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Thanksgiving Isn’t Christmas’ Entrance Ramp

Posted on November 26, 2014

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If you assume that Thanksgiving has been canceled this year, you might be forgiven. Wall-to-wall commercials for Black Friday began even earlier this year — some of them I heard as early as October. Let’s be clear: as a proponent of God’s moral law and, therefore, of free markets, I have no objection whatsoever to honest advertisement. I do object, however — and vehemently — to the mad rush to get to Christmas by marginalizing Thanksgiving. In past years, the calendrical proximity of Thanksgiving to Christmas was irrelevant, since Christmas advertisement began in earnest only in mid-December. In the early 80’s, as my wife Sharon and I were launching our family, we could count on the sequestered integrity of a Thanksgiving celebration on which Christmas — or even the longer Advent season — did not impinge. We celebrated Thanksgiving, and then, about a month later, we celebrated Christmas. Today, neither we nor anybody else in the United States enjoys such a calm, unimpeded luxury.

A National Christian Holiday

While Thanksgiving may not generate inky-black department-store sales, and while it is not a part of the traditional church calendar, it is a deeply Christian holiday (= holy day). President George Washington, a Christian of the formal, establishment type, proclaimed November 26 as a day of national Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln, who was not by most accounts a professing Christian but who, like the ancient Persian kings Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes (Ezra 6–7), knew and reverenced the true God of heaven and earth. Lincoln issued his proclamation during the dark years of our nation’s Civil War, and his tone of humility amid offering thanksgiving to God is striking even today. After recounting God’s abundant national blessings even during the ravages of war, Lincoln states:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

Lincoln, though personally not a Christian, was deeply imbued by the Christian culture in which he was reared, and consequently weaved together the specific, irrevocable Christian themes of God’s goodness, sovereignty and mercy; the validity of his moral law; human sinfulness; the reality of God’s forgiveness for those who repent; and the imperative of thanksgiving to our God. Lincoln knew that God both blesses and judges nations to the extent that they trust him and obey him. Though his language was non-sectarian and did not specifically invoke Christianity, it is compatible only with Christian revelation and certainly not with the Deism prominent among the European and Eastern elites of the previous generations.

Our National Apostasy

This cluster of deep Christian themes has been almost entirely absent from presidential administrations of both political parties over the last few decades. Would to God that Pres. Barack Obama, or, before him, Pres. George W. Bush, had indicted our nation for its depravity and urged us to repentance and humility and gratitude before a God who has not given us the national judgment we deserve.

But to be blunt, these unmistakably Christian themes don’t sell to a self-congratulatory, narcissistic population for which the ideas of sin and judgment are not so much repugnant as foreign. For this reason, Thanksgiving has become a vague secular sideshow to the vague, secular mainshow known as Christmas. The Thanksgiving holiday as originally conceived by Lincoln stands in sharp antithesis to the vague holiday secularisms (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) to which Americans, including many professed Christians, have become accustomed.

Thanksgiving and Renewed Christian Culture

Reviving Thanksgiving as a distinctly Christian national holiday might be a vital part of restoring Christian culture. Days of national repentance and thanksgiving were a reality during the early years of our Republic, and it is hard to imagine the present success of our nation apart from these acts of national obedience. The fact that we have turned our back on them, and on the Triune God that they presuppose, invites God’s national judgment (Ps. 9:16–17; Jer. 51:20; 1 Pet. 4:17–18).

This Thanksgiving, do not allow Black Friday and the ubiquitous Christmas commercialization to dilute and divest Thanksgiving. Join me in reinvigorating the true meaning of Thanksgiving, not merely the true meaning of Christmas. The aphorism “Jesus is the reason for the season” is no less true of Thanksgiving than for Christmas.

Thanksgiving isn’t the entrance ramp to Christmas.

Why You Should Not Sign “The Marriage Pledge”

Posted on November 20, 2014

First Things (FT) has launched a crusade to get pastors out of the marriage-ceremony-performing business, or, as they would no doubt prefer, out of the business of government-sanctioned marriage-ceremony performance. The problem for “The Marriage Pledge” they are pushing is that these two practices are identical.

A dispute among allies

FT is one of our allies in the culture wars. And don’t shy away from that moniker. When one group in society wants to redefine the very basic idea of marriage understood over the entire history of humanity, and when it has the political wherewithal to do it, and another group opposes them to the hilt, culture war is the most apt description of the dispute. By our allies in this war, I mean us neo-Reformational culture warriors, who believe all of life should be governed by the Bible. Our FT allies want what we want: a Christian culture in general and Christian marriage (= marriage) in particular. But their battle strategies are sometimes not ours, and there’s a theological reason for this, and the dueling strategies springing from different theologies aren’t inconsequential.

FT is a conservative ecumenical coalition that includes both Christians and Jews, but is guided by Catholic social thought. R. R. Reno, the magazine’s gifted, dynamic editor, is a convert to Rome. So was its founding editor, Richard John Neuhaus. Anybody who’s read FT over the years can attest to the predominantly, though not exclusively, Catholic tenor of its social criticism. “The Marriage Pledge” is a striking example.

Natural law, the state, and marriage

Which is why it’s odd that, as the Daily Caller headlines, “Prominent Protestant Pastors Vow To No Longer Perform Government Marriages.” The “Pledge” is an understandable and natural strategy for Catholic clergy in the present unprecedented crisis. Why? Catholic social criticism is anchored in its centuries-old paradigm of the nature-grace distinction. This is the distinctively Catholic idea that in nature (creation) God provides for man’s direction in abundant ways quite apart from any supernatural revelation. This is “natural law,” a subcategory of “natural theology,” a theology without Jesus or the Bible that everybody can or should agree to, Christian or not. Grace, including salvation in the atoning work of Jesus Christ and in God’s revelation in the Bible, is the capstone to nature. Nature is the foundation, and grace is the superstructure. Man (sinful man, of course) is not made to live fully without grace, but he can live, and live quite well, within nature apart from special revelation. In fact, nature is the natural [!] preparation for grace. Society is the realm of nature, and all people of good will, saint and sinner, can agree on the basics of God’s revealed law in creation.

Only they don’t. And the rub comes when it’s obvious that they don’t, when they start saying outrageous things like it’s the most natural thing in the world for a man to want to marry a man, and a woman a woman. No true Christian would dream of saying such a thing, naturally.

But the state isn’t Christian. Isn’t supposed to be. It may be Christian only in the tangential sense that the church might “sacramentalize” the state by being in contact with it, by bringing its citizens into the bosom of the church, where they’ll get the Christian grace. There they can be Christians, and being Christians, they might influence the state for broadly Christian ideals, but the state is the realm of nature, not grace.

The Reformation, the state, and marriage

The Protestant Reformers created a trajectory that opposes this distinction. Their heirs, especially the Puritans and later the neo-Reformers, knew that all of life must be Christian, and to be Christian, it must be biblical. The Bible provides the guidelines on what all of life, including the state, should look like. If the state is anti-biblical, you need to work to make it biblical, just as you would do in the family and church. You don’t get to opt out of them.

But not necessarily if you hold the nature-grace distinction. It’s the church that’s the repository of grace, truly Christian, and if the state utterly abandons natural law (as in: men may marry men), Christian marriage can survive in the place that’s really Christian, the church. Maybe even our clergy will perform marriages recognized only in the church. They’ll even take “The Pledge” to keep the Christian, grace-oriented clergy from collaborating with the anti-Christian, nature-oriented state.

But this option of cultural withdrawal isn’t available to the neo-Reformers. Douglas Wilson has offered several excellent practical, pastoral objections to “The Pledge.” I would add that “The Pledge” is flawed at its root.

The state, no matter how perverse, has a vested interest in marriage (will the church enforce disposition of children and property in the case of divorce? Hardly. And if she did, who would enforce the enforcement?). Should the church “disentangle” itself from the family since the family, too, is being redefined? To be sure: the state can and does act unjustly (“no-fault divorce,” etc.). But the alternative isn’t anarchy, which despite its best intentions, is what “The Pledge” is suggesting. The state, even an apostate one, has a legitimate vested interest in marriage and the welfare of children springing from it.

“The Pledge” states: “We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.” But marriage did not begin with the church’s life, and severing the state from marriage does not “protect” it from state depredation; it only abandons the state to further apostasy and abandons the couple to potential grief when they do in fact need the state. Marriage is a creation ordinance redeemed by Jesus Christ, but married Muslims are still married. Marriage is a Christian institution, but not a distinctively Christian institution. It is a biblical institution that predates the Christian Faith.

The Puritans went so far as to believe that marriage was a civil and not an ecclesiastical affair, and cut the church off entirely from the marriage covenant-making. I think that in this move they overreacted (as in a few other matters), but at least they understood that marriage is an inextricably civil institution that predates Christianity. Note that to be pre-redemptive is not to be pre-biblical. God’s verbal revelation predated the Fall, and while all Christianity should be biblical, God’s verbal revelation spans creation to consummation. God’s verbal (and now written) revelation must govern all of life — not just the church, but marriage and the family and the state also.

Marriage ceremonies in the Bible

Therefore, Protestants want the Bible to shape our views of marriage, but, notably, no marriage ceremony in the Bible ever occurred in the church or by clergy. They were family arrangements recognized by the state. Jesus sanctioned such a wedding by attending it. I’m not suggesting church ceremonies are contra-biblical, only that they have no obvious biblical precedent. Marriage is principally a family function recognized and enforced by the state.

A wedding is not identical to a ceremony. A wedding (marriage) is a man and woman vowing before God to lifelong love and exclusivity from all others. What makes a marriage different from exclusive cohabitation is a public vow. It is this public vow in which the state has particular interest. Strictly speaking, an officiant is not even necessary to the ceremony, much less a “church wedding.” The vow and witnesses and means of enforcing the vow are the key elements. Only the state can do the latter on matters of coercion (disposition of children and property, for example).

It’s entirely appropriate, however, that Christians should be married in the church because this is a holy community to whom they are accountable. But it’s not the church qua church that witnesses a wedding vow. It’s individual witnesses, many (though rarely all) of whom are Christians. The state recognizes this covenant vow. When the minister signs the state-generated marriage certificate, he’s implicitly serving as the attesting witness for the state. The state is an implicit witness to every marriage, because the state must be very interested in every marriage — even if it egregiously allows unions to be called marriage that are not.

And if you don’t like what the state is doing about marriage (and you shouldn’t), work to change it. What you may not do is rip away the only God-granted coercive protection (Rom. 13) that marriages have in the case of abuse, abandonment, and divorce. The church can and should do lots of things to protect a marriage — but not everything.

If all that these ministers signing “the Pledge” want to do, therefore, is lead a church ceremony that recognizes a wedding, that’s a grand idea.

Just don’t call it a wedding ceremony.

If you believe in the Catholic nature-grace distinction, or if you believe that marriage is a sacrament of the church, rather than a covenant before God between two people to whom Christians (in the church) and also the state are essential witnesses, you might want to sign “The Pledge.”

But I scratch my head as to why Protestants might want to sign it.

Political Prognostication Isn’t Rocket Science

Posted on November 13, 2014

Perhaps the greatest and most pernicious sociopolitical myth of the last two centuries is that social predictions are a form of science (“social science”), that human behavior can be predicted like spaceship trajectories. This is a perennial Leftist myth that conservatives (especially political prognosticators) sometimes embrace.

ESA just put a space probe on a comet 310 million miles away, but politicos can’t predict how which political constituency will vote in the next election. If you think African-Americans as a bloc are “destined” to vote Democratic, or corporate CEO’s are “destined” to vote Republican, think again. People are not mathematical theorems, and therefore, human history, including politics, is unfailingly dynamic. Long-term political predictions make everybody look the fool. History has real meaning. People change their minds. Especially in politics.

A Chief Role of Conservative Politicians Is to Stay Out of the Way

Posted on November 5, 2014

The chief task of political conservatives in a majority position in modern constitutional republics (like the new Republican Congress) is to impede the relentless progressive rush by (1) protecting the family and the church, (2) slowing the growth of government, and (3) restoring the rule of law. Politicians in such societies are not particularly important in the task of Christian cultural reclamation, despite their frequent sense self-importance; but if they do their job properly, they will make the job of cultural reclamation a lot easier for those Christians who really are significant in that gargantuan work: I mean the homeschool moms and day school teachers, the artists and the architects, the authors and the anchors, the pastors and the plumbers, the auto mechanics and the software developers, the businessmen and -women and halfway house staff, the doctors and the nurses, the attorneys and the theologians, the pop singers and popular bloggers. These are the categories of Christians whom God generally most uses to reclaim an apostate culture — if they are determined to think and act Christianly at all times.

“Social Justice” and Jell-O Nomenclature

Posted on October 27, 2014

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Adapted from an introduction to the Center for Cultural Leadership‘s 2014 West Coast symposium on “Social Justice: A Christian View” in Saratoga, California, October 25

We’re talking today about social justice. “Social justice” has become ubiquitous in sociopolitical discourse. It’s what I like to term “Jell-O nomenclature”: its meaning is obvious until you actually have to nail it down. I’m reminded of what the Western church father Augustine said about the concept of time: “When nobody asks me, I know what it is. But when somebody asks me what it is, I do not know.” We tend to have a vague sense of what social justice is, and in the end it can mean all sorts of things or, perhaps, really nothing at all.

Rather than define it, however, we probably can accurately describe what most people mean when they use or hear it. Social justice is basically the idea that there are unwholesome inequalities among humans in the world, and deeply caring people should use the state (that is, political means) in order to eliminate, or at least seriously reduce, these inequalities. By “human inequalities,” I mean things like income inequalities, inequalities among the sexes, inequalities among religions and races, inequalities between the young and the old, between children and parents, between rich nations and poor nations, and such. By “political means,” I denote using the coercive power of the state in order to force greater equality. Both of these factors are important in understanding social justice. Getting rid of inequality is not enough. How you get rid of it is just as important.

For example, a business entrepreneur who starts a new company in order to provide jobs and income for young people in poverty isn’t an example of social justice. Federal law raising the minimum wage for some of these same young people is an example of social justice.

A university that establishes a policy of hiring the most qualified faculty, whether men or women, is not an instance of social justice. Federally mandated hiring quotas requiring universities to enlist a specific number of women faculty is an example of social justice.

A Roman Catholic hospital that provides designated healthcare funds for its employees to spend as they wish is not an example of social justice. A state requirement that the same hospital provide abortifacients to its employees is an instance of social justice.

In other words, you don’t get to call an action that reduces inequalities social justice unless the state forces you to do it.

The expression “social justice” is Jell-O nomenclature for another reason. As Thomas Sowell once said, all justice is social. After all, if you were alone on a desert island, there’d be no need for justice. Justice is necessary when you have a society, not when you have an individual. So “social justice” is a redundancy.

That’s why it’s much better simply to refer to “justice.” That’s the language in Christian revelation. In the Bible, our English word “justice” is often a translation of the word meaning “righteousness.” To act justly is to act in the right.[1] There’s a right way to treat people, and a wrong way to treat people, and if you treat them rightly, you treat them justly.

In considering social justice, we’re really addressing  justice.

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[1] James D. G. Dunn, “The Justice of God,” in The Justice of God, James D. G. Dunn and Alan Suggate, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 31–42.

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