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“I am not Charlie Hebdo” – David Brooks

9 Jan

From David Brooks:

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.

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The Political Philosophy of John Calvin by James Bruce

30 Dec

From Dr. James Bruce:

John Calvin

What is Calvin’s relationship to the foundations of modern politics? One obvious answer is that Calvin doesn’t have one. On this view, modern political thought begins by rejecting revelation (Christian or otherwise) and embracing reason. Calvin doesn’t contribute anything, according to this position; on the contrary, if anything, Calvin is an obstacle to be overcome! So studying Calvin is, for the political philosopher, just a waste of time, or, to put it more gently, studying Calvin may be interesting for any number of reasons, but politics is not one of them. Others take the exact opposite approach. On this view, to know Calvin is to know modernity. What was planted as a Reformation sprouted as the Glorious Revolution and grew into the American Founding. The views run the gamut, from one extreme to the other, because there are also any number of mediating positions that say that Calvin’s theology plays a role, but by no means the only role, in the development of what we have come to call modern politics.

But it’s even more complicated, because people don’t just disagree about the relationship between Calvin’s theology and modern politics; they also disagree about the particulars of each. And, to put it mildly, the interpretive challenges are absolutely enormous. What, after all, is modernity? It is notoriously difficult to define. Take a handful of examples: Let’s say that a confidence in reason constitutes modernity. If so, then David Hume isn’t modern, which seems odd. Perhaps it’s our strict separation of church and state. If so, then Massachusetts, which had tax-supported churches, wasn’t modern until 1833. A confidence in the free market? Marx isn’t modern. A rejection of revealed religion? Then Roger Sherman and some of the other Founders weren’t modern. Atheism? Descartes wasn’t modern. Etc.

And, of course, interpreters of Calvin spend no small amount of time disagreeing with each other over Calvin’s views on almost everything. If one believed everything written about him, then Calvin was a Renaissance humanist and a Protestant scholastic; a nominalist and a realist; a voluntarist and an intellectualist; a theological systematizer and an antisystematic biblicist; a lover of liberty and a burner of heretics.

We must acknowledge, too, that we are not disinterested participants in these debates. If we are (for want of a better word) secularists, then we want Calvin’s contribution to be nonexistent or unnecessary. Calvin played either no role or his role was limited, saying in theological language what someone else said without it. If, by contrast, we are (for want of a better word) religious, then we may want a louder voice for religion in the public square. We may be predisposed to find in Calvin something unique and special that is relevant for us today. Even here, though, things get complicated: If we are Reformed, we may hope for some kind of endorsement of Reformed theology due to the attractiveness of the American Founding. If we are Roman Catholic, we may want to say that Calvin is distinctively modern and that’s why Calvin is awful.

With these kinds of interpretive problems before us, Ralph C. Hancock is to be congratulated simply for, as the English say, having a go at it in his book Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, recently republished by St. Augustine’s Press. Taking Calvin and making him a political philosopher is like taking Isaac Newton and making him a theologian—it can be done, certainly, but it is a delicate surgery nonetheless.

To the question—what’s Calvin’s relationship to the foundations of modern politics?—Hancock takes a view somewhere between the two extremes. That seems to be the most reasonable approach, but Hancock pursues this middle road in an unexpected way. To see why Hancock’s approach is so unique, consider a more obvious way to relate Calvin to modern politics: First, one could say, Calvin espoused a particular view of modern politics; then that theologically drenched view lost the talk of God so prevalent in Calvin’s own thought, and, finally—voilà!—a secular, modern politics was born.

Now that’s not Hancock’s view. Instead, according to Hancock, Calvin has a theological motivation for his modern, more secular, political views. That’s what’s really interesting about Hancock’s interpretation of Calvin: According to Hancock, modern politics does not necessarily arise from a rejection of Calvin’s theology; instead, it is Calvin’s own theology that leads us to an antispeculative, genuinely modern approach to the world. To make his case, Hancock tries to show, in part one of the book, that Calvin focuses our attention away from otherworldly affairs in order to have a practical, but spiritual, concern for this life. In part two, Hancock offers further evidence for the claims in part one by connecting his interpretation of Calvin to broader theological themes in Calvin’s thought.

If I have understood him correctly, Hancock wants to say that Calvin’s practical political philosophy is about the same as a Machiavelli or a Hobbes, but with one crucial, and superior, feature. Calvin exclusively has an optimism or a hope for the modern enterprise. Calvinist optimism arises from the sovereignty of God and God’s superintending providence over everything, including human activity. Toward the end of Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, Hancock writes that, if his interpretation of Calvin is correct, then we ought to be as sensitive to the Christian tradition in Machiavelli and Hobbes as we are sensitive to Enlightenment thought in the Puritans (186).

Hancock is at his best in his Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics when he tries to bring his one particular view of Calvin into conversation with twentieth-century political philosophers and historians of political philosophy. For example, Hancock argues, by taking Leo Strauss’s interpretation of modernity as a starting point, that Calvinism should be studied more carefully than it is in fact studied: “On Strauss’s own interpretation of the meaning of modernity, Calvinism appears to deserve more attention than it has generally received from students of political philosophy, a different kind of attention than that given it by historians of political thought . . .” (186). It’s a clever move.

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Federalism still gets in Obama’s way. Darn framers.

3 Dec

From Dr. Lee Cheek:

When questioned recently about the administration’s Ebola response, President Obama’s exasperated White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, proclaimed to a reporter: “I guess you can take that up with James Madison.” Earnest, in his attempt to express the evolving nature of governance in a federated republic, correctly affirmed Madison’s central role in the debate, and directed the thoughtful citizen to appreciate original understandings of power.

In order to gain a grasp of American federalism, many factors must be considered. Some of these vital concerns include the structure of the political system; the original intentions of some Framers of the Constitution; and the citizenry’s prevailing understanding of the political order during the Early Republic. All of these issues have encouraged a diversity of opinions regarding the fundamental nature of the Union.

Mr. Earnest was correct to note unresolved tensions within American political life, and these tensions may in fact be of a salutatory nature for many reasons. Today, even as we face what Russell Kirk and others have called the behemoth state, the necessary limits on national political power should not be neglected or the consequences of such desuetude will only worsen.

In returning to views of the Founding, as Earnest recommends, we recall the concerns that arose in many quarters during the Constitutional Convention and ratification process. The Antifederalists, especially, feared that an overbearing national government would assume the authority of the states. Article Two of the Articles of Confederation had contained explicit provisions for protecting states, initiating a system whereby “each state retains its sovereignty.”

Various early state constitutions included provisions outlining the primacy of states in the confederal arrangement, often at the expense of a unified political order. The most popular form of amendment requested during the state ratification conventions and proposed to the First Congress concerned a reserved powers clause. The defenders of the Constitution argued, however, that such a provision was unnecessary.

Earnest was also correct to locate much of the interpretation of American federalism—as well as the confusion—with Madison. In fact, we have all too few genuine attempts to sort out the confusion. Madison, or “Little Jemmy” as he was known by his close associates, suggested in Federalist 39 that each state was “a sovereign body” only “bound by its voluntary act” of ratification. Other Federalists, including James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall at the Virginia ratifying convention, held that such a proposal was already present in the Constitution and that the new government would only have the powers delegated to it.

Opposition to and suspicion of the proposed Constitution on the grounds that it would infringe upon the privileged status of the states was widespread. The defenders of state authority viewed the states as the repository of reserved power, and many believed that states were invested with an equal, and perhaps superior, capacity to judge infractions by the federal government.

The most significant assurances to this effect came in the Virginia ratifying convention from George Nicholas and Edmund Randolph. As the spokesmen for the committee that reported the instrument of ratification, they noted that the Constitution would only have the powers “expressly” delegated to it.[1] If Federalists disagreed with the stress on state authority, they generally viewed a reserved power clause as innocuous, and Madison included such a provision among the amendments he introduced in 1789.

While much debate has ensued, usually at the expense of state authority, it is good to see a prominent acknowledgment of the role that Madison and his writings have assumed in this constitutional dialogue, and of the need to revisit these old yet vital understandings of the nature of power. Perhaps Earnest’s colleagues in the Obama White House will take note.

[1] See Kevin R. C. Gutzman’s definitive study, Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2007), for more analysis of the Virginia ratification debate.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is Dean of the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at East Georgia State College. Dr. Cheek’s latest book is Patrick Henry-Onslow: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2013), and he is currently writing a new study of the origins of the American political system, The Founding of the American Republic (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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Secular liberalism and Christianity: same in form different in content.

3 Dec

The doctrine of original sin, church discipline and excommunication, creedalism and confessionalism, shunning, temples, sermons, evangelism and conversion, orthodoxy and heresy, book burning, it is all there, in the religion of secular liberalism.

From Joseph Bottom:

Every day she must search her conscience. Every day she must confront her flaws—discern the dark that dwells within her, seek the grace to turn toward the light. Oh, she is a moral person, she believes: good willed and determined to do good deeds, instructing us all about the heart’s deep iniquity. But even she, Kim Radersma, a former schoolteacher now preaching our bondage to sin—even she still feels the fault inside her. Even she must struggle to be saved. And if someone like Kim Radersma has to fight the legacy of inner evil, think of all that youmust do. Think how far you are from grace, when you do not even yet know that you are lost and blind.

In another age, Radersma might have been a revivalist out on the sawdust circuit, playing the old forthright hymns on a wheezy harmonium as the tent begins to fill. In a different time, she might have been a temperance lecturer, inveighing in her passion-raw voice against the evils of the Demon Rum. In days gone by, she might have been a missionary to heathen China, or an author of Bible Society tracts, or the Scripture-quoting scourge of civic indifference—railing to the city-council members that they are like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:16, neither hot nor cold, and God will spew them from his mouth.

But all such old American Christian might-have-beens are unreal in the present world, for someone like Kim Radersma. Mockable, for that matter, and many of her fellow activists today identify Christianity with the history of all that they oppose. She wouldn’t know a theological doctrine or a biblical quotation if she ran into it headlong. And so Radersma now fights racism: the deep racism that lurks unnoticed in our thoughts and in our words and in our hearts.

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Why left and right (should) mourn the decline of marriage and the traditional family.

17 Nov

All they need is love, right?

From the Right:


Today, Brad Wilcox and Robert Lerman have a must-read piece at NRO on “what’s happening to the American family and why it matters for the health of the American Dream.” Here are four charts from their article that show that young men and women “who grow up in an intact, two-parent family have a leg up in today’s competitive economy.”

1.)  Children raised in intact families are more likely to acquire the human capital they need to live the American Dream: “Having two parents in the picture typically increases the amount of time, attention, encouragement, and money that can be devoted to a child’s education.” This also “protects children from the household moves and emotional stress associated with family instability” – two factors “that seem to hurt children’s odds of educational success in high school and beyond.” [See feature chart. Note: The “0” baseline on the graph represents single-parent families; these changes are all relative to single-parent families.]

2.)  Children raised in intact families are less likely to fall afoul of detours on the road to the American Dream: “A nonmarital birth, for instance, puts a real economic strain on both women and men. That’s partly because such births can derail schooling and decrease adults’ future chances of getting and staying married. And a stable family protects them against these kinds of detours.”



3.)  Young men raised in intact families make more money: Note that “one reason that these young women and men enjoy higher family incomes is that they are more likely to be married compared with their peers from non-intact families.” 



4.)  Young women raised in intact families earn more: In addition, young adults raised in intact families work more hours. “On average, the more hours you work, the more experience you gain in the labor force and the more money you make.”



From the Left (Robert Samuelson) on the massive social cost of all that freedom of self-fulfillment, expression, permissiveness, etc.

We Americans believe in progress, and yet progress is often a double-edged sword. “New choices for adults,” Sawhill writes, “have not generally been helpful to the well-being of children.”

The Family Deficit from the Washington Post

Should the church be involved in politics? Well, what is meant by politics?

7 Nov

From Greg Forster:

Growing numbers of Americans want pastors to talk about politics. A generation ago, we learned the hard way that when churches take sides in partisan and ideological disputes, the result is disaster. But there is a legitimate reason public demand for political theology is rising, and there are ways to meet that need without having pastors endorse candidates.

The Pew Foundation reports that the number of Americans who want pastors to talk about politics has risen to 49%, rising six points in the last four years. A full 32% want pastors to endorse specific candidates. It’s not clear how many of them are aware that churches are (rightly) forbidden to do this as long as they are tax-exempt entities.

There are a lot of reasons for churches to be wary of getting involved in elections and public policy. It discredits the gospel; 6003555815_f4a2434100_zwhen the stewards of the gospel message advocate political programs, people naturally get the idea that the gospel message is a political program. Pastors often compromise moral standards in order to forge alliances with the least-imperfect of the very imperfect candidates available. And it prevents the church from being the “church universal,” the place where everyone meets on equal terms.

Moreover, politics is simply not an area of giftedness for religious leaders. Unscruplous politicians are very skillful at manipulating well-meaning pastors. That seems to be their area of giftedness.

We saw all these lessons in the debacle of the Religious Right movement. However, that was not just a one-time event. Throughout the last century, American churches became the dupes of cynical politicians time and again. Richard Nixon was caught on the Watergate tapes discussing how to manipulate evangelicals, saying things like “you have to give the nuts 20% of what they want.” Billy Graham, who had done a great deal for Nixon, wept when he heard those tapes.

Does that mean churches should steer clear of anything political? Actually, it depends on what you mean by “political.”

The hunger for churches to speak into politics is perennial for a good reason. Every area of life needs a moral purpose and clear ethical boundaries, and no area of life needs it more desperately than this one. Where no one is casting a profound vision for the transcendent meaning and purpose of an activity, that activity quickly descends into shallow narcissism and brutal exploitation. And because politics involves the use of coercive power, it descends into brutality more quickly than most activities.

For the last century, we’ve been caught in a vicious circle. Churches keep getting drawn into politics because people are desperate for a moral vision that can humanize politics and point it toward its proper end: justice. Then, churches take sides in elections and ideological disputes, resulting in disaster. So churches withdraw from politics, and the cycle begins anew.

I think we might break out of this cycle if we rethink what we mean by “politics.” This word comes from the Greek polis, which simply means “city” – that is, the civil community. The deepest level of politics concerns the way the public business of the civil community is structured. As the editors of the journal First Thingsonce put it, politics in the profoundest sense is “free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together?”

The “politics” that really count in America is not who wins the election. It’s whether we will remain a nation dedicated to what have been our central political commitments: religious freedom, constitutional democracy, the rule of law, recognition of the household as the central social building block, equal dignity for women, an entrepreneurial economy based on opportunity and hard work, and a special concern to extend opportunity to the poor and the marginalized. Are these commitments just? Do we even remember what they mean? Those are the real political questions of our day.

If you think these commitments are just platitudes – so obviously right that they can be taken for granted and don’t need strong champions to speak out for them – you aren’t paying attention. I don’t think we need pastors to pick candidates or debate the tax rate. I do think we need pastors to remind us that the purpose of politics is justice, and to remind us of what justice requires.

This is exactly what the pastor is supposed to be doing anyway: helping people interpret the meaning of their lives and understand what God requires of them in all areas of life. Human beings are political creatures, and a gospel that has nothing to say about politics (in the sense of the polis) is a gospel that doesn’t renew the whole human person for Christ. If pastors learned to preach about public justice effectively, there would be more public justice – and, therefore, less demand for pastors to pick candidates.

TPC_GregForster_bioGreg Forster  has participated in previous Public Squares on capitalism and religious trends.

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Is feminism partly responsible for catcalling? That is, what are the costs if feminism wins out over chivalry?

30 Oct

From Sabrina Schaeffer (excerpt):

If You Want Sameness, Don’t Expect Chivalry

Well, our brave new world of gender equality—in which we scoff at gender differences and men and women are encouraged to act the same—often proves harmful to women and girls. While the modern feminist movement won women tremendous freedoms educationally, professionally, personally, and sexually, it often leaves women feeling anything but empowered.

The reality is these freedoms have too often come at the expense of all values and traditions. We’ve in effect thrown the helpful social mores out with the old-fashioned bathwater. But it’s the modern feminist movement, which ushered away any hint of traditional chivalry and gendered expectations, that’s in part to blame. Certainly few want to return to an age when gender roles were excessively rigid, but feminists have gone to extremes and encouraged a culture that undermines healthy gender relationships. Men who hold doors are now viewed as part of the patriarchal society. And girls are expected to just “be one of the guys.”

But gender roles helped men and women and in times past allowed the sexes to better navigate the sometimes-rough waters of romance, courtship, marriage, and sex. Feminists view the chivalry and social mores of previous generations as anachronistic. But the reality is these traditional customs of giving up a seat for a woman on a train, or accompanying a woman in public, weren’t all rooted in sexism. They were social structures to help make men more respectful of women and to curb this kind of inappropriate behavior.

It might not have been perfect, but it had a purpose. Today’s dismissal of gender differences instead creates confusion, disappointment, and often more opportunity for harassment.

The conversation about street harassment has revealed once again that feminism has come with a cost, and women are usually the ones who bear the real price. Society has never been perfect, and I’m not advocating for a return to a time when women’s choices were more limited, but in years past men and women both had a better framework to determine what was acceptable behavior and what was not.

Certainly a woman should never be made to feel uncomfortable while just walking to work or picking something up at the store. We all want to encourage a healthier and safer society for both men and women. But instead of focusing on the faux sexism lurking on every street corner, we’d be better to consider the limitations of modern feminism and ask ourselves how we can better navigate this new world of gender relations.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer is the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.  Full article here
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