Category Archives: Uncategorized

EPSA has seen the length of its days

The Evangelical Political Scholars Association is no longer an active organization.  The idea of an online, great ideas oriented political conversation amongst thinking professionals did not succeed. That’s life in the start-up world. But the Internet is forever, so these posts will endure for electronic archeologists to discover for as long as the earth and WordPress endure and the Lord tarries. Enjoy as you please.

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Faith as a Political Foundation

In his marvelous book-length exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel, A Son To Me (Canon Press, 2003), Peter Leithart makes this intriguing suggestion: “Justification by faith was the foundation of David’s politics” (p.305).

The context leading up to that statement are these remarks on II Samuel 22:

David’s enemies bring a “case” against him, and David appeals to Yahweh, the Judge of heaven and earth, to decide in his favor. David’s deliverance from his enemies is his justification, concrete evidence of the Lord’s verdict in favor of His king, His declaration of righteousness. As we have seen throughout this book, this was the bedrock of David’s treatment of Saul and other enemies; knowing thyat Yahweh will vindicate the righteous, Davcid could rest and wait on the Lord. Justification by faith was the foundation of David’s politics.

I’m not entirely sure what Leithart has in mind with that, i.e., how it applies to how anyone who is justified in Christ by faith should act politically, but it is surely a thought worth pursuing.

David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).

Bin Laden’s Death and Christian Rejoicing

Strong emotions can surprise us, and the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of American Navy SEALs stirred immediate emotions in American hearts, and Christian hearts were no exception. But Christians are more introspective than most and have more easily troubled consciences. Our religion is not one of merely outward rituals but of the changed and redirected heart.

So people have been in angst over whether we should rejoice over bin Laden’s death.

John Piper explores the complexity of God’s emotions and attempts to reconcile various seemingly conflicting passages. He writes:

“In one sense, human death is not God’s pleasure:

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? . . .  For I do not pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live. (Ezekiel 18:23, 32).

In another sense, the death and judgment of the unrepentant is God’s pleasure:

Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself. (Ezekiel 5:13[Wisdom calls out:] Because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you. (Proverbs 1:25–26)

Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her! (Revelation 18:20)

As the Lord took delight in doing you good . . . so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. (Deuteronomy 28:63)

We should not cancel out any of these passages but think our way through to how they can all be true.”

Bottom line for Piper: “[W]hen a rebellious, wicked, unbelieving person is judged, what God has pleasure in is the exaltation of truth and righteousness, and the vindication of his own honor and glory.” (His reflections are adapted from The Pleasures of God, pp. 66-74.)

Albert Mohler has some sober and welcome words about “sober justice.”

“While we should all be glad that this significant threat is now removed, death in itself is never to be celebrated. Such celebration points to the danger of revenge as a powerful human emotion. Revenge has no place among those who honor justice. Retributive justice is sober justice. The reason for this is simple — God is capable of vengeance, which is perfectly true to his own righteousness and perfection — but human beings are not. We tend toward the mismeasure of justice when it comes to settling our own claims. All people of good will should be pleased that bin Laden is no longer a personal threat, and that his death may further weaken terrorist plans and aspirations. But revenge is not a worthy motivation for justice, and celebration in the streets is not a worthy response.”

Warren Cole Smith at WORLDmag.com is more dare-ye-cast-the-first-stone. “I certainly think we can and should celebrate the excellence, professionalism, and courage of the Navy SEALs who accomplished their mission. I think we should be grateful that an evildoer is now no longer able to do his evil in the world. But I also think we should be careful not to gloat. We should guard against triumphalism and pride. As a young man, Osama bin Laden drove fast cars and played soccer. There was a time when he was not so different from you and me.”

I am going to be less transpolitical about it. Here’s my take:

There is a buzz of debate among students at The King’s College where I teach. I don’t think anyone regrets that our Navy SEALs caught up with Osama bin Laden and plugged him. But not everyone is comfortable actually celebrating the fact.

It’s good, but are high fives in order? Should we party at Ground Zero? A man is dead. An evil man, to be sure. But a life that God made in his image has come to its earthly end, and a soul has been sent to judgment. Isn’t this an occasion for awful silence?

I think that such reserve is unwarranted because it fails to give proper weight to the central fact of the killing in question, namely, justice. Osama bin Laden ordered the murder of what turned out to be almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, and of 17 sailors on the U.S.S. Cole the previous year. He’s a mass murderer.

Regardless of what you think the role of government should be, it is indisputably to protect those under its care from murderous assault. And where someone has unjustly taken a life, it is government’s proper role to punish that injustice.

Osama bin Laden’s offense was even more serious in that it was an assault not only on private individuals, but upon the nation as a whole. It was an act of war by a foreign, sub-national organization. New York City and Washington DC were paralyzed. The nation was terrorized. And this was precisely what the al Qaeda leader hoped to accomplish.

When our special forces—arms of the American government—finally caught up with bin Laden in his Pakistani bunker-estate and popped him between the eyes, they not only secured the nation. They did justice. More specifically, the American civil government that God instituted by the will of the American people executed justice on a monstrous evil doer. Scripture tells us that civil government is God’s instrument, “an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:4). “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19), and he executes his dread vengeance in part through the civil authorities he has appointed for that purpose.

A Christian can and should rejoice in all good things, among which is the execution of justice in the world. I work in Midtown Manhattan.  I’m sorry I missed the party at Ground Zero.

David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).

Hearing the Word, seeking justice

Notre Dame’s Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga published an insightful essay more than a dozen years ago: Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship, which found its way into his book, Warranted Christian Belief. Here Plantinga distinguishes between two ways of approaching the Bible: (1) Traditional Christian Biblical Commentary (TCBC) and (2) Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC). The former has the following three characteristics:

First, Scripture itself is taken to be a wholly authoritative and trustworthy guide to faith and morals; it is authoritative and trustworthy, because it is a revelation from God, a matter of God speaking to us. . . . Secondly, an assumption of the enterprise is that the principal author of the Bible — the entire Bible — is God himself. . . . Thirdly . . . the fact that the principal author of the Bible is God himself means that one cannot always determine the meaning of a given passage by discovering what the human author had in mind.

HBC differs from TCBC in that the former “is fundamentally an enlightenment project; it is an effort to try to determine from the standpoint of reason alone what the Scriptural teachings are and whether they are true. Thus HBC eschews the authority and guidance of tradition, magisterium, creed, or any kind of ecclesial or ‘external’ epistemic authority.” HBC requires, among other things, that “faith commitments should play no role” and that a hermeneutic of suspicion should govern our reading of the text. We cannot simply affirm that the biblical text is true but must apply empirical scientific methods to discover, if possible, whether, e.g., the picture of Jesus painted in the gospels is historically accurate. This approach is obviously at variance with TCBC, which comes to Scripture believing it is indeed the Word of God and thus a reliable witness to Jesus Christ.

Plantinga is not wholly dismissive of HBC, which he admits has broadened our knowledge of the Bible and especially of the historical contexts in which it was written. However, HBC tends to view the Bible, not as a canonical whole, but as a collection of disparate texts with different human authors and thus conflicting emphases and teachings. Harmonizing these teachings is not the business of the biblical scholar, according to HBC, but to the theologian who is more evidently tethered to the church’s confession. What this means is that the practitioner of HBC “tends to deal especially with questions of composition and authorship, these being the questions most easily addressed by the methods employed.” Furthermore, he at least tacitly excludes the very question of most interest to believing Christians coming to the text, viz., what God is trying to tell us in his Word. There is thus some tension within the academy between the practitioners of biblical scholarship and theology, with the former often believing the latter to be naïvely precritical and thus unscientific.

I myself am neither a biblical scholar nor a theologian. Nevertheless, as a political scientist reading and pondering Plantinga’s essay, I cannot help but observe a similar cleavage within the discipline of political science, viz., that between the empirical political scientist and the political theorist or philosopher. Having taught political science at the undergraduate level for a quarter of a century, I can testify that students take an interest in it when they are either captivated by a vision of justice or scandalized by the reality of injustice. This was my own experience as a student, when I changed my major from music to political science after the Watergate scandal and the Turkish invasion of my father’s native island of Cyprus. Because virtually all my paternal relatives became refugees overnight, I sought desperately to understand why injustice seems to be such a persistent feature of human life. This is what animated my passion for politics.

However, the empirical political scientist would tell us that such concerns as the nature of justice should play no role in political science. Political philosophy, with its ongoing, millennia-old quest to discover the meanings of justice, statesmanship, good citizenship and civic friendship, is a subdiscipline of philosophy, or perhaps even of religion, and not of political science, which must necessarily limit itself to exploring those questions amenable to empirical methods. Political science can treat only political behaviour and must refrain from making normative statements about the good political order or the virtues conducive to it. Processing and analyzing voting statistics is political science. Exploring the relationship between electoral and party systems is political science. Debating the justice of proposed public policies or of a particular approach to the state is definitely not political science.

I have no intrinsic quarrel with either HBC or empirical political science, properly understood. There is much indeed to be said both for studying the Synoptic Problem and for analyzing how, e.g., different sociological groups voted in the 2008 presidential election. Nevertheless I strongly disagree with those who believe that these types of empirical academic pursuits by themselves constitute the disciplines of biblical scholarship and political science respectively. There is little to be said for the assumption that reason functions apart from basic worldview convictions. The belief that Scripture is not much more than a collection of literary texts with no overall meaning or message is itself borne of a conviction that it — or rather, they — are not essentially different from any other texts. The notion that we should bracket our faith commitments in studying the Bible is rooted in a (nonfalsifiable) belief that it is possible for human beings to reason apart from these commitments and to obtain some form of religiously neutral objectivity.

Something similar could be said of empirical political science as well. The claim of those following the behavioural methods is that they are simply observing the facts of political behaviour. Nevertheless they fail to recognize that this very term presupposes general agreement on what is political and what is not. This general agreement implicitly presupposes a normative order in which the distinction between political and nonpolitical makes sense. What is it that makes setting a country’s foreign policy political while a mother reading to her child before bed is nonpolitical? I would suggest that it has something to do with the jural aspect of the former. By its very nature, the state is called to balance legitimate interests within its jurisdictional sphere. It is, of course, all too common for states in the real world to get this balance wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, as in the Soviet Union and Germany between 1933 and 1945. Yet this entails, not an absence of justice as such, but its distortion or miscarriage. Justice, in short, is central to the very definition of politics, which behavioural political scientists cannot adequately grasp with their methods, however useful they might otherwise be.

In the same way, the canonical status of Scripture and its authority are precisely what give this ancient collection of writings scriptural status. The existence of a Society of Biblical Literature already in some fashion presupposes recognition of at least their historical unity, even if not all its members acknowledge the authority of the whole.

If the very things that draw students to biblical scholarship and to the study of politics are excluded from the two disciplines, then something is seriously amiss in the way both are conceptualized by their mainstream practitioners. If so, then our christian universities may be in the best position to bridge the cleavages between biblical studies and theology, on the one hand, and empirical political science and normative political theory, on the other.

Nevertheless, this will come about only if faculty in the relevant departments take the time to become aware of the historical forces – along with their spiritual roots – that have artificially driven apart the two sides of these disciplines. This requires recognition that the academic enterprise, normatively understood, is not only about specializing in a particular field or subfield, but also about seeing clearly – and with great delight – the interconnections among the disciplines and their respective modest places within the coherent whole that is God’s multifaceted creation.

David T. Koyzis teaches political science at Redeemer University College and is the author of Political Visions and Illusions.

Socialism, Secularism, and Social Leveling

In a recent piece for Religion & Liberty, a publication of the Acton Institute, I took on an analysis inspired by Bill Buckley’s old contention that the struggles between atheism and Christianity and socialism versus capitalism were ultimately the same conflict.  While I don’t go quite that far (though I think the idea has some merit), I group socialism and secularism together as different species of the larger genus we might call social leveling.

Here’s a clip:

I have argued that social leveling achieves a wrong result in the sense that it ignores things like merit and virtue in the form of socialism, and truth in the form of secularism. That alone is good reason to oppose it, but there is a bigger problem than that. The social leveling that is achieved by socialism and secularism can only be engineered by one entity in a society. That entity is the state. Thus, the state will become the effective owner of all property and the state will determine what manifestations of religion (if any) are acceptable to itself.

Read it all here.

— Hunter Baker (Union University)

A Response to “What Would Jesus Cut?”

Jim Wallis and a number of other Christians involved in politics are trying to gain attention for the question, “What would Jesus cut?” The answer to this question is supposed to be as obvious as it is in other moral contexts. For example, would Jesus lie about the useful life of a refrigerator he was selling for Best Buy? No way. Would he bully a kid into giving away his lunch money? Not a chance. Would you find him taking in the show at a strip club on interstate 40 in Arkansas? Unlikely to the extreme.

Would he agree to a 2% cut in the marginal tax rate for income made above $250,000? Would he EVER accept a cut in welfare spending? Those take a little more thought. Jim Wallis and others think it’s a no-brainer. Let us reason together.

As I look over what Wallis wrote, I see several things worth noting. For example, he complains that some Republicans want to cut domestic spending and international aid, while they support an increase in military spending. The implication is that this is obviously a sub-Christian position. But is it? Probably the most essential purpose of government is to protect the life and freedom of citizens. The government achieves this goal through military means. Unless one takes the position that Christianity implies corporate pacificism, then it is unclear the Republicans have blundered according to Christian ethics. Now, match the question of military spending versus international aid and/or domestic spending. Are the latter obviously superior to the former? No. It depends on not only what the stated objective is for the different types of spending, but whether they actually achieve their purposes. To simply state they the Republicans want to bolster military spending while cutting international aid and domestic spending is to achieve nothing at all by way of an indictment.

Here’s another example. Wallis complains bitterly that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans add billions to the deficit. He is referring to the extension of George W. Bush’s cuts in the marginal tax rates that existed under Bill Clinton. The first question I have is how does Jim Wallis know that the level of taxation was just to begin with? And why take Bill Clinton’s tax levels as the Platonic form of taxation? Maybe they were too high or too low. The highest marginal tax rates have fluctuated drastically in the United States during the last century. John F. Kennedy made a big cut, with impressive economic effects, as did Ronald Reagan. Is Wallis sure that by cutting taxes those men robbed the poor and gave to the rich? Maybe a lot of poor people got jobs because of them. And we aren’t even getting into the question of whether rich people actually have an enhanced duty to pay taxes. If there is a community need, is it righteous to grab a rich person and employ the power of legal coercion to extract the needed funds?

Still another problem with this redistributionist attitude about taxes and spending is that it assumes a zero sum state of affairs. For example, one could assume that the most people would be better off under a system like the old Soviet Union that spread resources out to citizens in a way that prized equality of rations. The United States system didn’t do that nearly as much, not nearly at all. But which of the two systems provided a better life for people? The answer is easy. The United States and its emphasis on liberty did. Why? A more free economic system produces far more wealth than an unfree one. If your equality system produces a little, bitty pie, it may give you a lot of philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn’t do as much actual good for people as the system that prizes free productivity and success over equality.

What Jim Wallis is saying comes from a good heart. He is worried about things like fairness and, of course, about helping people. But the reasoning he employs in doing so assumes that federal programs actually achieve what they set out to do, which is far from obvious, and that they don’t create incentives for behavior that results in greater problems, which often happens. He also assumes a zero sum society. It is entirely possible that economic thinking that concerns itself more with productivity than with equality will actually leave the great majority of people better off.

Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism and the winner of the 2011 Michael Novak Award.

On Income Inequality and the Question of Justice

The Acton Institute remembered that I wrote about Alabama and Susan Pace Hamill’s tax crusade in The End of Secularism.  In the book, I didn’t express agreement or disagreement with her argument.  Instead, I used the politics of the episode to show something about the flexible barriers between church and state.  Now, thanks to a prompt from the Acton Commentary series, I have written an article on contentions made about income inequality in a PBS program in which Hamill and others appeared.  Here it is:

recent episode of the PBS program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly addressed the issue of income inequality. Predictably, the conversation centered on the question of whether redistribution of wealth is a suitable way to remedy the purported problem.

Harvard professor Michael Sandel (who teaches a famous course on justice) suggested that redistribution is warranted because lots of different kinds of people work hard, but achieve vastly different results in terms of income. Why should a school bus driver work hard and make a low income, while a high level business manager works hard and makes a much higher income? Now, perhaps Dr. Sandel was limited by the constraints of television, but this framework for evaluating income inequality seems unsatisfying.

If effort is the key indicator, then why not give a superior claim to a man who sets a most arduous task for himself in the form of tearing down and rebuilding his house? Of course, it seems silly to reward him because his work doesn’t achieve anything. So, effort is not the key point. How about useful effort? A line operator in a factory might contribute something to thousands of pieces of work each day, but the engineer who designed the process made a far larger contribution because he enabled the entire production run. Even though it is true that we can distinguish levels of work as hard or easy, there are other things that matter, too. Effectiveness and impact come into play.

The Federalist Papers recognized that even if we could arrest the economic progress of all citizens and pull them back to the starting line, it would only be a matter of time before differences in motivation, virtue, practice, creativity, preparation, delayed gratification, and any number of other factors would lead to some substantially outpacing others. In Common Sense, Tom Paine identified the difference between rich and poor as one that could be accounted for with justice while royal status could not.   Does this mean that the rich always deserve to be rich and the poor always deserve their relative lack of wealth? No, but very often it is possible to explain why some people’s efforts warrant their large incomes in a way that others’ efforts do not.

Sandel went on to single out the estate tax as a way to remedy the unfair head start given to some citizens that allows them to enjoy more wealth than others. This view of what is fair and unfair echoes the one we just examined. It pays little attention to the question of what is a just cause and/or effect. If, for example, a woman rises from no great circumstance to become a medical doctor with a surgical practice, the income she earns is well-justified. She has to cultivate her mind through education, train extensively, experience substantial delayed gratification financially, endure long hours, give up family time, tolerate a very high level of technical risk and difficulty in her work, and be prepared to drop anything at inconvenient hours to meet a crisis. At the same time, the results (or the effects) or her work can be truly life-changing for patients. How can it be unjust for this woman to want her hard-earned capital to benefit her child? Should a very wise person be prevented from passing on life lessons to his child? Should a very healthy or beautiful person be forbidden to pass on outstanding genes? Why should money be different? Does Sandel’s notion of leveling out advantages through the estate tax actually result in more justice than allowing the natural effect of a lifetime of highly skilled and technically difficult work to take place?

Also in the episode, University of Alabama law professor and progressive tax crusader Susan Pace Hamill argued that Alabama’s low property taxes, high sales taxes (applying even to food), and income tax that applies even to low levels of income constitute a sub-Biblical ethic of revenue collection. Her reasoning is that the highest taxes apply to consumption, while the taxes that target wealth, like the property tax, are relatively low. Her proposal is that the tax system be made more progressive and the greater revenues (if realized) would go to finance public efforts like the educational system to improve equality of opportunity.

Hamill’s method of applying a Biblical ethic to taxation is highly laudable in that it avoids the pietistic impulse that individualizes Bible teaching to the point of social irrelevance. In addition, one can see how Hamill was able to move Alabama’s Reaganite governor, Bob Riley, to support her efforts to change the system. Conservatives have long focused on achieving equality of opportunity rather than equality of results. To the extent Hamill’s proposal does that, it is morally and rationally superior to Sandel’s case for redistribution. But the question remains whether progressivity of taxation (especially in the form of rising marginal tax rates) achieves justice.

Hadley Arkes, author of First Things (the book, not the magazine) approached the issue in the following way. We are all free agents responsible for our own actions.  If one man injures another man, the responsibility is clear and the one who did wrong must pay. If a man is injured because of his own mistake in judgment or because of recklessness, he should bear the cost of his own error. But if a man is injured in an accident that is no one’s fault, then the community should seek to help him. And how might we help this man? Should we simply find a rich man, grab him by the collar and demand he pay for medical care and income supplements? Not according to Arkes, because there is no rich man who bears the blame for the injury. No, if we wish to come to the aid of the injured man, then we should take on the burden in a proportionate way, as a community. If one percent from each person is needed to help make him whole, then we will all pay one percent each. On that basis, the rich man will still pay far more than a poor one, but the same rule will have applied to each man. And is that not the very definition of justice?

Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism and the winner of the 2011 Michael Novak Award.