27 October 2007

Law, Covenant, and (Christian) Politics

When the 13 original states formed our union and created the federal government to manage the business of the union, the states had the right to make the decision for themselves about slavery. This makes sense when one considers that these states were, in fact, independent and sovereign nations. As the union grew certain members of Congress expressed by various means their desire to limit membership of new states to territories which would ban slavery, thus depriving new states of a right previously enjoyed by the founding states – without amending the Constitution. The crisis was eventually resolved -- temporarily -- by the Missouri Compromise of 1850. But the idea remained that the members of the union could gang up on other (new) members and thus deprive them of such a right without amending the constitution as proved by the reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its provision for popular sovereignty on the slavery question. This attempt to deny to states a right recognized (albeit tacitly) by the Constitution ultimately led to the Civil War. To put it in contemporary terms, the slave states objected to the efforts of the free states to impose morality upon them.

In many ways this Constitutional crisis was brought about by the annexation of lands as “territories” rather than the admission of new states – Louisiana Purchase, Annexation of Texas and Vermont, etc. This was problematic because while the U. S. Constitution as ratified, did contemplate the admission to the union of new member states, it didn't really (in my opinion) provide very well for the admission as new member states former territories owned and governed by the Union in a manner similar to that in which Great Britain owned and governed the colonies. As properties of the Union, rather than members of the Union, territories had not the same relation to the federal government as did member states. An issue like slavery could therefore – and arguably – be determined for these properties by the Congress. If slavery were outlawed in the territories, and if the territories were to be admitted to the Union on condition of maintaining this prohibition then Congress could have power to create states which had a view of slavery determined for them, and thus give to “free” states more power in Congress and at the same time less power to the “slave” states. Hence, the aforementioned Kansas-Nebraska Act. Then too, there was the problem (for the free states anyway) of the possibility, entailed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, of slavery being permitted (i.e., in a new state) where it had previously been prohibited (i.e., a former territory).

The Constitution, at ratification, left the issue of slavery for member states to determine for themselves. It also, as I mentioned above, contemplated and provided for the admission of new members to the Union. It would have been eminently reasonable to think that these new member states should also have had the freedom to determine the issue of slavery for themselves, even if (as I believe the “slave” states did) those new member states made the wrong decision.

Quite frankly, though I have never favored slavery, my sympathies with respect to the issue of states’ rights have long been with the southern states. For that same reason, I think that while I oppose the notion that two members of the same sex can marry I have to assert the right of each state to make that determination for itself, with the understanding that other states may arrogate to themselves the right not to recognize such a relation inside their borders. I also think that states should have the right to determine for themselves the matter of abortion. It's all about sphere sovereignty, a very important concept in reformational philosophy (here, also).

It is sad that so much of our national politics concern matters which are properly left to the states. It is also sad that some of the leaders of the various ideological communities do not seem to know much about federalism -- you know, those little things like limited government, enumerated powers, states rights. Sadder still that James Dobson, and other Christian leaders of his ilk, is one of those. How else to explain his resolve that if neither of the two major political parties nominates "an individual who pledges himself or herself to the sanctity of human life" he and his fellow travelers will vote for a minor-party candidate. Subsequently, he expressed concern about Rudy Giuliani's belief that states should decide the marriage issue for themselves. (The very idea!)

How unfortunate that Dobson seems unable to see that the problem is not that Rudy Giuliani wouldn't support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one women -- or whatever phraseology Dr. Dobson has in mind. The problem (well, one problem) is that Dr. Dobson either does not understand, or entirely like, federalism. Why should it matter to the union as a whole whether a state, or any group of them, permit same-sex unions? Yes, I know: there is the "full faith and credit clause" in the Constitution. (Once again, we have a problem created by those who, whether Liberal or Conservative, want to impose a morality upon every state in the union. Naturally. But I digress.) This clause has its limitations. For example it ought not by simple fiat legalize what a state has prohibited. But -- again -- I digress.

The problem, even on a Christian worldview, is not that a state may permit same-sex marriages. Neither is the problem, really, that states may permit abortions. The problem is that people want these things. A Christian ought to be able to envision a society which permits behaviors to which he himself objects on moral grounds while at the same time envisioning a society in which those behaviors aren't engaged in -- at least very much -- because so few people want to do.

It strikes one as "pie in the sky by and by", I know, like visualizing world peace. But it is, I think, a bit more consistent with Christian theology than the approaches of either the Christian Right (use legal means to stymie such practices) or the Christian Left (utilize strange interpretive techniques, involving higher criticism to excuse the practices). First, it takes into account the "whole story" as we have it from Paul. Second, unlike visualizing world peace, it doesn't pretend that visualization can produce results.

Many Christians approach the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage from Romans 1.27 (among other passages): "...the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts...." Quite clearly, St. Paul thinks this is wrong. But moving from there to political action, even if that political action amounts simply to denying the "marital" union of two (or more?) members of the same sex, fails to account for all that St. Paul says here. For he doesn't say only that "men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another,...committing indecent acts." He explains why this is so (Romans 1.18-27):

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.


Paul's argument is that, first men reject the knowledge of God which they possess (by virtue of having been created in His image) and then (because God "gives them over" to it due to their refusal to acknowledge his authority) they become inflamed with same-sex passions -- among others. And being thus inflamed the desire for same-sex unions follows rather logically, I think. If this is the case then one must wonder what Dobson and his compatriots think is to be done. This is not a problem easily resolved (if resolved at all) by law. Law cannot quench desire, quite the contrary in fact -- something else Paul knew (see Romans 7.5).

If the situation arises as a result of God's providence, I don't know how one escapes the conclusion that the situation must also be resolved by some providence of God. Authoritarian law will hardly work when "authority" is precisely the problem. (If they won't obey God, why should they obey James Dobson?)

And it's not just the homosexual who has a problem with a law which would prohibit him marrying another man. We have those who, believing that an accident of birth cannot constitute a grant of authority (as I occasionally tried -- unsuccessfully -- to explain to my parents decades ago), work aggressively at undermining parental authority, doing all they can to drive a wedge between parents and children, even to democratize the family. Even the so-called laws of logic, according to the post-modernist critique, have no authority. For still others facts are not authoritative either. In this milieu, a law restricting marriage to one man and one woman must appear as arbitrarily tyrannical -- and mean -- as a law putting Jews into concentration camps.

So the issue, as Paul informs us, isn't sex . It isn't marriage, either. The issue is authority. The Christian recognizes that behind the authority of the state is the authority of God (see Romans 13.1-7). But if there is no authority behind the state, then what? Law is arbitrary. This is true even in a democracy, since its fundamental principle -- rule of the majority -- is also arbitrary. Why should the majority rule? Because they say so? You see the problem. The rule of the many is no less arbitrary and tyrannical than the rule of the few -- or even the one.

Beginning with ego-centric (rather than theo-centric) presuppositions men -- according to St. Paul -- are handed over to "degrading passions." The Christian who recognizes the function of these ego-centric presuppositions must also recognize the visceral tendency which men have to be consistent with their presuppositions. These presuppositions -- and the passions which now accompany them -- require the permission of same-sex unions. However -- and this is the part where we get to the aforementioned visualization -- should men repent of their ego-centric presuppositions, their passions may be altered as well. And that is how a Christian can visualize a society which permits something like same-sex marriage and yet sees very few instances of it. What the law permits, the regenerate human may refrain from doing, by virtue of God's gracious empowerment. The same with abortion. Not pie in the sky by and by, like visualizing world peace, but taking seriously Christian theology (especially hamartiology) and applying it.

One can't help but wonder, then, where Dobson and others get the idea -- the Biblical warrant -- for the agenda they espouse. It is true that in the Scriptures same sex relations are prohibited. It is also true that the Scriptures specify the general conditions under which human life may be taken; and the unborn satisfy none of those conditions. So I am with Dobson (he'll be so glad to know that, I'm sure) from the ethical perspective on same-sex relations and abortion, among other things. And I certainly agree that Christians can and should be involved in the political life of the nation in which God has providentially planted them. But there is a step from "Scripture teaches us that these things are wrong" to "Scripture teaches us to make our nation's laws reflect what the Scriptures teach is wrong."

Some find this warrant in the Cultural Mandate, while others find it in the so-called Dominion Mandate. As a Neocalvinist I certainly accept the Cultural Mandate (and reject the Dominion Mandate). However the relation between the Cultural Mandate and the Mosaic law is problematic -- problematic, that is, in terms of using the Cultural Mandate to justify bringing outsiders under covenant stipulations. There is a social aspect to the Cultural Mandate. In being "fruitful" and "multiplying" families and extended families will be formed; out of this family formation societies will develop. These societies, naturally, will require some system for regulating these relational affairs, a system of formulating, executing and enforcing laws. From the desire of the Self to express itself and to satisfy its curiosity, the arts and sciences develop. Technology and skills develop for the provision of needs and wants. Being human, it ought to go without saying that the Christian will participate on some level in this process.

For guidance in participating in his society's legal-political life, the Christian understandably seeks out the Law, the Mosaic law. What he will overlook when he does this is that this law mediates a covenant; and it does not mediate this covenant to every human indiscriminately, but rather to the descendants of Abraham. And while the Jews' working out of the Cultural Mandate was governed by the Law of Moses, Israel -- the people of God -- had no mandate to bring into submission to this Law people who lived outside of her national boundaries, her "jurisdiction" if you will -- outside of the covenant. (This is why Jews have never proselytized.)

So one question for the Christian is this: Do the people of God have a mandate from God to bring "outsiders" into submission to those laws given to the people of God as his peculiar people? (You might want to answer, "Yes, by evangelizing them." But that will make them members of the covenant community, in which case they would not be outsiders. I'm talking about making outsiders submit to the covenant requirements while still "strangers" to the covenant.) Even after reading several Reconstructionists' essays, I cannot see that there is such a mandate. (Later today I'll be re-reading one of Greg Bahnsen's essays on the subject. I'll let you know if I change my mind.)

More importantly for the Christian is the fact that Jesus, a second Moses, mediates a new covenant, which fulfills the Mosaic Law. The non-Christian is not a party to that new covenant either. Again: How does one go about arguing that "strangers" to a covenant are bound to the legal stipulations entailed in a covenant to which they are not parties? Riddle me that.

The only covenant to which non-Christians and non-Jews are parties is the Noachian Covenant (see Genesis 9.4-6). Rabbinic Judaism has deduced 7 laws from this covenant, but on its face it provides for little more than the preservation and protection of human life by explicitly requiring the life of one who takes a life. From this explicit provision one can logically deduce other provisions for protecting human life, including human government which, in addition to meting out the punishment to the murderer, can craft positive laws for the furtherance of the mandate to hold human life in high esteem. (Indeed, I happen to believe that many of those things Dobson calls "traditional family values" are also consistent with the high esteem for human life entailed required by the Noachian Covenant.) It is easy enough to make arguments against abortion on such a basis, but not so much against homosexuality or same-sex unions. Besides, I think we shall find that most people hold human life in high esteem, but differ on when human life begins. And they certainly do not see how permitting same-sex unions is harmful to human life.

This relation of law and covenant is crucial to understanding the Christian's relation to his (earthly) country. The prevailing notion is that the Christian, in the U S, stands in the same relation is the "remnant" in apostate Israel or apostate Judah. Hence the felt need for Christians (the "remnant" of apostate US) to reclaim the US for Christ. I don't deny that Christians were far more numerous and politically powerful at the nation's founding than today, but there is nothing to reclaim for Christ. Christians in the US are not Israel's and Judah's "remnant". The Christian -- no matter how friendly, or even how "Christian", his country is to him -- is always a stranger in a strange land. If anything the Christian's relation to whatever nation he lives in is more like that of a Jew in Babylon. And to those who were going captive to Babylon, God through the prophet Jeremiah said:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses for yourselves and settle in. Plant gardens and eat from them. Marry and have children. Have your sons and daughters marry and have children in order that your population increases rather than decreases. And work for the health and prosperity of the city where I am sending you away captive, and pray to the LORD for it: for in their health and prosperity you will have health and prosperity. (Jeremiah 29.4ff, my translation.)


Like Jews in Babylon we have a duty to seek the good health and prosperity of the US. The question is whether Dobson's plan (especially the part about a new party) will truly serve the goal of peace, prosperity, and the good health of the nation. Will the strong arm tactics he proposes (let's call these tactics for what they really are) create peace for the the nation? Our Constitution requires a chief executive to sign or veto legislation, to execute the laws, to conduct treaty negotiations, to appoint judges and ambassadors, to serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. We require the smoothest, most peaceful and uneventful transfers of power from administration to administration. We need to have a country in order to have a country which treats the unborn the way we'd like to see the unborn treated. We need to have a country in order to have a country which, while it tolerates same sex relationships and makes certain provisions for them, does not marry them. And in order to have a country, we need a stable government, with peaceful elections providing for immediate and uneventful transfers from administration to administration, from Congress to Congress.

I have no personal issues with Dr. Dobson. I've met him -- and his wife-- though I doubt he would recall. He and his wife visited my church once or twice. On one occasion he and his wife sat right behind my wife and I. Very nice man, very nice couple. I don't question his motives. I don't question his Christian commitment. But I do question his understanding to the relation between covenant and law. I do question whether his application of the principles of the Christian worldview is correct. Mainly, I question whether the principles he seeks to apply are actually the appropriate principles to apply.

We don't really need a President who will affirm a commitment to the sanctity of human life. We don't need a President who shares our view of same sex relationships. What we really need -- for the good health and prosperity of the nation -- is a President who is committed to protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States, one who is committed to limited government and enumerated powers, and who as a consequence nominates to the federal bench judges committed to originalism. Goodness! If we could just get that!

Okay. Back to my "sabbatical".

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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