In this episode, Mark Tooley and Marc LiVecche speak about recent content on Providence, including Tooley’s article about Christian nationalism, Debra Erickson’s piece on Christian realism and partisanship, and a 75-year-old op-ed about Christmas.
Mark Tooley: Hello. This is Mark Tooley editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy on a rainy Christmas Eve with the pleasure of speaking with fellow editor and fellow Mark/c, Marc LiVecche, for a another Marksism conversation addressing to articles in Providence over past week: One on Christian realism by Deborah Erickson; another by myself on Christian nationalism and finally a piece from 75 years ago in Christianity and Crisis magazine on the political lessons of Christmas by Episcopal Bishop Edward Parsons. Marc, your colleague Deborah Erickson, both of you studied under the late, great Jean Bethke Elshtain, the great Christian realist, thinker and writer. And so in her article for us Deborah articulates her understanding of Christian realism, which she believes argues against any intense partisanship, that Christian realism is more aloof, so to speak, and more attached to principles, than temporal political loyalties. And she notes that notable Christian realists like Reinhold Niebuhr transitioned politically across the course of their careers neighbor starting out as a socialist on the left and migrating to the center and Elshtain also starting out on the left and moving to the center right. So interested in your thoughts. My responses: I think that democracy requires that some are called to a particular level of partisanship, without which political parties and democracy cannot function. But what think you?
Marc LiVecche: Yeah, I think that’s right. I don’t think your position and her position are mutually exclusive, I suspect. Anyway, knowing, knowing Deborah, I think the qualifiers that you put in place are the are the ones that do a lot of the work. Intense partisanship, I think at some point in her article she derides overwhelming devotion to a particular political party. I think we would agree that those types of affiliations that are strong and resolute no matter what are going to be suspect if the choice is between a normative principle and a party position, in most cases, although I think we could also probably sit down and think of cases where you have to compromise on occasion. But by and large, you choose your principles over party platforms. I think she would agree with that. So I think there is a medium to be found, but I think you’re right. I think, in fact, a common theme that’s going to run through all three articles that we’re going to discuss today is this idea that human beings need a home and I’m not going to suggest that the home has to be a party. But in some ways even human ideologies sit best in something like a home and I think parties can provide that we have to be cautious to abandon the party when the party abandons God all of that, that’s fine. But yeah, I think, I think some partisanship is necessary. She notes the tension I think as well.
Mark Tooley: And would you agree that a Christian realist theoretically could be on the left or the right, or in the center?
Marc LiVecche: And then the devil’s in the details right because, of course, I agree that they can be. And I believe it is evidence, the fact that they are, right, they run the spectrum. I do think a Christian realist because the the idea is that the Christian realist rightly describes reality. Given that there is one reality and it’s objective and it’s not subjective. You know, I started to waffle on the idea that a Christian that you can have three Christian realists and one is on the right, one is on the left and one is in the middle, and they are all somehow all correct to be sitting where they’re sitting. If you take hard left positions exclusively or hard right positions exclusively one of those two people is going to be wrong, at least on some of the issues. You know, somebody has a bent toward positions, programs that are more in the purview of one party or the other or more on the left more on the right. Maybe you find yourself more at home because they really speak to your passions as an individual, but if there’s one reality, then you know, it’s hard to see how a Christian realist or Christian realists across those spectrums are all going to be right all the time. That doesn’t seem possible.
Mark Tooley: But as Christian realists, we always understand that as fallen, frail fallible humans we’re limited in how we can approach or understand the full scope of reality.
Marc LiVecche: Correct. So, in principle, no, you can’t have Christian realists across the spectrum. In practice, of course you can because we don’t have omniscience we lie even to ourselves, etc, etc. So absolutely.
Mark Tooley: Moving on to my fascinating and brilliant commentary on Christian nationalism. It’s very fashionable to denounce Christian nationalism, it’s often not very clear what exactly it is it often seems to equate to conservative evangelicals who were Republicans and Trump supporting or at least that’s been the definition of the last four years. But in my analysis I wonder if there is not some role for Christians to be nationalist and to try to understand that God has some purposes for the nation. We have to be humble in terms of how we make any conclusions and avoid dogmatic assumptions. But it’s clear that many critics of Christian nationalism think that any conversation or rhetoric about God and country is somehow a malevolent form of Christian nationalism and I recall an early 20th century sermon by a Methodist pastor speaking to Union Civil War veterans. He explained to them that God had used them, used their sacrifice for the nation as essentially a Christ-like example and they had sacrificed and their comrades, and many of them, given their lives, not just for the North, or for the Union, but even for their enemies in the South and that all have benefited from their victory. So that’s to me, an appropriate form, if you want to call it that, Christian Nationalism. But what think you?
Marc LiVecche: Yeah, that was great. I think that’s exactly right. You know, there’s always going to be trouble with the word nationalism. I think it’s, you know, we, if we are always going to sit on that term uncomfortable or at least we are just because it’s open to all sorts of misunderstandings and you know those misunderstandings are found in, you know, referencing Deborah’s fear about party affiliation. When you have an overwhelming or an intense all encompassing devotion to a nation problems are going to evolve. But you know your article isn’t defending the deification of a nation talking about God and country, not country is God, nothing like that. I think human beings are perfectly capable of the deep devotion to a homeland without that devotion becoming worship without defining the nation. Especially Christians ought to be capable of doing this because I think where you most often find the nation deified is where the nation has a whole or in part has walked away from God, as under National Socialism in Germany, human beings will worship something if you don’t have the creator, then you’re going to worship some aspect of the creation, it’s just sort of how we do things. But those don’t have to go hand in hand. And again, you know, harkening back to some of the articles by Joshua Mitchell, especially where I think he takes the line that you’re describing where we have, again, we have to have a home, the nation, you know, is a part of a shared tradition and to want to cultivate and to want to affiliate oneself with those traditions is deeply human. We can’t belong nowhere and we can’t belong everywhere. We have to have a home and the nation is probably the largest sort of home that we can have on Earth, and that’s okay.
Mark Tooley: And then finally, what I thought was a very fine essay we republished from 75 years ago by Bishop Parsons on political power and Christmas, and it’s a little bit counterintuitive in that he’s saying, Christmas is not about rejecting or not just overturning power, but it’s in essence an affirmation of power, which I think is somewhat in sync with your own teachings, Mark LiVecche, in that he’s saying that the Baby Jesus had all power and rather the Christmas story is a lesson about power rightly understood, and rightly used and understanding the true origins of real power. What were your thoughts?
Marc LiVecche: Yeah, I was happy about the article. I kept reading the article thinking at any moment the coins are going to drop and he’s going to say something, you know, horrible about power and power’s God awful and evil, and ought to be avoided at all costs. And he never does that. So I think he got the bull’s eye on it. You know we published an article this week also on the good that Trump is done in working against human trafficking. Good luck fighting human trafficking with prayer and good intentions and with some conversations alone. You need power and God has given individuals power. God has given collective individuals power in the nations and it’s up to us to use power for good. And when we do, then something approximating peace can come on Earth. And when we don’t, then you know then power creates hell on Earth. But that’s a human issue that’s not an issue with power. God has power. Power is a good like all goods. Human beings are brilliant at finding ways to pervert it and twist it and to deprive it of essential good to turn it into something wicked. But I think the Christian lesson for a realist is going to be something like if power is necessary in order to fight evils to protect the innocent and such things, then probably the goal of every nation should be to cultivate as much power as they possibly can, without violating other goods or at least disproportionately pushing aside other goods and then to spend that power, the best they can and service to a common good and that seems a Christian witness
Mark Tooley: Would that we had more church leaders mainline Protestant or otherwise, who could articulate a theology of power like this Episcopal bishop did in 1945.
Marc LiVecche: From your lips to God’s ears. Yes.
Mark Tooley: And on that note. Merry Christmas, from the Marks of Marksism and Providence, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next week and merry Christmas to you, Marc LiVecche.
Marc LiVecche: Merry Christmas to you. Thank you for all.