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Jesus Creed

White House God 1

posted by xscot mcknight

We took a year or so ago at Randy Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come and we want now to look at his newest book, God in the White House. The book studies a simple theme and traces the story — an interesting story to all of us.
I don’t think enough are willing to think intelligently about the relationship of State and Church. Many of those fighting to defend the separation raise the law as a major point when they need it but infringe upon that separation when they can get by with it; and I’m blaming both sides on this one. The specter of Constantinianism lurks, but it’s one of those all-too-attractive slippery slope arguments. Luther posited Two Kingdoms; Calvin wedded the powers too tightly in Geneva; the Anabaptists had a kind of Two Kingdoms approach but focused on the Kingdom of God (except Zwingli struggled to carry this out). I’m not seeing enough intelligent thinking about this today and that is one reason I like Balmer’s stuff — he’s advocating the value of separation of Church and State. Agree with him or not, I like to hear discussion of this issue.
Balmer is a master story teller; nurtured among evangelicals and one who attended TEDS about the same time as I did (though we did not meet then), Balmer’s odyssey has led him to have both a sharp eye for our foibles yet a continued deep appreciation for evangelicalism.
The book traces the story from John F. Kennedy’s famous speech arguing for religion to be bracketed both by voters and by Presidents (Sept 12, 1960) to George W. Bush’s declaration, in 2000, that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. How, Balmer asks, did religion become so central to the American candidacy process? Balmer’s thesis, defended also in Thy Kingdom Come, is that both the Church and the Republic flourish best when faith and State leave one another alone. So, Balmer’s thesis is not to advocate keeping religion muted in the State but to argue that the church flourishes when this happens.
The book begins with my first memories of politics: the campaign and election of John F. Kennedy. Because of Kennedy’s assassination, many today have lionized Kennedy but I do recall the debate if it was right for America to have a Roman Catholic President — and that theme is the focus of the first chp. Furthermore, one can’t help in reading this chp to think of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. (Here is Balmer’s take on Romney.)
A few points about the chp — and much of it is dedicated to the opposition by Protestants, mostly evangelical, to a Roman Catholic President. Now, for many today this seems utterly ridiculous. Not so, my friends: the history of the RCC’s involvement in the States of Europe is not exactly one of tolerance. Factor that into this age (1) the rise of immigration and its changes to American society, (2) the Protestant concern with evangelism of Roman Catholics and (3) a post WWII fear of surreptitious motives and sinister incursions of ideologies, and you’ve got some of the explanation of what was going on in 1960.
Some of those who were dead-set against Kennedy and enthusiastic supporters of Nixon include Norman Vincent Peale, whose ministry was wounded by his involvement in the anti-Catholic program, Billy Graham, whose words and behaviors are not without question, W.A. Criswell, who strongly supported separation of church and state (a Baptist emphasis) but who during the Reagan era changed his mind, and Harold Ockenga, erstwhile vocal champion and leader of neo-evangelicalism. You probably can guess how opposed much of the Southern Baptist Convention was to Kennedy.
There were some nuts opposed to Kennedy and they said some scurrilous, unintelligent, and bigoted things … and it’s embarrassing but it’s true.
There were also some wonderfully reasonable Christians, evangelicals, Southern Baptists and others … and it’s nice to read about and it’s also true.
Something kept coming to me as I read this chp: those who argue from a possible event (Roman Catholic President) to far-ranging implications (the Pope will move into DC and run the place) are so often wrong I wish we could ban “slippery slope” arguments from public space. (Of course, not really — but my exaggeration makes my point: slippery slope inferences are fears turned into deterministic script and they are nearly always wrong.)
Balmer includes Kennedy’s speech — it’s worth the price of this book for me.

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posted January 22, 2008 at 3:33 am

I agree that the relationship between church and state is a really important issue that needs more thought. I hope this post generates more response in your morning.
A key thought for me is that all law is enforced morality and all morality is rooted in some belief of a religious nature (including atheism or secularism).
I can see how separatism works well when Christians are in a minority. The early church had no choice but to remain separate from Rome.
However, if the kingdom of God advances and the majority of people freely choose to be followers of Jesus, then their beliefs should have an impact of the morality that is enforced in law.
The challenge is for that to happen without slipping onto the slope of Constantinianism. When Christian political activity gets into the business of enforcing Christian morality on an unwilling world, I get nervous, but that seems to be where we too often end up with this one.

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Ben Wheaton

posted January 22, 2008 at 6:45 am

I wouldn’t mind applying Balmer’s thesis if I could be assured that it would go both ways. By all means, let the church not interfere with politics; I am profoundly grateful that all the churches I have gone to have been circumspect in this regard. But I can’t get it out of my mind that Balmer is here primarily interested in ensuring that conservative voices are silenced; if he was as vehement about the infractions of the National Council of churches or the black churches as about the religious right, I would be comforted. But it seems to me that because Balmer agrees with these people he doesn’t mind their getting involved in advocacy. After all, doesn’t he think (I believed he said it in his book that you reviewed previously) that conservative positions such as school vouchers are themselves anti-Christian? How can a conservative talk with a guy like that?

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posted January 22, 2008 at 8:59 am

I will read Balmer. He is thought provoking.
I am aware that in some circles the “old guard” is ramping up to highlight the “moral” issues of the 2008 campaign and teach pastors how to teach their congregations such. My own rant is that I cannot understand why these dear people cannot see that this has previously been counterproductive to the expansion of the Kingdom of God, failed to achieve a more moral America, and likely will drive the death nail in the traditional church for those under 35. My opinion and I hope I am very wrong, but I don’t think so.

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Bill V.

posted January 22, 2008 at 9:25 am

Here’s some simple Constitutional information. If you want some intelligent conversation, let’s also talk about the law of our land.
The First amendment applies only to Congress. The first sentence starts with “Congress shall make no law…” This means that matters of religious freedom and expression should be decided by the states, with disputes settled in and by state courts. The First amendment is supposed to check federal power. The federal government has no jurisdiction or authority over religious issues.
Here’s another 1st amendment item. The amendment does not bar religious expression in public; anywhere. It specifically prohibits federal interference in the free expression of religion. It bars the federal government from prohibiting the pledge of allegiance, school prayer, or any other religious expression.
The law of our land says the federal government has no constitutional authority to interfere in the religious affairs of its citizens or of the states.
I think the people who put the Constitution together knew the Republic would be stronger by keeping the federal government away from religious issues.

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posted January 22, 2008 at 10:07 am

Regarding this thread, I would be interested to read some of the comments on Isa 9:6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
Also, is it just me or does the Democratic party reflect more of a feminine luster in essence (not pointing to Hilary Clinton) while the Republican one reflect more a masculine nature.
Perhaps a marriage of the two would be optimum.

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posted January 22, 2008 at 10:14 am

I wish we could ban ?slippery slope? arguments from public space.
If we did that, soon any form of argumentation or predicting the future would be illegal. :)
Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
for religion to be bracketed both by voters and by Presidents
And now we are at a place where people can believe in absolute truth or the sanctity of human life on Sunday and not believe on Monday.
I don’t like the approach of wedding political parties and religious groups, but there has to be a happy medium. I agree that this is an area that Christians and Americans need to think seriously about.

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Jason Okrzynski

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:30 am

I like your clarification on federal intentions for separation of church and state. I think it is always helpful to remember that said separation protects both the chruch and the state.
I would also like to advocate that the church will be stronger if the two are separated. I think due to the theocratic nature of the state of Israel in the old Testament, strengthened by two centuries of Wetern Constantian Christendom it is a temptation to believe that we have somehow failed the building of the kingdom if we do not advocate for the ten in our public affairs. However, there is a larger space in the tradition to understand enforcement of morals as a private affiar, one that is lived out publicly.
Of course, we must begin with the great Shema. In Deuteronomy 6:5-9 “5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Its hard to argue with the tradition inherent in this text that it is the role of the household to pass on the commands of faith.
This notion is evern strong in Joshua 24. Crossing over intpo the land of Isarel Joshua proclaims to the entire nation “choose you this day whom ye will serve; . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:2, 15). The people are on the precipice of a beginning a new nation and yet Joshua seems to boil the following of YHWH down to the houshold.
There are endless other texts that seems to urge us towards a houhold centered view of moarlity, however I find a compelling command in this weeks lectionary text. In Matthew 4:18-22 Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John to drop their nets and follow him; “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Bonhoeffer observes that Matthew’s telling of the story, unlike Mark and Luke, radicalizes the call theology be leaving out and premeditated context. Verses 12-17 tell us that Jesus is just beginning his minitry. He has done no miracles or gained no famed. As far as the text indicates Jesus does not know these men; as bonhoeffer confesses the disciple follow not because of what he or she gain but because it is Christ who calls (Bonhoeffer Work V. 4 P. 57).
What is striking about Matthews powerful and uncomprising story of the call to disipleship, and the missional sending is that it is followed immediately by Matthew’s flowing account of the Sermon on the Mount. Its placement after the call of to disicpleship is a give away. Opening with the beaatitudes, Jesus proclaims to his followers they are Salt and Light. What does he follow this with? TEachings on anger, adultery, divorce, personal oaths, love for enemies,
almsgiving, personal piety, and evangelism. The litany of teachings in the sermon on the mount strikingly are concerned with being disciples of Christ in our day to day dealings with neighbors. It dwells in the deuteronomic and joshua tradtion of household discipleship. This is the place where morality and mission focus their gaze in the scriptures.
As long as the church and its mission are tied to the state and marketplace the radicality of Christ’s call will be hampered by concerns over land, security, and the economy. These concern have not place for the household that wants to serve Christ. When give unto to Cesar what is Cesar’s and unto God what is God’s; namely our houses and our hearts; the church is able to truly set a morale agenda that is not compromised in the face of the call.

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Scott Lenger

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:43 am

I think the contemporary American Church’s attempts to reduce Christianity into something that can be legislated (or elected) only serves to hinder the church’s real political witness.

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posted January 22, 2008 at 11:46 am

I think that sometimes we make this too big of deal. How cares if God is in the White House or not, I just care if He is on the throne, which He is. It is the quest for the church to be powerful in the culture, but the church never needs the acceptance of the world.

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posted January 22, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Bill said:
The First amendment applies only to Congress.
Correct. Until the 14th Amendment. It has been interpreted (that’s always the catch) as making the 1st apply to the states.

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Dru Dodson

posted January 22, 2008 at 3:12 pm

I think one of the reasons we evangelicals don’t think well or deeply on this is our relatively weak ecclesiology. I remember an ethics lecture at seminary on test tube babies. The whole lecture was cast as the individual Christian and the State with its laws, and the decisions and conundrums that would develop. When someone asked about the church, and its role as a counter cultural society in living out a different ethic, there was just silence, and the lecture moved on. When we hear “government” we think nation state, not “kingdom of God”. What do you think?

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Phillip Scoggins

posted January 22, 2008 at 4:50 pm

I’ll always be for separation of church and state because i’m so scared of being exiled. :)

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posted January 23, 2008 at 3:17 am

I don’t often find myself in agree with Charles Spurgeon but I do in this instance:
Is it not proven beyond all dispute that there is no limit to the enormities which men will commit when they are once persuaded that they are keepers of other men’s consciences? To spread religion by any means, and to crush heresy by all means is the practical inference from the doctrine that one man may control another’s religion. Given the duty of a state to foster some one form of faith, and by the sure inductions of our nature slowly but certainly persecution will occur. To prevent for ever the possibility of Papists roasting Protestants, Anglicans hanging Romish priests, and Puritans flogging Quakers, let every form of state-churchism be utterly abolished, and the remembrance of the long curse which it has cast upon the world be blotted out for ever.
Charles Spurgeon
Both Church and State will inevitably be debased by being yoked one with another. When the Church gets into bed with politicians, it will always be corrupted by the compromises and deceit that accompany the getting and maintenance of power. Similarly the leadership of State loses the ideal of blind justice and representation for all when it becomes the puppet of religious ideology. The two follow each other in a downward spiral of corruption and intolerance which becomes the basest sacrilege.

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posted January 23, 2008 at 3:19 am

Or was that a slippery slope argument?

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posted January 23, 2008 at 3:43 am

It is easy to sit in judgment on the the 3rd century church’s response to the conversion of Constantine, but would we do any better. They had been a persecuted minority for so long that they had not given much thought to what they would do if the tables were turned.
Are we much further ahead? I live in a country where the Prime Minister is definitely not a Christian. I have wondered about this question. What would a church leader do, if the Prime Minister came and said she had converted to Christianity and wanted to be discipled in her new faith. What would the Church leader do and say? Would they advise her to resign and concentrate on being a good Christian or would they help her to become a good Christian Prime Minister? The answer does not seem to be much clearer than it was in the 3rd century.

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Mark Pike

posted January 23, 2008 at 9:36 am

I agree with Ben in post #2. It appears to me that much of the concern about the Christian Right is one sided. I don’t hear Greg Boyd, Randy Balmer, Jim Wallis and others expressing the same level of concern about the Christian Left and their involvement in politics which has a much longer track record that Evangelical involvement (which is relatively recent). I get the impression that some folks on the Christian Left are ok with political activism except when the Christian Right is engaged. Then it is a danger to the Nation. It is a mistake to take the position that Christians should stay out of governing and politics. Christians should be involved whether right, left, center, independent, green or whatever. Let them make their case.

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posted January 23, 2008 at 12:10 pm

the relationship of church and state is a complicated one in the history of this country. If HDNET re-airs an episode of the Dan Rather Reports where he had a town hall at Princeton on the subject, it was one of the best examples of honest reporting on the subject I’ve ever seen. One of the speakers, Judge McConnell (a former professor of mine)was a panelist. I know many might find a law textbook intimidating, but his on the Religion Clauses is about the finest thing I’ve read on the subject. He’s got to be one of the top 2 scholars on the subject in the country and has argued his fair share of the supreme court cases that have been on the subject.
Scot, of course, you should realize Kennedy’s speech is typically thought of by many Catholics to be an absolute travesty. It was one thing, rightly so, to defend himself from the ludicrous charges that Catholics owe their loyalty to the Vatican and would take their marching orders from there. (This is still said today by a minority today, btw. Anti-Catholicism isn’t dead.) But to do so he effectively separated his conscience from his faith. Read that part of the speech again, just before where he talks about resigning his office if he could not carry out his duties without violating his conscience. You will see a very subtle separation that makes the matter of conscience a purely personal thing. Most Catholics believe that has done tremendous damage to the Catholic mentality in this country, including how Catholics engage in public life and have more and more taken conscience as license to ignore what the Church has to say, forgetting their duty to form their conscience properly.

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Jason Okrzynski

posted January 23, 2008 at 3:58 pm

I would like to push you on your point about the political left. One could point to the activism of the church in the civil rights movement as a key example. What I would like to argue is different there is that it is not a case of the church legislating morality from the top down. Rather, civilian Christian disciples voiced their movement from below, and from the pews and forced those in power to respond. Where the church is concerened this is a big difference.
I am not an ana-bapitist. I believe that God establishes gonvernment out of his good will. It is not an acciedental stop gap. That said, there are certain roles for the government. One of which is raising an army to preotect boarders. Another is limiting and punishing evil in the world. These are not the roles of the church. The church is called to preach the word and adminster the sacraments. The church is not called to defend boarders.

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Mark Pike

posted January 23, 2008 at 4:41 pm

My point is that the Christian Left has been quite active in politics, advocating for a particular moral viewpoint on matters of public policy. I do not suggest that a national church be formed, only that Christians and Churches (Right or Left) be free to state their case with regard to public policy. Prior to the recent engagement by Evangelicals in public life, Evangelicals ceded engagement in the public square to the Christian Left. There was only one dominant religious voice prior to 1980. The Christian Left certainly influenced public policy in the 60s and 70s – most social policy of that time was theirs. The moral decadence of those decades is a result of those policies. It looks top down from here and lots of people abandoned those churches in droves.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted January 25, 2008 at 10:58 pm

Yes, we need more of Balmer’s thinking among us evangelicals. I work among them, and for me to think and advocate along lines as Balmer does, is walking in a minefield there with many or most. You get wary, and just avoid it altogether, and end up going along with what you can.
On this issue of separating church and state, while not kicking religion out of the state, I think some of the present candidates do much better than the others. And that is a factor for me, in thinking about this, as to who I may end up voting for.

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Bob Robinson

posted January 25, 2008 at 11:04 pm

While I am generally very sympathetic with Balmer’s views, I was disappointed with his last book. In my review of Thy Kingdom Come, I felt that the way he dealt with radical right-wing evangelicals was to be a radical left-wing evangelical. Balmer often sounded more like a liberal political pundit than a thinking Christian reporter. He didn’t offer a balanced perspective; his rhetorical style picked more fights than it did encourage thoughtful discussion. I so wanted to like that book, but I just couldn’t. I’ll be interested in this series of reviews.

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