|The Great Seal of the United States|
My DAW has been exercised of late, yet again, by family and friends in America who are of the Christian persuasion—not because they are Christian, but because they seem so clearly to live inside a type of fundamentalist Christianity that is at odds with the deliberately conceived, original secular organization of these United States. If it were possible to weigh media coverage, the sheer tonnage of headlines, op-ed pieces, videos, sermons, etc., relevant to Christian activism in politics and the war for America’s soul in our culture, would take our collective breath away.
For the moment and from the Christian perspective, the “hill” in America upon which Christians seem so eager to lay down their lives, overlooks a flagging Constitution assaulted by screeching pro-choice demons trying to drag the whole country down to hell through the perversion of Amendments 9, 14, and 5, which were never intended to be understood as anything but pro-life, or by anti-Second Amendment liberals who seem committed to disarming the Milites Christi, the Soldiers of the Lord, as they form ranks to combat the heathen enemy of secular humanism.
With a regularity second only to that mustered by poor Job’s harping wife, I am reminded that I seem more and more openly to be challenging Christians and Christianity in America with my Nietzschean inspired blogs and rants. My ears ring with the question—when will I ever get around to actually trying to challenge myself to reason with Christians in America about their presence in a secular nation? And they continue ringing: why do I not try to begin crafting, possibly, Christian-oriented visions and intellectual strategies about what secular America inspired by “Christian” virtue could look like?
So, ecce homo, my bride; Dutifully Attentive Hubby is present and accounted for. Let us see what we can do to reason as a Christian might in the very profane wasteland of secular America, girding up our philosophical loins by that same sentiment that motivated Abraham Lincoln:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
(It still must be said, however, even if in a very loud stage whisper, that poor Nietzsche would definitely be appalled if he knew I was writing on this theme in the context of his Great Unlearning…)
Wiki-moment: From 1782 until 1956 e pluribus unum, which is to say: “out of many, one,” functioned as the de facto motto of the United States; but this motto was never codified by law. In 1956 the U.S. Congress adopted as the official motto for the country, through H.J. Resolution 396, “In God We Trust.”
Some of us, those with greying temples, remember the 1970 challenge to the “In God We Trust” motto, where the 9th Circuit Court ruled that "It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency 'In God We Trust' has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise." This decision was cited again in the more recent 2004 challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance in the American schools, where the Supreme Court ruled that such “acts of ‘ceremonial deism’ are ‘protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.’”
The wiki-gods give one more piece of interesting information concerning the supposedly Christian character of America: “In Zorach v. Clauson (1952), the Supreme Court also held that the nation's "institutions presuppose a Supreme Being" and that government recognition of God does not constitute the establishment of a state church as the Constitution's authors intended to prohibit.”
That said, and Court decisions notwithstanding, which, it seems to me, have correctly perceived the ceremonial framing and intent of this sort of fairly vacuous American deism, Deity has been included in Americana since the very earliest days of the country. On the Great Seal of the United States, for example, which was designed in 1782, in addition to the e pluribus, there are also two reverse-side inscriptions, the first of which is Annuit cœptis, derived from Virgil (Aeneid, IX, ln. 625), which translates as "He approves of the undertakings" or "He has approved of the undertakings." The context from Virgil makes crystal clear that “He” refers to Deity (in Virgil’s case, Jupiter), so the analogous translation into English should be uncontested. Interestingly, this second theistic inscription replaced an original and equally theistic phrase: Deo Favente (perennis), which translates as “with God on our side (through the ages)” or “with God favoring.”
The second inscription on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States is Novus Ordo Seclorum, “a new order of the ages,” which derives from Virgil’s Bucolics, (Eclogue Four, lns. 5-8), and which is often understood, at least in the context of Virgil, as having quasi-messianic or utopian overtones. It is easy enough to wrap the American myth around these lines:
Now the last age by Cumae's Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Spiritual men created a secular Nation. I have taken some pains to rehearse these American mottos in order to show that, although the Founding Fathers also took some pains to keep official Religion (read: Christianity) out of the hallowed hallways of the officially secular State, in matter of fact the notion of Deity was never far removed from the minds of those Servants of the democratic ideal, those American philosophes, who were busy trying to craft in and for young America, a type of political and social environment whose Freedom would not easily become prey to the almost infinite variety of wiles used by lovers of Tyranny. In this, the American philosophes preceded the French politicians in their creation of the secular state by almost a full century. Separation of the Churches and the State in France was not enacted until the Third Republic, by the law of 1905; but the law covers essentially the same principles: the religious neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. The French call their secularism laïcité.
My Caveat. Now I have to admit to an initial reluctance in imagining an America that can both remain true to her destiny of inherent freedom, and yet also be engaged in some kind of reasonable interaction with those actively seeking to promote the Christian faith, or, indeed, any type of faith system. I am reluctant because I do not think it philosophically plausible either to challenge the existential notion of freedom that belongs to the essence of secular nations, nor am I persuaded that Christian virtue is in fact virtuous at all. I made the case for this latter point in my last blog Thinking About Living in an Empty Theater, where it seems clear that “belief” in a religious idea, such as God exists or Jesus is the Messiah, is not itself an action of any meaningful sort, but rather the acceptance as true of a certain set of concepts (like believing in gravity) that does not require from the believer any specific type of ethical action. Notwithstanding popular opinion, belief in Christian metaphysical ideas does not imply any specific ethical conduct—except perhaps to turn the other cheek, which is a clear ethical teaching of Jesus, as opposed simply to teaching a metaphysical worldview, which contains ideas such as—angels exist; there will be a final judgment; the Messiah will return with the sounding of the trumpets, etc.
Furthermore, it seems indisputable that most types of religion in general, and certainly Christianity, are inherent forms of tyranny just looking for an environment to conquer. This is in the very nature of the command to convert others to the Faith. Religion seeks conquest, not negotiation and consensus; and it is for this reason that I do not see much hope in the attempt to reconcile Christian belief to the American democratic reality. For an example of this type of tyranny by the religious in the American academy, read “Dodging the God Squad.”
Finally, while I am not at all sure that I can write anything that the American Evangelical Christian will be interested in reading, I know that it is certainly possible to establish acceptable ground-rules relevant to thinking about the question of being Christian in secular America, and that this process will be useful to the greater American Christian community if not to the fundamentalist. It is possible to bring intellectual clarity to the questions and problems surrounding the idea of being Christian in a world become secular, a world whose course is being very deliberately charted through the churning waters of philosophical relativism. But as always… it is a gospel that will be heard only by “men of good will.”
A Fundamental Philosophical Obstacle. Much of my intuitive reserve concerning the possibility of attempting to argue Christianity into the mainstream of a secular nation, is due to “a square peg in a round hole dilemma.” The religious state or institution is structurally theocratic in nature, which is to say that the members of the R.S. all accept the faith, and therefore the hierarchy of the religious state, with Deity at the top of the heap and then all the rest staggered underneath—but each of the players agrees initially to believe (metaphysics) the same thing concerning the game that is being played—e.g., that they are Christian. This is the square peg of the analogy.
Such, however, is not necessarily the case with the secular democratic state, which is the round hole of the analogy. Members of the S.D.S. do not have to agree on anything at all, unless it is that if they do not all agree to play (ethics) the game of the democratic state (vote, public debate and discourse, etc.), then the state will evolve into something that will resemble the will of only those players who do show up to play the game of nation-building, instead of resembling the consensus of all the inhabitants.
So how then do we persuade the round hole to accept the square peg? How does the Religious Man fit into and contribute to a secular democratic Nation? The American round hole is deliberately designed to accept plurality of belief and opinion, so there is not any implicit difficulty in the square peg fitting into the rather commodious round hole of the American intellectual environment. But this will only work if the square peg does not try to impose a set of preconditions on the round hole, such as acceptance of the square peg game-book. If members of the Christian institution in America would cease trying to convert others to sharing their particular Worldview filled with triune Gods and angels and demons, then there would be possibilities for argument and consensus to be built around specific social and political issues. This, though, clearly runs counter to the American Evangelical tradition and to its missionary intent, which clearly holds that the Bible instead of the Constitution should be used to determine the law of the land in the U.S.
In a work entitled A Christian Manifesto, the American Evangelical philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer clearly addresses the tension, indeed the philosophical incompatibility that exists between theocratic Christianity and a secular democratic Nation, from the pro-Christian point of view. His analysis of this situation of tension in America does not differ essentially from the one I am here arguing—we are just rooting for different teams in the American game.
On the other side of the table, one public policy analyst advances what I consider to be a fair-minded and fairly accurate appraisal of American fundamentalism, which is to say that it is a blend of “Southern Conservatism, bastardized Protestantism, some Pauline doctrine, gross nationalism and a heavy dose of naive anti-intellectualism.” This writer concludes his piece by quoting Cornel West, who famously noted that “the fundamentalist Christians want to be fundamental about everything, except ‘love thy neighbor.’”
So, because the Bible is the authoritative document for the Christian Faith concerning belief and conduct, it might be reasonable to begin our thinking by asking whether there are biblical principles that can inform this conversation for both parties, religious and secular alike. What would the virtuous life for a Christian in America look like?
The Jesus “ethic” and The Great Commission. Did Jesus leave behind for his followers a system of rules to govern our conduct (an ethic), or did he really just set out a worldview that could serve to govern our attitudes (a metaphysic)? The texts of the Gospels, principally Matthew 5 & 6, reveal a Jesus who is primarily interested in the type of attitude we adopt toward the world, which can be summarized as LOVE. The Jesus teaching about love contains as an essential ingredient an invitation to liberate ourselves from the cares of this material life—e.g., love your enemies; pray for those who wish you evil; be religious in private; do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but in heaven; do not serve money; do not worry about the needs of your life – God will provide. As an ethic, about the only actual principle for specific conduct that Jesus leaves with us is, famously, to “turn the other cheek.” He asks us to yield up our rights to all and sundry, when we turn the other cheek, not just to those who wish us well, but also, and especially, to those who wish to harm us.
When, therefore, we come to Jesus’ Great Commission recorded in Matthew 28, what exactly should be the content of the message we are commissioned to carry to the world…“teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”? Because the only real commands Matthew tells us about are those from chapters 5 & 6, relevant to the attitude of LOVE, yielding to others, and liberating ourselves mentally from the enslaving materiality of this world order. Somehow, it would seem that the content of belief (Trinity et al) has replaced the original love-attitude acclaimed by the Founder of the Jesus movement.
Another passage of interest concerning Jesus’ teaching about our attitude toward the things of this world, is Matthew 22:21: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." The English translation exactly renders all the nuances of the Greek text, so there is nothing further to be gleaned from an exegesis in this instance. This passage, in which Jesus responds to the question of whether it is lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, is widely used to characterize the relationship between religious (read: Christian) authority and earthly authority. The response is clever, and apparently “seditious,” because it hinges on Point of View. From the Religious Man’s point of view, goes this interpretation, all things ultimately belong to God, and therefore the coin belongs to God first, and never really to Caesar. Jesus and his initiates understood the response in this way. From the Earthly Man’s point of view, however, the coin belongs only to Caesar. A rhetorical nebula obscures the view of the audience.
According to one interpreter, “the Catechism of the Catholic Church interprets this passage to mean that Christians are obliged to disobey Caesar when Caesar's dictates violate God's law.” However, this interpretation goes against the otherworldly orientation of Jesus’ general teaching that we have just seen, as it goes against the overall teaching of the New Testament, which, as we shall see shortly, is submission to the State; and this interpretation is finally contradicted by the Catechism itself, which reads this passage in exactly the opposite manner (1994:2238ff, and esp. 2240).
Paul et al. Unlike Jesus, the Apostle Paul joins the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, Peter, James, John, and a variety of Old Testament authors, in having very real and clear opinions about life and conduct vis-à-vis the government, both religious and secular; and the key word is submission.
· Heb 13:17 (authorship unknown, but not Paul)- Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
· Romans 13:1-5 - Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
· Titus 3:1 - Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work…
Paul is going to continue to be interesting to us, because unlike Jesus, who teaches loving attitude and non-materialistic worldview, Paul has crystal clear ideas about specific ethical conduct for the believing Church. Jesus is the metaphysician of the early Messianic Movement, but Paul is its ethicist.
It is clear that Paul calls us to submit to those who have authority over us, and there is no reason not to assume that Paul intends this submission to be toward both temporal and spiritual authority. Paul also makes a sublime argument (in the Epistle to the Galatians) that separates out the philosophical notion of Law and its condemnation from Grace and the inclusiveness of its salvation, which means that he also clearly understands the non-accountable nature of Grace, and that we are called to the life of Grace and not of Law. So, as it is clear that Grace carries with it no specific rules for conduct, in what seems a stunning inconsistency Paul reaches back into the cultural baggage of his Mosaic Law to bring forth these ethical principles, as though there were no essential link between the res Christi and the fulfillment, and thereby the nullification, of the Jewish Law. So the rather vaguely good “Go, and sin no more” of the Jesus of Grace takes on very concrete legal reality with the Paul of the Law. Watch the list grow!
I CORINTHIANS 6:9-11 [cf. Galatians 5]– Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.
What this looks like in list form is not at all dissimilar to the ritual laws found in Deuteronomy or Leviticus:
(1) Fornicators shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
(2) Idolaters shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
(3) Adulterers shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
(4) The effeminate shall not enter the kingdom of God.
(5) Homosexuals shall not enter the kingdom of God.
(6) Thieves shall not enter the kingdom of God.
(7) The covetous will not enter the kingdom of God.
(8) Drunkards shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
(9) Revilers shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
(10) Swindlers shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
The Bible and the Nation—Summaries & Conclusions. So, what have we gleaned about our original question: What would the virtuous life for a Christian in America look like? In our thinking about the literature did we in fact discover any biblical principles that could inform us on this question for both sides, religious and secular?
We learned that Jesus seems to encourage us to recognize the authority of the State in the "Render unto Caesar…” passage, which squares with the later “teaching” of the New Testament concerning submission to those God puts in authority over us.
We also learned that Jesus had a fairly universal message, which could for that reason possibly speak even to the modern American: to make sure our attitude is marked by love (defined by self-sacrifice and our willingness to allow ourselves to be wronged – “turn the other cheek”), and that we have a worldview defined by other-worldliness and non-materialism.
Now, while I am sure the second point (re worldview) has and will continue to find takers in America, I am not at all sure about the definition of love that Jesus would encourage us to have. In a world of laws that protect everyone (at least in theory) against every possible violation by the Other, and which encourages us to resist with all our might any type of victimhood, the “turn the other cheek” definition of love is unlikely to catch on any time soon.
We learned that the Apostle Paul, along with a coterie of other Old and New Testament authors, had the same clear opinion about attitudes and conduct with respect to governments in authority over us, and that they are unanimous in encouraging us all to submit to earthly authority as to God. This is consistent with Jesus’ "Render unto Caesar…”
However, we also learned that Paul, who is of especial interest to this question, was not at all universalizing in his interpretation of the otherwise universalizing message of the Jesus Movement, but that he clearly decoded the messianic message through the filter of the Jewish notion of Law and accountability.
Conclusion #1. A biblical and therefore Christian virtue for believers in America is to accept (i.e., to submit to) those put in authority over them, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” This seems pretty straightforward to me; so I find myself at a loss to understand why so many American fundamentalist Christians rebel against this very Christian virtue by seeking to identify Obama, whom apparently God has chosen just for them, as the Antichrist (video), or not, or by compiling Bible verses about why they should hate, resist, and indeed overtly rebel against Obama’s nefarious influence.
Conclusion #2. Obedience to the laws of the land, which were established by those put in authority over us, would seem to be a Christian virtue for American believers. Which is why it seems so odd to me that a Christian lawmaker could run for office, tentatively to serve the people, but then announce that he does not and will not serve man, but God. It seems to me that this lawmaker seeks the very opposite of what his Christian virtue might expect from him.
Conclusion #3. It would seem that to participate enthusiastically in the democratic process is a Christian virtue, not in order to advance Paul’s rather narrowly filtered vision of a world of Old Testament Jewish laws and judgment, but rather to take to the American streets with the more universal messages of the Jesus movement – to love your neighbor as yourself; to live a life of service to the Other; to overcome the naïve and crude materiality of the world in order to be able to more truly perceive what is true and enduring about the world.
Conclusion #4. It would seem to me that to use the Bible a little less as the replacement for the life of the mind is a Christian virtue. The Bible is a complex document, and there is not agreement among Christians about how to interpret this document. Pastors like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, for example, teach a Prosperity Gospel, but this “gospel” is not at all consistent with biblical teaching. So, when thinking about various Christian pastors and churches, a Christian virtue for the “Everyday Joe” who is not a scholar would be to cultivate a certain Noble-mindedness in reading and interpreting of the scriptures.
Conclusion #5. There are actually a number of thought traditions that value calmness of the mind as a virtue. The Christian spiritual life, among those traditions, has long taught that the outer life should reflect an inner stillness of the mind. This is the famous: “Be still and know I am god (Psalm 46:10)” moment that my Sunday school and later seminary teachers tried using to quiet down my natural proclivity to intellectual rambunctiousness. This seems to me to be a virtue worth cultivating.
It would seem to me that these “Christian” virtues are, in reality, just simply virtuous attitudes and actions; and that the practice of a life defined by such virtues will satisfy all the conditions for being a good man trying to lead the good life. At the end of such a life one could say of himself: “Aye, I… stood there, and the god stood by me…” (Ezra Pound, Cantos II).