Sunday, October 22, 2006

On "Theocracy," 10: Rich Lowry's observations

In a recent National Review article, the American commentator Rich Lowry acidly observed:

In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell governed England with a cadre of major generals, establishing a kind of low-church Protestant theocracy. Catholic priests were chased from the country, and Anglican clergy were suppressed. Censorship and blue laws were tightened. What does Cromwell’s rule have to do with contemporary American political life? If your answer is anything other than “nothing,” you are probably in the grip of the “theo-panic” that is sweeping precincts of the American commentariat. They warn that America is beset by raging theocrats seeking to overturn our liberal democracy . . . .

The theocracy charge relies mainly on blowing Christian conservative positions out of proportion. Do Christian conservatives oppose the public funding of embryo-destructive stem-cell research? Well, then, Calvin’s Geneva can’t be far behind. Never mind that in opposing such funding, they are usually supporting the status quo . . . .

Purveyors of the theo-panic love to exaggerate the influence of the bizarre Christian Reconstructionists who actually want an American theocracy. As New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels notes in a review of the spate of new books, Christian Reconstructionists play “a greater role in the writings of the religious right’s critics than they ever have in the wider evangelical world.” He notes that the flagship evangelical journal, Christianity Today, almost never shows up in these books, because, inconveniently, it is “moderate, reflective and self-questioning” . . . .

The truth about Christian conservatives is that they support public-policy goals infused with a certain view of morality. This isn’t unusual. The greatest reform movement of the 20th century — the civil-rights movement — was explicitly Christian. Today, the opposition to torture is based on a moral view that trumps all practical considerations (the inviolable dignity of the human person). A moral sense is often behind the liberal opposition to the Iraq War and to the death penalty. No one in American politics says, “I believe this is immoral and therefore should become the policy of the United States.”

Some of the anti-theocracy writers claim that what sets Christian conservatives apart is that their advocacy is explicitly religious. But most of the time it isn’t. Take the high-profile issue of abortion. It doesn’t take any particular religious faith to think that embryos in the womb are humans deserving protection — the key claim of abortion opponents. But their critics don’t want to hear it.

For such self-professed advocates of reasoned discourse, they show an appalling tendency to want to shut down the other side with their swear word of “theocracy.” They are emotional, self-righteous and close-minded. They are, in short, everything they accuse Christian conservatives of being. [Link added.]

Plainly, if even half of the above is well-warranted -- and a lot of it, sadly, does seem to be warranted though acid, Caribbean observers should be very cautious indeed about taking at face value the rage- and fear-driven dismissals of conservative Christians in the USA as would-be "theocrats."

More centrally, the core underlying issue seems to be that we are facing a question over the correct understanding of key concepts and ideals: liberty, justice, rights, and their connexion to morality and reformation of the culture. In that regard, the 1828 Webster's dictionary provides an excellent point of departure. In discussing liberty it observes, in a very Locke-tinged definition:

. . . 2. Natural liberty, consists in the power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, except from the laws of nature. It is a state of exemption from the control of others, and from positive laws and the institutions of social life. This liberty is abridged by the establishment of government.

3. Civil liberty, is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty, not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression. civil liberty is an exemption from the arbitrary will of others, which exemption is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another. Hence the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty.

In turn, Locke cites Richard Hooker's turn-of-the 1600's Ecclesiastical Polity, bringing out the underlying force of the Golden Rule, in Ch 2, Section 5 of his 2nd Treatise of Civil Government:

. . . if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man's hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire which is undoubtedly in other men . . . my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant.

In short, the concept of the laws of nature is in the light of the Creation order that makes us equal under God, and leads to the core principle of the Golden Rule -- love your neighbour as you love yourself. From this, Locke -- who BTW, from his remarks on miracles here was no Deist; a popular misconception -- infers :
The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another [Cf Rom 13:8 - 10] in his life, health, liberty or possessions . . . . so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind, and not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another . . . . In transgressing the law of Nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men for their mutual security [i.e. we see here the right to self-defense for the community, and also the individual, as is discussed at length in the work], and so he becomes dangerous to mankind . . .

Summing up, liberty, whether in natural or civil forms, is inherently and inescapably a moral issue: if you have a right to your life, property, reputation etc., it is because I have a duty to respect your life, property etc. But also, since in a society of fallen, fallible and sometimes power-hungry or ill-willed people, many abuses are to be expected. So, there is always plain need for reformation of society, especially though moral suasion and associated, participative, people-based political action, to restore or renew "liberty and justice for all" in the face of oppression. Indeed, I go so far as to argue that when we read in the Great Commission of Matt 28:18 - 20, that Jesus expects his disciples to teach the nations to obey his commands, the principal of which is the Golden Rule, that immediately implies that the church -- if it is to be faithful to its mandate -- is inherently always engaged in the business and process of reformation.

But of course: one man's reformation is another man's rebuke, so such reformation initiatives will always be resisted.

Thus, too, since one cannot directly defend the plainly indefensible, distortion, distraction and attacks to the messenger rather than addressing the issue on the merits are only to be expected. For, as Aristotle warned long ago, our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are very different from those made when we are pained and hostile.

Therefore, in a USA that is now indelibly stained with the bloodguilt of coming up to 50 million innocent unborn infants -- and rising at the rate of over a 9/11 every day -- it should be no surprise at all that the group most publicly identified with opposition to such a horror, namely Conservative Christians, should be massively and insistently vilified by the main proponents of abortion and their ideological allies, including many a journalist or public commentator. [Cf remarks here on attacks on Dr James Dobson of Focus on the Family.]

Let us not be naive!

Instead, when we in turn read verbal assaults on Evangelicals in the Caribbean such as the following 2001 article by Rev Dr Roderick Hewitt, only a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorism attacks in the USA, we should be on our guard for how the American Anti-Christian rhetoric easily flows over in to our own region:

The human tragedy in USA has also served to bring into sharp focus the use of terror by religious fanatics/fundamentalists. Fundamentalism or fundamentalists are terms that are applicable to every extreme conservative in every religious system . . . . During the twentieth century in particular we have seen the rise of militant expression of these faiths by extreme conservatives who have sought to respond to what they identify as 'liberal' revisions that have weakened the fundamentals of their faith . . . They opt for a belligerent, militant and separatist posture in their public discourse that can easily employ violence to achieve their goals. [Gleaner, Sept. 26, 2001, emphases and link added. Cf. responses to the secularist-/ rationalist-/ modernist- influenced theology and philosophy underlying this article, here. Cf also wider currents here and here.]

Sadly, as discussed in this blog only a few days ago, such verbal assaults still continue.

In response, let us therefore continue to insist that well-thinking people in the Caribbean must rec
ognise that "it is improper (and sometimes, frankly, bigoted) to assume, imply or assert that Bible-believing Christians [however labelled] are -- generally speaking -- potentially violent and/or oppressive enemies of liberty. Nor, should we confuse principled, reform-minded civil opposition to abuses, licence, libertinism and amorality with enmity to liberty."

So, let us not forget that while the first rule of would-be reformers is, as Jesus warned in Matt 7:1 - 5, to first take the plank out of our own eyes, it is equally true that we are also expected to then reach out to our brothers and help them with the sawdust in their eyes. END

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