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Hasn’t it Always Been Babylon? November 15, 2014

Rod Dreher, one of our favorites on this site, has written a column called “From Israel to Babylon” of which the sources are largely drawn from the Southern Baptists.  The younger Southern Baptists expect to be a religious minority, which, of course, they are.  To quote Ryan Booth, “Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel.”  I actually was a Southern Baptist once, when I was living in Texas and going to graduate school 40 years ago.  And I never heard from them at the time that the USA was a ‘covenant nation.’ I don’t think it is.  The covenant nation of Israel has been succeeded by the international, multiethnic, multicultural Church, as St Paul makes very clear.  Despite the posters and memes depicting 2nd Chronicles 7:14 with an American Flag in the background, if that verse has any application today, the Church, not America, is ‘their land.’  America cannot have a relationship with God, or come back to God.  Americans can, and should be solicited to do so.

Why then did I support some of the Religious Right ideas for so long, and still have not entirely given up on them?  Civil governments, local or national, are supposed to promote justice and human flourishing.  They are not supposed to care about our relationship with God or our eternal fate.  I found that I had assumed what Reformed thought calls the ‘Two Tables of the Law.’  The first 3 ½ commandments have to do with our relationship with God, often called our ‘religious’ obligations.  The last 6 ½ have to do with humans dealing with each other; and the ‘half’ is that part of the Sabbath Commandment having to do with the rest, not the worship, aspect of the Sabbath.  I had no enthusiasm for formal ‘prayers in public school;’ I didn’t think that God was particularly impressed by those, and I suspected that the religion that they inculcated was ‘Moralistic Stoic Deism,’ which was all the rage in the 1950s, though not called that.  Prayers for public school, surely. Vouchers and tax credits to encourage educational diversity and to recognize that education is predominantly a familial and religious function in which the state does happen to have a certain interest, yes.  Charter schools as a compromise, OK.  [I haven’t changed my mind about ‘prayer in public school,’ but I recognize that those who are for it – and there are still a few, are probably trying to inculcate what I called the “political meaning of God” not so much the God of any creed as (a) Not the autonomous self, and at the same time (b) Not Society.  I would like to teach children as much as anyone that ultimate right and wrong is not decreed either by themselves or by Society, but I doubt if chanting the Paternoster is going to accomplish that.]

It saves no one’s soul, but does contribute to human flourishing, to drastically restrict abortion, and encourage surrendering for adoption.  It saves no one’s soul, but contributes to human flourishing, to make divorce, at least where children are in the home, a lot more difficult rather than at the will of one partner, which is what ‘no fault’ is.  I even think it might contribute to human flourishing to put visible adultery and other deviations out of sight and stigmatize fornication and cohabitation, though again it saves no one’s soul. [Notice I said ‘put out of sight’ and not ‘stop.’  The law can’t stop everything, and the law is about outward behavior, not virtue of heart as Jesus preached about.  That is the true side of the saying ‘you can’t legislate morality’ that was used in the ‘60s first by Southern segregationists, then by sexual liberals!]  None of this is about imposing Christianity, because Christianity was never the only religion or philosophy that held moral views of this sort.  As a matter of fact, moral systems that hold different views are a very new development!

As for religious liberty, I suppose one could argue that because Orthodox Jews forbid pork and shrimp, and I am not an Orthodox Jew, I have the right to eat pork and shrimp as a matter of ‘religious liberty.’  But my religion, Reformed Christianity, does not by any means require me to eat pork and shrimp; if it did, then I would be more willing to make it a religious liberty argument. “Obey God, rather than men” is what religious liberty protects.  Orthodox Jews, and a number of other religions, also prohibit murder, theft, and wife-beating.  If you wanted to argue that laws motivated by the Bible or some other religious text are ipso facto unconstitutional, and push it to its logical conclusion, then laws against murder, theft, and wife-beating are unconstitutional, then all we have left of the law are tax and regulatory favors for crony capitalists.  [And why would we have a problem with tax and regulatory favors for crony capitalists, unless we had moral notions about them?]

The real truth is that those who say they wish to keep ‘religious values’ out of public life only want to keep certain religious values out of public life.  They have a ‘higher standard’ by which they decide which religious values are appropriate for public life and which are not.  The one who has really clarified this is Jonathan Haidt who, in his book The Righteous Mind, posits that there are six dimensions to instinctive morality, of which ‘liberals’ only use three, and ‘conservatives’ use all six.

The ‘liberal’ three are:

Care vs harm
Fairness vs cheating [fairness interpreted as equality]
Liberty vs oppression

And ‘conservatives’ add:

Loyalty vs betrayal
Authority vs subversion
Sanctity vs degradation

[and generally interpret ‘fairness’ as proportionality and proper reward for effort, rather than equality].

I would add that the so called ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative’ people, often called ‘libertarian’ although few of them are actually libertarian in the strict sense, are those that subscribe to the short list but use the ‘conservative’ definition of fairness; and the so called ‘populists,’ their mirror image, quite common among religious blacks and Latinos and the old Reagan Democrats, are those who subscribe to the long list but employ the ‘liberal’ definition of fairness as equality.

So now we know what those who say that the separation of church and state require the elimination of ‘religious’ values from politics really mean.  What they mean is that those religious values that have to do with care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, and liberty vs. oppression are an appropriate basis for law, public manners, and discrimination by business; and that those that have to do with loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, and sanctity vs. degradation should have no place either in law or as standards for discrimination by business. [Personally I suspect that when it comes to business, it’s only the last of these that they really want to force business to not care about; assuming that sexual morality falls in that category; and also to force business to go along with regarding the taking of human lives in the embryonic stage, or in the near death painful stage, as ‘care’ rather than harm.]  I’m not sure I agree with all this, but it is being read into the Constitution and we will all have to live with it for quite a while.

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