The Problem in Nine Minutes

TGC video Hansen Wax DeYoung

Check out this interesting short video from TGC. This exchange is a really good, clear, concise statement of the problem of moral consensus and Christian participation in politics in early 21st century America. They don’t have all the answers and neither do I, but it’s heartening to see that there’s increasing clarity about the problem. How do we help people accept moral authority from outside themselves and contribute to the structuring of society’s legal/political plausibility structures without imposing Christianity?

5 Thoughts.

  1. Any thoughts on Joe Rigney’s recent piece at Trinity House? He interacts with (or is at least putting himself in conversation with) your pieces at TGC from early March. You can find his article here:

    I don’t know that there’s an answer to the question you and Collin pose because I’m not sure about the premise…it hinges on what you mean by “without imposing Christianity.” Do you mean without making every sin into a crime, or do you mean without referring to the biblical and creational bases for things?

    • A proper reply to this would take a long time, but maybe I can get away with just this: Leithart, Wilson and Rigney conceive of the church and civilization exclusively as separate entities, whereas the reality is that church and culture are extensively interpenetrative. They draw on OT categories without adjusting for the reality of the NT – it makes a difference that Christ has come! Babel was reversed at Pentecost, and the church is commissioned to the nations. The exile is still important and relevant, and we can’t simply identify the success of the church with the success of civilization. But neither can we sustain the radical alienation of our ecclesial identity from our civic identity that Rigney is asking in the face of NT realities.

      When I say “without imposing Christianity” I mean without de facto using the sword of the magistrate to coerce people into trying to act like Christians when they don’t believe.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’ve been reading the situation exactly opposite: it seems to me Rigney et al. are in favor of being explicitly Christian in both their ecclesial and civic identities, whereas you seem to favor a private Christian morality for Christians and a broad public morality for our broad public.

        I’ll reread some of their stuff and yours in light of what you’ve written and see if that’s fair or not. There’s, of course, lots more to say–especially on coercion…I’d say any law that was good would necessarily be in line with Christian morality, so I’m not sure we can escape imposing Christianity on people if we would have good laws–but I don’t want to distract more from the continuing adventures of Bat-Dan and the Riddler!

  2. They’re in favor of being explicitly Christian in their ecclesial identities, but they deny even the possibility of a civic order that reflects substantive Christian influence. The highest level to which the civic order can aspire in their view is to serve as an external “guardian” of the faith community, like Cyrus. I say the coming of Christ means Cyrus is no longer the best that can be hoped for from the civil community. I want to be mindful of the limits to that – even with the coming of Christ we cannot expect everything from the civil order. Exile is not an irrelevant paradigm; it is affirmed as one aspect of the NT reality. And in any given time and place the possibilities may be higher or lower. But they want to say that in principle, regardless of particular circumstances, we can do no better than Cyrus, and I say we can do better. Exile is one aspect of the NT reality but not the only one.

    • I don’t think any of them would own that characterization of what they’re saying.

      From Rigney’s piece and the paragraph on the so-called Cherubic guardians, or Cyrian empires: “They may be explicitly Christian, manifesting the kind of ‘Lactantian concord’ that was realized to one degree or another in Constantine’s reign. This means no coercive imposition of Christian confession upon unbelievers, but still allows for civic pressure (up to an [sic] including a Christianized public square) that expects the gospel to run and be honored in a multi-confessional society in which the governing authorities acknowledge the Lordship of Christ.” I haven’t read Leithart’s ‘Between Beast and Babel’ but since he linked to the article on his blog and the article is hosted on the Trinity House website, my guess is this isn’t far from what Leithart presented in his book.

      Wilson doesn’t fit either–just search ‘theocracy’ on his blog!

      Are you saying that even though they allow for such a government existing, they’re reading what kind of government we have poorly?

      Anyway, my point is not to play ‘these guys’ vs. ‘those guys’ with the Christian commentariat. Instead, I want to cheerfully take Trevin’s initial point that laws are necessarily reflective of someone’s morality and to use the implications of that to answer the initial question.

      Here’s how it is…ok fine, here’s how I see it: Everyone’s idea of morality is based on their idea of what is true in the world, on what they see as ultimate. So as we are interacting with different people’s moralities in an effort to write/pass legislation, we’re really interacting with their theologies. Then the question becomes whether the individual/group is operating on a theology built around an idol or a theology built around the triune God. And that means that in order to join the moral consensus you’re (we’re) trying to form here at HT, you’re either going to have to show them how their idol is served by aligning their interests with Christian morality, or to pray and argue toward a heart that exults in the moral authority established by God and revealed in his two books of creation and the Bible.

      Of course, we don’t reject those who may agree with us based on their worship of their idols. They may be in grave error in their means, but they’re still equal citizens and their end promotes something objectively good, or resists something that is objectively bad–gay people opposed to gay marriage, for example.

      So this helps us a great deal in answering the initial question because it recognizes the nature of the moral authority non-believers are likely to respond to. It doesn’t make things easier necessarily–in conversations with my own friends, when I’ve tried to show how holding to idol X entails believing Y about issue Z, they’ve simply thrown out the idol rather than take the roundabout way to Christian morality–but it does bring us back to our knees in prayer because it’s the devil and his idols we’re at war with whatever option we take.

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