Thursday, November 1, 2012

Response to John Nugent: Part 1

I recently read a blog post by Dr. John Nugent entitled Elections and Idolatry. I have also read the second post, the third promised for tomorrow. I have heard his argument before, and I must confess it disgusts me, so I will try very hard to proceed with patience in explaining why. Many months ago I began an article addressing this very topic, and in fact chose the exact same starting point as Nugent did: the idea of the modern nation-state.

Nugent begins his post by relating his task of writing an entry for an encyclopedia on "nation and nationalism". Nugent valiantly attempted to leave his biases behind and research the subject objectively by referencing presumably objective scholars in this area. Right away I smelled a rat. I have no understanding of why men like Nugent try so hard to be objective precisely because they know they are not objective, and then expect other men to provide that objectivity for them. Is it not safe to assume that other men have the same subjectivity? But I digress.

Nugent writes, "the modernist account holds that nation-states emerged at the same time as modernity and that they delivered Europe from deadly religious wars and outdated monarchical forms of rule. The emerging concept of the nation rescued the state from monarchy and religion and made possible a more humane way of life for all." He then writes that this "modernist paradigm began to shift" and it shifted in the direction of comparing the nation to a religion. The new scholarship put forth by completely objective robots suggests that "nations" were developed by borrowing certain concepts from religion and applying them to "nations". I do not have a high opinion of any scholarship described as either "modern" or "postmodern". I have not looked at the modernist research that Nugent is referring to, but I tend to disbelieve his interpretation of it due to his implicit definition of a "nation" versus a "state". It is of course possible that Nugent has interpreted them correctly and they have muddled their definitions.

The Definitions of "Nation" and "State"

At this point I need to distinguish between the concept of a “nation” and a “state.” Thankfully our postmodern tendency to ignore, deliberately forget or worse constantly change the meanings of words has not yet destroyed this distinction. The “wall of separation between church and state” cannot be interpreted to mean a “wall of separation between church and nation.” Neither can the notion of a “Christian nation” be interpreted to mean a “Christian state.” The difference between these two words is crucial yet appears to be lost on a large number of otherwise intelligent people.

The word “state” means a formal organization governing over a certain territory of land defined by a clear boundary. It is considered illegitimate for state or power to interfere in the internal affairs of another state. This concept of a modern state originated with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. I'm assuming this is the period Nugent is referring to in the above quotation. The United States of America is a state. France is a state. The meaning could not be more obvious.

A “nation” is a much older concept meaning a group of people tied together by a common thread. The difference is like night and day. A “state” is about land, territory and organizational authority, usually called a “government”. A “nation” is about people. Therefore a “Christian nation” is simply a group of people tied together by Christianity. It does not mean that a group of people who live within the borders of a state are all Christians. Neither does it mean that the members of a nation are confined to those people living as citizens of a certain state. The idea of a “Christian nation” includes all Christians everywhere in the world, regardless of their earthly citizenship.

When the claim is made that America is a Christian nation, it does not mean that the United States of America is mathematically and in all other ways exactly equal to the aforementioned Christian nation. That would be absurd. When we say America is a Christian nation, we mean that the United States of America, a state, was founded and continues to exist for and by a group of people, a nation, tied together by Christianity. We are saying that the Christian nation formed and continues to form the basis, the foundation, upon which the state was built. (South Sudan is a recent example of another state founded upon the Christian nation. I have high hopes for them.) Consequently if people of the Christian nation cease to make up the citizenry of the United States of America, or if we stray significantly from Christian principles, then this state will crumble just as any house would crumble the moment its foundation is pulled out from underneath it. In the words of John Adams, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Nations act as the foundations of states to form “nation-states.” When American Christians say that America is a Christian nation, we mean that the American state is built on and fundamentally depends upon a portion of the Christian nation, and we are identifying with that portion.

The Progressive Frame of Reference

Having offered my own definition of the nation-state, continuing will be difficult, but I shall try. I will be trying to address Nugent within his own impossibly distorted and misinformed frame of reference, whilst pointing towards a more accurate frame of reference. Thus the reader must constantly keep in mind the two points of view.

As near as I can tell, Nugent's understanding of the concept of a "nation-state" is that states are the older function and nations are the newer. He argues that the modern world introduced the idea of a nation for no other purpose than to marry it to a state, thereby strengthening it. He leaves out the possibility that nationalism, which he specifically identifies with religious sentiment, is actually much older and more fundamental.

Nugent is correct to point out that some in the modernist vein tried to create nations to perfectly identify with existing states, and that in some forms this may constitute idolatry. He is incorrect to believe that the United States was founded upon this notion. Modernists, like others I could name, are perfectly capable of revising history to suit their biases. At no other point in his analysis is this misunderstanding more apparent than his brief mention of the mythical "wall of separation between church and state". He writes:

"[Christians who desire to express their faith publicly] are right to emphasize how Christian many of America’s forefathers were, but they are wrong to insist that they didn’t mean what they said when they advocated a separation of church and state."

Who is "they" and what did "they" mean? Nugent apparently believes the progressive myth about this language, invented in the mid 20th century, specifically in a Supreme Court opinion written by Hugo Black, a member of the anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish KKK and a stalwart supporter of FDR's progressive vision. In fact this language does not appear in the U.S. Constitution at all. It is from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, and carried no authority as law and was not written to be interpreted as law. Black and many other progressives took these words out of context in order to support their view in the same manner Nugent, in his only biblical reference so far, took Paul's teaching on marriage from 1 Corinthians 7 out of context. Birds of a feather, perhaps?

At the time of Jefferson's letter Baptists were a religious minority who aligned with Jefferson because his political faction was opposed by a faction representing a religious majority. Thus they were worried that their religious liberty would be infringed upon by this opposing faction, and supported Jefferson's. Jefferson wrote to them to assure that the government would never interfere with their religious liberty. Thus the wall of separation is a protection of religion from government, not a protection of government from religion! To even suggest such a thing to the Founders would have provoked ridicule. The Founders, when they actually wrote law, chose their words very carefully in the First Amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The only limitation here is a limitation on the federal Congress. It is not a limitation on state legislatures, nor is it a limitation on churches or religious citizens. In fact, at the time they were adopted the primary objection to the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, was the worry that they would imply government grants these rights rather than God. If government was perceived to have granted these rights, then government could conceivably take them away at a future date. This is why the language carefully outlined only a limitation on government, not a granting of rights by the government. The Founders, including deists like Jefferson, believed these rights were not grounded in government but grounded in God and natural law, which Nugent mentions disparagingly. (I have my own criticisms of Jefferson in my book. If criticism of the Founders is how Nugent gets his jollies than he can indulge his fetish even in my own writings.) I look forward to any further explanation of this doubt of the idea of natural law from Nugent. Once again, even deists believed that Nature was created by God and thus certain things about God's intentions for His creation could be discerned directly from it. Thus the idea of natural law did not depend upon the Bible, but rightly applied it does not contradict the Bible either and was never intended to do so. In fact even Jefferson the deist concurred with Adams that religion was an important foundation to a state such as the United States by providing a moral system which could not be legislated. It was the known limitation of government that provoked the founders to uphold religion as a necessary foundation for the American state, not the idolization of government as Nugent maintains.

Nugent is taking an interpretation of the founding period favored by progressives of the last century at face value and applying it not only to the Founders as a group, but also to the entire contemporary political spectrum, ignoring the very obvious disagreements on this issue of which Nugent is understandably unaware due to his principled lack of involvement in contemporary politics. His frame of reference draws only upon the progressive political vision and wrongly attributes that vision to the conservative opposition, treating the entire body politic as a cohesive whole. This tendency towards unjustified category judgment shows up in other analyses as well, such as generalizing all nation-states since Christ into opposition against Christian principles, and referring to the period before Christ, or more specifically before the fourth century "marriage" of Christianity to the Roman Empire, as "pristine", of all things. He also adheres to the progressive vision of human history as a forward march to bigger and better things, the source of the very term "progressive". His only problem seems to be jealousy that the government is the trailblazer in this progressive march instead of the church:

"Biblically speaking, Christian faith is an all-encompassing worldview that relegates the state to the margins of the forward movement of world history. What nationalism scholars have taught us is that nationalism, too, is an all-encompassing worldview—only it seeks to relegate faith to the margins of the forward movement of world history."

This reminds me of biologist P.Z. Myers' view of religion, and it perfectly coincides with Nugent's "nationalism scholars". This is not surprising, since the progressive vision, including these interpretations of nationalism, was derived from Darwin's theory of evolution and is still dependent upon it. The conservative vision Nugent ignores even as he passes judgment upon it completely rejects this progressive vision of history. The conservative tendency is to conserve something valuable that is constantly in danger of being lost. There is no "forward movement of world history". There is only the good which must be defended and the bad which must be condemned. Conservatives believe that once gone, the good is extraordinarily difficult to recover, and the bad all too easy to maintain. Nugent might be pressed upon to recognize a Biblical principle here. In any case, Nugent has swallowed whole the progressive interpretation of both history and politics. He is taking the majority opinion of the age against the minority, not to mention against the evidence. This is hardly becoming of a self-styled rebel and social visionary. Nugent cannot hope to come up with anything revolutionary when he borrows his entire frame of reference from the spirit of the age.

The Invented Dilemma

The core problem presented by this misinterpretation of history presents an emotional dilemma to those of Nugent's stripe. Being a Protestant and a swallower of progressive revistionist history, Nugent feels church involvement in politics is a dirty, low-down shame. But ironically, Nugent also faults governments for being too secular. Over and over this contradiction presents itself in Nugent's second post. I have no idea whether Nugent is aware of it or not, but in my experience people who hold similar views do not realize these dual criticisms are contradictory. The church is damned if we do, and the state is damned if we don't! In response Nugent suggests the Highlander approach. He would have us believe that the proper course of action is to allow the state to be damned and keep the church's hands clean, and thus the state is always damned and there is nothing Christians can or even should try to do about it. I wonder if Nugent holds to the same defeatism in regards to the world at large. Does Nugent also believe that the lost are damned if we don't, and we are damned if we deign to try and reach them where they are? It smacks of the same type of so-called "reasoning" that Christians in the past have used to condemn alcohol, dancing, card-playing, "secular" music and R-rated movies. In fact it is not reasoning at all. It is judgmental self-righteousness.

Do we really believe that God would place us in a world where our only option is to stay behind the ghetto walls throwing stones and hoping that maybe the goyim will get it right this time? Nugent actually presents three possible options for Christians to proceed, but for some reason doesn't justify why these options are acceptable after arguing for a post and a half that any Christian involvement in politics is idolatry. Nugent claims these options are all unworkable, drawing upon the vast knowledge of American politics he has obtained from actively not caring about it. Is he rejecting them because they are sinful, unworkable or both? A reader would be hard-pressed to determine his answer. One can hope that Nugent's forthcoming post provides an answer, but he seems to have established his position that Christians should not be involved in politics except to sit in judgment. I expect this to be his "solution" to the invented dilemma. Judge the goyim harshly while refusing to lift a finger to help.

Why It Matters

In any case, Christians like Nugent have a severely seared conscience when it comes to involvement in politics and government. Perhaps this is a genuine conviction of the Holy Spirit, warning them to stay away from an area which might lead them into sin. But such convictions do not apply to everyone, and furthermore expression of them as judgments upon the entire Christian church are harmful to Christians who have no such weaknesses.

But I tend to doubt this conviction is from the Holy Spirit. It is more likely that this searing of the American evangelical conscience is due to the dominance of the progressive political vision which is threatening to destroy the right principles upon which this country was founded. It is the Protestant acceptance of the progressive vision in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Nugent and his ilk are running from, not the founding period. Until he learns some history, his efforts to dissuade Christians from engaging in the political process and playing the role of salt and light which God intends for them are harmful and counterproductive. We are living in an interesting time, a time when American Christians are waking up to these historical mistakes and beginning to realize they require correction, a time when Christians are realizing they cannot stay behind the walls of the ghetto as they have in the past century, a century which allowed progressives and their idolatry of government to gain dominance. I believe Nugent himself is beginning on this path. I'm hopeful he will complete his journey before he does any more harm.