Friday, November 30, 2012

Response to John Nugent: Part 7 - American Conservatism

I promise this will be my last post on this topic. Nugent has indicated he intends to post more on Daniel, which I'm also somewhat interested in of late so I may keep up with his blog and refer to it in the future. But this will be my final response to his series on Elections and Idolatry. Mostly, this is the happy, happy, joy, joy, I'm okay, you're okay, I love you, you love me, Kumbaya post. But before we get too warm and fuzzy let me briefly summarize my main objections to what Nugent has said before I get to areas of agreement.

1. I do not like it when people twist the Bible to support a point of view. I am sometimes guilty of this myself, but when I go to the Bible I constantly remind myself that I am asking a question of an authority and looking for an answer. I constantly keep in mind that the Bible is not necessarily there to answer all the questions that I could possibly ask, so the answer may not be there. The Bible doesn't exist to answer all my questions about life, the universe and everything. I grew up an evangelical, and I know very well the tendency we have to make the Bible support all sorts of things that the text was never intended to address. This is probably the source of my negative tone towards Nugent. I feel very strongly that this method of playing fast and loose with Scripture is dangerous and irresponsible. The Bible is primarily a historical document providing us with an accurate history of What Happened. It is a record and in most cases an eye-witness testimony of God's interaction with Man. It is dangerous to run all around the Bible taking all sorts of moral object lessons from texts that were not intended as such. It is dangerous to introduce outside information into the text that isn't there. I feel that Nugent did that all over the place especially in the third post and I reacted strongly against it. In a few cases he wrote exactly the opposite of some pretty unambiguous passages. I feel that anger is a perfectly appropriate response for a Christian to something like that.

2. I do not like Nugent's negative tone towards American Christians and conservatives. As I explained in my previous post, this is exactly the sort of narrative I have heard my entire life from secular sources trying to paint America, Christians, white people and men as the bad guys for their own political purposes. With many people, simply belonging to any of these categories elicits an automatic indictment. It is prejudice, pure and simple, and it is prejudice that dominates the public debate and academia. It disappoints me that this sort of knee-jerk emotional response has infected Christian academics as well, but it just goes to show us that Christians cannot abstain from cultural battles and expect the outcome not to matter. These battles matter, and it matters when Christians lose them. We cannot hide in our churches and other institutions and expect to be safe from the ideas and happenings of this world. Nugent's confusion about conservatism and American government and history is a case in point. Christian morals is all well and good, but the question of Truth is always prior to moral questions. Progressives know this, and they have been attacking the Truth for a long time. It saddens me to see many Christians unable to defend themselves against such attacks, even to the point of accepting a secular narrative designed specifically to undermine Christian resistance to their political program. Nugent even throws out general accusations of idolatry against Christians involved in politics when he should know full well that Christians are the least likely people to be idolizing government, especially conservative Christians. Do you think an atheist is concerned about idolizing government? Com' on. How is it that the people who are most in danger of idolizing government are left out of Nugent's analysis? I think it goes back to an ingrained prejudice, a trained response against Christians. It certainly doesn't make a whole lot of rational sense.

The discussion of idolatry is a good segue-way into conservative political ideology. As I argued previously, idolatry is the act of assigning authority to entities that don't have it, including to entities that may have some authority but not the particular authority that is being assigned to them. Despite some of the pitfalls I mentioned above, conservative evangelical Christians rightly place a large degree of importance in the Bible. If one goes to the Bible asking questions about what type of government is best, they are likely to come away with the same sense of legitimate but limited government authority that Nugent endorses. Nugent compared Christians to the Levitical priesthood in part because he recognized that ancient Israel didn't have near the amount of institutional structure that modern states do. He is right to believe that the only earthly government ever directly presided over by God tended towards less authoritarian institutions and offices. I believe he is wrong to tell us that Christians are to be compared with the Levitical priesthood, primarily because the book of Hebrews explicitly rejects that comparison. However I believe the comparison to government is legitimate. Christians are not limited when it comes to participation in government, but governments are limited in authority. This is American conservatism in a nutshell, and Nugent really only has a problem with the first part, not the second.

The idea of limited government is where all of American conservatism can heartily agree with Nugent. I heartily agree that exceeding the limits that God has placed on government often inspires idolatry, but Nugent is trying to paint American conservatives as the idolaters. In fact we are the ones trying to restrict an out of control government back within the limits placed on it not only by the original U.S. constitution but also by God. Nugent is uncomfortable with American conservatives precisely because we recognize that in the Bible the only area where God has made government authority legitimate is the use of force to punish the wrongdoer. Nugent doesn't like that, and he doesn't want Christians to participate in it, even as he is forced to recognize that God has made this a legitimate but limited area of authority for earthly governments. That is what doesn't make sense to me. But let's focus on areas of agreement. We can probably agree that the United States government has exceeded certain limits on its legitimate authority. We can also agree that when this or any government exceeds those limits, people tend to believe that government, having exceeded its God-given limits, has some power and authority outside God's chain of command. That borders on idolatry. American conservatives want to gain more power within the U.S. government precisely for the purpose of bringing government power back within its proper limits. We can hope that if we succeed in this project, the American people will be less likely to idolize the U.S. government and more likely to participate in other institutions like churches that, we agree, should have a larger role in American life.

Nugent is skeptical of this project, and I don't blame him. We live in a country where the government has been slowly and inexorably accumulating power almost since its inception. The trajectory really began with the switch from the Articles of Confederation of 1781 to the Constitution of 1789. The Articles were instituted informally during the American Revolutionary War as a sort of ad-hoc association of the state governments already in existence. Under the Articles, the central government couldn't even pay the army fighting for the country's independence. This problem was so bad that after the Revolutionary War was over and the United States had gained independence, the fledgling state nearly succumbed to a military coup. The soldiers who had won the war were not being paid the wages they had been promised, and they threatened to revolt. This same exact situation has played itself out in a great many countries around the world. A revolution occurs, after which the only real power is the army that won it. This army then takes power, often times in an attempt to transition to civilian government, but most of the time the army never releases that power and the country turns into a military dictatorship. Thankfully, this did not happen in the United States, mostly because of one man: George Washington.

I have sometimes seen polls of favorite presidents on conservative sites, and George Washington almost always wins. Washington was the epitome of what conservatives want from a leader. When the army threatened to revolt after the war, they looked to Washington for leadership. At this moment Washington could have crossed the Rubicon and become Caesar for life. He was the commanding general of the army who had won the war. His men were angry at the government and wanted to overthrow it. The power was his, and he despised it. He convinced the army to go home and let the civilian government work things out. His men had such respect for him that they obeyed without being paid and went home, and the United States was saved from military dictatorship. Washington was constantly being given power that he didn't want. In fact Washington nearly refused to be the first president. All he wanted was to go back to his farm and live out his life restfully. He felt he had served his country enough. But he became president anyway because he realized what everyone else did. He was the only one everyone trusted with the sort of power that a president under the constitution had. He refused to run for a third term, starting a tradition of voluntarily not running for third terms that held all the way until the progressive president FDR ran for and won four terms. After FDR, Washington's tradition of the two-term presidency was made law. Understand though that twenty-nine American presidents in a row covering a nearly one hundred and fifty year period never held more than two terms because of the precedent Washington set. Washington set many other important precedents for the executive branch that also held until the progressive movement destroyed them in the early 20th century. What conservatives in America are looking for today are leaders like Washington who disdain power and hold it lightly. It is a rare thing, but the precedent Washington set is powerful. We need to regain that vision, and not just for Presidents but all politicians and leaders. We need leaders who are willing and able to gain power within our system in order to use that power to ensure that no one can ever get it again. If Nugent disagrees with this, I can't for the life of me imagine why.

The Constitution of 1789 under which Washington became the first president replaced the Articles of Confederation that the army wanted to overthrow because the Articles weren't working. The Constitution gave the central, or federal, government just enough power to perform the duties that were required of it but also limited its power in important ways. Americans had just fought a war of independence from a government that they felt had abused its power. They were in no mood to create a new government that even had power able to be abused in the same way. This is a key point to be made about American exceptionalism. When most countries go through revolutions or civil wars, it's usually because one group, or nation, is being treated unfairly by another group. Regardless of who wins, the normal trajectory is to simply use the power thus won to continue the cycle of recriminations against the group that lost. This is basically what is happening in Egypt right now, as President Morsi has simply seized powers because the forces of the previous group in power dissolved parliament and prevented them from writing a constitution. Morsi seized power in order to fight them, and so it goes. There is probably no longer any hope that Egypt will turn out the way the United States did. Something different happened in America. The theme of the forming of the United States government under the Constitution was not a matter of factions jockeying for power against one another. The theme was one of a largely unified country hashing out the philosophical basis of government and how best to organize its structure to prevent abuses of authority like the ones which led to the revolution. The Federalist Papers are an excellent accounting of this process. In America the people and their leaders saw that the way to prevent abuses of power was to limit the power of the government entirely. If the government did not have the power to oppress the people, than it could not be used as a vehicle of oppression by anyone. In fact, the only error they made was in forming a government in the Articles that didn't have enough power. Again, I can't imagine Nugent disagreeing with strict limits on government power. This is what the conservative political movement stands for and is trying to accomplish.

The limiting of government power was accomplished in the Constitution by various mechanisms such as checks and balances, the three branches of government having various different defined powers over each other. It was limited by the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments that were passed as a group a few years after the Constitution was passed. It was also accomplished through democratic accountability, but problems have crept in through the democratic process during the last century. Nugent expresses difficulties with democracy, an interesting position that not many people have the cojones to take. Today "democracy" is a vacuous term synonymous with "the will of the people" meaning all that is right and good in America. By criticizing democracy, Nugent has stuck his neck out there and fingered something important. (I also criticize the overpowered democracy in American politics in my book.) Nugent writes: "We must ditch the simple choice between (a) making the world a better place by leveraging democratic power in which a 51% majority get to tell the 49% minority how to live, and (b) doing nothing at all to help the world." Excellent! The framers of the constitution also ditched that simple choice, but the progressive vision of the 20th century has returned to it. Nugent is right to see this as a false dichotomy, but he is wrong if he thinks this is the way conservatives think. This is the way progressives think, and if Nugent doesn't like that then he's of one mind with conservatives. Conservatives do want Christians to be involved in government and civic duties, but we do not want the 51% telling the other 49% how to live. The proper role of our democratic institutions is to keep our leaders accountable by providing yet another check against their power, not to grant them power that they do not have and should not try to take. We do not want a society where all our freedoms are subject to the winds of popular opinion or the whims of judges. Nugent is describing one of the kinds of abuses of power the Constitution was designed to prevent: tyranny of the majority.

The abuse of power which the colonists objected to and fought a war over was a tyranny of the minority, that is, the tyranny of a king. Most of the Declaration of Independence, not the famous part, is a long list of grievances against a king that reads very much like 1 Samuel 8. There was always a danger that, in our anti-monarchical enthusiasm, we would trade the tyranny of the minority for a tyranny of the majority. But the leaders of the founding generation wisely moderated this impulse and created a system designed to protect against both the tyranny of the minority and the tyranny of the majority by placing strict limits on government power. Thus we have rights that are not based on government but are proclaimed to be our God-given rights that no one, even a majority vote, can infringe upon. To try is to fail, and to prevent the government from failing they prevented the government from infringing upon our God-given rights. Thus neither type of tyranny could succeed because they declared tyranny itself to be an offense against God's created order and designed their government to respect that.

The first God-given right was freedom of opinion, covered in the First Amendment. It is a fact of human nature that we have freedom of opinion. You can torture a person, you can argue with them, you can threaten their family and everything they love, you can operate on their brain, but you cannot change what they believe for them. So the founding generations wisely decided to keep government out of the business of trying to keep people from believing what they want. Enforcing ideological conformity was not a legitimate function of the central government. In fact freedom of opinion was a God-given right. Unfortunately we moved away from that position because the progressive movement denies this right. They believe that human belief can and is manipulated directly by outside forces. Progressivism in America was supported originally by both atheists and Calvinists because neither group believed in human free will. Thus the government not only should not be limited from molding the opinions of the public, but they ought to be doing this in order to form a more perfect union. This has now gone so far that modern progressives have even suggested weakening the First Amendment. I don't care who you are or how you want to use the government: if you do not respect the first right you are not a conservative. Period. The second God-given right is the right of self-defense. Again, we know that human beings who wish to defend themselves are able to do so, and therefore the government should not try to prevent this. Progressives have been fighting the Second Amendment like their lives depended upon it. And on and on we go.

The framing of the U.S. Constitution is a story of radical limitation of government power the likes of which the world had never seen. You cannot fail to see this if you've studied the era and the arguments and history that went into it. In some ways, the Constitution limited government power even more severely than the Articles did, because the fear of government overreach was greater under the Constitution. As a result of these severe limits based on Judeo-Christian philosophy, the United States government has been one of the most successful models in human history. Our nation decided to limit the authority of government to its proper realm of authority under God and enthusiastically prevented it from going any further. What happened?

The first really transformative progressive president was Woodrow Wilson. Here is Wilson's opinion on the U.S. Constitution:

"All that progressives ask or desire is permission – in an era when 'development,' 'evolution' is the scientific word – to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle."

Here's Wilson on the role of the president:

"The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit; and if Congress is overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution … but only because the President has the nation behind him and Congress has not."

And Wilson on the character and nature of humanity in regards to freedom of opinion discussed earlier:

"Men are as clay in the hand of the consummate leader."

Wilson and the progressives believed the Constitution was a hindrance to progress precisely because it limited government power. Barack Obama expressed it this way:

"As radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it's been interpreted, and more important, interpreted in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf."

Interpreting the Constitution according to the "Darwinian principle"? The President should be as "big a man as he can" and it would be no particular problem "if Congress is overborne by him" because "the President has the nation behind him and the Congress has not"? And so we see how progressives at once championed the democratic principle and tyranny at the same time. The President is today the only official elected by the entire nation, and thus have progressives begun to claim that all of the nation's representative authority is vested in one man. This runs completely contrary to the view of the founders and of the precedent set by Washington that the locally elected representatives are the sole expression of the people's will within the government and the executive is merely representative of the government's will. Progressives sensed that the American people were not quite as guarded against the tyranny of the majority as they were against the tyranny of the minority, and began to use the tyranny of the majority to change the structure of the United States government. Their goal has always been to remove the restrictions the Constitution placed on government power, and they have won a great many battles in this direction by championing democracy and the "will of the people". Here I will simply quote from my book:

"The executive was originally elected by the Electoral College. The Constitution specified that the states could choose how their electors were chosen, and the early trend was toward more democratic means for choosing electors until all states today tie their electoral votes directly to the popular vote. As a result, the executive branch has bowed more and more to the public opinion..."

"[The judicial branch has become more democratic] not only by virtue of being chosen by executives more and more beholden to popular opinion, but also by the rise of activist judges and the loosening of judicial philosophy to include such irrational tenets as “empathy.” Instead of interpreting what laws mean, many justices have taken an active role in determining what they think laws should actually be. This is often called “legislating from the bench.” Thus the judicial branch has more and more taken on a role it was not designed to fill."

"The Senate originally was elected by state legislatures and only one third was up for election every two years, meaning it was the more stable body and less influenced by passion than the House. Changing the way Senators were elected required a constitutional amendment: the seventeenth. The movement to elect Senators via the popular vote was a product of the progressive movement and made the Senate far more beholden to public opinion..."

The Seventeenth Amendment required direct democratic election of senators and was ratified in 1913 during Wilson's administration. While progressives are discussing weakening our First Amendment protections, conservative are discussing repeal of the Seventeenth and fighting against attempts to remove the Electoral College. Into this room comes Mr. Nugent, and upon seeing the mice attempting to declaw the cat, chastises the mice, for the cat is his familiar and comfortable pet with whom he has made his peace, and the mice are intruders in his house. Thus Mr. Nugent's charges against conservative Christians are ignorant and insulting.

I rarely watch Sean Hannity, but either last night or the night before I happened to see mega-church pastor Rick Warren on his show. Warren is the pastor of Saddleback Church in California and wrote the blockbuster bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. In 2008, Warren moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain designed to address Christian topics. In the short portion of the interview that I saw, Warren was saying that laws don't change people's behavior, and thus Christians shouldn't try to effect change in society by passing laws. He was expressing a position pretty close to what Mr. Nugent has expressed. /facepalm.


You are telling me that nobody changes how they drive their cars when the speed limit goes from 55 mph to 65 mph? You are telling me that people applied for Medicare before Medicare was made into law? You think that changes in tax law don't change how people use and invest their money?

I understand what Warren was trying to say, and I'll say it for him: You can't legislate morality. This is true, but to say that laws don't change behavior is obviously false. Laws are the rules which govern society and they are enforced by the God-given authority of the sword given to governments. They are not given authority over morality, but they are given limited authority over the behavior of their people. There is a difference. Governments cannot make people moral, but they can punish people for immoral behavior.

I have the feeling that Warren and Nugent are primarily interested in two issues: abortion and homosexuality. Their ad-hoc political philosophy, such as it is, only considers those two issues. But it is dishonest to paint social conservatives as primarily wanting to make laws even in these two cases. Yes, we try to pass various legislation, but the intent of these laws is not to make new law but to clarify the interpretation of existing law which no one, not even progressives, views as illegitimate. Thus the Defense of Marriage Act is primarily meant to define marriage as it was defined when laws governing marriage entered our legal code and as it always will be defined in the eyes of God. Thus the pro-life movement recognizes that if humans have God-given rights then it becomes necessary to define a human so that no one who fits the definition is denied those rights. We are not trying to change marriage law, nor are we trying to change the laws regarding human rights. We are trying to preserve them. I think we will probably lose the former and win the latter, and anyway the latter is far more important, so I personally advocate a political compromise on marriage and a new push forward on abortion. I have written my complete position on these two issues in my book, but right now I am moving on.

I got my driver's licence the day I turned sixteen. This was before the age of ubiquitous cell phones, and I remember what is was like to drive back then. When people saw other people pulled over on the side of the road, they stopped to help them. Now when I see someone pulled over on the side of the road, I often see them talking on a cell phone and know that even if I pulled over there is probably nothing I could do to help them. They likely will be staying there until the the tow truck arrives because they immediately called for help on their cell phone. However if I saw someone on the side of the road waving their arms I would certainly pull over. There is a difference between passing on the road someone who doesn't look as if they need help and someone who does.

Government cannot make people more moral, but it can make people less moral. Nugent and Warren argue that churches should be more involved in helping their communities. I happen to agree, but they also argue in effect that the actions and role of government in our society have no implications for this relationship. They are fooling themselves. We live in a society which has shoved off the responsibility of caring for the poor and needy to the government, and as a consequence we don't help our neighbors because they all have Obama phones now. They have the government on speed dial, and have become a nation of takers instead of nation of givers. And those of us with more feel that the government is taking our stuff and giving it away, so why should we be charitable? I personally don't feel this way of course, but I think it's obvious that the entitlement state has undermined the Christian impulse towards charity that has always been a hallmark of the American people. There are fewer good Samaritans around because the government has taken over that role. As Christians, do we believe that the government is in a better position to show Christ's love to the poor and destitute in our local communities than ourselves?

God never granted government authority over Christian charity the way he did grant them the authority of punishment and taxes. This is not an optional structure we can change whenever we want. To try to change it is idolatry, and we are paying the price. Governments will always have the authority to tax and to punish the wrongdoer. They will never have the authority to administer charity. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in for an unpleasant wake-up call. We have time to correct this mistake, to take upon ourselves as individuals and local communities the Christian responsibilities we have been given towards our neighbors, but it will be extremely difficult if we refuse to fight a government trying to take that responsibility for itself. Our government is out of order. It has disrespected God's created order of legitimate authority and responsibility. There will be consequences if we do not fix it, and those consequences will be visited upon the poor and needy most of all. In times of want, the weakest of these are always hurt the most.

God has his reasons, and we can already see what some of those reasons might be. A government which has both authority of the sword and charity will run roughshod over the God-given rights our system was designed to protect, all in the name of charity, even as they attack real charities. The first salvo has been fired. Under the authority vested in her by Obamacare, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has issued a mandate that all but the most narrowly defined religious organizations must provide insurance to their employees that covers contraception, in violation of Catholic religious freedom. The battle is ongoing, but conservatives have closed ranks with the Catholic Church over the issue. In my book I predicted Obamacare would be used to attack religious liberty months before the contraception mandate came down the pipe, a mandate not part of the original law and not voted into law by our elected representatives. It is a law based entirely on the massive expansion of executive power granted under Obamacare. I compared Obamacare to what has happened in our public schools, where prayer and other religious freedoms have been limited. This is only the beginning folks. So if Nugent and Warren think that conservatives can retreat to our churches and focus only on Christian charity they have another thing coming. A Christian's role in society is not limited to a single virtue. The government is moving to force charitable religious organizations into a dilemma of conscience. The battle over the contraception mandate is just a shot across the bow. It will not be the last time our God-given freedoms of conscience, opinion and religion are attacked. It is time for Christians to stand up for a Biblical view of society where government plays its limited but legitimate role and the people in local communities are allowed to play theirs. To do that we must fight progressives who are trying to usurp the authority of government to move American society away from that Biblical vision.

I hope this has promoted some understanding. As I said and will always maintain, Nugent and others are free to follow their conscience on this matter. But it is unfair, ignorant and insulting for him to characterize Christian conservatives involved in politics as acting outside of God's will and vision for a just society. He wants Christians out of politics, and part of his argument is that our government does not conform to that vision. How in the world does he expect that to change if Christians abandon it? I see no reason why Christ's example of kingship and the power of the Holy Spirit cannot be exercised within the governing structures of a republic such as ours, and I call all Christians to support such efforts, even if that only means voting. Follow the Holy Spirit and your conscience, and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.