Given the state of public discourse in the United States today, I can anticipate at least one possible reaction to my previous post, based on my criticism of tolerance as a moral virtue. The predictable reaction is that by criticizing tolerance as a moral virtue I am implicitly encouraging intolerance. But this is not the case.
For the sake of clarity, let me restate my case in more detail.
Although I’m skeptical of tolerance as a moral virtue in and of itself, I do think that tolerance can be a moral good or, at the very least, lead to or encourage morally good outcomes. But I think this is possible only when tolerance is part of a larger moral and ethical framework that limits or guides it. This is necessary because it is not possible, in practice and logically, to have unlimited tolerance. As I pointed out in the prior post, if tolerance is affirmed as a fundamental moral good in and of itself, then it cannot remain consistent with its own internal logic. If tolerance is a fundamental moral good, then it ultimately must be intolerant towards intolerance. Not only is this internally inconsistent, but as a fundamental moral good in and of itself, it makes no reference to another objective moral standard by which to judge what should or should not be tolerated.
This is why I claim that tolerance–if it is to make any sense at all–must be part of a larger moral framework. Otherwise, the moral and ethical determinations arising from a system predicated on a fundamental ethic of tolerance are ad hoc and, long-term, chaotic. This is why it’s useful to point out that tolerance-as-a-virtue worked well for much of American history, because for much of American history the society shared a common cultural commitment to norms, values, and beliefs that were, broadly speaking, Judeo-Christian in origin.
Some might claim that I’m pointing this out because, as a conservative, orthodox Christian, I’m biased toward a Judeo-Christian social ethic. They’re half correct.
I point this out because it’s true. It is an illustration of how tolerance works when the majority of society shares a common moral framework.
It is also true that I’m biased toward a Judeo-Christian social ethic. That’s not the main point of pointing out that for most of American history a Judeo-Christian ethic formed the basis on which tolerance, in reference to public morals, was practiced. It just happens to be the case that history supports my assertion. However, it does get to the point of this post.
Christians that engage with issues of public debate ought to base their approach on biblical ethics and they should be open and up-front about it. In other words, Christians should own their bias. For decades, orthodox Christians have been fooled into believing that the public square is a sphere of neutrality and those who enter that sphere must leave behind all of their biases and presuppositions. “After all,” we’re told, “not everyone who participates in public debates believes in God or Jesus or the Bible. Therefore, it’s not only ineffective but disrespectful to import your religion into conversations where not everyone agrees with your point of view.”
Aside from the fact that the whole premise of a public debate is to bring together people with different perspectives who don’t agree on everything, there are other good reasons for rejecting these claims.
One reason is illustrated by the approach taken by most of the mainline denominations and the liberal theology they’ve adopted. This approach can be broadly construed as the position that all of the claims of Christianity with relevance to public issues can be expressed in terms intelligble to non-Christians without making any reference to or relying upon explicitly Christian or biblical ideas. In many ways, this approach to Christian engagement with the public square is a continuation of the Englightenment-era project of Immanuel Kant. In fact, the best-regarded political philosopher to advance the idea that morals and ethics should only be expressed publicly in non-religious terms is John Rawls–discussed briefly in my last post. Rawls saw his project as thoroughly Kantian. And even if some self-described Christians disclaim the label Kantian, their approach, insofar as it claims that Christian conclusions can be obtained without reference to Christian ideas, bears a striking resemblance to Kant’s approach. What’s more, their approach implicitly agrees with the Rawlsian assertion that ethical claims are only valid publicly if they are put into terms acceptable, in theory, to everyone regardless of their worldview. More often than not, this ends with the conclusion that Christians should just avoid any explictly Christian or theological approach to political issues.
Orthodox Christians should have serious problems with this approach. Most of the reasons why can be explained by making reference to the book of Romans.
Reason #1: The whole point of God’s calling us to repentance through faith in Christ is for the public proclamation of the gospel to those who do not believe it, do not know it, or who reject it.
We have received grace and apostleship through Him to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations, on behalf of His name [. . .]Romans 1:5 HCSB
Reason #2: Shying away from fully, publicly, and faithfully grounding our claims in the truth of the Christian worldview implies that we are, in some sense, ashamed of the gospel, which does not reflect a positive commendation of its truth.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it, God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.Romans 1:16-17 HCSB
Reason #3: Despite the non-Christians’ protest to the contrary, they do understand the ethical demands of God’s law and their failure and inability to meet its demands.
For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse.Romans 1:18-20 HCSB
Reason #4: Defaulting to human reason and rationality as the baseline standard of truth, without reference to either the natural or revealed laws of God, is an act of idolatry, which leads to more idolatrous behavior.
For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.Romans 1:21-23 HCSB
Reason #5: The preference for human reason and rationality–and the idolatry that follows–is reflected particularly in open sexual impurity.
Therefore God delivered them over in the cravings of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.
This is why God delivered them over to degrading passions. For even their females exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The males in the same way also left natural relations with females and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error. And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a worthless mind to do what is morally wrong.Romans 1:24-28 HCSB
Reason #6: The open acceptance of sexual impurity is a reflection of deeper-seated problems wherein the reliance on human reason leads to the acceptance of all kinds of wickedness, and not just acceptance but open approval and encouragement.
And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a worthless mind to do what is morally wrong. They are filled with all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful. Although they know full well God’s just sentence–that those who practice such things deserve to die–they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them.Romans 1:28-32 HCSB
As I read these words in Romans, I cannot help but to think that they apply to and explain our current socio-political milieu like at not other time in history. Just look back over the last few years, especially since the onset of COVID-19. If you’re over the age of thirty-five, can you recall a period in your lifetime when public wickedness and chaos has been so open and celebrated? Even people as young as twenty-five ought to be able to recognize the rapidity and intensity with which formerly respectable institutions and individuals have capitulated to an atmosphere of chaos. In all likelihood, those younger than twenty-five have few reference points by which to judge, but rapid and intense are still appropriate descriptors.
That isn’t just some conservative pining nostalgically for the good ol’ days of yore. I’m not so naive to think that wickedness and immorality didn’t exist–privately or publicly–when I was younger. Nor am I so naive to be satisfied with a public ethic that rests comfortably on a position of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. In this sense, I don’t consider myself a conservative in the truest sense of the term. Rather, I consider myself a proponent of renewal and reformation based on explicitly Christian principles. Where I am truly conservative is in theology. I reject the various attempts to make the Christian message relevant. Instead, I assert that the gospel needs no help in the relevance department but, rather, faithful application to the relevant contemporary context–part of the point in my partial exegesis of Romans 1 above.
The most accurate description of what I advocate politically, socially, and theologically in this regard is not conservatism but resourcement. Although it is originally a Roman Catholic concept, it has found fertile ground within Protestantism. The basic premise is that rather than trying to reinvent the application of the Christian worldview in all of life’s spheres, Christians must reconnect to their sources, beginning with Scripture and moving outward to the Church Fathers and, later, the Reformers. In the North American context, this means, also, engagement with Puritan thought.
I want to avoid going off on a tangent, so I’ll address resourcement and the Puritans later. For now, let me recenter on this post’s main idea: owning our bias as Christians.
Let me do that by making what may seem like a boldly ridiculous claim: The level of depravity and wickedness in our society is a great opportunity for the gospel.
Like I’ve said before, the most obvious case of public disorder and wickedness today is the push being made by advocates of transgenderism and the LGBTQ agenda. People from diverse corners of the country and society are quickly recognizing the blatant wickedness and evil on display when it comes to public sexual ethics. This is in large part due to the degree to which these ideas have infiltrated public schools. You don’t have to spend too much time on social media before finding video, after video, after video of parents confronting school officials over transgender, LGBTQ, and hypersexualized material being presented to children.
On top of this, you have the exposure of the medical establishment in its pushing of invasive and dangerous procedures–marketed using the euphemism of “gender-affirming care“–without good clinical data and in spite of the fact that this “care” causes irreparable long-term harm.
People are recognizing these things as a blatant evil. However, can they explain why?
Some can, and do. But going further, can anyone explain how this wickedness, displayed as open sexual immorality, relates to other forms of open wickedness?
The Apostle Paul can.
In Romans 1, Paul explains that sexual immorality is but the outward manifestation of a deep-seated commitment to self-idolatry. If Paul is to be believed, this itself is a judgment from God, whose judgment extends to giving people over to depraved minds to the point that they not only practice wickedness but encourage it in others (Rom 1:32).
The burning of cities, the attacks on symbols of law and order, the open, taxpayer-subsidized use of drugs, the killing of unborn children and others–also often at taxpayer expense–and the list could go on, are signs of God’s judgment on a society given over to a depraved mind borne of idolatry. It is no different than similar clamities visited upon Israel and Judah when they turned away from God and toward Baal, Moloch, and Asherah. Just because modern, secular Americans are not bowing before statues in temples or cutting themselves on altars or burning their children alive does not make their actions any less idolatrous, suicidal, or condemnable for the harm it brings.
Who can or will make these connections, if not the Christian? What prophet will stand before governments to rebuke them for their wickedness, if not the Church that exercises the prophetic office? People all over America are recognizing wickedness, they are realizing that tolerance must have its limits. But in many cases, they do not have the vocabulary and framework to say why.
This is, to some degree, the Church’s fault.
Because for so long, so many Christians bought into the idea of a neutral public square, the bias of a neutral public square is on full display in our society. That bias is toward an idolatrous view of human autonomy that rejects all natural limits on human behavior. Accordingly, orthodox Christians ought to and must own their own bias and stop being ashamed of the gospel.
People with little to no knowledge of God, his Son, and his Word are recognizing the open flaunting of evil and unrighteousness in society. It is to these and for their benefit that we should speak up and speak up clearly. Not just them, but also to and for those who are manifesting God’s judgment on our society and culture. We must remember that the goal of our advocacy is different from the political speech of others because it is not directed at merely acheiving power but repentance and the subjection of all things to Christ (Eph 1:22; Phil 3:21; 1 Pet 3:22).
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 9:6-11 ESV, emphasis added
God chastens and scourges those he loves (Heb 12:6) with the goal that it will bring about “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11). America needs to hear the bias of Christians in the public square–in Congress, in state houses, in town halls, in school boards, and in every other public forum. But if we continue to insist on adopting the means, methods, and mentality of the current culture, then all we can expect is the same results that the current culture has produced.
Furthermore, we must do this for our own benefit. Like the watchman of Ezekiel, we will stand in judgment for the blood of those we fail to warn (Ezekiel 33:1-20). Even when it seems like we’re losing, we have the promises of God, one of which is that his word will not return to him void or ineffective (Isaiah 55:11).
We must own our bias. And in so doing, we will force the culture and society to own its bias, too.