The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Necessary Rebuke

This is unequivocally good news for the United States--and, in my opinion, for Christianity, too:
Christian conservatives, for more than two decades a pivotal force in American politics, are grappling with Election Day results that repudiated their influence and suggested that the cultural tide — especially on gay issues — has shifted against them.

They are reeling not only from the loss of the presidency, but from what many of them see as a rejection of their agenda. They lost fights against same-sex marriage in all four states where it was on the ballot, and saw anti-abortion-rights Senate candidates defeated and two states vote to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

It is not as though they did not put up a fight; they went all out as never before: The Rev. Billy Graham dropped any pretense of nonpartisanship and all but endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Roman Catholic bishops denounced President Obama’s policies as a threat to life, religious liberty and the traditional nuclear family. Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition distributed more voter guides in churches and contacted more homes by mail and phone than ever before.

“Millions of American evangelicals are absolutely shocked by not just the presidential election, but by the entire avalanche of results that came in,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Ky., said in an interview. “It’s not that our message — we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong — didn’t get out. It did get out.

“It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed,” he said. “An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”
Long quote, and I'm sorry for that; but this development is I think critically important, and needs to be looked at in the round. Let me explain why I think it's good for both our pluralistic society and for Christianity as a whole.

First, for the country. Where the law governing the whole of the citizenry can only be justified by the religious tenets of some of the citizens, sectarian strife is inevitable. If religious conformity can be imposed by the State, then politics becomes a zero-sum game, with the very survival of those who do not agree with the politically dominant forces at stake. There can, quite simply, be no peace beyond the temporary cessation of hostilities caused by stalemate.

Next, political failure is in fact good for the churches.

Many Christians have taught themselves to believe that their theocratic vision will be uniquely blessed by God, and thus will be uniquely successful. No, really, this view exists. In Washington. The profusion of links might seem to imply that I believe that the United States in in danger of a dominionist takeover; I certainly do not. It is an extreme example of a problem, that in a much less toxic form, occurs when even mainstream groups seeking for their vision of God's law to be secularly enforced. So, for example, when the Mormon Church effectively tipped the vote against same sex marriage in California, they had nobody but themselves to blame when those who support equal civil marriage view them as oppressors. By unilaterally demanding a non-reciprocal toleration, while gaming the political system to impose their will on theological grounds, religious bodies invite blowback. As in fact resulted in the wake of Prop 8, leaving the Mormon Church feeling attacked.

That's another problem: When you take up the cudgels, convinced that you have God on your side, you don't expect those you attack to fight back--and you blame them for trying. And, of course, as the original article that started this reverie points out, sometimes you lose politically while also eroding your own rapport with not only those outside your own faith, but those within:
The election outcome was also sobering news for Catholic bishops, who this year spoke out on politics more forcefully and more explicitly than ever before, some experts said. The bishops and Catholic conservative groups helped lead the fight against same-sex marriage in the four states where that issue was on the ballot. Nationwide, they undertook a campaign that accused Mr. Obama of undermining religious liberty, redoubling their efforts when a provision in the health care overhaul required most employers to provide coverage for contraception.

Despite this, Mr. Obama retained the Catholic vote, 50 to 48 percent, according to exit polls, although his support slipped from four years ago. Also, solid majorities of Catholics supported same-sex marriage, said Dr. Jones, the pollster.
The bishops, by expanding the universe of those subject to their strictures beyond Catholicism, have diminished their authority within.

But these worldly reasons are subsidiary, really. Here's the real reason why the coercive power of the State and Christian teaching are a poor match: Christianity is not about law. It's about love. Law doesn't do love well, or grace either. It can't forgive seventy times seven times, it can't pay the late-arriving workers the same as those who put in the full day. Law can't make the last first, or the first last, without wreaking injustice. Because, ultimately, law is a way of maximizing justice between people who are not bound together by love, but by lesser ties--commercial in contract law, physical propinquity in property law, happenstance, in tort and criminal law. But not by love.

And so, as I wrote over four years ago:
What I mean by that last part of this is that the fundamental concept of mirroring the law (civil) to the law (divine) is in error. As a lawyer, I know that law is a blunt instrument. It seeks finality, and a determination of right or wrong that can be reduced to a brief order. Law and Grace are inherently in tension. Not contradictory, but in tension. Where each can be afforded their rightful sway, this tension can be creative and dynamic, as I think St. Paul makes clear in Romans. It's not that Grace obliterates Law; it transmutes it from something externally imposed to the harmony of created with Creator.

In civil society, the role of Grace is severely circumscribed. Not entirely obliterated, mind you; the pardon power allows the Executive to forgive the offenses of convicted criminals, and in New York law a court may, under especially compelling circumstances, dismiss a criminal indictment in the interest of justice. But a civil court cannot forgive seventy times seven times. The decision to forgive belongs to the wronged person, not the neutral arbiter assessing guilt and, where required by the law, punishment. And Law is expressly seen as the application of force, socially authorized violence, to put it bluntly, to secure compliance with society's rules. So those who seek to pour Christian concepts into the civil law are in fact cutting them off from their source of spiritual power. Even if they were to succeed, they would uncouple Law from Grace, and end up with a harsh caricature of Christianity--as did the Puritans, and for much the same reason.
Perhaps this electoral defeat will cause some Christians to re-think their relationship on power, and to seek conversion of the heart. To preach the gospel, in short--using words when necessary.

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