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Saccharine Piety

Religiosity is not religion, and piety untethered to the Bible, wafting to the heavens for both God and man to admire, is not true piety. It is saccharine piety, a sickly sweet religiosity that impresses the sentimentally superficial but earns the scorn of the godly and, more significantly, of God himself. It is a mark of the sinful human condition, but in large scale it was imported into Western Christianity with the medieval Sacred Heart of Jesus and later with Revivalism (crisis experience is the chief criterion of true religion) and Romanticism (feelings and emotions and subjective experience trump all else). Saccharine piety now pervades even the most conservative sectors of Christianity.

The Piously Saccharine Jesus versus Inferior Old Testament Law

Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley writes that Jesus Christ came to offer a new and higher ethic, replacing God’s revelatory moral law of the Old Testament: “We need to stop mixing the old with the new, because God has given us something better in Jesus Christ and his new command.” This is classic antinomianism (lawlessness). There’s no other or better name for it. The fact that Jesus’ blood-shedding inaugurated the new covenant in no way invalidates the moral law, whose insertion into the hearts of Christians is one of the chief benefits the new covenant was instituted to impart (Heb. 8:7–12). Stanley may personally live a godly, exemplary life, and I am sure he does, but his teaching is contra-biblical and is leading thousands of Christians astray. Jesus Christ does not lead his people to a “higher” (or “deeper”) morality than the moral law of God found in both Old and New Testaments, and following this antinomian teaching is not true piety but merely saccharine disobedience.

Piously Saccharine Prayers

Danish existential Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard declares that giving thanks to God is superior to petitionary prayer. This is a common assumption, despite the fact that the Bible says nothing of the kind. How pervasive is the saccharine piety that to ask God to provide blessings for his people is at best second-level spirituality, inferior to worshiping or thanking God, and at worst positively “carnal” and self-centered. In radical contrast, Jesus promises his disciples (and by extension, us), “[W]hatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (Jn. 14:13–14). To ask the Father in the Son’s name is to glorify the Son. To refuse to ask under the guise of saccharine piety is to deny glory to the Son, whom the Father delights to honor in answering his people’s prayer.

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More Spiritual than the Bible

In the 90s I wrote a review of Jim West’s delightful Drinking with Calvin and Luther!, which details the Protestant reformers’ drinking preferences. I pointed out in my review that while the Bible strictly forbids drunkenness, it by no means prohibits the moderate consumption of alcohol. I had a dissenting letter from a lady asserting that while it’s true the Bible doesn’t forbid drinking alcoholic beverages, God “holds his people to a higher standard,” i.e., than the Bible. But there is no higher standard of righteousness than the Bible, which is a partial description of God’s holiness.

Peace that God Doesn’t Give

I once counseled a young married woman trying to convince me to endorse her divorce from her husband, despite the fact that, though sinful, he’d done nothing to violate his marital vows. Finally, in exasperation, she declared, “Well, I’ve prayed, and God has given me peace in my heart about it.”

I replied, “You might have peace in your heart, but God didn’t give it. God never granted internal peace to one person to do one thing contrary to his written will.” In this case, as in others, the “inner light” of saccharine piety is a quick way to the outer darkness.

Piously Robbing the Pastor

I have known churches served by faithful, sacrificial pastors who must work outside the church to support their family, while the church had the resources to support him yet were enamored of supporting more missionaries or other outside ministries, or erecting a new sanctuary. They lean on their saccharine piety to obscure their disobedience. In radical contrast, the Bible demands that faithful ministers be compensated double for their labors, that is, twice what would normally be paid to a worker (1 Tim. 5:17). But this requirement would likely not be sufficiently “spiritual” to the saccharine Pietists, for whom the trappings of religiosity trump obedience to God’s word.

The Evil of “Unconditional Forgiveness”

One of the great mantras of modern evangelicalism is “unconditional forgiveness.” It is thought a sacrificial act of piety to forgive those who have wronged us, even if they’ve not repented. This is not piety, but disobedience, making a mockery of the Cross. As Ardel Caneday has written, since we’re commanded to forgive in the manner in which God forgives, and if he demands repentance as a condition of forgiveness and we do not, we have wrongly forgiven. We create the impression that God does not demand repentance. God demands repentance, but we are more pious than God. This tack is lawlessness under the guise of grace. Yet the one who insists on biblical standards of forgiveness is often deemed heartless by the denizens of saccharine piety. They are the heartless ones, considering the Cross so trivial as to reduce its standards to conform to sinful man’s comfort.

The Pious Legalists

Often saccharine piety, like that of the old Pharisaic party, abandons God’s law in order to install its own, new standard of piety. Jesus states: “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men . . . . All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition (Mk. 7:8–9). Emergent evangelical pastor Doug Pagitt is scandalized that so many evangelicals have made the pro-life cause a cornerstone of their political agenda:

These conservative leaders [supporting Trump and the Republican Party] are willing, at all costs, to make a moral trade — anti-abortion laws and court decisions in exchange for basic human dignity…. pursuit of the common good means taking time to stand with women, people of color, immigrants, refugees, the poor and the sick.

By “standing with women,” the article refers to attacking the judicially innocent and unjustly pilloried Brett Kavanaugh. By “people of color, immigrants, refugees” he means an immigration policy that subverts the rule of law and imports multiculturalism. By “stand[ing] with the poor and sick,” he denotes socialism and nationalized health care. What he does advocate violates God’s moral law, or is not addressed by it. What he marginalizes (the life of preborn children) divine law treasures and protects. Pagitt substitutes saccharine, heart-string-tugging piety for God’s holy, life-giving law.

Conclusion

We read in 1 Samuel 15 of God’s command that Israel’s first king, Saul, annihilate the Amalekites and their prized possessions for that nation’s vicious treatment of his people. Saul instead preserved their king as well as the best of the possessions as war booty. When Samuel the prophet rebuked him for his flagrant disobedience, Saul, good saccharine Pietist that he was, replied that “the people” confiscated the best of the animals for the purpose to sacrificing to the Lord. Samuel’s reply should ring forever in the ears of all other saccharine Pietists (vv. 22–23)

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, [a]s in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, [a]nd to heed than the fat of rams.

For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, [a]nd stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you ….”

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Why There’s No Longer Political Common Ground

With the increasing polarization and acrimony of American politics on stunning display in the Kavanaugh confirmation comes the understandable complaint that there’s no longer any middle ground between the two major parties. This observation is correct but usually not for the reasons assumed. It is generally assumed that this loss of middle ground is the result of the gradual loss of moderates in both parties, with the belief that moderates work toward a middle ground, while ideologues at the outer edge of each party are inflexible and uncompromising. This assumption is a mistake. As Charles Lane pointed out in the FOX All-Star panel, Susan Collins is arguably considered the most moderate GOP Senator, and yet her speech on the Senate floor yesterday explaining why she would endorse Kavanaugh was anything but a flexible, middle-ground speech. Alternatively, Donald Trump has earned his reputation as a pugnacious political street fighter, but even his critics might be surprised at how flexible and moderate his policies have become, on everything from immigration enforcement to international trade. Political ideologues can be and often are flexible in policy, while political moderates can be and often are inflexible in philosophy.

What creates middle ground in constitutional republics is not the erosion of strong political viewpoints but, rather, the insistence on procedural justice, the rule of law, due process, and institutional checks and balances. These are all part of the political philosophy broadly known as classical liberalism embraced by America’s Founders. It creates an atmosphere of reasoned discourse. People with strikingly different political viewpoints can discuss and argue these viewpoints within a process that respects both. When the time comes to decide a course of action, that decision reflects the will of the majority but respects the will of the minority. It also provides a process of amendment or reversal. This is what we have in the Constitution. In the system of classical liberalism, the losers on a political decision should never feel disrespected or demeaned. In time, they will get another chance to make their case, and the eventual winners have been forced to grapple with the argument of the eventual losers. This is the genius of the American political system.

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The great competitor to that system since the French Revolution has been perfectionist progressivism. This is the view that correct political decisions are usually the result of the careful thoughts of virtuous, gifted intellectuals. These intellectuals, from Plato to Marx, should not be impeded by process trivialities like constitutions, due process, and the rule of law. Indeed, in perfectionist progressivism, these essential features of classical liberalism are often just a smokescreen for people who do not want real justice, the perfect society. The rule of law is the tool by the oppressors to keep justice (as defined by progressive perfectionists, of course) from prevailing. This is why Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot abhorred classical liberalism: it was a nefarious barrier to their vision of the Perfect Society.

It is also why today‘s Democratic Party abhors it. The Democrats have become infested with Cultural Marxism, a modern version of perfectionist progressivism. This is why they were not especially interested in considering corroborating evidence for the charges of Professor Ford. They reverse the order: guilty until proven innocent. One of the nation’s most noted Democrats was a classic example:

Former Vice President Joe Biden argued explicitly for this standard whenever allegations involve prominent men. “You’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real,” Biden told reporters on Monday, “whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.”

The argument is simple, stark: “Women as a class have been oppressed. Women must always be believed. We must get justice for women irrespective of the means to get it.” Following due process is a tactic the classical liberals use to keep women (not conservative women, mind you, but liberal women) oppressed. The rule of law and due process are impediments to justice, as defined by the wise, the virtuous, the noble, and, of course, the humble. They as the anointed must be privileged. They know what’s best for the rest of us benighted, self-centered, oppressive souls.

In abandoning classical liberalism, the Democratic Party has eroded the middle ground. It was not always the case. Democrats FDR, JFK, and MLK were classical liberals who happened to embrace a different socioeconomic policy from the equally classical liberals in the Republican Party. At that time, virtually all Republicans and Democrats were classical liberals. They disagreed on political ideology, but not political philosophy (of governance). They essentially agreed with the Founders.

[I]ntellectuals, from Plato to Marx, should not be impeded by process trivialities like constitutions, due process, and the rule of law. Indeed, in perfectionist progressivism, these essential features of classical liberalism are often just a smokescreen for people who do not want real justice, the perfect society.

Today, it’s modern conservatives (politically, Republicans) that carry on the classically liberal tradition. Most Democrats, on the other hand, have largely abandoned classical liberalism and embraced Cultural Marxism. This is why a well-known political moderate like Susan Collins can champion classical liberalism and sound so bizarre to the ears of Democrats. She is championing an older political philosophy that the Democratic predecessors all embraced, but which the current Democratic Party has forgotten.

While classical liberalism relies on the power of persuasion within a well-defined process (this is the “common ground”), Cultural Marxists rely on intimidation, screaming, threats, and coercion to get their way. According to their presuppositions, these tactics are perfectly logical. If classical liberals stand in the way, it’s because they’re preventing the right results, true justice, in this case, for women. True justice means Dr. Ford must be believed at all costs, and Justice Kavanaugh sidelined at all costs. The tactics of how to get there are essentially irrelevant. The logical extension of this position was embraced by Chairman Mao: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Classical liberals would counter “Political power grows out of the rule of law.”

The conclusion of the matter: there’s no longer middle ground in American politics because one party has abandoned its heritage in classical liberalism. It has embraced Cultural Marxism, and the politics of perfectionism and the coercion it requires. The recent change in the Republican Party has not been in political philosophy, but in developing a strong resistance, countering coercion with a reassertion of the rule of law. For the last couple of decades, Republicans have attempted to act as gentlemen and gentlewomen. They have finally come to understand amid the horrific treatment of Justice Kavanaugh and their own senators that the only barrier to totalitarian anarchy is the rule of law, and, more broadly, a muscular assertion of classical liberalism. It is doubtful that a Republican president other than Trump would have furnished an example of muscular political assertion.

It is only when both parties again embrace classical liberalism that political common ground, and with it a calmer, more reasonable, negotiated politics — envisioned by the Founders — will reappear. To put it bluntly: we need more liberals in the Democratic Party.

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Is God a Republican or Democrat?

The short answer is “no,” or “neither,” but this answer demands elaboration if it’s not to mislead. Pastor Tim Keller argues that Christians don’t fit into the present U. S. political party system and marshals reason why. I disagree. Keller and I both embrace Protestantism, one of whose distinctives is the final authority of the Bible, so the test is whether his (or my) views conform to the Bible’s teaching.

To Be Apolitical Is to Be Political

Keller’s first point, that to be apolitical is to be political, is quite right. To be apolitical is to tacitly affirm the status quo. A minister who refuses publicly to address ( = oppose) abortion, same-sex “marriage,” socialism, judicial activism, and “affirmative action” is not merely avoiding the entire counsel (Ac. 20:27) of the Bible (since the Bible explicitly or implicitly addresses these and similar issues), but he also creates an atmosphere in which his listeners will passively drift toward the most popular cultural views of the day. The fact that Keller doesn’t invoke the issues I did in making this point, opting rather to mention slavery, public education, and racial segregation, hot-button Leftist issues, doesn’t negate his underlying point: Christians must consider and obey the entire Bible, even the so-called political parts, and not crawl into an apolitical cave.

Godliness Requires Godly Political Power

He continues:

Nevertheless, while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one. There are a number of reasons to insist on this.

This is a solution in search of a problem. I know of no one (I doubt you do either) who “identif[ies] the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.” There have been explicitly Christian third parties, but they have been minuscule. Both major parties include unbelievers and neither identifies as Christian, or, under the present circumstances, honestly could.

One [reason] is that it gives those considering the Christian faith the strong impression that to be converted, they need not only to believe in Jesus but also to become members of the (fill in the blank) Party. It confirms what many skeptics want to believe about religion — that it is merely one more voting bloc aiming for power.

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But aiming for power is by no means contra-biblical, and the criticism of skeptics is not a valid criterion for determining Christian action. Romans 13 makes clear that the state exercises God-given power. Not to exercise that power or not to support those who do exercise it would be to defy God and expose the weakest in a society to plunder and molestation. To vote for a political candidate or policy that will implement the moral law of God is to foster justice ( = righteousness), the godly exercise of power. To refuse to exercise the power to vote is to empower injustice. The Bible doesn’t depict pacifism as a virtue. In the face of evil, it is a vice (Prov. 24:11–12). Christian responsibility includes conflict with lawbreakers: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, [b]ut such as keep the law contend [strive or war] with them” (Prov. 8:24). Keller writes later that

The Gospel gives us the resources to love people who reject both our beliefs and us personally. Christians should think of how God rescued them. He did it not by taking power but by coming to earth, losing glory and power, serving and dying on a cross. How did Jesus save? Not with a sword but with nails in his hands.

This is correct as far as it goes, but to invoke the Cross without the resurrection is to offer half a Christ (Rom. 6:3–14). His earthly body was sown in weakness, but raised in power (1 Cor. 15:43). The crucifixion itself was an act of power, vanquishing Satan and the satanic principalities (Col. 2:12–15). The glorified, post-resurrection Christ presently reigns in blazing glory and power (Rev. 1:9–18). We know him not only in the fellowship of his sufferings but also in the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:10). The Great Commission is possible because the power of the risen Christ is behind it (Mt. 28:18–20). To argue against power, including appropriate political power, is really to argue against the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all of life. The question is not whether Christians should exercise power, but how they should do it.

Biblical Command versus Practical Wisdom

Keller then notes:

Another reason not to align the Christian faith with one party is that most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom. This does not mean that the church can never speak on social, economic and political realities, because the Bible often does. Racism is a sin, violating the second of the two great commandments of Jesus, to “love your neighbor.” The biblical commands to lift up the poor and to defend the rights of the oppressed are moral imperatives for believers. For individual Christians to speak out against egregious violations of these moral requirements is not optional.

Keller offers racism and refusal to help the poor and defend the oppressed as two political acts that fall into the category of “biblical command” rather than “practical wisdom.” There can be no disagreement, no political flexibility on these issues. There can, however, be room for great disagreement on economics:

However, there are many possible ways to help the poor. Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth? Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between? The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.

I know of a man from Mississippi who was a conservative Republican and a traditional Presbyterian. He visited the Scottish Highlands and found the churches there as strict and as orthodox as he had hoped. No one so much as turned on a television on a Sunday. Everyone memorized catechisms and Scripture. But one day he discovered that the Scottish Christian friends he admired were (in his view) socialists. Their understanding of government economic policy and the state’s responsibilities was by his lights very left-wing, yet also grounded in their Christian convictions. He returned to the United States not more politically liberal but, in his words, “humbled and chastened.” He realized that thoughtful Christians, all trying to obey God’s call, could reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum, with loyalties to different political strategies.

This is an odd juxtaposition of political issues. Racism, defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” is a grievous sin because it springs from pride, which God hates (Prov. 8:13). For this principal reason racism is abhorrent. But Keller suggests that racism is sinful on the grounds that it violates the second great commandment. I wonder how he’d respond to an antebellum Christian slaveholder who countered that it is precisely his love for his slaves that requires him to own them and provide for them. This scenario shows how vital it is not simply to know which acts are sins but why they are. Racism is a grievous sin because it is pride.

In arguing that God’s revelation on economics is not transcultural but may change with differing circumstances he faces a quandary. The Bible forbids theft. It declares that a government whose tax rate is as high as 10% is tyrannical (1 Sam. 8:10–18). It portrays Jesus as championing in the most graphic parables possible what we today term market economics (Mt. 20:1–16; 25:14–30). While the Bible doesn’t include anything approaching an advanced free-market system, obviously unknown at the time, neither does it support anything approaching state socialism. In fact, its commitment to the integrity of private (mostly family) property is compatible with free markets and not with socialism. Presumably, however, on the issue of racism, Keller believes “the Bible does . . .  give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.” But if this is the case with racism, it is not clear why it isn’t the case with socialism, whose guiding principle (theft) is every bit as abhorrent and perhaps even more abhorrent to God than racism.

Package-Deal Ethics

Keller then states:

Another reason Christians these days cannot allow the church to be fully identified with any particular party is the problem of what the British ethicist James Mumford calls “package-deal ethics.” Increasingly, political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.

If anything, this criticism is more suited to multi-party societies than the two-party system in the U.S. The very fact that there are only two parties means that parties must include people with whom they can work on some issues and not others. The recent internal battle among Republicans between conservatives (Paul Ryan) and populists (Donald Trump) and among the Democrats between progressives (Joe Biden) and socialists (Bernie Sanders), all four factions arguing for differing ethics in some cases, suggests that there are no “package-deal ethics” in modern American politics.

Social Justice Is Social Injustice

Keller elaborates:

This emphasis on package deals puts pressure on Christians in politics. For example, following both the Bible and the early church, Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.

Unfortunately, Keller doesn’t define “racial justice.” If he means that all races should be treated equally under the law, this is just what the Bible requires (Ex. 12:49). If he means that “underrepresented” races may validly be awarded enrollment or employment quotas on the basis of race alone (“affirmative action”), he is arguing for racism, a form of racial injustice. Indeed, social justice today equates to social injustice. Nor does he define marriage, which 20 years ago would have been unnecessary, but is not today. The Bible defines marriage in the way it has been defined in all societies everywhere until decades ago.

No Party Parity

More importantly: the fact is that a number of “historical Christian positions on social issues” do “fit into contemporary political alignments.” The GOP and the historical Christian position define marriage as between one man and one woman. The Democrats do not. The GOP and the historical Christian position see unborn children as persons entitled to legal protection from murder. The Democrats do not. The GOP and the historical Christian position recognize that economic liberty (free markets) is a moral imperative that, not coincidentally, erases poverty. The Democrats do not. The GOP and the historical Christian position embrace the rule of law as a cornerstone of the Founding philosophy of classical liberalism, itself shaped by Protestant Christianity. The Democrats do not. There is no moral equivalence between the parties. The GOP is far from perfect, but it is also usually not far from the “historical Christian positions on social issues.” The Democrats, on the other hand, aren’t even close. And don’t want to be.

So Christians are pushed toward two main options. One is to withdraw and try to be apolitical. The second is to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table. Neither of these options is valid. In the Good Samaritan parable told in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus points us to a man risking his life to give material help to someone of a different race and religion. Jesus forbids us to withhold help from our neighbors, and this will inevitably require that we participate in political processes.

There is another, more comprehensive option: when possible, work within the party that most conforms to the Bible and the historical Christian position. And, above all, do not adopt political Leftism while cautioning about partisan affiliation, when one party is vocally and conspicuously on the side of Leftism. To do that would be erroneously apolitical.

The fact that God is not a Republican or Democrat doesn’t mean that the major moral views of both parties are equally unacceptable (or acceptable). One party more closely reflects, if not always consistently practices, God’s moral law. This means one party is comparatively more God-honoring than the other. I’ll let you figure out which is which.

For a biblical Christian in 2018 in the United States, there is no party parity. Not to choose is to be morally irresponsible.

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