As everyone who investigates me online knows, in my 30s I was a Christian Reconstructionist. Part of the appeal of that to younger people in that era was the specific blueprints for society and personal action that seemed to fill in a gap in the ‘pietistic’ church of that time. In the 1970s the biggest sin seemed to be failure of performance in devotions [it was worse than missing church services!] and the second was sexual sin. But there was not a lot of guidance for a young trust funder trying to take his calling seriously. Neither the Ron Sider model of mostly divesting, nor the Campus Crusade model of hosting dinner parties for ‘business people’ [I wasn’t one] had much appeal. And my Money River [as Kurt Vonnegut called it in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater] was structured so that if I sold everything and gave to the poor, I’d have to do it all over again every six months for the rest of my life.
The first Rousas Rushdoony book I read was one called Politics of Guilt and Pity. It should be better known than the notorious Institutes of Biblical Law. It charged that our society uses status guilt to get people to do things that they really don’t like to do, and that pity is often a means of manipulation. I have enough sins of my own without taking on a sinful status based on my financial status, race, or gender. And four essays by Gary North in his newsletter Biblical Economics Today were helpful in formulating a lot of the policies and habits we have cultivated at Fieldstead ever since. North was fairly sensible in those days; he got nuttier as he got older.
The chief failure of Christian Reconstructionism was that they did not understand virtue. Other Christians, like David Bahnsen, have written on similar issues.
There are supposedly three approaches to ethics:
- Rule-following. Keeping a set of strict rules.
- Virtue or character ethics. Developing instinctive habits of goodness and doing the right thing. Also of being the right thing. Every sin involves two: doing the bad thing and being the sort of person that would do such a thing.
- Consequential ethics. What are likely to be the actual consequences of this action? Will good or harm result? Political economics, particularly, is a lot like the Garden of Live Flowers in Alice through the Looking Glass; if a state intentionally tries to push the country in one direction, things actually often go in the exact opposite direction.
Becoming a husband and father showed me that rule-following was not enough; that my emotional life and my affectional life [the latter being my more stable likes, dislikes, and desires, as opposed to my up-and-down emotions] were not at all morally neutral; that a private ‘mood’ was indeed interpersonal behavior. These are notions I had resisted my entire life. So I needed something more than just ‘rules’. I reread C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and learned that the sin of ‘entitlement’ was central. [That will be a future post].
I still believe that the primary source of health, education, and welfare is the church and the nonprofit sector. In the modern world, the voluntary sector is not big enough to carry the whole burden. Jesus never said we had to have a welfare state. He never said we couldn’t have one, either. [One day I want to do a post on all the other things Jesus never said.]
The two spheres, church and state, have different talents. The state’s approach to the homeless problem is, and probably should be, Housing First. The church’s approach is, where applicable, Rehab. I think it is the very nature of the state, as a religiously-neutral institution, not to do rehab well, because there is an inherently-spiritual element to ‘rehab’ that cannot be avoided. Even if, in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is often a false spirituality!
There is some danger that a welfare state might lead people to trust in the State rather than God, and that the legal nature of it might lead people to believe that their benefits are ‘entitlements’ and that they have a moral and juridical ‘right’ to benefits from the state. When these ‘rights’ outrun the resources of the state, trouble ensues. My father once said, “Inflation is inevitable in a democracy.” Having read a little bit of history, I think the only part of that he was wrong about was the “in a democracy” qualification! As I said in another post, I started out as a deficit hawk when it was ‘conservative’ to be a deficit hawk.
I believe that education, especially the more liberal arts, the Trivium and the Quadrivium, is inherently a religious function and is not neutral, and is only secondarily a responsibility of the state. [The state has the right to see that kids learn certain things useful to good citizenship. Whether it should concern itself with economic empowerment, which seems to be the chief goal of education nowadays in the public mind, is an open question. At the moment we seem to be stuck with that. But that doesn’t mean all the education has to take place in the state’s own schools!] I agree still that nothing is neutral, but some things are less non-neutral than others. For example, I would rather not go to a non-Christian psychiatrist or psychologist. But it wouldn’t bother me so much to go to a non-Christian dentist. [There are issues even with doctors, though. My mother-in-law was using our primary care doctor, who gave her too much morphine until we told him he had to stop, because, in his secularist worldview, pain was the greatest evil. As Christians, we know that it isn’t the greatest evil].
Similarly, the closer we get to the technical, the less important it is that things be taught in a Christian context. I would not need to go to a Christian school to take a course, for example, in auto mechanics. Not that Christian schools shouldn’t offer classes in auto mechanics; they should. But as C. S. Lewis once affirmed, [somewhere in God in the Dock], “Christianity does not replace the technical. When it tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery.” I try to combine a high view of common grace and a high view of non-neutrality at the same time!
In my views of law and politics, I have found the concept of the Two Tables of the Law useful. In this concept the first 3½ commandments [2½ in the Lutheran and Catholic numbering] are understood as applying to our relationship with God, and the other 6½ [7½ to Lutherans and Catholics] apply to human relations with each other. [The ‘halves’ are the Sabbath Commandment. I understand the part specifying a day devoted to worship and religious activity as part of the First Table, but the part about taking a day of rest and doing no work [God can run the universe without you for a day, thank you very much!] is, I think, part of the Second Table.]
C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity about three kinds of morality. Two of them coordinate with the Two Tables of the Law. The third has to do with cleaning up the insides of ourselves so that we can become people who can do righteousness better (i.e., sanctification). Perhaps the latter part of Deuteronomy’s Shema, which reads,
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
And Jesus declared to his fatigued disciples on the worst night of their lives, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I don’t know the Greek, but if the English is accurate here – ‘so that’, not just ‘that’ – it seems that Jesus is saying outright that if they pray properly they might be less likely to fall into temptation! Now I think communicating to God is the first purpose of prayer and of other spiritual exercises or ‘means of grace’, and self-improvement is secondary, but if Jesus is right it does happen.
Calvinists are accustomed to call this third ‘table’ the Means of Grace. Of course, I’d also argue that a lot of practices are necessary to sanctification – like just choosing the right thing often enough to make it your habit – are not strictly speaking devotional practices.
Sorry for that long diversion, but it’s necessary for my comments about politics. I realized that I had never believed that the state had any place whatsoever in the First Table. [I recognize that the historic intent of the First Amendment was to prevent their being a national established church in place of the established churches of the individual states. So the Founders probably didn’t hold to my view. I do anyway.] It’s not the business of the state to get us to heaven. And yes, a lot of Christendom was wrong about that!
Reconstructionists were divided as to whether the United States was a ‘covenant nation’. Rushdoony didn’t seem to think so. Some Reconstructionists – and non-Reconstructionists – believe it is. The one Religious Right issue I never got into was ‘prayers in public schools’. Prayers for public school, sure enough. And the kids do have the right to pray at recess if they want to. I’d stand up for that.
On the other hand, I think that it can be argued that the Second Table is a major basis for both common and civil law. And it is not ‘unconstitutional’ for that to be so. We have laws against murder, theft, and perjury. Those are in the Bible. Those theocrats have intruded more than we think! What has happened is that most of elite culture, and considerable portions of the popular culture, have shifted certain things from the Second Table into the First; they include sexual relations between ‘consenting adults’, abortion, and assisted suicide. These are viewed by much of our culture as morally equal to ‘religious liberty’. Some say that these are not ‘religious liberty’ but are actually being placed higher than religious liberty. I think it can more easily be described as a clash between the ‘religious’ liberty of the customer or the employee versus the ‘religious’ liberty of the business owner or boss – using a rather expanded version of ‘religious’ liberty. At least we know what the idols of the public are!
I do not sign on in principle to the notion of ‘sexual freedom between consenting adults’ as a constitutional right or liberty. However, it seems to have been declared to be so by the Lawrence decision of 2003. There are pragmatic reasons not to push back too hard against this.
First, as C. S. Lewis tells us in another essay in God in the Dock, in order to secure conviction of sin, which is necessary for conversion, we have to focus on sins that people (a) believe are wrong, but (b) are actually doing. If they don’t think fornication or sodomy or assisted suicide or getting drunk or smoking weed are wrong, we need to find the sins they are doing that they do think are wrong and go after them. Second, legislating sexual morality can lead to a certain amount of hypocrisy.
The two issues fought over by the Religious Right are abortion, committed by perhaps 18% of the population at most [49% has no opportunity], and homosexual activity, which is committed by 5% of the population, at most. We don’t hear a lot about easy, no-fault divorce or cohabitation, which are more popular sins and are doing a lot more to devastate our family life than abortion or homosexuality. So maybe the church should put its own house in order by ‘fencing the table’ through canon law before trying to solve everybody else’s problems. As for stoning, forget about it! [Abortion is understood as the taking of a potential human life and so is more contentious still than these other issues].
Another issue where I have moved away from Reconstructionism is this: Reconstructionists generally hold that ‘natural law’ is a rebellious construct against Biblical law. I have decided that, rather, Biblical law is the highest form of the natural law, and that non-Christian understandings of the natural law are defective in different ways but are not evil. I think my view is more in accord with Romans!
An important work that touches on this is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. He differentiates between the three values held by philosophical ‘liberals’ – Fairness, No Harm, and Liberation – versus the six held by philosophical ‘conservatives’ – those three, but also adding sanctity-purity, hierarchy-authority, and loyalty. This is different for economic ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’, which hold to different interpretations of the virtue of fairness.
There are economic conservatives who are philosophical liberals – the so called ‘libertarians’ – and there are economic liberals who are philosophical conservatives – religious blacks and Latinos, most especially, and the more ‘evangelical’ parts of the ‘evangelical left’ who are ‘evangelical’ first and ‘left’ second. These can be seen as expanded and truncated views of the Natural Law. The Natural Law as understood by humans, then, is a deficient form of Divine Law, but it differs from place to place and from culture to culture. The West mostly holds now to gender equality and to consensual sexual freedom as the moral equivalent of religious freedom. But, as especially Europeans know, there are cultures who believe that parents should have the right to compel children to marry cousins they’ve never met!
I now would tend to go with C. S. Lewis more in saying that we need to understand our local form of the Natural Law; to convict people of their sins against it; and to enforce a higher standard in the Church. We can still make arguments that easy divorce, cohabitation, and teenage sex aren’t the best things for family life; that can be done. And I retain my broader Kuyperian view, that Jesus claims all of life, and that the greater world does not exist solely for opportunities to advance the Great Commission. Rather, the Great Commission, with proper discipleship than just counting ‘decisions for Christ,’ should help fulfill the broader Cultural Mandate.