My Friday was filled watching debates and panel discussions about Christians and politics while remote programming from home. The big take-away? We really need to rethink religious liberty.
For starters, Mark David Hall, invited to speak recently to The Institute on Religion & Democracy by Mark Tooley on The “Threat” of Christian Nationalism, takes the position that, as defined by the critics, so-called “Christian nationalism” is largely a bogeyman term designed to shame conservative American Christians into not trying to influence politics and the public debate.
He’s right. No one was calling themselves this, as Hall points out, prior to the relatively recent push to stigmatize Trump voters and supporters as something nefarious, dangerous, and virulently racist.
But Doug Wilson and Stephen Wolfe are imprudent for embracing the term, in Hall’s view; and I suppose you can count me in with them. Yet Mark David Hall recognizes that those with post-millennial eschatology are typically more likely to shrug about being called this supposedly ugly thing, confident as they are that the Kingdom of God is marching on, and that the gates of Hell will not withstand.
We may be unwise, but we are basically harmless. Certainly not an existential threat to America’s constitutional order, or the church. Nevertheless, Mark David Hall holds that the label “Christian nationalism” should be rejected because, for one thing, it’s unconstitutional —Congress can’t endorse one religion over another. And, for another thing, it’s unbiblical, since we should only do unto others as we want them to do unto us.
Respectfully, I think this latter argument is a rather too superficial incorporation of Christian faith into political engagement.
What would be more robust would be expanding on Hall’s reference of the Abraham Lincoln quote that God is not on the Union side. The rest of what Lincoln said is that we want to be on God’s side, since God is always right. And I really do think this is the position of the majority of those who are being called “Christian nationalists,” that we aspire to call America to a more genuine and robust adherence to this good truth.
But the Carl Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement also recently produced a panel discussion on these matters. Titled Baptists and Religious Liberty, and featuring Matt Emerson, Cory Higdon, Jonathan Leeman, Joe Rigney, and Andrew Walker, the breadth and depth of the subject of religious freedom is discussed through historical, political, philosophical, theological, and pastoral lenses. If a touch academic, the panel is at least thorough and varied in its views.
Baptists have been persecuted in centuries past for being non-conformists, Emerson points out. And as a result, they have long advocated for religious liberty, both for themselves and others.
Yet religious liberty has to be framed within a particular context in order to be sustained, Higdon reminds us. And let us avoid the error of presentism, and the temptation to colonize the past, lest we miss the difference between the kind of debates which were common when the American respect for doctrinal differences was enshrined in our Bill of Rights.
Similarly, Leeman offers an excellent framing of the current situation for conservative American Protestants. On the one hand, you have what he calls the Helm’s Deep approach to accepting the new redefinition of religious liberty. Popularized under Barrack Obama, Christians are now told of their need to butt out of everyone else’s private moral framework. On the other hand, we have those who are harkening back to the more historic Protestant Magisterium, which sees these first freedoms in a very different, even limited, light.
Joe Rigney, for his part, argues this latter view, that of the old school Reformers. All the various spheres of legitimate authority instituted by God – the family, the church, and the state – are instituted for our benefit, as he says. Moreover, all three spheres can know this is their God-given role. And they can attest openly to their knowing it! And all of this can be without the government crossing the line from governing behavior to legislating belief.
And Walker? Well, he talks about civil religion, and how it just is, whether we like it or not. So if we’re going to have one anyway, and we are, we want ours to be a good one. That is, we want it to be an orthodox, historically Protestant Christian one. And this will benefit everyone generally, not just Christians, just like it always has, in a very common good sort of way.
But Jonathan Leeman features in another similar debate recently, this one at Colorado Christian University. Facing off against Bradford Littlejohn, founder of The Davenant Institute, on Religious Liberty and the Common Good, Leeman comes out strongly against government along the lines of the “First Tabularians,” or Christians who want government to legislate according to the first table of the Ten Commandments.
At the end of the day, it turns out the whole business really comes down to how we feel Constantine affected the purity and testimony of Christian life, for good or for ill. The Helm’s Deep crowd believes it was for the worse. The Magisterium, on the other hand? I think they wouldn’t mind so much if another Constantine-like character gave it a go in our day.
This episode is sponsored by
· Anchor: The easiest way to make a podcast. https://anchor.fm/app
Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/garrett-ashley-mullet/message
Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/garrett-ashley-mullet/support