Monthly Archives: October 2012

Are You a "Paleo-Evangelical"?

Thomas S. Kidd posted an article on The Anxious Bench a couple of weeks ago that I’ve been meaning to comment on for several days now. This particular Sunday night offers me a good opportunity to do so.

He wrote about a segment of evangelicals who do not fit neatly into the category of “traditional Republican.” This represents a change that has taken place since the 1990s, and perhaps even the 2000s, when evangelicals could largely be counted on to fully support certain traditional Republican platform planks: a commitment to American exceptionalism, a strong national defense (and readiness to use force overseas), and confidence in Republican presidents and Congressional majorities to enact lasting and meaningful social changes (think repealing abortion, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, stopping the flow of illegal immigration, etc.)

Without stealing his thunder, I will summarize Kidd’s article by saying that paleo-evangelicals are “reluctant Republicans” on three main issues–a) they are less comfortable with American civil religion, b) they are not as confident that political parties can follow through on their lofty promises, and c) they are not sure that certain issues come in as uncomplicated a package as they are often presented. Here is a sample of Kidd’s comments:

The mainstream media loves politically liberal evangelicals, especially at this time of year, as we wonder whether the evangelical base will turn out sufficiently to win the election for the Republicans. But the media seems to have missed another category of evangelical that is ill at ease with the Republican Party. Borrowing loosely from the term paleoconservatives, let’s call them paleo evangelicals.

The paleo evangelicals are not liberal in any sense. They come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives: some are deeply conversant with the ancient history of the church, and with the Reformation; some are sympathetic to Roman Catholic social doctrines and traditions (if not all Catholic theology and ecclesiology); some are deeply conscious of the church’s mission outside of America; some gravitate toward outlets such as The American Conservative or the Front Porch Republic, publications and blogs focused on the conservative themes of local culture, limited government, and ordered liberty.

Kidd is putting his finger on the beginnings of a major change in evangelical Christianity, in my view. I not only agree with Kidd, I think that the trend he is identifying is bound to continue. As the generation of evangelicals defined by the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition grows older and loses influence, a new generation arises to take its place. In my own experience in twenty years of ministry as a pastor, Christian school teacher and administrator, and seminary professor, I have seen these changes firsthand.

Perhaps paleo-evangelicals will bring about needed perspectival changes in church life, as well as in politics. As they shift their confidence and loyalty away from political parties, perhaps they will also embrace a more rigorous Christ centered value system. Maybe evangelicals will place more of their attention on the person and work of Christ than on whether or not Wal-Mart allows their employees to say “Merry Christmas.” Maybe evangelicals will be more concerned about the ethical treatment of children of illegals than whether or not George Washington was a Christian. Or maybe evangelicals will care less about the so-called “worship wars” and care more about the ethics of war as it relates to the projection of American power.

The exciting thing is to watch how evangelicals relate to the culture in which they live. Perhaps too, evangelicals will look to how previous generations have done so, and learn from their mistakes as well as their triumphs.


It’s Dangerous to Dismiss an Incumbent President

Since October 3, President Obama’s campaign has been downhill skiing. On that date, the President was enjoying a 3.1 lead in the RCP poll average. Just a few days prior to the first debate, he was leading Mr. Romney by 4.1 in the RCP average. In several individual polls between the close of the Democratic Convention and the first debate, the President was ahead by 8, 9, even 10 points. In the battleground states, like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia for example, the President led by comfortable margins. In Ohio, where most political junkies believe will be the fulcrum of the election, the President was ahead by 10 points in mid-September. In Florida, the CBS/NY Times poll had him up by 10 during the third week of September. And in Virginia, the President was enjoying an average lead of between 3 and 8 points in September. Cenk Uygur of the Huffington Post declared Obama the winner of the election on September 28. “This thing is over,” Uygur exulted. “The rest is just running out the clock.”

What has happened during the month of October is something that few people–perhaps nobody–expected. Romney won the first debate, according to well, everyone. Obama was viewed as the winner of the last two debates, but Romney held his own and didn’t make an idiot of himself. Which was all he had to do. The VP debates were seen as a narrow victory for Biden, but he was a bull in a china shop, and while it didn’t hurt substantially, it certainly didn’t help. The Benghazi incident of September 11 has undermined the President’s key argument that Al Qaida has been dealt a mortal blow and is on the run. These have all combined to sink Obama’s fortunes considerably.

Romney turned his fortunes around in the first debate. He was being written off by many in his own party. Since then, his campaign has been nursing a continuing lead. Instead of being behind in the majority of nationwide polling, he is ahead, and he has been for a few weeks. The current RCP poll average has Romney ahead by 1 point. The Electoral College data has been fluctuating between assigning Romney 191 and 205 votes (North Carolina is the reason for the fluctuation, but Romney has been consistently ahead there for some weeks). These improvements have given conservatives cause to rejoice. Andrew Ferguson wrote yesterday about how Obama’s late October campaign was a stark reminder of his days advising Bush the Elder in his failed 1992 bid during the same time period. Josh Jordan thinks the Obama campaign “has seen the writing on the wall.” And Peggy Noonan is convinced that the American people have finally weighed the President in the scales and found him wanting.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe the Obama campaign is finished, and that Romney will be elected the 45th president. But it is foolhardy to count the President out in this election.

Incumbent presidents are famously hard to fire. Only a comparative few incumbent presidents have been shown the door in American history, even fewer since World War II. And consider this particular incumbent. How many times has he been counted out, by both his allies and friends, since he declared his candidacy for president in 2007? He has overcome long odds in the past five years on a number of occasions. Team Hillary underestimated him. The Tea Party thought he was through after the mid-term elections in 2010. In the fall of 2011, his approval numbers were at their lowest. And some commentators were doubting his ability to survive this election as early as May of this year. And still, Obama rebounded again, and again, and again, and again.

The election is almost over (God be praised). Barring any hanging chads, we will know all the answers in 10 days. Romney is ahead, but his lead is paper thin and as fragile as mist. The RCP Electoral Map showing the states as they stand today has an Obama victory of 290 to 248. And keep this in mind–in the 2000 election–the closest election in recent times–Gallup had George W. Bush ahead of Al Gore between 2 and 13 points from mid October to election day. We have been consistently seeing spreads this month between Romney and Obama to be much narrower than those Gallup was showing in 2000 during the same time period.

Don’t count Obama out just yet. The ghosts of 1948 may yet grace us with their appearance.

Theology is Necessary to Defend Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is at the core of America’s identity and heritage. The first generation of Americans could not have foreseen how important the First Amendment would be, not only to the practice of religion but also to its spread and inculcation deep into the culture. Freedom of worship gave religion per se a favored status in American society. It also ensured that there would be a robust competition between faith groups. This competition spurred the growth of religion among Americans, with the result that we have been both the most religiously free nation in the world, and also among the most religious people in the world.

Most people in today’s society would likely agree that religious freedom is a good thing. But why? Why defend religious freedom? Why allow religion to occupy a special place in American society? Why allow the Bible to be the basis for the presidential oath? Why allow the motto of the United States to be “In God We Trust”? Why post the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building? Why protect the liberty of every individual to practice and sustain their religious beliefs in public and in private?

Some say that religion has a practical value to society. Religion gives people a reason to be moral. So, religion is necessary to maintain a civil population. Others say that America is a Christian nation, and so, religion is necessary to maintain a Christian identity. Still others will use a legal argument, pointing to the First and Fourteenth Amendments and court precedents over the past 200 or so years.

But there is a deeper and more significant answer to the question of why religious freedom ought to be defended. That answer is found in theology. If America is to maintain religious freedom in the present and ensure it for future generations, then religious freedom must be rationalized on the basis of theological arguments.

But, an objector may say, to use a theological argument to justify religious freedom is not valid. The use of theological reasons to defend religious freedom, by definition, favors a particular religion, to the exclusion of others. If one is to use theology, well, which theology will one use? Christian? Muslim? Greek myths?

Our objecting friend raises a common concern, but he need not worry too much. There are two primary theological reasons which undergird and justify religious freedom. First, God exists. Second, every individual is accountable to God for the content of his beliefs and conduct. These two theological reasons can be agreed on by more than one religion, and they are not exclusionary in the slightest. Even a person of a non-monotheistic faith system can benefit from such reasons. It is not necessary for everyone in a society to agree with these two reasons in order to uphold religious freedom. It is only necessary for the government to live and operate by these two reasons.

Since Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century after Christ, arguments for religious freedom have been based on theology. They were not based on law, pragmatism, or sentimentality. But after the enactment of the Bill of Rights, theology has disappeared from discussions affecting the preservation of our first freedom. It is time to recover what has been lost.

Unfortunately, there is a significant obstacle in our path. That is, theology has never been taken all that seriously in American culture since the First Great Awakening of the 1720s-1740s. Theology is not useful, not practical. It is divisive, we are told. It belongs to eggheads who live in ivory towers, and don’t know anything about living Christianity out “on the ground.” The realm of theology is the church pulpit on Sunday mornings, and in the seminary classroom. The study of theology is a necessary evil, something to get us to missions, evangelism, church growth, social justice—the really important stuff!

The result of this way of thinking is that Americans do not know much about theology. Many people hold to theological commitments that are inconsistent, and thus fatally flawed. Others spurn theology because it is “a system,” and faith in God “isn’t a system.”

So, when religious freedom is threatened or undermined, many of us turn to arguments that are just easier to make. Arguments which rely on legal precedent, the First Amendment, the pragmatic value of religion, or the dubious assertion that America is a Christian nation, will only be so helpful. But religion, which is purely a theological enterprise, demands a theological justification—if it is to be protected.

We have work to do. Of all people, Christians need to get busy understanding their own theology. After all, it is Christianity that bequeathed to humanity the concept of religious freedom. If we want to hold on to our religious freedom for ourselves and for our children, we need to get serious about theology.

Just What is American Exceptionalism, Anyway??














My friend Rich Holland, who blogs over at Befriending Wisdom, is getting frustrated with me and pressing me for further explanation and clarification on American exceptionalism. Rich is an insightful and thoughtful philosopher, and you should make checking his blog a regular part of your routine.

American exceptionalism, as I noted in my previous blog post, is somewhat difficult to define. In my last post, I discussed Alexis de Tocqueville’s use of the term “exceptional.” He is credited by many with coining the term “exceptionalism.” See my earlier comments on some problems with giving de Tocqueville this credit without any caveats.

“Exceptionalism” was not a term used by anyone after de Tocqueville in the heady days of expansion in the 1840s and 1890s. It wasn’t used at all in the nationwide debates over the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Nor was it used in the years of World War II, or in the immediate aftermath of the war. The term is reintroduced to American discourse via Max Lerner’s 1957 book, America as a Civilization. The term became more prominent in the 1990s through Seymour Martin Lipset’s work, American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword. And in the last three or four years, dozens of books and articles have addressed the topic.

Generally speaking, James W. Ceaser of the University of Virginia says that the common theme in the way exceptionalism is understood in the literature–even going back to de Tocqueville–is uniqueness. America is a nation that has many characteristics distinguishing it from other nations. What makes America unique? That’s were you see a whole host of diverging views. 

To generalize further, uniqueness carries one of two meanings. Some think of America’s uniqueness in terms of what Ceaser describes as either “something different about America” or “something special” (Ceaser, 2012). The term “different” is based on observations about social, physical, political, religious, and geographical aspects of America. Thus, if you understand America as “different,” you are acknowledging those specific, measurable–and temporal–aspects that set America and Americans apart from other nations in the world. If you understand America as “special,” you are making a much more meaningful claim about America. The term “special” is based on what Ceaser calls “a normative claim” (Ceaser, 2012) about America. For example, America is special because it has been chosen by God to fulfill a divine mission in human civilization. America is special because God is using America in a unique way to accomplish His purposes for humanity in what theologians refer to as “salvation history.” And so on. The distinction between “different” and “special” is an important one in how American exceptionalism is defined in early 21st century discourse.

What makes America exceptional? I don’t think that exceptionalism can be defined in terms of any normative claims about America. America is not “special” in that regard. It has no unique place in salvation history. God has not called America to fulfill some divine mission. But it is different, and significantly so. For example, America invented republican democracy in the modern world. Americans have spread freedom to the advancement of human civilization everywhere in the world. The American difference does, in my own view, make America the greatest country in the world. But by that I do not mean that America is the greatest country in history. And I recognize that America has not championed freedom for everyone equally at all times in its history. Still, America is my home, and it has the place of prominence in my mind and heart when I consider other countries. I am grateful to be an American–nearly as much as I am for being a Christian. But not quite. America is the City of Man, my temporal home. My citizenship is in heaven, the City of God. As a Christian, my first allegiance is with that other Country.

James W. Ceaser “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism,” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 1 (Spring 2012): 1-25.

Alexis de Tocqueville and American Exceptionalism

In the last three or four years, we have heard more and more about American exceptionalism. Loosely defined, exceptionalism is the belief that America is the most free, most prosperous, most powerful nation in the world with a God given mission to export democratic institutions and ideas abroad. Woodrow Wilson talked of making the world safe for democracy. FDR spoke of securing the four freedoms–freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want “everywhere in the world” (Annual Message to Congress, January 6, 1941). Abraham Lincoln famously described America as the “last best hope of mankind” in his Annual Message to Congress in December of 1862. Ronald Reagan, thinking of America, picked up on his language, as well as John Winthrop’s 1630 vision of a “city upon a hill.”

What is the origin of the term “American exceptionalism”? Usually, Alexis de Tocqueville is given the credit for coining the term. What did de Tocqueville actually say when he coined the term “exceptionalism” with reference to America? Here is the term set in its context:

At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World the inhabitants of the United States more particularly identified one to which they were closely united by a common origin and by kindred habits. Among this people they found distinguished men of science, able artists, writers of eminence; and they were enabled to enjoy the treasures of the intellect without laboring to amass them. In spite of the ocean that intervenes, I cannot consent to separate America from Europe. I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people who are commissioned to explore the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind. 

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science literature and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the Americans upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people, and attempt to survey them at length with their own features (de Tocqueville, 2.36-37).

So what do we have here from de Tocqueville? What exactly does he affirm about America, using the adjective “exceptional” to describe it? First, let’s consider what he does not appear to be affirming. There’s nothing here about America being chosen by God; nothing about having a special mission or responsibility to export democracy; and de Tocqueville places no value judgment on America in his use of “exceptional.” There are no theological claims in de Tocqueville’s application of “exceptional” to America. These are striking facts to consider upon reading de Tocqueville, in light of the many citations of his use of the term by contemporary writers. 

De Tocqueville, interestingly enough, is not willing to acknowledge any meaningful difference between Americans and their cousins in Europe or Britain. In fact, the way de Tocqueville sees it, Americans are the more practical of the English speaking people, and if there is any mission at all, it is to “explore” the wilderness of North America. While Americans are engaged in that task, Europeans are at liberty to pursue the intellectual and aesthetic endeavors. 

For de Tocqueville, Americans are different, not because of any normative reasons, but because of their physical and social circumstances. They were building a European-style civilization in a continent that was largely uninhabited by whites. In that regard, there were certain unique aspects that set them apart from Europeans. There were social, economic, political, and religious implications that attended this fact. But it seems clear that what de Tocqueville had in mind about American exceptionalism is a far cry from that of many who espouse the idea today.

Americans seem uncomfortable using the term “nationalism” to describe their brand of patriotism. “Exceptionalism,” which seems to be a word substituted for “nationalism” in America, seems to carry less jingoistic and provincial baggage. “Exceptionalism” also underscores the unique brand of American patriotism that identifies America as more than just a nation, but an idea, as Gordon Wood as has said in his recent work, The Idea of America.
But it seems strange to invoke Alexis de Tocqueville in arguing for American exceptionalism. He only uses the term once in his work Democracy in America, and his use of the term is pedestrian compared to how it is often used now. He did not think America was the greatest nation on earth on the verge of civilizing humanity with democratic ideals. Citing de Tocqueville is helpful to an extent, but there is a wide gap between his understanding of American “exceptionalism” and that of many proponents of the idea today.

A Link Between History and Theology

     Yesterday while teaching Western Civ to the prisoner-pastors of the new class of 2016 at the SWBTS Darrington Unit Extension, I taught on the historical background to first century Palestine and the birth of Christ. That lecture is entitled, “The World the Word Entered,” and my point in that lecture is that the gospel is not a set of mythological accounts taking place in a semi-fantastical world where whole nations cross over oceans on dry land, blind people see clearly, and dead people come back to life. Instead, the Christian gospel plainly teaches that God has acted and spoken within space and time. Those miraculous events recorded in the Bible were real. And God entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was and is a real person, ministering to real people in real places with real consequences. This is one of the reasons why theology and history are inseparably linked together. The study of history is relevant to the study of God.
     To introduce the lecture, I wanted the students to adopt both an ancient historical and theological frame of mind–to reflect on the intersection between history and theology as they considered the Incarnation, as well as the particular circumstances in the Mediterranean world leading up to it. 
     We listened to the early 5th century hymn, Corde natus ex Parentis (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”) by Clemens Prudentius. For all of us, not only was this an edifying exercise in considering historical context, it became a time of pure communion with God.
     We listened to it twice, and you could have heard a pin drop in that room of 40 men when it was over.

Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessed
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bare the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him,
and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert sing,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving,
And unwearied praises be:
Honour, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!

Exceptionalism and Christian Citizenship

Got all settled back in Houston, Texas after being at Gordon College for the Conference on Faith and History. It was such a wonderful time being in New England, and it was equally uplifting being in the presence of so many first rate Christian historians. I enjoyed traveling with my colleague, Miles Mullin, who teaches church history at Southwestern. I also enjoyed fellowship over breakfast with John Fea of Messiah College. And it was a real pleasure to meet some new friends, such as Fred Jordan of Woodberry Forest School in Orange, VA (10 miles from my old house and my dad’s alma mater), Jerry Summers of East Texas Baptist College, Barry Hankins of Baylor University, Nicholas Pruitt, Ph.D. student at Baylor, and Jay Case of Malone University.

I presented a paper giving a brief (understatement) history of exceptionalism since 1630 and a critique of the concept. Americans have always understood themselves in exceptionalist terms, and this exceptionalism has consistently manifested itself as a theological commitment. Divine chosenness and a divine mission have been common themes in the way exceptionalism has been expressed since John Winthrop declared Massachusetts Bay to be a “city on a hill” in 1630.

But if exceptionalism is to be defined in theological terms, then it must be problematic for the Christian. American exceptionalism, in short, confuses salvation history with Christ as the focus with American history. It supplants the Christian doctrines of election and mission and makes America the subject of those doctrines, which is inappropriate. However, it is possible for a Christian to accept a notion of exceptionalism, provided that the notion does not carry a theological message with it.

So that’s what I said in my paper. I was amazed at how much has been written on American exceptionalism. There seems to be some more work to be done on this idea, particularly on the theology of exceptionalism. We’ll see where it leads.