18 August, 2012
Martin Luther and the secularist Taliban
I've referred many times on this blog to the eminently sensible speech President Obama gave while still in the Senate on the relationship between religious faith and citizenship. While I have some comparatively minor differences with what Mr. Obama said, it seems to me to dispel a great deal of the confusion many Americans on both sides of the religious and political divide seem to experience, and to address the matter in terms true to the Constitution, true to our history, and even compatible with sound Christian theology. It never ceases to amaze me how many on the Left have never read it- and who take pretty much the same bizarre stance on the subject taken by this HuffPost article.
Its author, Emily Timbrol, is a self-professed Christian who- like many such on the cultural Left- has apparently never read Matthew 5:17-20. Jesus, of course, was referring to the Moral Law when He affirmed the Law's continued binding character; His attitude toward the dietary requirements and the Sabbath regulations of the Ceremonial Law was very different. Moreover, she is apparently unaware that Jesus very clearly spoke to the issue of whether marriage can legitimately be re-defined to include same-sex couples. This selective antinomianism is a strange characteristic of those on the social Left who claim to be followers of Jesus. In any case, Timbrol is more attentive to the Lord when He says that His Kingdom "is not of this world-" but somehow seems to think that in saying that He was essentially giving life on this side of the grave over to the devil.
The fascinating thing, of course, is that Timbrol's theology is at this point identical with that of the Southern "Evangelical" pastors who for many years refused to address issues of segregation and discrimination. It is the same cry heard in all regions of the country from conservatives when some preachers began to decry the evils of slavery. It seems to me that at this point Timbrol would do better to listen less to the pre-Moral Majority Jerry Falwel,l and more to Martin Luther King and Elijah Lovejoy.
And, of course, to the Christian theological tradition, which in virtually all its permutations has for the most part understood quite clearly that while Christ's mission was not in itself political (though some in the "mainline" churches and on the Catholic Left dispute that point, arguing that He was nothing more or less than the First Century version of Karl Marx), a disciple of Jesus cannot check the ethical obligations of discipleship at the door of the polling place.
Or, incidentally, the bedroom- a point which American Christians seem to be forgetting in large numbers these days.
It is one thing to see Christianity as a political movement, a sin far more often committed on the Left than on the Right these days. It is quite another to understand that Jesus told us to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, and that there is no area of our lives- including the political realm- over which Jesus is not Lord.
As a Lutheran, I'm very much used to hearing Timbrol's position falsely attributed to Martin Luther. It's a common the stereotyped caricature of Luther's doctrine of the Two Kingdoms which Reformed writers who don't understand the concept (and I have yet to come across one who does) often come up with to charge Luther and Lutherans with political passivity. Of course, Luther knew his Bible too well for that. It's worth noting that the 'velvet revolution" which led to the collapse of the East German Communist state was to a considerable extent led by Lutheran ministers acting in complete conformity with Luther's teaching. But before we get there, let's examine why they- and virtually ever social reform movement in the history of the Western world have in common? Simply this: they originated in, and were largely carried out by, Christians acting out of their religious convictions.
Mr. Obama recognized in his speech that when he set the bar for the legitimacy of religious involvement in the political sphere where Jefferson and the Founders would have set it, and where any thoughtful person of good will would set it. Clearly seeking to impose one's sectarian beliefs on society through the use of political power simply on the basis of strictly religious arguments is counter to the spirit and values of a pluralistic society- although (and this is a point the cultural Left usually misses) it is also pretty much harmless; arguments that we should do this or that "because the Bible says so" are unlikely to prosper in an environment in which most people either don't hold the same interpretation of Scripture the person making such an argument does, or don't personally afford the Bible any particular authority in the first place. There are few groups which, as a practical matter, are as harmless in a society as pluralistic as ours as those hell-bent (excuse the expression) on following the Calvinist imperative to "Christianize" the social order. The very pluralism of our society is a guarantee that as long as it remains religiously pluralistic, nobody who wants to impose their sectarian beliefs on it will ever have the chance. "The Bible tells me so" may not be a suitable argument in a pluralistic society, but as long as that society remains pluralistic, it's hard to imagine an argument that is more harmless.
Not so the secularist Taliban. Those on the cultural Left who seek to exclude any concern seeking access to the public square which comes from the same religious origins as the abolitionist and civil rights movements, the movement against child labor, and the rest are themselves sinning against pluralism, and in a way far more dangerous that the most narrow and intolerant member of the religious Right. It is one thing to argue that one set of values are better than another; that is the stuff of legitimate dialogue and debate. It is another to attempt to silence one's opponent. That is the stuff of totalitarianism.
I have yet to read of a right-wing Christian mayor seeking to ban a business advocates same-sex "marriage" from his city. The mayors of Chicago, Boston and San Francisco have all sought to exclude Chick-fil-A from their municipalities because the chain's owner, Dan Cathy, opposes it. Just who is the enemy of pluralism here? Just who is the "American Taliban," to borrow Kevin Phillips' overheated phrase? Is it those who seek to achieve their goals by debate and persuation, or those who seek to impose their values by governmental coersion?
As long as a person can take a position arising from his or her religious beliefs and translate it into religion-neutral terms accessible to those who don't happen to share those beliefs, doing so is completely within the bounds of legitimacy. It even has Barack Obama's personal seal of approval. But the same cannot be said of those whose tools in an attempt not to persuade but to coerce to this point seem to consist entirely of constitutionally and logically dubious court decisions imposed on society by judicial fiat, and the frankly totalitarian use of raw executive power.
It is worth noting that, at least in the United States, only in New York has same-sex "marriage" become law through the exercise of the democratic process. Everywhere else (notably here in Iowa, for example) it has been imposed on society through the use of governmental compulsion. Again, just who is the "Taliban" here? Who is relying on persuasion, and who on coercion?
But the cultural Right, I'm afraid, doesn't get off scot free when blame is handed out for the confused and sorry state of the "culture wars, " and the grave danger in which the First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech now stand. It has "led with its chin," as they say in the boxing world; it has played into the hands of the cultural Left by adopting the very arguments and tactics which guarantee its failure in a pluralistic society. It has failed miserably in its campaign against abortion on demand (another controversial issue on which- uniquely among the Western democracies- a "solution" has been imposed by judicial fiat, thereby aborting the process of consensus-building and compromise by which a healthy democracy might have sought common ground on the basis of rational debate and evolving attitudes).
It has failed because instead of warning of the consequences of deciding that there are living members of species Homo sapiens sapiens who are somehow not persons by virtue of that very fact, it has alternated between emotional appeals and quotations from the Bible. But those who prefer to operate on the basis of logic rather than emotion, and for whom the Bible is not the final authority it is for conservative Christians, have been unsurprisingly unmoved by these tactics.
Again, the cultural Left has gotten away without having to confront what certainly seems to be an inherent instability for same-sex relationships, the absence of monogamy as an ideal among male homosexuals, and the fact that nowhere on earth where same-sex "marriage" has been made legal have any appreciable percentage of the gay population availed themselves of it, Incredibly, it is well on the way to gaining acceptence of the highly dubious premise that at a moment in history in which heterosexual marriage as an institution is in deep trouble, that institution would not be damaged by further weakening its association with permanance and sexual monogamy, and even its significance, by re-defining society's most basic institution to meet the requirements of a class of people among whom in general all of the values which underlie traditional marriage are passe.'
The issue here is not equal rights; the statistical evidence is overwhelming that the overwhelming majority of same-sex couples have no particular interest in "marriage," and a great deal more difficulty living up to the vows which define it than even contemporary American heterosexuals. The issue is not love, despite attempts by the cultural Left to appeal to the romantic in us. The issue is the consequences of same-sex "marriage" for society- an issue which the cultural Left has been allowed to avoid and even to claim is a non-issue because defenders of traditional marriage have been so busy quoting Leviticus and Romans that they have failed to force the debate into channels which confront the increasingly biblically illiterate and religously not only diverse but indifferent American public can see that there is more than one side to the question after all, and that yes, it is possible to oppose the legal re-definition of marriage on grounds other than ignorance and hate after all.
If the cultural Right is going to avoid effectively surrendering the field to the opposition without firing an effectual shot, it is going to have to take then-Senator Obama's words to heart. It is going to have to learn to debate matters like abortion and same-sex "marriage" on grounds accessible not only to others like themselves, but also to those who have religious beliefs which differ from their own- or even none at all.
Conservative Christians and our allies are going to have to abandon outmoded ideas about sexual orientation being "chosen" if they are going to make the point that even though sexual orientation is not chosen, sexual behavior is. The very notion of sexual restraint and self-discipline is so alien to most contemporary Americans that most of them assume otherwise. It's not merely that the average single American of whatever orientation laughs at the idea of celibacy. He or she does not believe that it is possible- or worth pursuing even if it were. More than that, he or she does not want to believe that it is possible.
If we are going to make headway in the "culture wars," we are going to have to let go of a great many cultural old wive's tales, and become informed as to the basic, scientific facts about sexual orientation. And we are going to have to confront the fact that it is becoming less and less obvious to the average American that there is any reason not to indulge in non-marital sex, and even outright promiscuity.
We are going to have to do exactly what Mr. Obama says: to address matters of public policy in terms accessible to people who are simply not convinced by what the Bible says. If, as St. Paul argues, the law of God is written on the human heart; if, as Christian theology has always maintained, ethical behavior not only in the sexual arena but in general has its roots in the structure of creation and ignoring it carries severe and practical consequences, we are going to have to make that case to a society which- whether we realize it or not- is totally oblivious to that fact.
We are going to have to make the argument on terms as accessible to unbelievers as to believers. And to do that, we are going to have to let go of any Calvinistic ambition to "christianize" society. That which is specifically "Christian" has to do, not with ethics, but with faith. And that is where Martin Luther can help us.
Luther distinguished between the unique task of the church- proclaiming the Gospel, the Kingdom that is indeed "not of this world-" on one hand, and advocating the justice that is the legitimate concern of believer and unbeliever alike on the other. The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, properly understood (and even many Lutherans utterly fail to understand it; I have yet to encounter a Reformed or Catholic, let alone a secularist, commentator who understood it at all), fits both Mr. Obama's concept of legitimate political discourse and the examples of the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, and the other examples religiously-motivated social action with which our history abound. It is remarkable how few Americans noticed that the "Peaceful Revolution" against East German Communism which led to the reunification of Germany was to a remarkable extent led by Lutheran pastors, following Luthers's social theory!
Karl Marx once said that the revolution would not soon come to Germany, because if Germans decided to storm the railway stations they would think that first they had to buy boarding passes. Perhaps. But passive resistance is resistance nonetheless. When the German revolution came, it was against Marxism, and not in its favor. And it took the in the very Lutheran form of a passive resistance which did not strike out at even an evil authority, but simply refused itself to cooperate with evil. To borrow a phrase from a T-shirt they used to sell in the bookstore at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, "Marty would be proud."
So would Martin Luther King. So would the greater number of the abolitionists, such as the ones who worked with the Underground Railroad and eschewed the path John Brown tried to blaze.
The Two Kingdoms, you see, are not Church and State, as the badly-informed often imagine. They are the realms of Law and Gospel, of coercion on one hand and mercy on the other, of compulsion verses love. The Kingdom of the Right exists only in the church, but the Kingdom of the Left is found there, too. The Kingdom of the Right Hand consists of the preaching of grace, of divine love and pardon; the Kingdom of the Left Hand consists as much in synods and church councils and bishops as in judges and congressmen and presidents, in condemnation from the pulpit as much as in commital to prison, and in excommunication as much as in execution.
The Gospel is the concern of the Church. The State has no role to play here. It applies only to Christians, and only Christians are citizens of God's Kingdom of the Right Hand. But not so His Kingdom of the Left. The currency of that kingdom is justice, not mercy. It is the protection of the weak from the strong. And as such, there is nothing uniquely Christian about it. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Shintoists, Rastafarians (well, maybe not Rastefarians), Deists, agnostics, and atheists alike are citizens of the Kingdom of the Left, whether they acknowledge themselves as such or not- because justice is the concern of decent people generally, whether or not they are Christians.
Luther did not advocate turning the secular order over to the devil. He was no apostle of passivity in the face of evil- except in the sense that the appropriate way for Christians (or others who do not "bear the sword-" who lack God's commission to compel through force and compulsion) to resist evil. Luther's opposition to the Peasant's Revolt has often been used to portray him as the arch-reactionary accomplice of oppression. Such a view fails to take into account the vehemence of his condemnation of the very princes against whom the peasants revolted.
It is amazing how few critics of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms seem to have read "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed." Doing so would quickly correct the view that Luther taught accomodation with evil in th e Kingdom of the Left Hand. It, too, is God's Kingdom. It's just that the currency of that Kingdom is justice, not the mercy which defines His dealings with the citizens of His Kingdom of the Right Hand.
It's a lesson American Christians- and Western Christians generally- need to take to heart. Our place is not simply to make common cause with people of other religions- and even of no religion at all- who stand where we stand on the basis of the Law as it is written on the human heart and embodied in the very structure of Creation itself, rather than on the basis of its revelation in Scripture. The proclamation of the Law need not quote chapter and verse; the Word of the Lord does not return to Him empty if it is not dressed up in properly religious language.
But if Christians are going to stop "leading with our chins" in the culture wars, we're going to have to explain why abortion on demand and same-sex "marriage" are bad ideas in terms accessible not only to people who don't necessarily subscribe to the authority of the Bible, but engage the cultural Left in terms which confront the emptiness of their arguments and the degree to which they are based, not on "science' or facts, but sheer sentimentality- and a colossal naivete about the realities of human sexuality and of human nature itself.
We have to stop abandoning the field to the opposition, and begin to engage him on the only ground on which defeating him is possible: the weakness of his arguments. And to that, I think we're going to have to pay attention to Luther's distinction between the Two Kingdoms, and understand the difference between mercy and justice, between faith and mere decency, and between the Law which we share with all decent people and which in fact is written on the human heart, and the Gospel which alone is uniquely Christian. And we're going to have to insist on the difference between arguing a position which has its origin in religion- as the abolitionists did, and as Martin Luther King did- and what the secular Taliban does itself while accusing us of doing: forcing its beliefs upon others by coercion rather than by persuading them by reasoned debate within the context of the democratic process.