Why Conservatism Is Dying

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Do not miss Samuel Goldman’s detailed autopsy on the death of conservatism. It is 100% right and 100% required reading.

The classical liberalism I have tried to describe is characteristically skeptical of executive power, particularly as an instrument for renovating constitutions whether written or unwritten. The reactionary tendency, by contrast, sees a strong executive as the only viable weapon against managerialism [i.e. the encroachments of the unconstitutional administrative state]. This analysis has become a central feature of the theoretical case for Donald Trump. His combativeness, unpredictability, and indifference to expert opinion are seen not as defects of character but as tactical advantages over the bureaucracy…

Having failed (along with many, indeed most political observers) to accurately predict the outcome of the election, I hesitate to offer forecasts of the development of conservatism…So I will conclude by sketching a scenario that I regard as plausible, if far from certain. It involves the comprehensive Trumpification of “official” conservatism. That would mean the ascendance of certain reactionary features, including demotic style and an emphasis on executive power.

Goldman, with self-conscious irony, wants us to accept that prospects for saving conservatism are “hopeless” and simulteneously “remain determined to make them otherwise.” However, I do think it’s time to start discussing the death of conservatism as a practical certainty. I am increasingly convinced that the marriage can’t be saved. If there is hope, it lies elsewhere.

Nonetheless, those of us who used to belong to conservatism (back when there was such a thing) continue to exist as a somewhat coherent group. In that light, I think the future of American politics largely hangs on whether this can be done; this seems to me one of the more necessary conditions for doing it.

Wrapping Up Three Kingdoms

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Over at TGR I recently wrapped up my long-running series on three models of how to practice the kingdom of God in the local church:

As I close this series I want to tentatively suggest that these models could be called transformative justice, transformative holiness and transformative grace, and that it is these three elements building upon their own strengths while striving toward one another’s strengths that represent the cosmic inbreaking of God’s transformative love.

Yes, the word “transformative” is overused and trite. I’m sorry, but there’s not much I can do about that. It needs to stay in order to ensure that the models are not complacent about their existing strengths but are encouraged to strive toward one another’s strengths as well.

I had a blast and learned a lot writing this series. Suggestions for future topics are welcome!

Calvinism and Joy

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At Desiring God, Tony Reinke (taking time out from plugging his new book) offers a thoughtful critique of a central contention in my book, The Joy of Calvinism. I argued that Calvinism invites us to experience a greater fullness of the joy of God because only Calvinism can provide an adequate ground for “settled certainty that God is in control.” Reinke asks for a more Christocentric and cruciform description of theological joy, wanting to emphasize that our joy is a creaturely experience of God’s own joy that is purchased for us and obtained through the cross of Christ.

I’m grateful to Reinke for this opportunity to interact. His critique is a valuable one that has forced me to think carefully in order to respond – praise God that he gives us the gift of one another!

Reinke and I appear to agree that we are not dealing here with any direct theological disagreement, but rather with a difference of emphasis. I think what he says is true and he thinks what I say is true; the question is, which approach is preferable?

The topic of my book is not just “joy” but “the joy of Calvinism.” The question I was asking was, in effect, “what are the distinct contributions of Calvinist doctrine to the experiential side of Christian belief?” If Calvinism is true doctrine, we ought to expect it to enhance or enrich our daily experience of Christ in important ways; I wanted my book to express what I thought those ways were. (And also to defend the truth per se of the doctrine, at least at an introductory level.)

Now obviously I am not going to say that Calvinism has no bearing on our understanding of the cross, having written in The Joy of Calvinism that the main reason we ought to pay close attention to the difference between Calvinism and other doctrines is precisely because Calvinism offers a starkly different understanding of what Jesus did on the cross!

That having been said, I do think that if the question is “why does belief in Calvinist doctrine increase our joy?” the clearest answer I can give is “because its understanding of the sovreignty of God puts to rest fully and finally all questions about whether any given element of human experience, no matter how small, will ultimately be used of God for good.”

Or, as B.B. Warfield put it in his essay “The Theology of John Calvin”: “The Calvinist is the man who sees God behind all phenomena…God fills the whole horizon of the Calvinist’s feeling and thought.”

Warfield goes on to make a comment that I think highlights why I took the approach I did and not the one Reinke prefers:

Calvinism, however, is not merely a soteriology. Deep as its interest is in salvation, it cannot escape the question: “Why should God thus intervene in the lives of sinners to rescue them from the consequences of their sin?” And it cannot miss the answer: “Because it is to the praise of the glory of his grace.” Thus it cannot pause until it places the scheme of salvation itself in relation with a complete world-view in which it becomes subsidiary to the glory of the Lord God Almighty. If all things are from God, so to Calvinism all things are also unto God, and to it God will be all in all. It is born of the reflection in the heart of man of the glory of a God who will not give his honor to another, and draws its life from constant gaze upon this great image.

As I emphasized in The Joy of Calvinism, we can never have joy as long as our own emotional experiences are what we really care about.

Now, I know that some people can go too far in the other direction and turn “all things for God’s glory” into a dehumanizing hermeneutic of suspicion in which everything other than God himself is presumptively suspect as a potential rival to God’s glory – which ultimately means the creation was the fall, and no Christian ought to accept that. I think we hedge against this by emphasizing that God is holy love in the Trinity, and the primary way in which God glorifies himself is by manifesting his holy love for his creation. Even within the Trinity, we find in the New Testament that the Father does not glorify himself but rather the Son, the Son does not glorify himself but rather the Father, and the Spirit does not glorify himself but rather the Father and the Son. God is not egocentric.

Nevertheless, this also becomes lopsided if we do not also demand that all things are in fact there to give glory to God and for no other purpose; that they do so as expressions of his holy love doesn’t change the fact that this is in fact their job.

What that adds up to, at least as far as I can see, is – as Warfield so beautifully put it – that salvation itself is a doorway into something so great that beside it even our own salvation no longer occupies our central attention. For of course that really would be egocentric, to spend eternity thinking about how wonderful God must be to have saved me.

Reinke is right that we do not achieve joy by meditating on the doctrine of God’s sovreignty. We achieve joy by glorifying God. But it is the doctrine of God’s sovreignty that allows us to see God behind all phenomena, and thus see that as all things are from God, so all things are also unto God, and to us God will be all in all.

History, Poverty and Communion against Pseudo-Pragmatism

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My latest on how to tighten up loosey-goosey churches is at The Green Room:

One of the things America needs most, and that we most need in order to reconnect the church to American culture, is a narrative of the American experiment that does justice to both the role of Christianity and the role of the Enlightenment’s rationalism and Romanticism – to recognize the religious ambiguity of the American experiment, and the consequent fact that Christians and non-Christians need each other if we’re interested in avoiding a perpetual cycle of culture wars and fundamentalisms.

Accommodation paradigm churches, with their mastery of the culture’s system of symbols and their desire to help interpret grace to a graceless world, would be supremely positioned to supply us with such a narrative. They need only rouse themselves to slough off the pseudo-pragmatism they have imbibed from the culture sufficiently to realize that the past matters.

TBO and the Free Rider Problem

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Full disclosure: I still have not read the book (backstory on that here). But I am decreasingly convinced that it would be worth the investment of my time. A friend sends me this line from the review of the book in the latest print issue of The Economist:

It is thanks to hard-won liberal tolerance that there is space in liberal democracies for the kind of soul-saving retreat from the larger society that he [Dreher] recommends. Despite the sense of rectitude, ‘The Benedict Option’ is at bottom a call for free-riding on the liberal modernity it professes to spurn.

I think that kind of critique of TBO ought to be tempered, though, with the acknowledgement that what makes liberalism liberal is precisely its willingness to permit a great deal of this kind of free riding. This is for many reasons:

  • Because we respect the conscience, especially the religious conscience.
  • Because the process of discovering new and better modes of organization requires wide permission for experiments; I’d certainly rather be a TBOer than a complacent bourgeois who doesn’t think our civilization has any moral problems worth worrying about.
  • Because the comparative “thinness” of moral norms in liberal society inevitably provokes attempts to recover moral “thickness.”
  • And because we recognize that forbidding people to live a certain way – either by coercive law or by informal social norms – is always a very blunt instrument, and whenever you forbid X you also make it difficult to do all the things that are different from X but superficially like it. So even if we knew that TBO were bad enough to deserve our opprobrium, we ought still to moderate our rate of fire upon it, lest we inflict too much collateral damage upon better moral reformers.

There are limits to free riding – I support jailing pacifists who refuse the draft during wartime – but by and large we should remember that when we sign up to be liberals, we sign up to be plagued by religious and moralistic free riders.