Citizens or Fans

The political climate is such that no one who wants broad-based national appeal can possibly be forthright and specific.  As soon as s/he does, s/he looses too much appeal from too many. This is not a criticism of one side or the other, except to the extent that, as Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

We currently have a serious structural problem, the cracks of which are illuminated by the reality that both conservatives and progressives have basically reached an ideological impasse.  Both sides believe they are right, and it has become an either/or situation.  This is not a situation the Founders foresaw.  It’s been getting worse for decades, but useful coalitions used to be built within the two-party framework.  I do not believe that is possible any more.  The only real hope is a multi-party system in which coalitions have to be built between multiple parties.

National politics is not about the base.  Neither party’s base is going anywhere, though they may just stay home.  National politics is about independents who want issue by issue policy solutions. So, if you have 4-5 viable parties actually in office, and parties A, B, and C agree about policy on issue X then they can put together something even if parties A, B and C disagree about issues Y and Z.

If just A & B agree on issue X and don’t have the numbers, then they work out deals with C, D and E about issue Y, giving parts of Y support in order to gain support for X.  Competition works better than monopolies in politics as well as business. It’s ugly business, but you can not govern a democracy without compromise between factions.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes the argument that liberty can not exist without giving rise to factions: ”Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

The only way to prevent this is to remove liberty by stamping out dissenting opinions; that is, until everyone shares the same opinion. Madison rightly knew this to be totalitarianism, well before the term was coined, and he considered it contrary to human nature.  ”As long as the reason of man continues to be fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

Faction is healthy!  What isn’t healthy to democracy, according to Madison, is the “violence of faction.”  We don’t have a lot of that anymore, despite the inflammatory rhetoric.  What has happened, instead, is that factions have condensed into two basic Factions: Us and Them.  For all practical intents and purposes, factions have been co-opted into Faction on pragmatic grounds.  “There are more people in Faction A,” we reason, “who support my opinion about policy X than in Faction B, so, if I want policy X I will have to join them.”

So then Faction A and Faction B become like two armies justifying their constant fight for power on the basis of broad ideological Good v. Evil worldviews in which pandering, demonizing and demogogary are merely the weapons of warfare.  And, what’s worse, the battles are usually between skirmishers fighting over peanuts in the media Collesium.

Witness the Republican debate the other night. There was not one single question on the European debt crisis, Medicare reform, how to fix Social Security so each of my kids isn’t working to pay for 50 retirees each, or restoring our triple-A rating.  There were questions on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” HPV Vaccinations, Border Fences, which department of the government would you eliminate, and who would you pick a VP.  I do not diminish any of these issues, but they are motes, not logs.  Just as in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, all the questions boil down to just one: “Prove that you have the bona fides to be quarterback for Us.”

Madison wrote that “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their infriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Like with football, it doesn’t matter that the “issue” is a pigskin; what matters is that the audience cheers for your side to move that pigskin as far as possible to an extreme end. In American politics today there are only 2 teams and the arena of the 24 hour news cycle has turned us all into fanboys watching “Last Man Standing/Running Man/Rollerball” as they seek to demolish one another over pigskin issues.

Who loses?  The fans of course, but then we made ourselves fans instead of citizens and we let them commodify our dissent.

Place, Limits, Liberty

Over at The Front Porch Republic, John Willson has a wonderful essay titled “Why I am a Conservative.“  It has a very precise statement that is dense with historical flora and philosophical fauna:

To be an American conservative is to believe that first, there is an Order of Creation. Second, that God’s authority has given us an eternal contract between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Third, that this contract is expressed in the church, the family, and the local community. Fourth, that there is a constitutional arrangement in the common sense of things, limited in authority, that gave shape to these truths. Fifth, that a reasonable amount of individual freedom, based on the above, rewards enterprise and initiative. Sixth, that there is a duty among all citizens to defend, sometimes (not often) even militarily, all of the above.

None of this implies an ideological box. These principles do not predict for whom I would vote or what foreign policy initiative I would support. They do, however, exclude me from thinking that we will likely achieve some state of earthly bliss.

Place. Limits. Liberty. Do these words have real meaning? I have often asked my ideological friends, “Is there a place you love? What would you do to defend it?” Or, “Is there a limit to what you would ask government to do? Name it, or at least give an approximation.” “Is there a better definition for liberty than the one in Micah 4:4?” But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. This is, by the way, the definition of liberty that was overwhelmingly the one used in the early years of our republic.

If you love place, limits, liberty, and think they are words that have meaning, you are probably conservative, and should honor that word also. If you waffle, and want to be cosmopolitan and sophisticated and make up your own names and categories, you probably want to live in a world dominated by what Walter Lippmann called in 1938, the “dominant dogma of the age,” that government has the ability to make us happy. I like “conservative,” because I know what I want to conserve, and am unapologetic about what I want to exclude.

Who Would Jesus Deport

Today, the first of May, there were protest all over the country against Arizona’s new immigration law.  One protestor was carrying a sign  “Who Would Jesus Deport?” What if it said “Who Would Jesus Marry?”  (I mean by this not get married to but whose marriage would he preside over.)  Can you image the outrage?

The Left welcome Christian principles and arguments when they support, or they think they can be used to support, the things they agree with like homosexuality, immigration, the environment, and care of the poor.  They don’t seem to have any problem at all suggesting that governments should encode such principles into law.

At a blog I recently stumbled across and really like, the author, Wes Ellis, posted a prayer for humility regarding immigrants.  I liked it, and have no problem praying it in agreement with the him.  However, it implied to me that he thought Christian charity on this point should be the rule of law, so I posted a comment:

Amen, by which I literally mean, I agree and beseech God with you. I do, however, believe there is a distinction between the Church Universal and national policy.

As Christians, the true Jews, the command in Leviticus 19:34 is also commanded of us: “The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Likewise Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This is how the Church should act, and pray.

That does not mean God’s left hand, the State, does not have an obligation to protect its citizens or enforce the laws, nor does it mean Biblical commands given to God’s people should be encoded into immigration policy.

To which he replied: “I don’t think God’s left hand would work in opposition to his right…”

This is loaded with all kinds of implications for Church/State relations, most of which the Left would condemn if used to support a conservative viewpoint.  It almost sounds like he supports a theocracy, like Israel was when God gave them the command in Leviticus.  Besides, nothing I wrote even implied that I thought God works at cross-purposes with Himself.

I think that we should be Christ to immigrants, and we should call on our government to create just policies. But those just policies have to take into account justice for the citizen. Forget popular sovereignty; only God is sovereign, and He established the US government (whether they know it or not) to govern US citizens.

Concerning the roles of the State in the Two Kingdoms, Luther argues that government is “First, established [by God] to provide order and maintain the peace. Second, it must wield the sword with justice and according to the statues and laws of the nation.”[1] No government has ever been the source for God’s redemptive, social transformative work. That’s not its function. That is the task of His Church.

In an interview in 2004, N. T. Wright addressed this kind of thinking:

“I’ve sometimes hypothesized, what if someone were to say to Paul: ‘Well, according to your principle of love, all God’s people should share their possessions with one another. Therefore, some of us in the church think that we should help this process on the way by going into our neighbors’ houses and helping ourselves to whatever we fancy, thus liberating these objects from the spurious idea of possession.’ You can imagine someone might say, ‘Well, some of us believe in theft and others don’t, so let’s not judge one another.'”

As long as we have legitimate laws, the State has to enforce them. As a Christian I will minister to a resident alien, but I will not hire him or help him get here.  I simply do not see how my ministering to anyone obligates me to support a particular governmental policy.  Are we to just open the borders then?

Besides which, Chrisian principles of love and hospitality apply to all Christians in all places at all times.  So, should Christians in Japan, say, try to make the government relax its strict immigration policy?  Are all governments everywhere supposed to encode our beliefs into law?  Even in Iran, say?  Did Jesus intend His commands to His Church to be imposed on all people through the State?  Sure sounds like exactly what the Left is always accusing the Right of wanting.

When I protested his characterization of my comments, Mr Ellis clarified: “If God is in solidarity with the poor and with immigrants, and the government passes a law that is unjust toward immigrants, then God would be ‘cross-purposing’ himself.”

First, God does not stand with the poor and with immigrants, per se, in and of themselves.  He makes it sound as if just by virtue of stepping aross a border, even if done so illegally, even if done so with the intent to commit crimes, that somehow God stands with and for them, collectively, as a group, automatically.

Nor does it follow that because God clearly does have a heart for the outcast, the poor, the sick, the broken, the marginalized and oppressed that anytime a government passes a law that may not be equitable and just He is either working at cross-purposes with Himself or He is not really sovereign over the State.

It’s a flawed conclusion from an equally flawed premise.

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Steyn on Kennedy (or Why I Tend to Be Non-Progressive)

In general I would like to change the overall tenor of my blog away from the more polemical, reflections on the news-of-the-day, culture war sort, but something Mark Steyn recently wrote about Edward Kennedy summed up a lot of things for me.   Steyn is acerbic, clever and hilarious, the closest living writer we have to a Twain (in his journalism and travelogues (not fiction)).  I have debated with myself for years if an H.L. Mencken (whom I love though I don’t share his worldview) style of rhetoric and writing is appropriate for a Christian.  At one time I read a lot about Muggeridge, though I have only dipped into him, and have the sense that he may have pulled it off.

Steyn wrote: “If a towering giant cares so much about humanity in general, why get hung up on his carelessness with humans in particular?”  While I really do find that I tend to adopt mediating political and theological positions, though that does not make me a moderate, I am a thorough orthodox Nicene Christian with strongly held beliefs, and though I dislike hubris on either side, I tend to believe political conservatism (for all its faults, failures and excesses) tends to do less harm to humanity.  Basically it’s a slower descent on the road to hell.

Steyn’s quote above nails it for me.  Progressives care deeply about the Poor, and less about the poor.  They are more concerned with Environmentalism than they are the environment.  They love Humanity and hate man.  Jesus Christ was the opposite.  His life and ministry showed an unparalleled concern for concrete humans, and His death showed that that deep care was extended to all Humanity.  This is the arrow of love–it moves from the particular to the general–and without that focus on the concrete, historical person before you; that is, our neighbor, we can not truly exhibit compassion for humanity.

We see this in 1 Timothy 3.  An overseer should be gentle, temperate, faithful, self-controlled and hospitable, among others, all qualities that relate to specific, real, tangible human beings we are in family or community with.  We find an awful lot in Scripture about how to treat persons and not so much about how to treat peoples.  We find almost exclusively teachings on how individuals should relate to individuals and how communities of faith should relate to individuals (e.g. Matthew 18:15-17).  I can not think of a teaching off-hand that deals with our responsibility to our neighbor, family or community mediated through the government, unless it’s Jesus’s teaching to reconcile with another before it lands in court, suggesting, at least, that judicial intervention is a valid and necessary, if undesired, process.

It’s interesting to me that Jesus, Paul and Peter all addressed our obligations to the government, especially when the government they were referring to would be intolerable to us today, as long as it wasn’t in conflict with our obligations to God.  Nowhere I am aware of do they delineate the obligations of government to the individual or the individual’s obligation to other individuals through the government.

Don’t get me wrong; I cherish representative democracy even if it is “the worst form of government except all those others” (Churchill) which contains the “seeds of its own destruction” (Robert Welch)[1], and ours is sliding into an insidious individualism with a destructive bent towards self-gratification and consumerism.  However, nothing we can do will remove the consequences of original sin.   When we try to “fix” problems, especially on a grand scale, we tend to make them worse–the more grand the proposed solution the less grand the outcome.

So, I tend to be generally more conservative politically and more radical (in the sense of the Sermon on the Mount, not French Revolution) personally. Conservatism should be about conservation (and I should say I tend to an older pre-Reagan conservatism, one that at one time would have embraced thinkers like Wendell Berry), and the best way to conserve is to plant.  If democracy does indeed contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction, as all human Babels must, then at least it takes longer for the weeds to flourish because there are just so many vibrant, beautiful plants growing.

Governments do indeed have positive roles to play; some problems (e.g. toxic waste, highways, defense, education) need resources, regulations and direct intervention, but governments deal with people in the aggregate and abstract, and this leads to care for Humanity and carelessness towards humans.  It creates a situation in which people can advocate for health care as a positive right while denying life to millions.  Medical treatment guaranteed to the sick by governmental legislation is not as  legitimate a function of government, if at all, than protecting the innocent or defending those who can not defend themselves.  Because the unborn have been abstracted to fetuses, we have decided they are not human and have no rights.  The first right a government should protect is the right to life.  Even liberty itself comes after that!

It is not progress to medically treat a person with the flu in the same hospital where an unborn baby is deprived of her life and where another baby is born and another is operated on in the womb.  (While most abortions are done in specialty “clinics,” there are still hundreds of hospitals that perform them, and even if they were not, it’s not progress to treat those who were born while killing others. The hospital was a useful, but unnecessary, comparison.)  Yes, of course, I think the conditions which drive some women to abortion need to be addressed.  That’s why we adopted two older, special needs children out of the public adoption system after they were removed from their mother.

Desipte what Obama said in his address before Congress on September 9th, don’t be fooled into thinking that if we get a national public option we won’t eventually get tax-payer funded abortions.  They already have them in Canada.

Render unto Caesar, but love your neighbor.

  1. No I am not a member of the John Birch Society and know very little about it []