Reforming Politics One Citizen at a Time

 (A review of Matthew T. Parks and C. David Corbin, Keeping Our Republic, Principles for a Political Reformation. Resource Publications, 2011. $14.)

 After the 1789 Constitutional Convention adjourned and the exhausted delegates spilled into the streets of Philadelphia, someone asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got–a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s response, always wise and witty, was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

 Is that just an old-fashioned word…like “virtue” or “Presbyterian?” You don’t hear it much anymore. In fact, to describe America as a republic is to distinguish yourself as part of a well-informed elite. It is far more common for people to speak of our country as a “democracy.”

 But when we press for democracy in developing nations, i.e., for free and fair elections and universal suffrage, are we making them just like us? Surely not. There is more to the genius of the American political experiment than the rule of a majority vote. But there is also less. When we moved to universal adult suffrage with the nineteenth amendment, did we take on a different form of government? Did we move from oligarchy to democracy? Only the cynical say so.

 They don’t understand, however, what the authors of Keeping Our Republic understand, and what the Founders before them understood. America is a republic, a particular form of democratic self-government, and we forget this to our peril. So our Assistant Provost, Matthew Parks, and PPE Dean David Corbin have written this slender but important volume to take their fellow citizens through a crash course in who they need to be politically if their liberty is at all precious to them, republicanism 101 as it were. They offer the book in the hope of leading a twenty-first century “political reformation.”

 The remedy we usually hear for the American decline is to “throw the bums out!” But if a healthy republic requires healthy republican citizens—people who understand what liberty is and what it requires, and who are vigilant in its defense—then the battle for our republic is in the citizens themselves. Popular government—government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Lincoln put it—is a delicate institution that depends on there being citizens who understand the principles of liberty and are disposed to sacrifice the immediate pleasures self-indulgence for the noble prospect of self-government.

 So the focus of this book is not populist elite-bashing, much as the entitled Ivy Leaguers who think it their natural right to rule us surely deserve it. It is Joe American to whom the authors are speaking, and no doubt also José American, as well as any citizen legislators whose consciences turn them to learned patriotic books. “We have lost touch with what it means to be a citizen of a republic.” The task therefore, is that we all, regardless of political party, “relearn how to think and how to act as republicans.” This book is for making citizens once again out of the subjects we have become.

 (This review appeared originally in the May 2011 issue of The Empire State Tribune, the student newspaper at The King’s College.)

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).

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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).

Our Hellish Doctrine

In Sunday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat, a Roman Catholic, gave us “A Case for Hell.” (Yes, The New York Times sometimes delivers sermons for us so that we are not without appropriate Sabbath reading.)

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

As you can see, his argument comes down to sovereign human choice-making. I find that just a little less self-centered than the self-justifying universalist view he is trying to refute.

It is interesting to me that in his argument he makes no mention of Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant. Without Christ, his subtle indignation that anyone would suggest that Gandhi is anywhere but in heaven is more appealing. Only the news that’s fit to print, I suppose.

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).

The Golden Rule in Politics

There has been a surge of books recently on what the politics of a Christian should be. Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible, Gerson and Wehner’s City of Man, and Beckwith’s Politics for Christians. Carl Trueman’s Republocrats takes a more bipartisan, transpartisan or multipartisan approach, depending on how you view it. (Interestingly, none of these books is written by a political scientist.) I will have my own book out in October.

This is far short of a book (though they have a fine book, Keeping Our Republic), but EPSA members Matthew Parks and David Corbin have a reflection on the Golden Rule in its relation to the budget battle on Capitol Hill in their Worldmag column today, “Revitalizing Golden Rule Politics.”

But even if the Tea Party “brand” has been tarnished or the kettle has lost some of its steam, the movement has already accomplished two things of lasting value: It has forced political leaders to confront our fiscal crisis with more seriousness than we have seen in a generation and revitalized “Golden Rule” politics as the most just and reasonable way out of it. …

Is there a simple way out of our fiscal crisis? Not if simple means only tinker around the edges of the status quo. But Reagan and the Tea Party have reminded us of a simple principle that should guide all American public policy: the Golden Rule. Why is it right for the Tea Party to insist that we obey the (real) Constitution? Because it is the common rule of our politics and the common security for all who live under it. Why it is right for the Tea Party to call for immediate, serious action to reduce our long-term debt? Because you don’t leave your mess for others to clean up. Why is it right for the Tea Party to challenge “earmarks” and every other form of special tax or spending privilege? Because these do unto others what I would not have done to myself—making them work so that I can eat.

So it seems that our Lord’s Golden Rule entails the rule of law, in particular the principle that those who make the laws should themselves be governed by whatever laws they make. This is what John Adams, our second president, had in mind when he commended (quoting Harrington) “an empire of laws, and not of men.” If we could unambiguously establish that principle in Washington and in the fabric of American thinking once again, our government would be more just and more Christian at the same time.

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.

Havers on James Burnham and the Anti-elite Conservative

EPSA member Grant Havers writes for Telos 154 (Spring 2011), considering James Burnham and how the right is inherently as anti-elite as the left. Havers considers Burnham’s conservatism especially through Burnham’s reading of Machiavelli. See here.

Politics, Evil, and Hope

After last week’s column on the West Bank Fogel massacre (“Middle East Murder“), it struck me–or I should say weighed heavily on me–that there is a lot of evil making the news these days. It crowds into limited news time and forces itself on our attention.

Just after the beginning of the Jewish sabbath on March 11, terrorists from Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade (so-called) broke into a West Bank settlement home and butchered Rabbi Uri Fogel in his bed, along with his infant daughter, his wife, Ruth, and two of their sons, ages 11 and 4. This was not shooting from a distance; this was throat slashing and heart stabbing. Two children survived the massacre only because the monsters who flooded the home with blood overlooked them. The 12-year-old daughter arrived home after midnight from a youth event to behold what no human being should ever witness.

That same day, the earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan with a resultant nuclear crisis that has pushed even the misery of 450,000 people whom the disaster made homeless.

This volunteer fireman lost his wife, his son’s family, and his four grandchildren when he went to close a wall against the tsunami. Warning, it is very sad.

Then there’s Libya where the self-styled Mad Dog of the Middle East has been shooting and bombing his own unarmed people (as well as the subsequently armed ones) when he foresaw their protests sending him into exile as Hosni Mubarak’s room-mate.

And all of that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as far as human suffering in the world is concerned. It’s in Syrian dungeons, Thai brothels, Brazilian slums, and it’s on your street.

In this week’s column at Worldmag.com, “Overcome by Evil These Days?,” I indicate where the wise turn when they come to face the ubiquitous evil of a fallen world.

[C]onsider that this face full of suffering is just a small sliver of all the evil that infests the world—in dungeons, in halls of power, in cities and villages, and in private homes everywhere. We’re able to get through each day only by not knowing anything more than glimpses of what’s going on.

Confronted with this, we are tempted to seek remedies in political reform and military force, and these can accomplish real good. God established government to restrain and punish evil. But, this side of the Lord’s return, political hopes always exceed human abilities, and efforts to right wrongs almost always bring further unhappiness whether by unforeseen accident or opportunistic scoundrels. So we pursue justice and mercy, but for deliverance we look beyond what we can do.

When we get so deep in the mire of disaster and iniquity that our legs weaken and our hearts fail, we are wise to turn to the Lord who, knowing the full depth of all evil, addressed it on the cross. Jesus told his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He defeated evil with a view to the New Creation that is yet to come and that will forever banish tears to the past (Revelation 21). But He gives victory over evil also in you and people like you in Japan and Gaza and Libya and everywhere under the sun. And He gives strength in suffering to His people as they faithfully await “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Note: I understand there is a difference between the evil of natural disasters and the evils of tyranny and terrorism. But in different ways they all result of the fall, but our hope in the face of all of them is eschatological and centered in Christ.

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).