Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Election: The End Is Not Yet

The End Is Not Yet

My little brother was in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy and subsequent abscess when John F. Kennedy narrowly won the Presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960. A teacher from our fundamentalist Christian school came to visit. Conversation with my parents turned to the election of our first Roman Catholic President. She commented, “I do not think it can be long now till He comes.” The election of a Roman Catholic was a sign of the end – or at least the rapture. I expect there are not a few, including the Reformed, who think the election of Barak Obama to a second term is a sign of the end - if not of the world, of the country.

There is no doubt that there is a religious, moral, and cultural declension at work in the western world with the US now catching up with Europe.  Will economic, military, and geo-political decline follow for America? Perhaps. Who knows? Those of my generation are not likely to see that decline, which can make us Hezekiah-like say, “Well, I won’t worry about it, because it won’t happen in my lifetime.” But our children’s and grandchildren’s realities may be quite different from ours. 

The fact is that kingdoms rise and fall. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire. Great Britain is a shadow of her former empire self. The thought of American decline is hard to take for all who love their country, but especially for those who think America is chosen and blessed by God and has a unique role in history, and that she could retain this role in the present and future. They can make sense of the apparent decline only in terms of God’s judgment on a people who have turned away from him and forfeited his blessings.

I do not believe the United States is experiencing the kind of judgment that Israel-Judah as the covenant nation in the Old Testament experienced. But God does judge the nations, and he may now be visiting judgment of this kind on our country. Or, he may not. We could be at the absolute end of the world; we could be at the beginning of the end of the American position in the world; or we could be at neither end.

 A few thoughts from a random mind:

1)   It is already being said that conservatism did not lose. The problem was the Romney and the Republicans were not consistently conservative enough and not aggressive enough in stating a robust conservative case. Those who say such things assume the American people are instinctively conservative, and that, if they hear the conservative message, they will embrace it. Not so, I think. Most of the American people are not true believers in the right or the left, and, though more identify themselves as conservative than liberal, “conservative” is more attitudinal than principial, and more still identify themselves as moderate. Most are not ideologues but pragmatists. It seems to me that the “movement conservatives” are the ones who lost most on Tuesday.

2)   Conservatives seem to be good at shooting themselves - sometimes in the foot, sometimes in the head. A case in point is Indiana. Richard Lugar, a decent man, could easily have won another term in the general election, but the tea party candidate who ousted him gave the Democrats a seat. Another is that Republicans could likely have picked up a seat against an unpopular senator in Missouri had  Todd Akin had the good grace to withdraw after his gaff and allowed his party to pick another candidate. Tea Partiers and others like them are likely to double down now, but they are likely to accomplish no more than win some local and once in a while a statewide race and other times play the role of spoilers.

3)   The issue of resident illegal aliens is going to have to be faced, soon and not simplistically. It is impossible to round these people up, put them in some sort of detention, and then transport them to Mexico or wherever. Some kind of fix that includes paths to permanent residency and citizenship along with securing the borders needs to be put together.

4)   The deficit is going to have to be addressed. Solving it by growing the economy is not in the cards. The President and the Senate are not going to accept spending cuts without revenue increases in the form of higher taxes on some. The house will not accept new taxes without spending cuts. It is unlikely that either side is going to adopt the Simpson - Bowles plan, but there is going to be pain in connection with reduced spending and pain in connection with higher taxes.

5)   Some social issues cannot be won now, and perhaps not ever. The American people generally find abortion distasteful, but they are not opposed to abortion in all situations, and they are very hesitant to place limits on the freedom of women to choose. The election showed that for younger single women this “right” is so important as to make them “single issue” voters in favor of choice. The issue of same gender marriage is in the process of being decided in its favor. Given the fact that marriage matters less and less to heterosexual couples (nothing stops people from living together if they want and nothing keeps single women from having babies if they want), same gender marriage is largely a symbolic issue (gays are equal with straights), but the trajectory is toward acceptance rather than rejection. Less important an issue “values” conservatives are likely to lose is the legalization not just of medical but of recreational marijuana.

6)   We have had a strong central government since the northern states compelled the southern states to remain in the Union by conquering and then occupying the south. We have been on track for a state funded social welfare system since Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The system was further advanced by Lyndon Johnson (Medicare and the Great Society), slightly increased by George W. Bush (prescription drug program), and now pushed much further by Barak Obama. Once in awhile there are conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who can, to use the William F.  Buckley saying, stand athwart history and yell, “Stop!” and even push history back a little. But the trajectory of the western democracies for a long time has been toward a strong central government and a government social welfare system.

7)   We are going to have universal medical care of the Obama sort, though there is likely will be some tinkering before it takes a more or less permanent form. As someone who just went on Medicare, and who is still trying to figure it out and make necessary decisions, I am not so sure that, given the fact we are going to have government healthcare, we would not do better to go to a single payer system. In my view much of the opposition to Obamacare is based not on some kind of principled opposition to government healthcare but on the fear that it might threaten “my access to and my cost and quality of healthcare.” But people want healthcare, and they want somebody else to pay or it or at least appear to do so.  We are not going back to a time when people who had money to self-insure or to purchase health insurance did and the rest got either charity care or none. So the question about universal care is not whether we shall have it but how we will provide and dispense it.

8)   Politics is the art of the possible. The harder positions on the right and left pull and tug, and can hold politicians’ feet to the fire, but in the end someone has to legislate and govern, and that necessarily in involves compromise by people who will take half a loaf rather than no loaf. The place for purity is in the church. Politics requires pragmatism. The drag the House will be on the Senate and the Executive is good, but with the fiscal crisis the country faces, there is going to have to be negotiation and compromise.

9)       A quest to “reclaim America for God” is not accomplish-able  even if good and wise (which it is not). World-and-life view devotees may not be willing to concede one square inch of America, but they don’t have a way forward to gain many inches.  The culture war armies may, like Robert. E. Lee after Gettysburg, win some tactical battles and postpone defeat, but the strategic situation is very bad, at least for now.  

So, where are we? We are, to quote Merle Haggard, “right back where we’ve really always been.”  The kingdom is the church, and the church is that institution to which God has given his oracles (Scripture), his ordinances (Word, sacraments, and prayers), a government, and a liturgy. It is by these things that God has committed uniquely to the church that the church fulfills her mission of proclaiming the gospel, converting the unbelieving, nurturing the covenant children, and conducting the faithful into eternal life. The church is a colony of heaven placed among the nations of the world, as the church in Philippi was a colony of Christ’s kingdom within the Roman colony of Philippi. The church is most effective when it is true to being what it only alone can be and doing what it alone can do. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

At the same time we recognize that God has ordained government and the governments, and that, as citizens of the kingdoms of this world, Christians honor and submit to the governing authorities of various kinds. So Paul teaches in Romans 13:

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.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (1 – 7)

So Peter instructs in 1 Peter 2:

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme,  or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.  Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.  Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Paul is writing to the church in Rome and Peter to the churches in Asia Minor regarding the Roman Empire, and its emperors. It is this government that is “instituted by God”… not a terror to good conduct to bad… God’s servant for your good… an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrong doer”…to whom “one must in subjection” and “pay…taxes.” It is the empire government which is among the ‘human institutions” to which Christians must “be subject:” including “the emperor as supreme… governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” When Christians do their duty to the state they “put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”

What some do with these texts amazes me: (1) They treat them as addressed not to the church about how Christians relate to government but to the church as instruction to give to the government. One imagines the church in Rome marching through the streets to the palace and presenting Romans 13 as a demand to emperor or the Christians in Asia Minor seeking an audience with the local governor to present Peter’s chapter 2 as exhortation about his job. 2) They want to take the word “good” used by Paul and Peter and pour into it the Old Testament Law (whether the 10 Commandments or the whole of the civil code) as though a government today were  in covenant God and looked to the Old Testament for its orders. 3) They  believe it is justified to rule certain governments illegitimate and to withhold submission if these governments do not operate by definitions of good and evil drawn form the Old Testament.

Forgive me, but this sort of thing seems to me just silly. Such use of these texts wrests them from anything Paul could have intended or the NT citizens of the Empire could have understood. The texts are plain. They speak not of government that might be but of government that is. They require honor, submission, obedience to the government. Christians must draw the line when government requires what God forbids or forbids what God requires, but these cases must be relatively few in number if we remember that Paul and Peter write about the Roman government. It is not that we may disobey when we do not like what the government does or even when what the government does violates our political principles.

What we desire of government is pretty limited. We want an environment that enables us to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” To that end we make “supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings (for) all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2: 1, 2). That does not sound very revolutionary, but it may to those who believe in revolutions.

My side lost the election. I am bummed about it. I’m not optimistic about the future.  But it is what it is. Our duty toward the government is to use such rights as we have to choose and influence our leaders, and then to honor, obey, and pray for the government God in his providence gives us.


RMP said...

Bill, I like the perspective you give here. We need to live faithfully in the world God gives us in our lifetimes, doing what only we as the Church can do: proclaim the Word and be the community of faith.

Nathan A. Sommers said...

"Forgive me, but this sort of thing seems to me just silly. Such use of these texts wrests them from anything Paul could have intended or the NT citizens of the Empire could have understood. The texts are plain. They speak not of government that might be but of government that is. They require honor, submission, obedience to the government. Christians must draw the line when government requires what God forbids or forbids what God requires, but these cases must be relatively few in number if we remember that Paul and Peter write about the Roman government. It is not that we may disobey when we do not like what the government does or even when what the government does violates our political principles."

What of John the Baptist, the heralder of Christ, challenging Herod? What of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a church leader in Germany, planning the assassination of Hitler? What of the Founding Fathers, mostly Christian, defying and challenging the King of England's right to subjugate the 13 colonies and giving rise to the American Revolution?

As a Christian, we submit to and obey the governing authorities that God has placed over us. I do not believe, however, in pulling back from the marketplace of ideas and withdrawing behind a moat of protectionism and church isolationism. In fact, I blame the church and their bowing to IRS intimidation tactics and harassment as a major reason why our country has gone the way it has. Preachers no longer preach the hard truth, they do not teach Scripture. They seek the path of least offense in order to gain members, not converts, in order to boost their church budgets. Sorry for the cynicism, but as Alexis D. Toqueville (sp?) has talked about, "the moment when men in a so-called democracy choose a government that will think and act for them, and shell out petty and paltry benefits, is the moment when said democracy dies, and perpetual soft tyranny begins." (paraphrase)

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that all things left to themselves will decay and become less orderly, without an acting agent to counteract it. Because God's Word has been ignored and not preached to effect, we have as a church allowed our country to experience moral and spiritual decay. It wasn't inevitable, as your blog seems to say. It was because of the intentional and fearful omission of God's full counsel, rebuke and reproof.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

The pattern for the church is not John the Baptist the last prophet of the OT, but the Lord Jesus and his apostles. I do not think you can find a single example where they on their own initiative protest or tell Christians to rebuke the civil powers. RE Bonhoeffer, I am not fan, esp of his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, though I do admire his courage. Not so sure the Am Rev is justified by Scripture - indeed rather doubt it is. I do not think the church withdraws behind a moat of protectionism and isolationism when she pursues the mission assigned to her by Christ - indeed I think that then she is most powerful. And, I am not sure that deTocqueville has to do with the subject at hand. I do not know the cases you think of as the church not speaking the Word of God or being responsible for the national decay. That there is national decay I acknowledge in my blog and that some ministers and churches blunt or deny the message, I know for me and many others there is no hesitancy to proclaim what the Bible actually says. In fact our task is to rightly divide the Word of truth and then teach and preach it.