Liberty and Freedom and Gun Rights

In the previous essay I argued that rights are not “endowed by the Creator.” Rather, liberty is “endowed by the Creator,” and in turn, there are a pair of dependent principles that grow out of liberty: rights and responsibilities. The consequence of liberty is that I have rights for myself and responsibilities for others.

The second thing that I emphasized in the previous essay is that while liberty is a natural endowment, in the context of civic life and the political systems that organize and protect civic life, rights are granted by the government (in contrast to liberty, which is endowed by the Creator). This might seem harsh and authoritarian, given the libertarian sensibilities that have permeated our society in the last twenty years, but the logic is inescapable. There must be some arbiter when rights and desires come in conflict. According to the American founding documents, the arbiters are the local governments or the Federal government.

It is within this broad context of human liberty and the dependent principles of rights and responsibilities that gun rights must be considered. No right is absolute including the right to life. To clarify this claim, the governments (both federal and state) have the authority of capital punishment in the case of heinous crimes. When chaos breaks out (murder, for instance) governments have the authority to revoke certain rights (such as the life of the murderer) in order to restore the peace.

For reasons not related to guns, our society has become more chaotic. Furthermore, public violence planned as spectacle is rising dramatically. Statistics indicate mass killings are always premeditated, but there are also a complex set of causes. Often mental illness is involved. On occasion these are crimes of passion that affected bystanders get caught up in. At times they are simply cold blooded. In other words, guns are typically the proximate cause rather than the direct cause of mass murders or mass attempted murders. On this point defenders of gun rights are correct.

No matter the direct or proximate causes, it remains the task of government to keep order, and given the trend and the societal effects of gun violence as spectacle, there is a great deal of logic for the government to more heavily regulate firearms. Furthermore, if this is indeed a situation where the chaos that results from the misuse of the freedom is growing out of control, the citizens have responsibilities (in counter-balance to their rights) to cooperate.

Finally, I want to address Christians specifically in this matter because we have something to offer that is mostly missing from the Enlightenment and, in turn, the American founding documents. The Enlightenment was weak on the idea that part of that which defines us as persons is our interrelationships. Consequently, the Founding Fathers were weak on the idea of our responsibility for others. (Remember the Declaration and Constitution are both compromise documents. Deists, who strongly preferred Locke’s original language of life and liberty endowed by nature ended up having to compromise with the Christians and change that classic Enlightenment language to life and liberty endowed by nature to life and liberty endowed by the Creator. In turn, the Christians had to compromise on the doctrine of the person and settle for the idea of the isolated but self-sustaining individual (“I think, therefore I am”). By downplaying the Christian doctrine of personhood and emphasizing the Enlightenment idea of individuality, the foundations for responsibility were undermined.

Christians who have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Christian faith should understand that to be human is to be in relationship. But given the constant emphasis on our individuality, it is easy to forget (even for Christians) that individuality stands in contradiction to the Christian doctrine of relationship. Christian teaching is not that we are individuals in the Enlightenment sense, but persons—entities that are both distinct from others while being unavoidably connected to them. It is therefore a task of Christians to highlight our internectedness and the manner in which responsibilities and rights are restored as the two sides of liberty.

It’s high time that we Christians reject the anti-Christian mantra of “Rights! Rights! Give me my Rights!” and with repentance and humility take up the burden of responsibilities of citizenship. Given the extensive infrastructure of checks and balances constitutionally built into the American government, giving up one right because it is the responsible thing to do will not inevitably lead to a spiral into authoritarianism. There are several areas where authoritarianism is growing that have nothing to do with gun rights. As Christians we need to stand up against authoritarianism where it actually exists and abandon the straw man (dare I say “idol”?) of gun rights as the supposed inevitable precursor to authoritarianism.



Liberty and Freedom

In Enlightenment political theory (this is the political theory that is foundational to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution) the two primary natural “endowments” are life and liberty (and yes, the Declaration adds Happiness, but that’s another story). Given the history of American jurisprudence, the most appropriate definition of liberty is “the right to speak and act without constraint.” Freedom is the application of this natural liberty in various facets of civic life.

It has been generations since we’ve experience true chaos in America, so now one might think that the purpose of government is to do stuff for us. But in the context of the above natural endowments, the purpose of government is to maintain order and keep chaos at bay. The endowment of liberty can only be expressed through freedom in an orderly society relatively free of threats. It’s this orderly society that government seeks to maintain. In the decade of the 1770s the threat to freedom was not the misdeeds of the citizenry but rather the influence of England. It is not surprising then that the Founding Fathers spoke little of the internal conditions that made freedom possible and spoke a lot about external threats to freedom. But according to their practice it seems they believed freedom was only possible if the citizens were educated, civically responsible and involved.

Because the responsibilities of the citizenry was not a primary topic, I want to get at that subject through a far more mundane avenue: children. On various occasions I have heard parents with more than one child talk about the difference between kids. The one is responsible and the parents can let the responsible child borrow the car and stay out until midnight without many worries. The other is far less responsible and as a result far more restrictions about the use of the car or going to a friend’s house for the evening are required. The parents’ attitudes about freedom remain consistent, but differing levels of responsibility lead to differing levels of freedom. Lack of freedom is not the parents’ fault, it’s the irresponsible child’s fault.

Freedom may also need to be curtailed because of the company we keep. As a grade schooler my son was very responsible and we allowed him a great deal of freedom to roam and come and go as he pleased. Then we moved and our son made a new friend who turned out to be a great kid, but who initially appeared to be a wild child. Until we understood the friendship better, our son’s freedom was severely curtailed, not because of his character or actions, but because of the friends he had.

Civic life is similar. Liberty is the naturally endowed right and freedom is granted to the extent that the populace embodies liberty or, to say it another way, is responsible enough to handle freedom without creating chaos. Furthermore, this is not only a matter of individual character. Freedom is the fruit of all (or the majority) of the citizenry having the character and being responsible in a manner that allows a measure of freedom to be granted without it leading to chaos. Just because I am capable of handling freedom responsibly, it does not necessarily follow that the society in which I live can do this. To a large extent my freedom is determined by “the company I keep.”

As I said above, in the United States we have had a remarkable measure of freedom with few ill effects for so many generations that we forget freedom is not a right. We have been relatively free throughout our history, not only because of the Constitution, but primarily because the country was not in chaos…well, except for the wild west. Although the the so-called Indian Wars are a terrible blot on our history, they are instructive at this point. Both the west-bound settlers and the federal government believed that the west was too chaotic to be governed. For the sake of argument we will accept the government’s conclusion that the problem was not the national policies about settlement of the west and was instead the Native Americans themselves. Because of this, the government practiced a policy of imprisonment, forced relocation, and killing. The Native Americans lost their freedom because they and their situation was deemed too chaotic to be governable. Even though they were endowed with natural liberty, the government was not able to grant them the consequent freedom because of their actions. (And yes, there are more facets to this tragedy, including the question of whether they were human, but for this essay I am limiting myself specifically to the question of naturally endowed liberty.) Even though this chapter in history was horrendous from my contemporary perspective, it was acceptable to the citizenry because they understood at a deep level the proper relationship between liberty, which is naturally endowed, and freedom, which is granted by the government to the degree that chaos does not ensue.

The above example reminds us that as compelling as the ideas expressed in the founding documents are, the execution of these ideas is always messy and far from perfect. Legal slavery, North America’s relation to the native population (in both the U.S. and Canada), the U.S. policy toward Japanese, and to a lesser extent, German citizens during WWII are all historic examples where the proper understanding of liberty and freedom and the identification of the core problem were handled badly. There are many contemporary examples, but because of differing beliefs and sensibilities it’s far harder to nail down either the truth or the proper direction forward without the benefit of historical clarity. (This would include ideas as disparate as immigrant rights, LGBT issues, and internet freedom.) Because I am a political conservative and because on the issue of gun rights I fundamentally differ from many, if not most, other conservatives, I will explore gun rights in the context of liberty and freedom further in the next essay.

The Bondage of the Will & Christian Liberty

I’ve been reading parts of Luther’s Bondage of the Will again to make sure I’m not misremembering his argument. Luther’s argument is quite similar to Calvin’s later argument that gets filed under “predestination,” although there are differences. In both cases I have no doubt that the Reformers are trying to figure out things that are simply beyond figuring out. They reached a bit too far.

The Reformers are certainly in line with classic Christianity when they declare that our will is in bondage. We do need to keep in mind that when we consider these ideas today there are a cluster of words which we tend to jumble together as vaguely synonymous that need to be distinguished when speaking of this bondage.

Choice, for instance still exists. I can choose to follow God or not to follow God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people they have to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). But just because the people chose God and thus chose life did not mean that they were actually able to make good on that choice. They failed over and over because their wills were in bondage. Being free to choose for or against God in principle is far different than the ability to actually follow God’s paths and do what God wants us to do.

Liberty is another one of those ideas that tends to confuse us. Paul says, “[C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). A cursory reading of this verse might lead one to think that bondage and liberty are opposite and if my will was once in bondage (reading Luther back into Paul) then in Christ my will is no longer in bondage but now has liberty (or “freedom” in the NRSV) to do what it chooses (reading pop culture back into Paul). But that reading misses the point.

Many years ago, in my first steps out of Dispensationalism, I discovered R.J. Rushdoony, a “theonomist” who believed that civil law should be based on Old Testament law (a Christian version of sharia, to put it into a contemporary context). In spite of his misguided attempts in this direction, he was a pretty good historical scholar. In a monograph entitled, “The Changed Meaning of Liberty,” he wrote the following: “Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law.”

Rushdoony is putting it into the civil context between the Christian church and the Roman empire, but originally this is what Paul was talking about in relation to the Old Testament law. As Christians, who are dead to the Law and alive to Christ, we have “liberty” as an immunity to the Law. We can no longer be charged as lawbreakers because those laws don’t apply to us in our new context. This is how the U.S. Navy uses the term. When a ship enters port most of the sailors are let off duty to go wander the town. They are “at liberty.” This means they are no longer under the strict rules of life on the ship, although they are under obligation to follow local law and if they are in uniform they still have to salute a uniformed officer, etc.

This sort of “liberty” is very different than actual freedom as we think of it today. Comedian Ron White, in his well known “They Call Me Tater Salad” story, said that when he was talking to the cops after a bar brawl he had the right to remain silent but he didn’t have the ability. Christian liberty is like that; it doesn’t imply we have the ability. Even with our Christian liberty, our wills are still bound. We can choose to follow God, but, like Ron White, we don’t have the ability.

Christian transformation is a mysterious process where Christ’s will operates through us to transform us in spite of our best efforts. Transformation requires our cooperation. We have to choose God on the level of choosing or rejecting that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy, but our wills are unable to follow through with our choice, so we keep on doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7). But in spite of all this bondage, Christ works in us to do that which we cannot do and transformation actually happens.

There is also a lifelong process of taking back the will and turning it to the purpose that God intended when he instilled it in human beings. But that process is not what you might think. Once Christ is at work within us, his will guides our hearts and directs us in what we should do and how we should think. (This is the ultimate goal, anyway.) So the correct way to battle our own stubborn will is to ignore it. Of course this is easier said than done. We will never win an outright fight over our wills. We can, in contrast, learn to ignore its insistent directions, and over time it becomes more and more quiet. The will lies at the center of what we must put to death in our Christian struggle, and the way we do that is to starve it by ignoring it. And as it dies, it simultaneously comes to life, but in this new life, it imprints on Christ’s will within us, and thus is tamed. Although throughout our earthly life, it will no doubt always have a tendency to rise up and say, “My will, and not yours be done.”

So freedom, as we think of freedom in the modern world, is never possible. We humans were not created to be free and we quickly get out of control if we try to act on our supposed freedom, like a balloon zipping around a room when we let go of it. We were created with the purpose of allowing God to drive, not us. Luther describes this as bondage to Christ (hearkening back to Paul’s imagery of the bond slave). That’s imagery that we naturally shrink back from, but it is there that we find true liberty – like sailors on shore liberty: freed from the concerns of the ships rules and free to truly joy in God.

The Rohingya and Syria

I read the article because of the title. “Rohingya see glimmer of hope in Suu Kyi’s election victory.” I never heard of Rohingya and was curious why his name popped up in my news feed. Turns out that it was not a person. The Rohingya are a minority group in Myanmar. The article came from The Arab News, a paper I hardly ever read (and only when I click on a headline in my news feed that seems interesting). The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar long enough that their origins are in question (probably from the Bengal region). What is for certain is they are not Burmese and are not an officially recognized ethnic group. Because they are mostly Muslim, the majority Bengali population does not like them.

Today they are considered by groups that pay attention to this stuff to be one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Many now live in refugee camps that are reportedly better described as prisons. They have high hopes that Suu Kyi’s NLD party, that just won the national election in a landslide, will deal with their perilous situation.

I am quite frankly worried about all the anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian rhetoric that has become so chic in the U.S. There are even those that want to put Syrian refugees into internment camps. Granted, there is a certain risk in allowing any stranger to live next door. But I think we might do well to pause and try to learn a lesson from the Myanmar debacle. It would be far more dangerous in the long run to dehumanize hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees and other immigrants from Syria. If we were to do that, we would have a decades-long disaster on our hands similar to Myanmar and the Rohingya. (France’s historic tendency to ghettoize immigrants, and especially Algerians, and the result of that policy is both tragic and instructive in this case.)

And, aside from the policy debate, I am horrified that we, as a society, are so quick to relegate a whole nation to this not-quite-human status. Given the rhetoric, it might be best if we dismantle and melt down the Statue of Liberty. The metal could be use to build fences to imprison the nation of Syria

This post raised some questions. I seem to conflate conservatives and liberals. I fail to recognize the differences between the Republican and Democratic political parties in the U.S. (Yeah, I also noticed that they were statements rather than questions.)

In answer I will quote John Médaille. I’ve lost the source of this quote. Sorry. He’s talking about the success of William F. Buckley’s National Review.

But it was a success that came at a price, and the price was fusionism. The “conservatism” of Buckley’s journal was an odd combination of traditionalists, Austrian libertarians, and the liberal anti-communists (who would later become the “neo-cons”). These three factions were united by their anti-communism, but by little else. The traditionalists aimed at virtue, while the Austrians and the “neo-cons” aimed at “liberty,” but a liberty that was merely formal; it did not aim at the good or at anything in particular, but was mostly expressed as a lack of restraint, particularly government restraint. As Mark Popowski points out, if freedom is foremost, then no superior principle [such as virtue] could ever be invoked. This tension is at the root of all of the problems of what we today call “conservatism.”

In other words, in the 60s the glue that held the new Republican factions together was not political ideology, it was anti-communism. Once the communist threat dissipated, the stark differences between these groups became obvious. Unfortunately (if one is a conservative, that is), it was the neo-cons who now held the reins of the Republican Party. The two American political parties (Republican and Democrat) were now in control, on the one hand, of Democrats who were formerly perceived as soft on communism and, on the other, of ex-Democrats who were anti-communists. Now that communism had become an anachronism, it left Democrats and ex-Democrats in control of the whole American political process. The fall of communism was the end of the two party system for the moment. Hopefully we can regain two distinct perspectives in American politics in the near future.


[Having a hard time with that title? How about parentheses and one letter change: Amer(irony)ca. Sort of like Americana, but with a modern twist.]


One of South Sioux City’s newest projects in Freedom Park, a place that celebrates what America is all about and the sacrifices people have made for the U.S.


It’s got a long way to go. This is what the park complex looks like so far.Freedom_2

I have nicknamed the sign in the foreground the Edward Snowden Memorial Entrance Sign, or the WB (Whistle Blower) for short. Could there be any freedom without whistle blowers?


And ironically, is there anything that better defines the Imperial U.S. government bureaucracy (at the moment) than surveillance?

It turns out (in their mind) there can be no freedom without eternal vigilance surveillance.



What’s a Recovering Libertarian?

At a recent family reunion, sitting over pizza at a Pizza Ranch – one of the great Iowa institutions where politicians come to meet Iowans before the Presidential Caucuses to explain their political views and aspirations – my niece asked me to explain my political leanings. (1) What is Communitarianism? (2) How does it differ from Libertarianism? and (3) Why do you call yourself a “recovering Libertarian”? (That’s in my Facebook profile). Those are difficult questions because both movements are rather amorphous and the simple definitions don’t explain anything.

  • Libertarians, for instance, include people primarily interested in small government (my thing, if you’re curious) as well as people primarily interested in the decriminalization of drugs or a whole variety of other activities. It’s an extremely big tent.
  • Communitarianism, similarly, covers a lot of ground. It’s primarily a Roman Catholic movement promoted by groups such as the Chesterton Society; but it also includes back-to-nature localists, grown up hippies who want to live off the land, and anti-urbanists.

How does one succinctly compare and contrast two such disparate movements? (Especially when distracted by “Cactus Bread”!)

A while ago another relative handed me a CD with a set of lectures by (Notre Dame professor) Thomas F. X. Noble, on the history of the papacy. I’m Orthodox, so (he thought) I would obviously be interested in these lectures. Well, not so much, but one ought to be polite, so I listened anyway. Actually, they turned out to be pretty darn good.

It’s too bad I hadn’t listened to the lecture about John Paul II before sitting down to pizza with my niece. That lecture cut to the heart of why I consider myself a recovering Libertarian (and a practicing Communitarian, even though I’m not Roman Catholic).

I am a small government sort of guy because I think that local institutions are better suited to doing many of the tasks that the U.S. Federal government has co-oped for itself. That was my attraction to Libertarianism. What I came to realize is that Libertarians were radically individualistic and in that sense were not the inheritors of Jeffersonian classical liberalism. In spite of the rhetoric, they were far more interested in the absence of government than its structure. More Nietzschean than Lockean, the Libertarians were committed to a personal autonomy that is not very compatible with Christianity.

With this background I turn to the lectures by Thomas Noble:

John Paul II castigated aggressive individualism and acquisitiveness. He wasn’t opposed to wealth or capitalism per se, … What he was really critiquing was the modern secular tendency to place the isolated individual on a pedestal; to take that individual out of all social connection and all social responsibility. ‘It’s all about me, isn’t it?’ ‘Well,’ John Paul said, ‘no it’s not actually,’

I became Libertarian because I thought that the Libertarian Party and Libertarianism in general was about reining in American federal messianism, the government gone mad with power, under the control of the two major political parties bent on growing the influence of government at home and abroad. What I discovered is that what Libertarians were actually about was placing “the isolated individual on a pedestal,” as well as the “removing of all social connection and responsibility.”

Communitarianism, on the other hand, recognized that the local community, with all of its rootedness in place and people, was the foundation of political culture. Liberty is not an attribute of an individual (unless you equate liberty with solipsism), it is an attribute rooted in a community. Liberty does not define me, it defines my relation to those around me.

With that distinction in mind, let me continue the quote from Thomas Noble;

[John Paul II] was seeking a more authentic kind of community. Not the kind of community that’s forced by Soviet collectivization, but the kind of community that is formed by people thinking in the right kind of way joining together for the right reasons.

Following the line of Leo XIII and Pius XI in defending property and defending a living wage, he is harkening back to the notion that the rich have moral obligations to share with the poor.

Talking to the American youth at one of the youth rallies, John Paul II said,

The great gift Americans have is freedom, and freedom is the opportunity to do what is right, which confers on [us] the obligation to do what is right. Freedom gives us, not the liberty to do whatever we want but the obligation to do what is right.

I have always liked John Paul II. But in the past I’ve always focused on his critique of the “culture of death,” which I believe was one of his greatest gifts to the Western world. Until listening to Thomas Noble I had not realized JPII was such a staunch defender of subsidiarity specifically and Communitarianism in general.

I suspect I’ve had a sense for many years, which I’ve not been able to put into words, that Communitarianism was the correct political posture. It insists that governance (whether church or state) be carried out by the most local authority possible, thus shrinking and limiting national bureaucracy. At the same time it insists that institutions and community bonds are not bad, but are actually necessary to our well being because we were not created autonomous individuals. (That sense of autonomy is a result of the fracturing of sin. Read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, to see a great picture of autonomy gone horribly wrong.)

But being (1) an American and (2) a Protestant with that one-two punch of autonomy and private responsibility that they both celebrate, I had no framework in which to formulate a political philosophy that reflected my sensibilities. Not surprisingly, the church, with it’s long history of struggling for the truth against all manner of cultures and societies, had a long established political philosophy that was actually far more Christian than culture-bound.

That being said, I’m still an American and that Protestant mindset runs deep in my being, in spite of the fact that I left Protestantism behind almost two decades ago. That’s why I self-identify as a “Recovering Libertarian.”


I am fascinated by the response to spy scandal. For the most part I’m neither surprised nor upset by it, although I admit I find the trends ominous. I wrote much more extensively about this a year ago, found here. What interests me in the current flap is our focus on the government as the potential abuser of power rather than big business.

It seems we Americans are hard-wired to distrust the government and give everyone else a pass. From where did the NSA get the data? Google, Facebook, the phone companies, etc. Who is better than anyone else at analyzing meta data? Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc. Oh yeah, and don’t forget HyVee and their “innocuous” little loyalty cards. I suspect the NSA are actually a bunch of pikers compared to the geeks out in Mountain View.

The kids in Redmond and Mountain view even have their own airports, their own fleet of planes. Who knows, they probably have their own collection of drones to take out bad internet citizens who block cookies on their browsers and send emails in all caps.

Well, maybe not.

Social networking” (from the server side) is simply a euphemism for figuring out exactly what you’re doing, where, and what you want while you’re doing it, so that the those who are paying attention can connect us with someone who wants to sell us something.

Privacy is dead. The NSA are a bunch of pikers. And has the best deals on the planet tailored to your most secret desires.

Classical Liberalism: A Summary

[This essay is a summary to date of my thinking on Classical Liberalism and the Church. I am writing this as a precursor to some thoughts about Carl Jung, which will come soon in another essay.]

The thesis in much of my recent writing under the category of “Liberty” has been twofold. First, American politics and religion are both inherently Liberal. This includes Republicans and the Tea Party; this includes Evangelicals and Protestant fundamentalists. What we call Conservatism in the modern era is simply a flavor of the Classic Liberalism (or “Jeffersonian Liberalism”) espoused most famously by John Locke and applied to theology (albeit, in a far less virulent form a generation prior) by John Calvin. As Wikipedia accurately describes it,

Classical liberalism is the philosophy committed to the ideal of limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets.

The second part of my argument has been that Classical Liberalism is an inherently secularizing philosophy (which constantly pressures Protestantism toward a secular form of religion). Unfortunately, “secular” is completely the wrong word to use in this context, but I know of no other term which can more adequately bear the burden of what I’m trying to say.

The classic Judeo-Christian way of thinking involves certain assumptions that make Christianity what it is. Without those assumptions, Christianity becomes something rather different than what it ought to be. Among those assumptions are a belief that the interior life of a person is real and capable of doing remarkable things and that there is an inherent link between what has come to be called our spiritual and physical existence. Our material existence (the body) can affect and change our spiritual existence for good or ill. Conversely, our spiritual existence can affect and change our material existence. And finally, among those assumptions is that just as there is an indissoluble link between material and spiritual, so there is an indissoluble link between the one and the many, or the individual and the community.

Our very humanity, our personhood, is not defined only by our material and spiritual aspects, but also by our communal aspect. A person who has cut himself off from all community is less than a person in the classical sense. One might say that a disconnected person has reverted to an aspect of their animal nature.

But Classical Liberalism brings all these relationships (material/immaterial, material/communal, and immaterial/communal) into question. Elsewhere I have traced the secular philosophies rooted in the Enlightenment to Christian practices. Here I will simply highlight the following.

First, Protestants don’t trust ascetical practices. The idea that fasting is not only an interesting and helpful suggestion but an actual necessity for spiritual growth is nearly always dismissed as a form of works religion. I would argue that this reaction to ascetical practices is not so much rooted in a fear of works salvation as it is a bifurcation of the material and immaterial world. It assumes that salvation is primarily spiritual, not physical (as if those two realms can be separated!).

Second, Protestants don’t trust the tradition. I have frequently called this the Berean Heresy. (See, Acts 17:11, where the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonicans because not only did they receive the word, they “examined the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”) Protestants typically believe that a truth from scripture cannot be truth unless it is verified by my own personal study. In this manner, the individual is set as judge over the community and the whole idea that the Holy Spirit reveals himself to the community rather than the individual (Mt. 18:20) is rejected in favor of a privatistic interpretation of scripture. This is a break between the immaterial person (the mind) and the community.

Third, there is a break between the material person and the community. Protestants (and American Catholics!) tend not to trust outside authority. Our churches are volunteer organizations with no real authority over members. Creeds, confessions, and statements of faith tend to be suggestions rather than iron-clad requirements for membership. And while many denominations have some sort of authority structure, the idea of a bishop as the divinely appointed protector of the faith is anathema.

Because of the bifurcation (or in this case, the trifurcation) of the material, immaterial, and communal existence, contemporary Western Christianity is not whole or complete. It is in this sense that I use the word “secular.” Contemporary Christianity goes about its religious practices viewing reality in much the same way as her secular counterparts.

This breakdown is secular, not only because it is incomplete, but because it undermines our perception of the very activity of God in the world. How does God speak to us? Contemporary Christians embrace the idea that God speaks to me, to my heart, that he reveals his will to me. But what if the Bishop said I was supposed to do something that I didn’t want to do? Would that be God speaking? What if I believed I was called to be a pastor, but the church (the congregation or the presbytery, etc.) said I wasn’t qualified? Would I accept that as the voice of God, or would I go find another group more amenable to my personal revelation? The very fact that we ask the question at all belies the fact that we do not trust the community, only our own inner heart.

Our trifurcation (the breaking apart) of material, immaterial, and communal means we distrust the very presence and voice of God in its completeness. In that sense, we are a thoroughly secular religious tradition.

One of the other results is that we fail to appreciate the fullness of our humanity. The human mind, apart from God, is capable of incredible things and can even influence and change the physical world. Because of the Western distrust of the non-material this inherent ability of the non-material person is questioned in both science and religion. But Christians can’t so easily dismiss the spiritual world, so this power is often dismissed as demonic.

And yes the world of spirits, both fallen (demons) and unfallen (angels) is real. But so is the spiritual aspect of humans. One of the products of the secularization of the Western church is the incredible diminishing of our humanity because of our tendency to relegate all powerful or materially significant spiritual activity to angels and demons.

Ah, but aren’t we spiritually dead? Aren’t we incapable of all these things except through the Holy Spirit’s life within us? The classic Christian tradition claims that spiritual death is separation, not annihilation. The death of spirit means that it is subject to corruption because it is cut off from God. But even though it can no longer function to its full capability, because it is corrupt (ie, rusted, like iron is corrupt with that most power solvent, oxygen, and becomes mixed with iron oxide, or rust, and thus weakened), it is still a powerful force.

In this sense, even though cut off from the true God and true religion, the monks of Nepal can do astounding things, not because they are controlled by demons, but because they are not secular and understand the profound relationship between the material and the immaterial.

This is why a careful definition of terms is so critical to understanding the failures of Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Protestant Fundamentalism, and the Western Church in general. We are all Liberals. We have all been liberated from responsibilities of the classical world view and are now free to do as we see best without the burden of ancient rules and customs and without the meddling of other people in our lives. In the process of gaining the ephemera of freedom, we have lost the Body, and in losing the Body, we have lost many of the facets of our connection to God himself. We have been reduced to a largely secular religion.

Eternal Vigilance

I’m currently reading The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, by Thomas P. Slaughter. Near the beginning of Ch. 8 he uses the phrase “eternal vigilance.” “Eternal vigilance was the price paid for the blessings of liberty.” Or as it was stated over 200 years ago:

“Free government, in any country naturally verges by imperceptible advances to tyranny, unless corrected by the vigilance of the people. Nothing but perpetual jealousy of the governed has ever been found effectual against the machinations of ambition.” [From the National Gazette, Jan. 16, 1792, p. 3, as quoted by Slaughter.]

This sentiment, uttered by the so-called “friends of liberty,” was in contrast to the sentiments of the so-called “friends of order,” who were concerned that the American republic was spinning out of control. In this historical context, typical of the periods both before and after the Revolutionary War, the vigilance is required against those that seek too much government.

What struck me about this quote and Slaughter’s slightly altered phrase, “eternal vigilance,” is that in today’s patriotic rhetoric it is rather the “friends of order” who have co-opted the phrase. We are being called to vigilance against foreign enemies. In today’s rhetoric implied in the call for eternal vigilance is a strong standing army, expanded powers for the national police to ferret out dissenters within our borders, both citizens and aliens, and a large military budget to pay for it. Two centuries ago “eternal vigilance” was the watchword against taxes, a standing army, and federal government attempts to clamp down on dissent within its borders.

I wonder if many of today’s patriots who bandy about such sentiment as a defense of our huge, permanent military are aware that they have turned 180° from the sentiment of the Revolutionary period.