matter – Protestant or Catholic. The conscience matters, but it’s not authoritative. Of course, Dreher admits, Hannity’s is the default position of many Christians in our country. Jeffress leaves Hannity’s statement uncorrected.

Conclusion

I share many of the same concerns of Jeffress. I’m worried that our nation is in moral decline and that the church is unprepared for the future. But, I’m also worried that continuing to entangle ourselves in partisan politics is a step in the wrong direction. We need to engage politically as one way to love our neighbors, but we need to be cautious. We need to keep the main things the main things: worship of God, faithfulness to Christ, and proclamation of the gospel.

Book Review: The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

Book Recommendation

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

Summary

I’ve been admiring Senator Ben Sasse for about a year now. He’s one of the few Senators who speaks with substance about broad principles. He’s consistently conservative, but isn’t very partisan. He doesn’t just buy the into the party line – and that’s earned him a number of enemies within his own party, but also a lot of respect in my eyes. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to read this book.

The library I got this book from categorized it as “politics”, but it’s not a policy book (and he explains why in the postscript). It’s closer to a parenting book, actually, and all the chapters in Part 2 give practical suggestions to parents. If you want to classify it as a “political” book, you should define “politics” more broadly to mean “public life”, or maybe even “culture.” Sasse sees culture as upstream from policy and partisanship and it’s the broader context of culture and shared public life that Sasse addresses.

The Problem

Sasse is specifically concerned about the “vanishing American adult.” He’s concerned that we’re failing to teach our younger generations how to be grown-ups, that we’re consigning them to perpetual adolescence. Part 1 of his book gives a more detailed account of the problem and how we got here. Part 2 provides suggestions for specific remedies. For the purposes of this summary and review I’ll focus on Part 2.

“An Active Program” 

How do we remedy the problem. The Vanishing American Adult outlines six solutions. 1) Avoid age segregation. 2) Teach hard work. 3) Embrace production over consumption. 4) Travel. 5) Read good books. 6) Embrace America as an idea.

Avoid Age Segregation: We live in a highly age-segregated culture with precious few opportunities to learn from our elders. If we only interact with people our own age we get a truncated view of life. Most importantly, we miss out on learning about the most fundamental questions that comes to us at the end of life, but that we should ask sooner: What is a life well lived? What truly matters? How can I cope with the reality and immanence of my own death and the deaths of those I love? To that end, Sasse encourages providing young people opportunities to interact with and learn from people of all generations.

Teach Hard Work: Sasse believes that, as a result of our unprecedented national wealth, we’re becoming softer and more averse to hard work. Hard work builds character and a healthy sense of self-worth. His advise? Figure out how to develop a sold work ethic in your children.

Embrace Production over Consumption: Consumption (beyond the necessities, of course) doesn’t bring us happiness, even though the marketing world would have us believe it does. Production – and knowing that our work is meaningful – does. To that end, Sasse encourages us to produce more and consume less.

Travel: Sasse makes a distinction between travel and tourism. Tourism, while it has it’s place, is just a different form of consumption. Travel, on the other hand, is about gaining wisdom, experience, and a broader perspective of the world. Sasse is after adventure. He believes that good travel doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive – or even far away – so long as it embraces that attitude of exploration. He recalls several of his own trips as a young man.

These reminded me of my own 10-day road trip I undertook with a couple of classmates immediately after high school. We took a loop through Canada and then to the East Coast, sleeping in our Jeep Wrangler, or at a friend’s house, or on a park bench in Boston Commons when we didn’t get back to the parking garage on time. This is the kind of travel Sasse is talking about, and I agree that this trip was an important “coming of age” step for me.

Read good books: Amen.

Embrace America as an Idea: The American idea is that of self-rule as opposed to external rule. Before America, the dominant idea was that governments ruled over their subjects, conferring a few limited rights to its people. The American idea flipped that around. In America, the people would rule and the government’s job would be to protect our unalienable rights. This idea has proven successful and transformed the world. But, this idea only makes sense if the people are able to self-govern. Children, though, lack that capacity. This is why it’s so critical to avoid being trapped in perpetual adolescence. America works only if it’s citizens are adults, are self-reliant, are self-governing. Without a self-governing public, we will try to hold back the chaos by ceding more and more control to the government – the path to eventual tyranny.

(Exhibit A in this discussion is the alarming trend of young people seeing the First Amendment as a dangerous thing. This most fundamental of American principles is under attack on college campuses and elsewhere. Why? Because we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings. We’ve lost the adult ability to argue about great ideas. We’ve adopted instead the childish path of shutting down discussion, much to our detriment. Just before writing this review I read an article about BLM protesters shutting down a speech from the ACLU about free speech. Ironic. And sad.)

Review

I read this book primarily as a citizen and a parent. I’m worried both about the direction of our country, and my own ability to raise adults. I recognized, at various points, my own failure to “toughen up” my kids. I need to recapture simple tasks, like making my kids do chores before they watch TV. I also read this as a pastor – how do we encourage multi-generational interaction in the church? How do move kids in our children and youth ministries toward spiritual adulthood? How do we avoid perceptual spiritual adolescence?

I recommend this book to, well, just about anybody, but especially those who are more politically inclined, or parents who are concerned about raising self-governing adults.

Seven notes on Kristoff’s “Pious Paul” hit piece

Earlier this week Nicholas Kristoff wrote a hit piece on Paul Ryan (specifically regarding the GOP health care bill) which ended by using Jesus’s words to condemn “Pious Paul” to hell. Here are seven quick notes on the article.

  1. Before I criticize the article I want to recommend Kristoff’s book Half the Sky. It’s an important book which sheds light on the oppression of women worldwide. It’s “prophetic” in a secular sense in that it tells the brutal truth and has enough content to annoy liberals and conservatives alike. (Personally, I think the authors are unfair in their treatment of the Apostle Paul.) But there’s also a massive amount of common ground on which all people can find unity and the stakes are incredible.
  2. The article consistently takes Jesus’s words out of context.
  3. It’s hard to know how to apply Scripture to public policy. As I’ve tried to make the case here, what I want is a government which is informed by biblical values and acts within its realm of limited responsibility based on those value. Often, partisan liberals and conservatives opt for a more wooden application, one that is rightly identified as hypocritical. (See Matt Walsh’s tweet “Liberals on entitlements: “The Bible says give to the poor!” Liberals on gay marriage: “This isn’t a theocracy! Keep religion at church!”)
  4. Kristoff opts for this simplistic approach and uses it to bludgeon Paul Ryan. Two important layers of religious/moral reasoning are missed. First, Kristoff implies that Ryan does not care about the poor. Perhaps he has already forgotten what he wrote in Half the Sky, that Christians give significantly more of their incomes to charity – including non-religious charity – than non-religious people. I don’t know Paul Ryan’s heart, but it’s wrong to assume that his (or conservatives in general) don’t care about the poor. The question isn’t just whether or not we have concern, but what role the government should play. Second, even if we agree that the government plays a role, we have to exercise wisdom in developing policy. Some government charities do more harm than good, particularly through undermining social structures which form the basis of a well-functioning society. All this is dismissed in Kristoff’s piece.
  5. Since I just read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind what I see in Kristoff’s article is a clash of moral visions. Kristoff, like most liberals, bases his moral reasoning primarily on the care/harm moral foundation. Something is right/wrong based on whether or not someone is helped or hurt. He then applies Jesus’s words to back up his moral intuitions. Ryan, as a conservative, also bases moral reasoning on care/harm, but uses other foundations as well. Specifically, he probably cares about proportionality (“do people get out of the system what they put in?”) and liberty (“is the government impinging on personal freedoms through excessive taxes?”) These other foundations stand in tension with care/harm, making for a more morally nuanced approach to healthcare (I’m not saying better) that Kristoff either doesn’t understand or ignores. Kristoff should read Haidt if he hasn’t already.
  6. The article perpetuates the false narrative that religious conservatives are hypocritical and don’t care about the poor. Whether or not you agree with their policies, this myth about motives needs to end. Are there some hard-hearted religious conservatives out there? Yes, and I’ve met them. But Kristoff himself noted in Half the Sky, those same religious conservatives are often the only ones on the front lines of caring for those most in need.
  7. I’m not going to offer an assessment of the Health Care Plan. I have too little knowledge. Maybe it deserves a strong critique. But Kristoff doesn’t need to malign Paul Ryan’s motives to do so.

Refugees and immigrants: A case study in Christian political engagement

Immigration, either from Mexico, or through refugees coming from Syria or surrounding nations fleeing from war and violence, is a hot topic in the news these days, and an important one for Christians to think critically about. There’s a lot on the line, both for those immigrants seeking a better life, or really any life at all, and (potentially) the future of America.

The purpose of this post isn’t to take one position or another, at least not a national political position, but to think about how this issues is understood through different lenses, and then think critically of the various positions being held. [Edit: Upon further reflection, this didn’t quite turn out to be true, see the quote from O. Alan Noble below which reflects the sort of position I find most compelling.]

What is clear

What is clear is that Christians ought to have compassion for those in other countries who are seeking to escape from war, violence, persecution, or extreme poverty and that Christians ought to have compassion for those neighbors in the United States who are especially vulnerable to injustice – including immigrants. As I have elsewhere argued, and where many others have been doing for a while now, the Old Testament is full of instructions to care for widows, orphans, and aliens living within the land. The call to care for strangers and sojourners is directly tied to Israel’s status as foreigners and strangers in Egypt. This principle in the Old Testament is consistent with the general principle of all Scripture that Christians should have compassion (that leads to material care) for those who are especially vulnerable. I can’t think of a single Christian I know – Republican or Democrat, Trump supporter or Trump detractor – who doesn’t agree with this.[1]

What is less clear

What is significantly less clear is what role the Civil Government – in this case the American government – should do.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that it was the “Right” that was calling for more open borders and the “Left” that was calling for tighter borders and controls and let’s also imagine that the “Right” was still heavily populated with evangelical Christians who were using the Scriptural argument above as a key part of their argument. I can picture the complaint of the “Left” already: You need to leave God out of politics. We live in a secular world. Do you want us to adopt all the laws of the Old Testament, too? Do you want us to become a theocracy!?

I think that the current more-open-borders-because-we-should-have-compassion-because-the-bible-tells-me-to position (sorry, I should shorten that name) is at least somewhat open to that charge. That position, to the extent that it argues for a one-to-one relationship between Israel and the United States, ironically makes the same mistake that it often complains those of the “Moral Majority” school of making.

The conservative argument against the more “compassionate” position of those calling for more admission of refugees is that, while it’s the role of the church and individual Christians to show compassion, it’s the role of the Civil government to restrain evil by bringing about justice for its citizens and protecting its borders from outside threats. If more immigration and refugees pose a threat to the people of this nation, then it would be the role of the government to protect its citizens by enacting greater controls, more “extreme vetting,” building a wall, or even banning immigration from certain countries.

I am sympathetic to this argument because I generally believe that the sanctioned role of government is rather limited. I also find it somewhat ironic, since those arguing in this way want to see religion and religious beliefs play a larger role in government in many other areas.

(As an aside, since I can’t help but compare most political issues back to abortion, it’s interesting to note that one of the legal justifications for abortion is that you’re not a citizen until you are born. Only citizens have rights under the constitution so only babies which have been born have the right to life (regardless of whether or not they are living humans, which they are). On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve seen conservatives argue that non-citizens (read: refugees) don’t have rights since they are non-citizens while liberals argue for a more inclusive vision for mankind that doesn’t worry so much about citizenship.)

And so on one side of the spectrum we have a very simple God-and-government position: The Bible tells us to be compassionate towards strangers and foreigners and the vulnerable so we should have a more open immigration system. And on the other side we have a very simple separation-of-Church-and-State position: Yes, we need to be compassionate as individuals and a church but it’s the role of government to protect its own citizens from threats and not to worry about non-citizens.

A muddy middle

It should come as no surprise, if you’ve made it this far, that I want to argue for a more nuanced position than either two extremes. I admit it’s not fleshed out, but I will state my position as follows: I want a government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities and within its own character in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview. Let me unpack that:

A government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities. I don’t want my government to do everything or to take the role of the church or the role of the family. There are some “goods” which, while nevertheless good, are not the task of a civil/secular government to do. I don’t want my government doing evangelism or running church services, for instance. But, it is within the realm of the government to regulate its borders and it’s also within the realm of the government to act justly towards all mankind in a way that acknowledges a shared humanity (more on that last part in this post). It might not be the role of the government to care for refugees, but it might be the role of the government to make it possible for kind-hearted, gospel-driven citizens to do just that.

A government that acts within its own character. This may be a specifically American desire but America was founded on certain principles which I would hate to see lost or trampled on. Two of those principles are religious freedom and equality of persons. So, when Muslims are specifically targeted for exclusion, or when Mexican immigrants are demonized, we are acting outside of our character as a nation.

A government informed by a biblical worldview. I’m not saying I want a theocratic state, but I do want my government to be informed by a biblical worldview. In this case, I want it to be informed by an ethic of compassion towards the vulnerable as described in the Old Testament injunctions cited above, and then weigh that against relative threats to security and then act wisely and justly towards all people.

What we have then are (potentially) competing interests. The government ought to act in the best interests of its citizens – including security – and it ought to act in a way informed by biblical compassion for those who are especially vulnerable – including non-citizens. This is a muddy middle, perhaps, but it’s also the hard work of governance.

O. Alan Noble suggests just this sort of balanced position, arguing for community-based resettlement programs that makes room for the church to help refugees integrate into those communities. Addressing Muslim immigration in particular he states:

“Both extremes [Islamophobia and Mass Immigration] carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.”

Two final notes

In many cases, the threat which immigrants and refugees plays to the American public seems to be trumped up out of proportion to the actual threat (see Ed Stetzer’s CT article). Sometimes immigration is even framed as an outside invasion, and not as families desperately seeking to get out of a horrible situation (which I think more accurately characterizes the vast majority of circumstances). We shouldn’t be naïve about the possibility of danger, but we should try to be accurate about just what danger there might be. [2]

What if the government closes its borders entirely? What can Christians in America do then? Well, even before that happens the most direct way to help refugees for most of us is by working through organizations which have contact with refugees oversees. At the end of last year my family was able to contribute to Syrian refugee relief through the SBC.  If we want to care for immigrants and refugees, we need to do more than just complain about our government (though I have long maintained the role of advocacy) but be willing to be creative about how we can directly or indirectly love our neighbors in Jesus’s name.

[1] Unfortunately, I have to retract this last statement. Since writing this I have met Christians who have showed little or no concern for showing compassion to the most vulnerable and have made nuanced arguments for why we don’t actually have to love “those” neighbors.

[2] This sort of fear-mongering and demonization has only increased since the original writing of this article, including among Christians.

What I mean when I say that I will “vote my conscience”

It is true that “conscience” can be invoked in all sorts of inappropriate ways. It can be nothing more than a cop-out, or code for “how could you vote for a candidate that supports X!” It can be used to bully someone into a vote (or a non-vote) just as much as party loyalty can. And so, I want to explain what I mean when I invoke the word “conscience” in regards to voting and political engagement.

Simply put, I do not want my vote to be, in any way, a participation in evil. Or, to frame it in the context of “love of neighbor”, I do not want my vote to be a participation in harm done to my neighbor.

To that end, there are two main criteria which any candidate must pass. These criteria are, in the language of politics, “litmus tests.” Candidates may fall anywhere along the spectrum from “good” to “bad” but at some point they cross a line wherein a vote for them would constitute my participation in injustice. This is my attempt to draw those lines.

Disqualification #1: The candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy.

If a candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy, then my vote for them is, at best, tacit approval of that policy. At worst, it is participation in the furtherance of that policy. By voting for them I become a willing participant in unjust laws.

I use the word “unjust” in a fairly precise way. I am not simply referring here to policies which I think are unwise, or which I personally disagree with, or even which I find somewhat morally objectionable. I am referring to policies which deny people of basic justice. The role of the government is not necessarily to promote my particular Christian view of morality and I don’t expect it to. But it is to provide basic justice. Any candidate who espouses and promotes a set of laws which break that basic level of justice will lose my vote.

Disqualification #2: The candidate is, themselves, wicked or personally unjust.

If a candidate is, in their personal character, wicked or unjust, then regardless of their personal policies, their leadership endangers my neighbor. We are right to expect an unjust person to act unjustly. And, if we learn from the history of Israel, so goes the leader of the nation, there goes the nation.

Again, I use the words “wicked” and “unjust” in precise ways. I do not mean that the candidate is not “flawed”. I do not mean that the candidate must be a Christian. I do not mean that a candidate cannot have made mistakes in life. I mean that the character of the man/woman is bent towards wickedness.

Application to this election

There is a strong case to be made that our two top candidates in 2016 fail one or both of these criteria. I have already expressed my opinion in relation to the topic of abortion in this post and I won’t belabor it again here.

If you don’t believe that the candidate you support breaks one of those qualifications (for instance, Wayne Grudem argues that Trump is merely “flawed” and not “wicked” and he finds his policies appealing – see response) then you will be able to vote for that candidate with a clean conscience. If, however, you believe that a candidate is disqualified based on one or the other of the criteria above, and you agree that a vote can represent a participation in the evil which will be the result of their presidency, then it is better to retain a clean conscience and put your trust in God, who has all authority, and who grants it for his own purposes, and either abstain from voting or vote for a different candidate.

A few final note on the conscience

Our consciences are not the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong, but merely a witness to right and wrong. A conscience can be overly sensitive. It can be seared. It can be twisted. A conscience must be formed by the Word of God. I must not assume that my conscience is perfectly formed, nor that the information which I use to feed into my conscience is always correct or complete.

We must, then, be careful of how we judge another person’s conscience. Paul’s words in Romans 14 are important to remember. We ought to act in accordance with our conscience, as one who stands before God, to do otherwise is a sin (Rom 14:23). But for the same reason we ought to be cautious about how we judge someone else’s conscience, since they too will stand before the same judge that we do (Rom 14:10).

This doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out with moral authority. Indeed, love for our neighbors sometimes necessitates public advocacy on their behalf. But we need to be cautious that we’re making the proper distinction between “thus saith the Lord” and “this is my personal opinion.” Be bold and terrified when speaking with moral authority. Be humble and gracious when speaking about a personal opinion. Knowing the difference requires a lot of wisdom.

This is the main body of the post. I have addressed to related questions in the comments below: What if the election of the other candidate would have catastrophic results? Are pro-lifers justified in voting for Hillary Clinton? This second question is a specific response to a recent article by Rachel Held Evans.