Faith and Law Society: 15 Propositions

Don E. Eberly
Wednesday, November 1st 2017
Nov/Dec 2017

(1) America (and indeed, the entire world) is in the midst of momentous change.

I don’t mean that as a political slogan. It is change we must understand, because it will profoundly affect America’s prospects for renewal. The entire West is in the midst of deep convulsions relating to the death of East-West polarization and to the profound structural shifts taking place in our society and economy due to the transition from the industrial to the information age. The disconnect between technological prowess and economic might on the one hand, and America’s deepening social and personal disorder on the other, will produce increasingly painful paradoxes.

(2) America is in grave danger at present.

I say grave, because ours is predominantly a cultural crisis, and one we have little experience with and even less understanding of. In talking about culture, I want to be clear that I am not talking about culture wars or cultural politics. Culture is not a subsidiary of politics; it is more the case that politics is shaped by the culture than that it shapes the culture.

There are two levels of culture: the visible and invisible. On the surface, it is the enveloping adversarial culture that offends our senses every day; it is the palpable tension and visible disorder we see in our streets, the collapsing institutions. On the deeper and more important level, it is personal disorder rooted in a weakening of the basic ideas and values by which we order our lives. The purpose of culture is to create personal and social order through institutions like the family and community. Much of that sense of purpose is no longer “in the air” of our culture.

We live in a culture that has essentially become anti-culture. It is a culture that has been driving toward revolutionary nihilism. We have witnessed a relentless rage against the content and symbols of personal meaning and order. The results: despair, hopelessness, alienation, and widespread destruction of connectedness that springs from community. Cultural radicalism has one aim: Destroy all human boundaries and all restraints that operate upon man’s passions and wants.

This is not the civilized freedom of Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Jay. It is the insanity of Rousseau, Marx, and Freud. Man was created for society—for community—and when the disorder produced by a false freedom reaches an intolerable scale, man has always sought liberation from liberty and its burdens. Once completely free from the shackles of religion and tradition, man searches for a new emancipation—this time from the resulting tyrannical disorder around him.

(3) We must understand the culture, not just invent a new politics of culture.

Our response to the cultured despisers of religion must not be to become the religious despisers of culture. Our cultural conflicts will not be resolved by culture wars; our disagreements will not be settled by ballots or bullets (I include the latter because some seem willing to contemplate its eventuality). I don’t believe the America we know would ever again be reborn out of that kind of domestic conflict. These battles will have to be fought predominantly in the value-shaping institutions of culture—media, entertainment, academia, the arts, philosophy, law, and so on—because they are battles over ideas and values, not simply battles between politicians.

(4) The answer to today’s social and political fragmentation is not advancing an alternative ideology.

Ideology is the problem, not the answer. One cannot fight fire with fire. True conservatism is the negation of ideology. It is the patient, painstaking attempt to nourish the kinds of things that politics cannot supply. Ideology does not explain reality, and it does not inspire a broad following today. People simply do not believe sweeping theories about anything. They’ve heard them all, and none of them have changed social reality, nor can they.

(5) Public policy will be known more for its limitations than for its accomplishments.

Public policy cannot touch the deeper roots of American disorder. Politics serves a vital function, but it is mostly defensive. The greatest need of our time is to contain the state, which has subsumed all too many of the functions of civil society, and to struggle to repair our weakened mediating structures: the family, the neighborhood, and the voluntary associations of all kinds that mediate between the individual and the state. This is primarily where our positive vision and contribution must come, not in competing political programs.

(6) The greatest need in politics is to restore the legitimacy of our institutions in the eyes of the public (lest we wake up some day and realize they are only empty shells).

We should be sobered by the disillusionment of the public toward the institutions in which we serve, and where necessary, we should repent of our culpability of turning an honorable profession into an expensive game of calculation and exploitation. We must restore citizenship, not shrink it by expanding our representative function. (This is the definition of empowerment, by the way, whether it is a person’s political or economic efficacy you have in mind to improve.) Leadership must be restored by adopting a policy of total-integrity politics: servant leadership, complete accountability, and doing away with anything that undermines public trust. Modern leadership must summon forth solutions from the people, not just from those who represent them under the Capitol dome.

(7) In politics, we need to recognize that we do not live in a Christian nation (if there ever was such a thing in the truest sense).

We live in a decidedly post-Christian America and must picture ourselves as working in Athens, not Jerusalem. We should not assume that vast majorities currently accept our presuppositions or, even more importantly, that shared assumptions will automatically convert to our legislative positions on everything. Contrary to all the talk about America being incorrigibly religious, the percentage of Americans who have fixed and firm religious beliefs—who believe in notions of absolute truth, and who are prepared to live and act accordingly—is probably closer to 10 percent.

(8) There are serious deficiencies in the model of politics that has become called the “Christian Right” (a term used by its leaders, not just secular critics).

For one, as an organizing model, it is divisive even within the philosophical house in which it occupies a room. Second, it fundamentally lacks moral and cultural capital, because its agenda aims to change a society from which it has spent the better part of a century withdrawing. We cannot make up on politics what we’ve lost in the broader society. Third, it has proven to be out of step with a public that, though concerned about values, is also concerned about polarization and gridlock. Fourth, it needlessly polarizes every debate over values against believers, making it harder, not easier, to get an honest debate going about values. Fifth, it paradoxically makes it harder, not easier, for believers to become elected, because they are seen as agents of some religious conspiracy to take over parties and the government.

(9) Many of the tactics and attitudes of Christian political activism have not been in accordance with the activist’s own stated beliefs.

The believer has a solemn duty to judge his conduct by his own transcendent claims. If you are a Christian, then you have given up many of your liberties; you are not free to confuse ends and means, because they are one and the same.

(10) We must understand the difference between church and state and civil society.

Here I do not mean to echo the distorted case that has been made for church-state separation. I am suggesting we engage the faith more effectively in all aspects of public life, including politics. Many have come to see society and culture as subsidaries of the state. This is potentially dangerous to both the church and the state. It positions faith on the political playing field as just another interest, another faction, another clamoring mob joining the cacophony of demands for expanded rights. This is a profoundly important theological point—much of the confusion in the arena of religion and public life has emanated from this particular area of theological poverty. Bringing clarity to confusion will come in resurrecting older theological and philosophical truths, such as common grace, natural law and natural justice, and the concept developed so carefully by the Catholics termed “subsidiarity.”

(11) We must view the world the way God views the world: It is lost, but it is loved.

God’s love embraces all of Creation: the redeemed and unredeemed. Do not have an attitude toward your neighbor that God himself does not share. We are to view the world God’s way and do battle with it God’s way, not our way. There is no scriptural basis for a politics of paranoia, suspicion, resentment, anger, or vengeance. There is no scriptural suggestion anywhere that Christian duty includes taking over secular systems in Christ’s name. As servants of Jesus Christ, believers represent another order, another master, another claim. When they make their decision to follow Christ, they sacrifice forever their freedom to do or say anything that would conflict with their Lord’s character. As the late Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray explained it, we should be careful to separate our religious faith from our patriotic faith, and not submerge one into the other, so that people are free to accept our faith without having to accept our politics and vice versa.

These issues predate the rise of secularism in America. Read Tocqueville’s section on the role of religion in America, as he observed it in the 1830s. The religious leaders of the day avoided certain forms of political affairs because they feared that the bitter animosities that political conflict engendered would be directed against the church and its gospel. Protecting the gospel must be our primary aim, and sadly there are many in America who don’t seem to know the difference between the gospel of Christ and American political ideology and patriotic causes. No one has ever explained it better than T. S. Eliot:

The church risks losing its spiritual power and authenticity when it uncritically and unreservedly aligns itself with temporal partisan movements. To confuse these realms is to confuse the permanent with the transitory, the absolute with the contingent.

(12) We must replace the tribal mentality that unavoidably implies that it is our rights, our interests, or our demands that are the issue (which suggests that we have some special dispensation to rule over others).

When believers are organized into Christian interest groups, they suggest to a watching world that the gospel of Christ is interchangeable with temporal politics, morality, and cultural attitudes. The church has increasingly been seen as a peddler of ideology, not a source of personal redemption and social restoration. Jesus did not call his disciples in either the first or the twenty-first century to build civilizations or win culture wars. He called his disciples to a radical commitment to the kingdom within—one of whose side effects, from time to time and place to place in history, has been strong civilizations.

(13) We must develop a new public philosophy that advances a vision for the common good and discourages an “us against them” mentality.

This society is one that many would dream of living in, including most unbelievers. A public philosophy is committed to justice for all, not “just us”; it is committed to improving, not destroying, America’s heritage of democratic pluralism; it is committed to preserving America’s basic creed, without substituting the cause of America for the cause of Christ.

(14) We must develop a new common language to talk about basic values, language more rooted
in America’s civic tradition.

America’s biblical tradition is an important one to preserve, but we must keep in mind the great limitations of arguing from the standpoint of revealed truth. The cultural elite remains in open rebellion against religious authority and belief, because they are driven by a radical desire to build a society in which man is free to escape any limits on human will and expression. It does very little good to battle these cultural elites on terms that only reinforce their prejudices and confirm their stereotypes. The better approach is to simply attempt to force them to confront the consequences of their own philosophy. It is they, not you, who should be the issue. Language makes a big, big difference here.

(15) The greatest need today in public life is to simply restore transcendent foundations.

The answer to secularism is not sectarianism; the answer to reason without God is not God without reason, and the answer to coercive utopianism is not coercive traditionalism. The answer lies in discovering the profound truth of the founding fathers embodied particularly in the Declaration of Independence. The framing produced a Puritan-Lockean synthesis that adopted neither secularism nor sectarianism, but settled for a basic acceptance of the higher law rooted in God, to whom we are all ultimately accountable. Christianizing America is the work of the church; laying foundations in transcendent reality is the work of all concerned Americans. Many around us share our concern over the collapse of our legal structures due to a political and legal theory that locates morality in nothing higher than majority rule.

Richard John Neuhaus said that “the first thing to recognize about public life is that public life is not the first thing.” There may be a greater hunger today for our spiritual answers than for our political proposals. The most revolutionary power that could be unleashed into the world today is that which comes from a lifestyle of love, forgiveness, and humility. Recognize —as any number of courageous champions of freedom in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc recognized—that ultimately the lines of good and evil flow not through classes, political parties, or ideologies, but down through each and every human heart.

Don E. Eberly is the director of the Civil Society Project, a national initiative advancing ideas to strengthen America’s social institutions and community life. He is the editor of many books, including The Content of America’s Character: The Recovery of Civic Virtue. Eberly is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, and cofounder of the National Fatherhood Initiative.

This article was originally published in the September/October 1994 issue of Modern Reformation.

Wednesday, November 1st 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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