In this week’s episode, the editors discuss Matthew Arildsen’s review of Eugene Cho’s “Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk,” Mark Melton’s report on why state attempts to serve a religion backfire, and Sam Goldman’s reflections on the 2020 election.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton, and we’re going to start our review of this week’s best of Providence by looking at an article by Matthew Arildsen reviewing a new book called Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk by well-known pastor Eugene Cho, who is the new head of Bread for the World, a fairly, or somewhat, liberal Christian advocacy group on Capitol Hill here in Washington, DC. And Matthew Arildsen in his review is somewhat critical of pastor Eugene Cho with, from our perspective of bad habit in evangelical political witness of trying to draw straight lines from Bible verses towards particular political policy positions. And among other issues, Cho’s book seems to have an ambivalent view towards Romans 13 and upholding the power of the state to use force. He’s also ambivalent on abortion in terms of to what extent or, if at all, it should be restricted by this day. But much more dogmatic on other public policy and so-called social justice issues, typically from the perspective of the political left. So, Marc LiVecche, as a political theologian yourself, what are your views on this pastor Eugene Cho, and it’s not just pastor Eugene Cho in his book, but this is an almost dominated perspective among many, many evangelicals and how they do public policy and political theology, whether they’re on the left or on the right. A set of Bible verses, perhaps zero on the Beatitudes, and be sure positions on those verses.
LiVecche: Yeah, so catching the second hand, a good book review either ought to make you want to read the book or know for sure you don’t want to read the book. And so, in one sense, this is a terrible book review because I really don’t know. Like, I know I should read it. But I could also just beat my head against the wall and probably come to the same general conclusions. I don’t know. So, it’s probably one reason for me to read it. I’m actually not familiar with him. I know the other usual suspects, and you’ve touched on them. For me, it all comes down again and again and again and again, take the title, don’t be a jerk. Like, who wants to set out to be a jerk? Like I woke up this morning. I thought I’m going to be a jerk. Today I know our political discourse has gotten jerky on both sides very often. My problem with all of this is if you start with a set of faulty assumptions, then your perspective on somebody else’s political discourse is going to be tainted. So, I take for granted that whether I’m reading Claybourne or Hauerwas or even Richard Haze or presumably Cho. Or who’s the other guy? Who’s the other guy we always get into the Twitter tiffs with?
Tooley: Whom I’m interviewing in a couple weeks.
LiVecche: You know any of these guys, I take we’ve got a lot of overlap in our lives. We share a lot of the same assumptions. But when it comes to understanding the depth and wide dimensions of love, for instance, I think we have some basic disagreements. I tend to think that these folks get love wrong to the degree that they have a sort of modern sentimentality about how the world works. And so, if somebody has a strong view of these power, these forces standing against an injustice knocking down the bullies, on and on and on and on. These things are taken to be antithetical to Christian law, because Jesus was the gentle shepherd who sacrificed his life for his flock, yada, yada. Not understanding, and our reviewer touches on it, that’s how we recognize that we do have a God who flips over tables. But it just seems to me again, and again it goes so much deeper than that. If you want to know what God’s love looks like, yes, you look at the cross. But if you want to know what God’s wrath looks like, you look at the cross and then you work backwards from there. And all of Old Testament history, all of Hebraic history, rolls love and wrath together until they culminate in the cross. So, you can have the one without the other. They both go together. And I wish these guys would recognize that political life, history is messy, and you can’t just approach it with the sweet sentimentality that everybody’s going to talk and get along. You raised the question of the Sermon on the Mount. I’m always happy to go there, because the Sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes and with the declaration that peacemakers, which we should all strive to be peacemakers, will be known as sons of God. And you look at this, the Semitic context of that. And in the Semitic thought somebody who’s the son of something bears the things’ characteristics. So, what does it mean to bear the characteristics of God? And again, we come face to face with God’s wrath, with his demand for justice. So, if you want to go to the Beatitudes, let’s do that. But I don’t think they’re necessarily going to like what they find when they begin to unpack all the character descriptions of the Beatitudes, meek isn’t weak, meek is power under restraint. Again and again and again you’ve got this thirst for righteousness that isn’t always going to be a happy clappy sort of political manifestation. So, don’t be a jerk, but not always up to you whether or not you’re perceived as a jerk. Says the jerk.
Tooley: Hahaha. Well, Mark Melton, love and wrath. It’s very difficult for Christians in America today to balance the two in their political theology. Let’s say you?
LiVecche: He’s newly married so he might have a good perspective on this.
Melton: So, I think in the book he talks, or in the book review, he talks about the idea of God empower, like Christians don’t want to use power. Sometimes it seems to be difficult to the idea, whereas in the Bible, the problem isn’t necessarily power, but it’s the lording it over people. I thought that was a good thing that the book review kind of brings out. And while LiVecche was speaking there, two thoughts I had was like the idea of meekness. I think, LiVecche, you wrote a while ago about how meekness, comparing it to a war horse and how the rider is able to control it and stop it on a dime. So there’s still power there. But there’s also a meekness. I think you wrote that. Did you or was that someone else?
LiVecche: Nope. That could have been somebody else as well. But yeah, I think in “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” We have it up online.
Melton: Yeah, so I thought about that when I was reading the book review. And also, just now I’m thinking about a book I read a while ago of how there’s a lot of Christians who conflate the idea that we need to be nice, and the commandment is kindness; we’re supposed to be kind to people. Niceness and kindness can be two different things. Niceness just kind of lets people be, whereas kindness might require some kind of confrontation, telling someone, like what you’re doing is not right sometimes. So, yeah, I think there’s a problem amongst evangelicals of trying to be nice all the time, not differentiating between that and kindness.
LiVecche: And exactly right. Yeah, right. I’m just, I’m going to go on my rant about being a parent. It teaches you that it’s not always nice, right, to let your kids get away with doing everything they want. It’s not nice that I let them eat chocolate cake breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right. It’s, in the end, it’s not good for them. And when we love something, we want it to flourish. And human beings flourish in fairly limited moral ecologies. And so, the loving thing to do is to promote human flourishing, even when it hurts. Now we can get that all sorts of wrong in all sorts of ways. And we have to be careful with that.
Tooley: It’s predictable that Eugene Cho is ambivalent about Romans 13, which is probably the crux of the problem with his political law theology, suggesting that Romans 13 maybe intended to be ironic and not interpreted more directly speaking.
LiVecche: About Romans 13 is if you read it, if you take the chapter bits out, you see that Romans 13 is inserted in Paul’s disquisition on the nature of love. You have love in the beginning of it. Then he goes into this description of government, and then it continues talking about love. Again, Thomas Aquinas says the same thing in the Summa, right. There’s love sandwich. You have Just War set within the context of love; you have government set in the context of love. Isn’t that nice?
Tooley: Very nice. And speaking of Romans 13 and power, often Providence is published critiques of entrepreneurialism, this vision of a society where once again the church is paramount in substance, a partner, if not a superior to the state. Although interpretations differ. Mark Melton has written a piece on how the church is undermined by these historic partnerships with the state. So, tell us a little bit about, more about your perspective, Mark Melton.
Melton: Well, in this piece I bring up what’s called religious economy theory, which developed in the 90s, but it goes back centuries, honestly, going back to John Locke and Adam Smith noticing how, when the state gets really involved in religion, genuine religion really collapses. In other words, people aren’t practicing it as much, and there can be different reasons for this. And in this piece, I lay out some of those, and comparing them to my experiences living in Europe, and also my experiences in the US too. And so, yeah, in a nutshell, whenever the state tries to support a religion, it ends up backfiring. One theory is that the pastors become lazy. I don’t really like the idea of these pastors becoming lazy, but when I was noticing church plants in the US where you have to really work hard to get the church going, a lot of times people would be setting up church spaces and auditoriums and taking them down and giving out of their poverty in order to build a church building. We had the pastor Yates of the Falls Church Anglican come and speak at the office not that long ago. And there he talks about just all the sacrifices that were required to build a church plant. And that creates a more enduring faith, whereas when I lived in France, the state owns a lot of the churches, especially the Catholic churches built before 1905. And so, there’s not that need for that maintenance and the giving out your poverty to make the church survive. And so, I don’t think the pastors are lazy, but there’s not that same drive to force people to give out of their poverty in order to make the church work. And I think that leads to a more enduring faith. I also noticed how if you have multiple different types of churches—even if it’s a church that has one worship style that’s contemporary, another that’s traditional, and there’s the same denomination, say, but people can choose which one they want to go to—then people are more likely to attend. Whereas if you only have a traditional worship style mass, the only choice in that town that you can go to, fewer people will attend. And so, there’s different theories about why you have fewer people practicing the faith. I kind of draw some of those out in more detail in this article. And also, to bring up some consequences, I first ran across this theory while researching how in different ethnic conflicts and religious conflicts, a lot of times the people who participate in those conflicts are those who claim the label of a religion without actually practicing. It’s not monolithic, but you see a lot of that. And also, earlier this year, I spoke with Tobias Cremer, and he brought up the same thing where a lot of the European populists don’t actually believe any of the Christian tenants. They say they’re Christian because they have a church in their town and not a mosque, whereas those who practice the faith kind of reject some of those more militant populists, or the more militant factions, and so you see this difference there. I think there’s potential consequences that are unintended where if you take people out of the church and they claim the label, they’re more likely to participate in some type of conflict. So, I go through some of those theories and more detailed.
Tooley: Very good. By all means, check out the article. And then finally, we’ve not yet posted the transcript, but we do have the video online of our conversation yesterday with George Washington University political scientist and scholar of American religious history, Sam Goldman, reflecting upon the USA election 2020, which we are facing next week. And Sam reminded us that polarization is not a new phenomenon in American politics. In fact, it is by and large the norm in American politics. And too often we compare contemporary times to the abnormal stability and years of consensus that followed World War Two, but extremely divided polarities and contentious elections were common word back to almost the norm for much of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. So, it was a helpful reminder. Marc LiVecche, are you concerned about the stability of the republic as we head into the final moments of election 2020?
LiVecche: Oh of course I am. I’m a child of my times so I could be influenced by history, but I wake up in the morning with heartache over the state of the nation. Sure, I’m concerned about the stability. That’s not to say that I think it’s ever been, there’s ever been some sort of golden era where everybody got along and it really didn’t matter who won the election in anybody’s mind. So, it’s, especially when you’re faced with a general ambivalence, and you could argue, you’ve got to argue, all sorts of ways about how this thing should go. Yeah, it’s 2016 all over again. Life just feels miserable in that sense.
Tooley: What would Oliver O’Donovan tell us?
LiVecche: I don’t know about this. I have no idea. Is that a baited question, what would Oliver O’Donovan tell us?
Tooley: Well, for those who don’t know, he’s the British political theologian of the Church of England. He’s probably the most renowned political theologian in the world today, at least on the Protestant side. But it seems that he often warns against the alarmism of the moment, and sometimes councils that the best response to political outlandish is for Christians is simply to change the topic to discuss something else.
LiVecche: There it is. But we do run a political magazine. I’m not quite sure what we’ll do about that.
Tooley: Well, Providence is focused on timeless eternal principles, so we’re never captive to the moment, are we?
LiVecche: No indeed. You’ve got to read the Lincoln debates, right. That’ll set your heart of right.
Tooley: Speaking of polarization. Well, Mark Melton, Marc LiVecche, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.